I've always loved this quote from Derrick May, which is quite crisply evocative of the rich undercurrents of depth and mystery running through techno music. Actually, I'm worried I might be paraphrasing somewhat (in fact, it's rather likely, since I can't seem to find the interview I heard it in anywhere). But what the hell, it's a great quote and really ought to be in wide circulation. I'm willing to risk it... so there you go. Needless to say, if anyone can point me in the right direction for the original interview, I'd be most grateful...
Anyway... Techno. Born in the shadows of Detroit's 1980s progressive scene and forged in the unforgiving crucible of the global stage, it's truly one of the key building blocks of modern music — alongside house and hip hop — in the post-disco diaspora. One could trace a thin line leading back to 1970s Düsseldorf, all the way back to the Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express, when excavating its prehistory.
As Kodwo Eshun brilliantly put it, Düsseldorf is the Mississippi Delta, and expanding on that idea, Kraftwerk are to Techno as Muddy Waters is to The Rolling Stones.1Detroit is where the sleek German engineering of Computer World got rebuilt like an American muscle car, souped up for its joyride across dancefloors the world over. Juan Atkins just plugged it all in.
To further extend the metaphor, Atkins' Metroplex was to Sun Records as Derrick May's Transmat was to Chess (with Fragile standing in for Cadet), with Kevin Saunderson's KMS corresponding to Atlantic Records. Ok, ok, I realize that the timeline is inverted, but please believe the comparisons are airtight! You've got the laboratory on one hand and the conservatory on the other, with the proto-Motown assembly line of KMS/Atlantic waiting in the wings. And at that point, it's time to play domination.
Very quickly, it becomes a global affair. You've got vibrant forms springing up all over the place, from Sheffield bleep 'n bass to Belgian new beat and elegant Dutch techno to London ardkore. Auteurs start springing up everywhere, untethered to any sort of centralized scene (albeit often in orbit of crucial outposts like Warp, Sublime and R&S). The meme spreads and mutates and spreads and mutates and spreads... it's a beautiful thing.
The interesting thing to note with techno is how nearly everyone knows the term but so often they haven't actually heard any. Has there ever been a genre so misunderstood? Images of 2 Unlimited and Dance Dance Revolution hang in the public consciousness, even if neither have nothing much to do with techno qua techno. If you tell someone you listen to techno, chances are what they're hearing in their head isn't techno at all but some caricature drawn in broad strokes (the phrase boom boom boom springs to mind).
So at some point I just started saying Detroit Techno when the subject comes up. Not because I'm some sort of purist (I've actually got no time whatsoever for the impulse), but because it short circuits all the pitfalls that might wrong-foot whoever I'm talking with. Suddenly, you're starting from scratch rather than working against a bunch of assumptions. And you've reimbued the term with a sense of mystery which was its birthright all along...
I'd dug dance music in it's various forms going back to Janet Jackson circa Control (hell, Michael Jackson circa Thriller), running alongside the new wave of Depeche Mode and the Talking Heads on through what you'd call early indie dance (New Order and Big Audio Dynamite). Plus the obligatory swingbeat and hip hop, things like Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul, Wreckx-N-Effect's Rump Shaker and the Jungle Brothers. All of which seemed to flow naturally into things like Massive Attack, Underworld and The Prodigy.
Still... I can remember like it was yesterday when I got hit by the straight stuff.
It came in the form of Kevin Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio, and it quite simply blew my mind wide open. This was like everything I'd ever loved in music, only more so. Pure, uncut. I remember wondering about all the names on there: Who is this mysterious Outlander (R&S sorted me out right quick)? What sort of crew is Octave One (for whatever reason, I imagined them as a gang of Germans)? Why are half of these tracks credited to Dobre & Jamez (because they're awesome)?!
From there it was a short step to discovering techno strongholds like Submerge, R&S and Studio !K7 (surfing a rather hardcore crest at the time). I was set for life. I still remembering placing my first mail order, getting things like Kevin Saunderson's Faces & Phases compilation, Octave One's The Living Key (To Images From Above) and Drexciya's The Quest on a hot summer afternoon. Give all those to a high school kid in the late 90s and see what happens!
As a kid, I grew up in various apartments with my parents — who were actually quite young in retrospect (usually around a decade younger than the parents of my peers) — and later my brother Brian once he came along. We moved once a year for the first five years of my life before sneaking into the suburbs once school started. I remember nothing quite made sense again. The kids were different (some awful kids, truth be told! But some cool ones too... it all evens out), etc. Whatever. I suppose I should have adapted, and I suppose that in my own way I did, but then I always was a dreamer...
I used to dream to books, movies, video games... whatever I could get my hands on. I remember just laying on my back looking up at the sky, imagining other worlds. Then, around junior high music hit me full force. Before that I'd been into music at the level of osmosis, the ambient sounds around when you're young, but suddenly it was everywhere! I was feelin' it MAN!!
Like I said, stuff like new wave, hip hop, r&b, certain alternative records. I suppose deep, rhythmic music always appealed to me at the most basic level. Intercut it with a heavy sense of harmonic mystery, and I'm sold.
So when I came across techno it was a match made in heaven.
Walking around town, it wasn't the sound of Nas or Nirvana that would swirl in my mind, but things like 69's Ladies & Gentlemen, Mental Cube's Q and Jark Prongo's Spadet (that and Tricky's Aftermath, Primal Scream's Trainspotting and Bomb The Bass's One To One Religion (Skankapella Mix) on the downbeat flipside). It all seemed to move at the speed of life. At the end of the day, the vibes just synced up with my frequency I suppose...
So what do I like about techno? For one, it's the frequency, the vibe. Amiri Baraka's changing same. That low-slung groove, the scratchy high-end funk chopping between the beats, the compression of ideas. It's the Bug In The Bass Bin, the ever present spectre malfunktion that nevertheless pulses faithfully on. It's the ghosts of jazz and funk and kosmische and disco and industrial and juju lying just beneath the surface.
Not to mention the sense of longing, the alien wonder running through its core. It's Stranger In A Strange Land music, so naturally it made sense to me. Connected to the earth, the stones beneath my feet, but always surrounded by strangers. Something like Theme From It's All Gone Pear Shaped by Digital Justice makes the point better than I ever could... I mean where the hell else are you gonna find something like that but in techno?
It all routes back to a time when I used to dream about living alone on Mars (ha, used to he says!), riding some ancient starship with vast corridors and digital readouts in vivid crimson, three-year-old dreams back on Mollison in the hazy afternoons of late summer. Come to think of it, that was the last time I had a room of my own until college!
Space in both sense of the words. Room to think, room to breathe! That's what I found in techno. No matter what was going on, I could put on some headphones and play Dark Energy's Midnite Sunshine and everything would come into focus (or drift out of focus, if need be).
Put simply, it was an escape route into the rest of my life, when things would begin to make just a little bit more sense. Future music that gave me the gift of a future. Its beat pulsed faithfully like lights along a runway, guiding that starship into the pitch black darkness of the midnight sky. And all along, without a doubt, it helped a young brother find his way...
1. Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet, 1998. 100. Print.
2. Bova, Ben. Visions Of The Future: The Art Of Robert McCall. New York: Abrams, 1982. 107. Print.
The legend of Andrew Weatherall already loomed large when I first tumbled like Alice down into the wonderland that is dance music. This was back in 1996, at the cusp of my high school years. When I'd buy records, the name Andrew Weatherall would crop up with some regularity — on a remix here, an album credit there — and eventually I put two and two together and deduced that this was something worth looking into.
You know how it goes, one tends to travel the world of music from node to node: Bowie to Eno to Can in three moves. In this case, it was even simpler than that. I remember the first time I ever caught Weatherall's name was on the CD-single for The Future Sound Of London's Papua New Guinea, which featured the ten-minute Andrew Weatherall Mix, a widescreen tour de force in the progressive house style of the day.
Not long after, I started picking up his records — released under crazy names like Two Lone Swordsmen and The Sabres Of Paradise — while actively keeping an eye out for more remixes that he might have done. The deeper I got into music, the more I'd pick up about its history along the way — connecting nodes and joining the dots — which is how I discovered that he was one of the founders of Junior Boy's Own (thinks, hey, they put out Dubnobasswithmyheadman!) and helped to spearhead the whole rave zeitgeist in the first place.
All of which came to light as I listened to the music, working my way backwards from what was — at the time — his latest record (Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down). Needless to say, it's a process that has continued for me right up to the present day. So take this as an avowed fan's attempt to weave a semi-historical narrative around 30-odd Weatherall records. We've got albums, EPs, 12" singles, comps, mixes and even a single-sided 7" in this monster breakout, all of which were either produced, mixed, compiled or contain remixes by the man himself.
I accumulated these records gradually over the years — in no particular order — so whether it was during the electronica 90s, the post punk/grime/r&b/everything 00s or even last week, my impressions of these records were informed as much by the era that I first heard them as they were by the circumstances from which they had initially sprung. As such, this is a deeply personal list. Someone else might very well pick different records (although I suspect at least half of our choices would overlap). Perhaps I haven't even heard his best record? (If not, please clue me in!)
However, I do believe that this particular list does get to the heart of not only why Weatherall's music was so special to me growing up (and why it remains a Parallax touchstone to this day), but also its seismic importance in dance music's continual drift over the years. I also believe that it paints a useful portrait of the various currents that were flowing in and out of each other along the way. So without any further ado, I give you the Warehouse Weatherall XXX.
But first, a little background:
Andrew Weatherall was born in 1963 in the small town of Windsor, located twenty miles west of London. Perhaps it was inevitable that punk and all that came in its wake would have such a profound shaping effect on young Andy, coming up as he did in the 1970s so close to the scene's epicenter and at an ideal age to soak it all in. Apparently, he was a huge fan of Bowie and The Clash,1 which makes perfect sense to anyone who's ever heard one of his records.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Weatherall's influence on dance music parallels the impact that The Clash had on punk (and everything that came in its wake). More specifically, I'd say he directly corresponds in this metaphor with none other than Mick Jones. Like old Mick, he's careened through many faces and phases over the years, covering that wide expanse of terrain between rock and dance music in singular fashion. For our purposes today, that journey begins in the mid-eighties.
In 1986, Andrew Weatherall started the Boy's Own fanzine with Terry Farley, Pete Heller and the rest of the Boy's Own posse, which were essentially a crew that hit the clubs and the record shops together. Covering everything from music to football, fashion and more, with loads of in-jokes only understood by 200 people living in London2, Boy's Own's twelve issue run happened to coincide with the arrival of acid house on British shores and the subsequent dawn of the rave era.
The Boy's Own circulation ultimately ballooned across the country, reaching far beyond its humble beginnings. At one point, Paul Oakenfold even published an article about Ibiza titled Bermondsey Goes Baleriac!3 As the Boy's Own gang got swept up in all the excitement around the Second Summer Of Love, they were also elemental in spearheading the whole Balearic phenomenon4 (with the more conservative tastemaker Farley playing Joe Strummer to Weatherall'sMick Jones) even as they spread the sound of acid house across the country.
This is when Weatherall started to become known for his wide-ranging, free-form sets, described tantalizingly by Sean Bidder as eclectic mixes which would freely cross Italian piano monsters with cut-and-paste indie and dub breakdowns.1 You can just sense the roots of what would come to be the man's trademark sound lurking in there somewhere, and within the wide-ranging sonic mash-up, his warped, dubbed-out claustrophobic vision was beginning to take shape.
After years spent burning up the clubs on the wheels of steel — and developing an ear tuned to the sounds of the nascent rave culture — it was time to put that vibe on wax. Much like Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and François Kevorkian over a decade earlier, he was called upon to remix other artists' material for the dancefloor. This is the context for Weatherall's initial forays into the studio, and as such, where we get to talk about the music. Oh, and apologies for the rambling commentary... I found it nearly impossible to be concise today!
And Now For The Records
Early on, Weatherall's story is written entirely in remixes. In fact, I'd posit that there have been three distinct phases to Weatherall's career, the first of which is the wild-eyed era of discovery, stretching from the early Boy's Own days on the club circuit through his ascent as a producer and remixer, right into the reign of The Sabres Of Paradise. So, roughly speaking, 1986-1994. The constant running through all three eras — but established right here at the outset — is his fluidity between the worlds of dance music and rock, as an ambassador of sorts, bringing countless indie kids into the world of dance music (and vice versa).
Case in point is Weatherall's first true foray into the studio, which came in 1989, where he was reworking indie dance hooligans the Happy Mondays' Hallelujah alongside Paul Oakenfold. The Club Mix cools out the original version's sloppy junkyard hustle and winds it down to a low slung, 4/4 pulse, fleshing out the band's lumpen Madchester sound with Italo-esque pianos, chanting monks and just a snatch of gospel.
The sense of space in the mix — knocked out with a heavier bottom end — make it the undisputed highlight of the record, grooving miles better than anything else here and sounding like a glimpse of the future waiting just around the bend. Indeed, I'd mark this out as the moment when the Mondays got down with rave and got with the program, resulting a year later in Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, their absolute masterpiece.
Weatherall's first solo remix was Loaded, an epochal reworking Primal Scream's I'm Losing More Than I'll Ever Have, which came out shortly after Hallelujah. Sounding something like a post-rave Sympathy For The Devil, it defined the freewheeling spirit of the times. It's a stone classic and the 12" would make the cut for this list in a heartbeat, but since it figures into the band's 1991 album Screamadelica, we'll scoop it up that way.
We'll get to that one in a minute... but first, it's time for My Bloody Valentine.
Here we go! This came out well before MBV's Loveless, and found Weatherall reworking the track that would ultimately close that album into the band's biggest dancefloor moment. Stretching the tune out to 7½ minutes, he yokes the band's ethereal vocals and sheets of guitar to huge crashing beats from Westbam's Alarm Clock, transforming the zen-like original into a driving big beat groove.
This — along with Loaded and Hallelujah — perfectly encapsulates what indie dance is all about, scrambling together the disparate worlds of post-post punk indie rock, hip hop and acid house like a mad scientist and winding up with a new psychedelia. As much as anyone else, Weatherall was a key architect of the sound. You can hear the germ of The Chemical Brothers in here somewhere, which is borne out by their endless caning of the record at the Heavenly Social.
Indeed, this is one of those records that'll never stop getting played in clubs.
In the midst of this whole Terminal Vibration trip we've been on, I alluded to Wobble's work in the nineties and this is our first port of call at the turn of the decade. Apparently Wobble had spent time sweeping railroad stations during a particularly dry spell in the late eighties, even announcing over the P.A. occasionally, I used to be somebody, I repeat, I used to be somebody!
This record, however, finds the man with a new lease of life (one that he's maintained more or less continually since). Interestingly, this 12" was actually released on the Boy's Own label in the wake of the first Invaders Of The Heart full-length, as if the lads were saying you are one of us, yes you are. Accordingly, Wobble got swept up in the moment, guesting on a whole brace of dance records, including things like Bomb The Bass' Clear and The Orb's Blue Room.
The Nonsonicus Maximus Mix of Bomba is a sublime bit of gently chugging Europe-endlessness, of a piece with the ambient house of The Orb and Sun Electric. There's an ancient quality to these synths — recalling the kosmische seventies — as they blend with intensely plucked guitars and the vocals of Natacha Atlas. And of course, Wobble's throbbing bassline front and center.
This connects latterly with Weatherall's post punk roots (indeed, one suspects that Metal Box would have been a huge record for him) and — jumping forward twenty years — to the cosmic electronica he's spent this past decade exploring (more on this to come). Around this time (back to 1990 now), he also turned in a remix of Saint Etienne's Only Love Can Break Your Heart (A Mix In Two Halves), which was largely cut from the same dubbed-out ambient house cloth as this (if slightly less brilliant). The first half is where it's at.
4. Bocca JuniorsRaise & Substance
(Boy's Own: 1990/1991)
These two taken at once. This the first attempt at working something up from scratch. The Bocca Juniors were essentially the Boy's Own gang in (if I'm not mistaken) their first studio guise. There's this great period video on Youtube5 that features the crew getting interviewed on Snub TV. Particularly funny is when old Andy casually remarks I don't really like techno. Goodness me, how times change!
Raise pulses along at a mid-tempo pace on a cycling feedback-soaked bassline, with flashes of synth brass, Italo-house pianos and a commanding vocal from Anna Haigh, essentially laying out the blueprint for the sound that Fluke would ride through the rest of the decade. It's a big room sound, almost indie dance by default (albeit coming at it from the other direction).6
Substance is a rather different matter, with ethereal vocals from Haigh and a sixties-style fuzz box guitar riding atop a rolling breakbeats and a gently meandering bassline.7 The sixties rock thing was in the air at the time (see also Inspiral Carpets and Art Science Technology), culminating in Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers about five years later. Funny enough, I first knew this as a Dot Allison track and didn't find out it was a cover until somewhat recently.
Interesting the way both of these records prefigure large swathes of the decade, even if within a few years they might have sounded dated to most ears at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, perspective shifts and old becomes new again (thinking of Nuggets here), and one has the opportunity to hear things anew. Hearing them nearly thirty years later, both tunes remain excellent slabs of ambassadorial post-rave pop, shot through with the idealism of the era and capturing the excitement of the times infectiously.
Back to the remix. The Solar Youth Mix of Perpetual Dawn was quite possibly The Orb's greatest pop moment, polishing the sprawling album version into a glistening groove that burned along at a ragga pace. Everything shimmers with the unmistakable feel of the dancehall, even introducing a nagging vocal refrain to what was originally an instrumental.
Weatherall contributes two Ultrabass mixes on the flipside. Ultrabass I is a breakbeat-driven affair, punctuated by orchestra hits and outer space sonix, while Ultrabass II rides a deeper 4/4 pulse with more than a little tension, fattening up the sound considerably. Dread vibes for real! Weatherall's approach here in thrall to the digidub of Mad Professor's Ariwa imprint and Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound, the presence of which will be felt even moreso as we continue.
The fruit of Primal Scream's extended dalliance with rave culture, this is the culmination of 12" singles like Come Together and the aforementioned Loaded (singles that Weatherall happened to have a profound hand in shaping). As an LP it excels, mixing machine rhythms, post-acid house electronics and a rootsy, pentecostal flavor in a heady cocktail of blissed out perfection. With a couple exceptions (Movin' On Up and Damaged) everything here has Weatherall's fingerprints all over it.
The aforementioned Loaded anchors the album, providing a midpoint between rootsy numbers like Movin' On Up, post-acid dancefloor burners like Don't Fight It, Feel It and the blissed out dream pop of Higher Than The Sun (co-produced with The Orb). The latter is an obvious highlight of the record, with a deep, spacious sound cloaking Bobby Gillespie's half-whispered vocals over a bed of electronic percussion. It's all quite moving, and when the climax hits — with those pile-driving slow-motion breakbeats — it's as if you're breaking through to the heavens.
A large portion of Screamadelica is dominated by gentle, atmospheric numbers like Inner Flight (sounding like The Beach Boys scoring 2001: A Space Odyssey), the absolutely gorgeous I'm Coming Down and Shine Like Stars (the album's signing off moment). The record's most psychedelic tunes are some of its finest, including Weatherall's deeply spiritual marathon mix of Come Together, his reprise of Higher Than The Sun (A Dub Symphony In Two Parts) (which features dub-wise harpsichords and an unforgettable bassline from Jah Wobble) and a slinky cover of The 13th Floor Elevators' Slip Inside This House (co-produced with Hypnotone).
Also worth checking out is the band's freeform cover of Dennis Wilson's Carry Me Home, another Weatherall-helmed moment, which can be found on the Dixie Narco EP (released the following year).
Ultra-extended dancefloor versions of Flowered Up's Weekender. With a running time of 31 minutes split between two marathon dancefloor excursions, Weatherall's Weekender is something like the soundtrack to your wildest all-night adventures. This is an absolutely incredible example of the possibilities inherent to the 12" single, with the Audrey Is A Little Bit Partial Mix riding a river of bass and rolling breakbeats in its funky clavinet workout before — without any warning — mutating at its midpoint into a stomping 4/4 groove.
The flipside's Audrey Is A Little Bit More Partial Mix opens with a looped disco diva singing, gonna have a good time before dropping directly into a resolutely percussion-heavy 4/4 pulse anchored by a rude bassline, cascading clipped vocals and moody piano architecture. The mirror image of the a-side, it eventually slows down to a crawl before breaking into a downbeat coda for the song's second half. The whole affair emblematic of Weatherall's restlessly creative flair for conjuring up thoroughly absorbing vibes in the studio.
Another album culminating from a series of Weatherall-helmed 12" singles, Morning Dove White is a spellbinding collection of blissful dream pop that prefigures the likes of Dido and Beth Orton by a few years. The focus here lies on dubbed-out, almost pop-reggae stylings (think Maxi Priest and Bob Khaleel) rather than folktronica, but the effect remains the same. Alongside Billie Ray Martin's 4 Ambient Tales, this is the unsung precursor to that whole sound.
Scottish group One Dove8 were led by Dot Allison, whose breathy vocals haunt these recordings. Weatherall's production is deeply atmospheric, with plenty of weightless moments like Sirens and Why Don't You Take Me drifting gracefully off into the horizon. Throughout, there's an almost undisclosed heaviness to the proceedings (see Transient Truth, for example), which are frequently drenched in dub effects and bass pressure.
Nevertheless, breezy chansons like Breakdown (Cellophane Boat Mix), Fallen and White Love (Guitar Paradise Mix) are the order of the day, showcasing Weatherall's fetching way with a pop song. In fact, I'd single this out as one of the great hidden gems in early nineties pop. Lastly, I should note that — like fellow Scots Primal ScreamDot Allison will have a recurring role in this story...
Alongside Gary Burns and Jagz Kooner, Weatherall finally delivers his debut album. From the outset, The Sabres Of Paradise were an underground proposition, signing to Warp Records9 and specializing in a unique brand of dub-heavy techno shot through with thoroughly dread vibes. The closest comparison would be Bandulu, who were quite clearly fellow travellers operating at the intersection of dub and the dancefloor.
Tracks like Still Fighting, Inter-Lergen-Ten-ko and Smokebelch I find the group at their most progressive, albeit with the oppressive presence of dub creeping in at all corners and a harder 4/4 pulse, offering a more claustrophobic take on the sound showcased by Weatherall's remix of Papua New Guinea. The symphonic Beatless Mix of Smokebelch II borrows large swathes of Chicago house don Elbee Bad's The New Age Of Faith, echoing the angelic spirit of Morning Dove White.
Still, it's in the deep end that the record's sympathies most obviously lie, grasping at ever harder shapes and sharper edges in a headlong rush into oblivion. It's a sound that still needed to stew awhile, having yet to reach its true potential. And yet somewhere in the paranoid atmosphere of the album's finest moments, alongside the dark, spectral shapes of Clock Factory, one could find an apocalyptic glimpse of the group's future.
Which is an absolute classic. A quantum leap from Sabresonic, Haunted Dancehall shakes things up considerably, distancing itself from the progressive house tendencies of the debut to dial everything down to a smoker's pace. Like FSOL's ISDN, it's almost a trip hop record by default, imbued with spectral shapes and a strong sense of paranoia. There's a clear debt here to not only dub but also post punk and industrial, marking it out as a Terminal Vibration record.
With liner notes from Trainspotting novelist Irvine Welsh offering up a rough outline of a smoke-steeped storyline, the whole thing came off like The Parallax View by way of Babylon. With the lion's share of the record given over to electro-tinged breakbeat workouts like Ballad Of Nicky McGuire and Bubble And Slide on one hand and moody atmosphere pieces like Flight Path Estate and Theme 4 on the other, the record's dark heart was undoubtedly the three track run that lie at its very center.
Wilmot was built around the horn motif from Black But Sweet by Wilmoth Houdini & The Night Owls, working up an downbeat skank that translated Trinidadian calypso for the smoked-out nineties. It had previously appeared in a stunning live-sounding version on the 12" single, with pile-driving breakbeats and scorching slow-motion surf guitar backing the singer Wonder, who sounded like she was channelling loa in the dancehall (Haunted Dancehall, indeed!).
Low-slung rockabilly six-string also lie at the center of Tow Truck, a proto-big beat burner. This is big beat the way Depth Charge did it,10 in slow-motion and a couple years early (ts ten ton beats prefiguring certain corners of The Chemical Brothers' sound).11 This big beat trilogy was rounded out by Theme, which found the crew rewiring a Mission Impossible-style refrain years before U2's rhythm section thought to do it.
This is the point where Weatherall's signature sound really begins to take shape (rather appropriately at the nexus of electro's latent futurism and trip hop's sense of dread atmosphere), carrying with it all the attendant imagery of Radio Clash, the Black Ark and beats laid down in moody half-light. The word that constantly springs to mind when hearing the man's music is physicality: there's a very real sense of weight to these muscular grooves (and all of the sounds swirling in their orbit), as if they were three-dimensional objects of metal, wood and stone occupying physical space. In other words, what they used to call substance.
A selection of Sabres sleeves
At this point, you also begin to see the unmistakable Weatherall visual flair beginning to take shape, an aesthetic that continues right up to his present day linotype imagery. All of these sleeves from contemporary compilations and EPs, which I've included not as part of the golden thirty but because their sleeves are so perfectly evocative of the music contained within. Love that style! Somehow elegant and rugged, like wrought iron.
11. Deanne DayThe Day After & The Long First Friday
(Emissions Audio Output: 1995/1996)
And then at the midpoint of the decade, it's as if a switch had suddenly been flipped. The Sabres Of Paradise went their separate ways and Weatherall setup a new label: Emissions Audio Output. These two records were among the label's first releases, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Deanne Day was actually a collaboration with David Harrow (who, among other things, had played with the Invaders Of The Heart), the moniker a play on their first initials (say it out loud, D. and A.).
This kicks off the second phase of Weatherall's career, an era when he was operating at the peak of his powers. Turning on a dime, he seems to have stumbled upon the sound that would define his work for the next five years. The moodiness is still in full force — and the sonics still dwelling deep within the shadows — but suddenly it's as if everything has come into focus. There's a strong comparison to be made with Basic Channel's sound — I suspect Andy had been listening closely — and, as with B.C., you can unmistakably hear the early stirrings of the micro-house sound (Isolée, Villalobos, Kompakt et. al.) that would hold sway at the dawn of the 21st century.
The Day After EP is clearly on the minimalist tip. Horicho's spartan soundscape is the twin sister to Model 500's Starlight. Imagine Kraftwerk making house music circa Computer World. Brittle drum machines tick out the rhythm while gentle textures reverberate into the distance. The story is told in the echo, the spaces within the spaces. Body Control amplifies on this hall-of-mirrors effect, with a whirlpool synth in orbit around its central rhythm, while Honk (If You've Seen The King) fixates on the clickety-clack, metronomic rhythms, with just a hint of texture at the edge of the mix. That lonely, whistling synth a particularly evocative touch.
However, the The Long First Friday is where its at. In our timeline, this slots in between the first two Swordsmen records. I included it here because these two Deanne Day records make such a perfect pair. With both tracks here clocking in at over ten minutes, this is a tantric excursion into razor-thin, dreamlike techno. Once again, think Kraftwerk gone house, or better yet Juan Atkins' Infiniti output.12 They both seem to just stretch out into infinity.
The Long First Friday is impossibly lush, moody techno, its brittle drums cradling a wistful synth melody as its junglist bassline pushes out from within the mix. On the flipside, the fourteen minute Hardly Breathe is a motorik groove that splits the difference between techno and house. Ethereal synths drift aimlessly over an unchanging rhythm — encircled by hi-hats flanging in a double helix — as some disembodied diva (caught in a time loop) repeatedly intones the song's title.
Both sides full of gentle longing, in the recurrent Detroit tradition.
The triumphant return of Primal Scream (after their oft-dismissed Give Out But Don't Give Up),13 featuring Weatherall back in the producer's chair. This lazy downbeat groove — sounding like something from some lost seventies OST — is the perfect counterpoint to Danny Boyle's film of the same title. From the Augustus Pablo-esque melodica to the loping breakbeat and those languid, sun-glazed guitars, the whole thing is just stoned slacker perfection (and cool as ice).
Notably, Trainspotting later showed up on Primal Scream's excellent Vanishing Point (which came out in — surprise, surprise — 1997), albeit in slightly edited form. Trust me though, this is the version you want. As with Haunted Dancehall, the atmosphere is thoroughly smoked-out, but here the rough edges have been bevelled away and rendered elegant. Like The Parallax View with an Oak Park strut, it just rolls on and on. You can't help but get lose yourself in its casual sway. Just hearing it is like spending ten minutes in the mid-nineties...
Part of a loose trilogy alongside the The Third Mission and The Tenth Mission EPs, all of which translate the rude shapes of Haunted Dancehall into something approximating the 21st century. Two Lone Swordsmen finds Andy jamming in the studio with Keith Tenniswood, who happened to be sitting behind the boards during some Sabres Of Paradise studio downtime.
When discussing the new 2LS sound, one can't underestimate the importance of Keith Tenniswood, who brought a glitched-out sensibility to the table that hadn't previously been apparent in Weatherall's work. Andrew himself once remarked, some of Mister Tenniswood's drum programming takes my breath away. Seeing as their production partnership has continued to this day in one form or another, it's clear that Tenniswood was a crucial part of the equation.
With nearly two hours of music, The Fifth Mission is a veritable treasure trove of warped machine soul. The crux of this this record lies in both the post-electro's rhythm matrix and the overcast atmosphere of abstract hip hop. One need look no further than tracks like Two Barb Quickstep, Switch It and The King Mob File for a perfect illustration of the new sound. Gone are the grimy back alleys of Haunted Dancehall, and in their place is the chrome-plated architecture of electronic soul. With every surface seemingly polished to crystal-clear perfection, even the record's most shadowy moments glisten in the moonlight.
The one exception to the rule is Rico's Helly, a Basic Channel-esque excursion into oneiric house, which surfs an improbable wood-bassline on a cresting wave to the sublime. Definite shades of the Deanne Day records, and a presence that would become increasingly felt over the course of the next few entries as the Swordsmen delve ever deeper into house music.
However, my absolute favorite moment here is the lurching downtempo reverie of Glenn Street Assault Squad. Its malfunctioning drum machine seems to stagger beneath the weight of those warped textures, while a renegade boogie synth squiggles the whole affair into the filmic. The effect is — as with the rest of this record — something like Kraftwerk jamming with Timbaland in lunar orbit.14
Following swiftly after The Fifth Mission, this is a roundup of remixes and new material15 that fixes on the deep house axis of the duo's sound. Glide By Shooting is an ethereal slice of deep, minimal house that just shimmers. The mood here quite reminiscent of the atmosphere-soaked deep house output of the Svek label (particularly Conceiled Project's D-Weqst). Other tracks, like Flossie Wears Paco And Ralph and Bim, Jack And Florence, continue to mine the minimal vein laid out by the Deanne Day records.
The highlight, however, is undoubtedly the remix of Rico's Helly (Retailored by Nourizadeh & Teasdale, as it says on the label). This version is almost completely unrecognizable from the one on The Fifth Mission, taking a dubbed-out, skanking angle on the original that swings so much it almost ceases to be house and becomes something more like a discomix vision of the blues. With ethereal synths drifting across a mahogany bassline, it grooves along for nine minutes as delicate electronic pads hint at a melody. At one point, the bass even drops into a descending blues pattern like it's a Cab Calloway record!
The other core aspect of Swimming Not Skimming lies in the re-emergence of the studio kinda cloudy ambience of Trainspotting, bringing a distinctly trip hop flavor to certain corners of the record.Azzolini And The Branch Brothers Meet Being sets the tone, kicking off the record with a strongly atmospheric slice of downbeat. Gentle pads16 reverberate through the soundscape while a wood bass plucks out a melody and a beat keeps threatening to take shape (but disintegrates just as quickly). The Ob007 Mix picks up where the brittle downbeat of The Fifth Mission left off, with dulcimer synths that always remind me of Nitemare 3D (an old PC game that my brother and I used to play).
Just bubbling under the surface is a sense of electro decomposition, in tunes like Don't Call It Jerk and Rico's Hellectro (almost sounding like a So Solid Crew backing track!). It really comes to the surface in Two Lone Swordsmen vs. The One True Pod (Jakey In The Subway), which is a malfunctioning take on electro proper, a sound that would increasingly come to the fore over course of the next few years.
The big surprise is In The Nursery Visit Glenn Street, which finds the neo-classical duo In The Nursery reworking Glenn Street Assault Squad into a symphonic piece of soundtrack music in search of a film. There's even a spoken word bit! One detects an aura developing around the whole Two Lone Swordsmen project around this point, a real sense of mystique. Dig those song titles! The whole thing seeming to take on the shape of a sub-culture at the micro level. Intensely local, and just as the era of globalism is dawning.17
Tucked away on Humboldt County Records is The Role Of Linoleum, a curious double-EP by the Swordsmen in a guise named for Weatherall's other art form of choice. A one-off, although Andy asserted in a contemporary interview that the project would stay around.2 A shame we never heard more from the Squares, as it's a compelling sound they've struck upon here, but then that makes what we do have that much more special.
This record finds the duo moonlighting with a unique strain of moody, minimal techno vaguely reminiscent of Deanne Day. However, what marks this out as unique is the unusual nature its chosen instrumentation. That and its thoroughly ramshackle atmosphere! The drums all have this dirty, mangled quality to them, paired with clamoring metallic percussion and decomposing synth textures. Imperfect music made with machines. It's all very Atari 2600!
Neuphrique rides in on a minute of clanking rhythm before deep, organ-ic synths just ooze over the track like a river of vibe. The whole thing's held down by a decaying, 8-bit synth bassline that drives the tune forward, giving it a logical sense of progression. Here Come The Squares continues down the same path, this time bringing the ray of light vibes of Deanne Day into this record's ramshackle aesthetic. There's a tactile sense of physicality that sets this all apart from what's come before.
Blue Pole Dancer plays out its melody on a sparse cluster of electronic tones, while grimy detuned percussion taps out a counterpoint melody of its own. Tidy Unit is practically a rumination on these same warped sheet-metal drums, rhythm and melody nearly atomized by distortion. The reticent music box reverie of Raider would be soothing but for the rickety percussion running right through its center, while Phrique Out unfurls a distant rustling, underwater atmosphere as a single hi-hat bores through the mix with metronomic precision.
I can't think of another record remotely like it. Despite the twisted abstraction, there's a real human dimension to this record, a beating heart at its motorik core. You can hear a lingering 80s influence creeping into view here, one that would be increasingly felt as the decade winds to a close; also the first real shades of post punk. In fact, this record sounds something like if some Sheffield crew in the orbit of Fast Product time-travelled to 1997, heard Basic Channel for the first time, and then tried to show the blokes back home what it sounded like when they returned.
Back to home base, where those early shades of electro have begun to creep in at every corner to the point that they've come to define the sound. Plunge does just what it says on the tin, with well-deep textures bombing through a slithering electroid rhythm. We Love Mutronics (Keith Boy Remix) is nearly straight up electro, giving a tantalizing hint of things to come, before breaking into a junglist canter for its last couple minutes. Spraycan Attack gives a rare glimpse of the duo's deeply warped take on drum 'n bass, a sound they'd return to on their next EP before abandoning it altogether for electro's android rhythm matrix.
Still, there's a very satisfying amount of deep house in effect here.
The shimmering Turn The Filter Off is a jazzed-out exploration of the nascent micro-house sound, now just starting to be felt as a presence out in clubland. Kickin' In (Part 3) and Spin Desire both revisit the haunting house-music-played-on-a-double-bass sound of Rico's Helly. It's one of the most recognizable sounds in house, up there with the crystal clear synths of Larry Heard's Ammnesia and the warped filter-disco psychedelia of Moodymann's Silentintroduction.
Standing in for loads of electro-tinged 2LS remixes around this time (many of which are collected on Peppered With Spastic Magic: A Collection Of Two Lone Swordsmen Remixes). This is my favorite of the bunch, almost accidentally prefiguring the whole eighties revival years before the fact (see also I-f and Little Computer People). The third and final appearance of Primal Scream in this list. Weatherall maintained a continual relationship with the band, reworking tracks from all their albums up to and including Exterminator.
This an under-the-radar rework of the strangest (and my favorite) track from 1997's Vanishing Point (inspired by the 1971 amphetamine road movie starring Barry Newman). The original was a warped dub endeavor, with all levels overdriven into the red and Bobby Gillespie's vocals distorted beyond comprehension. Here cycling electro beats propel the tune at an uptempo double-time, while the dub signifiers of the original swirl all around. It all sounds so unforced, so natural, that you manage to forget the original while it's playing.
Sounding like an Arthur Baker remix of Mark Stewart + Maffia, it's a sound that should have existed in the eighties but never did. But now it does, and one can feel the next decade slowly begin to take shape...
This last gasp of The Sabres Of Paradise is essentially a straight-up dub track (the title is Dub easy spelled backward), albeit one with a strong post punk flavor about it. Like much of Weatherall's dance music, this is heavily inflected by echoes of post punk, memories of rock past. This an unreleased tune (it says recorded May 93 on the label) that washed up on the Dubnology 2: Lost In Bass compilation in 1996. Andrew must have decided it wouldn't hurt to press up a few copies onto wax. As a single-sided 7", it excels.
Whispering hi-hats and the occasional clanking drum fill tap out the rhythm as a towering bassline provides the foundation for the track. Morricone-esque harmonicas peal through the soundscape and a vibrating guitar figure sails across the sky. A vocal bit from an old Count Ossie record intones, ever since I was a youth, I've always been searching for the truth.
And that's it. So simple, but so necessary! Once again, all remarkably physical (that word again). This would have fit right in on Haunted Dancehall. I'm glad it saw the light of day (makes you wonder what's still in the vaults!). Pictured above is the flipside, which features an etching of some trademark Sabres imagery. Intimidating and sleazy!
This is great! The dark horse of this list, featuring Weatherall at his absolute jazziest. In an interview, he once singled this out as his favorite remix that he'd done up to that point.2Red Snapper were a band that split the difference between trip hop and electronic jazz, and here their juke joint original gets reworked into an insouciantly dread-soaked delight.
A strangely beautiful synth refrain unwinds over rolling breakbeats and a two note organ vamp, all while squealing electronic textures wind their way through the mix. You want to hear a an MC freestyle over this beat. I'm reminded of some of the great Terranova b-sides, tunes like Sin Bin and Millennium Bug, where they're just running the machines as they unspool strange melodies over cascading breakbeats. Perhaps a shade more lighthearted, but still overcast, conjuring up images of late night taxi rides and third floor apartments overlooking the naked city.
You also get the Two Lone Swordsmen Blue Jam Cologne Mix, which plays out the record like a beatless coda.
This is where I came in at the time, and the first Weatherall record I ever picked up. As a teenage fan of Drexciya and Kevin Saunderson, it made perfect sense.18 The lovely vintage sleeve art by James Woodbourne a perfect encapsulation of the arcane sounds contained within. Deep sea divers. The Nautilus. Two Lone Swordsmen go aquatic! Upon reflection, there always was an Ocean Of Sound quality to their work, so I suppose here they're just making it official.
In this interview2 that I keep referencing, which was conducted just after the album's release, Weatherall talks a great deal about what influenced him in putting this record together:
During the making of the album I was mainly influenced by library records, Italian b-movie soundtracks and early synthesizer records. Just basically anything that was funky and had early keyboards on top. A lot of those library records sound like the studios have just invested in synthesizers. They're just jammin' away on those records.
Which paints a better thumbnail sketch of what you're getting into than I ever could. At the time, I had no idea what library records were, but gradually I discovered things like the KPM label and Sam Spence's records. Music that was recorded with the intent to be used as bedding music for television and the like. At the time, I can think of only Boards Of Canada being tuned into the same frequency. This years before Ghost Box turned it all into a way of life!
Weatherall also talked of wanting the tracks to be on the shorter side, with the record clocking in at the 45 minute length of classic LPs. Of time spent really crafting the album as a cohesive set of songs, an experience. Truthfully, I think he'd always had a knack for it, but with Stay Down it's taken to a whole other level. This is the point when — even as he's submerging himself in the ocean's depths — Weatherall's work arcs gracefully toward the heavens. When you put the record on, you can immediately tell you're witnessing something special.
Hope We Never Surface begins the proceedings on a note of oceanic tranquility, with a sequence of lustrous analogue tones (sounding as if they were submerged underwater) unspooling in a state of ambient bliss. This mood endures into Ink Cloud19, its crystalline synths sounding like the gates opening to an underwater palace, introducing a scraping trip hop beat and ancient electric organs as the record begins to ever so gradually pick up some steam.
The Big Clapper wires a 303 bassline to an ungainly dub rhythm, whistling synths and trebly tones zig-zagging across a sullen string section, the whole thing striking the perfect balance between zaniness and melancholy. A short sharp shock. Just as you begin to work it out, it stops.2Ivy And Lead takes this notion to its extreme, with a mischievous vibraphone loop strolling across a wood bassline and rewinding electronic percussion, despondent strings sawing out beneath the underwater jazz.
There's a quite a bit of aquatic electro to be found here as well, picking up where A Bag Of Blue Sparks20 EP left off. We Change The Frequency recalls contemporary Drexciya (especially The Return Of Drexciya EP), while the dark, delicate shapes of Light The Last Flare predict Keith Tenniswood's Radioactive Man project. The pronounced swing of Mr. Paris's Monsters even bears a passing resemblance to the nascent sounds of UK garage.
No Red Stopping is the record's one concession to the 4/4 beat, and it's a murky house masterpiece, one of the album's true highlights. Ethereal synths float across a DX-100-sounding bassline imbued with a moody glow as an uncomplicated kick-snare groove rolls out beneath it, teeming with re-triggered clicks and trebly hi-hats. Apparently, it was inspired by a local taxi driver who'd come from war-torn Sarajevo, who wouldn't stop at red lights because you'd get shot at by snipers at traffic lights back home.2
The austere downbeat of Spine Bubbles provides a hint of things to come on the A Virus With Shoes EP,21 even if this album's take on trip hop is far more unique. In its home stretch, Stay Down diverges into a couple idiosyncratic breakbeat workouts. The seasick strings and tricky rhythms of We Discordians (Must Stick Apart) recall peak-era Black Dog, while Alpha School's staggering breakbeats underpin another music box melody and a bass progression straight out of the new wave playbook.
Like a strange, pleasant dream — the sort of dream you wake up from in a state of intense emotion, with inexplicable tears in your eyes — coming to a gradual but inevitable end, the record closes solemnly with the aptly-titled As Worldly Pleasures Wave Goodbye... A glitched-out rhythm tap dances in treble across the surface of the most mournful underwater strings since Gavin Bryars' The Sinking Of The Titanic. It's the perfect conclusion to an arcane record, teeming with mystery, as eccentric and inscrutable as Weatherall himself.
After the elegiac heights (and depths) of Stay Down, this record initially came as a shock. Sure, everything was still remarkably tactile and of-human-dimension, but with none of the humanity, like a dusty circuitboard from 1984. Gone are the dreamlike shades of wistful melancholy and the mesmerising underwater visions drifting in and out of focus, lost now for all time. In their place stands an unforgiving matrix of pumping sinister electro. After all, the nineties are over... it's now the 21st century. Watch your back, partner.
Instantly, we're submerged back into the seething paranoia of Haunted Dancehall, but with all of the dub-derived warmth sucked out with a vampire's precision. This is the sound of The Parallax View's conspiracies hidden in plain light, the claustrophobic noir of The Manchurian Candidate and Max Cohen's tortured descent into the secrets of Pi. The record even opens with the first in a series of Tiny Reminder interludes, electro-acoustic passages scattered throughout the record like a string of clues to a mystery with no solution.
Menacing electro is the order of the day, traxx with short, functional names like Neuflex, Solo Strike and Brootle. A tune like Akwalek sounds like a memory of some finer day that's been digitized into the machine, all the joy lost in its pixellated, 8-bit approximation of reality. These tracks are no less varied than what's come before, it's just that they're all played out on one solitary, twisted game grid, defined by its nasty computer sounds.
One thing that the demented techno of Death To All Culture Snitches, Foreververb's derezzed hip hop and Rotting Hill Carnival's skewed music box funk have in common is that they all sound like some barely-comprehended nightmare, unfolding in a frieze of gradually revealed horror. The one moment that's even vaguely comforting is the technoid micro-house of The Bunker, it's resolute groove seeming to dig deep within its memory banks looking for a reason not to give up.
One wonders how much the Nine O'Clock Drop compilation that Weatherall put together around the same time had coloured the Swordsmen's sound in the studio. There's definitely a sense of the same baleful grooviness here that one would find in the post punk of A Certain Ratio's Waterline, The Normal's Warm Leatherette and Colourbox's Looks Like We're Shy One Horse (all of which figure into Nine O'Clock Drop's tracklisting), the same sense of deranged physicality one hears Memories by Public Image Ltd. or latterly Radiohead's Idioteque.
In a fascinating turn, the record-closing trudge It's Not The Worst I've Looked... Just The Most I've Ever Cared sounds as if it were played on live instruments, the strung out bass and stumbling drums carving out a literal connection to post punk's sense of dislocation. It stands as a great question mark punctuating these proceedings, offering an unexpected glimpse into the direction the Swordsmen would take in a few years time...
But first, they set up the Rotters Golf Club label and spent a few years making deliriously retro-flavoured electro. Kicking off with the two-part Machine Funk Specialists EPs, featuring a flurry of names like Klart, Aramchek, Decal and Rude Solo (most of which were actually the Swordsmen in disguise), the label specialized in a playful, eighties-inflected sound that veered from the Gothic synth pop of Remote to Radioactive Man's punishing electro and even the ghetto-tech influenced speedfreak frenzy of Klart.
In many ways, RGC parallels the contemporary music of figures like Anthony Rother, ADULT., Andrea Parker's Touchin' Bass label. Arty figures getting in on some tasty, no-nonsense electrofunk action. The eighties were undeniably in the air, percolating underground for a spell before hitting the mainstream in the twin forms of electroclash and the post punk revival. As a child of the 80s who never stopped loving the music (even in the grungy 90s, when it was thoroughly out of fashion), I was in heaven.
At this point Keith Tenniswood produced Dot Allison's sophomore album, which turned out to be a dazzling blend of bubbling electronic pop and blissed-out synth/guitar architecture, and one of my absolute favorite records of the era. Embarrassingly, I'd misremembered it as a joint Weatherall/Tenniswood production, and almost included it in this list! Fortunately, on double-checking the liner notes I caught myself just in time...
All of which is a roundabout way of introducing From The Bunker: A Rotters Golf Club Mix, which was compiled and mixed by Andrew Weatherall. Opening with the demented swinging electro of Radioactive Man's Uranium (very nearly a cold-blooded 2-step track) to the throbbing madness of Aramchek's Driver and Klart's Raver (coming on like an old video game theme played on a big rig), it's an unmissable romp through the label's back catalogue.
I've got a whole bunch of the RGC records from back in the day. It might have been cooler to single out that golden 12", something like Machine Funk Specialists Part 1 or Aramchek's Benicassim EP, but that wouldn't give you the full scope of what the boys were up to here. Besides, my favorite moments on the label both happen to be non-Weatherall moments: Remote's Remotion and Radioactive Man's Uranium.
So take this as a choice way in to the Rotters Golf Club, and if you dig what you hear... feel free to indulge further. A detour perhaps, but a whole lot of fun.
Now this was a surprise when I first picked it up. Why, this wasn't electronic music at all! From the opening creaky horns of Stack Up, with it's loose drum beat and Peter Hook-esque bassline, it was clear we weren't in Kansas anymore. I was so disappointed! And yet, that feeling gradually gave way and it became one of my most-played records of the year, right alongside Wiley's Treddin' On Thin Ice, Moodymann's Black Mahogani and Brian Wilson's Smile.
With the transition into real deal post punk — decked out with guitar, bass and drums — complete, you get these great crunching instrumentals like Formica Fuego and The Lurch, songs that are just waiting to appear in the inevitable Repo Man remake. My absolute favorite moments the roiling black hole of Damp and the exhausted misery of the album-closing Driving With My Gears In Reverse (Only Makes You Move Further Away). What can I say, I was a sad lad.
But the big surprise here is a whole raft of vocal tracks featuring vocals from Andrew Weatherall front-and-center, like the dessicated glam rock of Kamanda's Responseand Punches And Knives. There's even a cover version of The Gun Club's Sex Beat! And I exaggerated somewhat when I said this wasn't electronic music at all: tunes like Faux and Sick When We Kiss are more-or-less straight-up electro, albeit electro played by caustic post punks.
So how did this happen? Well, like KRS-One, I was there, so let me tell you. Whereas in 2001 it felt like dance-culture-as-we-knew-it was going to soldier on forever, a dozen-odd months later it just seemed tired, worn-out. Warning signs included the over-saturation of minimal techno (I remember downloading a set where every track sounded like Aril Brikha's Groove La Chord) and the splintering of every genre into sub-genre into a million different pieces. Bummer, man.
I remember a distinct shift, when by the end of 2002, I'd started listening to more vintage techno and house (followed by soul, funk, jazz, hip hop, glam, prog, etc. etc. etc.) than the latest releases. The unifying force, ever more tenuously holding the culture together, just seemed to break apart beyond repair. Everything seemed so simultaneously balkanized and sterile that there was a distinct desire to rude it all up again. Punk rock!
Prefigured by the rise of retro-electro (see #22), electroclash and post-disco-inflected house like Metro Area, it all seemed to flow naturally into a reinvigoration of post punk (the original abstract rude music). Hence things like DFA and Richard X. All of which happened to coincide with the latest in rude boy noise, the rise of grime in the U.K. The zeitgeist had irretrievably shifted, and there was no going back now...22
Consequently, this marks the beginning of third and latest phase of Weatherall's career, where we enter the upside down and everything is inverted: rock and post punk become the prime architecture, inflected by the faded memories of dance music past.
The Big Silver Shining Motor Of Sin EP followed shortly after, a companion piece to this record featuring a remix of Sex Beat, but more importantly two new tracks: the electroid Showbizz Shotguns and the awesome post punk stomp of Feast!
Not so much a remix as a complete reworking, this is essentially a cover by the newly-minted live band version of Two Lone Swordsmen. Taking one of the key micro-house records23 — up there with Isolée's Beau Mot Plage — and turning it into a post punk dirge might sound like a bad idea on paper, but against all odds the crew forge ahead and wind up with another unlikely minor gem.
The sound here comparable to The Lurch, with dulcimer tones playing the original tune's melody over a burning drum/bass workout. The highlight is the elegiac guitars twisting above it all like a cargo plane in flight, creaking in the slipstream. All of these instrumentals revel in the very sound of post punk's sonic vocabulary, the way one looks at a faded photograph and truly cherishes the memories it holds; memories of — what were at the time — just another day.
25. Two Lone SwordsmenWrong Meeting & Wrong Meeting II
(Rotters Golf Club: 2007)
A couple years go by and the Swordsmen are back, this time on the newly re-animated Rotters Golf Club label, heralded the prior year by Andrew Weatherall's The Bullet Catcher's Apprentice EP (his first solo release). The label no longer synonymous with electro mischief but a brand of sleazy rock 'n roll defined by its grimy guitar buzz and low-slung backbeat.24 As strange as it may sound, by this point the Swordsmen have practically becomeThe Clash!
These two records released a couple months apart before coming out in the U.S. as the Wrong Meetings double-album, so I'm counting them as one. I know it's a dirty trick, but hey, it's my list and I tend to get untrustworthy when having to eliminate things. I'll use every trick in the book to sneak them in! Besides, they complement each other so well that it'd be a shame to keep only one.
If there's one thing that sets this record apart from From The Double Gone Chapel's year zero, when the duo first started messing around with live instruments, it's that everything now sounds lived-in and balanced. Where the seams once showed between the electro beats and the post punk burners, the vocal tracks and the instrumentals, and the live instruments and the machines, they've now all been fully integrated into a symbiotic whole.
Whereas much of Chapel felt like loose sonic sketches, there's no getting around the fact that each of these tunes are full-fledged songs.
This newfound comfort with the form also frees up the space for new emotions to come pouring in. Weatherall's vocals have developed by leaps and bounds, picking up a ragged fragility miles beyond the cold deadpan of his earlier delivery. Patient Saints — with it's tumbling drums underpinning a sad, stately tale of The patient saints of selfless acts, the more they gave the less they got back — is a perfect illustration of the changing stakes.
The first Wrong Meeting record — which Patient Saints opens beautifully — is basically a straight up rock record, which nevertheless retains the overcast mood that we've come to expect from the MKII Swordsmen. Tunes like No Girl In My Plan and Evangeline ply a sort of sinister rockabilly that's a worthy successors to The Cramps' own voodoo-soaked garage punk. This is truly phenomenal stuff, and at the time I used to cane Evangeline in the mix every chance I got. I remember tales filtering back from the U.K. of Andy spinning rockabilly seven-inches in the clubs, sporting a handlebar moustache!25
Think this is just a retro-nostalgia trip? Well, No Girl In My Plan rides this great throbbing bassline that sounds like something from a contemporary grime record, and Weatherall hurls couplets like, The angel on her right says beware of her advances, while the demon on her left has seen the way she dances. with a venom that sounds utterly of-the-moment. Like the Arctic Monkeys, this is a rock 'n roll that feels right at home 21st century.
Wrong Meeting II picks up where the first record's Get Out Of My Kingdom leaves off, with the jagged guitar downbeat shuffle of Mountain Man tracing its mood with a jagged line into the electro-punk-disco of Shack 54. The whole midsection continues this heavier dance angle, with razor's edge synths and racing electro threading elegantly through the clanking guitar cacophony.
The Ghosts Of Dragstrip Hollow seems to fuse both sides of the record, before it all gets tied up in a bow with the slow-motion stomp of Born Bad/Born Beautiful, winding the proceedings back down to a slow-burning rock for it's protracted denouement. The gently unfolding, stoic mood of If You Lose Control Of Yourself... (You Give It To Somebody Else) ends the record on a strangely contented note, as if the austere, foreboding atmosphere of the last few records had only just begun to lift.
These remains the final Two Lone Swordsmen recordings to date (although the duo still collaborate in other forms). Still, it does set the stage for everything to follow...
After a protracted break (reading between the lines in this interview,26 it sounds like he was cleaning up and working through his demons), Weatherall returns with his first true solo LP after over twenty years in the game. A Pox On The Pioneers finds him ploughing a rich furrow at the intersection of kosmische and dark new wave, with brittle drum machines and ancient synths intertwining with the ghosts of Wrong Meeting's raucous rockabilly.
It's a classy sound, evocative of an eighties where Bowie's Heroes and Iggy's The Idiot — and by extension Harmonia Deluxe and Neu! '75 — had an even grander influence blazing through the decade, changing the path of everything from to new wave to alternative in the process. There's a lot of what ifs that start to crop up when one listens to these late-period Weatherall records:
What if punk hadn't sought to tear down everything that came before it, but to build upon that foundation, injecting a strong sense of futurism into everything it touched. A few years later, new romantic's DNA intertwines with post punk's cold grey landscape — rather than seeking to replace it — and the ancient organic synths of kosmische bleed even deeper into the eighties. Imagine the aural equivalent of Repo Man's spacier, mellotron-inflected moments, or the whole of Beyond The Black Rainbow. It's the sound of a few variables shifted, subtly changing every moment as time marches on, making all the difference in the world.
The first record I remember that conjured up this sort of image was another refugee from dance music, Death In Vegas. In 2005, their fourth album Satan's Circus, with its leather-clad kosmische/post punk hybrid, sounded as if it were beamed in from a parallel dimension built from similar parameters. It cropped up again in the Minimal Wave series of compilations (which came out on Stones Throw, of all places!), full of old music seemingly beamed in from this alternate reality.
There was a subtle sense at this time of certain bands moving beyond the literalism of the initial wave of post punk revivalists to carve out unique sounds of their own. Groups like Blank Dogs and The Vaccines seemed to tap into the same gestalt, while The Good, The Bad & The Queen for all the world sounded like they sprung from this same eighties where kosmische was the dominant force in pop music. I suppose that Chris Corner might have beat them all to the punch, first with Sneaker Pimps' Splinter and then the IAMX record, in envisioning a 1980s in absence of sunlight.
All of which brings us back to Weatherall's maiden voyage as a solo artist. Launching with Fail We May, Sail We Must, it sets the scene (along with its sleeve) for a briny endeavor across the stormy surface of the same oceanic depths he'd essayed a decade prior. In fact, the vocals throughout have a real chanted, sea shanty quality to them (especially the title track).27 Strangely enough, Miss Rule seems to predict a whole brace of radio hits from the coming decade that would mine a similar concept (things like Elle King's Ex's & Oh's).
There's often a fragile delicacy to the record's nimble rhythms, unspooling gently beneath the record's waterlogged textures, and there are oceans of space within the songs themselves. The soundscape is awash in reverb, its mix literally drowning the sonic squall, conjuring up images of stormy skies and choppy waters. And there you find yourself, isolated somewhere within them, lost at sea.
Liar With Wings is a lonely, wide-open chanson that seems to with the sails, while All The Little Things (That Make Life Worth Living) features synths that seem to sway in seasick arcs across the pitter-patter of brittle drum machines before inevitably flowing into its frail synthesizer coda. The slow-burning Built Back Higher — punctuated by synths that seem to fall like droplets gathered from swirling ocean mists — sounds as if it might dissipate into thin air.
Like Stay Down, this record seems carefully crafted into a sonic journey, with every twist and turn guiding the listener toward its inevitably aching conclusion. In this case, that conclusion arrives on the wings of Walk Of Shame, carried along by vaguely discoid rhythms out into the horizon (and intimating the sound of Weatherall's next big project). It's a natural end to a natural record, an album that feels almost as if it were brought in by the tide.
As I was saying a moment ago, The Asphodells — which is the duo of Andrew Weatherall and Timothy J. Fairplay — seem to pick up exactly where the last record's Walk Of Shame left off. Beglammered glides in on a brittle disco rhythm, it's quasi-melodica melody and flowing sequences bringing to mind the Eastern motifs of Charanjit Singh's Jupiter 8 from Synthesizing: Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat.
There's an illuminating interview26 from a few years back (and which I mentioned earlier) that coincided with the release of this record, where Weatherall regales with stories from his long and winding journey through music's corridors, all while he carves out a brand new linotype image. In many ways, this record squares the circle between his most recent works of kosmische post punk and his earliest forays into dance music. At times, I'm particularly reminded of his Nonsonicus Maximus Mix of Jah Wobble's Bomba.28
One could read The Asphodells as Weatherall's own Metro Area moment, like Morgan Geist a veteran figure digging back into the world of disco. In this case, Weatherall seems to be plying a Teutonic take on cosmic disco's chugging, otherworldly rhythms. Or, to expand on my earlier metaphor, what if — language barrier be damned — Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW, aka German New Wave) had been as big as the second British invasion (Duran Duran, Eurythmics, et. al.). Images of D.A.F. filling stadiums, electro-punks wearing jackets emblazoned with the Geile Tiere logo and Andreas Dorau on MTV. This is the music that might have come in the wake of such an (unlikely) scenario.
A tune like The Quiet Dignity (Of Unwitnessed Lives) sounds like if 80s synth pop had retained Kraftwerk's sense of Europe-endlessness, with Low standing this time as the epoch-defining Bowie record (especially the instrumentals). Like A Pox On The Pioneers, this album is driven by loosely-sequenced 808 beats, albeit with a greater horizontal sense of linearity (although One Minute's Silence does seem, in part at least, to connect back with that record's prevailing mood).
If I'm being brutally honest, I've never been crazy about this record's cover version of A Love From Outer Space (but then the A.R. Kane original is one of my favorite songs ever). However, nearly everything else — from the proto-acid sounds of Skwatch to Another Lonely City's impeccably sequenced landscapes — meshes together to round out a winning record with a unique vision. If nothing else, this is an album to drift away to.
Tangentially, I was tempted to include Weatherall's motorik remix of Wooden Shjips' Crossing, which is cut from a similar kosmische-inflected cloth. Unfortunately, there just wasn't the space!
This vinyl-only release by The Woodleigh Research Facility features Weatherall working with sometime Swordsmen collaborator Nina Walsh. From the sleeve — which has the distinct, unadorned appearance of a vintage library record — on down, this seems to run parallel to the terrain essayed masterfully by Ghost Box in the 21st century. However, the surfaces here are pristine — clinical even — miles away from GB's crumbly electronica.
If anything, The Phoenix Suburb seems to pick up where The Asphodells left off, presenting the cold, deflated other to that record's warm cosmic grooves. The rhythms of this album share in the same linear 808 pulse, stretching endlessly onto the horizon. In many ways, I'm reminded of Ultramarine's Every Man And Woman Is A Star, from the era just before the ambient-leaning fabric of Artificial Intelligence was shredded to abstraction by the IDM brigades.
This record glides by on a chassis of pure electro, its austere electronic textures interacting with the rhythms in an uncomplicated manner. Some tunes, like The Question Oak and Dumont's Assistant almost veer toward a driving EBM atmosphere, while quieter moments like Osler's Crystal Fountain settle into peaceful cul de sacs of sound. The overall effect throughout is that of the duo donning lab coats and working the machines in a rustic cabin in the countryside.
A minor record, perhaps, but an interesting (and quite listenable) one nonetheless.
The first record credited solely to Andrew Weatherall since 2009's A Pox On The Pioneers came tumbling out with little fanfare seven years later, and it's a total classic. Convenanza's sound is teeming with myriad instruments and textures, from spacious slide guitar to eerie, echoing brass, ancient synths and (of course) that trademark combination of motorik beat and rumbling bassline that we've come to expect. It might just be me, but I believe that the sound that Weatherall has achieved with this record is quite simply sublime.
I'm reminded immediately of Holger Czukay's French horn, particularly on records like Snake Charmer (see the spooked mutant disco pulse of The Confidence Man) and On The Way To The Peak Of Normal. Also, the throbbing rhythms of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
Both of which put us in Terminal Vibration territory, and fair enough. This is the 21st century outpost of that sound, leaning bravely toward the future.
By far the fullest and most fleshed-out of Weatherall's more recent records, perhaps moreso than anything since Stay Down, Convenanza is above all else a pleasure to listen to. These lushly populated landscapes, full of ornate, sculpted sound, form the perfect foundation for Weatherall's disembodied vocals reverberating throughout. The opening instrumental groove of Frankfurt Advice — with its rolling bass sequences, arcing horns and low-slung guitar echoing beyond — offers a perfect illustration of this principle in action.
Now don't let me be misunderstood: this record is not one giant wall of sound. There's still plenty of space in the mix. Take the fragmented groove of Kicking The River, whose drum machines seem to gear up only to fade from view and back again. And that wandering guitar line — literally weaving its way through the song's fabric — always makes me think of the warped pop of seventies Eno.
One unexpected aspect of the record is how certain stretches of this record manage to excel much contemporary pop, which is often only notionally catchy. The dreamy shades of We Count The Stars have wrapped within them a remarkably pretty song, even as the horns go off on variations of their own in the distance. But then, old Andy has always had an ear for a tune, even before he started making them with vocals.
The Last Walk — another instrumental — continues Weatherall's latent tradition of forging connections between records, in this case stretching back through The Phoenix Suburb and The Asphodells, with its motorik rhythms, and shading directly into the dour vocal style of A Pox On The Pioneers. It's the one track here that seems to tie back to earlier styles, even as its monumental synth progression squares it firmly within the world of Convenanza.
However, where this record has them all beat is in its quiet passages of gentle beauty. The lightly tapping rhythm of Disappear is dominated by its heavily-reverbed vocals (including spectral female backing) as outer space sounds punctuate every bar and what sounds like a theremin winds searchingly throughout. The record's penultimate track, Thirteenth Night, unwinds with a circular synth pattern soaring across gently rolling rhythm boxes, offering a moment of tranquility before the record's stunning conclusion.
Ghosts Again finds Weatherall asking Please forgive this letter, from a shipwrecked soul, while a pair of guitars intertwine beneath in an elegiac duel. An acoustic strums out the rhythm while a Morricone-damaged electric dances across it's face. One lone tambourine keeping time as a searching cello twists its way into your heart. It's a stunning climax to a deeply affecting record, one that feels like the culmination of the man's work going all the way back to the beginning. Of all the 21st century Weatherall records, this is undoubtedly my favorite.
Clearing the air after the formidable heights of Convenanza is last year's Qualia, which closes out today's golden thirty (exit music, for a film). Weatherall's latest record features the man ploughing his own particular furrow, this time with an octet of motorik mood pieces. The sleeve, which mimics the cover art from Walter Wegmüller's krautrock stone tablet Tarot, a dead giveaway, and rather appropriate for this set of gently unfurling post-kosmische instrumentals.
The combination of live motorik drumming and rolling analogue sequences brings to mind (once again) Satan's Circus by Death In Vegas, but this time the production is sparse and immaculate. The uncomplicated groove of Darktown Figures, with its Spartan guitar line and ultra-fake sounding synthesized brass, sounds like something from an OST. At one point, the drums cut out and you're left with a rhythm box, pattering away. Everything here working as invisible soundtrack music.
Note the bearded Weatherall on the record's sleeve, a look he's been rocking for about a decade (if I'm not mistaken). I dig it, the sort of rugged mountaineer of electronic music... the man in the hills. It's the look of a man who's spent three decades at the coalface of underground music, and has earned the right to call himself a true original. What is it about electronic musicians that they age so much more gracefully than rocker stars? Perhaps Grace Slick was right about everything...
So that rounds out our little excursion across Andrew Weatherall's (roughly) thirty years in underground music. In thirty records. Ok, ok, I realize that technically this was actually 33 records, but like I said I'm a greedy bastard when it comes to music! If you want me to narrow it down to just three to start with, then check out Primal Scream's Screamadelica, Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down and Andrew Weatherall's Convenanza, each of which hail from the three distinct phases of the man's recording career (along with the ever-changing zeitgeist). Then keep on digging in, because at the end of the day, the records speak for themselves...
Balearic is, crudely put, a type of record that usually springs from somewhere at the interface of rock, soul and club music. Many of these records were brought over from Ibiza (one of the Balearic islands off the coast of Spain), where an open-minded policy reigned supreme: if the record grooved, then it got played. As such, all manner of records got swept up into the category, from the driving indie rock of The WoodentopsWhy, Why, Why to the slow burning funk of Richie Havens' Goin' Back To My Roots and Yello's Bostich. The concept was so useful that to this day new records are often described as Balearic in spirit.
In light of Terminal Vibration, it's interesting to note the swingbeat-tinged remix version from Tackhead on the Raise remix 12", making literal the connection between post punk and rave's early years. In the world of dance music, post punk wasn't a retro move ten years after, but very much in its DNA from the beginning.
And wouldn't you know it, Substance gets reworked by the Moody Boys (aka Tony Thorpe), who started out in post punk group 400 Blows and later made his mark on house music with the Warrior's Dance label. The Terminal Vibrations just don't stop!
Note that Junior Boy's Own put out the earliest releases by The Chems, records like Song To The Siren and the Fourteenth Century Sky EP. In retrospect, sort of funny that one of the era's most self-consciously tasteful label enabled the duo to wreak their havoc (much to the chagrin of music snobs everywhere)!
Juan Atkins is another one that hinted at the idea of micro-house long before it would become a going concern, with Infiniti's Flash Flood (1993) and Game One (1994), and M500's Starlight and Lightspeed (both from the 1995 Deep Space LP, recorded with Basic Channel's Mark Ernestus and Mortiz Von Oswald) all on the shelves by mid-decade. I should do a little feature on all of this someday...
[Blinks and does a double take, jumping back a couple inches in the process.] Was this the basis for Escape 120 by Joey Bada$$!? I'm 90% sure that it's a sped up sample of this tune. How did I never notice that?
Ink Cloud was omitted from the U.S. version of Stay Down released by Matador, which instead included most of the A Bag Of Blue Sparks EP. So strange, why not include one less song from the other EP? However, this was actually very common, and I have a whole stack of CDs that I had to re-buy to get the full version, things like Plaid's Not For Threes and Andrea Parker's Kiss My Arp.
A Bag Of Blue Sparks was released less than a month before Stay Down, and provided a stunning preview of that record's deep sea electro (along with a deliciously strange detour into drum 'n bass with Black Commandments). It's quite good (especially the island vibes of Electric 4 Bird), and comes highly recommended to anyone who can't get enough of Stay Down's electro side.
Coming out a year later, A Virus With Shoes found the duo delving as deep into abstract hip hop as they ever would, with seven tracks of slow-motion breakbeat noir (plus an ambient one). The Bogeyman remix beats it out for inclusion here, but it does have the distinction of featuring the first instance of a 2LS record with a fully vocal track (It Fits samples a large section of the acappella of Electronic's Prodigal Sun).
Strangely enough, a few years earlier I'd started mixing new wave records like Simple Minds' I Travel and The B-52'sMesopotamia. This actually long before I was even aware of any of this. Something was definitely in the air.
A few years earlier, Weatherall had mixed the Hypercity compilation for the Force Tracks label. A twilight run through the corridors of micro-house, featuring artists like Håkan Lidbo and Luomo, it's a solid little mix. I still have it lying around here somewhere...
See also the otherworldly synths of Screamadelica, which as often as not seem to reach into a time before electronic music had crawled onto the dancefloor. There's a fair bit of the old world even in Weatherall's earliest work. These records didn't come out of nowhere!
I caught The Afghan Whigs live at the North Park Observatory last night with my main man Gryphon. They were opening for indie rock stalwarts Built To Spill, whose output I'd always meant to explore but hadn't yet gotten around to. Jim assured me that they were a crucial influence on countless indie bands to come in their wake, bands like Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie. My limited knowledge of the group included a handful of the titles for their nineties records and the fact that they were often (perhaps lazily?) compared to Neil Young. So this was my chance to finally hear them.
The Whigs and I go way back though. I was in high school when I first heard Somethin' Hot, a tight little slab of throbbing rock 'n roll wired to a slinky, serpentine groove. It seemed to make sense in the wake of records like Primal Scream's Vanishing Point and U2's Pop (especially tunes like If They Move, Kill 'Em and Do You Feel Loved), records that spiked rock with a healthy dose of dancefloor dynamics. From there, I slowly worked my way back through their catalog in reverse chronological order, as it turned out. Of course, they broke up before I got a chance to see them live...
Their swan song (at the time) was 1965, which featured Somethin' Hot as both the opening track and lead single, a record that had a profound impact on me. To this day, it's probably my favorite album of theirs (although Black Love certainly gives it a run for its money). Tunes like City Soleil, Omerta and John The Baptist in particular, epitomize what made them so unique, with rich, cinematic production flourishes (horn charts, radio chatter, Spanish guitar, etc.), winding, full-bodied grooves and a blinding, white hot intensity. They were simply unlike anything else at the time. Their avowed love of soul music played a crucial role in their sound as well, with an incredible cover of The Supremes' Come See About Me and a gloriously drunken cover of TLC's Creep tucked away on various b-sides and EPs.
At least where I was coming from, they seemed to connect with the shadow self, that dark fuel that keeps you going when the chips are down. A dirty energy perhaps, but bury it at your peril. The Sneaker Pimps keyed into a similar frequency circa Splinter (another personal touchstone of mine from the era). The Whigs' sound was often a play of tension and paranoia, echoing the taut, wiry energy of post punk in a way few others were doing at the time, setting them apart from the landscape of 90s alternative rock. While maintaining a devoted following and consistently wowing the critics, they never really crossed over with that song, and it seemed as if they were destined to remain out of step with the times, doing their own thing (until they stopped doing it).
Imagine my surprise when they went and reunited fifteen years later, releasing a new record in 2014. Even more surprising was that it was a great record! Do The Beast is a worthy successor to the path laid out by 1965, Black Love, Gentlemen and Congregation, featuring new favorites like Matamoros and Algiers that update their sound in an era that — after fifteen years of post punk priming — their sound seems strangely enough more at home than it ever did back in the day.
Then, they did it again with last year's In Spades. It's rather rare for band's to come back this focused, but there you have it. As one might expect, with the new records came a new tour. I missed them last time they came to town due to circumstances beyond my control, but this time I wasn't gonna let the opportunity pass by. So Wednesday came and Gryphon and I found ourselves below the stage at The Observatory, waiting for the show to begin.
The Whigs hit the stage more or less on time with little fanfare and kicked into one of the new songs, Arabian Heights. They were tighter than I was expecting, losing none of their old intensity as the band unleashed a taut stream of focused energy conducted across furious breakbeats. It's so rare to hear a band you love actually improve with age. Greg Dulli's vocals in particular are far sharper than they often used to be on record.
Hearing Algiers live was a real treat. I remember being in total disbelief the first time I heard it on record (comparable to hearing Scott Walker's The Seventh Seal or Milton Nascimento & Lô Borges' Tudo Que Você Podia Ser for the first time), the gorgeous falsetto vocals, shimmering slide guitar and Be My Baby beats all swirling into a radiant crescendo. Great to hear Matamoros too (which, if you haven't seen it, has an excellent video), a tune with a focused intensity that sounds like something that should come from a band's debut, not tucked away on a reunion record thirty years later!
Thankfully, of the older moments that the band included was 1965's mini-epic John The Baptist, which made up for the loss of its considerable studio flourishes (backing vocals, strings and a horn section) with a diamond-hard intensity, really catching fire for the denouement. They also played Somethin' Hot, which brought it all full circle for me, back to when I first heard them as a 17 year old. Alongside what must be their best known song — Gentlemen's Debonair — these were the only songs from the band's original run to feature tonight.
The set actually leaned far more heavily on new material than I expected, but it was all the better for it. These new records aren't nostalgia trips but vital records in their own right, featuring a different group of musicians sporting a different chemistry, so why not focus on the material they'd worked up together? Besides, if they had played more of their older material, I doubt personal favorites like City Soleil, Faded and Honky's Ladder would have featured anyway! The band closed with the one-two punch of Light As A Feather and Into The Floor, and without warning it was all over...
About half-an-hour later Built To Spill took the stage. The first thing that shocked me about their sound was just how sprawlingly loose their sound was, on the order of the great 70s downbeat canyon funk jams like Wooden Ships, Bad Night At The Whiskey and Down By The River, smoldering with a ramshackle glory like some great galleon banking toward the heavens. As I said, I'd known about the inevitable Neil Young comparisons, and this tough little three piece really did get down like peak-era Crazy Horse, but I'd forgotten about Doug Martsch's status as an indie rock guitar hero (in the post-Dinosaur Jr. mold).
With the band laying down a cradle of swaying rhythm and Martsch working an array of pedals as he pulled great arcs of noise out of his guitar, it was hard to believe that such a swaying wall of sound was being conjured up by just three musicians. Martsch's vocals were phenomenal, complementing the music brilliantly in that quintessentially whiny (in the best possible sense) indie way (reminding me alternately of Eric Bachmann, Mac McCaughan and even Michael Stipe).
Unfortunately, as I'm not familiar with their records, I won't be much use to you as far as the specifics of the setlist. There was this one tune fairly early on that had a tremolo-laden surf guitar thing going on that was absolutely incredible. Real fantasy jam session stuff. Another highlight was a moving rendition of the Pretenders' immortal Back On The Chain Gang, which they rendered beautifully with a smeared post-Velvets drawl.
This morning, I checked the setlist on-line and set about figuring which tracks came from which albums, and they seem to have been pulled at a pretty even spread across their discography. With a definite desire to get familiar, I'm resolved to pick up records like Perfect From Now On, Keep It Like A Secret and There Is Nothing Wrong With Love, which happen to be the ones that I had been kinda-sorta aware of, along with their latest, Untethered Moon. All 'n all, it was an impressive show. Seeing a great band with such a rich history live (before I'd ever knowingly heard them) paired with one I'd grown up on was quite a dramatic experience. The Afghan Whigs and Built To Spill, live in San Diego at The Observatory... in a way, it was like taking a joyride to Algiers.
Jean-Michel Jarre live at Spreckels Theater (4/21/2018).
Saturday night, Snakes and I caught Jean-Michel Jarre at the Spreckels Theatre. Being the kind-hearted mensch that he is, Snakes hooked a brother up with a ticket to the show. We and Jarre go way back. It all started back in our school daze, when I was deep in the studio laying down what would become the b-side to Galaxies, Red Planet. On hearing the song, my wise uncle James remarked that it reminded him of Jarre's music. I had never heard of the man, and so he explained that he was one of the original electronic artists to make a big splash back in the day.
Fast-forward a few months to the following Christmas. On opening a gift from this very same uncle (with the tell-tale 5"x5½" dimensions), I was confronted with the Images compilation of Jarre's work. And thus opened up a whole new world of seventies electronica to my ears. As was often the case, Snakes and I would vibe out to the disc in the studio or cruising around town. Ultimately, word spread and eventually a tiny, informal Jean-Michel Jarre appreciation society seemed to spring up nearly overnight in the greater Allied Gardens/Grantville area. Ok, so it was just a handful of mates, but still...
Fast-forward twenty years spent with the man's music - the both of us acquiring various records like Oxygene and Equinoxe on multiple formats, spinning them out from time to time, plus descending further into the world of early electronic music with every passing year - and we're walking into the Spreckels Theatre to see Jean-Michel Jarre live and in person. It quickly became apparent that there was a sizeable presence of French ex-pats in attendance, while the age range of the crowd was pretty diverse. I'd guess we were somewhere in the middle.
Marco Grenier works the machines.
With little fanfare, the opening DJ strode out to set the stage with a sprawling set of cinematic electronica. Picture a hybrid of both Blade Runner OSTs, and that'll give you a decent idea of how it all began, with downtempo industrial beats entering the picture after the sweeping overture slowly gained steam. There was one track that reminded us of Daft Punk's score for Tron: Legacy before the set ultimately eased into a grinding midtempo stomp (think Fluke's Zion from the second Matrix film). There was even one song that sounded like a dead ringer for The Dream-era Kevin Saunderson.
Once the set had concluded, the lights came on for about twenty minutes. It was a stunning set, but no announcement was made of his name until Jarre called it out at the end of the evening (but we didn't catch it at the time!). Thankfully, Snakes did a bit of digging and discovered that the DJ in question was Marco Grenier. Mystery solved! Definitely worth investigating further. We were still reeling from it all when, after a brief wait, the lights dimmed again and show was ready to begin...
The show begins...
With a wild slab of synth noise cutting through the theatre from behind a translucent screen, the first portentous chords of the evening set the clockwork wheels in motion. Suddenly, the screen opened like a doorway to reveal vector door after vector door, revealing Jarre atop a platform center stage, ensconced within his machines. As Jarre conjured massive sounds from his vast array of synthesizers, he was matched by equally dazzling visuals in an remarkable multimedia spectacle. Accordingly, since we were seated for most of the show with no one sitting behind us, I snapped far more pictures than I usually would.
Lost in the hall of mirrors.
For the entirety of the show, Jarre was flanked by a drummer on his left and another synthesist on his right (actually, they both were manning myriad instruments at various points), bolstering the sound into more muscular groove than one might expect (shades of François Kevorkian drumming against Walter Gibbons' marathon DJ sets at Galaxy 21).
Jarre: Synthesizer King
It dawned on me about fifteen minutes in - and I can't believe it hadn't earlier - that Jarre's music exists not only in the continuum of seventies space music (with Oxygene a quintessential head elpee), but also served as a perfect complement to some of the more propulsive dancefloor moves of contemporary electronic denizens like Patrick Cowley and Giorgio Moroder in much the same way The Orb and The Future Sound Of London would have with the likes of Orbital and Joey Beltram. With Kraftwerk fitting into this equation roughly the same way Detroit does (but of course!).
Jarre don't play!
Suddenly, mid-show there was an unexpected shift into almost Wax Trax!-style industrial/EBM music. One tune made me flash on Front Line Assembly's The Blade (it took everything in me not to start repeating stick 'em up muthafucka, this is a hold up!). There was even a collaboration with Edward Snowden titled Exit (apparently from the recent Electronica 2 album), a pounding paranoid thriller of a track that tackled the subject of privacy (and the fight for the right to keep it).
Snowden himself even appeared onscreen to give a brief speech mid-song before being sampled to bits during the track's x-ray denouement. It was all very much of the spirit of Cabaret Voltaire's intense interrogations of surveillance and control. Thanks to Snakes for providing the above photo... I was so mesmerized by this sequence that I forgot to snap a picture!
Jarre... Guitar Hero?!?
The big surprise came at the end of the extended sequence, when Jarre himself strapped on a guitar to add some rugged crunch to the track's climax. Yeah, that was pretty cool.
Oxygene!?! More like Toxygene!
Of course various portions of Jarre's flagship piece, Oxygene were peppered throughout the marathon performance. The first to feature was the stratospheric drift of Oxygene 2, which coming face to face with in a live context drove home the fact that it's very much of a piece with someone like Daniele Baldelli's cosmic visions. I've always loved the way his loping rhythms aren't remotely like anyone else's (and the remain an obvious precursor to ambient house).
Oxygene 4 - perhaps the man's most widely known moment - featured as well, during which people were dancing in the aisles (one woman was doing some very spaced-out dancing - not unlike Keith Flint's car surfing during The Prodigy's Out Of Space music video. The Oxygene 8 (from the 90s-era Oxygene 7-13 record, a sequel of sorts) which I remember fit quite well with some of the more pastoral corners of trance that were happening at the time). I was reminded of Dr. Alex Paterson's remix of the track, which after thorough rejection from Jarre himself, he wound up releasing as The Orb's Toxygene. That was pretty funny.
Jarre plays the lasers.
At one point, Jarre - ever the showman - played a series of lasers fanning out toward the ceiling. Every time his hand would break the stream of the laser, a bass note would ring through the theatre. Depending on which stream he touched, a different note would sound off. Inevitably, the sequence grew increasingly complex until the man was doling out notes in rapid succession. If I'm not mistaken, this has been a hallmark of his stage show for some time.
Neil Tennant derezzed!
Another surprise (in an evening full of them) was a track that Jarre had recently recorded with the Pet Shop Boys, featuring twenty foot tall digital recreations of Neil Tennant singing to the rafters. A melancholy synth pop epic, it was without a doubt one of the evening's highlights. The visual effect was pretty trippy too.
Feel the mood.
One thing that quickly became evident was how comfortable Jarre had become with the pulsing grooves of dance music, indeed much of the night's music was taken from his recent two Electronica albums. I must admit that I hadn't kept up with the man's more recent music, but after hearing a considerable selection of what he's been up to in the ensuing years, it's painfully apparent that further investigation is essential (along with the Pet Shop Boys and Snowden, Electronica 2 also features collaborations with Jeff Mills, Primal Scream, The Orb, Sébastien Tellier, Yello and Cyndi Lauper!).
Dancers In Motion
There was one sequence involving stylized dancers that was particularily memorable. Segments that I missed documenting included spooky performances of Equinoxe 4 and Equinoxe 7, featuring rows of parallaxing binocular people from the album's sleeve. At one point, I could swear a giant alien grey appeared in the middle of the screen, and there was also a return of the figures holding up their cellphone cameras in lieu of eyeglasses!
Jarre was a gracious host, descending a staircase to interact with the audience fairly often, which was a pleasant surprise. Towards the end of the performance, he even gave shout outs to his backing musicians along with the opening act. It was rather fitting for a man who's always made electronic music with an unmistakably human core. Seeing him in person was in something I never thought I'd get to experience, and it exceeded my expectations in every way. As the crowd poured out of the theater and into the streets, Snakes and I headed down to catch a ride home, discussing the night's music like we had a thousand times before. And suddenly, it was as if we were teenagers again...
With Spring beginning to take flight, it was high time for the crew to get involved in some horticultural escapades at the Parallax Gardens. Consequently, here is the third edition of Garden Grooves (aka the music we played). Spanning a casual week of afternoon work, here's the selection as it played out:
Toyan - How The West Was Won
Kicking off the whole affair was this bass-heavy deejay record, Toyan's proto-dancehall tour de force. What sleeves these records have! Ranking Toyan does his thing over crisp, dubtastic riddims laid by the Roots Radics and mixed by Scientist. A Henry "Junjo" Lawes production.
Grace Jones - Living My Life
My second favorite Grace Jones LP by a country mile. Unlike my #1 pick (Nightclubbing) it's comprised almost completely of Grace-penned originals (the one exception is Melvin Van Peebles' The Apple Stretching). Boasting killer tune after killer tune - My Jamaican Guy, Nipple To The Bottle) and the descending neuromantic boogie of Unlimited Capacity For Love (choice) - Living My Life rounds out Miss Jones' Island trilogy with aplomb.
Jah Wobble And The Invaders Of The Heart - Invaders Of The Heart
Discovered this record only recently over the course of formulating the whole Terminal Vibration. This rounds out another trilogy alongside Full Circle and the Snake Charmer mini-LP, featuring Wobble in collaborative mode (this time with The Invaders Of The Heart, who he'd hit full stride with in the 90s). Hauntingly exotic post punk/post-disco moves inna My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts stylee.
IndianOcean - School Bell/Treehouse
(Sleeping Bag: 1986)
Arthur Russell's abstract disco freakout, knocked out with rolling percussion and seemingly improvised vocals. You hear these Arthur Russell records and they really opens up the whole idea of 80s music, straining at the confines of the predictable collective memory of the era to inhabit similar climes to Hindustani music, cosmic jazz and krautrock. Much like King Sunny Adé's Ma Jaiye Oni, my favorite part is when the keyboards take the reins about 2/3 of the way through.
Tom Tom Club - The Man With The 4-Way Hips
Sumptuously three-dimensional new wave disco from the Tom Toms' second album Close To The Bone, the 12" gives the groove room to breath with those sublimely detailed synths and tactile percussion. The flipside's dub version is a real treat, and like Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector plays like a proto-house instrumental (once again, those synths!). Clearly, there was something in the water down at Compass Point.
Maximum Joy - Station M.X.J.Y.
Shiny post punk funk on the Y imprint and featuring prior members of the Pop Group and the Glaxo Babies. I always want to give this, along with The Slits' Cut and Come Away With ESG to every 15 year old I know. Coming on like a left-footed, untamed English Beat circa Special Beat Service, its brilliant skanking rhythms square the circle between new pop and punk funk better than anyone else. Shame that it isn't more easily available...
...and with the closing bars of All Wrapped Up!, we put away the tools and kicked back for the evening. The following day found the clouds rolling in, and the overcast skies had a decided impact on the playlist as it unfolded...
Liquid Liquid - Optimo
New York crew get down and dirty with storied 4-track EP, wringing magic from the whole affair only to get ripped off by Grandmaster ź Melle Mel's White Lines (Don't Don't Do It). As much as I love White Lines, the original loping groove in Cavern is where its at. Plus, you've got Optimo's Central Park conga jam and the rolling clockwork downbeat groove of the post rock-predictive Out. A true gem of a record. And non-stop props to Señor Lavelle for putting out the Liquid Liquid comp on Mo Wax back in the mid-nineties.
Ian Dury & The Blockheads - Do It Yourself
Sophomore full-length outing from old Ian and co., this is often classed as a disappointment but have you heard it lately? Sounds to me like a worthwhile follow up to New Boots And Panties!! and the slew of ace 7"s The Blockheads spat out over the course of the late seventies, with a heavy emphasis on post-disco rhythms, a couple quasi-reggae tunes and even shades of Lodger. Something like Sink My Boats is utterly original, definitively seventies - like watching six hours of The Rockford Files and then falling asleep to a fever dream where Peter Wyngarde wanders into The Last Of Sheila - and somehow manages to sound unlike anything else around.
Various Artists - Babylon: The Original Soundtrack
Rock hard reggae soundtrack from the 1980 film starring Aswad's Brinsley Ford. Scored by the great Dennis Bovell, it also features Aswad's Warrior Charge (a Parallax staple). Great cloudy day reggae (see also Horace Andy's Dance Hall Style) this was the perfect way to wrap up the second day, with darkness settling in on the Eastern horizon.
Forrrce - Keep On Dancin'
(West End: 1982)
Forrrce's slap-bass odyssey kicked off the third day, the proto-raps unfolding over dubdisco production as we cleared our way into the herb garden and the various banana groves scattered about the premises. The awesome Keep On Dubbin' (With No Commercial Interruptions) takes matters even deeper into leftfield with François Kevorkian dub-inflected hall of mirrors approach in full swing. At this point, the sun was hanging heavy in the sky and the 4/4 pulse was in full effect.
Lino Squares - The Role Of Linoleum
(Humboldt County: 1997)
Moody minimalism from Andrew Weatherall and Keith Tenniswood on temporary holiday from their Two Lone Swordsmen project, at this point gaining full steam. Neuphrique is like a dress rehearsal for No Red Stopping and is very much in the 2LS deep house vein. A quintessential '97 record, you could take this, Moodymann's Silentintroduction and Primal Scream's Echo Dek and have a decent thumbnail sketch of where I was at the time. Blue Pole Dancer always reminds me of 44's Groove Station, even if it came out a couple years earlier.
William Onyeabor - Anything You Sow
Sparkling guttertronics from Nigerian synth wizard William Onyeabor (his final record in fact). This is very much in the chipper bubblegum Kraftwerk vein of Speak & Spell (or latterly Hot Chip's latest record), but shot through with a distinct highlife flavor. I picked this up seven years ago (at Amoeba in San Francisco) on my honeymoon.
His records were extremely hard to come by at the time, and I absolutely adored Onyeabor's Better Change Your Mind (as featured on the Nigeria '70 compilation) and the Body And Soul 12" with the Scientist remix (which I did have). I couldn't believe my luck at finding this ace reissue and upon returning home and dropping it on the turntable instantly fell in love with the sounds contain therein. Fast-forward a few years and Luaka Bop releases the lavish Onyeabor box set (containing his entire discography), and the world rejoiced.
Hot Chip - Why Make Sense?
As if to drive the point home, here's that latest Hot Chip LP. I quite like this sound they've arrived at, perched midway between Cowley/Moroder synth-disco pulse and twinkling bubblegum electropop. There's even room for the odd surprise, like White Wine And Fried Chicken's slow-motion country ballad. Good stuff.
Patrick Cowley - Menergy: The Album
The conventional wisdom on Patrick Cowley seems to have always been that his album ventures like Megatron Man and Mind warp were disappointing and that his productions (Sylvester's Your Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)) and remixes (Cowley's psychedelic Mega Mix of Donna Summer's I Feel Love) were where it's at.
Well, sure it's hard to top those highs, but I quite enjoy these full-length electro-disco excursions (think Cerrone and Moroder). What with the recent reissues of his cosmic synth music (School Daze and Muscle Up) and abstract post punk (Catholic), he seems almost like a West Cost, mechanoid Arthur Russell.
Andrew Weatherall - Qualia
(Höga Nord: 2017)
Last year's Weatherall solo shot plys a sort of instrumental electro-inflected krautrock. This very much reminds me of Death In Vegas' Satan's Circus, in that it plows a similar furrow with live drumming and spiral sequences that conjure up a sound that strikes me as ever familiar and yet I'm unable to place it. Mr. Weatherall's been on a roll this decade, with four solo LPs, The Asphodells' cosmic disco extravaganza and The Woodleigh Research Facility record, all of which I've enjoyed immensely.
Holger Czukay - On The Way To The Peak Of Normal
With the sun setting and parties split off to procure dinner from The Tako Factory, Czukay's hauting solo endeavor seemed a natural choice. Ode To Perfume is quite simply a masterpiece, eighteen minutes of low-slung imaginary soundtrack music that rides a loping rhythm as guitars tears into the mix sounding like some distant cousin of Can's Deadlock. Czukay even works in his beloved French horn.
Can - Saw Delight
Back in the mix with late-period Can - we're pulling Winter weeds, turning the Northside lawn into a putting green - whose liquid rhythms pour over the morning dew-covered grass and out into the palms. For me, this record is in the upper echelon with Ege Bamyasi and Future Days, it finds the band spooling out that Moonshake sound across an entire record. If I've said it before, I've said it a hundred times: if this were by some new band called Jar or Receptacle, and not coming in after Monster Movie and Tago Mago, we'd all mention it in the same breath as the Talking Heads' Remain In Light and the Meat Puppets' Up On The Sun. Exquisite.
J.J. Cale - 5
Mr. Cale's music is one of the great understated treasures to spring from the 1970s. This the fifth of his LPs from the decade, and you'll want all of them. His rhythm box is still fading in and out of the mix - perfectly integrated with the live instrumentation, like in a Moodymann record - with some tasteful synth licks creeping in here for good measure. Like the four records to come before, the production is otherworldly, exquisite. Alongside Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, one of the great songwriters of the era.
Prince Far I - Under Heavy Manners
(Joe Gibbs: 1977)
Prince Far I's classic platter found us back on the Southeast Terrace to work some landscaping magic. This is one of the deejay records (alongside things like Dr. Alimantado's Best Dressed Chicken In Town and Dillinger's CB 200), with Prince Far I's stentorian delivery front and center over peak-period Joe Gibbs backing. A stone cold classic, this record.
Incidentally, I got turned onto Prince Far I via the instrumental Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 1 dub outing (mixed by Adrian Sherwood), owing to Long Life's featuring in a Rockers Hi-Fi mix.
This compilation of (put crudely) Caribbean funk and disco is an unmissable romp, put out by compilation heavyweights Strut. Highlights include Amral's Trinidad Cavaliers Steel Orchestra's instrumental version of Gwen Guthrie's 90% Of Me Is You and Cedric Im Brooks' Blackness Of Darkness. There's even a cover of Barrabas' Woman!
Some tracks veer quite close to afrobeat territory, nevertheless I suspect that this contains the germ of the Compass Point/Parallax Pier sound. It's all quite evocative to me of time spent on the island back in the day, especially the way influences will run to and fro between the islands and the mainland. It's all very cosmopolitan in a casual way. Upon reflection, I suspect that some of these sounds were still hanging around when I first visited Puerto Rico, such is their familiarity.
Sweet Talks - Hollywood Highlife Party
The Sweet Talks were a Ghanaian highlife band that sprung up in the mid-seventies and developed something of a profile, touring the world and ultimately winding up in L.A. and recording this little album, full of sparkling guitars and driving 4/4 rhythms. It's nearly impossible to overlook this music's compatibility with contemporary disco. I wonder if - like Manu Dibango's Soul Makossa - it made it's way onto any of the era's disco dancefloors?
The Beginning Of The End - Funky Nassau
Crack band from the Bahamas cut killer funk LP, on par with James Brown and Cymande. This very nearly made the Golden 200. Funky Nassau is one of those great 7" singles, and you get the whole thing right here at the record's opening. Interesting to think that this band were doing their thing in Nassau about a decade before the Compass Point All Stars coalesced into an institution.
Osibisa - Getting Hot
Discovered this only recently thanks to the Singles As Bs & 12 Inches box set put out by Repertoire (check out the excellent Roger Dean sleeve). I have the Black Ant and a handful of their LPs, so this anthology filled out the gaps quite nicely. I had no idea about the band's 80s output, and this record clearly stood out as something special and I tracked a copy down accordingly.
Featuring BIG production, like ABC's How To Be A Zillionaire! (in fact, that very well could have been the next record played - if this hadn't been the last), it could slot right into a contemporary soundtrack during some montage scene. It's all about the Bush-Fire-Mix. I was momentarily certain that the getting hot, getting hot chorus showed up in Ice Cube's No Vaseline, but it was just a (sample) mirage.
Appropriately, this provided the grand finale as we wrapped up work on the Parallax Gardens, the assorted terraces and groves now properly prepared for summer just around the bend.
Under the palms.
And so we cross the threshold into the 90s, where the aftershocks of dubbed out post punk were continuing to live large. This was the context through which I linked up with the music in the first place, working my way back from the nascent sounds of trip hop's bricolage and the heavy atmospheric techno seeping in from all corners of the globe. In what must be a rather atypical entry into the music, I'd initially become aware of various post punk figures by way of their dalliance with nineties dance and accordingly began exploring their own music in earnest.
Right off the bat, Mark Stewart was the strange attractor of the Bristol scene, rubbing shoulders with the trip hop trinity of The Wild Bunch/Massive Attack crew, giving Tricky the impetus to strike out solo (with the epochal Aftermath, which Stewart co-produced) and Smith & Mighty, who turned in their first remix for Stewart's Stranger Than Love. That's quite clearly a profound influence on the Bristol blues and accordingly sent me both back in time, to Stewart's 1987 self-titled LP, and latterly to his 90s records Metatron and Control Data which were of a piece with contemporary outfits like Meat Beat Manifesto and Renegade Soundwave.
Meat Beat Manifesto split the difference between post-industrial noise and post-Bomb Squad hard-edged hip hop, shot through with a healthy dose of dub's bottom end, the combination of which found Jack Dangers' crew essentially creating the template for the big beat of The Chemical Brothers. They're actually poised right at the edge of this chapter and the next (which will trace the contours of hip hop beats as the decade turns), so they will be covered further next time out, but it's important to note the bass-heavy vibes of Radio Babylon within the context of dub and related capers taking center stage today.
Similarly, Renegade Soundwave slotted in quite naturally to the post punk drift, where they rode that third rail between dub, hip hop and a skeletal, stripped-down take on cut-and-paste indie dance. After taking Britain's dancefloors by storm with rude 12"s like The Phantom and Ozone Breakdown, largely defining the interzone between electro's rhythm matrix and big beat's rolling breaks. RSW's debut album, Soundclash, rocked the dancehall with heavy beats and dub's bottom end backing Gary Asquith's wiseguy microphone antics, while In Dub largely eschewed vocals altogether in favor of atmosphere. A couple years later, Leftfield remixed the crew's eponymous Renegade Soundwave 12" into a 4/4 slab of stomping tronik house magic.
Leftfield themselves offered another conduit back into post punk with John Lydon's vocal spot on Open Up, which sent me back to Metal Box and sideways to Lydon's contemporary solo bid Psycho's Path (which happened to feature remixes from Leftfield and The Chemical Brothers). Leftfield's two 90s LPs boasted their own moments of dubbed out magic: Leftism boasted a cinematic, widescreen sound that touched down with shimmering techno, pounding house missives and occasionally ducked into trip hop, while Rhythm And Stealth stripped it all back to hard-edged electroid grooves and smoked-out isolationism. The latter especially works remarkably well alongside the likes of Bandulu (on one hand) and 23 Skidoo (on the other).
23 Skidoo took an interesting turn themselves in the 90s, opening up their Ronin imprint and putting out UK rap records by Roots Manuva, Deckwrecka and Rodney P. even as they amassed a huge back catalogue of unreleased material (which was eventually collected on the deluxe edition of the Just Like Everybody compilation). The group's self-titled LP released at the turn of the century was a mini-paradise of rolling breakbeats and moody downbeat that seemed to square the circle between their brand of atmospheric post punk and trip hop.
And yet if there was one group that seemed to hallucinate trip hop years before it seeped out of Bristol, it was Colourbox, whose Baby I Love You So took Jacob Miller's lovers rock staple and twisted it into a steely-edged, Escape From New York-sampling dread torch song that came on like something from Tricky 's Pre-Millenium Tension. However, the flipside was another matter altogether, with Morricone's spaghetti western vibes writ large on Looks Like We're Shy One Horse/Shoot Out's discomix showcase which glided on a motorik 4/4 pulse before collapsing into a downbeat-the-dub-ruler conclusion.
Incidentally, I discovered a lot of this music through The Future Sound Of London's Radio 1 Essential Mix 2 (from 6/3/95), which seemed to source ISDN's weird, twisted trip hop in the dread post punk of 400 Blows, Fats Comet, 23 Skidoo, Cabaret Voltaire and A Certain Ratio. That mix really opened up a whole world of music beyond what I'd previously been exposed to, even betraying the first rumblings of the duo's fascination with sixties psychedelia. Their Dead Cities swan-song - along with its surrounding singles - was also very much of a piece with this post punk terrain as well, continuing where the likes of 23 Skidoo and Cabaret Voltaire left off.
On a similar note, Andrew Weatherall offered up another crucial incursion a couple years later with his Nine O'Clock Drop compilation, which happened to overlap with FSOL's Essential Mix in spirit, with the added bonus of the aforementioned Colourbox b-side. That compilation managed to beat the post punk gold rush to the punch by a few years, enshrining a whole brace of great late-period avant funk shearing into electro in one essential package (for the uninitiated, at least). Weatherall's own music always had a bit of post punk flavor just beneath the surface, especially on The Sabres Of Paradise's Haunted Dancehall and much of Two Lone Swordsmen's output. With the Swordsmen ultimately morphing into a full-fledged post punk band with 2004's From The Double Gone Chapel, well, it certainly stacks up.
Another group that made a similar transition into full-fledged songforms was Bandulu, who started out dealing in tough, cinematic techno missives before gradually stripping layer after layer away to reveal a skeletal, metallic, dubbed out blueprint of street-level techno before ultimately winding up with their masterstroke Redemption (which featured honest-to-goodness reggae cuts like Detention and Jahquarius). There was also that whole side of the group's output that delved into downbeat electro-dub like Deep Sea Angler, Agent Jah and Chapter 6, very much of a piece with contemporary digidub. Chapter 6 in particular finds the group shearing insouciantly into proto-dubstep territory.
Many miles away Basic Channel synthesized an elegant, spacious systems music that was something like the kosmische flipside to Bandulu's tuff minimal techno. Basic Channel's run of 12"s seemed to seep into dance music's consciousness quite gradually as the nineties progressed, before ultimately reshaping whole swathes of the scene in its image by the time the decade was over. Like The Velvet Underground, they almost seemed to make more sense in the following decades than they ever did in their own time. The duo even delved into straight-up dub with their Rhythm & Sound records, which - similar to Bandulu's contemporary evolution - found the duo dealing in spacious, stripped-to-the-bones reggae that came on like Kraftwerk gone dub.
Now, if there's one thread to connect all of this firmly back into the 80s then it is surely digidub, that faithful post-dancehall music that was trip hop's shadowy fellow traveller throughout the decade. Smith & Mighty even put out Henry & Louis' Rudiments on their own More Rockers imprint, while their Steppers Delight EP (from 1992) seemed heavily influenced by digidub in its twisted proto-jungle shapes. The Dubhead and Dub Out West series of compilations chronicled first rate digidub springing from this nexus, with Smith & Mighty even turning in some digidub sides under the Blue & Red banner (which ultimately culminated in the Time Will Tell collaboration with Henry & Louis).
Coming in from the arena of real-deal reggae, the Mad Professor's Ariwa setup was a steady hand on the scene, running from the eighties firmly into the nineties, releasing atmospheric records like Aisha's High Priestess, Mad Professor Captures Pato Banton and the almost ambient-reggae of Bim Sherman's Miracle. Famously, the Mad Professor even reworked Massive Attack's Protection LP into the No Protection set, which was claimed to have surpassed the original in some quarters.
Similarily, Adrian Sherwood reworked Primal Scream's Vanishing Point into the excellent Echo Dek after cutting a parallel path through the same period. Sherwood's On-U Sound outfit put out records - significantly harder-edged - like the aforementioned Mark Stewart material, along with Tackhead's own output and leftfield dub experiments like African Head Charge and Creation Rebel. Like Ariwa, On-U Sound seems to offer a seemingly bottomless well of first rate dub (of which, if I'm honest, I remain woefully under-educated on!).
And then there's Jah Wobble, whose looming presence throughout the nineties found him appearing on scores of key recordings as the decade progressed. The man was everywhere! Dropping the throbbing bassline for The Orb's Blue Room and Primal Scream's Higher Than The Sun (A Dub Symphony In Two Parts), collaborating with Brian Eno on the Spinner LP and taking part in various trip hop excursions with the likes of Bomb The Bass, Ramshackle and Shara Nelson, you couldn't turn around without hearing his full-bodied basslines pulsing from the speakers. Throughout the decade, his own records with The Invaders Of The Heart were excellent excursions into post-fourth world soundscapes, often featuring techno figures like Andrew Weatherall behind the boards (as on the awesome Bomba).
Similarly, Bill Laswell's Material project returned after a five year hiatus with 1989's Seven Souls, a record whose own fourth world shapes seemed to ring in the decade with spoken word narration provided by William Burroughs. The record was effectively reworked ten years later on The Road To The Western Lands, which featured trip hop figures like Tim Simenon, Talvin Singh and DJ Soul Slinger. Hallucination Engine refined this formula and featured the awesome Mantra, which was reworked by The Orb and later kicked off their Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty collection of remixes for other artists.
This compilation was yet another key gateway into post punk back in the day, featuring reworks of songs by Killing Joke and Wire alongside the Material entry. Also noteworthy is the presence of frequent Orb collaborator Thomas Fehlmann and Basic Channel's Moritz Von Oswald in the German post punk group Palais Schaumburg. One thing that makes The Orb fascinating is how they happen to spring from this post punk diaspora only to make a splash in the Second Summer Of Love with records like Little Fluffy Clouds and A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld (see also The KLF). You can just feel the implied presence of post punk in the surfaces of their music and in the pulsing dub engine within.
Check out this fascinating interview1 with The Orb's Dr. Alex Paterson where he gives something of a musical history of a life lived within music.
Consequently, Bill Laswell ended the decade with the awesome Dub Chamber 3 and Material's Intonarumori, a deeply warped hip hop record in the spirit of The Ghettovetts and Death Comet Crew, which leads snugly into the next week's episode. To be continued...
Now that we've reached this point in the whole Terminal Vibration trip — the mid-point to be exact — and what with all the talk of Jah Wobble and bass pressure and dread, well, it got me thinking about the original dubmasters and pulling out a bunch of my old dub records and messing around a bit on the turntables. The result was this rough little mix, which was largely inspired by a bunch of my old dub cassettes that used to get a lot of play back in the Colt days. My love affair with dub started in earnest way back in the late 90s with a King Tubby comp — the impetus for my exploration was trip hop, specifically Smith & Mighty's oeuvre — and since then I've never looked back.
Put crudely, dub was born on the b-side of the reggae 7" single, where the instrumental version of the a-side would be pressed so that deejays could chat over the top at the soundsystem Saturday night. Eventually, certain producers — producers like King Tubby, Herman Chin-Loy and Lee "Scratch" Perry — started messing around with the master tapes, accentuating particular aspects of the record, beefing up the bottom-end, dropping in snatches of the original vocal and running it all through the effects units, in the process fomenting a musical revolution. This was head music with a heavy beat, and things would never be the same.
Full-on dub LPs weren't long after, and dub's methodology (and arsenal of production techniques) even started to creep onto the a-side in more spacious, and spaced out, mixes. Eventually these techniques filtered out into pop music via post punk and disco — thanks to producers like Dennis Bovell, Adrian Sherwood, Walter Gibbons and François Kevorkian — and the rest was history: suddenly the combination of a mixing board and an effects unit became a musical instrument in its own right, and the virtuosos came fast and thick to work their magic in the ensuing years. It's hard to imagine the sound of the 21st century's crop of alternative r&b artists without dub's O.G. mad scientist innovations.
The idea with this particular mix was to trace the dub contagion from its peak-period mid-seventies development alongside contemporary Jamaican roots music through the digital (dancehall) eighties and the big beat nineties on through the next century, stopping off at outposts in dancehall, post punk, techno, trip hop and even grunge(!) before winding up at the lonely, desolate tundras of Rhythm & Sound. The cutoff point was dubstep, which will clearly merit a mix of its own. In truth, I envisioned Dubstyle! as a Star Wars-esque trilogy, with this mix standing as the A New Hope/Downbeat The Dub Ruler entry, to be followed this summer by a post-disco dancefloor extravaganza and wrapping up with an electro-dub/step-r&b apocalypse later this fall. And so... that should give you some idea as to what to expect. Or not?
This is by no means a primer (it actually departs from straight-up dub fairly quickly); think of it instead as a little tribute to a sound that has been very good to me (dub be good to me) over the years, a sound that wouldn't have been possible without a handful of mad producers who pushed their machines to the absolute limit, writing their dreams onto magnetic tape nearly fifty years ago and ushering in the future in the process...
Keith HudsonHunting (Mamba)
Pushing off into Keith Hudson's mystical swamp of dub. The atmosphere comes on thick and heavy from the jump, with a trilling flute, jungle atmospherics, rolling percussion and a jagged guitar cutting its way into the darkness before that bass comes in and washes over EVERYTHING. This is 1974, son.
Augustus PabloKing Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown (Clocktower)
Maybe the most famous dub record ever? Augustus Pablo runs Jacob Miller's Baby I Love You So through King Tubby's illogical deep space machinery and turns in a total killer. With Pablo's melodica stylings in full effect, this righteous slab of Morricone-inflected dub was only just edged out by the ramshackle caravan vibes of East Of The River Nile when I compiled the Parallax 200. Futuristic like Kraftwerk, yet ancient as the Ziggurat of Ur.
King TubbyDub Fi Gwan (Blood & Fire)
As far as I know, this absolute gem only saw the light of day when Blood & Fire put out their Dub Gone Crazy: The Evolution Of Dub At King Tubby's 1975-1979 compilation. Unbelievable! It's a low key masterstroke, replete with moody organ, bottomless bass and exquisitely four-dimensional sound over a slow-motion 4/4 rhythm. The highlight for me is the disembodied clavinet that materializes in the drop out.
Joe Gibbs & The ProfessionalsGates Of Zion (Joe Gibbs)
This from the flipside of my 7" reissue of Chalice's Good To Be There, although I'm somewhat certain that it isn't actually called Gates Of Zion; it actually sounds like a dub version of Dennis Brown's Whip Them Jah Jah. I only know this because the actual Gates Of Zion appears on the 12" version of this single, which I tracked down on the strength of this very dub (only to be disappointed!). Confused yet? That's par for the course with reggae... versions all over the shop! Anyway, this is another excellent slab of organ-led discomix reggae — this time in quintessential Joe Gibbs stylee — anchored by a ten ton bassline and haunted by disembodied voices in the ether.
The UpsettersReturn Of The Super Ape (Island)
Weird dub from the excellent Scratch-helmed Upsetters LP of the same title, which features striking sleeve art from Tony Wright of a rampaging giant ape holding a tree in one hand and a spliff in the other (surely one of the top five sleeves ever?)! This is peak-period Lee Perry, the mad scientist operating deep within his Black Ark studio and turning out a swampy, sun-glazed groove unlike anything else around. Watch in awe as that sleepwalking, low slung skank gives way to a heavy downbeat in the climax climax... French, you're one of a kind!
AswadA New Chapter Of Dub (Mango)
Wicked electronic reggae creeping — like the contemporary work of Prince Jammy — ever so slightly into digidub territory. Got this on the back of a recommendation from the cat behind the counter at the shop where I picked up Return Of The Super Ape... damn, nearly 20 years ago. The star of the show is undoubtedly that fat, wandering electronic bassline, which pair with a rock hard drum beat to drive the group's signature drifting horns along with a mad haunted house grand piano!
Mark Stewart + MaffiaLiberty City (On-U Sound)
Taking an abrupt left turn into abrasive post punk, we've got this killer cut from Stewart's Jerusalem EP, which also features the rock hard High Ideals And Crazy Dreams. Liberty City has that massive Adrian Sherwood-engineered Maffia bottom-end in full effect, joined here by a nagging sax refrain and sublimely spectral backing vocals rising from the ether. These Mark Stewart records are essentially the square root of trip hop. What with the Bristol connection, well, it stacks up. I've often wondered if the sound on these early Maffia records were inspired by the clipped, heavy duty basslines of the early Studio One material (see Burning Spear's debut). And are those discordant cuckoo clock sounds sampled from Fellini's Satyricon? I wonder...
Derrick HarriottDub Whip (Hawkeye)
For me, this dub version of the Dazz Band's Let It Whip is one of thee key records of the eighties, existing as it does at the cusp of the discomix reggae and digital dancehall eras, its heady dub-wise flavors are shot through with the neon glow of contemporary electroboogie. Running parallel to things like Grace Jones' Compass Point records, it also seems to contain the germ of Mtume's Juicy Fruit, Massive Attack's Protection and even SA-RA's The Second Time Around.
Prince JammyMegabyte (Greensleeves)
The second record in this mix — in a row! — to feature in the recent Parallax 200 extravaganza. This from Jammy's wicked Computerised Dub set. All crisp drums and brittle textures, it's something like contemporary arcade music run through dub's hall of mirrors. Yet another one of these eighties records that mean the world to me, I'd single out it's Kraftwerk-gone-dancehall re-envisioning of Jammy's contemporary digital productions as particularly crucial. I wish I'd picked this up when it came out... five year old me would have loved it.
SoundgardenFopp (Fucked Up Heavy Dub Remix) (Sub Pop)
AKA Last Action Hero Dub. The second bolt for the blue here, and probably the biggest surprise... bear with me though. This grunge-tastic cover version of the Ohio Players' Fopp (strangely enough, if you listen to the Players' original, the first minute seems to predict the whole grunge sound, vocal style and all!), taken from Soundgarden's second EP, lays the blueprint for the band's whole warrior chief sound (as heard in Spoonman, et al.). However, the dub version — perpetrated by grunge super-producer Steve Fisk — takes the track to a whole other level, showcasing the possibilities of dub within the context of rock 'n roll fury. With hollowed-out beats and a vastly more spacious mix, the guitar pyrotechnics of the original track compete with snatches of synth, film dialogue and spectral hints of brass and the blues as Chris Cornell's multi-tracked banshee wail pours down over the track like molten silver.
The Future Sound Of LondonPapua New Guinea (Dub Mix) (Jumpin' & Pumpin' )
I've always loved this short little dub version from the Papua New Guinea 12", which says everything it has to in just over a minute. It also makes the dub flavor of the original track — by virtue of its bassline nicked from Radio Babylon — literal, with rock hard drums tumbling down upside your head and down into the echo chamber.
BanduluRun Run (Blanco Y Negro)
Sprawling deep space reggae from London's premiere electro-dub outfit. Positively holy music, as far as I'm concerned. I used to listen to this over and over back when I first got a hold of it, mind properly blown on the track's fathoms deep bassline and gloriously filmic sweep. Like reggae slowed down and stretched out across glistening infinity's plane. Records like Cornerstone, Guidance and Redemption came on like the ruff, rugged and raw street-level flipside to Basic Channel's elegant dub symphonies. Back in the day, Bandulu were basically my Led Zeppelin.
Peter D.Jah Pure & Clean (Nubian)
Majestic digidub from erstwhile Smith & Mighty secret weapon Peter D. Rose. With sweeping string vistas, synths and an ethereal vocal chorus all flowing into the mix, that tricky riddim still manages to take center stage. Originally from the Dub Out West Volume 1 compilation, I first heard it on Smith & Mighty's DJ-Kicks mix in the late nineties. It took me forever for me to track down its original source in the pre-Discogs era! Incidentally, the windswept drift of this track always makes me think of looking down at the beach from Mayagüez in the late afternoon under overcast skies, rain pouring down on the waves crashing on the horizon.
Terminalhead & Mr. SpeeTwisted System (Ruts DC Dub) (Push)
The Ruts DC rework is where its at, with that gently gliding rhythm and haunting vocals in the mist taking the track to another plane altogether. I love the way those warped horns elbow their way into the mix from time to time, seemingly trying to wrest control of the track. Percussion like sheet metal phases in and out of the mix. The whole effect is quite uplifting, actually. Ruts DC were a punk band gone dub from the O.G. punk era, who happened to provide dubs to a couple of the Terminalhead records. You sort of wonder about how these things come about. One of the great things about the 90s was the way they were absolutely littered with unlikely little one-offs like this. Corny as it probably sounds, it's a big part of what made growing up in the era so special. I remember thinking at the time that this could have been a huge crossover hit... well it was in my neighborhood anyway.
The Sabres Of ParadiseWilmot (Warp)
This is essentially a dub version of Black But Sweet by Wilmoth Houdini & The Night Owls, perpetrated by Andrew Weatherall's Sabres Of Paradise. This the single version: the LP version from Haunted Dancehall rides a righteous skank, but strangely enough the block rockin' beats of the single version seemed to make the most sense in this context. That and the deadly Link Wray-esque guitar lines of Tom Baeppler and those maniacal, uncredited female vocals. You want to play this very loud. I've actually got an epic Weatherall feature in the works... so stay tuned.
Primal ScreamDuffed Up (Creation)
More Adrian Sherwood, this time from much later, dubbing Primal Scream's 1997 LP Vanishing Point to abstraction (in much the same way that the Mad Professor had with Massive Attack's No Protection around the same time) on the Echo Dek mini-album (my version actually came as a box set of 7" singles). This tune is truly unlike anything else: brittle 808 electro drums, dub-wise percussion, harpsichord and a warped horn section collide into a dread hallucination of what jazz might have mutated into in an alternate dimension. Someone really ought to put together an edit of the 1973 film starring Barry Newman with both Scream albums providing the soundtrack...
Bill LaswellCybotron (ROIR)
Majestic dubbed-out slow-motion rotating phone booth music from Bill Laswell, Jah Wobble and Nicky Skopelitis in this post-Material project from the year 2000. This from volume three in the Dub Chamber series, so it's in good company. With a bassline as big as the ocean, this rolls on metronomic breakbeats and sheets of valve-soaked sound sweeping in and out view, receding onto the horizon. It's all rather cinematic. File under Neuromancer: possible soundtrack music, Vol. 127.
Rhythm & SoundKing In My Empire (Rhythm & Sound)
(featuring Cornell Campbell)
Basic Channel in straight up dub reggae mode, with the great Cornell Campbell on the mic. I remember back when these Rhythm & Sound records came out, it took awhile for me to work out it was the Basic Channel guys opening up a new chapter (of dub). These records were so empty, so pristine, so perfect, inhabited by that brilliant, lonely Chain Reaction sound. The other record from that era that I think of in the same breath was Plastikman's Consumed. This actually from a bit later, 2004. Dubstep waiting in the wings...
From PIL to Primal Scream. The Legend Lives On... Jah Wobble In "Betrayal".
Do you remember last night I sat down and you got up? I do.
Sessions with Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, some fraction of Can lose themselves inna haunted dancehall.
I think I'm Bogey... living in Casablanca!
Fly the Bomba (Nonsonicus Maximus), sailing Higher Than The Sun (A Sub Symphony In Two Parts)... Weatherall and The Invaders Of The Heart grooving in the Blue Room with The Orb and Aisha as starships creep across the desert sky.
40 years pass by slowly, the bass still pulses on & on & on...
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...
Big Audio Dynamite - Megatop Phoenix
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 The Clash (Epic: 1988)
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 Cacophany), 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, seems to betray the fact that 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 swansong Cut The Crap. Jones, meanwhile, struck out in another direction entirely...
This Time I Bet You It's BAD
B.A.D. in full effect (from left to right): Greg Roberts, Don Letts, Mick Jones, Leo Williams and Dan Donovan.
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 signalled 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 (particularily 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-travelling 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 raggabeat 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 raggabeat 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 funhouse 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
Mick Jones in 1987 (background Paul Simonon's sleeve art for Tighten Up Vol. '88).
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.6
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.6 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 Strings Of Life 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.6 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
Megatop Phoenix promotional poster.
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. Todd Terry just might be the single most appropos 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
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, reggae 13 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 promotional poster (back).
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 seems to brilliantly conjure 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 seems to predict 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 song18, 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:
Scenes from the Contact music video.
You've got floating technicolor ravers dancing against a jet black backdrop as the band - in stark black and white - seems to play in cryo-sleep (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 listen 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 vocoderized 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 the chorus seems to appear 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 Fraid - 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, dialling 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 video and this time it's much more in the B.A.D. tradition of colorful, extravagant visuals in Don Letts' usual striking style:
Scenes from the James Brown music video.
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!20 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 bassdrum/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.
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 - thise 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:
Smiley moves in for the kill.
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 spiralling 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
Mick Jones in the nineties (from Planet BAD artwork).
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 charts21 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 idiosynchratic fusions like Melancholy Maybe's 4/4 garage pulse and the big beat fury of Sunday Best.23
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!
1. 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.
3. 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.
4. No doubt inspired by the movie Back To The Future, the setting of Letts' music video managed strangely enough to pre-empt the old west framework of the third film!
5. Interestingly enough, the tropical backdrop behind the group - also featured on the album's sleeve - was apparently inspired by the one in Frank Lopez's office from the movie Scarface.
7. In fact, Jones thanks his doctors and the entire medical staff at the intensive care unit and Almoth-Wright Ward of St. Mary's Hospital, along with his speech therapist, in the album credits.
8. Interestingly, The Band appear in the Universal Inspiration section of Megatop's liner notes.
9.The Haçienda was actually run by Factory Records (FAC 51) and bankrolled largely on the back of New Order's record sales.
10. 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 dystopioan 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 travellers throughout their long and winding existence.
11. Both Prince and De La Soul feature prominently in Megatop's Universal Inspiration list...
17.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!