As the hours keep turning and the moon hangs deep in the sky, we move toward the back of the crate toward the voodoo records. Here's where we get into the heaviest, most atmospheric music that could loosely be termed punk funk without shimmying into krautrock territory. Word of warning: things are gonna get weird. Escape routes take you everywhere from West Africa to the Caribbean, from Brazil to Indonesia and from Bristol to The Bronx. Far and wide. Today's chapter essentially boils down to three post punk dynasties: The Pop Group/Slits continuum, Material/Bill Laswell and the mighty Public Image Ltd. (and related solo endeavors). All of which - critically - take you well into the nineties and beyond, tributaries cutting a jagged path across the landscape to feed into pockets of industrial, hip hop and technoid innovation leading right up to the present day. But first, let's start at the beginning...
Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box is in essence the the Rosetta Stone of the whole endeavor, a decoder ring of sorts. When you come to terms with the record, suddenly everything else makes sense. Albatross sets the tone with a twenty ton bassline snaking its way through ten minutes of grinding, cavernous funk, followed swiftly by the spidery guitar of the filmic Memories and the return of Death Disco - the group's 12" tour de force - which gets transmuted here into Swan Lake (the guitar at one point mirrors Tchaikovsky's ballet of the same title). In all three Lydon wails like a banshee, Levene splinters his guitar into jagged arcing feedback and Wobble walks his bass across the track like a brontosaurus. The story goes that the trio had been been mainlining on krautrock and Jamaican dub, and it's all in full effect here: the bass towers menacingly at center stage while the guitars often recall Michael Karoli's spidery fretwork on Tago Mago.
Like Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies, Metal Box appears to deconstruct itself before your eyes over the course of its hour-long running time. Tunes like Careering and The Suit are the jaded, staggering flipside to Swan Lake, while Graveyard eschews vocals altogether, staggering zombie-like through the Gothic crypt. Socialist - another instrumental - comes on like the dub version of a straight up punk song circa 1977. Similarily, Chant is another x-ray punk endeavor - maddening in its atonal repetition and refusal to release - while No Birds is the closest thing here to PIL's First Issue and Public Image. The closing1 Radio 4 is a drifting synth instrumental anchored only by Wobble's bassline, who also dominates the heavy dub stomp of Poptones.
Out of the three principal malcontents in PIL, Jah Wobble spent the most sustained time in this fertile territory at the intersection of funk and dub. His solo debut Betrayal even used some backing tapes from the PIL sessions (which accordingly got him kicked out of the band) and turned in a worthy successor to Metal Box, with synths and atmospherics taking on an even wider role in the sound this time out (not to mention looser, more nimble rhythms). Blink and you'd swear the vocals in Betrayal - the track - came courtesy of Shaun Ryder! It's a promising beginning to what turned out to be a long and fruitful discography at the nexus of funk and dub.
Two of Wobble's subsequent records were collaborations with Can bassist Holger Czukay that perpetrated further capers in this arena, with Full Circle (also featuring Can's Jaki Liebezeit on drums) boasting the post punk dancefloor classic How Much Are They? (which eerily seems to predict the atmosphere of The Good, The Bad & The Queen record) and Snake Charmer (featuring atmospheric guitar by The Edge of U2 fame!), the latter of which takes matters strikingly close to contemporary electro boogie. And I mean running in parallel, two steps away, too close for comfort. Glenn Close, even. Hold On To Your Dreams, in particular, which features High Fashion's Marcella Allen on vocals, could slot rather comfortably into a set alongside contemporary Ashford & Simpson, Gwen Guthrie and the S.O.S. Band. Conversely, the title track's atmosphere bears an uncanny resemblance to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which is no small praise indeed.
These fourth world vibes turned out to be the lifeblood of the man's output for the next decade plus, where he drew influence from Jamaica, North Africa and even the Celtic music of his own British isles for a series of albums with his new band Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart. This phase of his career will be covered further in the next chapter of Terminal Vibration (where we trace all these threads through the latter half of the decade into the nineties), but Wobble actually got around to issuing the Invaders Of The Heart self-titled debut 12" as early as 1983 (the year of Snakecharmer, in fact). It's an utterly beguiling record - spread across three separate mixes - with Wobble's trademark wall of bass riding a motorik post-disco groove across the Sahara, as trumpet arabesques and sampled wailing vocals weave across its surface. I always loved the way that synth bass comes in at times to echo Wobble's pulsing b-line ever so often. It's all very much in keeping with the Byrne/Eno experiment, especially, but also things like Thomas Leer's 4 Movements and Tony Allen's N.E.P.A. LP. Future music, in other words. With the icon Wobble clearly having a hand on the pulse.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, another bass player was embarking on his own excursion that would carve a similar trail across the post punk landscape. I speak now of Bill Laswell. Laswell was a journeyman bassist who'd cut his teeth in various funk bands around Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan before moving to New York before hooking up with Michael Beinhorn and Fred Maher to form the initial incarnation of Material. The trio got their unlikely start as the backing band for Daevid Allen's twilight-era New York Gong before cutting a trio of EPs for Red Records.2 The band debuted in 1979 with Temporary Music 1, a dense, lo-fi slab of prog-inflected post punk that ran the gamut from On Sadism's mid-tempo punk funk to the Canterbury-esque prog moves of Process/Motion. Temporary Music 2 followed a couple years later with cleaner production and a more spacious mix, boasting the motorik dancefloor moves of Secret Life and Dark Things' foggy post-Bitches Brew atmosphere. American Songs rounded out the trilogy the very same year, with tracks Ciquri - the next in their line of mid-tempo funk tracks - and Discourse, which illustrate the band's comfort with the form (which I suspect - once again - is down to the band's jazz roots). Still, the rockier Slow Murder is almost-new wave in the same way Public Image was. One suspects that they're feeling the spectre of Remain In Light-era Talking Heads throughout.
The band followed these EPs with two albums in quick succession: Memory Serves (1981) and One Down (1982). Memory Serves picks up the thread of rough-and-tumble post punk from the EPs, even bringing back some of the proggy/fusion-tinged flavors of Temporary Music 1. Rollicking punk funk tunes like Memory Serves and Conform To The Rhythm are accompanied by appropriately doomy vocals from Michael Beinhorn (in the former, he almost sounds like an off-the-rails Oingo Boingo-era Danny Elfman), while the abrasive Square Dance manages to surpass the atonality of even Temporary Music 1. Conversely, One Down makes an unanticipated swerve into nearly straight up electroboogie territory. Featuring vocals from the likes of Nona Hendryx (who also worked with the expanded Talking Heads during the same time period), Bernard Fowler (of the N.Y.C. Peech Boys and later Tackhead) and a pre-fame Whitney Houston (on the stately ballad Memories, also featuring Archie Shepp in an uncharacteristically gentle mood), this is very much of-the-moment, state-of-the-art boogie a la Hold On To You Dreams. With Roger Troutman-esque talkboxes dominating the Beinhorn-voiced tracks, the transition is complete. The band even turns in an excellent cover of Sly Stone's Let Me Have It All! Everything here fits squarely alongside the likes of Mtume, Kleeer and the Compass Point records.
Sandwiched between both albums is the Bustin' Out, which found the band moonlighting on ZE Records and makes sense of the band's sudden shift in direction between the two LPs as they thoroughly absorb the label's mutant disco aesthetic3 for some tasty rubberband funk action. At this point, activity from Material essentially halted until the end of the decade while Laswell devoted serious time to his Orange Music studio, working on various projects for Celluloid Records like mid-eighties albums from The Last Poets and Fela Kuti (which sadly don't rival their legendary 70s output), along with the storied five rap records (to be continued).
Like Jah Wobble, Laswell's increasingly global vision continued to expand throughout the the decade, and by the nineties he was mixing up hip hop, funk, dub and African rhythms into a heady stew that were very much apace with post-Eno Ocean Of Sound vanguard. Interesting to note Laswell's presence on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts way back in 1981, playing bass on America Is Waiting. Also interesting to note that Brian Eno returned the favor the following year, contributing to One Down's Holding On. Once again, all these seemingly disparate figures rubbing shoulders around this time (roughly 1979-1983), figures like Brian Eno, Fela Kuti, David Byrne, The Last Poets, Afrika Bambaataa and Laswell himself, speak to not only the catholic elasticity of Celluloid's broad-minded setup but also the intoxicating spirit of cross-pollination that hangs over this era like a magenta haze.
As if to prove the point, the Tackhead/Fats Comet organization were beginning to gather steam just as Material went on indefinite hiatus and PIL splintered into a thousand pieces. Interesting that core members of the crew started out in the backing band for Sugar Hill Records, laying the backbone for the early rap classics that surfaced on the label during its heyday before striking out on their own as a 21st century avant funk crew upon meeting On-U Sound-man Adrian Sherwood. One can certainly hear traces of records like New York New York, Scorpio and Message II (Survival) in the DNA of the crew's twisted cyberpunk grooves. Fats Comet's Don't Forget That Beat is a slap-bass fueled, funk-tinged electro workout akin to Hashim's Primrose Path - released the following year - albeit with a groove that rolls at a breakneck pace punctuated by machine gun beatboxes and freewheeling Art Of Noise-esque orchestra stabs. Conversely, Stormy Weather rocks a dynamite go-go beat while an almost-prog/fusion guitar shreds through the groove (and your eardrums), pointing the way forward to the group's next phase as Tackhead.
Tackhead found the crew on Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound and the BPMs were accordingly dialed down to an herbalist's pace, matching the post punk stomp of the Mark Stewart records they played on as The Maffia. Hard-edged downbeat slates like High Ideals And Crazy Dreams and Liberty City (both from Stewart's Jerusalem EP) glimpse a nightmarish vision of dub that prefigured what much of the best trip hop would become.4 It all came to a head on Stewart's third, self-titled LP. Leading with the metallic Survival - where the Maffia gets to revisit their very own Rapper's Delight bassline! - a master class in pulverizing machine riddims and the inimitable wail of Mr. Stewart, it makes the flashes of cyberpunk dread hanging around this crew explicit. In fact, much of the record is built around samples and quotes from other songs - a Trouble Funk breakbeart here, some Billy Idol guitar there, and a Moroder bassline capping it all off - which puts it at the bleeding edge of sound collage right along with hip hop's burgeoning sampladelia. It's nearly as patchwork an affair as something like Tricky's Maxinquaye (which Stewart had a crucial influence on, even producing Aftermath while mentoring young Adrian Thaws). Trip hop dress rehearsals like Forbidden Colour offer up a downbeat cover version of David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto's Forbidden Colours, while Hell Is Empty sounds like the most twisted Close The Door-era Terranova track imaginable. Stranger Than Love even put Smith & Mighty on wax for the first time when they contributed the dub version to its 12" single, making the link between post punk and trip hop Bristol explicit. In retrospect, it's rather fitting that a figure like Stewart would stand at the intersection of both eras, both scenes.
Mark Stewart started out in a little crew that grew up frequenting funk nights together as youngsters - where they'd get down to the sounds of BT Express and The Fatback Band - and reggae at venues like the Bamboo Club.6 It only makes sense that such heady origins would be felt considerably in the band's subsequent recordings as The Pop Group. Their hard funk roots can be heard in deeply warped fashion on The Pop Group's debut LP Y (which actually pre-empted Metal Box by a few months) and the She Is Beyond Good And Evil, which pulses almost subconsciously on a walking bassline while the remainder of the track - especially Stewart's throat-shredding wail - seems to dissolve all around it. Produced by Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell, it sets into motion a particular sensibility that would become the basis for the Y Records7 sound: sparse instrumentation played loose in an aggressively atmospheric soundscape, captured brilliantly with Bovell spacious, three-dimensional, clear as a bell production. Bovell's skill behind the mixing desk pays immediate dividends when the band hangs a left turn into some of their more outre passages (like a vivid snapshot of chaos, where you can nevertheless clearly discern every element in the image). Indeed, there's a considerable free jazz presence in the group's wilder, more abstract passages, which puts them to the left of even PIL. Put simply, one cannot overestimate the centrality of The Pop Group. Along with PIL's music, this is ground zero for post punk's twisted take on funk, a sound that takes you into the nineties and beyond via funk metal and myriad other sounds. In fact, Y's opening track - Thief Of Fire - even sounds like an apocalyptic precursor to The Red Hot Chili Peppers!
The Pop Group followed Y with the We Are All Prostitutes, where Mark Stewart's lyrics grow yet more didactic and political even as the band's groove settles deeper in the pocket. The group's final record, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, was - at the album level - actually more straightforwardly funky than anything that had come before, settling into a watertight post punk boogie that nevertheless retained a healthy dose of chaos in the mix (much of it provided by the ever dependable Stewart, who - much like Iggy Pop during The Stooges era - simply won't be reigned in). It was along these lines that the band ultimately split, with the rest of the group shearing off to form bands like Rip Rig & Panic, Pigbag, Glaxo Babies, Shriekback and Maximum Joy, while Stewart - as discussed earlier - hooked up with Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound setup for that blistering series of records in the mid-eighties.
On the flipside to The Pop Group coin is a band equally central to the post punk story. In many ways, The Slits were something of a sister group to The Pop Group, as both bands dropped similarly unruly, junglistic debut albums within months of each other in 1979 (both of which were produced by Dennis Bovell). Both groups shared a sense of shedding the constraints of civilization and starting from scratch - Back To Nature as Fad Gadget once opined - and in many ways their debut albums came on like field recordings of some as yet undiscovered tribe, in the way that My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and Can's Ethological Forgery Series seemed to conjure up similar images. And just as The Pop Group washed up on Y Records upon departure from Radar, The Slits put out a record on Y after leaving CBS. Appropriately enough, it was the split 7" single In The Beginning There Was Rhythm/Where There's A Will There's A Way: a head to head duel with The Pop Group.
The Slits' debut album Cut was an instant classic, with (once again) perfect production from Dennis Bovell. There was a heavy dub/reggae presence to the record - perhaps moreso than anything else discussed today - with atmospheric reverb wrapped around the band's skeletal, turn on a dime playing. The rhythm of tunes like So Tough and Instant Hit seem to be happening on multiple plains, every note played like a phrase imbued with myriad layers of meaning. The extraordinary thing about The Slits is that even at their most shambolic, they manage to maintain a strong pop sensibility. I'd wager that you could give this album to any fourteen year old and chances are they'd fall in love with it. This strength was explored further on the band's excellent cover version of Motown standard I Heard It Through The Grapevine (on the b-side of the Typical Girls), which remains my absolute favorite version of the tune (just beating out the Gladys Knight & The Pips original). Built on an unlikely bed of vocal humming, it rides the trademark group's skeletal rhythms with a chanted lyric from Ari Up in one of the great not-Disco Not Disco-but-could-have-been moments in post punk.
Return Of The Giant Slits, the group's second and final album found Dennis Bovell behind the boards once again, this time cranking up the atmosphere to distinctly oppressive levels. Now there was a heavier worldbeat presence in evidence throughout, which found the group looking to Africa for inspiration around the same time the likes of Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno were making their own forays into the same territory. The opening song Earthbeat rides furious tribal drumming while the ladies' voices hover disembodied above the whole affair. The remainder of the album shares more of a similarity to the debut, albeit viewed through a murky prism with heavier emphasis on sounds and textures beyond the relatively straightforward bass/guitar/drum setup of the debut. Interesting to note the presence of Neneh Cherry in the group at this point, that strange attractor of British beat music throughout much of the decade, who would go on to have a profound influence on British club music and the sound that would come to be called trip hop.
Once The Pop Group and The Slits had both disbanded, the Y Records aesthetic really begins to be forged in earnest, establishing a loosely played post punk boogie8 seemingly sourced in The Pop Group's tendency to operate at that thin jagged line between order and chaos. In truth, that's the only place to be, where the tension between the two is at its absolute tautest. Depending on which of the label's groups we're talking about, the emphasis falls on one side or the other. To illustrate the point, let's dive into a three-band post-Pop Group sub-section...
Maximum Joy hold court at the less chaotic end of the spectrum, rivalling even The Slits' pop brilliance with their solitary album Station M.X.J.Y.. The crew operated very much at the axis of boogie - in the tradition of ex-punks getting down at the disco - but they managed to do it more convincingly than just about anyone else in the scene. Typically led by the sing song vocals of Janine Rainforth, the tunes would skate nimbly along loose rhythms with an abundance of bright flourishes slipping into the mix. It's a sound that's also evidenced in 12" singles like Stretch and In The Air, records that were practically new pop even as they maintained the rude, shambolic spirit so crucial to post punk's edge. One would expect nothing less from a Y Records outfit.
Interestingly, Bristol mover and shaker Nellee Hooper started out in this crew before blazing a path through the island's hip hop scene to help define the burgeoning UK urban sound that would culminate in trip hop. At this point it makes sense to highlight the considerable lattice of connection going on here today, with the presence of Mark Stewart (as already mentioned) tied into not only Tricky but also Smith & Mighty and The Wild Bunch that would spawn Massive Attack. You can clearly trace a straight line between late seventies Bristol and the nineties Bristol surveyed in Smith & Mighty's Bass Is Maternal, Tricky's Maxinquae and Portishead's Dummy. Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself again; suffice it to say Station M.X.J.Y. just might be the greatest pop record on the Y imprint.
Rip, Rig & Panic, by contrast, dwell at the most chaotic end of the spectrum, conjuring a defiantly post-Miles' On The Corner racket as they worked their way through three albums in as many years (starting in 1981). The band named themselves after a Roland Kirk album from 1965, so you'd be right in expecting the heavy hand of free jazz to hang over the proceedings. Rather fittingly, Neneh Cherry was a key member of this crew upon the disintegration of The Slits. Fittingly because her step-father was the great Don Cherry, whose fourth world-preempting recordings from the Brown Rice era are very much of a piece with what her band were up to here. In fact, if you imagined a more abrasive, atonal version of Don's Hear & Now, then you wouldn't be too far off. Fascinating the way the free wing of jazz often seems to overlap with post punk sonically. Of course, the group did have the occasional almost-pop moment - tunes like Bob Hope Takes Risks and Constant Drudgery Is Harmful To Soul, Spirit & Health that seem to arrive at a post-disco boogie seemingly by accident - but their hearts quite clearly lie in the abstract. This is a tangled, untamed music that strains at the label post punk, threatening to double back and break into the seventies for proper account alongside the likes of Miles Davis, Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders.
Lying somewhere between the chaos of Rip Rig & Panic and Maximum Joy's glossy sheen is the beloved Pigbag, a band that managed to blend the searing post-Miles brass of the latter with the dancefloor dexterity of the former. The band's debut single, Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag, even climbed to #3 in the UK! Rocking a frenetic post-disco rhythm replete with furious percussion and a looming bassline, the band seem to offer up a nightmare version of Madness' ska with tight-as-a-drum horn charts ruling the tune even as spectral brass creeps in and out of the mix. Throughout the band's three year tenure - overlapping perfectly with that of Rip Rig & Panic - Pigbag managed to consistently run down some spooky voodoo on wax. Dr. Heckle And Mr. Jive - from the debut album of the same name - launched drowning arcs of eerie brass across a nagging bassline and rolling percussion, while the uptempo Getting Up placed the band's horn charts front and center over furious percussion and chicken-scratch guitar while holding down a pulsing 4/4 rhythm. Like Maximum Joy, the band can play it remarkably straight and go for the dancefloor jugular, yet at a moment's notice they can veer off into leftfield with dense, oppressive atmospherics that rival that of Rip Rig & Panic.
The final crew in the mix today is 23 Skidoo, which I've appropriately only revealed just now. While not a Y Records band, they were fellow travellers exploring a densely atmospheric fourth world vision. The band came crashing into the public consciousness with The Gospel Comes To New Guinea, a ten-minute slab of churning, murky post punk funk. Group chants and strange woodwinds fade in and out of the fog as the band seem to pound out their beat at the other end of the cave. This is 23 Skidoo clearly taking the field recording ethos of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts to its logical conclusion. The band's debut LP Seven Songs found them alternating between the droning atmospherics of New Testament and the relatively straight up funk of Vegas El Bandito, but it was the closing Quiet Pillage9 that pointed the way forward to the band's next obsession: Indonesian gamelan music.10
The Culling Is Coming was the band's second LP, and the debut's occasional funk had given way to pure, shadowy atmosphere. The opening G-2 Contemplation launched straight into the first of the band's explorations into gamelan music, a sound they interpret as deeply in thrall to the strange. At times reminiscent of the more nebulous portions of the Third Ear Band's Music For Macbeth, it could just as easily score the eeriest moments of Fellini's Satyricon. Tone poems like Shrine and Mahakala are like being lost in the fog of a deserted temple, while the closing Healing (For The Strong) reveals that the temple wasn't deserted after all! In essence, the record prefigures what would come to be called dark ambient years later, about as far from the dancefloor as could be.
Which makes the about face of Coup all the more astonishing. Turning up on a non-LP 12" later that year, it was the band's greatest pop moment. After two bars of the band's crispest drum beat yet, Sketch Martin drops that bassline into the mix before horn charts sweep in to carry the melody. I say that bassline because it was later resurrected by The Chemical Brothers fifteen years later for their epochal big beat classic, Block Rockin' Beats, which came crashing into the charts in 1997. Meanwhile, the flipside's Version (In The Palace) feeds Coup through the cold machinery of dub.
The band's final album - Urban Gamelan - featured a new version of Coup titled F.U.G.I. and a couple more moments of low slung funk, but it was mostly devoted to the band's atonal gamelan symphonies. Like I said, the exit routes from today's music shoots you out all over the globe, and that pan-global vision was one of its greatest strengths. In the decades to come, 23 Skidoo's music was actually rather well curated. At the turn of the century, their album were reissued on the heels of the band's self-titled reunion album just as the post punk revival was starting to gather steam. On second thought, reunion might be a bit of a misnomer. As the Just Like Everybody compilation proved, the band had been far from dormant. Rounding up two discs worth of unreleased nineties material, it showcased some of what the band had generated while loitering in dance music's shadowy back alley... the same back alley where all manner of post punk figures were lurking throughout the decade.
You see, the band played on...
TV5 What Time Is It?
- Jah Wobble/The Edge/Holger Czukay Snake Charmer (Island)
- Brian Eno & David Byrne The Jezebel Spirit (Sire)
- Public Image Ltd. Death Disco (Virgin)
- The Slits Earthbeat (CBS)
- The Pop Group Thief Of Fire (Radar)
- Pigbag Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag (Y)
- Material Disappearing (Celluloid)
- 23 Skidoo Coup (Illuminated)
- Mark Stewart + Maffia Liberty City (On-U Sound)
- Maximum Joy Let It Take You There (Y)
- Holger Czukay/Jah Wobble/Jaki Liebezeit Hold On To Your Dreams (Island)
- Ashford & Simpson Babies (Dub Version) (Captiol)
- Material featuring Nona Hendryx Over And Over (Long Version) (Celluloid)
- Gwen Guthrie Peanut Butter (Special Mix By Larry Levan) (Garage)
- Kleeer Taste The Music (Atlantic)
- Melle Mel & Duke Bootee Message II (Survival) (Sugar Hill)
- Doug Wimbish featuring Fats Comet Don't Forget That Beat (World)
- Rip Rig & Panic Constant Drudgery Is Harmful To Soul, Spirit & Health (Virgin)
- Holger Czukay/Jah Wobble/Jaki Liebezeit How Much Are They? (Virgin)
- Public Image Ltd. Careering (Virgin)
- The Pop Group She Is Beyond Good And Evil (Radar)
- The Slits I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Island)