With this, Love's fourth album, we move deeper still into the canyon. In fact, this was actually the very last record to be cut from the original Canyon 25, not on the basis of quality but because it exists just that little bit too far inside acid rock territory to fit in with the down-home 25. Still, even if it does exist just outside the boundaries of what constitutes canyon proper, it truly is a phenomenal, unique record, more than worthy of our attention in the context of this excursion.
It also works as a perfect transition into the final chapter of the Two Weeks In The Canyon saga: what will be a sort of mirror image 25, a selection of records from the other side of the canyon. That feature should be appearing here sometime later next week, so stay tuned. In the meantime, let us dig into this particular Love story and see where it takes us...
Led by the late great psychedelic visionary Arthur Lee, Love started out as one of the original folk rock combos (alongside fellow Angelenos The Byrds), turning in their self-titled debut in early 1966 (right in between The Byrds' Turn! Turn! Turn! and Fifth Dimension). It was a solid, garage-tinged record that nevertheless found the band still heavily indebted to their influences, most obviously The Byrds first and foremost but also British invasion bands like The Animals and The Who.
The band's chief songwriters — Lee and Bryan MacLean — were still finding their respective voices at this point, relying more heavily on cover versions — songs like Hey Joe (by folk singer Billy Roberts) and Bacharach/David's My Little Red Book — than they ever would again. It wasn't until the following year, on their sophomore album Da Capo, that the band began to carve out territory that was truly their own... and it turned out to be a world that no one else in rock had yet dreamed of.
Da Capo features another shot of the band in front of that same stone structure found on their debut (taken in the gardens of their communal home, which they dubbed The Castle), but its sound was a quantum leap from everything they'd done up to that point. Perhaps most notorious for the psychotic slab of garage punk called Seven & Seven Is, an excursion into warped surf rock (spiked with the distinct flavor of Ravel's Bolero) that would later appear on the epochal Nuggets box set. To this day, it remains one of the most extreme examples of sixties punk.
However, the real shape of things to come was to be found in the intricate arrangements of songs like Orange Skies (written by MacLean, it's the one song not credited Lee) and ¡Que Vida!. Replete with swirling organs, flutes and the distinct colorings of baroque pop, they found the band using the studio to their full advantage in creating songs with unique colorings firmly outside the bounds of straight ahead rock 'n roll. This was an approach that would of course come to full fruition later that year...
Released a mere nine months after Da Capo, Forever Changes — often considered one of the finest albums of all time — is the record that really put them in the history books. At this point, the band developed a mastery of incorporating orchestral elements like strings and brass into the very fabric of their (by this point) extremely distinctive folk rock style. Tunes like A House Is Not A Motel sound like the blueprint for all the best indie rock about twenty years before the fact, haunted by the definitive guitar sound that Johnny Echols conjures up on his six-string.
Nimble, breakbeat-propelled excursions like Alone Again Or and Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale are graceful in a way seldom heard in rock up to that point, cementing the record's status as a deservedly acknowledged classic. Without giving too much away, its boundless reach into regions beyond the typical folk rock and country forms will inform the next and final chapter of the whole canyon saga, where we dive into the more jazz and orchestral-inflected waters on the other side of L.A. — with routes stretching into jazz, psychedelia, hard rock and beyond — of which Forever Changes arguably stands at the apex.
And yet, after the record's release, the band ultimately parted ways. The reasons were many, including substance abuse problems within the band and friction between Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean (who was frustrated at not having more of his songs on the record). Forever Changes was also much more successful a record in the U.K. than it ever was in the States, where it was destined to gradually attain its status as a lost classic over time. Ultimately, MacLean left the group and Lee, discontent, dismissed the rest of the band. After recording a masterpiece, Lee found himself in the wilderness and in need of a new crew to run with.
It was at this point that he formed a completely new band, rounded out by Jay Donnellan on guitar, Frank Fayad on bass and George Suranovich on drums. Love MK. II got down to business in a converted L.A. warehouse, cutting three LPs worth of sun-baked high desert rock 'n roll in a series of marathon sessions. Four Sail was the first album culled from those sessions, and the band's final with Elektra (the remainder of the recordings would appear on the double-LP Out Here, released by Blue Thumb).
Starting from the cover photo and its iconic western imagery, which perfectly matches the acid country sounds found within, this record finds the newly minted Love operating as a looser and more free-wheeling outfit than Lee's previous band. His new circle of musicians also tended towards a harder, more blues-based approach, and he wisely met them halfway. Lee described writing songs around the new band, giving individual members space to express themselves musically, accounting for the change in direction toward a harder, more down-to-earth sound.
The band's liquid interplay defines the record, their turn-on-a-dime rhythmic theatrics kicking up a ramshackle glory with all the makings of a great cowboy movie. This is what you always wanted The Grateful Dead to sound like. Still, there's a lot of ground covered on Four Sail. Despite the swaggering bluster to this record's more turbulent theatrics, there's nevertheless some quietly intimate corners it manages to spend a considerable amount of time in. In short, it's a tour de force, and one certainly that deserves a second look here at Parallax Moves...
The record opens with the sort of trademark cyclical folk rock strum that one has grown to expect from Love, sounding like a dead ringer for what would one day be called alternative. Then, Jay Donnellan's acid-tinged guitar line rises on the crest of a machine gun rhythm from George Suranovich, heralding the record's masterful melding of musical forms with the blistering August. This is a place where country and folk, hard rock, sunshine pop and jazz all mix with wild abandon.
After slipping into a gently tumbling verse from Arthur Lee — his bittersweet paean to the month of August itself — the acid motif returns, serving as a wordless chorus as the guitars spar with scattershot snare riddims. At the tune's midpoint, it all drops back into that cyclical guitar pattern once again before collapsing into a violent eruption of Donnellan's acid guitar pyrotechnics through the tectonic plates of the track's rolling folk and country stylings, unveiling the new band's more hard-edged attack in full force. Indeed, Donnellan's guitars define this record.
It's all gloriously cinematic, you can practically see the dust being kicked up by the horses as the gang rides into town. This is every kid's cowboy movie fantasies writ large in sonic form. There's a controlled fury to the band's blasts of noise that keys into the sort of abstract blues that bands like the Groundhogs had just begun to explore, the band trading their liquid mercury lines with near-telepathic interplay. When everything goes into overdrive at the tune's halfway mark — the band jamming furiously in a cascading pile-up of throbbing bass, crashing drums and Donnellan's acid-drenched guitars — it's like you're riding directly into a sandstorm. And then, without warning, it all ends on the same fanfare it rode in on.
Without missing a beat, the band drops into Your Friend And Mine - Neil's Song a jaunty quasi-music hall number that recalls The Lovin' Spoonful's winning sunshine folk ditties like Best Friend and Lovin' You (see also Hot Tuna and The Kinks circa Muswell Hillbillies). Even Arthur Lee's lyrics sound like they're straight out of John Sebastian's playbook:
Only you can bring back the good old days.
Let's hear it again for a long lost friend.
Here's a little something to relax your mind
Now that we are two of a kind, my friend.
Donnellan's guitar carves out a little good time, country-inflected guitar line that runs through the entirety of the tune, occasionally creeping into the foreground for a playful kind of solo. The whole thing so brilliantly casual, tossed off even, making it a lovely playpen for Lee's vocals to wander after the blistering intensity of August.
It's not until the third song that we get something like the prototypical Love song. Sounding like a dead ringer for the original band's peak-era sound, I'm With You would have fit right in there on Forever Changes. It directly mirrors the quickstep approach of such prime material as Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale and A House Is Not A Motel, albeit with the overcast, baroque stylings of Forever Changes replaced with a sun-glazed blurriness.
Truly, it seems like no one else can pull this sort of thing off. Nimbly perched breakbeats carry the song's soaring trajectory as guitars seem to twist and turn on eight different planes, cymbals splashing up against the chorus like little waves as Lee recreates the horn section of Forever Changes himself with a wordless ba ba ba, ba ba-ba ba vocal. Simply sublime. It's worth noting one thing that isn't mentioned enough when discussing this band: Lee's vocals, which effortlessly veer between sweet falsetto, rich croon and mountain man roar (often in the space of a single song), and are some of the finest to be found in rock music.
Good Times creeps in out of nowhere on a jazzy shuffle, not unlike the one found in Simon And Garfunkel's Somewhere They Can't Find Me, albeit swinging a good deal harder. The guitars seem submerged in the mix before getting overdriven through a wah-wah pedal in the chorus, warping the entire groove and driving up the tension before rising into another one of Donnellan's linchpin solos. Nevertheless, Lee's vocals, switching as they do between the gentle grace of the smooth, cool cat verses and ragged rock 'n roll chorus (and back again), are the true star of the show.
Opening with a ringing guitar fanfare underpinned by more of those trademark Suranovich rolling drums, Singing Cowboy seems to kick up a dust cloud with its galloping beat riding roughshod over Four Sail's halfway mark. This tune in particular really cements the record's unique feel, along with my idea of it as that rare thing: an acid country record, utterly distinctive and worthy of praise in its own right (and not just a footnote to Forever Changes). Lee's lyrics seem to bear this out:
It's do or die, boy.
Say goodbye, don't you cry
Look out kid, I'm coming after you.
Iconic words that brilliantly match the sonic imagery conjured up by the band, bringing to mind some unprecedented fusion of Ennio Morricone and Gordon Lightfoot. The bridge is classic Love, featuring a descending three-stab guitar riff that on second return explodes into another burnt bronze Donnellan solo. This leads naturally into the track's protracted denouement (which incidentally takes up the second half of its five minute running length) throughout which Lee keeps chanting coming through to you and gotta keep on rolling on as Frank Fayad's massive churning bassline takes center stage.
Side two opens with Dream, a listless take on the more whimsical corners of Love's sound. Lee confesses I just woke up from a dream and the band perfectly captures that bleary-eyed dislocation of waking up in a place you don't remember being. One's reminded of the moping, exhausted feeling of The Beatles' I'm So Tired, rendered here with the benefit of a killer proto-hip hop be bop drum break. Donnellan drops another one of his secret weapon guitar solos, this one a likkle bit contemplative and searching (and seemingly copied in part by Oasis on Champagne Supernova!). The band seems to gather its last bit of energy to go into cowboy fanfare mode again for the dismount, before collapsing completely.
Surely spelling doom on the horizon, Robert Montgomery — the other big rocker here — opens with a razor blade guitar riff before Donnellan weaves his wrought iron lines across a twisted foundation of tortured bass and cymbal-splashing drums. This song isn't actually about the actor, but an autobiographical account of Lee returning to his old neighborhood to find that all the people that used to laugh at his proto-hippie style had by then jumped on the bandwagon. Sounding like he's clawing his way out from another bad dream, Lee unfurls a tale of lonely dislocation:
Robert Montgomery lived on the good side of town.
He went down to the people that he used to know, but they had changed
And though they looked different they still were the same...
It's like one of Ray Davies character studies rendered with shades of the apocalypse. Every note played, every drum crash, every stinging guitar line, seems to close in around Lee's soaring falsetto, matching his every move in a staggering dance of doom. Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, the track becomes a launching pad for some spiraling guitar work from Donnellan, but dark horse Frank Fayad rides in with some killer licks of his own, scrawled out in molten script at the rumbling low end.
The searching Nothing is something like the mirror image of Dream, only the cyclical folk tension of its verses find sweet release in the soaring chorus, a constellation of glistening stardust guitar and fathoms deep bass underpinned by crashing drums breaking out in a nimble display of gentle fury. Once again, Suranovich anchors the tune with his expertly splashy drumming, as he has consistently throughout the record (with the exception of tracks two through four, which are handled more tautly and controlled by The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown's Drachen Theaker).
Perhaps appropriately for a song called Nothing, there's a zen-like calm to the proceedings that seem to roll in and out with the tide. I often flash on Skip Spence's album closing Grey/Afro, with which it shares the same sense of stargazing shapes caught in a frieze of eternity while expanding rhythms drift in and out of focus. Whoa! It's all quite cosmic, and a secret ancestor to the sizzling post rock of Main, Flying Saucer Attack and Disco Inferno.
While we're on the subject of Skip Spence, Four Sail's penultimate track Talking In My Sleep comes on like a slightly more upbeat take on the cowboy songs found on Oar. What might at first seem like a boneyard throwaway adds a key bit of levity to the record's heavy home stretch (just as Neil's Song had to side one), with Lee modulating his vocals down an octave in humorous fashion and then back up to a falsetto over the tune's gently chugging rhythm. It always cracks me up how Lee sings talking in my slee-ee-eep! Of course it all breaks off into another acid country jam carried by Donnellan's razor wire guitar a couple times before the song is through, which I suppose we'd be disappointed if it didn't!
Always See Your Face closes the record out on a third and final whimsical note, albeit with a strong bittersweet aftertaste this time. This song has always struck me as predicting the sound of Rodriguez's Cold Fact (specifically songs like Forget It and Jane S. Piddy), with the pretty sting of its uncomplicated guitar melody underpinned by the added flourish of a chamber horn arrangement. Lee's sparse lyrics quite poignant in this context:
Won't somebody please
Help me with my miseries.
Can't somebody see, yeah
What this world has done to me.
And I know I know
And I say, oh, I say
That no matter where you go,
I will always see your face.
He's echoed by Donnellan's casually unfurled guitar solo at the song's midpoint, which sounds just something you might have heard on record decades later in the mid-nineties. It's the perfect signature etched onto a weary, accepting conclusion to this record's unspoken song cycle: a tragic epilogue to this cowboy movie of the mind.
And then it's all over... or is it? As mentioned earlier, the following double-album Out Here is a sprawling collection of 17 songs cut from the same cloth (the same sessions, in fact), and it makes a welcome companion piece to this record. This same band (minus Donnellan) turned in one more record — 1970's False Start — even roping in Hendrix on guitar for one song. And yet Four Sail is the cream of the crop, the peak of Love's Indian summer and a singular work that sounds like little else around (if at all, and even then only in bits and pieces).
I'll even go so far as to contend that it bests much of the San Francisco scene at its own game. I mean, I'll love them till the day I die, but Jefferson Airplane never made an LP this front-to-back consistent, this sharply focused. It plays like a brilliant short story, a no-nonsense filmic excursion that nevertheless manages to stay true to the band's garage punk roots (especially since, in essence, it was recorded in a garage!). One could read it as a precursor to something like Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, with its ramshackle widescreen epics, even as it makes undeniable future moves that call to mind The Mighty Groundhogs.
Then there's that undeniable sense of gravity found in the entirety of this record, an unforced sense of portent and mystery that manages to happen naturally as it unfolds. One can see why Jim Morrison had been an avowed fan of the group, dating all the way back to their early years. In fact, Four Sail even predicts The Doors dusty back to the roots blues rock moves on Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman by a whole year. Coincidence? I wonder...
At any rate, this is a crucial record down at the Parallax Room for similar reasons. On Four Sail, Love strike a perfect balance between spontaneous jamming and mapped-out arrangement, never getting bogged down in interminable solos even as they remain thoroughly unpredictable throughout. In a year like 1969 (the year of Woodstock, after all), that's no mean feat. And in the context of the canyon, it serves as the perfect segue between Laurel Canyon proper and where we'll be going next...
Music from the canyon played a large part in my musical youth by virtue of my Dad's formidable record collection. I remember hearing things like the Eagles, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and Loggins & Messina — alongside canyon-adjacent figures like Jim Croce, Simon And Garfunkel, Cat Stevens and Gordon Lightfoot — in heavy rotation, particularly on rainy days. Pops worked construction, and since rain meant his job site was too wet to pour concrete, he'd have the rare day off and often spend the early morning chilling in the living room listening to records. To this day, much of that music reminds me of stormy days staying home sick from school.1
However, my true way in came sometime later, when I first heard the records of Van Morrison and The Byrds (circa 2003). My initial trajectory took me from trip hop and techno through jazz, funk and soul (peppered with new wave, naturally) into this music. It was the next stop. Needless to say, it made a huge impression. I have distinct memories of running after dark in the dead of winter, descending the hill above my old high school to the triumphant strains of Van Dyke Parks' organ solo at the climax of 5 D (Fifth Dimension). My mind also turns to digging trenches in the early summer morning while Astral Weeks swirled around me on the morning mist, the clank of my pickaxe striking the ground in time to the music.
This exposure sent me off searching deeper into the extended canyon scene by way of The Byrds' various tributaries: Gene Clark, Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Flying Burrito Bros, alongside other canonical figures like Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Neil Young. I remember hiking around Mission Trails in the aftermath of the great Cedar Fire (2003) — nothing but great hills of ash left in its wake and not a soul in sight — with all of this music alongside CCR, Dylan, Cash and the rootsy Stones records ringing in my headphones. I also remember the sight of those great rolling hills slowly coming back to life in the long months to follow, a spectacle that remains inextricably linked with this soundtrack whenever I reflect on my memories of the era.
Fast-forward to about a month ago. Sari and her sister Leah get to talking about canyon folk, and they start working out what is canyon and what isn't canyon. After all, some of the best canyon records aren't from Laurel Canyon at all, and some figures actually from the canyon aren't remotely canyon-esque in sound.2
Confused yet? Well, it gets worse. There's also the timeframe to consider: too early and you're dealing with straight up folk (Judy Collins, Fred Neil, Buffy Saint-Marie, et. al.); too late and you veer into yacht territory (as purveyed by figures like Ned Doheny and Steely Dan). The sweet spot is right there in the middle... that's where the canyon lies.
The Laurel Canyon scene was defined by a coterie of singer-songwriters to emerge from L.A. as the sixties turned to the seventies: figures like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The heart of this scene was found in Laurel Canyon (located in the hills rising to the east above Los Angeles), where various refugees from sixties bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Mamas & The Papas had retreated to get back to basics after the blazing phantasmagoria of the 1960s. Along with The Beatles' The White Album and The Rolling Stones' run of rootsy records starting with Beggars Banquet, this was part of a broader back to the roots project in the culture, a retreat from the Icarus heights of acid rock and psychedelia future shock into the comforting, sepia-toned mystique of the past.
With a few notable exceptions, the Laurel Canyon people's roots were in folk and its subsequent plugging into the electrical grid by one Bob Dylan. Records like Bringing It All Back Home and Richard & Mimi Farina's Reflections In A Crystal Wind sprung from well outside the canyon scene but were nevertheless a crucial influence upon it, blending as they did straight folk with shades of rock 'n roll while the arrangements became increasingly ornate and sophisticated. Critically, this is also the point when the more declamatory style of folk singing gets softened into something far more intimate.
Bands like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield ran with these innovations across a stretch of great folk rock records, records like Mr. Tambourine Man and Buffalo Springfield, paralleling Dylan's own forays into rock 'n roll best exemplified by Highway 61 Revisited. Coincidentally, all three figures gradually injected the crucial ingredient of country into their sound — culminating in Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Last Time Around and The Basement Tapes, respectively — at just the moment that psychedelia's luster had started to wane. And at that point, there was no turning back...
Gram Parsons often gets the credit for bringing country to the canyon, but the truth is far more complicated. Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri (incidentally the town where my maternal grandfather was from as well), The Byrds' Gene Clark famously grew up listening to Hank Williams records, while band-mate Chris Hillman shared a similar affinity with the form. One need look no further than the band's 1965 sophomore album Turn! Turn! Turn!, which features a cover of Jack Rhodes and Joe "Red" Hayes' Satisfied Mind, possibly the first example of country rock on the ground. The Beatles even covered Buck Owens on Help!Linda Ronstadt — who had been a fixture of the L.A. scene since its infancy in the mid-sixties with her group The Stone Poneys — was also firmly rooted in country, with a well-documented passion for covering old warhorses like Crazy and I Still Miss Someone.
It's at this axis of folk and country that the canyon sound happens, with the warm afterglow of the 1960s still felt between the lines of its rootsy sway. The sound is typically mellow, albeit occasionally spiked with more than a hint of darkness (after all, it was the dawn of the 1970s). Elements of Delta blues and jazz sometimes can be felt as well (especially the latter). Listening to a whole brace of these records over the past month, it became clear that jazz was nearly as important a contagion as rock and country on the burgeoning folk scene. In fact, the latter might be the crucial ingredient in synthesizing the whole yacht rock phenomenon, just as country had been for canyon.
All of which (in a round about way) brings me back to this protracted canyon discussion between Sari, Leah and myself.
In the process of working through the canyon ideal, we each decided to put together a little list of our top 25 canyon albums. We even had a little party and put on presentations while Leah was in town, the whole nine! Well, that was a lot of fun certainly (Sari and Leah's lists were incredible), and I even got turned onto a bunch of great records — especially recent ones — that I hadn't yet heard before. So I've got some serious listening to do, which is always a great place to be.
In the spirit of this whole endeavor, I figured I'd post the director's cut of my own list up here to kick off a little Laurel Canyon mini-series. It's an early autumn thing, seen. If I'm not mistaken, Sari and Leah will be posting theirs up as well in the near future. Don't worry, I'll extend a link their way when the time comes. I should note that I'm setting aside the entirety of British/Celtic folk for the moment (even Van Morrison!), which obviously could sustain an entire list of its own. Maybe next time! Today, it's a strictly canyon affair...
So without any further ado, this here list is the culmination of my roughly 15 year journey through this music since first getting hooked up with Astral Weeks and Mr. Tambourine Man way back in 2003. Regulators, mount up!
The Canyon 25
I can think of no better introduction to the canyon than The Mamas & The Papas. The third album from the canyon's first family, Deliver features the intricate arrangements of John Phillips reaching their peak (even if their debut still beats it on the songwriting front). The focus on lush production and Michelle Phillips' ethereal vocals mark it out as canyon-esque, pointing the way toward what would become the dominant sound in L.A. in the coming decade.
Strictly speaking, this is actually proto-canyon: emerging as it does just in time for the Summer Of Love, it mostly lacks the confessional nature of the singer-songwriters. In truth, I almost included John Phillips' country-tinged solo album instead. Ultimately, I see Deliver as a crucial building block in the whole canyon enterprise, veering away as it does from earlier British invasion influences toward a sort of folk-inflected chamber pop. One could even read The Mamas as the midpoint between The Beach Boys and CSN. Shoot me down, but I hear it!
Kicking off with their definitive take on The Shirelles' Dedicated To The One I Love, the group also trade verses on Creeque Alley, a Lovin' Spoonful-style folk stomper that namechecks John Sebastian's gang in an autobiographical hootenanny laying out The Mamas' origin story in detail (both groups rubbed shoulders in the Greenwich Village folk scene). Also of note is the strung-out version of Twist And Shout, which remains my all-time favorite version of the song, beating out The Beatles and even The Isleys' original.
The founder of the feast gets down to business in Nashville, breaking down the walls once and for all between the rockers and the good ol' boys with some tasty country rock action. The culmination of his Basement Tapes sessions with The Band, this finds Dylangoing to the source, so to speak. The previous year's John Wesley Harding may be the more consistent record, but the highs on Nashville Skyline are so sublime that one can't help but be won over by their rustic charm.
The sumptuous production and Dylan's unexpectedly soothing year vacation from smoking vocals are a special treat, especially in the moving rendition of Girl From The North Country (originally from 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan), featuring a duet with the great Johnny Cash. The key to this record's charm lies is its unfussy, lived-in character. This is a million miles away from the stark dust bowl portraits of Blowin' In The Wind and A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall! In fact, Peaceful Easy Feeling might be the best way to describe songs like One More Night and I Threw It All Away.
In fact, it's almost too easy! This feels like a setup... definitely a setup. We need something weird, right away... our survival might just depend on it.
Ah yes, this fits the bill! Kinda obscure, but not really. Spirit were rising stars at the turn of the decade (Led Zeppelin even opened for them early on), generating a lot of buzz in the burgeoning rock press at the time even if they were largely forgotten by classic rock radio over the ensuing decades. That's a whole class of band right there,3 isn't it, bands that made the charts and appeared on American Bandstand or Top Of The Pops but ultimately got beveled away from mainstream consciousness by the passage of time. Such a shame! Surely oldies stations would have benefited from spicing up their rotation a little with songs like Uncle Jack and Fresh-Garbage? I suppose there's always Radio AG!
At any rate, this lot dealt in a sort of jazz-inflected art rock — shot through with a strong dose of folk and country — that was L.A. to its core. You can hear echoes of The Byrds, Love and even David Axelrod in multifaceted excursions like Mechanical World, Straight Arrow and Gramophone Man (later sampled by fellow Californian Peanut Butter Wolf!), where the band cycle through these ever-changing movements with a turn-on-a-dime precision that prefigures the rise of progressive rock. The melody of Taurus was even lifted by Jimmy Page two years later for the opening to Stairway To Heaven!
Post-techno country folk by Scottish chanteuse Dorothy Allison. Starting out in the dream pop group One Dove, she later went solo even as she continued to regularly collaborate with groups like Death In Vegas and Slam (which is how I first found out about her, incidentally, on Alien Radio's sublime Visions). Her wispy vocals were instantly recognizable no matter the context, and it was only a matter of time before I picked up her first record (and then her second, when it came out).
This was her third, coming five long years after We Are Science (my favorite thing she's done),4 and its dreamy Appalachian balladry couldn't be further from Science's electropop stylings if it had sprung directly from the grooves of Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music. I remember once hearing Andrew Weatherall compare it to Gene Clark at the time, and sure enough songs like Sunset and Quicksand seem to resurrect ghosts of the sessions for White Light and The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark.
It's worth noting that this album perfectly distills the spirit of Death In Vegas' Scorpio Rising most canyon-esque moments (Help Yourself and Killing Smile) into a potent album-length statement. I really wanted to include Scorpio Rising in this list, steeped as it is in a sort of sweeping desert mythology, but like Kenneth Anger's film of the same name, it's just that little bit too preoccupied with leather/Velvets imagery to qualify for the down-home Canyon 25. Next!
The Lovin' Spoonful were the playful other to The Byrds' heavy folk rock trip, with John Sebastian's breezy tunes perfectly capturing the more wistful currents of the times. Sunshine pop, to a man. This record finds them at their absolute rootsiest, bigging up country music in Nashville Cats, perfecting their springtime folk pop in Lovin' You and Darlin' Companion, and even predicting the canyon sound in the gentle shades of Rain On The Roof and Coconut Grove (thus facilitating David Lee Roth's solo turn twenty years later!).
Another proto-canyon moment (and East Coast to boot), I nevertheless could not in good conscience exclude it. Factoring as they do into The Mamas & The Papas' origin-story showcase Creeque Alley, The Lovin' Spoonful were a crucial agent in buttoning down folk and loosening it up a little for the good times, and nowhere more than on Hums. In the reissue liner notes, R.E.M.'s resident music historian Peter Buck even names Zal Yanovsky his favorite guitarist of the 1960s. Good man!
Against all odds, The City Of Angels happened to have their very own Rolling Stones in Lowell George's outfit, a band that drunkenly ran roughshod across the canyon scene for the duration of the 1970s like they were The Clash. Outlaw bizzness in full effect! Much like The Clash, Little Feat were increasingly influenced by the sounds of New Orleans r&b as their career progressed, but their anomalous debut was a different story altogether. Riding westward on the strung-out sounds of country rock, this plays like the blueprint for Exile On Main St. and Sticky Fingers.
Rootsy rock 'n roll jams like Strawberry Flats and Snakes On Everything play like FM staples beamed in from a parallel dimension, while the gritty stomp of Forty Four Blues/How Many More Years offers up some of the dirtiest blues you could ask for. Then, Lowell turns around to tear out your heart with Willin' — featuring the exceptional slide guitar of Ry Cooder — a sparse, deeply soulful bit of country balladry. Any and all fans of "roots-era" Stones (roughly speaking 1968-1974) owe it to themselves to hear this one.
The square root of P.J. Harvey, Ellen McIlwaine comes on like a one-woman Led Zeppelin. The first side of the album (recorded live at The Bitter End in New York) largely features blues workouts showcasing her virtuoso slide-guitar work. Tunes like the breakneck Toe Hold and a cover of Up From The Skies (originally by her old pal Jimi Hendrix) make a virtue of their stripped-down arrangements, while Losing You is naught more than a slide-guitar frenzy that would make Tony McPhee proud. She even ropes in salsa legend Candido Camero on congas for Pinebo My Story.
The second side plays like an extended trip through the mountains, with the early morning balladry of Can't Find My Way Home kicking off the travelogue. Like side one's Weird Of Hermiston, it keys into the same mystical folk vibes that Zep did on tracks like That's The Way and (rather appropriately) Going To California. Then, out of nowhere comes a cover version of Kitty Wells' It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, done as a straight up Nashville number heavily indebted to the great Loretta Lynn. Lord have mercy!
In which Morrison & co. reinvent themselves as a hard blues band, beating all contemporary blues-boom merchants (with the exception of Beefheart and the Groundhogs) at their own game. Heavy-hitting numbers like Waiting For The Sun and Maggie M'Gill appeal to the part of me that wants to pudge out like Marlon Brando and sort of go about town dressed in a straw hat and off-white suit, looking — as my man Snakes once put it when describing The Score to me — like I had a washing machine stashed in my shirt.
However, it's gentle reveries like Blue Sunday and Indian Summer that run parallel to what was happening in the canyon, albeit with a strong dose of sun-glazed psychedelia mixed in for good measure. Perhaps the most controversial entry here, I nevertheless find it to be of a piece with the self-titled debuts of Little Feat and Crazy Horse. In fact, to my mind these three records form a loose trilogy, embodying as they do the sound of an L.A. before the steel and glass and concrete took over. It's a reminder that beneath it all, beneath the roads and the sidewalks and the skyscrapers, one still finds the parched earth of a desert stretching westward to meet the sea.
The bad Beach Boy gets down with some tasty post-Surf's Up canyon pop action, turning in a stone cold masterpiece at a time when his band was at its lowest ebb. This is manna from heaven for fans of Wilson's idiosyncratic songwriting found on late-60s/early-70s Beach Boys records like 20/20 and Sunflower (particularly things like Slip On Through and Be With Me). Needless to say there are plenty of Wilson's trademark malfunktioning bleeps and skewed synth flourishes in evidence throughout.
Playing like a cloudy day at the beach, towering ditties like River Song and Dreamer sound just like the churning waters of the Pacific Ocean, while near-ambient works like Thoughts Of You and Farewell My Friend play with great washes of oceanic sound in such a way that would make his brother Brian proud. In fact, it's the sad-eyed other to some of The Beach Boys' absolute finest moments. As one might expect, that evocative cover speaks volumes about the raggedly soulful sounds contained within...
Randy Newman's sophomore album sidesteps the intricate orchestration of his debut to fuse his New Orleans roots with the quintessential sound of the canyon, tackled head on in a dream jam session featuring canyon stalwarts like Ry Cooder and various Byrds (Clarence White and Gene Parsons) in attendance. The stylistic détente turns out to be the perfect setting for Newman's caustic tales of various burnouts, stalkers, losers (and more!), sounding unlike anything else in the man's extensive discography.
More than any other record here, 12 Songs maintains a strong foundation in the blues. Songs like Suzanne and Lucinda conjure up a bluesy swagger festooned with Ry Cooder's deliciously atmospheric slide guitar, while Have You Seen My Baby and Mama Told Me Not To Come recall peak-era Ray Charles. There are plenty of surprises in store as well (Old Kentucky Home even offers up a sneaky bit of bluegrass), while songs like Underneath The Harlem Moon and Yellow Man are quintessential Newman.
Notoriously hard-to-impress rock critic Robert Christgau called it a perfect album, and true enough, there's not another one quite like it.
Sure, this out-of-time masterpiece may have been the Rosetta Stone of alt. country, but it manages to transcend the confines of its own scene to stand shoulder to shoulder with the classics of the genre. Everyone knows the band's revelatory re-imagining of The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane, but also check their stunning take on Blue Moon, a reading that for my money tops even the storied Elvis Presley and Billie Holiday versions.
Factor in dark, bluesy numbers like I Don't Get It and Working On A Building (sounding like nothing so much as Spirit Of Eden-era Talk Talk), and you've got an out-of-time masterpiece that paradoxically could have only happened in the late eighties.
J.J. Cale's low slung slacker blues, in tune as it is with the canyon, remains utterly in a universe of its own. Naturally was Cale's debut, recorded on a shoestring in light of the apparent fact that everyone seemed to be covering his songs. Cale made a virtue of his meager resources, utilizing rhythm boxes and a Gaussian-blurred, lo-fi aesthetic that gives the whole affair a hazy, dreamlike quality. Songs like Crying Eyes and River Runs Deep seem to emerge naturally from the sunset sound of songbirds and crickets when you're fishing down at the creek.
I once played this album for my Dad, who was blown away by the contents but remarked how would you ever think to check out a record with that cover? To which I replied, how could I not?! True enough, the sleeve is a perfect representation of the backwoods country blues sounds found within, where Cale fashions oft-covered songs like Call Me The Breeze and After Midnight into their definitive versions.
Not my favorite Byrds record, but undeniably brilliant nonetheless. The Notorious Byrd Brothers plays like a sprawling vision of American roots music, juxtaposing state-of-the-art country rock like Wasn't Born To Follow with the lush folk pop of Carole King's Goin' Back and David Crosby's Tribal Gathering (which offers a glimpse of what he'd be up to with CSN in but a few months). Taken as a whole, it all marks this out as The Byrds' definitive proto-canyon moment.
Of course, they couldn't neglect their status as pioneering space rockers (see Fifth Dimension), with Chris Hillman turning in the peerless Natural Harmony and Roger McGuinn commemorating the Apollo 11 moon landing with Space Odyssey (both of which feature cameos by McGuinn's newly-purchased Moog synthesizer). Natural Harmony in particular sounds like something The Beta Band might have come up with at the peak of their powers.
Fusing aspects of jazz, Broadway, folk and the blues, Phoebe Snow was the quintessential New Yorker who nevertheless had a strong sonic affinity with the canyon. Her gentle urban folk — with its plush, velvet-cushioned production — is the cosmopolitan flipside to L.A.'s earthy nature boy reveries. At times, one can even hear pre-echoes of Tracy Chapman in her extraordinary no-nonsense approach to deeply personal songwriting.
Boundless in the most subtle of ways, her self-titled debut opens with Good Times, featuring unmistakable shades of The Beach Boys, before following immediately with the impossibly intimate cool jazz (that other West Coast touchstone) torch song Harpo's Blues. The hit single Poetry Man would be the perfect Laurel Canyon song if only it weren't from the wrong coast. Beyond that, all sorts of surprises are in store, including unexpected flourishes of Mellotron.
Despite earlier incursions like The Byrds's Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and The International Submarine Band (both of which were also profoundly shaped by Gram Parsons), this remains the quintessential country rock record. But set aside Gram for a moment (he gets plenty of props already). Let's talk about Chris Hillman, the Bruce Willis of the canyon, the glue in not only Burritos but also The Byrds before them, who quietly wrote killer song after killer song while his more garrulous band-mates got all the column inches.
And then of course there's "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow, the John Coltrane of steel guitar and the x-factor behind this record's atmospheric magic, paving the way for later pedal steel iconoclasts like B.J. Cole and King Sunny Adé. It's no small coincidence that it's with Kleinow departure, rather than Parsons' exit a year later, that the band's wholly unique sonic presence largely seeps out of of the music (in fact, I actually prefer the self-titled third album to Burrito Deluxe — the latter made when Gram was still kicking around). Here, they're unstoppable.
Ooh, this is a good one now: we're in the top ten with a bullet! Blissed out dream pop from L.A.'s coolest band of the nineties. Part of the reason I love the decade so much5 is that it'd routinely toss up something like this, which you'd swear was vintage but then nothing from the sixties or seventies ever sounded remotely like this. I dare you to find anything this languid and hypnotic from the peak era of canyon (but if you do, please send it my way!). You needed someone with the Gen X sensibility to make it all feel so achingly melancholic.
Take a song like Cry, Cry, with its smeared steel guitars dragging that weary rhythm along in a morphine haze — all the while Hope Sandoval cooing her lunar country couplets out into the ether — before droplets of liquid guitar rise up like fractals to meet the gorgeous chorus. Weep to the bittersweet balladry of Flowers In December and free fall downstream on the slow-motion cascade that is Roseblood, then lose yourself in Umbilical's organ-drenched black hole before Look On Down From The Bridge comes in to guide you back home.
I used to daydream hard to this record back in high school. You have no idea... I don't know what else to add, other than David Roback is a genius and Hope Sandoval may have actually been an angel.
Bleak canyon blues from The Loner himself. It would be the quintessential 70s record if only it didn't sound so much like the future. From Watergate and the OPEC oil crisis to Cielo Drive and Hollywood narcissism, its all here in black and white. Appropriately enough, three songs have the word blues in their title! Of course you'd never guess it from the relatively upbeat opener Walk On, which finds Young literally leaving his troubles behind.
Similarly, the sparse bluegrass of For The Turnstiles — featuring Young's lonely picking on a banjo — might be the coolest fuck you song ever written. Revolution Blues — a slow-burning rocker rumored to be about the Manson family — was famously played by Johnny Rotten on his Capitol Radio show with Tommy Vance (that's kind of like a gold star around here), while the title track sounds like post rock/Radiohead twenty years before the fact (unsurprisingly, they've covered it live): blank-eyed and beautiful.
From its stunning cover photo on down, On The Beach is the perfect low profile denouement to Young's self-styled ditch trilogy and one of the key records of the decade.
Lindsey Buckingham's obsessive tour de force, which manages to capture rock, country, folk, yacht and even proto-new wave within its sprawling 75 minutes. Raw and lush in all the right places, some moments even sound like a sun-baked Krautrock, with a title track that would sit comfortably on Faust IV, while the skewed country hoedown of The Ledge and That's Enough For Me negotiate roots music even as the band have one foot planted firmly on the yacht.
Of course, there's more to this record than Buckingham going wild in Mick Fleetwood's home studio (including an episode where he freaked out and cut his own hair with a pair of nail clippers!), with Stevie Nicks in particular turning in some of her most gorgeous songs: look no further than Sara and Sisters Of The Moon and swoon. I'd be willing to bet Bryan Ferry did... (see Avalon for details).
When it came time for Joni Mitchell to record her debut album, rather than recording songs that she'd previously written for other artists (as was common practice for songwriters at the time) she decided to write a whole set of entirely new material. The resulting song cycle — an oblique take on her experiences moving to the West Coast — is absolutely stunning, and remains my favorite thing she's ever done (for me, even beating out more obvious contenders like Blue and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns... but then I'm extremely abnormal).
From the opening notes of I Had A King, you can tell you're in for an adventure. Joni's restless, searching tales bear an almost medieval quality that prefigures the most bewitching corners of prog, and David Crosby's spacious production gives the alternate tunings of Mitchell's spidery guitar work an isolated, wintry atmosphere through which her soaring voice swoops and dives with unshackled abandon. The stunning sleeve art — which was actually painted by Joni herself — goes some way to describing the wonders found within.
At the dawn of the seventies, the man who wrote Eight Miles High and I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better conjured up this stone tablet of canyon folk informed by the Hank Williams tunes he treasured growing up in his native Kansas City. Filled with fragile country-inflected numbers like Because Of You and For A Spanish Guitar (a song Bob Dylan famously said he wished he'd have written), its a treasure trove of quivering, open-hearted songcraft. Songs like With Tomorrow and Where My Love Lies Asleep are impossibly tranquil ballads unparalleled on those terms by anyone else in the canyon.
The title track — the record's one truly upbeat moment — was once compared to The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane by none other than Woebot himself, and it undoubtedly shares that song's sense of boundless freedom. Like everything on White Light, it is defined by Gene's rolling harmonica shadings and peerless country croon, both imbued with the pathos of endless longing. It's a deeply affecting sound, both soulful and searching, and timeless in every sense of the word. Even with clipped wings, this Byrd soars.
Emerging from the deepest recesses of David Geffen's West Coast empire, Essra Mohawk turns in this criminally overlooked collection of fathoms-deep piano chansons. Informed by a broad musical vision that takes in everything from folk, soul and country to baroque pop, rock 'n roll and Broadway, these songs tend to unfold in the most surprising ways, casually twisting and turning through their various movements as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Mohawk's vocals soar throughout, sometimes over unexpectedly funky backing in tunes like Spiral and I Have Been Here Before, while Looking Forward To The Dawn — the album's gentlest moment — quietly sneaks in to conquer all. If the Laurel Canyon scene had a Charles Mingus or a Salvador Dali, that is a visionary iconoclast effacing into abstraction all preconceived notions of what is possible within their chosen idiom, then it was undoubtedly Essra Mohawk.
After early years as The Rockets and then Neil Young's backing band, L.A.'s secret weapon step out from behind The Loner to deliver this masterpiece of dirty country rock. Against all odds, they manage to transcend Young's own formidable body of work with a selection of gutsy rockers like Beggars Day and Gone Dead Train, even managing to sneak in weepy ballads like Look At All The Things and I Don't Want To Talk About It into the spaces between the spaces before breaking into full-on hoedown mode in Dance, Dance, Dance.
Essential listening for any and all roots rock aficionados (and everyone else besides), it features blazing guitar from a teenage Nils Lofgren (who joined just in time for the recording sessions) and Ry Cooder on slide guitar (he's everywhere today!). Notably, this also bears the unmistakable fingerprints of Jack Nitzsche behind the mixing desk (and piano), adding to its skewed aura of gritty outsider charm (imagine putting out The Wild Bunch while everyone else was still doing Dodge City!).
It's also the only Crazy Horse album to feature founding guitarist and ringleader Danny Whitten, whose untimely death by o.d. but a year later would inspire Neil Young's tortured The Needle And The Damage Done.
Zero gravity canyon folk from the ex-Byrd/CSN rabble-rouser. Featuring a huge cast of luminaries from both L.A. and San Francisco — including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana and most of Jefferson Airplane — Crosby's networking pays handsome dividends in the shape of ethereal missives like Laughing and Traction In The Rain, while the low slung canyon funk of Cowboy Movie finds him telling the tale of CSN's disintegration through the western lens of The Wild Bunch.
Of all the records to spring from the CSN nexus, this remains the absolute strongest, coming on like an entire LP extrapolated from the low-slung widescreen funk of Crosby/Kanter's own immortal Wooden Ships. The pair of ethereal closing tracks — Orleans and I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here — are a particularly visionary masterstroke, evoking an oceanic Pacific endlessness as the record slows gently to its inevitable close.
The bewitching Judee Sill unfurls a spellbinding selection of delicate country folk songs that belie her rough-and-tumble past and tragic life story. Her vocals deftly weave through these great cathedrals of lush orchestration, sounding perfectly at home within them as if she were simply curling up by the fireplace... and doing so with such unforced grace that it makes you feel at home too.
Tunes like Enchanted Sky Machines and Jesus Was A Crossmaker (the latter produced by Graham Nash) have an almost Broadway-informed punch to them, while Ridge Rider and The Phantom Cowboy ply an uncomplicated country seemingly informed by the wide open spaces of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. The peerless Lopin' Along Thru The Cosmos, meanwhile, is quite simply too beautiful for words.
Number one, and without a moment's hesitation either. Folk crooner drifts languid and bittersweet along the Pacific coastline on a jazz-kissed breeze, the largely straight up folk of his first two records transformed here into a swirling slipstream of existential proto-canyon songcraft. Sun-glazed reveries like Strange Feelin' and Buzzin' Fly are the order of the day, while the poignant Sing A Song For You harks back to the sombre corridors of his folk roots.
The real kicker is a pair of marathon tracks that combined eclipse the running time of everything else here. The sprawling Love From Room 109 At The Islander On Pacific Coast Highway is defined by Buckley's mournful reminiscence against the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. Conversely, the unexpected monster groove of Gypsy Woman swerves bravely toward the kosmische future, predicting not only Buckley's sensual, r&b-inflected Greetings From L.A. but also the inner space funk of Damo Suzuki-era Can (try and beat that!).
Like a lonely hawk surfing thermals high above Topanga, this isn't just canyon folk... it's the whole canyon.
If it's raining then it's cold out, which means if you're a kid you get soaked on your walk home from school... so chances are you'll catch a cold sooner or later. Which meant that if there was a day Pops and I were both home on a weekday, it was during winter.
That's why, to this day, when I hear Cat Stevens I still feel like I'm getting a sore throat. The mind is a crazy thing... I can practically taste the Sucrets!
The other great thing about the nineties is that you could listen to this back to back with trip hop, r&b and techno! It was quite a heady mix, after all, going from Among My Swan to One In A Million and Sean Deason's Razorback.
Tracks For My Father is the first Anthony Shakir record I ever owned, having picked it up nearly twenty years ago. I remember finding the 12" in the cutout bin (at the old record store next door to Club Elements) while digging with Snakes after school one crisp Autumn afternoon. I'd heard ofShakir before but hadn't yet heard his music, and with its evocative imagery (on Daniel Bell's 7th City imprint) and $1.50 price tag (which even to a broke high school kid isn't an awful lot of money) it seemed like the ideal place to start.
When I took the record home and put the needle 'pon the record, the effect was like a hidden door opening somewhere in the back of my mind. I hadn't heard anything remotely like it. Fractured beats seemed to tear open cracks across the shifting surface of their own skittering rhythms, cracks through which bass, synths and texture poured out over it all like molten soul. Nowadays you might call it broken beat, but at the time this malfunktioning, hip hop-inflected techno soul felt like the missing link between contemporary Timbaland and Kenny Dixon, Jr.
The good good, in other words, and to this day it remains my favorite record by old Anthony "Shake" Shakir.
My thing was trying to learn how to make music and the only reason I got into electronic music was that the early 1980s R&B just sucked. I didn't like the last Parliament record, Trombipulation, so I started finding out about these other records.
I've always liked this quote because it's at the axis of r&b, techno and house that Shake's music pivots, placing him firmly within the context of machine soul's protracted development. Centrally, in fact.2 In many ways, Tracks For My Father is like UR's The Turning Point, unfurling four sprawling movements that draw inspiration from the rich grooves of vintage jazz, funk and soul even as they manage to augur uncharted futures of their own.
For one, take a look at The Turning Point's striking imagery of Carlos Santana, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin emblazoned across their center labels. In the case of Tracks For My Father, we get snatches of an interview with some old-time soul man3 interspersed between tracks, as if you were tuning into some late night radio transmission as you venture into the city beneath the pale moonlight. So let's take this journey and see where we end up...
The record opens with the deranged synths of One Beat Just Won't Do shearing into focus. It sounds like the machines are warming up as those synths cycle in and out of range, and then the front door opens and you're dropped out into the world. Submerged in the sounds of the city, now you're shuffling down the sidewalk, alone among the teeming masses. The words One beat, just won't do, ring out from some car stereo passing by, the words hanging in the air on repeat. You weave through the pedestrians, all on journeys of their own, while cars negotiate the traffic on the rain-slicked streets beside you.
Drums cycle in a stop-start rhythm, matching your movements as you juke your way down the boulevard. Beats punch in and out of that still-looping chorus like one of Theo Parrish's MPC workouts (with his deep house vibes subtracted and shot through with a sort of skewed electro-jazz hip hop flavor). Then, the vocals cut out altogether and a warped organ hangs over the beat like a fog, before the beat vanishes as well, synths and organs twisting in unison eight feet above the ground.
Once again, the beat kicks into gear and you're back on the move. The whole city's linked up in a network of concrete and asphalt, glass buildings rising from the pavement in a circuitry of steel. Traffic streams in grid-like patterns like a torrent of pure information, and you're part of the flow. As the music slowly fades, another voice comes into focus, this time the deliberate exchange of a late night interview in progress:
Yeah Joe, you know, we were talking earlier — just before we started this — that we've seen the business go from really creative music, you know, to corporate business control. Well, how do you feel about that?
Well they changed the business. In other words — I guess — in the sixties, we had at least — I don't know — forty recording companies who recorded the music of Soul America. By 1982, we had six recording companies. And what they did was put the music of the soul labels into a vault and they fired everyone. And suddenly, in the mid-eighties all of the soul singers just sort of vanished...
Mhmn, that's true...
They vanished. And they have definitely changed the culture. And you know I love the big business too. I love paychecks and all of that, but if the culture has got to suffer... the musical culture, the enormous contribution that we gave to the world in the 20th century, then I say nuh-uh they just kinda screwed it up a little.
Without warning, Fact Of The Matter kicks in with an electroid slab of skewed, introspective techno. In a sense, it's the most conventional track here, perhaps even reminiscent of something like Live For Friction (from the Iconoclastic Diaries EP). You've arrived at the club, once again weaving through a crowd of people, this time veering toward the bar to order your drink and then proceed to the dancefloor. An archaic synth progression pulses from the soundsystem, all warmth and silicon soul, scattering stardust across the room before it gets sucked back into its own vortex again.
That mutant electro beat still taps out its rhythm while a deep six bassline seems to jump rope across its surface. One's reminded of Carl Craig's masterful More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art and its fizzing electronics, those gentle computer rhythms cycling like clockwork in the night. No surface is constant, no measure unchanging, as textures move in and out of phase as if viewed through a prism. Rhythms rewind and slip into eddying tide pools — where only a flickering bassline accompanies the synths — before flowing back into the slipstream once again.
Like Kraftwerk remixed by Kenny Dixon, Jr. the whole thing just unfolds like sonic origami.
On the flipside, Roaming opens with a melody fashioned from a snatch of atmosphere, a simple cluster of sparkling synths that just seem to hang in the ether. An errant bassline taps out the counterpoint and you've stepped back into the world. A crisp breakbeat stomp propels you back down the boulevard toward your point of origin, starting you on the long walk home. That bassline returns — this time plucking down at a lower register — sounding like some bebop-era wood bass reconstructed in virtual reality. This is what tech jazz is all about...
Roaming is, rather appropriately, the most linearly propulsive thing here. There's no rewinding beats, no tangents of rhythm, just non-stop forward motion. I reflect for a moment on 4 Hero's transition from ardkore jungle into the cosmic jazz of Creating Patterns and the broken beat excursions of their own 2000 Black imprint, a sound that Tracks For My Father seems to parallel as a vision of everything jazz could become.4
It's a vision that stays with you even as the track begins to recede onto the horizon, and we return to the interview and further words of wisdom...
The one thing that we did find — as you know — in traveling all over the world, the one level of communication that we had that overcame language barriers and everything else was the music, you know?
It was the music.
And now that — and you know — and of course the corporate world ain't gonna like this, but I'm sorry this is the way it is: the corporate world stepped in and took away the creative process, and started making it the financial process.
Drifting in on a silicon haze, Travelers is by far the most ethereal thing here, its gently flickering shadows quite minimal even in the context of this record's brooding, cracked jazz soundscapes. Celestial synth textures phase in and out of earshot like a hazy morning mist. You're shuffling homeward back down these same city streets — by now nearly deserted — and you can just begin to see the first glimmer of sunlight on the horizon, bathing the face of certain eastward facing buildings even as you roam the darkness below.
A pulsing synth pattern seems to bounce along the center of it all like a coiled spring, while a simple keyboard melody plays gentle counterpoint deep in the distance. The drip-dropping percussion enters subtly, splashing into focus like footsteps upon the rain-slicked sidewalk. Everything seems to drift in and out of focus, threatening to crumble into dust even as it staggers ever forward, taking you home to your front door once again. And then, our journey ends.
Over in the space of twenty-five minutes, this four track EP hits you like a vintage soul album in miniature (albeit shot through with a healthy dose of Future Shock). Part of the reason this record means so much to me is that it seems to cram a whole double-LP r&b song cycle's worth of ideas into the space of four tracks and two interludes. Submerged beneath its deceptively simple surfaces are hidden vast corridors left for you to explore, reaching deep into the past even as they uncovers possible futures.
The record seems to fuse the sensibility of Moodymann's Black Mahogani with the x-ray electro of Drexciya's Neptune's Lair and 4 Hero's jazz-inflected stone tablet Creating Patterns. Of course, none of those records had even come out yet, which further highlights the record's singularly visionary nature. The sound and spirit of Tracks For My Father have everything in common with the music of 21st century figures like SA-RA Creative Partners, Kelela, J Dilla, Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar. In other words, music that we're still catching up with.
Tracks For My Father springs squarely from the very particular environment of late-nineties Detroit, an era when records like Urban Tribe's The Collapse Of Modern Culture (which Shakir had a hand in developing) and Innerzone Orchestra's Programmed were fusing techno with the twin spectres of progressive soul and jazz. It's a world that remains quite tantalizing to this day, evoking images of Blade Runner intercut with Detroit 9000 in its Future/Past negotiation.
I remember even at the time thinking that this record is what the future would sound like... now wouldn't that be something if that someday turned out to be the case after all.
I suspect that the man in question might be Joe Hunter (of legendary Motown house band The Funk Brothers). But don't quote me on that... (Needless to say, if anyone has any information, please do share!)
Funk. The term has been rinsed thoroughly through the years — applied and mis-applied all over the shop on a seemingly loop — but at the end of the day, what is it really? The groove, hitting on the one, interlocking parts of a rhythm, all of them cycling in clockwork motion, players playing deep in the pocket all night long. Is it tight, is it loose, or somewhere in between? In attempting to answer that question, perhaps it makes sense to rewind to the man who dreamed it all up in the first place...
Smack in the middle of the 1960s, James Brown released the epochal Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, a frisky bit of proto-funk that took the nimble soul shuffle of early records like Think and Night Train to its logical conclusion. With an agile rhythm that found Melvin Parker's beats seemingly dancing three feet off the ground, while the bassline (played either by Bernard Odum or Sam Thomas, depending on who you ask) hopscotches across the spaces in between, it set the template for funk proper that would be hammered home further in records like Mother Popcorn, Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose, all the way up to Sex Machine, The Payback and beyond.
James Brown famously rehearsed his band The J.B.'s mercilessly, even going so far as to dock a musician's pay if they made a mistake live! The result was perhaps the most tightly regimented rhythmic unit ever assembled, with a style that moved so far beyond precision that they somehow wrapped around into looseness again. In essence, he constructed a a perfect machine from a group of individual human players, an innovation that set the course for large swathes of music's development in the years to come.
George Clinton's Detroit-based empire slowly developed in parallel, off-record in the shadows of Motown's artist roster before exploding with the twin debuts of Parliament's Osmium and Funkadelic's self-titled LP in 1970. Picking up where artists like James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone left off at the tail-end of the sixties, both groups spiked their funk/soul strange brew with a healthy dose of acid. Records like Maggot Brain and Cosmic Slop were shot through with post-Hendrix psychedelia, adding a dirty edge to the proceedings that was in thrall to the times.
Seemingly on the flipside of the coin lies that other institution that would prove to be so crucial in the development of Detroit's nascent progressive scene: Kraftwerk. They're often placed on opposite ends of the spectrum, Kraftwerk and Parliament, machine music and funk, but the truth — as is so often the case — is far more messy than one might expect.
There's that oft-quoted remark from Detroit club kids that Kraftwerk were so stiff, they're funky. Then, you hear something like The Model and Sex Machine back to back, and the parallels between the two become striking. Both tracks glide three feet above the ground on the horizontal tension of tautly arranged components interlocking like clockwork: rolling rhythms finding joy in repetition.
Somewhere in all of that was the sound of the future...
Whole worlds would spring from this fertile nexus — from techno and g-funk to r&b and electro — in the years to come, post-disco realms of sound stretching out in every direction, dazzling in their strange shapes and oftentimes even their distance from each other. And yet if there's one record that embodies this point of intersection — and did so before the fact, even — then it's surely Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies.
The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is the final album from P-Funk's original run, the last stop before George Clinton's Computer Games (which made the connections between funk and the machine explicit), an album that it also presages in many ways. War Babies is the illogical conclusion to everything that had come before, a record that throws everything from Flash Light and Not Just Knee Deep to Hit It And Quit It and There Is Nothing Before Me But Thang into a blender of abstraction and comes up with the adrenaline rush of pure future shock.
I often think the record works like a bizarre fusion of garage and laboratory, nestled deep in the heart of the Motor City, a place where mechanics and mad scientists disassemble vehicles and rebuild them in strange new combinations. Then, they flip the switch and machines spring to life, sputtering and scurrying like unwieldy insects across the shot room floor.
This shop operates at the interzone between post-disco, new wave and the nascent electro funk (the latter which Parliament/Funkadelic had a large part in birthing via Bernie Worrell's rubberband electronic basslines and gliding Arps). Rising stars like Prince and Zapp were soon hot at their heels, mapping both parallel and intersecting territory with their own innovations.
And yet, Funkadelic managed to up the ante one last time. Just as Kraftwerk rose to the challenge of new wave upstarts like The Human League and Gary Numan with their masterpiece, Computer World, Funkadelic went out with the left field big bang that is The Electric Spanking Of War Babies. Recorded after many key figures had left the group, including the aforementioned Worrell, the record is nevertheless the band's twilight era masterpiece.
The record opens with the title track, which kicks off with what sounds like one of Eddie Hazel's Maggot Brain guitar phantasmagorias (although it's actually played by Michael Hampton). Outer space sounds swirl as a booming voice intones the following madness:
You probably don't remember me, but...
But I remember you.
You probably won't believe this, but, uh...
I, at the early age of 72... was adopted by aliens. [bursts into laughter]
Was adopted by aliens... [bursts into laughter again]
That's right, I said aliens.
They have long since programmed me to return with this message...
Then, a bouncing groove at the intersection of new wave funk and video game music pounces into the fray for the repeated refrain, When you learn to dance, you won't forget it, before it all turns into a trademark p-funk groove in the tradition of Not Just Knee Deep and One Nation Under A Groove, only with an added sense of creeping desperation swirling in the mix. The phrase End Of The World Party springs to mind whenever I hear it, the band standing on the verge of the precipice, still getting it on. I suspect Prince was listening closely (see 1999).
The track is almost entirely built on Junie Morrison's electro funk foundation in the form of squelching neon synth architecture, throbbing basslines and a hybrid man-machine beat, while Michael Hampton shreds guitar into post-acid sparks across the track's entirety. Various members of Parlet and The Brides Of Funkenstein turn up on the chorus, giving their trademark input in the form of a gloriously sneering sing-song of the track's title, while Junie punctuates every bar with synth stabs that punch through the mix like electric-shock therapy.
Truth be told, it probably even edges out Not Just Knee Deep as my favorite P-Funk dancefloor rave-up ever...
After such a mind-bending opening, Electro-Cuties might feel just a little bit less extraordinary. A minor track, even. Nevertheless, it manages to connect the band's disco funk present with their rock hard roots, fusing a slap-bass fueled groove with a Cosmic Slop-esque riff in the bridge. Like the previous track, it has the lurching feel of disparate random parts recomposed into a brand new machine. The Brides even turn up on backing vocals again, with one even delivering a proto-rap in the track's extended second half.
Funk Gets Stronger Part 1 is another matter entirely: featuring the great Sly Stone, it's the indisputable peak of the record. Opening with a talking drum figure and psychedelic voices drifting in the ether, it kicks into a whirring, stop-start beat that seems to perpetually trip forward over it's own throbbing bassline. It seems another strange machine has been conjured up from spare parts, and more than any other track here, it embodies the record's modus operandi.
Lurching in one direction before swooping and diving in the other, the rhythm seems to be powered by unstable elements, its tripping beat kicking into high-gear double-time every so often as the band struggles to catch up. You're just waiting for the tune to shift gears again, and in its Doppler rush of acceleration and deceleration on can almost feel an eerie pre-echo of jungle.
All the while, the track's held-down by Zapp mastermind Roger Troutman's new wave-tinged rhythm guitar that's always struck me as a dead ringer for the sound on Adam And The Ants awesome Dirk Wears White Sox (the American version, of course). There's strong new wave/post punk currents running through the entirety of War Babies, and nowhere is that more evident than here. Think Metal Box, but coming from the opposite direction. Mike Hampton's incredibly pretty lead guitar threads the rhythm almost subconsciously, adding another dimension of emotion to the whole affair.
Sly Stone famously in the mix here, credited as co-producer alongside George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, and combined with staccato trumpet lines provided by Sly's old band-mate Cynthia Robinson in the chorus, there's a definite Sly & The Family Stone flavor to the whole strange affair. There's even a lush organ passage in the breakdown in the breakdown that would have fit right in on There's A Riot Going On! I'd swear it was laid down by Sly Stone himself, but the only keyboards on the track are credited to Roger Troutman, who works the Moog synthesizers. However, as with Riot's famously hard to navigate album credits (see also the Talking HeadsRemain In Light), I suspect that it's not the whole story. It's a late-era, extended band kinda thing...
The tune gets reprised a couple tracks later in the Killer Millimeter Longer Version, which finds the machine being started back up, its heartbeat pulsing quickly before tugging into shape. With its slightly more languid, open-ended arrangement, this version sounds even more like something from Riot. What's more, Sly Stone is credited on drums and keyboards, and late-period Family Stone member Pat Rizzo is present on saxophone. According to the album credits, it also features the lone contribution from original Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, who had already released his solo album Game, Dames And Guitar Thangs back in 1977.
There's an errant quote from The Beatles' All You Need Is Love before it all fades out and then back into place, with a thirty-second reprise-within-a-reprise cover version of She Loves You over the same rhythm. A drunken group chant, to be sure, and the perfect way to wrap up the Funk Gets Stronger saga.
Running parallel to these new wave/post punk moves, the record also spends a satisfying amount of time messing around with fourth world rhythms, with the extended rhythm sequence Brettino's Bounce nestled between both versions of Funk Gets Stronger. It's the sort of Caribbean-inflected groove that a post punk band like A Certain Ratio would kill for, with the band seemingly effortlessly unfurling a rolling percussion frenzy that lasts the better part of four minutes. A gong brings it all into focus, chattering polyrhythms and talking drums careening across the sound stage, before another gong sounds to conclude the jam session. Some might call it filler, but I think it's great!
The other big fourth world moment is Shockwaves, a cod reggae number that rocks a malfunktioning skank across the showroom floor. Once again, strange machines are afoot in the sound lab, this time with parts imported from Jamaica... Crazy!
At first it almost seems like a joke song, complete with ridiculous fake island accent in the verses, but like Chuck Berry's Havana Moon it quickly bolts toward the sublime. The sprightly rhythm slowly goes overcast with the descent of soaring backing vocals and its incredible chorus:
I'm from the first world,
I like to groove.
Don't want no problems,
Set up that groove.
I'm probably out on a limb here, but it always makes be flash on Bowie. Particularly contemporary things like the proto-Remain In Light fourth world stylings of Lodger
(the most obvious example being Yassassin), Up The Hill Backwards and even twenty later with Earthling's Looking For Satellites. It certainly fits right in with the wider My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts drift of the times. Interestingly, aside from the title track, it was chosen as the only other single from War Babies, coming out on 7" wax. Shades of new wave's détente with reggae (see also The Police, Jah Wobble, The Clash, et al.).
The following Oh, I almost feels like a breather after the breathless experimentation of the record's mid-section. It's the most straight-up p-funk number here, relaxing in a gently mid-tempo manner the way that Mothership Connection and Aquaboogie were. Adding to its sun-glazed aura is the acid-tinged, Ernie Isley-esque guitarwork of Michael Hampton and Jerome Ali. Interestingly, an unreleased 12" version of the tune later washed up on Parliament's The 12" Collection And More.
The record closes with the rubberband electro funk jam Icka Prick, the key final track in this song cycle. With its machine box rhythms rolling along at a hip hop pace, it's practically a g-funk track. David Lee Chong holds down synthesizer duties here, injecting the track with squiggly day-glo boogie shapes, while Michael Hampton returns (yet again) for some crunchy lead guitar work. One's immediately reminded of Zapp, but this is much looser, and less locked down, coming on like an amorphous, jell-o take on the electro funk sound.
As the song opens, Michael Hampton ad-libs Oh, you ain't seen obscene yet, We gonna be nasty this here time, and he ain't lying. Icka prick and iron pussy, yucka fuck and muscle cunt,while we servin' pussy from the shoulder, she servin' dick from the head, and Elmo MacNasty, mental masturbation, psychological perversion (hey, hey), are just some of the couplets you're treated to after he warns you to Put on some protection for your ears.Ain't no decent dick in Detroit! The Brides' backing vocals retort That's disgusting!
Without warning, it all goes supernova in the track's denouement, with soaring Hit It And Quit It vocals, whining Drexciyan synths and metallic guitars elevating the track toward its epic conclusion before it all fades without warning...
Over the years, The Electric Spanking Of War Babies has crept up on me to become my favorite piece of the P-Funk story. I've never seen it singled out for praise as such, but for me it distills nearly everything great about Parliament/Funkadelic into a sleek capsule aimed toward the future. Its man-machine hybrid draws together disparate contemporary strands — the post-disco funk of Zapp and Funkadelic themselves, the new wave shapes of Prince and the Minneapolis sound, and fourth world sonics straight out of the My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts playbook — all while pointing the way toward Cybotron, Model 500, Kosmic Messenger and beyond.
And as such, it's myriad routes stretch right up through the present day... not to mention the fact that it's a killer party record.
There's just no getting around Mrs. Franklin's greatness. That voice. She could pour everything she had into one sustained note and then keep right on going where most others would have to take a breather, swooping and diving from raw power to fragile beauty in but a moment, then wheeling back again to bring the house down. She had a knack for that...
The dark, low slung blues of The Thrill Is Gone From Yesterday's Kiss (with Aretha's voice weaving around that pulsing, well-deep organ figure and staggering beat) was always been my go to moment, but in truth there's far too many to count: the lush, sun-glazed soul of Day Dreaming, her graceful rocking out on Bacharach/David's I Say A Little Prayer, the insouciantly casual non-album 7" funk workout of The House That Jack Built, Get It Right's skittering electronic soul and the r&b coup of A Rose Is Still A Rose, the stunning I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (undoubtedly one of the key sixties soul LPs), the girl group splendor of Don't Play That Song... and on and on and on.
Take a look at UR's The Turning Point double pack, where you'll find her honored alongside figures like James Brown, Hendrix, Kraftwerk and Muhammad Ali within the context of that crew's arcing hi-tek funk. Her influence spread far and wide, but its within the grooves of her records where the magic still crackles. I can still remember the day I picked up Spirit In The Dark and Young, Gifted And Black. Hearing them for the first time was a revelation, opening up vast possibilities stretching far and wide as the deep blue sky.
From Memphis to Detroit, in sound and spirit, Aretha Franklin was quite simply the definition of soul...
Baby, baby, baby, this is just to say
How much I'm gonna miss you.
But believe, while I'm away
That I didn't mean to hurt you.
Don't you know that I'd rather hurt myself?
...I'd hurt myself, I'd hurt myself...
Baby, baby, baby, baby, think of me sometimes
Because if loving you was so wrong, then I'm guilty of this crime.
...Guilty, I'm guilty, I'm guilty...
I'm bewildered, I'm lonely, and I'm loveless,
Without you to hold my hand (Reach out for me, boy)
If you'd just understand (Reach out to me, right now).
Those that we love, we foolishly make cry,
Then sometimes feel it's best to say goodbye, goodbye.
It's time to talk about Deep Space. An album dropped by Juan Atkins amidst a flurry of activity in 1995, it was released smack in the middle of the nineties and bisecting the decade both literally and metaphorically. Slotting in quite comfortably within the currents of outer space imagery running through techno at the time, from Galaxy 2 Galaxy to 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and the Red Planet EPs, it also predicted the tronik r&b moves and minimalist grooves of the late 90s, sounds that take us right up to the present day. Deep Space remains a fascinating record for the way it blends techno, machine soul, micro-house and jazz inflections into a swirling nebula of sonic possibility.
With Atkins tugging the curtain that conceals tomorrow from all of us, he's invited you to catch a glimpse of tomorrow's music looming just around the bend. This is a 21st century soul record, playing like a star map to the future. To this day, it remains one of those records so singular, so forward-thinking, that it's difficult to assess just where exactly it came from. How did Deep Space happen? To answer that question, where the future came from, one must take a look into the past. A decade in the past, to be precise. So let's set our time circuits back to good old 1985...
It's 1985. Juan Atkins had been a member of Cybotron (alongside Richard Davis aka 3070) for a few years by this point. Cybotron were seminal purveyors of electro operating concurrently with Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, who released Planet Rock just as Cybotron began unleashing records like Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear upon an unsuspecting public.
Cybotron's sound was a rude, street-level update of Kraftwerk's man-machine music, shot through with dark, psychedelic inflections that felt like a hangover from Funkadelic's early acid-tinged LPs (especially Cosmic Slop). The combination of Planet Rock and Clear (in particular) laid the foundation for the whole electro craze (see also Hashim, Planet Patrol and The Egyptian Lover), a sound that would go on to rule the first half of the 1980s.
The group added guitarist John Housey (aka Jon-5) for the album Enter, which expanded their sound to include a derezzed acid rock dynamic sprawling out in songs like Industrial Lies and the title track. Cosmic Cars rocked a 4/4 rhythm in a way that predicted the rugged, ramshackle techno traxx of 1987, while the digital funk of The Line and El Salvador split the difference between the black new wave of Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear's stripped-down electro punch.
The record also featured the awesome Cosmic Raindance, a skeletal tune built on a nimble rhythm matrix of crisp drum machines and a descending funk bassline, all of which propelled these great spiraling clouds of whining synthesized sound across a stormy digital sky. Ending in a crash of computerized thunder, it set a thrilling template for the elegant, minimalist electro of Drexciya and Elecktroids that would surface about a decade later. Cybotron swiftly followed Enter with the Techno City, at which point Atkins decided to strike out on his own.
This is where we came in. That is, 1985, when Atkins started his own label, Metroplex Records, and released his first solo record: Model 500's No UFO's. The record was a perfect fusion of tightly regimented electronic sequences and raging percussive chaos, boasting a richer, even-more-psychedelic sound than Cybotron. I'll put it this way: if Kraftwerk were James Brown circa Sex Machine and Cybotron were Sly & The Family Stone circa Stand!, then Model 500's No UFO's was Funkadelic circa Maggot Brain. Can you get to that?
The flipside was dominated by the slithering rhythm of Future, which found Atkins pumping electro moves the same way Hendrix played Killing Floor (see also Channel One's Technicolor), which is to say faster, more fluid and with more authority than anyone else around. This is ground zero for that 90s electro sound we all love so much, what with the tighter sound and sharper edges, it laid the blueprint for whole swathes of the scene. Aux 88 were certainly paying attention.
Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) followed, and somehow it managed to be even better. A masterpiece of neon vectors colliding in a phantasmagoria of motorik digital funk, it pierces your consciousness with tumbling bleeps and then just rolls for six minutes. Atkins narrates the nocturnal journey over eerie computer blue sonics, adding claustrophobic Jamie Principle-esque vocal stylings that give the whole trip a shadowy, spectral effect.
This is the first glimmer of what would come to define the Deep Space sound, and as such it kicks off a little potted history we're about to indulge in: a history of Atkins' music within this rarefied terrain. The following four records each outline key developments that would culminate in the Deep Space sessions. Context is key. After all, an investigation into this impulse within Atkins' discography plugs you directly into what is — by my estimation — the purest manifestation of machine soul.
After blazing a singular path through the remainder of the decade with records like Off To Battle, Interference and Other Side Of Life, Atkins rang in the 90s with the Ocean To Ocean EP. Kicking off with two versions of Ocean To Ocean, which played like a smooth-groove summation of everything he'd been up to in the intervening years, it was the flipside that offered a stunning preview of things to come.
Rocking a 4/4 pulse threaded by a resolute string/bass melody inna Off To Battle-stylee, Wanderer played like a stop off at the connecting station for the bullet train trip from 1985 to 2001. I've noted before how this EP was something of a blueprint for the more reflective side of UR's endeavors, and nowhere is that more evident than in Wanderer. It also neatly sets the stage for the final song of the record, its undeniable highlight.
Infoworld starts with a memorable bleep refrain before revving up the 4/4 engine once again. A geometric bass pulse threads the beat matrix while electronic string staccatos seems to fuel the track's propulsion. The sound here defined by a sleek, aerodynamic quality, with a greater emphasis placed on nimble grooves and lush synth atmospherics. Ah yes... those synths! Like Larry Heard and Carl Craig, there's just no mistaking Juan Atkins' synths for anyone else's. As clear an oracle as one could ask for, Infoworld lays out the foundation for the next decade plus of Atkins' journey.
Case in point being this three track EP, Atkins' first engagement with R&S Records — via their ambient subsidiary Apollo — which finds him expanding the sound of Infoworld into sprawling intergalactic shapes. The motorik techno soul of Vessels In Distress finds Atkins in collaboration with Martin Bonds (aka Reel By Real), offering up a Moroder-inflected take on the Motor City sound shot through with shimmering shapes and textures.
Mind Changes features Atkins' dreamy vocals in duet with android intonations over a bouncing, compact house rhythm. With the track's austere 4/4 pulse defined by a sort of ethereal synth architecture, it's of a piece with the proto-micro-house sides that he'd begun circulating under the name Infiniti, records like Flash Flood and Think Quick. All of which would ultimately lead to his collaboration with German duo 3MB (Moritz von Oswald and Thomas Fehlmann) on the awesome Jazz Is The Teacher EP (more on this later).
The title track finds Atkins incorporating crashing breakbeats into his sound, the breaks sparring with his usual 808 dynamics and a chiming bleep matrix in a flowing tide pool of ethereal synth and atmosphere. Apparently the tune got some action at contemporary drum 'n bass sound systems, where it'd be pitched up at a sped-up '45rpm (proto-ambient jungle!). I suppose that does make sense. Above all else, its mode is pure machine soul and a clear indication of the shape of things to come...
Tucked away on Atkins' own Metroplex imprint is this nearly forgotten 12". Whereas much of the Metroplex catalog has been serviced quite well, to the best of my knowledge this has never been reissued. Which is a shame, because this is one of Magic Juan's absolute greatest records. I See The Light is a spectral electro symphony built on a cycling 808 chassis with a staircase bleep pattern and wispy synth figures swaying across its ocean-like refrain. Atkins intones the title's lyrics in a deadpan whisper. It's all veryAux 88.
Of course, the b-side is even better! Pick Up The Flow commences with one of Atkins' trademark sci-fi synth progressions, computer sounds fading into view on a tumbling drum machine rhythm as a rolling bassline unfurls across the length of the track. The whole thing seems to drift by on a cosmic wind, bleeps intoning between the verses as Atkins'
gentle raps ride the rhythm in this gently pulsing astral hymn. Deep Space music, to coin a royal phrase. Stunningly beautiful, it flows quite naturally into our next record, which is the final way station before we reach our destination.
Back on R&S — this time with Basic Channel's Mortiz von Oswald in the engineering booth — Atkins delivers Sonic Sunset, his first extended sequence of solo material. Nominally an EP, with three versions of the title track, it clocks in at nearly an hour. Built on a rapid-fire synth sequence that seems to bounce across the rhythm's surface, Sonic Sunset spans the beatless freeform of the Calm Mix to the Cave Mix's dubbed-out reverb architecture (shades of Basic Channel). The Third Wave Mix, which I suspect to be the original version, is of a piece with Jazz Is The Teacher (those unpredictable rhythms a signpost for tech jazz).
Neptune's iridescent, hall-of-mirrors trip stretches out horizontally across its sprawling twelve minutes, sounding like trance music played at a disco pace. Also comparable to the ambient house moves of The Orb and Sun Electric, it affirms the implicit connection between Detroit, Berlin and London (a figure like Thomas Fehlmann moving freely between the three). The machines here left to spool out into infinity on a vector-plotted course, sounding like nothing so much as a deep space probe gliding through the deep black of space.
Rather appropriately for this deep space journey of a record, Sonic Sunset's longest track also happens to be its greatest treasure: I Wanna Be There, a skittering slab of motorik techno soul, lasts the better part of twenty minutes. Dig that nagging shuffle of a rhythm and the bassline bounce, parallaxing against those great twisting atmospheric synths in the background.
More than anything else here, it runs parallel to the proto-micro-house of Infiniti, albeit shot through with jazz-inflected shapes and a set of tender vocals from Atkins.
His delivery strikingly different here in comparison to his earlier man-machine moves, revealing Magic Juan the introspective soul man. Alongside those jazzed-out keys that dance across the surface, punctuating the groove even as as they spar with ethereal, flute-like sonics, it brings to mind the disco-era cosmic jazz moves of figures like Norman Connors and Idris Muhammad, rebuilt and rewired for the 21st century. Kompakt funk, to a man. The whole trip takes us through the final stretch of our journey, setting the stage perfectly as we arrive at our destination....
This is Juan Atkins' debut album... now you're in Deep Space.
You switch on the music. Surfing in on a great wash of synthesized stardust, the ethereal chords of Milky Way drift across the soundscape before a gently shuffling drum machine rhythm comes into focus. This is liquid techno soul, soaring upon Atkins' trademark synth architecture and drums a tad tougher than you might expect. Computer sonics thread the groove within the groove, and post-Herbie Hancock sequences hop across the spaces between the spaces. It all fits in perfectly with what Carl Craig was up to circa Landcruising and More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art, particularly songs like At Les and Science Fiction.
Notably, the track was co-written with fellow Detroit icon Kevin Saunderson. This at the height of Deep Space Radio, a recurring show that found the Deep Space Crew (rounded out by Atkins, Saunderson and Derrick May) bringing techno music to terrestrial airwaves. Undoubtedly, those heady vibes can be felt in this record as strongly as they could Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio (a mix album dedicated to enshrining the show's vision on disc for posterity) a couple years later.
As if that weren't enough, Milky Way was mixed by the great François Kevorkian. It certainly does have a touch of the cosmic about it. Cosmic jazz? Cosmic disco? You got it. Above all else, this gently unfolding deep space psychedelia often reminds me of peak-era Neptunes (during the whole Star Track trip they'd kick off a few years later) at their most blissed out. Needless to say, very strong SA-RA vibes are in evidence throughout as well.
A bubbling synth rises from the silence, heralding the arrival of the next track. With a pulsing 4/4 groove punctuated by a clanking sound one might encounter on a Rob Hood record, Orbit is on a slightly minimalist trip. One might even notice shades of Basic Channel in there somewhere. However, the strongest signal I'm getting here is from Jazz Is The Teacher. Despite it's minimalist intent, Orbit's got that unpredictable, anything-can-happen feel of the 3MB record. Maybe it's the splashing hi-hats, maybe those synths bubbling under, maybe even the crystalline synths that drift into the mind's eye every so often, but it's unmistakably there.
Until it isn't, of course, as Orbit collapses into a bubbling pool of synth and texture receding into the horizon. A menacing acid line rises from the chaos, announcing the arrival of The Flow.
Which is quite simply incredible. A perfect fusion of Kraftwerk and Janet Jackson, this is the Ur-text of machine soul. A shading of struck bells and that menacing electronic sequence drive crisp 808 beats that couldn't sound any more different from 1995 r&b if they were produced by Steve Reich. Of course a year later, Timbaland would single-handedly make it the sound of cutting edge r&b, bringing the form into the 21st century a few years early.
Aisha Jamiel's vocals alternate between spoken word and songbird (which becomes doubly haunting for the ethereal chorus) just like Missy Elliott would on Supa Dupa Fly two years later. The sonic similarities to Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) are undeniable as well, with The Flow recalling Atkins earlier opus only s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n considerably, making it the definitive link between Metroplex and One In A Million, and as such the cornerstone of machine soul.
Notably, The Flow spawned three separate 12" singles, featuring a bevy of remixes spread across them. You get a deliciously retro electro workout from the Jedi Knights, a jazzy drum 'n bass reading from Alex Reece, Frank De Wulf's proto-speed garage mix, a Howie B. machine funk take and two hard-edged speedfreak mixes from Underworld. However, the best remix is by Magic Juan himself.
The G-Funk Mix a wall-shaking house party monster jam, featuring a lascivious bass groove yoked to a Zapp-inflected robot voice. Aisha Jamiel's vocals duel with a jazzy Rhodes up and down the groove. Atkins grasp of the dynamics here quite simply impeccable, this ought to have gotten serious radio play. Shame, really. Along with J Dilla, who had a shaping influence on both Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope and D'Angelo's Voodoo, their impact didn't break through to the popular consciousness. Like krautrock, innit?
Still, it makes perfect sense that the era's r&b would have some serious Motor City vibes lurking just below the surface. Shades of The Velvet Underground & Nico... peel slowly and see.
Warning follows with a similar spirit to Orbit's, The Flow bookended by two erratic slabs of minimalist jazz electronica. Another high-pitched sliver of Rob Hood-recalling noise taps out a rhythm across a bouncing pendulum of clockwork synthesizer. These great detuned synths seem to squeeze up from beneath the cracks in the rhythm like iridescent magma. Still jazzed-out, but tweaked to abstraction. Playing like a tone poem, there's shades of onomatopoeia to the whole affair. Think Drexciya's Draining Of The Tanks or X-103's Eruption: this is a synthetic recreation of the events depicted in its title. You're on red alert.
At the last moment, you're carried away on the sweet sway of Astralwerks, a nebula of a track, an enigma, with rolling rhythms that seem to split the difference between downbeat and junglist double-time the way a certain Tim Mosley would a year later. The synths seem to speed up and slow down with the rhythm, the whole effect pleasantly disorienting. It's of a piece with the ambient jungle of A Guy Called Gerald circa Black Secret Technology, 4 Hero circa Parallel Universe and Jacob's Optical Stairway (a 4 Hero one-off that featured Atkins on The Fusion Formula).
The spectre of drum 'n bass hangs over the entirety of this record, in fact. I suspect that the unpredictable rhythmic danger felt throughout is sourced in jungle as much as it is in jazz. There's almost a sense of Atkins raising his game to match the innovations of the U.K.'s junglist auteurs. Noteworthy also the explicit drum 'n bass connections in the shape of 12" remixes by Wax Doctor and Alex Reece.
Starlight is similarly forward-thinking work, this time in a thoroughly Basic Channel mode. Built on a gently chugging rhythmic figure, the melody is carried by a single synth pulsing at regular intervals as its run through the filters. Sailing on a solar wind in perpetual motion, the whole thing so slight but profound. It's worth noting that from the prior tune onward, the remaining tracks on this album are engineered by Moritz von Oswald. Nowhere is that more evident than on Starlight, which even got a 12" release on Metroplex with a remix from Oswald.
One thing that's always intrigued me about Starlight is how much it sounds like an Infiniti record. There's that same sense of linear expanse stretching across a great horizontal plane that one finds in tunes like Moon Beam or Think Quick. In fact, it's an even more skeletal outing than even most of the Infiniti output, with the same x-ray architecture that Oswald and Mark Ernestus had essayed in Basic Channel. As one might expect, this sense is amplified in the Moritz Mix on the 12", with its striking tonal shifts and great caverns of reverb.
Fans of Isolée, Luomo and Villalobos would love both versions of Starlight, which have the same shimmering, tactile quality one finds in Beau Mot Plage, Tessio and Dexter. Like I was saying before, Kompakt funk. Fascinating the way this record weaves its micro-house and machine r&b shapes together, envisioning an unlikely sonic pact between the two forms before they'd even fully come into their own. The juxtaposition certainly makes far more sense in 2018 than it would have at the time. But then, they don't call Juan AtkinsThe Originator for nothing...
Last Transport To Alpha Centauri, which plays like a downbeat, deconstructed take on the earliest Metroplex releases, is to No UFO's as Funk Gets Stronger Part 1 is to Flash Light. It's a great little piece of electronic funk that very strongly recalls Kraftwerk circa Computer World, but with a glitch in the machine. There certainly seems to be a fair bit of mischief about it, the delivery executed with a wink and a nod.
The record's penultimate track is a tight edit of I Wanna Be There, which you'll remember originally appeared on Sonic Sunset. Within the context of the record, it's the mirror image of The Flow, an r&b-inflected pop song at sea in abstraction. The third of the singles from this record (after Starlight and The Flow), the I Wanna Be There features an aqua tint drum 'n bass mix from Wax Doctor and a lush tech jazz rework from Dave Angel. Once again, however, the kicker is the remix by the man himself. Stripping the track down to a sleek spacecraft simplicity, Atkins aligns it even more closely with Infiniti's digital micro-funk moves.
Which are also writ large on Lightspeed, the closing track to the Deep Space saga. Fusing the celestial atmospherics of Starlight with the shuffling catch-up groove Milky Way, it's as if the scrambled memories of the record are being rearranged in the slipstream across the dark side of Jupiter. Beyond the infinite. With just a snatch of almost subliminally funky bass and the occasional synth shimmer, it's the perfect ending to this intergalactic voyage.
As I said before, Deep Space feels more futuristic with every passing year. At the time, one might not have noted the implicit connections made between Pony, Beau Mot Plage and Finley's Rainbow, but with the benefit of hindsight, they're all here clear as crystal. Somewhere in the record's DNA lie the whisper of future figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk, Spacek and the music they would bring. Juan Atkins mapped out this strange point of intersection where cosmic r&b, shimmering micro-house, electronic jazz and straight up techno all collide to form the basis of machine soul: the art form of the 21st century. You're in deep space.
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 traveling 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, reveling 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 particularly 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 heat waves 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.
Terminal Vibration 4: Rockers Revenge
A Certain RatioFlightFactory
ESGMoody Spaced Out99
VortexBlack Box DiscoNeutral
Ian Dury And The BlockheadsHit Me With Your Rhythm StickStiff
The ContortionsContort YourselfZE
MinutemenMore JoyNew Alliance
Gang Of FourReturn The GiftEMI
Delta 5Train SongKill Rock Stars
Bush TetrasSnakes Crawl99
The Red Hot Chili PeppersBlackeyed BlondeEMI
Iggy PopAfrican ManArista
Grandmaster & Melle MelWhite Lines Don't Don't Do ItSugar Hill
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.
I remember being quite impressed when Woebot included them in his The 100 Greatest Records Ever list, 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!
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!
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), which flooded the racks and stocked jukeboxes by the truckload. The Opinionated Diner once quipped that the 7" is the spiritual ancestor of the mp3,1 a sentiment that makes perfect sense.
The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry — and proving ground — for breaking artists. This was the format with which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts, and tiny upstart labels like Stax and Motown could crack the mainstream wide open. 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).2 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 Solitude3 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.'sGreen Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook). After all, where would we be without Norman Whitfield's great productions on records like The Temptations' Cloud Nine, which were — alongside James Brown and Sly Stone's innovations — crucial stepping stones on the path to 70s soul?
Ah yes, the 1970s. 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 ongoing Parliament/Funkadelic saga.
Even reggae — that stalwart of the 7" single — was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, with killer records like Burning Spear's self-titled debut, The Upsetters' Blackboard Jungle Dub and Dr. Alimantado's Best Dressed Chicken In Town all making a profound impression, even 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 tablets 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.
Similarly, 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 simply can't knock the digital perfection of Virgo's self-titled album from 1989, while Fingers Inc.'s Another Side remains a touchstone of soul-inflected machine music — a true tour de force — predicting whole swathes of nineties music from Ginuwine to Chez Damier.
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 and Carl Craig's More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art to Bandulu's Cornerstone and Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarly, 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 Case4 really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. Gerald Simpson even had a royal pair of superb jungle albums in 28 Gun Bad Boy and Black Secret Technology.
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. When I think of this era, Moodymann's Silentintroduction and Octave One's The Living Key To Images From Above are usually the first two albums that come to mind. 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, Outkast'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.
There exists a particular sound that seems to leap out the speakers in vivid colors, engulfing its surroundings and drawing you into its world. I've come to refer to this as the day-glo sound. There's a four dimensional character to it... you can hear the neon in the air around you. It's something that's captured my imagination from day one, and I've been wanting to pull these records together for some time now. They tend to spring from the intersection of new wave and the dancefloor (at least initially), but in truth you might find them just about anywhere, from rap to techno and machine soul.
The reason I find this particular sound to be crucial is that it manages to spark up brilliant images in the mind's eye even as it throws spectacular shapes across the dancefloor. This is music for the mind, body and soul. It's verdant and full of life, with a four-dimensional depth that's thoroughly engrossing. Indeed, it's no surprise that some of the greatest pop music has keyed into this sound. It's particularly germane to the present moment, and I wouldn't be surprised if it pointed a way out of the quandary music currently finds itself in.
Rather appropriately, we begin our survey at the dawn of the eighties. There are bits and pieces from earlier records that may hint in the general direction, but they ultimately belong to a parallel lineage (one that I plan to discuss sometime next month). It's in the eighties that the day-glo aesthetic truly catches fire, coloring each of these records from the sleeves on down to the sonics held within. In rough chronological order then...
If we're talking day-glo, then there's no better place to start than with The Beat. Coming from the late-seventies ska revival (as spearheaded by The Specials and their Two-Tone stable of artists), they stand out by virtue of their sumptuous sonic palette. The Specials debut — with its stark black-and-white sleeve design and Elvis Costello's no-frills live-in-the-studio production — was thoroughly monochromatic working week music. From the baleful tenor of Concrete Jungle to the dead-end doldrums of Too Much Too Young, it was packed with no-nonsense photo-realistic documentary reportage.
In contrast, I Just Can't Stop It leaps out the speakers in vivid shades of violet and magenta, like neon lights dancing against the jet black of night. Mirror In The Bathroom, from the production on down, must be one of the most futuristic records ever produced. With five humans locked into the metronomic pulse of Everett Morton's drums and David Steele's creeping basslines, it almost seems to approach a state of machine music in its motorik drive and clockwork precision, with every texture clutching at your ear and pulling you deeper into its world.
You can sense the glitz of disco seeping into the post punk vanguard here,1 cementing the day-glo aesthetic that would color so much of the decade's music. An affinity with Giorgio Moroder's motor-disco, the spangled shapes of Prelude and above all the tropical, dubbed-out sounds of the nascent Island disco output can be felt throughout. The music spread across the entirety of this LP seems to exude a balmy glow, practically defining the word vibrant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it remains one of my absolute favorite pure pop records of all time.
This is the point where post-disco morphs into eighties electro-boogie (see also Kleeer/Universal Robot Band, along with everything going down in Minneapolis at the time). You're The One For Me maintains the metronomic linearity of disco, lacking the top-heavy verticality of eighties electrofunk, but its machine rhythms do bear a striking resemblance to those of the electro boom looming on the horizon.
James Williams' soaring vocals swoop and glide over spangled synthetic shapes, wired into that central electronic groove, while Hubert Eaves III (the man behind the seventies jazz funk tile Esoteric Funk) gets busy on the keys. The instrumental version even begins with a liquid synth figure that sounds like loose wires shooting electricity across the third rail, kicking off a wild subway ride into the depths of the New York night.
Indeed, the whole Prelude aesthetic sits comfortably within the day-glo realm, from the rambunctious electronic shapes of The Strikers' Body Music, shifting and burning over tight mechanical rhythms, to the more organic sounds of Empress' Dyin' To Be Dancin', still firmly grounded as they are in the rules of disco proper.
Much of it has a vivid, compact clarity that seems to predict the architecture of eighties dance, but D-Train's You're The One For Me represents that crucial step forward, heralding a sea change in the way dance records would be constructed. Just compare 1980's Gap Band III to 1982's Gap Band IV, Cameosis to Alligator Woman or even Off The Wall to Thriller!
Another well-documented favorite of mine. It's also another singular pop record shaped in disco's shadow, combined with the arch grandeur of film music in an overwhelming clash of sonics. A definite case where the sleeve really captures the sumptuous moods found within. This music suggests ornate ice sculptures spiraling into the sky, crammed with so much richness of detail that they threaten to come crashing down at any moment, while Billy MacKenzie's shrieks pierce through their crystalline corridors with wild abandon. Every texture seems to pulsate fiercely, wherein unstable elements garland paranoia and raging emotion: this is blacklight affair music.
Songs like It's Better This Way and Skipping careen at a furious pace, seeming to combine euphoria and dread into a single emotion, every surface shimmering like storm clouds caught in a ray of sunlight. Conversely, No and Gloomy Sunday glide along at a more stately pace — with MacKenzie almost seeming to revel in his grief — but are no less overwhelmingly powerful for it. Every corner of the record is imbued with a raging intensity, as if all the colors — shades of blue, green and violet — were burning too bright to last for long. The dreamlike Party Fears Two is something like the embodiment of this sensation.
The CD reissue includes a wealth of bonus material (up there with Fifth Dimension's bonus tracks in terms of enhancing the original album experience), including an astoundingly raw early version of It's Better This Way (titled The Room We Sat In Before) and the moody instrumental Grecian 2000. The former is a splendid showcase for Alan Rankine's guitar finesse, as he strangles strange tangled shapes from his instrument, while the latter is a masterpiece of electronic noir: a captivating post-disco pulse cloaked in a haunting synth refrain, evoking paranoid pursuit through deserted city streets in the dead of night.
Needless to say, it's exactly the sort of thing we dig here at The Parallax Room.
The Island disco sound that I'd mentioned in passing while discussing The Beat, was in large part fueled by the inimitable Compass Point All Stars. The All-Stars were a crucial conduit through which both discomix reggae and dubbed-out vibes entered the eighties mainstream, and everything they touched was shot through with lush tropical flavor and a new wave glow. They backed Gwen on her first three albums (Gwen Guthrie, Portrait and Just For You), picking up where they left off with Grace Jones' excellent Island trilogy (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life).
The Padlock mini-album finds Larry Levan remixing a selection of tracks from Gwen's first two LPs into one extended atmospheric trip. The production here conjures up images of a steamy dancehall bathed in primary colors as viewed through a fun house mirror, evoking the spirit of Levan's Paradise Garage in its verdant, gently psychedelic atmosphere.2 The abstract machinery of dub remains in full effect throughout, righteously casting this cutting edge post-disco boogie as the head music of the eighties. Just keep in mind, this is the sort of head music that you can't help but dance to.
Tracks like Getting Hot, with those glimmering electronic flourishes spiraling out into infinity, and Peanut Butter, riding atop those insane rolling basslines, both burn with a raw, almost tactile sensuality. Hopscotch appears here in its most minimal version, while the title track (as featured on Parallax Pier) gives you a front-row seat at Club Paradise. When Gwen sings We'll sail away to shores... in Seventh Heaven, backing synths pouring through in a rush of sunlight, it's as if the feeling of pure ecstasy has been captured on wax.
Soul woman Barbara Mason had a history in the seventies as a no-nonsense truth-talker, rough hewn and down in the nitty gritty, smoldering with hard-won intensity on records like Shackin' Up and Caught In The Middle. Coming out nearly a decade later, Another Man is a sequel of sorts to her ballad She's Got The Papers I Got The Man, picking up where that tune left off — once the dust had settled on its romantic intrigue — with a humorous tale of infidelity and the realization that she really might not be his type after all.
Another Man has the shadowy, dubbed-out flavor you'd expect from a West End record, but it's wired to a cutting edge electroid groove that seems to be infused with hot pink liquid neon. Like D-Train's You're The One For Me, it's another killer late-period record from a disco powerhouse label that seems to cavort with electro in the half-light, laying out a blueprint for the future in the process. Notorious B.I.G. later used its sleek, depth-charging groove as the basis for his hit record Another, but trust me — you need to hear the original tune in all its glory.
The title track is rightly celebrated as a masterpiece of atmospheric machine soul (especially The After 6 Mix Juicy Fruit Part II version), while its striking music video3 perfectly captures the whole aesthetic on showcase tonight: day-glo and neon burning in the twilight. The florid magenta hues of those jackets they're wearing on the sleeve give you the first clue as to the vibes found within. Fog hangs over late night city streets bathed in neon. Cars creep in slow-motion by while the sounds of the corner disco seep out into the wider world, coloring the evening of the passers by.
This is post-disco funk music, fueled by rubberband basslines and twilight atmosphere (it's after six), cutting edge for its time it remains a pungent sound full of possibilities in the present. From Green Light's nimble, sure-footed boogie to the low key sway of Ready For Your Love, the group slide from dancefloor to bedroom with impeccable finesse. It all flows together so naturally, even as they take you to some unexpected places along the way (Hip Dip Skippedabeat is an electrofunk monster with a proto-rap that — in a strange twist of fate — recalls Lightnin' Rod's Hustlers Convention), that you can't help but get caught up in their moonlight vision. Without a doubt one of the great funk LPs of its era.
Compass Point's main keyboard man Wally Badarou strikes solo with an instrumental excursion that bravely expands on the groundwork laid out by the earlier Compass Point records, meshing lush jungle atmospherics with the power grid of the city. It's a rather astonishing tune to drop smack in the middle of the eighties, as it seems to predict whole swathes of the next decade's beat-oriented music even as it remains grounded in the gloriously lush post-disco climes of its day. The best of both worlds, in other words.
The original version — from his 1984 LP Echoes — was excellent, but the Vine Street mix on this 12" takes it to a higher plane altogether. When the verse's sleek groove unfolds into that insouciant low key moonwalk during the chorus — synths bathed in hypnotic half-light — it's as if you're gliding three feet above the ground. That it was released on 4th & Broadway is a perfect touch, as this was the label that would deftly navigate post-disco waters in the interzone between hip hop and house (charting the emergence of swingbeat and trip hop along the way). Rather appropriate for a record that plays like a roadmap to the future.
The original version, firmly of-its-era modern soul, gets stretched and spaced-out into timelessness by Andy Sojka (owner of Elite Records), Chris Madden and Keni Stevens himself at The Madhouse. The Ultra-Sensual Mix flows from its vocal to instrumental version flawlessly, recalling the low key half-lit brilliance of Lowrell's Mellow Mellow Right On when that tune memorably stretched out into its extended instrumental coda.
The central groove has been stripped down to an ultra-light frame and rebuilt like a graceful aero-glider, with not one element out of place. This has always struck me as something of a sister record to Barbara Mason's Another Man, those same sleek machine shapes grooving gently in the shadows. Yeah, I've gone on before about its rolling deep blue vectors bathed in moonlight, and yeah it's something of a touchstone around these parts; it's still a tremendous record. Paradise and polygons, you're in the grid now.
Early Detroit bizzness, which finds Juan Atkins picking up where he left off with Cybotron and No UFO's, venturing even deeper into nocturnal atmosphere and dubbed-out electronic shapes. Night Drive Thru-Babylon is surely one of the key records of eighties. It's just perfect, with Atkins' narration riding atop an elegant, starkly minimal electroid groove.
He's bombing up and down deserted Detroit streets, encountering strange freaks and existential loneliness in the darkness. That beat, a perfection of the electro structure, glides along like a rebuilt street racer. The vessel is cast deep blue on black, rushing past in luminescent streaks on the highway, everything bathed in scattered rays of unnatural moonlight. You're feeling the dread in that bassline, tronix swooping and rising like sparks over shimmering synth surfaces in otherworldly harmony, and your hands slowly tighten on the wheel...
Late eighties post-disco action produced by Bob Blank (of Blank Tape Studios), with the fingerprints of one Arthur Russell in evidence throughout. Certainly many other Russell tracks could qualify here — the cavernous shapes of Dinosaur L's Corn Belt and Indian Ocean's madly abstract Treehouse/School Bell spring to mind immediately — but this one's low key brilliance sits most comfortably among present company. Its swirling texture and slow-motion groove seem to evoke the feeling of floating underwater,4 and as is usually the case when Russell is involved, that water is gonna be deep (inna Larry Heard stylee).
Every texture pulses, throbbing against that gently chugging rhythm like unsteady electrical current running through a wavering light bulb. Think early Carl Craig, particularly the Gaussian blurred strokes of his Retroactive and Psyche/BFC material, but here everything is vivid and hyper-textured. Lola Blank's untamed vocals burst in and out of the mix as if she were inhabited by different personalities, while Arthur Russell does his inimitably subtle backing vocal thing (see also Loose Joints' Is It All Over My Face) throughout, poised just on the edge of the mix and weaving around Lola's breezily captivating lead to satisfyingly hypnotic effect.
Such a beautiful record, filled with the most absorbing house music you could imagine, made simply and elegantly by two Chicago kids armed with not much more than a DX-7 synth and a TR-707 drum machine. The Virgo album is essentially an expansion on the Ride EP, doubling the tracklist and stretching out into a thoroughly engrossing, immersive sonic trip. Sure, the gorgeous sleeve gives tantalizing clues as to the sounds held within, but dropping the needle on the record still never fails to take my breath away.
Do You Know Who You Are?, cloaked in lush synths cast in deep aquamarine, throws smooth shapes at placid angles off the clubhouse walls; it's as if you've passed through a door into the backroom and wound up on the far side of the galaxy. Tracks like In A Vision and Ride persist on a course through deep space, with luminescent textures routed through a hall of mirrors, cascading gently into infinity.
Starting with Ride, a handful of songs feature murmured vocals, feeling like a soft-focus take on what Jamie Principle had been up to during the preceding four or five years, placing sensitive, introspective men among the machines. Here, the duo fade into the mix like ghostly apparitions. All The Time is one such moody burner (vocals glide over the shifting ocean surface, locked onto the horizon), while Never Want To Lose You has the duo sneaking Bowie-esque into the foreground while an uncredited female vocalist intones acid house phrases like move your body! and listen to that beat!.
This lush machine soul reaches its twin peaks in both Going Thru Life — with those cascading synths and stark piano lines in spiral orbit over the deepest bassline you could imagine — while the warm geometric pulses of School Hall anchor a touching missive that surpasses even Kraftwerk's Computer Love in teaching machines to cry. There's this recurring moment when everything stops and the bassline just hangs there for a second — in suspended animation — before dropping back into the mix in a tumble of tones... oh man, it's one of my favorite things in the world.
More prime deep house, this time from New York's Mark Wilson. The whole Nu Groove aesthetic fits snugly within this realm (things like Rhythm Masters, The Sound Vandals and Bobby Konders' records spring to mind immediately). In fact, I often think that Nu Groove picked up on what the Compass Point All Stars had done and ran with it, bringing it into the nineties with their singular, multifaceted take on deep house. It's a sound that folds disparate strands of dub reggae, hip hop and r&b into its digital disco, offering up a definitive New York take on house music and a crucial stepping stone into the next decade.
Go directly to the New York Mix. Every surface is immaculate: that rolling bassline rides a gliding, shuffling rhythm with impeccable finesse, while underwater synths pulse deep in the background (making it feel something like a distant cousin to Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector). That oceanic synth — springing as it does from deep within the mix — certainly helps strengthen the comparison, sounding strikingly similar to the one rolling beneath long stretches of Badarou's track. Tons of tones tumble in and out of the ether, scattered against light reflected off the cityscape, as all surrounding entities are submerged into the deep. Shimmering and aquatic, this is underwater music for real.
The next node in the sequence brings us to the UK. So appropriate that this follows, as I've often thought that Dougans and Cobain's early records owe a huge debt to not only the Nu Groove aesthetic but also Compass Point's: they wired that same verdant, kaleidoscopic atmosphere into rave's kinetic breakbeats and the stark futurism of Detroit. This is where the two meet.
A definite cyberpunk flavor can be felt throughout, with shades of Cabaret Voltaire lurking between the cracks and of course Buggy G. Riphead's gorgeous artwork remaining a key period signifier. The Blade Runner vibes are most apparent in the shades of paranoia threaded throughout the record, and also in tracks like Moscow and Central Industrial, with the duo living up to their chosen name.
Accelerator is the culmination of all their early records, released under names like Humanoid, Mental Cube and Indo Tribe (indeed, many of these tracks had already appeared in various forms on the four volumes of The Pulse EPs). The opening track, Expander, rolls in on clouds of foreboding before dropping into a loose breakbeat groove, the unstable synth notes of the chorus spiraling out into crimson swirls.
On the flipside, Central Industrial closes the record with a staggering downbeat rhythm, each and every texture piercing into the darkness like an early prototype of the duo's Yage visions. In between lies all manner of magic, from the freewheeling calypso shapes of Stolen Documents (yet another track that seems to recall Badarou's Chief Inspector) to the sumptuous shades of While Others Cry, with its uncredited vocals seeming to connect literally to the tropical flair of Compass Point.
A key ingredient running through many of the tracks is a riverbed of percussion lying just below the surface, placed within dubbed-out caverns of echo (see tracks like It's Not My Problem and 1 In 8)5 while another is the near-constant stream of subspace breakbeats threaded through a 4/4 techno beat-matrix. Tracks like Calcium and Pulse State unveil shimmering vistas, hypnotic swirls of sound painted in vibrant color against Monet-like skies. These are some of the album's deepest moments, during which FSOL perfect a sort of rolling, filmic techno, as if a perpetual motion machine's course had been charted into the sunset.
Then there's the matter of Papua New Guinea, which rides a slice of gently unfurling breakbeat magic over a bassline lifted from Meat Beat Manifesto's Radio Babylon, prefiguring the path of rampant sampladelia the duo would engage in for the remainder of the decade. Further related capers can be found on its 12" single, with an excellent Dub Mix and the Journey To Pyramid version in particular shot through with the vivid colors of a certain day-glo psychedelia.
The one you want is Guido's Aquasonic Ice Rink Dub. Check that bassline, the awesome DX-100 bass sound that graced hundreds of records from the era, sparring with the nagging refrain of an after hours organ emerging in violet shades from the darkness. The vocal version is no less special, with the presence of an uncredited dancefloor diva wailing defiantly against the track's sumptuous nocturnal backdrop.
I still remember stumbling upon this record at an indispensable thrift shop (whose name eludes me) that once existed down the street from the Clairemont Library back when I worked there after school. The place was a goldmine of dance and hip hop promos that had apparently been shed by local DJs in an effort to pare down their collections. I used to drop by every Thursday during my lunch break and pull loads of killer garage and rap cuts for next to nothing, so I've gotta give props to those cats for hooking a young (broke) brother up back in the day.
Lush, melodic Bay Area hip hop. The cognoscenti seem to prefer his earlier Playaz N The Game, but I reckon that this one's his masterpiece. Every surface seems to exude a warm glow as shapes shimmer in the darkness and colors get scattered at random. From the title on downwards, it's as if JT had immersed himself in the studio on a mission to conjure up the most amazingly vibrant sounds possible, smearing the rough-hewn edges of these homespun studio mixes into a sleek flow of rolling machine music. The result is casually psychedelic, but electrofunk tight.
All techno heads must hear Root Of All Evil immediately. Like E-40's In A Major Way, with its astonishing shades of Drexciya atmosphere, this seems to share an affinity with those same plangent computer sonics (via West Coast rap's roots in electro). The drums snap with a quintessential coastal crispness that dates back to the days of Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover, while the bass itself seems to melt into the spaces between.
JT's tight flow is augmented here by guest spots from Rappin' 4-Tay and San Quinn, along with other Bay Area luminaries like E-40, Mac Mall and Celly Cell elsewhere on the record, while shadowy figure The Enhancer crops up behind the boards on both Representing and the aforementioned Root Of All Evil. Free-flowing horizontal grooves like Ain't Something Wrong and Bay Area Playaz perfectly capture the feeling of cruising down the 5 as the late afternoon blurs into evening, the world half-lit somewhere between darkness and daylight (like in the movies), while the sun and moon ease onto the horizon at opposite ends of the sky.
Glorious technoid house from Chicago original Marshall Jefferson, released on the heels of his Day Of The Onion album but surpassing it in every way. That's a whole mini-category right there... Robert Owens' I'll Be Your Friend and Romanthony's The Wanderer spring to mind immediately. At any rate, I suppose that trilogy sits so comfortably together also because they're each instances of brilliant house artistes operating at the peak of their powers to forge masterful statements of futurist soul. All three of them stone cold classics.
The Horse is a fast-forward house rhythm, 909 snares bouncing everywhere — sparks shooting royal blue into the night, every surface glistening — and evoking the feeling of careening at top speed down the freeway in the middle of the night. The flipside almost sounds like something Kevin Saunderson might have knocked off during the same era — just think of The Dream, or even the E-Dancer remix of Blackwater — with a grinding bassline and rough cut percussion battling in full effect throughout.
Pairing these tunes together was a stroke of genius, as the 12" taken as a whole seems to stand astride the twin worlds of house and techno, its unshakable trancelike shapes shimmering gloriously in the milieu of late-nineties dance.
Around the turn of the century, the minimal sound of micro-house revealed itself to be one of the leading hot spots in dance music for a spell. In truth, it's a sound that had been bubbling under for the better part of five years, but its sleek, gliding surfaces seemed the perfect sound to take house into the 21st century. Labels like Force Tracks and Kompakt became powerhouses, practically defining the sound in the public imagination.
The form threw up loads of great 12"s and even a handful of excellent albums, but — with the possible exception of Isolée's Rest — this one is my absolute favorite. It's a wholly surreal record that slips and slides through six deeply hypnotic missives of luminescent alien disco, perfectly capturing the state between consciousness and sleep... when dreams can bleed out into reality. Every track lasts ten minutes or longer, gliding on liquid machinery and fixed to the endless horizon, pairing lush machine shapes with seductive (and uncredited) human vocals.
The jazzed-out, three-dimensional electronic chords of Market set the stage, sparring with a squelching bass figure that gradually gains momentum, before swooping into a kinetic groove at the track's midpoint that seems to rearrange itself before your eyes. Getting down to the root of the matter, the flowing motorik drive of The Right Wing is closest thing here to the dubbed out techno of Basic Channel, who without question had a profound influence on the whole micro-house/minimal scene.6
Luomo share a similar mastery of the architecture of atmosphere, and employ it on a shadowy dancefloor half-lit in the moonlight under the stars. My absolute favorite moment, Synkro, is also the record's most spacious, with fathoms deep disco set adrift in a neon haze. Every element so lush that you feel as if you're swimming in its fluid textures as they tumble and cascade over one another. The mix practically defines the term four-dimensional.
Matching the deft play of mood and texture throughout this record is some truly stellar songcraft. Even without its heady production, Tessio would make for an excellent pop song. With the production factored in, the track is quite simply mind-bending, scattering those spongy bass tattoos — that seem to slide and shift gears beneath a clicking rhythm track — all across the soundscape, as two mystery singers engage in a fractal duet. Listening in feels like you're surfing waves of blurred emotion.
Throughout their tenure as Atlanta's unofficial hip hop ambassadors, Outkast had traded in verdant shapes and sounds. As far back as ATLiens, and even on their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, their music always seemed to exude a warm neon glow. Stankonia is the culmination of everything the duo had been up to during the nineties, and finds them descending even deeper into a sort of psychedelic machine soul.
The vibrant technicolor dream of Ms. Jackson is universally known (and deservedly so) — its lush sonic imagery could be heard everywhere at the time — and to this day it remains a masterpiece. The spectre of Prince looms large throughout, not only in Andre 3000's vocal moves but also in the record's dense, multi-faceted synth-led sound. Indeed, songs like Ms. Jackson and Humble Mumble seem imbued with the spirit of Paisley Park.
The electra glide textures of Zapp, Mtume and Kleeer, are in evidence throughout, laying the groundwork for the next decade's glorious blurring of hip hop, funk and r&b. I'll Call Before I Come gets into undeniable Atomic Dog territory, but Stankonia goes even deeper into the realm of Funkadelic with the twisted psychedelic soul of the title track. Between its Eddie Hazel/Jimi Hendrix guitar figure and that wailing group chant, it conjures the same dread vibes as March To The Witch's Castle and predicts Brain On Drugs a couple years ahead of schedule.
This long, strange trip curdles with Red Velvet's gnarled computer funk and the strung out psychedelic soul of Toilet Tisha, offering a starkly modern update of Superfly for the new millennium. Perhaps nothing sums up the record quite like ?, a strange junglist sketch and the album's shortest track, it's title hovering over these proceedings like a spotlight... hinting perhaps that even to this day, Stankonia remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma: try as you might, you'll never get to the bottom of this one.
Seeing these last three records together makes the turn of the century seem like some sort of golden age! Well, I suppose it was, after all. Jaxx's debut Remedy was easily the better record, but its sonics were sourced in wild pitch house and seventies disco (with Rendezvous and Red Alert coming on like turbo-charged Studio 54 gear).
Rooty, on the other hand, seemed informed by the new wave eighties (with the duo at the time referring to their sound as punk garage), and moves beyond house into a sort of crazed maximalist boogie (I think they've got the kitchen sink in there somewhere). Which, of course, makes it right at home in present company...
Hard-edged tracks like Where's Your Head At (built around a renegade Gary Numan riff) and Get Me Off roll with reckless abandon through the gutters of the red light district, trading in just the sort of sleazy, low-slung glamour that I wish pop could manage to muster in 2016 (although next year will be another story altogether, I'm sure of it... fingers crossed!).
Like contemporary Outkast, the duo channel Prince in Breakaway, sounding like a wild fairground ride experienced through a cracked fun house mirror, while the album-opening Romeo recalls Sheila E. Coming on like Remedy gone freestyle, its squelching synths seem shot through with hot pink liquid neon.
Two years earlier, Jaxx paid tribute to the machine soul moves of Timbaland with U Can't Stop Me, a strung out slice of stop-start machine funk built on an approximation of the man's trademark spidery beat matrix. Circa 2001, it looked like they'd returned the favor, with Timbaland's work on Missy Elliott's 4 My People and The Neptunes' productions for Britney Spears (Toxic, in particular) sounding like dead ringers for the relentless house sound of Basement Jaxx.
Golden age is right!
That initial run of Metro Area EPs were excellent, picking up where The Driving Memoirs left off, but introducing an expansiveness to the proceedings and opening up the soundscape considerably. This record is a culmination of those earlier releases, encapsulating a very special time with incredibly crisp, deep production that stands comfortably with the best records of the turn-of-the-eighties era that it's so clearly inspired by.
Dan Selzer's stunning sleeve art really captures the mood here, all those half-lit mystery dancefloors out of the past, present and future. I played this one over and over at the time, even if I thought that Morgan Geist's contemporary Moves EP was even better. Now I'm not so sure. This is one of those records that takes a sound previously confined to 12" singles and tucked away on b-sides and gives it room to breathe across an entire double-LP.
The record kicks off with two tracks featuring the tight string arrangements of Kelley Polar. I've always though that Dance Reaction sounded a bit like a long lost dub of Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough. The first record seems to emphasize live musicianship, with everything from piano to terse vocal harmonies and even acoustic guitar embellishing the warm, uncomplicated soundscapes. Piña rides a Latin piano figure before slipping into Spanish guitar for the placid, dreamy coda. Itis Tandoor's live percussion runs through half the tracks here, opening up the sound considerably into a tactile, physical experience.
The string section and live playing give way to gorgeous machine disco on the second record, where things get down and dirty in a moody stylee. Those bright spangled synths take over, bouncing off the nightclub walls all around the listener as if Super Breakout had gone musical. I've always thought that Soft Hoop was this record's quiet masterpiece, that spongy synth sparring with the bassline in chambers of the deep, while Atmosphrique traps the listener in its hall of mirrors with an almost psychedelic play of, you guessed it, atmosphere.
The closing Caught Up seems a fusion of both sides of this record, pairing the strings of the Kelley Polar Quartet and a gorgeous piano/organ duet with the rubberband synths and dubbed-out rhythms of the last four tracks in a moving conclusion to a quietly powerful record.
Nearly everything this crew put out would be eligible, but this one's here for a few reasons and they all have to do with the b-side, Death Of A Star SUPERNOVA. First, those blacklight synths that seem to spray across the track like day-glo champagne, bathing its chanted vocals even as they threaten to take center stage. Second, those guitar trills that seem to recall nothing so much as peak-era Duran Duran, driving the beat before shearing off into the distance.
Third, is the energy, the fire and the tune itself — after all, it wouldn't mean anything if it were just a finely executed pastiche — marking it out as one of the tunes of the decade. Conjuring images of some outer rim nightclub nestled among the stars, its cosmic disco spheres orbiting as they cast glimmering lights all across the firmament. And yea, this is another sleeve that perfectly illustrates everything the record's about.
This is the point where the day-glo impulse really came into focus again and began to catch fire underground, culminating in a lot of the best music from the last decade or so. The strung out auto-tune r&b of Double Dutch CO CO POPS predicts the sound of the latter half of the decade, even if I've never been crazy about it.
As usual, however, the instrumentals are something special. SA-RA Space Theme is a low-key entry in their line of astral jazz outings — picking up where Herbie Hancock and Dexter Wansel left off — sounding for all the world like Herbie and Sly Stone jamming circa Fresh. Hangin' By A String, on the other hand, comes on like liquid neon, staggering along on a stop-start beat it seems to have been synthesized from unstable, radioactive elements. Part of SA-RA's charm lies in the fact that no one else sounds remotely like them.
I liked the first Gorillaz record a lot, so at first I missed the dubbed-out vibes of Dracula and Clint Eastwood. I got over it pretty quick though, as this is very much the superior record. What's more, parts of it seemed to key into the machine funk of Kleeer and Mtume... who would have guessed!? Check that synth squiggle in Feel Good Inc., featuring De La Soul in fine form, rough house rhyming over an electroid beat that cuts out just in time for the acoustic Staring At The Sun-esque chorus.
The sound at first seems more stripped down than the first record, but its really just a sleeker, more aero-dynamic approach. Tracks like Kids With GunsNeneh Cherry and El Mañana are skeletal tunes built on spartan drum machine rhythms and glistening analogue tones. Opener Last Living Souls is cut from the same cloth, only in slow-motion. All Alone features Roots Manuva doing his bashment thang over roughneck breakbeat riddims and a garage bassline while Martina Topley-Bird swoops in angelic and sublime for the breakdown.
The masterful Dirty Harry is that rare track to feature a children's chorus that works, spiraling into electro-funk territory once it really gets going and sounding like a dream version of something from Whodini's Escape. When The Pharcyde's Bootie Brown drops in on the mic for the guest spot, a ragged breakbeat takes over with its grinding bass accompaniment.
Dare is just perfection. Clearly one of the finest songs of the decade, it seems to pick up where the Dazz Band left off before immersing it all in vast cathedrals of sound. The record goes through various twists and turns before ending in a bizarre Brian Wilson hinterland, with Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head featuring Dennis Hopper's narration (recalling old-time radio serials like Escape and The Mysterious Traveller) and the sumptuous Surf's Up moves of Don't Get Lost In Heaven, before swerving into the Rotary Connection-esque Broadway soul of the title track.
This double-CD (5xLP!!) album is the perfect distillation of decades of West Coast machine soul, ranging from the rolling basslines of g-funk to the computerized rhythms of electro, taking in the squiggling shapes of Solar Records, boogie and even mysterious shades of straight-up techno for good measure along the way.
Every track seems bathed in computer blue moonlight, wired up to neon (literally LAtrifying, as one song puts it) and drifting through a dreamlike haze. It's the perfect soundtrack to those late summer evenings spent cruising the sprawling web of city streets in the south side of California, just as dusk begins to fall, palm trees cycling by in the rear view mirror.
I certainly can't think of a record that better encapsulates the vibe of late afternoons and late nights down here in San Diego. It's the sound of crashing waves, the freeway stretching through rolling hills in burnt sienna and the grid of the city nestled within, the calm heat of the desert hanging wraithlike in the air. It's the sound of late night trips to your favorite taco shop, cruising down El Cajon Boulevard at midnight, or flipping through a stack of Parliament and Zapp records at your homeboy's spot. It's a million different memories all rolled into one, drifting bittersweet and beautiful out of the past like a mirage.
For instance, I Gots 2 Be Done Wit' U always takes me back to August of '95 and afternoons spent listening to One Way and Kleeer, soaking up their atmosphere while playing Atari 2600. Later I'd go roller-skating with my brother and our main man Gregory, the day seeming to stretch on forever.
Tracks like Spacecapades and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky seem to key into a stream of pure techno soul, as if the sounds of Detroit were refracted through the cool water of the Pacific Ocean to sound right at home in the Golden State. In a sense, it sheds some light as to why this music always made perfect sense to me, a kid growing up two-thousand miles away. Parts of this record bring back vivid memories of bombing around San Diego back in the day, listening to Model 500 and Drexciya in the moonlight, taking the longest route home to hear just one more song and stretch the magic out across the electric shades of the evening.
A wildly inconsistent record, but a fascinating one with an engaging sound, seeming to exist comfortably alongside SA-RA and Dâm-Funk in the context of 21st century machine soul. Its release was tucked away toward the end of a year that had already seen one Leslie LP, his self-titled debut. Transition was apparently inspired by a late-summer romantic affair and knocked out in an off-the-cuff series of sessions.
That its release was buried is the only way I can square the fact that it didn't bother the charts with songs like You're Not My Girl and Zodiac, sounding something like the hypothetical album Michael Jackson might have released between Thriller and Bad (circa Kleeer's Intimate Connection and The Isley's Between The Sheets).
Leslie made his name producing Cassie back in 2005, and after a few years he got the chance to launch a solo career of his own. This and the self-title debut came out during a period when I was mainlining on SA-RA and seeking out anything and everything in a similar vein. New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) had just seen release the previous year, featuring tracks produced by SA-RA, and it seemed like something special was in the air.
I remember when this and the Kid Cudi album dropped, and I was totally sold on their sleeve art from the jump: this had to be interesting. Actually, the sleeve is not a bad place to start if you're looking for a thumbnail sketch of the sounds held within, conjuring images of deep green vectors unfurling in slow-motion neon. The album-opening Never Gonna Break Up more than lives up to the anticipation, with Leslie slinging luminescent analogue synths across a gently chugging rhythm while doing his modern soul man routine on vocals. Leslie 's thing is switching between r&b vocals and quasi-raps, which suits his productions just fine.
A track like Sunday Night flows gracefully on moody synth swirls, while Nothing trades in almost new wave shapes. The new wave thing is actually in full effect throughout: All My Love even seems to recall New Order in its string/synth progression. The slow-burning post-disco boogie of You're Not My Girl just might be the finest thing here, rolling along on that nagging verse before slipping into its sublime refrain.
This lot have been the biggest surprise since SA-RA, coming out of nowhere with a killer record that sounds unlike anything else around. I've gone in depth on them before. Not much to add, but I still can't quite believe that they exist... and I don't understand why they aren't the biggest thing around right now. Sari and I have caught them live twice, and both shows were excellent in different ways. I suspect they can make any venue their own, their atmosphere seeps into every corner of the space.
Possibly the first group to spring fully-formed from within the day-glo aesthetic, rather than approaching from a tangent (be it post punk, disco, hip hop or rave). I've said before that they seem to build their songs out of texture as one would sculpt matter: everything here is like day-glo cast in gold and chrome liquid set against jet black skies, where everything glows gently.
It would have sounded incredible on the dancefloors of the Paradise Garage, yet it's perfectly at home in the context of now-pop, excelling most of the half-finished ideas that currently set the charts ablaze. This of-the-moment music exists in a continuum stretching back decades... nevertheless it sounds unlike anything that's come before.
Ranging from resolute floor-fillers like Busy Earnin', Time and Julia to moody burners like Accelerator, Drops and Platoon, Jungle imbue everything here with a sense of gravity and physicality. There's a deeply haunting nature running through these atmospheric reveries to the night. In effect, its a stone cold masterpiece. This crew are more than suited to take this sound screaming into the future, and I'm awaiting their next record more anxiously than any other. These are the things that dreams are made of.
Whereas before it was disco's method, its production techniques that were taken on board by the post punks: artists like PIL ejected the sunshine and engulfed their tracks in pure dread. Even The Human League were still making righteously strange synth music at this point — see 1980's Travelogue — at times Moroder-inflected yet stark and severe, with the full-on pop of Dare! still a year away.
This is part one (of two) in a series of loosely interconnected glimpses of the sonic revolution, where righteous protest and sonic exploration meet in time and space...
The resistance started in folk and the blues, stretching from songs like the 17th century Diggers' Song into the fourth decade of the 20th with Leadbelly's Jim Crow Blues, chronicling the ills of their day with a resolute spirit that vowed to one day reach the mountaintop.
Some years later, Billie Holiday kicked the door open into the mainstream with Strange Fruit, unmasking the horrors of the Jim Crow south with stark clarity shone right in the media glare. We will no longer be ignored. This spirit coursed through the veins of jazz to come, with Max Roach's We Insist! symbolically ringing in that decade of change with a demand for Freedom Now.
The whole modern folk tradition — which reached critical mass in the early 1960s — seems to stem from this same impulse, summed up in the spirit of a song like We Shall Overcome. It enters the realm of rock 'n roll via Bob Dylan's early records, featuring songs like The Times They Are A Changin' and Blowin' In The Wind, which had a profound impact on the likes of The Beatles and The Byrds.
San Francisco's acid rock seemed to split the difference between the two forms (via The Byrds' durable folk rock template and their Fifth Dimension ruminations on John Coltrane), particularly in the case of Jefferson Airplane, who lent songs like We Can Be Together, Mexico and Have You Seen The Saucers a razor sharp tone with a paramilitary edge. The contemporaneous Wooden Ships, a gentle slice of sun-glazed folk psychedelia written by the Airplane's Paul Kantner in conjunction with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, places two adversaries from an unnamed war alone together on an uninhabited island and marvels at their slow acceptance of one another in a true meeting of the minds.
The influence of this sort of West Coast folk psychedelia — blended with The Beatles — could be felt down south in Brazil's Tropicália movement and Argentina's psychedelic underground, and in both instances proved an aggravation to their countries' respective military dictatorships. In a climate of increased militarization and the pitched culture war of the times, Jefferson Airplane's Crown Of Creation seems to run the kaleidoscope of sixties idealism through an apocalyptic prism, offering a glimpse of seventies dread looming out there on the horizon.
This was the backdrop when Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. Shimmering Hendrix-penned numbers like Castles Made Of Sand, Bold As Love and the phantasm of 1983... A Merman I Should Turn To Be seem to paint across the cosmos the image of a world at peace, while the fiery flipside of the man's legacy could be felt entering the crucible of Michigan's factory cities, with the proto-punk onslaught of Detroit's MC5, Ann Arbor's Stooges and the working-class rock 'n roll of Flint's Grand Funk Railroad raising the stakes and turning up the volume. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a cold wind cut through Birmingham as Black Sabbath crawled from the darkness to chronicle a bleaker era of opposition with songs like War Pigs and Wicked World.
Now rewind for a moment to 1960s San Francisco, where Sly & The Family Stone made their glorious run of recordings that embody the spirit of righteous protest, records like A Whole New Thing (featuring the triumphant Underdog) and Stand!, which remains — along with their performance at Woodstock — some of the most life-affirming music you could ever hope to hear. The group exemplified the era's optimism and open-mindedness, with their integrated lineup and singular sound imbued with a driving funk soul spirit that touched on the rock 'n roll attitude of the contemporary San Francisco scene.
But in truth, soul's tradition of visionary protest stretches back even further. Sam Cooke famously penned A Change Is Gonna Come in 1964 after hearing Bob Dylan's Blowin' In The Wind, while The Impressions took things even deeper with Curtis Mayfield-penned numbers like Keep On Pushing and People Get Ready. True to spirit, this was empowerment as much as protest — empowerment as protest, even.
James Brown had his own anthem of empowerment in Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud, which caught fire in 1968 and later kicked off a series of of records stretching deep into the seventies, including The Payback, Revolution Of The Mind, Hell and The J.B.'sDamn Right I Am Somebody (the latter two are potent ruminations on the Watergate era, shot through with a deep sense of seventies dread).
Brown's righteous on-the-one funk of course had a profound effect on Fela Kuti, the storied revolutionary musician operating in Nigeria out of his Kalakuta Republic, who unleashed records like Roforofo Fight, Expensive Shit and Zombie that remain searing indictments of government corruption and brutality to this day.
Edwin Starr's War seemed to picked up where Sly Stone's driving rock soul workouts left off, with a rousing call to (dis)arm riding a peak-period Norman Whitfield production, while The Chambers Brothers' The Time Has Come offered one of the great signposts of the era with its title track1 — a signpost of rock-inflected soul in a Sly & The Family Stone stylee.
All of this was taken to its logical conclusion with the wild seventies excursions of George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic empire, with records like America Eats It Young and Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow sprawling out into a singular acid-fried vision of seventies unrest.
At the dawn of that decade, this impulse went into soul supernova, with Curtis Mayfield's eponymous solo debut — featuring the triumphant Move On Up — and the subsequent Curtis/Live!, its extended reflections on the troubles of the world matched by Mayfield's graceful determination. Something special happens when songs like We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue, We're A Winner and I Plan To Stay A Believer mix with his gentle between-song banter, and you can glimpse a beautiful future in the record's grooves. It's the sound of hope in the face of hard times, digging deep to Keep On Keeping On and trying to somehow make the world a better place.
Marvin Gaye picked up the baton with What's Going On, a glorious song cycle that captured the mood of the day in elegiac style, opening the door at Motown for Stevie Wonder's stunning sequence of seventies records. Check out Innervisions, with the rough and tumble stomp of Living For The City — capturing a gritty slice of urban life in its tough seven minutes — and the gorgeously plaintive Visions, a song that dares to envision a world in which hate's a dream and love forever stands.
Former TemptationEddie Kendricks continued this thread with the hypnotic chant People... Hold On, a resolute march to empowerment, while back in Chicago, Syl Johnson hit hard in 1970 with Is It Because I'm Black. Featuring the melancholic strains of title track and the majestic grandeur of Concrete Reservation and I'm Talkin' Bout Freedom, it was a record that bubbled deep underground before gradually picking up its richly deserved recognition as a stone cold classic.
Just as everyone seemed to have caught up with where he was going, it seemed that Sly Stone's relentless positivity had curdled into a mystified haze at the turn of the decade.2 He took a left turn into the downbeat with There's A Riot Goin' On, a weary entrance into the seventies — especially after the previous year's wild funk 7" Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin — that seemed to signal a sea change in the tenor of the times.
From the weary Philly soul of The O'Jays' marathon epic Ship Ahoy (which lasts the better part of ten minutes) to Eugene McDaniels' staggering Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse,3 there were a great many complex soul records that grappled with the demons of the day in unflinching detail.
This was the context from which the bubbling of the sharp, gritty poetry of The Last Poets' debut record — along with ex-member Gylan Kain's scorching The Blue Guerrilla — sprung, both pervaded with a fire-stoked revolutionary fervor informed by the harsh realities of life in the shadow of COINTELPRO. Similarly, Nikki Giovanni's The Truth Is On Its Way — with Ego Tripping's shades of female empowerment — was a sharp-tongued verbal strike in step with the times.
Gil Scott-Heron, with partner in crime Brian Jackson, had the longest — and arguably most fruitful — run, unleashing a breathtaking series of records — including Winter In America and Pieces Of A Man (featuring the incendiary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) — throughout the seventies. Theirs was a music — along with The Last Poets, Kain and Giovanni — drenched in soul and low-slung funk, but more than anything was shot through with the spectre of jazz.
Jazz, that enduring edifice, was of course still going strong. John Coltrane had already chronicled transcendence and laid the blueprint for astral jazz, which was later elaborated on by his wife Alice Coltrane and former sideman Pharoah Sanders in expansive Indo jazz excursions like World Galaxy and Black Unity, respectively.
All of this ran parallel to Sun Ra's empire building (in fact, Pharoah Sanders had played with Ra even before hooking up with Coltrane's quintet), his independent Saturn Research label and mind-expanding records like The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra and Space Is The Place (the birth of an enduring sentiment that stretched into the nineties and beyond).
Figures like Ornette Coleman (with his symphonic Skies Of America record), Don Cherry (responsible for the intriguingly amorphous Organic Music Society) and Marion Brown (whose Vista LP featured a cover version of not only Harold Budd's Bismillahi 'Rrahman 'Rrahim, but also Stevie Wonder's Visions) continued chronicling the spirit of the times even as they voyaged deeper into inner space.
Similarly, Carlos Santana's continual focus on transcendence had resulted in a series of lush jazz-tinged records spanning the decade (he even collaborated with John McLaughlin and Alice Coltrane), bridging the gap between Woodstock and Montreux in the process. Herbie Hancock cut a similar path through the seventies, with his band adopting Swahili names in the wake of their thrust into cosmic jazz with records like Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant.
Around this time, he also provided the score to the film The Spook Who Sat By The Door, with its revolutionary theme echoing shades of his earlier material like The Prisoner (and prefiguring the direction of his funky Headhunters-era material). Hancock's lush jazz mosaics of the Mwandishi period delved deep into abstraction, engaging with the mind's eye as much as any literal interpretation or meaning. The music seemed to be charting other worlds, mapping their terrain, and opening up the possibilities that they offered.
This spirit found embodiment in Krautrock. A record like Can's Future Days is immersed in the oceanic depths of Inner Space (incidentally, also the name of their studio), while Neu!'s motorik pulse seems eternal — locked onto the infinite horizon. Neu! '75 even predicts the second half of the decade in the proto-punk onslaught of Hero and After Eight. Similarly, Faust's ragged spliced-tape adventures seemed to preempt the experimentation of post punk even as they reveled in a sing it all together now communal spirit, while Amon Düül II sprung from an honest-to-goodness commune.
Over in France, Heldon's electronic assaults were informed by a militant spirit (indeed, Richard Pinhas was at the barricades in Paris during the student uprising of 1968) that pervaded atmospheric records like Électronique Guerrilla and Agneta Nilsson. All of this is heavy textural music that transcends literal statement to commune directly with the mind's eye, weaving the fabric of space and time into a stirring sonic tapestry.
Across the Atlantic, the reggae sounds of Jamaica were steeped in a similar expansiveness, most famously in the music of Bob Marley And The Wailers — and later in Peter Tosh's stalwart militant anthems and the spiritual sustenance of Bunny Wailer's recordings — but reaching a sublime peak in Burning Spear's self-titled debut and Junior Byles' immaculate Beat Down Babylon. Songs like Creation Rebel and Beat Down Babylon embody a spirit of perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, offering visions of a better world in opposition to the surrounding harsh reality.
This path stretches deeper and deeper into the realm of atmosphere as the decade advances. One need look no further than the saga of Declaration Of Rights, a story stretching from The Abyssinians' steadfast original to the depth charging bass of Johnny Clarke's cover version (produced by Bunny Lee and mixed by King Tubby), culminating in the cavernous dub shadows of King Tubby's Declaration Of Dub version. This is music that you feel in your chest when it takes hold. Figures like Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry tore up the very fabric of sound in search of new potentials, spooling them out into three dimensions. It's no surprise that King Tubby's studio and Perry's Black Ark often invite comparisons to sonic laboratories or starships.
A record like Dadawah's sprawling Peace And Love used the techniques of dub to create a heady psychedelic trip steeped in Rastafari, spread across four extended grooves, while Fred Locks's roots-informed Black Star Liner (a reference to Marcus Garvey's historic Black Star Line) reveled in dense imagery, with the dread vibes of Walls evoking the plight of the concrete jungle.
On a similar tip, Prince Far I's Heavy Manners chronicled life under marshal law in the run up to Jamaica's national elections. This is a list that could go on and on, from Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon to the Mighty Diamonds' Right Time, all of it contributing to a rich legacy of righteous protest and sonic exploration.
It's a legacy that sets up the next leg of our journey: at the cusp of 1977, that year when two sevens would clash, and everything would change...