Geology 35

A study of routes beneath the canyon in 35 records

Now we go Into The Mystic as Van Morrison might say, venturing beyond the cozy climes of Laurel Canyon and assorted outposts into the realm of the metaphysical(!). That's right, now it's time for a little (psycho)geography lesson delving into the sounds beneath the sound. This is the music that lies at the fringes of canyon proper, framing the era and and putting its context in stark relief within the history books. Be it psychedelia, garage punk, yacht disco or the avant garde, this is all music that touches the records found in The Canyon 25 in some way, either in the form of trace deposits found within the music itself or as an edifice that the canyon defined itself against.

Nearly all of these records originate from L.A. (or at least Southern California), and the rare exceptions are nonetheless inexorably linked to the discussion. Many of these records represent a music and culture that the canyon scene saw itself as a respite from (psychedelia, garage punk), while others were freely acknowledged antecedents in the logical progression (folk rock, jazz, baroque pop). Some plainly represent what the canyon sound ultimately mutated into as the decade wore on (yacht) and the sounds that came in its wake (rootsy punk and alternative). Some figures from the canyon do manage to crop up in both lists, but only the ones who managed to somehow transcend the era with a combination of stylistic breadth and all-encompassing vision.

So what's the story then? As much as Tim Buckley's Happy Sad or Spirit's self-titled debut, this is all music that I can hear when I step outside every day to greet the California dawn. You can practically feel it emanating from the cracks in the pavement, embedded in the geology itself and running beneath your feet like an electric charge, through the canyons, ravines and riverbeds, stretching out in every direction: north toward the Sierra Nevada mountains and down south into Baja California, stretching east toward the vast deserts of Anza Borrego and the Mojave, and west into the Pacific Ocean. It practically haunts every corner of the landscape, a spectral reminder of days of future passed.

So let's take a look into these secret sounds, hidden like whispers beneath the rocks and soil, a chronology measured not in strata and sediment but in records and songs. Like minerals locked into the sand and stones, it all lies dormant, waiting: a spectral reminder of sound and visions sprung from the corridors of this Golden State and the lives lived within it, all through the long drawn passage of time. In the spirit of geology, we'll do this thing chronologically, starting us out at the dawn of the sixties. Yeah, I thought about beginning with cool jazz and figures like Chet Baker and Stan Getz, but that's all shadowy pre-history, and a whole other tale of its own.

When it comes to today's story, it all starts with Eden Ahbez...

1. Eden Ahbez Eden's Island The Music Of An Enchanted Isle

Del-Fi 1960

A man ahead of his time, living free up in the hills above L.A. — long before the word hippie had entered common parlance (let alone become a lifestyle choice) — with his wife and son, Eden Ahbez offered up a glimpse of the coming counterculture decades before the fact. Here was a man who lived as a vegetarian, studied Eastern mysticism, communed with nature and claimed to live on only three dollars a day. Ahbez famously wrote the song Nature Boy on a scrap of paper that found its way into the hands of Nat "King" Cole, who turned it into a standard that lives on to this day.

The stunning Eden's Island is largely cut from the same cloth, giving Ahbez a whole LP as his canvas. In that sense, it's the original singer-songwriter record. The sound perched midway between exotica and a jazz-tinged precursor to The Doors' sprawling beat visions (at times Ahbez even sounds like Jim Morrison), its drifting tone poems accompany Eden's tales — told in the first person as The Wanderer — chronicling a wayward journey to the shores of an enchanted isle. The whole trip flows together brilliantly, like a head elpee before its time.

2. Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass The Lonely Bull

A&M 1962

Herb Alpert's lush, Mariachi-tinged sound was defined at the outset by his immortal instrumental The Lonely Bull. Inspired by a bullfight that Alpert attended in Mexico, the song was a winning attempt to capture the atmosphere of the arena: the palpable excitement, the banda playing from the balcony and teeming crowd chants of Olé! I've always loved languid moments like Never On Sunday and A Quiet Tear, hidden delights to be found here as well. This is the sound of old California, the forests, deserts and beaches, the muted glamour and Spanish architecture captured in films like Vertigo and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad World. Accordingly, songs like The Lonely Bull and (later on) Love Potion #9 were massively successful, era-defining instrumental pop.

Perhaps the sound was too successful? For whatever reason, The Tijuana Brass never seemed to get the same critical reappraisal that other easy listening/exotica purveyors like Esquivel and Martin Denny experienced in the 90s. Critics seem to write them off somewhat, don't they? Pay no mind to the haters, I see this as an integral, instrumental antecedent to the likes of The Mamas & The Papas, Brian Wilson and The Free Design, and it gets filed as such in the Parallax Collection. Don't forget that it was Herb Alpert's trumpet sound and sumptuous production techniques that influenced Arthur Lee in crafting the windswept vistas of Love's Forever Changes.

3. Dick Dale And His Del-Tones Surfer's Choice

Deltone 1962

If there was a sound that defined L.A. before The Byrds, then surely it was surf rock. Dick Dale was one of the prime auteurs of the form, splitting his time between riding waves and capturing said experience in musical form, working with Leo Fender to perfect the sound of his Stratocaster guitar. Dale's Let's Go Trippin' which is often considered the first surf rock song, closes out this solid LP of early rock 'n roll, released on Dale's own Deltone imprint. There's nothing quite as savage as contemporary single Misirlou (although Dale reprises it here as Misirlou Twist!), but songs like Surf Beat and Shake N' Stomp certainly do the trick.

Surf rock was quickly brushed aside as yesterday's news in light of the British Invasion, but one need only look at its rediscovery at the hands of cultural institutions like The Cramps and Quentin Tarantino to see that history always has the last laugh. In fact, adjacent figures like Link Wray and later Randy Holden often make me wonder what this sound might have grown into if the British Invasion had never happened1 and it were given a few more years free reign to mutate and develop in the limelight. The result? Rock is less vocal, more instrumental? Less lyrical, more grooved-out?? Less ego, more id??? Well... that or the record companies mess it all up anyway!

4. Gil Evans The Individualism Of Gil Evans

Verve 1964

It may have been recorded in New York and Jersey, but this record's sprawling orchestral jazz is definitive West Coast splendor. Gil Evans arranged classic Miles Davis records like Miles Ahead and Sketches Of Spain in the wake of the L.A.-based cool jazz sound, and here he uses the big band to his full advantage in the middle of the hard bop era (with the nascent free jazz waiting in the wings). Tracks like El Toreador and The Barbara Song perfectly capture the lazy feeling of long afternoons in the summer, just as the first hints of dusk begin to creep in.

This is perhaps the key record in my running Jazz Mosaic concept, which I think I mentioned last time, its rich tapestries of sound bringing to mind the sweeping vistas and mid-century architecture stretching along the Pacific. This is the sound of strolling around the back roads of Del Mar or old La Jolla, of traversing the length of Balboa Park and stealing a moment in the shade of the Botanical Gardens. Real Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo vibes, shades too of Chinatown and The Parallax View. Records like these, once you hear them... well, you can still feel their presence in the surrounding world as you simply go about town.

5. The Beach Boys The Beach Boys Today!

Capitol 1965

When discussing L.A., there's no getting around The Beach Boys. Today! captures the band in the process of leaving the surf rock sound in earnest to focus on Brian Wilson's lonely teenage symphonies, resplendent with the very finest harmonies of the era. Arranged in classic Bowie in Berlin fashion, side one features upbeat pop magic like Do You Wanna Dance? and Help Me, Rhonda, while the entirety of side two is given over to Brian Wilson's gentle, contemplative numbers like Please Let Me Wonder and In The Back Of My Mind. So in a sense, a glimpse of Pet Sounds just around the corner.

I'm a huge fan of the atmosphere found in The Beach Boys' post-Pet Sounds records, the homespun proto-Beta Band sound of brilliantly sun-glazed records like Friends, Sunflower and Surf's Up. This the era when Dennis Wilson emerges as a key songwriter (see Pacific Ocean Blue), these often uneven records nevertheless contain a wealth of utterly unique music. Where else would you find songs like the skewed ambient pop of Feel Flows (shades of Brian Eno's vocal records), Diamond Head's low-slung stoned exotica and the clockwork r&b panache of Slip On Through all rubbing shoulders?

In fact, I was originally planning to include Sunflower (which you'll recall is actually my favorite Beach Boys moment), but ultimately decided to defer to chronology: after all, Today! is the original well that all those glorious sounds spring from.

6. Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited

Columbia 1965

Dylan the benchmark for singer-songwriters to this day. Inescapable. It was a toss up really between this, Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde, but Highway 61 wins because it captures him mid-stride, approaching folk rock from the opposite direction as The Byrds' shimmering sound, with a rude, shambling garage-inflected attack defining the whole affair. As far from down-home roots music as can be, this is future shock music firmly in step with the zeitgeist.

You can't knock the raw power of Like A Rolling Stone, carried on a cloud of Al Kooper's brilliant Hammond B3 organ licks, while Tombstone Blues and the title track continue to develop the rowdy garage rock sound first essayed on Subterranean Homesick Blues. Standing in stark contrast is the closing Desolation Row, a sparse and elegant eleven minute ballad that plays like the blueprint for the sensibilities (and in some cases, the entire careers) of many key canyon players.

7. The Mamas & The Papas If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears

Dunhill 1966

The first and the best. The lush arrangements and dreamy atmosphere of Deliver assured its place in The Canyon 25, but it can't match the pure pop blast of this record. The epochal Monday, Monday and California Dreamin' are masterpieces of sunshine pop, capturing the phantom Autumn atmosphere of Southern California better than anything else I can think of, while the remainder of the record is no slouch either, with traces of folk rock and Merseybeat feathered into John Phillips' baroque arrangements. Note Spanish Harlem, with its unmistakable echoes of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.

One could make the case that If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears is as much a response to Rubber Soul as Pet Sounds was, with the kinetic Somebody Groovy and Straight Shooter mirroring that record's proto-breakbeat pop rock rollers. Believe it or not, there was a time when I liked this lot even more than The Beach Boys (a time before I owned any of the lads' later records, in fact). Even now I suspect it's a closer call than you might think, especially if you factor in John, The Wolfking Of L.A. and Cass Elliot's solo records!

8. The Byrds Fifth Dimension

Columbia 1966

This was my original Byrds pick for The Canyon 25, but then it would have been lodged in at #1 (after all, it's only one of my favorite records of all time). Fifth Dimension is the point where — with no warning — The Byrds transform folk rock into acid-drenched West Coast psychedelia once and for all. And topping off the canyon list with the cornerstone of acid rock would have been missing the point a bit, don't you think?! However, in the context of the outsider's Geology 35, its quite simply definitive: the skeleton key in making sense of today's entire musical selection.

Everyone knows Eight Miles High (Gene Clark's parting gift to the band), the grooved-out psychedelic rocker that rides Chris Hillman's bassline like a jet engine into the abyss, but the journey continues with further acid excursions like I See You and David Crosby's What's Happening?!?! All of which betray the band's fascination with the music of both John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, particularly felt in Roger McGuinn's stunning quicksilver solos.

Conversely, the band still finds plenty of time to perfect the folk music wherein their roots lie. The gentle pastoral drift of Wild Mountain Thyme is perhaps their finest folk ballad, rendered even more majestic by the wistful frontier orchestra that accompanies it, while the subdued folk rocker John Riley is haunted by ghostly chamber strings of its own. Meanwhile, Mr. Spaceman delves into country rock (albeit of the space cowboy variety) before just about anyone else managed to get around to it.


In passing, I can't help but note that the CD reissue of this album has maybe the finest bounty of bonus tracks I've ever had the pleasure to find tucked away at the end of a disc. The contemporary, non-album single Why — which essays similar precincts to I See You and What's Happening?!?! — fits in with the preeding record perfectly, while I Know My Rider is a sparkling bit of country rock that makes a perfect counterpoint to Mr. Spaceman. And I've always felt that above all else the grooved-out Psychodrama City, along with the instrumental John Riley I, should have made the final cut of the original album. Come on guys!

At any rate, taken as a whole its a stunning package, and one of the best rock CDs you could ask for.

9. The Electric Prunes The Electric Prunes

Reprise 1967

Acid-psych garage punk, picking up where Fifth Dimension left off. I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night, which famously kicked off the Nuggets compilation, is the very definition of the form. Get Me To The World On Time, which was also included later on in the expanded four disc Nuggets box set, is similarly definitive. Both tracks representing the cresting of psychedelia 's reign in the wake of Eight Miles High and Tomorrow Never Knows, the record nevertheless does falter a little with a few missteps like the tepid ballad Onie (which, to be fair were foisted upon them by the record company).

Indeed, the Prunes seemed doomed from the start, plagued first with record company meddling on their debut, and then only getting to do their own thing on the sophomore Underground. It was a superior album experience, albeit one without a hit single, and the public had long since moved on anyway. Discontent, they hooked up with visionary L.A. producer David Axelrod, who had grand visions of merging psychedelic rock and Gregorian chant with a full orchestra in tow.

Alas, the original band members were gradually replaced by session men when they were unable to keep up with the demands of the material, and records like Mass In F. Minor and Release Of An Oath ultimately featured next to no involvement by the original band! And that as they say, was that. The music industry is a cruel mistress indeed... although we'll be returning to Axelrod shortly.

10. The Doors Strange Days

Elektra 1967

If The Electric Prunes couldn't quite make it happen, The Doors were the quintessential self-contained band in possession of a singular vision all its own. With a visionary frontman in Jim Morrison, they cut an unparalleled path through the seedy back end of the sixties, sowing the seeds for the bad vibes of the coming decade over the course of six stellar records running the gamut of moody psychedelia, dark cabaret and hard blues (often within the space of the same record) like no one before or since.

Strange Days — the second album — is their masterpiece, kicking off with the organ-smeared apocalyptic visions of the title track and not letting up until the epic eleven minute closer When The Music's Over comes crashing to an end. Jim Morrison at his Gothic peak here, although its the spectral gravity of Ray Manzarek's organ (wielded like a proto-synth) and Robbie Krieger's lunar guitars twisting and bending around John Densmore's nimble rhythms that give the Lizard King a crystal palace to haunt in the first place.

Songs like Moonlight Drive and I Can't See Your Face In My Mind embody the otherworldly atmosphere the band achieve here, which always reminds me of cruising around the deserted hills of the Heights after dark, the city spread out like a matrix of lights beneath.

11. Love Forever Changes

Elektra 1967

Sublime orchestral pop from Arthur Lee's original crew, shot through with tinges of florid psychedelia and acid rock. In terms of the core group, Johnny Echols' guitar — as showcased in songs like A House Is Not A Motel is the crucial factor here, but part of the record's appeal is how it transcends the parameters of the typical rock band. That the complex string arrangements and distinctive Herb Alpert-flavored trumpet lines are integrated so thoroughly into the band's sound is particularly ahead-of-its-time.

I'm not sure whether I'm alone in thinking this, but Forever Changes has always struck me as a hazy, overcast record, like one of those summer days in early August where the fog never lifts. Bringing to mind a day at the windswept cliffs of Torrey Pines, scaling the rocks down to the crashing waves below. I actually touched on this record for a moment here, in my record of the month write up on Four Sail. Indeed, I do slightly (and perhaps heretically) prefer the ragged acid country sound of the mighty Four Sail, but only by a whisker.

Still, a song a song like Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale — with its dueling horns and deft rhythm flourishes, not to mention that soaring trumpet solo — is untouchable, sounding like a ray of sunlight scattered through the marine layer into a million shimmering diamonds on the surface of the ocean.

12. Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band Safe As Milk

Buddah 1967

One of the figures that seemed to keep cropping up in The Canyon 25 was Ry Cooder. A strange attractor of sorts, he played on the Crazy Horse, Little Feat and Randy Newman records. Well, here's another one: he was actually in The Magic Band early on, and his signature slide guitar work is all over this tasty record, which in my humble is the greatest blues rock album of them all. This plays like a high speed chase through the Mojave desert, where incidentally the good Captain (aka Don Van Vliet) would later retreat with The Magic Band to work out the tricky compositions for their fabled Trout Mask Replica double-album (the quintessential difficult album).

This record however — while still plying an abstract form of the blues — is far more approachable, radio-ready even. With prime garage punk like Zig Zag Wanderer and Abba Zaba, the twisted blues nightmares of Electricity and Plastic Factory and even shades of San Francisco (particularly The Airplane) in Where There's Woman, this record never tires for me. I mean, even Grown So Ugly — technically the boneyard track — plays like the birth of abstract blues and the blueprint for the entire oeuvre of The Mighty Groundhogs! Beefheart's one of those figures, up there with Can, James Brown and The Beatles, just impossible to critique, unparalleled, and leaving behind an extensive, deeply unique body of work in their wake.


Incidentally, Ry Cooder left the band shortly after this record, due to a disastrous performance at the Mt. Tamalpais Festival. Apparently, as the band began to tear into Electricity, Van Vliet froze, straightened his tie, then abruptly walked off the 10ft stage and landed on manager Bob Krasnow (later claiming to have seen a girl in the audience turn into a fish, with bubbles coming from her mouth),2 effectively blowing any chance for the band to perform at the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival. Now that's style!

13. Iron Butterfly Heavy

ATCO 1968

One of the great bands to emerge from San Diego, Iron Butterfly upped the ante on hard rock with a gloomy organ-drenched sound that split the difference between Cream and Jefferson Airplane. Everyone knows their marathon In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which in edited down form became a smash radio hit and propelled the record to the platinum status in the U.S. (the first record to do so, in fact). Perhaps I should have included that record instead, but I've always had a soft spot for the debut (particularly the closing instrumental Iron Butterfly Theme). Heavy indeed!

My earlier comments regarding surf rock apply here in full, with its doom-laden hard rock wailing to the heavens sounding like something from Can's Soundtracks, it's a sound almost completely devoid of ego. The stunning sleeve does seem to cement the band's image as the grandfathers of doom metal (shades of Sleep and Monster Magnet ahoy!). In the cold light of day, perhaps its not as hard-hitting as San Francisco's Blue Cheer, but a great blast of proto-metal nonetheless. I did want to include Blue Cheer as well, but only just now discovered that they were not in fact from L.A. (a misconception I've labored under for well over a decade) but were ragged outsiders terrorizing the Bay Area scene.


I'll always have a lot of love for much of the American hard rock and proto-metal as forged by Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer, along with things like Pentagram and Grand Funk Railroad, seemingly terminal underdogs to the big guns in the British Isles like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple (although Grand Funk were a hugely successful proposition in their own time). There's an inherent dusty, sun-baked quality to these band's high desert sound that turned out to be remarkably prescient in light of later stoner metal bands like Queens Of The Stone Age, Earth and The Melvins.

14. David Axelrod Song Of Innocence

Capitol 1968

Ah yes, David Axelrod's triumphant return. Inspired by proto-psychedelic visionary William Blake's collection of poems and illustrations Songs Of Innocence And Experience, this LP in widescreen features a crack studio band jamming out a kaleidoscopic soundtrack to an invisible film of the mind. This is one of those records that you'd swear someone traveled back in time to make, just to impress his buddies back home in the nineties: an entire orchestra balances atop hip hop-friendly breakbeats and Carol Kaye's well-deep basslines, while guitar hero Al Kasey pumps out acid-tinged guitar solos in the foreground. The whole thing executed with a jazz-informed turn on a dime precision, it's almost too good to be true.

Axelrod followed up with two similar records (the accompanying Songs Of Experience — yeah, U2 stole that idea too a few years back! — and Earth Rot) before delivering deep jazz funk slates like The Auction and Heavy Axe in the seventies. All of this prime material for roaming around the rolling hills, canyons and Spanish architecture of Balboa Park, its sweeping sonic vistas the perfect accompaniment for stops at the Museum Of Man, Botanical Gardens and the Timkin. Just ride the skyway over the San Diego Zoo as the bell tower tolls and you'll see what I mean.

Bonus Beat:

Cannonball Adderley Walk Tall: The David Axelrod Years

Stateside 1966-1976/2008

David Axelrod's main gig was as an a&r man, arranger and super producer, working with artists like Lou Rawls, David McCallum and Cannonball Adderley, with whom he had the most long-lasting relationship over the course of something like 18 albums. Records like Accent On Africa and Soul Zodiac were ambitious outings that melded soul jazz with cutting edge production techniques, more often than not with a heavily conceptual drive. I almost included the latter — with its timely collision of hard funk and flower power psychedelia — but couldn't resist the temptation to include this stellar compilation, which is a fascinating object in its own right.

This double-disc anthology provides an invaluable snapshot of the decade-long Axelrod/Adderley partnership, pulling first rate material like Taurus, Khutsana and Tensity together into one essential package. I've always thought that Tensity predicts the mood of something like Can's Halleluwah, albeit rendered with straight jazz stylings. I'm also reminded of Adderley's contemporaneous appearance in Clint Eastwood's great slacker-thriller film Play Misty For Me, when the gang go catch Cannonball's band performing live at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

That movie — with the windswept cliffs and rustic charm of Carmel (aka KaR-a-MeL) as its background — is another prime example of today's vibe de jour captured in film. Maybe I should put together a companion film list or something... wrap it all up into a tidy trilogy?

15. Morton Subotnick The Wild Bull

Nonesuch 1968

Los Angeles native Morton Subotnick was the crucial purveyor of West Coast electronica, turning out records like Silver Apples Of The Moon (which you might remember was featured in the Deep Space 100... although I'll forgive you if you don't) in 1967. That the year of the Summer Of Love and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, so well before such a thing was to be expected. The Wild Bull was his follow up, featuring another pair of sidelong inner-space excursions. What sets this record apart from preceding electronic music is its almost rhythmic propulsion, in which his sequenced machines unfurl these great chirping, clanking mechanical grooves beneath long, arcing synth drones. That's bleep-tastic!

It's worth noting that this came out on the Nonesuch imprint, a sub-label of Jac Holzman's Elektra Records, the spiritual home of folk in the fifties, and later The Doors, Love and Tim Buckley. Nonesuch was originally envisioned as an outlet for budget-line classical records oriented toward the youth market, but it gradually expanded into all sorts of strange arenas including electronic music, out psychedelia and even the Nonesuch Explorer Series, featuring music recorded around the world on records like Ram Narayan's Sarangi/The Voice Of A Hundred Colors, Los Chiriguanos Of Paraguay's Guaraní Songs & Dances, and David Lewiston's Tibetan Buddhism - Tantras Of Gyütö: Mahakala.

16. Dillard & Clark The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark

A&M 1968

Sublime incursion of shimmering country music from this dynamic duo of hard-partying folkies, a true meeting of the minds between Gene Clark (formerly of The Byrds) and Doug Dillard (formerly of, well, The Dillards). Another one that I very nearly included in The Canyon 25, but Sari reckoned that it crossed that invisible line into real-deal country. I suspect it hinges on Doug Dillard's bluegrass-informed mandolin picking, faithful as it is to the legacy of old-time stalwarts like Lester Flatt And Earl Scruggs, although the Eagles did later cover Train Leaves Here This Mornin' on there self-titled debut. In the context of today's rag tag crew of outsiders and iconoclasts, it fits in rather nicely.

This also standing in for the whole Bakersfield gang. I almost included Merle Haggard's I'm A Lonesome Fugitive but couldn't fit it into the schema. After all, Bakersfield is but a couple hours up the Interstate 5 from Laurel Canyon and yet worlds away. I quite like the early part of Barney Hoskyns' Hotel California, where he describes the rootsy scene surrounding the Troubadour (where Dillard & Clark held court).3 Doug Dillard started out in bluegrass group The Dillards, who I've always wanted to check out. In fact, I don't know half of what I should about this era's shadowy pre-history. Another one I want to hear is Chris Hillman's pre-Byrds bluegrass crew, The Hillmen. Maybe now is as good a time as any?

17. Spirit Clear

Ode 1969

Spirit's debut was the closest any record came to making both lists, but its trace country inflections marked it out for the canyon list alongside records like The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Nashville Skyline. Still, the band made a whole brace of records that further codified their unique sound, culminating in Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus which is often considered the band's classic recording. However, their third album, Clear, is probably my favorite of the records to come in the wake of their debut. What's more, I remembering hearing the record feted by none other than Kirk Degiorgio back in the day (this around the time of his canyon-friendly project The Beauty Room with frequent collaborator Jinadu)!

Spirit's sound is a jazz-inflected tonic that exists in that same heady slipstream as The Doors, Love and David Axelrod, all of which create these great nebulous sonic paintings that seem to reflect their Sunset Boulevard surroundings back at your through a dreamlike, kaleidoscopic lens. Do you remember those old Disney movies that merged reality with animation to surreal effect (movies like The Three Caballeros), when the artist's brush would paint a scene and then it would come to life as in the real world? Well, that's a lot like the effect these records tend to have.

18. Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention Burnt Weeny Sandwich

Bizarre 1970

Ah yes, Frank Zappa. You didn't think I'd forget old Frank, did you? Zappa's an inescapable figure when discussing L.A. scene of the era. He actually lived in Laurel Canyon and was a mover and shaker on the L.A. scene, releasing records by Captain Beefheart, Tim Buckley, Alice Cooper and Wild Man Fischer on his twin imprints, Straight and Bizarre. Still, his own music had little to do with the canyon, in fact his flowing avant garde suites seem to exist in intentionally stark opposition to the mellow drift of the times.

I've never been a huge fan of the man's music, although he does give a great interview, and I do have a handful of his records. This one's pretty cool, offering up a knotty, West Coast vision of prog rock that's the maximalist cousin to Beefheart's Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Note the presence of future Little Feat ringleader Lowell George on guitar throughout. The Little House I Used To Live In is an extended twenty-minute suite that drifts through a piano sonata, fast-forward marching band, acid rock solo, jazz fusion stomp and harpsichord breakdown over the course of its long and winding trip.

19. Gabor Szabo High Contrast

Blue Thumb 1971

I was this close to trying squeeze this one into The Canyon 25, but it would have been pushing it, B.B. It really would have. At least that what Sari tells me, and she's usually right about these things. Still, these gently flowing bucolic jazz landscapes make a perfect counterpart to the groovier currents in the canyon. Recorded in L.A. with Bobby Womack, it is — like the great Gil e Jorge record — an excellent head-to-head guitar duel between two masters in a sympathetic setting. Like the Axelrod/Adderley link up, this is emblematic of the L.A. interchange happening between jazz, soul and rock at the time, a trend that against all odds slowly began to be felt in the canyon itself.

The opening Breezin' was later taken into the charts by George Benson (who had a Weekend In L.A. of his own), but hearing the original for the first time is a real treat. A wistful daydream in musical form, it manages to strike the unlikely balance between the earthy and ethereal over a gently rolling soul jazz beat. The sultry Amazon follows, a shaken-not-stirred bit of sensual exotica, a soundtrack in search of a film in true Axelrod/trip hop style. Similarly, Azure Blue seems to conjure similar silver screen vibes, recalling the softest moments of soundtracks to films like Trouble Man, Superfly and The Mack about a year early.

In a particularly canyon-esque twist, the record even closes with I Remember When, a wistful country-western styled rumination that gradually builds into a subdued rave up of a sort, bringing the record's seeming trans-continental journey all back home in an unexpectedly rootsy conclusion. Taken in its entirety, High Contrast is something like an instrumental counterpart to David Crosby's If Only I Could Remember My Name, and remains one of my favorite records to chill out to.

20. Beaver & Krause Gandharva

Warner Bros. 1971

Beaver & Krause were synth pioneers on the L.A. circuit, turning a whole lot of people in the rock world onto synths for the first time in the mid-sixties. George Harrison recorded his Electronic Sound LP on their kit, while Roger McGuinn famously bought a Moog after witnessing the duo's demo of the instrument's potential at the Monterey Pop Festival. Krause even played it on The Byrds' awesome Natural Harmony, easily one of my favorite songs ever. They duo debuted on record with The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music, a demonstration of the possibilities of the Moog synthesizer.

I always wanted to be blown away by their subsequent records but came away somewhat disappointed once I finally tracked them down. Not as savage as Silver Apples or as otherworldly as Fifty Foot Hose, nor as radical as Morton Subotnick or as fully realized as Tonto's Expanding Head Band, their records play more like a collection of minor experiments rather than any sort of sustained experience. Still, there's interest to be found in scattered moments like the sustained drone of Nine Moons In Alaska or Walkin's lonesome ambient gospel.

However, it's the on record's second side — which was recorded at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco — where things really pick up. The sleeve of the record is emblazoned with the declaration A MUSICAL SOUNDTRACK FOR A NON-EXISTENT FILM, and melancholy tone poems like By Your Grace and Good Places certainly fit the bill. Their eerie reverb-drenched organ/saxophone duets are even somewhat redolent of later practitioners like Heldon and Lard Free at their most delicate, or even Bowie's Neuköln and Vangelis' Blade Runner Blues! Shades too of ECM. In passing, I've never understood why their Ragnarök album never made it to CD...

21. Shawn Phillips Second Contribution

A&M 1971

The Scott Walker of the canyon, Shawn Phillips employs his soaring pipes over a backing of funky beats and lush chamber orchestra. Blink and you'd swear it was one of David Axelrod's chamber phantasmagorias, but is none other than Elton John's main man Paul Buckmaster conducting the orchestral arrangements. That's rad. Songs like She Was Waiting For Her Mother At The Station In Torino And You Know I Love You Baby But It's Getting Too Heavy To Laugh — in addition to beating Love out for today's longest song title by some distance — are quite powerful, their vast soundscapes gliding over furious rhythms in a striking tapestry of motion. I'm reminded of the gravity in Scott Walker's The Seventh Seal and (perhaps more abstractly) Carl Craig's Neurotic Behavior.

This is actually another one that I really wanted to include in The Canyon 25. Another one that nearly made it, but on reflection it was almost too much on the proper folk tip, staying true to the original spirit of the music Phillips often seems to intone like a herald rather than indulge in the more confessional nature of the canyon singer-songwriters. There's a strikingly ancient quality to his music as well that seems to key into the same eldritch medieval vibes that British folk groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span were exploring around the same time.

Indeed, Texan Phillips never seemed to totally fit in with the canyon crowd, splitting his time in the sixties between Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York's Greenwich Village. That in 1967 he finally up and moved to the coastal village of Positano in Campania, Italy — where he stayed through most of the seventies — seems to bear this out. Thankfully, he didn't stop recording and albums like Second Contribution and later Rumplestiltskin's Resolve were the triumphant result.

22. Captain Beyond Captain Beyond

Capricorn 1972

Captain Beyond were a supergroup back when that sort of thing was still a hot proposition, featuring lead singer Rod Evans (of Deep Purple), drummer Bobby Caldwell (who played with Johnny Winter's band), guitarist Larry Reinhardt (aka Rhino) and bassist Lee Dorman (both of Iron Butterfly). The sound they strike up epitomizes everything I said earlier regarding the dusty, high desert sound of American proto-metal, in this case delivered with rugged hard rock shapes and turn-on-a-dime rhythmic precision. The drum sound alone is worth the price of admission on this incredibly breakbeat-laden LP, which features some of my favorite rock hard beats of all time. Really, the drums sound just exquisite!

I especially dig Rod Evans' vocal attack, chest-beating and macho inna working class Mark Farner stylee, yet never descending into cock rock leering, he seems to have his eyes set firmly on the stars (even delivering spoken word interludes from time to time). Indeed, as hinted by the cosmic sleeve art there's a satisfying amount of space rock feathered into the proceedings, as heard in As The Moon Speaks To The Waves Of The Sea (two steps from Hawkwind) and the interstellar bolero of Myopic Void. As The Moon Speaks Return even recalls the orbital heartache of Space Oddity, and for a moment you'd swear it was Bowie himself singing lead!

23. Tim Buckley Greetings From L.A.

Warner Bros. 1972

Dig that sleeve! Shades of Soylent Green, Omega Man and Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes. I actually bought this record for my brother when he moved to Los Angeles! Tim Buckley, like Don Van Vliet, was a visionary iconoclast that managed to transcend his L.A. surroundings and blaze a singular path through the musical landscape as the sixties bled into the 1970s. Shifting and morphing through myriad phases, first by bending the rules of their chosen form (folk in Buckley's case, blues in Beefheart's) and then breaking them completely with increasingly abstract records like Starsailor and Lorca (or the Captain's Trout Mask Replica and Decals) before swerving back into the mainstream with increasingly r&b-soaked sides, their careers almost seemed in step to an eerie degree.

Greetings From L.A. picks up where the awesome proto-kosmische monster jam Gypsy Woman left off, with tunes like Get On Top, Devil Eyes and Sweet Surrender snaking on exceptionally carnal, loose-limbed rhythms. Notably, this record came up when John Lydon — then at height of his Sex Pistols notoriety — guested on Tommy Vance's Capitol Radio show, which found the punk playing Buckley's Sweet Surrender alongside selections from Can, Peter Hammill, Nico, Bobby Byrd, Captain Beefheart and Augustus Pablo, not to mention fellow canyon dweller Neil Young's Revolution Blues. Goodbye Johnny Rotten, hello Public Image! And the rest, as they say, is history.

24. Marvin Gaye Trouble Man: Motion Picture Soundtrack

Asylum 1972

In 1972, Berry Gordy moved the focal point of his Motown empire from Detroit to L.A., where he hoped to break into the film industry (ultimately doing so with films like Lady Sings The Blues, Mahogany and The Wiz). Soul purists often mark this as the beginning of the end, but here at The Parallax Room we know things were just getting started. Marvin Gaye's string of lush, dreamy records like Let's Get It On, I Want You and Here, My Dear begin with this record, the soundtrack to the movie of the same name and follow up to his epochal What's Going On.

Tellingly, the film's action takes place not in the towering vertical metropolises of Detroit, Chicago or New York, but the horizontal urban sprawl of Los Angeles. And as I'm sure Dr. Robert Neville would tell you, it makes all the difference. Gaye's utterly absorbing soundtrack offers the perfect sonic counterpoint to that film's imagery, offering lush, sprawling instrumentals drenched in synthesizers and dreamy production techniques. Sun-glazed and moonlit in all the right places, it's all of a piece.

Indeed, the record gets so atmospherically heavy that I place it in the same ballpark as Brian Eno's Another Green World and Les McCann's Layers, capturing the feel of the city with that same visionary sonic touch that those records essayed the pastoral and bucolic. Appropriately enough, along with Buckley's Greetings From L.A. it's also the axis on which this list hinges, setting us up for the home stretch and the next great geological phase of the 35...

25. Ned Doheny Ned Doheny

Asylum 1973

Ned Doheny seems to constantly hover in the background of Hotel California, rubbing shoulders with figures like Jackson Browne and Frazier Mohawk. He even shows up at the ill-fated Paxton Ranch endeavor, giving the clearest recollection of what was Elektra's attempt to mirror the communal spirit of The Band's fabled sessions at Big Pink. Like Gram Parsons, he was a rich kid, albeit one that seemed to treat his peers a good deal better! His own recordings wallowed somewhat in obscurity until the trusty Numero Group unexpectedly issued a compilation of his work augmented by rarities and demo versions.

If there's a figure that lies at crux upon which yacht begins to be felt in the canyon scene than it must be old Ned. His sound is a luxurious blend of gentle acoustic strumming, elegant Fender Rhodes jazz licks and nimble, funky rhythms. It's the casual sound of muted prosperity, of cruising the shoreline in a sports car, decked out in white suit and loafers, city lights hanging in the distance. A song like I Know Sorrow ought to be super well known, after all it's just like the sort of thing Christopher Cross would crash the charts with at the end of the decade. Fittingly, it's at this point that we say goodbye to the rustic climes of the canyon and venture confidently into yacht land. Goodnight Ned!

26. Paul Horn Visions

Epic 1974

This is another one that Kirk Degiorgio indirectly hipped me to, which I was lucky enough to find up at Lou's Records back in the day. Now it even has a CD release! In the sixties, Paul Horn was responsible for the solo flute album Inside, which was actually recorded inside the Taj Mahal. Notionally, it was a jazz record, but also something of an ambient record before the fact (shades of new age waiting in the wings). Visions is more on the straight jazz funk tip, albeit inflected by the blunted stylings of Stevie Wonder's contemporary records it has definite strains of progressive soul. In fact, the record features Horn covering Too High, Visions and Living For The City... that's a third of Innervisions right there!

More pointedly, there are loads of canyon covers in here: Crosby, Stills & Nash's Guinnevere and Long Time Gone, David Crosby's Song With No Words and Joni Mitchell's Chelsea Morning. Shearing into florid strains of exotica, it all blends brilliantly in a record that pulls together strands from canyon, jazz and soul in a quintessential L.A. sun-baked geological fusion. A Jazz Mosaic record through and through, this would appeal to fans of Les McCann's Layers and Gabor Szabo's High Contrast. Also, hip hop heads take note of High Tide, which served as the basis for the track Underwater on Ghostface Killah's Fishscale!

27. Joni Mitchell The Hissing Of Summer Lawns

Asylum 1975

Everyone's heard Joni Mitchell's confessional stone tablet Blue, without question one of the key canyon records, but did you know she swayed into such heavily jazz-inflected soundscapes soon afterward? Starting with Court And Spark and continuing with The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, she delved ever deeper into the form, even collaborating with Charles Mingus on her tenth album Mingus (which turned out to be his final musical project) and touring with Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker and Jaco Pastorious (captured on the live double-album Shadows And Light).

This record, which I once heard tell was Prince's favorite album of all time, is splendid. Its a deeply engrossing sound that she achieves here, her soaring voice and acoustic strums melting into pools of Rhodes and rippling piano over exquisite bass-driven rhythms, it's casually brilliant like an elegant sashay across the room. Its sound is also oddly prescient, borne out by the fact that electronic jazz figureheads like Kirk Degiorgio and Ian O'Brien were still featuring songs from these records in the mix 25 years later alongside the likes of The Black Dog, 4 Hero and Anthony Shakir and it still managed to fit right in.4

The album is by turns moving (Edith And The Kingpin and The Boho Dance), casually funky (In France They Kiss On Main Street and the title track) and, in The Jungle Line, searingly innovative. Featuring Joni singing freewheeling lines over a snatch of Burundi drumming from the Ocora field recording Musique Du Burundi and a burning synthesizer refrain, if you heard it now you'd swear it came out yesterday. Notably, that same Ocora record also turns up in Peter Weir's film The Plumber and a few years later ostensibly even inspired Adam And The Ants' monumental Kings Of The Wild Frontier!

28. Warren Zevon Warren Zevon

Asylum 1976

Good old Warren he shall be Zevon, a cool dude if there ever was one. I'm not ashamed to admit that I first bought his Excitable Boy LP for the song Werewolves Of London. That's one of the great jukebox tunes ever, up there with Golden Years and Evil Ways. What really blew me away though was the proto-new wave avant funk workout Nighttime In The Switching Yard — a not-too-distant cousin to Ian Dury & The Blockheads' contemporary Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick — which prefigured all of The Clash's Sandinista!-era punk-disco moves by a solid couple years. I recently discovered there's even an appropriately moody music video5 to go along with it!

However, what the bulk of Excitable Boy consisted of gutsy songs delivered from the heart, songs like Veracruz and Accidentally Like A Martyr. All of which naturally sent me digging back for his debut. This is a great record, indeed it made both Sari's and Leah's lists. I sort of regret not including it, although I had Zevon down as an outsider, too ruff, rugged and raw for the canyon, he's almost an L.A. counterpart to the heartland rock of figures like Detroit's Bob Seger or Jersey's Bruce Springsteen. He has them all beat, of course, with indelible songs like Desperados Under The Eaves, Join Me In L.A. and I'll Sleep When I'm Dead.

29. Steely Dan Gaucho

MCA 1980

I always liked the bit in the Aja film where Walter Becker talks about the band's extended stay in Los Angeles, where he and partner in crime Donald Fagen pined for their old stomping grounds in New York and wrote exclusively about New York characters, that is until they finally got back to New York and then immediately started writing songs about California.6 That's Gaucho, the duo's final record until they reformed twenty years later. Steely Dan are hard for me to narrow down to one favorite record, in the past I've thought Countdown To Ecstasy, Katy Lied and this record were the one. It's a tough call.

This has the benefit of their most streamlined, yacht-ready production. Hey Nineteen is just perfect, a real mainstay of 98.1 The Breeze back in the day, flawlessly capturing that feeling of warm, breezy summer nights in Southern California, populated with images of Piña coladas, fine Columbian and fetching young ladies who've never heard of Aretha Franklin. Glamour Profession is a definitive slice of slinky yacht disco (later reworked in the nineties on dubplate by — if memory serves — Chicago house stalwart Gemini), while you couldn't ask for a better signing off moment than Third World Man, a perfect send off for the duo, like The Doors riding into the sunset with Riders On The Storm.

30. Rickie Lee Jones Pirates

Warner Bros. 1981

The beat-damaged Rickie Lee Jones was widely hailed as the next Joni Mitchell, jumping in directly at the jazz end where Joni left off. Her 1979 debut was a genuine sensation, with the hit single Chuck E.'s In Love everywhere that year and Jones taking home the Grammy for best new artist. Pirates is her difficult second album, an avant yacht masterpiece made in the wake of her break up with former flame Tom Waits (the bars those two must have closed down!). It's a true embarrassment of riches, featuring a long list of jazz luminaries — figures like David Sanborn, Steve Gadd and Chuck Rainey, not to mention Steely Dan's Donald Fagen on synthesizer — in evidence throughout.

The record is defined by the arcing balladry of We Belong Together and Living It Up, along with a fragility best exemplified in Skeletons and The Returns and in Jones' often delicate voice, although she does find time to run the jazz down once again in Woody And Dutch On The Slow Train To Peking. Still, the record's undeniable centerpiece is Traces Of The Western Slopes, eight minutes of eerie, sweeping grandeur that seem to swoop and dive through the entire range of human emotion. It's genuinely heartening to reflect that only a decade later — and there's no way she could have expected this — a sample of Jones' spoken word recollection of what the skies looked like when she was young would kick off The Orb's epochal ambient house touchstone Little Fluffy Clouds!

31. Leon Ware Leon Ware

Elektra 1982

Smooth soul slate featuring lush backing from the cream of L.A. session players, including cameos from Rita Coolidge, Bonnie Bramlett and Bill Champlin.7 Ware was a crucial in establishing the sumptuous MoWest sound, not least through his substantial songwriting contributions to Marvin Gaye's I Want You in 1976 (when Gaye was suffering from a severe case of writer's block). Indeed, his own Musical Massage LP (released later that year), played like a continuation of I Want You's themes and obsessions, speaking to the deep well of material he'd dreamt up by that point.

This 1982 outing is indubitably his yacht record, featuring slick, smoldering post-disco workouts like Lost In Love With You and Can I Touch You There alongside trademark slow jams like Shelter and Deeper Than Love. The inescapable highlight, however, is Why I Came To California, an unassuming bit of burning mid-tempo gossamer disco that seems to glide by on a cushion of ocean mist. A flawless portrait of Southern California at its most mellow and carefree, it never fails to blow away everyone I play it for.

32. X Under The Big Black Sun

Slash 1982

X were L.A. punks who in a strange twist of fate wound up having their first trio of records produced by Doors keyboard maestro Ray Manzarek. Sure enough, the shadowy vibes of his old band's work are increasingly felt over the course of the trilogy, starting with Los Angeles — a more or less straight punk blast — and culminating in the grand finale of dark Americana that is Under The Big Black Sun. In this respect, X were similar to other rootsy punks like The Gun Club in digging beyond punk's original calls for tabula rasa into the seedy prehistoric world of rockabilly, country and down and dirty blues.

Like The Cramps, this all keys directly back into surf rock and forward to Tarantino, in a sense signaling the spiritual birth of the nineties — all about excavation transmuted into innovation — alongside the works of Cybotron, Larry Heard and Grandmaster Flash. There's loads of L.A. punk that I could have included here as well — things like the Germs, Black Flag and even the Repo Man soundtrack — but this one has by far the strongest links with today's discussion, stretching all the way back to Dick Dale, Morrison Hotel and The Electric Prunes. Plus, it's a killer record!

33. Tom Waits Rain Dogs

Island 1983

Tom Waits was something like the gutter poet laureate of the canyon scene, busking his songs and prefiguring the sort of cloaked, rumpled anti-glamour that the great Mickey Rourke turned into an art form in the 1980s. He put out a sequence of great booze-soaked, beatnik crooner records over the course of the seventies — albums like Closing Time, Small Change and The Heart Of Saturday Night — and the Eagles even covered Ol' 55 (taken from his debut) on their On The Border LP.

The eighties saw Waits experience a drastic reinvention on par with David Bowie's in Berlin or Sly Stone's in the early 1970s, ditching his dive bar piano man aura for the seedy back alleys of the underworld, first with Heartattack And Vine and then perfecting it with his underground trilogy of Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years. They're all about equally great, but Swordfishtrombones was the great unveiling and therefore the logical choice for this chronology. Waits' clanking, mechanical sound hits you headfirst with the opening, scene-setting Underground and continues in 16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six, both of which feature Waits sounding like a wolf-man barking at the moon.

Songs like Shore Leave are shot through with a strange sort of bleached-bone hoodoo, its eerie marimbas and dive-bombing horns haunting the shadows around Waits' spoken asides and hoarse vagabond croon. Interesting to note that it was one of the few sounds critics could reach back to compare Tricky's music to when he emerged with records like Maxinquaye, Nearly God and Angels With Dirty Faces! Still, Waits manages to revisit the spirit of his trademark weepy ballads of old with Johnsburg, Illinois and the Salvation Army blues of In The Neighborhood, tugging at your heartstrings even as he dragged you back into his nightmare.


Tangentially, I've always thought you could make a strong case for Waits' underground trilogy as the L.A. analog to Bowie's legendary Berlin trilogy and Peter Gabriel's first three records. All three instances featuring drastic reinventions of idiosyncratic artists in the wake of prior success (Bowie's Ziggy Stardust years and Gabriel's tenure with Genesis), featuring experimentation with sound itself to a greater degree than anything they'd previously been associated. Also bringing to mind Scott Weiland's superb solo debut 12 Bar Blues, the restless experiments of which I've often thought are often cut from a similar cloth.

34. Meat Puppets Meat Puppets II

SST 1984

Hitting hard on SST and standing in for the rest of the alternative brigades8 are the Meat Puppets with their second album and its genre-warping collision of hardcore punk and country-western. Endlessly feted by Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's MTV Unplugged In New York even featured two songs from this record Plateau and Lake Of Fire, cementing its place as an alternative touchstone even in the wider world beyond indie rock. I hear it as an unspoken renegotiation of the twin debuts of Crazy Horse and Little Feat, its ragged shapes executed with near-telepathic interplay.

The Puppets originally hailed from Phoenix, Arizona, ultimately signing with Black Flag ringleader Greg Ginn's independent bastion SST at the behest of Joe Carducci. Their freewheeling, rambling sound reflects the sprawling, wide-open spaces of their high desert origins, with We're Here, Aurora Borealis and I'm A Mindless Idiot swerving almost unexpectedly into a a shimmering cascade of guitar arpeggios and approaching my oft-stated daydream of a Can-like, kosmische sound borne from the deserts of the southwest.

35. Ry Cooder Paris, Texas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Warner Bros. 1985

Ry Cooder's crystalline ambient blues. I always hoped to find a similar atmosphere in his seventies records, but from what I've heard so far they tend to be more on the traditionalist tip (not that there's anything wrong with that!). This from the soundtrack to the Wim Wenders film, starring Harry Dean Stanton and the relatively attractive Nastassja Kinski,9 its sprawling atmospheric shapes the perfect counterpart to the film's rambling desert travelogue. I just recently watched another movie from this era that Ry Cooder also scored, Johnny Handsome (starring Mickey Rourke and Morgan Freeman), and it's similarly evocative stuff, though nowhere near as affecting.

The opening theme bears a strong sense of portent, with Cooder bending notes out toward the horizon, lost in a sea of reverb reflecting the lonesome sprawl of the desert. The lone track to feature singing is the Mexican folk song Canción Mixteca, sung by none other than Harry Dean Stanton. His memorable extended monologue from the film is also included in I Knew These People, which also features one of my favorite offhand bits of dialogue from any movie: when Nastassja Kinski's Jane says matter-of-factly Yep, I know that feelin'.10 The remainder of the record is purely instrumental, Ry Cooder's lonely six-string elegies tuned to the winds of the desert itself.11


This soundtrack plays like a fitting elegy to the canyon sound and the roots it harked back to, right there in the digital glare of 1985, arguably the year that the bottom fell out of new wave and back-to-the-roots music started to come back into favor in a big way. I'm talking about the rise of alternative in the popular consciousness, figures like R.E.M. and The Smiths (prefiguring Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden's eventual crashing of the mainstream party), not to mention U2's sudden fascination with Americana on The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum.12 Minneapolis' Replacements could even be read as a ramshackle, underground analog to heartland rockers like Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen.

It's at this point that the next wave of artists begin to rise, figures who actually made the original canyon lists the first time around like The Cowboy Junkies, Mazzy Star and Tracy Chapman. This music, increasingly felt as a presence as you move into the nineties, sits quite comfortably in the mix beside things like Homecoming, Nashville Skyline and If Only I Could Remember My Name. Alternative rockers like Dinosaur Jr. and The Jesus & Mary Chain even mellowed out into canyoneqsque territory as the decade progresses, paving the way for groups like Wilco and Built To Spill along with a whole new generation of singer-songwriters.

Death In Vegas Scorpio Rising Concrete

Even certain quarters of electronic music took a left turn into the canyon, with the folktronica of Beth Orton, Dot Allison and Badly Drawn Boy conjuring up Memories Of Green in the wake of rave's long hangover, squaring the circle between Carole King and Morton Subotnick. Big beat block-rockers like The Chemical Brothers keyed into similar terrain with songs like Where Do I Begin and Asleep From Day (featuring vocals from Beth Orton and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, respectively), while Death In Vegas even transformed into a canyonesque proposition with Scorpio Rising (there's Hope Sandoval again, Dot Allison too). And with present day figures like Joanna Newsom, Dawes and Michael Nau all mining seams stretching outward from the canyon to varying degrees, its safe to say the Laurel Canyon vibes might well be here to stay.

It's a testament to the way these sounds live on in the rocks, rivers and trees, spreading out far and wide across the mountains, forests, beaches and desert plains of California and beyond, haunting the imagination long since the Geist has seemingly passed them by. And so if you step out your front door and into the bosom of the night, you can still feel their whispers around you on the cool of the evening breeze...

Footnotes

1.

Don't get me wrong, I dig The Beatles. Honest!!

2.

French, John. Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic. London: Proper, 2013. 253. Print.

3.

Hoskyns, Barney. Hotel California. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2006. 75-76. Print.

4.

Along with the old Op-ART Hall Of Fame list, I used to study those sets. STUDY them! It was my introduction to the notion that the right records from the past could sound more futuristic than swathes of brand new music on the radio. Even when I was young though, something's newness never meant much to me vs. its freshness, if you get my meaning. Some music is already stale the day it first drops!

5.

Warren Zevon. Nighttime In The Switching Yard. Excitable Boy. Rock Arena. Columbia, 1989. Music Video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TqLZZ1jVTR8

6.

Classic Albums: Steely Dan - Aja. Eagle Vision, 1989. Documentary.

7.

Not to mention a cadre of players representing the South American contingent, including Brazil's Flora Purim and Airto Moreiro, along with Argentine sax man Gato Barbieri.

8.

I could have included the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime, a quintessential L.A. record if there ever was one, but their diamond-edged post punk attack seemed to stray a bit too far from the brief... after all Van Halen and War didn't make it in here either!!

9.

Nah, I mean she's just stunningly, preposterously and unfairly gorgeous in this film.

10.

Which later gets sampled at the end of Primal Scream's I'm Coming Down, from their born again post-rave masterpiece Screamadelica.

11.

Cooder, Ry. From Buena Vista To Gospel And Blues. BBC Radio 4: Best Of Today, 10 May 2018. Interview.

12.

A move that — interestingly enough — was inspired in part by the soundtrack to Paris, Texas.

Chris Hillman

The heartbeat of the canyon

In putting together The Canyon 25, I went back and listened to a bunch of my favorite records from in and around that scene. In the process, it quickly became clearer than ever how quietly important Chris Hillman's contribution had been to the whole scene's development, not only as a musician and songwriter but also a strange attractor of sorts, bringing people and ideas together at just the right time.1

In there right at the beginning with The Byrds, his bass was the steady anchor of that band, the propulsion behind Eight Miles High's liftoff into the stratosphere, Inner Space and beyond. Even as early as Mr. Tambourine Man, the band's debut, his four-string input imbued the proto-garage punk of It's No Use with a sense of rhythmic danger. And who can knock the rapid-fire Bo Diddley punch of Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe?

The Byrds Fifth Dimension Columbia

However, it's with The Byrds timely invention of acid rock that Hillman's bass really takes on a life of its own, his throbbing basslines on tracks like I See You, 5 D Fifth Dimension and the awesome Psychodrama City (left off the record for some reason that's always escaped me!), pushing Mike Clark's drums into gear like a locomotive and providing the perfect environment for Roger McGuinn's Coltrane-inspired guitar pyrotechnics to take flight. There's no getting around it, Hillman's bass is the very heartbeat of Fifth Dimension.

Notable also is the fact that he's credited as co-arranger alongside McGuinn and David Crosby on both Wild Mountain Thyme and John Riley. One can't help but wonder if it's his fingerprints in evidence on the former's lush country-western-inflected filmic strings and the latter's shadowy midnight chamber orchestra. Later developments seem to confirm my suspicions...

The Byrds Younger Than Yesterday Columbia

After three albums spent largely enhancing the material of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby, the gloves come off on the following record (Younger Than Yesterday), when — much like George Harrison's ascent in The Beatles on Revolver — Hillman emerges as a formidable songwriter in his own right. The humming Beatle-esque power pop of Have You Seen Her Face is wonderful, but Thoughts And Words — with the overcast proto-alternative haze of its verses playing musical chairs with the bouncing breakbeat chorus — is the highlight of the record... a record that from the standpoint of songwriting might just be the band's strongest.2

His most timely contribution, however, comes in the shape of Time Between and The Girl With No Name, two country-inflected rockers that proved to be startlingly prescient as the next few years would come to pass. His love of bluegrass and country was felt early — on 1965's Turn! Turn! Turn! — with the band's cover A Satisfied Mind (the de-facto birth of country rock), an influence that would increasingly be pushed to the fore until it ultimately changes the band's entire direction altogether on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.

The Byrds The Notorious Byrd Brothers Columbia

The following year's The Notorious Byrd Brothers opens blast of the horn-driven rocker Artificial Energy — the result of Hillman's suggestion that they write a song about speed — and sure 'nuff has another trademark Hillman bassline rumbling beneath it. The remainder of the record maintains an atmospheric, dreamlike quality throughout, with even the guitars swirling in an ethereal mist. Hillman's country flavor is further pursued (and sounding more natural than ever) in songs like Old John Robertson, Change Is Now and a country-inflected take on Carole King's Wasn't Born To Follow, foreshadowing the band's big change in direction in less than a year.

Of course, it's all eclipsed by Hillman's Natural Harmony, the album's absolute finest moment. I've gone on about this track before, the way it rises from within the surrounding fog sounding like The Beta Band thirty years ahead of schedule. That clicking hi-hat rhythm collapsing into a tricky shuffling breakbeat, guitars drifting mirage-like as the spooked orchestral tunings of John Riley are pitched into total eeriness. Roger McGuinn's prized Moog synthesizer (played here by Paul Beaver of synth pioneers Beaver & Krause) rising from the depths of the track like the Nautilus from the ocean, stalking its prey. What even comes close!? In fact, this might well be my favorite song in the band's entire oeuvre.

The Byrds Sweetheart Of The Rodeo Columbia

It was a chance meeting with Gram Parsons (in line at the bank, of all places) that eventually resulted in Hillman bringing him into the fold for the recording of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. With Hillman and Parsons' shared love of country music in full force, the band's focus shifted entirely toward the form. Often considered the first country rock record,3 Sweetheart Of The Rodeo finds Hillman's songwriting receding into the background for the moment, making room for Parsons contributions like One Hundred Years From Now and Hickory Wind. All of which presages the direction the duo would take next as they left The Byrds (first Parsons, then Hillman) in a mere matter of months...

The Flying Burrito Bros The Gilded Palace Of Sin A&M

No longer Byrds, Parsons and Hillman holed up in their fabled Burrito Manor and conceived the perfect synthesis of rock and country, co-writing epochal songs like the rollicking Christine's Tune and Sin City's weepy balladry. Similarly, I've always loved Juanita, another tear-stained masterpiece, while the lackadaisical rolling country rock of Wheels features undisclosed bursts of satisfying feedback. Interestingly, Hillman switched to guitar for this record, leaving the bass duties to Chris Etheridge. I've gone on record about "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow's sublime steel guitar contributions, but suffice it to say that all the guitars on this record are just exquisite.

The Flying Burrito Bros The Flying Burrito Bros A&M

After one more (weaker) Burritos album, Parsons quits again, leaving Hillman to pick up the pieces. However, its the following self-titled album — while never reaching the heights of the debut — that is quite worthwhile, a minor gem even, full of gorgeous tunes like Colorado, To Ramona and Four Days Of Rain. I've often felt that it gets a bad rap mainly because it exists in the shadow of The Gilded Palace Of Sin, much as Can's later work gets unfavorably compared to Tago Mago. In both cases, the bands still manage to transcend their imitators and turn in something special.

Stephen Stills Manassas Atlantic

After leaving The Burritos, Hillman spent the rest of the decade collaborating in various configurations of like-minded musicians, for instance the Souther-Hillman-Furay band and even reuniting with old band-mates Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn for a couple McGuinn-Clark-Hillman albums. Playing on a whole brace of canyon records, he even winds up in Stephen Stills' Manassas big band for the storied sessions of their debut recording.

Another stone cold classic, it resurrects the concept originally intended for Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, celebrating the breadth of American music spanning from folk, bluegrass and country to blues, rock and jazz, with even the distinct shades of Latin music felt throughout. Billed second only to ringleader Stills, Hillman is listed as co-producer (alongside Stills and Dallas Taylor) and co-writes two of the record's highlights, It Doesn't Matter and Both Of Us Bound To Lose.

Chris Hillman Slippin' Away Asylum

In 1976, Hillman embarks on his solo career in earnest, debuting with Slippin' Away. This is a truly stellar record, and one I'd like to single out for praise. A minor gem, perhaps, like the third Flying Burrito Bros record, only more so. I've only recently discovered it... like why even pretend?! This is country rock of the highest caliber. The record is defined by its impeccable arrangements, gorgeous harmonies and great rolling basslines, more often than not played by Hillman.4 Indeed, this is a great bass record, showcasing that rich, telltale tone played with trademark nimble precision.

From the jazzy shuffle of the title track — with it's non-trivial arrangement and multi-plane harmonies —  to the burning rocker Take It On The Run and the filmic sweep of Witching Hour (a Stephen Stills cover version), its an undeniable treasure trove of rock solid canyon songwriting. The closing Take Me In Your Lifeboat even touches down with Hillman's bluegrass roots, presaging an obsession that would become increasingly central to his sound in the decade to come.

Chris Hillman Desert Rose Sugar Hill

With the dawn of the 1980s, Hillman reached deep into bluegrass and Bakersfield for inspiration, turning out a pair of excellent records on Sugar Hill (no, not that Sugar Hill!) in quick succession. First with Morning Sky and then with Desert Rose, he delivered a more intimate, stripped down sound that was often strikingly beautiful, defined by his gorgeous mandolin picking. Three years later, The Desert Rose Band found Hillman in a working band again, releasing a series of albums stretching well into the nineties. After that, further collaborations (most frequently with Herb Pederson) and solo records round out the long and winding career of a lifelong musician, a career that leads right up to the present day.

Last year's Bidin' My Time found him working once again with old Byrds McGuinn and Crosby, not to mention the late great Tom Petty (who also produced the record). With nearly sixty years lived in music, Hillman is still going strong (check out his website here4). In fact, there's currently a tour in progress with Roger McGuinn for the 50 year anniversary of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, which sounds rather interesting. It looks like the second leg of the tour has yet to be announced... so hopefully they make their way down to San Diego in the near future.


In signing off, I'll leave you with this performance from a couple years ago, featuring Hillman working his magic on mandolin and harmonies alongside Herb Pederson live in the studio. Just two old-timers doing their thing, like it's no big deal, and achieving casual perfection.

Footnotes

1.

Did you know that he was the one to convince the Whisky A Go Go to give Buffalo Springfield a shot?

2.

Of course, he's still doing his inimitable thing on bass: check the dive-bombing bassline from So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star (featuring Hugh Masekela on the trumpet solo).

3.

Although The International Submarine Band's Safe At Home — another Parsons-related endeavor —  did hit the shelves a few months earlier.

4.

I once had a friend who confessed that — generally speaking — she couldn't tell what the bassist contribution was. I told her to listen to dub reggae for a weekend and everything would make sense(!). Of course, I could just have easily said to listen to a bunch of records that Chris Hillman played on.

5.

Chris Hillman [Hillman, Chris]. https://www.chrishillman.com. Accessed 6 Jul. 2015.

6.

Chris Hillman [Hillman, Chris]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOjcoCAFTho. Accessed 6 Jul. 2015.

Big Audio Dynamite – Megatop Phoenix

Big Audio Dynamite Megatop Phoenix

Columbia 1989

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...


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.

Big Audio Dynamite Planet BAD: Greatest Hits Columbia

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 Loma Music Trader. My chance had come, so I snapped it up with haste. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Parlophone

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!

Mick Jones kneels with a guitar as B.A.D. stand behind him, skyscrapers looming in the background
B.A.D. in full effect: Greg Roberts, Don Letts, Mick Jones, Leo Williams & Dan Donovan

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...

Chapter 1
The Story Of The Clash

The Clash The Story Of The Clash CBS

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 Clash London Calling CBS

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 Cacophony), 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.

The Clash The Clash At The Edge Of Forever Cheap Hotel

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!).

The Clash Straight To Hell CBS

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.

The Clash Combat Rock CBS

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, betrays the fact that the 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 swan song Cut The Crap. Jones, meanwhile, struck out in another direction entirely...

Chapter 2
This Time I Bet You It's BAD

Big Audio Dynamite The Bottom Line Columbia

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.

Big Audio Dynamite This Is Big Audio Dynamite Columbia

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 signaled the bold, deeply unconventional music contained within.

Big Audio Dynamite Medicine Show Columbia

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 (particularly 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-traveling DeLorean in the wild west4 to the band playing underground, decked out like nuclear power plant operators.

Cropped movie poster from the Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry film Sudden Impact
Beware of Sudden Impact!

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.

Big Audio Dynamite No. 10, Upping St, Columbia

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.

Big Audio Dynamite V. Thirteen Columbia

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 ragga beat 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.

Big Audio Dynamite Tighten Up Vol. '88 Columbia

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.

Big Audio Dynamite Just Play Music Columbia

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!

Big Audio Dynamite Lovesensi CBS

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 ragga beat 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.

The Beatles in transition: Rubber Soul Parlophone

And yet, despite the marked development of B.A.D.'s sound, there's not yet evidence of rave's kaleidoscopic fun house 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.

Chapter 3
On Death's Doorstep Born Again

Mick Jones smiles kindly while holding a cigarette
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.6a

Bob Dylan's fabled Basement Tapes Columbia

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.6b 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.

Huge mass of people dancing in the club
Raving at The Haçienda 1989

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.

Rhythim Is Rhythim Beyond The Dance Transmat

House records like Mr. Fingers' Can You Feel It, Black Riot's A Day In The Life and Rhythim Is Rhythim's techno rhapsody Beyond The Dance 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.

Unique 3 The Theme 10

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.

A.R. Kane Listen Up! Rough Trade

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.

The classic architecture of Konk Studios on a sunny day
Konk Studios in Tottenham, London

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.

Steve Dougherty and Linda Russell (Back from the Brink of Death)6c

Mick Jones strums the guitar on stage as B.A.D. play on in the background
Big Audio Dynamite live @ The Town & Country Club 11/1/1989

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...

Chapter 4
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.

Prince Lovesexy Paisley Park

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.

De La Soul 3 Feet High And Rising Tommy Boy

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.

A Guy Called Gerald Automanikk Columbia

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. You can hear echoes of Gerald Simpson's acid-era recordings like Voodoo Ray, Hot Lemonade and Automanikk in Megatop's loose-fitting, ramshackle riddims.

The Todd Terry Project To The Batmobile Let's Go Fresh

Todd Terry just might be the single most apropos 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 Don't forget that Todd's rough-edged sampladelia — perched midway between house and hip hop — ran in parallel with what B.A.D. had been up to in the late eighties. With Megatop, the band embraced Terry's cut-and-paste aesthetic wholeheartedly as the charged headlong into the rave.

The Shamen In Gorbachev We Trust Demon

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, reggae13 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'14 Pills '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.

Primal Scream Screamadelica Creation

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.

Happy Mondays Pills "N" Thrills And Bellyaches Factory

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.

New Order Technique Factory

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.

Graffiti on the surface of a crumbling brick wall
Madchester graffiti in Salford, England

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?

Chapter 5
The Tracks

Featuring the tracks James Brown and Contact (with a stylized phoenix rising in the background)
Megatop Phoenix promotional poster (reverse).

    Megatop Phoenix: The Tracks

  1. Start
  2. 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...

  3. Rewind
  4. 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.

    Cowboy Movie: The Wild Bunch walk toward their final showdown

    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.

    Various Artists Original Stalag 17, 18 And 19 Techniques

    1984 riddim album featuring Tenor Saw's epochal Ring The Alarm

    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.

    4 Hero's 1990 debut: the Combat Dancin' EP Reinforced

    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.

  5. All Mink & No Manners
  6. 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!

  7. Union, Jack
  8. 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.

    Team Brazil and The Netherlands battle it out at the 1989 World Cup

    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...

    Big Audio Dynamite Contact Columbia
  9. Contact
  10. 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.

    A massive crowd dances at an indoor rave
    Feelings flying everywhere: raving at Slough 1989

    Which brilliantly conjures 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 predicts Fatboy Slim's Going Out Of My Head seven years early.17

    A 3/4 view of the 303
    Acid Machine: The Roland TB-303

    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.

    Talking Heads' future shock classic, Remain In Light Sire

    Featuring the sublime Once In A Lifetime

    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 song,18 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 cryosleep (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.

  11. Dragon Town
  12. 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.

    Nightmares On Wax A Word Of Science: The 1st & Final Chapter Warp

    Treble-damage in full effect

    I've listened 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.

  13. Baby, Don't Apologise
  14. 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

    Marshall Jefferson The House Music Anthem Move Your Body Trax

    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.

    A pixelated image of Kevin Saunderson in shades, looking like something from a contemporary video game
    Kevin Saunderson (circa 1989)

    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...

  15. Is Yours Working Yet?
  16. 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 vocodered 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.

  17. Around The Girl In 80 Ways
  18. 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?).

    Sheila E. In Romance 1600 Paisley Park

    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 even the chorus appears 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.

    Madonna Holiday Sire

    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.

    A strange stuffed figure with mouth agape
    Still from Bernard Cribbins' Right Said Fred music video 1962

    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 Fred — 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...

    Big Audio Dynamite James Brown Columbia
  19. James Brown
  20. 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, dialing 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!

    Image of Patrick Cowley from the School Daze record sleeve
    Patrick Cowley, the godfather of Hi-NRG

    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.

    James Brown, serious in a suit, with the bailiff
    James Brown goes to court 1988

    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 video20 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!21 While perhaps not quite as much of an unexpected delight as the rave-fueled Contact promo, it's still a great music video.

  21. Everybody Needs A Holiday
  22. 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.

    Idyllic palm trees lean to form a W in a beach front park (from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World)
    The Big W, in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA

    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 bass drum/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!

  23. Mick's A Hippie Burning
  24. 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. Which brings to mind not only big beat's perversely omnivorous sampladelia, but also latterly the The Avalanches' oeuvre.

    The Avalanches Since I Left You Modular

    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...

  25. House Arrest
  26. 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.

    Club goers dancing in a sweaty music hall
    The Muzic Box: The birthplace of acid house

    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 — this 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:

    The smiley icon, the symbol of acid house, superimposed on the sleeve of a classic acid house compilation
    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.

    Bang The Party Release Your Body Warriors Dance

    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.

    Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond stand before a crumbling building
    The KLF, rave pranksters extraordinaire

    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 spiraling 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...

  27. The Green Lady
  28. 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.

    The Pretty Things S.F. Sorrow Fontana

    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.

  29. London Bridge
  30. 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.

    London Bridge at dusk, on a calm night
    London Bridge is falling down, but I still love this town.

    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.

  31. Stalag 123
  32. 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.

    Steve McQueen rides a stolen motorcycle across the German countryside
    Steve McQueen in The Great Escape

    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...

  33. End
  34. 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.

Epilogue
The Nineties Are Gonna Make The Sixties Look Like The Fifties

Mick Jones lost in thought in the dressing room
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.

Huey Newton and Free sit across each other on the train
Generation Gap: Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland in Flashback 1989

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.

Big Audio Dynamite II Kool-Aid CBS

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.

Big Audio Dynamite II The Globe Columbia

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 charts23 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 idiosyncratic fusions like Melancholy Maybe's 4/4 garage pulse and the big beat fury of Sunday Best.24

Big Audio Dynamite Sunday Best White Label Radioactive

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.

The band as elder statesman
Big Audio Dynamite in the 21st Century

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!

Footnotes

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 Heartbreakers L.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.

2.

The Clash. The Clash At The Edge Of Forever. Cheap Hotel, 2015. CD.

http://cheaphotelrecords.com/playlist.php?release=CHR-006

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 preempt 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.

6a.

6b.

6c.

Dougherty, Steve and Linda Russell. Back from the Brink of Death, Former Clash Rocker Mick Jones Is Reborn as the Man from B.a.d.. People, Jun. 1989.

http://people.com/archive/back-from-the-brink-of-death-former-clash-rocker-mick-jones-is-reborn-as-the-man-from-b-a-d-vol-32-no-21/

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 dystopian 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 travelers throughout their long and winding existence.

11.

Both Prince and De La Soul feature prominently in Megatop's Universal Inspiration list...

12.

...as does Mr. Todd Terry...

13.

...along with Zapp, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aswad, Bob Marley...

14.

...and Shaun Ryder's gallant gang of dandy rogues.

15.

The MDMA in its DNA, if you will...

16.

Sampled from the 1946 film Mrs. Miniver.

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!

18.

Big Audio Dynamite. Contact. Megatop Phoenix. Jones, Mick. Columbia, 1989. Music Video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEgjdRIVSvg

19.

With Marshall Jefferson listed among the Universal Inspiration section of the liner notes, this very well may have been the band's intention.

20.

Big Audio Dynamite. James Brown. Megatop Phoenix. Letts, Don and Mick Jones. Columbia, 1989. Music Video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRuQOCMd2mI

21.

Brown, James. Please, Please, Please. TAMI Show, 1964. Live Performance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vruy2GRUsV8

22.

Which came full circle, bringing General Public's Ranking Roger into the fold.

23.

Rush was B.A.D.'s highest chart placing, in fact.

24.

I remember reading a contemporary review by Norman Cook, who praised the record, drawing connections to The Clash's post-disco dancefloor moves.