In putting together The Canyon 25, I went back and listened to a bunch of my favorite records from in and around that scene. In the process, it quickly became clearer than ever how quietly important Chris Hillman's contribution had been to the whole scene's development, not only as a musician and songwriter but also a strange attractor of sorts, bringing people and ideas together at just the right time.1
In there right at the beginning with The Byrds, his bass was the steady anchor of that band, the propulsion behind Eight Miles High's liftoff into the stratosphere, Inner Space and beyond. Even as early as Mr. Tambourine Man, the band's debut, his four-string input imbued the proto-garage punk of It's No Use with a sense of rhythmic danger. And who can knock the rapid-fire Bo Diddley punch of Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe?
However, it's with The Byrds timely invention of acid rock that Hillman's bass really takes on a life of its own, his throbbing basslines on tracks like I See You, 5 D Fifth Dimension and the awesome Psychodrama City (left off the record for some reason that's always escaped me!), pushing Mike Clark's drums into gear like a locomotive and providing the perfect environment for Roger McGuinn's Coltrane-inspired guitar pyrotechnics to take flight. There's no getting around it, Hillman's bass is the very heartbeat of Fifth Dimension.
Notable also is the fact that he's credited as co-arranger alongside McGuinn and David Crosby on both Wild Mountain Thyme and John Riley. One can't help but wonder if it's his fingerprints in evidence on the former's lush country-western-inflected filmic strings and the latter's shadowy midnight chamber orchestra. Later developments seem to confirm my suspicions...
After three albums spent largely enhancing the material of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby, the gloves come off on the following record (Younger Than Yesterday), when — much like George Harrison's ascent in The Beatles on Revolver — Hillman emerges as a formidable songwriter in his own right. The humming Beatle-esque power pop of Have You Seen Her Face is wonderful, but Thoughts And Words — with the overcast proto-alternative haze of its verses playing musical chairs with the bouncing breakbeat chorus — is the highlight of the record... a record that from the standpoint of songwriting might just be the band's strongest.2
His most timely contribution, however, comes in the shape of Time Between and The Girl With No Name, two country-inflected rockers that proved to be startlingly prescient as the next few years would come to pass. His love of bluegrass and country was felt early — on 1965's Turn! Turn! Turn! — with the band's cover A Satisfied Mind (the de-facto birth of country rock), an influence that would increasingly be pushed to the fore until it ultimately changes the band's entire direction altogether on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.
The following year's The Notorious Byrd Brothers opens blast of the horn-driven rocker Artificial Energy — the result of Hillman's suggestion that they write a song about speed — and sure 'nuff has another trademark Hillman bassline rumbling beneath it. The remainder of the record maintains an atmospheric, dreamlike quality throughout, with even the guitars swirling in an ethereal mist. Hillman's country flavor is further pursued (and sounding more natural than ever) in songs like Old John Robertson, Change Is Now and a country-inflected take on Carole King's Wasn't Born To Follow, foreshadowing the band's big change in direction in less than a year.
Of course, it's all eclipsed by Hillman's Natural Harmony, the album's absolute finest moment. I've gone on about this track before, the way it rises from within the surrounding fog sounding like The Beta Band thirty years ahead of schedule. That clicking hi-hat rhythm collapsing into a tricky shuffling breakbeat, guitars drifting mirage-like as the spooked orchestral tunings of John Riley are pitched into total eeriness. Roger McGuinn's prized Moog synthesizer (played here by Paul Beaver of synth pioneers Beaver & Krause) rising from the depths of the track like the Nautilus from the ocean, stalking its prey. What even comes close!? In fact, this might well be my favorite song in the band's entire oeuvre.
It was a chance meeting with Gram Parsons (in line at the bank, of all places) that eventually resulted in Hillman bringing him into the fold for the recording of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. With Hillman and Parsons' shared love of country music in full force, the band's focus shifted entirely toward the form. Often considered the first country rock record,3Sweetheart Of The Rodeo finds Hillman's songwriting receding into the background for the moment, making room for Parsons contributions like One Hundred Years From Now and Hickory Wind. All of which presages the direction the duo would take next as they left The Byrds (first Parsons, then Hillman) in a mere matter of months...
No longer Byrds, Parsons and Hillman holed up in their fabled Burrito Manor and conceived the perfect synthesis of rock and country, co-writing epochal songs like the rollicking Christine's Tune and Sin City's weepy balladry. Similarly, I've always loved Juanita, another tear-stained masterpiece, while the lackadaisical rolling country rock of Wheels features undisclosed bursts of satisfying feedback. Interestingly, Hillman switched to guitar for this record, leaving the bass duties to Chris Etheridge. I've gone on record about "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow's sublime steel guitar contributions, but suffice it to say that all the guitars on this record are just exquisite.
After one more (weaker) Burritos album, Parsons quits again, leaving Hillman to pick up the pieces. However, its the following self-titled album — while never reaching the heights of the debut — that is quite worthwhile, a minor gem even, full of gorgeous tunes like Colorado, To Ramona and Four Days Of Rain. I've often felt that it gets a bad rap mainly because it exists in the shadow of The Gilded Palace Of Sin, much as Can's later work gets unfavorably compared to Tago Mago. In both cases, the bands still manage to transcend their imitators and turn in something special.
After leaving The Burritos, Hillman spent the rest of the decade collaborating in various configurations of like-minded musicians, for instance the Souther-Hillman-Furay band and even reuniting with old band-mates Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn for a couple McGuinn-Clark-Hillman albums. Playing on a whole brace of canyon records, he even winds up in Stephen Stills' Manassas big band for the storied sessions of their debut recording.
Another stone cold classic, it resurrects the concept originally intended for Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, celebrating the breadth of American music spanning from folk, bluegrass and country to blues, rock and jazz, with even the distinct shades of Latin music felt throughout. Billed second only to ringleader Stills, Hillman is listed as co-producer (alongside Stills and Dallas Taylor) and co-writes two of the record's highlights, It Doesn't Matter and Both Of Us Bound To Lose.
In 1976, Hillman embarks on his solo career in earnest, debuting with Slippin' Away. This is a truly stellar record, and one I'd like to single out for praise. A minor gem, perhaps, like the third Flying Burrito Bros record, only more so. I've only recently discovered it... like why even pretend?! This is country rock of the highest caliber. The record is defined by its impeccable arrangements, gorgeous harmonies and great rolling basslines, more often than not played by Hillman.4 Indeed, this is a great bass record, showcasing that rich, telltale tone played with trademark nimble precision.
From the jazzy shuffle of the title track — with it's non-trivial arrangement and multi-plane harmonies — to the burning rocker Take It On The Run and the filmic sweep of Witching Hour (a Stephen Stills cover version), its an undeniable treasure trove of rock solid canyon songwriting. The closing Take Me In Your Lifeboat even touches down with Hillman's bluegrass roots, presaging an obsession that would become increasingly central to his sound in the decade to come.
With the dawn of the 1980s, Hillman reached deep into bluegrass and Bakersfield for inspiration, turning out a pair of excellent records on Sugar Hill (no, not thatSugar Hill!) in quick succession. First with Morning Sky and then with Desert Rose, he delivered a more intimate, stripped down sound that was often strikingly beautiful, defined by his gorgeous mandolin picking. Three years later, The Desert Rose Band found Hillman in a working band again, releasing a series of albums stretching well into the nineties. After that, further collaborations (most frequently with Herb Pederson) and solo records round out the long and winding career of a lifelong musician, a career that leads right up to the present day.
Last year's Bidin' My Time found him working once again with old ByrdsMcGuinn and Crosby, not to mention the late great Tom Petty (who also produced the record). With nearly sixty years lived in music, Hillman is still going strong (check out his website here4). In fact, there's currently a tour in progress with Roger McGuinn for the 50 year anniversary of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, which sounds rather interesting. It looks like the second leg of the tour has yet to be announced... so hopefully they make their way down to San Diego in the near future.
In signing off, I'll leave you with this performance from a couple years ago, featuring Hillman working his magic on mandolin and harmonies alongside Herb Pederson live in the studio. Just two old-timers doing their thing, like it's no big deal, and achieving casual perfection.
I once had a friend who confessed that — generally speaking — she couldn't tell what the bassist contribution was. I told her to listen to dub reggae for a weekend and everything would make sense(!). Of course, I could just have easily said to listen to a bunch of records that Chris Hillman played on.
Music from the canyon played a large part in my musical youth by virtue of my Dad's formidable record collection. I remember hearing things like the Eagles, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and Loggins & Messina — alongside canyon-adjacent figures like Jim Croce, Simon And Garfunkel, Cat Stevens and Gordon Lightfoot — in heavy rotation, particularly on rainy days. Pops worked construction, and since rain meant his job site was too wet to pour concrete, he'd have the rare day off and often spend the early morning chilling in the living room listening to records. To this day, much of that music reminds me of stormy days staying home sick from school.1
However, my true way in came sometime later, when I first heard the records of Van Morrison and The Byrds (circa 2003). My initial trajectory took me from trip hop and techno through jazz, funk and soul (peppered with new wave, naturally) into this music. It was the next stop. Needless to say, it made a huge impression. I have distinct memories of running after dark in the dead of winter, descending the hill above my old high school to the triumphant strains of Van Dyke Parks' organ solo at the climax of 5 D (Fifth Dimension). My mind also turns to digging trenches in the early summer morning while Astral Weeks swirled around me on the morning mist, the clank of my pickaxe striking the ground in time to the music.
This exposure sent me off searching deeper into the extended canyon scene by way of The Byrds' various tributaries: Gene Clark, Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Flying Burrito Bros, alongside other canonical figures like Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Neil Young. I remember hiking around Mission Trails in the aftermath of the great Cedar Fire (2003) — nothing but great hills of ash left in its wake and not a soul in sight — with all of this music alongside CCR, Dylan, Cash and the rootsy Stones records ringing in my headphones. I also remember the sight of those great rolling hills slowly coming back to life in the long months to follow, a spectacle that remains inextricably linked with this soundtrack whenever I reflect on my memories of the era.
Fast-forward to about a month ago. Sari and her sister Leah get to talking about canyon folk, and they start working out what is canyon and what isn't canyon. After all, some of the best canyon records aren't from Laurel Canyon at all, and some figures actually from the canyon aren't remotely canyon-esque in sound.2
Confused yet? Well, it gets worse. There's also the timeframe to consider: too early and you're dealing with straight up folk (Judy Collins, Fred Neil, Buffy Saint-Marie, et. al.); too late and you veer into yacht territory (as purveyed by figures like Ned Doheny and Steely Dan). The sweet spot is right there in the middle... that's where the canyon lies.
The Laurel Canyon scene was defined by a coterie of singer-songwriters to emerge from L.A. as the sixties turned to the seventies: figures like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The heart of this scene was found in Laurel Canyon (located in the hills rising to the east above Los Angeles), where various refugees from sixties bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Mamas & The Papas had retreated to get back to basics after the blazing phantasmagoria of the 1960s. Along with The Beatles' The White Album and The Rolling Stones' run of rootsy records starting with Beggars Banquet, this was part of a broader back to the roots project in the culture, a retreat from the Icarus heights of acid rock and psychedelia future shock into the comforting, sepia-toned mystique of the past.
With a few notable exceptions, the Laurel Canyon people's roots were in folk and its subsequent plugging into the electrical grid by one Bob Dylan. Records like Bringing It All Back Home and Richard & Mimi Farina's Reflections In A Crystal Wind sprung from well outside the canyon scene but were nevertheless a crucial influence upon it, blending as they did straight folk with shades of rock 'n roll while the arrangements became increasingly ornate and sophisticated. Critically, this is also the point when the more declamatory style of folk singing gets softened into something far more intimate.
Bands like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield ran with these innovations across a stretch of great folk rock records, records like Mr. Tambourine Man and Buffalo Springfield, paralleling Dylan's own forays into rock 'n roll best exemplified by Highway 61 Revisited. Coincidentally, all three figures gradually injected the crucial ingredient of country into their sound — culminating in Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Last Time Around and The Basement Tapes, respectively — at just the moment that psychedelia's luster had started to wane. And at that point, there was no turning back...
Gram Parsons often gets the credit for bringing country to the canyon, but the truth is far more complicated. Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri (incidentally the town where my maternal grandfather was from as well), The Byrds' Gene Clark famously grew up listening to Hank Williams records, while band-mate Chris Hillman shared a similar affinity with the form. One need look no further than the band's 1965 sophomore album Turn! Turn! Turn!, which features a cover of Jack Rhodes and Joe "Red" Hayes' Satisfied Mind, possibly the first example of country rock on the ground. The Beatles even covered Buck Owens on Help!Linda Ronstadt — who had been a fixture of the L.A. scene since its infancy in the mid-sixties with her group The Stone Poneys — was also firmly rooted in country, with a well-documented passion for covering old warhorses like Crazy and I Still Miss Someone.
It's at this axis of folk and country that the canyon sound happens, with the warm afterglow of the 1960s still felt between the lines of its rootsy sway. The sound is typically mellow, albeit occasionally spiked with more than a hint of darkness (after all, it was the dawn of the 1970s). Elements of Delta blues and jazz sometimes can be felt as well (especially the latter). Listening to a whole brace of these records over the past month, it became clear that jazz was nearly as important a contagion as rock and country on the burgeoning folk scene. In fact, the latter might be the crucial ingredient in synthesizing the whole yacht rock phenomenon, just as country had been for canyon.
All of which (in a round about way) brings me back to this protracted canyon discussion between Sari, Leah and myself.
In the process of working through the canyon ideal, we each decided to put together a little list of our top 25 canyon albums. We even had a little party and put on presentations while Leah was in town, the whole nine! Well, that was a lot of fun certainly (Sari and Leah's lists were incredible), and I even got turned onto a bunch of great records — especially recent ones — that I hadn't yet heard before. So I've got some serious listening to do, which is always a great place to be.
In the spirit of this whole endeavor, I figured I'd post the director's cut of my own list up here to kick off a little Laurel Canyon mini-series. It's an early autumn thing, seen. If I'm not mistaken, Sari and Leah will be posting theirs up as well in the near future. Don't worry, I'll extend a link their way when the time comes. I should note that I'm setting aside the entirety of British/Celtic folk for the moment (even Van Morrison!), which obviously could sustain an entire list of its own. Maybe next time! Today, it's a strictly canyon affair...
So without any further ado, this here list is the culmination of my roughly 15 year journey through this music since first getting hooked up with Astral Weeks and Mr. Tambourine Man way back in 2003. Regulators, mount up!
The Canyon 25
I can think of no better introduction to the canyon than The Mamas & The Papas. The third album from the canyon's first family, Deliver features the intricate arrangements of John Phillips reaching their peak (even if their debut still beats it on the songwriting front). The focus on lush production and Michelle Phillips' ethereal vocals mark it out as canyon-esque, pointing the way toward what would become the dominant sound in L.A. in the coming decade.
Strictly speaking, this is actually proto-canyon: emerging as it does just in time for the Summer Of Love, it mostly lacks the confessional nature of the singer-songwriters. In truth, I almost included John Phillips' country-tinged solo album instead. Ultimately, I see Deliver as a crucial building block in the whole canyon enterprise, veering away as it does from earlier British invasion influences toward a sort of folk-inflected chamber pop. One could even read The Mamas as the midpoint between The Beach Boys and CSN. Shoot me down, but I hear it!
Kicking off with their definitive take on The Shirelles' Dedicated To The One I Love, the group also trade verses on Creeque Alley, a Lovin' Spoonful-style folk stomper that namechecks John Sebastian's gang in an autobiographical hootenanny laying out The Mamas' origin story in detail (both groups rubbed shoulders in the Greenwich Village folk scene). Also of note is the strung-out version of Twist And Shout, which remains my all-time favorite version of the song, beating out The Beatles and even The Isleys' original.
The founder of the feast gets down to business in Nashville, breaking down the walls once and for all between the rockers and the good ol' boys with some tasty country rock action. The culmination of his Basement Tapes sessions with The Band, this finds Dylangoing to the source, so to speak. The previous year's John Wesley Harding may be the more consistent record, but the highs on Nashville Skyline are so sublime that one can't help but be won over by their rustic charm.
The sumptuous production and Dylan's unexpectedly soothing year vacation from smoking vocals are a special treat, especially in the moving rendition of Girl From The North Country (originally from 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan), featuring a duet with the great Johnny Cash. The key to this record's charm lies is its unfussy, lived-in character. This is a million miles away from the stark dust bowl portraits of Blowin' In The Wind and A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall! In fact, Peaceful Easy Feeling might be the best way to describe songs like One More Night and I Threw It All Away.
In fact, it's almost too easy! This feels like a setup... definitely a setup. We need something weird, right away... our survival might just depend on it.
Ah yes, this fits the bill! Kinda obscure, but not really. Spirit were rising stars at the turn of the decade (Led Zeppelin even opened for them early on), generating a lot of buzz in the burgeoning rock press at the time even if they were largely forgotten by classic rock radio over the ensuing decades. That's a whole class of band right there,3 isn't it, bands that made the charts and appeared on American Bandstand or Top Of The Pops but ultimately got beveled away from mainstream consciousness by the passage of time. Such a shame! Surely oldies stations would have benefited from spicing up their rotation a little with songs like Uncle Jack and Fresh-Garbage? I suppose there's always Radio AG!
At any rate, this lot dealt in a sort of jazz-inflected art rock — shot through with a strong dose of folk and country — that was L.A. to its core. You can hear echoes of The Byrds, Love and even David Axelrod in multifaceted excursions like Mechanical World, Straight Arrow and Gramophone Man (later sampled by fellow Californian Peanut Butter Wolf!), where the band cycle through these ever-changing movements with a turn-on-a-dime precision that prefigures the rise of progressive rock. The melody of Taurus was even lifted by Jimmy Page two years later for the opening to Stairway To Heaven!
Post-techno country folk by Scottish chanteuse Dorothy Allison. Starting out in the dream pop group One Dove, she later went solo even as she continued to regularly collaborate with groups like Death In Vegas and Slam (which is how I first found out about her, incidentally, on Alien Radio's sublime Visions). Her wispy vocals were instantly recognizable no matter the context, and it was only a matter of time before I picked up her first record (and then her second, when it came out).
This was her third, coming five long years after We Are Science (my favorite thing she's done),4 and its dreamy Appalachian balladry couldn't be further from Science's electropop stylings if it had sprung directly from the grooves of Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music. I remember once hearing Andrew Weatherall compare it to Gene Clark at the time, and sure enough songs like Sunset and Quicksand seem to resurrect ghosts of the sessions for White Light and The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark.
It's worth noting that this album perfectly distills the spirit of Death In Vegas' Scorpio Rising most canyon-esque moments (Help Yourself and Killing Smile) into a potent album-length statement. I really wanted to include Scorpio Rising in this list, steeped as it is in a sort of sweeping desert mythology, but like Kenneth Anger's film of the same name, it's just that little bit too preoccupied with leather/Velvets imagery to qualify for the down-home Canyon 25. Next!
The Lovin' Spoonful were the playful other to The Byrds' heavy folk rock trip, with John Sebastian's breezy tunes perfectly capturing the more wistful currents of the times. Sunshine pop, to a man. This record finds them at their absolute rootsiest, bigging up country music in Nashville Cats, perfecting their springtime folk pop in Lovin' You and Darlin' Companion, and even predicting the canyon sound in the gentle shades of Rain On The Roof and Coconut Grove (thus facilitating David Lee Roth's solo turn twenty years later!).
Another proto-canyon moment (and East Coast to boot), I nevertheless could not in good conscience exclude it. Factoring as they do into The Mamas & The Papas' origin-story showcase Creeque Alley, The Lovin' Spoonful were a crucial agent in buttoning down folk and loosening it up a little for the good times, and nowhere more than on Hums. In the reissue liner notes, R.E.M.'s resident music historian Peter Buck even names Zal Yanovsky his favorite guitarist of the 1960s. Good man!
Against all odds, The City Of Angels happened to have their very own Rolling Stones in Lowell George's outfit, a band that drunkenly ran roughshod across the canyon scene for the duration of the 1970s like they were The Clash. Outlaw bizzness in full effect! Much like The Clash, Little Feat were increasingly influenced by the sounds of New Orleans r&b as their career progressed, but their anomalous debut was a different story altogether. Riding westward on the strung-out sounds of country rock, this plays like the blueprint for Exile On Main St. and Sticky Fingers.
Rootsy rock 'n roll jams like Strawberry Flats and Snakes On Everything play like FM staples beamed in from a parallel dimension, while the gritty stomp of Forty Four Blues/How Many More Years offers up some of the dirtiest blues you could ask for. Then, Lowell turns around to tear out your heart with Willin' — featuring the exceptional slide guitar of Ry Cooder — a sparse, deeply soulful bit of country balladry. Any and all fans of "roots-era" Stones (roughly speaking 1968-1974) owe it to themselves to hear this one.
The square root of P.J. Harvey, Ellen McIlwaine comes on like a one-woman Led Zeppelin. The first side of the album (recorded live at The Bitter End in New York) largely features blues workouts showcasing her virtuoso slide-guitar work. Tunes like the breakneck Toe Hold and a cover of Up From The Skies (originally by her old pal Jimi Hendrix) make a virtue of their stripped-down arrangements, while Losing You is naught more than a slide-guitar frenzy that would make Tony McPhee proud. She even ropes in salsa legend Candido Camero on congas for Pinebo My Story.
The second side plays like an extended trip through the mountains, with the early morning balladry of Can't Find My Way Home kicking off the travelogue. Like side one's Weird Of Hermiston, it keys into the same mystical folk vibes that Zep did on tracks like That's The Way and (rather appropriately) Going To California. Then, out of nowhere comes a cover version of Kitty Wells' It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, done as a straight up Nashville number heavily indebted to the great Loretta Lynn. Lord have mercy!
In which Morrison & co. reinvent themselves as a hard blues band, beating all contemporary blues-boom merchants (with the exception of Beefheart and the Groundhogs) at their own game. Heavy-hitting numbers like Waiting For The Sun and Maggie M'Gill appeal to the part of me that wants to pudge out like Marlon Brando and sort of go about town dressed in a straw hat and off-white suit, looking — as my man Snakes once put it when describing The Score to me — like I had a washing machine stashed in my shirt.
However, it's gentle reveries like Blue Sunday and Indian Summer that run parallel to what was happening in the canyon, albeit with a strong dose of sun-glazed psychedelia mixed in for good measure. Perhaps the most controversial entry here, I nevertheless find it to be of a piece with the self-titled debuts of Little Feat and Crazy Horse. In fact, to my mind these three records form a loose trilogy, embodying as they do the sound of an L.A. before the steel and glass and concrete took over. It's a reminder that beneath it all, beneath the roads and the sidewalks and the skyscrapers, one still finds the parched earth of a desert stretching westward to meet the sea.
The bad Beach Boy gets down with some tasty post-Surf's Up canyon pop action, turning in a stone cold masterpiece at a time when his band was at its lowest ebb. This is manna from heaven for fans of Wilson's idiosyncratic songwriting found on late-60s/early-70s Beach Boys records like 20/20 and Sunflower (particularly things like Slip On Through and Be With Me). Needless to say there are plenty of Wilson's trademark malfunktioning bleeps and skewed synth flourishes in evidence throughout.
Playing like a cloudy day at the beach, towering ditties like River Song and Dreamer sound just like the churning waters of the Pacific Ocean, while near-ambient works like Thoughts Of You and Farewell My Friend play with great washes of oceanic sound in such a way that would make his brother Brian proud. In fact, it's the sad-eyed other to some of The Beach Boys' absolute finest moments. As one might expect, that evocative cover speaks volumes about the raggedly soulful sounds contained within...
Randy Newman's sophomore album sidesteps the intricate orchestration of his debut to fuse his New Orleans roots with the quintessential sound of the canyon, tackled head on in a dream jam session featuring canyon stalwarts like Ry Cooder and various Byrds (Clarence White and Gene Parsons) in attendance. The stylistic détente turns out to be the perfect setting for Newman's caustic tales of various burnouts, stalkers, losers (and more!), sounding unlike anything else in the man's extensive discography.
More than any other record here, 12 Songs maintains a strong foundation in the blues. Songs like Suzanne and Lucinda conjure up a bluesy swagger festooned with Ry Cooder's deliciously atmospheric slide guitar, while Have You Seen My Baby and Mama Told Me Not To Come recall peak-era Ray Charles. There are plenty of surprises in store as well (Old Kentucky Home even offers up a sneaky bit of bluegrass), while songs like Underneath The Harlem Moon and Yellow Man are quintessential Newman.
Notoriously hard-to-impress rock critic Robert Christgau called it a perfect album, and true enough, there's not another one quite like it.
Sure, this out-of-time masterpiece may have been the Rosetta Stone of alt. country, but it manages to transcend the confines of its own scene to stand shoulder to shoulder with the classics of the genre. Everyone knows the band's revelatory re-imagining of The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane, but also check their stunning take on Blue Moon, a reading that for my money tops even the storied Elvis Presley and Billie Holiday versions.
Factor in dark, bluesy numbers like I Don't Get It and Working On A Building (sounding like nothing so much as Spirit Of Eden-era Talk Talk), and you've got an out-of-time masterpiece that paradoxically could have only happened in the late eighties.
J.J. Cale's low slung slacker blues, in tune as it is with the canyon, remains utterly in a universe of its own. Naturally was Cale's debut, recorded on a shoestring in light of the apparent fact that everyone seemed to be covering his songs. Cale made a virtue of his meager resources, utilizing rhythm boxes and a Gaussian-blurred, lo-fi aesthetic that gives the whole affair a hazy, dreamlike quality. Songs like Crying Eyes and River Runs Deep seem to emerge naturally from the sunset sound of songbirds and crickets when you're fishing down at the creek.
I once played this album for my Dad, who was blown away by the contents but remarked how would you ever think to check out a record with that cover? To which I replied, how could I not?! True enough, the sleeve is a perfect representation of the backwoods country blues sounds found within, where Cale fashions oft-covered songs like Call Me The Breeze and After Midnight into their definitive versions.
Not my favorite Byrds record, but undeniably brilliant nonetheless. The Notorious Byrd Brothers plays like a sprawling vision of American roots music, juxtaposing state-of-the-art country rock like Wasn't Born To Follow with the lush folk pop of Carole King's Goin' Back and David Crosby's Tribal Gathering (which offers a glimpse of what he'd be up to with CSN in but a few months). Taken as a whole, it all marks this out as The Byrds' definitive proto-canyon moment.
Of course, they couldn't neglect their status as pioneering space rockers (see Fifth Dimension), with Chris Hillman turning in the peerless Natural Harmony and Roger McGuinn commemorating the Apollo 11 moon landing with Space Odyssey (both of which feature cameos by McGuinn's newly-purchased Moog synthesizer). Natural Harmony in particular sounds like something The Beta Band might have come up with at the peak of their powers.
Fusing aspects of jazz, Broadway, folk and the blues, Phoebe Snow was the quintessential New Yorker who nevertheless had a strong sonic affinity with the canyon. Her gentle urban folk — with its plush, velvet-cushioned production — is the cosmopolitan flipside to L.A.'s earthy nature boy reveries. At times, one can even hear pre-echoes of Tracy Chapman in her extraordinary no-nonsense approach to deeply personal songwriting.
Boundless in the most subtle of ways, her self-titled debut opens with Good Times, featuring unmistakable shades of The Beach Boys, before following immediately with the impossibly intimate cool jazz (that other West Coast touchstone) torch song Harpo's Blues. The hit single Poetry Man would be the perfect Laurel Canyon song if only it weren't from the wrong coast. Beyond that, all sorts of surprises are in store, including unexpected flourishes of Mellotron.
Despite earlier incursions like The Byrds's Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and The International Submarine Band (both of which were also profoundly shaped by Gram Parsons), this remains the quintessential country rock record. But set aside Gram for a moment (he gets plenty of props already). Let's talk about Chris Hillman, the Bruce Willis of the canyon, the glue in not only Burritos but also The Byrds before them, who quietly wrote killer song after killer song while his more garrulous band-mates got all the column inches.
And then of course there's "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow, the John Coltrane of steel guitar and the x-factor behind this record's atmospheric magic, paving the way for later pedal steel iconoclasts like B.J. Cole and King Sunny Adé. It's no small coincidence that it's with Kleinow departure, rather than Parsons' exit a year later, that the band's wholly unique sonic presence largely seeps out of of the music (in fact, I actually prefer the self-titled third album to Burrito Deluxe — the latter made when Gram was still kicking around). Here, they're unstoppable.
Ooh, this is a good one now: we're in the top ten with a bullet! Blissed out dream pop from L.A.'s coolest band of the nineties. Part of the reason I love the decade so much5 is that it'd routinely toss up something like this, which you'd swear was vintage but then nothing from the sixties or seventies ever sounded remotely like this. I dare you to find anything this languid and hypnotic from the peak era of canyon (but if you do, please send it my way!). You needed someone with the Gen X sensibility to make it all feel so achingly melancholic.
Take a song like Cry, Cry, with its smeared steel guitars dragging that weary rhythm along in a morphine haze — all the while Hope Sandoval cooing her lunar country couplets out into the ether — before droplets of liquid guitar rise up like fractals to meet the gorgeous chorus. Weep to the bittersweet balladry of Flowers In December and free fall downstream on the slow-motion cascade that is Roseblood, then lose yourself in Umbilical's organ-drenched black hole before Look On Down From The Bridge comes in to guide you back home.
I used to daydream hard to this record back in high school. You have no idea... I don't know what else to add, other than David Roback is a genius and Hope Sandoval may have actually been an angel.
Bleak canyon blues from The Loner himself. It would be the quintessential 70s record if only it didn't sound so much like the future. From Watergate and the OPEC oil crisis to Cielo Drive and Hollywood narcissism, its all here in black and white. Appropriately enough, three songs have the word blues in their title! Of course you'd never guess it from the relatively upbeat opener Walk On, which finds Young literally leaving his troubles behind.
Similarly, the sparse bluegrass of For The Turnstiles — featuring Young's lonely picking on a banjo — might be the coolest fuck you song ever written. Revolution Blues — a slow-burning rocker rumored to be about the Manson family — was famously played by Johnny Rotten on his Capitol Radio show with Tommy Vance (that's kind of like a gold star around here), while the title track sounds like post rock/Radiohead twenty years before the fact (unsurprisingly, they've covered it live): blank-eyed and beautiful.
From its stunning cover photo on down, On The Beach is the perfect low profile denouement to Young's self-styled ditch trilogy and one of the key records of the decade.
Lindsey Buckingham's obsessive tour de force, which manages to capture rock, country, folk, yacht and even proto-new wave within its sprawling 75 minutes. Raw and lush in all the right places, some moments even sound like a sun-baked Krautrock, with a title track that would sit comfortably on Faust IV, while the skewed country hoedown of The Ledge and That's Enough For Me negotiate roots music even as the band have one foot planted firmly on the yacht.
Of course, there's more to this record than Buckingham going wild in Mick Fleetwood's home studio (including an episode where he freaked out and cut his own hair with a pair of nail clippers!), with Stevie Nicks in particular turning in some of her most gorgeous songs: look no further than Sara and Sisters Of The Moon and swoon. I'd be willing to bet Bryan Ferry did... (see Avalon for details).
When it came time for Joni Mitchell to record her debut album, rather than recording songs that she'd previously written for other artists (as was common practice for songwriters at the time) she decided to write a whole set of entirely new material. The resulting song cycle — an oblique take on her experiences moving to the West Coast — is absolutely stunning, and remains my favorite thing she's ever done (for me, even beating out more obvious contenders like Blue and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns... but then I'm extremely abnormal).
From the opening notes of I Had A King, you can tell you're in for an adventure. Joni's restless, searching tales bear an almost medieval quality that prefigures the most bewitching corners of prog, and David Crosby's spacious production gives the alternate tunings of Mitchell's spidery guitar work an isolated, wintry atmosphere through which her soaring voice swoops and dives with unshackled abandon. The stunning sleeve art — which was actually painted by Joni herself — goes some way to describing the wonders found within.
At the dawn of the seventies, the man who wrote Eight Miles High and I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better conjured up this stone tablet of canyon folk informed by the Hank Williams tunes he treasured growing up in his native Kansas City. Filled with fragile country-inflected numbers like Because Of You and For A Spanish Guitar (a song Bob Dylan famously said he wished he'd have written), its a treasure trove of quivering, open-hearted songcraft. Songs like With Tomorrow and Where My Love Lies Asleep are impossibly tranquil ballads unparalleled on those terms by anyone else in the canyon.
The title track — the record's one truly upbeat moment — was once compared to The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane by none other than Woebot himself, and it undoubtedly shares that song's sense of boundless freedom. Like everything on White Light, it is defined by Gene's rolling harmonica shadings and peerless country croon, both imbued with the pathos of endless longing. It's a deeply affecting sound, both soulful and searching, and timeless in every sense of the word. Even with clipped wings, this Byrd soars.
Emerging from the deepest recesses of David Geffen's West Coast empire, Essra Mohawk turns in this criminally overlooked collection of fathoms-deep piano chansons. Informed by a broad musical vision that takes in everything from folk, soul and country to baroque pop, rock 'n roll and Broadway, these songs tend to unfold in the most surprising ways, casually twisting and turning through their various movements as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Mohawk's vocals soar throughout, sometimes over unexpectedly funky backing in tunes like Spiral and I Have Been Here Before, while Looking Forward To The Dawn — the album's gentlest moment — quietly sneaks in to conquer all. If the Laurel Canyon scene had a Charles Mingus or a Salvador Dali, that is a visionary iconoclast effacing into abstraction all preconceived notions of what is possible within their chosen idiom, then it was undoubtedly Essra Mohawk.
After early years as The Rockets and then Neil Young's backing band, L.A.'s secret weapon step out from behind The Loner to deliver this masterpiece of dirty country rock. Against all odds, they manage to transcend Young's own formidable body of work with a selection of gutsy rockers like Beggars Day and Gone Dead Train, even managing to sneak in weepy ballads like Look At All The Things and I Don't Want To Talk About It into the spaces between the spaces before breaking into full-on hoedown mode in Dance, Dance, Dance.
Essential listening for any and all roots rock aficionados (and everyone else besides), it features blazing guitar from a teenage Nils Lofgren (who joined just in time for the recording sessions) and Ry Cooder on slide guitar (he's everywhere today!). Notably, this also bears the unmistakable fingerprints of Jack Nitzsche behind the mixing desk (and piano), adding to its skewed aura of gritty outsider charm (imagine putting out The Wild Bunch while everyone else was still doing Dodge City!).
It's also the only Crazy Horse album to feature founding guitarist and ringleader Danny Whitten, whose untimely death by o.d. but a year later would inspire Neil Young's tortured The Needle And The Damage Done.
Zero gravity canyon folk from the ex-Byrd/CSN rabble-rouser. Featuring a huge cast of luminaries from both L.A. and San Francisco — including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana and most of Jefferson Airplane — Crosby's networking pays handsome dividends in the shape of ethereal missives like Laughing and Traction In The Rain, while the low slung canyon funk of Cowboy Movie finds him telling the tale of CSN's disintegration through the western lens of The Wild Bunch.
Of all the records to spring from the CSN nexus, this remains the absolute strongest, coming on like an entire LP extrapolated from the low-slung widescreen funk of Crosby/Kanter's own immortal Wooden Ships. The pair of ethereal closing tracks — Orleans and I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here — are a particularly visionary masterstroke, evoking an oceanic Pacific endlessness as the record slows gently to its inevitable close.
The bewitching Judee Sill unfurls a spellbinding selection of delicate country folk songs that belie her rough-and-tumble past and tragic life story. Her vocals deftly weave through these great cathedrals of lush orchestration, sounding perfectly at home within them as if she were simply curling up by the fireplace... and doing so with such unforced grace that it makes you feel at home too.
Tunes like Enchanted Sky Machines and Jesus Was A Crossmaker (the latter produced by Graham Nash) have an almost Broadway-informed punch to them, while Ridge Rider and The Phantom Cowboy ply an uncomplicated country seemingly informed by the wide open spaces of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. The peerless Lopin' Along Thru The Cosmos, meanwhile, is quite simply too beautiful for words.
Number one, and without a moment's hesitation either. Folk crooner drifts languid and bittersweet along the Pacific coastline on a jazz-kissed breeze, the largely straight up folk of his first two records transformed here into a swirling slipstream of existential proto-canyon songcraft. Sun-glazed reveries like Strange Feelin' and Buzzin' Fly are the order of the day, while the poignant Sing A Song For You harks back to the sombre corridors of his folk roots.
The real kicker is a pair of marathon tracks that combined eclipse the running time of everything else here. The sprawling Love From Room 109 At The Islander On Pacific Coast Highway is defined by Buckley's mournful reminiscence against the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. Conversely, the unexpected monster groove of Gypsy Woman swerves bravely toward the kosmische future, predicting not only Buckley's sensual, r&b-inflected Greetings From L.A. but also the inner space funk of Damo Suzuki-era Can (try and beat that!).
Like a lonely hawk surfing thermals high above Topanga, this isn't just canyon folk... it's the whole canyon.
If it's raining then it's cold out, which means if you're a kid you get soaked on your walk home from school... so chances are you'll catch a cold sooner or later. Which meant that if there was a day Pops and I were both home on a weekday, it was during winter.
That's why, to this day, when I hear Cat Stevens I still feel like I'm getting a sore throat. The mind is a crazy thing... I can practically taste the Sucrets!
The other great thing about the nineties is that you could listen to this back to back with trip hop, r&b and techno! It was quite a heady mix, after all, going from Among My Swan to One In A Million and Sean Deason's Razorback.
The legend of Andrew Weatherall already loomed large when I first tumbled like Alice down into the wonderland that is dance music. This was back in 1996, at the cusp of my high school years. When I'd buy records, the name Andrew Weatherall would crop up with some regularity — on a remix here, an album credit there — and eventually I put two and two together and deduced that this was something worth looking into.
You know how it goes, one tends to travel the world of music from node to node: Bowie to Eno to Can in three moves. In this case, it was even simpler than that. I remember the first time I ever caught Weatherall's name was on the CD-single for The Future Sound Of London's Papua New Guinea, which featured the ten-minute Andrew Weatherall Mix, a widescreen tour de force in the progressive house style of the day.
Not long after, I started picking up his records — released under crazy names like Two Lone Swordsmen and The Sabres Of Paradise — while actively keeping an eye out for more remixes that he might have done. The deeper I got into music, the more I'd pick up about its history along the way — connecting nodes and joining the dots — which is how I discovered that he was one of the founders of Junior Boy's Own (thinks, hey, they put out Dubnobasswithmyheadman!) and helped to spearhead the whole rave zeitgeist in the first place.
All of which came to light as I listened to the music, working my way backwards from what was — at the time — his latest record (Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down). Needless to say, it's a process that has continued for me right up to the present day. So take this as an avowed fan's attempt to weave a semi-historical narrative around 30-odd Weatherall records. We've got albums, EPs, 12" singles, comps, mixes and even a single-sided 7" in this monster breakout, all of which were either produced, mixed, compiled or contain remixes by the man himself.
I accumulated these records gradually over the years — in no particular order — so whether it was during the electronica 90s, the post punk/grime/r&b/everything 00s or even last week, my impressions of these records were informed as much by the era that I first heard them as they were by the circumstances from which they had initially sprung. As such, this is a deeply personal list. Someone else might very well pick different records (although I suspect at least half of our choices would overlap). Perhaps I haven't even heard his best record? (If not, please clue me in!)
However, I do believe that this particular list does get to the heart of not only why Weatherall's music was so special to me growing up (and why it remains a Parallax touchstone to this day), but also its seismic importance in dance music's continual drift over the years. I also believe that it paints a useful portrait of the various currents that were flowing in and out of each other along the way. So without any further ado, I give you the Warehouse Weatherall XXX.
But first, a little background:
Andrew Weatherall was born in 1963 in the small town of Windsor, located twenty miles west of London. Perhaps it was inevitable that punk and all that came in its wake would have such a profound shaping effect on young Andy, coming up as he did in the 1970s so close to the scene's epicenter and at an ideal age to soak it all in. Apparently, he was a huge fan of Bowie and The Clash,1a which makes perfect sense to anyone who's ever heard one of his records.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Weatherall's influence on dance music parallels the impact that The Clash had on punk (and everything that came in its wake). More specifically, I'd say he directly corresponds in this metaphor with none other than Mick Jones. Like old Mick, he's careened through many faces and phases over the years, covering that wide expanse of terrain between rock and dance music in singular fashion. For our purposes today, that journey begins in the mid-eighties.
In 1986, Andrew Weatherall started the Boy's Own fanzine with Terry Farley, Pete Heller and the rest of the Boy's Own posse, which were essentially a crew that hit the clubs and the record shops together. Covering everything from music to football, fashion and more, with loads of in-jokes only understood by 200 people living in London2a, Boy's Own's twelve issue run happened to coincide with the arrival of acid house on British shores and the subsequent dawn of the rave era.
The Boy's Own circulation ultimately ballooned across the country, reaching far beyond its humble beginnings. At one point, Paul Oakenfold even published an article about Ibiza titled Bermondsey Goes Baleriac!3 As the Boy's Own gang got swept up in all the excitement around the Second Summer Of Love, they were also elemental in spearheading the whole Balearic phenomenon4 (with the more conservative tastemaker Farley playing Joe Strummer to Weatherall'sMick Jones) even as they spread the sound of acid house across the country.
This is when Weatherall started to become known for his wide-ranging, free-form sets, described tantalizingly by Sean Bidder as eclectic mixes which would freely cross Italian piano monsters with cut-and-paste indie and dub breakdowns.1b You can just sense the roots of what would come to be the man's trademark sound lurking in there somewhere, and within the wide-ranging sonic mash-up, his warped, dubbed-out claustrophobic vision was beginning to take shape.
After years spent burning up the clubs on the wheels of steel — and developing an ear tuned to the sounds of the nascent rave culture — it was time to put that vibe on wax. Much like Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and François Kevorkian over a decade earlier, he was called upon to remix other artists' material for the dancefloor. This is the context for Weatherall's initial forays into the studio, and as such, where we get to talk about the music. Oh, and apologies for the rambling commentary... I found it nearly impossible to be concise today!
And Now For The Records
Early on, Weatherall's story is written entirely in remixes. In fact, I'd posit that there have been three distinct phases to Weatherall's career, the first of which is the wild-eyed era of discovery, stretching from the early Boy's Own days on the club circuit through his ascent as a producer and remixer, right into the reign of The Sabres Of Paradise. So, roughly speaking, 1986-1994. The constant running through all three eras — but established right here at the outset — is his fluidity between the worlds of dance music and rock, as an ambassador of sorts, bringing countless indie kids into the world of dance music (and vice versa).
Case in point is Weatherall's first true foray into the studio, which came in 1989, where he was reworking indie dance hooligans the Happy Mondays' Hallelujah alongside Paul Oakenfold. The Club Mix cools out the original version's sloppy junkyard hustle and winds it down to a low slung, 4/4 pulse, fleshing out the band's lumpen Madchester sound with Italo-esque pianos, chanting monks and just a snatch of gospel.
The sense of space in the mix — knocked out with a heavier bottom end — make it the undisputed highlight of the record, grooving miles better than anything else here and sounding like a glimpse of the future waiting just around the bend. Indeed, I'd mark this out as the moment when the Mondays got down with rave and got with the program, resulting a year later in Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, their absolute masterpiece.
Weatherall's first solo remix was Loaded, an epochal reworking Primal Scream's I'm Losing More Than I'll Ever Have, which came out shortly after Hallelujah. Sounding something like a post-rave Sympathy For The Devil, it defined the freewheeling spirit of the times. It's a stone classic and the 12" would make the cut for this list in a heartbeat, but since it figures into the band's 1991 album Screamadelica, we'll scoop it up that way.
We'll get to that one in a minute... but first, it's time for My Bloody Valentine.
Here we go! This came out well before MBV's Loveless, and found Weatherall reworking the track that would ultimately close that album into the band's biggest dancefloor moment. Stretching the tune out to 7½ minutes, he yokes the band's ethereal vocals and sheets of guitar to huge crashing beats from Westbam's Alarm Clock, transforming the Zen-like original into a driving big beat groove.
This — along with Loaded and Hallelujah — perfectly encapsulates what indie dance is all about, scrambling together the disparate worlds of post-post punk indie rock, hip hop and acid house like a mad scientist and winding up with a new psychedelia. As much as anyone else, Weatherall was a key architect of the sound. You can hear the germ of The Chemical Brothers in here somewhere, which is borne out by their endless caning of the record at the Heavenly Social.
Indeed, this is one of those records that'll never stop getting played in clubs.
In the midst of this whole Terminal Vibration trip we've been on, I alluded to Wobble's work in the nineties and this is our first port of call at the turn of the decade. Apparently Wobble had spent time sweeping railroad stations during a particularly dry spell in the late eighties, even announcing over the P.A. occasionally, I used to be somebody, I repeat, I used to be somebody!
This record, however, finds the man with a new lease of life (one that he's maintained more or less continually since). Interestingly, this 12" was actually released on the Boy's Own label in the wake of the first Invaders Of The Heart full-length, as if the lads were saying you are one of us, yes you are. Accordingly, Wobble got swept up in the moment, guesting on a whole brace of dance records, including things like Bomb The Bass' Clear and The Orb's Blue Room.
The Nonsonicus Maximus Mix of Bomba is a sublime bit of gently chugging Europe-endlessness, of a piece with the ambient house of The Orb and Sun Electric. There's an ancient quality to these synths — recalling the kosmische seventies — as they blend with intensely plucked guitars and the vocals of Natacha Atlas. And of course, Wobble's throbbing bassline front and center.
This connects latterly with Weatherall's post punk roots (indeed, one suspects that Metal Box would have been a huge record for him) and — jumping forward twenty years — to the cosmic electronica he's spent this past decade exploring (more on this to come). Around this time (back to 1990 now), he also turned in a remix of Saint Etienne's Only Love Can Break Your Heart A Mix In Two Halves, which was largely cut from the same dubbed-out ambient house cloth as this (if slightly less brilliant). The first half is where it's at.
4. Bocca JuniorsRaise & Substance
These two taken at once. This the first attempt at working something up from scratch. The Bocca Juniors were essentially the Boy's Own gang in (if I'm not mistaken) their first studio guise. There's this great period video on Youtube5 that features the crew getting interviewed on Snub TV. Particularly funny is when old Andy casually remarks I don't really like techno. Goodness me, how times change!
Raise pulses along at a mid-tempo pace on a cycling feedback-soaked bassline, with flashes of synth brass, Italo-house pianos and a commanding vocal from Anna Haigh, essentially laying out the blueprint for the sound that Fluke would ride through the rest of the decade. It's a big room sound, almost indie dance by default (albeit coming at it from the other direction).6
Substance is a rather different matter, with ethereal vocals from Haigh and a sixties-style fuzz box guitar riding atop a rolling breakbeats and a gently meandering bassline.7 The sixties rock thing was in the air at the time (see also Inspiral Carpets and Art Science Technology), culminating in Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers about five years later. Funny enough, I first knew this as a Dot Allison track and didn't find out it was a cover until somewhat recently.
Interesting the way both of these records prefigure large swathes of the decade, even if within a few years they might have sounded dated to most ears at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, perspective shifts and old becomes new again (thinking of Nuggets here), and one has the opportunity to hear things anew. Hearing them nearly thirty years later, both tunes remain excellent slabs of ambassadorial post-rave pop, shot through with the idealism of the era and capturing the excitement of the times infectiously.
Back to the remix. The Solar Youth Mix of Perpetual Dawn was quite possibly The Orb's greatest pop moment, polishing the sprawling album version into a glistening groove that burned along at a ragga pace. Everything shimmers with the unmistakable feel of the dancehall, even introducing a nagging vocal refrain to what was originally an instrumental.
Weatherall contributes two Ultrabass mixes on the flipside. Ultrabass I is a breakbeat-driven affair, punctuated by orchestra hits and outer space sonix, while Ultrabass II rides a deeper 4/4 pulse with more than a little tension, fattening up the sound considerably. Dread vibes for real! Weatherall's approach here in thrall to the digidub of Mad Professor's Ariwa imprint and Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound, the presence of which will be felt even more so as we continue.
The fruit of Primal Scream's extended dalliance with rave culture, this is the culmination of 12" singles like Come Together and the aforementioned Loaded (singles that Weatherall happened to have a profound hand in shaping). As an LP it excels, mixing machine rhythms, post-acid house electronics and a rootsy, pentecostal flavor in a heady cocktail of blissed out perfection. With a couple exceptions (Movin' On Up and Damaged) everything here has Weatherall's fingerprints all over it.
The aforementioned Loaded anchors the album, providing a midpoint between rootsy numbers like Movin' On Up, post-acid dancefloor burners like Don't Fight It, Feel It and the blissed out dream pop of Higher Than The Sun (co-produced with The Orb). The latter is an obvious highlight of the record, with a deep, spacious sound cloaking Bobby Gillespie's half-whispered vocals over a bed of electronic percussion. It's all quite moving, and when the climax hits — with those pile-driving slow-motion breakbeats — it's as if you're breaking through to the heavens.
A large portion of Screamadelica is dominated by gentle, atmospheric numbers like Inner Flight (sounding like The Beach Boys scoring 2001: A Space Odyssey), the absolutely gorgeous I'm Coming Down and Shine Like Stars (the album's signing off moment). The record's most psychedelic tunes are some of its finest, including Weatherall's deeply spiritual marathon mix of Come Together, his reprise of Higher Than The Sun A Dub Symphony In Two Parts (which features dub-wise harpsichords and an unforgettable bassline from Jah Wobble) and a slinky cover of The 13th Floor Elevators' Slip Inside This House (co-produced with Hypnotone).
Also worth checking out is the band's freeform cover of Dennis Wilson's Carry Me Home, another Weatherall-helmed moment, which can be found on the Dixie Narco EP (released the following year).
Ultra-extended dancefloor versions of Flowered Up's Weekender. With a running time of 31 minutes split between two marathon dancefloor excursions, Weatherall's Weekender is something like the soundtrack to your wildest all-night adventures. This is an absolutely incredible example of the possibilities inherent to the 12" single, with the Audrey Is A Little Bit Partial Mix riding a river of bass and rolling breakbeats in its funky Clavinet workout before — without any warning — mutating at its midpoint into a stomping 4/4 groove.
The flipside's Audrey Is A Little Bit More Partial Mix opens with a looped disco diva singing, gonna have a good time before dropping directly into a resolutely percussion-heavy 4/4 pulse anchored by a rude bassline, cascading clipped vocals and moody piano architecture. The mirror image of the a-side, it eventually slows down to a crawl before breaking into a downbeat coda for the song's second half. The whole affair emblematic of Weatherall's restlessly creative flair for conjuring up thoroughly absorbing vibes in the studio.
Another album culminating from a series of Weatherall-helmed 12" singles, Morning Dove White is a spellbinding collection of blissful dream pop that prefigures the likes of Dido and Beth Orton by a few years. The focus here lies on dubbed-out, almost pop-reggae stylings (think Maxi Priest and Bob Khaleel) rather than folktronica, but the effect remains the same. Alongside Billie Ray Martin's 4 Ambient Tales, this is the unsung precursor to that whole sound.
Scottish group One Dove8 were led by Dot Allison, whose breathy vocals haunt these recordings. Weatherall's production is deeply atmospheric, with plenty of weightless moments like Sirens and Why Don't You Take Me drifting gracefully off into the horizon. Throughout, there's an almost undisclosed heaviness to the proceedings (see Transient Truth, for example), which are frequently drenched in dub effects and bass pressure.
Nevertheless, breezy chansons like Breakdown Cellophane Boat Mix, Fallen and White Love Guitar Paradise Mix are the order of the day, showcasing Weatherall's fetching way with a pop song. In fact, I'd single this out as one of the great hidden gems in early nineties pop. Lastly, I should note that — like fellow Scots Primal ScreamDot Allison will have a recurring role in this story...
Alongside Gary Burns and Jagz Kooner, Weatherall finally delivers his debut album. From the outset, The Sabres Of Paradise were an underground proposition, signing to Warp Records9 and specializing in a unique brand of dub-heavy techno shot through with thoroughly dread vibes. The closest comparison would be Bandulu, who were quite clearly fellow travelers operating at the intersection of dub and the dancefloor.
Tracks like Still Fighting, Inter-Lergen-Ten-ko and Smokebelch I find the group at their most progressive, albeit with the oppressive presence of dub creeping in at all corners and a harder 4/4 pulse, offering a more claustrophobic take on the sound showcased by Weatherall's remix of Papua New Guinea. The symphonic Beatless Mix of Smokebelch II borrows large swathes of Chicago house don Elbee Bad's The New Age Of Faith, echoing the angelic spirit of Morning Dove White.
Still, it's in the deep end that the record's sympathies most obviously lie, grasping at ever harder shapes and sharper edges in a headlong rush into oblivion. It's a sound that still needed to stew awhile, having yet to reach its true potential. And yet somewhere in the paranoid atmosphere of the album's finest moments, alongside the dark, spectral shapes of Clock Factory, one could find an apocalyptic glimpse of the group's future.
Which is an absolute classic. A quantum leap from Sabresonic, Haunted Dancehall shakes things up considerably, distancing itself from the progressive house tendencies of the debut to dial everything down to a smoker's pace. Like FSOL's ISDN, it's almost a trip hop record by default, imbued with spectral shapes and a strong sense of paranoia. There's a clear debt here to not only dub but also post punk and industrial, marking it out as a Terminal Vibration record.
With liner notes from Trainspotting novelist Irvine Welsh offering up a rough outline of a smoke-steeped storyline, the whole thing came off like The Parallax View by way of Babylon. With the lion's share of the record given over to electro-tinged breakbeat workouts like Ballad Of Nicky McGuire and Bubble And Slide on one hand and moody atmosphere pieces like Flight Path Estate and Theme 4 on the other, the record's dark heart was undoubtedly the three track run that lie at its very center.
Wilmot was built around the horn motif from Black But Sweet by Wilmoth Houdini & The Night Owls, working up an downbeat skank that translated Trinidadian calypso for the smoked-out nineties. It had previously appeared in a stunning live-sounding version on the 12" single, with pile-driving breakbeats and scorching slow-motion surf guitar backing the singer Wonder, who sounded like she was channeling loa in the dancehall (Haunted Dancehall, indeed!).
Low-slung rockabilly six-string also lie at the center of Tow Truck, a proto-big beat burner. This is big beat the way Depth Charge did it,10 in slow-motion and a couple years early (ts ten ton beats prefiguring certain corners of The Chemical Brothers' sound).11 This big beat trilogy was rounded out by Theme, which found the crew rewiring a Mission Impossible-style refrain years before U2's rhythm section thought to do it.
This is the point where Weatherall's signature sound really begins to take shape (rather appropriately at the nexus of electro's latent futurism and trip hop's sense of dread atmosphere), carrying with it all the attendant imagery of Radio Clash, the Black Ark and beats laid down in moody half-light. The word that constantly springs to mind when hearing the man's music is physicality: there's a very real sense of weight to these muscular grooves (and all of the sounds swirling in their orbit), as if they were three-dimensional objects of metal, wood and stone occupying physical space. In other words, what they used to call substance.
A selection of Sabres sleeves
At this point, you also begin to see the unmistakable Weatherall visual flair beginning to take shape, an aesthetic that continues right up to his present day Linotype imagery. All of these sleeves from contemporary compilations and EPs, which I've included not as part of the golden thirty but because their sleeves are so perfectly evocative of the music contained within. Love that style! Somehow elegant and rugged, like wrought iron.
11. Deanne DayThe Day After & The Long First Friday
Emissions Audio Output1995/1996
And then at the midpoint of the decade, it's as if a switch had suddenly been flipped. The Sabres Of Paradise went their separate ways and Weatherall setup a new label: Emissions Audio Output. These two records were among the label's first releases, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Deanne Day was actually a collaboration with David Harrow (who, among other things, had played with the Invaders Of The Heart), the moniker a play on their first initials (say it out loud, D. and A.).
This kicks off the second phase of Weatherall's career, an era when he was operating at the peak of his powers. Turning on a dime, he seems to have stumbled upon the sound that would define his work for the next five years. The moodiness is still in full force — and the sonics still dwelling deep within the shadows — but suddenly it's as if everything has come into focus. There's a strong comparison to be made with Basic Channel's sound — I suspect Andy had been listening closely — and, as with B.C., you can unmistakably hear the early stirrings of the micro-house sound (Isolée, Villalobos, Kompakt et. al.) that would hold sway at the dawn of the 21st century.
The Day After EP is clearly on the minimalist tip. Horicho's spartan soundscape is the twin sister to Model 500's Starlight. Imagine Kraftwerk making house music circa Computer World. Brittle drum machines tick out the rhythm while gentle textures reverberate into the distance. The story is told in the echo, the spaces within the spaces. Body Control amplifies on this hall-of-mirrors effect, with a whirlpool synth in orbit around its central rhythm, while Honk If You've Seen The King fixates on the clickety-clack, metronomic rhythms, with just a hint of texture at the edge of the mix. That lonely, whistling synth a particularly evocative touch.
However, the The Long First Friday is where its at. In our timeline, this slots in between the first two Swordsmen records. I included it here because these two Deanne Day records make such a perfect pair. With both tracks here clocking in at over ten minutes, this is a tantric excursion into razor-thin, dreamlike techno. Once again, think Kraftwerk gone house, or better yet Juan Atkins' Infiniti output.12 They both seem to just stretch out into infinity.
The Long First Friday is impossibly lush, moody techno, its brittle drums cradling a wistful synth melody as its junglist bassline pushes out from within the mix. On the flipside, the fourteen minute Hardly Breathe is a motorik groove that splits the difference between techno and house. Ethereal synths drift aimlessly over an unchanging rhythm — encircled by hi-hats flanging in a double helix — as some disembodied diva (caught in a time loop) repeatedly intones the song's title.
Both sides full of gentle longing, in the recurrent Detroit tradition.
The triumphant return of Primal Scream (after their oft-dismissed Give Out But Don't Give Up),13 featuring Weatherall back in the producer's chair. This lazy downbeat groove — sounding like something from some lost seventies OST — is the perfect counterpoint to Danny Boyle's film of the same title. From the Augustus Pablo-esque melodica to the loping breakbeat and those languid, sun-glazed guitars, the whole thing is just stoned slacker perfection (and cool as ice).
Notably, Trainspotting later showed up on Primal Scream's excellent Vanishing Point (which came out in — surprise, surprise — 1997), albeit in slightly edited form. Trust me though, this is the version you want. As with Haunted Dancehall, the atmosphere is thoroughly smoked-out, but here the rough edges have been beveled away and rendered elegant. Like The Parallax View with an Oak Park strut, it just rolls on and on. You can't help but get lose yourself in its casual sway. Just hearing it is like spending ten minutes in the mid-nineties...
Part of a loose trilogy alongside the The Third Mission and The Tenth Mission EPs, all of which translate the rude shapes of Haunted Dancehall into something approximating the 21st century. Two Lone Swordsmen finds Andy jamming in the studio with Keith Tenniswood, who happened to be sitting behind the boards during some Sabres Of Paradise studio downtime.
When discussing the new 2LS sound, one can't underestimate the importance of Keith Tenniswood, who brought a glitched-out sensibility to the table that hadn't previously been apparent in Weatherall's work. Andrew himself once remarked, some of Mister Tenniswood's drum programming takes my breath away. Seeing as their production partnership has continued to this day in one form or another, it's clear that Tenniswood was a crucial part of the equation.
With nearly two hours of music, The Fifth Mission is a veritable treasure trove of warped machine soul. The crux of this this record lies in both the post-electro's rhythm matrix and the overcast atmosphere of abstract hip hop. One need look no further than tracks like Two Barb Quickstep, Switch It and The King Mob File for a perfect illustration of the new sound. Gone are the grimy back alleys of Haunted Dancehall, and in their place is the chrome-plated architecture of electronic soul. With every surface seemingly polished to crystal-clear perfection, even the record's most shadowy moments glisten in the moonlight.
The one exception to the rule is Rico's Helly, a Basic Channel-esque excursion into oneiric deep house, which surfs an improbable wood-bassline on a cresting wave to the sublime. Definite shades of the Deanne Day records, and a presence that would become increasingly felt over the course of the next few entries as the Swordsmen delve ever deeper into house music.
However, my absolute favorite moment here is the lurching downtempo reverie of Glenn Street Assault Squad. Its malfunctioning drum machine seems to stagger beneath the weight of those warped textures, while a renegade boogie synth squiggles the whole affair into the filmic. The effect is — as with the rest of this record — something like Kraftwerk jamming with Timbaland in lunar orbit.14
Following swiftly after The Fifth Mission, this is a roundup of remixes and new material15 that fixes on the deep house axis of the duo's sound. Glide By Shooting is an ethereal slice of deep, minimal house that just shimmers. The mood here quite reminiscent of the atmosphere-soaked deep house output of the Svek label (particularly Conceiled Project's D-Weqst). Other tracks, like Flossie Wears Paco And Ralph and Bim, Jack And Florence, continue to mine the minimal vein laid out by the Deanne Day records.
The highlight, however, is undoubtedly the remix of Rico's Helly (Retailored by Nourizadeh & Teasdale, as it says on the label). This version is almost completely unrecognizable from the one on The Fifth Mission, taking a dubbed-out, skanking angle on the original that swings so much it almost ceases to be house and becomes something more like a discomix vision of the blues. With ethereal synths drifting across a mahogany bassline, it grooves along for nine minutes as delicate electronic pads hint at a melody. At one point, the bass even drops into a descending blues pattern like it's a Cab Calloway record!
The other core aspect of Swimming Not Skimming lies in the re-emergence of the studio kinda cloudy ambience of Trainspotting, bringing a distinctly trip hop flavor to certain corners of the record.Azzolini And The Branch Brothers Meet Being sets the tone, kicking off the record with a strongly atmospheric slice of downbeat. Gentle pads16 reverberate through the soundscape while a wood bass plucks out a melody and a beat keeps threatening to take shape (but disintegrates just as quickly). The Ob007 Mix picks up where the brittle downbeat of The Fifth Mission left off, with dulcimer synths that always remind me of Nitemare 3D (an old PC game that my brother and I used to play).
Just bubbling under the surface is a sense of electro decomposition, in tunes like Don't Call It Jerk and Rico's Hellectro (almost sounding like a So Solid Crew backing track!). It really comes to the surface in Two Lone Swordsmen vs. The One True Pod Jakey In The Subway, which is a malfunctioning take on electro proper, a sound that would increasingly come to the fore over course of the next few years.
The big surprise is In The Nursery Visit Glenn Street, which finds the neoclassical duo In The Nursery reworking Glenn Street Assault Squad into a symphonic piece of soundtrack music in search of a film. There's even a spoken word bit! One detects an aura developing around the whole Two Lone Swordsmen project around this point, a real sense of mystique. Dig those song titles! The whole thing seeming to take on the shape of a sub-culture at the micro level. Intensely local, and just as the era of globalism is dawning.17
Tucked away on Humboldt County Records is The Role Of Linoleum, a curious double-EP by the Swordsmen in a guise named for Weatherall's other art form of choice. A one-off, although Andy asserted in a contemporary interview that the project would stay around.2b A shame we never heard more from the Squares, as it's a compelling sound they've struck upon here, but then that makes what we do have that much more special.
This record finds the duo moonlighting with a unique strain of moody, minimal techno vaguely reminiscent of Deanne Day. However, what marks this out as unique is the unusual nature its chosen instrumentation. That and its thoroughly ramshackle atmosphere! The drums all have this dirty, mangled quality to them, paired with clamoring metallic percussion and decomposing synth textures. Imperfect music made with machines. It's all very Atari 2600!
Neuphrique rides in on a minute of clanking rhythm before deep, organ-ic synths just ooze over the track like a river of vibe. The whole thing's held down by a decaying, 8-bit synth bassline that drives the tune forward, giving it a logical sense of progression. Here Come The Squares continues down the same path, this time bringing the ray of light vibes of Deanne Day into this record's ramshackle aesthetic. There's a tactile sense of physicality that sets this all apart from what's come before.
Blue Pole Dancer plays out its melody on a sparse cluster of electronic tones, while grimy detuned percussion taps out a counterpoint melody of its own. Tidy Unit is practically a rumination on these same warped sheet-metal drums, rhythm and melody nearly atomized by distortion. The reticent music box reverie of Raider would be soothing but for the rickety percussion running right through its center, while Phrique Out unfurls a distant rustling, underwater atmosphere as a single hi-hat bores through the mix with metronomic precision.
I can't think of another record remotely like it. Despite the twisted abstraction, there's a real human dimension to this record, a beating heart at its motorik core. You can hear a lingering 80s influence creeping into view here, one that would be increasingly felt as the decade winds to a close; also the first real shades of post punk. In fact, this record sounds something like if some Sheffield crew in the orbit of Fast Product time-traveled to 1997, heard Basic Channel for the first time, and then tried to show the blokes back home what it sounded like when they returned.
Back to home base, where those early shades of electro have begun to creep in at every corner to the point that they've come to define the sound. Plunge does just what it says on the tin, with well-deep textures bombing through a slithering electroid rhythm. We Love Mutronics Keith Boy Remix is nearly straight up electro, giving a tantalizing hint of things to come, before breaking into a junglist canter for its last couple minutes. Spraycan Attack gives a rare glimpse of the duo's deeply warped take on drum 'n bass, a sound they'd return to on their next EP before abandoning it altogether for electro's android rhythm matrix.
Still, there's a very satisfying amount of deep house in effect here.
The shimmering Turn The Filter Off is a jazzed-out exploration of the nascent micro-house sound, now just starting to be felt as a presence out in club land. Kickin' In Part 3 and Spin Desire both revisit the haunting house-music-played-on-a-double-bass sound of Rico's Helly. It's one of the most recognizable sounds in house, up there with the crystal clear synths of Larry Heard's Ammnesia and the warped filter-disco psychedelia of Moodymann's Silentintroduction.
Standing in for loads of electro-tinged 2LS remixes around this time (many of which are collected on Peppered With Spastic Magic: A Collection Of Two Lone Swordsmen Remixes). This is my favorite of the bunch, almost accidentally prefiguring the whole eighties revival years before the fact (see also I-f and Little Computer People). The third and final appearance of Primal Scream in this list. Weatherall maintained a continual relationship with the band, reworking tracks from all their albums up to and including Exterminator.
This an under-the-radar rework of the strangest (and my favorite) track from 1997's Vanishing Point (inspired by the 1971 amphetamine road movie starring Barry Newman). The original was a warped dub endeavor, with all levels overdriven into the red and Bobby Gillespie's vocals distorted beyond comprehension. Here cycling electro beats propel the tune at an uptempo double-time, while the dub signifiers of the original swirl all around. It all sounds so unforced, so natural, that you manage to forget the original while it's playing.
Sounding like an Arthur Baker remix of Mark Stewart + Maffia, it's a sound that should have existed in the eighties but never did. But now it does, and one can feel the next decade slowly begin to take shape...
This last gasp of The Sabres Of Paradise is essentially a straight-up dub track (the title is Dub easy spelled backward), albeit one with a strong post punk flavor about it. Like much of Weatherall's dance music, this is heavily inflected by echoes of post punk, memories of rock past. This an unreleased tune (it says recorded May 93 on the label) that washed up on the Dubnology 2: Lost In Bass compilation in 1996. Andrew must have decided it wouldn't hurt to press up a few copies onto wax. As a single-sided 7", it excels.
Whispering hi-hats and the occasional clanking drum fill tap out the rhythm as a towering bassline provides the foundation for the track. Morricone-esque harmonicas peal through the soundscape and a vibrating guitar figure sails across the sky. A vocal bit from an old Count Ossie record intones, ever since I was a youth, I've always been searching for the truth.
And that's it. So simple, but so necessary! Once again, all remarkably physical (that word again). This would have fit right in on Haunted Dancehall. I'm glad it saw the light of day (makes you wonder what's still in the vaults!). Pictured above is the flipside, which features an etching of some trademark Sabres imagery. Intimidating and sleazy!
This is great! The dark horse of this list, featuring Weatherall at his absolute jazziest. In an interview, he once singled this out as his favorite remix that he'd done up to that point.2cRed Snapper were a band that split the difference between trip hop and electronic jazz, and here their juke joint original gets reworked into an insouciantly dread-soaked delight.
A strangely beautiful synth refrain unwinds over rolling breakbeats and a two note organ vamp, all while squealing electronic textures wind their way through the mix. You want to hear a an MC freestyle over this beat. I'm reminded of some of the great Terranova b-sides, tunes like Sin Bin and Millennium Bug, where they're just running the machines as they unspool strange melodies over cascading breakbeats. Perhaps a shade more lighthearted, but still overcast, conjuring up images of late night taxi rides and third floor apartments overlooking the naked city.
You also get the Two Lone Swordsmen Blue Jam Cologne Mix, which plays out the record like a beatless coda.
This is where I came in at the time, and the first Weatherall record I ever picked up. As a teenage fan of Drexciya and Kevin Saunderson, it made perfect sense.18 The lovely vintage sleeve art by James Woodbourne a perfect encapsulation of the arcane sounds contained within. Deep sea divers. The Nautilus. Two Lone Swordsmen go aquatic! Upon reflection, there always was an Ocean Of Sound quality to their work, so I suppose here they're just making it official.
In this interview2d that I keep referencing, which was conducted just after the album's release, Weatherall talks a great deal about what influenced him in putting this record together:
During the making of the album I was mainly influenced by library records, Italian b-movie soundtracks and early synthesizer records. Just basically anything that was funky and had early keyboards on top. A lot of those library records sound like the studios have just invested in synthesizers. They're just jammin' away on those records.
Which paints a better thumbnail sketch of what you're getting into than I ever could. At the time, I had no idea what library records were, but gradually I discovered things like the KPM label and Sam Spence's records. Music that was recorded with the intent to be used as bedding music for television and the like. At the time, I can think of only Boards Of Canada being tuned into the same frequency. This years before Ghost Box turned it all into a way of life!
Weatherall also talked of wanting the tracks to be on the shorter side, with the record clocking in at the 45 minute length of classic LPs. Of time spent really crafting the album as a cohesive set of songs, an experience. Truthfully, I think he'd always had a knack for it, but with Stay Down it's taken to a whole other level. This is the point when — even as he's submerging himself in the ocean's depths — Weatherall's work arcs gracefully toward the heavens. When you put the record on, you can immediately tell you're witnessing something special.
Hope We Never Surface begins the proceedings on a note of oceanic tranquility, with a sequence of lustrous analogue tones (sounding as if they were submerged underwater) unspooling in a state of ambient bliss. This mood endures into Ink Cloud19, its crystalline synths sounding like the gates opening to an underwater palace, introducing a scraping trip hop beat and ancient electric organs as the record begins to ever so gradually pick up some steam.
The Big Clapper wires a 303 bassline to an ungainly dub rhythm, whistling synths and trebly tones zig-zagging across a sullen string section, the whole thing striking the perfect balance between zaniness and melancholy. A short sharp shock. Just as you begin to work it out, it stops.2eIvy And Lead takes this notion to its extreme, with a mischievous vibraphone loop strolling across a wood bassline and rewinding electronic percussion, despondent strings sawing out beneath the underwater jazz.
There's a quite a bit of aquatic electro to be found here as well, picking up where A Bag Of Blue Sparks20 EP left off. We Change The Frequency recalls contemporary Drexciya (especially The Return Of Drexciya EP), while the dark, delicate shapes of Light The Last Flare predict Keith Tenniswood's Radioactive Man project. The pronounced swing of Mr. Paris's Monsters even bears a passing resemblance to the nascent sounds of UK garage.
No Red Stopping is the record's one concession to the 4/4 beat, and it's a murky house masterpiece, one of the album's true highlights. Ethereal synths float across a DX-100-sounding bassline imbued with a moody glow as an uncomplicated kick-snare groove rolls out beneath it, teeming with re-triggered clicks and trebly hi-hats. Apparently, it was inspired by a local taxi driver who'd come from war-torn Sarajevo, who wouldn't stop at red lights because you'd get shot at by snipers at traffic lights back home.2f
The austere downbeat of Spine Bubbles provides a hint of things to come on the A Virus With Shoes EP,21 even if this album's take on trip hop is far more unique. In its home stretch, Stay Down diverges into a couple idiosyncratic breakbeat workouts. The seasick strings and tricky rhythms of We Discordians Must Stick Apart recall peak-era Black Dog, while Alpha School's staggering breakbeats underpin another music box melody and a bass progression straight out of the new wave playbook.
Like a strange, pleasant dream — the sort of dream you wake up from in a state of intense emotion, with inexplicable tears in your eyes — coming to a gradual but inevitable end, the record closes solemnly with the aptly-titled As Worldly Pleasures Wave Goodbye... A glitched-out rhythm tap dances in treble across the surface of the most mournful underwater strings since Gavin Bryars' The Sinking Of The Titanic. It's the perfect conclusion to an arcane record, teeming with mystery, as eccentric and inscrutable as Weatherall himself.
After the elegiac heights (and depths) of Stay Down, this record initially came as a shock. Sure, everything was still remarkably tactile and of-human-dimension, but with none of the humanity, like a dusty circuit board from 1984. Gone are the dreamlike shades of wistful melancholy and the mesmerizing underwater visions drifting in and out of focus, lost now for all time. In their place stands an unforgiving matrix of pumping sinister electro. After all, the nineties are over... it's now the 21st century. Watch your back, partner.
Instantly, we're submerged back into the seething paranoia of Haunted Dancehall, but with all of the dub-derived warmth sucked out with a vampire's precision. This is the sound of The Parallax View's conspiracies hidden in plain light, the claustrophobic noir of The Manchurian Candidate and Max Cohen's tortured descent into the secrets of Pi. The record even opens with the first in a series of Tiny Reminder interludes, electro-acoustic passages scattered throughout the record like a string of clues to a mystery with no solution.
Menacing electro is the order of the day, traxx with short, functional names like Neuflex, Solo Strike and Brootle. A tune like Akwalek sounds like a memory of some finer day that's been digitized into the machine, all the joy lost in its pixelated, 8-bit approximation of reality. These tracks are no less varied than what's come before, it's just that they're all played out on one solitary, twisted game grid, defined by its nasty computer sounds.
One thing that the demented techno of Death To All Culture Snitches, Foreververb's derezzed hip hop and Rotting Hill Carnival's skewed music box funk have in common is that they all sound like some barely-comprehended nightmare, unfolding in a frieze of gradually revealed horror. The one moment that's even vaguely comforting is the technoid micro-house of The Bunker, it's resolute groove seeming to dig deep within its memory banks looking for a reason not to give up.
One wonders how much the Nine O'Clock Drop compilation that Weatherall put together around the same time had colored the Swordsmen's sound in the studio. There's definitely a sense of the same baleful grooviness here that one would find in the post punk of A Certain Ratio's Waterline, The Normal's Warm Leatherette and Colourbox's Looks Like We're Shy One Horse (all of which figure into Nine O'Clock Drop's tracklisting), the same sense of deranged physicality one hears Memories by Public Image Ltd. or latterly Radiohead's Idioteque.
In a fascinating turn, the record-closing trudge It's Not The Worst I've Looked... Just The Most I've Ever Cared sounds as if it were played on live instruments, the strung out bass and stumbling drums carving out a literal connection to post punk's sense of dislocation. It stands as a great question mark punctuating these proceedings, offering an unexpected glimpse into the direction the Swordsmen would take in a few years time...
But first, they set up the Rotters Golf Club label and spent a few years making deliriously retro-flavored electro. Kicking off with the two-part Machine Funk Specialists EPs, featuring a flurry of names like Klart, Aramchek, Decal and Rude Solo (most of which were actually the Swordsmen in disguise), the label specialized in a playful, eighties-inflected sound that veered from the Gothic synth pop of Remote to Radioactive Man's punishing electro and even the ghetto-tech influenced speedfreak frenzy of Klart.
In many ways, RGC parallels the contemporary music of figures like Anthony Rother, ADULT., Andrea Parker's Touchin' Bass label. Arty figures getting in on some tasty, no-nonsense electrofunk action. The eighties were undeniably in the air, percolating underground for a spell before hitting the mainstream in the twin forms of electroclash and the post punk revival. As a child of the 80s who never stopped loving the music (even in the grungy 90s, when it was thoroughly out of fashion), I was in heaven.
At this point Keith Tenniswood produced Dot Allison's sophomore album, which turned out to be a dazzling blend of bubbling electronic pop and blissed-out synth/guitar architecture, and one of my absolute favorite records of the era. Embarrassingly, I'd misremembered it as a joint Weatherall/Tenniswood production, and almost included it in this list! Fortunately, on double-checking the liner notes I caught myself just in time...
All of which is a roundabout way of introducing From The Bunker: A Rotters Golf Club Mix, which was compiled and mixed by Andrew Weatherall. Opening with the demented swinging electro of Radioactive Man's Uranium (very nearly a cold-blooded 2-step track) to the throbbing madness of Aramchek's Driver and Klart's Raver (coming on like an old video game theme played on a big rig), it's an unmissable romp through the label's back catalog.
I've got a whole bunch of the RGC records from back in the day. It might have been cooler to single out that golden 12", something like Machine Funk Specialists Part 1 or Aramchek's Benicassim EP, but that wouldn't give you the full scope of what the boys were up to here. Besides, my favorite moments on the label both happen to be non-Weatherall moments: Remote's Remotion and Radioactive Man's Uranium.
So take this as a choice way in to the Rotters Golf Club, and if you dig what you hear... feel free to indulge further. A detour perhaps, but a whole lot of fun.
Now this was a surprise when I first picked it up. Why, this wasn't electronic music at all! From the opening creaky horns of Stack Up, with it's loose drum beat and Peter Hook-esque bassline, it was clear we weren't in Kansas anymore. I was so disappointed! And yet, that feeling gradually gave way and it became one of my most-played records of the year, right alongside Wiley's Treddin' On Thin Ice, Moodymann's Black Mahogani and Brian Wilson's Smile.
With the transition into real deal post punk — decked out with guitar, bass and drums — complete, you get these great crunching instrumentals like Formica Fuego and The Lurch, songs that are just waiting to appear in the inevitable Repo Man remake. My absolute favorite moments the roiling black hole of Damp and the exhausted misery of the album-closing Driving With My Gears In Reverse Only Makes You Move Further Away. What can I say, I was a sad lad.
But the big surprise here is a whole raft of vocal tracks featuring vocals from Andrew Weatherall front-and-center, like the dessicated glam rock of Kamanda's Responseand Punches And Knives. There's even a cover version of The Gun Club's Sex Beat! And I exaggerated somewhat when I said this wasn't electronic music at all: tunes like Faux and Sick When We Kiss are more-or-less straight-up electro, albeit electro played by caustic post punks.
So how did this happen? Well, like KRS-One, I was there, so let me tell you. Whereas in 2001 it felt like dance-culture-as-we-knew-it was going to soldier on forever, a dozen-odd months later it just seemed tired, worn-out. Warning signs included the over-saturation of minimal techno (I remember downloading a set where every track sounded like Aril Brikha's Groove La Chord) and the splintering of every genre into sub-genre into a million different pieces. Bummer, man.
I remember a distinct shift, when by the end of 2002, I'd started listening to more vintage techno and house (followed by soul, funk, jazz, hip hop, glam, prog, etc. etc. etc.) than the latest releases. The unifying force, ever more tenuously holding the culture together, just seemed to break apart beyond repair. Everything seemed so simultaneously balkanized and sterile that there was a distinct desire to rude it all up again. Punk rock!
Prefigured by the rise of retro-electro (see #22), electroclash and post-disco-inflected house like Metro Area, it all seemed to flow naturally into a reinvigoration of post punk (the original abstract rude music). Hence things like DFA and Richard X. All of which happened to coincide with the latest in rude boy noise, the rise of grime in the U.K. The zeitgeist had irretrievably shifted, and there was no going back now...22
Consequently, this marks the beginning of third and latest phase of Weatherall's career, where we enter the upside down and everything is inverted: rock and post punk become the prime architecture, inflected by the faded memories of dance music past.
The Big Silver Shining Motor Of Sin EP followed shortly after, a companion piece to this record featuring a remix of Sex Beat, but more importantly two new tracks: the electroid Showbizz Shotguns and the awesome post punk stomp of Feast!
Not so much a remix as a complete reworking, this is essentially a cover by the newly-minted live band version of Two Lone Swordsmen. Taking one of the key micro-house records23 — up there with Isolée's Beau Mot Plage — and turning it into a post punk dirge might sound like a bad idea on paper, but against all odds the crew forge ahead and wind up with another unlikely minor gem.
The sound here comparable to The Lurch, with dulcimer tones playing the original tune's melody over a burning drum/bass workout. The highlight is the elegiac guitars twisting above it all like a cargo plane in flight, creaking in the slipstream. All of these instrumentals revel in the very sound of post punk's sonic vocabulary, the way one looks at a faded photograph and truly cherishes the memories it holds; memories of — what were at the time — just another day.
25. Two Lone SwordsmenWrong Meeting & Wrong Meeting II
Rotters Golf Club2007
A couple years go by and the Swordsmen are back, this time on the newly re-animated Rotters Golf Club label, heralded the prior year by Andrew Weatherall's The Bullet Catcher's Apprentice EP (his first solo release). The label no longer synonymous with electro mischief but a brand of sleazy rock 'n roll defined by its grimy guitar buzz and low-slung backbeat.24 As strange as it may sound, by this point the Swordsmen have practically becomeThe Clash!
These two records released a couple months apart before coming out in the U.S. as the Wrong Meetings double-album, so I'm counting them as one. I know it's a dirty trick, but hey, it's my list and I tend to get untrustworthy when having to eliminate things. I'll use every trick in the book to sneak them in! Besides, they complement each other so well that it'd be a shame to keep only one.
If there's one thing that sets this record apart from From The Double Gone Chapel's year zero, when the duo first started messing around with live instruments, it's that everything now sounds lived-in and balanced. Where the seams once showed between the electro beats and the post punk burners, the vocal tracks and the instrumentals, and the live instruments and the machines, they've now all been fully integrated into a symbiotic whole.
Whereas much of Chapel felt like loose sonic sketches, there's no getting around the fact that each of these tunes are full-fledged songs.
This newfound comfort with the form also frees up the space for new emotions to come pouring in. Weatherall's vocals have developed by leaps and bounds, picking up a ragged fragility miles beyond the cold deadpan of his earlier delivery. Patient Saints — with it's tumbling drums underpinning a sad, stately tale of The patient saints of selfless acts, the more they gave the less they got back — is a perfect illustration of the changing stakes.
The first Wrong Meeting record — which Patient Saints opens beautifully — is basically a straight up rock record, which nevertheless retains the overcast mood that we've come to expect from the MKII Swordsmen. Tunes like No Girl In My Plan and Evangeline ply a sort of sinister rockabilly that's a worthy successors to The Cramps' own voodoo-soaked garage punk. This is truly phenomenal stuff, and at the time I used to cane Evangeline in the mix every chance I got. I remember tales filtering back from the U.K. of Andy spinning rockabilly seven-inches in the clubs, sporting a handlebar mustache!25
Think this is just a retro-nostalgia trip? Well, No Girl In My Plan rides this great throbbing bassline that sounds like something from a contemporary grime record, and Weatherall hurls couplets like, The angel on her right says beware of her advances, while the demon on her left has seen the way she dances. with a venom that sounds utterly of-the-moment. Like the Arctic Monkeys, this is a rock 'n roll that feels right at home 21st century.
Wrong Meeting II picks up where the first record's Get Out Of My Kingdom leaves off, with the jagged guitar downbeat shuffle of Mountain Man tracing its mood with a jagged line into the electro-punk-disco of Shack 54. The whole midsection continues this heavier dance angle, with razor's edge synths and racing electro threading elegantly through the clanking guitar cacophony.
The Ghosts Of Dragstrip Hollow seems to fuse both sides of the record, before it all gets tied up in a bow with the slow-motion stomp of Born Bad/Born Beautiful, winding the proceedings back down to a slow-burning rock for it's protracted denouement. The gently unfolding, stoic mood of If You Lose Control Of Yourself... (You Give It To Somebody Else) ends the record on a strangely contented note, as if the austere, foreboding atmosphere of the last few records had only just begun to lift.
These remains the final Two Lone Swordsmen recordings to date (although the duo still collaborate in other forms). Still, it does set the stage for everything to follow...
After a protracted break (reading between the lines in this interview,26 it sounds like he was cleaning up and working through his demons), Weatherall returns with his first true solo LP after over twenty years in the game. A Pox On The Pioneers finds him ploughing a rich furrow at the intersection of kosmische and dark new wave, with brittle drum machines and ancient synths intertwining with the ghosts of Wrong Meeting's raucous rockabilly.
It's a classy sound, evocative of an eighties where Bowie's Heroes and Iggy's The Idiot — and by extension Harmonia Deluxe and Neu! '75 — had an even grander influence blazing through the decade, changing the path of everything from to new wave to alternative in the process. There's a lot of what ifs that start to crop up when one listens to these late-period Weatherall records:
What if punk hadn't sought to tear down everything that came before it, but to build upon that foundation, injecting a strong sense of futurism into everything it touched. A few years later, new romantic's DNA intertwines with post punk's cold grey landscape — rather than seeking to replace it — and the ancient organic synths of kosmische bleed even deeper into the eighties. Imagine the aural equivalent of Repo Man's spacier, Mellotron-inflected moments, or the whole of Beyond The Black Rainbow. It's the sound of a few variables shifted, subtly changing every moment as time marches on, making all the difference in the world.
The first record I remember that conjured up this sort of image was another refugee from dance music, Death In Vegas. In 2005, their fourth album Satan's Circus, with its leather-clad kosmische/post punk hybrid, sounded as if it were beamed in from a parallel dimension built from similar parameters. It cropped up again in the Minimal Wave series of compilations (which came out on Stones Throw, of all places!), full of old music seemingly beamed in from this alternate reality.
There was a subtle sense at this time of certain bands moving beyond the literalism of the initial wave of post punk revivalists to carve out unique sounds of their own. Groups like Blank Dogs and The Vaccines seemed to tap into the same gestalt, while The Good, The Bad & The Queen for all the world sounded like they sprung from this same eighties where kosmische was the dominant force in pop music. I suppose that Chris Corner might have beat them all to the punch, first with Sneaker Pimps' Splinter and then the IAMX record, in envisioning a 1980s in absence of sunlight.
All of which brings us back to Weatherall's maiden voyage as a solo artist. Launching with Fail We May, Sail We Must, it sets the scene (along with its sleeve) for a briny endeavor across the stormy surface of the same oceanic depths he'd essayed a decade prior. In fact, the vocals throughout have a real chanted, sea shanty quality to them (especially the title track).27 Strangely enough, Miss Rule seems to predict a whole brace of radio hits from the coming decade that would mine a similar concept (things like Elle King's Ex's & Oh's).
There's often a fragile delicacy to the record's nimble rhythms, unspooling gently beneath the record's waterlogged textures, and there are oceans of space within the songs themselves. The soundscape is awash in reverb, its mix literally drowning the sonic squall, conjuring up images of stormy skies and choppy waters. And there you find yourself, isolated somewhere within them, lost at sea.
Liar With Wings is a lonely, wide-open chanson that seems to with the sails, while All The Little Things That Make Life Worth Living features synths that seem to sway in seasick arcs across the pitter-patter of brittle drum machines before inevitably flowing into its frail synthesizer coda. The slow-burning Built Back Higher — punctuated by synths that seem to fall like droplets gathered from swirling ocean mists — sounds as if it might dissipate into thin air.
Like Stay Down, this record seems carefully crafted into a sonic journey, with every twist and turn guiding the listener toward its inevitably aching conclusion. In this case, that conclusion arrives on the wings of Walk Of Shame, carried along by vaguely discoid rhythms out into the horizon (and intimating the sound of Weatherall's next big project). It's a natural end to a natural record, an album that feels almost as if it were brought in by the tide.
As I was saying a moment ago, The Asphodells — which is the duo of Andrew Weatherall and Timothy J. Fairplay — seem to pick up exactly where the last record's Walk Of Shame left off. Beglammered glides in on a brittle disco rhythm, it's quasi-melodica melody and flowing sequences bringing to mind the Eastern motifs of Charanjit Singh's Jupiter 8 from Synthesizing: Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat.
There's an illuminating interview26 from a few years back (and which I mentioned earlier) that coincided with the release of this record, where Weatherall regales with stories from his long and winding journey through music's corridors, all while he carves out a brand new Linotype image. In many ways, this record squares the circle between his most recent works of kosmische post punk and his earliest forays into dance music. At times, I'm particularly reminded of his Nonsonicus Maximus Mix of Jah Wobble's Bomba.28
One could read The Asphodells as Weatherall's own Metro Area moment, like Morgan Geist a veteran figure digging back into the world of disco. In this case, Weatherall seems to be plying a Teutonic take on cosmic disco's chugging, otherworldly rhythms. Or, to expand on my earlier metaphor, what if — language barrier be damned — Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW, aka German New Wave) had been as big as the second British invasion (Duran Duran, Eurythmics, et. al.). Images of D.A.F. filling stadiums, electro-punks wearing jackets emblazoned with the Geile Tiere logo and Andreas Dorau on MTV. This is the music that might have come in the wake of such an (unlikely) scenario.
A tune like The Quiet Dignity Of Unwitnessed Lives sounds like if 80s synth pop had retained Kraftwerk's sense of Europe-endlessness, with Low standing this time as the epoch-defining Bowie record (especially the instrumentals). Like A Pox On The Pioneers, this album is driven by loosely-sequenced 808 beats, albeit with a greater horizontal sense of linearity (although One Minute's Silence does seem, in part at least, to connect back with that record's prevailing mood).
If I'm being brutally honest, I've never been crazy about this record's cover version of A Love From Outer Space (but then the A.R. Kane original is one of my favorite songs ever). However, nearly everything else — from the proto-acid sounds of Skwatch to Another Lonely City's impeccably sequenced landscapes — meshes together to round out a winning record with a unique vision. If nothing else, this is an album to drift away to.
Tangentially, I was tempted to include Weatherall's motorik remix of Wooden Shjips' Crossing, which is cut from a similar kosmische-inflected cloth. Unfortunately, there just wasn't the space!
This vinyl-only release by The Woodleigh Research Facility features Weatherall working with sometime Swordsmen collaborator Nina Walsh. From the sleeve — which has the distinct, unadorned appearance of a vintage library record — on down, this seems to run parallel to the terrain essayed masterfully by Ghost Box in the 21st century. However, the surfaces here are pristine — clinical even — miles away from GB's crumbly electronica.
If anything, The Phoenix Suburb seems to pick up where The Asphodells left off, presenting the cold, deflated other to that record's warm cosmic grooves. The rhythms of this album share in the same linear 808 pulse, stretching endlessly onto the horizon. In many ways, I'm reminded of Ultramarine's Every Man And Woman Is A Star, from the era just before the ambient-leaning fabric of Artificial Intelligence was shredded to abstraction by the IDM brigades.
This record glides by on a chassis of pure electro, its austere electronic textures interacting with the rhythms in an uncomplicated manner. Some tunes, like The Question Oak and Dumont's Assistant almost veer toward a driving EBM atmosphere, while quieter moments like Osler's Crystal Fountain settle into peaceful cul de sacs of sound. The overall effect throughout is that of the duo donning lab coats and working the machines in a rustic cabin in the countryside.
A minor record, perhaps, but an interesting (and quite listenable) one nonetheless.
The first record credited solely to Andrew Weatherall since 2009's A Pox On The Pioneers came tumbling out with little fanfare seven years later, and it's a total classic. Convenanza's sound is teeming with myriad instruments and textures, from spacious slide guitar to eerie, echoing brass, ancient synths and (of course) that trademark combination of motorik beat and rumbling bassline that we've come to expect. It might just be me, but I believe that the sound that Weatherall has achieved with this record is quite simply sublime.
I'm reminded immediately of Holger Czukay's French horn, particularly on records like Snake Charmer (see the spooked mutant disco pulse of The Confidence Man) and On The Way To The Peak Of Normal. Also, the throbbing rhythms of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
Both of which put us in Terminal Vibration territory, and fair enough. This is the 21st century outpost of that sound, leaning bravely toward the future.
By far the fullest and most fleshed-out of Weatherall's more recent records, perhaps more so than anything since Stay Down, Convenanza is above all else a pleasure to listen to. These lushly populated landscapes, full of ornate, sculpted sound, form the perfect foundation for Weatherall's disembodied vocals reverberating throughout. The opening instrumental groove of Frankfurt Advice — with its rolling bass sequences, arcing horns and low-slung guitar echoing beyond — offers a perfect illustration of this principle in action.
Now don't let me be misunderstood: this record is not one giant wall of sound. There's still plenty of space in the mix. Take the fragmented groove of Kicking The River, whose drum machines seem to gear up only to fade from view and back again. And that wandering guitar line — literally weaving its way through the song's fabric — always makes me think of the warped pop of seventies Eno.
One unexpected aspect of the record is how certain stretches of this record manage to excel much contemporary pop, which is often only notionally catchy. The dreamy shades of We Count The Stars have wrapped within them a remarkably pretty song, even as the horns go off on variations of their own in the distance. But then, old Andy has always had an ear for a tune, even before he started making them with vocals.
The Last Walk — another instrumental — continues Weatherall's latent tradition of forging connections between records, in this case stretching back through The Phoenix Suburb and The Asphodells, with its motorik rhythms, and shading directly into the dour vocal style of A Pox On The Pioneers. It's the one track here that seems to tie back to earlier styles, even as its monumental synth progression squares it firmly within the world of Convenanza.
However, where this record has them all beat is in its quiet passages of gentle beauty. The lightly tapping rhythm of Disappear is dominated by its heavily-reverbed vocals (including spectral female backing) as outer space sounds punctuate every bar and what sounds like a theremin winds searchingly throughout. The record's penultimate track, Thirteenth Night, unwinds with a circular synth pattern soaring across gently rolling rhythm boxes, offering a moment of tranquility before the record's stunning conclusion.
Ghosts Again finds Weatherall asking Please forgive this letter, from a shipwrecked soul, while a pair of guitars intertwine beneath in an elegiac duel. An acoustic strums out the rhythm while a Morricone-damaged electric dances across it's face. One lone tambourine keeping time as a searching cello twists its way into your heart. It's a stunning climax to a deeply affecting record, one that feels like the culmination of the man's work going all the way back to the beginning. Of all the 21st century Weatherall records, this is undoubtedly my favorite.
Clearing the air after the formidable heights of Convenanza is last year's Qualia, which closes out today's golden thirty (exit music, for a film). Weatherall's latest record features the man ploughing his own particular furrow, this time with an octet of motorik mood pieces. The sleeve, which mimics the cover art from Walter Wegmüller's krautrock stone tablet Tarot, a dead giveaway, and rather appropriate for this set of gently unfurling post-kosmische instrumentals.
The combination of live motorik drumming and rolling analogue sequences brings to mind (once again) Satan's Circus by Death In Vegas, but this time the production is sparse and immaculate. The uncomplicated groove of Darktown Figures, with its Spartan guitar line and ultra-fake sounding synthesized brass, sounds like something from an OST. At one point, the drums cut out and you're left with a rhythm box, pattering away. Everything here working as invisible soundtrack music.
Note the bearded Weatherall on the record's sleeve, a look he's been rocking for about a decade (if I'm not mistaken). I dig it, the sort of rugged mountaineer of electronic music... the man in the hills. It's the look of a man who's spent three decades at the coalface of underground music, and has earned the right to call himself a true original. What is it about electronic musicians that they age so much more gracefully than rocker stars? Perhaps Grace Slick was right about everything...
So that rounds out our little excursion across Andrew Weatherall's (roughly) thirty years in underground music. In thirty records. Ok, ok, I realize that technically this was actually 33 records, but like I said I'm a greedy bastard when it comes to music! If you want me to narrow it down to just three to start with, then check out Primal Scream's Screamadelica, Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down and Andrew Weatherall's Convenanza, each of which hail from the three distinct phases of the man's recording career (along with the ever-changing zeitgeist). Then keep on digging in, because at the end of the day, the records speak for themselves...
Balearic is, crudely put, a type of record that usually springs from somewhere at the interface of rock, soul and club music. Many of these records were brought over from Ibiza (one of the Balearic islands off the coast of Spain), where an open-minded policy reigned supreme: if the record grooved, then it got played. As such, all manner of records got swept up into the category, from the driving indie rock of The WoodentopsWhy, Why, Why to the slow burning funk of Richie Havens' Goin' Back To My Roots and Yello's Bostich. The concept was so useful that to this day new records are often described as Balearic in spirit.
In light of Terminal Vibration, it's interesting to note the swingbeat-tinged remix version from Tackhead on the Raise remix 12", making literal the connection between post punk and rave's early years. In the world of dance music, post punk wasn't a retro move ten years after, but very much in its DNA from the beginning.
And wouldn't you know it, Substance gets reworked by the Moody Boys (aka Tony Thorpe), who started out in post punk group 400 Blows and later made his mark on house music with the Warrior's Dance label. The Terminal Vibrations just don't stop!
Note that Junior Boy's Own put out the earliest releases by The Chems, records like Song To The Siren and the Fourteenth Century Sky EP. In retrospect, sort of funny that one of the era's most self-consciously tasteful label enabled the duo to wreak their havoc (much to the chagrin of music snobs everywhere)!
Juan Atkins is another one that hinted at the idea of micro-house long before it would become a going concern, with Infiniti's Flash Flood1993 and Game One1994, and M500's Starlight and Lightspeed (both from the 1995 Deep Space LP, recorded with Basic Channel's Mark Ernestus and Mortiz von Oswald) all on the shelves by mid-decade. I should do a little feature on all of this someday...
[Blinks and does a double take, jumping back a couple inches in the process.] Was this the basis for Escape 120 by Joey Bada$$!? I'm 90% sure that it's a sped up sample of this tune. How did I never notice that?
Ink Cloud was omitted from the U.S. version of Stay Down released by Matador, which instead included most of the A Bag Of Blue Sparks EP. So strange, why not include one less song from the other EP? However, this was actually very common, and I have a whole stack of CDs that I had to re-buy to get the full version, things like Plaid's Not For Threes and Andrea Parker's Kiss My Arp.
A Bag Of Blue Sparks was released less than a month before Stay Down, and provided a stunning preview of that record's deep sea electro (along with a deliciously strange detour into drum 'n bass with Black Commandments). It's quite good (especially the island vibes of Electric 4 Bird), and comes highly recommended to anyone who can't get enough of Stay Down's electro side.
Coming out a year later, A Virus With Shoes found the duo delving as deep into abstract hip hop as they ever would, with seven tracks of slow-motion breakbeat noir (plus an ambient one). The Bogeyman remix beats it out for inclusion here, but it does have the distinction of featuring the first instance of a 2LS record with a fully vocal track (It Fits samples a large section of the acappella of Electronic's Prodigal Sun).
Strangely enough, a few years earlier I'd started mixing new wave records like Simple Minds' I Travel and The B-52'sMesopotamia. This actually long before I was even aware of any of this. Something was definitely in the air.
A few years earlier, Weatherall had mixed the Hypercity compilation for the Force Tracks label. A twilight run through the corridors of micro-house, featuring artists like Håkan Lidbo and Luomo, it's a solid little mix. I still have it lying around here somewhere...
See also the otherworldly synths of Screamadelica, which as often as not seem to reach into a time before electronic music had crawled onto the dancefloor. There's a fair bit of the old world even in Weatherall's earliest work. These records didn't come out of nowhere!
With Spring beginning to take flight, it was high time for the crew to get involved in some horticultural escapades at the Parallax Gardens. Consequently, here is the third edition of Garden Grooves (aka the music we played). Spanning a casual week of afternoon work, here's the selection as it played out:
Kicking off the whole affair was this bass-heavy deejay record, Toyan's proto-dancehall tour de force. What sleeves these records have! Ranking Toyan does his thing over crisp, dubtastic riddims laid by the Roots Radics and mixed by Scientist. A Henry "Junjo" Lawes production.
My second favorite Grace Jones LP by a country mile. Unlike my #1 pick (Nightclubbing) it's comprised almost completely of Grace-penned originals (the one exception is Melvin Van Peebles' The Apple Stretching). Boasting killer tune after killer tune (My Jamaican Guy, Nipple To The Bottle) and the descending neuromantic boogie of Unlimited Capacity For Love (choice), Living My Life rounds out Miss Jones' Island trilogy with aplomb.
Discovered this record only recently over the course of formulating the whole Terminal Vibration trip. This rounds out another trilogy alongside Full Circle and the Snake Charmer mini-LP, featuring Wobble in collaborative mode (this time with the Invaders Of The Heart, who he'd hit full stride with in the 90s). Hauntingly exotic post punk/post-disco moves inna My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts stylee.
Arthur Russell's abstract disco freakout, knocked out with rolling percussion and seemingly improvised vocals. You hear these Arthur Russell records and they really opens up the whole idea of 80s music, straining at the confines of the predictable collective memory of the era to inhabit similar climes to Hindustani music, cosmic jazz and krautrock. Much like King Sunny Adé's Ma Jaiye Oni, my favorite part is when the keyboards take the reins about 2/3 of the way through.
Sumptuously three-dimensional new wave disco from the Tom Toms' second album Close To The Bone, the 12" gives the groove room to breath with those sublimely detailed synths and tactile percussion. The flipside's dub version is a real treat, and like Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector plays like a proto-house instrumental (once again, those synths!). Clearly, there was something in the water down at Compass Point.
Shiny post punk funk on the Y imprint and featuring prior members of The Pop Group and the Glaxo Babies. I always want to give this, along with The Slits' Cut and Come Away With ESG to every 15 year old I know. Coming on like a left-footed, untamed English Beat circa Special Beat Service, its brilliant skanking rhythms square the circle between new pop and punk funk better than anyone else. Shame that it isn't more easily available...
...and with the closing bars of All Wrapped Up!, we put away the tools and kicked back for the evening. The following day found the clouds rolling in, and the overcast skies had a decided impact on the playlist as it unfolded...
New York crew get down and dirty with storied 4-track EP, wringing magic from the whole affair only to get ripped off by Grandmaster & Melle Mel's White Lines Don't Don't Do It. As much as I love White Lines, the original loping groove in Cavern is where its at. Plus, you've got Optimo's Central Park conga jam and the rolling clockwork downbeat groove of the post rock-predictive Out. A true gem of a record. And non-stop props to Señor Lavelle for putting out the Liquid Liquid comp on Mo Wax back in the mid-nineties.
Sophomore full-length outing from old Ian and co., this is often classed as a disappointment but have you heard it lately? Sounds to me like a worthwhile follow up to New Boots And Panties!! and the slew of ace 7"s The Blockheads spat out over the course of the late seventies, with a heavy emphasis on post-disco rhythms, a couple quasi-reggae tunes and even shades of Lodger. Something like Sink My Boats is utterly original, definitively seventies — like watching six hours of The Rockford Files and then falling asleep to a fever dream where Barry Newman, Rudy Ray Moore and Peter Wyngarde wander into The Last Of Sheila — and somehow manages to sound unlike anything else around.
Rock hard reggae soundtrack from the 1980 film starring Aswad's Brinsley Ford. Scored by the great Dennis Bovell, it also features Aswad's Warrior Charge (a Parallax staple). Great cloudy day reggae (see also Horace Andy's Dance Hall Style) this was the perfect way to wrap up the second day, with darkness settling in on the Eastern horizon.
Forrrce's slap-bass odyssey kicked off the third day, the proto-raps unfolding over dub disco production as we cleared our way into the herb garden and the various banana groves scattered about the premises. The awesome Keep On Dubbin' With No Commercial Interruptions takes matters even deeper into left field with François Kevorkian dub-inflected hall of mirrors approach in full swing. At this point, the sun was hanging heavy in the sky and the 4/4 pulse was in full effect.
Moody minimalism from Andrew Weatherall and Keith Tenniswood on temporary holiday from their Two Lone Swordsmen project, at this point gaining full steam. Neuphrique is like a dress rehearsal for No Red Stopping and is very much in the 2LS deep house vein. A quintessential '97 record, you could take this, Moodymann's Silentintroduction and Primal Scream's Echo Dek and have a decent thumbnail sketch of where I was at the time. Blue Pole Dancer always reminds me of 44's Groove Station, even if it came out a couple years earlier.
Sparkling guttertronics from Nigerian synth wizard William Onyeabor (his final record in fact). This is very much in the chipper bubblegum Kraftwerk vein of Depeche Mode's Speak & Spell (or latterly Hot Chip's latest record), but shot through with a distinct highlife flavor. I picked this up seven years ago (at Amoeba Records in San Francisco) on my honeymoon.
His records were extremely hard to come by at the time, and I absolutely adored Onyeabor's Better Change Your Mind (as featured on the Nigeria '70 compilation) and the Body And Soul 12" with the Scientist remix (which I did have). I couldn't believe my luck at finding this ace reissue and upon returning home and dropping it on the turntable instantly fell in love with the sounds contain therein. Fast-forward a few years and Luaka Bop releases the lavish Onyeabor box set (containing his entire discography), and the world rejoiced.
As if to drive the point home, here's that latest Hot Chip LP. I quite like this sound they've arrived at, perched midway between Cowley/Moroder synth-disco pulse and twinkling bubblegum electropop. There's even room for the odd surprise, like White Wine And Fried Chicken's slow-motion country ballad. Good stuff.
The conventional wisdom on Patrick Cowley seems to have always been that his album ventures like Megatron Man and Mind Warp were disappointing and that his productions (Sylvester's Your Make Me Feel Mighty Real) and remixes (Cowley's psychedelic Mega Mix of Donna Summer's I Feel Love) were where it's at.
Well, sure it's hard to top those highs, but I quite enjoy these full-length electro-disco excursions (think Cerrone and Moroder). What with the recent reissues of his cosmic synth music (School Daze and Muscle Up) and abstract post punk (Catholic), he seems almost like a West Cost, mechanoid Arthur Russell.
Last year's Weatherall solo shot plys a sort of instrumental electro-inflected krautrock. This very much reminds me of Death In Vegas' Satan's Circus, in that it plows a similar furrow with live drumming and spiral sequences that conjure up a sound that strikes me as ever familiar and yet I'm unable to place it. Mr. Weatherall's been on a roll this decade, with four solo LPs, The Asphodells' cosmic disco extravaganza and The Woodleigh Research Facility record, all of which I've enjoyed immensely.
With the sun setting and parties split off to procure dinner from The Tako Factory, Czukay's haunting solo endeavor seemed a natural choice. Ode To Perfume is quite simply a masterpiece, eighteen minutes of low-slung imaginary soundtrack music that rides a loping rhythm as guitars tears into the mix sounding like some distant cousin of Can's Deadlock. Czukay even works in his beloved French horn.
Back in the mix with late-period Can — we're pulling Winter weeds, turning the Northside lawn into a putting green — whose liquid rhythms pour over the morning dew-covered grass and out into the palms. For me, this record is in the upper echelon with Ege Bamyasi and Future Days, it finds the band spooling out that Moonshake sound across an entire record. If I've said it before, I've said it a hundred times: if this were by some new band called Jar or Receptacle, and not coming in after Monster Movie and Tago Mago, we'd all mention it in the same breath as the Talking Heads' Remain In Light and the Meat Puppets' Up On The Sun. Exquisite.
Mr. Cale's music is one of the great understated treasures to spring from the 1970s. This the fifth of his LPs from the decade, and you'll want all of them. His rhythm box is still fading in and out of the mix — perfectly integrated with the live instrumentation, like in a Moodymann record — with some tasteful synth licks creeping in here for good measure. Like the four records to come before, the production is otherworldly, exquisite. Alongside Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, one of the great songwriters of the era.
Prince Far I's classic platter found us back on the Southeast Terrace to work some landscaping magic. This is one of the deejay records (alongside things like Dr. Alimantado's Best Dressed Chicken In Town and Dillinger's CB 200), with Prince Far I's stentorian delivery front and center over peak-period Joe Gibbs backing. A stone cold classic, this record.
Incidentally, I got turned onto Prince Far I via the instrumental Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 1 dub outing (mixed by Adrian Sherwood), owing to Long Life's featuring in a Rockers Hi-Fi mix.
This compilation of (put crudely) Caribbean funk and disco is an unmissable romp, put out by compilation heavyweights Strut. Highlights include Amral's Trinidad Cavaliers Steel Orchestra's instrumental version of Gwen Guthrie's 90% Of Me Is You and Cedric Im Brooks' Blackness Of Darkness. There's even a cover of Barrabas' Woman!
Some tracks veer quite close to afrobeat territory, nevertheless I suspect that this contains the germ of the Compass Point/Parallax Pier sound. It's all quite evocative to me of time spent on the island back in the day, especially the way influences will run to and fro between the islands and the mainland. It's all very cosmopolitan in a casual way. Upon reflection, I suspect that some of these sounds were still hanging around when I first visited Puerto Rico, such is their lingering familiarity.
The Sweet Talks were a Ghanaian highlife band that sprung up in the mid-seventies and developed something of a profile, touring the world and ultimately winding up in L.A. and recording this little album, full of sparkling guitars and driving 4/4 rhythms. It's nearly impossible to overlook this music's compatibility with contemporary disco. I wonder if — like Manu Dibango's Soul Makossa — it made it's way onto any of the era's disco dancefloors?
Crack band from the Bahamas cut killer funk LP, on par with James Brown and Cymande's contemporary output. This very nearly made the Golden 200. Funky Nassau is one of those great 7" singles, and you get the whole thing right here at the record's opening. Interesting to think that this band were doing their thing in Nassau about a decade before the Compass Point All Stars coalesced into an institution.
Discovered this only recently thanks to the Singles As Bs & 12 Inches box set put out by Repertoire (check out the excellent Roger Dean sleeve). I have the Black Ant and a handful of their LPs, so this anthology filled out the gaps quite nicely. I had no idea about the band's 80s output, and this record clearly stood out as something special and I tracked a copy down accordingly.
Featuring BIG production, like ABC's How To Be A Zillionaire! (in fact, that very well could have been the next record played — if this hadn't been the last), it could slot right into a contemporary soundtrack during some montage scene. It's all about the Bush-Fire-Mix. I was momentarily certain that the getting hot, getting hot chorus showed up in Ice Cube's No Vaseline, but that notion appears unfounded (it was just a (sample) mirage).
Appropriately, this provided the grand finale as we wrapped up work on the Parallax Gardens, the assorted terraces and groves now properly prepared for summer just around the bend...
I alluded to this record earlier, but seeing as it's turned into Jah Wobble week I figured it was worth delving into it in greater detail. As I was saying, the Snake Charmer mini-LP is a great little record that straddles the nexus between post-Eno/ByrneMy Life In The Bush Of Ghosts/Talking HeadsRemain In Light fourth world rhythmic madness and the sumptuous post-disco electro boogie of contemporary early 80s dancefloors. As one might expect, the sound here is often adjacent to that of the Compass Point All Stars, with Ollie Marland's keyboards often recalling the synth stylings of the great Wally Badarou.
Operating at the interzone between these two of-the-moment sonic permutations, the emphasis is often on atmosphere and texture which is in part down to the presence of The Edge (on loan from U2) and the spiraling guitar architecture that he weaves around the tracks he happens to appear on. Those great arcs of slide-guitar feedback in the title track seems to predict what he'd be up to about eight years later on Achtung Baby, while his crystalline pools of six-string ambience add whole layers of depth and splendor to Hold On To Your Dreams.
Coming as it does between U2's War and The Unforgettable Fire LPs, one wonders how much his involvement in this project played into his band's radical shift into more atmospheric territory the following year. Obviously Brian Eno played a crucial role, but like Bowie with Station To Station, I suspect that The Edge — being the atmospheric gent that he is — was already harboring some ideas of his own.
More than anything else, however, the vectors of Jah Wobble and Holger Czukay are what place this record at its unique fourth world vantage point. Interestingly, Wobble's bass seems to be operating at an octave higher than usual, indulging in some slap bass action along the lines of Jeremy Kerr's work in A Certain Ratio rather than his usual dub-heavy bottom-end. Also, while most of the record is given over to instrumentals, Wobble provides vocals to the opening Snake Charmer.
Czukay reprises his role from their previous collaboration Full Circle as the master of atmosphere, contributing blasts of French horn and more of that spooky grand piano sound from How Much Are They? to Snake Charmer, along with guitars and his trademark Dictaphone inserts throughout. Everything here very much informed by Czukay's peerless soundscapes achieved on his 1981 solo turn On The Way To The Peak Of Normal (even if nothing here quite reaches the heights of Ode To Perfume).
As if the three principals weren't enough, disco heavyweight François Kevorkian takes his place behind the mixing desk alongside the inimitable Paul "Groucho" Smykle, fresh from his sessions remixing King Sunny Adé's Ja Funmi. You're starting to get the picture now, aren't you? It's 1983, and this is shaping up to be an exceptional slab of post-disco magic. Let's put the needle 'pon the record...
Snake Charmer provides the opening gambit with a rolling syn drum fanfare before launching into its left-footed digifunk groove, setting the stage for this record's excursion through the shifting sands of the Moroccan outback. Synth flourishes begin to splash into view at the start of every bar, while Jah Wobble goes to work on the bass. A blast of Holger Czukay's French horn splits into the scene front-end-center, making room for his guitar atmospherics and haunted dancehall grand piano to enter the mix. Then, the synths seem to cruise into strangled arabesques as Jah Wobble contributes his maniacal vocals:
Messages beamed from Mars
Straight in my mind.
Try to get in my mind...
They made me do it! They made me do it!
All the while, Czukay's scrambled Dictaphone ramblings spool out in the background. Then, the bottom drops out into a snatch of on-the-one funk guitar from Animal for but a moment, before returning to the groove and that central piano motif. Moments pass and then The Edge starts to strangle great arcing shapes from his guitar as Wobble continues:
My dream orders on my mind's TV camera
I think I'm Bogey living in Casablanca.
Scattered newspapers drift across derelict land,
spreading spurious lies and sordid details of my private life.
An angel swope to my chest swooping all it’s glory!
The Edge cools out the groove with his graceful arcs of guitar in slow-motion and Holger returns with his soaring French horn figures. Then, the beat trips into electro funk territory, rolling off into the horizon as Wobble adds:
Yes, but you don’t understand
I was the man hanging from the noose.
And you don’t understand
I was the world leader, the world dominator.
And the beat goes on. You're cruising across the Sahara, sun setting in the distance. This is all so clearly of a piece with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts that I feel corny even mentioning it. Also Thomas Leer's 4 Movements. If you love those records, then you owe it to yourself to hear this tune. Trust me. You could build a club night around these three records. Please do that and invite me! Please... please? Anyway, we'll give Wobble the final words to close this thing out:
Many voices going through my head
Voices of the living and the voices of the dead.
Journeys through history, journeys sublime
And even, journeys to the end of time.
And then a flourish of twinkling piano takes us directly into the achingly gorgeous Hold On To Your Dreams. A gentle synth pulses while shades of The Edge's guitar sparkle all around. Wobble enters the fray to push this groove along with a gliding bass figure, and then then a synth slips into a progression to herald the entrance of the beat. Czukay's pal-from-the-Can-days Jaki Liebezeit starts to do his thing behind the drum kit, holding down that slow-motion disco rhythm. Somehow you're now in the best nightclub in town, bathed in blacklight and shards of white light scattering off the disco ball onto the dancefloor below and damn your girl's looking good.
As I've mentioned before, this is pure post-disco boogie, along the lines of the Compass Point records and Ashford & Simpson's Babies Dub Version, which François Kevorkian himself would produce a year later. I wonder if Hold On To Your Dreams was still running through his mind when he was mixing that record down, as the resemblance is uncanny. Uncanny!
Similarly, Wide Awake In America's Love Comes Tumbling almost seems like an attempt by U2 to resurrect the dynamic of Hold Onto Your Dreams and The Edge's crystalline lattice of guitar unfurled here. It's all very much in the vein of a chugging mid-tempo boogie, which places it at the lower-right corner of the Parallax Pyramid's foundation.
As if to make it official, High Fashion's Marcella Allen1 takes the mic for lead vocals, giving us a glimpse at what High Fashion tunes like I Want To Be Your Everything and A Little More Time might have sounded like with her singing lead. The whole effect is quite atmospheric, indeed this is the tune where the presence François Kevorkian and Paul "Groucho" Smykle is felt most dramatically, with layers of guitar swathed in blankets of echo and dub disco bleeps reverberating through the mix almost subliminally. It pulses on for nearly nine minutes before disappearing into the stars.
And so closeth side one. You flip the record over and we're back in the fourth world, with It Was A Camel. Blah blah My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts blah blah. You must be so sick of hearing about this by now. But remember Moonlight In Glory? Well, you could certainly spin this and that one back to back. It's got that same loping groove and low key pumping quasi-brass synth creeping in and out of the rhythm — with Jaki Liebezeit doing his thing behind the drum kit yet again — while Holger Czukay's grand piano takes center stage and his Dictaphone rambles out beneath it all.
Then, a highlife-esque guitar appear out of nowhere like it's the most natural thing in the world. It's all so improbable, but one could imagine a whole scene in the penumbra of these records. Jon Hassell's Power Spot worth a mention here as well. The rhythm just fades out into the dunes...
With no warning, Sleazy cuts in out of nowhere at a breakneck pace about 20 BPM faster than anything else here. Jim Walker's furious, crashing drums and Jah Wobble's frenetic basslines lay down a frenzied rhythmic bedrock for Animal to spray his wailing guitar feedback over. Old Ollie Marland contributes a bit of keyboards too.
I should mention that Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart band is credited on the record's sleeve after all the other luminaries listed, with Neville Murray providing percussion throughout the record. It's interesting to note the Invaders Of The Heart debut 12" from the same year (I'm pretty sure it preceded Snake Charmer, but I'll have to speak with Dignam to confirm), with its similarly pungent fourth world stylings. Today's tile of the day was actually a toss up between the two records.2
The mini-LP closes with an instrumental reprise of Snake Charmer which is actually longer than the original. It plays like a dub version, with added emphasis on the track's electro aspects, and you can hear Groucho's trademark tricks in evidence throughout. It's a fitting close to this record's circular story, which plays like a possible soundtrack to one of William BurroughsTangier hallucinations. Definitive interzone music. Strangely, it's still not available digitally or on CD... so it's a good thing y'all have a record player.
Interesting to note that Marcella Allen also sang with Norman Connors' Aquarian Dream and on Lonnie Liston Smith's Love Is The Answer. It's a post-jazz funk boogie, proto-SA-RA type thang... I feel it!
From PIL to Primal Scream. The Legend Lives On... Jah Wobble In "Betrayal".
Do you remember last night I sat down and you got up? I do.
Sessions with Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, some fraction of Can lose themselves inna haunted dancehall.
I think I'm Bogey... living in Casablanca!
Fly the Bomba Nonsonicus Maximus, sailing Higher Than The Sun A Sub Symphony In Two Parts... Weatherall and The Invaders Of The Heart grooving in the Blue Room with The Orb and Aisha as starships creep across the desert sky.
40 years pass by slowly, the bass still pulses on & on & on...
As the hours keep turning and the moon hangs deep in the sky, we move toward the back of the crate toward the voodoo records. Here's where we get into the heaviest, most atmospheric music that could loosely be termed punk funk without shimmying into krautrock territory. Word of warning: things are gonna get weird. Escape routes take you everywhere from West Africa to the Caribbean, from Brazil to Indonesia and from Bristol to The Bronx. Far and wide.
Today's chapter essentially boils down to three post punk dynasties: The Pop Group/Slits continuum, Material/Bill Laswell and the mighty Public Image Ltd. (and related solo endeavors). All of which — critically — take you well into the nineties and beyond, tributaries cutting a jagged path across the landscape to feed into pockets of industrial, hip hop and technoid innovation leading right up to the present day. But first, let's start at the beginning...
Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box is in essence the the Rosetta Stone of the whole endeavor, a decoder ring of sorts. When you come to terms with the record, suddenly everything else makes sense. Albatross sets the tone with a twenty ton bassline snaking its way through ten minutes of grinding, cavernous funk, followed swiftly by the spidery guitar of the filmic Memories and the return of Death Disco — the group's 12" tour de force — which gets transmuted here into Swan Lake (the guitar at one point mirrors Tchaikovsky's ballet of the same title).
In all three Lydon wails like a banshee, Levene splinters his guitar into jagged arcing feedback and Wobble walks his bass across the track like a brontosaurus. The story goes that the trio had been been mainlining on krautrock and Jamaican dub, and it's all in full effect here: the bass towers menacingly at center stage while the guitars often recall Michael Karoli's spidery fretwork on Tago Mago.
Like Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies, Metal Box appears to deconstruct itself before your eyes over the course of its hour-long running time. Tunes like Careering and The Suit are the jaded, staggering flipside to Swan Lake, while Graveyard eschews vocals altogether, staggering zombie-like through the Gothic crypt.
Socialist — another instrumental — comes on like the dub version of a straight up punk song circa 1977. Similarly, Chant is another x-ray punk endeavor — maddening in its atonal repetition and refusal to release — while No Birds is the closest thing here to PIL's First Issue and Public Image. The closing1Radio 4 is a drifting synth instrumental anchored only by Wobble's bassline, who also dominates the heavy dub stomp of Poptones.
Out of the three principal malcontents in PIL, Jah Wobble spent the most sustained time in this fertile territory at the intersection of funk and dub. His solo debut Betrayal even used some backing tapes from the PIL sessions (which accordingly got him kicked out of the band) and turned in a worthy successor to Metal Box, with synths and atmospherics taking on an even wider role in the sound this time out (not to mention looser, more nimble rhythms). Blink and you'd swear the vocals in Betrayal — the track — came courtesy of Shaun Ryder! It's a promising beginning to what turned out to be a long and fruitful discography at the nexus of funk and dub.
Two of Wobble's subsequent records were collaborations with Can bassist Holger Czukay that perpetrated further capers in this arena, with Full Circle (also featuring Can's Jaki Liebezeit on drums) boasting the post punk dancefloor classic How Much Are They? (which eerily seems to predict the atmosphere of The Good, The Bad & The Queen record) and Snake Charmer (featuring atmospheric guitar by The Edge of U2 fame!), the latter of which takes matters strikingly close to contemporary electro boogie. And I mean running in parallel, two steps away, too close for comfort. Glenn Close, even. Hold On To Your Dreams, in particular, which features High Fashion's Marcella Allen on vocals, could slot rather comfortably into a set alongside contemporary Ashford & Simpson, Gwen Guthrie and the S.O.S. Band. Conversely, the title track's atmosphere bears an uncanny resemblance to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which is no small praise indeed.
These fourth world vibes turned out to be the lifeblood of the man's output for the next decade plus, where he drew influence from Jamaica, North Africa and even the Celtic music of his own British isles for a series of albums with his new band Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart. This phase of his career will be covered further in the next chapter of Terminal Vibration (where we trace all these threads through the latter half of the decade into the nineties), but Wobble actually got around to issuing the Invaders Of The Heart self-titled debut 12" as early as 1983 (the year of Snake Charmer, in fact).
It's an utterly beguiling record — spread across three separate mixes — with Wobble's trademark wall of bass riding a motorik post-disco groove across the Sahara, as trumpet arabesques and sampled wailing vocals weave across its surface. I always loved the way that synth bass comes in at times to echo Wobble's pulsing b-line ever so often. It's all very much in keeping with the Byrne/Eno experiment, especially, but also things like Thomas Leer's 4 Movements and Tony Allen's N.E.P.A. LP. Future music, in other words. With the icon Wobble clearly having a hand on the pulse.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, another bass player was embarking on his own excursion that would carve a similar trail across the post punk landscape. I speak now of Bill Laswell. Laswell was a journeyman bassist who'd cut his teeth in various funk bands around Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan before moving to New York before hooking up with Michael Beinhorn and Fred Maher to form the initial incarnation of Material.
The trio got their unlikely start as the backing band for Daevid Allen's twilight-era New York Gong before cutting a trio of EPs for Red Records.2 The band debuted in 1979 with Temporary Music 1, a dense, lo-fi slab of prog-inflected post punk that ran the gamut from On Sadism's mid-tempo punk funk to the Canterbury-esque prog moves of Process/Motion.
Temporary Music 2 followed a couple years later with cleaner production and a more spacious mix, boasting the motorik dancefloor moves of Secret Life and Dark Things' foggy post-Bitches Brew atmosphere. American Songs rounded out the trilogy the very same year, with tracks Ciquri — the next in their line of mid-tempo funk tracks — and Discourse, which illustrate the band's comfort with the form (which I suspect — once again — is down to the band's jazz roots). Still, the rockier Slow Murder is almost-new wave in the same way Public Image was. One suspects that they're feeling the spectre of Remain In Light-era Talking Heads throughout.
The band followed these EPs with two albums in quick succession: Memory Serves (1981) and One Down (1982). Memory Serves picks up the thread of rough-and-tumble post punk from the EPs, even bringing back some of the proggy/fusion-tinged flavors of Temporary Music 1. Rollicking punk funk tunes like Memory Serves and Conform To The Rhythm are accompanied by appropriately doomy vocals from Michael Beinhorn (in the former, he almost sounds like an off-the-rails Oingo Boingo-era Danny Elfman), while the abrasive Square Dance manages to surpass the atonality of even Temporary Music 1.
Conversely, One Down makes an unanticipated swerve into nearly straight up electro boogie territory. Featuring vocals from the likes of Nona Hendryx (who also worked with the expanded Talking Heads during the same time period), Bernard Fowler (of the N.Y.C. Peech Boys and later Tackhead) and a pre-fame Whitney Houston (on the stately ballad Memories, also featuring Archie Shepp in an uncharacteristically gentle mood), this is very much of-the-moment, state-of-the-art boogie a la Hold On To You Dreams. With Roger Troutman-esque talk boxes dominating the Beinhorn-voiced tracks, the transition is complete. The band even turns in an excellent cover of Sly Stone's Let Me Have It All! Everything here fits squarely alongside the likes of Mtume, Kleeer and the Compass Point records.
Sandwiched between both albums is the Bustin' Out, which found the band moonlighting on ZE Records and makes sense of the band's sudden shift in direction between the two LPs as they thoroughly absorb the label's mutant disco aesthetic3 for some tasty rubberband funk action. At this point, activity from Material essentially halted until the end of the decade while Laswell devoted serious time to his Orange Music studio, working on various projects for Celluloid Records like mid-eighties albums from The Last Poets and Fela Kuti (which sadly don't rival their legendary 70s output), along with the storied five rap records (to be continued).
Like Jah Wobble, Laswell's increasingly global vision continued to expand throughout the the decade, and by the nineties he was mixing up hip hop, funk, dub and African rhythms into a heady stew that were very much apace with post-EnoOcean Of Sound vanguard. Interesting to note Laswell's presence on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts way back in 1981, playing bass on America Is Waiting. Also interesting to note that Brian Eno returned the favor the following year, contributing to One Down's Holding On.
Once again, all these seemingly disparate figures rubbing shoulders around this time (roughly 1979-1983), figures like Brian Eno, Fela Kuti, David Byrne, The Last Poets, Afrika Bambaataa and Laswell himself, speak to not only the catholic elasticity of Celluloid's broad-minded setup but also the intoxicating spirit of cross-pollination that hangs over this era like a magenta haze.
As if to prove the point, the Tackhead/Fats Comet organization were beginning to gather steam just as Material went on indefinite hiatus and PIL splintered into a thousand pieces. Interesting that core members of the crew started out in the backing band for Sugar Hill Records, laying the backbone for the early rap classics that surfaced on the label during its heyday before striking out on their own as a 21st century avant funk crew upon meeting On-U Sound-man Adrian Sherwood. One can certainly hear traces of records like New York New York, Scorpio and Message II (Survival) in the DNA of the crew's twisted cyberpunk grooves.
Fats Comet's Don't Forget That Beat is a slap-bass fueled, funk-tinged electro workout akin to Hashim's Primrose Path — released the following year — albeit with a groove that rolls at a breakneck pace punctuated by machine gun beatboxes and freewheeling Art Of Noise-esque orchestra stabs. Conversely, Stormy Weather rocks a dynamite go-go beat while an almost-prog/fusion guitar shreds through the groove (and your eardrums), pointing the way forward to the group's next phase as Tackhead.
Tackhead found the crew on Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound and the BPMs were accordingly dialed down to an herbalist's pace, matching the post punk stomp of the Mark Stewart records they played on as The Maffia. Hard-edged downbeat slates like High Ideals And Crazy Dreams and Liberty City (both from Stewart's Jerusalem EP) glimpse a nightmarish vision of dub that prefigured what much of the best trip hop would become.4
It all came to a head on Stewart's third, self-titled LP. Leading with the metallic Survival — where the Maffia gets to revisit their very own Rapper's Delight bassline! — a master class in pulverizing machine riddims and the inimitable wail of Mr. Stewart, it makes the flashes of cyberpunk dread hanging around this crew explicit. In fact, much of the record is built around samples and quotes from other songs — a Trouble Funk breakbeat here, some Billy Idol guitar there, and a Moroder bassline capping it all off — which puts it at the bleeding edge of sound collage right along with hip hop's burgeoning sampladelia.
It's nearly as patchwork an affair as something like Tricky's Maxinquaye (which Stewart had a crucial influence on, even producing Aftermath while mentoring young Adrian Thaws). Trip hop dress rehearsals like Forbidden Colour offer up a downbeat cover version of David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto's Forbidden Colours, while Hell Is Empty sounds like the most twisted Close The Door-era Terranova track imaginable. Stranger Than Love even put Smith & Mighty on wax for the first time when they contributed the dub version to its 12" single, making the link between post punk and trip hop Bristol explicit. In retrospect, it's rather fitting that a figure like Stewart would stand at the intersection of both eras, both scenes.
Mark Stewart started out in a little crew that grew up frequenting funk nights together as youngsters — where they'd get down to the sounds of BT Express and The Fatback Band — and reggae at venues like the Bamboo Club.5 It only makes sense that such heady origins would be felt considerably in the band's subsequent recordings as The Pop Group. Their hard funk roots can be heard in deeply warped fashion on The Pop Group's debut LP Y (which actually preempted Metal Box by a few months) and the She Is Beyond Good And Evil, which pulses almost subconsciously on a walking bassline while the remainder of the track — especially Stewart's throat-shredding wail — seems to dissolve all around it.
Produced by Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell, it sets into motion a particular sensibility that would become the basis for the Y Records6 sound: sparse instrumentation played loose in an aggressively atmospheric soundscape, captured brilliantly with Bovell spacious, three-dimensional, clear as a bell production. Bovell's skill behind the mixing desk pays immediate dividends when the band hangs a left turn into some of their more outré passages (like a vivid snapshot of chaos, where you can nevertheless clearly discern every element in the image).
Indeed, there's a considerable free jazz presence in the group's wilder, more abstract passages, which puts them to the left of even PIL. Put simply, one cannot overestimate the centrality of The Pop Group. Along with PIL's music, this is ground zero for post punk's twisted take on funk, a sound that takes you into the nineties and beyond via funk metal and myriad other sounds. In fact, Y's opening track — Thief Of Fire — even sounds like an apocalyptic precursor to The Red Hot Chili Peppers!
The Pop Group followed Y with the We Are All Prostitutes, where Mark Stewart's lyrics grow yet more didactic and political even as the band's groove settles deeper in the pocket. The group's final record, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, was — at the album level — actually more straightforwardly funky than anything that had come before, settling into a watertight post punk boogie that nevertheless retained a healthy dose of chaos in the mix (much of it provided by the ever dependable Stewart, who — much like Iggy Pop during The Stooges era — simply won't be reigned in).
It was along these lines that the band ultimately split, with the rest of the group shearing off to form bands like Rip Rig & Panic, Pigbag, Glaxo Babies, Shriekback and Maximum Joy, while Stewart — as discussed earlier — hooked up with Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound setup for that blistering series of records in the mid-eighties.
On the flipside to The Pop Group coin is a band equally central to the post punk story. In many ways, The Slits were something of a sister group to The Pop Group, as both bands dropped similarly unruly, junglistic debut albums within months of each other in 1979 (both of which were produced by Dennis Bovell). Both groups shared a sense of shedding the constraints of civilization and starting from scratch — Back To Nature as Fad Gadget once opined — and in many ways their debut albums came on like field recordings of some as yet undiscovered tribe, in the way that My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and Can's Ethological Forgery Series seemed to conjure up similar images.
And just as The Pop Group washed up on Y Records upon departure from Radar, The Slits put out a record on Y after leaving CBS. Appropriately enough, it was the split 7" single In The Beginning There Was Rhythm/Where There's A Will There's A Way: a head to head duel with The Pop Group.
The Slits' debut album Cut was an instant classic, with (once again) perfect production from Dennis Bovell. There was a heavy dub/reggae presence to the record — perhaps more so than anything else discussed today — with atmospheric reverb wrapped around the band's skeletal, turn on a dime playing. The rhythm of tunes like So Tough and Instant Hit seem to be happening on multiple plains, every note played like a phrase imbued with myriad layers of meaning.
The extraordinary thing about The Slits is that even at their most shambolic, they manage to maintain a strong pop sensibility. I'd wager that you could give this album to any fourteen year old and chances are they'd fall in love with it. This strength was explored further on the band's excellent cover version of Motown standard I Heard It Through The Grapevine (on the b-side of the Typical Girls), which remains my absolute favorite version of the tune (just beating out the Gladys Knight & The Pips original). Built on an unlikely bed of vocal humming, it rides the trademark group's skeletal rhythms with a chanted lyric from Ari Up in one of the great not-Disco Not Disco-but-could-have-been moments in post punk.
Return Of The Giant Slits, the group's second and final album found Dennis Bovell behind the boards once again, this time cranking up the atmosphere to distinctly oppressive levels. Now there was a heavier worldbeat presence in evidence throughout, which found the group looking to Africa for inspiration around the same time the likes of Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno were making their own forays into the same territory. The opening song Earthbeat rides furious tribal drumming while the ladies' voices hover disembodied above the whole affair.
The remainder of the album shares more of a similarity to the debut, albeit viewed through a murky prism with heavier emphasis on sounds and textures beyond the relatively straightforward bass/guitar/drum setup of the debut. Interesting to note the presence of Neneh Cherry in the group at this point, that strange attractor of British beat music throughout much of the decade, who would go on to have a profound influence on British club music and the sound that would come to be called trip hop.
Once The Pop Group and The Slits had both disbanded, the Y Records aesthetic really begins to be forged in earnest, establishing a loosely played post punk boogie7 seemingly sourced in The Pop Group's tendency to operate at that thin jagged line between order and chaos. In truth, that's the only place to be, where the tension between the two is at its absolute tautest. Depending on which of the label's groups we're talking about, the emphasis falls on one side or the other. To illustrate the point, let's dive into a three-band post-Pop Group sub-section...
Maximum Joy hold court at the less chaotic end of the spectrum, rivaling even The Slits' pop brilliance with their solitary album Station M.X.J.Y.. The crew operated very much at the axis of boogie — in the tradition of ex-punks getting down at the disco — but they managed to do it more convincingly than just about anyone else in the scene. Typically led by the sing song vocals of Janine Rainforth, the tunes would skate nimbly along loose rhythms with an abundance of bright flourishes slipping into the mix.
It's a sound that's also evidenced in 12" singles like Stretch and In The Air, records that were practically new pop even as they maintained the rude, shambolic spirit so crucial to post punk's edge. One would expect nothing less from a Y Records outfit.
Interestingly, Bristol mover and shaker Nellee Hooper started out in this crew before blazing a path through the island's hip hop scene to help define the burgeoning UKurban sound that would culminate in trip hop. At this point it makes sense to highlight the considerable lattice of connection going on here today, with the presence of Mark Stewart (as already mentioned) tied into not only Tricky but also Smith & Mighty and The Wild Bunch that would spawn Massive Attack.
You can clearly trace a straight line between late seventies Bristol and the nineties Bristol surveyed in Smith & Mighty's Bass Is Maternal, Tricky's Maxinquaye and Portishead's Dummy. Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself again; suffice it to say Station M.X.J.Y. just might be the greatest pop record on the Y imprint.
Rip, Rig & Panic, by contrast, dwell at the most chaotic end of the spectrum, conjuring a defiantly post-Miles' On The Corner racket as they worked their way through three albums in as many years (starting in 1981). The band named themselves after a Roland Kirk album from 1965, so you'd be right in expecting the heavy hand of free jazz to hang over the proceedings. Rather fittingly, Neneh Cherry was a key member of this crew upon the disintegration of The Slits. Fittingly because her step-father was the great Don Cherry, whose fourth world-preempting recordings from the Brown Rice era are very much of a piece with what her band were up to here.
In fact, if you imagined a more abrasive, atonal version of Don's Hear & Now, then you wouldn't be too far off. Fascinating the way the free wing of jazz often seems to overlap with post punk sonically. Of course, the group did have the occasional almost-pop moment — tunes like Bob Hope Takes Risks and Constant Drudgery Is Harmful To Soul, Spirit & Health that seem to arrive at a post-disco boogie seemingly by accident — but their hearts quite clearly lie in the abstract. This is a tangled, untamed music that strains at the label post punk, threatening to double back and break into the seventies for proper account alongside the likes of Miles Davis, Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders.
Lying somewhere between the chaos of Rip Rig & Panic and Maximum Joy's glossy sheen is the beloved Pigbag, a band that managed to blend the searing post-Miles brass of the latter with the dancefloor dexterity of the former. The band's debut single, Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag, even climbed to #3 in the UK! Rocking a frenetic post-disco rhythm replete with furious percussion and a looming bassline, the band seem to offer up a nightmare version of Madness' ska with tight-as-a-drum horn charts ruling the tune even as spectral brass creeps in and out of the mix.
Throughout the band's three year tenure — overlapping perfectly with that of Rip Rig & Panic — Pigbag managed to consistently run down some spooky voodoo on wax. Dr. Heckle And Mr. Jive — from the debut album of the same name — launched drowning arcs of eerie brass across a nagging bassline and rolling percussion, while the uptempo Getting Up placed the band's horn charts front and center over furious percussion and chicken-scratch guitar while holding down a pulsing 4/4 rhythm. Like Maximum Joy, the band can play it remarkably straight and go for the dancefloor jugular, yet at a moment's notice they can veer off into left field with dense, oppressive atmospherics that rival that of Rip Rig & Panic.
The final crew in the mix today is 23 Skidoo, which I've appropriately only revealed just now. While not a Y Records band, they were fellow travelers exploring a densely atmospheric fourth world vision. The band came crashing into the public consciousness with The Gospel Comes To New Guinea, a ten-minute slab of churning, murky post punk funk. Group chants and strange woodwinds fade in and out of the fog as the band seem to pound out their beat at the other end of the cave. This is 23 Skidoo clearly taking the field recording ethos of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts to its logical conclusion.
The band's debut LP Seven Songs found them alternating between the droning atmospherics of New Testament and the relatively straight up funk of Vegas El Bandito, but it was the closing Quiet Pillage8 that pointed the way forward to the band's next obsession: Indonesian Gamelan music.9
The Culling Is Coming was the band's second LP, and the debut's occasional funk had given way to pure, shadowy atmosphere. The opening G-2 Contemplation launched straight into the first of the band's explorations into Gamelan music, a sound they interpret as deeply in thrall to the strange. At times reminiscent of the more nebulous portions of the Third Ear Band's Music For Macbeth, it could just as easily score the eeriest moments of Fellini's Satyricon.
Tone poems like Shrine and Mahakala are like being lost in the fog of a deserted temple, while the closing Healing (For The Strong) reveals that the temple wasn't deserted after all! In essence, the record prefigures what would come to be called dark ambient years later, about as far from the dancefloor as could be.
Which makes the about face of Coup all the more astonishing. Turning up on a non-LP 12" later that year, it was the band's greatest pop moment. After two bars of the band's crispest drum beat yet, Sketch Martin drops that bassline into the mix before horn charts sweep in to carry the melody. I say that bassline because it was later resurrected by The Chemical Brothers fifteen years later for their epochal big beat classic, Block Rockin' Beats, which came crashing into the charts in 1997. Meanwhile, the flipside's Version (In The Palace) feeds Coup through the cold machinery of dub.
The band's final album — Urban Gamelan — featured a new version of Coup titled F.U.G.I. and a couple more moments of low slung funk, but it was mostly devoted to the band's atonal Gamelan symphonies. Like I said, the exit routes from today's music shoots you out all over the globe, and that pan-global vision was one of its greatest strengths.
In the decades to come, 23 Skidoo's music was actually rather well curated. At the turn of the century, their album were reissued on the heels of the band's self-titled reunion album just as the post punk revival was starting to gather steam. On second thought, reunion might be a bit of a misnomer. As the Just Like Everybody compilation proved, the band had been far from dormant. Rounding up two discs worth of unreleased nineties material, it showcased some of what the band had generated while loitering in dance music's shadowy back alley... the same back alley where all manner of post punk figures were lurking throughout the decade.
Note that the original triple 12" record was designed to be played in any order, so the tracklist I'm using is the one delineated by the Second Edition reissue (after all, that's how I encountered this record in the first place, stateside brother that I am).
In fact, the band managed to contribute a song to all three volumes of the Disco Not Disco series, which essentially enshrined the mutant disco sound. If I'm memory serves, they were the only artist to do so.
Put simply, twisted hip hop staggering down the back alley in a desperate state, its mind warped on unkind substances and unhealthy emotion. But that's another story for another series, which I'll delve into further at a later date.
So you've absorbed those death disco tapes already, and I'm back with an armful of records. Let's head over to Raven's place up there on the corner and give a few of these a spin. I've got some of the heaviest fourth world voodoo punk funk here — about half the records in the crate — brought to you by the three major dynasties of post punk coming out of London, New York and Bristol, but today we're gonna start with the heady interzone between last episode's new wave boogie and the voodoo slates to come: I'm talking about the Spartan minimalistic funk turned out by crews hailing from places like Manchester, Leeds and (especially) New York.
Interestingly, nearly all of these groups would wind up shearing into a sort of new wave boogie as the decade progressed, while others wound up providing crucial building blocks for hip hop, downbeat and even house. Yet there's one band who emerged just a little bit later, a band whose sound sprang from these same tangled corridors but then managed to spread out across the radio waves and set the charts ablaze, conquering the world in the process. I'm talking now about a band that everybody knows... a little band from L.A.
I'm talking about The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were everywhere in the nineties, maintaining a strong presence right up to the present day, even making their way into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012. However, before breaking out as megastars in 1991 with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, they managed to put out four solid records between the years 1984 and 1989 that elaborated on the punk funk template and imbued it with a healthy dose of California sun. These records all have a chunky, spacious sound, sporting booming drums, chiming guitars and Flea's trademark slap-bass all mixed down with a crisp, vibrant production very much of a piece with everything discussed here today.1
Surprisingly, I've found that many fans of the band's later material seem to turn their nose up at the early stuff, the Hillel Slovak2 era. What gives?! Tunes like the pile-driving Jungleman (from the George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley), True Men Don't Kill Coyotes, Taste The Pain and Hollywood (Africa) (their take on The Meters' immortal New Orleans funk jam Africa) are unmissable romps across the Venice Beach pier, filled with youthful exuberance and rude spirit. Behind The Sun even takes things into Parallax Pier territory, with chiming guitars and a sing-song chorus that brings to mind the Tom Tom Club's sessions at Compass Point!
At this point, the Chili Peppers would often turn to covers of rock and soul staples like Jimi Hendrix's Fire, Sly & The Family Stone's If You Want Me To Stay, Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues and Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground (which I'd argue tops the original — blasphemous, I know... but so true!). The fascinating thing about the Hendrix and Dylan covers in particular is the way they highlight early examples of — for all intents and purposes — rapping, as if the band were reaching back and paying homage to the roots of Anthony Kiedis' trademark rapid-fire delivery.
It's also interesting to note the band's unexpected avant garde pedigree (for all the hipster haters out there): original drummer Cliff Martinez3 had previously drummed for a latter day incarnation of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, while Gang Of Four's punk funk godfather Andy Gill was drafted to produce their self-titled debut.
Gang Of Four, hailing from Leeds, were the prototypical minimalist post punk band. Indeed, one could almost have them down as a punk funk counterpart to Wire. They pared all elements deemed unnecessary from their music, leaving a sparse, wiry sound that moved like clockwork mechanisms traveling across a grid at strict right angles.
Emerging on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint — incidentally where The Human League started out as well — the band released their debut EP, Damaged Goods. The title track, Armalite Rifle and Love Like Anthrax brilliantly fleshed out the different corners of the band's stark modernist sound and they were accordingly signed by major label EMI for their debut LP.
Entertainment! is one of those quintessential post punk records,4 housing fierce, taut missives like Not Great Men, Ether and At Home He's A Tourist that have gone down as indelible post punk classics. The band famously aimed for a dry, spartan sound — free of rock's wild abandon and detached from its roots in the blues — and it's a sound they achieve to the fullest here.
However, one of my favorite moments from the band is their 1979 non-LP b-side It's Her Factory, where they make room for a bit of reverb — bathing the lead melodica in an eerie glow — giving the whole thing a sense of relatively spacious atmosphere. Solid Gold, the group's sophomore record, accordingly seemed to follow suit, allowing a little air into the production across the space of the album.
The songs themselves may not have been quite as incendiary as those on the diamond-hard debut, but tunes like He'd Send In The Army and A Hole In The Wallet are emblematic of the record's focus on tricky, twisted rhythms and an increasing focus on atmosphere and dynamics. Meanwhile, the desolate Paralysed dragged the tempos down to a staggering crawl.
It's certainly an interesting step toward the band's later period, where they morphed into a strange punk/boogie proposition that seems to be endlessly maligned by the cognoscenti but I nevertheless find oddly fascinating. 1982's Songs Of The Free is a deeply unusual LP that veers between Heaven 17-esque new pop like I Love A Man In Uniform and the atmospheric downbeat reverie of closer Of The Instant.
We Live As We Dream, Alone, which comes on like a booming dub version of one of the band's earlier punk funk excursions, just might be the best thing here. The record quite simply makes a virtue of simply sounding like nothing else around. When you factor in the remaining tracks and the album's evocative sleeve... well, it's a cool little record.
Unfortunately, the band's next album, Hard, was anything but. As such, it's even more maligned by just about everyone. And yet. And yet... there is a fair bit of solid new wave boogie to be found here, for those inclined. The opening Is It Love — which was the album's big single, even getting a 12" Extended Dance Mix — is a lush new pop number that may be a million miles away from Damaged Goods but is nonetheless an excellent slice of silky smooth dance pop. Elsewhere, the atmospheric Woman Town wouldn't sound out of place on the second side of Songs Of The Free.5
Not that I'm making a case for the album as some sort of lost classic, you understand! But it certainly has its moments. Hard turned out to be the final album of the band's original run, capping off a discography that, when taken as a whole, offers us an intriguing glimpse at the way a bunch of punks might ultimately wander from the pit into the disco, turning up some unique sounds along the way.
Another group who made a similar transition were A Certain Ratio. Yes, A Certain Ratio! They seem to perennially suffer the fate of being damned with faint praise — often getting lost in the Factory shuffle — but they get my vote over Gang Of Four any day.6 These guys are the perennial underdogs in the post punk sweepstakes.
They may have never got around to making that stone cold front-to-back classic record, but their discography offers up a wealth of the greatest punk funk you could ask for. The Early anthology put out by Soul Jazz made this point brilliantly. Take a song like Flight. This is one of the top five or so tunes in this continuum. Utterly unique, Woebot nailed it when he noted the song's gigantic ethereal sound like a yet more liquid Can. Word.
Infamously, the band were recording their debut album in Newark, New Jersey when the working mixdown was inadvertently wiped by the engineer while the band were out celebrating the final day of recording! On returning to Manchester, the band were miserably forced to work up their debut album by polishing demo takes with producer Martin Hannett.
Already feeling quite defeated, they were then slated to back Grace Jones on a song called Again before the project fizzled out unceremoniously.7 The breaks just wouldn't come! Despite the band's seemingly endless plague of bad luck, they managed to turn out a whole raft of first rate material like Do The Du, Shack Up and The Fox, all of which were prototypical post punk of the highest caliber.
From there, the band continued to change with the times and edged ever closer into new pop/jazzdance territory. Sextet and the Knife Slits Water — with the Kether Hot Knives (Mix In Special) version on the flip — is the grooviest, tightest post punk record you could ask for and the avant cousin to the whole bedroom funk concept I'm forever hinting at (there's a feature in there somewhere, believe me).
The sound leans ever-so-slightly into early Level 42 territory (nothing wrong with that), but maintaining traces of the spooky unhinged voodoo of their earliest recordings in those chanted vocals and the spaces between the spaces. Chanted vocals in this style are the prime signifier of mid-period punk funk, evoking mysterious corridors within the groove that one might get pulled into at any moment.
I'd Like To See You Again veers further yet toward a certain sleekness, even if a tune like Saturn is of a piece with the band's earlier material (in spirit at least). Elsewhere, Hot Knights is a vocal adaptation of the Kether Hot Knives version of Knife Slits Water. Still, the heart of the record lies in tunes like Touch and Axis which are veryJamaica, Queens jazz/funk/boogie, and before you know it (1984) you've got a record like Life's A Scream, killer dance pop on the order of INXS or — once again — Level 42 that takes you into the glitz of the era's overground nightclubs. Moonwalking in neon. With those triggered oof, oof vocals — straight out of the electro playbook — A Certain Ratio have wandered into the disco even more convincingly than Gang Of Four managed around the same time.
However, if there were one band that could boogie with the best of them, it was surely Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick has that cruising city streets at night groovy thang going... in fact, the backing track could practically fit right in there on Off The Wall (with the chorus sounding not unlike Jermaine Jackson's Erucu)! Only Ian's conversational Midlands lead vocals — think Mike Skinner in The Streets — and Davey Payne's wild sax solo give this away as something other, conjuring up images of The Blockheads grooving immaculate on some cramped, smoke-bathed stage in a ramshackle seaside pub out in Essex.
Debut album New Boots And Panties!! is an absolute treasure, with the nimble bedroom funk of Wake Up And Make Love With Me setting things off on a drifting mirage of rhythm before following up with more skewed boogie in the shape of If I Was With A Woman and I'm Partial To Your Abracadabra (there are even a few undisclosed moments of straight up punk tacked onto the end to boot!).
The key to The Blockheads' seemingly natural grasp of funk dynamics — this in 1977, a full year before even Adolescent Sex — must surely be their jazz chops. Indeed, I have a Steely Dan documentary on the making of Aja that features Ian Dury as a frequent commentator, and one could almost read the band's sound as an outgrowth of the band's dancefloor sides like Peg and The Fez. Perhaps not totally accurate, but an interesting thought nonetheless.
Of course Ian Dury ended up writing himself into the Compass Point story a few years later with Lord Upminster, which was recorded in Nassau with Sly & Robbie and features the excellent Paradise Garage staple Spasticus Autisticus. Like Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, it hinges on the axis of silky smooth verse juxtaposed against abrasive chorus, reveling in Dury's clever wordplay.
While I could dive further into the Compass Point All Stars at this point, along with figures like Grace Jones and Lizzy Mercier Descloux, in truth they will all warrant their own chapter in the Terminal Vibration saga (forthcoming in a month or so) and ultimately a full feature in their own right (as Summer arrives, most likely). So with whispers of the Paradise Garage still hanging in the air, let's take a left turn into the streets of New York.
The Big Apple was rather appropriately a hotbed of punk funk activity, starting with No Wave bands like DNA, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks and especially James Chance & The Contortions crawling out of the sewer at the tail end of the decade. James Chance came on like a skronky, more punk Blockheads (or Richard Hell & The Voidoids gone funk) with records like Buy and Off White (released as James White & The Blacks). The production was sparse and the rhythms stripped to their bare bones, like James Brown circa The Payback shot through with atonal, abrasive punk spirit.
However, it's the slightly later N.Y. material that concerns us today, permeated as it is with atmosphere. A particularly good example of this transition would be Black Box Disco (from the Vortex OST), featuring Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, which is the most sure-footed nimble punk funk imaginable, cooked up by the Vortex house band as film dialogue — of what sounds like a torture scene — floats over the top.
It's terrifically magical track that works on most dancefloors in a way that the earlier No New York bands would not.8 The remainder of the soundtrack is quite atmospheric, with almost no beats at all (the one exception being The Chase, which is the cousin of mid-period A Certain Ratio).
While we're getting into punk funk at its most dexterous, mention must be made of Joseph Bowie's Defunkt. As mentioned before, this crew were the prime influence on The Red Hot Chili Peppers and you can certainly hear it, especially in Joseph Bowie's vocals... the only thing lacking is that Slovak/Frusciante guitar crunch.
Tunes like Illusion (from 1982's Thermonuclear Sweat) and Strangling Me With Your Love (from the 1980 self-titled debut) were far more stripped to the bone than nearly any straight-up funk band of the era, often recalling the classic one-the-one funk of James Brown circa Hell, while moments like Make Them Dance moved wild shapes at a brisk tempo that reach almost afrobeat levels of pitched insanity.
In The Good Times (yet another riff on Chic's Good Times bassline) even highlights a certain affinity between Defunkt's no-nonsense approach and the homespun funk that the Sugar Hill and Paul Winley backing bands were working up on the early rap records around the same time.
However, if there was a New York label that was the standard bearer of Downtown dancefloor-heavy punk funk, then it was Ed Bahlman's 99 Records. With the label's striking visual aesthetic, featuring vivid, colorful, of-the-moment artwork, it seemed to capture the spirit of the times at the nexus between the post punk avant garde and the post-disco dancefloors of the era (and as such places it at the forefront of today's discussion). The material released on the label was heavy on atmosphere while maintaining a distinct pop edge, and tellingly more than a few tunes made their way onto Larry Levan's turntables at the Paradise Garage.9
Liquid Liquid were one of two bands whose releases were central to the label's discography and are probably the most widely known. Plying a heavily percussive — almost tribal — sound, their music was spacious and atmospheric, with ghostly chants fading in and out of the mist as the band churned out a loose-limbed brand of dancefloor funk. The Optimo EP, with its swirling red and yellow op-art imagery, turned out to be the group's preeminent record.
The title track pummels you with a frenzy of percussion interlocking with a clockwork bass groove as scat vocals dance across its surface, while Cavern rides a loping bass groove that would ultimately get nicked by Grandmaster & Melle Mel for the epochal White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (not to mention a more oblique interpretation in Big Audio Dynamite's The Bottom Line).
The thumb-piano stylings of Scraper recall the band's earlier self-titled EP, where tunes like Groupmegroup and New Walk churned at a more laidback tempo. The band's music — encompassed on but four EPs released in the early 80s on 99 Records — is quite simply essential listening.
Famously, James Lavelle issued the first real compilation of the group's material on his Mo Wax imprint, rounding up the band's first three EPs into one essential package with an attractive mosaic sleeve that referenced the evocative 99 artwork of the original 12" records. Released in 1997, it's another example of dance music's dalliance with post punk — well before the retro gold rush of the early 21st century — that grew organically out of the scene's groove fascination in whatever form it came (there was certainly the clear cut abstract hip hop connection). And as I've said before, this is the context through which a certain 90s kid encountered most of this music in the first place.
The other big 99 band were ESG, a group centered around the Scroggins sisters who were merely teenagers when they started out. Famously, their mother had bought them all instruments so that they'd play music rather than get into trouble. I read somewhere that at the time the girls were described as The Supremes meet Public Image Ltd. I can't find the quote now, and I don't know who said it, but it isn't too far off.
Their self-titled debut EP is housed in another stunning example of 99 sleeve art and plays out as the quintessential essence of the label's sound, which is in this case somewhat more bare bones than Liquid Liquid's, but somehow no less atmospheric. Moody rides a killer bassline over which the girls chant Very moody, while UFO is like the shower scene from Psycho taken out for a dance.
Interestingly, both songs were crucial building blocks in multiple genres of modern music. UFO, which was sampled by Big Daddy Kane and The Notorious B.I.G. — even showing up much later on J Dilla's Donuts — became something of a staple hip hop signifier (wasn't there a Gang Starr song that sampled it too?), while Moody formed the basis of Murk's Miami house chestnut Reach For Me (released under the name Funky Green Dogs From Outer Space).
The girls even titled a later EP Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills!, which was released around the time of their unjustly neglected 1991 comeback record. Fortunately, they managed to soak up some love during the post punk revival with two new LPs issued in 2002 and 2006,10Step Off and Keep On Moving respectively, which were solid records in their own right.
My favorite ESG record, however, is 1983's Come Away With ESG. It's an album-length statement, which means you get to experience the girls' sound in 3D stretched over a cozy 30 minutes. Kicking off with the bluesy tumble of Come Away staggering down some shadowy back alley, the record turns up plenty of uptempo punk funk like Dance, You Make No Sense and The Beat, in which loping bass grooves interlock with rather tactile drums as terse lyrics are chanted over the top.
The rushing Chistelle even brings in an eerie guitar line — which appears to get reversed every so often, Detroit techno style — as wind/synth effects creep in and out of the mix, while About You rocks a midtempo groove with the thinnest proto-g-funk synth line imaginable. Of course, there's also the matter of Moody (Spaced Out), a dancefloor version of the original (from their debut EP) which sports a tougher groove and massive synth effects simmering throughout like the soundscapes of Yar's Revenge.
Finally, there's one last New York band I'd like to touch on, and that's the Bush Tetras. While they only put out one 7" on 99 Records (their other two records came out on Fetish), they fit the label's aesthetic perfectly. Tunes like Too Many Creeps and Snakes Crawl consist of composite drum/bass/guitar parts that all interlock into ultra-tight grooves captured with vivid clarity.
Cynthia Sley's vocals often recall Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's spoken parts on the early B-52's records. The brisk turn in Cowboys In Africa (from the Rituals EP) comes on like The Cramps gone funky, while the dubbed out Rituals closes the record on a downbeat note with ragged rockabilly shapes that would fit right into the Repo Man soundtrack.
The Things That Go Boom In The Night (the group's final record) tightens up the groove again but this time with a slightly heavier guitar attack — more distortion! — while the b-side Das Ah Riot runs a mad phased guitar part through the track in such a way that seems to tie all three of the group's records together.
Jumping back across the Atlantic for a moment, it's worth noting the Bush Tetras theoretical cousins — and Gang Of Four's sister band — the Delta 5. They debuted in 1979 with the Mind Your Own Business/Now That You're Gone, a conceptual interrogation of relationship dynamics over clockwork straight jacket funk rhythms.
The band turned out a series of 7" singles that further developed their taut punk funk sound, even introducing a horn section on Colour, which ultimately culminated in the See The Whirl LP (which I haven't heard). The Singles & Sessions 1979-81 compilation, which I do have, rounds up all the group's singles and augments them with some BBC sessions for good measure.
If the Delta 5 and Gang Of Four represented punk funk at its most jittery in the UK, then the Minutemen cranked things up to a whole other amphetamine-fueled level out in L.A. The group's records are absolutely steeped in sun-baked L.A. atmosphere, in the same way that War's The World Is A Ghetto evoked heat waves rising from the city's asphalt. In many ways they represented for the gritty underbelly of the city while the Red Hot Chili Peppers were strutting down the boardwalk... some might say that both bands represented two sides of the same coin.
Early EPs like Paranoid Time and Joy were excellent shots of pioneering hardcore, yet there was already a distinctly post punk funk flavor in tracks like More Joy and Joe McCarthy's Ghost that came on like a West Coast, more lived-in Gang Of Four. It's a muscular funk, to be sure, with turn on a dime frenetic rhythms anchored by D. Boon's combative, barked vocals. The band were one of the mainstays of L.A. institution SST (the home of Black Flag), where they put out a whole brace of records ranging from 12" EPs like Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat and Project Mersh to 7" shots like the "Tour Spiel" EP and albums like What Makes A Man Start Fires? and 3-Way Tie (For Last).
Double Nickels On The Dime — famously released within months of that other SST post-hardcore milestone double-album Zen Arcade (by Hüsker Dü) — was a tour de force that ran the full gamut of the band's stylistic reach, with hardcore, funk, rock 'n roll, acoustic numbers and even border music all rubbing shoulders over the course of the record's sprawling, monolithic expanse. Without a doubt, it's one of the top ten or so records to truly capture that hazy L.A. atmosphere, and a crucial late-period capstone on the decade's punk funk story just before in mutated into something else entirely.
As such, it brings us full circle to this chapter's beginning, back to L.A., The Red Hot Chili Peppers and where it all ends up in the 90s... with everything tied nicely into a bow. And so I'll leave you with the following playlist, until next time when we descend into the depths of voodoo funk with Material, The Pop Group, The Slits and Public Image Ltd.
Terminal Vibration 4: Rockers Revenge
A Certain RatioFlightFactory
ESGMoody Spaced Out99
VortexBlack Box DiscoNeutral
Ian Dury And The BlockheadsHit Me With Your Rhythm StickStiff
The ContortionsContort YourselfZE
MinutemenMore JoyNew Alliance
Gang Of FourReturn The GiftEMI
Delta 5Train SongKill Rock Stars
Bush TetrasSnakes Crawl99
The Red Hot Chili PeppersBlackeyed BlondeEMI
Iggy PopAfrican ManArista
Grandmaster & Melle MelWhite Lines Don't Don't Do ItSugar Hill
A cornerstone of the band's early sound, Slovak was the Chili Peppers' original guitarist until 1988, when he died of a heroin overdose. He was replaced by the beloved John Frusciante on the Mother's Milk album.
I remember being quite impressed when Woebot included them in his The 100 Greatest Records Ever list, which was actually my introduction to his writing in the first place (thanks to a timely link from Simon Reynolds). I distinctly remember being ensconced in the heady atmosphere of the 1808 in the dead of Winter and reading down the list with delight: first Ryuichi Sakamoto, A.R. Kane and then A Certain Ratio and Mark Stewart + Maffia and thinking this is the best list ever!
Check out the charts at the end of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster, where one finds tunes like Liquid Liquid's Cavern and ESG's Moody tucked comfortably in the lists for not only Larry Levan's Paradise Garage, but also Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse, Ron Hardy's Music Box and The Roxy. It's a testament to not only these records' utility on the dancefloor, or even the open-minded turntable policy of the clubs themselves, but the fluidity of the era's music across the dancefloors of the day. It all sounded good together in the mix and thus shared the same space in time. And what a time it was!
Two years ago I asked the question Where does machine funk intersect with post punk? It's a question I'd meant to jump into deeper at the time, but then the moment seemed to pass. I'd been toying with the notion of revisiting it recently, weaving a narrative around these two strands of music that seemed to run in tandem for much of the eighties (and beyond, truth be told).
Just the other day, my brother Matt was over and we were listening to a selection of music that in large part sprang from this continuum and he commented on the striking sonic overlap between post punk, disco and funk, that the three genres almost formed the sides of a triangle that — and I'm jumping in here — had a profound shaping influence on modern music.
The tune that instigated the comment was Jermaine Jackson's Erucu, playing out on the heels of a bunch of late-period post punk along the lines of A Certain Ratio and 23 Skidoo, but something like Barry Waite & Ltd.'s Sting or James Brown's I Can't Stand It "76" would make the case just as strongly.
That is, the stripped-down tautness of funk, aspects of disco's four to the floor minimalism and the funky edge of post punk's year zero reinvention of the rhythmic wheel (sourced in large part in the very no-nonsense funk of the seventies in question here) share a certain sonic kinship that (teasing in reggae here as well) seems to have laid out the next decade(s) in advance.
Wheeling this back to my original comment about post punk vis a vis machine funk, what you had in the eighties was this great convergence between the two worlds, almost as if two dimensions overlapped for this blessed spell of time and characters were able to move freely between the two worlds in a great exchange of ideas. I'm talking about Bernie Worrell joining the Talking Heads on tour, Blondie's Chris Stein providing those moody dubplates for Wild Style, New Order hooking up with Arthur Baker and John Robie in New York for Confusion, and about a thousand other examples.
Speaking of Baker/Robie (the producers of Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force's Planet Rock), the picture really falls into place when you take things like electro and early hip hop into consideration. On one hand, you have the spectral missives of Hashim (whose Primrose Path sounds like the digital cousin of 400 Blows' Declaration Of Intent, both sharing in those same slap-bass future shock vibes) and Man Parrish's Special Disconet Remix of Hip Hop, Be Bop Don't Stop.
Hip Hop, Be Bop Don't Stop, whose rubberband bassline seems to recall The Clash's The Magnificent Seven (whose bassline seems to recall Chic's Good Times (whose bassline was seemingly imitated by everybody else as well)), while on the other you have The Cold Crush Brothers' Punk Rock Rap and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's New York New York. All of which could theoretically soundtrack a rough-and-tumble cinematic take on William Gibson's Neuromancer. Of course, it doesn't stop there...
Take Prince and his affinity with not only new wave but also PIL, whose Metal Box is one of the cornerstones of post punk; if the genre does indeed have a pantheon, then it's right in there at the top. Interestingly, along with dub and funk, PIL were deeply shaped by Can's krautrock/funk, whose Ege Bamyasi and Saw Delight slide right in this continuum without much fuss at all.1
Once krautrock enters the discussion, the elephant in the room is obviously Brian Eno, who — along with David Bowie — were one of the main conduits of the music into the post punk collective consciousness (and beyond). Indeed, Bowie jumping from the plastic soul of Young Americans into the Autobahn-surfing Europe-endlessness of Station To Station and on into the Berlin trilogy — where the aerodynamic funk of those two records gets yoked to an electronic framework that is firmly in this continuum (see Breaking Glass, Blackout and D.J. for starters).
And Eno of course went on to become the crucial guiding force in not only the Talking Heads' post punk trilogy (particularly Remain In Light) but also the tremendously prescient My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Both of which are defining records in this post punk/machine funk district, and lie at the heart of what I will call my idea of the eighties.
You can hear the overlap between the rolling rhythms of these two strikingly modern records and — on the one hand — West African monster jams like Tony Allen's N.E.P.A (Never Expect Power Always) and — on the other hand, perhaps more unexpectedly — early rap excursions like Spoonie Gee's Spoonin' Rap, with all four records sharing that same sense of thick atmosphere rising like vapors from the twilight city streets.
We will hang out in this neighborhood for awhile, so don't go anywhere, but I must leave you for a moment to score some alcapurrias from this bodega on the corner. Chill here on this bench for awhile and listen to Remain In Light and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts back to back while watching the traffic, and I'll be back in a bit.
To be continued...
TV002: Remain In Ghosts
James BrownI Can't Stand It "76"
A Certain RatioShack Up
Barry Waite & Ltd.Sting Part 1
Talking HeadsI Zimbra
Grandmaster Caz & Chris SteinSouth Bronx Subway Rap
400 BlowsDeclaration Of Intent
New OrderConfusion Substance Version
Man ParrishHip Hop, Be Bop Don't StopSpecial Disconet Remix
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious FiveNew York New York
Tony Allen with Afrobeat 2000When One Road Close Another One Go Open
Talking HeadsBorn Under Punches The Heat Goes On
Spoonie GeeSpoonin' Rap I Don't Drink Smoke Or Gamble Neither I'm The Cold Crushing Lover
Indeed, I've always thought that the oft-derided late-period Can records like Flow Motion, Saw Delight and Can only suffer by comparison to the band's seismic earlier material; taken on their own merits, I think they stack up quite favorably as shadowy precursors to things like Fear Of Music, Remain In Light and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Just because something isn't Halleluwah doesn't mean it's worthless! So don't sleep...
It's been three years and three days since I first posted the original Parallax 100, and I've been wanting to delve into the next 100 for some time now. Over the course of the intervening years, I've worked up a little list that I've tweaked here and there but have somehow managed to shape into a sequence as firm as the original rough-and-tumble 100.
The rules remain the same: each of these records have had a critical, sustained impact on me beyond the rush of a great new record, are all killer front-to-back and I still listen to them all the time. Albums, EPs and singles all rub shoulders here in what is — in the spirit of the original list — a deeply personal selection from the log book of my sonic travels.
Take it as a check-it-out list from a 21st century lapsed rave-dancing chrome-plated digital soul man chilling beneath the computer blue palms of the Parallax Gardens, sipping on a glass of cognac while the soundsystem is likely pumping out any of the following sounds on any given day while the Heights does its thing all around.
Once again, each and every one of these is a stone cold killer.
And so we descend...
Mystic exotica from the man who wrote Nat "King" Cole's Nature Boy (he once said that he "heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains"). A concept album shaped around a drifter's encounters on a mysterious island, with gently swaying rhythms cut adrift in an ocean of sound. It's tempting to think of this as one of the very first "head" elpees, arriving just in time for the new decade.
Smoldering Miami soul, like an even more lush and lived-in take on Willie Mitchell's Hi Records output (Al Green, Ann Peebles, et al.). Gwen McCrae's tough vocal presence, already in full force on this her debut LP, is one of the great treasures in soul music. The centerpiece here must surely be the lavishly glazed, smoldering sway of 90% Of Me Is You, which remains one of the great downbeat jams in seventies soul.
Improbably early oddball house from the two Fine Young Cannibals that aren't Roland Gift. The original version comes on like prime Yello, while the remix finds Derrick May stripping the track down to its essential organ/whistle framework (while not forgetting that trumpet!) and injecting a nagging piano vamp into this stop-start motor city groove.
West Coast g-funk spanning ten sides of vinyl like an endless stretch of California highway. There's an almost undisclosed amount of straight up techno running throughout, emerging in the moody surfaces of In Flight and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky, but the heart of the record lies in the blissed out machine soul of Brookside Park and I Wanna Thank You For Steppin' Into My Life. The atmosphere takes me back to endless summer afternoons in the heat of the mid-nineties, daydreaming to similar moods and grooves for hours on end.
Raga-rock hybrid, in which massed choirs, oscillating Moogs and Shankar's sitar stalk the streets of Calcutta. First, you notice the excellent (and utterly unique) covers of rock 'n roll standards Jumpin' Jack Flash and Light My Fire, but it's the haunting downcast moments like Snow Flower and Sagar The Ocean that give the record it's unfathomable depth and dimension.
Icy disco inna new wave style by Yoko Ono, from the last sessions John Lennon ever played on (he was holding these tapes when he was shot). The surreal mood seems to predict both Yello's most atmospheric sides and David Lynch's later cinematic adventures, but Lennon's violent rubberband guitar solo still sounds wholly alien. It's all thoroughly in the tradition of the Plastic Ono Band records, with It Happened and Hard Times Are Over both incredibly moving expressions of a woman coming to terms with devastating loss and vowing to soldier on no matter what the future holds.
Well into his late-period career as a baroque pop crooner, Nat King Cole reunites with his original trio for some cool jazz action in a dream after-hours jam session. The group work their way through standards like It's Only A Paper Moon and a killer rendition of Duke Ellington's Caravan, while revisiting Get Your Kicks On Route 66 and even cutting the opening song from Tin Men (Sweet Lorraine).
The birth of soukous, the Congo's beloved post-rumba musical export. In L'Orchestra African Fiesta (the group Docteur Nico formed with Tabu Ley Rochereau), his finger-picking style came to define the sound of the genre. This record the eighth entry in an flurry of LPs that emerged in the late sixties to chronicle contemporary Congolese music, three of which were devoted to Nico and remain the easiest way to get ahold of the man's music. The whole set should be reissued — in a spirit similar to the William Onyeabor box set put out by Luaka Bop a few years back — with gorgeous sleeve art intact.
Instrumental reggae 7" crafted by man from the EastHerman Chin-Loy around the singular Melodica stylings of Augustus Pablo. Its smeared exotica stylings and off-kilter skank always make me think of The Man Who Would Be King and Michael Caine and Sean Connery's long journey through the Khyber Pass and beyond.
Unfettered head to head guitar duel between two luminaries of MPB, wherein loose strings are bent into soaring fractals as guitars tango like clockwork in the sunset. Transcending even their most stellar individual work, the duo flutter between the lush calm of Nega and the wild careening frenzy of Taj Mahal. The fact that the vocals seem almost improvised, an afterthought even, only adds to the charm of this loose, freewheeling double-album.
Electronic hip hop epic in widescreen. MC Tee's trademark rapid-fire raps hit hard before flipping into sing-song mode for the chorus, all of it backed by impressively futuristic production from Kurtis Mantronik. You also get an extended mix thrown into the bargain, along with a dub version — which might be the man's absolute finest — in which the track's filmic descending spiral gets chopped into strange shapes before shocking you with a cyborg rap in the climax.
Chicago juke. I first crossed paths with Rashad's music via DJ Godfather's Twilight 76 and Juke Trax labels (this within the context of Detroit ghetto tech electro) back when I was living at the 1808, and I've kept an ear tuned in ever since. I was pleasantly surprised when he hooked up with Hyperdub a couple years back for both the Rollin' EP and this record, a true masterwork. Hypnotic synths soar over a bed of furious drum programming throughout, as slow-motion raps and bottomless bass twist and turn within. The man was a virtuoso and his music still sounds like the future.
Grachan Moncur's great galleon of soul-inflected free jazz, coming out of left field on the storied BYG imprint (arguably the genre's spiritual home). Moncur's trombone flourishes glide gracefully over the loose, swinging rhythms of Andrew Cyrille and Alan Silva's wide open double bass as he trades lines with the likes of Roscoe Mitchell and Archie Shepp. It's the sound of wide-open spaces and crystal clear skies, full of freedom and possibility.
Stranded in the south of France, The Rolling Stones lose themselves in the basement studio at Nellcôte and manage to wring magic from the whole affair. Careening from the dirty barroom rock of Rip This Joint into the raw Clavinet funk of Ventilator Blues and spending a satisfying amount of time with Gram Parsons-inspired country rock numbers, this band of dandy rogues turn out a ramshackle masterpiece that manages to capture the very essence of rock 'n roll.
Sun-warped post-Beach Boys blues. When You're Sad is a joyously aching teenage daydream with Alex and Rudi's gently soaring harmonies drenched in wild-eyed feedback. Meanwhile, the b-side's Haunting offers up an unresolved slab of guitar melancholy that seems to lay the blueprint for the whole shoegaze endeavor and by extension predicts the sound of nineties indie rock about four years ahead of schedule.
The birth of canyon folk, featuring songwriter Joni Mitchell front and center with virtuoso fretwork and that voice. In a bold move, Mitchell decided to rely entirely on new material rather than fall back on songs that she'd already provided to other artists (as was common practice for singer-songwriter albums at the time). The results are stunning, with a rich thematic continuity running through the record even as individual songs like Marcie and Cactus Tree glisten like gems in their own right, epitomizing everything that makes Mitchell's music such a treasure.
The Burning Spear's debut album, full of deeply spiritual roots music. Bottomless bass and rock hard riddims play out in stately slow-motion while Winston Rodney's haunting vocals hover above it all like a ghostly mirage. Songs like Ethiopians Live It Out and Fire Down Below ride tough rocksteady beats into the sunset, while the deeply moving Creation Rebel and Down By The Riverside are among some of the most gorgeous roots music you'll ever hear.
The final Funkadelic record, where all previous electrofunk innovations are taken to their illogical conclusion. P-funk's engine is deconstructed, the parts spread out across the floor of a Detroit garage while the band methodically rebuilds them into freaky malfunktioning warped machines. The deliciously bizarre Funk Gets Stronger (featuring Sly Stone), seems to rev its engine only to reel it back down again in a nagging stop/start groove, while the title track re-routes their early guitar freakouts through the new wave hall of mirrors before wiring it all up for the next decade's dancefloors.
Dutch techno par excellence from the inimitable Dobre and Jamez, in one of their myriad guises (Jark Prongo, Klatsch!, Tata Box Inhibitors, Chocolate Puma, etc. etc. etc.). The carnivalesque wild ride of Spectacle De Foire is undoubtedly the centerpiece here, but the Moroder-inflected digital disco pulse of Houp! seems to contain the germ of house music's next ten years in its gloriously geometric groove.
Algerian raï from a true pioneer of the form. Cheb Khaled plays the cosmopolitan desert mystic, singing his winding, hypnotic chansons over sun-glazed synths and spidery machine rhythms in a stunning roots 'n future mash up that defies its period of origin with striking clarity. He'd go on to international stardom and eventual political exile in France, but this record — released smack in the middle of the eighties — remains Khaled's crowning achievement.
Pre-eminent post punk malcontents lose themselves in the studio, intoxicated by the twin experimentations of krautrock and dub, in the process deconstructing the album format into three 12" singles packaged in a metal reel-to-reel film cannister. The ten-minute Albatross creeps out the soundsystem like a ghostly steamroller, Jah Wobble's ten-ton bass kicking you in the chest, while Keith Levene's searing guitar shoots sparks across its surface and John Lydon wails deep into the abyss. And that's just the first side...
Iconoclastic chanteuse Brigitte Fontaine blends sophisticated songcraft with Areski's droning inflections (inspired by music of the Algerian musicians that he grew up around) in a haunting set of skewed chansons. Les Borgias and Ragilia are shot through with a distinct North African inflection, while Il Pleut Sur La Gare and L'abeille come on like Medieval folk ballads. The duo also touch on their jazz roots in Déclaration De Sinistre and venture into acid folk with L'engourdie, a gently psychedelic reverie. Indispensable.
Brittle art techno masterpiece. BDP's deep space sonics remain in full effect throughout this sprawling set of electronic head music, touching on everything from skittering techno to ambient house and the abstract hip hop that had informed their music since day one when they first set to work cloistered in the mystery of Black Dog Towers. The esoteric current running through the trio's work — that ancient quality haunting the music's shadows even as they pushed headlong into the future — inhabits every corner of this record and sounds like the soundtrack to some secret society in lunar orbit.
Siren song in 3D. Sumptuously produced headphone r&b laid down by Da Bassment cohort Darryl Pearson and masterfully inhabited by star-in-the-making Mýa. From that period when a slowjam would casually sound like a UFO landing in your backyard. Every element, from the crisp beats to the blurred instrumentation and of course Mýa's wistful multi-tracked harmonies, is meticulously placed and blissful to the ear.
Lazing Texas rap from Devin The Dude, featuring guest appearances from the likes of Scarface, Spice 1 and the rest of his old crew, the Odd Squad. It's a supremely lush and mellow LP, to my mind surpassing even the excellent Fadanuf Fa Erybody as the finest full-length on Rap-A-Lot. A laidback, homegrown live sound prevails throughout, with deep blunted bass, smooth guitar runs, synth strings and dusted bleeps enveloping Devin's loose-limbed raps like a twilight mist.
Discomix reggae cover version of the Dazz Band's immortal Let It Whip, self-produced by the great Derrick Harriott, which somehow manages to surpass the sterling original. The version on the flip is reworked by Paul "Groucho" Smyke, who also dubbed King Sunny Adé's Ja Funmi into oblivion around the same time. The sumptuously pulsing bassline quickly grows hypnotic as myriad shards of sound reverberate across the soundscape, marking this out as the neon-bathed cousin to the x-ray dubs of Lloyd Barnes on Horace Andy's Dance Hall Style.
Definitive jazz funk produced by the Mizell Brothers during their blazing arc of seventies studio excursions. This one is without a doubt my favorite, featuring veteran key master Johnny Hammond tinkling the Rhodes over rock hard rhythms and soaring ARPs while that odd spectral chorus weaves its way in and out of the ether. The sound of the city.
Candy-coated ardkore from the man with the golden haircut, recorded well before he turned to the darkside and pounded the jungle scene into submission with his techstep brethren. The Full Mix rides tumbling breakbeats into the trancelike bridge before collapsing into a blissed out lovers rock chorus, while The L Mix brings hard-edged hoover stabs into the equation before exploding into the ecstatic piano-led climax.
My absolute favorite era of The Beach Boys is the six year period spanning between Smiley Smile and Holland. There's a strange charm and paradoxical rough-hewn smoothness to the sound that seems of a piece with both Lee "Scratch" Perry's sun-glazed productions at the Black Ark and latterly The Beta Band's oeuvre. The only trouble is, most of these albums are fairly patchy (thanks Mike Love). The one exception is Sunflower, in which Dennis Wilson emerges a master songwriter in his own right, kicking off the whole affair with Slip On Through's insouciant counter-clockwise groove and striking yet again with the immortal ballad Forever. Brian Wilson's presence remains in full force as well, lending his touch to the gorgeous sunstruck reverie Dierdre (co-written with Bruce Johnston), All I Wanna Do's ethereal drift and the ambient surf music of Cool, Cool Water.
Cheo Feliciano cut his teeth in legendary groups like Tito Rodriguez's Orchestra, the Joe Cuba Sextet and the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra before gradually descending into drug addiction and bad times. After a stretch of rough years and hard miles, Cheo kicks heroin for good and finally makes his record. A delicately crafted masterstroke, it finds him confidently working through a peerless set of Tite Curet Alonso songs like Mi Triste Problema and Poema De Otoño with unmatched depth and splendor.
Nocturnal electronic jazz from Detroit whiz kid Matt Chicoine. Standing outside the boundaries of any one scene or genre, he unfurled a number of exquisite delights on an unsuspecting public at the turn of the century, none better than this astonishing five track EP. Kicking off with the oddball deep house of Soul Clap 2000 before launching into Get There Tonight's off-kilter boogie and the bebop stomp of Landscaping, it's not long before he's easing into the half-lit downbeat moves of Insomnia In Dub and Four Ways Of Saying Goodbye's multi-part jazz funk excursion. A crucial record for me at the time, it's stayed with me ever since.
An utterly out of time acid-soaked masterpiece, existing in the netherworld between post punk and a living, breathing psychedelia. The Blue Orchids splintered off from the mighty Fall, and in the process stretched that band's speedfreak intensity out into a wild, pantheistic celebration of the great outdoors. Una Baines' ghostly keyboard mirages are the crucial factor in these eerie, widescreen sonic tapestries. The mood here curiously similar to On The Silver Globe, and I've often thought that this album could soundtrack the haunting ritual beach scenes from the first half of the film.
The soundtrack to your nightmares. Mark Arcadipane — the man behind The Mover — wrote the blueprint for rave hardcore with Mescalinum United's We Have Arrived and a sequence of uncompromisingly bleak 12"s that surfaced on his Planet Core Productions (yeah... PCP) imprint. This double-pack combines both volumes of the Frontal Sickness EPs into one blazing package of sonic extremism, ground zero for the zombie sound that would come to be called gloomcore.
Stone cold blues from the Mississippi Delta. Skip James' music remains deeply unconventional, full of shadow and mystery, marking it out as utterly unique even within the rich terrain of early blues recordings. Still, there's quite a bit of weary joy to be found hidden within this record's grooves, even if only in the promise of salvation after a lifetime of hardship and tragedy. Hope against hope, in other words.
Cymande — featuring musicians from Guyana, Jamaica and Saint Vincent — are the sort of group that could have only formed in a town like London. Merging Jamaican Nyabinghi rhythms (the bedrock on which reggae was formed) and American funk, the crew forged a wholly unique sound that on first listen seems almost too good to be true. The glorious rock hard beat of Bra rubs shoulders here with gentle moments like Listen and the slow-burning groove of Getting It Back, while the eleven-minute Dove finds the group stretching out into a rolling longform jam. There ought to be a copy in every home.
A particularly elegant slice of slinky UK garage, Love Bug's bionic two-step groove seems to expand on both the liquid garage sound of Roy Davis Jr. and Timbaland's android r&b. Diva Lynsey Moore's vocals get chopped and twisted through the tune's very fabric, in which every piece clicks like percussion in the clockwork machinery of this sultry digital juke joint jam.
Uptight New Yorkers cut loose in widescreen, stretching the impenetrable atmosphere of Fear Of Music to its outer limits as they mainline on African rhythms and the information overload of modern America. Each track is a dense web of sound spun from layers of throbbing bass, drifting synths, strange guitars and those rolling, polyrhythmic beats. Hard to believe the album predates the sampler, so intricate is its multifaceted construction. Indeed, you can hear the germ of nineties music (and beyond) buried deep within these unfurling, technicolor grooves... it sounds a lot like a blueprint for the future.
Eighties electro-afrobeat monster jam, with Fela Kuti's right-hand man in the driver seat, rocking the drum kit with singular style and finesse. N.E.P.A comes on like one massive arcing groove stretched over two sides of vinyl, each housing a song in two versions (with both an original and a dub) that probe different aspects of the same central theme. Sounding a lot like a pirate radio transmission from the distant future, this is the original groove that won't stop.
Digital dancehall! This the instrumental companion piece to Wayne Smith's epochal Sleng Teng LP, produced by Prince Jammy, which famously brought reggae into the computer age. Taking Sleng Teng's brittle electronic rhythms into the spacious realm of dub, these tracks embody a sort of machine perfection that one usually expects from places like Cologne or Detroit, but slackened and smoked out with a singular Jamaican flavor.
The Three Degrees hook up with Philadelphia International after their appearance in The French Connection, resulting in a vocal masterpiece of lush Philly soul. The ladies' breathless harmonies deftly swoop and glide through the gossamer orchestration of Gamble & Huff's Sigma Sound, their exquisite production ringing clear as a bell. You can hear disco's wings begin to spread in the driving pulse of Dirty Old Man, while in If And When's epic balladry and the swirling A Woman Needs A Good Man their pathos is undeniable. You also get When Will I See You Again, quite simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
A joyful hip hop symphony composed by the late great J Dilla just before his untimely departure from planet Earth. Slicing and dicing all manner of loops and breaks from his seemingly bottomless crates of arcane records and reconstructing them into rock hard beats and interlocking movements, he created his unassailable masterpiece: a boundless, wildly shifting song cycle that feels like a glorious tribute to life itself.
Dub techno par excellence. As difficult as it is to narrow it down to just one record from the dynamic duo of Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, for me Quadrant Dubjust edges out Lyot Rmx for the #1 spot. Its two elongated tracks — spanning one to each side — last the better part of forty minutes, dubbing Round One's soul-inflected I'm Your Brother deeper and deeper into shimmering cascades of four-dimensional sound. Over twenty years later, it still sounds like the future.
In a further elaboration on the towering eighteen minutes of Tago Mago's Halleluwah, Can submerge their mercurial kraut-funk deep into the swampy voodoo of their Inner Space studio and surface with a spooked out set of seven songs teeming with otherworldly atmosphere. The proto-world music of Spoon sets a rhythm box against a gently swaying, lopsided rhythm, while I'm So Green showcases the group's pop sensibilities at their absolute finest. The spectral tango of One More Night even points the way toward Future Days and beyond.
Offbeat slacker blues debut from the great Okie troubadour, this one goes down like the smoothest bourbon at sunset. Containing the original, superior versions of After Midnight and Call Me The Breeze, it's a veritable treasure trove of exquisite songwriting. That crawling rhythm box is a particularly far-sighted touch, putting Cale in shared company with Kraftwerk and Sly Stone as the first artists to put electronic rhythms on record. In the context of the hazy dreamtime sparkle of songs like River Runs Deep and Crying Eyes, it's almost as if they're springing naturally from the surrounding terrain itself. A casual masterpiece.
The a-side cover version of Jacob Miller's Augustus Pablo-helmed lovers rock standard is a post punk proto-trip hop masterpiece, submerging Lorita Grahame's torch song vocals within a murky stew of towering bass, metallic percussion and film samples from John Carpenter's Escape From New York. The flipside's Looks Like We're Shy One Horse, meanwhile, mines Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West over an apocalyptic groove skanking endless into some dystopian horizon as a blood red sun sets in the distance.
Remain In Light's (edgier, younger and slightly mad) sister record takes its forward-thinking fourth world moves further yet into proto-sampladelia and
the avant-garde. Side one is stuffed with non-stop crazy rhythms: The Jezebel Spirit is a left field disco staple for good reason, spooling an actual on-air exorcism out over a frenetic rhythm matrix, while Regiment's stone cold funk is something like the interzone flipside of Once In A Lifetime. Side two stretches out into pure atmosphere, its individual tracks seeming to materialize from the shadows before drifting off again into the night, spectral and sublime.
A quasi-compilation pulling together a whole raft of choice instrumentals from contemporary 12"s and unreleased material, this record offers a stunning glimpse into the mind of Larry Heard. Bookended by the genre-defining Can You Feel It — the song that took Europe by storm during the Second Summer Of Love — and Mystery Of Love (which has the distinction of being Larry Levan's favorite song of all time), the record also ventures into the deep space ambient house magic of Stars, Bye Bye's sleek electronic soul and the proto-acid madness of Washing Machine. Crucial in every respect.
Exceptionally lush and melancholy jazz for big band, orchestrated and conducted by the late great Duke Ellington. Moody and spacious, the record evokes lonely nights, long moonlit walks and downbeat solo blues. Melancholy meditations like Solitude and Willow Weep For Me are swathed in layers of sumptuous atmosphere, while wistful reveries like The Sky Fell Down and Prelude To A Kiss overflow with the promise of romance. There's even a solitary vocal showcase in Autumn Leaves, featuring the vocals of Ozzie Bailey intertwined with Ray Nance's weeping violin, a haunting duet in a lonely place.
Steeped in nuclear dread, economic uncertainty and post-Watergate blues, Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson casually laid down the definitive late-seventies soul album. I was turned onto this record by Moodymann's set at the first DEMF, which he opened with We Almost Lost Detroit (a rumination on the meltdown at Three Mile Island). I was blown away and simply had to track down the album, which includes songs ranging from Under The Hammer's synth-smeared funk to the downbeat blues of Delta Man and everything in between, each of them rising slowly from languid pools of soul.
The definitive statement in bleak mid-nineties hip hop, that era when the RZA's sphere of influence seemed to spread across the entirety of the genre. Showcasing the peerless words and sonix of Prodigy and Havoc, the loping unresolved piano figure of the epochal Shook Ones Part II is matched here by the more elusive first part, sounding like something that sprang from the same New York shadows that Terranova was just beginning to essay from across the Atlantic. You ain't a crook, son... you just a shook one.
The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers' eyes, sings Bowie as the record opens, setting the stage for his transition from plastic soul crooner to fearless sonic trailblazer. Using his recent forays into Philly Soul as a jumping off point into churning proto-disco rhythms — shot through with the motorik drive of German groups like Neu! and his avowed love of Kraftwerk — he kicks off with the ten-minute multi-part rush of the title track and closes with a heartbreaking rendition of Wild Is The Wind, touching on everything from the insouciant funk of Golden Years to TVC 15's robotic pop in between.
I'm a huge fan of Santana's music throughout the seventies, all of those excursions into space rock and interstellar jazz, but the raw frenzy of the debut remains my absolute favorite. This is where it all began, with the same band that rocked Woodstock within days of this record's release. Songs like Soul Sacrifice and the cover version of Babatunde Olatunji's Jingo are masterful in their building tension and release, while Evil Ways remains one of the great jukebox tunes of all time. If you dig the sound of the Hammond B3, then you need to get down with this record..
This is where Janetgoes deep. There's a breadth and depth to this record that one usually expects to find in an Erykah Badu or Moodymann LP — you can really get lost in this record's grooves — but it's really just a logical progression of everything she'd been up to since the days of Control. Jam & Lewis square their production finesse in the age of Timbaland and — with the help of Q-Tip and a young J Dilla — unfurl a set of tracks that are both state-of-the-art yet at the same time imbued with the timeless gravity of 70s soul, remaining right at home in the present all along.
Released hot on the heels of his excellent Visions LP, this is my absolute favorite moment from Robert Owens (the voice of house music). Teaming with master producer David Morales and Satoshi Tomiie on keys, this seems to be an attempt to recreate the dynamic of their epochal Tears (masterminded by one Frankie Knuckles) in sprawling widescreen. The Original Def Mix is a moody dancefloor burner of the highest caliber, but The Glamorous Mix takes it to another level altogether, where driving strings and organ runs are woven into an echoic epic over which Owens' voice soars.
Grime taken out to die in the frozen wastelands. Crafting a surprisingly varied landscape within this icy realm, Wiley roams between the crystalline garage moves of Doorway and the bleak tundra vision of the title track, essaying the almost straight up hip hop shapes of opener The Game and the shimmering r&b inflections of Special Girl along the way. I've always preferred Thin Ice to Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner, which is the classic grime LP by critical consensus (and a classic it is), but this ploughs a deeper furrow and remains my absolute favorite grime record.
Neon-lit bedroom funk from Miles alumni James Mtume, taking seventies cosmic jazz into the computer age. This is without a doubt the greatest electro boogie LP of them all, boasting computer blue dancefloor burners like Green Light and Your Love's Too Good To Spread Around, while both mixes of Juicy Fruit remain twin pillars of atmospheric machine soul and a font of inspiration for so much music (from Dâm-Funk and SA-RA to Timbaland and The Neptunes) that I hold dear.
When weaving this record's captivating pan-global menagerie of sound, Yusef Lateef looked East for inspiration, predating just about everyone — from The Beatles to John Coltrane and even Sun Ra — in his exploration of the wider world's sonic shades and timbres. The Plum Blossom employs Chinese globular flute in it's off-kilter shuffle, while Three Faces Of Balal features a notably stripped-down exercise in rhythm. Rudy Van Gelder's peerless production imbues these sonic excursions with an almost exotica-esque sense of space, remarkable within the context of contemporary jazz.
The There's A Riot Going On of swingbeat, Sons Of Soul is a lushly multi-textured record that makes for a dense, absorbing listen. Some strange turns are taken in the shifting corridors of this record's jazzed-out r&b (see the almost subconscious funk of Tonyies! In The Wrong Key), even shading into the epic with the closing ten minutes of the Anniversary/Castleers suite. I can't think of many records that I get as much pleasure listening to, regardless of the mood I'm in (indeed, Fun may be the most honest song title you'll ever come across).
FSOL's sterling debut, featuring ten tracks of brilliantly vivid, four-dimensional breakbeat techno. A brace of tunes from the Pulse EPs get paired with new material like Expander and the epochal Papua New Guinea, rounding out a deft song cycle shot through with unmistakable cyberpunk vibes. From Buggy G. Riphead's striking sleeve art to the paranoid interludes and Central Industrial's slow-motion widescreen cascade, the whole thing conjures up imagery of Neuromancer, Blade Runner and Cabaret Voltaire in its long flowing corridors of Chiba City blues.
Exceedingly warped, fathoms deep disco on the legendary West End imprint. Forrrce unleash a proto-rap party jam with an unforgettable whiplash bassline tearing through its very fabric, while François Kevorkian works his inimitable magic on the flip, stripping the track down to its frame and rebuilding it like a ramshackle mine cart before running it off the rails through the illogical machinery of Jamaican dub.
Weird reggae forged by its greatest band and produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry at the peak of his powers. The title track is one of the finest dub outings ever, running down a languid skank before collapsing into a rock-hard slow-motion climax, while the Tell Me Something Good cover version blows away everyone I've ever shown it to. Throughout, Scratch coaxes the swirling sounds of the Black Ark into a singular negotiation of reggae roots and the deepest chasms of futuristic dub.
Of all the records to spring from N.W.A.'s axis, this is hands down my favorite. A dense, varied record, full of twists and turns like the liquid funk of the title track and the skittering fast-forward groove of Portrait Of A Masterpiece, it even features the entirety of N.W.A. on The Grand Finalé. Dr. Dre's ace production splits the difference between the hard edges of Straight Outta Compton and the nimble funk of Efil4zaggin, while The D.O.C. out-raps everybody else in the crew. No One Can Do It Better indeed.
Cosmic canyon folk from ex-Byrd and CSN main man David Crosby, recorded in San Francisco and featuring local luminaries like Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia (along with further members of Jefferson Airplane, Santana and The Grateful Dead) and a few L.A. colleagues for good measure (including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell). This ad-hoc supergroup shines in Cowboy Movie's low-slung, eight-minute canyon funk jam (a chronicle of CSNY's dissolution as seen through the prism of The Wild Bunch) and the murky tumble of What Are Their Names' abstract, blazing protest, while gentle, otherworldly moments like Traction In The Rain and Orleans quietly steal the show with a shimmering magic all their own.
Sparkling proto-new wave from a four piece group of hard-dreaming CBGB luminaries. Picking up where West Coast acid rockers like The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane left off, Television reshape yesterday's wild psychedelia into a contemplative sonic menagerie — with just a hint of punk attitude — that ushered in a whole new era for rock.
Pastoral Krautrock from a large, shifting group of musicians centering around the vision of Florian Fricke. Gentle instrumental sketches like Kleiner Krieger and Morgengruß set the stage, gradually giving way to the title track's lush, multi-part longform jam — featuring the ethereal vocals of Djong Yun — that dominates the entirety of side two. The common thread running throughout is a bucolic sense of tranquility and near-telepathic interplay between the musicians.
Two holdovers from eighties new wave are joined by younger techno DJ Darren Emerson and dive headfirst into dance music, sculpting a moody masterpiece of electronic noir. Karl Hyde's rock dynamics are crucial to the record's singular tone, with the overcast alternative rock stylings of Tongue and Dirty Epic's subterranean guitar moves utterly unique within the context of nineties dance. This is "binary skyline" music, to borrow a phrase from Snakes, shimmering on a cloudy horizon.
Twelve-inch post-disco dancefloor action from synth wizard Wally Badarou, lifted from his excellent Echoes LP of the same year (recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau). The Vine Street mix by Paul "Groucho" Smykle is the absolute best version of Chief Inspector (and it can only be found here!), gliding along with percussion inspired by D.C. go-go and slipping into a zero gravity moonwalk for its dreamlike refrain. Tying together strands stretching from disco to post punk, dub to hip hop and even the nascent house music, Badarou winds up with an eerily prescient hallucination of the next twenty years of club music.
Late sixties minimalism from one of the prime architects of the form. Absorbing the hypnotic electric pulse of Indian classical music as a prime influence, Riley treats the organ as a proto-synthesizer and plays every note by hand, becoming the human sequencer as he multi-tracks myriad layers of keyboards, harpsichord, tambourine and goblet drum into a cycling electronic ballet on the sidelong title track. The flipside's marathon workout, Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band, trades kinetic flow for gently droning arcs, with Riley's improvised saxophone dancing across its surface.
Jefferson Airplane are the embodiment of radical sixties counterculture's interface with rock and are the obvious precursor to seventies German groups like Amon Düül II (the commune that coalesced into a band) and Ash Ra Tempel. This 7" single stands as their greatest merger of righteous joy and anger into a triumphant firebrand vision of acid rock, continuing the everyone sing at once (preferably in a different key) and let the chips fall where they may late-period sloppy proto-punk vocal style that they'd pursued since Volunteers. Mexico, possibly the greatest song about smuggling marijuana into the country, expands on the spirit of songs like We Could Live Together, while Have You Seen The Saucers is quintessential West Coast space rock, setting the stage for Paul Kantner's Jefferson Starship and Blows Against The Empire.
Sleazy new wave glam rock, where punk meets disco in the red light district. You can see where Duran Duran got most of their ideas (executing the whole Sex Pistols meets Chic equation years before it had even occurred to Nick Rhodes and Simon Le Bon), and I've often thought that you can hear a bit of Royal Scam-era Steely Dan in the jazz-tinged grooves of Wish You Were Black and Television. An utterly original sound in evidence throughout, this record deserves to be be more widely heard (and imitated).
Cyberpunk jungle. Taking in the sonic skyline of Vangelis' Blade Runner Blues and sampling a snatch of Roy Batty's "tears in the rain" speech from the film's conclusion, Dillinja runs riot with his trademark depth charge bass bombs and speaker-shredding breaks to create one of jungle's all-time greatest rollers. The two tracks on the flip pursue the same path of shape-shifting, aerodynamic drum 'n bass intensity, rounding out a three-track set of superbly engineered breakbeat noir.
Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer may have gestured ominously in the general direction, but this monolithic, towering LP was the de facto birth of heavy metal. Slowing hard rock down to a robe-shrouded crawl, Black Sabbath injected a blood-soaked sense of the occult into their music while everybody ran for cover. A key outpost in rock's grappling with James Brown's elegant, funky beats inna caveman stylee, this stone tablet is cherished by rock, rave and hip hop heads alike (just ask Ice-T and Joey Beltram). Containing five ruminations on slow-motion fury, for me the debut remains their finest hour.
Mande music snaking its way through the desert sands of Mali, cooked up by the region's finest band and fronted by the inimitable Salif Keita, whose piercing wail cuts through the dense instrumentation like a knife. The towering title track rocks a dusty downbeat rhythm before breaking into a double-time frenzy in its coda, while Kandja refracts Caribbean music back across the Atlantic in mutant form. Balla closes the record on a gentle organ-led shuffle (think Booker T. & The M.G.'s), with a vibrant repartee between the band as they ride off into the sunset together.
Endless cosmic jam by an ad-hoc supergroup of Krautrock luminaries, the results edited down into a series of five spaced-out kosmische LPs (of which this is the first) by Rolf-Ulrich Kaiserwithout the knowledge of the band. This is true outer space/inner space music, with one extended track sprawling across each side. The opening Galactic Joke is a pulsing excursion into deep sonar architecture — its guitars arcing gracefully into oblivion — while the flipside's Cosmic Joy inhabits a dark textural sprawl that ultimately spawns a ten-ton bassline. The record should come with a spacesuit.
Brian Eno once called this the most important record ever made, and when you hear it booming over a nightclub soundsystem at full volume it's pretty hard to argue. Pulsing machine music produced by Giorgio Moroder, this forward-thinking computer disco remains wildly influential. And then there's the matter of Donna Summer, who takes the whole affair to another plane altogether, her voice soaring in graceful arcs around that central rhythm and putting all manner of would-be divas to shame in the process. This is hardcore.
For my money, the greatest late-summer hip hop LP ever. East meets West in this extended song cycle about two cousins from opposite coasts spending a summer together in the city that never sleeps. If you imagine a rap record produced by Roy Ayers, you wouldn't be too far off. Even the skits are good. This always takes me back to August of '95 when my brother and I were refinishing a deck for walking-around-money, tripping out under the blazing sun with Jammin' z90 coming through like a mirage in the Santee heat... Born To Roll, the man said.
The perfect encapsulation of Nu Groove's half-lit, anything goes vision of house music, where reggae, disco, ambient and acid rub shoulders on the dancefloor and nobody misses a beat. Of course it's hard to choose just one Bobby Konders 12", but this one's the reason the man's a household name where I come from. From the rolling pianos of Let There Be House to the searing 303 lines of Nervous Acid, Massai Women's eerie Serengeti atmospherics and the sprawling deep house epic The Poem, it's an unmissable EP of off-the-wall New York house.
This is the sound of my youth. I could have picked any of their first three LPs, but this one's dubbed out, rootsical bass architecture marks it as my absolute favorite. The voodoo calm of Karmacoma, Weather Storm's invisible soundtrack, Mushroom Vowles, Tracy Thorn's mournful croon, the smoked out Light My Fire cover version, Horace Andy's x-ray falsetto, the depth-charging 303 basslines, Nicolette's serenading of the spirits and Tricky's dread magic — still in full force at this point — all blur into the perfect prescription of blunted Bristol blues and a true smoker's delight.
Mingus' Impulse! debut finds him righteously at home in the house that Trane built, working through a series of four complex suites inspired by Duke Ellington that — with all apologies to Count Basie — seem to take big band jazz into the atomic era. Mingus was so impressed with Bob Theile's in-house production that in the liner notes he proclaimed that his fans could throw out all of his old records because this was the sound he was after all along!
Skeletal, dubbed out reggae from the concrete jungle. Black and white newsprint paranoia reigns supreme throughout, not unlike a remake of The Parallax View set in contemporary Kingston. Spying Glass, later covered by Massive Attack, drapes gutter-glazed synths over its stately, slow-motion crawl. Horace Andy's lonely falsetto is cloaked in layers of desolate production courtesy of Lloyd Barnes, who stretches these solarized riddims out into echo-chambered infinity.
Dark and moody electro dubbed out into a mirage on the fabled Cutting Records imprint. Hashim advances from the sparse, crisp edges of his epochal electro jam Al-Naafiysh The Soul into deeply blunted terrain, the sound of which seems to strangely overlap with that of certain late-period post punk records like 400 Blows' Declaration Of Intent in its slap-bass fueled approximation of William Gibson's visions of the future. This always makes me think of riding around with Snakes back in high school, bombing down the lonely corridors of Grantville and Mission Gorge at night.
The spectacularly powerful debut, and the unacknowledged midpoint between Kate Bush and Neneh Cherry (by way of 4AD). A treasure trove of striking moments, ranging from the machine rhythms of Jerusalem and I Want Your Hands On Me (which seem to trace a jagged line between Control and Buffalo Stance) to the warrior charge of Mandinka (featuring the unmistakable guitar of one Marco Pirroni) and the indie rock drone of Just Call Me Joe (sounding like The Breeders a couple years early), the record's heart lies in majestic numbers like Jackie and the drama of Troy's towering suite, while the lush folk balladry of Just Like U Said It Would B and Drink Before The War swoop in deftly to conquer all. O'Connor wields her voice like a weapon throughout, and on The Lion And The Cobra she takes no prisoners.
After his stunning major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar went on to top it soundly by improbably hooking up with jazzmen like Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner and Kamasi Washington, crafting a vital modern rap record in thrall to figures like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. There's a wealth of material here, from the staggering modal grandeur of How Much A Dollar Cost to King Kunta's nightclub stop and the free jazz interludes in between, while the bleak intensity of tracks like u and The Blacker The Berry are balanced by occasional moments of lighthearted euphoria like These Walls and i. The sonic breadth in evidence throughout is matched only by the vast array of subjects Lamar explores over the course of this often harrowing — if ultimately uplifting — record. Someday, someone will write a whole book about this record.
The kid from the Jackson 5 delivers yet another pop masterpiece, the claustrophobic machine shapes and soaring chorus of which mark it out as my absolute favorite moment from the man. The Extended Dance Mix stretches the tune's crashing groove to nearly eight minutes of sonic perfection, with Jackson vamping sublime over its protracted jam. I've often thought this tune was a kindred spirit with the contemporary techno output of Detroit's big three: when those gorgeous, soaring synths hit in the chorus — Jackson's vocals sliding effortlessly across the surface — you're cruising the same sprawling metropolis corridors essayed in Reese's Rock To The Beat, Rhythim Is Rhythim's It Is What It Is and Model 500's Off To Battle. File under futurism.
Swashbuckling ragga ardkore produced by PJ and Smiley of Shut Up And Dance. Setting the tone for the nineties, this swings wildly from the breakbeat madness of Ragga Trip and Wipe The Needle to Illegal Gunshot's straight up dancehall moves and the awesome EWF-pillaging groove of The Killing. The instrumental 18" Speaker — a bassbin-shattering slab of dubbed-out ravefloor magic — spools wild bleeps across a shuffling breakbeat strapped with a bassline like an oil tanker. One of those records where everything comes together to form an unlikely masterpiece (in truth SUAD had quite a few of those under their belt), this is what raving is all about.
Legendary proto-punk Detroit heavy metal. Maybe the wildest live album ever recorded, and certainly my favorite. The title track and Come Together ride great churning riffs deep into the redline, while I Want You Right Now seems to split the difference between Wild Thing and 1983... A Merman I Should Turn To Be in a slow-motion come-on of epic proportions. The closing Starship borrows from Sun Ra in a wild freeform launch into the stratosphere, rounding out a chaotic masterpiece that manages to transcend its era and feel brazenly alive in the present.
An urban troubadour rises from the streets of Detroit to cut a blistering folk LP. Rodriguez hits plain and direct throughout — rather than hiding behind layers of abstraction — as he chronicles his singular visions of the inner city. Each of these tunes progress with a wicked internal logic that slowly creeps toward their inevitable conclusion (like the baptism scene from The Godfather). I only recently learned that it was arranged and produced by disco/funk stalwarts Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey. Right on!
The lushest, most laidback LP from Stevie Wonder in the seventies, an era when the man could do no wrong. After surviving a near fatal car accident the previous year, he seemed to enter the studio in an even more introspective mood than usual. Indeed, aside from the blistering electronic funk of You Haven't Done Nothin' — the last in his line of songs to take on our very own Parallax icon Richard Nixon — this is by far his most mellow album of the decade. Even more lavishly arranged than usual, it features appearances by figures like Minnie Riperton, Syreeta and The Jackson Five, lending their rich backing vocals throughout, while Tonto's Expanding Head Band coax the verdant shapes of their machines into a sumptuous bed of sound.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, firing on all cylinders, dropped this 12" hot on the heels of their debut full-length and somehow managed to surpass everything on it. A crucial, forward-thinking elaboration on The Message, with a next-level reality rap flowing sharp and precise over skyscraper-crumbling beats and a searing, futuristic production, this anticipates and exemplifies basically everything I love about modern music.
Jungle came out of nowhere a few years back with this absolutely blinding album, a sterling debut haunted by a dozen of their gloriously fractured dancefloor hymns. Sounding wholly alien and unlike anything else around, I like to imagine this intoxicating hall-of-mirrors post-disco trip would have sounded right at home pumping out the immaculate soundsystem at the Paradise Garage. These shimmering grooves shift and slide like liquid metal, melting into a sonic T-1000 reclining at the cutting edge of dance music and pop.
The mesmerizing Edu Lobo's most intimate record finds him unveiling a thoroughly unique take on lush Brazilian samba. I always liked how Woebot would refer to him as "the Brazilian Bryan Ferry". Here you definitely get that same sense of sophisticated languor one finds in Roxy's more downbeat moments. The peerless Quarteto Novo, fresh from Miles Davis' Live/Evil sessions, provide sumptuous backing with their patented turn-on-a-dime rhythmic panache and nimble touch. Everything here is light as a feather, yet deep as the ocean.
Cinematic free jazz with its eyes locked firmly on India. Alice Coltrane takes her boundless vision into widescreen with a full string orchestra in tow for this record's five swirling rhapsodies. Her masterful reworking of late husband John Coltrane's A Love Supreme breaks into a left field beat that leaves you blinking in disbelief at the improbable perfection of it all, while the sprawling Galaxy In Satchidananda feels like the soundtrack to some metaphysical sword-and-sandal epic set on an alien planet orbiting a distant star.
Wild-eyed Celtic folk troubadour cuts loose with a jazz combo, reaching his true potential as he unleashes a stone cold masterpiece imbued with gentle soul and a spiritual elegance all its own. The heart of the record lies in sprawling character studies like Cyprus Avenue and Madame George, where Morrison lingers on these sad characters longer than most would dare. Sweet Thing and the title track seem to magnify the sum total of human love until it threatens to eclipse all of its bitterness and hate, embracing the world in its weary arms. And really, what could be better than that?
Dense NDW. This is a space music that sounds like something SETI picked up on a particularly long range scan, those churning alien sonics emanating from within the center of some distant black hole. Voices echo just on the outer rim of the soundscape as fractal synth sequences pulsate all around, literally absorbing everything within reach. It feels like a staircase spiraling off into oblivion as gravity's pull draws you ever deeper into the churning vortex below. Surreal and occasionally disturbing — like late-period David Lynch — and the true soundtrack to In The Mouth Of Madness.
Juan Atkins's second release on his own Metroplex imprint is characteristically ahead of its time with its ultra-modern stripped down production and racing computer blue sequences. A lone driver's tale unfolds, recounting a freaky trip through the nocturnal highways of Techno City and the mysterious passenger he encounters along the way. The flipside is a turbo-charged rework of No UFOs (the centerpiece of the first Model 500 record), which finds Atkins short-circuiting World War III by landing a spaceship in your backyard. A bold, angular line drawn through the middle of the 1980's... this is what Detroit Techno is all about.
Rising from the ashes of post-industrial Cleveland, Pere Ubu are without a doubt one of the great American bands (in fact, they're almost too good to be true), working up their own unique brand of post-Velvets racket long before punk — let alone post punk — even existed. In the past, I'd always gravitated toward their earliest sides (essayed on the Terminal Tower compilation) but over the last year or so the razor-sharp precision of The Modern Dance finally won me over once and for all. This is either the sound of perfection perverted, or perversion perfected... take your pick.
Dreamy, jazz-inflected folk from one of the early visionaries of the Laurel Canyon scene. Lazy reveries like Strange Feelin' and Dream Letter drift weightlessly beneath the setting sun, even as a curling undertow continues to build up deep within until the interminable jamming of Gypsy Woman threatens to pull all of its surroundings into orbit before collapsing into a swirling vortex of proto-Krautrock intensity. Sun-baked with an undercurrent of dread, this is the L.A. of Inherent Vice.
Monumental, unclassifiable moody psychedelic cabaret rock 'n roll from the days when giants roamed the lazy beaches of California. Jim Morrison comes on like a twisted beat-poet crooner (echoes of Eden Ahbez in full effect) while Ray Manzarek wields his keyboards as if they were synths. Meanwhile, John Densmore seems to draw his tricky rhythms from anywhere but rock and Robbie Krieger's crystalline guitar style anticipates Carlos Santana. The whole effect is entirely unique, yet so easy to take for granted owing to the sheer magnitude of their historical impact. Utterly essential.
German b-boys cut loose in widescreen with Krautrock legend on guitar. Basically a jazz record, Tokyo Tower is eight minutes of somber perfection, while the flipside's Clone is a slab of seriously bleak microtonal madness that drops you into the middle of The Parallax View without map or compass. Terranova's album from a couple years later was good, but this right here is magic. When this first dropped, it seemed to me like a record from another age... whether that age was twenty years in the past or twenty years in the future, I'm still not quite sure...
Chris Corner steps out of the shadows to front his own group — sounding like some unholy blend of Scott Walker and Marc Almond — who wrap him up in the raw architecture of feedback and ragged downcast beats on the long road to ruin. The whole trip feels deeply unhealthy and self-destructive — making plenty of stops in some incredibly dark places along the way — yet somehow in its resolute, brave stance finds itself at a strangely uplifting conclusion, crawling through the basement to find redemption. If OK Computer were as good as everyone says, it would sound an awful lot like this.
NOTE: To continue onward to The Parallax 100, click here.