So you've absorbed those death disco tapes already, and I'm back with an armful of records. Let's head over to Raven's place up there on the corner and give a few of these a spin. I've got some of the heaviest fourth world voodoo punk funk here - about half the records in the crate - brought to you by the three major dynasties of post punk coming out of London, New York and Bristol, but today we're gonna start with the heady interzone between last episode's new wave boogie and the voodoo slates to come: I'm talking about the Spartan minimalistic funk turned out by crews hailing from places like Manchester, Leeds and (especially) New York.
Interestingly, nearly all of these groups would wind up shearing into a sort of new wave boogie as the decade progressed, while others wound up providing crucial building blocks for hip hop, downbeat and even house. Yet there's one band who emerged just a little bit later, a band whose sound sprang from these same tangled corridors but then managed to spread out across the radio waves and set the charts ablaze, conquering the world in the process. I'm talking now about a band that everybody knows... a little band from L.A.
I'm talking about The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were everywhere in the nineties, maintaining a strong presence right up to the present day, even making their way into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012. However, before breaking out as megastars in 1991 with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, they managed to put out four solid records between the years 1984 and 1989 that elaborated on the punk funk template and imbued it with a healthy dose of California sun. These records all have a chunky, spacious sound, sporting booming drums, chiming guitars and Flea's trademark slap-bass all mixed down with a crisp, vibrant production very much of a piece with everything discussed here today.1
Surprisingly, I've found that many fans of the band's later material seem to turn their nose up at the early stuff, the Hillel Slovak2 era. What gives?! Tunes like the pile-driving Jungleman (from the George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley), True Men Don't Kill Coyotes, Taste The Pain and Hollywood (Africa) (their take on The Meters' immortal New Orleans funk jam Africa) are unmissable romps across the Venice Beach pier, filled with youthful exuberance and rude spirit. Behind The Sun even takes things into Parallax Pier territory, with chiming guitars and a sing-song chorus that brings to mind the Tom Tom Club's sessions at Compass Point!
At this point, the Chili Peppers would often turn to covers of rock and soul staples like Jimi Hendrix's Fire, Sly & The Family Stone's If You Want Me To Stay, Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues and Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground (which I'd argue tops the original - blasphemous, I know... but so true!). The fascinating thing about the Hendrix and Dylan covers in particular is the way they highlight early examples of - for all intents and purposes - rapping, as if the band were reaching back and paying homage to the roots of Anthony Kiedis' trademark rapid-fire delivery. It's also interesting to note the band's unexpected avant garde pedigree (for all the hipster haters out there): original drummer Cliff Martinez3 had previously drummed for a latter day incarnation of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, while Gang Of Four's punk funk godfather Andy Gill was drafted to produce their self-titled debut.
Gang Of Four, hailing from Leeds, were the prototypical minimalist post punk band. Indeed, one could almost have them down as a punk funk counterpart to Wire. They pared all elements deemed unnecessary from their music, leaving a sparse, wiry sound that moved like clockwork mechanisms travelling across a grid at strict right angles. Emerging on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint - incidentally where The Human League started out as well - the band released their debut EP, Damaged Goods. The title track, Armalite Rifle and Love Like Anthrax brilliantly fleshed out the different corners of the band's stark modernist sound and they were accordingly signed by major label EMI for their debut LP. Entertainment is one of those quintessential post punk records,4 housing fierce, taut missives like Not Great Men, Ether and At Home He's A Tourist that have gone down as indelible post punk classics. The band famously aimed for a dry, spartan sound - free of rock's wild abandon and detached from its roots in the blues - and it's a sound they achieve to the fullest here.
However, one of my favorite moments from the band is their 1979 non-LP b-side It's Her Factory, where they make room for a bit of reverb - bathing the lead melodica in an eerie glow - giving the whole thing a sense of relatively spacious atmosphere. Solid Gold, the group's sophomore record, accordingly seemed to follow suit, allowing a little air into the production across the space of the album. The songs themselves may not have been quite as incendiary as those on the diamond-hard debut, but tunes like He'd Send In The Army and A Hole In The Wallet are emblematic of the record's focus on tricky, twisted rhythms and an increasing focus on atmosphere and dynamics. Meanwhile, the desolate Paralysed dragged the tempos down to a staggering crawl.
It's certainly an interesting step toward the band's later period, where they morphed into a strange punk/boogie proposition that seems to be endlessly maligned by the cognoscenti but I nevertheless find oddly fascinating. 1982's Songs Of The Free is a deeply unusual LP that veers between Heaven 17-esque new pop like I Love A Man In Uniform and the atmospheric downbeat reverie of closer Of The Instant. We Live As We Dream, Alone, which comes on like a booming dub version of one of the band's earlier punk funk excursions, just might be the best thing here. The record quite simply makes a virtue of simply sounding like nothing else around. When you factor in the remaining tracks and the album's evocative sleeve... well, it's a cool little record.
Unfortunately, the band's next album, Hard, was anything but. As such, it's even more maligned by just about everyone. And yet. And yet... there is a fair bit of solid new wave boogie to be found here, for those inclined. The opening Is It Love - which was the album's big single, even getting a 12" Extended Dance Mix - is a lush new pop number that may be a million miles away from Damaged Goods but is nonetheless an excellent slice of silky smooth dance pop. Elsewhere, the atmospheric Woman Town wouldn't sound out of place on the second side of Songs Of The Free.5 Not that I'm making a case for the album as some sort of lost classic, you understand! But it certainly has its moments. Hard turned out to be the final album of the band's original run, capping off a discography that, when taken as a whole, offers us an intriguing glimpse at the way a bunch of punks might ultimately wander from the pit into the disco, turning up some unique sounds along the way.
Another group who made a similar transition were A Certain Ratio. Yes, A Certain Ratio! They seem to perennially suffer the fate of being damned with faint praise - often getting lost in the Factory shuffle - but they get my vote over Gang Of Four any day.6 These guys are the perennial underdogs in the post punk sweepstakes. They may have never got around to making that stone cold front-to-back classic record, but their discography offers up a wealth of the greatest punk funk you could ask for. The Early anthology put out by Soul Jazz made this point brilliantly. Take a song like Flight. This is one of the top five or so tunes in this continuum. Utterly unique, Woebot nailed it when he noted the song's gigantic ethereal sound like a yet more liquid Can. Word.
Infamously, the band were recording their debut album in Newark, New Jersey when the working mixdown was inadvertently wiped by the engineer while the band were out celebrating the final day of recording! On returning to Manchester, the band were miserably forced to work up their debut album by polishing demo takes with producer Martin Hannett. Already feeling quite defeated, they were then slated to back Grace Jones on a song called Again before the project fizzled out unceremoniously.7 The breaks just wouldn't come! Despite the band's seemingly endless plague of bad luck, they managed to turn out a whole raft of first rate material like Do The Du, Shack Up and The Fox, all of which were prototypical post punk of the highest caliber.
From there, the band continued to change with the times and edged ever closer into new pop/jazzdance territory. Sextet and the Knife Slits Water - with the
Kether Hot Knives (Mix In Special) version on the flip - is the grooviest, tightest post punk record you could ask for and the avant cousin to the whole bedroom funk concept I'm forever hinting at (there's a feature in there somewhere, believe me). The sound leans ever-so-slightly into early Level 42 territory (nothing wrong with that), but maintaining traces of the spooky unhinged voodoo of their earliest recordings in those chanted vocals and the spaces between the spaces. Chanted vocals in this style are the prime signifier of mid-period punk funk, evoking mysterious corridors within the groove that one might get pulled into at any moment.
I'd Like To See You Again veers further yet toward a certain sleekness, even if a tune like Saturn is of a piece with the band's earlier material (in spirit at least). Elsewhere, Hot Knights is a vocal adaptation of the Kether Hot Knives version of Knife Slits Water. Still, the heart of the record lies in tunes like Touch and Axis which are very Jamaica, Queens jazz/funk/boogie, and before you know it (1984) you've got a record like Life's A Scream, killer dance pop on the order of INXS or - once again - Level 42 that takes you into the glitz of the era's overground nightclubs. Moonwalking in neon. With those triggered oof, oof vocals - straight out of the electro playbook - A Certain Ratio have wandered into the disco even more convincingly than Gang Of Four managed around the same time.
However, if there were one band that could boogie with the best of them, it was surely Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick has that cruising city streets at night groovy thang going... in fact, the backing track could practically fit right in there on Off The Wall (with the chorus sounding not unlike Jermaine Jackson's Erucu)! Only Ian's conversational Midlands lead vocals - think Mike Skinner in The Streets - and Davey Payne's wild sax solo give this away as something other, conjuring up images of The Blockheads grooving immaculate on some cramped, smoke-bathed stage in a ramshackle seaside pub out in Essex.
Debut album New Boots And Panties!! is an absolute treasure, with the nimble bedroom funk of Wake Up And Make Love With Me setting things off on a drifting mirage of rhythm before following up with more skewed boogie in the shape of If I Was With A Woman and I'm Partial To Your Abracadabra (there are even a few undisclosed moments of straight up punk tacked onto the end to boot!). The key to The Blockheads' seemingly natural grasp of funk dynamics - this in 1977, a full year before even Adolescent Sex - must surely be their jazz chops. Indeed, I have a Steely Dan documentary on the making of Aja that features Ian Dury as a frequent commentator, and one could almost read the band's sound as an outgrowth of the band's dancefloor sides like Peg and The Fez. Perhaps not totally accurate, but an interesting thought nonetheless.
Of course Ian Dury ended up writing himself into the Compass Point story a few years later with Lord Upminster, which was recorded in Nassau with Sly & Robbie and features the excellent Paradise Garage staple Spasticus (Autisticus). Like Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, it hinges on the axis of silky smooth verse juxtaposed against abrasive chorus, revelling in Dury's clever wordplay. While I could dive further into the Compass Point All Stars at this point, along with figures like Grace Jones and Lizzy Mercier Descloux, in truth they will all warrant their own chapter in the Terminal Vibration saga (forthcoming in a month or so) and ultimately a full feature in their own right (as Summer arrives, most likely). So with whispers of the Paradise Garage still hanging in the air, let's take a left turn into the streets of New York.
The Big Apple was rather appropriately a hotbed of punk funk activity, starting with No Wave bands like DNA, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks and especially James Chance & The Contortions crawling out of the sewer at the tail end of the decade. James Chance came on like a skronky, more punk Blockheads (or Richard Hell & The Voidoids gone funk) with records like Buy and Off White (released as James White & The Blacks). The production was sparse and the rhythms stripped to their bare bones, like James Brown circa The Payback shot through with atonal, abrasive punk spirit.
However, it's the slightly later N.Y. material that concerns us today, permeated as it is with atmosphere. A particularily good example of this transition would be Black Box Disco (from the Vortex OST), featuring Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, which is the most sure-footed nimble punk funk imaginable, cooked up by the Vortex house band as film dialogue - of what sounds like a torture scene - floats over the top. It's terrifically magical track that works on most dancefloors in a way that the earlier No New York bands would not.8 The remainder of the soundtrack is quite atmospheric, with almost no beats at all (the one exception being The Chase, which is the cousin of mid-period A Certain Ratio).
While we're getting into punk funk at its most dexterous, mention must be made of Joseph Bowie's Defunkt. As mentioned before, this crew were the prime influence on The Red Hot Chili Peppers and you can certainly hear it, especially in Joseph Bowie's vocals... the only thing lacking is that Slovak/Frusciante guitar crunch. Tunes like Illusion (from 1982's Thermonuclear Sweat) and Strangling Me With Your Love (from the 1980 self-titled debut) were far more stripped to the bone than nearly any straight-up funk band of the era, often recalling the classic one-the-one funk of James Brown circa Hell, while moments like Make Them Dance moved wild shapes at a brisk tempo that reach almost afrobeat levels of pitched insanity. In The Good Times (yet another riff on Chic's Good Times bassline) even highlights a certain affinity between Defunkt's no-nonsense approach and the homespun funk that the Sugar Hill and Paul Winley backing bands were working up on the early rap records around the same time.
However, if there was a New York label that was the standard bearer of Downtown dancefloor-heavy punk funk, then it was Ed Bahlman's 99 Records. With the label's striking visual aesthetic, featuring vivid, colorful, of-the-moment artwork, it seemed to capture the spirit of the times at the nexus between the post punk avant garde and the post-disco dancefloors of the era (and as such places it at the forefront of today's discussion). The material released on the label was heavy on atmosphere while maintaining a distinct pop edge, and tellingly more than a few tunes made their way onto Larry Levan's turntables at the Paradise Garage.9
Liquid Liquid were one of two bands whose releases were central to the label's discography and are probably the most widely known. Plying a heavily percussive - almost tribal - sound, their music was spacious and atmospheric, with ghostly chants fading in and out of the mist as the band churned out a loose-limbed brand of dancefloor funk. The Optimo EP, with its swirling red and yellow op-art imagery, turned out to be the group's preeminent record. The title track pummels you with a frenzy of percussion interlocking with a clockwork bass groove as scat vocals dance across its surface, while Cavern rides a loping bass groove that would ultimately get nicked by Grandmaster & Melle Mel for the epochal White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (not to mention a more oblique interpretation in Big Audio Dynamite's The Bottom Line).
The thumb-piano stylings of Scraper recall the band's earlier self-titled EP, where tunes like Groupmegroup and New Walk churned at a more laidback tempo. The band's music - encompassed on but four EPs released in the early 80s on 99 Records - is quite simply essential listening. Famously, James Lavelle issued the first real compilation of the group's material on his Mo Wax imprint, rounding up the band's first three EPs into one essential package with an attractive mosaic sleeve that referenced the evocative 99 artwork of the original 12" records. Released in 1997, it's another example of dance music's dalliance with post punk - well before the retro gold rush of the early 21st century - that grew organically out of the scene's groove fascination in whatever form it came (there was certainly the clear cut abstract hip hop connection). And as I've said before, this is the context through which a certain 90s kid encountered most of this music in the first place.
The other big 99 band were ESG, a group centered around the Scroggins sisters who were merely teenagers when they started out. Famously, their mother had bought them all instruments so that they'd play music rather than get into trouble. I read somewhere that at the time the girls were described as The Supremes meet Public Image Ltd. I can't find the quote now, and I don't know who said it, but it isn't too far off. Their self-titled debut EP is housed in another stunning example of 99 sleeve art and plays out as the quintessential essence of the label's sound, which is in this case somewhat more bare bones than Liquid Liquid's, but somehow no less atmospheric. Moody rides a killer bassline over which the girls chant Very moody, while UFO is like the shower scene from Psycho taken out for a dance.
Interestingly, both songs were crucial building blocks in multiple genres of modern music. UFO, which was sampled by Big Daddy Kane and The Notorious B.I.G. - even showing up much later on J Dilla's Donuts - became something of a staple hip hop signifier (wasn't there a Gang Starr song that sampled it too?), while Moody formed the basis of Murk's Miami house chestnut Reach For Me (released under the name Funky Green Dogs From Outer Space). The girls even titled a later EP Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills!, which was released around the time of their unjustly neglected 1991 comeback record. Fortunately, they managed to soak up some love during the post punk revival with two new LPs issued in 2002 and 2006,10 Step Off and Keep On Moving respectively, which were solid records in their own right.
My favorite ESG record, however, is 1983's Come Away With ESG. It's an album-length statement, which means you get to experience the girls' sound in 3D stretched over a cozy 30 minutes. Kicking off with the bluesy tumble of Come Away staggering down some shadowy back alley, the record turns up plenty of uptempo punk funk like Dance, You Make No Sense and The Beat, in which loping bass grooves interlock with rather tactile drums as terse lyrics are chanted over the top. The rushing Chistelle even brings in an eerie guitar line - which appears to get reversed every so often, Detroit techno style - as wind/synth effects creep in and out of the mix, while About You rocks a midtempo groove with the thinnest proto-g-funk synth line imaginable. Of course, there's also the matter of Moody (Spaced Out), a dancefloor version of the original (from their debut EP) which sports a tougher groove and massive synth effects simmering throughout like the soundscapes of Yar's Revenge.
Finally, there's one last New York band I'd like to touch on, and that's the Bush Tetras. While they only put out one 7" on 99 Records (their other two records came out on Fetish), they fit the label's aesthetic perfectly. Tunes like Too Many Creeps and Snakes Crawl consist of composite drum/bass/guitar parts that all interlock into ultra-tight grooves captured with vivid clarity. Cynthia Sley's vocals often recall Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's spoken parts on the early B-52's records. The brisk turn in Cowboys In Africa (from the Rituals EP) comes on like The Cramps gone funky, while the dubbed out Rituals closes the record on a downbeat note with ragged rockabilly shapes that would fit right into the Repo Man soundtrack. The Things That Go Boom In The Night (the group's final record) tightens up the groove again but this time with a slightly heavier guitar attack - more distortion! - while the b-side Das Ah Riot runs a mad phased guitar part through the track in such a way that seems to tie all three of the group's records together.
Jumping back across the Atlantic for a moment, it's worth noting the Bush Tetras theoretical cousins - and Gang Of Four's sister band - the Delta 5. They debuted in 1979 with the Mind Your Own Business/Now That You're Gone, a conceptual interrogation of relationship dynamics over clockwork straight jacket funk rhythms. The band turned out a series of 7" singles that further developed their taut punk funk sound, even introducing a horn section on Colour, which ultimately culminated in the See The Whirl LP (which I haven't heard). The Singles & Sessions 1979-81 compilation, which I do have, rounds up all the group's singles and augments them with some BBC sessions for good measure.
If the Delta 5 and Gang Of Four represented punk funk at its most jittery in the UK, then the Minutemen cranked things up to a whole other amphetamine-fueled level out in L.A. The group's records are absolutely steeped in sun-baked L.A. atmosphere, in the same way that War's The World Is A Ghetto evoked heatwaves rising from the city's asphalt. In many ways they represented for the gritty underbelly of the city while the Red Hot Chili Peppers were strutting down the boardwalk... some might say that both bands represented two sides of the same coin.
Early EPs like Paranoid Time and Joy were excellent shots of pioneering hardcore, yet there was already a distinctly post punk funk flavor in tracks like More Joy and Joe McCarthy's Ghost that came on like a West Coast, more lived-in Gang Of Four. It's a muscular funk, to be sure, with turn on a dime frenetic rhythms anchored by D. Boon's combative, barked vocals.
The band were one of the mainstays of L.A. institution SST (the home of Black Flag), where they put out a whole brace of records ranging from 12" EPs like Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat and Project Mersh to 7" shots like the "Tour Spiel" EP and albums like What Makes A Man Start Fires? and 3-Way Tie (For Last). Double Nickels On The Dime - famously released within months of that other SST post-hardcore milestone double-album Zen Arcade (by Hüsker Dü) - was a tour de force that ran the full gamut of the band's stylistic reach, with hardcore, funk, rock 'n roll, acoustic numbers and even border music all rubbing shoulders over the course of the record's sprawling, monolithic expanse. Without a doubt, it's one of the top ten or so records to truly capture that hazy L.A. atmosphere, and a crucial late-period capstone on the decade's punk funk story just before in mutated into something else entirely.
As such, it brings us full circle to this chapter's beginning, back to L.A., The Red Hot Chili Peppers and where it all ends up in the 90s... with everything tied nicely into a bow. And so I'll leave you with the following playlist, until next time when we descend into the depths of voodoo funk with Material, The Pop Group, The Slits and Public Image Ltd.
TV4 Rockers Revenge
- A Certain Ratio Flight (Factory)
- ESG Moody (Spaced Out) (99)
- Vortex Black Box Disco (Neutral)
- Ian Dury And The Blockheads Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (Stiff)
- The Contortions Contort Yourself (ZE)
- Minutemen More Joy (New Alliance)
- Gang Of Four Return The Gift (EMI)
- Delta 5 Train Song (Kill Rock Stars)
- Bush Tetras Snakes Crawl (99)
- The Red Hot Chili Peppers Blackeyed Blonde (EMI)
- Iggy Pop African Man (Arista)
- Liquid Liquid Cavern (99)
- Grandmaster & Melle Mel White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (Sugar Hill)
- Bernard Wright Spinnin' (Arista)
- A Certain Ratio Touch (Factory)
- Level 42 Starchild (Polydor)
- Tom Browne Funkin' For Jamaica (N.Y.) (Arista)
- Ian Dury If I Was With A Woman (Stiff)
- Liquid Liquid New Walk (99)
- Gang Of Four Womantown (EMI)
- Defunkt Strangling Me With Your Love (Hannibal)
- The Red Hot Chili Peppers Taste The Pain (EMI)
Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance). The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry - and proving ground - for breaking artists. This was the format in which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).1 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude2 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues - artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf - often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album. The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd - artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies - made their initial splash.
Soul music - despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre - began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'s Green Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook3).
If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock - progressive everything, truth be told - with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form. Indeed most rock - bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet - was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade - even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised - while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoingParliament/Funkadelic saga. Even reggae - that stalwart of the 7" single - was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade. Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tables of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed - even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums - and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded. Similarily, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You can't knock something like Virgo's self-titled album from 1989.
Aside from dance music - which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) - the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot. Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space to Bandulu's Cornerstone. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarily, jungle - like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre - had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject - 20 great dance CDs - kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Oukast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest, spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty - figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift - clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.
Nightmares On Wax - A Word Of Science: The 1st & Final Chapter
Tucked away in the shadowy early years of Warp Records' long and winding history, you'll find the debut album by trip hop stalwarts Nightmares On Wax. Originally a duo of George Evelyn and Kevin Harper (aka EASE and Boy Wonder), NOW emerged from the rough-n-ready world of the late-eighties U.K. rave scene, where they made waves spinning at Leeds venues like the Warehouse and Downbeat (the latter of which the duo actually ran themselves). They played a mix of dance music, jazz, soul, hip hop and electro, in keeping with the gloriously omnivorous spirit of the times. EASE quips No segregation in music back then, anything goes!.1
A Word Of Science is suffused with that same anything goes spirit. It's an utterly original record that blends the post-disco sounds of electro, house and hip hop into the sonic equivalent of wildstyle graffiti, its fifteen skeletal tunes belie their spartan nature as they deliriously careen through dazzling, kaleidoscopic terrain. In his breakbeat primer Drum 'n Bass: The Rough Guide, Peter Shapiro rightly singles this record out for praise, calling it the kind of album we'll probably never hear again as it's so full of the innocent joy everyone's scared to show in this age of ludicrous image-consciousness and po-faced taste-makers2... and that was written nearly twenty years ago.
Certainly straight hip hop tracks like Mega Donutz and How Ya Doin' stand out as hopelessly charming romps, overflowing with a youthful enthusiasm and the optimistic spirit of the times. The rolling Mega Donutz finds MC Tozz 180 recounting the group's history, while How Ya Doin' is essentially a signing-off track, its loping jazz funk beats filled with shout outs to the likes of LFO and Zulu Nation. Both tunes are quintessential U.K. hip hop - coming on like a blunted Shut Up And Dance in rap mode - offering an open-hearted counterpoint to the remainder of the record, which is an unabashedly minimal and moody affair.
The thoroughly smoked-out vibes of Nights Interlude kick the record off with a laidback downbeat rumination sourced in Quincy Jones' Summer In The City3, laying the blueprint for a decade of languid downbeat splendor in the process (and also commencing NOW's own series of Nights excursions). A significant portion of the album trades in downtempo beat collage just as Massive Attack were laying down the gauntlet with their epoch-defining Blue Lines, with the x-ray hip hop of Back Into Time and Playtime sounding like New York beats stretched out in skeletal slow motion. Elsewhere, E.A.S.E. rides a baroque keyboard arrangement over click-clacking typewriter beats. These tracks are crucial early incursions of what would come to be labelled trip hop, even if they would be improved on sharply by NOW with later records like Smoker's Delight and Carboot Soul.
However, A Word Of Science has something those later albums do not: the maddening electronic grooves of its remaining nine tracks, which stretch the pulse of contemporary bleep 'n bass into unexpected shapes and curious rhythms. Crudely put, bleep 'n bass was the British rave sound that immediately preceded ardkore: sourced in U.S. (particularily New York) house and techno, but with an added bass pressure informed by U.K. soundsystem culture. You'd typically get these great brittle, treble-tweaking shards of sound cutting across a booming bottom end, these blank-eyed droning rhythms dished out by crews like Unique 3, Ital Rockers and the Forgemasters.
Warp Records, now a giant in the world of electronic music - particularily of the ambient, experimental variety - got its start caning this sound, with records like Sweet Exorcist's Testone, the Forgemasters' Track With No Name and LFO's LFO. Warp released the epoch-defining debut album by bleep 'n bass luminaries LFO - who enjoy a reputation as something like the Kraftwerk of British techno - in the summer of 1991, with NOW's debut hot on its heels a couple months later.4 Interestingly, these two LPs were the first single-artist, full-length albums to come out on Warp.5, 6
In the austere company of the rest of the early Warp stable, A Word Of Science stands out by virtue of its blunted, hip hop-inflected edges shot through with a rough-hewn, homespun charm. Once again, Peter Shapiro nails it when he says Nightmares On Wax saw Techno as an outgrowth of the funk and hip-hop scenes and approached it with a herbalist's mindset.7 The rolling discoid groove of A Case Of Funk, with that massive geometric bassline riding up against the sides of its percussion loops like a tire on the curb, betrays the duos love of vintage funk with its strikingly organic take on New York house music. In soon-to-be familiar British twist, you can hear the x-factor of that implied breakbeat snaking its way through the rhythm.
Aftermath, a 12" smash from the year prior, famously set this equation in stone, looping a sample of Cuba Gooding Sr. to maddening heights against a backdrop of droning vocals, speaker-shredding hihats, rolling percussion, the occasional electronic flourish and a bassline rising up deep from within. Similar magic is wrought from Biofeedback, with the N.Y.C. Peech Boys sample intoning the track's title over a loping bassline, stop-start percussion loops and a nagging refrain seemingly played on an out-of-tune keyboard.
Dextrous - taken from a 12" released way back in 1989 - represents this sound at its most minimal, riding some detuned synth tones over a spartan rhythm matrix as eerie chords loom on the horizon. It's all so artlessly constructed, yet it truly gets to the heart of the whole machine music enterprise, as if Kraftwerk had surfaced, delirious, at a Leeds warehouse party. The brittle textures of Fun are cut from the same cloth, recalling eighties electro at its most dessicated, while Coming Down (a personal favorite) rides an ultra-repetitive, stop-start and rewind groove that captures the feeling of a helicopter hovering on the horizon as it rises and falls on currents of air. Sal Batardes is yet another crisp, electro-inflected endeavor, with ringing percussion figures that seem to recall the atmosphere of The Imperial Brothers' We Come To Dub. The two-minute sketch B.W.T.M. splits the difference between both sides of the record, running its trilling electro percussion and looped vocal snatches at a downtempo pace.
This is just the sort of record that would have been described as dated in the trend-conscious climate of the late-nineties (when I first heard it), but - like much of my favorite slightly-older music that I scooped up at the time (think Bobby Konders and Todd Terry) - it sounds fresher than ever in the present day. Where most of the big room anthems of that era have by now lost their luster - the overblown sheen rendered absurd by the passage of time - this tough little record really gets down to the heart of the matter, its skeletal rhythm matrix haunted by hieroglyphic ghosts of Sheffield, Detroit and The Bronx, drifting in and out of focus all the time. To borrow the title of their next album, it's a true Smoker's Delight!