As the hours keep turning and the moon hangs deep in the sky, we move toward the back of the crate toward the voodoo records. Here's where we get into the heaviest, most atmospheric music that could loosely be termed punk funk without shimmying into krautrock territory. Word of warning: things are gonna get weird. Escape routes take you everywhere from West Africa to the Caribbean, from Brazil to Indonesia and from Bristol to The Bronx. Far and wide. Today's chapter essentially boils down to three post punk dynasties: The Pop Group/Slits continuum, Material/Bill Laswell and the mighty Public Image Ltd. (and related solo endeavors). All of which - critically - take you well into the nineties and beyond, tributaries cutting a jagged path across the landscape to feed into pockets of industrial, hip hop and technoid innovation leading right up to the present day. But first, let's start at the beginning...
Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box is in essence the the Rosetta Stone of the whole endeavor, a decoder ring of sorts. When you come to terms with the record, suddenly everything else makes sense. Albatross sets the tone with a twenty ton bassline snaking its way through ten minutes of grinding, cavernous funk, followed swiftly by the spidery guitar of the filmic Memories and the return of Death Disco - the group's 12" tour de force - which gets transmuted here into Swan Lake (the guitar at one point mirrors Tchaikovsky's ballet of the same title). In all three Lydon wails like a banshee, Levene splinters his guitar into jagged arcing feedback and Wobble walks his bass across the track like a brontosaurus. The story goes that the trio had been been mainlining on krautrock and Jamaican dub, and it's all in full effect here: the bass towers menacingly at center stage while the guitars often recall Michael Karoli's spidery fretwork on Tago Mago.
Like Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies, Metal Box appears to deconstruct itself before your eyes over the course of its hour-long running time. Tunes like Careering and The Suit are the jaded, staggering flipside to Swan Lake, while Graveyard eschews vocals altogether, staggering zombie-like through the Gothic crypt. Socialist - another instrumental - comes on like the dub version of a straight up punk song circa 1977. Similarily, Chant is another x-ray punk endeavor - maddening in its atonal repetition and refusal to release - while No Birds is the closest thing here to PIL's First Issue and Public Image. The closing1Radio 4 is a drifting synth instrumental anchored only by Wobble's bassline, who also dominates the heavy dub stomp of Poptones.
Out of the three principal malcontents in PIL, Jah Wobble spent the most sustained time in this fertile territory at the intersection of funk and dub. His solo debut Betrayal even used some backing tapes from the PIL sessions (which accordingly got him kicked out of the band) and turned in a worthy successor to Metal Box, with synths and atmospherics taking on an even wider role in the sound this time out (not to mention looser, more nimble rhythms). Blink and you'd swear the vocals in Betrayal - the track - came courtesy of Shaun Ryder! It's a promising beginning to what turned out to be a long and fruitful discography at the nexus of funk and dub.
Two of Wobble's subsequent records were collaborations with Can bassist Holger Czukay that perpetrated further capers in this arena, with Full Circle (also featuring Can's Jaki Liebezeit on drums) boasting the post punk dancefloor classic How Much Are They? (which eerily seems to predict the atmosphere of The Good, The Bad & The Queen record) and Snake Charmer (featuring atmospheric guitar by The Edge of U2 fame!), the latter of which takes matters strikingly close to contemporary electro boogie. And I mean running in parallel, two steps away, too close for comfort. Glenn Close, even. Hold On To Your Dreams, in particular, which features High Fashion's Marcella Allen on vocals, could slot rather comfortably into a set alongside contemporary Ashford & Simpson, Gwen Guthrie and the S.O.S. Band. Conversely, the title track's atmosphere bears an uncanny resemblance to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which is no small praise indeed.
These fourth world vibes turned out to be the lifeblood of the man's output for the next decade plus, where he drew influence from Jamaica, North Africa and even the Celtic music of his own British isles for a series of albums with his new band Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart. This phase of his career will be covered further in the next chapter of Terminal Vibration (where we trace all these threads through the latter half of the decade into the nineties), but Wobble actually got around to issuing the Invaders Of The Heart self-titled debut 12" as early as 1983 (the year of Snakecharmer, in fact). It's an utterly beguiling record - spread across three separate mixes - with Wobble's trademark wall of bass riding a motorik post-disco groove across the Sahara, as trumpet arabesques and sampled wailing vocals weave across its surface. I always loved the way that synth bass comes in at times to echo Wobble's pulsing b-line ever so often. It's all very much in keeping with the Byrne/Eno experiment, especially, but also things like Thomas Leer's 4 Movements and Tony Allen's N.E.P.A. LP. Future music, in other words. With the icon Wobble clearly having a hand on the pulse.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, another bass player was embarking on his own excursion that would carve a similar trail across the post punk landscape. I speak now of Bill Laswell. Laswell was a journeyman bassist who'd cut his teeth in various funk bands around Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan before moving to New York before hooking up with Michael Beinhorn and Fred Maher to form the initial incarnation of Material. The trio got their unlikely start as the backing band for Daevid Allen's twilight-era New York Gong before cutting a trio of EPs for Red Records.2 The band debuted in 1979 with Temporary Music 1, a dense, lo-fi slab of prog-inflected post punk that ran the gamut from On Sadism's mid-tempo punk funk to the Canterbury-esque prog moves of Process/Motion. Temporary Music 2 followed a couple years later with cleaner production and a more spacious mix, boasting the motorik dancefloor moves of Secret Life and Dark Things' foggy post-Bitches Brew atmosphere. American Songs rounded out the trilogy the very same year, with tracks Ciquri - the next in their line of mid-tempo funk tracks - and Discourse, which illustrate the band's comfort with the form (which I suspect - once again - is down to the band's jazz roots). Still, the rockier Slow Murder is almost-new wave in the same way Public Image was. One suspects that they're feeling the spectre of Remain In Light-era Talking Heads throughout.
The band followed these EPs with two albums in quick succession: Memory Serves (1981) and One Down (1982). Memory Serves picks up the thread of rough-and-tumble post punk from the EPs, even bringing back some of the proggy/fusion-tinged flavors of Temporary Music 1. Rollicking punk funk tunes like Memory Serves and Conform To The Rhythm are accompanied by appropriately doomy vocals from Michael Beinhorn (in the former, he almost sounds like an off-the-rails Oingo Boingo-era Danny Elfman), while the abrasive Square Dance manages to surpass the atonality of even Temporary Music 1. Conversely, One Down makes an unanticipated swerve into nearly straight up electroboogie territory. Featuring vocals from the likes of Nona Hendryx (who also worked with the expanded Talking Heads during the same time period), Bernard Fowler (of the N.Y.C. Peech Boys and later Tackhead) and a pre-fame Whitney Houston (on the stately ballad Memories, also featuring Archie Shepp in an uncharacteristically gentle mood), this is very much of-the-moment, state-of-the-art boogie a la Hold On To You Dreams. With Roger Troutman-esque talkboxes dominating the Beinhorn-voiced tracks, the transition is complete. The band even turns in an excellent cover of Sly Stone's Let Me Have It All! Everything here fits squarely alongside the likes of Mtume, Kleeer and the Compass Point records.
Sandwiched between both albums is the Bustin' Out, which found the band moonlighting on ZE Records and makes sense of the band's sudden shift in direction between the two LPs as they thoroughly absorb the label's mutant disco aesthetic3 for some tasty rubberband funk action. At this point, activity from Material essentially halted until the end of the decade while Laswell devoted serious time to his Orange Music studio, working on various projects for Celluloid Records like mid-eighties albums from The Last Poets and Fela Kuti (which sadly don't rival their legendary 70s output), along with the storied five rap records (to be continued).
Like Jah Wobble, Laswell's increasingly global vision continued to expand throughout the the decade, and by the nineties he was mixing up hip hop, funk, dub and African rhythms into a heady stew that were very much apace with post-EnoOcean Of Sound vanguard. Interesting to note Laswell's presence on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts way back in 1981, playing bass on America Is Waiting. Also interesting to note that Brian Eno returned the favor the following year, contributing to One Down's Holding On. Once again, all these seemingly disparate figures rubbing shoulders around this time (roughly 1979-1983), figures like Brian Eno, Fela Kuti, David Byrne, The Last Poets, Afrika Bambaataa and Laswell himself, speak to not only the catholic elasticity of Celluloid's broad-minded setup but also the intoxicating spirit of cross-pollination that hangs over this era like a magenta haze.
As if to prove the point, the Tackhead/Fats Comet organization were beginning to gather steam just as Material went on indefinite hiatus and PIL splintered into a thousand pieces. Interesting that core members of the crew started out in the backing band for Sugar Hill Records, laying the backbone for the early rap classics that surfaced on the label during its heyday before striking out on their own as a 21st century avant funk crew upon meeting On-U Sound-man Adrian Sherwood. One can certainly hear traces of records like New York New York, Scorpio and Message II (Survival) in the DNA of the crew's twisted cyberpunk grooves. Fats Comet's Don't Forget That Beat is a slap-bass fueled, funk-tinged electro workout akin to Hashim's Primrose Path - released the following year - albeit with a groove that rolls at a breakneck pace punctuated by machine gun beatboxes and freewheeling Art Of Noise-esque orchestra stabs. Conversely, Stormy Weather rocks a dynamite go-go beat while an almost-prog/fusion guitar shreds through the groove (and your eardrums), pointing the way forward to the group's next phase as Tackhead.
Tackhead found the crew on Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound and the BPMs were accordingly dialed down to an herbalist's pace, matching the post punk stomp of the Mark Stewart records they played on as The Maffia. Hard-edged downbeat slates like High Ideals And Crazy Dreams and Liberty City (both from Stewart's Jerusalem EP) glimpse a nightmarish vision of dub that prefigured what much of the best trip hop would become.4 It all came to a head on Stewart's third, self-titled LP. Leading with the metallic Survival - where the Maffia gets to revisit their very own Rapper's Delight bassline! - a master class in pulverizing machine riddims and the inimitable wail of Mr. Stewart, it makes the flashes of cyberpunk dread hanging around this crew explicit. In fact, much of the record is built around samples and quotes from other songs - a Trouble Funk breakbeart here, some Billy Idol guitar there, and a Moroder bassline capping it all off - which puts it at the bleeding edge of sound collage right along with hip hop's burgeoning sampladelia. It's nearly as patchwork an affair as something like Tricky's Maxinquaye (which Stewart had a crucial influence on, even producing Aftermath while mentoring young Adrian Thaws). Trip hop dress rehearsals like Forbidden Colour offer up a downbeat cover version of David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto's Forbidden Colours, while Hell Is Empty sounds like the most twisted Close The Door-era Terranova track imaginable. Stranger Than Love even put Smith & Mighty on wax for the first time when they contributed the dub version to its 12" single, making the link between post punk and trip hop Bristol explicit. In retrospect, it's rather fitting that a figure like Stewart would stand at the intersection of both eras, both scenes.
Mark Stewart started out in a little crew that grew up frequenting funk nights together as youngsters - where they'd get down to the sounds of BT Express and The Fatback Band - and reggae at venues like the Bamboo Club.6 It only makes sense that such heady origins would be felt considerably in the band's subsequent recordings as The Pop Group. Their hard funk roots can be heard in deeply warped fashion on The Pop Group's debut LP Y (which actually pre-empted Metal Box by a few months) and the She Is Beyond Good And Evil, which pulses almost subconsciously on a walking bassline while the remainder of the track - especially Stewart's throat-shredding wail - seems to dissolve all around it. Produced by Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell, it sets into motion a particular sensibility that would become the basis for the Y Records7 sound: sparse instrumentation played loose in an aggressively atmospheric soundscape, captured brilliantly with Bovell spacious, three-dimensional, clear as a bell production. Bovell's skill behind the mixing desk pays immediate dividends when the band hangs a left turn into some of their more outre passages (like a vivid snapshot of chaos, where you can nevertheless clearly discern every element in the image). Indeed, there's a considerable free jazz presence in the group's wilder, more abstract passages, which puts them to the left of even PIL. Put simply, one cannot overestimate the centrality of The Pop Group. Along with PIL's music, this is ground zero for post punk's twisted take on funk, a sound that takes you into the nineties and beyond via funk metal and myriad other sounds. In fact, Y's opening track - Thief Of Fire - even sounds like an apocalyptic precursor to The Red Hot Chili Peppers!
The Pop Group followed Y with the We Are All Prostitutes, where Mark Stewart's lyrics grow yet more didactic and political even as the band's groove settles deeper in the pocket. The group's final record, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, was - at the album level - actually more straightforwardly funky than anything that had come before, settling into a watertight post punk boogie that nevertheless retained a healthy dose of chaos in the mix (much of it provided by the ever dependable Stewart, who - much like Iggy Pop during The Stooges era - simply won't be reigned in). It was along these lines that the band ultimately split, with the rest of the group shearing off to form bands like Rip Rig & Panic, Pigbag, Glaxo Babies, Shriekback and Maximum Joy, while Stewart - as discussed earlier - hooked up with Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound setup for that blistering series of records in the mid-eighties.
On the flipside to The Pop Group coin is a band equally central to the post punk story. In many ways, The Slits were something of a sister group to The Pop Group, as both bands dropped similarly unruly, junglistic debut albums within months of each other in 1979 (both of which were produced by Dennis Bovell). Both groups shared a sense of shedding the constraints of civilization and starting from scratch - Back To Nature as Fad Gadget once opined - and in many ways their debut albums came on like field recordings of some as yet undiscovered tribe, in the way that My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and Can's Ethological Forgery Series seemed to conjure up similar images. And just as The Pop Group washed up on Y Records upon departure from Radar, The Slits put out a record on Y after leaving CBS. Appropriately enough, it was the split 7" single In The Beginning There Was Rhythm/Where There's A Will There's A Way: a head to head duel with The Pop Group.
The Slits' debut album Cut was an instant classic, with (once again) perfect production from Dennis Bovell. There was a heavy dub/reggae presence to the record - perhaps moreso than anything else discussed today - with atmospheric reverb wrapped around the band's skeletal, turn on a dime playing. The rhythm of tunes like So Tough and Instant Hit seem to be happening on multiple plains, every note played like a phrase imbued with myriad layers of meaning. The extraordinary thing about The Slits is that even at their most shambolic, they manage to maintain a strong pop sensibility. I'd wager that you could give this album to any fourteen year old and chances are they'd fall in love with it. This strength was explored further on the band's excellent cover version of Motown standard I Heard It Through The Grapevine (on the b-side of the Typical Girls), which remains my absolute favorite version of the tune (just beating out the Gladys Knight & The Pips original). Built on an unlikely bed of vocal humming, it rides the trademark group's skeletal rhythms with a chanted lyric from Ari Up in one of the great not-Disco Not Disco-but-could-have-been moments in post punk.
Return Of The Giant Slits, the group's second and final album found Dennis Bovell behind the boards once again, this time cranking up the atmosphere to distinctly oppressive levels. Now there was a heavier worldbeat presence in evidence throughout, which found the group looking to Africa for inspiration around the same time the likes of Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno were making their own forays into the same territory. The opening song Earthbeat rides furious tribal drumming while the ladies' voices hover disembodied above the whole affair. The remainder of the album shares more of a similarity to the debut, albeit viewed through a murky prism with heavier emphasis on sounds and textures beyond the relatively straightforward bass/guitar/drum setup of the debut. Interesting to note the presence of Neneh Cherry in the group at this point, that strange attractor of British beat music throughout much of the decade, who would go on to have a profound influence on British club music and the sound that would come to be called trip hop.
Once The Pop Group and The Slits had both disbanded, the Y Records aesthetic really begins to be forged in earnest, establishing a loosely played post punk boogie8 seemingly sourced in The Pop Group's tendency to operate at that thin jagged line between order and chaos. In truth, that's the only place to be, where the tension between the two is at its absolute tautest. Depending on which of the label's groups we're talking about, the emphasis falls on one side or the other. To illustrate the point, let's dive into a three-band post-Pop Group sub-section...
Maximum Joy hold court at the less chaotic end of the spectrum, rivalling even The Slits' pop brilliance with their solitary album Station M.X.J.Y.. The crew operated very much at the axis of boogie - in the tradition of ex-punks getting down at the disco - but they managed to do it more convincingly than just about anyone else in the scene. Typically led by the sing song vocals of Janine Rainforth, the tunes would skate nimbly along loose rhythms with an abundance of bright flourishes slipping into the mix. It's a sound that's also evidenced in 12" singles like Stretch and In The Air, records that were practically new pop even as they maintained the rude, shambolic spirit so crucial to post punk's edge. One would expect nothing less from a Y Records outfit.
Interestingly, Bristol mover and shaker Nellee Hooper started out in this crew before blazing a path through the island's hip hop scene to help define the burgeoning UKurban sound that would culminate in trip hop. At this point it makes sense to highlight the considerable lattice of connection going on here today, with the presence of Mark Stewart (as already mentioned) tied into not only Tricky but also Smith & Mighty and The Wild Bunch that would spawn Massive Attack. You can clearly trace a straight line between late seventies Bristol and the nineties Bristol surveyed in Smith & Mighty's Bass Is Maternal, Tricky's Maxinquae and Portishead's Dummy. Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself again; suffice it to say Station M.X.J.Y. just might be the greatest pop record on the Y imprint.
Rip, Rig & Panic, by contrast, dwell at the most chaotic end of the spectrum, conjuring a defiantly post-Miles' On The Corner racket as they worked their way through three albums in as many years (starting in 1981). The band named themselves after a Roland Kirk album from 1965, so you'd be right in expecting the heavy hand of free jazz to hang over the proceedings. Rather fittingly, Neneh Cherry was a key member of this crew upon the disintegration of The Slits. Fittingly because her step-father was the great Don Cherry, whose fourth world-preempting recordings from the Brown Rice era are very much of a piece with what her band were up to here. In fact, if you imagined a more abrasive, atonal version of Don's Hear & Now, then you wouldn't be too far off. Fascinating the way the free wing of jazz often seems to overlap with post punk sonically. Of course, the group did have the occasional almost-pop moment - tunes like Bob Hope Takes Risks and Constant Drudgery Is Harmful To Soul, Spirit & Health that seem to arrive at a post-disco boogie seemingly by accident - but their hearts quite clearly lie in the abstract. This is a tangled, untamed music that strains at the label post punk, threatening to double back and break into the seventies for proper account alongside the likes of Miles Davis, Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders.
Lying somewhere between the chaos of Rip Rig & Panic and Maximum Joy's glossy sheen is the beloved Pigbag, a band that managed to blend the searing post-Miles brass of the latter with the dancefloor dexterity of the former. The band's debut single, Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag, even climbed to #3 in the UK! Rocking a frenetic post-disco rhythm replete with furious percussion and a looming bassline, the band seem to offer up a nightmare version of Madness' ska with tight-as-a-drum horn charts ruling the tune even as spectral brass creeps in and out of the mix. Throughout the band's three year tenure - overlapping perfectly with that of Rip Rig & Panic - Pigbag managed to consistently run down some spooky voodoo on wax. Dr. Heckle And Mr. Jive - from the debut album of the same name - launched drowning arcs of eerie brass across a nagging bassline and rolling percussion, while the uptempo Getting Up placed the band's horn charts front and center over furious percussion and chicken-scratch guitar while holding down a pulsing 4/4 rhythm. Like Maximum Joy, the band can play it remarkably straight and go for the dancefloor jugular, yet at a moment's notice they can veer off into leftfield with dense, oppressive atmospherics that rival that of Rip Rig & Panic.
The final crew in the mix today is 23 Skidoo, which I've appropriately only revealed just now. While not a Y Records band, they were fellow travellers exploring a densely atmospheric fourth world vision. The band came crashing into the public consciousness with The Gospel Comes To New Guinea, a ten-minute slab of churning, murky post punk funk. Group chants and strange woodwinds fade in and out of the fog as the band seem to pound out their beat at the other end of the cave. This is 23 Skidoo clearly taking the field recording ethos of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts to its logical conclusion. The band's debut LP Seven Songs found them alternating between the droning atmospherics of New Testament and the relatively straight up funk of Vegas El Bandito, but it was the closing Quiet Pillage9 that pointed the way forward to the band's next obsession: Indonesian gamelan music.10
The Culling Is Coming was the band's second LP, and the debut's occasional funk had given way to pure, shadowy atmosphere. The opening G-2 Contemplation launched straight into the first of the band's explorations into gamelan music, a sound they interpret as deeply in thrall to the strange. At times reminiscent of the more nebulous portions of the Third Ear Band's Music For Macbeth, it could just as easily score the eeriest moments of Fellini's Satyricon. Tone poems like Shrine and Mahakala are like being lost in the fog of a deserted temple, while the closing Healing (For The Strong) reveals that the temple wasn't deserted after all! In essence, the record prefigures what would come to be called dark ambient years later, about as far from the dancefloor as could be.
Which makes the about face of Coup all the more astonishing. Turning up on a non-LP 12" later that year, it was the band's greatest pop moment. After two bars of the band's crispest drum beat yet, Sketch Martin drops that bassline into the mix before horn charts sweep in to carry the melody. I say that bassline because it was later resurrected by The Chemical Brothers fifteen years later for their epochal big beat classic, Block Rockin' Beats, which came crashing into the charts in 1997. Meanwhile, the flipside's Version (In The Palace) feeds Coup through the cold machinery of dub.
The band's final album - Urban Gamelan - featured a new version of Coup titled F.U.G.I. and a couple more moments of low slung funk, but it was mostly devoted to the band's atonal gamelan symphonies. Like I said, the exit routes from today's music shoots you out all over the globe, and that pan-global vision was one of its greatest strengths. In the decades to come, 23 Skidoo's music was actually rather well curated. At the turn of the century, their album were reissued on the heels of the band's self-titled reunion album just as the post punk revival was starting to gather steam. On second thought, reunion might be a bit of a misnomer. As the Just Like Everybody compilation proved, the band had been far from dormant. Rounding up two discs worth of unreleased nineties material, it showcased some of what the band had generated while loitering in dance music's shadowy back alley... the same back alley where all manner of post punk figures were lurking throughout the decade.
You see, the band played on...
1. Note that the original triple 12" record was designed to be played in any order, so the tracklist I'm using is the one delineated by the Second Edition reissue (after all, that's how I encountered this record in the first place, stateside brother that I am).
2. These three EPs are handily compiled on the relatively easy to find Secret Life anthology.
3. In fact, the band managed to contribute a song to all three volumes of the Disco Not Disco series, which essentially enshrined the mutant disco sound. If I'm memory serves, they were the only artist to do so.
4. Put simply, twisted hip hop staggering down the back alley in a desperate state, its mind warped on unkind substances and unhealthy emotion. But that's another story for another series, which I'll delve into further at a later date.
Promotional sticker for the New Boots And Panties!! LP release (1977).1
My birthday was last Friday and my wonderful sister-in-law Leah happened to be in town for the festivities. She gave me this excellent anthology of punk-era communiqué from various broadsheet publications, promotional materials, posters and the like. The above image is taken from a two-page spread near the middle of the book, which in a timely bit of synchronicity links up with the other day's post per its coverage of the late great Ian Dury. This reproduction of a 1977 promo sticker spun me around as I was flipping through the book and - since I couldn't find anything about it online - I figured I'd scan it up here (with just a splash of color) for your viewing pleasure.
Here is the book in question, Punk Press: Rebel Rock In The Underground Press 1968-1980:
Which is a veritable treasure trove of proto-punk/punk/post-punk text and imagery - vibes for days - featuring figures ranging from The Knickerbockers and William Burroughs to The Clash and Iggy Pop to Suicide and Clock DVA, while publications like In The City, Zigzag, Sniffin' Glue, NME and Metal Hurlant. Like a said, a real treasure trove! Thanks again to Leah who - despite being tempted to keep the book for herself(!) - was kind enough to contribute it to the Parallax Library for posterity. Images from within will no doubt surface here from time to time as we continue this little post punk excursion in the months to come. In the meantime, Hit me with your rhythm stick and groove to some Ian Dury & The Blockheads.2
Right now, this old man's gotta take a breather...
1. Vincent Bernière and Mariel Primois, Punk Press: Rebel Rock In The Underground Press 1968-1980 (Abrams, 2012), 70-71.
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 veryJamaica, Queens jazz/funk/boogie, and before you know it (1984) you've got a record like Life's A Scream, killer dance pop on the order of INXS or - once again - Level 42 that takes you into the glitz of the era's overground nightclubs. Moonwalking in neon. With those triggered oof, oof vocals - straight out of the electro playbook - A Certain Ratio have wandered into the disco even more convincingly than Gang Of Four managed around the same time.
However, if there were one band that could boogie with the best of them, it was surely Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick has that cruising city streets at night groovy thang going... in fact, the backing track could practically fit right in there on Off The Wall (with the chorus sounding not unlike Jermaine Jackson's Erucu)! Only Ian's conversational Midlands lead vocals - think Mike Skinner in The Streets - and Davey Payne's wild sax solo give this away as something other, conjuring up images of The Blockheads grooving immaculate on some cramped, smoke-bathed stage in a ramshackle seaside pub out in Essex.
Debut album New Boots And Panties!! is an absolute treasure, with the nimble bedroom funk of Wake Up And Make Love With Me setting things off on a drifting mirage of rhythm before following up with more skewed boogie in the shape of If I Was With A Woman and I'm Partial To Your Abracadabra (there are even a few undisclosed moments of straight up punk tacked onto the end to boot!). The key to The Blockheads' seemingly natural grasp of funk dynamics - this in 1977, a full year before even Adolescent Sex - must surely be their jazz chops. Indeed, I have a Steely Dan documentary on the making of Aja that features Ian Dury as a frequent commentator, and one could almost read the band's sound as an outgrowth of the band's dancefloor sides like Peg and The Fez. Perhaps not totally accurate, but an interesting thought nonetheless.
Of course Ian Dury ended up writing himself into the Compass Point story a few years later with Lord Upminster, which was recorded in Nassau with Sly & Robbie and features the excellent Paradise Garage staple Spasticus (Autisticus). Like Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, it hinges on the axis of silky smooth verse juxtaposed against abrasive chorus, 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 2006,10Step Off and Keep On Moving respectively, which were solid records in their own right.
My favorite ESG record, however, is 1983's Come Away With ESG. It's an album-length statement, which means you get to experience the girls' sound in 3D stretched over a cozy 30 minutes. Kicking off with the bluesy tumble of Come Away staggering down some shadowy back alley, the record turns up plenty of uptempo punk funk like Dance, You Make No Sense and The Beat, in which loping bass grooves interlock with rather tactile drums as terse lyrics are chanted over the top. The rushing Chistelle even brings in an eerie guitar line - which appears to get reversed every so often, Detroit techno style - as wind/synth effects creep in and out of the mix, while About You rocks a midtempo groove with the thinnest proto-g-funk synth line imaginable. Of course, there's also the matter of Moody (Spaced Out), a dancefloor version of the original (from their debut EP) which sports a tougher groove and massive synth effects simmering throughout like the soundscapes of Yar's Revenge.
Finally, there's one last New York band I'd like to touch on, and that's the Bush Tetras. While they only put out one 7" on 99 Records (their other two records came out on Fetish), they fit the label's aesthetic perfectly. Tunes like Too Many Creeps and Snakes Crawl consist of composite drum/bass/guitar parts that all interlock into ultra-tight grooves captured with vivid clarity. Cynthia Sley's vocals often recall Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's spoken parts on the early B-52's records. The brisk turn in Cowboys In Africa (from the Rituals EP) comes on like The Cramps gone funky, while the dubbed out Rituals closes the record on a downbeat note with ragged rockabilly shapes that would fit right into the Repo Man soundtrack. The Things That Go Boom In The Night (the group's final record) tightens up the groove again but this time with a slightly heavier guitar attack - more distortion! - while the b-side Das Ah Riot runs a mad phased guitar part through the track in such a way that seems to tie all three of the group's records together.
Jumping back across the Atlantic for a moment, it's worth noting the Bush Tetras theoretical cousins - and Gang Of Four's sister band - the Delta 5. They debuted in 1979 with the Mind Your Own Business/Now That You're Gone, a conceptual interrogation of relationship dynamics over clockwork straight jacket funk rhythms. The band turned out a series of 7" singles that further developed their taut punk funk sound, even introducing a horn section on Colour, which ultimately culminated in the See The Whirl LP (which I haven't heard). The Singles & Sessions 1979-81 compilation, which I do have, rounds up all the group's singles and augments them with some BBC sessions for good measure.
If the Delta 5 and Gang Of Four represented punk funk at its most jittery in the UK, then the Minutemen cranked things up to a whole other amphetamine-fueled level out in L.A. The group's records are absolutely steeped in sun-baked L.A. atmosphere, in the same way that War's The World Is A Ghetto evoked 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.
1. In fact, the band were initially inspired to form by New York band Defunkt, who we will return to shortly...
2. A cornerstone of the band's early sound, Slovak was the Chili Peppers' original guitarist until 1988, when he died of a heroin overdose. He was replaced by the beloved John Frusciante on the Mother's Milk album.
3.Cliff Martinez was later replaced by Will Ferrell lookalike Chad Smith on the band's fourth album, Mother's Milk.
4. Indeed, during the post punk revival gold rush, it seemed like every band and their dog was claiming influence from the record!
5. Unsurprisingly, these two tracks were Hard's contributions to their best of round up, A Brief History Of The 20th Century.
6. I remember being quite impressed when Woebot included them in his Top 100, which was actually my introduction to his writing in the first place (thanks to a timely link from Simon Reynolds). I distinctly remember being ensconced in the heady atmosphere of the 1808 in the dead of Winter and reading down the list with delight: first Ryuichi Sakamoto, A.R. Kane and then A Certain Ratio and Mark Stewart + Maffia and thinking this is the best list ever!
7.Mick Middles, From Joy Division To New Order (Virgin Books, 1996), 128-129.
8. In fact, I once mixed Black Box Disco into a Moodymann track and it came off like the most natural thing in the world.
9. Check out the charts at the end of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster, where one finds tunes like Liquid Liquid's Cavern and ESG's Moody tucked comfortably in the lists for not only Larry Levan's Paradise Garage, but also Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse, Ron Hardy's Music Box and The Roxy. It's a testament to not only these records' utility on the dancefloor, or even the open-minded turntable policy of the clubs themselves, but the fluidity of the era's music across the dancefloors of the day. It all sounded good together in the mix and thus shared the same space in time. And what a time it was!
10. There was also a great compilation of the band's original material (A South Bronx Story) released at the dawn of the 21st century.
TV4 Rockers Revenge
A Certain RatioFlight (Factory)
ESGMoody (Spaced Out) (99)
VortexBlack Box Disco (Neutral)
Ian Dury And The BlockheadsHit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (Stiff)
Two years ago, when Kayli was staying at the Parallax Room, I put together this little mix in the spirit of the moment. Summer was dawning, the heat was rising and the palms was swaying, so the time seemed right for a little Compass Point action. Parallax Pier was born, and it became the seventh Cheap Hotel release, seeming as it did to flow naturally from The Clash At The Edge Of Forever compilation. I was all set to upload this mix way back in December but there seemed to be something wrong with the idea of putting such sunny music out there in the dead of winter! This is summertime music, pure and simple, post-disco music with gulf stream tendencies (linking New York to the Caribbean, the Black Ark to the Paradise Garage). This is music born from the place where the ocean meets the shore, hence the compilation's central theme.
Over the last decade or so, there's been lots of ink spilled on the yacht phenomenon - put crudely, canyon folk and jazz artists getting down with a light disco groove in the mid-seventies onward (see Crosby, Stills & Nash's Dark Star, Pablo Cruise's Love Will Find A Way, Steely Dan's Hey Nineteen, etc.). There's even a yacht cover band making the rounds locally! Of course there's loads of great music that's been mined from this seam, but the sound I'm discussing at the moment is a very different phenomenon.
If yacht is muted pastel shades, sports jackets and boat shoes (think Carly Simon at Martha's Vineyard), this music is all vibrant colors, Hawaiian shirts and worn sneakers (inna Club Paradise stylee). This is the sound of post punk new wave going to the beach, the vibes and production techniques of Jamaican dub and Afrobeat creeping their way into the pop charts, the post-disco wave breaking on the shore and pulling back into the sunset to reveal all manner of ocean life dancing in the sand. This compilation captures this very select strain of tropical boogie that just so happens to encompass some of the greatest music of its era. Its spiritual home was Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas and on the dancefloor at the Paradise Garage, and its spectre lived on in the output of leftfield house labels like Nu Groove, Warriors Dance and Jumpin' & Pumpin'.
Slye and I have mixed the original compilation into a non-stop excursion through the coastal vibrations of the Parallax Pier. Apologies for a few of the more ramshackle transitions... please bear in mind that the original compilation's sequencing was planned without the mix in mind! Simply click the play button below to listen...
... and we're off!
Burning SensationsBelly Of The Whale (Capitol, 1983)
Pushing off with this slab of calypso-inflected new wave from LA, we find that the Parallax Pier is not a million miles removed from Club Paradise. Discovered this only recently thanks to a Pops-initiated endeavor in which we were scouring the 91xTop 91 songs by year, looking for forgotten gems that he'd dug back in the day. At first you think it's just another zany new wave trifle but then that gorgeous climax hits you like a wave crashing on the shore. Apparently lead singer Tim McGovern re-recorded the song very recently, which is available for download...
Eddy GrantElectric Avenue (ICE, 1982)
Surely everyone knows Eddy Grant's electro-tinged post-disco evergreen? Gloriously warped sonix prevail and yet that beat is locked down inna grid Devo-stylee. I've long had a fascination with Grant and his whole ICE setup, the Coach House Rhythm Section, Time Warp and so on. His records predict the spirit of Compass Point more explicitly than just about anything else I can think of (with certain exceptions to follow!).
The original plan was to include Walking On Sunshine - the opening track to his 1978 album of the same name (which also features the excellent Living On The Frontline/The Frontline Symphony suite) - instead, but ultimately figured that Electric Avenue's production was a tighter fit with the rest of the music here. Still, it's something to consider for the inevitable second volume...
Cloud OneFlying High (Heavenly Star, 1982)
Crisp, immaculately arranged electronic post-disco action from the great Patrick Adams and Peter Brown. Five years on from Atmosphere Strut, this takes that record's gaussian-blurred psychedelia into the eighties with those same trademark synths writhing against an electroid bassline and geometric percussion patterns while an uncredited vocalist intones the title over and over and over. I've always wanted a copy of Don't Let This Rainbow Pass Me By - the midpoint between both records - but have yet to come across it in the field.
I'm often intrigued by Brown's Heavenly Star imprint, which dealt not only in excellent post-disco boogie but also the sounds of early hip hop. Catching my eye as I was thumbing through Freddy Fresh's The Rap Records1 some time ago, I only recently noticed that the label put out a remix 12" of Spoonie Gee's Spoonie Rap, my absolute favorite first-wave seventies rap record.
The PoliceVoices Inside My Head (A&M, 1980)
Big chant! Sting echoes the track's title (and not much more) over his own twisting bassline while Andy Sumners cloaks everything in chiming guitars, Stewart Copeland holding everything down with his inimitable presence behind the drum kit. This was big on dancefloors of the era (along with the Common Sense cover version), indeed its gulf stream vibes seem to epitomize the sort of freewheeling exotic moods and grooves you might find at the Paradise Garage at the time. The track's durable rhythm managed to weave itself into the very fabric of post-disco music in the ensuing years, from hip hop (Chill Rob G) to house (KC Flightt) and even r&b (702 featuring Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott).
Grace JonesPull Up To The Bumper (Island, 1981)
The Compass Point All Stars are all over Grace Jones' Island trilogy. This peerlessly engineered rubberband post-punk disco is from Nightclubbing, the second record in the trilogy and a documented Parallax favorite. I've gone on at great length about the Compass Point All Stars before - what I really ought to do is gather all of this content into a feature - but suffice it to say that they are the The Funk Brothers of this whole sound (that is, the key element in this story).
Only recently discovered the ultra-vibey music video, featuring a be-suited Jones doing her thing as Blade Runner-esque cityscapes cycle past in the background. Needless to say, Ms. Jones is a thoroughly fascinating character. I've been looking forward to reading her recently-published autobiography, I'll Never Write My Memoirs, as soon as I get my hands on it.
MadonnaLa Isla Bonita (Sire, 1986)
Along with the Jellybean Benitez-helmed Holiday and Into The Groove, my favorite Madonna tune. Maybe the first hint of her later direction, heralded by the conceptual Like A Prayer LP, which marked her out as a permanent institution in the pop marketplace. The production maybe not quite as fabulous as its surroundings here, it's nevertheless a sumptuous, wistful reverie.
Nu ShoozI Can't Wait (Atlantic, 1986)
Killer electro pop. I remember loving this one at the time - it dropped not long before my second trip to Puerto Rico as a kid - and I'll forever associate it with what was a very special time in my life. Nu Shooz were a husband/wife duo from Portland, Oregon. Nevertheless, they managed to capture perfectly the hot fun in the summertime atmosphere: palm trees swaying in the breeze as seagulls circle above, swimming pool reflections dancing off every surface (appropriately, the album is titled Poolside) as the sun settles on the horizon.
Big Audio DynamiteA Party (Columbia, 1985)
More dawn of sampling bizzness from Mick Jones and co. Curiously in thrall to the nascent digital dancehall. I've always loved the drum sound throughout this album, but especially in both the electroid Sudden Impact! and this track, which are from it's under-explored second side (all the hits are from the first). Especially cool how Jones chants the lyrics for the first 3/4 of the song's running time before Don Letts drops in to reiterate the selfsame story in rapid-fire ragga chat, squeezing it all into the last fourth before Leo Williams emerges with the baritone response.
Note the presence of Paul "Groucho" Smykle behind the boards, in the midst of his excellent eighties run engineering everything from reggae slates like Gregory Isaacs' Night Nurse (Discomix) and Derrick Harriott's Dub Whip to the post punk disco three-way of Jah Wobble/The Edge/Holger Czukay's Snake Charmer 12", a killer remix of Ja Funmi by juju icon King Sunny Adé and Wally Badarou's sterling mid-eighties work.
Case in point this sublime bit of low key, rolling synth-boogie. Just casually brilliant post-disco magic brought to you by Compass Point's key(board) man, taken from his excellent Echoes LP (which also features Mambo, the basis for Massive Attack's Daydreaming. The 12" version - which I reckon is one of the key records of the decade - is even better (but runs just a bit too long for the purposes of this compilation), featuring Groucho himself behind the boards yet again.
Gwen GuthriePadlock (Garage, 1983)
More Compass Point magic from post-disco chanteuse Gwen Guthrie, this EP of the same name came out on Garage Records (Larry Levan's label associated with the Paradise Garage) alongside N.Y.C. Peech Boys and the Black Mamba record. Levan stretches out five of Guthrie's tracks and dubs them to abstraction, Gwen's voice resplendent throughout, inhabiting her environment like a queen in a crystal palace. One of the great kiss-off tracks, I always love it when Gwen sings You blew it, you blew it, you blew it! just before the chorus hits.
Tom Tom ClubUnder The Boardwalk (Island, 1981)
With Tina on holiday from the Talking Heads, the Weymouth sisters - with Chris Frantz in tow - get down at Compass Point with the All Stars and turn out one of the great girl group records of the era2 (the self-titled debut). This single, a cover of The Drifters' perennial favorite, followed hot on its heels and wrought the same magic from all parties involved.
Billy IdolCongo Man (Chrysalis, 1982)
Offbeat coda to the original version of Billy Idol's solo debut, which was replaced by Generation X's Dancing With Myself for the US release. Maybe not as earth-shattering as that hit new wave record, but with Idol chanting nonsense over a dubbed-out conga rhythm for about a minute - bringing to mind Iggy Pop's awesome Jungle Man - it's certainly a strange bit of something special.
The English BeatAckee 1 2 3 (Go-Feet, 1982)
The group's debut, I Just Can't Stop It, was so exceedingly brilliant that their follow up albums couldn't help but pale in comparison. This track, however - from their swansong Special Beat Service - is the equal of anything on the debut, seemingly drawing from soca, highlife and South African jive to work up an utterly infectious slice of new wave dance pop. A great song to dance to.
Orchestra MakassyMambo Bado (Virgin, 1982)
Sparkling soukous from Tanzania. From their excellent Agwaya LP, which was among the first African records that I ever owned. The band shifts and turns like clockwork over a wonderful 4/4 pulse, liquid bass propelling from within and driving the whole thing relentlessly forward. Apparently this track also had a 12" release at the time. Band leader Remmy Ongala went on to have a solo career later in the decade, hooking up with Real World for a couple albums.
Haircut One HundredFavourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl) (Arista, 1982)
This was another one that came to light in the Pops-helmed excavation of 91x's old yearly charts. I'd always heard the name and assumed they were synth pop in the vein of Heaven 17, rather than the glittering indie-pop contemporaries of Aztec Camera and Orange Juice that they turned out to be. I djed and my old room mate's wedding a few years back and when my set was over I threw this album on and everyone jumped into the hotel pool, still dressed to the nines. It's A Wonderful Life at The Pearl!
Third WorldNow That We Found Love (Island, 1978)
Incredibly lush and verdant disco-inflected reggae. Like much of Eddy Grant's seventies output, this sounds just preposterously, stupidly ahead of its time. If you played this for me in the late-nineties, I would have guessed it had come out something like five years earlier in the decade. Of course, it's from 1978. A shimmering reggae cover version of The O'Jays' standard, stretched out to nearly eight minutes, its pulsing 4/4 beat and liquid organ-tinged groove is effortlessly propulsive.
CrashersFlight To Jamaica (Cool Runings) (Capo Disco, 1981)
Bringing it all back home is Crashers' island-tinged post-disco chestnut Flight To Jamaica (Cool Runings). Like nearly everything else here, that central groove is just exquisite, rolling along at a lazy mid-tempo as the uncredited vocalists moonwalk across its surface with their soaring refrain. Those sun-glazed ARP strings and shimmering melodica stylings are just the icing on the cake. Features the immortal line, I'm so cool, I'm about to... freeze! Which, come to think of it, just about sums up this whole affair to a T...
With all apologies to the artists that were ultimately excluded, not due to quality but CD running time constraints and the very particular vibe that coalesced around the selection:
Thomas Leer, Dinosaur L, Billy Ocean, Sheila E., Rockers Revenge, Affinity, Ian Dury, Talking Heads, Liquid Liquid, FSOL, Sam Mangwana, Happy Mondays, King Sunny Adé & His African Beats, Open House, Joe Gibbs, Men At Work, Bobby Konders, Ashford & Simpson, Bang The Party, Lola, The Clash, Central Line, No Smoke & The Mali Singers, Carlton, Arthur Russell, Marianne Faithfull, Robert Palmer, Lizzy Mercier Descloux and The Teardrop Explodes.
Some of which will most likely be making an appearance when the inevitable Volume Two rolls around...
1. Freddy Fresh, The Rap Records (1st Edition) (Howlin', 2004), 97.
2. No mean feat, considering the likes of the Bangles, the Go-Go's, Klymaxx, The Pointer Sisters, Bananarama, the Mary Jane Girls, Vanity 6, ESG and The Slits were all plying their trade around the same time.
My wife called me Monday morning with the news. I just found out that David Bowie died. I could hear in her voice that she was on the verge of tears. I didn't know what to say. The man was just too monumental, a mythic figure in his own time - in our time. He couldn't be gone. How do you even process that... where do you begin?
So you look back for a moment, reflecting on the past and a man's life that's now set in stone, every deed done. Emerging from the tail end of the sixties dream with a song about Major Tom, he strolled into the public consciousness... a place he never relinquished. He made a splash as a genuine rock star in the early seventies, an era - more than any other - when that truly meant something. He moved through faces and phases like Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke, larger than life, pushing the envelope of society's constraints and sounding phenomenal in the process (Suffragette City, Cracked Actor, She Shook Me Cold... does rock 'n roll get any better?).
Life in that kaleidoscope of fortune and fame is disorienting at the best of times, and as the decade wore on it became clear that these were no longer the best of times... not by a long shot. Stardom dropped him on that square that's taken so many under, and the dream gradually became a nightmare. In the murk of the mid-seventies he wrestled his share of demons, brushes with madness and worse. One listen to Word On A Wing and you hear a man at the end of his rope, searching for a path and pleading with the heavens that he might somehow live on. He gazed toward Europe and saw a way.
Making haste for Château d'Hérouville in France, Bowie slowly began to rebuild. Days spent pondering Where to next?, writing new songs and gathering strength. Then, he hooked up with Iggy Pop and made way for Berlin. They immersed themselves in the city, soaking up the Europe endlessness of Neu! and Kraftwerk (on whose behalf, one night, they instigated a five-minute standing ovation). The plan was for the both of them to clean up for good and maybe record an album. Enter one Brian Eno, and you've got the recipe for magic.
Those sessions dove headfirst into pure sound and drew the blueprint for the future, generating a staggering amount of material within the space of just one year. Visionary records like Low and "Heroes", paired with Pop's The Idiot and Lust For Life, all emerged from this fertile period. Even Eno's Before And After Science is cut from the same cloth. All of a piece. The sparkling kosmische horizons of Low seemed to give a sunset wave to the seventies, while the cold robotics of "Heroes" signalled the dawn of the eighties. It was still 1977, and they were already showing us the future.
With the turn of the decade that future finally arrived, and Bowie sashayed into the new wave an elder statesman... he was 33. Through the looking glass of abstraction he emerged a bigger star than ever and found a home in the ever changing present. From Let's Dance to Earthling to Blackstar, he always seemed to tap into something new and fascinating on his extraordinary journey. Always two steps ahead of us, and always doing his own thing.
But now he's gone. He's gone and there's nothing I can say to comfort my wife on the other end of the telephone. I'm keeping it together, maybe feeling a bit numb, but trying to focus on all of the extraordinary things that he managed to achieve. He was the godfather of nearly everything I treasure in music, and he meant the world to me. I never knew the man, but in my lifetime, he always seemed to radiate an elegant grace; humble yet assured, a gentleman gliding through the world as if he were still Ziggy Stardust, only older and wiser and better, because he was the real thing. He was out there somewhere just doing his thing, at home in the world. Today that's probably what hurts the most.
There's nothing left to do for now but hole up together, put on Station To Station and turn up the volume, let the bassdrum kick you in the chest, melodica drifting out toward the heavens. Europe endless. Word On A Wing and Wild Is The Wind hit even harder than usual today, maybe more than ever. Then you play another record, "Heroes", perhaps. Then another, and another, and another. Maybe you watch The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Prestige. On a day like today, there isn't much else you can do but remember the man. So that's what we did.
And in that moment he's still out there, someplace you've never been, still just doing his thing. Always doing his own thing.
It's been five years since I last did a Radio AG mixtape. This one is from a couple weeks back, and has been making the rounds in the Heights ever since. I thought I'd offer it up here just like old times. The idea is an aural representation of winter.
From Clint Eastwood's seventies espionage thriller (also starring George Kennedy and Vonetta McGee). Winter music, pure and simple. This always makes me think of Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto De Aranjuez. I wouldn't be surprised if John Williams had been listening closely.
Led ZeppelinFriends (Atlantic)
On the right day my favorite Led Zeppelin song. Robert Plant bobs and weaves through the rhythm laid down by John Bonham's congas and Jimmy Page's cascading guitar, massive strings droning on the horizon (John Paul Jones is the man with the plan). Like an alternate soundtrack to John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King, this is an immense music that seems to chronicle vast regions laid out beyond the Khyber Pass.
DelkomSuperjack (Orbital Infusion 2000) (WAU! Mr. Modo)
Two German Latinos! Always loved this deranged groove from the salad days of ambient house. First heard this on The Orb's Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty Part 2, purchased on the back of the stellar first volume that I'd picked up in Puerto Rico earlier that year (when it was still relatively difficult to find). Excellent music, but something seemed to have gone awry in the mastering: clipping as far as the eye could see! Scouring the bins through the years, I eventually crossed paths with the original 12".
MekonSkool's Out (featuring Schoolly D) (Wall Of Sound)
Schoolly D never really got the production he deserved in the nineties (where the Kool G Rap treatment would have served him well). This phenomenal guest spot, from Mekon's Welcome To Tackletown LP, will have to suffice. Back in the day, I remember wishing that there was more crossover between hip hop and the big beat massive (whereas at the time it was increasingly on a sixties rock tip): MCs rocking rock hard backing tracks. Well, here's a textbook example of what I was looking for.
Arco IrisEs Nuestra La Libertad (RCA Vik)
Soaring psych from Argentina. Rock Nacional remains one of the great unsung scenes in the rock pantheon, standing shoulder to shoulder with West Coast sixties psychedelia and often expanding on that foundation. I once saw this incredible video, which still seems to be available on Youtube, of this crew performing live in 1972 at (if I'm not mistaken) the Buenos Aires Rock Festival. Ripe for rediscovery.
Gwen McCraeIt Keeps On Raining (Cat)
From her red hot self-titled debut. Later re-released as Rockin' Chair, so named for the excellent single of the same name that was added to the record (unfortunately at the expense of the scorching Your Love Is Worse Than A Cold Love). This one's not even the best track on the album, but that Rain, Rain, Rain, Rain! bridge is an amazing bit of vocal compression.
Palm GroveTwilight Run (Platos)
New school techno. Perhaps even some shades of swingbeat thrown into the mix? This makes me think of some saturated, technicolor version of the movie π. I couldn't tell you the slightest thing about Palm Grove, but I do dig this sort of thing.
Orlando VoornFind A Way (Subwax Excursions)
Orlando Voorn's resurgence in 2013 caught me completely off guard with this record (housed in a beautiful Abdul Haqq sleeve), which is quite simply a masterpiece of "big room" techno. I totally fell in love with this tech jazz breakout, the Martin Luther King/Marvin Gaye samples rendered doubly moving in the context of current events.
Hands down the best album of last year, yet I didn't see it make a single end-of-year list. Tunes seemingly worked up from pure atmosphere. I've been kicking around a more in-depth piece on this record that should make an appearance in the near future. The spectre of trip hop hangs heavy over this particular tune, with that creaking door threaded through the beat a particularly inspired touch.
Joe Gibbs & The ProfessionalsIdlers Rest (Joe Gibbs)
Proto-digidub. From 1977! This track is simply amazing. Future shock music, sounding as if it were beamed back in time from the present day. Amorphous, off kilter synths skate across a rock hard dub riddim. From the second chapter of the excellent African Dub All-Mighty series, Joe Gibbs' phenomenal run of conceptual dub LPs from the late seventies.
RadioheadSubterranean Homesick Alien (Parlophone)
Johnny Greenwoodis the controller! Heh heh, always meant to pick that one up. This was a huge record for me in high school (Paranoid Android? Climbing Up The Walls?? Incredible!), even if I was a little disappointed it wasn't even more electronic than it turned out to be. You could really sense, as early as The Bends, that this group was poised to plunge into the deep end (and a 1997 Kid A would have served me just fine). In retrospect though, this is a really special record, and fit the era perfectly. This tune's crystalline zero-gravity guitar spires and soundtrack to dislocation are practically a manifesto-in-miniature for the band's whole enterprise.
EurythmicsHere Comes The Rain Again (RCA Victor)
The idea for this transition came to me in a December mix that I made for Sari a couple months back, the unspoken goal of which was to channel my teenage self when putting it together. So please forgive me if I reflect on those years a bit too much in this breakdown... it's been on my mind! This and the last song played back to back, plus the entirety of Underworld's Dirty Epic, tell you everything you need to know. I've always thought this tune was even better than the epochal Sweet Dreams, existing as an elegant, melancholy cousin to that tune's nasty android disco. There's also an excellent alternate version on the Lily Was Here soundtrack.
LBAshes To Ashes (Digital Spacepop Replicant) (KK)
Bowie cover version by Uwe Schmidt aka Atom Heart aka Señor Coconut aka etc. etc. etc. From Pop Artificielle, a whole album of cyborg cover versions. Hard to believe this came out as early as 1998, prefiguring as it does the next decade-plus of pop music.
TrickyBonnie & Clyde (Studio !K7)
From the truly excellent False Idols, Tricky's second most recent full-length. I think this is also his second best record after Maxinquaye, and it's a much tighter race between the two than you would think. If I were a teenager coming up nowadays I'd probably like it even better. A drastically different record though, spare and stark compared to Maxinquaye's blunted psychedelia.
Ann PeeblesBeing Here With You (Hi)
Her excellent run of seventies records are the sister to Al Green's. A lazy comparison perhaps, but so apt. Both were released on Hi Records and carry the storied hallmarks of Willie Mitchell's warm, lush production.
PieceFree Your Mind (Past) (Planet E)
Carl Craig's hip hop record, a downbeat cousin to his 69 output. I first heard this on the Intergalactic Beats compilation, an exceptional selection of techno from the early days of Planet E. For me, a Back To Mine record.
Kind of a recent one. This album blew me away when I first heard it, making me flash on things I grew up with like A.R. Kane and The Hurting by Tears For Fears. This particular beat might be the warmest on the record, and I could swear the instrumental shares a bit of vibe with Another Green World. I'm jealous of people who were 15 when this dropped.
Peter GabrielGames Without Frontiers (Charisma)
This tune's cut from the same cloth. I've often thought the first four untitled Peter Gabriel records continued the good work Eno, Bowie and Pop did in Berlin. This is another one from my youth: back in the day I could point to it and say this is the sort of stuff I was into. It even sounds like a 90's record, proto-trip hop or even a certain shade of r&b, Gabriel basically raps the lyrics. The guitars here cut shapes out of atonal noise rather than anything approaching a melody, and Kate Bush on the hook (I got into her music through this tune) sounds sublime as usual.
Gypsum 5Hewn From Seastone (Tensile)
Just a tiny shard of isolationism from this quintet from up in the mountains, dragging everything down to a crawl with what sounds like a lonely TR-505 rhythm.
Timbaland tearing it up on the back of a Portishead sample. R&B, trip hop and rap... at the time, I heard a lot of this stuff in the same way: as heavy atmospheric music, often with a dread shadow hanging over the proceedings. It was all of a piece, and I'd offer up this sharp little tune as Exhibit A.
Kris KristoffersonCasey's Last Ride (Monument)
Outlaw country from the storied songwriter's first LP, a stone cold classic. Dead end music, keeping the dread fires burning strong, this tune is a runaway train that rides a booming beat off the rails and into the darkness.
The ByrdsBad Night At The Whiskey (Columbia)
The MKII Byrds are so underrated. They could sometimes be a sloppy bunch, but they'd nearly always make it worth your while by veering out into leftfield. Case in point, this song is perfect. Perfect! That slow motion breakbeat! I've never before heard a better aural representation of being totally, hopelessly wasted, stumbling through a room's chaos as if submerged underwater. This and Willie Nelson's Whiskey River both epitomize this aural hallucination I've often had when driving out beyond Ramona and into they valley of Santa Ysabel of a krautrock-inflected form of country music.
Chris Corner's first solo shot after the dissolution of the Sneaker Pimps. One of today's great unsung vocalists, coming on like some unlikely fusion of Marc Almond (in sound) and Scott Walker (in spirit). The later Sneaker Pimps records were already growing darker, but his solo material really took a turn. Just unhealthy music, you want to grab a blanket and take the man in from the rain... although I can't say I haven't felt this way for a good chunk of my own life. This tune would easily make a shortlist of my favorite songs of the century (so far).
And a bit of dialogue from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. There were two great moments in this relatively sub-par film: when Kirk says I've always known that I would die alone, and this one (I need my pain!).
Monumental krautrock. Bringing it all back home. Another alternate soundtrack proposal, this time to Il Grande Silenzio. This is massive, widescreen music, blazing its way through ice-covered mountains and over bottomless chasms. You're crawling through the snow, blizzard cutting straight through you. There's nothing left, you feel as if you couldn't press on any further, but you dig deep within, and...