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...
Where does one even begin?!? I've gone on record putting the man in my upper echelon — alongside Tricky and Adam Ant — with my absolute favorite recordings artists ever. That's a pretty odd bunch, I'll admit, but without question the figures that have done the most to shape my own musical path. In the twin worlds of house and techno, the man stands like a towering colossus astride the realms of chart-busting post-disco dance and the deepest recesses of the underground (both of which he's long ago mastered). So like I said, it's hard to know where to even begin...
Well, you could begin at the beginning: in the early 80s when he was mixing it up in the shadows of Detroit with the Deep Space crew (which included similarly storied figures like Derrick May and Juan Atkins, among others). Then, in the wake of No UFO's, venturing into the studio to begin a recording career (and his KMS imprint, which has been doing it's thing for nigh on thirty years now) in earnest: first with the Kreem record — Triangle Of Love in a post-New Order/Into The Groove-stylee — and then the minimalist techno of Intercity's Groovin' Without A Doubt (recorded with Derrick May). A preview of things to come, to be sure...
This kicked off a series of heavy underground records, raw traxx released seemingly from beyond the dawn of time like Keynotes' Let's Let's Let's Dance and the Reese & Santonio records — recorded with one Santonio Echols — rough-and-tumble tiles like The Sound, Truth Of Self Evidence and Bounce Your Body To The Box that surfed the interzone between house and techno before just about anyone else. This era was masterfully anthologized on the Faces & Phases compilation, a veritable treasure trove of the rawest techno one could ask for.
So at the dawn of 1988, the table was set for the Reese records — where Saunderson's knack for vibed-out productions really began to take flight — burning hot techno sides like Just Want Another Chance, Rock To The Beat and Funky Funk Funk. These were probably the heaviest electronic grooves laid down down up to this point, each of them were built on a towering structure of bass, percussion and the sort of strange, funky synths that one never forgets. Kevin Saunderson had a vision of massive, floor-filling electronic dance music before just about anyone else. It's his calling card, really... but then so is the undeniable sense of vibe that he imbues his productions with. And that, as they say, is what makes all the difference.
Just Want Another Chance seemed to be his take on the heavy-breathing atmospheric style of Jamie Principle (prefiguring the likes of Blake Baxter and K-Alexi Shelby), with spooked electronics and a ten ton bassline that remains one of the deepest to be found on wax and would go on to fuel decades of darkside excursions to come. Rock To The Beat took a left turn into cinematic territory, especially in its warped Mayday Mix, but the flipside's traxx like the pure acid frenzy of Grab The Beat and You're Mine's emotive Clash sampling epic were equally revelatory techno par excellence. And Funky Funk Funk is just sick, with that sawing bassline and whistling synths nailing the buzzing mayhem of the rave.
He continued down this path with the ardkore madness of the Tronikhouse records, with awesome proto-jungle tunes like Up Tempo, Spark Plug and Straight Outta Hell Back To Hell Mix, anchored by the more straight up techno of The Savage And Beyond and Smooth Groove (techno perfection in 3½ minutes). The flipside to these rave excursions were the deep techno missives unleashed under his E-Dancer guise, with the (just as hardcore) stomping electric madness of Velocity Funk (which started life as a Cameo remix, doncha know?) and the killer digital disco of World Of Deep serving up dancefloor perfection.
Both of these tunes anchored Saunderson's epochal X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio, which essayed the Detroit-area broadcasts of no-nonsense techno that Reese and crew had been unleashing for the better part of a decade. Featuring DJ Minx as the master of ceremonies, it boasted appearances from Detroit techno stalwarts like Octave One, Carl Craig and Sean Deason alongside Outlander's Belgian techno, the widescreen garage of D.C.'s Deep Dish (in their Chocolate City guise) and a whole brace of tracks from Dutch techno mainstays Dobre & Jamez. The whole affair remains a high water mark in that interzone between deep, moody house and dirty Downtown techno.
It was during this era that Saunderson released E-Dancer's Heavenly LP, a stone cold classic that scooped up a decade worth of tracks like The Human Bond and Pump The Move (along with the aforementioned Velocity Funk), juxtaposed with new killer cuts like Banjo, Warp and Behold. There was even an awesome Juan Atkins Re-mix of Heavenly, which put a deeply moody high-desert spin on the original version's delicate electronic groove. This whole trip culminated in the widescreen cinematic techno of The Dream, which seemed to draw from the same filmic corners of Saunderson's sound as Rock To The Beat had: this was Saunderson scoring films yet to be made.
And then there's the matter of his remix work, which found the man redefining the possibilities of what could be achieved on the b-side of a single (much as King Tubby had done about a fifteen years earlier) with his complete reworks that crafted totally new grooves around a few of the song's original elements (as opposed to the more common edit-style remixes of the day). People usually point to the Acid House Remix of The Wee Papa Girl Rappers' Heat It Up as the moment where it all took shape, which found him transforming a little hip-house ditty into a well-deep slab of moody acid decked out with a monster bassline.
The man's most mainstream guise, Inner City (with dancefloor diva Paris Grey), took on a life of its own with killer pop-inflected cuts like Good Life, Pennies From Heaven and Praise, storming the dance charts again and again. I remember hearing dubs of Good Life on Jammin' z90's afternoon dance show, which would hold sway after the station's usual hip hop and r&b bread-and-butter, and the frisson of hearing Reese productions on the drive home from school (this before I even had a tape deck) was palpable. Be sure to check the awesome Power Of Passion (left off the U.S. version!) for a rare example of the man at his most delicate, with a singular take on r&b-inflected machine soul that's nestled somewhere between Kraftwerk, Roberta Flack and The Neptunes.
Inner City's cover version of Stephanie Mills' Watcha Gonna Do With My Lovin', which reached its sublime peak with the 8½ minute Def Mix by Frankie Knuckles and David Morales, was a masterstroke of impossibly lush house music that seemed to predict Massive Attack's Blue Lines in its languid, downbeat grooves. And then there were all those garage sides by The Reese Project, which managed to smuggle remixes by the likes of Jay Denham and Underground Resistance onto high street like a Trojan horse.
Bringing it all back home, the man unleashed the awesome Ahnongay, a techno outing of the highest caliber replete with remixes by Dave Clarke and Carl Craig. Still, it's the original version that remains the standout. Deep and spiritual techno soul, it's a prime example of Saunderson at his absolute finest. One could imagine slipping it on amid things like SA-RA, 4 Hero, Underworld, J Dilla and Moodymann without too much trouble, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
This is part of the reason why Saunderson's work means so much to me: he routinely squares the circle between the worlds of post-disco dance, rave, techno, r&b and even hip hop — worlds that are often treated as if they were light-years apart — folding one over the other like an origami crane as everything overlaps with the casual ease of a Venn diagram. He traverses these worlds like a man who's seen it all, expertly crafting those singular grooves with style and finesse.
Because above all else, that's what he'll be remembered for: conjuring up heavy, atmospheric, stomping sonix like no other (no matter how often the imitators may try to flatter sincerely). Take Esser'ay's Forces — a one off under that alias, no doubt for Saunderson just another day vibing out in the studio — and you'll find a wild, weird and deeply funky slab of killer dancefloor madness... techno as only the Master Reese could do it. Seeing him decked out in a sequined jacket, holding court last weekend at Movement (aka the Detroit Electronic Music Festival), it's clear that he's gonna keep right on doing it for years to come. And thank goodness for that.
At the flipside of darkside hip hop's ragged breakbeat architecture lies the elegant beat matrix of electro. Simon Reynolds once opined that electro was to rave what the blues were to rock 'n roll, and Kodwo Eshun famously quipped that Kraftwerk were Detroit's Mississippi Delta. In other words, it all started with Kraftwerk. Their influence stretches outward to touch on everything from techno and electro to post punk and synth pop, from electrofunk and hip hop to rave and r&b; it's all been subject to the influence of this besuited bunch from Düsseldorf.
After four records of hard, abstract space music (one of which was released under the name Organisation), Kraftwerk perfected their sound with the sprawling 22 minute opus Autobahn, taking up a whole side of their 1974 album of the same name. With its gently pulsing electroid groove sprawling out beneath an idyllic Beach Boys-inspired melody, it was a turning point in pop music's trajectory so profound that it took a number of years before its repercussions were truly felt.
With fellow travelers like Cluster and Heldon also developing a sequenced electronic music of their own, Kraftwerk delivered Radio-Activity a year later. Featuring a darker, more austere mood that seemed to predict the prevailing tendencies of post punk's coming dalliances with electro, it seemed to fuse the pop developments of Autobahn with their earlier experimental LPs.
By this point, British visionaries like David Bowie and Brian Eno were sitting up and taking notice, and Kraftwerk refined their sound further with Trans-Europe Express. A timely fusion of electronic rhythms backing the spare German vocals, with melody carved out entirely with synthesizers, it was arguably the first synth pop record through and through. Unsurprisingly, Trans-Europe Express would ultimately have a seismic impact on the future of music.
Across the North Sea in the U.K. — in apparent synchronicity — a brace of 7" singles arose in 1978 that picked up where the Germans had left off. Daniel Miller aka The Normal released the T.V.O.D. on his own Mute Records imprint. A pulsing electro-punk shimmy, it also featured a J.G. Ballard-inspired slab of noise called Warm Leatherette. This was the track that proved to have the greatest impact, with its proto-electro rhythm setting the template for Britain's grimy take on post punk synth pop.
Despite the fact that he'd originally envisioned Mute as an outlet for just the one single, Daniel Miller received demo tapes from all over the country and — impressed with what he heard — he decided to release some of them. Records by NON and Fad Gadget followed, with Fad Gadget's awesome Back To Nature and Fireside Favorites standing as awesome slabs of apocalyptic post punk synth pop.1 Most famously, Mute would became the long term home of synth pop superstars Depeche Mode starting with 1981's Dreaming Of Me.
The Human League, that other bunch of synth pop superstars, got their start on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint with the second of the 1978 U.K. stone tablets, the Being Boiled. A buzzing micro-masterpiece of dark proto-electro, this was miles away (and an entirely different group) from The Human League that ruled the pop charts in 1981 with Dare!. This was pure post punk music, albeit with a ruthless pop edge. The group further developed this sound across two LPs (Reproduction and Travelogue, their masterpiece) and a handful of seven inches before the original crew split in 1980.
Two Scottish figures — Thomas Leer and Robert Rental — were responsible for two of the other great 1978 stone tablets, Private Plane and Paralysis, respectively. The homespun other to these other groups' uncompromisingly bleak futurism, Private Plane was a motorik nocturnal journey through inner space recorded softly under the covers so as not to wake his girlfriend.
Paralysis was even more of an outlier, with a droning guitar sound warped by wah pedal. Both records have heavy kosmische overtones, very much indebted to the murky visions of krautrock. The duo collaborated on a stunning album in 1979 called The Bridge, which was released on Throbbing Gristle's Industrial imprint.
Throbbing Gristle themselves are responsible for the fifth of the U.K. stone tablets, with 1978's United. The a-side was a loosely-organized bit of synth almost-pop, with electroshock beats and analogue textures, while the flipside featured Zyklon B Zombie, in which a menacing synth sequence unfurled beneath the sort of noise-infested soundscape that would become their trademark. Their 1979 album 20 Jazz Funk Greats also featured Hot On The Heels Of Love, which was pure proto-techno from its pumping 4/4 beat and cycling electronic bassline on down to its claustrophobic synth figures and snapping drum fills.2
The duo of Chris & Cosey would splinter off from TG, indulging in further electronic hijinks as they explored proto-electro/techno with records like Trance and Technø Primitiv. As one might expect from the name of their label, TG are considered one of the godfathers of industrial music.
The other being Cabaret Voltaire, who started out in the early seventies recording in an attic (check Methodology '74 / '78. Attic Tapes) before signing with Rough Trade and releasing the Extended Play EP (the sixth and final 1978 stone tablet). Featuring tunes like Do The Mussolini (Headkick) and The Setup, they were claustrophobic slabs of dubbed-out post punk in which ticking rhythm boxes spooled out beneath skanking bass and guitar, processed until it sounded unreal. A trio of LPs followed in a similar vein (Mix-Up, The Voice Of America and Red Mecca), featuring ragged, dessicated soundscapes that seemed to be crushed paper thin beneath the weight of their paranoia.
Starting with the 2x45 mini-album, they wired the sound up to the machines in a fusion of their earlier atmospheric sides and the increasingly dancefloor-oriented electronic music to follow. The centerpiece is undoubtedly Yashar, a searing mini-epic built from synth arabesques, pounding percussion and a sample from The Outer Limits. It's one of those tracks that seems to exist in a loose continuum with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, an utterly artificial music seemingly composed by fictional tribes.3 At this point, the group mutated into a duo with The Crackdown, which laid the blueprint for the whole EBM (electronic body music) strain of industrial music later made explicit by Front 242.
There's definite cyberpunk vibes running through the the entirety group's output, with 1984's Micro-Phonies expanding on The Crackdown's innovations to cement their new sound and standing as the proto-typical industrial record. Tangentially, it was Psyche's Crackdown that pointed me to the group in the first place. Come to think of it, BFC's Galaxy was what hooked me up with Liaisons Dangereuses — via a sample of Peut Être... Pas' machine rhythms — so double thanks to Carl Craig. Liaisons Dangereuses' lone (self-titled) LP is a stone classic of early industrial music, featuring the stark proto-techno of Los Niños Del Parque alongside Peut Être... Pas' stunning electro pulse.
German duo Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (who consequently were licensed in the U.K. by Mute) had a trajectory comparable to Cabaret Voltaire, starting out with a straight up post punk, sound collage vein with records like Produkt Der Deutsch-Amerikanischen Freundschaft and Die Kleinen Und Die Bösen before reinventing themselves as a state-of-the-art hard-edged dance outfit with Alles Ist Gut, and over the course of a trilogy of albums (rounded out by Gold Und Liebe and Für Immer), throughout which they explored a bruising — but nevertheless pop-inflected — sound that did as much as anyone to lay the blueprint for EBM.
As mentioned earlier, Front 242 were the standard bearers of EBM (even coining the term Electronic Body Music4 in the first place), along with the next generation of industrial outfits like Severed Heads, Ministry and Nitzer Ebb. Records like Head Hunter, Dead Eyes Opened, Everyday Is Halloween and Join In The Chant played like calls to arms, which were answered by figures like Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly and most famously Nine Inch Nails, who came to define industrial in the popular consciousness over the course of the 90s with records like Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral.
Interestingly enough, many of the highest-selling industrial acts turned out to be American (and Canadian), but then the States had their own progenitor of the form in San Francisco's Chrome. Led by Damon Edge, the band started out on their 1976 debut The Visitation essaying a sound triangulated somewhere between the acid rock of Jefferson Airplane, Santana's winding rhythmic pulse and — in another strange bit of synchronicity (as neither had yet released a record) — post punk-era Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle.
Guitarist Helios Creed after The Visitation, bringing a visionary x-factor to the group as they set about releasing increasingly machine-inflected records like Alien Soundtracks, Half Machine Lip Moves and 3rd From The Sun, recklessly negotiating the territory between The Sex Pistols, Kraftwerk and biker rock.
Another San Francisco group that was something of an artier, gentler flipside to Chrome's scorching blast was the inimitable Tuxedomoon. Their debut 7" happened to coincide with the six British stone tablets released in 1978, featuring the chaotic blast of No Tears, a menacing slab of electro-punk that rivals the heights of The Normal's Warm Leatherette. Over the course of albums like Half-Mute and Desire the band grew increasingly arty, melding the very European atmosphere of cabaret with a proto-electro pulse. Rather appropriately, Tuxedomoon ultimately relocated to Europe, where there sensibilities were more in sync with the prevailing atmosphere.
It's worth noting that in 1978 Kraftwerk managed to further refine their sound with the elegant The Man-Machine, managing to stay ahead of the pack with elegant machine music like The Model (a track that never stops sounding like the future), The Robots and the title track. Perhaps more surprisingly, there were shades of Giorgio Moroder's electronic disco in the tracks like Spacelab and Metropolis.
Of course, Moroder's production for Donna Summer's I Feel Love — way back in 1977 — was one of the key developments in an electronic form of dance music, and his own records like From Here To Eternity and E=MC² further explored the possibilities of sequencer-driven dance music. Interesting to hear Kraftwerk reflecting this sound back in their own particular way.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Yellow Magic Orchestra were making waves with their debut LP, featuring the proto-electro masterpiece Computer Games/Firecracker. Much like Kraftwerk, their influence spread further than one might have expected, with the group even performing on Soul Train! And if Kraftwerk dabbled in digital disco, then YMO reveled in it, with 1979's Solid State Survivor opening with the one-two punch of Technopolis and Absolute Ego Dance. There was even a new wave-inflected cover version of The Beatles' Day Tripper!
Interestingly, YMO were something of a supergroup, with Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto involved in innovative solo careers before, during and after their group's protracted reign. Hosono plied a sort of electro-tinged exotica — pre-dating the likes of Arto Lindsay and Beck Hansen by a couple decades, but also indulged in more straightforwardly electronic excursions like Paraiso and Cochin Moon.
Ryuichi Sakamoto created an electronic paradise of his own on 1978's Thousand Knives Of Ryuichi Sakamoto, before returning with the more austere (and post punk aligned, featuring figures like Dennis Bovell and XTC's Andy Partridge) B-2 Unit. The centerpiece was undoubtedly Riot In Lagos, an unbelievably loose slice of proto-electro that practically glows with futurism.
Along with YMO's output, it seems to have set the stage for the later weird sonic adventures of figures like Ken Ishii, Rei Harakami and Susumu Yokota, in much the same way that the first wave of British electronic musicians set the tone for large swathes of music to come in the wake of the Second Summer Of Love.
The first — and most obvious — example is bleep 'n bass, the first indigenously developed form of post-rave dance music produced in the U.K. Emerging from the industrial city of Sheffield (from whence Cabaret Voltaire sprung over a decade earlier) in late 1988, bleep 'n bass was the interface between techno/acid house and what would become ardkore. Perhaps it was the first genre invented with the rave in mind? Unique 3 seemed to have invented the sound from scratch with The Theme, a strikingly minimal tune built on little more than a brittle drum machine rhythm, spectral synths and a tattoo of seemingly random bleeps.
A deluge of records soon followed, records like the Forgemasters' Track With No Name and Ital Rockers' Ital's Anthem, while even Sheffield godfathers Cabaret Voltaire reinvented (and reinvigorated) themselves as Sweet Exorcist with records like Testone and Clonk. Interestingly, some of Cabaret Voltaire subsequent records like The Conversation (released on R&S ambient subsidiary Apollo) seemed to connect their earlier Red Mecca-era material with the modern wave of electronica (which is actually where I started with them in the first place).
The spiritual home of bleep 'n bass was the mighty Warp Records, who started out releasing records by the Forgemasters and Sweet Exorcist long before they became one of the biggest electronic labels on the planet. They also were the home of two groups that started out in bleep 'n bass only to go on to have long careers in drastically different directions.
The first was Nightmares On Wax, who put out crucial early bleep records like Dextrous and Aftermath before unleashing the incredible A Word Of Science: The 1st & Final Chapter album on the world. Splitting the difference between bleep techno numbers like Biofeedback and the proto trip hop of Nights Interlude, it caught NOW at a transitional phase before moving into straight up downtempo adventures with Smoker's Delight.
LFO, meanwhile, provided early bleep classics like LFO and Track 4 before rewriting the blueprint for British techno with Frequencies. Maintaining a sense of Kraftwerk-esque elegance throughout, it was an absolute classic that had a strong electro pulse to its rhythms. They followed it with the more abrasive Advance, a notoriously difficult follow up, before splitting to pursue solo projects like Clark and Gez Varley. In whatever form they chose, LFO remained one of the stalwart figures in British techno's development.
Another figure entwined in this story is Andrew Weatherall, whose Two Lone Swordsmen partnership with Keith Tenniswood produced increasingly electroid output before ultimately dabbling in post punk outright. Even the earlier twisted dub/funk/trip hop of The Sabres Of Paradise's Haunted Dancehall had already hinted in this general direction, but records like Bag Of Blue Sparks, Stay Down and Tiny Reminders found the duo carving out a unique strain of electro that seemed to be filtered through a dubbed-out, post punk prism. Their Rotters Golf Club label was a playground for post-electro madness, featuring myriad aliases including Tenniswood's Radioactive Man project, which unleashed the awesome 2-step electro fusion of Uranium.
There was plenty of techno from the era that seemed to have a fair bit of electro in their DNA, even if you wouldn't necessarily peg them as such. Minimal icon Surgeon, whose rhythms — especially at their most delicate — often seemed to have strong electro inflections, is one example that springs to mind, while Austrian techno provocateur Patrick Pulsinger always had a corroded electro flavor to his output (especially on the series of Dogmatic Sequences EPs).
This during an era when a lot of erstwhile techno figures were dabbling in electro, bringing their own unique strengths to bear on a brace of records that weren't merely retreads, but very much their own animal. Jamie Bissmire — of fellow travelers Bandulu — collaborated with Ben Long on the Space DJz project, with records like On Manoeuvres In Uncharted Territories (featuring the awesome Celestial Funk) and On Patrol! dancing across the thin dividing line between hard techno and electro.
Meanwhile, Ian Loveday (aka ardkore nemesis Eon) also got down and dirty with some killer electro as Sem on D.C. Recordings. This was all exemplified by D.C. label head honcho Jon Saul Kane, whose output as The Octagon Man mutated electro into ever more twisted shapes, seemingly becoming more sick with every release (just check the development between The Demented Spirit and Itô Calculus). I remember picking up the Vidd 12" when it came out5 and being utterly overwhelmed by that dismal wall-of-synth sound,6 just utterly pulverizing and depressing.
If The Octagon Man gestured toward the sick sound of 80s synthesizer music (as essayed by The Minimal Wave Tapes), then I-f essentially brought it back to life with their epochal Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass. Built on a dead-eyed bassline, ear-shattering synth strings and vocodored chorus, it is essentially ground zero of what would come to be called electroclash.
Put loosely, this was a post-electro revival music that added a healthy dose of synth pop to the equation, offering up a more European take on the sound (emerging in 1998, this was arguably the first wave of the post punk revival). Figures like The Parallax Corporation mixed this sensibility with a pummeling take on techno, while Anthony Rother had his own little electro empire (and even a should-have-been pop hit with Little Computer People).
DJ Hell, whose output had carried traces of electro from day one (even turning in a cover version of No More's Suicide Commando), did as much as anyone to bring electroclash crashing into the mainstream with his International Deejay Gigolo imprint. This was mirrored by ambient heroes Global Communication significant dalliances with electro (after all, they tried their hand at nearly every other form from drum 'n bass to industrial and deep house) as the Jedi Knights.
On the surface, their 1996 LP New School Science might have seemed like a purely nostalgic endeavor, but dig a little deeper and you'll find wholly unique tunes like Dances Of The Naughty Knights and Solina (The Ascension) that sound like nothing from the classic electro canon (or outside it, even).
Of course the entire IDM project could be read as an abstract take on post-electro music. The Black Dog — who had their fair share of breakbeats — nevertheless seemed to center on a sort of skewed electro mysticism, while Plaid — who ultimately split off from BDP — were only more so aligned with electro and post-hip hop blues (even working with vocalists like Björk and Nicolette). Similarly, behind all the abstraction an experimental mainstay like Autechre were nevertheless firmly in thrall to electro and hip hop. One could even read them as a yet more abstract update on Mantronix.
Ditto Aphex Twin, with records like Analogue Bubblebath, Polygon Window and even large swathes of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 seemingly built on a chassis of pure electro. Even a second-generation outfit like Boards Of Canada, with all their attendant drifting hauntological textures, rode cutting electro beats (albeit at a downtempo pace). In retrospect, it's no wonder that they connected with the abstract hip hop heads.
Of course it all came full circle with Radiohead's Kid A, which was supposedly inspired by an in-depth trawl through the entire Warp back catalog. A tune like Idioteque is certainly indebted to the continuum of dark, post punk electro stretching back to figures like The Normal and Thomas Leer.
If there's one figure that seems to make sense of all this, tying the wild-eyed abstraction of IDM back to the street sounds of electro then it must be Andrea Parker. Starting out with a series of dark electronic records — a sound that she termed uneasy listening — that were perhaps too singular to fit in with the prevailing trends of the time, she also found herself on Apollo working with frequent collaborator David Morley as Two Sandwiches Short Of A Lunchbox. Too Good To Be Strange was a subtle masterpiece of elegant electro, which in a strange turn of events even features during the nightclub scene in Vanilla Sky.
As the 90s progressed, Parker ultimately hooked up with Mo Wax for the excellent Kiss My Arp, a masterful collection of dark torch songs and experimental electro that took in elements ranging from musique concrète to analogue electronics, dirty trip hop breaks and even a chamber string section. After such dizzying heights, she got back to basics with the Touchin' Bass (formed with Detroit's very own DJ Godfather), bringing it all back home, so to speak.
Home in this case being the prototypical electro as laid down by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force on Planet Rock way back in 1982. Produced by Arthur Baker and John Robie, it was built on a structure of re-purposed (and re-played) bits of Kraftwerk: the eerie synth progression from Trans-Europe Express and the drum machine beat from Numbers.
Planet Rock launched Tommy Boy into the stratosphere, with the label becoming indelibly associated with electro's rise. This was further solidified with Bambaataa's follow up records like Looking For The Perfect Beat and Renegades Of Funk, along with figures like Planet Patrol and The Jonzun Crew.
Of course, being the forward-thinking Teutonic gentlemen that they happen to be, Kraftwerk had laid out the blueprint a whole year earlier with Computer World. As mentioned in passing before, Numbers provided electro's most durable rhythm matrix, while It's More Fun To Compute sounded like the sort of hall-of-mirrors electro the the rest of the world wouldn't catch up to until the late 90s; and no less a stadium-filling proposition than Coldplay saw fit to mimic the central synth motif from Computer Love.
Kraftwerk continued this development with their momentous Tour De France record, which was produced by François Kevorkian (who also remixed The Telephone Call from their 1986 swan song — for awhile, at least — Electric Café). Fellow krautrocker Manuel Göttsching contributed the awesome E2-E4 around this time as well, unfurling sequenced synths and his trademark guitar architecture over a gently shuffling electro rhythm that ran for just under an hour.
Swiss duo Yello also cut an uncompromising path through the 80s pop landscape with strange new wave-inflected post-disco records like Bostich, Desire and (most famously) Oh Yeah. Their sound was unlike anyone else around: not quite synth pop, not quite post punk and certainly not straightforward dance music, it was a fantastically warped sound — not without a sense of humor — that nevertheless maintained a killer pop edge. They even messed around with big band and Latin jazz on records like The Race and La Habanera.
Of course there had always been a particular strain of jazz with a weird détente with jazz, which culminated in the whole tech jazz trip as essayed by figures like Kirk Degiorgio and Innerzone Orchestra. Dating back to the 70s with records like Herbie Hancock's Sextant and Les McCann's Layers, it was the crucial ingredient of electronic rhythm that puts it in league with electro of the day.
Herbie Hancock's Future Shock trilogy foregrounded hard electro beats and rude synthesizers, even featuring Grand Mixer D.St. cutting it up on the decks. All of this shouldn't be surprising given Hancock's seminal influence on electronic jazz (see Nobu and Rain Dance) and continued endorsement of the form (2001's Future 2 Future, featuring collaborations with Carl Craig and A Guy Called Gerald), but it also managed to creep up in the most unexpected places.
For one such example, take a listen to Cat Stevens' Was Dog A Doughnut?, an impossibly early (1977) slab of jazz funk. Essentially a Chick Corea vehicle, it wove Fender Rhodes organ, ARP strings, zany electronic keyboards and a barking dog(!) together with a stop-start electronic rhythm in a gently psychedelic — think Shuggie Otis — cocktail that got swept up in electro's putative development (even getting covered a few years later by Jellybean Benitez).
I've often thought that you can hear the legacy of Was Dog A Doughnut? in certain corners of Man Parrish's output: things like Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop) (Special Disconet Remix), Six Simple Synthesizers and Together Again. His self-titled 1982 album is certainly a good example of electro stretching out into varied territory (Heatstroke is practically a Hi-NRG song!). His productions are also well worth looking into, for instance C.O.D.'s The Bottle, which showcases that same slinky electro sound (as opposed to the often rigid beats of synth pop and electro) evidenced by Hip Hop, Be Bop.
Of course, by 1982 electro was everywhere. Even Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five had an electro classic in Scorpio, while Message II (Survival) seemed to build it all out into fresh territory. Reigning primarily between the years 1982-1984, the original wave of electro encompassed figures from all over that musical map: from the relatively straightforward electro of Twilight 22 and Knights Of The Turntables to the r&b-inflected singles of Aleem (often in conjunction soul man Leroy Burgess) and Newcleus' electronic funk.
During this period, Cutting Records put out some of the most durable, timeless electro. Records like Hashim's Al-Naafiysh (The Soul) and Imperial Brothers' We Come To Rock traded in a stark minimalism later favored by figures like Drexciya and Aux 88, often featuring killer dub versions on the b-side.
One of the finest examples is actually from outside the '82-'84 timeframe, on Hashim's 1986 slap-bass odyssey, Primrose Path. I know I've gone on about this record many times before, but it's one of the key records in this whole Terminal Vibration saga, in the electro stakes rivaled only by the output of Juan Atkins.
Operating out of Detroit, Michigan, Atkins started out making electronic music on his own, trying to recreate the sound of a UFO landing in his backyard, before hooking up with Rick Davis to form Cybotron. Releasing Alleys of Your Mind in 1982 (nearly concurrently with Planet Rock), they followed swiftly with records like Cosmic Cars and Clear. All of this activity culminated in the album Enter, which — though perhaps uneven — featured further innovations in the brittle electro elegance of Cosmic Raindance, whose textures seemed to predict both Drexciya and Red Planet at their most progressive.
In fact, the duo seemed to shear off from electro around this point, with Techno City rather appropriately heralding the arrival of the new form. Juan Atkins went solo at this point, launching his own Metroplex imprint to release records like No UFO's and Night Drive as Model 500.
Songs like Future and Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) were stunning, psychedelic elaborations on electro, No UFO's stands as probably the first fully-formed techno record. Nevertheless, Atkins maintained an affinity with electro throughout his career, even revisiting it from time to time (such as on the Channel One's Technicolor, which was famously the basis for Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back).
Magic Juan is the primary conduit into Detroit's substantial electro (alternately termed techno bass, electro/techno or ghetto tech) subculture, which — within the city limits — is arguably even stronger than techno's. Drexciya probably had the greatest following amongst techno heads, with an impenetrable, mysterious vibe — much like Red Planet's — that hinted at a vast aquatic mythology. Records like Deep Sea Dweller and Bubble Metropolis were genre-defining third wave electro, with rushing drum machine sequences that played like Kraftwerk rebuilt as a Detroit street racer.
Drexciya's early output was masterfully collected on 1997's two-disc compilation The Quest by Submerge, and then given the box set treatment a few years ago by Clone with the four-disc Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller box set. Drexciya — , who turned out to be the duo of Gerald Donald and James Stinson — grew increasingly abstract as the decade wore on, culminating in their return with Neptune's Lair.
The duo also released solo side projects with names like Elecktroids, Japanese Telecom, Transllusion and — most notably for today's purposes — Dopplereffekt. A partnership between Gerald Donald, Micheala Bertel, William Scott and Kim Karli, Dopplereffekt specialized in a retro style of electro that harked back to the days of Kraftwerk. Tunes like Speak & Spell, Sterilization and Denki No Zuno blurred the lines between electro and electropop, prefiguring the likes of ADULT. by a good five years.
Another key axis in Detroit's electro story was the Direct Beat imprint, set up by Octave One head honcho Lawrence Burden as an outlet for Aux 88 and a loose collective of surrounding artists like (sometime Aux 88 member) Keith Tucker, Microknox, X-ile and Will Web. Spanning 58 releases, Direct Beat's output focused on a strain of fast-forward, down-and-dirty electro personified by Aux 88's no frills approach.
However, my favorite Aux moment actually exists outside of the Direct Beat catalog: their awesome Take Control remix of Underground ResistanceElectronic Warfare offered up a naggingly simple (and quite memorable) take on old school electro dynamics. Interestingly, it originated on a remix 12" for UR's Electronic Warfare double-pack, which also featured a remix by Drexciya.
At the most street-level end of Detroit electro — even more so than Direct Beat — lies ghetto tech stalwart DJ Assault, who essayed the sound on his Straight Up Detroit Shit mix series before unexpectedly breaking through to the mainstream. Along with Mr. De', he was one of the point men for Detroit's Electrofunk records. Another memorable figure was the idiosyncratic auteur Aaron-Carl, who straddled the line between electro and deep house, making waves with his ubiquitous Down, a seductively stunning bit of machine soul.
DJ Godfather's Twilight 76 label was another key outpost of Detroit electro, which essayed some of the grittier precincts of the city's electro. Importantly, the label also connected out into the wider world with other strains post-electro street beats like Chicago's jerk music (with figures like DJ Rashad and DJ Deeon both recording for the label).
Similarly, a strain of club music would arise in Baltimore during the 90s that fused electro rhythms with sped up breakbeats, with figures like Frank Ski, Jimmy Jones and K-Swift (whose Ryder Girl was a genuine phenomenon7) defining the sound. Rewinding even further back, Miami had its own form of bass music with figures ranging from Dynamix II to Duice, holding down the fort for the electro faithful during the form's lowest ebb.
Yet of all the places where electro's germ spread, the repercussions of its journey to the West Coast seemed to stretch it the furthest. The Egyptian Lover was one of the true originals out in L.A., with records like Egypt, Egypt and My Beat Goes Boom culminating in the On The Nile LP, alongside figures like The Arabian Prince and The Unknown DJ who unleashed their own succession of killer 12" singles. Then of course there was the World Class Wreckin' Cru, featuring Dr. Dre's earliest productions on wax, the highlight of which is the awesome Surgery (speaking of which: Dre, Lonzo said to work on that slow jam!).
The underlying principle with the development of a distinct strain of West Coast hip hop is that it all seems to spring from electro's initial reign back when figures like Uncle Jamm's Army and Ronnie Hudson & The Street People held sway. Even hip hop giants like Ice-T started out making electro, while all sorts of electro renegades wound up in the first wave of L.A. rap groups: The Unknown DJ in Compton's Most Wanted, while Dr. Dre, Ice Cube (formerly of Stereo Crew and C.I.A.) and The Arabian Prince in N.W.A. (who quietly shuck in electro moments like Panic Zone and Something 2 Dance 2 amongst all the hardcore hip hop).
Also noteworthy is The Arabian Prince's solo turn after leaving N.W.A., Brother Arab, which split the difference between electro's uptempo rhythm matrix and the burgeoning breakbeat-driven sound of 1989 hip hop.
Moving up north to Bay Area figures ranging from Too $hort to Ant Banks and E-40 to JT The Bigga Figga (damn near the lot of them, actually), it's clear that they were equally shaped by the sounds of electrofunk. Just look at records like E-40's In A Major Way and Mac Mall's Illegal Business?. In that sense, even mega-selling albums like Dr. Dre's The Chronic, Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle and DJ Quik's Quik Is The Name can all be sourced back into electro and its boogiefied cousin, electrofunk.
Birthed by George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic machine, particularly on records like Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome and Uncle Jam Wants You, the crucial ingredient being Bernie Worrell's synth sound taking center stage alongside Bootsy Collins' throbbing bass, electrofunk brought a cartoonish futurism to funk just in time for the dawn of the eighties.
This streamlining of funk's groove around electronic elements was picked up on by Roger Troutman's Zapp, whose 1980 debut (and subsequent records) defined the electrofunk sound, laying the groundwork for funk and disco's transformation into what would come to be called boogie.
Just compare Cameo and The Gap Band's records from before and after Zapp's 1980 debut, with the peak-era disco sounds of Rigor Mortis and Shake giving way to She's Strange and You Dropped A Bomb On Me. Ditto figures like Kleeer and Mtume... it was quite simply everywhere, from George Clinton's Atomic Dog to D-Train and Jam & Lewis' electronic productions and even Prince's Erotic City, which was nothing if not his take on electro in the vein of Laidback's White Horse.
Across the country on the East Coast, Mantronix offered up the definitive take on electronic hip hop with records like Bassline, Needle To The Groove and Scream, a sound that would come back to currency as the 90s drew to a close, before moving into increasingly dance-oriented, r&b-inflected sides. This coincided with the development of freestyle music, just as the contemporary output of Cutting Records began shearing into similar territory with records like Sa-Fire's Let Me Be The One, Corina's Out Of Control and Tolga's Lovin' Fool.
Freestyle was essentially the sound of Planet Rock getting down in The Bronx. This sound was a big influence on New Order circa Confusion (which was produced by none other than Arthur Baker), while Jellybean Benitez took its vibe into the mainstream with his early productions for Madonna, which had a profound shaping influence on her sound. See also Company B. At any rate, if you're looking to investigate the roots of r&b's tendencies toward futurism, you could do a lot worse than to look into freestyle.
Which of course leads us into the quintessential chrome-plated r&b purveyors Timbaland and The Neptunes, who reinvigorated the form in the latter half of the 90s onward by infusing their music with elements of nearly everything discussed today. This at a time when, as mentioned earlier, the electronic rap of Mantronix seemed to return with a vengeance in the beats of dirty south producers like Mannie Fresh and Organized Noise (with Outkast and Cash Money in full swing).
In fact, this all begins to lead so patly into what will be the final episode of Terminal Vibration that I'm gonna step back for a moment before we get into figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk and J Dilla. With a brief stop on the horizon in the penultimate episode of Terminal Vibration (which takes place in the proverbial elevator where Kraftwerk got down with George Clinton), I will see you all next time...
Terminal Vibration 8: Modern Funk Beats
The Human LeagueBeing BoiledFast
Ryuichi SakamotoRiot In LagosAlfa
HashimAl-Naafiysh The SoulCutting
KraftwerkIt's More Fun To ComputeKling Klang
I-fSpace Invaders Are Smoking GrassDisko B
Space DJzCelestial FunkInfonet
The Egyptian LoverMy House On The NileEgyptian Empire
Underground ResistanceElectronic Warfare Take Control Mix by Aux 88UR
Little Computer PeopleLittle Computer PeoplePsi49net
And also standing in for the hordes of bedroom synth iconoclasts essayed on the Minimal Wave compilations, artists like Oppenheimer Analysis and Bene Gesserit, figures that were largely unsung in their day but nevertheless put out some incredible music.
The record also opened with the dead-eyed drunken sway of Exotica, featuring the group's trademark detuned horns and dreary synths cascading over a laidback downtempo electro rhythm. It's another highlight that sounds like something that could have come out on Patrick Pulsinger's Cheap imprint.
I remember being quite confused when I first heard the term EDM as a genre, which I at first misheard as EBM. Were kids suddenly checking Front 242? Not the case! (Although it certainly sounded like Kanye had been circa Yeezus).
Kane turned in a great volume of the Electro Boogie series around the same time, which was released under the Depth Charge banner but was firmly grounded in twisted, mutant electro. I always thought it was strange that it wasn't credited to The Octagon Man, although it may have been down to the greater name recognition that the Depth Charge brought with it. After all, I suppose it was his primary identity.
Much like — as I never tire of pointing out lately — those blaring titanic synths in Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch's score to Blade Runner 2049. My Bloody Valentine recreated with synths, etc. etc. etc.
Back in the day, I worked at the Clairemont Library, shelving books and helping patrons. Stimulating work, to be sure. On my lunch break, and occasionally after hours, I'd walk a couple blocks over to the Sunset Bowl to grab a bite to eat, play video games and lay out the plans for Mettrex Recordings. After all, this is where Soul Machine's Essential Funk Files were born. Good times. The general vibe in prevalence was sun-glazed and tropical, which meant of course that it was right up my alley.
There was a DJ booth near the bar that was all done up tiki-style, and I'd always dreamed of spinning disco at the midnight bowling sessions they held on Friday nights. Records like The Incredible Bongo Band's Apache, Freddy Fresh's Roller Rinks & Chicks, Loose Joint's Is It All Over My Face, Paperclip People's Floor and Stereo MC's Rhino. You know, basically the good good. It was a good dream, but alas the place closed down before I had a chance to hold court in the mix. Now, an apartment complex sits where the bowling alley was once comfortably nestled...
The other bowling alley where I spent a lot of time — and did most of my actual bowling — was the Parkway Bowl, down in El Cajon. I most recently hit the lanes again with my brother Brian and cousins Isabel and Joelle a couple weeks ago to discover that the venue hosts something called Cosmic Bowling, held in a backroom with psychedelic lights and dedicated lanes for the renting. Brian commented that it was like something out of Kingpin...
It all brought me back to hours spent at the Sunset Bowl, dreaming up the future, and as is often the case a whole lot of records began to conjure up in my mind. One thing led to another, and I ended up doing a little mix. Within the confines of this two-hour excursion, you'll find dub disco, new wave, Philly soul, French disco, hip hop, boogie, Italo disco, punk funk, gulf stream and disco-not-disco, all anchored to a bedrock of largely straight up disco in the Chic tradition. It's all of a piece.
No attempt was made to be historically accurate; there's anachronisms all over the shop, because this is a 2018 disco mix — unapologetically so — filled with music that lived well past its era to fuel dancefloor mayhem through the intervening years and still sounds cutting edge some 33 years on.
So without further ado, I give you...
The Parkway Bowl Disco Mix
The Parallax Sound LabNew York City Intro
Welcome to the show, featuring James Woods, master of ceremonies.
The Mike Theodore OrchestraMoon TrekWestbound
Kicking off with the orchestral soul of Moon Trek, from arranger Mike Theodore's Cosmic Wind LP. Mike Theodore actually from Detroit — not New York — but the track does seem to conjure up images of the Big Apple. He not only produced Rodriguez's enshrined Cold Fact (alongside frequent collaborator Dennis Coffey), but also a brace of sides for the Detroit Emeralds. In between, he put out two excellent LPs of instrumental disco (of which this is the first) that remain cosmic disco par excellence.
The ClashThe Magnificent SevenCBS
Which brings back memories of driving to Patrick Henry back in the late 90s. This jam kicked off all manner of C90s during that period, soundtracking the crisp, early-morning drive to school. The album version, from the triple-LP Sandinista! is where it's at, featuring ever more lush production and further discotheque sonics in evidence throughout. The Clash were cool. I've always assumed that this and Radio Clash were their take on the early Sugar Hill hip hop sound.
Part of what was great about disco is how it ultimately pulled anyone and (nearly) everyone into its orbit, from Marvin Gaye to The Rolling Stones, throwing up all sorts of possibilities and drawing unexpected sounds out of left field (making something like Disco Not Disco a necessary intervention, bringing together a whole raft disparate material together under its umbrella). Nowadays, it serves as shorthand for whole swathes of music. Kevin Saunderson later mined this record for Reese's awesome You're Mine, rugged Detroit techno of the highest caliber.
Démis RoussosMidnight Is The Time I Need YouPhilips
Luxuriant sun-glazed disco from Greek balladeer Démis Roussos, who of started out in art-prog band Aphrodite's Child alongside synth ambassador Vangelis before striking out on a long and winding solo career. This from '75 finds Roussos with an early entry in the disco canon, with gruff, soaring vocals holding sway over a lazy mid-tempo groove. Dig those gently psychedelic organs! Far and away the best tune on the Souvenirs album, although I have a hell of a soft spot for the motorik country-western vibes of Tell Me Now. Great sleeve too!
Martin CircusDisco CircusPrelude
When the chips are down, my favorite disco record. Laying the blueprint for Daft Punk, Cassius and Motorbass, this is French disco par excellence, with François Kevorkian reworking the fourteen minute album version by erstwhile-psych rock band Martin Circus into a seven minute rapid-fire edit replete with electro-boogie synths, soaring guitar solos, Moroder-esque sequences, group chants, rolling basslines, a second-line horn section and backing scat vocals that sound something like Bing Crosby duetting with Dieter Meier. I think the kitchen sink is in there somewhere.
Props to Prelude for licensing the track in the first place, putting François K in the studio to work his magic on the masters. Even as this tune perfectly captures the essence of peak-era disco, you can nevertheless hear the implied presence of the 80s waiting in the wings.
Kurtis BlowThe BreaksMercury
How come these early rap tracks all of a sudden sound fresh as a daisy? Twenty years ago this would have seemed like ancient history, quaint even, but in light of everything we've discovered in light of the 21st century disco/post punk resurgence it sounds utterly of-the-moment. See also the Jason Nevins remix of Run-DMC's It's Like That, which now sounds hopelessly dated while the OG sounds as timeless as the Nuggets box set. The Breaks glides along on a nimble funk groove, with rolling percussion, juke-joint piano and Kurtis Blow's off the cuff delivery all coming together to conjure up the moody, half-lit atmosphere of Martin Scorcese's After Hours.
Erstwhile-Beach Boy-drummer-on-holiday gets in on some tasty solo dancefloor action, taking his place behind the kit to guide a string section through the cresting waves of the Pacific Ocean. A killer groove, and rawer than you might expect. Check that rude drum beat, sounding like something cooked up on an Akai! Everything goes atmospheric halfway through, when the sounds of the surf wash across the breakdown like high tide on the sea of flesh.
Incidentally, I've often thought that The Beach Boys conjured up a convincing proto-disco sound on their Sunflower LP, what with all those sun-glazed sounds and burnished edges. Lee Perry too, which is probably why — as great as Pet Sounds is — it remains my go to Beach Boys record.
OdysseyInside OutRCA Victor
In the popular imagination, disco was supposed to have died on July 12, 1979 at Comiskey Park's Disco Demolition Night. Of course, history's rarely quite that simple. Rather than some behemoth slayed in one stroke by arena rock, disco was more like the virus that mutated to turn up again nearly everywhere — from ABC and Duran Duran's new wave to the electro boogie of The Gap Band and Mtume to Madonna and Michael Jackson's chartbusting pop to the gulf stream sounds cooked up at Compass Point and played out at the Paradise Garage, the pandemic seemingly spread all over — outliving the dinosaurs and ultimately defining modern music via the sounds of house, electro, hip hop and techno.
Of course, in the Big Apple plenty of groups kept on grooving and the dancers kept on dancing to straight up disco. In truth, some of my favorite disco records actually come from well after its supposed expiration date. Take for instance Odyssey's Inside Out, an low-slung slab of passionate modern soul riding a down and dirty gutbucket groove. Should I be embarrassed that I first knew it as a Electribe 101 song? I suspect that I should, but I don't feel it. I'd even go so far as to say that Billie Ray Martin managed to top the original, if by only a whisker.
Montana SextetWho Needs Enemies With A Friend Like YouPhilly Sound Works
Salsoul Orchestra mastermind Vince Montana (who also spent time in Philadelphia International's MFSB) in full swing during roughly the same era with a slab of minimal, slap-bass propelled 4/4 magic in which his vibes take center stage. I once awoke from a dream with this tune still ringing in my ears, and as I gradually worked out where it came from — sometimes you can't quite recall the specifics of these things right away — it hung over the morning like a mist.
Eddy GrantWalking On SunshineICE
I've always loved the way figures like Eddy Grant, Grace Jones and Billy Ocean brought the idiosyncrasies of their island life to the gulf stream flavor to their music. Indeed, to this day they form a loose triumvirate in my mind. What is Compass Point if not the culmination of this notion, with these three toiling away in the seventies only to become bona fide stars in the decade to follow. Eddy Grant later provided the theme song to the blockbuster film Romancing The Stone, while Billy Ocean did the same for its sequel (Jewel Of The Nile). And of course Grace Jones managed to become a bond girl and trade scenes with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan The Destroyer!
In light of his high profile, I'm particularly fascinated with Eddy Grant's ICE imprint, formed as he built his solo career from the ground up, he nevertheless stuck with it after hitting the big time with Electric Avenue. Of course he'd already made his mark on dance culture some time before, with this tune and Living On The Frontline being staples at the Paradise Garage (see also Time Warp by The Coach House Rhythm Section). Walking On Sunshine is a brilliantly rewired electro-disco jam dominated by top-heavy afrobeat horns and Grant's loosely-delivered falsetto. The song was later covered by Rockers Revenge, yet not by Katrina And The Waves, who's song of the same title is completely different!
Billy OceanStay The NightGTO
Early Billy Ocean in this whiplash proto-boogie tune from his sophomore set (City Limit), which is propelled by a uniquely raw-edged drum beat that really snaps the track across the tiles of the dancefloor. Like Eddy Grant, Ocean would later top the charts in the mid-eighties with yacht staple Caribbean Queen.
Ian DurySpasticus AutisticusPolydor
The great Ian Dury in Nassau, on leave from The Blockheads and getting in on that Compass Point action. Very much of a piece with the surrounding records here, this was also a staple in Larry Levan's record bag over at the Paradise Garage. Dig this little interview1 with old Ian (who in his youth suffered from polio), talking about the story behind the song.
Grace JonesPull Up To The BumperIsland
Yet more peak-period Compass Point (perhaps the peak, in this case) with Miss Grace Jones in the driver seat. The video2 is excellent too (Neuromancer vibes in full effect). In case you haven't noticed, I'm a huge fan of the whole Compass Point phenomenon. At the moment, I have a feature in the works, which I'm planning to post here sometime around the release of the Parallax Pier sequel in June.
DelegationYou And IAriola
Lush masterpiece of bedroom disco from the premiere British soul group. I've heard tell that this isn't even their greatest record, but it's the only one I own. You And I perfectly captures the tipping point between the string-laden groove of peak-era disco and the nascent machine boogie coming just around the bend. Check those aqueous, immersive synths straight out of the deep house playbook. Sublime, in a word, and a gorgeous tune.
The WhispersAnd The Beat Goes OnSolar
Chartbusting disco, with a two note organ vamp that stands as one of the great tossed-off hooks of all time. Later propelling Will Smith's Miami into the charts, it also kicked off Jason Forrest's The Unrelenting Songs Of The 1979 Post Disco Crash record. Of course, none of that can touch the original. The L.A.-based Solar Records would later come to define the eighties electro boogie sound with artists like Shalamar, The Deele and Midnight Star.
My MineHypnotic TangoProgress Record
Italo disco. Like early Depeche Mode, this is bubblegum synth music with an even greater affinity for the dancefloor. That moody synth sequence was later sampled by both Bandulu and Carl Craig, for Thunderground's Amaranth and 69's Rushed, respectively, which is how I found out about this track in the first place. Sporting a peerless play of dynamics between the moody verses and joyous candy-coated refrain, Hypnotic Tango itself is a computer love masterpiece.
Giorgio MoroderPalm Springs DrivePolydor
From Moroder's third score, after Midnight Express and Foxes, for the film American Gigolo. This is probably my favorite of his OSTs. Everyone knows Blondie's Call Me, but this album also boasts the sleek motor-disco of Night Drive and The Apartment's moody paranoia (the latter even sounding like the lost score to The Parallax View). Palm Springs Drive — featured here — is my absolute favorite moment from the soundtrack, fusing Moroder's trademark motor-disco sound with an epic chord progression straight out of the Ennio Morricone playbook.
Ashford & SimpsonOne More TryWarner Bros.
Gloriously lush disco from the dynamic husband and wife songwriting duo of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson,. Penning some of the great soul songs of the era for other artists, including Ain't No Mountain High Enough, I'm Every Woman and You're All I Need To Get By, they also managed to put out twelve solid albums between the years 1973 and 1984. One More Try — from their third — finds the duo confidently entering the disco arena with a desperate plea for a second chance gliding over tricky dance rhythms, soaring ARP strings and some of the finest guitar soloing to ever grace a disco record.
D-TrainYou're The One For MePrelude
The D-Train project was collaboration between James "D-Train" Williams and Hubert Eaves (previously responsible for the Esoteric Funk LP and later to play on some records with Mtume). Appropriately, this record lays down the blueprint for eighties electro boogie, with the zig-zagging synths that would come to define the decade's machine funk sound (see also Jam & Lewis), and took its rightful place as an immortal dancefloor classic. Even Liam Howlett couldn't help sampling its synth-squiggle magic for The Prodigy's Girls.
ForrrceKeep On Dubbin' With No Commercial InterruptionsWest End
The quintessential dub disco record, featuring François Kevorkianyet again reworking an original track to a higher plane altogether. West End had a phenomenal run as the 70s gave way to the 80s, putting out loads of great records hovering on the interzone between disco and dub. In fact, this is as close to the Black Ark as disco would ever get. You can practically imagine Lee "Scratch" Perry's trademark ad-libs over the top. Underground disco par excellence.
GQDisco Nights Rock FreakArista
Conversely, this is disco from high street, crashing the charts and the airwaves alike. Studio 54 music. I first heard this on Magic 92.5, way back in it's early years when it was on fire with live DJs and a killer selection of soul/disco/funk/boogie the order of the day. I remember driving home from the Clairemont Library one day, crossing the bridge from Mission Bay onto Friars Rd., when suddenly Disco Nights comes on the radio. I'd already become unknowingly aware of pieces of it — looped by Chicago's Stacy Kidd in a house cut that had come out recently — and the rush of recognition upon hearing the original for the first time hit like a ton of bricks.
That was one of the great things about branching out from beats, hearing all those records that had fueled the music I grew up with for the first time (and still at such a young age!. The realization that there was this vast continuum stretching back to figures like Curtis Mayfield, Miles Davis and James Brown, rather than everything being these solitary islands of sound, well it was quite a trip. All of this must sound so boring to someone coming in the era of Youtube, where all that information lay at one's fingertips! Well, back in the day, it was a big deal, trust me. And I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Love CommitteeJust As Long As I Got You Disco Re-Edit by Dimitri From ParisBBE
If there's a pre-disco sound that was disco's most logical precursor, then it's surely Philly soul. Groups like The Three Degrees, The Intruders and MFSB were dealing in proto-disco way back in '73 with tunes like Dirty Old Man, I'll Always Love My Mama and TSOP, and they all wound up dovetailing naturally into the scene once it was in full force. As if that weren't enough, full-fledged disco groups like Double Exposure, The Trammps and Love Committee all hailed from Philadelphia, starting out under different names earlier in the decade as pure Philly soul. Double Exposure's Ten Percent and Love Committee's Law And Order are both great examples of good LPs in this vein.
This is Dimitri From Paris' exclusive edit from his (excellent) Disco Forever mix. I remember picking this up in San Juan way back when. My cousin balked at the sleeve (I can't believe you're buying that!). This remix is brilliant, opening up the locked-down original to aircraft-hangar size. Transforming those baritone backing vocals into the lead, echoing lonely from within with that same sense of isolation as Bernard Sumner on the early New Order records. Chopping the horn fanfare into a looped refrain that builds and builds the tension to the breaking point before releasing in a single strummed guitar. Exquisite stuff.
Good old Kano. Kano were great. They must have the highest volume of classics out of all the Italo disco groups (shoot me down, I'm no expert on the stuff). Rather than a Moroder-derived machine pulse, I'm Ready is driven by loose-limbed live drumming (as is its b-side, Holly Dolly, famously the template for the proto-Detroit techno of A Number Of Names' Sharevari). The production on this record is just perfect, it's rubberband rhythm underpins gently trilling synths, vocoders and those delicate lead vocals.
KebekelektrikWar DanceLes Disques Direction
This the original version, rather than the Tom Moulton mix. I go back and forth on which one I like more, each of which have their undoubted merits. Moulton's version grooves better, but this really places the synths front-and-center. Part of me thinks I made the wrong decision... like I said, it's a coin toss! This is Moroder-esque motor-disco of the highest caliber, always making me picture some motorcade/caravan cutting through the desert under the blazing sun, synth-lines melting in the heat.
Donna SummerI Feel LoveCasablanca
The godfather of motor-disco disco tracks, produced by Giorgio Moroder for the prototypical disco diva, Donna Summer. Remember a few years back when everyone was calling themselves a diva? That was pretty silly. Donna Summer is the real deal. When I first heard this track, I assumed it was a recent remix and not the original version from 1977! Despite the utterly brilliant chrome-plated futurism in evidence throughout, Summer still manages to outshine everything else with soaring vocals eight miles high and rising.
Bettye LaVetteDoin' The Best That I Can A Special New Mix by Walter GibbonsWest End
Going out with a bang! More West End, this time with Bettye LaVette at the wheel of a steadfast galleon constructed by none other than disco super-producer Walter Gibbons. It's impossible not to be moved by this beautifully rendered tale of getting over somebody one day at a time.
At the track's midpoint, when that plaintive organ line erupts out of nowhere, well if you're anything like me you're in disbelief. You've never heard anything like this before! Then, the strings cut back in — horns bobbing and weaving over that groove — and the whole thing goes triumphant, proto-acid lines tearing across the soundscape like it's the most natural thing in the world, before the organ returns and a sublime piano line drives the tune to it's natural conclusion. Every element woven into a disco symphony. She's herself again now. I Will Survive, indeed. An impeccable example of the magic that can be wrought from a 12" slab of plastic, and a perfect ending to our disco odyssey. Hope you enjoyed it!
The Parkway Bowl Disco Mix: The Records
Mixed By: Flynn & DJ Slye.
Special Edits: Do'shonne & Slye.
Samples: Fifty Foot HoseOpus 11, The Beach BoysLet's Go Away For Awhile, James Woods in Against All Odds, Nastassja Kinski in Paris Texas.
Vibes: Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson, FSOLISDN, Sudden Impact, Moodymann, assorted El Cajon dive bars and nightclubs, Disco Godfather, David Bowie's Station To Station, Patrick Cowley, Jefferson Airplane, Atari 2600 and those endless exquisite gradient skies, ARP Solina String, Palm Desert, Jedi Knights, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Club Stratus, Summer Of Sam, The Mizell Brothers, Arthur Russell, Bobby Konders, swimming in A.G., Morgan Geist's Moves, Hohner Clavinet, Herbie Hancock, Eddie Russ, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, Jack Kirby, Paul's Boutique, Lakeside discotheques, Lil' Louis & The World, Beck Hansen, Harlem River Drive, Night Moves, Scott Weiland, Wild Style, Terranova, The Parallax View, Innerzone Orchestra, Spoonie Gee, Radio Mettrex, Steely Dan, Fender Rhodes, the Op-ART Hall Of Fame, Calypsoul 70, Opinionated Diner, Kirk DeGiorgio, Sly Stone, Sam Mangwana, The Isley Brothers, Glenn Underground, BBE, Parliament/Funkadelic, Ubiquity, Gram Parsons, The Honey Bee Hive, G-Street, East Village, Warren Zevon's Night Time In The Switching Yard, and of course Woebot.
Hey man, I'm back from the bodega. Nothing like a snack, deep fried, to give you a second wind. Here you go my friend. So you like new wave, right? Sure you do... after all, everybody likes new wave. For the moment, let us focus on the dubbed-out dancefloor sides perpetrated by The Clash in that period just after London Calling, which puts us at 1980 A.D.
I'm talking about the triple(!)-LP trawl of Sandinista! and its orbital 12" singles, records like The Magnificent Seven and This Is Radio Clash, the latter of which features four versions spread across its twelve inch surface, each one sequentially more twisted and dubbed to pieces than the last. Outside Broadcast (the third version), is one of the great hidden gems in the band's back catalog, conjuring up images of a careening taxi cab ride through fog-cloaked city streets deserted in the twilight.
The Magnificent Seven — which must be heard in its spacious, sprawling album version to experience its true sparkling third-eye-tactile black magic — finds, as mentioned in their last episode, this band of outlaws messing around with the Good Times bassline and twisting it to their own swashbuckling purposes. In other words, it's Disco Not Disco at its absolute finest.
Interesting to hear it as Joe Strummer's take on contemporary rap (note The Clash's turn as backing band for graffiti artist Futura 2000 on The Escapades Of Futura 2000, one of the infamous Celluloid rap records), like Blondie's Rapture but even more so. Think killer disco rap like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's Superappin', Kurtis Blow's The Breaks and Monster Jam by Spoonie Gee meets The Sequence (not to mention The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight if you want to get literal).
Noteworthy in the Parallax sense is also the fact that the intros to both The Magnificent Dance (the x-ray dub version of The Magnificent Seven) and Mensforth Hill form the basis of Reese's You're Mine (the b-side to Rock To The Beat), which suggests that Mr. Saunderson was working with both the album and 12" when vibing out in the studio to create that killer cut.
At moments like this, I'm reminded of Norman Cook/Fatboy Slim's review of Big Audio Dynamite's Sunday Best, in which he offhandedly placed The Clash at the genesis of indie dance. Which sounds about right to me, with New Order and Big Audio Dynamite arriving as fully formed ambassadors of the genre before it would go on to become a way of life.
Ah yes, that's right: Big Audio Dynamite! B.A.D. is, of course, a whole other can of worms. Now it's damn near painfully obvious to point out how that crew's merciless caning of the sampler and rewired approach to the dancefloor anticipated whole swathes of music in the nineties and beyond, but records like the proto-house madness of Hollywood Boulevard and Megatop Phoenix (which has nestled comfortably into Sgt. Pepper-status around these parts) serve to drive the point home and then some.
Their debut full-length This Is Big Audio Dynamite boasts not only obvious radio bounty like The Bottom Line, E=MC² and the sublime cool of Medicine Show (recently featured in Woebot's excellent 101-2001 — and for the record I agree wholeheartedly with the man's glowing assessment of the tune), but also a wealth of strange dancefloor material on its under-explored b-side (particularly Sudden Impact's phenomenal short-circuiting electroid groove and the proto-ragga dancehall of A Party).
Sudden Impact is particularly interesting in this context, with its strange spaghetti-western-by-way-of-Lee "Scratch" Perry guitar figure riding wicked rails of straight up electro, the track seeming to exist right at the very nexus of a number of contemporary sonic currents. For one, you've got electro boogie along the lines of Aleem's Get Loose, D-Train's You're The One For Me and C.O.D.'s cover of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's In The Bottle, all of which predict Sudden Impact's own nimble touch in their wiry, skeletal rhythmic structure.
But why stop there? It doesn't take much effort to draw a short line from Sudden Impact! to honest-to-goodness minimalistic electro missives like Hashim's We're Rocking The Planet, the Imperial Brothers' We Come To Rock and World Class Wreckin' Cru's Surgery, all of which had been tearing up dancefloors for the better part of a year. Of course there's also the flipside of the coin: straight up electrofunk shearing into electro territory, records like Cameo's She's Strange (along with its proto-rap 12" club mix), Whodini's Escape and about a thousand other rap records.
Japan (the band) had their own incursions in this arena, where even amongst their most well-known new pop-era hits like the crepuscular fragile beauty of Ghosts and the supremely funky Visions Of China2 you'd find records like Gentlemen Take Polaroids and The Art Of Parties riding a malfunktioning electroid framework of their own.
Yet it's just before the group's widely-hailed peak that you'll find my favorite music they made, from that period when David Sylvian and co. were still slumming it as twilight era glam rockers operating in a weird interzone between new wave and funk that just shades this side of the (totally imaginary) post punk divide, with not only their blinding Adolescent Sex debut album (which featured in the Parallax 200 just the other day), but also the Quiet Life LP (and it's precursor, the Life In Tokyo 12" warning shot — produced by Giorgio Moroder for those keeping track).
Adolescent Sex in particular is the sleaziest rock 'n funk grind this side of The Stones' Fingerprint File, with real red light district velvet curtain bizzness in tracks like Performance (named after the Nick Roeg film, I wonder?) and the slinky cinematic slow burn of Suburban Love. This is funk the way The Isley Brothers played it. By which I mean turn on a dime rhythmic panache, smeared synth stylings — as if every texture were washed out in sun-glazed daylight somehow in the dead of night — and searing guitar lines rising from the murky depths.
There's shades too of Steely Dan at their Royal Scam grimiest — bringing to mind The Fez and The Royal Scam itself in particular — on tunes like Wish You Were Black and the marathon nine-minute album-closing Television. This sort of half-lit bedroom funk is a personal favorite sound of mine (see Prince's debut For You for another example), and should if there's any sense in the world at all spawn a feature of its own sometime in the future.
If there's a neon-tinged eighties analog to the sound I'm getting at here, then it must be Mtume circa Juicy Fruit. The album's centerpiece is the title track, no doubt, but there's a wealth of sterling rubberband funk in evidence throughout. The high top blacktop moonwalk of Green Light is emblematic of the whole affair in its casual loose-limbed bounce, with the more explicitly electronic grooves of Hips and Hip Dip Skippedabeat shearing into prime electrofunk territory. The production throughout is just perfect, with none of the overly-harmonized, booming drums that you'd often wind up with during in the era.3 It's the flipside of all the canonical new wave records here and a stone cold classic.
And while we're on the flipside, Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is another unmissable slice of new wave electrofunk — from a crew that's arguably the progenitor of the form — and the flipside to PIL's Metal Box (the founder of this feast). The deconstructed start-stop groove of Funk Gets Stronger — featuring Sly Stone in full effect — is practically straight up new wave and never fails to make me flash on Adam And The Ants' Dirk Wears White Sox4 (particularly the distinctive guitar tone).
The whole record plays like a roadmap of eighties funk possibilities and beyond, and is absolutely essential listening. It will likely sound patchy at first, but give it time: what you're hearing is the familiar One Nation Under A Groove/Flashlight magic formula being warped and mutated beyond the point of recognition. Its strangeness is its calling card. The band even turn out the Lodger-esque freaky cod-reggae of Shockwaves, which starts out like a joke track (with fake accent to boot) before dropping out into the divine ravishment of the chorus. Definite shades of Bowie and très post punk!
On a related note, I make no apologies whatsoever for the heavy representation of Parallax 200 records here, since the sonic neighborhood on the table today couldn't help but throw up some of my favorite records almost by default. Wrapping up that list definitely put this sound firmly in mind. In truth, it likely inspired the whole trip! No doubt many of the remaining records will make the 300 when the time comes...
Now where was I... Ah yes, Japan. Coming a year after Adolescent Sex, Quiet Life and the Life In Tokyo 12" both seem to predict Duran Duran's self-titled debut in their sleek, chrome-eyed surfaces. Speaking of which, don't sleep on Duran Duran's 1981 debut, a record that is well worth checking out in its own right. The ace new wave disco of Planet Earth stands out as a particular highlight, but really the whole record is golden. Don't listen to the hipster haters — Nick Rhodes is way cooler than any of them anyway. Listened to back to back to back, these three records (Life In Tokyo, Quiet Life and Duran Duran) play like a tour of Europe by high-speed rail.
And while we're still on the continent, it's fitting to round out this strange punk funk-by-way-of-new wave triumvirate with Simple Minds, whose early records belie their Scottish origins and seem to point toward the most shadowy recesses of the Eastern Bloc. From the grimy claustrophobic corridors of Real To Real Cacophony to the sleek steel surfaces of Empires And Dance and even the Steve Hillage-produced widescreen canvases of Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, this is all prime real estate in the sprawling terrain of post punk/machine funk that just begs to be explored further. I've spent quite a bit of time here myself.
You've got the dead-eyed disco of Premonition, yawning gleefully with cavernous jaws and drip-dropping percussion, the slow-motion punk funk dirge of This Fear Of Gods and Today I Died Again's exquisitely swirling dread on one hand and the Kling Klang clanking funk of Sweat In Bullet (pointing the way to New Gold Dream) and the clockwork, backwards-crab-walking rhythm box black hole League Of Nations on the other. Taken as a whole, the four record run5 is a stellar excursion into post-Bowie In Berlin sonics.
So check them all out, the Simple Minds records and everything else here too. They won't do you wrong. I hear that the vendor across the street — yes, that gaunt gentleman in the robe — has them all on cassette, so don't sleep. Trust me... you need these records in your life. So fix up real quick. I'll be in the basement down the way grabbing some records from my homeboy Cornelius for the next chapter...
Actually, Prince's phenomenal Lady Cab Driver — from the glitzy 1999 double-LP — mines a very similar terrain. It's also got some crossover potential with The Clash's Outside Broadcast, come to think of it...
None can test. I'm on record as preferring the U.S. Version for its inclusion of the Zerox/Whip In My Valise, but only grudgingly so: I hate to give up the killer punk funk mekanik rush of not only Cartrouble Part 1 (which is doubly salient in the current context) but also Day I Met God and Catholic Day. Life's full of tough choices...
Real To Real Cacophony, Empires And Dance, Sons And Fascination and Sister Feelings Call are actually preceded by Life In A Day, a solid new wave record in its own right that's well worth checking out too (especially for fans of early Ultravox and XTC. The ingredients just needed to marinate a little longer before morphing into the fractured splendor of Real To Real and beyond.
Two years ago I asked the question Where does machine funk intersect with post punk? It's a question I'd meant to jump into deeper at the time, but then the moment seemed to pass. I'd been toying with the notion of revisiting it recently, weaving a narrative around these two strands of music that seemed to run in tandem for much of the eighties (and beyond, truth be told).
Just the other day, my brother Matt was over and we were listening to a selection of music that in large part sprang from this continuum and he commented on the striking sonic overlap between post punk, disco and funk, that the three genres almost formed the sides of a triangle that — and I'm jumping in here — had a profound shaping influence on modern music.
The tune that instigated the comment was Jermaine Jackson's Erucu, playing out on the heels of a bunch of late-period post punk along the lines of A Certain Ratio and 23 Skidoo, but something like Barry Waite & Ltd.'s Sting or James Brown's I Can't Stand It "76" would make the case just as strongly.
That is, the stripped-down tautness of funk, aspects of disco's four to the floor minimalism and the funky edge of post punk's year zero reinvention of the rhythmic wheel (sourced in large part in the very no-nonsense funk of the seventies in question here) share a certain sonic kinship that (teasing in reggae here as well) seems to have laid out the next decade(s) in advance.
Wheeling this back to my original comment about post punk vis a vis machine funk, what you had in the eighties was this great convergence between the two worlds, almost as if two dimensions overlapped for this blessed spell of time and characters were able to move freely between the two worlds in a great exchange of ideas. I'm talking about Bernie Worrell joining the Talking Heads on tour, Blondie's Chris Stein providing those moody dubplates for Wild Style, New Order hooking up with Arthur Baker and John Robie in New York for Confusion, and about a thousand other examples.
Speaking of Baker/Robie (the producers of Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force's Planet Rock), the picture really falls into place when you take things like electro and early hip hop into consideration. On one hand, you have the spectral missives of Hashim (whose Primrose Path sounds like the digital cousin of 400 Blows' Declaration Of Intent, both sharing in those same slap-bass future shock vibes) and Man Parrish's Special Disconet Remix of Hip Hop, Be Bop Don't Stop.
Hip Hop, Be Bop Don't Stop, whose rubberband bassline seems to recall The Clash's The Magnificent Seven (whose bassline seems to recall Chic's Good Times (whose bassline was seemingly imitated by everybody else as well)), while on the other you have The Cold Crush Brothers' Punk Rock Rap and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's New York New York. All of which could theoretically soundtrack a rough-and-tumble cinematic take on William Gibson's Neuromancer. Of course, it doesn't stop there...
Take Prince and his affinity with not only new wave but also PIL, whose Metal Box is one of the cornerstones of post punk; if the genre does indeed have a pantheon, then it's right in there at the top. Interestingly, along with dub and funk, PIL were deeply shaped by Can's krautrock/funk, whose Ege Bamyasi and Saw Delight slide right in this continuum without much fuss at all.1
Once krautrock enters the discussion, the elephant in the room is obviously Brian Eno, who — along with David Bowie — were one of the main conduits of the music into the post punk collective consciousness (and beyond). Indeed, Bowie jumping from the plastic soul of Young Americans into the Autobahn-surfing Europe-endlessness of Station To Station and on into the Berlin trilogy — where the aerodynamic funk of those two records gets yoked to an electronic framework that is firmly in this continuum (see Breaking Glass, Blackout and D.J. for starters).
And Eno of course went on to become the crucial guiding force in not only the Talking Heads' post punk trilogy (particularly Remain In Light) but also the tremendously prescient My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Both of which are defining records in this post punk/machine funk district, and lie at the heart of what I will call my idea of the eighties.
You can hear the overlap between the rolling rhythms of these two strikingly modern records and — on the one hand — West African monster jams like Tony Allen's N.E.P.A (Never Expect Power Always) and — on the other hand, perhaps more unexpectedly — early rap excursions like Spoonie Gee's Spoonin' Rap, with all four records sharing that same sense of thick atmosphere rising like vapors from the twilight city streets.
We will hang out in this neighborhood for awhile, so don't go anywhere, but I must leave you for a moment to score some alcapurrias from this bodega on the corner. Chill here on this bench for awhile and listen to Remain In Light and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts back to back while watching the traffic, and I'll be back in a bit.
To be continued...
TV002: Remain In Ghosts
James BrownI Can't Stand It "76"
A Certain RatioShack Up
Barry Waite & Ltd.Sting Part 1
Talking HeadsI Zimbra
Grandmaster Caz & Chris SteinSouth Bronx Subway Rap
400 BlowsDeclaration Of Intent
New OrderConfusion Substance Version
Man ParrishHip Hop, Be Bop Don't StopSpecial Disconet Remix
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious FiveNew York New York
Tony Allen with Afrobeat 2000When One Road Close Another One Go Open
Talking HeadsBorn Under Punches The Heat Goes On
Spoonie GeeSpoonin' Rap I Don't Drink Smoke Or Gamble Neither I'm The Cold Crushing Lover
Indeed, I've always thought that the oft-derided late-period Can records like Flow Motion, Saw Delight and Can only suffer by comparison to the band's seismic earlier material; taken on their own merits, I think they stack up quite favorably as shadowy precursors to things like Fear Of Music, Remain In Light and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Just because something isn't Halleluwah doesn't mean it's worthless! So don't sleep...
I once said that I could write a whole book about this record, so how about a (rather lengthy) post to start the ball rolling? It's often daunting to write about a record so close to one's heart, so personally significant is it that one fears they won't do it justice or the words won't come. However, lately I've found that you've just got to jump in there and get on with it, that once the work is done you have something to show for it (rather than a dream deferred indefinitely) and chances are it'll suit the subject just fine. So here goes...
If ever I wrote one of those 33 1/3 books, the series that chronicles classic albums from There's A Riot Goin' On to Another Green World, then Megatop Phoenix would surely be the subject of mine. I remember nearly twenty years ago, after growing up with the Planet BAD compilation (an anthology of the band's music, spanning ten years of recorded output), tracking down the album based on an intense fascination with Contact and the wild acid breakbeat jam that closed out the track.
The compilation's lone selection from Megatop Phoenix — the other albums contributed at least two or three songs each — Contact marked it out in my mind as the group's weird record, and being the sort of kid perennially drawn to the strange, it seemed right up my alley. Somewhat harder to find than the other albums (the shops never seemed to have it in stock, for whatever reason), it wasn't until a bit later that it turned up at the Point LomaMusic Trader. My chance had come, so I snapped it up with haste. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As much as its bound to come off as hyperbole, I reckon that this is the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of the eighties. It may not have the reputation or sheer pop culture impact of The Beatles storied song-cycle, but it certainly ticks every other box available: here's a set of great songs recorded with cutting-edge studio-as-instrument techniques, dubbed full of effects and sequenced perfectly — almost symmetrically so — into one killer extended suite, recreating the feel of a multifaceted live performance. Plus, both records have breaks!
The fourth and final full-length of the original B.A.D. lineup, Megatop finds the group five years deep into their career and truly firing on all cylinders. Here is a band who knew exactly what they were doing and precisely how to do it. With a story stretching back to 1985 — and even further, truth be told, into the heady days of first-wave punk and The Clash — perhaps it might be worthwhile to rewind a bit and start at the beginning...
The Story Of The Clash
The story of B.A.D. begins with Mick Jones, the lead guitarist for The Clash. As everyone undoubtedly knows, The Clash (along with bands like The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Damned) were the standard-bearers for the rise of punk in the media glare of 1977. Singles like White Riot, London's Burning and Complete Control were crucial cuts in punk's early arsenal, while their self-titled debut was — along with the Ramones debut, Nevermind The Bollocks and Damned Damned Damned1 — one of the first punk full-lengths to hit the shops.
The band quickly began expanding beyond the constraints of straight up punk rock, exploring reggae, rockabilly, New Orleans r&b and eventually mixing dub, disco and hip hop into their dense sonic stew. The group seemed to straddle the dividing line between new wave and post punk (much like Simple Minds' contemporary records, Empires And Dance and Real To Real Cacophony), but with a curious Sergio Leone-influenced image as outlaws of the American West, often trading in western imagery and bedecked in cowboy attire. This, of course, earned the band their detractors, but I find the whole trip quite evocative and endlessly fascinating.
In fact, this phase of the group remains my absolute favorite, as attested to by something like The Clash At The Edge Of Forever.2 Hooking up with figures as disparate as rebel country singer Joe Ely (Lubbock, Texas), dub scientist Mikey Dread (Port Antonio, Jamaica) and graffiti artist/part-time hip hop MC Futura 2000 (New York, New York), they ran the gamut of post-disco dance music practically at the dawn of the form's existence (see 1980's triple-LP Sandinista!).
Tracks like The Magnificent Seven, This Is Radio Clash, Straight To Hell and Guns Of Brixton remain utterly unique dubbed-out post punk missives (all of which, on a personal note, were absolutely crucial records for me back in the day). Their presence on many of the era's key dancefloors — stretching from the Roxy to the Paradise Garage — attests to the music's strange brilliance, as does their latter day status as Balearic3 staples.
After their extraordinary fifth album — Combat Rock — the band were at a crossroads. Lore has it that Joe Strummer wanted to delve deeper into dub and dance music, while Mick Jones wanted to follow in the footsteps of The Who, basking in the band's status as stadium rock stars. What happened next, however, betrays the fact that the reality was less cut-and-dried. Jones was unceremoniously fired from the band while Strummer recruited a group of young mohawked punks to take his place, steering the band toward a back to basics direction with their swan song Cut The Crap. Jones, meanwhile, struck out in another direction entirely...
This Time I Bet You It's BAD
Interestingly enough, Jones was initially slated to be in General Public, laying down guitar on the entirety of their debut record before leaving to pursue his own vision. Linking up first with post-punk audiovisual man Don Letts, he began delving deeper still into hip hop and dance music. Rounded out by bassist Leo "E-Zee Kill" Williams (who would go on to record as Screaming Target and Dreadzone in the nineties), drummer Greg Roberts and keyboardist Dan Donovan, Big Audio Dynamite sprung into being as one of the original (alongside New Order) indie dance propositions.
Their debut LP, This Is Big Audio Dynamite, was a stunning mash up of stutter-funk sampladelia, machine rhythms and mid-period new wave songcraft. Immersed in contemporary dance culture, the sounds of New York club music, early hip hop and the nascent digital dancehall all informed the group's striking new sound. The iconic sleeve itself — capturing the crew (minus Donovan) in stark black and white — perfectly signaled the bold, deeply unconventional music contained within.
The first side of the record is dominated by radio hits like Medicine Show, E=MC² and The Bottom Line (the 12" single of which actually came out on Def Jam in the states, where the track was remixed by Rick Rubin), all of which are lush, multi-layered indie dance excursions, replete with film samples (particularly of the Sergio Leone and Nicolas Roeg variety) and chiming pop inflections. Their accompanying music videos featured Don Letts' striking visual sensibilities, ranging from a time-traveling DeLorean in the wild west4 to the band playing underground, decked out like nuclear power plant operators.
It's worth noting that the second side of the record takes a sharp left turn, given over to skeletal dance workouts like the dancehall-inflected A Party and Sudden Impact!'s third-rail electrofunk workout, both of which might just be my favorite things on the record. You also get the peculiar electro-hoedown of Stone Thames and closing track BAD's big beats thrown into the bargain, rounding out a solid set of state-of-the-art dance pop. All in all, the group were off to a strong start with an auspicious debut that plotted an utterly original vision.
Their sophomore record, No. 10, Upping St., finds Strummer temporarily back in the fold and manning the producer's chair. The drum machine breaks are even heavier this time out, in truth not a million miles removed from what you might expect on a contemporary Mantronix or Run-D.M.C. record. The LP finds the group descending even further into dance territory, and rather appropriately the video for the block-rocking C'mon Every Beatbox features the band performing in a basement dive5 while a group of b-boys-and-b-girls (including a young Neneh Cherry) dance their hearts out.
Conversely, V. Thirteen is firmly in the chiming pop vein established on side one of the band's debut, sounding for all the world like something from Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish. Switching gears yet again, the apocalyptic, album-closing Sightsee M.C.! rocks a titanic ragga beat over which Mick Jones and Don Letts trade verses, taking the group's side two sensibility into the lower reaches of the charts. Hollywood Boulevard, perhaps the best track here, finds Jones unleashing a rapid-fire series of images — with the same compression of language you'd find in both contemporary hip hop and amphetamine-era Dylan — over an early house beat complete with Derrick May-esque strings! Stunning.
Tighten Up Vol. '88, the third record, finds the group splicing their pop sensibilities seamlessly into contemporary dance rhythms. With the dividing line (nearly) effaced altogether, both sides of the coin bend to meet in the middle. The gorgeously evocative cover art, painted by ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, is emblematic of the whole affair, depicting a buzzing soundsystem party beneath a freeway overpass.
The rolling machine rhythms of Just Play Music!, casually unfurling like a lazy day at the beach in mid-summer, seem to betray an affinity with Paisley Park. In fact, whole swathes of the record feel thoroughly indebted to Prince circa Around The World In A Day (note that the group would later cover 1999 during live shows). The contemporary Lovesensi 12" — which features a mash up of the entire Tighten Up album in the space of five minutes — even features a nude Leo Williams sprawled out on a beach recliner in what must be a nod to Prince's contemporaneous album Lovesexy!
Indeed, there's a laidback, anything-goes spirit to the entire affair that's quite appealing. The Battle Of All Saints Road melds hoedown fiddle and banjo with extraterrestrial ragga beat sensibilities, while Funny Names and the nebulous title track seem to drift by coolly on an atmospheric plane, receding gradually into the horizon in Atari-esque gradient colors. Other 99 and Applecart, meanwhile, mark a winning return of the group's britpop sensibilities in a pair of soaring refrains that benefit from the record's rich production flourishes.
And yet, despite the marked development of B.A.D.'s sound, there's not yet evidence of rave's kaleidoscopic fun house psychedelia at this point. Therefore, it's tempting shorthand to call Tighten Up Vol. '88 something like the group's Rubber Soul: a casually brilliant full-length statement wrapping up everything that's come before and setting the table for what's just around the bend. This is the final trading post on the road to this trip's ultimate destination.
On Death's Doorstep Born Again
But the road had a few bumps yet to come. When Mick Jones' daughter Lauren came down with chickenpox, he caught it as well. While Lauren recovered quickly, Jones — who had never had chickenpox as a youth — took a serious turn for the worse and before long had fallen ill with pneumonia. Suffering severe infection of the mouth, throat and lungs, Jones checked into the intensive care unit of St. Mary's Hospital — where he was promptly hooked up to respirators — and found himself in critical condition. For eight hours he battled for his life, and remained unconscious for weeks after. In the process Jones sustained considerable nerve damage, which seriously affected his throat and vocal chords.6a
Recovery took nine months, as Jones underwent protracted therapy to rebuild himself from the ground up.7 The whole ordeal seemed to bring everything into focus. In the hospital I could see things clearly, says Jones. Serious illness gives you time to reassess things. I saw that B.A.D. was going on to something new.6b Parallels could be drawn with Brian Eno's time spent in the hospital after being hit by a car, during which he conceived ambient music, or even Bob Dylan's fabled motorcycle crash and The Basement Tapes — recorded with what would become The Band8 — that followed in its wake. In any case, the revelation that presented itself to Jones was found in the buzzing sounds of the nascent rave culture that had begun to take Britain by storm.
A bit of context might be in order: the Second Summer Of Love was in full bloom by 1988, with raves springing up all over the UK and clubs like London's Shoom and Manchester's Haçienda9 fully indulging post-acid house tastes. Built on a foundation of import 12"s from cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago, the sound was a pile up of house, techno, hip hop and Balearic beats from around the world.
House records like Mr. Fingers' Can You Feel It, Black Riot's A Day In The Life and Rhythim Is Rhythim's techno rhapsody Beyond The Dance would rub shoulders with hip hop like Mantronix's King Of The Beats and Eric B. & Rakim's Follow The Leader, along with the industrial EBM of Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and Cabaret Voltaire, all spliced soundly with the requisite disco/post-disco sounds that lie at the root of the whole endeavor. Spike it all with choice Balearic records like New Order's True Faith, The Woodentops' Why Why Why and of course The Clash's own The Magnificent Dance, and you had the soundtrack for a musical revolution.
Almost immediately, homegrown acts began springing up everywhere, from the techno exploits of Manchester's 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald to the moody house music of London's Bang The Party and Bomb The Bass' block-rockin' beats. Over in West Yorkshire, the Unique 3 were making low-end rumblings of their own, resulting in a sound that would ultimately feed into the the proto-junglist innovations of Shut Up And Dance and 4 Hero about a year later.
Even erstwhile indie rockers like The Shamen, Happy Mondays and A.R. Kane were getting into the groove, following the footsteps of New Order (who had themselves begun to tune into the sounds of rave culture around this time) down the slippery path of indie dance. It seemed like everyone — from soul boys to b-boys to rude boys and indie rockers — were all tuned into the same frequency.
With 1989 in full swing, this is the environment that B.A.D. found themselves in when they entered The Kinks' Konk Studios to record their fourth album. After operating for years at the intersection of new wave, hip hop and club music — in their own way already working out the same internal logic that would play out full scale on the ravefloor — it would seem that the band were more than ready for the challenge. Connecting with the energy around the movement, Jones exclaimed:
We're talking thousands of kids getting together and dancing. It’s all about freeing up yourself and dancing and getting loose. Through this escapism you free yourself. The authorities don’t know what’s going on. They have no control. It’s just like punk was.
Steve Dougherty and Linda Russell (Back from the Brink of Death)6c
With Mick Jones' near-miraculous recovery behind him, he and the band seemed to surf the waves of Second Summer Of Love dancefloor ecstasy with the palpable born-again passion of the moment. In truth, there was something in the air. B.A.D. seemed to have a new lease on life, a new mission to live down. So they pulled out all the stops, and dove headfirst into the rave...
A Phoenix Rises
Take a moment to gaze upon that sleeve. Depicting a stylized phoenix literally rising from the flames (surely a metaphor for Jones' own recent experiences?), it features a pixelated, halftone fractal looming large in the distance.10 Superimposed over the titular phoenix, the group's name appears in boldfaced type (while both the promotional poster and sleeve reverse feature the album's title), beneath which stretches a photo-strip of the band posing for a promo shot. Taken in its entirety its a bold, confident image, its brash juxtapositions and no-nonsense design offering a perfect hint at the sounds contained within.
So what does it sound like? Well, let me tell you... The key to this record is those beats, that rhythm. The drums hover somewhere between the Gaussian-blurred, blunted beats of De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising and the delicately crisp machine rhythms of Prince's Lovesexy.11 Balanced atop the beat is everything but the kitchen sink: you've got guttertronic synths, rolling breakbeats, rave piano, squelching acid basslines, ethereal backing vocals, malfunctioning drum machines, hallucinatory guitar, gang chants and dancehall bottom-end, all blended into an absolutely superb palette of sound and threaded together in (im)perfect harmony.
Not to mention... samples, samples and more samples! Think 3 Feet High And Rising (yet again!), Paul's Boutique and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back: there's film samples, sure enough, but also snatches of sixties garage punk, British music hall, Rule, Britannia!, soundtrack music, Broadway musicals, digital dancehall, comedy records, funk loops and the Godfather Of Soul himself. The production — handled by Mick Jones and Bill Price — is gloriously supple, and with each texture seeming to push and pull against the other in a brilliantly unstable framework, everything up for grabs.
Whereas it might have sounded dated to late-nineties ears — attuned to the self-consciously fat sounds of tech-house, gatecrasher trance and big room techno that held sway at the time — with the benefit of greater hindsight it all sounds righteously at home in the company of the rude, rough-edged, and absolutely timeless sounds of its era: Todd Terry, the Jungle Brothers, Tiger, Trax Records, A Guy Called Gerald and Shut Up And Dance. You can hear echoes of Gerald Simpson's acid-era recordings like Voodoo Ray, Hot Lemonade and Automanikk in Megatop's loose-fitting, ramshackle riddims.
Todd Terry just might be the single most apropos comparison: imagine a pop album with the same spirit as Royal House's Can You Party? and The Todd Terry Project's To The Batmobile Let's Go, and you wouldn't be too far off.12 Don't forget that Todd's rough-edged sampladelia — perched midway between house and hip hop — ran in parallel with what B.A.D. had been up to in the late eighties. With Megatop, the band embraced Terry's cut-and-paste aesthetic wholeheartedly as the charged headlong into the rave.
I'd venture that what gave B.A.D. such a strong grasp on rave's dynamics was their extensive experience with pre-acid dance music, tracing electro-funk, hip hop, soul, reggae13 back into post punk and The Clash's own dancefloor endeavors at the dawn of the decade. This is pure, unadulterated indie dance, in the classic tradition of ex-punks messing around with club music and coming up with a gloriously ramshackle vision of the dancefloor. Think of contemporary records like the Happy Mondays'14Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, Primal Scream's Screamadelica, The Stone Roses self-titled debut and In Gorbachev We Trust by The Shamen, along with New Order's foray into similar territory with Technique, for example.
The surprising realization I arrived at years ago is that none of those records come close to the level of total immersion in dance culture that Megatop represents. The closest would be Screamadelica (which came out over two years later, an eternity in the blazing pace dance culture kept to at the time), but Bobby Gillespie and co. had the help of outside producers like The Orb, Hypnotone and Andrew Weatherall (even roping in Jah Wobble for a killer bassline). Even so, there's a handful of diversions into the band's southern rock tendencies — which they'd fully explore on 1994's Give Out But Don't Give Up — from the pentecostal rock 'n soul of Movin' On Up and the weepy country ballad Damaged.
Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches on the other hand largely captures a band jamming live in the studio, with production duties handled by Paul Oakenfold, another dance music heavyweight. Surely New Order's Haçienda classic Technique would qualify, but aside from a couple tracks, it's largely dominated by straight-up indie rock in the same vein as that on 1986's Brotherhood (not to mention the fact that the 12" mixes are where the club cuts really catch fire). Now don't get me wrong, each of these records are stone cold classics in their own right. I'm only attempting to measure the level to which dance culture runs through these records' veins15 in the cold light of day.
In contrast, Megatop is absolutely dominated by sampladelia and ravefloor sonix, and without the help of any club culture insiders, its success rests solely on the core unit of the band itself. It's an ecstasy record through and through, managing to dovetail Jones' love of life (in the face of near-death) with the loved-up spirit of the times. The entire album runs together in the mix in a nearly non-stop flow of crazy rhythm and melody, threading the pulsing beats of club culture with snatches of overheard conversation and Swinging London songcraft, taking in everything from Ibiza to Chicago and Madchester to Paisley Park, and weaving them all into a stunning sonic tapestry that seems to soundtrack the ultimate party.
Now, it's not often at all that I'm led to break out into a track-by-track analysis of an album, but this is one of those rare cases where it not only seems warranted but absolutely necessary. The song-cycle structure of the LP, paired with the fact that its my absolute favorite record of all time, both lend themselves to such an approach. Each and every track (even the interludes) are their own distinctly individual creations — filled to the brim with ideas — even as they remain perfectly intertwined with the greater whole. It's as if a verdant terrain stretched out before us as far as the eye can see, inviting further exploration. So, then, why not dive headfirst into the sonic banquet and see what we might find?
Megatop Phoenix: The Tracks
This is the universe... big isn't it?. Kicking off with a sample from Powell/Pressburger's 1946 film Stairway To Heaven (starring one David Niven), the mood is set by bit of lovers rock declaring ain't nothing going on but- before being interrupted by an MC shouting The best band in West London, B.A.D.! before a live crowd.
Oh yeah, it should be kicking in by now...
The opening salvo drops immediately, with a fractal fast-forward acid sequence spooling out crimson in the thick, humid night air as the group chant (all together now):
The troop was weak and weary,
Rations running low.
Mission seemed impossible,
We had to save the show.
Then, the beat drops in at a steady-rocking half-time downbeat, a heavy dub bassline pulsing beneath it all.
Rewind, operator gonna kill em with sound,
Bawling out murder and selector come down.
The song seems to tell the story of B.A.D. rallying in the wake of Jones' protracted recovery, banding together again and getting down to business to run tings in the dancehall. It's all tied together with the same Western imagery that The Clash drew on back in the day, conjuring up the image of a band of sonic outlaws and all around badmen riding off into the sunset, pinned down by Jones' power chords in such a way as to recall the great Link Wray.
Suddenly, at the tune's midpoint, Don Letts quotes Tenor Saw's Ring The Alarm and the drums break into a canter. Tapes spool in and out before an interview snippet with Mick Jones plays out, distilling the influence of thirty years of Jamaican music spanning from Prince Buster to Prince Jammy down to only a little, only the bass. Sure enough, that sub-bass continues to pulse beneath it all as rapid-fire breakbeats begin snaking their way through the mix and, for the last minute or so, you're listening to straight up proto-junglist bizzness.
This in 1989, when even the likes of 4 Hero and Shut Up And Dance were still working out their equations... well, it's pretty startling to come across, no question. The addition of Jones' guitar psychedelia equally stunning in this context, forging a link between the retro shades of the sixties revival (by then in full swing) and the technicolor possibilities of rave.
All Mink & No Manners
The first of the interludes, kicking off with a breakbeat nicked from Schoolly D before a squelching synth wobble unceremoniously slips into the mix and another of Jones' olde English samples16 declares I don't know what this world's coming to, everyone trying to be better than their betters... mink coats and no manners!
After a brief snatch of Rule, Britannia!, Union, Jack kicks off with the break from The Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Women. Way back when, Union, Jack was my least favorite song on the album. Strangely enough, everyone I show the album to seems to single it out as a highlight, and over the years I've grown to love it. It's in essence a football-themed britpop number with a rolling, filmic sweep. The chorus backing sports an almost symphonic quality. Still, there's no getting around that beat when it drops, bass kicking you squarely in the chest. It certainly would have made a good live opener.
Two thirds into the song, crowd noise — no doubt from some soccer arena — rises from the mix as Jones contributes his second bit of sixties-esque guitar, eerily recalling George Harrison's reversed guitar parts on The Beatles' Revolver.. A memorable sample from Britannia Hospital slips into the mix behind the guitar jamming, before everything drops into a rolling snare rush and a certain synth squiggle struggles to escape from the dense sonic tangle of the mix...
Descending on a dread shadow, slow-motion guitar stabs unwind into a dubbed-out intro (bassline and all), replete with textures that wouldn't sound out of place on a Pram record. A voice intones the memorable incantation, groovy, dynamite, heavy... wow, as ghostly chuckling — seemingly on loop — emanates from the ether. Then, that screeching guitar stab returns — playing at the correct speed this time — ushering in a liquid breakbeat that rolls out for a single bar as that trademark synth-squiggle returns with a vengeance.
Suddenly, you're in an epic. The mix here so very lush, with treated power chords locked into the rhythm as a disembodied fiddle scrapes dexterous between the beats. Jones coos Ooh, ooh!, on the one followed swiftly by a snatch of vocalise (it sounds something like ooh-wah) recalling the sort of wordless vocal you'd find in an Ennio Morricone film score. Jones sings:
Feeling flying round,
'Round up in the air,
Bouncing off the walls,
Getting under my hair.
On the carpet, in the weave,
Up in trees on the leaves,
Feelings flying everywhere.
Which brilliantly conjures up images of a rave when the party's really going off, the DJ's on fire and everybody's locked onto the pulse of the rhythm, lights and colors flashing off the walls as everyone dances together in ecstasy. Taking matters to another level altogether, he adds:
I'm on the right track
For what I want to say.
I got to get it out
There ain't no other way.
To make contact.
There ain't no getting away
From how I feel today.
Which is about as perfect an expression you could ask for of everything Jones alluded to when expressing his enthusiasm for rave's social energy, and that need to interface with it on its own terms. To make contact, in other words. Variations on these words make up the entirety of the lyrical content, and really, what more do you need?
Looping on and on, rave pianos drift in and out of the mix with Jones occasionally tossing off another one of his guitar asides, before — at the three-minute mark — a snatch of The Who's I Can't Explain drops into the mix (out of nowhere) in such a way that predicts Fatboy Slim's Going Out Of My Head seven years early.17
Suddenly, the tune's gone acid on you, with a squelching bassline threading its way through that same fluid breakbeat, punctuated occasionally by what sounds like a power drill(!) as the beat drops in and out of the mix. Then, an into the abyss sort of slowdown sample plays, and the feeling is as if you've been sucked into a vortex, tripping out on the dancefloor as the beat plays on and on. It's at this point that those knobs really starts turning, and we're all in for some serious acid breakbeat magic.
It should be categorically stated that this song is perfect. Just perfect! Its groove is improbably sublime, and even if unfurled into perpetuity it would scarcely get old. The three-minute pop song comprising its first half is on the order of something like the Talking Heads' Once In A Lifetime, sharing a similarly strange haunting brilliance paired with the sense that its rhythm is advanced technology, something that shouldn't even exist yet. Add in the acid breakbeat coda, and its all almost too good to be true.
I'd like to take a moment to note the video for this song,18 which in direct opposition to the sumptuous, almost cinematic quality of B.A.D.'s other videos, boasts thoroughly bargain-basement production values and yet possesses loads of charm. Think of the video for The Prodigy's Out Of Space or Pump Up The Volume by M|A|R|R|S:
You've got floating technicolor ravers dancing against a jet black backdrop as the band — in stark black and white — seems to play in cryosleep (so cool they've got panache to spare). Each player's head rotates across the screen in slow-motion, interrupted by the vivid hues of graphic psychedelia. Mick, looking like he's ready for a game of tennis, does his guitar thing before turning about face and miming the guitar riff from The Who's I Can't Explain.
The DJ (one Greg Roberts) cues up the next record and shouts Go!, before the graphics and the dancers merge into one, with the puzzled bandmates — now in full color — wandering around the landscape with priceless WTF?!? looks on their faces as this acid jam unfolds.
Without a doubt, it's something special.
Out of nowhere, a loping big beat rides roughshod over Contact's acid coda, bringing in a surf rock flavor (shades off Rockafeller Skank) at odds with the Chinatown stylings playing out in the foreground. After a brief snatch of George Formby's Mr. Wu's a Window Cleaner Now, the brittle house rhythms of Dragon Town cruise into the mix on a razor-thin 909 beat pushed along by a pulsing synth bassline. The effect is not a million miles removed from the contemporary bleep 'n bass records of Nightmares On Wax, with that same sense of homespun futurism suffused with the unmistakable whiff of sensi.
I've listened to this album so many times that I sometimes forget how strange Dragon Town sounds on first listen. It's a sublime tune, swirling and carnivalesque as Jones unfurls a string of off-the-wall couplets in another one of his occasional detours into Asia (see also Sony and The Green Lady). Gorgeous choirs — most likely sampled from somewhere or another — trill in the background throughout, as a 303 acid line rises stealth-like from the mix. When the sampled Chinatown, my Chinatown vocals drop, in tune and on beat, hovering three feet over those knobs turning on that tiny silver box, the effect is ecstatic.
Baby, Don't Apologise
The house moves continue with Baby, Don't Apologise, an unapologetic club track, one built for the dancefloor. Caning those reverse strings and detuned chorus loops over a lonely rave piano, the groove drops without warning into a piercing baroque string section on the order of not only Marshall Jefferson's Move Your Body The House Music Anthem but also Derrick May's contemporary sides. Think of it as a homespun indie take on one of Ten City's Windy City epics burning up the dancefloors of the day.19
The tune's another absolute corker, hitting you with a soaring chorus (built upon the song's title) that's ensconced within a fully electronic orchestral arrangement — complete with a French horn simulation — before dropping into a bridge where synth brass (sounding like pure electric current rather than any actual horns I've ever heard) pulses over a looping Whoa-o-a-oh! bit of vocalise. It all grinds to a halt with a dangling rejoinder — another one of those slowdown sound effects — with the exception of the pulsing rhythm which persists undaunted, as the tune resets itself before wheeling back for another verse as the carousel spins just once more.
On reflection, I reckon this tune should have been a 12" single. It's the most straight up, no-nonsense club track on the album, and could have done serious damage on the era's dancefloors. With Judge Jules turning out the club mix to Contact, perhaps they could have roped in a Todd Terry or a Kevin Saunderson to give it the 12" treatment? I'd love to hear what a Reese remix would have sounded like. Well, a girl can dream...
Is Yours Working Yet?
With the closing beatless bars of Baby's symphonic outro, a looping aquatic sound (that brings to mind The Orb, for whatever reason) accompanies the question How do you do ladies and gentlemen? before volunteering I trust that everyone is enjoying the music. Well, no complaints here, mate... A vocodered sing-song — which seems to represent the audience — replies, and another single-minded beatbox begins working out its own internal logic while MGM soundtrack strings cascade asymmetrically in the background.
It would all be ridiculous if it weren't so much fun.
Around The Girl In 80 Ways
Closing out side one on a distinctly breezy note, Around The Girl In 80 Ways sounds remarkably like something that could have been cooked up at Paisley Park (think Sheila E. or André Cymone) but with the same homespun charm we've come to expect from planet Megatop (remember Lovesensi?).
The verses are faintly subdued with a muted electric piano carrying the melody as a reggaematic organ chops out a slight skank against the blunted machine rhythm. Jones' vocals are intimate within such uncomplicated production, and even the chorus appears with little fanfare as well — over more or less the same backing of unadorned piano — before dropping into a second-level chorus where he sings:
Around the girl in 80 ways,
Most of them I know.
All of them are substitutes
For feelings I don't show.
It's a truly excellent refrain, spooling out carefree and easy while a subdued string section and what sounds like ladies cooing envelope the song. And then, of course, there's that delightful synth squiggle straight out the boogie playbook punctuating each bar. Think freestyle, think Madonna's Holiday... the whole effect is just gorgeous.
The song continues for a spell before dropping into another one of Jones' mini-hoedowns — in the tradition of Stone Thames and The Battle Of All Saints Road — which eventually assume control of the song about 2/3 of the way through. After the third run of this impromptu hootenanny, soundtrack strings enter the fray and descend into the song's conclusion, punctuated by a final stroke of organ that puts an exclamation point on the whole affair.
It's a perfect conclusion to the first side of a record that's brought us track after track of brilliantly crafted pop music imbued with the rude edge of the late-eighties dancefloor. With a slowed down reggae record and then a snatch of Bernard Cribbins' Right Said Fred — which offers the rejoinder and so we... had a cup of tea — side one ends in such a way that sets up the second, where the Godfather himself enters the equation...
Side two of Megatop begins with words from James Brown himself:
Now I can't say exactly what did happen...
You just don't understand unless you've been through it.
Back-masked saxophone and choir spool out steadfast in the background, dialing up the tension before dropping into the speed-demon house of James Brown (the track). Clocking in at nearly 140bpm, it outpaces the rest of the album soundly, operating at speeds the likes of CJ Bolland and Robert Leiner — with their sleek, muscular European techno — would soon call home in the early nineties. In 1989, when even proto-jungle was still working at sub-130 tempos, it's extraordinary!
If memory serves, at the time only Hi-NRG was this fast, and damned if that rapid-fire bassline — cycling up and down the keyboard — doesn't sound like something Patrick Cowley might have approved of. Mix in a bit of rave piano pounding along to the beat, a dash of detuned house sonix, a helping of warped synth brass and spike it all with some racetrack orchestra stabs — bringing to mind The Prodigy's Speedway Theme From Fastlane — and what you've got is a shot of pure adrenaline.
The lyrics seem to offer up a first-person account of James Brown's high speed chase and subsequent arrest the previous year, while the chorus quotes freely from the man's music: Hot pants, she look fine,It's a man's man's world,Please, please, please. There's even an offhand reference to The Bottom Line! After a soaring guitar solo from Mick, as the song barrels toward its conclusion, you get a proto-rap stringing together a bunch of JB song titles.
There's this interesting bit of social commentary to the lyric, especially in the chorus:
It's a man's man's world in America,
Jump back in my cell.
Please please please in America,
Slipping into hell.
Not to mention the portion of the song America (from West Side Story) that thrown into the blender at the songs midpoint:
Life can be bright in America.
(If you can fight in America).
Life is alright in America.
(If you're all-white in America).
Well, it's certainly Food For Thought!
James Brown was actually the first single issued from the album, although — as far as I know — only ever got a promo release. As such, there's a music video20 and this time it's much more in the B.A.D. tradition of colorful, extravagant visuals in Don Letts' usual striking style:
The band's rocking out beneath a graffiti-daubed parking garage through which a James Brown lookalike leads police on a high speed chase in his camouflage jeep. He shows off his dance moves in front of some cheerleaders as B.A.D. plays, with Don Letts and Mick Jones even recreating the bring the poor man his cape routine from Brown's live performances!21 While perhaps not quite as much of an unexpected delight as the rave-fueled Contact promo, it's still a great music video.
Everybody Needs A Holiday
Commencing with another one of these improbable bass/beatbox interludes — this time riding a midi bassline and piano combination that cut in out of nowhere — we get a bit of computer sing-song as Jones repeats the song's title over a jaunty tune that wouldn't sound out of place on PBS programming. Within half a minute it's gone, and a disembodied voice frets I don't want a vacation. I just want to get away... for good! He's answered swiftly with a whistling-led exotica shuffle that plays for a couple bars, which then gives way to a laidback quasi-digital reggae beat.
A distorted bass synth matches the bass drum in a 4/4 pulse as a slow-motion rhythm unfolds beneath, punctuated by periodic hand claps marking the half-time beat. Gentle, cheerful organs hold down the verses while Jones offers up the first verse, and then the chorus hits:
Earned a rest,
I know you worked all day
And everybody needs a holiday.
I'll stand guard,
And keep the wolves at bay.
Watch the fire,
While you dream away.
During which Mick is joined by the rest of the group — and a return of the sampled whistling — for what is surely one of the band's great gang chants, in this context getting into a real sea shanty vibe. Jones strangles his guitar into wonderfully strange shapes that recall sliding Hawaiian slack key guitar while the occasional melodica trills on the horizon. Definite Club Paradise vibes in evidence throughout.
Every so often, the tune seems to break almost subconsciously into dancehall double-time on the back of pepperseed snares that shift the focus from the half-time hand claps to the bass drum/distorted bass axis of the song. Jones guitar ultimately works its way to the sixties-inflected shades of psychedelia essayed earlier on the record (which makes this song something a laidback riposte to side one's Rewind).
I just want to get away... for good!
Mick's A Hippie Burning
The album's longest interlude by some distance, this is more a sound collage in the vein of Revolution 9 than anything else. Starting with a snippet of Bernard Cribbins' The Hole In The Ground before dropping into another one of these convulsing drum machine rhythms — this time on the electrofunk tip — it's loathe to stay in one place for very long. Which brings to mind not only big beat's perversely omnivorous sampladelia, but also latterly the The Avalanches' oeuvre.
The most extended port of call is a folk guitar mid-section that backs a spoken word sample before dropping a comedic sing-song on beat, but even that quickly fades into a bit of sixties rock (which then disintegrates into reversed crooning!). The whole thing concludes on another great slice of sequencer rock, riding a descending bassline and digital percussion loop into the sunset before being rudely interrupted by...
In which acid house paranoia enters full force with the dread vibes of Joey Beltram and Frankie Bones. Over Megatop's heaviest beat, Don Letts takes the mic to set the scene for another wild night out in raveland:
Park Lane Green, it's Saturday night.
West End Central, flashing lights.
We've come to dance the night away
UV, dry ice and DJ.
The stomping 4/4 beat is held down by a dread bassline punctuated by the occasional orchestra hit/rave stab, before jumping off into the sparkling chorus:
Speaker pump that devil sound.
Everybody's getting down.
Moonwalk over to the gents.
Exit Zombie money spent.
Then a quote from Strawberry Fields Forever (Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to...") by Letts slips into the mix as a looped sample of the Ooh, ah, ooh ooh ah! vocals from B.A.D.'s first hit The Bottom Line plays out in the background. It's at this point that these relentless bleeps start phasing in and out of the mix as the chorus repeats once again. The second verse is no less evocative:
Turnstile toilets, I joined the queue.
Drinks at the bar, drugs in the loo.
I entered Jekyll, came out Hyde.
Mister Chevignon's inside.
Which is rather appropriately accompanied by a maniacal cackling and yet more guitar psychedelia from Mick Jones. The chorus repeats once again, before Letts sneaks another quote — this time from Prince's I Wish U Heaven — into the mix.
Bouncers, bimbos, lager louts.
Zombie dancefloor bugging out.
Black outside, the night is still.
Smiley moves in for the kill...
Which of course references the unofficial mascot of acid house culture in the UK:
Cops and dogs in transit vans.
At 4 o'clock we raid clubland.
T for Tango through the door.
First us two and then you four.
Rather brilliantly, a police whistle blows twice just after the Cops and dogs in transit vans. line! We get another round of the first verse (scrambled this time), chorus and Strawberry Fields quotation (this time from Jones) before the song goes completely instrumental. Reversed, distorted vocals enter the mix and then everything else cuts out for a moment before coming back with a vengeance: the engineer starts turning the knobs on the bleep sequence and a squelching 303 rises from within the tune. The whole thing perfectly captures the rushing sensation of music hounding you while you're tripping out on the dancefloor.
While we're on the subject of House Attack and Megatop at its most acid, it's as good a time as any to note the two b-sides to Contact and James Brown: In Full Effect and If I Were John Carpenter, respectively. Both of which are basically acid house instrumentals. In Full Effect — with its loping bassline (seemingly built on House Arrest's foundation), diva/hip house vocal snatches and cycling percussion loops — brings to mind Bang The Party, while If I Were John Carpenter rides a rapid-fire bassline and occasional string section in such a way that recalls The KLF. Samples from the LP are scattered throughout the tune in a different context, along with the requisite film samples. Significantly, both songs sample guru/new age/meditation tapes in the same way that a thousand trance producers would in the next decade.
Now back to Megatop proper: House Arrest. When we checked out, we were still tripping out on the dancefloor as the tune rushed to its conclusion. Suddenly, everything but the bassline cuts out and we're left with these spiraling rave sonix that trade verses with a wordless vocal loop. The beat drops back in and then out again, looping again and again, before the wave crashes into...
The Green Lady
Suddenly, we're in The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow Is Born but this time with a crashing electro beat laid out beneath. Shimmering sonix twinkle on the horizon and a crystalline synth tone carries the melody, while synthetic slap bass integrates itself into the beat. This is Megatop's unabashed britpop masterpiece, with a melody that grabs your ear from the word go and never lets up.
I've always thought that this should have been a single. Next to Contact, it's my favorite thing here. In fact, I envision the trio Contact, Baby, Don't Apologize and The Green Lady setting up the perfect sequence of singles from the album: one for the heads, one for the clubs and one for the radio. I have no doubt that The Green Lady would have been a hit on the order of V. Thirteen and Other 99, taking its place on the Planet BAD compilation alongside Contact in the all-star draft pick.
Unexpectedly, London Bridge starts with a spasmodic percussion loop — lasting about thirty seconds — that wouldn't sound out of place on Warp or Mille Plateaux about a decade later. It gradually fades into an ethereal operatic vocal and old-time soundtrack fragment (doing nothing to dissuade the Warp comparisons!) before the song proper commences.
It's another Paisley Park-tinged excursion, with Jones indulging in a bit London love (in fact, it's something of a laidback answer to side one's Union, Jack, bringing it all back home again). Like The Green Lady, it has some rather pretty guitar work from Mick Jones. Stately string samples carry the beat for a chorus where the subdued pop melody really takes flight:
London Bridge is falling down.
They're taking bids from all around
(Give me dollars I don't want pounds).
London Bridge is falling down,
But I still love this town
From the Tower to the Underground.
After coasting on a cool breeze for just over three minutes, the song crumbles into old-time soundtrack strings once again.
Shades of another soundtrack open Stalag 123, namely those of Elmer Bernstein's The Great Escape, which mix into an jazzed-out organ progression colored by gentle synth brass. The whole thing screams languid, as Mick Jones offers the opening lines:
I'm fixing on a jail break,
But the door is open wide.
Stuck in Stalag 123,
And there ain't no one to bribe.
Taking the Paisley Park-inflected dance pop aspect of Megatop to its logical conclusion, a rolling machine rhythm enters the fray to carry the song while a pulsing bassline bounces casually across its sleek surface. Alongside Everybody Needs A Holiday, this is clearly the most laidback material on the album. It's certainly the smoothest (no contest!) and provides the perfect leisurely conclusion to Megatop Phoenix:
I've got the studio blues and some other bad news.
(The basements been swamped by a flood).
I've got the studio blues and it's ruined my shoes.
(My boogie's all covered in mud).
With dialogue samples from The Great Escape scattered throughout, the song seems like it could stretch on dreamily into perpetuity. And yet, at three minutes, eleven seconds it cuts out abruptly...
The coda End interrupts Stalag 123 with an incongruous bit of bluesy guitar heroics from Mick Jones. A sad, muffled bit of piano creeps in as a woman's voice bids Goodbye. Suddenly, it seems, the trip is over.
The Nineties Are Gonna Make The Sixties Look Like The Fifties
Megatop Phoenix turned out to be the last full-length album by the original lineup of Big Audio Dynamite. The group lasted for one more single, the excellent Free (a sister record of sorts to Contact). It was recorded for the movie Flashback (starring Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland), which makes the connection between the two summers of love explicit.
At the dawn of nineties, a decade during which the eighties innovations of dance music, hip hop and alternative rock would reign supreme, it struck a note of precarious optimism with a memorable line from faded sixties activist Huey Walker (played by Dennis Hopper) that was sampled prominently by the band:
Once we get out of the eighties,
The nineties are gonna make the sixties look like the fifties.
The Big Audio Dynamite II lineup followed swiftly in its wake with further escapades into indie dance in the form of the albums Kool-Aid and The Globe (along with the attendant singles). Further records like Higher Power and F-Punk followed different incarnations of the band through the decade, culminating in the excellent — but alas, unreleased — Entering A New Ride22 in that storied year, 1997.
Tracks like the Kraftwerk-inflected Kool-Aid and The Globe's proto-dusted beats were first-rate dancefloor burners, while Rush conquered up the pop charts23 with yet another of Mick's britpop gems. From the junglist bass of dread house groove I Don't Know all the way over to the honest-to-goodness drum 'n bass of 1995's It's A Jungle Out There, the group kept its finger to the pulse of dance music, turning in idiosyncratic fusions like Melancholy Maybe's 4/4 garage pulse and the big beat fury of Sunday Best.24
Eventually — around the turn of the century — the group morphed into The Big Audio Dynamite Soundsystem, touring the UK with a rotating crew of DJs, MCs and musicians. A mainstay at festivals and nightclubs alike, the crew pressed on faithfully through the intervening years. Mick Jones dabbled in various projects throughout the 21st century, including Carbon/Silicon, production of the first two Libertines albums and time spent with the Gorillaz (including their performance at Coachella). Then, in 2011, the unthinkable happened: the original B.A.D. lineup re-formed.
Twenty-one years after their parting shot — an era during which dance, rap and indie have only grown in stature and all-encompassing grip on pop culture — Mick Jones, Don Letts, Leo Williams, Greg Roberts and Dan Donovan emerged — as if from their DeLorean in the Medicine Show music video — in the 21st century. It would seem that everything's changed, but then it's always been the same song playing anyway (you've just got to know the tune). With the five minds that brought us the all-conquering brilliance of Megatop Phoenix back together in the same outfit, touring once again and doing their funky thang, perhaps the gang have a couple more tricks up their sleeve after all... only time will tell!
There are of course, many other records in this story: The Saints' (I'm) Stranded, Wire's Pink Flag, along with the O.G. New York stuff like The Dead Boys' Young Loud And Snotty, The Dictators' Go Girl Crazy!, The HeartbreakersL.A.M.F. all the way back to The Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls (Jon Savage's ground zero apparent for punk in England's Dreaming). There's an ocean of stuff out there, to be sure, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Named for the Balearic islands off the south-east coast of Spain (including Majorca, Formentera, Minorca and Ibiza), which featured sensational nightclubs soundtracked by all manner of music — spanning myriad genres and points of origin — mixed together into an electrifying non-stop stream of rhythm. British DJs on holiday in Ibiza brought this open-minded anything goes spirit back with them to the UK. If the record had a killer groove, they'd play it, regardless of where it came from. Records as disparate as Fleetwood Mac's Big Love, Richie Havens' Going Back To My Roots and The Residents' Kaw Liga were all Balearic staples.
Significantly, this is exactly the sort of visual one could expect at a contemporary party. The rave scene ascended just as computer graphics were maturing into a form that would also turn out to have a profound impact on pop culture. They developed alongside one another, often informing each other in the process. Indeed, from the stark cyberpunk computer graphics Buggy G. Riphead produced for Jumpin' & Pumpin' at the turn of the decade to the colorful 3d renderings of films like Lawnmower Man, Warp's Artificial Intelligence series and Studio !K7's X-Mix videos (not to mention countless rave fliers and projection visuals) throughout the nineties, extending late into the decade with the dystopian visions of darkside jungle (see the sleeve for No U-Turn's Torque compilation) and The Matrix, computer graphics and electronic music have been steadfast fellow travelers throughout their long and winding existence.
Who Beats, a b-side from the Contact, even features that same loop from I Can't Explain bolstered by heavier breakbeats and a stuttering sample of Mick Jones singing contact. The effect is tres big beat '96/'97!
Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance), which flooded the racks and stocked jukeboxes by the truckload. The Opinionated Diner once quipped that the 7" is the spiritual ancestor of the mp3,1 a sentiment that makes perfect sense.
The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry — and proving ground — for breaking artists. This was the format with which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts, and tiny upstart labels like Stax and Motown could crack the mainstream wide open. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).2 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude3 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues — artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf — often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album.
The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd — artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies — made their initial splash.
Soul music — despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre — began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'sGreen Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook). After all, where would we be without Norman Whitfield's great productions on records like The Temptations' Cloud Nine, which were — alongside James Brown and Sly Stone's innovations — crucial stepping stones on the path to 70s soul?
Ah yes, the 1970s. If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock — progressive everything, truth be told — with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form.
Indeed most rock — bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet — was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade — even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised — while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoing Parliament/Funkadelic saga.
Even reggae — that stalwart of the 7" single — was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, with killer records like Burning Spear's self-titled debut, The Upsetters' Blackboard Jungle Dub and Dr. Alimantado's Best Dressed Chicken In Town all making a profound impression, even informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade.
Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tablets of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed — even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums — and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded.
Similarly, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You simply can't knock the digital perfection of Virgo's self-titled album from 1989, while Fingers Inc.'s Another Side remains a touchstone of soul-inflected machine music — a true tour de force — predicting whole swathes of nineties music from Ginuwine to Chez Damier.
Aside from dance music — which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) — the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot.
Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space and Carl Craig's More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art to Bandulu's Cornerstone and Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarly, jungle — like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre — had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case4 really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. Gerald Simpson even had a royal pair of superb jungle albums in 28 Gun Bad Boy and Black Secret Technology.
In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. When I think of this era, Moodymann's Silentintroduction and Octave One's The Living Key To Images From Above are usually the first two albums that come to mind. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject — 20 great dance CDs — kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Outkast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty — figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift — clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.
There exists a particular sound that seems to leap out the speakers in vivid colors, engulfing its surroundings and drawing you into its world. I've come to refer to this as the day-glo sound. There's a four dimensional character to it... you can hear the neon in the air around you. It's something that's captured my imagination from day one, and I've been wanting to pull these records together for some time now. They tend to spring from the intersection of new wave and the dancefloor (at least initially), but in truth you might find them just about anywhere, from rap to techno and machine soul.
The reason I find this particular sound to be crucial is that it manages to spark up brilliant images in the mind's eye even as it throws spectacular shapes across the dancefloor. This is music for the mind, body and soul. It's verdant and full of life, with a four-dimensional depth that's thoroughly engrossing. Indeed, it's no surprise that some of the greatest pop music has keyed into this sound. It's particularly germane to the present moment, and I wouldn't be surprised if it pointed a way out of the quandary music currently finds itself in.
Rather appropriately, we begin our survey at the dawn of the eighties. There are bits and pieces from earlier records that may hint in the general direction, but they ultimately belong to a parallel lineage (one that I plan to discuss sometime next month). It's in the eighties that the day-glo aesthetic truly catches fire, coloring each of these records from the sleeves on down to the sonics held within. In rough chronological order then...
If we're talking day-glo, then there's no better place to start than with The Beat. Coming from the late-seventies ska revival (as spearheaded by The Specials and their Two-Tone stable of artists), they stand out by virtue of their sumptuous sonic palette. The Specials debut — with its stark black-and-white sleeve design and Elvis Costello's no-frills live-in-the-studio production — was thoroughly monochromatic working week music. From the baleful tenor of Concrete Jungle to the dead-end doldrums of Too Much Too Young, it was packed with no-nonsense photo-realistic documentary reportage.
In contrast, I Just Can't Stop It leaps out the speakers in vivid shades of violet and magenta, like neon lights dancing against the jet black of night. Mirror In The Bathroom, from the production on down, must be one of the most futuristic records ever produced. With five humans locked into the metronomic pulse of Everett Morton's drums and David Steele's creeping basslines, it almost seems to approach a state of machine music in its motorik drive and clockwork precision, with every texture clutching at your ear and pulling you deeper into its world.
You can sense the glitz of disco seeping into the post punk vanguard here,1 cementing the day-glo aesthetic that would color so much of the decade's music. An affinity with Giorgio Moroder's motor-disco, the spangled shapes of Prelude and above all the tropical, dubbed-out sounds of the nascent Island disco output can be felt throughout. The music spread across the entirety of this LP seems to exude a balmy glow, practically defining the word vibrant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it remains one of my absolute favorite pure pop records of all time.
This is the point where post-disco morphs into eighties electro-boogie (see also Kleeer/Universal Robot Band, along with everything going down in Minneapolis at the time). You're The One For Me maintains the metronomic linearity of disco, lacking the top-heavy verticality of eighties electrofunk, but its machine rhythms do bear a striking resemblance to those of the electro boom looming on the horizon.
James Williams' soaring vocals swoop and glide over spangled synthetic shapes, wired into that central electronic groove, while Hubert Eaves III (the man behind the seventies jazz funk tile Esoteric Funk) gets busy on the keys. The instrumental version even begins with a liquid synth figure that sounds like loose wires shooting electricity across the third rail, kicking off a wild subway ride into the depths of the New York night.
Indeed, the whole Prelude aesthetic sits comfortably within the day-glo realm, from the rambunctious electronic shapes of The Strikers' Body Music, shifting and burning over tight mechanical rhythms, to the more organic sounds of Empress' Dyin' To Be Dancin', still firmly grounded as they are in the rules of disco proper.
Much of it has a vivid, compact clarity that seems to predict the architecture of eighties dance, but D-Train's You're The One For Me represents that crucial step forward, heralding a sea change in the way dance records would be constructed. Just compare 1980's Gap Band III to 1982's Gap Band IV, Cameosis to Alligator Woman or even Off The Wall to Thriller!
Another well-documented favorite of mine. It's also another singular pop record shaped in disco's shadow, combined with the arch grandeur of film music in an overwhelming clash of sonics. A definite case where the sleeve really captures the sumptuous moods found within. This music suggests ornate ice sculptures spiraling into the sky, crammed with so much richness of detail that they threaten to come crashing down at any moment, while Billy MacKenzie's shrieks pierce through their crystalline corridors with wild abandon. Every texture seems to pulsate fiercely, wherein unstable elements garland paranoia and raging emotion: this is blacklight affair music.
Songs like It's Better This Way and Skipping careen at a furious pace, seeming to combine euphoria and dread into a single emotion, every surface shimmering like storm clouds caught in a ray of sunlight. Conversely, No and Gloomy Sunday glide along at a more stately pace — with MacKenzie almost seeming to revel in his grief — but are no less overwhelmingly powerful for it. Every corner of the record is imbued with a raging intensity, as if all the colors — shades of blue, green and violet — were burning too bright to last for long. The dreamlike Party Fears Two is something like the embodiment of this sensation.
The CD reissue includes a wealth of bonus material (up there with Fifth Dimension's bonus tracks in terms of enhancing the original album experience), including an astoundingly raw early version of It's Better This Way (titled The Room We Sat In Before) and the moody instrumental Grecian 2000. The former is a splendid showcase for Alan Rankine's guitar finesse, as he strangles strange tangled shapes from his instrument, while the latter is a masterpiece of electronic noir: a captivating post-disco pulse cloaked in a haunting synth refrain, evoking paranoid pursuit through deserted city streets in the dead of night.
Needless to say, it's exactly the sort of thing we dig here at The Parallax Room.
The Island disco sound that I'd mentioned in passing while discussing The Beat, was in large part fueled by the inimitable Compass Point All Stars. The All-Stars were a crucial conduit through which both discomix reggae and dubbed-out vibes entered the eighties mainstream, and everything they touched was shot through with lush tropical flavor and a new wave glow. They backed Gwen on her first three albums (Gwen Guthrie, Portrait and Just For You), picking up where they left off with Grace Jones' excellent Island trilogy (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life).
The Padlock mini-album finds Larry Levan remixing a selection of tracks from Gwen's first two LPs into one extended atmospheric trip. The production here conjures up images of a steamy dancehall bathed in primary colors as viewed through a fun house mirror, evoking the spirit of Levan's Paradise Garage in its verdant, gently psychedelic atmosphere.2 The abstract machinery of dub remains in full effect throughout, righteously casting this cutting edge post-disco boogie as the head music of the eighties. Just keep in mind, this is the sort of head music that you can't help but dance to.
Tracks like Getting Hot, with those glimmering electronic flourishes spiraling out into infinity, and Peanut Butter, riding atop those insane rolling basslines, both burn with a raw, almost tactile sensuality. Hopscotch appears here in its most minimal version, while the title track (as featured on Parallax Pier) gives you a front-row seat at Club Paradise. When Gwen sings We'll sail away to shores... in Seventh Heaven, backing synths pouring through in a rush of sunlight, it's as if the feeling of pure ecstasy has been captured on wax.
Soul woman Barbara Mason had a history in the seventies as a no-nonsense truth-talker, rough hewn and down in the nitty gritty, smoldering with hard-won intensity on records like Shackin' Up and Caught In The Middle. Coming out nearly a decade later, Another Man is a sequel of sorts to her ballad She's Got The Papers I Got The Man, picking up where that tune left off — once the dust had settled on its romantic intrigue — with a humorous tale of infidelity and the realization that she really might not be his type after all.
Another Man has the shadowy, dubbed-out flavor you'd expect from a West End record, but it's wired to a cutting edge electroid groove that seems to be infused with hot pink liquid neon. Like D-Train's You're The One For Me, it's another killer late-period record from a disco powerhouse label that seems to cavort with electro in the half-light, laying out a blueprint for the future in the process. Notorious B.I.G. later used its sleek, depth-charging groove as the basis for his hit record Another, but trust me — you need to hear the original tune in all its glory.
The title track is rightly celebrated as a masterpiece of atmospheric machine soul (especially The After 6 Mix Juicy Fruit Part II version), while its striking music video3 perfectly captures the whole aesthetic on showcase tonight: day-glo and neon burning in the twilight. The florid magenta hues of those jackets they're wearing on the sleeve give you the first clue as to the vibes found within. Fog hangs over late night city streets bathed in neon. Cars creep in slow-motion by while the sounds of the corner disco seep out into the wider world, coloring the evening of the passers by.
This is post-disco funk music, fueled by rubberband basslines and twilight atmosphere (it's after six), cutting edge for its time it remains a pungent sound full of possibilities in the present. From Green Light's nimble, sure-footed boogie to the low key sway of Ready For Your Love, the group slide from dancefloor to bedroom with impeccable finesse. It all flows together so naturally, even as they take you to some unexpected places along the way (Hip Dip Skippedabeat is an electrofunk monster with a proto-rap that — in a strange twist of fate — recalls Lightnin' Rod's Hustlers Convention), that you can't help but get caught up in their moonlight vision. Without a doubt one of the great funk LPs of its era.
Compass Point's main keyboard man Wally Badarou strikes solo with an instrumental excursion that bravely expands on the groundwork laid out by the earlier Compass Point records, meshing lush jungle atmospherics with the power grid of the city. It's a rather astonishing tune to drop smack in the middle of the eighties, as it seems to predict whole swathes of the next decade's beat-oriented music even as it remains grounded in the gloriously lush post-disco climes of its day. The best of both worlds, in other words.
The original version — from his 1984 LP Echoes — was excellent, but the Vine Street mix on this 12" takes it to a higher plane altogether. When the verse's sleek groove unfolds into that insouciant low key moonwalk during the chorus — synths bathed in hypnotic half-light — it's as if you're gliding three feet above the ground. That it was released on 4th & Broadway is a perfect touch, as this was the label that would deftly navigate post-disco waters in the interzone between hip hop and house (charting the emergence of swingbeat and trip hop along the way). Rather appropriate for a record that plays like a roadmap to the future.
The original version, firmly of-its-era modern soul, gets stretched and spaced-out into timelessness by Andy Sojka (owner of Elite Records), Chris Madden and Keni Stevens himself at The Madhouse. The Ultra-Sensual Mix flows from its vocal to instrumental version flawlessly, recalling the low key half-lit brilliance of Lowrell's Mellow Mellow Right On when that tune memorably stretched out into its extended instrumental coda.
The central groove has been stripped down to an ultra-light frame and rebuilt like a graceful aero-glider, with not one element out of place. This has always struck me as something of a sister record to Barbara Mason's Another Man, those same sleek machine shapes grooving gently in the shadows. Yeah, I've gone on before about its rolling deep blue vectors bathed in moonlight, and yeah it's something of a touchstone around these parts; it's still a tremendous record. Paradise and polygons, you're in the grid now.
Early Detroit bizzness, which finds Juan Atkins picking up where he left off with Cybotron and No UFO's, venturing even deeper into nocturnal atmosphere and dubbed-out electronic shapes. Night Drive Thru-Babylon is surely one of the key records of eighties. It's just perfect, with Atkins' narration riding atop an elegant, starkly minimal electroid groove.
He's bombing up and down deserted Detroit streets, encountering strange freaks and existential loneliness in the darkness. That beat, a perfection of the electro structure, glides along like a rebuilt street racer. The vessel is cast deep blue on black, rushing past in luminescent streaks on the highway, everything bathed in scattered rays of unnatural moonlight. You're feeling the dread in that bassline, tronix swooping and rising like sparks over shimmering synth surfaces in otherworldly harmony, and your hands slowly tighten on the wheel...
Late eighties post-disco action produced by Bob Blank (of Blank Tape Studios), with the fingerprints of one Arthur Russell in evidence throughout. Certainly many other Russell tracks could qualify here — the cavernous shapes of Dinosaur L's Corn Belt and Indian Ocean's madly abstract Treehouse/School Bell spring to mind immediately — but this one's low key brilliance sits most comfortably among present company. Its swirling texture and slow-motion groove seem to evoke the feeling of floating underwater,4 and as is usually the case when Russell is involved, that water is gonna be deep (inna Larry Heard stylee).
Every texture pulses, throbbing against that gently chugging rhythm like unsteady electrical current running through a wavering light bulb. Think early Carl Craig, particularly the Gaussian blurred strokes of his Retroactive and Psyche/BFC material, but here everything is vivid and hyper-textured. Lola Blank's untamed vocals burst in and out of the mix as if she were inhabited by different personalities, while Arthur Russell does his inimitably subtle backing vocal thing (see also Loose Joints' Is It All Over My Face) throughout, poised just on the edge of the mix and weaving around Lola's breezily captivating lead to satisfyingly hypnotic effect.
Such a beautiful record, filled with the most absorbing house music you could imagine, made simply and elegantly by two Chicago kids armed with not much more than a DX-7 synth and a TR-707 drum machine. The Virgo album is essentially an expansion on the Ride EP, doubling the tracklist and stretching out into a thoroughly engrossing, immersive sonic trip. Sure, the gorgeous sleeve gives tantalizing clues as to the sounds held within, but dropping the needle on the record still never fails to take my breath away.
Do You Know Who You Are?, cloaked in lush synths cast in deep aquamarine, throws smooth shapes at placid angles off the clubhouse walls; it's as if you've passed through a door into the backroom and wound up on the far side of the galaxy. Tracks like In A Vision and Ride persist on a course through deep space, with luminescent textures routed through a hall of mirrors, cascading gently into infinity.
Starting with Ride, a handful of songs feature murmured vocals, feeling like a soft-focus take on what Jamie Principle had been up to during the preceding four or five years, placing sensitive, introspective men among the machines. Here, the duo fade into the mix like ghostly apparitions. All The Time is one such moody burner (vocals glide over the shifting ocean surface, locked onto the horizon), while Never Want To Lose You has the duo sneaking Bowie-esque into the foreground while an uncredited female vocalist intones acid house phrases like move your body! and listen to that beat!.
This lush machine soul reaches its twin peaks in both Going Thru Life — with those cascading synths and stark piano lines in spiral orbit over the deepest bassline you could imagine — while the warm geometric pulses of School Hall anchor a touching missive that surpasses even Kraftwerk's Computer Love in teaching machines to cry. There's this recurring moment when everything stops and the bassline just hangs there for a second — in suspended animation — before dropping back into the mix in a tumble of tones... oh man, it's one of my favorite things in the world.
More prime deep house, this time from New York's Mark Wilson. The whole Nu Groove aesthetic fits snugly within this realm (things like Rhythm Masters, The Sound Vandals and Bobby Konders' records spring to mind immediately). In fact, I often think that Nu Groove picked up on what the Compass Point All Stars had done and ran with it, bringing it into the nineties with their singular, multifaceted take on deep house. It's a sound that folds disparate strands of dub reggae, hip hop and r&b into its digital disco, offering up a definitive New York take on house music and a crucial stepping stone into the next decade.
Go directly to the New York Mix. Every surface is immaculate: that rolling bassline rides a gliding, shuffling rhythm with impeccable finesse, while underwater synths pulse deep in the background (making it feel something like a distant cousin to Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector). That oceanic synth — springing as it does from deep within the mix — certainly helps strengthen the comparison, sounding strikingly similar to the one rolling beneath long stretches of Badarou's track. Tons of tones tumble in and out of the ether, scattered against light reflected off the cityscape, as all surrounding entities are submerged into the deep. Shimmering and aquatic, this is underwater music for real.
The next node in the sequence brings us to the UK. So appropriate that this follows, as I've often thought that Dougans and Cobain's early records owe a huge debt to not only the Nu Groove aesthetic but also Compass Point's: they wired that same verdant, kaleidoscopic atmosphere into rave's kinetic breakbeats and the stark futurism of Detroit. This is where the two meet.
A definite cyberpunk flavor can be felt throughout, with shades of Cabaret Voltaire lurking between the cracks and of course Buggy G. Riphead's gorgeous artwork remaining a key period signifier. The Blade Runner vibes are most apparent in the shades of paranoia threaded throughout the record, and also in tracks like Moscow and Central Industrial, with the duo living up to their chosen name.
Accelerator is the culmination of all their early records, released under names like Humanoid, Mental Cube and Indo Tribe (indeed, many of these tracks had already appeared in various forms on the four volumes of The Pulse EPs). The opening track, Expander, rolls in on clouds of foreboding before dropping into a loose breakbeat groove, the unstable synth notes of the chorus spiraling out into crimson swirls.
On the flipside, Central Industrial closes the record with a staggering downbeat rhythm, each and every texture piercing into the darkness like an early prototype of the duo's Yage visions. In between lies all manner of magic, from the freewheeling calypso shapes of Stolen Documents (yet another track that seems to recall Badarou's Chief Inspector) to the sumptuous shades of While Others Cry, with its uncredited vocals seeming to connect literally to the tropical flair of Compass Point.
A key ingredient running through many of the tracks is a riverbed of percussion lying just below the surface, placed within dubbed-out caverns of echo (see tracks like It's Not My Problem and 1 In 8)5 while another is the near-constant stream of subspace breakbeats threaded through a 4/4 techno beat-matrix. Tracks like Calcium and Pulse State unveil shimmering vistas, hypnotic swirls of sound painted in vibrant color against Monet-like skies. These are some of the album's deepest moments, during which FSOL perfect a sort of rolling, filmic techno, as if a perpetual motion machine's course had been charted into the sunset.
Then there's the matter of Papua New Guinea, which rides a slice of gently unfurling breakbeat magic over a bassline lifted from Meat Beat Manifesto's Radio Babylon, prefiguring the path of rampant sampladelia the duo would engage in for the remainder of the decade. Further related capers can be found on its 12" single, with an excellent Dub Mix and the Journey To Pyramid version in particular shot through with the vivid colors of a certain day-glo psychedelia.
The one you want is Guido's Aquasonic Ice Rink Dub. Check that bassline, the awesome DX-100 bass sound that graced hundreds of records from the era, sparring with the nagging refrain of an after hours organ emerging in violet shades from the darkness. The vocal version is no less special, with the presence of an uncredited dancefloor diva wailing defiantly against the track's sumptuous nocturnal backdrop.
I still remember stumbling upon this record at an indispensable thrift shop (whose name eludes me) that once existed down the street from the Clairemont Library back when I worked there after school. The place was a goldmine of dance and hip hop promos that had apparently been shed by local DJs in an effort to pare down their collections. I used to drop by every Thursday during my lunch break and pull loads of killer garage and rap cuts for next to nothing, so I've gotta give props to those cats for hooking a young (broke) brother up back in the day.
Lush, melodic Bay Area hip hop. The cognoscenti seem to prefer his earlier Playaz N The Game, but I reckon that this one's his masterpiece. Every surface seems to exude a warm glow as shapes shimmer in the darkness and colors get scattered at random. From the title on downwards, it's as if JT had immersed himself in the studio on a mission to conjure up the most amazingly vibrant sounds possible, smearing the rough-hewn edges of these homespun studio mixes into a sleek flow of rolling machine music. The result is casually psychedelic, but electrofunk tight.
All techno heads must hear Root Of All Evil immediately. Like E-40's In A Major Way, with its astonishing shades of Drexciya atmosphere, this seems to share an affinity with those same plangent computer sonics (via West Coast rap's roots in electro). The drums snap with a quintessential coastal crispness that dates back to the days of Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover, while the bass itself seems to melt into the spaces between.
JT's tight flow is augmented here by guest spots from Rappin' 4-Tay and San Quinn, along with other Bay Area luminaries like E-40, Mac Mall and Celly Cell elsewhere on the record, while shadowy figure The Enhancer crops up behind the boards on both Representing and the aforementioned Root Of All Evil. Free-flowing horizontal grooves like Ain't Something Wrong and Bay Area Playaz perfectly capture the feeling of cruising down the 5 as the late afternoon blurs into evening, the world half-lit somewhere between darkness and daylight (like in the movies), while the sun and moon ease onto the horizon at opposite ends of the sky.
Glorious technoid house from Chicago original Marshall Jefferson, released on the heels of his Day Of The Onion album but surpassing it in every way. That's a whole mini-category right there... Robert Owens' I'll Be Your Friend and Romanthony's The Wanderer spring to mind immediately. At any rate, I suppose that trilogy sits so comfortably together also because they're each instances of brilliant house artistes operating at the peak of their powers to forge masterful statements of futurist soul. All three of them stone cold classics.
The Horse is a fast-forward house rhythm, 909 snares bouncing everywhere — sparks shooting royal blue into the night, every surface glistening — and evoking the feeling of careening at top speed down the freeway in the middle of the night. The flipside almost sounds like something Kevin Saunderson might have knocked off during the same era — just think of The Dream, or even the E-Dancer remix of Blackwater — with a grinding bassline and rough cut percussion battling in full effect throughout.
Pairing these tunes together was a stroke of genius, as the 12" taken as a whole seems to stand astride the twin worlds of house and techno, its unshakable trancelike shapes shimmering gloriously in the milieu of late-nineties dance.
Around the turn of the century, the minimal sound of micro-house revealed itself to be one of the leading hot spots in dance music for a spell. In truth, it's a sound that had been bubbling under for the better part of five years, but its sleek, gliding surfaces seemed the perfect sound to take house into the 21st century. Labels like Force Tracks and Kompakt became powerhouses, practically defining the sound in the public imagination.
The form threw up loads of great 12"s and even a handful of excellent albums, but — with the possible exception of Isolée's Rest — this one is my absolute favorite. It's a wholly surreal record that slips and slides through six deeply hypnotic missives of luminescent alien disco, perfectly capturing the state between consciousness and sleep... when dreams can bleed out into reality. Every track lasts ten minutes or longer, gliding on liquid machinery and fixed to the endless horizon, pairing lush machine shapes with seductive (and uncredited) human vocals.
The jazzed-out, three-dimensional electronic chords of Market set the stage, sparring with a squelching bass figure that gradually gains momentum, before swooping into a kinetic groove at the track's midpoint that seems to rearrange itself before your eyes. Getting down to the root of the matter, the flowing motorik drive of The Right Wing is closest thing here to the dubbed out techno of Basic Channel, who without question had a profound influence on the whole micro-house/minimal scene.6
Luomo share a similar mastery of the architecture of atmosphere, and employ it on a shadowy dancefloor half-lit in the moonlight under the stars. My absolute favorite moment, Synkro, is also the record's most spacious, with fathoms deep disco set adrift in a neon haze. Every element so lush that you feel as if you're swimming in its fluid textures as they tumble and cascade over one another. The mix practically defines the term four-dimensional.
Matching the deft play of mood and texture throughout this record is some truly stellar songcraft. Even without its heady production, Tessio would make for an excellent pop song. With the production factored in, the track is quite simply mind-bending, scattering those spongy bass tattoos — that seem to slide and shift gears beneath a clicking rhythm track — all across the soundscape, as two mystery singers engage in a fractal duet. Listening in feels like you're surfing waves of blurred emotion.
Throughout their tenure as Atlanta's unofficial hip hop ambassadors, Outkast had traded in verdant shapes and sounds. As far back as ATLiens, and even on their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, their music always seemed to exude a warm neon glow. Stankonia is the culmination of everything the duo had been up to during the nineties, and finds them descending even deeper into a sort of psychedelic machine soul.
The vibrant technicolor dream of Ms. Jackson is universally known (and deservedly so) — its lush sonic imagery could be heard everywhere at the time — and to this day it remains a masterpiece. The spectre of Prince looms large throughout, not only in Andre 3000's vocal moves but also in the record's dense, multi-faceted synth-led sound. Indeed, songs like Ms. Jackson and Humble Mumble seem imbued with the spirit of Paisley Park.
The electra glide textures of Zapp, Mtume and Kleeer, are in evidence throughout, laying the groundwork for the next decade's glorious blurring of hip hop, funk and r&b. I'll Call Before I Come gets into undeniable Atomic Dog territory, but Stankonia goes even deeper into the realm of Funkadelic with the twisted psychedelic soul of the title track. Between its Eddie Hazel/Jimi Hendrix guitar figure and that wailing group chant, it conjures the same dread vibes as March To The Witch's Castle and predicts Brain On Drugs a couple years ahead of schedule.
This long, strange trip curdles with Red Velvet's gnarled computer funk and the strung out psychedelic soul of Toilet Tisha, offering a starkly modern update of Superfly for the new millennium. Perhaps nothing sums up the record quite like ?, a strange junglist sketch and the album's shortest track, it's title hovering over these proceedings like a spotlight... hinting perhaps that even to this day, Stankonia remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma: try as you might, you'll never get to the bottom of this one.
Seeing these last three records together makes the turn of the century seem like some sort of golden age! Well, I suppose it was, after all. Jaxx's debut Remedy was easily the better record, but its sonics were sourced in wild pitch house and seventies disco (with Rendezvous and Red Alert coming on like turbo-charged Studio 54 gear).
Rooty, on the other hand, seemed informed by the new wave eighties (with the duo at the time referring to their sound as punk garage), and moves beyond house into a sort of crazed maximalist boogie (I think they've got the kitchen sink in there somewhere). Which, of course, makes it right at home in present company...
Hard-edged tracks like Where's Your Head At (built around a renegade Gary Numan riff) and Get Me Off roll with reckless abandon through the gutters of the red light district, trading in just the sort of sleazy, low-slung glamour that I wish pop could manage to muster in 2016 (although next year will be another story altogether, I'm sure of it... fingers crossed!).
Like contemporary Outkast, the duo channel Prince in Breakaway, sounding like a wild fairground ride experienced through a cracked fun house mirror, while the album-opening Romeo recalls Sheila E. Coming on like Remedy gone freestyle, its squelching synths seem shot through with hot pink liquid neon.
Two years earlier, Jaxx paid tribute to the machine soul moves of Timbaland with U Can't Stop Me, a strung out slice of stop-start machine funk built on an approximation of the man's trademark spidery beat matrix. Circa 2001, it looked like they'd returned the favor, with Timbaland's work on Missy Elliott's 4 My People and The Neptunes' productions for Britney Spears (Toxic, in particular) sounding like dead ringers for the relentless house sound of Basement Jaxx.
Golden age is right!
That initial run of Metro Area EPs were excellent, picking up where The Driving Memoirs left off, but introducing an expansiveness to the proceedings and opening up the soundscape considerably. This record is a culmination of those earlier releases, encapsulating a very special time with incredibly crisp, deep production that stands comfortably with the best records of the turn-of-the-eighties era that it's so clearly inspired by.
Dan Selzer's stunning sleeve art really captures the mood here, all those half-lit mystery dancefloors out of the past, present and future. I played this one over and over at the time, even if I thought that Morgan Geist's contemporary Moves EP was even better. Now I'm not so sure. This is one of those records that takes a sound previously confined to 12" singles and tucked away on b-sides and gives it room to breathe across an entire double-LP.
The record kicks off with two tracks featuring the tight string arrangements of Kelley Polar. I've always though that Dance Reaction sounded a bit like a long lost dub of Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough. The first record seems to emphasize live musicianship, with everything from piano to terse vocal harmonies and even acoustic guitar embellishing the warm, uncomplicated soundscapes. Piña rides a Latin piano figure before slipping into Spanish guitar for the placid, dreamy coda. Itis Tandoor's live percussion runs through half the tracks here, opening up the sound considerably into a tactile, physical experience.
The string section and live playing give way to gorgeous machine disco on the second record, where things get down and dirty in a moody stylee. Those bright spangled synths take over, bouncing off the nightclub walls all around the listener as if Super Breakout had gone musical. I've always thought that Soft Hoop was this record's quiet masterpiece, that spongy synth sparring with the bassline in chambers of the deep, while Atmosphrique traps the listener in its hall of mirrors with an almost psychedelic play of, you guessed it, atmosphere.
The closing Caught Up seems a fusion of both sides of this record, pairing the strings of the Kelley Polar Quartet and a gorgeous piano/organ duet with the rubberband synths and dubbed-out rhythms of the last four tracks in a moving conclusion to a quietly powerful record.
Nearly everything this crew put out would be eligible, but this one's here for a few reasons and they all have to do with the b-side, Death Of A Star SUPERNOVA. First, those blacklight synths that seem to spray across the track like day-glo champagne, bathing its chanted vocals even as they threaten to take center stage. Second, those guitar trills that seem to recall nothing so much as peak-era Duran Duran, driving the beat before shearing off into the distance.
Third, is the energy, the fire and the tune itself — after all, it wouldn't mean anything if it were just a finely executed pastiche — marking it out as one of the tunes of the decade. Conjuring images of some outer rim nightclub nestled among the stars, its cosmic disco spheres orbiting as they cast glimmering lights all across the firmament. And yea, this is another sleeve that perfectly illustrates everything the record's about.
This is the point where the day-glo impulse really came into focus again and began to catch fire underground, culminating in a lot of the best music from the last decade or so. The strung out auto-tune r&b of Double Dutch CO CO POPS predicts the sound of the latter half of the decade, even if I've never been crazy about it.
As usual, however, the instrumentals are something special. SA-RA Space Theme is a low-key entry in their line of astral jazz outings — picking up where Herbie Hancock and Dexter Wansel left off — sounding for all the world like Herbie and Sly Stone jamming circa Fresh. Hangin' By A String, on the other hand, comes on like liquid neon, staggering along on a stop-start beat it seems to have been synthesized from unstable, radioactive elements. Part of SA-RA's charm lies in the fact that no one else sounds remotely like them.
I liked the first Gorillaz record a lot, so at first I missed the dubbed-out vibes of Dracula and Clint Eastwood. I got over it pretty quick though, as this is very much the superior record. What's more, parts of it seemed to key into the machine funk of Kleeer and Mtume... who would have guessed!? Check that synth squiggle in Feel Good Inc., featuring De La Soul in fine form, rough house rhyming over an electroid beat that cuts out just in time for the acoustic Staring At The Sun-esque chorus.
The sound at first seems more stripped down than the first record, but its really just a sleeker, more aero-dynamic approach. Tracks like Kids With GunsNeneh Cherry and El Mañana are skeletal tunes built on spartan drum machine rhythms and glistening analogue tones. Opener Last Living Souls is cut from the same cloth, only in slow-motion. All Alone features Roots Manuva doing his bashment thang over roughneck breakbeat riddims and a garage bassline while Martina Topley-Bird swoops in angelic and sublime for the breakdown.
The masterful Dirty Harry is that rare track to feature a children's chorus that works, spiraling into electro-funk territory once it really gets going and sounding like a dream version of something from Whodini's Escape. When The Pharcyde's Bootie Brown drops in on the mic for the guest spot, a ragged breakbeat takes over with its grinding bass accompaniment.
Dare is just perfection. Clearly one of the finest songs of the decade, it seems to pick up where the Dazz Band left off before immersing it all in vast cathedrals of sound. The record goes through various twists and turns before ending in a bizarre Brian Wilson hinterland, with Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head featuring Dennis Hopper's narration (recalling old-time radio serials like Escape and The Mysterious Traveller) and the sumptuous Surf's Up moves of Don't Get Lost In Heaven, before swerving into the Rotary Connection-esque Broadway soul of the title track.
This double-CD (5xLP!!) album is the perfect distillation of decades of West Coast machine soul, ranging from the rolling basslines of g-funk to the computerized rhythms of electro, taking in the squiggling shapes of Solar Records, boogie and even mysterious shades of straight-up techno for good measure along the way.
Every track seems bathed in computer blue moonlight, wired up to neon (literally LAtrifying, as one song puts it) and drifting through a dreamlike haze. It's the perfect soundtrack to those late summer evenings spent cruising the sprawling web of city streets in the south side of California, just as dusk begins to fall, palm trees cycling by in the rear view mirror.
I certainly can't think of a record that better encapsulates the vibe of late afternoons and late nights down here in San Diego. It's the sound of crashing waves, the freeway stretching through rolling hills in burnt sienna and the grid of the city nestled within, the calm heat of the desert hanging wraithlike in the air. It's the sound of late night trips to your favorite taco shop, cruising down El Cajon Boulevard at midnight, or flipping through a stack of Parliament and Zapp records at your homeboy's spot. It's a million different memories all rolled into one, drifting bittersweet and beautiful out of the past like a mirage.
For instance, I Gots 2 Be Done Wit' U always takes me back to August of '95 and afternoons spent listening to One Way and Kleeer, soaking up their atmosphere while playing Atari 2600. Later I'd go roller-skating with my brother and our main man Gregory, the day seeming to stretch on forever.
Tracks like Spacecapades and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky seem to key into a stream of pure techno soul, as if the sounds of Detroit were refracted through the cool water of the Pacific Ocean to sound right at home in the Golden State. In a sense, it sheds some light as to why this music always made perfect sense to me, a kid growing up two-thousand miles away. Parts of this record bring back vivid memories of bombing around San Diego back in the day, listening to Model 500 and Drexciya in the moonlight, taking the longest route home to hear just one more song and stretch the magic out across the electric shades of the evening.
A wildly inconsistent record, but a fascinating one with an engaging sound, seeming to exist comfortably alongside SA-RA and Dâm-Funk in the context of 21st century machine soul. Its release was tucked away toward the end of a year that had already seen one Leslie LP, his self-titled debut. Transition was apparently inspired by a late-summer romantic affair and knocked out in an off-the-cuff series of sessions.
That its release was buried is the only way I can square the fact that it didn't bother the charts with songs like You're Not My Girl and Zodiac, sounding something like the hypothetical album Michael Jackson might have released between Thriller and Bad (circa Kleeer's Intimate Connection and The Isley's Between The Sheets).
Leslie made his name producing Cassie back in 2005, and after a few years he got the chance to launch a solo career of his own. This and the self-title debut came out during a period when I was mainlining on SA-RA and seeking out anything and everything in a similar vein. New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) had just seen release the previous year, featuring tracks produced by SA-RA, and it seemed like something special was in the air.
I remember when this and the Kid Cudi album dropped, and I was totally sold on their sleeve art from the jump: this had to be interesting. Actually, the sleeve is not a bad place to start if you're looking for a thumbnail sketch of the sounds held within, conjuring images of deep green vectors unfurling in slow-motion neon. The album-opening Never Gonna Break Up more than lives up to the anticipation, with Leslie slinging luminescent analogue synths across a gently chugging rhythm while doing his modern soul man routine on vocals. Leslie 's thing is switching between r&b vocals and quasi-raps, which suits his productions just fine.
A track like Sunday Night flows gracefully on moody synth swirls, while Nothing trades in almost new wave shapes. The new wave thing is actually in full effect throughout: All My Love even seems to recall New Order in its string/synth progression. The slow-burning post-disco boogie of You're Not My Girl just might be the finest thing here, rolling along on that nagging verse before slipping into its sublime refrain.
This lot have been the biggest surprise since SA-RA, coming out of nowhere with a killer record that sounds unlike anything else around. I've gone in depth on them before. Not much to add, but I still can't quite believe that they exist... and I don't understand why they aren't the biggest thing around right now. Sari and I have caught them live twice, and both shows were excellent in different ways. I suspect they can make any venue their own, their atmosphere seeps into every corner of the space.
Possibly the first group to spring fully-formed from within the day-glo aesthetic, rather than approaching from a tangent (be it post punk, disco, hip hop or rave). I've said before that they seem to build their songs out of texture as one would sculpt matter: everything here is like day-glo cast in gold and chrome liquid set against jet black skies, where everything glows gently.
It would have sounded incredible on the dancefloors of the Paradise Garage, yet it's perfectly at home in the context of now-pop, excelling most of the half-finished ideas that currently set the charts ablaze. This of-the-moment music exists in a continuum stretching back decades... nevertheless it sounds unlike anything that's come before.
Ranging from resolute floor-fillers like Busy Earnin', Time and Julia to moody burners like Accelerator, Drops and Platoon, Jungle imbue everything here with a sense of gravity and physicality. There's a deeply haunting nature running through these atmospheric reveries to the night. In effect, its a stone cold masterpiece. This crew are more than suited to take this sound screaming into the future, and I'm awaiting their next record more anxiously than any other. These are the things that dreams are made of.
Whereas before it was disco's method, its production techniques that were taken on board by the post punks: artists like PIL ejected the sunshine and engulfed their tracks in pure dread. Even The Human League were still making righteously strange synth music at this point — see 1980's Travelogue — at times Moroder-inflected yet stark and severe, with the full-on pop of Dare! still a year away.
During what's turned out to be an exceptionally busy week, I've been vibing out practically non-stop to Woebot's latest mix: Bands a make her dance.1 The mix's general brief is rapping with instruments inna live band stylee — stretching back through time all the way to the fifties — and it's an absolute burner, packed with incredible music spanning from old school hip hop to killer deejay reggae cuts and beyond: into the nexus of street verse and rough cut funk. Put simply, this is Rap Attack music. Truth be told, it's something of a sweet spot for me, so I couldn't help but dive in with a little off-the-dome commentary... please forgive me.
The mix kicks off with Tone And Poke's lavish production for Jay-Z in 2001's Jigga, from that period when hip hop was routinely interfacing with the machine funk blueprint laid out by Timbaland and The Neptunes. Consequently, the next two tracks are N*E*R*D's man-machine hybrid Lapdance and Timbaland & Magoo's Up Jumps Da' Boogie, featuring Tim's typically lush take on machine soul (with the signature touch of Jimmy Douglass at the controls in fine style).
You could trace a line through material like Supa Dupa Fly and the early Kelis records back into much of the prime late-period swingbeat: things like Tony! Toni! Toné!'s awesome Sons Of Soul record — featuring Raphael Saadiq's fluid basslines and rolling live breakbeats knocked out by Tim Riley — naturally, but also the rugged flexing grooves of Jodeci's sophomore album Diary Of A Mad Band.
Indeed, this is where Timbaland's crew Da Bassment hooked up in the first place, with DeVante Swing and Mr. Dalvin linking up with figures like Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott (still with Sista at this point), Jimmy Douglass and Tim himself, who would all go on to map out the future of r&b through the balance of the decade.
Subsequently, this is the context from which all the great Soulquarian material sprung up: records like Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun and D'Angelo's Voodoo, functioning at the nexus of programmed rhythm and live-played instrumentation. These records didn't appear in a vacuum! In many ways they were an extension of and reaction to the crisp, modern blueprint laid out by producers like Timbaland, even as they sometimes pushed against it and dug deeper into the progressive soul roots of the seventies and beyond.
Questlove — key figure and strange attractor in this terrain that he is — was deeply involved in both records, pulling together personnel, offering historical perspective and of course laying down his trademark offhand rhythms at Electric Lady Studios. Indeed The Roots' Things Fall Apart — another peak-era Soulquarian production — is represented in this mix with the next track, Double Trouble, featuring Black Thought and Mos Def trading verses as they run through the classic Wild Style routine.
Appropriately, that other storied hip hop band, the inimitable Stetsasonic make an appearance next with Pen And Paper (from their classic sophomore set, In Full Gear). I've always loved the sort of shambolic, loose-limbed interface between machine music and live funk that Stet traded in. A lot of L.A. records switch into a similar mode from time to time, like The D.O.C.'s The Grande Finalé (one of the great posse cuts, an N.W.A. track in all but name) and The Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia (with live drumming from Jay Dee on All Live).
Beat Bop — the mix's next selection and another Woebot fave — must be the Ur-text for this whole sound. The sinewy live instrumentation gets filtered through a futuristic beat matrix, courtesy of Jean-Michel Basquiat's forward-thinking production, over which Rammellzee and K-Rob trade verses in what I've often described as a hip hop update of Sly & The Family Stone's Africa Talks To You/The Asphalt Jungle. It's about as next-level as hip hop got in the early eighties, which is no small feat.
Woe sets the scene within an old school context, drawing deep from the pool of Sugar Hill Records, with selections like The Furious Five's Step Off Remix, Funky 4 + 1's That's The Joint and Trouble Funk's aptly titled Drop The Bomb. All three of which feature MCs doing their thing over live band backing, and right there at the center of rap's evolution (providing further evidence in favor of Woe's central thesis).
The D.C. Go-Go of Trouble Funk sits righteously in this context, and tangentially brings to mind one of my absolute favorite records from the scene, The Word/Sardines by The Junkyard Band, with its mad squelching bass and pile-driving breakbeats.
Further old school adventures continue with the improbably early smooth perfection of The Younger Generation's We Rap More Mellow, appearing at the tail end of the seventies as one of the first rap records to hit the shops. There's also the pre-electronic Afrika Bambaataa hip hop tile Zulu Nation Throwdown, featuring raps from the Cosmic Force dancing over a loose-limbed funk jam kicked up by the Harlem Underground band.
More honest-to-goodness funk, this time from The Fatback Band (who were twelve albums deep into their career as a hard funk unit by this point), appears later in the mix with King Tim III Personality Jock, which (depending on who you ask) is often considered thee very first hip hop recording to appear on wax.
These early rap works bring to mind another one of my favorites records from the era, Spoonie Gee's Spoonin' Rap, which almost sounds as if it could have been a stripped down backing track from the Remain In Light/My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts sessions. Similarly far-reaching and futuristic — and featured next in the mix — is The Treacherous Three's The Body Rock, offering up an evocative atmosphere in which a grinding synthetic bassline snakes through a circular guitar figure held down by Pumpkin's relaxed drum breaks, while Special K, L.A. Sunshine and Kool Moe Dee trade verses through carefully arranged reverb effects.
Everything here remarkably in sync with a lot of the era's post punk music: think The Magnificent Seven by The Clash, the Talking Heads's Once In A Lifetime and ESG's Moody.2 Many such figures were seduced by the burgeoning hip hop culture of the day, from Factory Records' whole dalliance with the East Coast3 to Chris Stein's (of new wave group Blondie) involvement with the backing tracks for the Wild Style soundtrack and The Clash bringing Futura 2000 on tour with them (while also backing him on the Celluloid rap 12" The Escapades Of Futura 2000).
Then there's the matter of Tackhead/Fat's Comet, featuring Doug Wimbish,4Skip McDonald and Keith LeBlanc of the Sugar Hill backing band. After leaving Sugar Hill, the group started out as East Coast post punk experimentalists, operating their own World Records imprint before running through Adrian Sherwood's cold dub machinery and backing Mark Stewart as the Maffia.
Sherwood's On-U Sound label a crucial conduit of left field dub recordings throughout the decade, stretching back into late seventies with material like Creation Rebel's early output and the Cry Tuff Dub Encounter series (which — spiritually, at least — seemed to pick up where Joe Gibbs' Africa Dub All-Mighty string of records left off).
Incidentally, the mix takes a left turn into reggae territory with a trio of discomix cover versions from the decade's turn masterminded by Gibbs, Xanadu & Sweet Lady's Rockers Choice (based on Rapper's Delight), Derrick Laro & Trinity's Don't Stop Till You Get Enough and Ruddy Thomas & Welton Irie's Shake Your Body Down To The Ground (the latter two Jacksons covers). Down mix a piece, Woe even gives the original MC music a look in with Big Youth's 1976 deejay cut Jim Squeachy and the impossibly early (1972) Festival Wise by U-Roy.
In between the Gibbs cuts and Big Youth, you get a pair of key jazz poetry cuts from Gil Scott-Heron (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) and The Last Poets (Related To What). Both artists retroactively recognized as forefathers of rap music, The Last Poets even washing up with an eighties record on Celluloid. There was even a record from Last PoetLightnin' Rod with backing from Jimi Hendrix that also came out on Celluloid around the same time. Hendrix himself touching on rap with Crosstown Traffic... perhaps the first rap-rock song ever? Well, certainly the best.
Lightnin' Rod's Sport comes in next, taken from his excellent Hustlers Convention LP and featuring Kool & The Gang providing a nimble funk backing (and a clear precursor to all the old school live hip hop records discussed above). The godfather of funk himself slips into the mix with Black President, another foundational piece of music in hip hop, not only by virtue of its breakbeats — adorning as they do scores of rap 12"s — but also James Brown's ad-libbed vocal asides, dropped into the beat matrix with a rhythmic precision.
From there, we move into the final stretch of the mix with Pigmeat Markham's Here Comes The Judge (as mentioned in David Toop's Rap Attack5) from 1968. Interestingly enough, this record seems to be the basis for the Lee "Scratch" Perry-produced deejay record Public Jestering, fronted by Judge Winchester! And finally, Bo Diddley closes out the set with his epochal self-titled number, bringing it all back to the square root of the blues.
Which drops us into the recent climate round these parts. Post punk, hip hop and the blues. Machine soul is that final ingredient — in its triad forms of techno, house and r&b — of what you might call my kind of music. In fact, this is exactly the sort of thing I meant to broach last winter but for the encroachment of myriad real world commitments (what a drag). Yet with the late summer sun looming deep red on the horizon, it just might be the right time to go deep with it for real. At any rate, it's gonna be a wonderful fall.
Starting with A Certain Ratio recording their debut full-length To Each... at E.A.R.S. in New Jersey and continuing with New Order's work with Arthur Baker, John Robie and Jellybean Benitez (also at E.A.R.S.) on 1983's Confusion, with Factory even putting out an ESG record at one point in the interim. In a strange twist, New Order once played a tumultuous set at the Paradise Garage in 1983.