It's time to talk about Deep Space. An album dropped by Juan Atkins amidst a flurry of activity in 1995, it was released smack in the middle of the nineties and bisecting the decade both literally and metaphorically. Slotting in quite comfortably within the currents of outer space imagery running through techno at the time, from Galaxy 2 Galaxy to 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and the Red Planet EPs, it also predicted the tronik r&b moves and minimalist grooves of the late 90s, sounds that take us right up to the present day. Deep Space remains a fascinating record for the way it blends techno, machine soul, micro-house and jazz inflections into a swirling nebula of sonic possibility.
With Atkins tugging the curtain that conceals tomorrow from all of us, he's invited you to catch a glimpse of tomorrow's music looming just around the bend. This is a 21st century soul record, playing like a star map to the future. To this day, it remains one of those records so singular, so forward-thinking, that it's difficult to assess just where exactly it came from. How did Deep Space happen? To answer that question, where the future came from, one must take a look into the past. A decade in the past, to be precise. So let's set our time circuits back to good old 1985...
It's 1985. Juan Atkins had been a member of Cybotron (alongside Richard Davis aka 3070) for a few years by this point. Cybotron were seminal purveyors of electro operating concurrently with Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, who released Planet Rock just as Cybotron began unleashing records like Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear upon an unsuspecting public.
Cybotron's sound was a rude, street-level update of Kraftwerk's man-machine music, shot through with dark, psychedelic inflections that felt like a hangover from Funkadelic's early acid-tinged LPs (especially Cosmic Slop). The combination of Planet Rock and Clear (in particular) laid the foundation for the whole electro craze (see also Hashim, Planet Patrol and The Egyptian Lover), a sound that would go on to rule the first half of the 1980s.
The group added guitarist John Housey (aka Jon-5) for the album Enter, which expanded their sound to include a derezzed acid rock dynamic sprawling out in songs like Industrial Lies and the title track. Cosmic Cars rocked a 4/4 rhythm in a way that predicted the rugged, ramshackle techno traxx of 1987, while the digital funk of The Line and El Salvador split the difference between the black new wave of Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear's stripped-down electro punch.
The record also featured the awesome Cosmic Raindance, a skeletal tune built on a nimble rhythm matrix of crisp drum machines and a descending funk bassline, all of which propelled these great spiraling clouds of whining synthesized sound across a stormy digital sky. Ending in a crash of computerized thunder, it set a thrilling template for the elegant, minimalist electro of Drexciya and Elecktroids that would surface about a decade later. Cybotron swiftly followed Enter with the Techno City, at which point Atkins decided to strike out on his own.
This is where we came in. That is, 1985, when Atkins started his own label, Metroplex Records, and released his first solo record: Model 500's No UFO's. The record was a perfect fusion of tightly regimented electronic sequences and raging percussive chaos, boasting a richer, even-more-psychedelic sound than Cybotron. I'll put it this way: if Kraftwerk were James Brown circa Sex Machine and Cybotron were Sly & The Family Stone circa Stand!, then Model 500's No UFO's was Funkadelic circa Maggot Brain. Can you get to that?
The flipside was dominated by the slithering rhythm of Future, which found Atkins pumping electro moves the same way Hendrix played Killing Floor (see also Channel One's Technicolor), which is to say faster, more fluid and with more authority than anyone else around. This is ground zero for that 90s electro sound we all love so much, what with the tighter sound and sharper edges, it laid the blueprint for whole swathes of the scene. Aux 88 were certainly paying attention.
Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) followed, and somehow it managed to be even better. A masterpiece of neon vectors colliding in a phantasmagoria of motorik digital funk, it pierces your consciousness with tumbling bleeps and then just rolls for six minutes. Atkins narrates the nocturnal journey over eerie computer blue sonics, adding claustrophobic Jamie Principle-esque vocal stylings that give the whole trip a shadowy, spectral effect.
This is the first glimmer of what would come to define the Deep Space sound, and as such it kicks off a little potted history we're about to indulge in: a history of Atkins' music within this rarefied terrain. The following four records each outline key developments that would culminate in the Deep Space sessions. Context is key. After all, an investigation into this impulse within Atkins' discography plugs you directly into what is — by my estimation — the purest manifestation of machine soul.
After blazing a singular path through the remainder of the decade with records like Off To Battle, Interference and Other Side Of Life, Atkins rang in the 90s with the Ocean To Ocean EP. Kicking off with two versions of Ocean To Ocean, which played like a smooth-groove summation of everything he'd been up to in the intervening years, it was the flipside that offered a stunning preview of things to come.
Rocking a 4/4 pulse threaded by a resolute string/bass melody inna Off To Battle-stylee, Wanderer played like a stop off at the connecting station for the bullet train trip from 1985 to 2001. I've noted before how this EP was something of a blueprint for the more reflective side of UR's endeavors, and nowhere is that more evident than in Wanderer. It also neatly sets the stage for the final song of the record, its undeniable highlight.
Infoworld starts with a memorable bleep refrain before revving up the 4/4 engine once again. A geometric bass pulse threads the beat matrix while electronic string staccatos seems to fuel the track's propulsion. The sound here defined by a sleek, aerodynamic quality, with a greater emphasis placed on nimble grooves and lush synth atmospherics. Ah yes... those synths! Like Larry Heard and Carl Craig, there's just no mistaking Juan Atkins' synths for anyone else's. As clear an oracle as one could ask for, Infoworld lays out the foundation for the next decade plus of Atkins' journey.
Case in point being this three track EP, Atkins' first engagement with R&S Records — via their ambient subsidiary Apollo — which finds him expanding the sound of Infoworld into sprawling intergalactic shapes. The motorik techno soul of Vessels In Distress finds Atkins in collaboration with Martin Bonds (aka Reel By Real), offering up a Moroder-inflected take on the Motor City sound shot through with shimmering shapes and textures.
Mind Changes features Atkins' dreamy vocals in duet with android intonations over a bouncing, compact house rhythm. With the track's austere 4/4 pulse defined by a sort of ethereal synth architecture, it's of a piece with the proto-micro-house sides that he'd begun circulating under the name Infiniti, records like Flash Flood and Think Quick. All of which would ultimately lead to his collaboration with German duo 3MB (Moritz von Oswald and Thomas Fehlmann) on the awesome Jazz Is The Teacher EP (more on this later).
The title track finds Atkins incorporating crashing breakbeats into his sound, the breaks sparring with his usual 808 dynamics and a chiming bleep matrix in a flowing tide pool of ethereal synth and atmosphere. Apparently the tune got some action at contemporary drum 'n bass sound systems, where it'd be pitched up at a sped-up '45rpm (proto-ambient jungle!). I suppose that does make sense. Above all else, its mode is pure machine soul and a clear indication of the shape of things to come...
Tucked away on Atkins' own Metroplex imprint is this nearly forgotten 12". Whereas much of the Metroplex catalog has been serviced quite well, to the best of my knowledge this has never been reissued. Which is a shame, because this is one of Magic Juan's absolute greatest records. I See The Light is a spectral electro symphony built on a cycling 808 chassis with a staircase bleep pattern and wispy synth figures swaying across its ocean-like refrain. Atkins intones the title's lyrics in a deadpan whisper. It's all veryAux 88.
Of course, the b-side is even better! Pick Up The Flow commences with one of Atkins' trademark sci-fi synth progressions, computer sounds fading into view on a tumbling drum machine rhythm as a rolling bassline unfurls across the length of the track. The whole thing seems to drift by on a cosmic wind, bleeps intoning between the verses as Atkins'
gentle raps ride the rhythm in this gently pulsing astral hymn. Deep Space music, to coin a royal phrase. Stunningly beautiful, it flows quite naturally into our next record, which is the final way station before we reach our destination.
Back on R&S — this time with Basic Channel's Mortiz von Oswald in the engineering booth — Atkins delivers Sonic Sunset, his first extended sequence of solo material. Nominally an EP, with three versions of the title track, it clocks in at nearly an hour. Built on a rapid-fire synth sequence that seems to bounce across the rhythm's surface, Sonic Sunset spans the beatless freeform of the Calm Mix to the Cave Mix's dubbed-out reverb architecture (shades of Basic Channel). The Third Wave Mix, which I suspect to be the original version, is of a piece with Jazz Is The Teacher (those unpredictable rhythms a signpost for tech jazz).
Neptune's iridescent, hall-of-mirrors trip stretches out horizontally across its sprawling twelve minutes, sounding like trance music played at a disco pace. Also comparable to the ambient house moves of The Orb and Sun Electric, it affirms the implicit connection between Detroit, Berlin and London (a figure like Thomas Fehlmann moving freely between the three). The machines here left to spool out into infinity on a vector-plotted course, sounding like nothing so much as a deep space probe gliding through the deep black of space.
Rather appropriately for this deep space journey of a record, Sonic Sunset's longest track also happens to be its greatest treasure: I Wanna Be There, a skittering slab of motorik techno soul, lasts the better part of twenty minutes. Dig that nagging shuffle of a rhythm and the bassline bounce, parallaxing against those great twisting atmospheric synths in the background.
More than anything else here, it runs parallel to the proto-micro-house of Infiniti, albeit shot through with jazz-inflected shapes and a set of tender vocals from Atkins.
His delivery strikingly different here in comparison to his earlier man-machine moves, revealing Magic Juan the introspective soul man. Alongside those jazzed-out keys that dance across the surface, punctuating the groove even as as they spar with ethereal, flute-like sonics, it brings to mind the disco-era cosmic jazz moves of figures like Norman Connors and Idris Muhammad, rebuilt and rewired for the 21st century. Kompakt funk, to a man. The whole trip takes us through the final stretch of our journey, setting the stage perfectly as we arrive at our destination....
This is Juan Atkins' debut album... now you're in Deep Space.
You switch on the music. Surfing in on a great wash of synthesized stardust, the ethereal chords of Milky Way drift across the soundscape before a gently shuffling drum machine rhythm comes into focus. This is liquid techno soul, soaring upon Atkins' trademark synth architecture and drums a tad tougher than you might expect. Computer sonics thread the groove within the groove, and post-Herbie Hancock sequences hop across the spaces between the spaces. It all fits in perfectly with what Carl Craig was up to circa Landcruising and More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art, particularly songs like At Les and Science Fiction.
Notably, the track was co-written with fellow Detroit icon Kevin Saunderson. This at the height of Deep Space Radio, a recurring show that found the Deep Space Crew (rounded out by Atkins, Saunderson and Derrick May) bringing techno music to terrestrial airwaves. Undoubtedly, those heady vibes can be felt in this record as strongly as they could Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio (a mix album dedicated to enshrining the show's vision on disc for posterity) a couple years later.
As if that weren't enough, Milky Way was mixed by the great François Kevorkian. It certainly does have a touch of the cosmic about it. Cosmic jazz? Cosmic disco? You got it. Above all else, this gently unfolding deep space psychedelia often reminds me of peak-era Neptunes (during the whole Star Track trip they'd kick off a few years later) at their most blissed out. Needless to say, very strong SA-RA vibes are in evidence throughout as well.
A bubbling synth rises from the silence, heralding the arrival of the next track. With a pulsing 4/4 groove punctuated by a clanking sound one might encounter on a Rob Hood record, Orbit is on a slightly minimalist trip. One might even notice shades of Basic Channel in there somewhere. However, the strongest signal I'm getting here is from Jazz Is The Teacher. Despite it's minimalist intent, Orbit's got that unpredictable, anything-can-happen feel of the 3MB record. Maybe it's the splashing hi-hats, maybe those synths bubbling under, maybe even the crystalline synths that drift into the mind's eye every so often, but it's unmistakably there.
Until it isn't, of course, as Orbit collapses into a bubbling pool of synth and texture receding into the horizon. A menacing acid line rises from the chaos, announcing the arrival of The Flow.
Which is quite simply incredible. A perfect fusion of Kraftwerk and Janet Jackson, this is the Ur-text of machine soul. A shading of struck bells and that menacing electronic sequence drive crisp 808 beats that couldn't sound any more different from 1995 r&b if they were produced by Steve Reich. Of course a year later, Timbaland would single-handedly make it the sound of cutting edge r&b, bringing the form into the 21st century a few years early.
Aisha Jamiel's vocals alternate between spoken word and songbird (which becomes doubly haunting for the ethereal chorus) just like Missy Elliott would on Supa Dupa Fly two years later. The sonic similarities to Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) are undeniable as well, with The Flow recalling Atkins earlier opus only s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n considerably, making it the definitive link between Metroplex and One In A Million, and as such the cornerstone of machine soul.
Notably, The Flow spawned three separate 12" singles, featuring a bevy of remixes spread across them. You get a deliciously retro electro workout from the Jedi Knights, a jazzy drum 'n bass reading from Alex Reece, Frank De Wulf's proto-speed garage mix, a Howie B. machine funk take and two hard-edged speedfreak mixes from Underworld. However, the best remix is by Magic Juan himself.
The G-Funk Mix a wall-shaking house party monster jam, featuring a lascivious bass groove yoked to a Zapp-inflected robot voice. Aisha Jamiel's vocals duel with a jazzy Rhodes up and down the groove. Atkins grasp of the dynamics here quite simply impeccable, this ought to have gotten serious radio play. Shame, really. Along with J Dilla, who had a shaping influence on both Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope and D'Angelo's Voodoo, their impact didn't break through to the popular consciousness. Like krautrock, innit?
Still, it makes perfect sense that the era's r&b would have some serious Motor City vibes lurking just below the surface. Shades of The Velvet Underground & Nico... peel slowly and see.
Warning follows with a similar spirit to Orbit's, The Flow bookended by two erratic slabs of minimalist jazz electronica. Another high-pitched sliver of Rob Hood-recalling noise taps out a rhythm across a bouncing pendulum of clockwork synthesizer. These great detuned synths seem to squeeze up from beneath the cracks in the rhythm like iridescent magma. Still jazzed-out, but tweaked to abstraction. Playing like a tone poem, there's shades of onomatopoeia to the whole affair. Think Drexciya's Draining Of The Tanks or X-103's Eruption: this is a synthetic recreation of the events depicted in its title. You're on red alert.
At the last moment, you're carried away on the sweet sway of Astralwerks, a nebula of a track, an enigma, with rolling rhythms that seem to split the difference between downbeat and junglist double-time the way a certain Tim Mosley would a year later. The synths seem to speed up and slow down with the rhythm, the whole effect pleasantly disorienting. It's of a piece with the ambient jungle of A Guy Called Gerald circa Black Secret Technology, 4 Hero circa Parallel Universe and Jacob's Optical Stairway (a 4 Hero one-off that featured Atkins on The Fusion Formula).
The spectre of drum 'n bass hangs over the entirety of this record, in fact. I suspect that the unpredictable rhythmic danger felt throughout is sourced in jungle as much as it is in jazz. There's almost a sense of Atkins raising his game to match the innovations of the U.K.'s junglist auteurs. Noteworthy also the explicit drum 'n bass connections in the shape of 12" remixes by Wax Doctor and Alex Reece.
Starlight is similarly forward-thinking work, this time in a thoroughly Basic Channel mode. Built on a gently chugging rhythmic figure, the melody is carried by a single synth pulsing at regular intervals as its run through the filters. Sailing on a solar wind in perpetual motion, the whole thing so slight but profound. It's worth noting that from the prior tune onward, the remaining tracks on this album are engineered by Moritz von Oswald. Nowhere is that more evident than on Starlight, which even got a 12" release on Metroplex with a remix from Oswald.
One thing that's always intrigued me about Starlight is how much it sounds like an Infiniti record. There's that same sense of linear expanse stretching across a great horizontal plane that one finds in tunes like Moon Beam or Think Quick. In fact, it's an even more skeletal outing than even most of the Infiniti output, with the same x-ray architecture that Oswald and Mark Ernestus had essayed in Basic Channel. As one might expect, this sense is amplified in the Moritz Mix on the 12", with its striking tonal shifts and great caverns of reverb.
Fans of Isolée, Luomo and Villalobos would love both versions of Starlight, which have the same shimmering, tactile quality one finds in Beau Mot Plage, Tessio and Dexter. Like I was saying before, Kompakt funk. Fascinating the way this record weaves its micro-house and machine r&b shapes together, envisioning an unlikely sonic pact between the two forms before they'd even fully come into their own. The juxtaposition certainly makes far more sense in 2018 than it would have at the time. But then, they don't call Juan AtkinsThe Originator for nothing...
Last Transport (To Alpha Centauri), which plays like a downbeat, deconstructed take on the earliest Metroplex releases, is to No UFO's as Funk Gets Stronger (Part 1) is to Flash Light. It's a great little piece of electronic funk that very strongly recalls Kraftwerk circa Computer World, but with a glitch in the machine. There certainly seems to be a fair bit of mischief about it, the delivery executed with a wink and a nod.
The record's penultimate track is a tight edit of I Wanna Be There, which you'll remember originally appeared on Sonic Sunset. Within the context of the record, it's the mirror image of The Flow, an r&b-inflected pop song at sea in abstraction. The third of the singles from this record (after Starlight and The Flow), the I Wanna Be There features an aqua tint drum 'n bass mix from Wax Doctor and a lush tech jazz rework from Dave Angel. Once again, however, the kicker is the remix by the man himself. Stripping the track down to a sleek spacecraft simplicity, Atkins aligns it even more closely with Infiniti's digital micro-funk moves.
Which are also writ large on Lightspeed, the closing track to the Deep Space saga. Fusing the celestial atmospherics of Starlight with the shuffling catch-up groove Milky Way, it's as if the scrambled memories of the record are being rearranged in the slipstream across the dark side of Jupiter. Beyond the infinite. With just a snatch of almost subliminally funky bass and the occasional synth shimmer, it's the perfect ending to this intergalactic voyage.
As I said before, Deep Space feels more futuristic with every passing year. At the time, one might not have noted the implicit connections made between Pony, Beau Mot Plage and Finley's Rainbow, but with the benefit of hindsight, they're all here clear as crystal. Somewhere in the record's DNA lie the whisper of future figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk, Spacek and the music they would bring. Juan Atkins mapped out this strange point of intersection where cosmic r&b, shimmering micro-house, electronic jazz and straight up techno all collide to form the basis of machine soul: the art form of the 21st century. You're in deep space.
When discussing dance music — particularly of the electronic variety — the next logical step onward after electro crept out of cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit at the midpoint of the 1980s. Yeah, I'm talking about house and techno. These two covered at once, as it's more illuminating to discuss the sounds of deep house and acid alongside techno's stripped-down funk (and vice versa). I believe that this will become increasingly apparent as we continue. So much music draws from both simultaneously, from Slam to the Earthbeat records, that the two forms clearly excel in each other's company as post-disco dancefloor head music.
Where better to begin than Underground Resistance? Perhaps the spiritual embodiment of techno music, they nevertheless retain strong shades of house in their music's DNA (indeed, their first couple records were house endeavors). More than any other crew, UR (alongside orbital figures like Drexciya and The Martian) seemed to continue the good work Juan Atkins began when he alchemized the form in the first place. One could even make the case that Model 500's 1990 EP Ocean To Ocean laid out the blueprint for the UR sound a couple months in advance.
It does quite literally seem to be the foundation of the whole Nation 2 Nation, World 2 World and Galaxy 2 Galaxy series of records, which shear into the same pioneering tech jazz vein that UR would continue to explore with records like Codebreaker and The Turning Point. The label art for the latter featured the likes of James Brown, Ravi Shankar, Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder, Florian Schneider and Chuck D, placing their music within the context of a wide continuum of visionary iconoclasts.
As Tim Barr writes in Techno: The Rough Guide:
Detroit's Underground Resistance occupy a territory that is somewhere between the reclusive mystique of Kraftwerk, the radical politicisation of Public Enemy and their own unique interpretation of Afro-futurist tropes.
This unique interpretation would often take the crew into deep space, which they explored in the form of records like The Final Frontier and X-102 Discovers The Rings Of Saturn — even veering into trancelike shapes with the (closely-affiliated) Red Planet records — reading the undiscovered country as freedom from the tyranny of the perpetually closed mind. This often manifested itself in a similar shade of utopian vision as those conjured up by 4 Hero's Parallel Universe.
However, like their counterparts on Dollis Hill, there was an undeniable darkside to UR's endeavors. The baleful shapes of the Sonic EP are quintessentially Terminal Vibration, their rhythmic dexterity matching anything discussed thus far in the realm of post punk. See also Suburban Knight's Nocturbulous Behavior and Andre Holland's City Of Fear. There are a number of DJ mixes that UR put out at the turn of the century that essay this territory brilliantly: DJ Rolando's Vibrations and The Aztec Mystic Mix are full of brilliant electronic noise. On overhearing the music, a friend once commented that it sounded like a washing machine!3
Even better was Nocturbulous Behavior: The Mix. Credited to 011, which was the catalog number for Suburban Knight's original 1993 EP of the same title, it found James Pennington tearing through the label's back catalog and working up a killer mix throughout which urban paranoia reigned supreme.4 This approach mirrored his own records like The Art Of Stalking and the By Night EP, on which Pennington proved himself one of the great manipulators of sound, moving it in great slabs across tracks that were pure hard-edged Gothic funk.
This fit perfectly with UR's hard music from a hard city aesthetic, which informed large swathes of the labels output. Records like X-101's Sonic Destroyer, UR's The Punisher and The Riot EP refracted Belgian hardcore back across the Atlantic, inspiring ever-intensifying experiments in sonic extremism from The Mover's wickedly deranged techno to the zombie brigades of Dutch gabber. Message To The Majors even sounded like a particularly dystopian slab of U.K. ardkore that Liam Howlett would have killed to have included on The Prodigy's Music For The Jilted Generation!
The original Belgian new beat as essayed by figures like Set Up System, Human Resource, 80 Aum, Outlander and Frank De Wulf raised a dazzling cacophony and razed everything in their path. The latter was the most prolific auteur, unleashing a series of B-Sides EPs over the first half of the 90s. Tunes like Dominator, The Vamp, Mindcontroller and Factory (Parallax Mix) were the sound of techno at it's most gloriously unaffected, noise music for the ravefloor pure and simple. Oftentimes, these tracks would take their cue from industrial EBM (Electronic Body Music), although there was significant inspiration taken from hip hop as well.
Outlander even seemed to hoover up the club pianos of Italo house and set them to overdrive in his acid-tinged missive The Vamp. Much like U.K. ardkore, if there was a standard operating procedure, then it was throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. New beat itself had a serious impact on the nascent ardkore sound, and vice versa, with both forms instigating each other to ever higher levels of intensity. However, if there was one key input that had a greater impact than any other, it was a trio of roughneck producers from New York City.
I'm talking about Joey Beltram, Lenny Dee and Frankie Bones, whose sick noise was writ large on records like Energy Flash, Mentasm and the Bonesbreaks series of EPs (not to mention the output of Lenny Dee's Industrial Strength imprint). Beltram's prime inspiration for Energy Flash was Black Sabbath, while the twisted synth sounds of Mentasm introduced the world to the indelible hoover sound (so named because it sounded something like a vacuum cleaner firing up!). Even taken on its own, the latter was a crucial building block in Belgium's rave hardcore and the hooligan sounds of U.K. ardkore jungle alike, which makes it one of the key records of the decade almost by default.
This sound was arguably taken to its diamond-hard apex by Germany's Marc Acardipane across a whole raft of records on his own Planet Core Productions and Dance Ecstasy 2001 imprints. Mescalinum United's Reflections Of 2017, which featured the epochal We Have Arrived on the flip, out-nastied everybody up to that point and set a benchmark for the harder wing of rave producers to pursue.5 My absolute favorite record on PCP is The Mover's Frontal Sickness, which combined two blistering EPs into one unmissable double-pack rounded out by the proto-gloomcore of Body Snatchers (Impaler - First Mix) and Reconstructin' Instructions cyborg hip hop science.
Another Teutonic auteur of the abrasive was Martin Damm (aka Biochip C.). In contrast to Arcadipane's pounding rhythms, Damm spent a satisfying amount of type working with breakbeats, which he splintered across his tracks sounding like nothing so much as wickedly twisted video game music. His debut album, Biocalypse, is one of rave's crowning achievements, gliding from grinding downtempo to speedfreak hardcore with nary a thought given to convention. One of the most impressive records of the decade, taking electronic music's development well past the breaking point, it deserves to be more widely available.
If you rewind back to the 1980s, there's a handful of figures that laid the groundwork for all these lofty achievements. I've spent some serious time on the unassailable merits of Kevin Saunderson, and we've already discussed New York's terrible trio, but there's one man I've left out: Mr. Todd Terry. Across a whole mess of records released under names like Black Riot, Lime Life, Royal House, Orange Lemon and Swan Lake, he near singlehandedly defined the sound of cut-and-paste house music. His music often played like hip hop reworked to a 4/4 beat.
The output of labels like Fourth Floor, Atmosphere and Nu Groove were defined by this sound, putting out records both abrasive and deep (and everything in between) over the course of their limited run. This strand gets picked up by Strictly Rhythm in the 90s, a label that put out later records by Todd Terry
and refugee from ChicagoDJ Pierre (alongside scores of new artists like Damon Wild, George Morel and Roger Sanchez), coming to dominate the city's club landscape throughout much of the decade. At its best, it was the sound of raw, rough edges and floor-busting dance.
Appropriately, there's a particular wing of techno that runs parallel to all this, a rough and tumble sound a million miles away from the sleek futurism of Kraftwerk. I'll place its genesis with Eddie Flashin' Fowlkes' Goodbye Kiss (which was for all intents and purposes a house record), but I have none other than Carl Craig down as the true guardian of the form. The original trio of 69 records (4 Jazz Funk Classics, Lite Music and Sound On Sound) enshrined this sound around rough cut rhythms, raw analogue basslines and tarnished synth textures, offering a hard-edged take on his Psyche/BFC-era material and the dreamlike, synth-smeared stylings his earlier Retroactive imprint.
Operating at the interzone between house and techno, it's no wonder that Craig's Paperclip People project often sheared into similar territory on tracks like Oscillator, Paperclip Man and Tweakityourself, where breakbeats and tricky polyrhythms are usually as prominent as the pulsing 4/4 groove. See also Designer Music and his remixes for figures like Alexander Robotnick, Telex and Cesaria Evora. Tangentially, I've often thought that Stacey Pullen's Black Odyssey records from the turn of the century (particularly Sweat and The Stand) were in thrall to this slabs-of-synth sound, albeit executed with a far more linear approach.
Interestingly, despite his reputation as Detroit's mellow man (see records like Metaphor and The Narcissist), my favorite stuff by Kenny Larkin is often his rawest. His sophomore release was the Integration EP, an ace selection of four percussion-heavy technoid outings shot through with wild bleeps and built on chunky drum machine riddims. He also indulged in the harder stuff with his Dark Comedy moniker, culminating in the Seven Days LP (which featured the pulverizing techno claustrophobia of The Bar).
I remember Larkin performing at the DEMF with a deep, blues-inflected sound unlike anything we'd yet heard from the man. I remember asking around about it at the time and no one seemed to know anything! It remain was to a mystery until the release of the second Dark Comedy album, Funkfaker: Music Saves My Soul, which presented a hybrid of both the shimmering shapes found in his most gentle LP material and his spectral Seven Days maneuvers on the darkside.
The other area where Larkin excelled was in the remix. Of the top of the dome, I can think of his shimmering remix of Carl Craig's Science Fiction, a speaker-shredding edit of E-Dancer's Pump The Move and the SadeSurrender Your Love remix for Illegal Detroit. He turned in a duo of serious dancefloor burners on the KMS label with Paris Grey's Smile/Life double a-side 12" at the turn of the century, and then doing it again more recently with his remix of Kevin Saunderson's Future.
Three of his vintage remixes of Inner City material turned up on the label a few years back on the aptly titled The KMS Remixes 12". These remixes often seemed like a chance for the usually contemplative Larkin to get down and pump some bass on the dancefloor.
Of course even Derrick May, Master of Strings himself, had his own fair share of down-and-dirty techno in the shape of Kaos, Salsa Life, Emanon and even that untitled track tacked to the end of the Strings Of Life 12". Plus, don't forget that Intercity's Groovin' Without A Doubt was May and Kevin Saunderson jamming out some basic jack trax in the studio. Even the most ethereal producers often had something darker hidden just around the corner...
In point of fact, I can remember that the techno grind of Strand's Bloated (Juggernaut Mix) (from the EP Floyd Cramer's Revenge) had me imagining they were this mysterious, ultra-underground crew (along the lines of UR) when in reality they were a trio of deep house mavens (who usually recorded under the name T.H.D. for Antonio Echols' Serious Grooves imprint) getting freaky with the machines. Records like this exist at the very axis where the jagged edges of post punk intersect with the moods and grooves of machine funk.
If you remain skeptical, I direct you immediately to Claude Young's entry in the DJ-Kicks series, which was mixed on two decks in a friends bedroom.
In the liner notes, Young elaborates:
I wanted it to feel live. You can hear a few pops and crackles. Everything's a bit too sterile these days. I take a more street level approach...I usually play with two copies, bounce the beats around, do spinbacks and scratch tricks. I don't mind taking a chance. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but life is all about taking chances.6
Sure enough, its a down-and-dirty vision of no-nonsense street techno that sidesteps the often linear nature of much of the more typically stripped-down techno. Skating on the edge of a funktional minimalism, it's nevertheless informed by a healthy dose of wildstyle spirit that finds Young rockin' doubles like a hip hop DJ. This is to Cybotron what Cybotron was to Parliament: a no-nonsense distillation of the funk into highly concentrated form.
Featuring multiple appearances from Clark's Lofthouse, both sides of the Man Made EP and two tracks from The Skinless Brothers supremely funky Escape From Vienna, it's an absolutely blinding mix of juke joint machine funk busting out some street corner dive on the edge of the city. See also Patrick Pulsinger, especially his classic Dogmatic Sequences records (which have recently been collected on the Dogmatic Sequences: The Series 1994-2006 compilation), all of which offer up similar hard-as-nails shapes with a restless, nimble touch.
All of which have their roots in the granddaddy of elastic machine funk (a dead giveaway being the presence of Young's own Acid Wash Conflict), the vintage acid house that seeped out of Chicago in the latter half of the 80s like a contagion. Phuture's Acid Tracks is often considered the prototypical acid house record, but to my mind the don of the form is Armando, whose Land Of Confusion remains the perfect acid house track. Also worth a look-in is The New World Order double-pack from 1993, packed with stripped-to-the-bone acid jack trax like Venture 001 and Trance Dance.
It's interesting to note that there's this whole side of acid house that was mapped out by the dons of deep house, with Mr. Fingers' Washing Machine being first out the gate and sharing space with the epochal Can You Feel It way back in 1986. Larry Heard also pumped the 303s on those Gherkin Jerks records (also recently compiled on the appropriately titled The Gherkin Jerks Compilation), and even as late as 2005 he was still flirting with acid alongside his more typical deep, jazzed-out cuts on Loose Fingers: A Soundtrack From The Duality Double-Play.
Deep house icon Marshall Jefferson also got stoopid Sleezy D.'s I've Lost Control, on which a sustained paranoia ran rampant, while sometime associates like Adonis and Bam Bam went on to represent the acid life to an even greater degree. Farley "Jackmaster" Funk, who made waves with his careening house covers of Isaac Hayes' Love Can't Turn Around and Stevie Wonder's As Always (even turning in one of the great unsung deep house cuts, Farley Knows House), had plenty of time to deliver acid trax of his own, particularly on the No Vocals Necessary LP.
All of this got picked up on in the U.K., where it fomented a revolution in the form of the Second Summer Of Love. Intriguingly, many of the early figures to adopt acid house were post punks lurking in the shadows of the movement, figures like 808 State's Graham Massey (of the Biting Tongues), Warriors Dance kingpin Tony Thorpe (of 400 Blows) and The Orb, which was masterminded by the triple threat of Dr. Alex Paterson and Youth (roadie and bassist for Killing Joke, respectively) and Thomas Fehlmann (of German post punk group Palais Schaumburg).
I've always loved the wild shapes thrown on 808 State's Newbuild, perched as it is midway between acid house and techno, cut while Gerald Simpson was still in the fold. The dark psychedelia of Narcossa still stands as one of the great acid/techno workouts ever conceived, and the remainder of the record remains a brilliantly rude fusion of the forms. Rephlex did a timely reissue of the record at the turn of the century that I was lucky enough to snap up at the time (please believe a young man's mind was blown).
This was mirrored by the early stirrings of The Future Sound Of London, who had their own thing going in the late 90s with the Humanoid project. Their output ranged from the vocal house of records like Slam, The Deep and the Global Humanoid album to the wasp buzz mayhem of Stakker Humanoid. Even as their records grew ever more lustrous, they still had plenty of noise left to bring in the form of tunes like We Have Explosive, Moscow and The Tingler. The archival Sessions 84-88 compilation (curated once again by Rephlex) is a veritable cornucopia of such unreconstructed electronic noise.
One record that I was always surprised that Rephlex hasn't gotten around to reissuing is Bleep's The North Pole By Submarine, a record that label boss Richard D. James at one time admitted to listening to once a day! (Barr 52)2b The 1990 debut techno outing of Geir Jenssen, who started out in 4AD-esque group Bel Canto, North Pole featured an intricate web of samples, synths and drum machine rhythms that was utterly of the moment (if not even slightly ahead of it).
These angular shapes lived on in certain corners of Jenssen's later output as Biosphere, moments like Baby Interphase, Novelty Waves and his score to the movie Insomnia. Jenssen hailed from Tromsø, Norway, a city located 350 kilometers within the Arctic Circle, and the glacial climate of his hometown would be increasingly felt on his music as his recording career progressed. On later ambient excursions like Substrata and Cirque, he seemed to be standing shoulder to shoulder with figures like Brian Eno and William Basinski.
Rewind back to the Bleep era, when across the North SeaThe Black Dog were following up their preposterously ahead-of-their time Virtual and Dogism EPs (both 1989) with the Techno Playtime EP. Arguably the godfathers of the whole Artificial Intelligence strain of electronic music, which they explored extensively across albums like Temple Of Transparent Balls and Spanners, they were also somehow messing around with proto-ardkore breakbeats before everyone just about everyone, from 4 Hero to Genaside II and even Shut Up And Dance!
Actually, SUADdid put out 5 6 7 8 in 1989 as well, but that was largely still a relatively straight-up U.K. rap record. It was the following year's £10 To Get In that really cemented their status as drum 'n bass trailblazers, the promise of which they fulfilled time and time again with records like Raving I'm Raving, Death Is Not The End and The Ragga Twins' Reggae Owes Me Money. Without a doubt, SUAD (the artist and the label they masterminded) were one of thee key institutions in jungle's protracted genesis. Rave records don't come much better than the cloud-stomping mayhem of Cape Fear!
The most stripped-down — and dare I say techno — of all the acts on Shut Up And Dance were Codine, who put out two 12"s on the label, and Rum & Black, who were thankfully a bit more prolific with four 12"s and even a full-length album. 1991's With Ice yoked abrasive bleeps and synth textures to sample-heavy breakbeat burners, essentially hammering down the sound of quintessential ardkore with tunes like Wicked, Tablet Man and We Were Robbed Of Our... (Religion, Culture And God), winding up with a stone cold classic in the process.
At this point we descend into the kaleidoscopic whirlpool of ardkore rave, darkside and straight up jungle. Figures like Genaside II, Foul Play, Acen put out genre-defining records, and true to Nuggets style there were blazing records cropping up all over. My absolute favorite progenitors of the form, 4 Hero, brought the music through its dawning years to the depths of its twisted darkside before Journey From The Light launched them through the stratosphere into to the cosmic jazz utopia of Parallel Universe.
Their lone album as Jacob's Optical Stairway ploughed a similar furrow of deep space ambient jungle, while Nu Era records like Beyond Gravity and Breaking In Space found them essaying their own unique vision of techno music. This vision was showcased further on the two-volume The Deepest Shade Of Techno that they curated on their own label, featuring luminaries from Detroit and beyond (but mostly Detroit!) alongside Nu Era's own lushly produced Cost Of Livin'.
A Guy Called Gerald blazed a similar trail on his Juice Box imprint, when — after a solid discography of prime techno output like Voodoo Ray, Emotion Electric and Inertia's Nowhere To Run (released on Carl Craig and Damon Booker's Retroactive imprint) — he transitioned into pure breakbeat music, blazing a singular path from the genre-defining ruffneck vibes of 28 Gun Bad Boy to the shimmering ambient jungle of Black Secret Technology in the space of a couple years.
At this point Goldie — who had been closely aligned with the Reinforced crew — became the figurehead of the scene in the public imagination after unleashing records like Rufige Kru's Terminator, Metalheads' Angel and the Ghosts EP on an unsuspecting public. His Metalheadz imprint put out loads of genre-shaping records like Dillinja's The Angels Fell, Photek's Natural Born Killa EP and Ed Rush's Skylab. The latter presaged the cold robotics of techstep that would swarm across jungle over the next few years, arguably the point at which it became drum 'n bass, and therefore something else altogether.
Figures like Source Direct and Photek epitomized the moodiest (and in my opinion greatest) corner of drum 'n bass, with records like Exorcise The Demons and Modus Operandi (respectively) moving the music in a deliciously paranoid direction that would have been the perfect musical counterpoint to The Parallax View and actually ended up scoring Darren Aronofsky's debut feature film, Pi (see also Blade, which made great use of Source Direct's Call & Response). Dom & Roland's The Planets explored similar isolationist territory, its fragmented breakbeats and lonely textures offering up the perfect metaphor for the deep black of space.
A figure that — much like Marc Arcadipane and Martin Damm — took these sounds to their absolute limit was Alec Empire, with a brand of post-rave noise he dubbed Digital Hardcore. Forming Atari Teenage Riot with Hanin Elias and Carl Crack, the crew raised much mayhem over the course of the decade, fusing the spirits of punk and rave more literally than just about anyone else ever has. However, Empire released his finest music under his own name, with records like Low On Ice and Les Étoiles Des Filles Mortes rivaling even that of the abstract dons of electro-acoustica.
By the mid-nineties, there had developed a strange détente between the abstract wing of electronica and jungle, figures like Squarepusher, µ-Ziq and Aphex Twin, whose 1995 record Richard D. James Album was a masterstroke of insane digital programming. This was music that had little relation to the dancefloor proper; rather like prog or the even more abstract end of jazz fusion, it was music to enjoy while daydreaming in your living room, ideally while leaning back in a comfy armchair.
Even outside the more obvious Warp-related records of Autechre and Boards Of Canada were a cadre of figures from all across the globe specializing in warped techno, ranging from Germany's Alter Ego (especially in their Sensorama guise), Italy's Bochum Welt and Japan's Ken Ishii (whose records sound galaxies away from anyone else's). U.K. figures like Cristian Vogel and Neuropolitique were also key progenitors of a particularly skewed brand of techno. The operative word in this wing of techno being idiosyncrasy.
In one of those lovely twists of fate that seemed to happen every other week in the 90s, Japanese girl group Nav Katze were remixed by a brace of U.K. techno artists rounded out by The Black Dog, Aphex Twin, Global Communication and Ultramarine. If you've ever read The Parallax 100, you'll know that its one of my favorite records ever. The Retro 313 Future Memory Mix of Crazy Dream, perpetrated by Global Communication in their old-time Reload guise, is a jacking techno workout along the lines of the whole 69 continuum (Carl Craig even included it in his DJ-Kicks mix that he did at the height of his genre-defining work within the form), albeit with a dreamy, cinematic haze moving across its surface like mists over the ocean.
The lion's share of the record, however, is dominated by gently skanking downbeat numbers like Nobody Home (Ultramarine Mix) and the unclassifiable — but above all else utterly beautiful — Never Not (Black Dog Mix #1). Often whimsical but never frivolous, I've often thought that Never Mind runs parallel to the spliffed-out electronica of To Rococo Rot's Veiculo and Mouse On Mars (especially early records like Autoditacker and Iaora Tahiti) as a sort of languorous electronic head music that never takes itself too seriously.
This thread gets taken to its logical conclusion at the dawning of the 21st century by certain stateside figures, the best of which were Blectum From Blechdom, whose scatological take on electronic music seemed to rewire it all back through pre-dance forms in the days of The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music. It was brash, irreverent, restlessly creative and miles away from the stuffy climate of much abstract electronica to surface during the era. Matmos were another duo who went against the grain of the times, applying Burroughs-derived cutup techniques to their music and arriving at a sound that felt of a piece with electro-acoustic music modes of operation.
Similarly, there was a wing of abstract electronica that reared its head as the 90s progressed exemplified by Oval's glitched-out symphonies and Panasonic's abrasive black leather desolation. The latter tapped into the same sense of isolationism as the post punks, even collaborating with Suicide's Alan Vega on the Endless LP. This was the sound of flutters and flashes of light in the loneliness of a pitch black room, with nothing but a madman to keep you company.
Slightly later the German duo Funkstörung combined the glitched production techniques of Oval with Panasonic's abrasive isolationism to arrive at the cold brutality of Appetite For Disctruction, which featured the awesome Grammy Winners (featuring Triple H of Antipop Consortium). The track seemed to update the white noise hip hop of the Death Comet Crew and Gettovetts for the 21st century, with all the subsequent developments in complex rhythmic tricknology that implies. This is the sound of computers deconstructing one another.
The isolationist side of the coin was taken to its logical conclusion by Pole, with a glitchy take on electronic dub that transformed the music into android tears in the rain. In some ways, one could read the Pole trilogy as a precursor to Burial's lonesome dubstep architecture. Richie Hawtin — who became ever more abstract as the decade wore on — checked into similar territory with Plastikman's Consumed, an awesome dub-scape that found the man veering from his past in acid-tinged techno into the elegant architecture of minimalism.
Now the minimalist streak in techno was never my favorite strain of the form, and in many ways I think it sounded the slow-motion death rattle of the scene's vibrant immediacy. Still, there were a handful of auteurs that I wound up warming to. Surgeon's black country sound was a bracingly physical take on minimalism, informed as it was by krautrock and his alliance with Scorn's Mick Harris. Tracks like Badger Bite and Reptile Mess (from the Pet 2000 EP) were crumbling Gothic noisescapes that actually delivered on minimalism's promise of back-to-basics hi-jacking intensity.
His full-length albums were worthwhile as well, with Basic Tonal Vocabulary being the definitive document of the early Surgeon sound (and mimicked a Faust sleeve in the process!), while Force + Form arrived at a sort of machine funk elegance over the course of its four marathon suites. Perhaps minimalism was the point where the chin-stroking tendencies of IDM were re-absorbed into techno's base dancefloor intent? In passing I should also note Luke Slater's Planetary Assault Systems output, which consistently delivered great clanking slabs of minimal techno that remain my favorite stuff he's done.
Of course there was a healthy brace of Detroit minimalism, with the widely acknowledged dons being Jeff Mills and Robert Hood. However, I tend to prefer their more introspective material to banging records like Waveform Transmission Vol. 1 and Internal Empire. Jeff Mills' re-imagined score to Fritz Lang's Metropolis remains my most treasured of his albums, the flickering sonics of tracks like Perfecture: Somewhere Around Now perfectly matching the films monochrome futurism.
Similarly, my favorite Robert Hood records are his Nighttime World trilogy, which seemed to reroute their energy through machine funk back to classic soul records like Marvin Gaye's I Want You, Leroy Hutson's Hutson and Leon Ware's Musical Massage. Jeff Mills struck a similar chord with his Every Dog Has Its Day series, full of lush techno soul like Now Is The Time, Arcadia and Dr. Ice, songs that would have sounded right at home on any relatively adventurous r&b radio station at the time.
If you want to talk minimal Detroit, then my favorite material comes down to things like Black Noise's Nature Of The Beast, Sean Deason's The Shit (which is the stateside cousin to Dave Clarke's Red 2) and Scan 7's Black Moon Rising. However, if there were one auteur that I'd single out for praise, then it's Kalamazoo's Jay Denham. His involvement in techno dated back to the early years, and he debuted with Fade II Black's In Synch on Transmat's Fragile subsidiary, a record that already betrayed a blistering simplicity that would come to define his work in the intervening years.
He launched his Black Nation imprint in 1992, the output of which included records like Blackman's Redrum EP, Vice's Player Hater EP and the awesome Birth Of A Nation Part II compilation (which featured Chance McDermott aka Chancellor's blistering Insane). Denham's records were minimal the way Chicago records had been: by default (even down to the artless grit of those almost-photocopied center labels). Which all makes perfect sense when you realize that Kalamazoo sits equidistant between the cities of Chicago and Detroit.
Denham was perhaps the most successful of all the minimal producers in capturing the raw jack of Chicago's original acid trax. In fact, the output of Black Nation bears a striking similarity-of-intent to the banging post-acid sounds of Chicago producers like DJ Skull and Steve Poindexter. However, despite the fact that their no-nonsense approach resulted in some of the most blank-eyed nosebleed techno imaginable (see Skull's Guard Your Grill and Poindexter's Short Circuit), they nevertheless possessed a scientific precision that somehow prefigured the pristine hall-of-mirrors sound of micro-house.
Similarly, The Holy Ghost Inc.'s Mad Monks On Zinc turned up preposterously early (1991) for this sort of oneiric trance-inducing minimalism. One almost imagines the titular monks wandering out of the mountains to unveil secret knowledge to the villagers below. I'm reminded of Bandulu's Guidance, which similarly invokes images from the caves in Altered States. Another crew that seemed to hint at minimalism before its time, they delved deeper yet into dub techniques and everything they did was imbued with a spectral mysticism lying just beneath the surface, forever setting them apart from the pack.
If we're speaking of dubbed-out techno — and we are — the dons are undoubtedly Basic Channel. Their pulsing, motorik grooves were quite simply magnetic, drawing tiny particles of sound into their orbit as they slowly coalesced into discrete tracks. Hypnotic 4/4 slates like Quadrant Dub stretched out toward infinity, while Lyot Rmx nearly eschewed beats altogether in its glorious descent to the center of the world.
Detroit's Terrence Dixon gradually developed a similar approach in the wake of Basic Channel's innovations, a sound showcased on his Minimalism and Minimalism II 12"s, ultimately culminating in the awesome From The Far Future LP. The record was shot through with the shadows of machine soul, its ghost funk best heard in the game grid techno of Shuffle All Circuits (the sound of the Tron: Legacy soundtrack ten years early). Convextion was another minimalist auteur that walked the path with elegance, and his early records coming out on Sean Deason's Matrix Records essayed a spectral vision of techno's soul in the machine.
I remember first hearing the track from the debut Convextion EP in the context of Juan Atkins' MasterMix, which even in the esteemed company of Martin Circus, Black Noise, Blaze and A Number Of Names spun me around and caught me completely off guard. It was the first time I really grasped the idea of minimal techno's implied funk, and whenever those skeletal sequences starting shaking up up and down the soundscape I was slayed. That mix, presented by the godfather himself, remains an unmissable romp through techno/house/disco/machine soul, moving through their varied worlds with ease. I imagine that it must capture the spirit of all those early shows the Deep Space crew put on back in the mid-eighties.
Of course alongside these trailblazers Magic Juan himself certainly had a hand in shaping micro-house's path with his Infiniti output. The early works were all scattered across various 12"s and compilations before being handily compiled for The Infiniti Collection. Listen to Flash Flood and tell me that isn't pure micro-house. And in 1993, no less! He followed up with the Skynet album and the Never Tempt Me 12" which featured remixes from Cristian Vogel and 3MB (Thomas Fehlmann and Basic Channel's Moritz von Oswald).
It was a perfect fusion of the machine soul shapes of Model 500's 90s records and the minimalist austerity of micro-house, a circle that he'd begun to square as early as 1995 with the Deep Space LP. The majority of the album was engineered by Moritz von Oswald (who also remixed Starlight for the 12"), with the machine soul of The Flow and I Wanna Be There rubbing shoulders with the gentle techno of Milky Way (co-written with Kevin Saunderson and mixed by François Kevorkian) and the sparse digital funk of Last Transport (To Alpha Centauri).
The final piece in the roots-of-micro-house puzzle is the lustrous, playful techno that emerged from Cologne in the 90s best represented by Jörg Burger and Wolfgang Voigt (aka Mike Ink). Burger turned out the Gaussian-blurred techno of The Bionaut's Lush Life Electronica before bounding into 1997 with The Modernist's pristine Opportunity Knox. Its liquid machine funk pooling somewhere between house and techno, it was micro-house avant la lettre.
Mike Ink's early classic Life's A Gas, which featured snatches of everything from T. Rex to Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, just might be the first instance of a straight-up micro-house full-length. Coming in at 1995, its nimble grooves and spangly textures still sound like the future. Ink descended ever further into ambience with a succession of four records under the name Gas, before starting Kompakt Records, the spiritual home of micro-house.
Micro-house proper as defined by the likes of Isolée, Villalobos and Luomo really came to the fore around the turn of the century. Isolée's debut LP Rest is widely acknowledged as a classic, and rightly so, as its mind-tickling tactile micro-funk is utterly engrossing. Even better are the 12" mixes of Beau Mot Plage (which does feature on Rest in edited form), particularly the glistening hall-of-mirrors tango of Heaven & Earth Re-Edit and Freeform Reform Parts 1 & 2's 11-minute tech jazz rave up.
When it comes to micro-house, my favorite micro-house long-player remains Luomo's Vocalcity, a six-song set of marathon (only one track clocks in under ten minutes) deep house workouts that veer into a sort of neon-lit bedroom funk. One can almost sense the flicker of SA-RA in the rolling, deconstructed boogie of Synkro (unsurprisingly my absolute favorite cut on the album). The half-lit, burnished edges of Vocalcity make readily apparent that, when all is said and done, micro-house was always an outgrowth of the initial deep house impulse.
One needs look no further than Virgo's lone self-titled album for all the proof you need. The record is as perfectly realized as prime Kraftwerk: Ride's perpetual trance dance is the blueprint for the deeper end of micro-house, while the gentle machine soul of School Hall is quite simply sublime. Virgo fulfilled the promise of everything Larry Heard laid out on his early Mr. Fingers sides (collected on the absolutely essential Ammnesia compilation). See also Marshall Jefferson's Jungle Wonz records, rounding out this trio of Chicago deep house auteurs.
This mirrored in New York by the Nu Groove imprint, particularly the output of the Burrell Brothers and Bobby Konders. Records like Aphrodisiac's Song Of The Siren and the N.Y. House'n AuthorityAPT. record epitomized a quintessentially Big Apple, cosmopolitan take on deep house, while Bobby Konders' House Rhythms and Dub Poets' Black & White opened the floodgates of Jamaican dub pressure into the music. Those nimble, casually funky rhythms of the New York mix of Open House's Seven Day Weekend add a healthy big city swagger to the Compass Point vibes in evidence throughout.
All these deep, dark maneuvers formed the perfect backdrop for the lonesome vocal stylings of a certain type of house producer exemplified by Jamie Principle, who pioneered a murmuring, moan-inflected sound that figures like K-Alexi Shelby, Blake Baxter and Bernard Badie then went on to run with. Records like Your Love, Cold World and Baby Wants To Ride established an icy, new wave-informed style heavily indebted to Prince (and I've often thought you could hear a bit of Bowie in there as well). These all informed by a distinctly European flavor that I suspect overlaps significantly with that of progressive-era Detroit.
Unfortunately, Principle never got to deliver an album in the 80s (making that happen is on my Doc Brown bucket list). Thankfully, Lil' Louis did, and From The Mind Of Lil' Louis was every bit as iconoclastic as one might hope from the author of the ten-minute orgasmic house masterpiece French Kiss (its pulsing sequences often pointed to as the birth of trance). Moody, spiritual and introspective, it was nevertheless intercut with a deeply freaky bent, boasting the original stalker track (I Called U) and the apocalyptic Blackout. An undeniable classic, it deserves a spot on all the 80s lists.
Curtis Jones aka Cajmere aka Green Velvet brought out the freak in full force for the 90s on his Cajual and Relief imprints. Tunes like The Stalker and Land Of The Lost picked up where Lil' Louis left off, bringing an added punch of technoid minimalism to bear on the sound. Indeed, Velvet brought the noise too, as anyone who's heard Answering Machine or Flash will tell you. On Whatever, the martial rhythms bled into EBM/industrial territory that was thoroughly post punk (and well before it was cool again!), with La La Land even becoming something of a hit.
We're now rounding into the home stretch for all of you falling asleep back there! Moodymann's post-post-soul sound, featuring dense layers of overlapping synths and textures, resulted in some of the earliest filter-disco music (a sound French acts like Daft Punk and Cassius would later take into the charts. Other Detroit figures like Terrence Parker, Alton Miller and Theo Parrish had similarly rootsy sounds that seemed to stretch back to the days when Westbound was king of the city, all three equally comfortable with deep, spiritual slates and tracky noise in equal measure.
I've often thought that if there was one crew that unexpectedly mirrored all this Motor City activity, it was the Lords Of Svek. Hailing from Sweden, the trio of Adam Beyer, Jesper Dahlbäck and Joel Mull formed the core of the output on the Svek label. This lot were the realSwedish house mafia! Offering up a perfect fusion of technoid futurism and jazzed-out house, the label's rich discography deserves to be more widely heard. You could do a lot worse than to start with the Stars compilation, which features not one but two tracks from Conceiled Project's awesome Definition Of D (my favorite of which is the loping deep house paranoia of D-Weqst).
Aside from the obvious stylistic comparisons (of which I'd venture that Svek was ECM to KDJ's Impulse! and Sound Signature's Blue Note), there were also a number of literal connections made around this time. Not only did Aril Brikha's Deeparture In Time and Art Of Vengeance EP (which featured the micro-house classic Groove La Chord) came out on Transmat, but Wild Planet's post-bleep 'n bass-era output like the Vocoder 12" and the Transmission full-length were released by Octave One's 430 West imprint. The Transmitter album in particular is a great little record that I never tire of, its sound hovering twenty feet above the ground in the interzone between techno, house and electro.
Octave One themselves are one of my key groups, in the upper echelon with SA-RA and Smith & Mighty. Everything they put out in the 90s is solid gold, with tracks like Siege, Black On Black and The Neutral Zone holding up as perfect techno workouts (see also the exquisite Art And Soul EP). Random Noise Generation was the sample-warping anything goes side project in contrast to Octave One's geometric precision, tunes like Hysteria and Falling In Dub the dark, twisted flipside to the Inner City records.
From the very beginning, there was a distinct machine soul current running through Octave One's output. Most obviously in I Believe (especially in its Magic Juan Mix), but also
the lush, low-slung rhythms of Nicolette and The Neutral Zone's rewired funk (not to mention Burujha's 1970s soul OST inflections). However, it all came crashing into the foreground at the turn of the century with Blackwater (featuring the vocals of Ann Saunderson), a rework of an earlier instrumental that found the tune remixed by Kevin Saunderson to brilliant effect. All of this two steps away from Ginuwine and Aaliyah.7
I hear similar ties to machine funk running through Stacey Pullen's discography. Going back to his earliest Bango sides, records like Ritual Beating System (Tribal Rythim Mix) and Sphinx had more than a bit of vintage soul about them. Pullen's Kosmic Messenger output — as compiled on the Electronic Poetry collection — makes an excellent case for picking up where Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies left off (alongside the electrofunk of Zapp and Mtume), especially tunes like Eye 2 Eye and Death March that rewire the funk to ever deeper levels of abstraction.
The Silent Phase record that Pullen recorded for Transmat made similar connections (especially in the Curtis Mayfield-reminiscent stylings of Love Comes And Goes), although in tracks like Body Rock and Spirit Of Sankofa one can hear distinct pre-echoes of The Neptunes. This strange pact between the two sides of the coin was further developed on Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday, a record whose undeniable jazz funk sensibilities were backed by a distinctly 21st century rhythmic tricknology.
Which reminds me of Anthony Shakir's quote about only getting into techno because he didn't like the last Parliament record! (Sicko 86)1b More than any other figure his music seems to be shot through with the fragmented remnants of soul. His more dancefloor-oriented sides like Breathe Deeper are post-Funkadelic music in the same way Kosmic Messenger is, reminding one of the imagery around progressive Detroit and The Electrifying Mojo. New wave and funk colliding on the airwaves. See also the wild house shapes of That's What I Want. Mesopotamia, innit?
His moodier, more introspective sides might be even better. Often dealing in splintered breakbeats, he seemed to formulate the broken beat sound near simultaneously to 4 Hero. My absolute favorite the Tracks For My Father EP, a record that I managed to pick up after school back in the day for a few dollars from the cheap bin at the record store next door to Club Elements. It's a great four-track EP, showcasing broken beat shapes and the mutant electro-soul of Fact Of The Matter before it all collapses into the flickering machine soul of Travelers. Shakir later actually worked with the German post punk band F.S.K. in 2004 on First Take Then Shake.
Which brings us to the final outpost in today's elevator ride, the music of young Jimmy Edgar. Any further over the line and you're literally listening to Supa Dupa Fly, which is too far (at least until next episode!). Edgar released the jaw-dropping Morris Nightingale/Kristuit Salu record to little fanfare back in 2002. It should have been massive. Machine funk deconstructed, this liquid r&b is the split of Kraftwerk, J Dilla and Timbaland.
The largely instrumental work later caught the attention of Warp Records, where Edgar found a home for a spell, releasing the Bounce, Make, Model mini-album and the Color Strip LP. Both of which are prime android funk in the Juan Atkins/Prince tradition. True machine soul, in other words, and the perfect segue into the final episode of Terminal Vibration, when we go searching for the soul in the machine...
Terminal Vibration 9: Elevator Music
The MoverBody Snatchers (Impaler - First Mix) (Planet Core Productions )
Second PhaseMentasm (R&S)
4 HeroThe Power (Reinforced)
The Black DogSeers & Sages (Black Dog Productions)
Smart SystemsTingler (Four By Four Mix) (Jumpin' & Pumpin')
I remember Pennington turning in burning hot mix on Groovetech around the same time. Unfortunately, that site (which was something of an online record store, only so much more) is long gone, but someone seems to have uploaded the mix to Youtube! [Check it out at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud41C8Mhml0]
I've always loved this quote from Derrick May, which is quite crisply evocative of the rich undercurrents of depth and mystery running through techno music. Actually, I'm worried I might be paraphrasing somewhat (in fact, it's rather likely, since I can't seem to find the interview I heard it in anywhere). But what the hell, it's a great quote and really ought to be in wide circulation. I'm willing to risk it... so there you go. Needless to say, if anyone can point me in the right direction for the original interview, I'd be most grateful...
Anyway... Techno. Born in the shadows of Detroit's 1980s progressive scene and forged in the unforgiving crucible of the global stage, it's truly one of the key building blocks of modern music — alongside house and hip hop — in the post-disco diaspora. One could trace a thin line leading back to 1970s Düsseldorf, all the way back to the Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express, when excavating its prehistory.
As Kodwo Eshun brilliantly put it, Düsseldorf is the Mississippi Delta, and expanding on that idea, Kraftwerk are to Techno as Muddy Waters is to The Rolling Stones.1Detroit is where the sleek German engineering of Computer World got rebuilt like an American muscle car, souped up for its joyride across dancefloors the world over. Juan Atkins just plugged it all in.
To further extend the metaphor, Atkins' Metroplex was to Sun Records as Derrick May's Transmat was to Chess (with Fragile standing in for Cadet), with Kevin Saunderson's KMS corresponding to Atlantic Records. Ok, ok, I realize that the timeline is inverted, but please believe the comparisons are airtight! You've got the laboratory on one hand and the conservatory on the other, with the proto-Motown assembly line of KMS/Atlantic waiting in the wings. And at that point, it's time to play domination.
Very quickly, it becomes a global affair. You've got vibrant forms springing up all over the place, from Sheffield bleep 'n bass to Belgian new beat and elegant Dutch techno to London ardkore. Auteurs start springing up everywhere, untethered to any sort of centralized scene (albeit often in orbit of crucial outposts like Warp, Sublime and R&S). The meme spreads and mutates and spreads and mutates and spreads... it's a beautiful thing.
The interesting thing to note with techno is how nearly everyone knows the term but so often they haven't actually heard any. Has there ever been a genre so misunderstood? Images of 2 Unlimited and Dance Dance Revolution hang in the public consciousness, even if neither have nothing much to do with techno qua techno. If you tell someone you listen to techno, chances are what they're hearing in their head isn't techno at all but some caricature drawn in broad strokes (the phrase boom boom boom springs to mind).
So at some point I just started saying Detroit Techno when the subject comes up. Not because I'm some sort of purist (I've actually got no time whatsoever for the impulse), but because it short circuits all the pitfalls that might wrong-foot whoever I'm talking with. Suddenly, you're starting from scratch rather than working against a bunch of assumptions. And you've reimbued the term with a sense of mystery which was its birthright all along...
I'd dug dance music in it's various forms going back to Janet Jackson circa Control (hell, Michael Jackson circa Thriller), running alongside the new wave of Depeche Mode and the Talking Heads on through what you'd call early indie dance (New Order and Big Audio Dynamite). Plus the obligatory swingbeat and hip hop, things like Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul, Wreckx-N-Effect's Rump Shaker and the Jungle Brothers. All of which seemed to flow naturally into things like Massive Attack, Underworld and The Prodigy.
Still... I can remember like it was yesterday when I got hit by the straight stuff.
It came in the form of Kevin Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio, and it quite simply blew my mind wide open. This was like everything I'd ever loved in music, only more so. Pure, uncut. I remember wondering about all the names on there: Who is this mysterious Outlander (R&S sorted me out right quick)? What sort of crew is Octave One (for whatever reason, I imagined them as a gang of Germans)? Why are half of these tracks credited to Dobre & Jamez (because they're awesome)?!
From there it was a short step to discovering techno strongholds like Submerge, R&S and Studio !K7 (surfing a rather hardcore crest at the time). I was set for life. I still remembering placing my first mail order, getting things like Kevin Saunderson's Faces & Phases compilation, Octave One's The Living Key (To Images From Above) and Drexciya's The Quest on a hot summer afternoon. Give all those to a high school kid in the late 90s and see what happens!
As a kid, I grew up in various apartments with my parents — who were actually quite young in retrospect (usually around a decade younger than the parents of my peers) — and later my brother Brian once he came along. We moved once a year for the first five years of my life before sneaking into the suburbs once school started. I remember nothing quite made sense again. The kids were different (some awful kids, truth be told! But some cool ones too... it all evens out), etc. Whatever. I suppose I should have adapted, and I suppose that in my own way I did, but then I always was a dreamer...
I used to dream to books, movies, video games... whatever I could get my hands on. I remember just laying on my back looking up at the sky, imagining other worlds. Then, around junior high music hit me full force. Before that I'd been into music at the level of osmosis, the ambient sounds around when you're young, but suddenly it was everywhere! I was feelin' it MAN!!
Like I said, stuff like new wave, hip hop, r&b, certain alternative records. I suppose deep, rhythmic music always appealed to me at the most basic level. Intercut it with a heavy sense of harmonic mystery, and I'm sold.
So when I came across techno it was a match made in heaven.
Walking around town, it wasn't the sound of Nas or Nirvana that would swirl in my mind, but things like 69's Ladies & Gentlemen, Mental Cube's Q and Jark Prongo's Spadet (that and Tricky's Aftermath, Primal Scream's Trainspotting and Bomb The Bass's One To One Religion (Skankapella Mix) on the downbeat flipside). It all seemed to move at the speed of life. At the end of the day, the vibes just synced up with my frequency I suppose...
So what do I like about techno? For one, it's the frequency, the vibe. Amiri Baraka's changing same. That low-slung groove, the scratchy high-end funk chopping between the beats, the compression of ideas. It's the Bug In The Bass Bin, the ever present spectre malfunktion that nevertheless pulses faithfully on. It's the ghosts of jazz and funk and kosmische and disco and industrial and juju lying just beneath the surface.
Not to mention the sense of longing, the alien wonder running through its core. It's Stranger In A Strange Land music, so naturally it made sense to me. Connected to the earth, the stones beneath my feet, but always surrounded by strangers. Something like Theme From It's All Gone Pear Shaped by Digital Justice makes the point better than I ever could... I mean where the hell else are you gonna find something like that but in techno?
It all routes back to a time when I used to dream about living alone on Mars (ha, used to he says!), riding some ancient starship with vast corridors and digital readouts in vivid crimson, three-year-old dreams back on Mollison in the hazy afternoons of late summer. Come to think of it, that was the last time I had a room of my own until college!
Space in both sense of the words. Room to think, room to breathe! That's what I found in techno. No matter what was going on, I could put on some headphones and play Dark Energy's Midnite Sunshine and everything would come into focus (or drift out of focus, if need be).
Put simply, it was an escape route into the rest of my life, when things would begin to make just a little bit more sense. Future music that gave me the gift of a future. Its beat pulsed faithfully like lights along a runway, guiding that starship into the pitch black darkness of the midnight sky. And all along, without a doubt, it helped a young brother find his way...
1. Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet, 1998. 100. Print.
2. Bova, Ben. Visions Of The Future: The Art Of Robert McCall. New York: Abrams, 1982. 107. Print.
Where does one even begin?!? I've gone on record putting the man in my upper echelon — alongside Tricky and Adam Ant — with my absolute favorite recordings artists ever. That's a pretty odd bunch, I'll admit, but without question the figures that have done the most to shape my own musical path. In the twin worlds of house and techno, the man stands like a towering colossus astride the realms of chart-busting post-disco dance and the deepest recesses of the underground (both of which he's long ago mastered). So like I said, it's hard to know where to even begin...
Well, you could begin at the beginning: in the early 80s when he was mixing it up in the shadows of Detroit with the Deep Space crew (which included similarly storied figures like Derrick May and Juan Atkins, among others). Then, in the wake of No UFO's, venturing into the studio to begin a recording career (and his KMS imprint, which has been doing it's thing for nigh on thirty years now) in earnest: first with the Kreem record — Triangle Of Love in a post-New Order/Into The Groove-stylee — and then the minimalist techno of Intercity's Groovin' Without A Doubt (recorded with Derrick May). A preview of things to come, to be sure...
This kicked off a series of heavy underground records, raw traxx released seemingly from beyond the dawn of time like Keynotes' Let's Let's Let's Dance and the Reese & Santonio records — recorded with one Santonio Echols — rough-and-tumble tiles like The Sound, Truth Of Self Evidence and Bounce Your Body To The Box that surfed the interzone between house and techno before just about anyone else. This era was masterfully anthologized on the Faces & Phases compilation, a veritable treasure trove of the rawest techno one could ask for.
So at the dawn of 1988, the table was set for the Reese records — where Saunderson's knack for vibed-out productions really began to take flight — burning hot techno sides like Just Want Another Chance, Rock To The Beat and Funky Funk Funk. These were probably the heaviest electronic grooves laid down down up to this point, each of them were built on a towering structure of bass, percussion and the sort of strange, funky synths that one never forgets. Kevin Saunderson had a vision of massive, floor-filling electronic dance music before just about anyone else. It's his calling card, really... but then so is the undeniable sense of vibe that he imbues his productions with. And that, as they say, is what makes all the difference.
Just Want Another Chance seemed to be his take on the heavy-breathing atmospheric style of Jamie Principle (prefiguring the likes of Blake Baxter and K-Alexi Shelby), with spooked electronics and a ten ton bassline that remains one of the deepest to be found on wax and would go on to fuel decades of darkside excursions to come. Rock To The Beat took a left turn into cinematic territory, especially in its warped Mayday Mix, but the flipside's traxx like the pure acid frenzy of Grab The Beat and You're Mine's emotive Clash sampling epic were equally revelatory techno par excellence. And Funky Funk Funk is just sick, with that sawing bassline and whistling synths nailing the buzzing mayhem of the rave.
He continued down this path with the ardkore madness of the Tronikhouse records, with awesome proto-jungle tunes like Up Tempo, Spark Plug and Straight Outta Hell (Back To Hell Mix), anchored by the more straight up techno of The Savage And Beyond and Smooth Groove (techno perfection in 3½ minutes). The flipside to these rave excursions were the deep techno missives unleashed under his E-Dancer guise, with the (just as hardcore) stomping electric madness of Velocity Funk (which started life as a Cameo remix, doncha know?) and the killer digital disco of World Of Deep serving up dancefloor perfection.
Both of these tunes anchored Saunderson's epochal X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio, which essayed the Detroit-area broadcasts of no-nonsense techno that Reese and crew had been unleashing for the better part of a decade. Featuring DJ Minx as the master of ceremonies, it boasted appearances from Detroit techno stalwarts like Octave One, Carl Craig and Sean Deason alongside Outlander's Belgian techno, the widescreen garage of D.C.'s Deep Dish (in their Chocolate City guise) and a whole brace of tracks from Dutch techno mainstays Dobre & Jamez. The whole affair remains a high water mark in that interzone between deep, moody house and dirty Downtown techno.
It was during this era that Saunderson released E-Dancer's Heavenly LP, a stone cold classic that scooped up a decade worth of tracks like The Human Bond and Pump The Move (along with the aforementioned Velocity Funk), juxtaposed with new killer cuts like Banjo, Warp and Behold. There was even an awesome Juan Atkins Re-mix of Heavenly, which put a deeply moody high-desert spin on the original version's delicate electronic groove. This whole trip culminated in the widescreen cinematic techno of The Dream, which seemed to draw from the same filmic corners of Saunderson's sound as Rock To The Beat had: this was Saunderson scoring films yet to be made.
And then there's the matter of his remix work, which found the man redefining the possibilities of what could be achieved on the b-side of a single (much as King Tubby had done about a fifteen years earlier) with his complete reworks that crafted totally new grooves around a few of the song's original elements (as opposed to the more common edit-style remixes of the day). People usually point to the Acid House Remix of The Wee Papa Girl Rappers' Heat It Up as the moment where it all took shape, which found him transforming a little hip-house ditty into a well-deep slab of moody acid decked out with a monster bassline.
The man's most mainstream guise, Inner City (with dancefloor diva Paris Grey), took on a life of its own with killer pop-inflected cuts like Good Life, Pennies From Heaven and Praise, storming the dance charts again and again. I remember hearing dubs of Good Life on Jammin' z90's afternoon dance show, which would hold sway after the station's usual hip hop and r&b bread-and-butter, and the frisson of hearing Reese productions on the drive home from school (this before I even had a tape deck) was palpable. Be sure to check the awesome Power Of Passion (left off the U.S. version!) for a rare example of the man at his most delicate, with a singular take on r&b-inflected machine soul that's nestled somewhere between Kraftwerk, Roberta Flack and The Neptunes.
Inner City's cover version of Stephanie Mills' Watcha Gonna Do With My Lovin', which reached its sublime peak with the 8½ minute Def Mix by Frankie Knuckles and David Morales, was a masterstroke of impossibly lush house music that seemed to predict Massive Attack's Blue Lines in its languid, downbeat grooves. And then there were all those garage sides by The Reese Project, which managed to smuggle remixes by the likes of Jay Denham and Underground Resistance onto high street like a Trojan horse.
Bringing it all back home, the man unleashed the awesome Ahnongay, a techno outing of the highest caliber replete with remixes by Dave Clarke and Carl Craig. Still, it's the original version that remains the standout. Deep and spiritual techno soul, it's a prime example of Saunderson at his absolute finest. One could imagine slipping it on amid things like SA-RA, 4 Hero, Underworld, J Dilla and Moodymann without too much trouble, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
This is part of the reason why Saunderson's work means so much to me: he routinely squares the circle between the worlds of post-disco dance, rave, techno, r&b and even hip hop — worlds that are often treated as if they were light-years apart — folding one over the other like an origami crane as everything overlaps with the casual ease of a Venn diagram. He traverses these worlds like a man who's seen it all, expertly crafting those singular grooves with style and finesse.
Because above all else, that's what he'll be remembered for: conjuring up heavy, atmospheric, stomping sonix like no other (no matter how often the imitators may try to flatter sincerely). Take Esser'ay's Forces — a one off under that alias, no doubt for Saunderson just another day vibing out in the studio — and you'll find a wild, weird and deeply funky slab of killer dancefloor madness... techno as only the Master Reese could do it. Seeing him decked out in a sequined jacket, holding court last weekend at Movement (aka the Detroit Electronic Music Festival), it's clear that he's gonna keep right on doing it for years to come. And thank goodness for that.
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.
I once said that I could write a whole book about this record, so how about a (rather lengthy) post to start the ball rolling? It's often daunting to write about a record so close to one's heart, so personally significant is it that one fears they won't do it justice or the words won't come. However, lately I've found that you've just got to jump in there and get on with it, that once the work is done you have something to show for it (rather than a dream deferred indefinitely) and chances are it'll suit the subject just fine. So here goes...
Big Audio Dynamite - Megatop Phoenix
If ever I wrote one of those 33 1/3 books, the series that chronicles classic albums from There's A Riot Goin' On to Another Green World, then Megatop Phoenix would surely be the subject of mine. I remember nearly twenty years ago, after growing up with the Planet BAD compilation (an anthology of the band's music, spanning ten years of recorded output), tracking down the album based on an intense fascination with Contact and the wild acid breakbeat jam that closed out the track.
The compilation's lone selection from Megatop Phoenix - the other albums contributed at least two or three songs each - Contact marked it out in my mind as the group's weird record, and being the sort of kid perennially drawn to the strange, it seemed right up my alley. Somewhat harder to find than the other albums (the shops never seemed to have it in stock, for whatever reason), it wasn't until a bit later that it turned up at the Point LomaMusic Trader. My chance had come, so I snapped it up with haste. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As much as its bound to come off as hyperbole, I reckon that this is the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of the eighties. It may not have the reputation or sheer pop culture impact of The Beatles storied song-cycle, but it certainly ticks every other box available: here's a set of great songs recorded with cutting-edge studio-as-instrument techniques, dubbed full of effects and sequenced perfectly - almost symmetrically so - into one killer extended suite, recreating the feel of a multifaceted live performance. Plus, both records have breaks!
The fourth and final full-length of the original B.A.D. lineup, Megatop finds the group five years deep into their career and truly firing on all cylinders. Here is a band who knew exactly what they were doing and precisely how to do it. With a story stretching back to 1985 - and even further, truth be told, into the heady days of first-wave punk and The Clash - perhaps it might be worthwhile to rewind a bit and start at the beginning...
The Story Of The Clash
The Story Of The Clash (Epic: 1988)
The story of B.A.D. begins with Mick Jones, the lead guitarist for The Clash. As everyone undoubtedly knows, The Clash (along with bands like The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Damned) were the standard-bearers for the rise of punk in the media glare of 1977. Singles like White Riot, London's Burning and Complete Control were crucial cuts in punk's early arsenal, while their self-titled debut was - along with the Ramones debut, Nevermind The Bollocks and Damned Damned Damned1 - one of the first punk full-lengths to hit the shops.
The band quickly began expanding beyond the constraints of straight up punk rock, exploring reggae, rockabilly, New Orleans r&b and eventually mixing dub, disco and hip hop into their dense sonic stew. The group seemed to straddle the dividing line between new wave and post punk (much like Simple Minds' contemporary records, Empires And Dance and Real To Real Cacophany), but with a curious Sergio Leone-influenced image as outlaws of the American West, often trading in western imagery and bedecked in cowboy attire. This, of course, earned the band their detractors, but I find the whole trip quite evocative and endlessly fascinating.
In fact, this phase of the group remains my absolute favorite, as attested to by something like The Clash At The Edge Of Forever.2 Hooking up with figures as disparate as rebel country singer Joe Ely (Lubbock, Texas), dub scientist Mikey Dread (Port Antonio, Jamaica) and graffiti artist/part-time hip hop MC Futura 2000 (New York, New York), they ran the gamut of post-disco dance music practically at the dawn of the form's existence (see 1980's triple-LP Sandinista!). Tracks like The Magnificent Seven, This Is Radio Clash, Straight To Hell and Guns Of Brixton remain utterly unique dubbed-out post punk missives (all of which, on a personal note, were absolutely crucial records for me back in the day). Their presence on many of the era's key dancefloors - stretching from the Roxy to the Paradise Garage - attests to the music's strange brilliance, as does their latter day status as Balearic3 staples.
After their extraordinary fifth album - Combat Rock - the band were at a crossroads. Lore has it that Joe Strummer wanted to delve deeper into dub and dance music, while Mick Jones wanted to follow in the footsteps of The Who, basking in the band's status as stadium rock stars. What happened next, however, seems to betray the fact that reality was less cut-and-dried. Jones was unceremoniously fired from the band while Strummer recruited a group of young mohawked punks to take his place, steering the band toward a back to basics direction with their swansong Cut The Crap. Jones, meanwhile, struck out in another direction entirely...
This Time I Bet You It's BAD
B.A.D. in full effect (from left to right): Greg Roberts, Don Letts, Mick Jones, Leo Williams and Dan Donovan.
Interestingly enough, Jones was initially slated to be in General Public, laying down guitar on the entirety of their debut record before leaving to pursue his own vision. Linking up first with post-punk audiovisual man Don Letts, he began delving deeper still into hip hop and dance music. Rounded out by bassist Leo "E-Zee Kill" Williams (who would go on to record as Screaming Target and Dreadzone in the nineties), drummer Greg Roberts and keyboardist Dan Donovan, Big Audio Dynamite sprung into being as one of the original (alongside New Order) indie dance propositions.
Their debut LP, This Is Big Audio Dynamite, was a stunning mash up of stutter-funk sampladelia, machine rhythms and mid-period new wave songcraft. Immersed in contemporary dance culture, the sounds of New York club music, early hip hop and the nascent digital dancehall all informed the group's striking new sound. The iconic sleeve itself - capturing the crew (minus Donovan) in stark black and white - perfectly signalled the bold, deeply unconventional music contained within.
The first side of the record is dominated by radio hits like Medicine Show, E=MC² and The Bottom Line (the 12" single of which actually came out on Def Jam in the states, where the track was remixed by Rick Rubin), all of which are lush, multi-layered indie dance excursions, replete with film samples (particularily of the Sergio Leone and Nicolas Roeg variety) and chiming pop inflections. Their accompanying music videos featured Don Letts' striking visual sensibilities, ranging from a time-travelling DeLorean in the wild west4 to the band playing underground, decked out like nuclear power plant operators.
It's worth noting that the second side of the record takes a sharp left turn, given over to skeletal dance workouts like the dancehall-inflected A Party and Sudden Impact!'s third-rail electrofunk workout, both of which might just be my favorite things on the record. You also get the peculiar electro-hoedown of Stone Thames and closing track BAD's big beats thrown into the bargain, rounding out a solid set of state-of-the-art dance pop. All in all, the group were off to a strong start with an auspicious debut that plotted an utterly original vision.
Their sophomore record, No. 10, Upping St., finds Strummer temporarily back in the fold and manning the producer's chair. The drum machine breaks are even heavier this time out, in truth not a million miles removed from what you might expect on a contemporary Mantronix or Run-D.M.C. record. The LP finds the group descending even further into dance territory, and rather appropriately the video for the block-rocking C'mon Every Beatbox features the band performing in a basement dive5 while a group of b-boys-and-b-girls (including a young Neneh Cherry) dance their hearts out.
Conversely, V. Thirteen is firmly in the chiming pop vein established on side one of the band's debut, sounding for all the world like something from Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish. Switching gears yet again, the apocalyptic, album-closing Sightsee M.C.! rocks a titanic raggabeat over which Mick Jones and Don Letts trade verses, taking the group's side two sensibility into the lower reaches of the charts. Hollywood Boulevard, perhaps the best track here, finds Jones unleashing a rapid-fire series of images - with the same compression of language you'd find in both contemporary hip hop and amphetamine-era Dylan - over an early house beat complete with Derrick May-esque strings! Stunning.
Tighten Up Vol. '88, the third record, finds the group splicing their pop sensibilities seamlessly into contemporary dance rhythms. With the dividing line (nearly) effaced altogether, both sides of the coin bend to meet in the middle. The gorgeously evocative cover art, painted by ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, is emblematic of the whole affair, depicting a buzzing soundsystem party beneath a freeway overpass.
The rolling machine rhythms of Just Play Music!, casually unfurling like a lazy day at the beach in mid-summer, seem to betray an affinity with Paisley Park. In fact, whole swathes of the record feel thoroughly indebted to Prince circa Around The World In A Day (note that the group would later cover 1999 during live shows). The contemporary Lovesensi 12" - which features a mash up of the entire Tighten Up album in the space of five minutes - even features a nude Leo Williams sprawled out on a beach recliner in what must be a nod to Prince's contemporaneous album Lovesexy!
Indeed, there's a laidback, anything-goes spirit to the entire affair that's quite appealing. The Battle Of All Saints Road melds hoedown fiddle and banjo with extraterrestrial raggabeat sensibilities, while Funny Names and the nebulous title track seem to drift by coolly on an atmospheric plane, receding gradually into the horizon in Atari-esque gradient colors. Other 99 and Applecart, meanwhile, mark a winning return of the group's britpop sensibilities in a pair of soaring refrains that benefit from the record's rich production flourishes.
And yet, despite the marked development of B.A.D.'s sound, there's not yet evidence of rave's kaleidoscopic funhouse psychedelia at this point. Therefore, it's tempting shorthand to call Tighten Up Vol. '88 something like the group's Rubber Soul: a casually brilliant full-length statement wrapping up everything that's come before and setting the table for what's just around the bend. This is the final trading post on the road to this trip's ultimate destination.
On Death's Doorstep Born Again
Mick Jones in 1987 (background Paul Simonon's sleeve art for Tighten Up Vol. '88).
But the road had a few bumps yet to come. When Mick Jones' daughter Lauren came down with chickenpox, he caught it as well. While Lauren recovered quickly, Jones - who had never had chickenpox as a youth - took a serious turn for the worse and before long had fallen ill with pneumonia. Suffering severe infection of the mouth, throat and lungs, Jones checked into the intensive care unit of St. Mary's Hospital - where he was promptly hooked up to respirators - and found himself in critical condition. For eight hours he battled for his life, and remained unconscious for weeks after. In the process Jones sustained considerable nerve damage, which seriously affected his throat and vocal chords.6
Recovery took nine months, as Jones underwent protracted therapy to rebuild himself from the ground up.7 The whole ordeal seemed to bring everything into focus. In the hospital I could see things clearly, says Jones. Serious illness gives you time to reassess things. I saw that B.A.D. was going on to something new.6 Parallels could be drawn with Brian Eno's time spent in the hospital after being hit by a car, during which he conceived ambient music, or even Bob Dylan's fabled motorcycle crash and The Basement Tapes - recorded with what would become The Band8 - that followed in its wake. In any case, the revelation that presented itself to Jones was found in the buzzing sounds of the nascent rave culture that had begun to take Britain by storm.
A bit of context might be in order: the Second Summer Of Love was in full bloom by 1988, with raves springing up all over the UK and clubs like London's Shoom and Manchester's Haçienda9 fully indulging post-acid house tastes. Built on a foundation of import 12"s from cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago, the sound was a pile up of house, techno, hip hop and Balearic beats from around the world. House records like Mr. Fingers' Can You Feel It, Black Riot's A Day In The Life and Rhythim Is Rhythim's techno rhapsody Strings Of Life would rub shoulders with hip hop like Mantronix's King Of The Beats and Eric B. & Rakim's Follow The Leader, along with the industrial EBM of Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and Cabaret Voltaire, all spliced soundly with the requisite disco/post-disco sounds that lie at the root of the whole endeavor. Spike it all with choice Balearic records like New Order's True Faith, The Woodentops' Why Why Why and of course The Clash's own The Magnificent Dance, and you had the soundtrack for a musical revolution.
Almost immediately, homegrown acts began springing up everywhere, from the techno exploits of Manchester's 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald to the moody house music of London's Bang The Party and Bomb The Bass' block-rockin' beats. Over in West Yorkshire, the Unique 3 were making low-end rumblings of their own, resulting in a sound that would ultimately feed into the the proto-junglist innovations of Shut Up And Dance and 4 Hero about a year later. Even erstwhile indie rockers like The Shamen, Happy Mondays and A.R. Kane were getting into the groove, following the footsteps of New Order (who had themselves begun to tune into the sounds of rave culture around this time) down the slippery path of indie dance. It seemed like everyone - from soul boys to b-boys to rude boys and indie rockers - were all tuned into the same frequency.
With 1989 in full swing, this is the environment that B.A.D. found themselves in when they entered The Kinks' Konk Studios to record their fourth album. After operating for years at the intersection of new wave, hip hop and club music - in their own way already working out the same internal logic that would play out full scale on the ravefloor - it would seem that the band were more than ready for the challenge. Connecting with the energy around the movement, Jones exclaimed, We're talking thousands of kids getting together and dancing. It’s all about freeing up yourself and dancing and getting loose. Through this escapism you free yourself. The authorities don’t know what’s going on. They have no control. It’s just like punk was.6 With Mick Jones' near-miraculous recovery behind him, he and the band seemed to surf the waves of Second Summer Of Love dancefloor ecstasy with the palpable born-again passion of the moment. In truth, there was something in the air. B.A.D. seemed to have a new lease on life, a new mission to live down. So they pulled out all the stops, and dove headfirst into the rave...
A Phoenix Rises
Megatop Phoenix promotional poster.
Take a moment to gaze upon that sleeve. Depicting a stylized phoenix literally rising from the flames (surely a metaphor for Jones' own recent experiences?), it features a pixelated, halftone fractal looming large in the distance.10 Superimposed over the titular phoenix, the group's name appears in boldfaced type (while both the promotional poster and sleeve reverse feature the album's title), beneath which stretches a photo-strip of the band posing for a promo shot. Taken in its entirety its a bold, confident image, its brash juxtapositions and no-nonsense design offering a perfect hint at the sounds contained within.
So what does it sound like? Well, let me tell you... The key to this record is those beats, that rhythm. The drums hover somewhere between the gaussian-blurred, blunted beats of De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising and the delicately crisp machine rhythms of Prince's Lovesexy.11 Balanced atop the beat is everything but the kitchen sink: you've got guttertronic synths, rolling breakbeats, rave piano, squelching acid basslines, ethereal backing vocals, malfunctioning drum machines, hallucinatory guitar, gang chants and dancehall bottom-end, all blended into an absolutely superb palette of sound and threaded together in (im)perfect harmony. Not to mention... samples, samples and more samples! Think 3 Feet High And Rising (yet again!), Paul's Boutique and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back: there's film samples, sure enough, but also snatches of sixties garage punk, British music hall, Rule, Britannia!, soundtrack music, Broadway musicals, digital dancehall, comedy records, funk loops and the Godfather Of Soul himself.
The production - handled by Mick Jones and Bill Price - is gloriously supple, and with each texture seeming to push and pull against the other in a brilliantly unstable framework, everything up for grabs. Whereas it might have sounded dated to late-nineties ears - attuned to the self-consciously fat sounds of tech-house, gatecrasher trance and big room techno that held sway at the time - with the benefit of greater hindsight it all sounds righteously at home in the company of the rude, rough-edged, and absolutely timeless sounds of its era: Todd Terry, the Jungle Brothers, Tiger, Trax Records, A Guy Called Gerald and Shut Up And Dance. Todd Terry just might be the single most appropos comparison: imagine a pop album with the same spirit as Royal House's Can You Party? and The Todd Terry Project's To The Batmobile Let's Go, and you wouldn't be too far off.12
I'd venture that what gave B.A.D. such a strong grasp on rave's dynamics was their extensive experience with pre-acid dance music, tracing electro-funk, hip hop, soul, reggae 13 back into post punk and The Clash's own dancefloor endeavors at the dawn of the decade. This is pure, unadulterated indie dance, in the classic tradition of ex-punks messing around with club music and coming up with a gloriously ramshackle vision of the dancefloor. Think of contemporary records like the Happy Mondays'14Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, Primal Scream's Screamadelica, The Stone Roses self-titled debut and In Gorbachev We Trust by The Shamen, along with New Order's foray into similar territory with Technique, for example.
The surprising realization I arrived at years ago is that none of those records come close to the level of total immersion in dance culture that Megatop represents. The closest would be Screamadelica (which came out over two years later, an eternity in the blazing pace dance culture kept to at the time), but Bobby Gillespie and co. had the help of outside producers like The Orb, Hypnotone and Andrew Weatherall (even roping in Jah Wobble for a killer bassline). Even so, there's a handful of diversions into the band's southern rock tendencies - which they'd fully explore on 1994's Give Out But Don't Give Up - from the pentecostal rock 'n soul of Movin' On Up and the weepy country ballad Damaged. Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches on the other hand largely captures a band jamming live in the studio, with production duties handled by Paul Oakenfold, another dance music heavyweight. Surely New Order's Haçienda classic Technique would qualify, but aside from a couple tracks, it's largely dominated by straight-up indie rock in the same vein as that on 1986's Brotherhood (not to mention the fact that the 12" mixes are where the club cuts really catch fire). Now don't get me wrong, each of these records are stone cold classics in their own right. I'm only attempting to measure the level to which dance culture runs through these records' veins15 in the cold light of day.
In contrast, Megatop is absolutely dominated by sampladelia and ravefloor sonix, and without the help of any club culture insiders, its success rests solely on the core unit of the band itself. It's an ecstasy record through and through, managing to dovetail Jones' love of life (in the face of near-death) with the loved-up spirit of the times. The entire album runs together in the mix in a nearly non-stop flow of crazy rhythm and melody, threading the pulsing beats of club culture with snatches of overheard conversation and Swinging London songcraft, taking in everything from Ibiza to Chicago and Madchester to Paisley Park, and weaving them all into a stunning sonic tapestry that seems to soundtrack the ultimate party.
Now, it's not often at all that I'm led to break out into a track-by-track analysis of an album, but this is one of those rare cases where it not only seems warranted but absolutely necessary. The song-cycle structure of the LP, paired with the fact that its my absolute favorite record of all time, both lend themselves to such an approach. Each and every track (even the interludes) are their own distinctly individual creations - filled to the brim with ideas - even as they remain perfectly intertwined with the greater whole. It's as if a verdant terrain stretched out before us as far as the eye can see, inviting further exploration. So, then, why not dive headfirst into the sonic banquet and see what we might find?
Megatop Phoenix promotional poster (back).
This is the universe... big isn't it?. Kicking off with a sample from Powell/Pressburger's 1946 film Stairway To Heaven (starring one David Niven), the mood is set by bit of lovers rock declaring ain't nothing going on but- before being interrupted by an MC shouting The best band in West London, B.A.D.! before a live crowd.
Oh yeah, it should be kicking in by now...
The opening salvo drops immediately, with a fractal fast-forward acid sequence spooling out crimson in the thick, humid night air as the group chant (all together now):
The troop was weak and weary,
Rations running low.
Mission seemed impossible,
We had to save the show.
Then, the beat drops in at a steady-rocking half-time downbeat, a heavy dub bassline pulsing beneath it all.
Rewind, operator gonna kill em with sound,
Bawling out murder and selector come down.
The song seems to tell the story of B.A.D. rallying in the wake of Jones' protracted recovery, banding together again and getting down to business to run tings in the dancehall. It's all tied together with the same Western imagery that The Clash drew on back in the day, conjuring up the image of a band of sonic outlaws and all around badmen riding off into the sunset, pinned down by Jones' power chords in such a way as to recall the great Link Wray.
Suddenly, at the tune's midpoint, Don Letts quotes Tenor Saw's Ring The Alarm and the drums break into a canter. Tapes spool in and out before an interview snippet with Mick Jones plays out, distilling the influence of thirty years of Jamaican music spanning from Prince Buster to Prince Jammy down to only a little, only the bass. Sure enough, that sub-bass continues to pulse beneath it all as rapid-fire breakbeats begin snaking their way through the mix and, for the last minute or so, you're listening to straight up proto-junglist bizzness. This in 1989, when even the likes of 4 Hero and Shut Up And Dance were still working out their equations... well, it's pretty startling to come across, no question. The addition of Jones' guitar psychedelia equally stunning in this context, forging a link between the retro shades of the sixties revival (by then in full swing) and the technicolor possibilities of rave.
All Mink & No Manners
The first of the interludes, kicking off with a breakbeat nicked from Schoolly D before a squelching synth wobble unceremoniously slips into the mix and another of Jones' olde English samples16 declares I don't know what this world's coming to, everyone trying to be better than their betters... mink coats and no manners!
After a brief snatch of Rule, Britannia!, Union, Jack kicks off with the break from The Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Women. Way back when, Union, Jack was my least favorite song on the album. Strangely enough, everyone I show the album to seems to single it out as a highlight, and over the years I've grown to love it. It's in essence a football-themed britpop number with a rolling, filmic sweep. The chorus backing sports an almost symphonic quality. Still, there's no getting around that beat when it drops, bass kicking you squarely in the chest. It certainly would have made a good live opener.
Two thirds into the song, crowd noise - no doubt from some soccer arena - rises from the mix as Jones contributes his second bit of sixties-esque guitar, eerily recalling George Harrison's reversed guitar parts on The Beatles' Revolver.. A memorable sample from Britannia Hospital slips into the mix behind the guitar jamming, before everything drops into a rolling snare rush and a certain synth squiggle struggles to escape from the dense sonic tangle of the mix...
Descending on a dread shadow, slow-motion guitar stabs unwind into a dubbed-out intro (bassline and all), replete with textures that wouldn't sound out of place on a Pram record. A voice intones the memorable incantation, groovy, dynamite, heavy... wow, as ghostly chuckling - seemingly on loop - emanates from the ether. Then, that screeching guitar stab returns - playing at the correct speed this time - ushering in a liquid breakbeat that rolls out for a single bar as that trademark synth-squiggle returns with a vengeance.
Suddenly, you're in an epic. The mix here so very lush, with treated power chords locked into the rhythm as a disembodied fiddle scrapes dexterous between the beats. Jones coos Ooh, ooh!, on the one followed swiftly by a snatch of vocalise (it sounds something like ooh-wah) recalling the sort of wordless vocal you'd find in an Ennio Morricone film score. Jones sings:
Feeling flying round,
'Round up in the air,
Bouncing off the walls,
Getting under my hair.
On the carpet, in the weave,
Up in trees on the leaves,
Feelings flying everywhere.
Which seems to brilliantly conjure up images of a rave when the party's really going off, the DJ's on fire and everybody's locked onto the pulse of the rhythm, lights and colors flashing off the walls as everyone dances together in ecstasy. Taking matters to another level altogether, he adds:
I'm on the right track
For what I want to say.
I got to get it out
There ain't no other way.
To make contact.
There ain't no getting away
From how I feel today.
Which is about as perfect an expression you could ask for of everything Jones alluded to when expressing his enthusiasm for rave's social energy, and that need to interface with it on its own terms. To make contact, in other words. Variations on these words make up the entirety of the lyrical content, and really, what more do you need? Looping on and on, rave pianos drift in and out of the mix with Jones occasionally tossing off another one of his guitar asides, before - at the three-minute mark - a snatch of The Who's I Can't Explain drops into the mix (out of nowhere) in such a way that seems to predict Fatboy Slim's Going Out Of My Head seven years early.17
Suddenly, the tune's gone acid on you, with a squelching bassline threading its way through that same fluid breakbeat, punctuated occasionally by what sounds like a power drill(!) as the beat drops in and out of the mix. Then, an into the abyss sort of slowdown sample plays, and the feeling is as if you've been sucked into a vortex, tripping out on the dancefloor as the beat plays on and on. It's at this point that those knobs really starts turning, and we're all in for some serious acid breakbeat magic.
It should be categorically stated that this song is perfect. Just perfect! Its groove is improbably sublime, and even if unfurled into perpetuity it would scarcely get old. The three-minute pop song comprising its first half is on the order of something like the Talking Heads' Once In A Lifetime, sharing a similarly strange haunting brilliance paired with the sense that its rhythm is advanced technology, something that shouldn't even exist yet. Add in the acid breakbeat coda, and its all almost too good to be true.
I'd like to take a moment to note the video for this song18, which in direct opposition to the sumptuous, almost cinematic quality of B.A.D.'s other videos, boasts thoroughly bargain-basement production values and yet possesses loads of charm. Think of the video for The Prodigy's Out Of Space or Pump Up The Volume by M|A|R|R|S:
Scenes from the Contact music video.
You've got floating technicolor ravers dancing against a jet black backdrop as the band - in stark black and white - seems to play in cryo-sleep (so cool they've got panache to spare). Each player's head rotates across the screen in slow-motion, interrupted by the vivid hues of graphic psychedelia. Mick, looking like he's ready for a game of tennis, does his guitar thing before turning about face and miming the guitar riff from The Who's I Can't Explain. The DJ (one Greg Roberts) cues up the next record and shouts Go!, before the graphics and the dancers merge into one, with the puzzled bandmates - now in full color - wandering around the landscape with priceless WTF?!? looks on their faces as this acid jam unfolds.
Without a doubt, it's something special.
Out of nowhere, a loping big beat rides roughshod over Contact's acid coda, bringing in a surf rock flavor (shades off Rockafeller Skank) at odds with the Chinatown stylings playing out in the foreground. After a brief snatch of George Formby's Mr. Wu's a Window Cleaner Now, the brittle house rhythms of Dragon Town cruise into the mix on a razor-thin 909 beat pushed along by a pulsing synth bassline. The effect is not a million miles removed from the contemporary bleep 'n bass records of Nightmares On Wax, with that same sense of homespun futurism suffused with the unmistakable whiff of sensi.
I've listen to this album so many times that I sometimes forget how strange Dragon Town sounds on first listen. It's a sublime tune, swirling and carnivalesque as Jones unfurls a string of off-the-wall couplets in another one of his occasional detours into Asia (see also Sony and The Green Lady). Gorgeous choirs - most likely sampled from somewhere or another - trill in the background throughout, as a 303 acid line rises stealth-like from the mix. When the sampled Chinatown, my Chinatown vocals drop, in tune and on beat, hovering three feet over those knobs turning on that tiny silver box, the effect is ecstatic.
Baby, Don't Apologise
The house moves continue with Baby, Don't Apologise, an unapologetic club track, one built for the dancefloor. Caning those reverse strings and detuned chorus loops over a lonely rave piano, the groove drops without warning into a piercing baroque string section on the order of not only Marshall Jefferson's Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem) but also Derrick May's contemporary sides. Think of it as a homespun indie take on one of Ten City's Windy City epics burning up the dancefloors of the day.19
The tune's another absolute corker, hitting you with a soaring chorus (built upon the song's title) that's ensconced within a fully electronic orchestral arrangement - complete with a French horn simulation - before dropping into a bridge where synth brass (sounding like pure electric current rather than any actual horns I've ever heard) pulses over a looping Whoa-o-a-oh! bit of vocalise. It all grinds to a halt with a dangling rejoinder - another one of those slowdown sound effects - with the exception of the pulsing rhythm which persists undaunted, as the tune resets itself before wheeling back for another verse as the carousel spins just once more.
On reflection, I reckon this tune should have been a 12" single. It's the most straight up, no-nonsense club track on the album, and could have done serious damage on the era's dancefloors. With Judge Jules turning out the club mix to Contact, perhaps they could have roped in a Todd Terry or a Kevin Saunderson to give it the 12" treatment? I'd love to hear what a Reese remix would have sounded like. Well, a girl can dream...
Is Yours Working Yet?
With the closing beatless bars of Baby's symphonic outro, a looping aquatic sound (that brings to mind The Orb, for whatever reason) accompanies the question How do you do ladies and gentlemen? before volunteering I trust that everyone is enjoying the music. Well, no complaints here, mate... A vocoderized sing-song - which seems to represent the audience - replies, and another single-minded beatbox begins working out its own internal logic while MGM soundtrack strings cascade asymmetrically in the background.
It would all be ridiculous if it weren't so much fun.
Around The Girl In 80 Ways
Closing out side one on a distinctly breezy note, Around The Girl In 80 Ways sounds remarkably like something that could have been cooked up at Paisley Park (think Sheila E. or André Cymone) but with the same homespun charm we've come to expect from planet Megatop (remember Lovesensi?). The verses are faintly subdued with a muted electric piano carrying the melody as a reggaematic organ chops out a slight skank against the blunted machine rhythm. Jones' vocals are intimate within such uncomplicated production, and the chorus seems to appear with little fanfare as well - over more or less the same backing of unadorned piano - before dropping into a second-level chorus where he sings:
Around the girl in 80 ways,
Most of them I know.
All of them are substitutes
For feelings I don't show.
It's a truly excellent refrain, spooling out carefree and easy while a subdued string section and what sounds like ladies cooing envelope the song. And then, of course, there's that delightful synth squiggle straight out the boogie playbook punctuating each bar. Think freestyle, think Madonna's Holiday... the whole effect is just gorgeous.
The song continues for a spell before dropping into another one of Jones' mini-hoedowns - in the tradition of Stone Thames and The Battle Of All Saints Road - which eventually assume control of the song about 2/3 of the way through. After the third run of this impromptu hootenanny, soundtrack strings enter the fray and descend into the song's conclusion, punctuated by a final stroke of organ that puts an exclamation point on the whole affair.
It's a perfect conclusion to the first side of a record that's brought us track after track of brilliantly crafted pop music imbued with the rude edge of the late-eighties dancefloor. With a slowed down reggae record and then a snatch of Bernard Cribbins' Right Said Fraid - which offers the rejoinder and so we... had a cup of tea - side one ends in such a way that sets up the second, where the Godfather himself enters the equation...
Side two of Megatop begins with words from James Brown himself:
Now I can't say exactly what did happen...
You just don't understand unless you've been through it.
Back-masked saxophone and choir spool out steadfast in the background, dialling up the tension before dropping into the speed-demon house of James Brown (the track). Clocking in at nearly 140bpm, it outpaces the rest of the album soundly, operating at speeds the likes of CJ Bolland and Robert Leiner - with their sleek, muscular European techno - would soon call home in the early nineties. In 1989, when even proto-jungle was still working at sub-130 tempos, it's extraordinary!
If memory serves, at the time only hi-nrg was this fast, and damned if that rapid-fire bassline - cycling up and down the keyboard - doesn't sound like something Patrick Cowley might have approved of. Mix in a bit of rave piano pounding along to the beat, a dash of detuned house sonix, a helping of warped synth brass and spike it all with some racetrack orchestra stabs - bringing to mind The Prodigy's Speedway (Theme From Fastlane) - and what you've got is a shot of pure adrenaline.
The lyrics seem to offer up a first-person account of James Brown's high speed chase and subsequent arrest the previous year, while the chorus quotes freely from the man's music: Hot pants, she look fine,It's a man's man's world,Please, please, please. There's even an offhand reference to The Bottom Line! After a soaring guitar solo from Mick, as the song barrels toward its conclusion, you get a proto-rap stringing together a bunch of JB song titles.
There's this interesting bit of social commentary to the lyric, especially in the chorus:
It's a man's man's world in America,
Jump back in my cell.
Please please please in America,
Slipping into hell.
Not to mention the portion of the song America (from West Side Story) that thrown into the blender at the songs midpoint:
Life can be bright in America.
(If you can fight in America).
Life is alright in America.
(If you're all-white in America).
Well, it's certainly Food For Thought!
James Brown was actually the first single issued from the album, although - as far as I know - only ever got a promo release. As such, there's a music video and this time it's much more in the B.A.D. tradition of colorful, extravagant visuals in Don Letts' usual striking style:
Scenes from the James Brown music video.
The band's rocking out beneath a graffiti-daubed parking garage through which a James Brown lookalike leads police on a high speed chase in his camouflage jeep. He shows off his dance moves in front of some cheerleaders as B.A.D. plays, with Don Letts and Mick Jones even recreating the bring the poor man his cape routine from Brown's live performances!20 While perhaps not quite as much of an unexpected delight as the rave-fueled Contact promo, it's still a great music video.
Everybody Needs A Holiday
Commencing with another one of these improbable bass/beatbox interludes - this time riding a midi bassline and piano combination that cut in out of nowhere - we get a bit of computer sing-song as Jones repeats the song's title over a jaunty tune that wouldn't sound out of place on PBS programming. Within half a minute it's gone, and a disembodied voice frets I don't want a vacation. I just want to get away... for good! He's answered swiftly with a whistling-led exotica shuffle that plays for a couple bars, which then gives way to a laidback quasi-digital reggae beat.
A distorted bass synth matches the bass drum in a 4/4 pulse as a slow-motion rhythm unfolds beneath, punctuated by periodic hand claps marking the half-time beat. Gentle, cheerful organs hold down the verses while Jones offers up the first verse, and then the chorus hits:
Earned a rest,
I know you worked all day
And everybody needs a holiday.
I'll stand guard,
And keep the wolves at bay.
Watch the fire,
While you dream away.
During which Mick is joined by the rest of the group - and a return of the sampled whistling - for what is surely one of the band's great gang chants, in this context getting into a real sea shanty vibe. Jones strangles his guitar into wonderfully strange shapes that recall sliding Hawaiian slack key guitar while the occasional melodica trills on the horizon. Definite Club Paradise vibes in evidence throughout.
Every so often, the tune seems to break almost subconsciously into dancehall double-time on the back of pepperseed snares that shift the focus from the half-time hand claps to the bassdrum/distorted bass axis of the song. Jones guitar ultimately works its way to the sixties-inflected shades of psychedelia essayed earlier on the record (which makes this song something a laidback riposte to side one's Rewind).
I just want to get away... for good!
Mick's A Hippie Burning
The album's longest interlude by some distance, this is more a sound collage in the vein of Revolution 9 than anything else. Starting with a snippet of Bernard Cribbins' The Hole In The Ground before dropping into another one of these convulsing drum machine rhythms, this time on the electrofunk tip, it's loathe to stay in one place for very long.
The most extended port of call is a folk guitar mid-section that backs a spoken word sample before dropping a comedic sing-song on beat, but even that quickly fades into a bit of sixties rock (which then disintegrates into reversed crooning!). The whole thing concludes on another great slice of sequencer rock, riding a descending bassline and digital percussion loop into the sunset before being rudely interrupted by...
In which acid house paranoia enters full force with the dread vibes of Joey Beltram and Frankie Bones. Over Megatop's heaviest beat, Don Letts takes the mic to set the scene for another wild night out in raveland:
Park Lane Green, it's Saturday night.
West End Central, flashing lights.
We've come to dance the night away.
UV, dry ice and DJ.
The stomping 4/4 beat is held down by a dread bassline punctuated by the occasional orchestra hit/rave stab, before jumping off into the sparkling chorus:
Speaker pump that devil sound.
Everybody's getting down.
Moonwalk over to the gents.
Exit Zombie money spent.
Then a quote from Strawberry Fields Forever (Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to...") by Letts slips into the mix as a looped sample of the Ooh, ah, ooh ooh ah! vocals from B.A.D.'s first hit The Bottom Line plays out in the background. It's at this point that these relentless bleeps start phasing in and out of the mix as the chorus repeats once again. The second verse is no less evocative:
Turnstile toilets, I joined the queue.
Drinks at the bar, drugs in the loo.
I entered Jekyll, came out Hyde.
Mister Chevignon's inside.
Which is rather appropriately accompanied by a maniacal cackling and yet more guitar psychedelia from Mick Jones. The chorus repeats once again, before Letts sneaks another quote - thise time from Prince's I Wish U Heaven - into the mix.
Bouncers, bimbos, lager louts.
Zombie dancefloor bugging out.
Black outside, the night is still.
Smiley moves in for the kill...
Which of course references the unofficial mascot of acid house culture in the UK:
Smiley moves in for the kill.
Cops and dogs in transit vans.
At 4 o'clock we raid clubland.
T for Tango through the door.
First us two and then you four.
Rather brilliantly, a police whistle blows twice just after the Cops and dogs in transit vans. line! We get another round of the first verse (scrambled this time), chorus and Strawberry Fields quotation (this time from Jones) before the song goes completely instrumental. Reversed, distorted vocals enter the mix and then everything else cuts out for a moment before coming back with a vengeance: the engineer starts turning the knobs on the bleep sequence and a squelching 303 rises from within the tune. The whole thing perfectly captures the rushing sensation of music hounding you while you're tripping out on the dancefloor.
While we're on the subject of House Attack and Megatop at its most acid, it's as good a time as any to note the two b-sides to Contact and James Brown: In Full Effect and If I Were John Carpenter, respectively. Both of which are basically acid house instrumentals. In Full Effect - with its loping bassline (seemingly built on House Arrest's foundation), diva/hip house vocal snatches and cycling percussion loops - brings to mind Bang The Party, while If I Were John Carpenter rides a rapid-fire bassline and occasional string section in such a way that recalls The KLF. Samples from the LP are scattered throughout the tune in a different context, along with the requisite film samples. Significantly, both songs sample guru/new age/meditation tapes in the same way that a thousand trance producers would in the next decade.
Now back to Megatop proper: House Arrest. When we checked out, we were still tripping out on the dancefloor as the tune rushed to its conclusion. Suddenly, everything but the bassline cuts out and we're left with these spiralling rave sonix that trade verses with a wordless vocal loop. The beat drops back in and then out again, looping again and again, before the wave crashes into...
The Green Lady
Suddenly, we're in The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow Is Born but this time with a crashing electro beat laid out beneath. Shimmering sonix twinkle on the horizon and a crystalline synth tone carries the melody, while synthetic slap bass integrates itself into the beat. This is Megatop's unabashed britpop masterpiece, with a melody that grabs your ear from the word go and never lets up.
I've always thought that this should have been a single. Next to Contact, it's my favorite thing here. In fact, I envision the trio Contact, Baby, Don't Apologize and The Green Lady setting up the perfect sequence of singles from the album: one for the heads, one for the clubs and one for the radio. I have no doubt that The Green Lady would have been a hit on the order of V. Thirteen and Other 99, taking its place on the Planet BAD compilation alongside Contact in the all-star draft pick.
Unexpectedly, London Bridge starts with a spasmodic percussion loop - lasting about thirty seconds - that wouldn't sound out of place on Warp or Mille Plateaux about a decade later. It gradually fades into an ethereal operatic vocal and old-time soundtrack fragment (doing nothing to dissuade the Warp comparisons!) before the song proper commences.
It's another Paisley Park-tinged excursion, with Jones indulging in a bit London love (in fact, it's something of a laidback answer to side one's Union, Jack, bringing it all back home again). Like The Green Lady, it has some rather pretty guitar work from Mick Jones. Stately string samples carry the beat for a chorus where the subdued pop melody really takes flight:
London Bridge is falling down.
They're taking bids from all around
(Give me dollars I don't want pounds).
London Bridge is falling down,
But I still love this town
From the Tower to the Underground.
After coasting on a cool breeze for just over three minutes, the song crumbles into old-time soundtrack strings once again.
Shades of another soundtrack open Stalag 123, namely those of Elmer Bernstein's The Great Escape, which mix into an jazzed-out organ progression colored by gentle synth brass. The whole thing screams languid, as Mick Jones offers the opening lines:
I'm fixing on a jail break,
But the door is open wide.
Stuck in Stalag 123,
And there ain't no one to bribe.
Taking the Paisley Park-inflected dance pop aspect of Megatop to its logical conclusion, a rolling machine rhythm enters the fray to carry the song while a pulsing bassline bounces casually across its sleek surface. Alongside Everybody Needs A Holiday, this is clearly the most laidback material on the album. It's certainly the smoothest (no contest!) and provides the perfect leisurely conclusion to Megatop Phoenix:
I've got the studio blues and some other bad news.
(The basements been swamped by a flood).
I've got the studio blues and it's ruined my shoes.
(My boogie's all covered in mud).
With dialogue samples from The Great Escape scattered throughout, the song seems like it could stretch on dreamily into perpetuity. And yet, at three minutes, eleven seconds it cuts out abruptly...
The coda End interrupts Stalag 123 with an incongruous bit of bluesy guitar heroics from Mick Jones. A sad, muffled bit of piano creeps in as a woman's voice bids Goodbye. Suddenly, it seems, the trip is over.
The Nineties Are Gonna Make The Sixties Look Like The Fifties
Mick Jones in the nineties (from Planet BAD artwork).
Megatop Phoenix turned out to be the last full-length album by the original lineup of Big Audio Dynamite. The group lasted for one more single, the excellent Free (a sister record of sorts to Contact). It was recorded for the movie Flashback (starring Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland), which makes the connection between the two summers of love explicit. At the dawn of nineties, a decade during which the eighties innovations of dance music, hip hop and alternative rock would reign supreme, it struck a note of precarious optimism with a memorable line from faded sixties activist Huey Walker (played by Dennis Hopper) that was sampled prominently by the band:
Once we get out of the eighties,
The nineties are gonna make the sixties look like the fifties.
The Big Audio Dynamite II lineup followed swiftly in its wake with further escapades into indie dance in the form of the albums Kool-Aid and The Globe (along with the attendant singles). Further records like Higher Power and F-Punk followed different incarnations of the band through the decade, culminating in the excellent - but alas, unreleased - Entering A New Ride22 in that storied year, 1997.
Tracks like the Kraftwerk-inflected Kool-Aid and The Globe's proto-dusted beats were first-rate dancefloor burners, while Rush conquered up the pop charts21 with yet another of Mick's britpop gems. From the junglist bass of dread house groove I Don't Know all the way over to the honest-to-goodness drum 'n bass of 1995's It's A Jungle Out There, the group kept its finger to the pulse of dance music, turning in idiosynchratic fusions like Melancholy Maybe's 4/4 garage pulse and the big beat fury of Sunday Best.23
Eventually - around the turn of the century - the group morphed into The Big Audio Dynamite Soundsystem, touring the UK with a rotating crew of DJs, MCs and musicians. A mainstay at festivals and nightclubs alike, the crew pressed on faithfully through the intervening years. Mick Jones dabbled in various projects throughout the 21st century, including Carbon/Silicon, production of the first two Libertines albums and time spent with the Gorillaz (including their performance at Coachella). Then, in 2011, the unthinkable happened: the original B.A.D. lineup re-formed.
Twenty-one years after their parting shot - an era during which dance, rap and indie have only grown in stature and all-encompassing grip on pop culture - Mick Jones, Don Letts, Leo Williams, Greg Roberts and Dan Donovan emerged - as if from their DeLorean in the Medicine Show music video - in the 21st century. It would seem that everything's changed, but then it's always been the same song playing anyway (you've just got to know the tune). With the five minds that brought us the all-conquering brilliance of Megatop Phoenix back together in the same outfit, touring once again and doing their funky thang, perhaps the gang have a couple more tricks up their sleeve after all... only time will tell!
1. There are of course, many other records in this story: The Saints' (I'm) Stranded, Wire's Pink Flag, along with the O.G. New York stuff like The Dead Boys' Young Loud And Snotty, The Dictators' Go Girl Crazy!, The HeartbreakersL.A.M.F. all the way back to The Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls (Jon Savage's ground zero apparent for punk in England's Dreaming). There's an ocean of stuff out there, to be sure, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
3. Named for the Balearic islands off the south-east coast of Spain (including Majorca, Formentera, Minorca and Ibiza), which featured sensational nightclubs soundtracked by all manner of music - spanning myriad genres and points of origin - mixed together into an electrifying non-stop stream of rhythm. British DJs on holiday in Ibiza brought this open-minded anything goes spirit back with them to the UK. If the record had a killer groove, they'd play it, regardless of where it came from. Records as disparate as Fleetwood Mac's Big Love, Richie Havens' Going Back To My Roots and The Residents' Kaw Liga were all Balearic staples.
4. No doubt inspired by the movie Back To The Future, the setting of Letts' music video managed strangely enough to pre-empt the old west framework of the third film!
5. Interestingly enough, the tropical backdrop behind the group - also featured on the album's sleeve - was apparently inspired by the one in Frank Lopez's office from the movie Scarface.
7. In fact, Jones thanks his doctors and the entire medical staff at the intensive care unit and Almoth-Wright Ward of St. Mary's Hospital, along with his speech therapist, in the album credits.
8. Interestingly, The Band appear in the Universal Inspiration section of Megatop's liner notes.
9.The Haçienda was actually run by Factory Records (FAC 51) and bankrolled largely on the back of New Order's record sales.
10. Significantly, this is exactly the sort of visual one could expect at a contemporary party. The rave scene ascended just as computer graphics were maturing into a form that would also turn out to have a profound impact on pop culture. They developed alongside one another, often informing each other in the process. Indeed, from the stark cyberpunk computer graphics Buggy G. Riphead produced for Jumpin' & Pumpin' at the turn of the decade to the colorful 3d renderings of films like Lawnmower Man, Warp's Artificial Intelligence series and Studio !K7's X-Mix videos (not to mention countless rave fliers and projection visuals) throughout the nineties, extending late into the decade with the dystopioan visions of darkside jungle (see the sleeve for No U-Turn's Torque compilation) and The Matrix, computer graphics and electronic music have been steadfast fellow travellers throughout their long and winding existence.
11. Both Prince and De La Soul feature prominently in Megatop's Universal Inspiration list...
17.Who Beats, a b-side from the Contact, even features that same loop from I Can't Explain bolstered by heavier breakbeats and a stuttering sample of Mick Jones singing contact. The effect is tres big beat '96/'97!
Looking down from the Georgia Street bridge, into North Park and the place where it all went down, and the memories of the early days of Radio AG come flooding back.
While uploading the first five episodes of Radio AG over the past few weeks, I was struck by how rough a lot of the mixing was! Sure, partially this was down to being rusty (I'd taken a hiatus from spinning and music production to concentrate on finishing school), but I also suspect it was due to the fact that for the first time I was grappling with a lot of material that wasn't typically intended to be found in the mix.
Up until then, I'd primarily spun techno and house, on the one hand, or downbeat rap and trip hop, on the other. Mixing disparate selections from the sixties, alternative, new wave and so forth - much of it music that wasn't made with the DJ in mind - well, it was like learning to mix all over again. The first year was pretty ramshackle, truth be told, but it was an enjoyable experiment in figuring how to segue between tracks of such varying structure and sequence them to successfully carry a sustained mood (I wouldn't figure out the latter until the following year!)
In retrospect, I'd always tended to approach spinning from more of an electro/hip hop mindset anyway, playing with cuts and juxtaposition, whereas the general tendency with minimal techno at the time was to work gradual fades between similar tunes. The pivotal moment for me was hearing Kevin Saunderson scratch into Carl Craig's Piano Mix of R-Tyme's Use Me (on his X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio mix): this was everything I wanted dance music to be. On the flipside - the trip hop side - Terranova's DJ-Kicks was a revelatory experience, boasting a broad selection taking in hip hop, dub, post punk, electro and Detroit techno, all while maintaining a consistently vivid atmosphere throughout. Listening to both of these mixes for the first time - within months of each other! - was quite simply a mind-expanding experience, changing the way I listened to music from that point forward.
As such, when I put together the original Allied Heights mix (back in 2002), it already seemed natural to drop things like The B-52's Mesopotamia and Brian Eno & David Byrne's The Jezebel Spirit - not to mention Derrick May's remix of Tired Of Getting Pushed Around for 2 Men A Drum Machine And A Trumpet - in the mix alongside prime techno cuts like Scan 7's Black Moon Rising, The Martian's Meet The Red Planet and UR's Electronic Warfare, opening up plenty of real-estate for raw house material like the KSR Vocal Mix of Octave One's Blackwater, Susumu Yokota's discoid fantasy Future Memory and Carl Craig's awesome garage-tinged A-Dub Mix of The Reese Project's I Believe. There were even a couple brand new Shadez Of Colour cuts - that were just about to be pressed up at NSC in Detroit - slipped into the mix. It was a nice little mix that captured a time when things where humming in the Heights and it seemed as if it would go on that way forever...
But I'd be out of the game in a matter of months, commencing a roughly two-year period during which school, work and other real world commitments managed to monopolize my time completely. The music was still there, however, and I'd spent those years exploring other sounds: lines of flight into the wider world via the post punk (PIL, Mark Stewart, etc.) and reggae (King Tubby, Horace Andy, etc.) that I'd become aware of thanks to trip hop, and the funk (Parliament/Funkadelic, Sly & The Family Stone, etc.), synth (Kraftwerk, YMO, etc.) and jazz (Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra, etc.) music that techno had tuned me into along the way. Winding back through seventies soul into the sixties - Stax and Motown - on a similar tip and sideways into krautrock, prog and arty seventies music like Roxy Music (by way of Brian Eno), it was only a matter of time before I'd worked my way back into the sixties: The Beatles, The Byrds, Hendrix and beyond.
At the end of 2004, I moved out with a couple of mates into a spot over by Balboa Park that we came to call the 1808. The scene that coalesced around the place centered on what you might call the indie rock set, with various bands and scenesters in orbit, doing their thing. I was mainly rocking out to grime like Wiley's Treddin' On Thin Ice, Dizzee Rascal's second album and the Run The Road compilation, plus Roni Size's Return To V - which seemed to key into the same prevailing mood - along with Moodymann's Black Mahogani, Amp Fiddler's Waltz Of A Ghetto Fly and Theo Parrish (with material like The Rotating Assembly's Rusty Waters in constant rotation). There was a solid weekly techno night at the Honey Bee Hive (just up the street), and I did manage to catch the odd desert rave with Snakes and crew, but all of a sudden it seemed like indie rock was everywhere and dance was hard to find. This felt something like the wilderness years, and I was a stranger in a strange land.
So I decided to go back to my roots and start a mixtape series that would take in a bunch of the stuff I grew up on, before I'd even really struck out on my own, musically speaking. I'd basically started out in new wave with Adam Ant and Depeche Mode, along with eighties dance pop like the JacksonsMichael and Janet, before hip hop and swingbeat rolled into town. So why not start there - since this was more or less the lingua franca of my intended audience anyway - sprinkling in an ever increasing dose of beats and atmosphere along the way? Radio AG was born.
The idea at first was to construct a mix in the same way the closing song cycle from the second side of Abbey Road was structured, drifting from one pop song to the next in a kinetic flow. Along with my bedrock of past favorites, I'd lean on everything I'd picked up in the interim, ranging from Can to The Beach Boys and even some of the indie stuff I'd picked up like the Pixies (rock hard beats for miles) and Pavement (whose Jackals, False Grails: The Lonesome Era is basically a breakbeat dance track). Going back into the nineties, my hip uncle Matt from Chicago had tuned me into all sorts of great power pop and indie dance (like Blur, Happy Mondays and so on) that had a profound shaping influence on me at the time. This material flowed logically into groups like Gorillaz (AlbarnandRyder, together), A.R. Kane and The Beta Band that I'd later crossed paths with via dance music, and all of it would in turn form part of the foundation of the series.
So I did one mix, and then another. And then another. By October, I'd knocked out a fifth episode - The Halloween Special - and the series had become a reality. I was pulling in shipments from Submerge on a monthly basis, their shelves still stocked with the finest Detroit techno in abundance. A few months later, I crossed paths with SA-RA and Hot Chip. Woebot dropped his 100 Greatest Records Ever on New Years Day. Suddenly things didn't seem so lonely anymore. And then, couple weeks later I'd move in with my brother Brian - the same place where I live today - and dig into the next chapter of the Radio AG saga. But that's another story for another day!
A few years back, I started a limited series in which I'd post a weekly tune that was locked into the celestial. I called it Deep Space Music. It was loosely inspired, as is much of what I do, by something a bunch of forward-thinking cats did in Detroit back in the day. In this case, it was Deep Space Radio, a series of transmissions made in the mid-nineties in which people like Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson would spin far out techno and house over the city's airwaves, culminating in Saunderson's masterful X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio mix.
My own excursion was a much more minimal affair, hosted on the old version of this very site, titled (rather unimaginatively) Deep Space Music. It involved simply tossing up one tune a week - for just under a year - from one summer to another, spanning between 2012 and 2013. The idea was that each song would flow into the next as one long suite, thematically speaking, the patchwork whole unfolding like the weekly sci-fi serials of old. At any rate, it proved to be an enjoyable exercise and hopefully tuned some people into some great music in the process.
In researching a monster piece I've been working on lately (and coming at you in the near future), I'd been digging through the interplanetary archives and - in the process - discovered a tracklist of all the tunes that featured in the series. I'd nearly forgotten about the whole enterprise, but seeing as it fits in thematically with the trip we've been on lately I thought it might be illuminating to beam the results back to earth, commenting on each selection in the process.
You'll notice that a lot of these tunes have continued to crop up in the intervening years, via mixes and even featured in The Parallax 100, which should highlight the centrality of this selection to my own musical tastes. All of these should be relatively easy to get your ears on nowadays, via Youtube or some other means (like picking up the record, perhaps), so if something sounds enticing you know what to do...
The journey starts with rolling drums and guitars chiming off into the event horizon. Spacious pads with a graviational pull all their own drift through the mix, that gently chugging bassline seems to propel this ship through the vastness of space in ethereal slow-motion. Don't you know that I live for this sort of thing? This a François Kevorkian perpertrated dub of Ashford & Simpson's original (from their Solid LP), stretching it out across timespace with just a snatch of the original vocal. When Nickolas Ashford drops right into the mix, singing The love story's true, they didn't change me and you..., the track seems to stop and rebuild itself right before your eyes.
MtumeThe After 6 Mix (Juicy Fruit Part II) (Epic, 1983)
Another flipside excursion, another featuring just a snatch of vocal input and another one of my favorite songs of all time. The original has one of the great synth progressions ever, pulling you in with a gliding futuristic optimism (think Tommorowland), but this second part - stripping the track to its essentials - is true space capsule music. You find yourself waiting for the synthesized bass sound that just oozes into the track every other bar. Hearing this for the first time was one of those pivotal moments in my life, like a parallel universe unfolding before me, and everything contained within was right up my alley. I remember rustling up the album and 12" within weeks!
This tune and much of what follows are what I like to call Machine Soul, in essence a sonic strand stretching from Mtume through Model 500, into Timbaland and beyond.
KleeerTonight (Atlantic, 1984)
This one takes me back to sun-glazed days in late summer, playing video games on the Atari 2600 (truly ancient technology by that point in the mid-nineties), tripping out to Solaris and the sound of machine rhythms in the scorching heat. This track was the basis for DJ Quik's Tonite, its rubberband, synthetic bassline spreading deep into the DNA of g-funk. True machine soul, you can picture yourself listening in some perfectly-engineered alien vessel, gliding over a neon vector landscape in the night.
DrexciyaRunning Out Of Space (Tresor, 1999)
Perfection in just under two minutes, this would lend itself to a killer 7" single. That's a whole category unto itself. Sounding almost as if Tonight were fast-forwarded - all sonics twisted and filtered through fifteen years of electro boogie science - the track swoops and shudders on a nimble machine-funk rhythm before dissolving into a majestic, beatless coda. You could run a starship on that. Drexciya of course representing the life aquatic, they seem to be just as much at home in the deep black of space.
SlamVisions (featuring Dot Allison) (Soma, 2001)
Turn-of-the-century Glasgow. A killer pop song seemingly sprung from the subconscious. The atmosphere heavy like a black hole, that shrouded bassline rising from within, drawing you deeper and deeper into gravity's pull. At the center of it all is Dot Allison), serenading the night skies in a druggy murmur. The song explodes into some psychedelic vision of deep space r&b, glowing shards of funky synthetic sound spiralling off into the stratosphere, northern lights ablaze.
I've gone digital about this one before. You're gliding across the grid, vectors scrolling under a moonlit sky, landscapes parallaxing in the distance. Keni Stevens drapes his absolute smoothest, most delicate voice over an elegant neon-lit groove, all the parts moving in perfect unity. The vocal and instrumental versions of the Ultra-Sensual Mix run together on the vinyl, giving you eleven and a half minutes of supersonic pleasure.
Sun PalaceRude Movements (Passion, 1983)
I've noted before (another repeat!) how this record comes on like Carl Craig and Hall & Oates making music together in an elevator. I stand by that. Eighties smooth jazz isn't supposed to sound this exciting, but every element in this tune mixes together into the perfect palette and, against all odds, feels absolutely timeless. The perfect (quiet) storm.
YageTheme From Hot Burst (Jumpin' & Pumpin', 1992)
An exclusive from the excellent Earthbeat compilation, an indispensable round-up of glistening techno produced by a pre-FSOLDougans and Cobain. Crystalline synths drift whimsical over stuttering breakbeats, muted rave sounds trill just below the surface, with everything submerged in a deep, oceanic calm. Almost freeform in its construction, this track simply shimmers.
The Isley BrothersVoyage To Atlantis (T-Neck, 1997)
Why don't The Isley Brothers get more love? They're easily the equal of giants like Led Zeppelin or Stevie Wonder. What gives? They have loads of great records. This from their seventies 3 + 3 period - when the group's ranks swelled to six - in which they operated as purveyors of fine funk and peerless, sun-glazed soul. Voyage To Atlantis itself sways in stately slow-motion, exit music for a film. Cosmic, elegaic and beautiful.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be) (Reprise, 1968)
Aquatic, like Drexciya, but in tune with the cosmos. Hendrix got his start playing guitar with The Isleys before going down in history as arguably the greatest guitarist of all (the Forever riff in this song is one of the most inspiring things I've ever heard done with an electric guitar). This record finds him equally adept at using the studio as an instrument unto itself, rolling various movements and spaced out interludes into a nearly fourteen-minute sonic tapestry that works seamlessly as one long, flowing piece. The result is simply breathtaking.
FlukeKitten Moon (Astralwerks, 1997)
The better part of this album, Risotto, is pretty spaced out as a rule, and I could have used anything from the blunted black hole trip Bermuda to the alien frequencies of Reeferendum to make the same point. However, Kitten Moon eclipses all other candidates with its relentless, chugging rhythm and a drop into pure atmosphere that leaves you standing on the edge of infinity.
KleeerTonight (SA-RA Remix featuring The SA-RA All Stars & Me'Shell NdegéOcello) (Rhino, 2005)
The original Kleeer classic (heard above) has a long history of affection among electronic funk connoisseurs. SA-RA turn in what is, in truth, more an outright cover than a remix. I love how they take the relatively minimal original - a tune that seems deeply influential to their own group's aesthetic - and go all out with it, stretching out in widescreen with a big band in tow (including the inimitable Me'Shell NdegéOcello), with no expense spared. Sparkling in the discotheque.
Octave OneNicolette (430 West, 1991)
Octave One embody a certain sonic perfection, working out the internal logic of techno and house to arrive at a streamlined form that sounds unlike anything else. This from their classic Octivation EP, following on the heels of their debut I Believe. Detuned bleeps spill out from a low slung rhythm, the fusion of shuffling 909 beats and a wandering analog bassline, synth washes flowing beneath it all in such a way that r&b stations should've been playing it. In a word, DEEP.
Joe Gibbs & The ProfessionalsIdlers Rest (Joe Gibbs, 1977)
Intergalactic dub reggae, sounding not unlike SA-RA holed up at the Black Ark. Hard to believe it's from 1977. Rock hard beats and bottomless bass kick into gear with siren synths blazing high up above. This from the second volume in Joe Gibbs' excellent African Dub All-Mighty series, which I was lucky enough to snag at Reggae World some years back (and just in time to spin at a New Years Eve party later that night).
Leon WareTamed To Be Wild (United Artists, 1972)
Motorik machine soul from the first solo shot by this songwriter in the shadows. Think Suicide. Leon Ware growls over a chugging blues beat, rolling pianos and electronic bass that zig-zags beneath brooding verses before exploding into that near-gospel chorus. Ancient synths droning into infinity. It's all very Warp Records. Ware well-documented as a songwriting auteur, with Motown and Marvin Gaye, in particular (look no further than I Want You for the proof), benefiting from his way with the pen. Check those credits - from Quincy Jones to Minnie Riperton to The Jackson Five - he's everywhere!.
Jackson And His Computer BandUtopia (Warp, 2005)
I remember being stumped as to how to follow up the previous track - so doggedly singular was that grinding tronik soul stormer - but this convoluted electro/house burner from the French auteur Jackson Fourgeaud did the trick. Intricate and overloaded, this track is - simply put - a monster. The whole of it seems constructed from shards of sound - electronic glitches and vocal snatches - shattered into a million pieces only to be reconstructed into a skewed vision of disco, churning under waves of droning sonics before dropping out into that heavenly chorus. Have you ever thought about utopia? Utterly bizarre, yet I challenge anyone not to be hooked by the second listen.
BeanfieldKeep On Believing (Compost, 1997)
My brother Matt and I used to be obsessed with this tune. Still are, truth be told. One of my go-to tracks in defense of the practice of sampling. This tune essentially mashes up Vangelis' Let It Happen and the batucada drums from Costa-Gavras' Z (Mikis Theodorakis in full effect), filtering them through deep space sonics and winding up with something utterly singular. But where did those blues vocals come from?
More SA-RA. They're all over the place in this break out! The MMM original is a swaying mirage of interstellar exotica, but the SA-RA version takes it on a wild, tangled trip into the unknown. Busting out wrongfooted on the 4/4 - like if J Dilla made a house track - this multi-part dancefloor burner seems fueled on unstable elements, kicking into a juke joint mid-section before it all collapses inna staggering machine rhythm that just disolves into stray synths in the moonlight. The life and death of a star.
Jay DeeThink Twice (BBE, 2001)
Speaking of J Dilla, this deep slab of downbeat bliss from Welcome 2 Detroit is the square root of all manner of twisted machine soul that's tumbled out of this blessed millennium so far. This could go on for hours and I wouldn't get bored. The Donald Byrd bit that goes Your love's like fire and ice, that's why we've got to think twice, followed by a little trumpet flourish, is catchier than most songs you hear on the radio. Then it flies off on a variation, the piano jukes then goes left, before once again drifting somewhere else entirely.
Smith & MightyDJ-Kicks/I Don't Know (featuring Alice Perera) (12" Mix 1) (Studio !K7, 1998)
It's beginning to feel almost as if I subconsciously drew from this nearly forgotten list when mixing last year's Radio AG transmissions! I suppose that speaks to their closeness to my heart (aww!). This one's so tied up with my own memories and experiences that I don't know where to begin. You just want to curl up inside the warmth of this song. In the surrounding context, it plays like a companion piece to The Martian's Sex In Zero Gravity: a love from outer space.
Me'Shell NdegéOcelloCome Smoke My Herb (Maverick, 2003)
Comfort Woman - the record from which this track springs - is on some serious Hendrix-level astral plane, its space rock dynamics swooping and shuddering in graceful slow-motion through the reggaematic machinery of dub. This is deep space as a return to the womb, and it's the swooning blur of Come Smoke My Herb that offers up the record's simplest, most exquisite pleasure: walking on air.
Divine StylerIn A World Of U (Maverick, 2003)
In between Styler's old school debut and underground return lies Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light, a record that draws on space rock, industrial and fusion as much as hip hop. This tune in particular is coming from somewhere else! There's that inevitable, descending chord progression - guitars running through sheets of chorus, trilling off into delicate metallic solos - rolling drums and Divine Styler's druggy murmur at the center of it all, cut adrift in wholly expansive innnerspace.
The PoliceWalking On The Moon (A&M, 1979)
Everybody knows this one, and for good reason. Andy Sumner's guitars chime into the endless deep while Stewart Copeland taps out a beat that seems to obey the laws of lunar gravity rather than the Earth's, and Sting sounds without a care in the world. I remember a particularly dark night back in the day when I listened to this song on repeat, non-stop until I eventually drifted off to sleep.
Simple MindsVeldt (Arista, 1979)
Early Simple Minds records are doubtless a treasure trove of weird new wave, but you'll also find some of the most atmospheric instrumentals of their era... or any other for that matter. Perfectly conjuring up visions of the titular African plains at dusk, strange shapes shifting in the darkness, this brings to mind Suburban Knight's The Art Of Stalking. I swear that you can hear mid-period FSOL in this densely articulated atmosphere. The first time I heard it, I thought What's going on now?! Today it might be my favorite thing on the album.
Philly soul craftsman gets loose in the studio, shearing into incandescent jazz funk. The song drifts in and out into radio transmissions - presumably picked up in deep space - chronicling the struggles of present-day Earth. Not much has changed! Wansel croons in silk over luminescent organs and a rubber-synth bassline, fragile and exquisite. A minor r&b hit at the time, it's a wonder this tune isn't more widely known.
The Steve Miller BandSacrifice (Capitol, 1977)
Glorious tripped out pop-psychedelia from the original space cowboy. Crystalline rhodes shimmer in the moonlight over a downbeat rhythm, while Steve Miller pulls liquid shapes from his guitar and sings moody lines in the foreground. I've always been a sucker for that vibrato thing he tends to do with his voice: What a sacrifiyiyice.... This is, in essence, a jazz funk record. Which leads us into...
Roy Ayers UbiquityThe Memory (Polydor, 1976)
DEEP jazz funk. The deepest. Drawing you slow-motion tumbling into a black hole, shadows and sound swirling all around, it seems to have a gravity all its own. Feel Surreal. Those drums are rock hard, pounding a tripped-out beat while deep Moog bass textures curl beneath. Liquid keys shimmer and gamma ray ARPs stream like sunlight through the darkness. Innerspace music and subconscious soul, this track embodies the haunting words of its refrain.
Marvin GayeA Funky Space Reincarnation (Tamla, 1978)
Taken from Gaye's exquisite kiss off Here, My Dear. I remember buying the record thinking, Well, it's supposed to be one of his weaker ones but I love What's Going On and then being completely blown away. A Funky Space Reincarnation has Gaye drifting through images of mental deep space travel over a downbeat disco rhythm - sort of half-singing/half-rapping - commenting on the sights he encounters along the way and putting the moves on Miss Birdsong. Strangely enough, this always makes me think of those rolling ambient house numbers by The Orb like Perpetual Dawn and Toxygene, gently unfurling on an astral plane.
Bobby LyleInner Space (Capitol, 1978)
I first heard this in a Kirk Degiorgio mix and couldn't believe my ears. This came out when? How?? It's the secret ancestor to Carl Craig's gaussian-blurred ambient excursions like Neurotic Behavior and A Wonderful Life, and a glorious track in its own right.
PsycheNeurotic Behavior (Planet E, 1989)
Which brings us to this, which strangely had the opposite effect: I couldn't believe it had come out so recently. Breathtakingly cinematic and vast in scope, it sounds simultaneously ancient and futuristic, like a sleek alien structure that the scientists can't seem to date. I remember compiling the Parallax 100 and originally planning to include 4 Jazz Funk Classics, but just couldn't resist this record's exquisite shades and absorbing timbres. Elements is in that grey area of compilations that pull from just one or two years - see also The Three EPs by The Beta Band - but it just works too well as an album in its own right. It gets the pass! And just because his first stuff is my absolute favorite doesn't mean I don't love the rest of it... the man has gone from strength to strength, one of the most consistently compelling producers around.
The MartianSkypainter (Red Planet, 1995)
Motorik deep space drive. I've been a big fan of Red Planet for ages, and if I'm not mistaken have everything the label put out (there might be a Somewhere In Detroit record lingering, I can't remember). At the time I just couldn't get ahold of the records, try as I might. I first heard this and Midnite Sunshine (and, come to think of it the very next track as well) on Submerge's Depth Charge 3, a round-up of tracks that from their extended crew. I was in heaven.
FreqWaveaura (Matrix, 1995)
This is the other one from that compilation, although its original home was a label compilation for Matrix Records (Sean Deason's label). As far as I know, this never had a release outside those two compilations. Deason was a rising star at this time, in what was called The Third Wave Of Detroit Techno, and I snapped up whatever I could by him. When he was on, he was really on. This spaced out organ jam, a sleek Martian cousin to Paperclip People's Steam, was one of those moments.
E-DancerWorld Of Deep (KMS, 1997)
I can now recall that there was a bit of a Detroit rally going on at this point. I was feeling good! This tune was actually featured on Saunderson's X-Mix that I mentioned above. It was hot off the presses at the time. Simply put, this is superb machine disco. Deeply psychedelic and absorbing, that bassline just takes hold. Are those synths or are they voices? You just have to close your eyes to this one.
VirgoRide (Radical, 1989)
More dazzling tronik house moves, this time by way of Chicago. Machine rhythms and a cascading bassline suck you into the pitch black, while blurred vocals invite you to take a ride. This is night drive music for a ride to Club Silencio.
Dark EnergyMidnite Sunshine (Underground Resistance, 1994)
This one from the awesome Dark Energy double-pack on UR. Credited to Dark Energy AKA Suburban Knight AKA James Pennington, and offering up a flipside to the paranoid dread in earlier records like The Art Of Stalking and Nocturbulous Behavior: anything is possible and the future is wide open. Inspiring stuff. There was a later Dark Energy record that was quite good as well, this time on an electrofunk tip.
ReloadEhn (Infonet, 1993)
Taken from A Collection Of Short Stories, which is (if I'm not mistaken) Global Communication's auspicious debut. The record is a grab-bag of disparate styles - from ambient to breakbeat techno and grinding industrial - complete with an equally disjunctured set of accompanying science fiction texts. This beauty in this track lies in its sheer inevitability as it works out its own internal logic - the synth's progression and that throbbing bassline, low-key breaks rolling beneath - its off-kilter funk running like illogical clockwork.
PlaidSpudink (Warp, 1997)
I've always been quite fond of this one. Its casual futurism is like viewing the Earth through a tiny portal from within the compact close quarters of the international space station... a tin can floating through the vastness of space. There's also loads of stuff by The Black Dog that I could/should have used in this list, but it must have slipped my mind.
China CrisisJean Walks In Freshfields (Virgin, 1982)
This unlikely jewel of space music in miniature lies nestled at the end of China Crisis' debut album, Difficult Shapes & Passive Rhythms. It drops you into the shadow of a nebula and is over in the blink of an eye.
Double HelixLow Key (Rush Hour, 2002)
I think this one first appeared on the All Access To Detroit's Music Festivals compilation, but it later got a 12" release. A clockwork rhythm taps beneath a glowing bassline as the deepest of synths roll out into casual infinity. Strangely, this often makes me think of the spaciest precincts of China Crisis' discography (particularily Red Sails and The Soul Awakening).
KraftwerkSpacelab (Kling Klang, 1978)
These gentlemen from Cologne don't have an album dedicated to space, possibly because they already said everything they needed to within the shining six minutes of Spacelab. Partially inspired by the machine disco rhythms of Giorgio Moroder, this sounds like ambient house before house even happened.
QueenIn The Space Capsule (Love Theme) (Elektra, 1981)
When Dr. Zarkov's space capsule disconnects from the rocket, that guitar strum etches itself into infinity. Queen in soundtrack mode here, this is beautiful like Tangerine Dream. It's the love theme for Dale and Flash, one one level, but on another it seems to gesture toward a universal love for all of humanity (and thus makes it Dr. Zarkov's theme as much as anyone else's). Perfect music for getting sucked into a vortex, I once made an abstract hip hop track that sampled those opening synths.
Mr. FingersStars (Jack Trax, 1987)
Glorious early deep house from Larry Heard (a legend doncha know?). You've got this gently chugging beat, a bassline that wanders all over the spectrum and shimmering synth sequences that rotate in slow-motion lunar orbit, always threatening to slip just behind the beat but staying in perfect time. Exquisitely psychedelic.
Dâm-FunkKeep Lookin' 2 The Sky (Stones Throw, 2009)
Uptempo bizzness from the ever-reliable Dâm-Funk. Seeing him live made me realize that he's something like the West Coast equivalent to Moodymann: operating with the same vital foot in the present, informed by deep crates and a musical lineage stretching deep into the past (just swap out West Coast electro and Solar Records for deep disco slates and Motown). This is one of those moments when you realize that he's making, for all intents and purposes, techno.
MýaMýa (Interscope, 1998)
Produced by Darryl Pearson, cohort of DeVante Swing (mentor to Timbaland), and the sound's rubbed off in this fragile orbital torch song. I remember Simon Reynolds, back in the day, describing how midway through the song everything seemed to rotate on its axis. There's loads of great r&b moments that happen to be built on Art Of Noise/ZTT tunes (a list in itself there), and this must surely be among the greatest.
DJ Mitsu The BeatsNegative Ion (featuring Ainjoy McWhorter) (SA-RA Remix) (Planetgroove, 2004)
SA-RA at their most deliriously decomposed (think Smokeless Highs and Hangin' By A String), but working with such lush source material that it manages to become a great pop moment in and of itself. Shamefully, I don't know anything about DJ Mitsu The Beats, as I only grabbed this remix EP after hearing it played out on their Dark Matter & Pornography Mixtape.
And the men themselves for the grand finale. I can't overstate how epochal this crew have been in my own musical life, like something on the level of Led Zeppelin. They managed to tie together so many strands of music that I cherish and then took them supernova. This is zero gravity r&b, and a perfect end to this unplanned excursion into deep space music.
I recently noticed that I'd loaned out my copy of Derrick May's Innovator and thought, what a great compilation that was followed by I really hope that I get it back. The double-disc version is that rare compilation that acts as both a primer, rounding up most of the man's seminal Rhythim Is Rhythim material in one place, as well as a showcase of unreleased material from the vaults. The downside was that my copy had many of the track titles transposed so that I went through high school thinking that Nude Photo was The Beginning and so forth. It was only later, after tracking down the original 12"s that I was able to piece together the true story.
I remember rolling around town in my 1980 brown Dodge Colt, a single tape distillation of this anthology perpetually lodged in the deck, soundtracking life I made my way through the Heights. There were a steady supply of homemade cassette tapes in rotation, including E-Dancer's Heavenly (augmented with the full-length version of World Of Deep) and a Carl Craig tape with Landcruising on one side and More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art on the other. I even seem to remember one that, for whatever reason, paired C.J. Bolland with a bunch of tracks from Claude Young's Pattern Buffer series. At any rate it felt pretty good being able to bump techno in that vehicle, even if the car itself was in the unfortunate habit of stalling and/or not starting up. But I digress...
Derrick May - Innovator
Back to Innovator. This compilation features a generous selection of unreleased material, which I'd like to focus on today. Ranging from fully fleshed-out songs to interludes and even sonic squiggles that last for but a few seconds (Daymares, with its string-led drift that coalesces into a series of stabs running the scales up and down), it's an indispensable glimpse into the Transmat vaults and the mind of an innovator.
Rest acts as an introduction to the whole anthology, capturing in just one minute the whole magnetic allure of this music: the mystery, the melancholy, the soul. Resolute in the face of ruin. Another Relic (From The Relics) is perhaps the most gorgeous of the interludes, capturing that triumphant optimism that one so often finds in this music, leaning defiantly as it does toward the future. One wishes there was a full version of this track kicking around somewhere. I remember reading an interview with May some time ago where he alluded to an ill-fated Rhythim Is Rhythim album that remains unreleased to this day. Perhaps this is a glimpse at that storied record?
The pointillist digital disco of Freestyle, one of the full-length tracks that seem to be exclusive to the set, is pure night drive music (comparable to The Dance) and of a piece with the minimal side of FSOL's Accelerator. Then, there's the Juan Atkins mix of Wiggin', which seems to soundtrack the orbital skyway and is a cousin to Jazz Is The Teacher, its hollow organs dancing over shuffling rhythms of pure machine funk.
There's one sketch that features this great tattoo of stabs that sound like they're going to build into an epic along the lines of The Beginning before stopping at a mere ten seconds. I originally knew it as A Little Spaced Out, but - when confronted with the true tracklist - it turns out to be untitled. Elsewhere, there's an edit of R-Theme (by R-Tyme) that opens with a rude synth stab (which is not in the original) but unfortunately cuts out some of the 12"s most glorious moments. Indeed, the one weakness with this set is that some of the songs appear in edited form, while others are split into various interludes and alternate versions.
Various Artists - Relics: A Transmat Compilation
It's worth noting another crucial compilation, Relics: A Transmat Compilation (with it's stunning sleeve, designed by none other than Abdul Haqq), which covers not just May but many other artists on his label, including Suburban Knight (The Art Of Stalking), Model 500 (Infoworld) and BFC (Evolution and a piano-led remake of Crackdown).
The whole set is bookended by two songs titled A Relic. The opening relic (credited to Long Ago) is insouciantly captivating sci-fi music, its mad swelling synths draw you into a gentle gliding melody. It feels not unlike walking into the dome city from Logan's Run. The closing relic (credited to Longer Than Long Ago is a moody, organ-led number that later turns up on Innovator - split into two parts called Phantom and More Phantom - which this time feature toughened beats and no organ.
Relics also features a series of brilliant Intervals that are similar in spirit to the interludes on Innovator, only better. Some longer moments are spread across multiple, shorter intervals, while others are allowed to breathe a little (Interval IV even masks the same tune found in Another Relic (From The Relics)). The down and dirty final movement (Interval X) is almost like an ultra-funky slow-motion version of Fix's Flash. Once again, you long for full-length cuts of each of these tracks.
It would be wonderful if someone (perhaps even Derrick May himself) would put together the definitive compilation of this material, with all of the original 12" versions of these classics and a whole brace of tracks from the archives. What we really need is for the unreleased Rhythim Is Rhythim LP to finally see the light of day. In light of some of the excellent reissues that have surfaced in recent years (the Drexciya box set on Clone come to mind), it seems like the perfect time for a comprehensive archive of the man's epochal body of work. A long overdue return to the relics.
I've already gone on record about The English Beat's debut album, I Just Can't Stop It, ensconced as it comfortably in The Parallax 100. It's an LP that I have no qualms about calling one of the great pop records of all time, right up there with The Beatles. This is a band that I grew up on in the eighties, with splinter groups like General Public, Fine Young Cannibals and the Ranking Roger solo records peppering my listening habits through the nineties well into the present day. Even when I was plumbing the depths of electronic music, subsisting on a strict diet of beats and beats alone, the 2 Men A Drum Machine And A Trumpet 12" (with that crucial Derrick May remix on the flip) was never far from the turntable.
Last Saturday found Sari and I cruising up the 5 as the sun settled on the horizon, a special English Beat mix (that I'd made earlier that week as a sort of primer) pulsing out the soundsystem, just the two of us heading up the coast to catch The Beat live at The Belly Up Tavern. On arrival in Solana Beach, just as dusk began to fall, we pulled into a Mexican joint down the street from the venue in order to hook up with Kayli and LeValley and grab a bite to eat.
A half hour later we walked through the doors of The Belly Up, where the opening DJ was spinning a selection of reggae cuts to nice up the dance. Tunes like Horace Andy's I Feel Good All Over and Dandy Livingstone's Rudy, A Message To You (foundational sixties ska later covered by The Specials) filled the room and made it clear that this was the perfect venue for this music. The Belly Up is like some fantasy collision of all the best Pablo Cruise record sleeves and those gorgeous sets from Robert Altman's Popeye motion picture (speaking of Altman, the first show that I caught at the Belly Up was King Sunny Adé & His African Beats some years back). Neon lights illuminate the building's vaulted celings, exposed rafters stretch out rustic and warm over a loose assortment of rooms centered around the main stage. Put simply, it's like the nightclub in Club Paradise. We made our way through the main room, grabbing some drinks along the way, and found a spot more or less at the center of the room where we waited for the opening act to take the stage.
I hadn't yet heard Viernes 13 before the band began to play, but was instantly won over by their blazing ska moves that seemed to recall nothing so much as Sublime's Paddle Out shot through a Chicano prism (think Once Upon A Time In Mexico as much as Los Lobos), sounding like Byron Lee & The Dragonaires' Frankenstein Ska if it were played by The Plugz circa the Repo Man soundtrack. It was all incredibly vibey, and very L.A.
I ducked into the back where their people had set up a merchandise table and grabbed a shirt immediately - taking note of the CDs for sale - and threw it on over the shirt I was already wearing. Consider me a fan! I later grabbed both of their CDs on my way out - you don't want to have to keep track of media on the dancefloor - and the man was even nice enough to throw a split EP into the deal. I've been rocking all three this week. I couldn't find an image of the shirt I bought (there were three to choose from) anywhere on the net, so I snapped a picture here. I thought it was a really lovely design:
I'd like to return to this crew in the near future, once I've fully absorbed their records and lived with their music awhile, as I think they're truly on to something special here. In the meantime, Viernes 13 will be back in San Diego on Friday, May 29th, playing at The Hideout, so you know where I'll be. Don't sleep!
This show brought back memories of going to ska parties back in the late nineties, when a friend's older brother was in a band (the name of which escapes me at the moment). Our crew would be chilling in the back, fish out of water more in tune with breakbeats and 303s than the sort of sounds taking place on stage, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless. Come to think of it, another friend of mine was actually in that same band as well, and he was heavy into third wave ska and the swing revival. I remember one time we bonded over a mutual love for Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington and the OG two-tone bands.
Which brings us to The English Beat. Dave Wakeling is the only original member in the current touring lineup of the group (hasn't he lived in Southern California since the late nineties?), so I was curious how they would sound in the 21st century. Certain questions were running through my mind in the weeks leading up to the show. Who would be toasting Ranking Roger's parts? Would they play any General Public material? How would the new drummer handle Everett Morton's phenomenal work on the original records (the debut LP has some of my favorite drumming ever)? Would it all be too much to live up to?
After the MC hyped and teased the crowd for the better part of an hour, The Beat took the stage, opening with Rough Rider, and any doubts I may have had just drifted off into the ether on the back of its mellow, churning groove. This is one of my favorite moments from one of my favorite albums of all time, so hearing it live in good form was a bit of a rush. The band was tight and seemed to be having a blast while King Schascha strut his way around the stage, toasting on the mic in fine style.
Twist & Crawl was a definite highlight, submerging the club deep into the darkness after opening with some of the group's brightest numbers. New drummer Nucci Cantrell turned in solid work on the kit, even slipping into a breakbeat from time to time. The drumming wasn't quite as meticulous as Everett Morton's clockwork precision (the very foundation of the twisting rhythmic engine deep within the heart of The Beat), but it was no slouch either (and keep in mind that I'm comparing him to one of my favorite drummers of all time here), providing ample propulsion for the band's infectious loose-limbed riddims.
Needless to say, we danced like maniacs throughout the whole show. They even lit up the disco ball for I Confess and Too Nice To Talk To! I was surprised that they didn't play Doors Of Your Heart (in fact, nothing at all from Wha'ppen), but the songs from Special Beat Service were some of the biggest moments of the night. Save It For Later got a huge response from the crowd, while Ackee 1 2 3 might have been my favorite tune of the evening, its off-kilter (and seemingly sped-up) rhythms super fun to dance to (their label wasn't called Go-Feet for nothing)!
I'd somehow never noticed before that Soul Salvation seems to be the blueprint for large swathes of the Fine Young Cannibals sound. On the other hand, I've often wondered whether Steele and Cox were listening closely to Elvis Costello's Get Happy when mapping out their new group's trajectory. Maybe it's just the similar approach of new wave cats tackling Northern soul, who knows? At any rate, the other group to come out of The English Beat's breakup, General Public, got checked not once but twice. Early on in the show, The Beat did a rendition of The Staple Singers' I'll Take You There, which was covered by the newly reformed (at the time) GP for the Threesome soundtrack. Later, toward the end of the show, the band broke into Tenderness to a rapturous response from the crowd.
Dave even took lead vocals for Ranking Full Stop, and I could have imagined this, but I thought I saw him shake his head when he sang my name is ranking full stop. That was funny. I almost wasn't expecting the band to play that one, but it came off really well... before they slipped seamlessly into Mirror In The Bathroom! It was a serious double-take moment and definitely the climax of the whole night as that deep, chugging bassline seemed to cause the whole room to sink into the floor, dancing figures etched in neon as the band played on and on.