I've always loved this quote from Derrick May, which is quite crisply evocative of the rich undercurrents of depth and mystery running through techno music. Actually, I'm worried I might be paraphrasing somewhat (in fact, it's rather likely, since I can't seem to find the interview I heard it in anywhere). But what the hell, it's a great quote and really ought to be in wide circulation. I'm willing to risk it... so there you go. Needless to say, if anyone can point me in the right direction for the original interview, I'd be most grateful...
Anyway... Techno. Born in the shadows of Detroit's 1980s progressive scene and forged in the unforgiving crucible of the global stage, it's truly one of the key building blocks of modern music — alongside house and hip hop — in the post-disco diaspora. One could trace a thin line leading back to 1970s Düsseldorf, all the way back to the Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express, when excavating its prehistory.
As Kodwo Eshun brilliantly put it, Düsseldorf is the Mississippi Delta, and expanding on that idea, Kraftwerk are to Techno as Muddy Waters is to The Rolling Stones.1Detroit is where the sleek German engineering of Computer World got rebuilt like an American muscle car, souped up for its joyride across dancefloors the world over. Juan Atkins just plugged it all in.
To further extend the metaphor, Atkins' Metroplex was to Sun Records as Derrick May's Transmat was to Chess (with Fragile standing in for Cadet), with Kevin Saunderson's KMS corresponding to Atlantic Records. Ok, ok, I realize that the timeline is inverted, but please believe the comparisons are airtight! You've got the laboratory on one hand and the conservatory on the other, with the proto-Motown assembly line of KMS/Atlantic waiting in the wings. And at that point, it's time to play domination.
Very quickly, it becomes a global affair. You've got vibrant forms springing up all over the place, from Sheffield bleep 'n bass to Belgian new beat and elegant Dutch techno to London ardkore. Auteurs start springing up everywhere, untethered to any sort of centralized scene (albeit often in orbit of crucial outposts like Warp, Sublime and R&S). The meme spreads and mutates and spreads and mutates and spreads... it's a beautiful thing.
The interesting thing to note with techno is how nearly everyone knows the term but so often they haven't actually heard any. Has there ever been a genre so misunderstood? Images of 2 Unlimited and Dance Dance Revolution hang in the public consciousness, even if neither have nothing much to do with techno qua techno. If you tell someone you listen to techno, chances are what they're hearing in their head isn't techno at all but some caricature drawn in broad strokes (the phrase boom boom boom springs to mind).
So at some point I just started saying Detroit Techno when the subject comes up. Not because I'm some sort of purist (I've actually got no time whatsoever for the impulse), but because it short circuits all the pitfalls that might wrong-foot whoever I'm talking with. Suddenly, you're starting from scratch rather than working against a bunch of assumptions. And you've reimbued the term with a sense of mystery which was its birthright all along...
I'd dug dance music in it's various forms going back to Janet Jackson circa Control (hell, Michael Jackson circa Thriller), running alongside the new wave of Depeche Mode and the Talking Heads on through what you'd call early indie dance (New Order and Big Audio Dynamite). Plus the obligatory swingbeat and hip hop, things like Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul, Wreckx-N-Effect's Rump Shaker and the Jungle Brothers. All of which seemed to flow naturally into things like Massive Attack, Underworld and The Prodigy.
Still... I can remember like it was yesterday when I got hit by the straight stuff.
It came in the form of Kevin Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio, and it quite simply blew my mind wide open. This was like everything I'd ever loved in music, only more so. Pure, uncut. I remember wondering about all the names on there: Who is this mysterious Outlander (R&S sorted me out right quick)? What sort of crew is Octave One (for whatever reason, I imagined them as a gang of Germans)? Why are half of these tracks credited to Dobre & Jamez (because they're awesome)?!
From there it was a short step to discovering techno strongholds like Submerge, R&S and Studio !K7 (surfing a rather hardcore crest at the time). I was set for life. I still remembering placing my first mail order, getting things like Kevin Saunderson's Faces & Phases compilation, Octave One's The Living Key (To Images From Above) and Drexciya's The Quest on a hot summer afternoon. Give all those to a high school kid in the late 90s and see what happens!
As a kid, I grew up in various apartments with my parents — who were actually quite young in retrospect (usually around a decade younger than the parents of my peers) — and later my brother Brian once he came along. We moved once a year for the first five years of my life before sneaking into the suburbs once school started. I remember nothing quite made sense again. The kids were different (some awful kids, truth be told! But some cool ones too... it all evens out), etc. Whatever. I suppose I should have adapted, and I suppose that in my own way I did, but then I always was a dreamer...
I used to dream to books, movies, video games... whatever I could get my hands on. I remember just laying on my back looking up at the sky, imagining other worlds. Then, around junior high music hit me full force. Before that I'd been into music at the level of osmosis, the ambient sounds around when you're young, but suddenly it was everywhere! I was feelin' it MAN!!
Like I said, stuff like new wave, hip hop, r&b, certain alternative records. I suppose deep, rhythmic music always appealed to me at the most basic level. Intercut it with a heavy sense of harmonic mystery, and I'm sold.
So when I came across techno it was a match made in heaven.
Walking around town, it wasn't the sound of Nas or Nirvana that would swirl in my mind, but things like 69's Ladies & Gentlemen, Mental Cube's Q and Jark Prongo's Spadet (that and Tricky's Aftermath, Primal Scream's Trainspotting and Bomb The Bass's One To One Religion (Skankapella Mix) on the downbeat flipside). It all seemed to move at the speed of life. At the end of the day, the vibes just synced up with my frequency I suppose...
So what do I like about techno? For one, it's the frequency, the vibe. Amiri Baraka's changing same. That low-slung groove, the scratchy high-end funk chopping between the beats, the compression of ideas. It's the Bug In The Bass Bin, the ever present spectre malfunktion that nevertheless pulses faithfully on. It's the ghosts of jazz and funk and kosmische and disco and industrial and juju lying just beneath the surface.
Not to mention the sense of longing, the alien wonder running through its core. It's Stranger In A Strange Land music, so naturally it made sense to me. Connected to the earth, the stones beneath my feet, but always surrounded by strangers. Something like Theme From It's All Gone Pear Shaped by Digital Justice makes the point better than I ever could... I mean where the hell else are you gonna find something like that but in techno?
It all routes back to a time when I used to dream about living alone on Mars (ha, used to he says!), riding some ancient starship with vast corridors and digital readouts in vivid crimson, three-year-old dreams back on Mollison in the hazy afternoons of late summer. Come to think of it, that was the last time I had a room of my own until college!
Space in both sense of the words. Room to think, room to breathe! That's what I found in techno. No matter what was going on, I could put on some headphones and play Dark Energy's Midnite Sunshine and everything would come into focus (or drift out of focus, if need be).
Put simply, it was an escape route into the rest of my life, when things would begin to make just a little bit more sense. Future music that gave me the gift of a future. Its beat pulsed faithfully like lights along a runway, guiding that starship into the pitch black darkness of the midnight sky. And all along, without a doubt, it helped a young brother find his way...
1. Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet, 1998. 100. Print.
2. Bova, Ben. Visions Of The Future: The Art Of Robert McCall. New York: Abrams, 1982. 107. Print.
As the hours keep turning and the moon hangs deep in the sky, we move toward the back of the crate toward the voodoo records. Here's where we get into the heaviest, most atmospheric music that could loosely be termed punk funk without shimmying into krautrock territory. Word of warning: things are gonna get weird. Escape routes take you everywhere from West Africa to the Caribbean, from Brazil to Indonesia and from Bristol to The Bronx. Far and wide.
Today's chapter essentially boils down to three post punk dynasties: The Pop Group/Slits continuum, Material/Bill Laswell and the mighty Public Image Ltd. (and related solo endeavors). All of which — critically — take you well into the nineties and beyond, tributaries cutting a jagged path across the landscape to feed into pockets of industrial, hip hop and technoid innovation leading right up to the present day. But first, let's start at the beginning...
Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box is in essence the the Rosetta Stone of the whole endeavor, a decoder ring of sorts. When you come to terms with the record, suddenly everything else makes sense. Albatross sets the tone with a twenty ton bassline snaking its way through ten minutes of grinding, cavernous funk, followed swiftly by the spidery guitar of the filmic Memories and the return of Death Disco — the group's 12" tour de force — which gets transmuted here into Swan Lake (the guitar at one point mirrors Tchaikovsky's ballet of the same title).
In all three Lydon wails like a banshee, Levene splinters his guitar into jagged arcing feedback and Wobble walks his bass across the track like a brontosaurus. The story goes that the trio had been been mainlining on krautrock and Jamaican dub, and it's all in full effect here: the bass towers menacingly at center stage while the guitars often recall Michael Karoli's spidery fretwork on Tago Mago.
Like Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies, Metal Box appears to deconstruct itself before your eyes over the course of its hour-long running time. Tunes like Careering and The Suit are the jaded, staggering flipside to Swan Lake, while Graveyard eschews vocals altogether, staggering zombie-like through the Gothic crypt.
Socialist — another instrumental — comes on like the dub version of a straight up punk song circa 1977. Similarly, Chant is another x-ray punk endeavor — maddening in its atonal repetition and refusal to release — while No Birds is the closest thing here to PIL's First Issue and Public Image. The closing1Radio 4 is a drifting synth instrumental anchored only by Wobble's bassline, who also dominates the heavy dub stomp of Poptones.
Out of the three principal malcontents in PIL, Jah Wobble spent the most sustained time in this fertile territory at the intersection of funk and dub. His solo debut Betrayal even used some backing tapes from the PIL sessions (which accordingly got him kicked out of the band) and turned in a worthy successor to Metal Box, with synths and atmospherics taking on an even wider role in the sound this time out (not to mention looser, more nimble rhythms). Blink and you'd swear the vocals in Betrayal — the track — came courtesy of Shaun Ryder! It's a promising beginning to what turned out to be a long and fruitful discography at the nexus of funk and dub.
Two of Wobble's subsequent records were collaborations with Can bassist Holger Czukay that perpetrated further capers in this arena, with Full Circle (also featuring Can's Jaki Liebezeit on drums) boasting the post punk dancefloor classic How Much Are They? (which eerily seems to predict the atmosphere of The Good, The Bad & The Queen record) and Snake Charmer (featuring atmospheric guitar by The Edge of U2 fame!), the latter of which takes matters strikingly close to contemporary electro boogie. And I mean running in parallel, two steps away, too close for comfort. Glenn Close, even. Hold On To Your Dreams, in particular, which features High Fashion's Marcella Allen on vocals, could slot rather comfortably into a set alongside contemporary Ashford & Simpson, Gwen Guthrie and the S.O.S. Band. Conversely, the title track's atmosphere bears an uncanny resemblance to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which is no small praise indeed.
These fourth world vibes turned out to be the lifeblood of the man's output for the next decade plus, where he drew influence from Jamaica, North Africa and even the Celtic music of his own British isles for a series of albums with his new band Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart. This phase of his career will be covered further in the next chapter of Terminal Vibration (where we trace all these threads through the latter half of the decade into the nineties), but Wobble actually got around to issuing the Invaders Of The Heart self-titled debut 12" as early as 1983 (the year of Snake Charmer, in fact).
It's an utterly beguiling record — spread across three separate mixes — with Wobble's trademark wall of bass riding a motorik post-disco groove across the Sahara, as trumpet arabesques and sampled wailing vocals weave across its surface. I always loved the way that synth bass comes in at times to echo Wobble's pulsing b-line ever so often. It's all very much in keeping with the Byrne/Eno experiment, especially, but also things like Thomas Leer's 4 Movements and Tony Allen's N.E.P.A. LP. Future music, in other words. With the icon Wobble clearly having a hand on the pulse.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, another bass player was embarking on his own excursion that would carve a similar trail across the post punk landscape. I speak now of Bill Laswell. Laswell was a journeyman bassist who'd cut his teeth in various funk bands around Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan before moving to New York before hooking up with Michael Beinhorn and Fred Maher to form the initial incarnation of Material.
The trio got their unlikely start as the backing band for Daevid Allen's twilight-era New York Gong before cutting a trio of EPs for Red Records.2 The band debuted in 1979 with Temporary Music 1, a dense, lo-fi slab of prog-inflected post punk that ran the gamut from On Sadism's mid-tempo punk funk to the Canterbury-esque prog moves of Process/Motion.
Temporary Music 2 followed a couple years later with cleaner production and a more spacious mix, boasting the motorik dancefloor moves of Secret Life and Dark Things' foggy post-Bitches Brew atmosphere. American Songs rounded out the trilogy the very same year, with tracks Ciquri — the next in their line of mid-tempo funk tracks — and Discourse, which illustrate the band's comfort with the form (which I suspect — once again — is down to the band's jazz roots). Still, the rockier Slow Murder is almost-new wave in the same way Public Image was. One suspects that they're feeling the spectre of Remain In Light-era Talking Heads throughout.
The band followed these EPs with two albums in quick succession: Memory Serves (1981) and One Down (1982). Memory Serves picks up the thread of rough-and-tumble post punk from the EPs, even bringing back some of the proggy/fusion-tinged flavors of Temporary Music 1. Rollicking punk funk tunes like Memory Serves and Conform To The Rhythm are accompanied by appropriately doomy vocals from Michael Beinhorn (in the former, he almost sounds like an off-the-rails Oingo Boingo-era Danny Elfman), while the abrasive Square Dance manages to surpass the atonality of even Temporary Music 1.
Conversely, One Down makes an unanticipated swerve into nearly straight up electroboogie territory. Featuring vocals from the likes of Nona Hendryx (who also worked with the expanded Talking Heads during the same time period), Bernard Fowler (of the N.Y.C. Peech Boys and later Tackhead) and a pre-fame Whitney Houston (on the stately ballad Memories, also featuring Archie Shepp in an uncharacteristically gentle mood), this is very much of-the-moment, state-of-the-art boogie a la Hold On To You Dreams. With Roger Troutman-esque talkboxes dominating the Beinhorn-voiced tracks, the transition is complete. The band even turns in an excellent cover of Sly Stone's Let Me Have It All! Everything here fits squarely alongside the likes of Mtume, Kleeer and the Compass Point records.
Sandwiched between both albums is the Bustin' Out, which found the band moonlighting on ZE Records and makes sense of the band's sudden shift in direction between the two LPs as they thoroughly absorb the label's mutant disco aesthetic3 for some tasty rubberband funk action. At this point, activity from Material essentially halted until the end of the decade while Laswell devoted serious time to his Orange Music studio, working on various projects for Celluloid Records like mid-eighties albums from The Last Poets and Fela Kuti (which sadly don't rival their legendary 70s output), along with the storied five rap records (to be continued).
Like Jah Wobble, Laswell's increasingly global vision continued to expand throughout the the decade, and by the nineties he was mixing up hip hop, funk, dub and African rhythms into a heady stew that were very much apace with post-EnoOcean Of Sound vanguard. Interesting to note Laswell's presence on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts way back in 1981, playing bass on America Is Waiting. Also interesting to note that Brian Eno returned the favor the following year, contributing to One Down's Holding On.
Once again, all these seemingly disparate figures rubbing shoulders around this time (roughly 1979-1983), figures like Brian Eno, Fela Kuti, David Byrne, The Last Poets, Afrika Bambaataa and Laswell himself, speak to not only the catholic elasticity of Celluloid's broad-minded setup but also the intoxicating spirit of cross-pollination that hangs over this era like a magenta haze.
As if to prove the point, the Tackhead/Fats Comet organization were beginning to gather steam just as Material went on indefinite hiatus and PIL splintered into a thousand pieces. Interesting that core members of the crew started out in the backing band for Sugar Hill Records, laying the backbone for the early rap classics that surfaced on the label during its heyday before striking out on their own as a 21st century avant funk crew upon meeting On-U Sound-man Adrian Sherwood. One can certainly hear traces of records like New York New York, Scorpio and Message II (Survival) in the DNA of the crew's twisted cyberpunk grooves.
Fats Comet's Don't Forget That Beat is a slap-bass fueled, funk-tinged electro workout akin to Hashim's Primrose Path — released the following year — albeit with a groove that rolls at a breakneck pace punctuated by machine gun beatboxes and freewheeling Art Of Noise-esque orchestra stabs. Conversely, Stormy Weather rocks a dynamite go-go beat while an almost-prog/fusion guitar shreds through the groove (and your eardrums), pointing the way forward to the group's next phase as Tackhead.
Tackhead found the crew on Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound and the BPMs were accordingly dialed down to an herbalist's pace, matching the post punk stomp of the Mark Stewart records they played on as The Maffia. Hard-edged downbeat slates like High Ideals And Crazy Dreams and Liberty City (both from Stewart's Jerusalem EP) glimpse a nightmarish vision of dub that prefigured what much of the best trip hop would become.4
It all came to a head on Stewart's third, self-titled LP. Leading with the metallic Survival — where the Maffia gets to revisit their very own Rapper's Delight bassline! — a master class in pulverizing machine riddims and the inimitable wail of Mr. Stewart, it makes the flashes of cyberpunk dread hanging around this crew explicit. In fact, much of the record is built around samples and quotes from other songs — a Trouble Funk breakbeat here, some Billy Idol guitar there, and a Moroder bassline capping it all off — which puts it at the bleeding edge of sound collage right along with hip hop's burgeoning sampladelia.
It's nearly as patchwork an affair as something like Tricky's Maxinquaye (which Stewart had a crucial influence on, even producing Aftermath while mentoring young Adrian Thaws). Trip hop dress rehearsals like Forbidden Colour offer up a downbeat cover version of David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto's Forbidden Colours, while Hell Is Empty sounds like the most twisted Close The Door-era Terranova track imaginable. Stranger Than Love even put Smith & Mighty on wax for the first time when they contributed the dub version to its 12" single, making the link between post punk and trip hop Bristol explicit. In retrospect, it's rather fitting that a figure like Stewart would stand at the intersection of both eras, both scenes.
Mark Stewart started out in a little crew that grew up frequenting funk nights together as youngsters — where they'd get down to the sounds of BT Express and The Fatback Band — and reggae at venues like the Bamboo Club.5 It only makes sense that such heady origins would be felt considerably in the band's subsequent recordings as The Pop Group. Their hard funk roots can be heard in deeply warped fashion on The Pop Group's debut LP Y (which actually pre-empted Metal Box by a few months) and the She Is Beyond Good And Evil, which pulses almost subconsciously on a walking bassline while the remainder of the track — especially Stewart's throat-shredding wail — seems to dissolve all around it.
Produced by Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell, it sets into motion a particular sensibility that would become the basis for the Y Records6 sound: sparse instrumentation played loose in an aggressively atmospheric soundscape, captured brilliantly with Bovell spacious, three-dimensional, clear as a bell production. Bovell's skill behind the mixing desk pays immediate dividends when the band hangs a left turn into some of their more outre passages (like a vivid snapshot of chaos, where you can nevertheless clearly discern every element in the image).
Indeed, there's a considerable free jazz presence in the group's wilder, more abstract passages, which puts them to the left of even PIL. Put simply, one cannot overestimate the centrality of The Pop Group. Along with PIL's music, this is ground zero for post punk's twisted take on funk, a sound that takes you into the nineties and beyond via funk metal and myriad other sounds. In fact, Y's opening track — Thief Of Fire — even sounds like an apocalyptic precursor to The Red Hot Chili Peppers!
The Pop Group followed Y with the We Are All Prostitutes, where Mark Stewart's lyrics grow yet more didactic and political even as the band's groove settles deeper in the pocket. The group's final record, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, was — at the album level — actually more straightforwardly funky than anything that had come before, settling into a watertight post punk boogie that nevertheless retained a healthy dose of chaos in the mix (much of it provided by the ever dependable Stewart, who — much like Iggy Pop during The Stooges era — simply won't be reigned in).
It was along these lines that the band ultimately split, with the rest of the group shearing off to form bands like Rip Rig & Panic, Pigbag, Glaxo Babies, Shriekback and Maximum Joy, while Stewart — as discussed earlier — hooked up with Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound setup for that blistering series of records in the mid-eighties.
On the flipside to The Pop Group coin is a band equally central to the post punk story. In many ways, The Slits were something of a sister group to The Pop Group, as both bands dropped similarly unruly, junglistic debut albums within months of each other in 1979 (both of which were produced by Dennis Bovell). Both groups shared a sense of shedding the constraints of civilization and starting from scratch — Back To Nature as Fad Gadget once opined — and in many ways their debut albums came on like field recordings of some as yet undiscovered tribe, in the way that My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and Can's Ethological Forgery Series seemed to conjure up similar images.
And just as The Pop Group washed up on Y Records upon departure from Radar, The Slits put out a record on Y after leaving CBS. Appropriately enough, it was the split 7" single In The Beginning There Was Rhythm/Where There's A Will There's A Way: a head to head duel with The Pop Group.
The Slits' debut album Cut was an instant classic, with (once again) perfect production from Dennis Bovell. There was a heavy dub/reggae presence to the record — perhaps moreso than anything else discussed today — with atmospheric reverb wrapped around the band's skeletal, turn on a dime playing. The rhythm of tunes like So Tough and Instant Hit seem to be happening on multiple plains, every note played like a phrase imbued with myriad layers of meaning.
The extraordinary thing about The Slits is that even at their most shambolic, they manage to maintain a strong pop sensibility. I'd wager that you could give this album to any fourteen year old and chances are they'd fall in love with it. This strength was explored further on the band's excellent cover version of Motown standard I Heard It Through The Grapevine (on the b-side of the Typical Girls), which remains my absolute favorite version of the tune (just beating out the Gladys Knight & The Pips original). Built on an unlikely bed of vocal humming, it rides the trademark group's skeletal rhythms with a chanted lyric from Ari Up in one of the great not-Disco Not Disco-but-could-have-been moments in post punk.
Return Of The Giant Slits, the group's second and final album found Dennis Bovell behind the boards once again, this time cranking up the atmosphere to distinctly oppressive levels. Now there was a heavier worldbeat presence in evidence throughout, which found the group looking to Africa for inspiration around the same time the likes of Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno were making their own forays into the same territory. The opening song Earthbeat rides furious tribal drumming while the ladies' voices hover disembodied above the whole affair.
The remainder of the album shares more of a similarity to the debut, albeit viewed through a murky prism with heavier emphasis on sounds and textures beyond the relatively straightforward bass/guitar/drum setup of the debut. Interesting to note the presence of Neneh Cherry in the group at this point, that strange attractor of British beat music throughout much of the decade, who would go on to have a profound influence on British club music and the sound that would come to be called trip hop.
Once The Pop Group and The Slits had both disbanded, the Y Records aesthetic really begins to be forged in earnest, establishing a loosely played post punk boogie7 seemingly sourced in The Pop Group's tendency to operate at that thin jagged line between order and chaos. In truth, that's the only place to be, where the tension between the two is at its absolute tautest. Depending on which of the label's groups we're talking about, the emphasis falls on one side or the other. To illustrate the point, let's dive into a three-band post-Pop Group sub-section...
Maximum Joy hold court at the less chaotic end of the spectrum, rivalling even The Slits' pop brilliance with their solitary album Station M.X.J.Y.. The crew operated very much at the axis of boogie — in the tradition of ex-punks getting down at the disco — but they managed to do it more convincingly than just about anyone else in the scene. Typically led by the sing song vocals of Janine Rainforth, the tunes would skate nimbly along loose rhythms with an abundance of bright flourishes slipping into the mix.
It's a sound that's also evidenced in 12" singles like Stretch and In The Air, records that were practically new pop even as they maintained the rude, shambolic spirit so crucial to post punk's edge. One would expect nothing less from a Y Records outfit.
Interestingly, Bristol mover and shaker Nellee Hooper started out in this crew before blazing a path through the island's hip hop scene to help define the burgeoning UKurban sound that would culminate in trip hop. At this point it makes sense to highlight the considerable lattice of connection going on here today, with the presence of Mark Stewart (as already mentioned) tied into not only Tricky but also Smith & Mighty and The Wild Bunch that would spawn Massive Attack.
You can clearly trace a straight line between late seventies Bristol and the nineties Bristol surveyed in Smith & Mighty's Bass Is Maternal, Tricky's Maxinquaye and Portishead's Dummy. Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself again; suffice it to say Station M.X.J.Y. just might be the greatest pop record on the Y imprint.
Rip, Rig & Panic, by contrast, dwell at the most chaotic end of the spectrum, conjuring a defiantly post-Miles' On The Corner racket as they worked their way through three albums in as many years (starting in 1981). The band named themselves after a Roland Kirk album from 1965, so you'd be right in expecting the heavy hand of free jazz to hang over the proceedings. Rather fittingly, Neneh Cherry was a key member of this crew upon the disintegration of The Slits. Fittingly because her step-father was the great Don Cherry, whose fourth world-preempting recordings from the Brown Rice era are very much of a piece with what her band were up to here.
In fact, if you imagined a more abrasive, atonal version of Don's Hear & Now, then you wouldn't be too far off. Fascinating the way the free wing of jazz often seems to overlap with post punk sonically. Of course, the group did have the occasional almost-pop moment — tunes like Bob Hope Takes Risks and Constant Drudgery Is Harmful To Soul, Spirit & Health that seem to arrive at a post-disco boogie seemingly by accident — but their hearts quite clearly lie in the abstract. This is a tangled, untamed music that strains at the label post punk, threatening to double back and break into the seventies for proper account alongside the likes of Miles Davis, Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders.
Lying somewhere between the chaos of Rip Rig & Panic and Maximum Joy's glossy sheen is the beloved Pigbag, a band that managed to blend the searing post-Miles brass of the latter with the dancefloor dexterity of the former. The band's debut single, Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag, even climbed to #3 in the UK! Rocking a frenetic post-disco rhythm replete with furious percussion and a looming bassline, the band seem to offer up a nightmare version of Madness' ska with tight-as-a-drum horn charts ruling the tune even as spectral brass creeps in and out of the mix.
Throughout the band's three year tenure — overlapping perfectly with that of Rip Rig & Panic — Pigbag managed to consistently run down some spooky voodoo on wax. Dr. Heckle And Mr. Jive — from the debut album of the same name — launched drowning arcs of eerie brass across a nagging bassline and rolling percussion, while the uptempo Getting Up placed the band's horn charts front and center over furious percussion and chicken-scratch guitar while holding down a pulsing 4/4 rhythm. Like Maximum Joy, the band can play it remarkably straight and go for the dancefloor jugular, yet at a moment's notice they can veer off into leftfield with dense, oppressive atmospherics that rival that of Rip Rig & Panic.
The final crew in the mix today is 23 Skidoo, which I've appropriately only revealed just now. While not a Y Records band, they were fellow travellers exploring a densely atmospheric fourth world vision. The band came crashing into the public consciousness with The Gospel Comes To New Guinea, a ten-minute slab of churning, murky post punk funk. Group chants and strange woodwinds fade in and out of the fog as the band seem to pound out their beat at the other end of the cave. This is 23 Skidoo clearly taking the field recording ethos of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts to its logical conclusion.
The band's debut LP Seven Songs found them alternating between the droning atmospherics of New Testament and the relatively straight up funk of Vegas El Bandito, but it was the closing Quiet Pillage8 that pointed the way forward to the band's next obsession: Indonesian Gamelan music.9
The Culling Is Coming was the band's second LP, and the debut's occasional funk had given way to pure, shadowy atmosphere. The opening G-2 Contemplation launched straight into the first of the band's explorations into Gamelan music, a sound they interpret as deeply in thrall to the strange. At times reminiscent of the more nebulous portions of the Third Ear Band's Music For Macbeth, it could just as easily score the eeriest moments of Fellini's Satyricon.
Tone poems like Shrine and Mahakala are like being lost in the fog of a deserted temple, while the closing Healing (For The Strong) reveals that the temple wasn't deserted after all! In essence, the record prefigures what would come to be called dark ambient years later, about as far from the dancefloor as could be.
Which makes the about face of Coup all the more astonishing. Turning up on a non-LP 12" later that year, it was the band's greatest pop moment. After two bars of the band's crispest drum beat yet, Sketch Martin drops that bassline into the mix before horn charts sweep in to carry the melody. I say that bassline because it was later resurrected by The Chemical Brothers fifteen years later for their epochal big beat classic, Block Rockin' Beats, which came crashing into the charts in 1997. Meanwhile, the flipside's Version (In The Palace) feeds Coup through the cold machinery of dub.
The band's final album — Urban Gamelan — featured a new version of Coup titled F.U.G.I. and a couple more moments of low slung funk, but it was mostly devoted to the band's atonal Gamelan symphonies. Like I said, the exit routes from today's music shoots you out all over the globe, and that pan-global vision was one of its greatest strengths.
In the decades to come, 23 Skidoo's music was actually rather well curated. At the turn of the century, their album were reissued on the heels of the band's self-titled reunion album just as the post punk revival was starting to gather steam. On second thought, reunion might be a bit of a misnomer. As the Just Like Everybody compilation proved, the band had been far from dormant. Rounding up two discs worth of unreleased nineties material, it showcased some of what the band had generated while loitering in dance music's shadowy back alley... the same back alley where all manner of post punk figures were lurking throughout the decade.
Note that the original triple 12" record was designed to be played in any order, so the tracklist I'm using is the one delineated by the Second Edition reissue (after all, that's how I encountered this record in the first place, stateside brother that I am).
In fact, the band managed to contribute a song to all three volumes of the Disco Not Disco series, which essentially enshrined the mutant disco sound. If I'm memory serves, they were the only artist to do so.
Put simply, twisted hip hop staggering down the back alley in a desperate state, its mind warped on unkind substances and unhealthy emotion. But that's another story for another series, which I'll delve into further at a later date.
Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance). The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry - and proving ground - for breaking artists. This was the format in which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).1 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude2 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues - artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf - often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album. The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd - artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies - made their initial splash.
Soul music - despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre - began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'sGreen Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook3).
If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock - progressive everything, truth be told - with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form. Indeed most rock - bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet - was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade - even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised - while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoingParliament/Funkadelic saga. Even reggae - that stalwart of the 7" single - was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade. Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tables of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed - even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums - and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded. Similarily, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You can't knock something like Virgo's self-titled album from 1989.
Aside from dance music - which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) - the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot. Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space to Bandulu's Cornerstone. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarily, jungle - like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre - had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject - 20 great dance CDs - kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Oukast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest, spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty - figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift - clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.
1. The 45rpm 7" record, which emerged around the same time, offered a compact, convenient format in which concision was key... ideally suited for the single.
2. Originally released as Billie Holiday Sings in 1953.
It's 4/5. '45. Little slabs of sunlight cut on seven inches of wax. From rock 'n roll to roots reggae and post punk to soul, it was the great equalizer: the domain where the upstart musician could go toe to to with the stars. Of course some of the biggest names were masters of the form - look no further than The Beatles' and The Stones' killer run of singles through the sixties for just one example - tucking away stellar tracks on the flip that wouldn't show up anywhere else for years, but figures like The International Submarine Band and The Del-Vetts would come out of nowhere with records like Sum Up Broke and Last Time Around and drop heat of their own. Although it would increasingly lean on the LP format in years to come, rock 'n roll was born on the 7" single.
If there was one genre that dominated the form, then surely it must have been reggae. From the Wailing Souls' Without You to Augustus Pablo's East Of The River Nile and Zap Pow's River Stone, there was a practically endless stream of brilliant 7" singles flowing from Jamaica for decades on end.
The other obvious contender is the soul/funk continuum, boasting James Brown's run of People Records (not to mention his own records!) and Sly Stone's genre-defining rubbing shoulders with The Beginning Of The End's Funky Nassau and Dark Skin Woman by Sir Mack Rice. This isn't even taking into account the winding catalogs of Stax, Motown and Philadelphia International.
Post punk had it's own horde of stone tablets like the five-pronged attack of electronic records coming from the likes of The Human League, Throbbing Gristle, Thomas Leer, The Normal and Cabaret Voltaire. The flipside was twisted records like The Pop Group's She Is Beyond Good And Evil, PIL's Public Image and the Minutemen's Paranoid Time (indeed, this the era that you'd get loads of 7" records that were essentially micro-LPs, records like Minor Threat and the Meat Puppets' In A Car).
In the nineties you had things like Beck's Deadweight come out on 7" (and why couldn't White Gold have been the b-side to The Dandy Warhols' Get Off like it was on the CD?). There were loads of records that would have lent themselves to the format, even if they never did surface. Records like Roller Rinks & Chicks by Freddy Fresh, Scott Weiland's Jimmy Was A Stimulator, The Orb's 7" Edit of Toxygene... practically any of the dusted records of the era would have lent themselves to the form.
In the digital era, a lot of exclusively 7" music finally found its way onto other formats, via expanded reissues or compilations like the Nuggets box sets. Labels like Strut and Soul Jazz chronicled entire genres/scenes around the 7" single, breathing new life into the form. And there's still nothing quite like a good b-sides collection...
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 My 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 innerspace.
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 revelled 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...
1The Time Has Come also includes a moving cover version of People Get Ready.
2 If you miss Sly's positivity, you could do worse than check out The Jimmy Castor Bunch, who cut a rollicking path through the decade with records like It's Just Begun and Phase Two.
3McDaniels, who was already on the CIA's watch list due to his militant stance on his previous record (Outlaw), was dropped from Atlantic after Spiro Agnew called the label to withdraw the album.
Looking down from the Georgia Street bridge, into North Park and the place where it all went down, and the memories of the early days of Radio AG come flooding back.
While uploading the first five episodes of Radio AG over the past few weeks, I was struck by how rough a lot of the mixing was! Sure, partially this was down to being rusty (I'd taken a hiatus from spinning and music production to concentrate on finishing school), but I also suspect it was due to the fact that for the first time I was grappling with a lot of material that wasn't typically intended to be found in the mix.
Up until then, I'd primarily spun techno and house, on the one hand, or downbeat rap and trip hop, on the other. Mixing disparate selections from the sixties, alternative, new wave and so forth - much of it music that wasn't made with the DJ in mind - well, it was like learning to mix all over again. The first year was pretty ramshackle, truth be told, but it was an enjoyable experiment in figuring how to segue between tracks of such varying structure and sequence them to successfully carry a sustained mood (I wouldn't figure out the latter until the following year!)
In retrospect, I'd always tended to approach spinning from more of an electro/hip hop mindset anyway, playing with cuts and juxtaposition, whereas the general tendency with minimal techno at the time was to work gradual fades between similar tunes. The pivotal moment for me was hearing Kevin Saunderson scratch into Carl Craig's Piano Mix of R-Tyme's Use Me (on his X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio mix): this was everything I wanted dance music to be. On the flipside - the trip hop side - Terranova's DJ-Kicks was a revelatory experience, boasting a broad selection taking in hip hop, dub, post punk, electro and Detroit techno, all while maintaining a consistently vivid atmosphere throughout. Listening to both of these mixes for the first time - within months of each other! - was quite simply a mind-expanding experience, changing the way I listened to music from that point forward.
As such, when I put together the original Allied Heights mix (back in 2002), it already seemed natural to drop things like The B-52's Mesopotamia and Brian Eno & David Byrne's The Jezebel Spirit - not to mention Derrick May's remix of Tired Of Getting Pushed Around for 2 Men A Drum Machine And A Trumpet - in the mix alongside prime techno cuts like Scan 7's Black Moon Rising, The Martian's Meet The Red Planet and UR's Electronic Warfare, opening up plenty of real-estate for raw house material like the KSR Vocal Mix of Octave One's Blackwater, Susumu Yokota's discoid fantasy Future Memory and Carl Craig's awesome garage-tinged A-Dub Mix of The Reese Project's I Believe. There were even a couple brand new Shadez Of Colour cuts - that were just about to be pressed up at NSC in Detroit - slipped into the mix. It was a nice little mix that captured a time when things where humming in the Heights and it seemed as if it would go on that way forever...
But I'd be out of the game in a matter of months, commencing a roughly two-year period during which school, work and other real world commitments managed to monopolize my time completely. The music was still there, however, and I'd spent those years exploring other sounds: lines of flight into the wider world via the post punk (PIL, Mark Stewart, etc.) and reggae (King Tubby, Horace Andy, etc.) that I'd become aware of thanks to trip hop, and the funk (Parliament/Funkadelic, Sly & The Family Stone, etc.), synth (Kraftwerk, YMO, etc.) and jazz (Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra, etc.) music that techno had tuned me into along the way. Winding back through seventies soul into the sixties - Stax and Motown - on a similar tip and sideways into krautrock, prog and arty seventies music like Roxy Music (by way of Brian Eno), it was only a matter of time before I'd worked my way back into the sixties: The Beatles, The Byrds, Hendrix and beyond.
At the end of 2004, I moved out with a couple of mates into a spot over by Balboa Park that we came to call the 1808. The scene that coalesced around the place centered on what you might call the indie rock set, with various bands and scenesters in orbit, doing their thing. I was mainly rocking out to grime like Wiley's Treddin' On Thin Ice, Dizzee Rascal's second album and the Run The Road compilation, plus Roni Size's Return To V - which seemed to key into the same prevailing mood - along with Moodymann's Black Mahogani, Amp Fiddler's Waltz Of A Ghetto Fly and Theo Parrish (with material like The Rotating Assembly's Rusty Waters in constant rotation). There was a solid weekly techno night at the Honey Bee Hive (just up the street), and I did manage to catch the odd desert rave with Snakes and crew, but all of a sudden it seemed like indie rock was everywhere and dance was hard to find. This felt something like the wilderness years, and I was a stranger in a strange land.
So I decided to go back to my roots and start a mixtape series that would take in a bunch of the stuff I grew up on, before I'd even really struck out on my own, musically speaking. I'd basically started out in new wave with Adam Ant and Depeche Mode, along with eighties dance pop like the JacksonsMichael and Janet, before hip hop and swingbeat rolled into town. So why not start there - since this was more or less the lingua franca of my intended audience anyway - sprinkling in an ever increasing dose of beats and atmosphere along the way? Radio AG was born.
The idea at first was to construct a mix in the same way the closing song cycle from the second side of Abbey Road was structured, drifting from one pop song to the next in a kinetic flow. Along with my bedrock of past favorites, I'd lean on everything I'd picked up in the interim, ranging from Can to The Beach Boys and even some of the indie stuff I'd picked up like the Pixies (rock hard beats for miles) and Pavement (whose Jackals, False Grails: The Lonesome Era is basically a breakbeat dance track). Going back into the nineties, my hip uncle Matt from Chicago had tuned me into all sorts of great power pop and indie dance (like Blur, Happy Mondays and so on) that had a profound shaping influence on me at the time. This material flowed logically into groups like Gorillaz (AlbarnandRyder, together), A.R. Kane and The Beta Band that I'd later crossed paths with via dance music, and all of it would in turn form part of the foundation of the series.
So I did one mix, and then another. And then another. By October, I'd knocked out a fifth episode - The Halloween Special - and the series had become a reality. I was pulling in shipments from Submerge on a monthly basis, their shelves still stocked with the finest Detroit techno in abundance. A few months later, I crossed paths with SA-RA and Hot Chip. Woebot dropped his 100 Greatest Records Ever on New Years Day. Suddenly things didn't seem so lonely anymore. And then, couple weeks later I'd move in with my brother Brian - the same place where I live today - and dig into the next chapter of the Radio AG saga. But that's another story for another day!
Space. The vastness of which we cannot even begin to comprehend. The crew of the Apollo 13 mission traveled farther into it than any human ever has — 248,655 miles — during their improvised orbit of the moon. By way of comparison, the Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years across... that's 600,000,000,000,000,000 miles! And then there's the rest of the universe out there... Hubble gives us a deeper view into it, but we're still talking about just the tip of the iceberg.
Outer space has long been a perennial obsession of mine, and one that I've indulged in freely for the first half of 2016. It kept me going for what you might call a transitional period in my life, during which I aimed to get back to the core of what inspired me to get out there and do my thing in the first place. For that stretch, the Parallax Room became a starship with which to survey the outer reaches of the cosmos through the lense of sonic exploration. The objective was to pull together a brace of records from the Parallax stacks that cleave to space as a theme, revelling in it's vastness of possibility.
The initial plan back in January was to compile a list of twenty records and post the results up here within a week, but it quickly grew far beyond those modest parameters. It expanded well past 120 before reason prevailed and I started cutting some of the more peripheral ones (and a few pretty tough calls too), rounding the list down to an even 100. I did manage to keep an alternate listing of all the records that nearly made it, so I might toss those up here at some point as a footnote. At any rate, I'd love to hear from you about any records that you think I may have missed... I'm always up for a brand new sonic excursion!
This list is the culmination of the past six months spent in the outer reaches of deep space. Each of these records is a chapter in the story of music's dalliance with the cosmos, tracing a fascination with the stars through the 20th and beyond. Whatever the current constraints may be with respect to space travel, there's practically no limit to the human imagination. And so, our journey begins, in loose chronological order:
Surely any discussion of music's obsession with space must start with Holst? I grew up hearing this from both my grandfather, who was a classical devotee, and pops himself. Subsequently it was one of the first classical records I ever picked up on. Note also that in 2016 its planetary scope is once again scientifically accurate, as Pluto — which had not yet been discovered when Holst was writing The Planets — is no longer classified as a planet.
Early on, space — and electronic — music were largely the preserve of cinema (see also Bernard Herrmann's use of theremin in The Day The Earth Stood Still). Famously credited as electronic tonalities to circumvent the film industry's music guild regulations, this score had far-reaching implications, in effect cementing the connection between the theme of space and the sounds of electronic music in the public imagination. After all, visions of the final frontier surely must be accompanied by sounds from another world! So strange was the soundtrack in its own time that it wasn't released as a standalone record until the mid-seventies.
Landmark Joe Meek production, inspired by the launch of the Telstar communications satellite in 1962. Using the MO of surf rock as its launching pad, this is in essence the birth of space rock. What is Pink Floyd's Interstellar Overdrive if not a freaked out update of this racing, space-age rock 'n roll? Gleaming possibilities of a radiant future are in evidence throughout (just check the sleeve!).
The Ventures had already covered Telstar on the previous year's The Ventures Play Telstar, but here they stretch the space theme across a whole LP. Containing their own space/surf rock masterpiece Out Of Limits, this record also boasts a cover of The Twilight Zone theme! You can hear the basis of The Plugz' Reel Ten and the whole sci-fi aspect of the Repo Man aesthetic played out here (with Tarantino's later use of Out Of Limits in Pulp Fiction, well it stacks up doesn't it?). I was recently pleased to discover that this was one of my brother Matt's favorite albums of all time.
A Parallax 100 record. Inspired by Coltrane and Shankar in equal measure, this is — as far as I can tell — the birth of acid rock. The absolutely epochal Eight Miles High is the centerpiece, its ominous bass, freefall rhythms and Roger McGuinn's quicksilver guitar solo clearly transmuting those earlier stabs at space rock — coming from the surf — into a wild freeform psychedelia. The Byrds at this point enjoying a reputation as space rockers, and in a contemporary radio interview (featured on the expanded CD reissue of 5D) David Crosby and Roger McGuinn talk at length about extraterrestrial life, hoping that radio transmissions of their songs might be heard by aliens who would ultimately take them up for a ride in their spaceship!
Speaking of Coltrane, this wild posthumous release is something of a sister record to Sun Ship (my absolute favorite free jazz record of all time), taking that record's unfettered percussive drive to it's logical conclusion (Rashied Ali picking up drum duties from Elvin Jones this time out). Both records are brilliant stone tablets of deep space astral jazz. Parts of this could even accompany the deafening silence of the murder scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Frank Poole's tumble into the void of space.
Two extended movements spread across both sides of this pioneering electronic record (the first to sell in serious numbers, in fact). One of Subotnick's great innovations was to build up rhythmic repetition from electronic sounds (which before then had largely been confined to the freeform, abstract context of academia). Think about that for a second: tracing that concept through Kraftwerk and Moroder and up to the present day... well, there's no getting around its centrality to modern music. It's crucial!
Here, Subotnick wrings otherworldly sounds from the Buchla modular synthesizer, with Part 1 largely an excursion through wandering tones while Part 2's mid-section coalesces into a frenetic rhythmic thrust. Everything here thoroughly abstract and alien.
The proverbially good science fiction film.Stanley Kubrick famously used large swathes of modern classical recordings as guide music during the film's production, and then ultimately chose to continue using them in the final cut rather than the original score prepared by Alex North. Perhaps nothing at the time could match the otherworldly sounds of Strauss, Ligeti and Khachaturian, which lend further gravity to a singular, spellbinding film, running the gamut from primate battles on Earth to space stations in orbit and an expedition to the far side of Jupiter (Beyond The Infinite).
Easy-listening orchestra 101 Strings veers off into the strange. After all, it was the sixties! There's no getting around that this one's something of a cash-in on both 2001 and psychedelia, a concession to the heads in an attempt to shift a few extra units. You can see the equations being drawn up: space x psychedelia = hippie $$$! Nevertheless, this contains moments of pure dread like Flameout, those searing strings and proto-hip hop breaks provide a menacing background for demented acid-fried guitar lines to wander freely.
I was surprised to be unable to recall any earlier space-themed exotica operating at the album level. Surely I missed something!? At any rate, this will do.
More sixties electronica with its eyes fixed firmly on the stars. In its deeply rhythmic drive, that synthetic almost-percussion, you can hear pre-echoes of Herbie Hancock's Nobu and beyond. Space colonization, for years on the back burner, has returned to discussion recently with science-fiction films like Interstellar and The Martian. In retrospect, it must have seemed a foregone conclusion in 1969.
If you're talking the cosmos, there's no getting around this bunch who are — in the popular imagination — the premier space rockers. My vote goes to this double-album, the live disc of which takes prime Barrett-era numbers like Astronomy Domine, A Saucerful Of Secrets and Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun into the deep black of space.
The studio disc draws the group as far away from traditional rock forms as they would ever travel, working with textures and treated instruments to stretch the boundaries of their individual compositions into the realm of pure atmosphere.
The standard-bearers of acid rock enter the space race. In truth, they'd dabbled even earlier with Crown Of Creation's Star Track, but this double a-side single takes matters to another level altogether in what might be the band's finest moment. Paul Kantner's Have You Seen The Saucers ties together alien contact, government conspiracy and ecological concerns all in the space three-and-a-half minutes of cinematic high-desert psychedelia.
Kantner ascends further into the cosmos with this concept album that follows a band of counter-culture militants (who bear a striking resemblance to Jefferson Airplane) as they hijack a starship and set course for some distant planet to start a new life on.
Theoretically, this is the first Jefferson Starship tile to drop, but we're still a long way from We Built This City. The core of the record's sound lies in piano led, spaced-out acid folk. There's a blink-and-you-might-miss-it masterpiece in Sunrise, with powerful, bewitching vocals from the inimitable Grace Slick. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the droning guitar soundscapes that Richard Pinhas would later explore in Heldon, and is about as intense a two-minutes as you could ask for.
Before they were arena rockers, this group forged a motorik form of no-frills space rock distilled down to its purest essence. With graphics that had people thinking they were Krautrockers, this sleeve always makes me think of the card game Space Age Slap Jack.
Maybe no one remembers this? It featured similarly-styled artwork, evoking a desolate seventies sense of outer space. I had a deck as a kid back in the eighties, and only recently tracked one down again. I'd often dream of launching into the stars aboard some cramped starship, never to see home again. Digital readouts glowing in sharp red and green as the Earth shrinks in the distance.
West Coast space rock. Captain Beyond featured former members of Iron Butterfly, Deep Purple and the Johnny Winter band, who coalesced in early-seventies Los Angeles and hung around through most of the decade (and frequent personnel changes) for a series of three albums. This one is the first, and also the best. Large swathes of the record run together, moving through a series of shifting suites while the band slide between crunchy hard rock and ethereal astral reveries like the shimmering Myopic Void (a cosmic bolero of sorts). One of the great unsung American hard rock LPs, it should be more widely known.
Canterbury prog on the outer space tip, this is the dense, complicated flipside to the West Coast almost-prog of Jefferson Starship and Captain Beyond. Built atop the foundation of Nick Greenwood's throbbing bass and Eric Peachey's zero-gravity breaks, the soundstage is dominated by both Dave Stewart's intricate organ runs and muscular guitar fretwork from the great Steve Hillage. I've often wondered whether Leftfield's Space Shanty had anything to do with this album...
Pure, majestic indo-jazz from Lady Coltrane. This is outer space music, featuring a lush orchestra in freeform orbit, stretching out across a vast widescreen canvas. Containing her mind-blowing, breakbeat-led version of A Love Supreme and the breathtakingly cinematic Galaxy In Satchidananda, this is Coltrane at her absolute peak, locked into the cosmic and moving galaxies. Truly indispensable.
The previous year's Alpha Centauri would also apply, but this one remains my favorite of the early Tangerine Dream records. With four long tracks spread across four sides of a gatefold double-album, these droning soundscapes stretch out and swirl before you in ponderous slow-motion like a vortex in the darkness, as chilling and vast as outer space itself.
Early prog/space instrumental reggae cash-in, this remains worthwhile for its bizarre origins and brazenly unique sonic palette. Bathed in the swampy textures of the Moog synthesizer, it rides a crazed off-kilter skank through a comic book vision of the cosmos. Inspired in part by the television show of the same name, the proceedings slowly devolve into references to Dracula and other denizens of the strange.
Space jazz from the greatest purveyor of the form. Hard to choose just one Sun Ra record, in fact this list could be dominated by appearances from the man — records like The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra, Cosmos and Strange Celestial Road — but this soundtrack for his sprawling motion picture of the same name fits the most snugly within present company. An extraordinarily bizarre film, it infuses space exploration with Egyptology and more than a hint of seventies conspiracy dread, projecting the spirit of its time onto the stars.
Further adventures in space jazz. This could have been recorded yesterday. The machine loops running through Rain Dance play out like an alien encounter, while Hidden Shadows seems to approximate the feeling of weightlessness. Robert Springett's cover painting, with its lunar surface looming in the fiery night sky, is probably my favorite sleeve of all-time.
Spaced out biker rock. This sprawling double-live set captures the band's wild stage show, featuring elaborate lightworks, nude dancers and spoken word interludes by Robert Calvert (with passages quoted from the science fantasy author Michael Moorcock), all backed by the band's Dionysian brand of wild space rock. Songs like Time We Left This World Today and Orgone Accumulator emerge from the ether of extended atmospheric interludes, with the full tilt rock 'n roll assault of Master Of The Universe seeming to blast through the stratosphere with a relentless booster-rocket drive.
I took a chance on this one back in the day based on the incredible sleeve, which is actually different from the (equally stunning) original. Another node on the Egypt/space axis, its hieroglyphs set in stark relief against the backdrop of what looks like an interplanetary starship.
The sounds within are equally compelling... strange cargo indeed. You get lost in the deep texture of those rolling electronic sequences while sitars, percussion and acoustic guitars weave throughout. I've always been surprised that this record isn't more widely praised, indeed I've only ever seen the band's earlier Psychonaut garner the occasional mention in Krautrock discussions.
Incidentally, I picked this up on the same day as Celestial Ocean (something like twelve/thirteen years ago?). Featuring telepathic interplay between Kosmische luminaries like Klaus Schulze and Manuel Göttsching, this is a headfirst plunge into liquid inner/outer space. I only later discovered that it was the first in a series of five records, famously compiled from source tapes of endless jams without the musicians' knowledge! Still, a perfect record.
More pyramids, this time by way of Central America. There's just no getting around Daevid Allen's gang when discussing space music. Gong started out essentially expanding on Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd's pioneering work in the field, before gradually veering into a sort of spaced out jazz fusion under the tutelage of Pierre Moerlen (ultimately leading to Allen's departure from his own group after this album). You exists at the point of intersection between those two universes of sound, with its freeform jazz-tinged psychedelia illuminated by the liquid guitar figures of Steve Hillage.
Dating back to its origins, fusion had its own fascination with the cosmic (signposted by records like Miles In The Sky and of course Sextant). Fresh from his sessions with Miles Davis and solo debut Spectrum, Billy Cobham cut Crosswinds and Total Eclipse, which were both released in quick succession in 1974. Total Eclipse takes Spectrum's flowing, multi-part jams into ever more fluid territory, with even the most hard rocking rhythms given to a lightness of touch and infused with a low-slung swing.
Plying the same furrow as Billy Cobham, Return To Forever's records are prototypical peak-period fusion. At this point there was a fair bit of crossover, sonically speaking, between jazz and prog (the Canterbury scene, Brand X, etc.). Indeed, intricate fusion outings like The Shadow Of Lo, Vulcan Worlds and Song To The Pharoah Kings bear striking similarities to the likes of Hatfield & The North (and vice versa). A fertile pasture, in other words, even if my absolute favorite tune here is Earth Juice — an undisclosed disco banger!
If space is the word, then there's no getting around P-Funk's galactic escapades. Mothership Connection is the moment when the band's interplanetary agenda truly took center stage: they even took to landing a giant starship on stage each night during their subsequent world tour. The group's transformation from its earlier acid-fried incarnation to a smooth-edged groove machine is finalized here, with Bootsy Collins' basslines hitting their elastic peak and Bernie Worrell's technicolor keyboards taking on a life of their own.
As house producer for Philadelphia International, Dexter Wansel played a crucial role in much of the label's late-seventies output, building on the groundwork that Gamble & Huff laid down during the first half of the decade. In parallel with his production work, Wansel released four solo records that split the difference between smooth Philly soul and jazz fusion.
His debut solo outing, Life On Mars, features solar jazz funk excursions like Theme From The Planets and Rings Of Saturn, in which every texture seems shot through with liquid funk and an otherworldly, synth-heavy glow. The space theme recurs throughout Wansel's work: his 1978 album Voyager — home of the awesome Solutions — even features a landed Voyager probe on it's sleeve with Wansel decked out in a spacesuit on the back!
Only scooped this up relatively recently thanks to a timely reissue by Cleopatra. Chrome's debut came out just before Helios Creed joined the group. His enlistment is widely considered the x-factor that pushed the group into the stratosphere, but to my mind this is still a very worthwhile record, Damon Edge's uncompromising vision already steering the band toward greatness. Occasionally touted as the midpoint between Bay Area acid rock and post punk — shadows of Jefferson Airplane, Santana and even the early Journey records can be felt throughout — there's a raw directness to this material that places it firmly alongside the soon-to-be-active Public Image Ltd. and The Pop Group.
Manuel Göttsching's space music opus. Warm electronic sequences slowly unfurl as he occasionally transmits his shimmering guitar figures deep into the cosmos. The sleeve sometimes makes me think of the towering architecture in the film On The Silver Globe, even if angelic reveries like Sunrain and Deep Distance are light-years away from that film's unremittingly bleak landscapes. Simply beautiful, every home should have a copy.
Isao Tomita performs Holst's The Planets, the space-inspired classical piece seemingly a natural fit for his electronic instrumentation. Tomita's version of Mercury, The Winged Messenger sounds strikingly like some of the The Orb's zanier moments. I remember my mom once checked out a video from the library that had NASA footage edited to accompany this work. It started with jagged, violent cuts for Mars, The Bringer Of War and became all soft and drifty for Neptune, The Mystic. Needless to say, it was right up my alley.
Albedo: The reflecting power of a planet or other non-luminous body. A perfect reflector would have an Albedo of 100%. The Earth's Albedo is 39%, or 0.39.
taken from the liner notes
This proggy slab of electronica matches racing synth sequences with freeform live drumming. Perhaps a touch more minimal than the previous year's Heaven And Hell, you can still hear the basis for his subsequent soundtrack work (Blade Runner, Chariots Of Fire, etc.) in the colossal passages scattered throughout (even if I do tend to prefer its quieter moments).
I owe this one completely to my Uncle James. I remember showing him a song that I was working on back in the day and he asked have you ever heard of Jean-Michel Jarre? A couple months later he gave me the Images compilation. Shortly after, I started buying the albums and digging deeper into seventies electronica. Parts of Oxygene have shown up in quite a few places, for example the surreal desert running scenes in Gallipoli and the radio play for The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
Cosmic disco! The following album High On Mad Mountain might go even further off the edge, but this does have the inimitable Moon Trek. Sounding like an unlikely cross between car chase music from a seventies cop show and the original Star Trek theme, it's an unforgettable slice of space age bachelor pad music taken for a walk on the dancefloor. Before seeing Searching For Sugar Man, I'd never known that Mike Theodore co-produced Sixto Rodriguez's classic debut Cold Fact with Dennis Coffey. The interview clips with the both of them came as a pleasant surprise.
Further adventures in cosmic disco. Virtually any of Mandré's records would qualify, but the seventeen-minute ARP odyssey Solar Flight gives this one the edge. Mandré was one Andre Lewis, former session man and synth-wizard who was touted by Motown as a man from outer space and only ever appeared with his face obscured by a futuristic mask (decades before Daft Punk).
Select far-out moments from the salsa legend's seventies recordings rounded up into one cosmic package (the sleeve, another personal favorite, is a dead give away). Cobarde homes in on the same zone of controlled chaos as Coltrane's space jazz excursions, while at the same time making me flash on Carl Craig's jazz outings with Innerzone Orchestra. Chocolate Ice Cream and The Mod Scene are sprawling downbeat jazz fission in league with Miles Davis' seventies sound, and I can't help using the term zero-gravity when describing Condiciones Que Existen's casually funky low-slung breaks.
Gorgeous space-blues. I discovered this through The Music Of Cosmos compilation, the soundtrack to Carl Sagan's documentary mini-series, where the elegiac Fly... Night Bird stood out from the surrounding selections. Roy Buchanan one of the great blues guitarists of the era, his earlier instrumental Sweet Dreams remains a classic rock staple (it even factors into the ending of Martin Scorcese's The Departed). You're Not Alone brings that sound into the realm of jazz-tinged psychedelia, stretching mournful solos across vast pools of atmospheric rhodes and electronics, with a heavenly version of Neil Young's Down By The River standing as just one particular highlight.
Steve Hillage with the hat trick! I remember picking this one up on the same day as New Age Of Earth. Space music par excellence with Hillage's guitar glissandos arcing over a rolling riverbed of found sound and twinkling ARPs. The famous anecdote around this record has The Orb's Alex Patterson spinning its sounds in the back room at Paul Oakenfold's Land Of Oz club when an unsuspecting Steve Hillage wanders in, resulting in his guest appearance on The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and further dancefloor excursions as System 7 (whose Sinbad/Quest 12" nearly made this list).
The Human League's follow up to their epochal Being Boiled is a grainy, lo-fi excursion into seventies deep space electronica. The sleeve features a photo of Yuri Gagarin receiving commendations from the Soviet government for completing the first manned mission into space. The record's conceit was that the space program was only made possible by the coal miners beneath the earth providing fuel for the workers in the steel mills who built the rockets that carried Gagarin into space. Hence, The Dignity Of Labour.
As was the case with exotica, I was surprised that I couldn't think of more space-explicit new wave space records. Here's one that fit the bill, featuring Gary Numan's extended storyboard concept — one that he hoped to one day flesh out into a science-fiction novel — built around aliens and robots involved in the control of civilization. Down In The Park even found its way — via a Foo Fighters cover version — onto an X-Files tribute album some years later.
Klytus... I'm bored. What plaything can you offer me today? This is an early one for me. Indeed, I was obsessed with this movie as a kid. So not much has changed... and at the very least it's a whole lot of fun. Essentially a not-totally-serious remake of the science-fiction serial dating back to the 1930's. Perhaps this is where the knowingly camp aesthetic enters the mainstream? Even if there are some incredibly touching moments: Timothy Dalton's heroic turnaround and basically everything involving Topol throughout the second half of the movie.
This is the soundtrack to the film of the same name, famously provided by Queen. Everyone knows the title track, but there are a number of instrumentals throughout that threaten to steal the show: The Kiss (Aura Resurrects Flash), Arboria (Planet Of The Tree Men) and the gorgeous In The Space Capsule (Love Theme) — my absolute favorite moment on the record.
Another one given to me by the same uncle behind the Jarre compilation. This is the soundtrack to Carl Sagan's epic mini-series documentary Cosmos, featuring loads of space music from Vangelis along with myriad classical pieces by the likes of Vivaldi, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Once again, the Roy Buchanan track really caught my attention here, totally unique in this context.
Dennis Bovell's orbital dub symphony. Bovell who started out with storied UK reggae group Matumbi, gradually becomes immersed in the studio itself and drifts into the post punk slipstream, resulting in productions for The Pop Group, The Slits and even Ryuichi Sakamoto. Here he cuts loose under the pseudonym Blackbeard, spinning out otherworldly dub reggae in widescreen. Tunes like Electrocharge and Reflections are on a serious outerrim science-fiction tip.
More interplanetary reggae running parallel to the post punk zeitgeist, this time with Adrian Sherwood behind the mixing board. Sherwood another key figure operating at the axis of dub and post punk, producing the likes of Mark Stewart, Tackhead and Fats Comet alongside projects like New Age Steppers and African Head Charge.
Creation Rebel had a gift for leftfield dub excursions, and Starship Africa takes them as far out as they would ever travel. Structured as two extended suites, Starship Africa and Space Movement, this is the fluid other to Blackbeard's rock-hard riddims.
Sting's diabolical turn in David Lynch's adaptation of Dune still a few years away at this point. Here, the singular atmosphere of Walking On The Moon gets stretched over an entire LP. Moody and spacious. Perhaps not explicitly space-themed but certainly in thrall to the cosmos, eyes locked firmly onto the stars. The atmosphere here just embodies outer space. Smash hit Invisible Sun creeps in on a bed of tension and just builds, while the closing duo of Secret Journey and Darkness always remind me of Detroit techno in their elegant spaciousness.
Krautrock bleeds into the eighties, best represented by the Innovative Communication and Sky labels. A node in the development of organic electronica, occupying the same interzone between kosmische and new age as Double Fantasy's Universal Ave (another one in the nearly list). Like Cluster, Clara Mondshine generates multi-faceted electronic systems that stretch out and develop into glistening tone poems, quickly taking on a life of their own. Word is that this sounds great at both 33 and 45 RPM...
The young Prince Jammy, still an apprentice of King Tubby and yet to redefine reggae with Sleng Teng and the excellent Computerised Dub, unleashed this technology-infused widescreen dub slate. I think Computerised Dub has the edge on this — only slightly — but it's still a wonderful record in its own right. Electronic drones herald the arrival of almost every track like the gongs in James Brown's Hell, dropping into fathoms deep bass and subterranean production magic that simply refuses to let up. One of the great night drive records.
Not Cowley's greatest work, but the outer space visual/sonic stylings place this firmly into orbit. That sleeve is as good a thumbnail as any for the whole rolling over vector landscapes trip that I'm forever alluding to. Playing a crucial role in the development of hyperdrive West Coast disco, San Francisco man Cowley cut his teeth producing Sylvester's You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and turned out a monster remix of Donna Summer's I Feel Love: computer disco madness of the highest caliber.
Cowley's gotten the Arthur Russell treatment lately, with lavish reissues of unreleased material such as School Daze and Muscle Up hitting the shelves over the last few years. Great to see this brilliant lo-fi mechanoid funk finally find its way onto the world's turntables.
One of the original albums in my collection, and basically the only reason I was able to get through calculus in college. This music was originally created by Eno and co. to accompany a documentary on the Apollo missions. The first side is dominated by plaintive, melancholy ambient while the second brings in Daniel Lanois' pedal-steel to lighten the atmosphere with some interstellar country-western guitar moves. This must, I think, be understood as the basis of the atmospheric end of Eno's production work with U2 (The Unforgettable Fire's 4th Of July is cut from the same cloth as this album). The opening Understars is one of the great ambient tracks, a perfect distillation of the form.
Electro as a musical genre as often as not kept space in its sights, and is likely the point where seventies cosmic jazz and soul crossed into the carnal climate of the eighties mainstream. The Jonzun Crew dressed in elaborate stage costumes, clearly inspired by Parliament, Earth, Wind & Fire and other large funk groups of the previous decade. They even thank Sun Ra in the liner notes and have a track of their own called Space Is The Place. Operating at the axis of space and the nascent video game explosion, this music extrapolated a totally new sound and vision out of those twin constituent elements. See also Planet Patrol.
More electro with an interplanetary agenda, exemplified by the monster title track. This the follow up to the group's epochal Jam On Revenge, expanding that record's smooth grooves even further into widescreen. Newcleus' secret weapon lie in fleshing out electro's skeletal drum machine framework with an array of lush pads and atmospherics, the end result an exercise in rolling digital funk. The cycling tronix of Teknology and Make It Live embody this mesmerizing, immersive sound. Check out that winning sleeve art too (by Bob Camp, who was later involved in The Ren & Stimpy Show), which recalls Pedro Bell's awesome illustrations for Funkadelic.
Bonus beat! There was never an actual soundtrack released for this film. Still, there's no getting around it. You really want Another Part Of Me playing whenever you leave a planet. This perfectly captures the optimism of mainstream science-fiction in the post-Star Wars era. My heart fell when Disney replaced this with the abysmal Honey, We Shrunk The Audience back in the nineties. Thankfully, they brought EO back after Michael Jackson's untimely passing. Back in the day, I remember seeing a special on TV — featuring Whoopi Goldberg — about the making of this short film. Disney should issue Captain EO — with that featurette included — on DVD. Somebody make it happen!
The original deep space electro crew didn't get the LP treatment until well after the electro boom had already started to wane (with Run-DMC in full swing and N.W.A. just around the corner). However, this rounds everything up into one extraterrestrial package (including the original versions of Planet Rock and Looking For The Perfect Beat). An essential document and the final word in interplanetary electro.
The angelic other in eighties indie rock, A.R. Kane made unclassifiable alien dreamtime music that seemed to prefigure shoegaze along with myriad other forms to come. I nearly included records by Loop and Spacemen 3 here as well, but — as great as they are — perhaps their interstellar aims weren't quite explicit enough for this particular list.
A.R. Kane, on the other hand, seemed locked into the same galactic frequency as Sun Ra... and nowhere more than on the extended double-LP "I". A Love From Outer Space is one of the great pop songs of its era, pairing machine rhythms with guitar feedback in a glorious freefall love song.
Since they both served as conduits of eighties post punk resolve into the next decade's dance explosion, it's rather appropriate that this one-off collaboration between The Orb's Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty of The KLF takes us into the nineties. This deep space ambient music, forming a loose trilogy with The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and The KLF's Chill Out, feels like tumbling into a wormhole (its acid-fried cut up sleeve is the first clue).
Picking up where Space left off, O'locco features Sun Electric's timely elongating of Larry Heard's deep house template into what came to be known as ambient house. The Kama Sutra and Space Therapy versions showcase the German group's original vision, while the four parts of the Orbital Therapy version (remixed by The Orb) stretch things out even further. Initially released on Paterson's WAU! Mr. Modo label, it later cropped up on R&S, with Sun Electric ultimately hooking up with the label's ambient subsidiary Apollo for a handful of excellent albums.
Dr. Alex Paterson's sprawling double-LP ambient house stone tablet. One of those records you can just throw on and get lost in. Everyone knows the album-opener Little Fluffy Clouds, which offers a preview of things to follow: the nomadic breaks of Outlands and Earth (Gaia), Into The Fourth Dimension's resolute proto-trance drive, the endless live mix of A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld, Perpetual Dawn's pulsing dub moves, Supernova At The End Of The Universe's twisting downbeat crawl and of course the sprawling ambient soundscapes of Back Side Of The Moon, Spanish Castles In Space and Star 6 & 7 8 9.
Another chapter in the ambient house story, this time coming from inside the Arctic Circle. Geir Jenssen — who went on to release a whole brace of classic ambient albums like Cirque and Substrata — hosted a radio show called Bleep Culture in his hometown of Tromsø, Norway, during which he spun a mix of ambient and techno, punctuated by what he called small astronomy lectures.1Microgravity clearly draws inspiration from those transmissions, with moody techno cuts like Baby Interphase and Chromosphere flowing smoothly into the sublime ambient drift of Cloudwalker II and Biosphere. The title track even samples David Gulpilil's he know the moon, he know the stars, and he know the milky way dialogue from the NASA-themed film The Right Stuff.
Detroit's Underground Resistance may have always had an ear to the street, but that only meant that the other one was pointed upward to the stars. Think Arecibo. The Final Frontier is a celestial cruise over rolling electro rhythms, with a phantom 303 acid line drifting in and out of the mix like a comet trail: a clear spiritual ancestor to the Red Planet records. This becomes even more explicit with Entering Quadrant Five, its hyperdrive fractal sequences spiralling over another tough electro backbeat — prefiguring some of The Martian's most g-force inducing flights of fancy — while Base Camp Alpha 808 is a spacious, percussive tumble through the sleeve imagery of Herbie Hancock's Sextant.
I've always been unclear whether this record is self-titled or credited to Deep Space Network. Well, I still file it with the rest of Jonas Grossmann and David Moufang's output, so let's stick with that for the time being. This the first of their utterly unique freeform sonic excursions — records which were quietly released on their own Source imprint — and it might just be the greatest ambient house full-length of them all, sounding like field recordings transmitted from light-years away. A song like Morphic Fields, with such timeless beauty in its endless, gentle drift, deserves to be more widely heard.
Monstrous Dutch hardcore shearing into proto-gabber territory. Observing The Earth canes the hoover sound into submission, thrashing about the room like a demented xenomorph, while Starship To Venus rewinds stop-start bleeps over a relentless hammer-blow kickdrum. The flipside rivals the first, with Passion and Like This threading renegade breakbeats through their pounding rhythm matrix. Strangely enough, I bought my copy from Jon Bishop a few years back amidst a whole stack of hardcore records. So thanks to a true OG for introducing me to this tile in the first place.
Another UR-related release, produced by the trio of Jeff Mills, Mad Mike and Robert Hood. Each track is named for one the rings or moons orbiting Saturn (plus one representing the planet itself), with the length of each corresponding to its size and distance from the others.2Hyperion and Groundzero (The Planet) recall earlier hardcore excursions like The Punisher and Sonic Destroyer, while you can feel the genesis of Hood and Mills' brand of minimal techno in the driving repetition of Enceladus and Titan. Impressionistic interludes like Tethys and A-Ring add considerably to the record's visionary depth, while the cinematic scope of Mimas marks it out as a particularly spellbinding moment.
This crucial compilation rounds up music from some of the earliest releases on Carl Craig's Planet E imprint, with a strong European showing thanks to incursions from Steffan Robbers' Eevo Lute and Kirk Degiorgio's ART labels on two separate EPs released by Craig during the preceding year. Plaid weigh in with the introspective machine music of Balil's Nort Route, while Steffan Robbers checks in with the gorgeous celestial reverie of Florence's A Touch Of Heaven. Carl Craig provides nearly half of the material here, with entries from 69's 4 Jazz Funk Classics, the awesome Free Your Mind by Piece and a surprise exclusive in the shape of Shop's most excellent Nitwit. Interestingly, both Terminator 2 and Alien 3 are listed in the liner notes as inspirations.
Named for an episode of the original Star Trek, this is Kenny Larkin's first record after leaving Plus 8. The centerpiece is War Of The Worlds (which also featured on the Intergalactic Beats compilation), an epic slice of cinematic deep space techno, its siren synths arcing over a pulsing Moroder-esque rhythm. I've always loved the sleeve illustration by Abdul Haqq, the brilliant Detroit artist behind Third Earth Visual Arts, who's also responsible for Intergalactic Beats' iconic sleeve art (right up there with Sextant as far as I'm concerned).
Deep space trip from the ardkore auteur. Absolutely brilliant arrangement of sound, with fast-forward breaks spooling out beneath a ravishing string section, all punctuated by a bionic diva wailing into the abyss. See also parts two and three (aka the Kaleidoscopiklimax), for further chapters in this exquisite lunar saga. Part two even features an incredible snatch of Nancy Sinatra's theme to the James Bond film You Only Live Twice.
Possibly the finest moment from this ragged bunch of techno renegades, riding a lengthy sample of Max Romeo's I Chase The Devil before tripping back into drum and bass. The music video, an exercise in amateurish charm multiplied by boundless optimism (this is light-years away from the big budget polish of Fat Of The Land), is among my all-time favorites.
Miami bass stalwarts Dynamix II kept electro's fires lit well into the nineties, when a new wave of producers like Drexciya and The Octagon Man would seize the torch and run with it. A concept record of sorts, Bass Planet takes the supercharged man-machine rhythms of the duos earlier records into deep orbit, exemplified by the soaring brilliance of a track like Machine Planet.
You simply can't overstate the importance of outer space when discussing a crew like UR. This the third in a series of records — starting with Nation 2 Nation and followed by World 2 World — that find the group delving deep into corridors of dance-inflected space jazz. I say group but everything here (with the exception of guest spots featuring Juan Atkins and The Martian) is credited to Mad Mike. He seems to draw here on his roots as a live session musician back in the eighties (playing with groups like Parliament/Funkadelic), in a back-to-the-future gesture that would culminate in The Turning Point EP four years later.
Both versions of Hi-Tech Jazz pick up where Herbie Hancock and Eddie Russ left off, while Star Sailing follows the template of blissed-out jazz funk that UR laid out in earlier tracks like Body And Soul and Jupiter Jazz. There's also moments of fierce beauty, the most striking of which is Journey Of The Dragons. The magic lies in its graceful inevitability: those racing sequences punctuated by jabs from a razor-edged string section, a descending bassline and rolling 808 beats that wait two minutes to fully drop. It all simply unfolds. Meanwhile, Deep Space 9 (A Brother Runs This Ship) continues the bubbling undercurrent of Detroit's fascination with Star Trek — this time by way of Benjamin Sisko's Deep Space Nine.
The Martian's records are cut from the same cloth as UR's, so much so that many at the time theorized that he was actually someone from that crew operating under a cloak of anonymity (I remember Mad Mike's name getting tossed around quite a bit). It turns out that The Martian was very much his own man, laboring in isolation to arrive at a wholly unique shade of sound. Visual Contact and the title track trade in wild trancelike shapes (see also the earlier Stardancer), while Red Atmospheres and Search Your Feelings (featuring Model 500) are inspiring excursions into pure techno soul. Red Planet definitely a connoisseurs label: before long you'll find yourself tracking down every last record.
Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard's debut full-length outing as Global Communication, this is often considered a dress rehearsal for their widely feted 76:14. It's actually an extended reworking of Chapterhouse's Blood Music, spun out into ethereal ambient mode, and stands as a great record in its own right. Marathon running times abound, with proto-Boards Of Canada beats and ghosts of an indie rock band slipping in and out of the soundscape.
Basic Channel's haunting remix of Vainquer's Lyot masterfully evokes the Martian crater of the same name. An edit made it onto the BCD compilation a few years later, but the twelve-minute original — stretching across a whole side of vinyl — really allows the track to breathe life into an immersive environment all it's own. With those gamma ray synths unfurling in graceful slow-motion, BC's dub chamber habitats remain the perfect metaphor for the deep black of space.
Octave One here also perfectly evoking outer space, only this time from within the cramped confines of an orbital space station. The opening Dema offers a precise, clear cut illustration of the group's compact electronic funk. Further references to Star Trek from a Detroit crew — this time on a Next Generation tip — are everywhere, from Farpoint's spooky garage shuffle to the technoid house of Dominion, and my absolute favorite the freaked out analogue funk of The Neutral Zone.
I know next to nothing about this record, which I bought on sight in the elysian fields of the El CajonMusic Trader (circa 2001). It's a longform ambient work seemingly inspired by the SETI program's search for extraterrestrial life. There's the occasional rhythmic flourish but mostly it's a marathon excursion into atmospheric drift. Nice.
Dego and Marc Mac split the atom, beaming 60's/70's astral jazz into the future and back again, splicing the results with their absolute mastery of breakbeat science. At it's most twisted, tracks like Wrinkles In Time and Sounds From The Black Hole posit an entirely new rhythmic vernacular, while the calmer moments — such as Sunspots and Power To Move The Stars — conjure up images of some utopian orbital cloud city. As I've noted before, it's one of my favorite records ever.
Picking up where the previous year's Sonic Sunset left off, Juan Atkins' greatest full-length continues unabated in its pursuit of the celestial. Over half of the record was engineered by Basic Channel's Moritz Von Oswald, with pristine sonics in evidence throughout, ranging from the drum 'n bass moves of Astralwerks to the deconstructed machine funk of Last Transport (To Alpha Centauri). His influence can be particularly felt in the dubbed-out minimal techno of Starlight and Lightspeed, and you even get a version of Sonic Sunset's marathon vocal deep house excursion I Wanna Be There, edited down from the nearly twenty-minute running time of the original.
Then there's The Flow, a shot of machine soul right smack in the middle of the record that I swear sounds exactly like the blueprint for Timbaland and The Neptunes' sonic adventures just around the corner. Blink and it could almost be a Kelis song. I've often wondered whether they heard this record back in '95...
The first full-length from Luke Slater's minimal side-project pulls together a brace of early material from his ongoing Planetary Funk series of EPs and combines them with four new exclusives. The sleeve a perfect illustration of the grooves found within, with this hard as nails, motorik techno perfectly capturing the spirit of interplanetary travel — or warfare.
Ben Long and Bandulu's Jamie Bissmire get down with their first outing as the Space DJz, trading in both hard techno and tough electro jams throughout its twenty-eight minutes. Perhaps I could have picked their 1999 album On Patrol!, but Celestial Funk — a rough and tumble slab of streetwise electro (and by my estimation the duo's finest moment) — just edges it out for this spot. The three-second refrain sums up its loose, off the cuff charm: Set you free, set you free, set you free!
Sheffield duo's finest moment, standing astride the twin pillars of their idiosyncratic sound: dub and ambient electronica. Our Earth (Big, Isn't It) is a cinematic downbeat trip through the subway while riding a colossal slow-motion break, whereas Mr. Echo (Go To Hell) is a peaceful weightless drift through bucolic ambient soundscapes.
There were loads of great records on Apollo, the ambient subsidiary of R&S, indeed the Apollo Compilation — a round-up of tracks from various early releases on the label (including Love Craft's awesome Intelligent Univers) — can be chalked up as another record in the "nearly" list.
Brittle, spangly electronica from Denmark. Think The Black Dog circa Spanners. Every sound, every texture seems to have the timbre of reverberating metal — tempting visions of exotic instrumentation fashioned from wafer-thin sheets of chrome and copper — and all arranged with a breathtakingly nimble touch. Strangely enough, there's even a couple abstract hip hop incursions featuring an MC Panasonique, who I know next to nothing about and may have only surfaced on this album before vanishing forever.
Spectral drum 'n bass with one foot still in the jungle, this is Photek's paean to the stars. U.F.O. is a claustrophobic sprint through shadowy, paranoid corridors, predicting the atmosphere of his excellent debut full-length Modus Operandi by a couple years. The flipside includes the dreamy landscapes of Rings Around Saturn, with it's strange bird calls and crisp, nimble breakbeats — ghostly strings and a rhodes pulsing throughout — taking you deep into cosmic jazz territory.
The follow up to Heard's pair of Sceneries Not Songs records, Alien is cut from the same cloth: spacious, jazzed-out dynamics in play, operating in downbeat mode as often as the deep house bedrock where his roots lie (even slipping into spells of beatless atmosphere from time to time).
Heard seems to be refracting the ambient house excursions of Sun Electric and The Orb back across the Atlantic, just as they had done with his initial deep house template years ago. Consequently, the dazzling digital disco of The Dance Of Planet X squares the introspective ambience of his contemporary material with his landmark eighties recordings as Mr. Fingers (see Can You Feel It, Beyond The Clouds and Stars for just a few examples).
Spooky, razor-edged drum 'n bass. Moving into the late nineties, this is one of the finest tracks of its era. The Planets begins with nearly a minute of beatless atmosphere before its metallic breakbeat comes crashing in, literally chopping through the track, when suddenly the tune drifts back out into pure ambience.
Crumbling astral bodies seem to throb in the distance before slowly being drawn into something resembling a bassline — through sheer centrifugal force of will — and Dom's breakbeat science comes crashing back into the mix. Wraithlike synths seem to shimmer ominously, permeating every corner of the soundscape, while eerie sounds pitched somewhere between gale wind and guttural moan rise out of the darkness. It is very cold in space.
New York illbient and the flipside of breakbeat science. This four track EP features That Subliminal Kid scratching galaxies (to borrow a phrase from the Death Comet Crew) into oblivion, sliding across the surface of a planetarium like the cave paintings of Altamira set in motion. The title track, with its wild phased clavinet breakdown, is the highlight here, but also check the beatless string-laden deluge of The Vengeance Of Galaxy 5, which sounds like field recordings of a distant cataclysm at the edge of space recovered from some ancient battered probe.
Southern rap. From before they were a household name. Simon Reynolds once called Elevators (Me & You)Sun Ra-gone-hip hop. When you're confronted with its eerie smeared organ drift, dubbed-out snare clicks and a hauntingly chanted chorus, well it's pretty hard to argue. You've also got the title track, a masterfully arranged mini-epic that rides a nagging bassline, shining synths and a lightspeed-to-infinity filtered vocal snatch — linked with an infectious sing-along chorus — into the Martian sunset.
One of the pivotal moments in my musical life was receiving this mix — as a gift — just after it dropped, opening the doors to Detroit techno and beyond. The first thing you notice is that marathon intro, with DJ Minx announcing you're in deep space over far-out sonics that recall Hendrix's ... And The Gods Made Love, before Kevin "Master Reese" Saunderson backspins into the tribal fury of Bango's Ritual Beating System (Stacey Pullen's absorbing rumination on Olatunji's Drums Of Passion).
The transmission continues through tracks by Detroit figures like Octave One, Carl Craig and Sean Deason, amazing jazzed-out house by Deep Dish (under the banner Chocolate City), Outlander's epochal slab of Belgian hardcore The Vamp (remixed by none other than Master Reese himself), myriad tracks from the Netherlands' Dobre & Jamez and even both sides of a contemporary E-Dancer 12". The wide-open sonics in E-Dancer's World Of Deep perfectly encapsulate everything this mix — and indeed great dance music — is all about.
We found her on one of our voyages to the fourth sector, intones Pharrell in the intro, and from then on The Neptunes provide Kelis with loads of brilliant alien soundscapes to cut loose in. The retro-70's strains of Mars (those synths!) recall Stevie Wonder at his most cosmic, while Roller Rink's astral funk has Kelis asking Have you ever thought there might be something out there? Far out, way out, while Pharrell is delivering their firstborn on a NASA space shuttle. Casual references to space are scattered throughout, and Kelis herself shines as an utterly unique (alien?) presence. Rather appropriately, The Neptunes later called their label Star Trak Entertainment.
Spectral r&b. In spirit at least, it's like SA-RA before SA-RA: space capsule music (think One Way's Don't Stop) unfurling out into the stars... this is pure machine soul. Every texture so delicate, and Steve Spacek's voice so fragile, the whole record seems to simply glide by in a mist. How Do I Move, with it's technoid pulses cycling and drifting through the soundscape, seems aware of its own ethereal properties. Sex In Zero Gravity.
The first Gorillaz album gets dubbed out, stretched out and spaced out by the Spacemonkeyz. Possibly even better than the original album, especially for those after a deep sonic fix. Damon Albarn continues on the road to becoming a worldly man (see also Mali Music), with Blur beginning to wind down as a full-time concern. The mood here seems to recall The Special AKA and Ghost Town, that same spectral and spacious sense of dub run through pop's kaleidoscopic funhouse. If you listen closely, you can hear the roots for The Good, The Bad & The Queen beginning to take shape...
Exquisite space music on Jeff Mills' Tomorrow label. The liner notes contain extended quotes from 2010 and Kodwo Eshun, while the sounds within bring to mind the solemnity of hard science-fiction. Following the journey of a probe to the titular sixth moon of Jupiter, the album moves through ethereal ambient excursions like Long Journey Of Spacecraft and Views From The Surface into the stark orchestral shades of Reaching The Subsurface Ocean.
Tracks like Drilling Through The Ice and Crash Landing Of Probe jut from the record's calm surface with pure noise to punctuate their titular events, while the atmospheric Sinking Slowly Through The Ice captures an all-encompassing sense of wonder and dread. Descent Towards The Discovery Of Life draws all of these strands together, closing out this deeply special record on a majestic note, it's austere splendor bringing to mind first side of Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks.
Breathtakingly romantic zero-gravity soul. My absolute favorite record of NdegéOcello's, there's a strong reggaematic current running through most the rhythms here. Liliquoi Moon and Andromeda & The Milky Way mark this out as a space record, shot through with an otherworldly glide and drawing on a deep palette of sound.
There's this one particular synth sound that colors large swathes of the album and makes me flash on Detroit in its magnetic pull. You hear it in the climax of a song like Love Song #3, with its shades of Hendrix circa 1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be), and the result is almost overwhelmingly powerful. Then there's the blissed out gaussian blurred flow of Come Smoke My Herb — quite simply a perfect pop song — drifting through space on a solar wind.
Three-part-harmony-inflected digital disco. Polar arranged the string section on the revered Metro Area records, and accordingly, this came out on Morgan Geist's Environ imprint. The sleeve's Pillars Of Creation photograph is a dead give away, but the spangly textures and crisp sense of space in songs like Here In The Night and Black Hole betray this tile's cosmic intent. The awesome Matter Into Energy, my favorite moment here, eschews beats altogether in favor of a sumptuous freefall reverie.
As I've said before, I love SA-RA, and the Cosmic Dust/Cosmic Lust double-shot is the crew's finest front-to-back moment. Machine soul in a space capsule stylee, SA-RA perfected a sound that stretches back to the days of Kleeer and Mtume, imbuing it with all the energy of rave and hip hop from the ensuing years. The implicit outer space sonics of those groups is made explicit here (and how!). Their consistently evocative sleeves are a perfect illustration of the spacious sounds found within.
Freaked-out space rock from Japan. At times this recalls Amon Düül II, in not only the acid-folk sprawl of Buy The Moon Of Jupiter and Interplanetary Love, but especially the extended nearly thirty-minute sonic mayhem of The Tales Of Solar Sail — Dark Stars In The Dazzling Sky. You couldn't make this stuff up!
This one caught me totally off guard at the time, a rap/r&b record that seemed to share a similar spirit with the music of A.R. Kane and Tears For Fears circa The Hurting. Sure, 808s & Heartbreaks might have hinted in the direction of this new wave-inflected r&b, but the Kid ploughs a much deeper furrow.
My World is just one of many mini-epics that seem to draw on Tangerine Dream's soundtrack work as much as the aforementioned new wave and machine soul. The Detroit-inflected techno of Enter Galactic (Love Connection Part 1) (think Juan Atkins in Infiniti mode) and the awesome resolute crawl of Alive (Nightmare) — the synths and guitar shapes of which make me flash on Eno's Another Green World — map out a broad vision of outerspace/innerspace music.
The Wizard has turned his mind to celestial matters on more than one occasion (see X-102 Discovers The Rings Of Saturn, Jupiter Jazz and One Man Spaceship for just a few examples), but this relatively recent one seemed to be a culmination of those obsessions. The subtle inflections of this broad, filmic music sometimes bring to mind his incredible soundtrack for Metropolis.3 A master stroke.
Largely ambient LP from revered Detroit DJ Claude Young. His production career has often seemed strangely underrated by the cognoscenti, but the man has built up a serious discography over the years, growing more and more abstract over the course of time. Celestial Bodies trades in similar forms of austere, immersive ambience as Mitch Walcott and Jeff Mills, and tracks like Messier 86 (NGC 4406) and Observing The Kuiper Belt bear striking shades of atmospheric depth and splendor. However, there's still a bit of tough machine funk tucked away in Hawking Radiation, harking back to the muscular, abstract techno of Young's past.
Cosmic jazz on the Sun Ra big band tip. Washington contributed to the jazz foundation of Kendrick Lamar's excellent To Pimp A Butterfly, and here he stretches out over three discs with an ambitious song cycle that recalls the wide-open sides of figures like Charles Mingus, Pharoah Sanders and of course Sun Ra on Impulse! during the glory days of astral jazz. Incredibly dense and daring, this record stands on its own as an adventurous, extended slab of visionary modern jazz.
L.A.'s Damon Riddick expands on the spaced-out currents found in his earlier work with a sprawling g-funk blast that comes on like an intergalactic broadcast picked up on some strange nocturnal frequency. The record is bracketed by two transmissions from Junie Morrison that bring to mind the extended conceptual works of Parliament/Funkadelic, and accordingly, the scale here seems larger than it ever has before on a Dâm-Funk record. Where his earlier tiles like Burgundy City and Toeachizown were intimate, largely solo affairs, this album ropes in an extended cast ranging from hip hop icons like Snoop Dogg and Q-Tip to old school veterans like Jody Watley and Leon Sylvers, and even alternative rockers like Ariel Pink and Flea!
Still, the remit is very much on the electronic funk tip, and tracks like Missing U and The Hunt & Murder Of Lucifer continue to develop Riddick's singular take on machine soul. Similarly, uptempo excursions Floating On Air and O.B.E. (which brings to mind The Orb's track of nearly the same name) advance this fascinating side of the man's music that feels like his own distinctly original take on techno, as if arrived upon via a totally different set of circumstances (Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover being two of the most obvious touchstones) but still rocking a righteous mash up of Kraftwerk and George Clinton. Seeing him perform at The Casbah with a live band (on the night of this record's release, as a matter of fact) was a real treat, and without a doubt one of the greatest shows I've ever had the pleasure to witness.
Ethereal space rock from last year by one of the original architects of Hawkwind (its sleeve a play on that band's X In Search Of Space). This largely instrumental, free-wandering excursion at times recalls early Ozric Tentacles. Featuring another extended cast working together in the studio, this ties together whole strands of the space rock community with appearances from Gong's Gilli Smyth and Steve Hillage (yet again!), Amon Düül II's John Weinzierl, Brainticket's Joel Vandroogenbroeck and even Robbie Krieger of The Doors, plus fusioneers like Billy Cobham and Soft Machine's John Etheridge, not to mention wildcard appearances by Nick Garratt of punk band UK Subs and Die Krupps' industrial architect Jürgen Engler!
Bowie's final album-length statement, teeming with loose and free-flowing jazz inflections. It's been compared to late-period Scott Walker in its inscrutable mood and abstract shapes, but is very much a culmination of everything he's been up to for the last twenty-odd years.
Inspired in part by the freewheeling spirit of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly4, Blackstar finds Bowie collaborating one last time with the indomitable Tony Visconti on a sequence of seven songs that swoop and shudder within a lush, three-dimensional soundscape. The record cycles gracefully between disparate modes, from the downbeat crawl of Lazarus and Dollar Days to the gliding rhythms of lead single 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore. Those hyper-syncopated, rolling beats on Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) even touch on the jungle-inflected corridors of 1997's Earthling, an album that's remained close to my heart as very my first Bowie record. The gorgeous, album-closing I Can't Give Everything Away plays like a touching goodbye letter to the world.
Blackstar is utterly magnificent, a strange and sublime masterpiece. As the record that inspired this wide and wonderful trip in the first place, it serves as a fitting conclusion to our journey. Ventures to the vast beyond, in the end, take us back home to our tiny blue planet — spinning lonely in the cosmos — and all the sonic treasures held within.
A few years back, I started a limited series in which I'd post a weekly tune that was locked into the celestial. I called it Deep Space Music. It was loosely inspired, as is much of what I do, by something a bunch of forward-thinking cats did in Detroit back in the day. In this case, it was Deep Space Radio, a series of transmissions made in the mid-nineties in which people like Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson would spin far out techno and house over the city's airwaves, culminating in Saunderson's masterful X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio mix.
My own excursion was a much more minimal affair, hosted on the old version of this very site, titled (rather unimaginatively) Deep Space Music. It involved simply tossing up one tune a week - for just under a year - from one summer to another, spanning between 2012 and 2013. The idea was that each song would flow into the next as one long suite, thematically speaking, the patchwork whole unfolding like the weekly sci-fi serials of old. At any rate, it proved to be an enjoyable exercise and hopefully tuned some people into some great music in the process.
In researching a monster piece I've been working on lately (and coming at you in the near future), I'd been digging through the interplanetary archives and - in the process - discovered a tracklist of all the tunes that featured in the series. I'd nearly forgotten about the whole enterprise, but seeing as it fits in thematically with the trip we've been on lately I thought it might be illuminating to beam the results back to earth, commenting on each selection in the process.
You'll notice that a lot of these tunes have continued to crop up in the intervening years, via mixes and even featured in The Parallax 100, which should highlight the centrality of this selection to my own musical tastes. All of these should be relatively easy to get your ears on nowadays, via Youtube or some other means (like picking up the record, perhaps), so if something sounds enticing you know what to do...
The journey starts with rolling drums and guitars chiming off into the event horizon. Spacious pads with a graviational pull all their own drift through the mix, that gently chugging bassline seems to propel this ship through the vastness of space in ethereal slow-motion. Don't you know that I live for this sort of thing? This a François Kevorkian perpertrated dub of Ashford & Simpson's original (from their Solid LP), stretching it out across timespace with just a snatch of the original vocal. When Nickolas Ashford drops right into the mix, singing The love story's true, they didn't change me and you..., the track seems to stop and rebuild itself right before your eyes.
MtumeThe After 6 Mix (Juicy Fruit Part II) (Epic, 1983)
Another flipside excursion, another featuring just a snatch of vocal input and another one of my favorite songs of all time. The original has one of the great synth progressions ever, pulling you in with a gliding futuristic optimism (think Tommorowland), but this second part - stripping the track to its essentials - is true space capsule music. You find yourself waiting for the synthesized bass sound that just oozes into the track every other bar. Hearing this for the first time was one of those pivotal moments in my life, like a parallel universe unfolding before me, and everything contained within was right up my alley. I remember rustling up the album and 12" within weeks!
This tune and much of what follows are what I like to call Machine Soul, in essence a sonic strand stretching from Mtume through Model 500, into Timbaland and beyond.
KleeerTonight (Atlantic, 1984)
This one takes me back to sun-glazed days in late summer, playing video games on the Atari 2600 (truly ancient technology by that point in the mid-nineties), tripping out to Solaris and the sound of machine rhythms in the scorching heat. This track was the basis for DJ Quik's Tonite, its rubberband, synthetic bassline spreading deep into the DNA of g-funk. True machine soul, you can picture yourself listening in some perfectly-engineered alien vessel, gliding over a neon vector landscape in the night.
DrexciyaRunning Out Of Space (Tresor, 1999)
Perfection in just under two minutes, this would lend itself to a killer 7" single. That's a whole category unto itself. Sounding almost as if Tonight were fast-forwarded - all sonics twisted and filtered through fifteen years of electro boogie science - the track swoops and shudders on a nimble machine-funk rhythm before dissolving into a majestic, beatless coda. You could run a starship on that. Drexciya of course representing the life aquatic, they seem to be just as much at home in the deep black of space.
SlamVisions (featuring Dot Allison) (Soma, 2001)
Turn-of-the-century Glasgow. A killer pop song seemingly sprung from the subconscious. The atmosphere heavy like a black hole, that shrouded bassline rising from within, drawing you deeper and deeper into gravity's pull. At the center of it all is Dot Allison), serenading the night skies in a druggy murmur. The song explodes into some psychedelic vision of deep space r&b, glowing shards of funky synthetic sound spiralling off into the stratosphere, northern lights ablaze.
I've gone digital about this one before. You're gliding across the grid, vectors scrolling under a moonlit sky, landscapes parallaxing in the distance. Keni Stevens drapes his absolute smoothest, most delicate voice over an elegant neon-lit groove, all the parts moving in perfect unity. The vocal and instrumental versions of the Ultra-Sensual Mix run together on the vinyl, giving you eleven and a half minutes of supersonic pleasure.
Sun PalaceRude Movements (Passion, 1983)
I've noted before (another repeat!) how this record comes on like Carl Craig and Hall & Oates making music together in an elevator. I stand by that. Eighties smooth jazz isn't supposed to sound this exciting, but every element in this tune mixes together into the perfect palette and, against all odds, feels absolutely timeless. The perfect (quiet) storm.
YageTheme From Hot Burst (Jumpin' & Pumpin', 1992)
An exclusive from the excellent Earthbeat compilation, an indispensable round-up of glistening techno produced by a pre-FSOLDougans and Cobain. Crystalline synths drift whimsical over stuttering breakbeats, muted rave sounds trill just below the surface, with everything submerged in a deep, oceanic calm. Almost freeform in its construction, this track simply shimmers.
The Isley BrothersVoyage To Atlantis (T-Neck, 1997)
Why don't The Isley Brothers get more love? They're easily the equal of giants like Led Zeppelin or Stevie Wonder. What gives? They have loads of great records. This from their seventies 3 + 3 period - when the group's ranks swelled to six - in which they operated as purveyors of fine funk and peerless, sun-glazed soul. Voyage To Atlantis itself sways in stately slow-motion, exit music for a film. Cosmic, elegaic and beautiful.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be) (Reprise, 1968)
Aquatic, like Drexciya, but in tune with the cosmos. Hendrix got his start playing guitar with The Isleys before going down in history as arguably the greatest guitarist of all (the Forever riff in this song is one of the most inspiring things I've ever heard done with an electric guitar). This record finds him equally adept at using the studio as an instrument unto itself, rolling various movements and spaced out interludes into a nearly fourteen-minute sonic tapestry that works seamlessly as one long, flowing piece. The result is simply breathtaking.
FlukeKitten Moon (Astralwerks, 1997)
The better part of this album, Risotto, is pretty spaced out as a rule, and I could have used anything from the blunted black hole trip Bermuda to the alien frequencies of Reeferendum to make the same point. However, Kitten Moon eclipses all other candidates with its relentless, chugging rhythm and a drop into pure atmosphere that leaves you standing on the edge of infinity.
KleeerTonight (SA-RA Remix featuring The SA-RA All Stars & Me'Shell NdegéOcello) (Rhino, 2005)
The original Kleeer classic (heard above) has a long history of affection among electronic funk connoisseurs. SA-RA turn in what is, in truth, more an outright cover than a remix. I love how they take the relatively minimal original - a tune that seems deeply influential to their own group's aesthetic - and go all out with it, stretching out in widescreen with a big band in tow (including the inimitable Me'Shell NdegéOcello), with no expense spared. Sparkling in the discotheque.
Octave OneNicolette (430 West, 1991)
Octave One embody a certain sonic perfection, working out the internal logic of techno and house to arrive at a streamlined form that sounds unlike anything else. This from their classic Octivation EP, following on the heels of their debut I Believe. Detuned bleeps spill out from a low slung rhythm, the fusion of shuffling 909 beats and a wandering analog bassline, synth washes flowing beneath it all in such a way that r&b stations should've been playing it. In a word, DEEP.
Joe Gibbs & The ProfessionalsIdlers Rest (Joe Gibbs, 1977)
Intergalactic dub reggae, sounding not unlike SA-RA holed up at the Black Ark. Hard to believe it's from 1977. Rock hard beats and bottomless bass kick into gear with siren synths blazing high up above. This from the second volume in Joe Gibbs' excellent African Dub All-Mighty series, which I was lucky enough to snag at Reggae World some years back (and just in time to spin at a New Years Eve party later that night).
Leon WareTamed To Be Wild (United Artists, 1972)
Motorik machine soul from the first solo shot by this songwriter in the shadows. Think Suicide. Leon Ware growls over a chugging blues beat, rolling pianos and electronic bass that zig-zags beneath brooding verses before exploding into that near-gospel chorus. Ancient synths droning into infinity. It's all very Warp Records. Ware well-documented as a songwriting auteur, with Motown and Marvin Gaye, in particular (look no further than I Want You for the proof), benefiting from his way with the pen. Check those credits - from Quincy Jones to Minnie Riperton to The Jackson Five - he's everywhere!.
Jackson And His Computer BandUtopia (Warp, 2005)
I remember being stumped as to how to follow up the previous track - so doggedly singular was that grinding tronik soul stormer - but this convoluted electro/house burner from the French auteur Jackson Fourgeaud did the trick. Intricate and overloaded, this track is - simply put - a monster. The whole of it seems constructed from shards of sound - electronic glitches and vocal snatches - shattered into a million pieces only to be reconstructed into a skewed vision of disco, churning under waves of droning sonics before dropping out into that heavenly chorus. Have you ever thought about utopia? Utterly bizarre, yet I challenge anyone not to be hooked by the second listen.
BeanfieldKeep On Believing (Compost, 1997)
My brother Matt and I used to be obsessed with this tune. Still are, truth be told. One of my go-to tracks in defense of the practice of sampling. This tune essentially mashes up Vangelis' Let It Happen and the batucada drums from Costa-Gavras' Z (Mikis Theodorakis in full effect), filtering them through deep space sonics and winding up with something utterly singular. But where did those blues vocals come from?
More SA-RA. They're all over the place in this break out! The MMM original is a swaying mirage of interstellar exotica, but the SA-RA version takes it on a wild, tangled trip into the unknown. Busting out wrongfooted on the 4/4 - like if J Dilla made a house track - this multi-part dancefloor burner seems fueled on unstable elements, kicking into a juke joint mid-section before it all collapses inna staggering machine rhythm that just disolves into stray synths in the moonlight. The life and death of a star.
Jay DeeThink Twice (BBE, 2001)
Speaking of J Dilla, this deep slab of downbeat bliss from Welcome 2 Detroit is the square root of all manner of twisted machine soul that's tumbled out of this blessed millennium so far. This could go on for hours and I wouldn't get bored. The Donald Byrd bit that goes Your love's like fire and ice, that's why we've got to think twice, followed by a little trumpet flourish, is catchier than most songs you hear on the radio. Then it flies off on a variation, the piano jukes then goes left, before once again drifting somewhere else entirely.
Smith & MightyDJ-Kicks/I Don't Know (featuring Alice Perera) (12" Mix 1) (Studio !K7, 1998)
It's beginning to feel almost as if I subconsciously drew from this nearly forgotten list when mixing last year's Radio AG transmissions! I suppose that speaks to their closeness to my heart (aww!). This one's so tied up with my own memories and experiences that I don't know where to begin. You just want to curl up inside the warmth of this song. In the surrounding context, it plays like a companion piece to The Martian's Sex In Zero Gravity: a love from outer space.
Me'Shell NdegéOcelloCome Smoke My Herb (Maverick, 2003)
Comfort Woman - the record from which this track springs - is on some serious Hendrix-level astral plane, its space rock dynamics swooping and shuddering in graceful slow-motion through the reggaematic machinery of dub. This is deep space as a return to the womb, and it's the swooning blur of Come Smoke My Herb that offers up the record's simplest, most exquisite pleasure: walking on air.
Divine StylerIn A World Of U (Maverick, 2003)
In between Styler's old school debut and underground return lies Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light, a record that draws on space rock, industrial and fusion as much as hip hop. This tune in particular is coming from somewhere else! There's that inevitable, descending chord progression - guitars running through sheets of chorus, trilling off into delicate metallic solos - rolling drums and Divine Styler's druggy murmur at the center of it all, cut adrift in wholly expansive innnerspace.
The PoliceWalking On The Moon (A&M, 1979)
Everybody knows this one, and for good reason. Andy Sumner's guitars chime into the endless deep while Stewart Copeland taps out a beat that seems to obey the laws of lunar gravity rather than the Earth's, and Sting sounds without a care in the world. I remember a particularly dark night back in the day when I listened to this song on repeat, non-stop until I eventually drifted off to sleep.
Simple MindsVeldt (Arista, 1979)
Early Simple Minds records are doubtless a treasure trove of weird new wave, but you'll also find some of the most atmospheric instrumentals of their era... or any other for that matter. Perfectly conjuring up visions of the titular African plains at dusk, strange shapes shifting in the darkness, this brings to mind Suburban Knight's The Art Of Stalking. I swear that you can hear mid-period FSOL in this densely articulated atmosphere. The first time I heard it, I thought What's going on now?! Today it might be my favorite thing on the album.
Philly soul craftsman gets loose in the studio, shearing into incandescent jazz funk. The song drifts in and out into radio transmissions - presumably picked up in deep space - chronicling the struggles of present-day Earth. Not much has changed! Wansel croons in silk over luminescent organs and a rubber-synth bassline, fragile and exquisite. A minor r&b hit at the time, it's a wonder this tune isn't more widely known.
The Steve Miller BandSacrifice (Capitol, 1977)
Glorious tripped out pop-psychedelia from the original space cowboy. Crystalline rhodes shimmer in the moonlight over a downbeat rhythm, while Steve Miller pulls liquid shapes from his guitar and sings moody lines in the foreground. I've always been a sucker for that vibrato thing he tends to do with his voice: What a sacrifiyiyice.... This is, in essence, a jazz funk record. Which leads us into...
Roy Ayers UbiquityThe Memory (Polydor, 1976)
DEEP jazz funk. The deepest. Drawing you slow-motion tumbling into a black hole, shadows and sound swirling all around, it seems to have a gravity all its own. Feel Surreal. Those drums are rock hard, pounding a tripped-out beat while deep Moog bass textures curl beneath. Liquid keys shimmer and gamma ray ARPs stream like sunlight through the darkness. Innerspace music and subconscious soul, this track embodies the haunting words of its refrain.
Marvin GayeA Funky Space Reincarnation (Tamla, 1978)
Taken from Gaye's exquisite kiss off Here, My Dear. I remember buying the record thinking, Well, it's supposed to be one of his weaker ones but I love What's Going On and then being completely blown away. A Funky Space Reincarnation has Gaye drifting through images of mental deep space travel over a downbeat disco rhythm - sort of half-singing/half-rapping - commenting on the sights he encounters along the way and putting the moves on Miss Birdsong. Strangely enough, this always makes me think of those rolling ambient house numbers by The Orb like Perpetual Dawn and Toxygene, gently unfurling on an astral plane.
Bobby LyleInner Space (Capitol, 1978)
I first heard this in a Kirk Degiorgio mix and couldn't believe my ears. This came out when? How?? It's the secret ancestor to Carl Craig's gaussian-blurred ambient excursions like Neurotic Behavior and A Wonderful Life, and a glorious track in its own right.
PsycheNeurotic Behavior (Planet E, 1989)
Which brings us to this, which strangely had the opposite effect: I couldn't believe it had come out so recently. Breathtakingly cinematic and vast in scope, it sounds simultaneously ancient and futuristic, like a sleek alien structure that the scientists can't seem to date. I remember compiling the Parallax 100 and originally planning to include 4 Jazz Funk Classics, but just couldn't resist this record's exquisite shades and absorbing timbres. Elements is in that grey area of compilations that pull from just one or two years - see also The Three EPs by The Beta Band - but it just works too well as an album in its own right. It gets the pass! And just because his first stuff is my absolute favorite doesn't mean I don't love the rest of it... the man has gone from strength to strength, one of the most consistently compelling producers around.
The MartianSkypainter (Red Planet, 1995)
Motorik deep space drive. I've been a big fan of Red Planet for ages, and if I'm not mistaken have everything the label put out (there might be a Somewhere In Detroit record lingering, I can't remember). At the time I just couldn't get ahold of the records, try as I might. I first heard this and Midnite Sunshine (and, come to think of it the very next track as well) on Submerge's Depth Charge 3, a round-up of tracks that from their extended crew. I was in heaven.
FreqWaveaura (Matrix, 1995)
This is the other one from that compilation, although its original home was a label compilation for Matrix Records (Sean Deason's label). As far as I know, this never had a release outside those two compilations. Deason was a rising star at this time, in what was called The Third Wave Of Detroit Techno, and I snapped up whatever I could by him. When he was on, he was really on. This spaced out organ jam, a sleek Martian cousin to Paperclip People's Steam, was one of those moments.
E-DancerWorld Of Deep (KMS, 1997)
I can now recall that there was a bit of a Detroit rally going on at this point. I was feeling good! This tune was actually featured on Saunderson's X-Mix that I mentioned above. It was hot off the presses at the time. Simply put, this is superb machine disco. Deeply psychedelic and absorbing, that bassline just takes hold. Are those synths or are they voices? You just have to close your eyes to this one.
VirgoRide (Radical, 1989)
More dazzling tronik house moves, this time by way of Chicago. Machine rhythms and a cascading bassline suck you into the pitch black, while blurred vocals invite you to take a ride. This is night drive music for a ride to Club Silencio.
Dark EnergyMidnite Sunshine (Underground Resistance, 1994)
This one from the awesome Dark Energy double-pack on UR. Credited to Dark Energy AKA Suburban Knight AKA James Pennington, and offering up a flipside to the paranoid dread in earlier records like The Art Of Stalking and Nocturbulous Behavior: anything is possible and the future is wide open. Inspiring stuff. There was a later Dark Energy record that was quite good as well, this time on an electrofunk tip.
ReloadEhn (Infonet, 1993)
Taken from A Collection Of Short Stories, which is (if I'm not mistaken) Global Communication's auspicious debut. The record is a grab-bag of disparate styles - from ambient to breakbeat techno and grinding industrial - complete with an equally disjunctured set of accompanying science fiction texts. This beauty in this track lies in its sheer inevitability as it works out its own internal logic - the synth's progression and that throbbing bassline, low-key breaks rolling beneath - its off-kilter funk running like illogical clockwork.
PlaidSpudink (Warp, 1997)
I've always been quite fond of this one. Its casual futurism is like viewing the Earth through a tiny portal from within the compact close quarters of the international space station... a tin can floating through the vastness of space. There's also loads of stuff by The Black Dog that I could/should have used in this list, but it must have slipped my mind.
China CrisisJean Walks In Freshfields (Virgin, 1982)
This unlikely jewel of space music in miniature lies nestled at the end of China Crisis' debut album, Difficult Shapes & Passive Rhythms. It drops you into the shadow of a nebula and is over in the blink of an eye.
Double HelixLow Key (Rush Hour, 2002)
I think this one first appeared on the All Access To Detroit's Music Festivals compilation, but it later got a 12" release. A clockwork rhythm taps beneath a glowing bassline as the deepest of synths roll out into casual infinity. Strangely, this often makes me think of the spaciest precincts of China Crisis' discography (particularily Red Sails and The Soul Awakening).
KraftwerkSpacelab (Kling Klang, 1978)
These gentlemen from Cologne don't have an album dedicated to space, possibly because they already said everything they needed to within the shining six minutes of Spacelab. Partially inspired by the machine disco rhythms of Giorgio Moroder, this sounds like ambient house before house even happened.
QueenIn The Space Capsule (Love Theme) (Elektra, 1981)
When Dr. Zarkov's space capsule disconnects from the rocket, that guitar strum etches itself into infinity. Queen in soundtrack mode here, this is beautiful like Tangerine Dream. It's the love theme for Dale and Flash, one one level, but on another it seems to gesture toward a universal love for all of humanity (and thus makes it Dr. Zarkov's theme as much as anyone else's). Perfect music for getting sucked into a vortex, I once made an abstract hip hop track that sampled those opening synths.
Mr. FingersStars (Jack Trax, 1987)
Glorious early deep house from Larry Heard (a legend doncha know?). You've got this gently chugging beat, a bassline that wanders all over the spectrum and shimmering synth sequences that rotate in slow-motion lunar orbit, always threatening to slip just behind the beat but staying in perfect time. Exquisitely psychedelic.
Dâm-FunkKeep Lookin' 2 The Sky (Stones Throw, 2009)
Uptempo bizzness from the ever-reliable Dâm-Funk. Seeing him live made me realize that he's something like the West Coast equivalent to Moodymann: operating with the same vital foot in the present, informed by deep crates and a musical lineage stretching deep into the past (just swap out West Coast electro and Solar Records for deep disco slates and Motown). This is one of those moments when you realize that he's making, for all intents and purposes, techno.
MýaMýa (Interscope, 1998)
Produced by Darryl Pearson, cohort of DeVante Swing (mentor to Timbaland), and the sound's rubbed off in this fragile orbital torch song. I remember Simon Reynolds, back in the day, describing how midway through the song everything seemed to rotate on its axis. There's loads of great r&b moments that happen to be built on Art Of Noise/ZTT tunes (a list in itself there), and this must surely be among the greatest.
DJ Mitsu The BeatsNegative Ion (featuring Ainjoy McWhorter) (SA-RA Remix) (Planetgroove, 2004)
SA-RA at their most deliriously decomposed (think Smokeless Highs and Hangin' By A String), but working with such lush source material that it manages to become a great pop moment in and of itself. Shamefully, I don't know anything about DJ Mitsu The Beats, as I only grabbed this remix EP after hearing it played out on their Dark Matter & Pornography Mixtape.
And the men themselves for the grand finale. I can't overstate how epochal this crew have been in my own musical life, like something on the level of Led Zeppelin. They managed to tie together so many strands of music that I cherish and then took them supernova. This is zero gravity r&b, and a perfect end to this unplanned excursion into deep space music.