The Clash - This Is Radio Clash
This 12" came up in the most recent episode of Terminal Vibration, but it's such a uniquely strange record that I thought I'd spend a little more time with it. What marks it out as curious is its structure: each of the track's four versions get more warped and dubbed out than the one before, literally descending into madness by the end of side two. I can't think of an earlier record that shares the same sustained concept - although I wouldn't be surprised if reggae beat them to it - which works like a charm.
Coming on the heels of the dubbed out triple-LP madness of Sandinista!, Radio Clash updates the blueprint of songs like Ivan Meets G.I. Joe and The Magnificent Seven with skittering, dexterous rhythms - even verging on electro, at times - to arrive at a twisting, wiry vision of swashbuckling post-disco boogie. Those electroid drums and infectious rhythms point the way forward to not only Combat Rock's massive Rock The Casbah - where they were distilled into a potent formula that stormed the charts - but also the strikingly peculiar Cool Confusion.1 As such, it remains a key stepping stone between the sensibilities of Sandinista! and Combat Rock.
This Is Radio Clash introduces itself with Joe Strummer's maniacal laughter before dropping into a punk-boogie rhythm shot through with dubdisco stylings shimmering across its surface. The track moves like a nomad running parkour through the city, bouncing off walls, leaping rooftops and sliding down rails in mad pursuit of... something. Paul Simonon's bass adopts a nimble, moonwalking quality that picks up where Sandinista!'s Version City left off, while Topper Headon's chattering drums are treated with all manner of electronic modification. Joe Strummer rides the groove, chanting the track's title over a haunting sax tattoo from guest star Gary Barnacle in between another one of his mini-raps. Like Parliament's Flashlight, it's not so much verse/chorus as both happening simultaneously. Of course Mtume and Kleeer ain't far off either, come to think of it...
The second version, simply titled Radio Clash, is a disco dub of the original track, with the effects cranked up to a respectable level and electronic sparks spraying every which way from its central groove. It's so subtly different from the original that one could conceivably not even notice the difference, even if Strummer leads off with a different couplet at the song's launch. If you weren't paying attention, it would almost be subconscious. Its relationship to the original always reminds me of D-Train's You're The One For Me to its instrumental version.
Kicking off the second side, the seven-and-a-half minute Outside Broadcast strips the track down to its core framework, riding its rubberband rhythm like a loose caboose in freefall. An uncredited vocalist - I'd guess Paul Simonon - does some low key toasting over the top while half-life diva backing vocals bounce around the track in unison. Long stretches of the track are purely instrumental, while others bring in snatches of Strummer's original vocals - dubbed to pieces King Tubby-style. As I said before, it's one of the great hidden gems in the band's back catalogue, conjuring up images of a careening taxi cab ride through fog-cloaked city streets deserted in the twilight. The taxi cab stylings in evidence throughout bring to mind Prince's Lady Cab Driver: beyond the fact that they share the same street corner atmosphere, their respective grooves are so similarly sure-footed and nimble that they always go down a treat together in the mix. Definitely a hidden gem in the band's catalog, this is what the 12" single is all about.
Radio Five is the fourth and final version, where madness sets in for good. It kicks off with a muted playback of Strummer's opening scream before a conga rolls into increasingly dubbed-out beats echo-chambered into infinity. Then the groove comes in, clippity-clopping all over itself in what's revealed to be the dub version of Outside Broadcast. That's right: a dub of a dub of a dub. As if that weren't enough, the whole thing is wildly scratched to confusion by some uncredited turntablist - this time I can't even guess - as phantom bleeps weave in and out of the mix. The whole track just tumbles over and over itself before collapsing into an anarchic mess. It's great!
One of the many reasons this record means so much to me - aside from the fact that it's a killer track and the obvious conceptual flourishes - is that it remains an excellent showcase of the excitement during the new wave/post-disco era, when you'd get all manner of music rubbing shoulders in the mix - say at the Paradise Garage - regardless of their origin, so long as it moved the dancefloor. In a sense, it was the mightiest détente between rock and soul since the heady days of the 1960s.
One reason the seventies remain so impressive is the sheer amount of scenes and sounds that managed to reach their apex during its duration, be it funk, soul, reggae, krautrock, punk, cosmic jazz, hard rock or disco. The eighties, by contrast, were an era where all these disparate sounds seemed to intertwine for a shining moment, pulling together the various strands of dub/reggae, hip hop, post punk/new wave, soul/boogie and rock into a shimmering flow of post-disco rhythm. Of course it couldn't last forever, and by the decade's end it had all shattered into a million pieces (that have only diverged further since).2 And yet for a spell, it all sure did burn brightly.
Hey man, I'm back from the bodega. Nothing like a snack, deep fried, to give you a second wind. Here you go my friend. So you like new wave, right? Sure you do... after all, everybody likes new wave. For the moment, let us focus on the dubbed-out dancefloor sides perpetrated by The Clash in that period just after London Calling, which puts us at 1980 A.D. I'm talking about the triple(!)-LP trawl of Sandinista! and its orbital 12" singles, records like The Magnificent Seven and This Is Radio Clash, the latter of which features four versions spread across its twelve inch surface, each one sequentially more twisted and dubbed to pieces than the last. Outside Broadcast (the third version), is one of the great hidden gems in the band's back catalogue, conjuring up images of a careening taxi cab ride through fog-cloaked city streets deserted in the twilight.
The Magnificent Seven - which must be heard in its spacious, sprawling album version to experience its true sparkling third-eye-tactile black magic - finds, as mentioned in their last episode, this band of outlaws messing around with the Good Times bassline and twisting it to their own swashbuckling purposes. In other words, it's disco not disco at its absolute finest. Interesting to hear it as Joe Strummer's take on contemporary rap (note The Clash's turn as backing band for graffiti artist Futura 2000 on The Escapades Of Futura 2000, one of the infamous Celluloid rap records), like Blondie's Rapture but even more so. Think killer disco rap like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's Superappin', Kurtis Blow's The Breaks and Monster Jam by Spoonie Gee meets The Sequence (not to mention The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight if you want to get literal).
Noteworthy in the Parallax sense is also the fact that the intros to both The Magnificent Dance (the x-ray dub version of The Magnificent Seven) and Mensforth Hill form the basis of Reese's You're Mine (the b-side to Rock To The Beat), which suggests that Mr. Saunderson was working with both the album and 12" when vibing out in the studio to create that killer cut. At moments like this, I'm reminded of Norman Cook/Fatboy Slim's review of Big Audio Dynamite's Sunday Best, in which he offhandedly placed The Clash at the genesis of indie dance. Which sounds about right to me, with New Order and Big Audio Dynamite arriving as fully formed ambassadors of the genre before it would go on to become a way of life.
Ah yes, that's right: Big Audio Dynamite! B.A.D. is, of course, a whole other can of worms. Now it's damn near painfully obvious to point out how that crew's merciless caning of the sampler and rewired approach to the dancefloor anticipated whole swathes of music in the nineties and beyond, but records like the proto-house madness of Hollywood Boulevard and Megatop Phoenix (which has nestled comfortably into Sgt. Pepper-status around these parts) serve to drive the point home and then some. Their debut full-length This Is Big Audio Dynamite boasts not only obvious radio bounty like The Bottom Line, E=MC² and the sublime cool of Medicine Show (recently featured in Woebot's excellent 101-2001 - and for the record I agree wholeheartedly with the man's glowing assessment of the tune), but also a wealth of strange dancefloor material on its under-explored b-side (particularily Sudden Impact's phenomenal short-circuiting electroid groove and the proto-ragga dancehall of A Party).
Sudden Impact is particularily interesting in this context, with its strange spaghetti-western-by-way-of-Lee "Scratch" Perry guitar figure riding wicked rails of straight up electro, the track seeming to exist right at the very nexus of a number of contemporary sonic currents. For one, you've got electro boogie along the lines of Aleem's Get Loose, D-Train's You're The One For Me and C.O.D.'s cover of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's In The Bottle, all of which predict Sudden Impact's own nimble touch in their wiry, skeletal rhythmic structure.
But why stop there? It doesn't' take much effort to draw a short line from Sudden Impact! to honest-to-goodness minimalistic electro missives like Hashim's We're Rocking The Planet, the Imperial Brothers' We Come To Rock and World Class Wreckin' Cru's Surgery, all of which had been tearing up dancefloors for the better part of a year. Of course there's also the flipside of the coin: straight up electrofunk shearing into electro territory, records like Cameo's She's Strange (along with its proto-rap 12" club mix), Whodini's Escape and about a thousand other rap records.
Japan (the band) had their own incursions in this arena, where even amongst their most well-known new pop-era hits like the crepuscular fragile beauty of Ghosts and the supremely funky Visions Of China2 you'd find records like Gentlemen Take Polaroids and The Art Of Parties riding a malfunktioning electroid framework of their own. Yet it's just before the group's widely-hailed peak that you'll find my favorite music they made, from that period when David Sylvian and co. were still slumming it as twilight era glam rockers operating in a weird interzone between new wave and funk that just shades this side of the (totally imaginary) post punk divide, with not only their blinding Adolescent Sex debut album (which featured in the Parallax 200 just the other day), but also the Quiet Life LP (and it's precursor, the Life In Tokyo 12" warning shot - produced by Giorgio Moroder for those keeping track).
Adolescent Sex in particular is the sleaziest rock 'n funk grind this side of The Stones' Fingerprint File, with real red light district velvet curtain bizzness in tracks like Performance (named after the Nick Roeg film, I wonder?) and the slinky cinematic slow burn of Suburban Love. This is funk the way The Isley Brothers played it. By which I mean turn on a dime rhythmic panache, smeared synth stylings - as if every texture were washed out in sun-glazed daylight somehow in the dead of night - and searing guitar lines rising from the murky depths. There's shades too of Steely Dan at their Royal Scam grimiest - bringing to mind The Fez and The Royal Scam itself in particular - on tunes like Wish You Were Black and the marathon nine-minute album-closing Television. This sort of half-lit bedroom funk is a personal favorite sound of mine (see Prince's debut For You for another example), and should if there's any sense in the world at all spawn a feature of its own sometime in the future.
If there's a neon-tinged eighties analog to the sound I'm getting at here, then it must be Mtume circa Juicy Fruit. The album's centerpiece is the title track, no doubt, but there's a wealth of sterling rubberband funk in evidence throughout. The high top blacktop moonwalk of Green Light is emblematic of the whole affair in its casual loose-limbed bounce, with the more explicitly electronic grooves of Hips and Hip Dip Skippedabeat shearing into prime electrofunk territory. The production throughout is just perfect, with none of the overly-harmonized, booming drums that you'd often wind up with during in the era.3 It's the flipside of all the canonical new wave records here and a stone cold classic.
And while we're on the flipside, Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is another unmissable slice of new wave electrofunk - from a crew that's arguably the progenitor of the form - and the flipside to PIL's Metal Box (the founder of this feast). The deconstructed start-stop groove of Funk Gets Stronger - featuring Sly Stone in full effect - is practically straight up new wave and never fails to make me flash on Adam And The Ants' Dirk Wears White Sox4 (particularily the distinctive guitar tone).
The whole record plays like a roadmap of eighties funk possibilities and beyond, and is absolutely essential listening. It will likely sound patchy at first, but give it time: what you're hearing is the familiar One Nation Under A Groove/Flashlight magic formula being warped and mutated beyond the point of recognition. Its strangeness is its calling card. The band even turn out the Lodger-esque freaky cod-reggae of Shockwaves, which starts out like a joke track (with fake accent to boot) before dropping out into the divine ravishment of the chorus. Definite shades of Bowie and très post punk!
On a related note, I make no apologies whatsoever for the heavy representation of Parallax 200 records here, since the sonic neighborhood on the table today couldn't help but throw up some of my favorite records almost by default. Wrapping up that list definitely put this sound firmly in mind. In truth, it likely inspired the whole trip! No doubt many of the remaining records will make the 300 when the time comes...
Now where was I... Ah yes, Japan. Coming a year after Adolescent Sex, Quiet Life and the Life In Tokyo 12" both seem to predict Duran Duran's self-titled debut in their sleek, chrome-eyed surfaces. Speaking of which, don't sleep on Duran Duran's 1981 debut, a record that is well worth checking out in its own right. The ace new wave disco of Planet Earth stands out as a particular highlight, but really the whole record is golden. Don't listen to the hipster haters - Nick Rhodes is way cooler than any of them anyway. Listened to back to back to back, these three records (Life In Tokyo, Quiet Life and Duran Duran) play like a tour of Europe by high-speed rail.
And while we're still on the continent, it's fitting to round out this strange punk funk-by-way-of-new wave triumvirate with Simple Minds, whose early records belie their Scottish origins and seem to point toward the most shadowy recesses of the Eastern Bloc. From the grimy claustrophobic corridors of Real To Real Cacophony to the sleek steel surfaces of Empires And Dance and even the Steve Hillage-produced widescreen canvases of Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, this is all prime real estate in the sprawling terrain of post punk/machine funk that just begs to be explored further. I've spent quite a bit of time here myself.
You've got the dead-eyed disco of Premonition, yawning gleefully with cavernous jaws and drip-dropping percussion, the slow-motion punk funk dirge of This Fear Of Gods and Today I Died Again's exquisitely swirling dread on one hand and the kling klang clanking funk of Sweat In Bullet (pointing the way to New Gold Dream) and the clockwork, backwards-crab-walking rhythm box black hole League Of Nations on the other. Taken as a whole, the four record run5 is a stellar excursion into post-Bowie In Berlin sonics.
So check them all out, the Simple Minds records and everything else here too. They won't do you wrong. I hear that the vendor across the street - yes, that gaunt gentleman in the robe - has them all on cassette, so don't sleep. Trust me... you need these records in your life. While you do so, I'll be in the basement down the way grabbing some records from my homeboy Cornelius for the next chapter...
TV3 Death Disco Playlist
- The Clash The Magnificent Seven (Album Version) (CBS, 1980)
- Kurtis Blow The Breaks (Mercury, 1980)
- Simple Minds Premonition (Arista, 1979)
- Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five Superappin' (Enjoy, 1979)
- Japan Suburban Love (Ariola Hansa, 1978)
- Chic Good Times (Atlantic, 1979)
- Japan Life In Tokyo (Disco Version) (Ariola Hansa, 1979)
- Duran Duran Planet Earth (EMI, 1981)
- Simple Minds I Travel (Arista, 1980)
- Adam And The Ants Cartrouble (Part 1) (Do It, 1979)
- Funkadelic Funk Gets Stronger (Part 1) (Warner Bros., 1981)
- Big Audio Dynamite Sudden Impact! (Columbia, 1985)
- D-Train You're The One For Me (Prelude, 1981)
- C.O.D. In The Bottle (Emergency, 1983)
- Aleem Get Loose (NIA, 1984)
- Imperial Brothers We Come To Dub (Cutting, 1984)
- Cameo She's Strange (Atlanta Artists, 1984)
- Funkadelic The Electric Spanking Of War Babies (Warner Bros., 1981)
- Mtume Green Light (Epic, 1983)
- The Clash Outside Broadcast (CBS, 1981)
- Prince Lady Cab Driver (Warner Bros., 1982)
- Big Audio Dynamite Hollywood Boulevard (Columbia, 1986)
Two years ago I asked the question Where does machine funk intersect with post punk? It's a question I'd meant to jump into deeper at the time, but then the moment seemed to pass. I'd been toying with the notion of revisiting it recently, weaving a narrative around these two strands of music that seemed to run in tandem for much of the eighties (and beyond, truth be told). Just the other day, my brother Matt was over and we were listening to a selection of music that in large part sprang from this continuum and he commented on the striking sonic overlap between post punk, disco and funk, that the three genres almost formed the sides of a triangle that - and I'm jumping in here - had a profound shaping influence on modern music.
The tune that instigated the comment was Jermaine Jackson's Erucu, playing out on the heels of a bunch of late-period post punk along the lines of A Certain Ratio and 23 Skidoo, but something like Barry Waite & Ltd.'s Sting or James Brown's I Can't Stand It "76" would make the case just as strongly. That is, the stripped-down tautness of funk, aspects of disco's four to the floor minimalism and the funky edge of post punk's year zero reinvention of the rhythmic wheel (sourced in large part in the very no-nonsense funk of the seventies in question here) share a certain sonic kinship that (teasing in reggae here as well) seems to have laid out the next decade(s) in advance.
Wheeling this back to my original comment about post punk vis a vis machine funk, what you had in the eighties was this great convergence between the two worlds, almost as if two dimensions overlapped for this blessed spell of time and characters were able to move freely between the two worlds in a great exchange of ideas. I'm talking about Bernie Worrell joining the Talking Heads on tour, Blondie's Chris Stein providing those moody dubplates for Wildstyle, New Order hooking up with Arthur Baker and John Robie in New York for Confusion, and about a thousand other examples.
Speaking of Baker/Robie (the producers of Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force's Planet Rock), the picture really falls into place when you take things like electro and early hip hop into consideration. On one hand, you have the spectral missives of Hashim (whose Primrose Path sounds like the digital cousin of 400 Blows' Declaration Of Intent, both sharing in those same slap-bass future shock vibes) and Man Parrish's Special Disconet Remix of Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop) (whose rubberband bassline seems to recall The Clash's The Magnificent Seven (whose bassline seems to recall Chic's Good Times (whose bassline was seemingly imitated by everybody else as well))), while on the other you have The Cold Crush Brothers' Punk Rock Rap and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's New York New York. All of which could theoretically soundtrack a rough-and-tumble cinematic take on William Gibson's Neuromancer. Of course, it doesn't stop there...
Take Prince and his affinity with not only new wave but also PIL, whose Metal Box is one of the cornerstones of post punk; if the genre does indeed have a pantheon, then it's right in there at the top. Interestingly, along with dub and funk, PIL were deeply shaped by Can's krautrock/funk, whose Ege Bamyasi and Saw Delight slide right in this continuum without much fuss at all.1
Once krautrock enters the discussion, the elephant in the room is obviously Brian Eno, who - along with David Bowie - were one of the main conduits of the music into the post punk collective consciousness (and beyond). Indeed, Bowie jumping from the plastic soul of Young Americans into the Autobahn-surfing Europe-endlessness of Station To Station and on into the Berlin trilogy - where the aerodynamic funk of those two records gets yoked to an electronic framework that is firmly in this continuum (see Breaking Glass, Blackout and D.J. for starters).
And Eno of course went on to become the crucial guiding force in not only the Talking Heads' post punk trilogy (particularily Remain In Light) but also the tremendously prescient My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Both of which are defining records in this post punk/machine funk district, and lie at the heart of what I will call my idea of the eighties. You can hear the overlap between the rolling rhythms of these two strikingly modern records and - on the one hand - West African monster jams like Tony Allen's N.E.P.A (Never Expect Power Always) and - on the other hand, perhaps more unexpectedly - early rap excursions like Spoonie Gee's Spoonin' Rap, with all four records sharing that same sense of thick atmosphere rising like vapors from the twilight city streets.
We will hang out in this neighborhood for awhile, so don't go anywhere, but I must leave you for a moment to score some alcapurrias from this bodega on the corner. Chill here on this bench for awhile and listen to Remain In Light and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts back to back while watching the traffic, and I'll be back in a bit.
To be continued...
TV2 Remain In Ghosts
- James Brown I Can't Stand It "76" (Polydor, 1974)
- A Certain Ratio Shack Up (Factory, 1980)
- Barry Waite & Ltd. Sting (Part 1) (Leo, 1974)
- Jermaine Jackson Erucu (Natural Resources, 1977)
- Talking Heads I Zimbra (Sire, 1979)
- Grandmaster Caz & Chris Stein South Bronx Subway Rap (Animal, 1983)
- Brian Eno/DavidByrne Regiment (Sire, 1981)
- 400 Blows Declaration Of Intent (Illuminated, 1984)
- Hashim Primrose Path (Cutting, 1986)
- New Order Confusion (Substance Version) (Factory, 1983)
- Man Parrish Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop) (Special Disconet Remix) (Ram's Horn, 1983)
- Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five New York New York (Sugar Hill, 1983)
- Tony Allen with Afrobeat 2000 When One Road Close (Another One Go Open) (Wrasse, 1984)
- Talking Heads Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (Sire, 1980)
- Spoonie Gee Spoonin' Rap (I Don't Drink Smoke Or Gamble Neither I'm The Cold Crushing Lover) (Sound Of New York, 1979)
- Brian Eno/DavidByrne Moonlight In Glory (Sire, 1981)
- David Bowie The Secret Life Of Arabia (RCA Victor, 1977)
- Can Sunday Jam (Harvest, 1979)
- Talking Heads Listening Wind (Sire, 1980)
- Brian Eno Energy Fools The Magician (Island, 1977)
There's nothing quite like Woebot tearing it up - yet again - with a two hour, twenty minute Indian Classical Mix1 to cool you out in the midst of a long, hot summer. Serious science dropped indeed! The man hits you with some powerful words before taking you on an extended sonic journey:
You may not have enjoyed this music before, you may be prejudiced against it. But cast aside your preconceptions - zone out - think of it as summertime, Ambient Music if you like - but LISTEN to the awe-inspiring breadth of expression these masters b-ring to but single instruments as these sonic worlds unfurl like mandalas.
Indeed, you switch it on and the music just flows over you. Simply incredible. The man's right to focus on the otherworldly, often quite electric quality of this organic music, singling out the tambura as that constant drone which sounds like electrical power-lines. The notion of the mix as ambient music is quite an interesting lense to listen through, as this music should certainly appeal to fans of Brian Eno, The Black Dog or Aphex Twin and their excursions into innerspace music both strange and wonderful. Historically, it has often been a music approached through one doorway or another, be it The Beatles or the Coltranes, Terry Riley or Yehudi Menuhin. Still, it's a memorable moment the first time one encounters something like Shivkumar Sharma's Raga Madhuvanti for the first time - the real deal, straight from the source - a feeling not unlike plugging into the national grid.
In truth, while I'm a huge fan of Indian classical music, be it Hindustani or in the Karnatic tradition, my collection isn't nearly as deep as it should be. In part this is due to various geographical realities, but also - and Woebot touches on this - the fact that there have been scant reissues of the stuff over the past twenty years. I do snap up whatever O.G.'s I manage to stumble across (although I have only the Shivkumar Sharma, Ali Akbar Khan and Panallal Ghosh records of the ones featured in the mix... and I've long been stalking a copy of the Ustad Nathoo Khan), but the fact is that it's getting harder to track many of them down. Coupled with the fact that I got hooked up with the music relatively late in the game in the first place (birthdate-related more than anything, although I do wish that I'd clocked this music way back in junior high), it's an often frustrating situation.
These days, Bollywood-related reissues have an even stronger presence on the racks it seems (see Charanjit Singh's incredible Synthesizing: Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat, which Bombay Connection unearthed a few years back), than Indian classical recorded within the twenty year period stretching from the mid-1950s to the 1970s. Contrast this with the ease with which one can find the storied concerts of the Arturo Toscanini and George Szell eras, lovingly remastered and repackaged (the sterling work of labels like Deutsche Grammophon and RCA Victor springs to mind) since the dawn of the CD era. Surely a comparable reissue program for Indian classical is in order?2
All of which brings us back to the importance of mixes like this one, shining as they do a light on such powerful, all-encompassing music. Woebot's take on Indian classical has always been a unique one, and I've always dug the connection that he continually highlights between the Hindustani tradition and its profound influence on Arthur Russell's well-deep excursions into sound (in parallel with the repetition thing running right through minimalism and electronic music).
Despite the resistance one often finds when the average listener is confronted with extended running times and repetition, it's without a doubt been one of the crucial building blocks of music since time immemorial. From the extended ragas of Ali Akbar Khan and Terry Riley's all night Persian Surgery Dervishes sessions to Manuel Göttsching's electronic opus E2-E4 and Basic Channel's marathon Quadrant Dub to Arthur Russell's sunset hymn In The Light Of The Miracle, it's all about locking onto that central pulse and riding it into the horizon on infinity's wings.
Like Prince once said, there's joy in repetition.
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 Loma Music Trader. My chance had come, so I snapped it up with haste. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As much as its bound to come off as hyperbole, I reckon that this is the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of the eighties. It may not have the reputation or sheer pop culture impact of The Beatles storied song-cycle, but it certainly ticks every other box available: here's a set of great songs recorded with cutting-edge studio-as-instrument techniques, dubbed full of effects and sequenced perfectly - almost symmetrically so - into one killer extended suite, recreating the feel of a multifaceted live performance. Plus, both records have breaks!
The fourth and final full-length of the original B.A.D. lineup, Megatop finds the group five years deep into their career and truly firing on all cylinders. Here is a band who knew exactly what they were doing and precisely how to do it. With a story stretching back to 1985 - and even further, truth be told, into the heady days of first-wave punk and The Clash - perhaps it might be worthwhile to rewind a bit and start at the beginning...
The Story Of The Clash
The story of B.A.D. begins with Mick Jones, the lead guitarist for The Clash. As everyone undoubtedly knows, The Clash (along with bands like The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Damned) were the standard-bearers for the rise of punk in the media glare of 1977. Singles like White Riot, London's Burning and Complete Control were crucial cuts in punk's early arsenal, while their self-titled debut was - along with the Ramones debut, Nevermind The Bollocks and Damned Damned Damned1 - one of the first punk full-lengths to hit the shops.
The band quickly began expanding beyond the constraints of straight up punk rock, exploring reggae, rockabilly, New Orleans r&b and eventually mixing dub, disco and hip hop into their dense sonic stew. The group seemed to straddle the dividing line between new wave and post punk (much like Simple Minds' contemporary records, Empires And Dance and Real To Real 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
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
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
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'14 Pills '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?
- All Mink & No Manners
- Union, Jack
- Dragon Town
- Baby, Don't Apologise
- Is Yours Working Yet?
- Around The Girl In 80 Ways
- James Brown
- Everybody Needs A Holiday
- Mick's A Hippie Burning
- House Arrest
- The Green Lady
- London Bridge
- Stalag 123
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):
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.
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.
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:
'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:
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:
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.
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...
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.
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:
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.
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!
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:
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...
Suddenly, we're in The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow Is Born but this time with a crashing electro beat laid out beneath. Shimmering sonix twinkle on the horizon and a crystalline synth tone carries the melody, while synthetic slap bass integrates itself into the beat. This is Megatop's unabashed britpop masterpiece, with a melody that grabs your ear from the word go and never lets up.
I've always thought that this should have been a single. Next to Contact, it's my favorite thing here. In fact, I envision the trio Contact, Baby, Don't Apologize and The Green Lady setting up the perfect sequence of singles from the album: one for the heads, one for the clubs and one for the radio. I have no doubt that The Green Lady would have been a hit on the order of V. Thirteen and Other 99, taking its place on the Planet BAD compilation alongside Contact in the all-star draft pick.
Unexpectedly, London Bridge starts with a spasmodic percussion loop - lasting about thirty seconds - that wouldn't sound out of place on Warp or Mille Plateaux about a decade later. It gradually fades into an ethereal operatic vocal and old-time soundtrack fragment (doing nothing to dissuade the Warp comparisons!) before the song proper commences.
It's another Paisley Park-tinged excursion, with Jones indulging in a bit London love (in fact, it's something of a laidback answer to side one's Union, Jack, bringing it all back home again). Like The Green Lady, it has some rather pretty guitar work from Mick Jones. Stately string samples carry the beat for a chorus where the subdued pop melody really takes flight:
London Bridge is falling down.
They're taking bids from all around
(Give me dollars I don't want pounds).
London Bridge is falling down,
But I still love this town
From the Tower to the Underground.
After coasting on a cool breeze for just over three minutes, the song crumbles into old-time soundtrack strings once again.
Shades of another soundtrack open Stalag 123, namely those of Elmer Bernstein's The Great Escape, which mix into an jazzed-out organ progression colored by gentle synth brass. The whole thing screams languid, as Mick Jones offers the opening lines:
I'm fixing on a jail break,
But the door is open wide.
Stuck in Stalag 123,
And there ain't no one to bribe.
Taking the Paisley Park-inflected dance pop aspect of Megatop to its logical conclusion, a rolling machine rhythm enters the fray to carry the song while a pulsing bassline bounces casually across its sleek surface. Alongside Everybody Needs A Holiday, this is clearly the most laidback material on the album. It's certainly the smoothest (no contest!) and provides the perfect leisurely conclusion to Megatop Phoenix:
I've got the studio blues and some other bad news.
(The basements been swamped by a flood).
I've got the studio blues and it's ruined my shoes.
(My boogie's all covered in mud).
With dialogue samples from The Great Escape scattered throughout, the song seems like it could stretch on dreamily into perpetuity. And yet, at three minutes, eleven seconds it cuts out abruptly...
The coda End interrupts Stalag 123 with an incongruous bit of bluesy guitar heroics from Mick Jones. A sad, muffled bit of piano creeps in as a woman's voice bids Goodbye. Suddenly, it seems, the trip is over.
The Nineties Are Gonna Make The Sixties Look Like The Fifties
Megatop Phoenix turned out to be the last full-length album by the original lineup of Big Audio Dynamite. The group lasted for one more single, the excellent Free (a sister record of sorts to Contact). It was recorded for the movie Flashback (starring Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland), which makes the connection between the two summers of love explicit. At the dawn of nineties, a decade during which the eighties innovations of dance music, hip hop and alternative rock would reign supreme, it struck a note of precarious optimism with a memorable line from faded sixties activist Huey Walker (played by Dennis Hopper) that was sampled prominently by the band:
Once we get out of the eighties,
The nineties are gonna make the sixties look like the fifties.
The Big Audio Dynamite II lineup followed swiftly in its wake with further escapades into indie dance in the form of the albums Kool-Aid and The Globe (along with the attendant singles). Further records like Higher Power and F-Punk followed different incarnations of the band through the decade, culminating in the excellent - but alas, unreleased - Entering A New Ride22 in that storied year, 1997.
Tracks like the Kraftwerk-inflected Kool-Aid and The Globe's proto-dusted beats were first-rate dancefloor burners, while Rush conquered up the pop 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!
Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance). The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry - and proving ground - for breaking artists. This was the format in which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).1 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude2 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues - artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf - often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album. The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd - artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies - made their initial splash.
Soul music - despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre - began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'s Green Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook3).
If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock - progressive everything, truth be told - with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form. Indeed most rock - bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet - was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade - even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised - while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoingParliament/Funkadelic saga. Even reggae - that stalwart of the 7" single - was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade. Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tables of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed - even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums - and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded. Similarily, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You can't knock something like Virgo's self-titled album from 1989.
Aside from dance music - which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) - the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot. Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space to Bandulu's Cornerstone. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarily, jungle - like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre - had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject - 20 great dance CDs - kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Oukast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest, spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty - figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift - clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.
There exists a particular sound that seems to leap out the speakers in vivid colors, engulfing its surroundings and drawing you into its world. I've come to refer to this as the day-glo sound. There's a four dimensional character to it... you can hear the neon in the air around you. It's something that's captured my imagination from day one, and I've been wanting to pull these records together for some time now. They tend to spring from the intersection of new wave and the dancefloor (at least initially), but in truth you might find them just about anywhere, from rap to techno and machine soul.
The reason I find this particular sound to be crucial is that it manages to spark up brilliant images in the mind's eye even as it throws spectacular shapes across the dancefloor. This is music for the mind, body and soul. It's verdant and full of life, with a four-dimensional depth that's thoroughly engrossing. Indeed, it's no surprise that some of the greatest pop music has keyed into this sound. It's particularily germane to the present moment, and I wouldn't be surprised if it pointed a way out of the quandary music currently finds itself in.
Rather appropriately, we begin our survey at the dawn of the eighties. There are bits and pieces from earlier records that may hint in the general direction, but they ultimately belong to a parallel lineage (one that I plan to discuss sometime next month). It's in the eighties that the day-glo aesthetic truly catches fire, coloring each of these records from the sleeves on down to the sonics held within. In rough chronological order then...
The English Beat - I Just Can't Stop It (U.S. Version)
If we're talking day-glo, then there's no better place to start than with The Beat. Coming from the late-seventies ska revival (as spearheaded by The Specials and their Two-Tone stable of artists), they stand out by virtue of their sumptuous sonic palette. The Specials debut - with its stark black-and-white sleeve design and Elvis Costello's no-frills live-in-the-studio production - was thoroughly monochromatic working week music. From the baleful tenor of Concrete Jungle to the dead-end doldrums of Too Much Too Young, it was packed with no-nonsense photo-realistic documentary reportage.
In contrast, I Just Can't Stop It leaps out the speakers in vivid shades of violet and magenta, like neon lights dancing against the jet black of night. Mirror In The Bathroom, from the production on down, must be one of the most futuristic records ever produced. With five humans locked into the metronomic pulse of Everett Morton's drums and David Steele's creeping basslines, it almost seems to approach a state of machine music in its motorik drive and clockwork precision, with every texture clutching at your ear and pulling you deeper into its world.
You can sense the glitz of disco seeping into the post punk vanguard here,1 cementing the day-glo aesthetic that would color so much of the decade's music. An affinity with Giorgio Moroder's motor-disco, the spangled shapes of Prelude and above all the tropical, dubbed-out sounds of the nascent Island disco output can be felt throughout. The music spread across the entirety of this LP seems to exude a balmy glow, practically defining the word vibrant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it remains one of my absolute favorite pure pop records of all time.
D-Train - You're The One For Me
This is the point where post-disco morphs into eighties electro-boogie (see also Kleeer/Universal Robot Band, along with everything going down in Minneapolis at the time). You're The One For Me maintains the metronomic linearity of disco, lacking the top-heavy verticality of eighties electrofunk, but its machine rhythms do bear a striking resemblance to those of the electro boom looming on the horizon. James Williams' soaring vocals swoop and glide over spangled synthetic shapes, wired into that central electronic groove, while Hubert Eaves III (the man behind the seventies jazz funk tile Esoteric Funk) gets busy on the keys. The instrumental version even begins with a liquid synth figure that sounds like loose wires shooting electricity across the third rail, kicking off a wild subway ride into the depths of the New York night.
Indeed, the whole Prelude aesthetic sits comfortably within the day-glo realm, from the rambunctious electronic shapes of The Strikers' Body Music, shifting and burning over tight mechanical rhythms, to the more organic sounds of Empress' Dyin' To Be Dancin', still firmly grounded as they are in the rules of disco proper. Much of it has a vivid, compact clarity that seems to predict the architecture of eighties dance, but D-Train's You're The One For Me represents that crucial step forward, heralding a sea change in the way dance records would be constructed. Just compare 1980's Gap Band III to 1982's Gap Band IV, Cameosis to Alligator Woman or even Off The Wall to Thriller!
Associates - Sulk
Another well-documented favorite of mine. It's also another singular pop record shaped in disco's shadow, combined with the arch grandeur of film music in an overwhelming clash of sonics. A definite case where the sleeve really captures the sumptuous moods found within. This music suggests ornate ice sculptures spiralling into the sky, crammed with so much richness of detail that they threaten to come crashing down at any moment, while Billy MacKenzie's shrieks pierce through their crystalline corridors with wild abandon. Every texture seems to pulsate fiercely, wherein unstable elements garland paranoia and raging emotion: this is blacklight affair music.
Songs like It's Better This Way and Skipping careen at a furious pace, seeming to combine euphoria and dread into a single emotion, every surface shimmering like storm clouds caught in a ray of sunlight. Conversely, No and Gloomy Sunday glide along at a more stately pace - with MacKenzie almost seeming to revel in his grief - but are no less overwhelmingly powerful for it. Every corner of the record is imbued with a raging intensity, as if all the colors - shades of blue, green and violet - were burning too bright to last for long. The dreamlike Party Fears Two is something like the embodiment of this sensation.
The CD reissue includes a wealth of bonus material (up there with Fifth Dimension's bonus tracks in terms of enhancing the original album experience), including an astoundingly raw early version of It's Better This Way (titled The Room We Sat In Before) and the moody instrumental Grecian 2000. The former is a splendid showcase for Alan Rankine's guitar finesse, as he strangles strange tangled shapes from his instrument, while the latter is a masterpiece of electronic noir: a captivating post-disco pulse cloaked in a haunting synth refrain, evoking paranoid pursuit through deserted city streets in the dead of night. Needless to say, it's exactly the sort of thing we dig here at The Parallax Room.
Gwen Guthrie - Padlock
The Island disco sound that I'd mentioned in passing while discussing The Beat, was in large part fueled by the inimitable Compass Point All Stars. The All-Stars were a crucial conduit through which both discomix reggae and dubbed-out vibes entered the eighties mainstream, and everything they touched was shot through with lush tropical flavor and a new wave glow. They backed Gwen on her first three albums (Gwen Guthrie, Portrait and Just For You), picking up where they left off with Grace Jones' excellent Island trilogy (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life).
The Padlock mini-album finds Larry Levan remixing a selection of tracks from Gwen's first two LPs into one extended atmospheric trip. The production here conjures up images of a steamy dancehall bathed in primary colors as viewed through a funhouse mirror, evoking the spirit of Levan's Paradise Garage in its verdant, gently psychedelic atmosphere.2 The abstract machinery of dub remains in full effect throughout, righteously casting this cutting edge post-disco boogie as the head music of the eighties. Just keep in mind, this is the sort of head music that you can't help but dance to.
Tracks like Getting Hot, with those glimmering electronic flourishes spiralling out into infinity, and Peanut Butter, riding atop those insane rolling basslines, both burn with a raw, almost tactile sensuality. Hopscotch appears here in its most minimal version, while the title track (as featured on Parallax Pier) gives you a front-row seat at Club Paradise. When Gwen sings We'll sail away to shores... in Seventh Heaven, backing synths pouring through in a rush of sunlight, it's as if the feeling of pure ecstasy has been captured on wax.
Barbara Mason - Another Man
(West End: 1983)
Soul woman Barbara Mason had a history in the seventies as a no-nonsense truth-talker, rough hewn and down in the nitty gritty, smoldering with hard-won intensity on records like Shackin' Up and Caught In The Middle. Coming out nearly a decade later, Another Man is a sequel of sorts to her ballad She's Got The Papers (I Got The Man), picking up where that tune left off - once the dust had settled on its romantic intrigue - with a humorous tale of infidelity and the realization that she really might not be his type after all.
Another Man has the shadowy, dubbed-out flavor you'd expect from a West End record, but it's wired to a cutting edge electroid groove that seems to be infused with hot pink liquid neon. Like D-Train's You're The One For Me, it's another killer late-period record from a disco powerhouse label that seems to cavort with electro in the half-light, laying out a blueprint for the future in the process. Notorious B.I.G. later used its sleek, depth-charging groove as the basis for his hit record Another, but trust me - you need to hear the original tune in all its glory.
Mtume - Juicy Fruit
The title track is rightly celebrated as a masterpiece of atmospheric machine soul (especially The After 6 Mix (Juicy Fruit Part II) version), while its striking music video perfectly captures the whole aesthetic on showcase tonight: day-glo and neon burning in the twilight. The florid magenta hues of those jackets they're wearing on the sleeve give you the first clue as to the vibes found within. Fog hangs over late night city streets bathed in neon. Cars creep in slow-motion by while the sounds of the corner disco seep out into the wider world, coloring the evening of the passers by.
This is post-disco funk music, fueled by rubberband basslines and twilight atmosphere (it's after six), cutting edge for its time it remains a pungent sound full of possibilities in the present. From Green Light's nimble, sure-footed boogie to the low key sway of Ready For Your Love, the group slide from dancefloor to bedroom with impeccable finesse. It all flows together so naturally, even as they take you to some unexpected places along the way (Hip Dip Skippedabeat is an electrofunk monster with a proto-rap that - in a strange twist of fate - recalls Lightnin' Rod's Hustlers Convention), that you can't help but get caught up in their moonlight vision. Without a doubt one of the great funk LPs of its era.
Wally Badarou - Chief Inspector
(4th & Broadway: 1985)
Compass Point's main keyboard man Wally Badarou strikes solo with an instrumental excursion that bravely expands on the groundwork laid out by the earlier Compass Point records, meshing lush jungle atmospherics with the power grid of the city. It's a rather astonishing tune to drop smack in the middle of the eighties, as it seems to predict whole swathes of the next decade's beat-oriented music even as it remains grounded in the gloriously lush post-disco climes of its day. The best of both worlds, in other words.
The original version - from his 1984 LP Echoes - was excellent, but the Vine Street mix on this 12" takes it to a higher plane altogether. When the verse's sleek groove unfolds into that insouciant low key moonwalk during the chorus - synths bathed in hypnotic half-light - it's as if you're gliding three feet above the ground. That it was released on 4th & Broadway is a perfect touch, as this was the label that would deftly navigate post-disco waters in the interzone between hip hop and house (charting the emergence of swingbeat and trip hop along the way). Rather appropriate for a record that plays like a roadmap to the future.
Keni Stevens - Night Moves (Ultra-Sensual Mix)
The original version, firmly of-its-era modern soul, gets stretched and spaced-out into timelessness by Andy Sojka (owner of Elite Records), Chris Madden and Keni Stevens himself at The Madhouse. The Ultra-Sensual Mix flows from its vocal to instrumental version flawlessly, recalling the low key half-lit brilliance of Lowrell's Mellow Mellow Right On when that tune memorably stretched out into its extended instrumental coda.
The central groove has been stripped down to an ultra-light frame and rebuilt like a graceful aero-glider, with not one element out of place. This has always struck me as something of a sister record to Barbara Mason's Another Man, those same sleek machine shapes grooving gently in the shadows. Yeah, I've gone on before about its rolling deep blue vectors bathed in moonlight, and yeah it's something of a touchstone around these parts; it's still a tremendous record. Paradise and polygons, you're in the grid now.
Model 500 - Night Drive
Early Detroit bizzness, which finds Juan Atkins picking up where he left off with Cybotron and No UFO's, venturing even deeper into nocturnal atmosphere and dubbed-out electronic shapes. Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) is surely one of the key records of eighties. It's just perfect, with Atkins' narration riding atop an elegant, starkly minimal electroid groove.
He's bombing up and down deserted Detroit streets, encountering strange freaks and existential loneliness in the darkness. That beat, a perfection of the electro structure, glides along like a rebuilt street racer. The vessel is cast deep blue on black, rushing past in luminescent streaks on the highway, everything bathed in scattered rays of unnatural moonlight. You're feeling the dread in that bassline, tronix swooping and rising like sparks over shimmering synth surfaces in otherworldly harmony, and your hands slowly tighten on the wheel...
Lola - Wax The Van
(Jump Street: 1987)
Late eighties post-disco action produced by Bob Blank (of Blank Tape Studios), with the fingerprints of one Arthur Russell in evidence throughout. Certainly many other Russell tracks could qualify here - the cavernous shapes of Dinosaur L's Corn Belt and Indian Ocean's madly abstract Treehouse/School Bell spring to mind immediately - but this one's low key brilliance sits most comfortably among present company. Its swirling texture and slow-motion groove seem to evoke the feeling of floating underwater,3 and as is usually the case when Russell is involved, that water is gonna be deep (inna Larry Heard stylee).
Every texture pulses, throbbing against that gently chugging rhythm like unsteady electrical current running through a wavering light bulb. Think early Carl Craig, particularly the gaussian blurred strokes of his Retroactive and Psyche/BFC material, but here everything is vivid and hyper-textured. Lola Blank's untamed vocals burst in and out of the mix as if she were inhabited by different personalities, while Arthur Russell does his inimitably subtle backing vocal thing (see also Loose Joints' Is It All Over My Face) throughout, poised just on the edge of the mix and weaving around Lola's breezily captivating lead to satisfyingly hypnotic effect.
Virgo - Virgo
Such a beautiful record, filled with the most absorbing house music you could imagine, made simply and elegantly by two Chicago kids armed with not much more than a DX-7 synth and a TR-707 drum machine. The Virgo album is essentially an expansion on the Ride EP, doubling the tracklist and stretching out into a thoroughly engrossing, immersive sonic trip. Sure, the gorgeous sleeve gives tantalizing clues as to the sounds held within, but dropping the needle on the record still never fails to take my breath away.
Do You Know Who You Are?, cloaked in lush synths cast in deep aquamarine, throws smooth shapes at placid angles off the clubhouse walls; it's as if you've passed through a door into the backroom and wound up on the far side of the galaxy. Tracks like In A Vision and Ride persist on a course through deep space, with luminescent textures routed through a hall of mirrors, cascading gently into infinity.
Starting with Ride, a handful of songs feature murmured vocals, feeling like a soft-focus take on what Jamie Principle had been up to during the preceding four or five years, placing sensitive, introspective men among the machines. Here, the duo fade into the mix like ghostly apparitions. All The Time is one such moody burner (vocals glide over the shifting ocean surface, locked onto the horizon), while Never Want To Lose You has the duo sneaking Bowie-esque into the foreground while an uncredited female vocalist intones acid house phrases like move your body! and listen to that beat!.
This lush machine soul reaches its twin peaks in both Going Thru Life - with those cascading synths and stark piano lines in spiral orbit over the deepest bassline you could imagine - while the warm geometric pulses of School Hall anchor a touching missive that surpasses even Kraftwerk's Computer Love in teaching machines to cry. There's this recurring moment when everything stops and the bassline just hangs there for a second - in suspended animation - before dropping back into the mix in a tumble of tones... oh man, it's one of my favorite things in the world.
Open House - Keep With The Pace
(Nu Groove: 1990)
More prime deep house, this time from New York's Mark Wilson. The whole Nu Groove aesthetic fits snugly within this realm (things like Rhythm Masters, The Sound Vandals and Bobby Konders' records spring to mind immediately). In fact, I often think that Nu Groove picked up on what the Compass Point All Stars had done and ran with it, bringing it into the nineties with their singular, multifaceted take on deep house. It's a sound that folds disparate strands of dub reggae, hip hop and r&b into its digital disco, offering up a definitive New York take on house music and a crucial stepping stone into the next decade.
Go directly to the New York Mix. Every surface is immaculate: that rolling bassline rides a gliding, shuffling rhythm with impeccable finesse, while underwater synths pulse deep in the background (making it feel something like a distant cousin to Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector). That oceanic synth - springing as it does from deep within the mix - certainly helps strengthen the comparison, sounding strikingly similar to the one rolling beneath long stretches of Badarou's track. Tons of tones tumble in and out of the ether, scattered against light reflected off the cityscape, as all surrounding entities are submerged into the deep. Shimmering and aquatic, this is underwater music for real.
The Future Sound Of London - Accelerator
(Jumpin' & Pumpin': 1991)
The next node in the sequence brings us to the UK. So appropriate that this follows, as I've often thought that Dougans and Cobain's early records owe a huge debt to not only the Nu Groove aesthetic but also Compass Point's: they wired that same verdant, kaleidoscopic atmosphere into rave's kinetic breakbeats and the stark futurism of Detroit. This is where the two meet. A definite cyberpunk flavor can be felt throughout, with shades of Cabaret Voltaire lurking between the cracks and of course Buggy G. Riphead's gorgeous artwork remaining a key period signifier. The Blade Runner vibes are most apparent in the shades of paranoia threaded throughout the record, and also in tracks like Moscow and Central Industrial, with the duo living up to their chosen name.
Accelerator is the culmination of all their early records, released under names like Humanoid, Mental Cube and Indo Tribe (indeed, many of these tracks had already appeared in various forms on the four volumes of The Pulse EPs). The opening track, Expander, rolls in on clouds of foreboding before dropping into a loose breakbeat groove, the unstable synth notes of the chorus spiralling out into crimson swirls. On the flipside, Central Industrial closes the record with a staggering downbeat rhythm, each and every texture piercing into the darkness like an early prototype of the duo's Yage visions. In between lies all manner of magic, from the freewheeling calypso shapes of Stolen Documents (yet another track that seems to recall Badarou's Chief Inspector) to the sumptuous shades of While Others Cry, with its uncredited vocals seeming to connect literally to the tropical flair of Compass Point.
A key ingredient running through many of the tracks is a riverbed of percussion lying just below the surface, placed within dubbed-out caverns of echo (see tracks like It's Not My Problem and 1 In 8),4 while another is the near-constant stream of subspace breakbeats threaded through a 4/4 techno beat-matrix. Tracks like Calcium and Pulse State unveil shimmering vistas, hypnotic swirls of sound painted in vibrant color against Monet-like skies. These are some of the album's deepest moments, during which FSOL perfect a sort of rolling, filmic techno, as if a perpetual motion machine's course had been charted into the sunset.
Then there's the matter of Papua New Guinea, which rides a slice of gently unfurling breakbeat magic over a bassline lifted from Meat Beat Manifesto's Radio Babylon, prefiguring the path of rampant sampladelia the duo would engage in for the remainder of the decade. Further related capers can be found on its 12" single, with an excellent Dub Mix and the Journey To Pyramid version in particular shot through with the vivid colors of a certain day-glo psychedelia.
Lovewatch - Wake It Up
The one you want is Guido's Aquasonic Ice Rink Dub. Check that bassline, the awesome DX-100 bass sound that graced hundreds of records from the era, sparring with the nagging refrain of an after hours organ emerging in violet shades from the darkness. The vocal version is no less special, with the presence of an uncredited dancefloor diva wailing defiantly against the track's sumptuous nocturnal backdrop.
I still remember stumbling upon this record at an indispensable thrift shop (whose name eludes me) that once existed down the street from the Clairemont Library back when I worked there after school. The place was a goldmine of dance and hip hop promos that had apparently been shed by local DJs in an effort to pare down their collections. I used to drop by every Thursday during my lunch break and pull loads of killer garage and rap cuts for next to nothing, so I've gotta give props to those cats for hooking a young (broke) brother up back in the day.
JT The Bigga Figga - Dwellin' In Tha Lab
(Get Low: 1995)
Lush, melodic Bay Area hip hop. The cognoscenti seem to prefer his earlier Playaz N The Game, but I reckon that this one's his masterpiece. Every surface seems to exude a warm glow as shapes shimmer in the darkness and colors get scattered at random. From the title on downwards, it's as if JT had immersed himself in the studio on a mission to conjure up the most amazingly vibrant sounds possible, smearing the rough-hewn edges of these homespun studio mixes into a sleek flow of rolling machine music. The result is casually psychedelic, but electrofunk tight.
All techno heads must hear Root Of All Evil immediately. Like E-40's In A Major Way, with its astonishing shades of Drexciya atmosphere, this seems to share an affinity with those same plangent computer sonics (via West Coast rap's roots in electro). The drums snap with a quintessential coastal crispness that dates back to the days of Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover, while the bass itself seems to melt into the spaces between.
JT's tight flow is augmented here by guest spots from Rappin' 4-Tay and San Quinn, along with other Bay Area luminaries like E-40, Mac Mall and Celly Cell elsewhere on the record, while shadowy figure The Enhancer crops up behind the boards on both Representing and the aforementioned Root Of All Evil. Free-flowing horizontal grooves like Ain't Something Wrong and Bay Area Playaz perfectly capture the feeling of cruising down the 5 as the late afternoon blurs into evening, the world half-lit somewhere between darkness and daylight (like in the movies), while the sun and moon ease onto the horizon at opposite ends of the sky.
Marshall Jefferson - The Animals EP
Glorious technoid house from Chicago original Marshall Jefferson, released on the heels of his Day Of The Onion album but surpassing it in every way. That's a whole mini-category right there... Robert Owens' I'll Be Your Friend and Romanthony's The Wanderer spring to mind immediately. At any rate, I suppose that trilogy sits so comfortably together also because they're each instances of brilliant house artistes operating at the peak of their powers to forge masterful statements of futurist soul. All three of them stone cold classics.
The Horse is a fast-forward house rhythm, 909 snares bouncing everywhere - sparks shooting royal blue into the night, every surface glistening - and evoking the feeling of careening at top speed down the freeway in the middle of the night. The flipside almost sounds like something Kevin Saunderson might have knocked off during the same era - just think of The Dream, or even the E-Dancer remix of Blackwater - with a grinding bassline and rough cut percussion battling in full effect throughout. Pairing these tunes together was a stroke of genius, as the 12" taken as a whole seems to stand astride the twin worlds of house and techno, its unshakeable trancelike shapes shimmering gloriously in the milieu of late-nineties dance.
Luomo - Vocalcity
(Force Tracks: 2000)
Around the turn of the century, the minimal sound of micro-house revealed itself to be one of the leading hotspots in dance music for a spell. In truth, it's a sound that had been bubbling under for the better part of five years, but its sleek, gliding surfaces seemed the perfect sound to take house into the 21st century. Labels like Force Tracks and Kompakt became powerhouses, practically defining the sound in the public imagination.
The form threw up loads of great 12"s and even a handful of excellent albums, but - with the possible exception of Isolée's Rest - this one is my absolute favorite. It's a wholly surreal record that slips and slides through six deeply hypnotic missives of luminescent alien disco, perfectly capturing the state between consciousness and sleep... when dreams can bleed out into reality. Every track lasts ten minutes or longer, gliding on liquid machinery and fixed to the endless horizon, pairing lush machine shapes with seductive (and uncredited) human vocals.
The jazzed-out, three-dimensional electronic chords of Market set the stage, sparring with a squelching bass figure that gradually gains momentum, before swooping into a kinetic groove at the track's midpoint that seems to rearrange itself before your eyes. Getting down to the root of the matter, the flowing motorik drive of The Right Wing is closest thing here to the dubbed out techno of Basic Channel, who without question had a profound influence on the whole micro-house/minimal scene.5
Luomo share a similar mastery of the architecture of atmosphere, and employ it on a shadowy dancefloor half-lit in the moonlight under the stars. My absolute favorite moment, Synkro, is also the record's most spacious, with fathoms deep disco set adrift in a neon haze. Every element so lush that you feel as if you're swimming in its fluid textures as they tumble and cascade over one another. The mix practically defines the term four-dimensional.
Matching the deft play of mood and texture throughout this record is some truly stellar songcraft. Even without its heady production, Tessio would make for an excellent pop song. With the production factored in, the track is quite simply mind-bending, scattering those spongy bass tattoos - that seem to slide and shift gears beneath a clicking rhythm track - all across the soundscape, as two mystery singers engage in a fractal duet. Listening in feels like you're surfing waves of blurred emotion.
Outkast - Stankonia
Throughout their tenure as Atlanta's unofficial hip hop ambassadors, Outkast had traded in verdant shapes and sounds. As far back as ATLiens, and even on their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, their music always seemed to exude a warm neon glow. Stankonia is the culmination of everything the duo had been up to during the nineties, and finds them descending even deeper into a sort of psychedelic machine soul.
The vibrant technicolor dream of Ms. Jackson is universally known (and deservedly so) - its lush sonic imagery could be heard everywhere at the time - and to this day it remains a masterpiece. The spectre of Prince looms large throughout, not only in Andre 3000's vocal moves but also in the record's dense, multi-faceted synth-led sound. Indeed, songs like Ms. Jackson and Humble Mumble seem imbued with the spirit of Paisley Park.
The electra-glide textures of Zapp, Mtume and Kleeer, are in evidence throughout, laying the groundwork for the next decade's glorious blurring of hip hop, funk and r&b. I'll Call Before I Come gets into undeniable Atomic Dog territory, but Stankonia goes even deeper into the realm of Funkadelic with the twisted psychedelic soul of the title track. Between its Eddie Hazel/Jimi Hendrix guitar figure and that wailing group chant, it conjures the same dread vibes as March To The Witch's Castle and predicts Brain On Drugs a couple years ahead of schedule.
This long, strange trip curdles with Red Velvet's gnarled computer funk and the strung out psychedelic soul of Toilet Tisha, offering a starkly modern update of Superfly for the new millennium. Perhaps nothing sums up the record quite like ?, a strange junglist sketch and the album's shortest track, it's title hovering over these proceedings like a spotlight... hinting perhaps that even to this day, Stankonia remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma: try as you might, you'll never get to the bottom of this one.
Basement Jaxx - Rooty
Seeing these last three records together makes the turn of the century seem like some sort of golden age! Well, I suppose it was, after all. Jaxx's debut Remedy was easily the better record, but its sonics were sourced in wild pitch house and seventies disco (with Rendezvous and Red Alert coming on like turbo-charged Studio 54 gear). Rooty, on the other hand, seemed informed by the new wave eighties (with the duo at the time referring to their sound as punk garage), and moves beyond house into a sort of crazed maximalist boogie (I think they've got the kitchen sink in there somewhere). Which makes it right at home in present company...
Hard-edged tracks like Where's Your Head At (built around a renegade Gary Numan riff) and Get Me Off roll with reckless abandon through the gutters of the red light district, trading in just the sort of sleazy, low-slung glamour that I wish pop could manage to muster in 2016 (although next year will be another story altogether, I'm sure of it... fingers crossed!). Like contemporary Outkast, the duo channel Prince in Breakaway, sounding like a wild fairground ride experienced through a cracked funhouse mirror, while the album-opening Romeo recalls Sheila E. Coming on like Remedy gone freestyle, its squelching synths seem shot through with hot pink liquid neon.
Two years earlier, Jaxx paid tribute to the machine soul moves of Timbaland with U Can't Stop Me, a strung out slice of stop-start machine funk built on an approximation of the man's trademark spidery beat matrix. Circa 2001, it looked like they'd returned the favor, with Timbaland's work on Missy Elliott's 4 My People and The Neptunes' productions for Britney Spears (Toxic, in particular) sounding like dead ringers for the relentless house sound of Basement Jaxx. Golden age is right!
Metro Area - Metro Area
That initial run of Metro Area EPs were excellent, picking up where The Driving Memoirs left off, but introducing an expansiveness to the proceedings and opening up the soundscape considerably. This record is a culmination of those earlier releases, encapsulating a very special time with incredibly crisp, deep production that stands comfortably with the best records of the turn-of-the-eighties era that it's so clearly inspired by. Dan Selzer's stunning sleeve art really captures the mood here, all those half-lit mystery dancefloors out of the past, present and future. I played this one over and over at the time, even if I thought that Morgan Geist's contemporary Moves EP was even better. Now I'm not so sure. This is one of those records that takes a sound previously confined to 12" singles and tucked away on b-sides and gives it room to breathe across an entire double-LP.
The record kicks off with two tracks featuring the tight string arrangements of Kelley Polar. I've always though that Dance Reaction sounded a bit like a long lost dub of Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough. The first record seems to emphasize live musicianship, with everything from piano to terse vocal harmonies and even acoustic guitar embellishing the warm, uncomplicated soundscapes. Piña rides a Latin piano figure before slipping into Spanish guitar for the placid, dreamy coda. Itis Tandoor's live percussion runs through half the tracks here, opening up the sound considerably into a tactile, physical experience.
The string section and live playing give way to gorgeous machine disco on the second record, where things get down and dirty in a moody stylee. Those bright spangled synths take over, bouncing off the nightclub walls all around the listener as if Super Breakout had gone musical. I've always thought that Soft Hoop was this record's quiet masterpiece, that spongy synth sparring with the bassline in chambers of the deep, while Atmosphrique traps the listener in its hall of mirrors with an almost psychedelic play of, you guessed it, atmosphere. The closing Caught Up seems a fusion of both sides of this record, pairing the strings of the Kelley Polar Quartet and a gorgeous piano/organ duet with the rubberband synths and dubbed-out rhythms of the last four tracks in a moving conclusion to a quietly powerful record.
SA-RA Creative Partners - Double Dutch/Death Of A Star
Nearly everything this crew put out would be eligible, but this one's here for a few reasons and they all have to do with the b-side, Death Of A Star (SUPERNOVA). First, those blacklight synths that seem to spray across the track like day-glo champagne, bathing its chanted vocals even as they threaten to take center stage. Second, those guitar trills that seem to recall nothing so much as peak-era Duran Duran, driving the beat before shearing off into the distance. Third, is the energy, the fire and the tune itself - after all, it wouldn't mean anything if it were just a finely executed pastiche - marking it out as one of the tunes of the decade. Conjuring images of some outerrim nightclub nestled among the stars, its cosmic disco spheres orbiting as they cast glimmering lights all across the firmament. Yea, this is another sleeve that perfectly illustrates everything the record's about.
This is the point where the day-glo impulse really came into focus again and began to catch fire underground, culminating in a lot of the best music from the last decade or so. The strung out autotune r&b of Double Dutch (CO CO POPS) predicts the sound of the latter half of the decade, even if I've never been crazy about it. As usual, however, the instrumentals are something special. SA-RA Space Theme is a low-key entry in their line of astral jazz outings - picking up where Herbie Hancock and Dexter Wansel left off - sounding for all the world like Herbie and Sly Stone jamming circa Fresh. Hangin' By A String, on the other hand, comes on like liquid neon, staggering along on a stop-start beat it seems to have been synthesized from unstable, radioactive elements. Part of SA-RA's charm lies in the fact that no one else sounds remotely like them.
Gorillaz - Demon Days
I liked the first Gorillaz record a lot, so at first I missed the dubbed-out vibes of Dracula and Clint Eastwood. I got over it pretty quick though, as this is very much the superior record. What's more, parts of it seemed to key into the machine funk of Kleeer and Mtume... who would have guessed!? Check that synth squiggle in Feel Good Inc., featuring De La Soul in fine form, rough house rhyming over an electroid beat that cuts out just in time for the acoustic Staring At The Sun-esque chorus.
The sound at first seems more stripped down than the first record, but its really just a sleeker, more aero-dynamic approach. Tracks like Kids With Guns (featuring Neneh Cherry) and El Mañana are skeletal tunes built on spartan drum machine rhythms and glistening analogue tones. Opener Last Living Souls is cut from the same cloth, only in slow-motion. All Alone features Roots Manuva doing his bashment thang over roughneck breakbeat riddims and a garage bassline while Martina Topley-Bird swoops in angelic and sublime for the breakdown. The masterful Dirty Harry is that rare track to feature a children's chorus that works, spiralling into electro-funk territory once it really gets going and sounding like a dream version of something from Whodini's Escape. When The Pharcyde's Bootie Brown drops in on the mic for the guest spot, a ragged breakbeat takes over with its grinding bass accompaniment.
Dare is just perfection. Clearly one of the finest songs of the decade, it seems to pick up where the Dazz Band left off before immersing it all in vast cathedrals of sound. The record goes through various twists and turns before ending in a bizarre Brian Wilson hinterland, with Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head featuring Dennis Hopper's narration (recalling old-time radio serials like Escape and The Mysterious Traveller) and the sumptuous Surf's Up moves of Don't Get Lost In Heaven, before swerving into the Rotary Connection-esque Broadway soul of the title track.
Dâm-Funk - Toeachizown
(Stones Throw: 2009)
This double-CD (5xLP!!) album is the perfect distillation of decades of West Coast machine soul, ranging from the rolling basslines of g-funk to the computerized rhythms of electro, taking in the squiggling shapes of Solar Records, boogie and even mysterious shades of straight-up techno for good measure along the way. Every track seems bathed in computer blue moonlight, wired up to neon (literally LAtrifying, as one song puts it) and drifting through a dreamlike haze. It's the perfect soundtrack to those late summer evenings spent cruising the sprawling web of city streets in the south side of California, just as dusk begins to fall, palm trees cycling by in the rear view mirror.
I certainly can't think of a record that better encapsulates the vibe of late afternoons and late nights down here in San Diego. It's the sound of crashing waves, the freeway stretching through rolling hills in burnt sienna and the grid of the city nestled within, the calm heat of the desert hanging wraithlike in the air. It's the sound of late night trips to your favorite taco shop, cruising down El Cajon Boulevard at midnight, or flipping through a stack of Parliament and Zapp records at your homeboy's spot. It's a million different memories all rolled into one, drifting bittersweet and beautiful out of the past like a mirage. For instance, I Gots 2 Be Done Wit' U always takes me back to August of '95 and afternoons spent listening to One Way and Kleeer, soaking up their atmosphere while playing Atari 2600. Later I'd go roller-skating with my brother and our main man Gregory, the day seeming to stretch on forever.
Tracks like Spacecapades and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky seem to key into a stream of pure techno soul, as if the sounds of Detroit were refracted through the cool water of the Pacific Ocean to sound right at home in the Golden State. In a sense, it sheds some light as to why this music always made perfect sense to me, a kid growing up two-thousand miles away. Parts of this record bring back vivid memories of bombing around San Diego back in the day, listening to Model 500 and Drexciya in the moonlight, taking the longest route home to hear just one more song and stretch the magic out across the electric shades of the evening.
Ryan Leslie - Transition
A wildly inconsistent record, but a fascinating one with an engaging sound, seeming to exist comfortably alongside SA-RA and Dâm-Funk in the context of 21st century machine soul. Its release was tucked away toward the end of a year that had already seen one Leslie LP, his self-titled debut. Transition was apparently inspired by a late-summer romantic affair and knocked out in an off-the-cuff series of sessions. That its release was buried is the only way I can square the fact that it didn't bother the charts with songs like You're Not My Girl and Zodiac, sounding something like the hypothetical album Michael Jackson might have released between Thriller and Bad (circa Kleeer's Intimate Connection and The Isley's Between The Sheets).
Leslie made his name producing Cassie back in 2005, and after a few years he got the chance to launch a solo career of his own. This and the self-title debut came out during a period when I was mainlining on SA-RA and seeking out anything and everything in a similar vein. New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) had just seen release the previous year, featuring tracks produced by SA-RA, and it seemed like something special was in the air. I remember when this and the Kid Cudi album dropped, and I was totally sold on their sleeve art from the jump: this had to be interesting. Actually, the sleeve is not a bad place to start if you're looking for a thumbnail sketch of the sounds held within, conjuring images of deep green vectors unfurling in slow-motion neon.
The album-opening Never Gonna Break Up more than lives up to the anticipation, with Leslie slinging luminescent analogue synths across a gently chugging rhythm while doing his modern soul man routine on vocals. Leslie 's thing is switching between r&b vocals and quasi-raps, which suits his productions just fine. A track like Sunday Night flows gracefully on moody synth swirls, while Nothing trades in almost new wave shapes. The new wave thing is actually in full effect throughout: All My Love even seems to recall New Order in its string/synth progression. The slow-burning post-disco boogie of You're Not My Girl just might be the finest thing here, rolling along on that nagging verse before slipping into its sublime refrain.
Jungle - Jungle
This lot have been the biggest surprise since SA-RA, coming out of nowhere with a killer record that sounds unlike anything else around. I've gone in depth on them before. Not much to add, but I still can't quite believe that they exist... and I don't understand why they aren't the biggest thing around right now. Sari and I have caught them live twice, and both shows were excellent in different ways. I suspect they can make any venue their own, their atmosphere seeps into every corner of the space.
Possibly the first group to spring fully-formed from within the day-glo aesthetic, rather than approaching from a tangent (be it post punk, disco, hip hop or rave). I've said before that they seem to build their songs out of texture as one would sculpt matter: everything here is like day-glo cast in gold and chrome liquid set against jet black skies, where everything glows gently. It would have sounded incredible on the dancefloors of the Paradise Garage, yet it's perfectly at home in the context of now-pop, excelling most of the half-finished ideas that currently set the charts ablaze. This of-the-moment music exists in a continuum stretching back decades... nevertheless it sounds unlike anything that's come before.
Ranging from resolute floor-fillers like Busy Earnin', Time and Julia to moody burners like Accelerator, Drops and Platoon, Jungle imbue everything here with a sense of gravity and physicality. There's a deeply haunting nature running through these atmospheric reveries to the night. In effect, its a stone cold masterpiece. This crew are more than suited to take this sound screaming into the future, and I'm awaiting their next record more anxiously than any other. These are the things that dreams are made of.
Friday night I was lucky enough to catch Hot Chip live at the North Park Observatory. I'd managed to scoop up tickets a week before, and had been looking forward to finally catching this crew live. In the previous incarnation of this blog (Other99), I'd written about them a great many times, from their epochal debut album Coming On Strong to their DJ-Kicks excursion through leftfield dance pop (and even random bumper stickers that appeared throughout the city!). However, I don't think I've yet touched on them here.
When Hot Chip first emerged, they were a crucial group at a crucial time. Seemingly rising from the embers of the mainstream's dalliance with electronica but just before the term "EDM" began to gain traction, they were reticent outsiders at a time when DFA and The Junior Boys were making similar moves at the inflection point between indie pop and the dancefloor.
I've kept up with them ever since, and they've remained a faithful indie dance outfit - perhaps the most steadfast of their era - turning out a sequence first-rate records for well over a decade. As easy as it is to take a group this dependable for granted, they've remained one of my favorite crews throughout their extended tenure. So on Friday night, after a dinner of chicken creole accompanied by the sounds of The Idjut Boys' Night Dubbin', Sari and I hustled down to the Observatory and slipped in for the show.
We arrived just in time to catch the opening strains of Marcus Marr's set, a bumping selection of DFA-shaded electronic disco, pulsing through the inimitable Observatory soundsystem. We watched from the mezzanine - taking in the room and catching up on drinks - while Marr did his thing. There was this moment where an almost nu breaks sequence dropped into the 4/4 pulse... it was without a doubt my favorite moment of his set. After a solid hour of moody dancefloor burners - incredibly crisp and crystal clear - the man signed off promptly to wild cheers from the assembling crowd
While the technicians set up the stage for the headlining band, there was an ace selection of music playing. With a band like Hot Chip, full of connoisseurs and trainspotters end to end, you just know that everything was specially selected. I seem to recall a deejay cut on a Susan Cadogan riddim and maybe something by the Eurythmics, but the tracks that really stood out were the relatively unexpected ones: Fairport Convention's folk talisman Meet On The Ledge and Fleetwood Mac's awesome I Know I'm Not Wrong (from their stone-cold classic double-LP Tusk). A fascinating glimpse behind the curtain, to be sure. We made our way down to the dancefloor as the lights dimmed on the Observatory...
Bright lights shone and the group walked out onstage. Most of the group were posted behind synths - arranged at various angles and heights - with lead singer Alexis Taylor standing perpendicular to the crowd, flanked diagonally by Owen Clarke and Joe Goddard, while Felix Martin loomed in the background. Al Doyle stood at center with his bass and Rob Smoughton wandered back and forth between guitar and percussion, while Sarah James provided live drums in the background.
The band launched into their early hit single Boy From School, Alexis and Joe riding shimmering synth figures on a plaintive melody, operating at an uptempo pace (that they would retain for most of the night) and drawing the room into their singular strains of melancholy dance. I was instantly reminded why this group often suggest a pocket version of prime Underworld, the bright lights and that nagging refrain hanging in the air like a twilight reverie.
Next up, the title track from 2010's One Life Stand brings us into the current decade, with a firm fan favorite. Those rolling italo-disco synth inflections (with an at times almost steel drum timbre) seem to recall not only My Mine's Hypnotic Tango but also early Depeche Mode at their most chipper and bleep-heavy (squint and the backing vocals of the chorus could almost be Martin Gore). Like early DM, with their bubblegum take on Kraftwerk, I love how Hot Chip eschew widescreen sonics for a more intimate, pocketbook style of electronic pop.
Night & Day continued down this path, its staircase bassline throwing wild analogue shapes around the room (it always makes me flash on Random Noise Generation's chaotic house missives) before flowing into the strange Moroder-inflected post-disco of Flutes, riding a free-release cascade of synths - bleeding into every corner of the Observatory's soundscape - and deftly transcending the studio version in the process. By this point, this ragtag bunch clearly had the room in the palm of their collective hands.
They dove headfirst into Over And Over, that momentous slab of dancefloor madness, and you just know what's coming from the first note. That glorious repetition - in both the vocals and its grinding bassline - in full force, pumping louder and wilder than I'd every heard it before. Then it hit me: this is the closest a band has gotten to capturing the feeling of killer acid house cuts like Armando's Trance Dance and Steve Poindexter's Born To Freak. Even the terse vocals of the verses feel like the clipped phrasing you'd find in acid, and then there's the immortal chorus: Over and over and over and over, like a monkey with a miniature cymbal, the joy of repetition is really within you. Really, what a wonderful sentiment!
The lone track from Made In The Dark, Ready For The Floor descended next, riding its trademark lopsided groove - that illogical chord progression with those bleeps spilling out over its sides. This one's always reminded me of William Onyeabor's Anything You Sow (a record that I was lucky enough to snap up on my honeymoon!). I Feel Better came next, sounding not unlike some improbable soundclash between Jamie Principle and OMD, with its shimmering vocals and hall-of-mirrors string progresssion driving blank-eyed into the dead of night.
Alexis then introduced a new track, House Of Truth, and the band launched into a deep, introspective groove that reminded me of some of my absolute favorite material they've ever done. I'm thinking specifically of tracks like No Fit State, These Chains and DJ-Kicks/My Piano, with a cycling, moody take on the Reese bassline, similar in spirit to Underworld's (again!) approach in tracks like Dirty Epic. Then without warning, they slipped into a superbly executed cover of Erotic City, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the boys are still Down With Prince. An unexpected delight!
Huarache Lights - the evening's lone track from their latest record (Why Make Sense?) - closed out their set in fine style, grooving along at a downright leisurely pace compared to the rest of the band's fiercely uptempo set. Featuring a sample of the vocal ad-lib from First Choice's Let No Man Put Asunder - another peak-period acid signifier - the tune sounded utterly of-the-moment, working through its own internal logic before running down into a looping refrain.
With those closing, unresolved bleeps still hanging in the air, the band slowly began to file offstage. The technicians filtered out once again to tweak the equipment for a spell, synths still shimmering toward silence. Then, the band strolled back out for the encore.
Launching into a hi-nrg rendition of Bruce Springsteen's Dancing In The Dark - taken from their latest EP of the same name - the group clocked their highest BPM workout of the night. Tuning into that whole micro-lineage of dancefloor Springsteen covers - spanning from Blinded By The Light as interpreted by Manfred Mann's Earth Band to Donna Summer's run through Protection and even Frankie Goes To Hollywood's take on Born To Run - Hot Chip rewired Bruce's wistful original into a turbocharged dance into the fire, sequences racing and the crowd swept up once more for the ride.
Last weekend I put in work at the Parallax Gardens with some of the crew. Needless to say, there was a steady stream of great music flowing through the lush vegetation while we toiled in the sun. By the end of the (extended) weekend, a large pile of records had stacked up next to the soundsystem: the soundtrack to our labor, all laid out in chronological order. Seeing all of these tiles in one place, I thought it might be fun to delve into each of the selections for a button down glance at the sounds of the heights when no one's watching.
This is the first in an ongoing series, tracking the grooves that flow through the gardens. Now lean back and take a stroll through the garden of your mind:
King Tubby - Dub From The Roots
(Total Sounds: 1974)
Things kicked off with this stone cold classic from King Tubby, a massive slab of rock hard dub. Deep, dark and moody, the cavernous Declaration Of Dub sounded fantastic drifting through the gardens. Maybe the best dub LP of all time?
The Upsetters - Return Of The Super Ape
The roots flavors endured with this strange, dubbed out reggae tile from Lee "Scratch" Perry's golden years at the Black Ark. The lush textures of Crab Yars really caught the spirit of the moment as they pulsed through the palms. This one's another big record in the Heights.
Pato Banton - Mad Professor Captures Pato Banton
The first of the Mad Professor records we played. This one features a great four-dimensional soundstage, fronted by Pato Banton's rolling deejay chatter on the mic. The closing track My Opinion is the standout here, a cinematic slice of righteous roots vibration.
The Orb - Perpetual Dawn
(Big Life: 1991)
Tremendous dubbed out pop-reggae stylings from Dr. Alex Patterson. This very well might be my favorite Orb record, but it's a tough call. Andrew Weatherall's two Ultrabass excursions take the track even further into the subterranean bass experience.
Aisha - High Priestess
This the second Mad Professor pick. The crisp electro-tinged production is a real treat here, almost claustrophobic in comparison with the spacious expanses of the Pato Banton record. The methodical unfurling of The Creator - operating on its own strange internal logic - is the obvious standout here. You might recognize the wordless vocal chant in the chorus, which was later sampled in The Orb's Blue Room.
The Special AKA - In The Studio
Superb exotica/dub/mutant disco from the twilight years of The Specials, when the group was totally subsumed into Jerry Dammers' singular vision. I hold this to be one of the key records of the eighties; indeed, it often plays like a window into the future (nineties and beyond). This got played more than twice over the course of the weekend.
The Police - Ghost In The Machine
The choice Police record around these parts. This very recently figured into our Deep Space 100 list. The strong presence of heavy synthesizer textures and unruly jazz shapes mark this out as a logical progression from Zenyatta Mondatta's phenomenal breezy island music.
Grace Jones - Nightclubbing
Another Parallax record, and the first Compass Point showing for today. I've Seen That Face Before (Libertango) casually predicts the sort of thing Massive Attack would later do with Nicolette on their epochal Protection. A post-disco masterpiece.
Tony Allen with Afrobeat 2000 - N.E.P.A (Never Expect Power Always)
Eighties electro-tinged afrobeat from Fela Kuti's - and latterly The Good, The Bad & The Queen's - man behind the kit. Each side of the record pairs an original version with a dubbed out response. Another key eighties record... I sense another feature in the works.
Hashim - Primrose Path
I've gone in depth before about this dubbed out electro wonder from Hashim. A spacious expansion on the genre-defining template of Al-Naafiysh (The Soul), and a perfect tune for the descent of dusk in the gardens.
The Isley Brothers - The Heat Is On
Lush, synthesizer-drenched soul from The Brothers Isley. I've often thought that this record's a-side/b-side split between driving funk numbers and lush ambient soul preempted Bowie and Eno's similar moves during the second half of the decade. The second side bests even Stevie Wonder's excursions into verdant electronic soul, imbued with a deeply human touch.
Ocho - Ocho
(UA Latino: 1972)
Salsa-tinged Latin jazz from the city that never sleeps. This should appeal to fans of War open to the band's more outré instrumental excursions like City, Country, City, even if nothing here breaks the seven minute mark. The weather-tinged exotica flavors of Undress My Mind unique in this context and always make me think of Ocho's debut as the sister record to Harlem River Drive.
James Brown - Hell
The godfather's dense double-album (a perennial favorite 'round these parts). The extended fourteen minute low-slung funk jam Papa Don't Take No Mess - encompassing the entirety of the final side - was a particular highlight in the blazing sun, closing the day out on an undeniable high point.
Prince - Sign "O" The Times
(Paisley Park: 1987)
Not my favorite moment from the man, but it's close. Another double-album, this has a whole bunch of my favorite Prince songs: the title track, The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker, Starfish And Coffee, If I Was Your Girlfriend and Strange Relationship all qualify. A masterstroke.
Mtume - Juicy Fruit
The greatest eighties funk long-player that I know of, this has all its bases covered - from the post-disco boogie of Green Light and Your Love's Too Good (To Spread Around) to Hip Dip Skippedabeat's hard electrofunk (shades of Hustlers Convention in the rap), and of course exquisite, chugging atmospheric slow jams like Ready For Your Love and both versions of the title track. An Oak Park staple, this is like sunset at Chollas Lake.
Womack & Womack - Conscience
The soulful grit of husband and wife Cecil (Bobby's brother) and Linda cuts loose within cutting edge soundscapes of their own design - as The Gypsy Wave Power Co. - recorded at Compass Point Studios. The rolling widescreen drive of a track like Conscious Of My Conscience sounds like the sort of verdant futurism one might expect from Arthur Russell or even Underworld.
Wally Badarou - Echoes
A whole LP worth of the Compass Point man's lush sonic rainforests. This is another one of those eighties records. From the opening ambient shades of Keys, you can tell that you're in for something special. Highlights, including Mambo (the basis for Massive Attack's Daydreaming) and Chief Inspector (even better in its 12" version), are like peering through a window into the next decade's sonic sensibilities.
Various Artists - Earthbeat
(Jumpin' & Pumpin': 1992)
Case and point. I think much of The Future Sound Of London's early Jumpin' & Pumpin' output owes a huge debt to the Compass Point sound (see also The Orb). This indispensable compilation of early FSOL sides rolls up a wealth of stellar material from projects like Mental Cube, Indo Tribe and Yage into one vibrant package. There's even an exclusive in the shape of Yage's oceanic Theme From Hot Burst.
The Future Sound Of London - Accelerator
(Jumpin' & Pumpin': 1991)
Picking up where the Earthbeat compilation leaves off, this is one of the great techno albums period. Everything here incredibly lush and cinematic. I suppose part of the reason that I sense such a strong connection between this material and that of the Compass Point All Stars is that they both share the same four-dimensional sense of space, that same tactile percussive quality - submerging drums you can almost reach out and touch within a mesh of palpable synthetic shapes and textures - drawing all instruments into deep orbit, brilliantly arranged in such a way as to evoke pure atmosphere at the street level.
Jah Wobble/The Edge/Holger Czukay - Snake Charmer
Three-way head to head to head collaboration between PIL's bassist Jah Wobble, U2's guitarist The Edge and Can mastermind Holger Czukay. Jaki Liebezeit and Jim Walker even get roped in on drums. Featuring stellar production by François Kevorkian, this is yet another glimpse into the shadowy corridors of the Parallax Eighties.
Bandulu - Redemption
(Music Man: 2002)
I've been reading this rather excellent book - via a hot tip from Woebot - that in part traces the strand of eighties music that I keep alluding to up through the nineties (a nineties that I was fortunate enough to experience firsthand). I was particularly pleased to see Bandulu's name mentioned in tracing the influence of digidub throughout the decade, on one hand because I've often thought this to be the case and on the other because I'm a huge fan of the crew's output.
This their final album and a culmination of everything they'd done up to that point, featuring their trademark hard techno shapes rubbing shoulders with weird breakbeat dub missives and even a couple straight up reggae covers (Willie Williams' Jahquarius and Dennis Brown's Detention). Note that the CD version of the album - featured here - is a drastically different beast from the (also excellent) vinyl cut.
Simple Minds - Empires And Dance
A close second to Real To Real Cacophony in my book. Empires' hard sonic futurism does give the shrouded mystery of Cacophony a run for its money though, and its cold European atmosphere imbues I Travel's punk-disco and the epic bass-heavy dirge of This Fear Of Gods with a striking sense of gravity.
Shut Up And Dance - Death Is Not The End
(Shut Up And Dance: 1992)
I was reminded of the second Shut Up And Dance record by A Cracked Jewel Case, as it factors into the book's section on that crew. Kevin Pearce's coverage is excellent throughout, shedding light on many heretofore unacknowledged connections between various movers and shakers as they blazed through the decade. For example, I didn't know that Kevin Rowland (of Dexys Midnight Runners) played guitar on the Autobiography Of A Crackhead (Acoustic Version).1
Death Is Not The End features a fusion of SUAD rap tracks (Raps My Occupation, Down The Barrel Of A Gun and So What You Smoking?), hard techno stompers (Cape Fear and Blue Colour Climax) and straight up ardkore (Raving I'm Raving (Remix) and The Green Man), the disparate elements all woven together into a stunning display of rugged breakbeat magic.
And with the wild strains of My C-Lab Crashed And Did This spiralling off into the warm summer evening, the first phase of the project was complete. Pictured below is just one wing of the gardens that we worked last weekend, The Southwest Terrace:
The place where we dwell.
A week ago today, Prince passed away, leaving a massive hole in the musical landscape. This was man whose songwriting and innovation fueled decades of popular music right up to the present day. Gone, unexpectedly and without expectation or warning, in a year that's already taken too many of the great ones from us. I meant to write something sooner but the words wouldn't come. All I could do was get lost in his music again, this treasure that he'd left behind. And that took me back to the beginning, my beginning anyway, when I first truly heard him.
I came to Prince initially through my love of Detroit techno. His name seemed to surface all the time as I ventured further down that rabbit hole, celebrated by figures like Carl Craig and Kevin Saunderson, spun by Jeff Mills in his salad days as The Wizard and even rubbing shoulders on air with The Electrifying Mojo. It quickly became clear that this was an innovator who embodied the restless creative spirit of the times and - perhaps more than anyone else - loomed large over the era.
Around this time, in a rare bit of synchonicity, a radio station called Magic 92.5 arose from the ashes of The Flash, firing on all cylinders in those days with a steady dose of soul, funk and disco. Needless to say, Prince's music was in heavy rotation, and it wouldn't be suprising to hear Delirious, When Doves Cry and Kiss over the course of any given day. I got to hear the 1999 and Purple Rain LPs in their entirety while staying at a hip aunt and uncle's (she was a hardcore Prince fan), hearing how the songs I already knew slotted into the context of his album-length statements. It was a small step from there to picking up Dirty Mind, the first of many records in my journey forward and back again through the man's music... there's a whole world in there to explore.
A particular strain of Prince's music caught my imagination immediately: moody, half-lit in neon, mist hanging over twilight city streets... at once cinematic and intimate, it was intoxicating to say the least. A song like Something In The Water (Does Not Compute) embodies it, with that cavern-deep synth and descending bleeps cascading over a stop-start drum machine matrix, computer blue waves of sound rising to crash into great crescendos of pure soul. And at the center of it all, a prince of dreams standing in the shadows of love, screaming to the heavens.
The beauty of it all was that you couldn't put him in a box: once you thought you had him figured out, he'd bolt into leftfield on you. His music seemed to transcend boundary at every turn. From the the rolling electrofunk pulse of Erotic City to the lithe glam-metal crunch of Bambi, from the new wave rush of When You Were Mine to the surreal dreamscape of If I Was Your Girlfriend, from the gorgeous paisley pop of Starfish And Coffee to the breathtaking widescreen majesty of Purple Rain, the restless spirit of an innovator could not be contained.
Indeed in later years, he continued to stretch out further and further, with smoldering epics like Family Name and the sprawling, gloriously freaky instrumental jazz fusion of the N.E.W.S. LP, even delving into hardcore techno with the blistering groove of Loose!. A haunting song called Colonized Mind found him channeling Electric Ladyland, while the stripped down groove Black Sweat proved that when he wanted to, the man could still get down and dirty on the funk tip.
Ah yes, funk. Don't think I was going to forget! Was there a greater purveyor of the form on the heels of James Brown and George Clinton? From the start, with the bedroom funk of Soft And Wet and Lady Cab Driver's careening, extended groove, gliding sideways across shimmering rain-slicked streets, the man had a nimble touch on the one that was unparalleled. He delved even further into hard machine funk with Housequake and Shockadelica, laying the blueprint for decades of dancefloor burners in the process, while the sprawling twenty-minute 12" version of America is a madhouse romp through the warped corridors of eighties dancefloor funk, its blazing arcs of guitar psychedelia showcasing Prince's total mastery of the instrument.
His musicality was the stuff of legend. This was man who loved music and that love could be felt in every note he played. He seemed to sneak as much joy and lust for life as he could into every corner of each and every song. A song like Alphabet St. is a testament to that. He'd toss in another guitar filigree, a rhythm change up or that extra bit of synth flourish, almost like he was getting away with something... at times, you could practically see him wink before going off on another variation. And for just a moment, you felt like you were in on it too.
There's always been great comfort in knowing the man was up there in Paisley Park, still doing it as only he could. New music would come splashing out from time to time - sometimes out of the blue, with little fanfare - or he'd pop up at such and such an appearance - Super Bowl XLI, for one - always strange and beautiful. Rarely a week has gone by when I didn't dive into one of his records, and that will only continue to be the case in the future. The music remains but the man is gone, and it's gonna be lonely without him.