The story of Kleeer is in essence a microcosm of soul's evolution from silky disco into the computer blue sounds of machine funk, embodying the spirit of a time when late 70s dancefloors sheared boldly into the 80s. Alongside purveyors of fine funk like Prince, Zapp and Mtume, they set the stage for funk's neon-lit transformation into the new wave-inflected sound that would come to define large swathes of the decade. Reverberations of those future shock vibes could be felt across the following years, with artists like Timbaland, The Neptunes, SA-RA and Dâm-Funk all drawing inspiration from the crystal clear waters of machine soul. Even now, it's a wave we're all still riding...
The nucleus of Kleeer lie in the trio of Woody Cunningham, Richard Lee and Norman Durham. After time spent as the afro rock band Pipeline and then as the funky Jam Band, the group transformed into the disco-era studio proposition The Universal Robot Band1 for a couple years before ultimately becoming Kleeer with 1978's chart-bothering disco burner Keeep Your Body Working. This culminated in the group's debut full-length, the aptly titled I Love To Dance, which was full of peak-era gossamer disco like the aforementioned Keeep Your Body Workin' and It's Magic. What you notice immediately is the presence of lush strings and a Gaussian-blurred production, the combination of which are simply blissful to the ear.
However, for the purposes of today's excursion I'd like to descend on three particular records — my favorites, incidentally — to tell this tale, since they manage to paint such a perfect portrait of what Kleeer were all about. The group's sophomore effort, Winners, is our first port of call. Just look at that sleeve! A perfect representation of the sounds within, which bring the previous album's silky grooves into focus on a tighter, neon-lit plane.
What you find within is the peak of the group's disco escapades: the aspirational flavor of the title track showcases the group's oft-cited positivity (think UR's Transition), while Close To You places Norman Durham's throbbing funk basslines front-and-center to a greater degree than on the debut. However, it's mini epics like I Still Love You, Open Your Mind and the guitar-heavy2Rollin' On that steal the show here, imbuing their disco with strong shades of the dawning decade's sense of drama.
Our next record comes the very next year, with the follow up License To Dream. This sort of furious productivity actually turned out to be standard operating procedure for Kleeer, who managed to unleash an album every year they were together (1979-1985). License To Dream features sharper edges than before, these rude grooves shot through with an ever-increasing presence of synths (starting to give the string section a serious run for its money). There's no getting around it, the 1980s have arrived. De Kleeer Ting and Running Back To You both betraying serious new wave damage, the latter's rhythms eerily prescient of the nascent electro sound.
Still, there's plenty of starry-eyed disco memories lingering in this record's grooves, with the guitar-kissed Hypnotized and Say You Love Me's slowjam high drama both connecting with the crushed velvet stylings of the first two records. In many ways, License To Dream is the axis at which the group's discography hinges, with yesterday's disco boogie on one side and the machine funk of tomorrow on the other. With its seamless fusion of the moods and grooves of both eras, License To Dream manages to offer up the best of both worlds.
After two more albums of exquisite post-disco electro boogie (Taste The Music and Get Ready), the group delivered their masterstroke with Intimate Connection. This is machine soul avant la lettre, SA-RA before SA-RA, Dâm-Funk before Dâm-Funk and The Neptunes before swingbeat had even happened... future shock warnings are in full effect.
Tonight (famously the basis for DJ Quik's g-funk touchstone Tonite) is a (mostly instrumental) liquid machine funk groove that features a heavily vocodered android loverman on the chorus. The track is remarkably stripped-down and linear — minimalist even3 — gradually unveiling an electronic mantra that stretches five minutes out toward infinity. This is Derrick May's Kraftwerk + George Clinton equation worked out beneath the bright lights of New York City, like some twisted vision of techno beamed in from a parallel dimension.
Equally computer-damaged funk is in evidence on Next Time It's For Real, a backwards-moonwalking, slow-motion electroid jam that finds Norman Durham and co. in sparkle-suited Hall & Oates mode, its expansive synth architecture shimmering in the moonlight. Similar luxury sonics are in effect on the title track, a distant cousin to The Isley Brothers' Between The Sheets that was later sampled by Diamond D. to great effect on the lovers rap of Confused.
In a strange twist, the casually rolling funk of You Did It Again finds the lead vocals of Woody Cunningham somehow predicting the sound of Nate Dogg's smooth-flowing soul man approach on Warren G's Regulate... G Funk Era. It's just another one of the many ways Intimate Connection casually laid out blueprints for the future...
Case in point, the group's swan song Seeekret opened with the Nu Groove/Burrell Brothers-predicting jazz chords of Take Your Heart Away and closed with the taut new wave guitar attack of Call My Name. Throughout the record — which was to be their last — the group also managed to pick up on pre-echoes of swingbeat in their tightly-arranged group-chant vocals and certain shades of techno in the textures and rhythm. Seeing as Seeekret hit the shelves in 1985 and both forms would ultimately ring in the 90s, it was a fitting way for this band of forward-thinking renegades to bow out on top and in fine style.
It's not often that I recommend a greatest hits-style round up, but The Very Best Of Kleeer is truly something special. I remember back when this came out, in the spring of '98, against a backdrop of afternoon Atari 2600 sessions (more on this next month), the reign of Timbaland/Missy and Moodymann's unstoppable ascent. In short, it was a revelation.
Housed in an appropriately luxurious sleeve and offering a thorough single-disc overview of the band's career laid out in chronological order, the compilation even manages to feature most of the highlights discussed today. Truth be told, it's a bit of a rush hearing it all in one place. If you're at all interested in the paths of intersection between g-funk, machine soul and the post-disco dancefloor, then it belongs in your collection. Utterly indispensable.
Upon further reflection, the reason Kleeer mean so much to me — beyond their striking consistency with penning a killer tune — is the way their music seems to split the difference between predicting techno and the nexus of g-funk/r&b. Machine soul, to coin a phrase. It's tempting to imagine the group doing their thing in the early eighties as only they could, rewiring their funk up to the machines and spitting out vector grooves across the globe's post-disco dancefloors.
They're precisely the sort of group you'd need to invent if they'd never existed. One can almost imagine an alternate dimension where they'd stayed The Jam Band and sunk into obscurity, leaving a void to be filled in hindsight by someone connecting the dots between Heatwave, Prince and The Neptunes and picking up the pieces. You can almost hear them say If only there had been a band like that...
Thank goodness that there was... in this dimension, we got the real thing.
Interestingly, this remarkably stripped-down track was later reworked by none other than SA-RA themselves for the Atlantiquity compilation, which featured a brace of electronic musicians re-imagining selections from the rich back catalog of Atlantic Records.
The SA-RA Remix of Tonight (featuring The SA-RA All Stars & Me'Shell NdegéOcello) found them playing against type and pulling out all the stops, turning in a big room version of the original's minimalist Kraftwerk-meets-Funkadelic groove. You see, the original already sounded like SA-RA... so they really had no choice.
When discussing dance music — particularly of the electronic variety — the next logical step onward after electro crept out of cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit at the midpoint of the 1980s. Yeah, I'm talking about house and techno. These two covered at once, as it's more illuminating to discuss the sounds of deep house and acid alongside techno's stripped-down funk (and vice versa). I believe that this will become increasingly apparent as we continue. So much music draws from both simultaneously, from Slam to the Earthbeat records, that the two forms clearly excel in each other's company as post-disco dancefloor head music.
Where better to begin than Underground Resistance? Perhaps the spiritual embodiment of techno music, they nevertheless retain strong shades of house in their music's DNA (indeed, their first couple records were house endeavors). More than any other crew, UR (alongside orbital figures like Drexciya and The Martian) seemed to continue the good work Juan Atkins began when he alchemized the form in the first place. One could even make the case that Model 500's 1990 EP Ocean To Ocean laid out the blueprint for the UR sound a couple months in advance.
It does quite literally seem to be the foundation of the whole Nation 2 Nation, World 2 World and Galaxy 2 Galaxy series of records, which shear into the same pioneering tech jazz vein that UR would continue to explore with records like Codebreaker and The Turning Point. The label art for the latter featured the likes of James Brown, Ravi Shankar, Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder, Florian Schneider and Chuck D, placing their music within the context of a wide continuum of visionary iconoclasts.
As Tim Barr writes in Techno: The Rough Guide:
Detroit's Underground Resistance occupy a territory that is somewhere between the reclusive mystique of Kraftwerk, the radical politicization of Public Enemy and their own unique interpretation of Afro-futurist tropes.
This unique interpretation would often take the crew into deep space, which they explored in the form of records like The Final Frontier and X-102 Discovers The Rings Of Saturn — even veering into trancelike shapes with the (closely-affiliated) Red Planet records — reading the undiscovered country as freedom from the tyranny of the perpetually closed mind. This often manifested itself in a similar shade of utopian vision as those conjured up by 4 Hero's Parallel Universe.
However, like their counterparts on Dollis Hill, there was an undeniable darkside to UR's endeavors. The baleful shapes of the Sonic EP are quintessentially Terminal Vibration, their rhythmic dexterity matching anything discussed thus far in the realm of post punk. See also Suburban Knight's Nocturbulous Behavior and Andre Holland's City Of Fear. There are a number of DJ mixes that UR put out at the turn of the century that essay this territory brilliantly: DJ Rolando's Vibrations and The Aztec Mystic Mix are full of brilliant electronic noise. On overhearing the music, a friend once commented that it sounded like a washing machine!3
Even better was Nocturbulous Behavior: The Mix. Credited to 011, which was the catalog number for Suburban Knight's original 1993 EP of the same title, it found James Pennington tearing through the label's back catalog and working up a killer mix throughout which urban paranoia reigned supreme.4 This approach mirrored his own records like The Art Of Stalking and the By Night EP, on which Pennington proved himself one of the great manipulators of sound, moving it in great slabs across tracks that were pure hard-edged Gothic funk.
This fit perfectly with UR's hard music from a hard city aesthetic, which informed large swathes of the labels output. Records like X-101's Sonic Destroyer, UR's The Punisher and The Riot EP refracted Belgian hardcore back across the Atlantic, inspiring ever-intensifying experiments in sonic extremism from The Mover's wickedly deranged techno to the zombie brigades of Dutch gabber. Message To The Majors even sounded like a particularly dystopian slab of U.K. ardkore that Liam Howlett would have killed to have included on The Prodigy's Music For The Jilted Generation!
The original Belgian new beat as essayed by figures like Set Up System, Human Resource, 80 Aum, Outlander and Frank De Wulf raised a dazzling cacophony and razed everything in their path. The latter was the most prolific auteur, unleashing a series of B-Sides EPs over the first half of the 90s. Tunes like Dominator, The Vamp, Mindcontroller and Factory Parallax Mix were the sound of techno at it's most gloriously unaffected, noise music for the ravefloor pure and simple. Oftentimes, these tracks would take their cue from industrial EBM (Electronic Body Music), although there was significant inspiration taken from hip hop as well.
Outlander even seemed to hoover up the club pianos of Italo house and set them to overdrive in his acid-tinged missive The Vamp. Much like U.K. ardkore, if there was a standard operating procedure, then it was throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. New beat itself had a serious impact on the nascent ardkore sound, and vice versa, with both forms instigating each other to ever higher levels of intensity. However, if there was one key input that had a greater impact than any other, it was a trio of roughneck producers from New York City.
I'm talking about Joey Beltram, Lenny Dee and Frankie Bones, whose sick noise was writ large on records like Energy Flash, Mentasm and the Bonesbreaks series of EPs (not to mention the output of Lenny Dee's Industrial Strength imprint). Beltram's prime inspiration for Energy Flash was Black Sabbath, while the twisted synth sounds of Mentasm introduced the world to the indelible hoover sound (so named because it sounded something like a vacuum cleaner firing up!). Even taken on its own, the latter was a crucial building block in Belgium's rave hardcore and the hooligan sounds of U.K. ardkore jungle alike, which makes it one of the key records of the decade almost by default.
This sound was arguably taken to its diamond-hard apex by Germany's Marc Acardipane across a whole raft of records on his own Planet Core Productions and Dance Ecstasy 2001 imprints. Mescalinum United's Reflections Of 2017, which featured the epochal We Have Arrived on the flip, out-nastied everybody up to that point and set a benchmark for the harder wing of rave producers to pursue.5 My absolute favorite record on PCP is The Mover's Frontal Sickness, which combined two blistering EPs into one unmissable double-pack rounded out by the proto-gloomcore of Body Snatchers Impaler - First Mix and Reconstructin' Instructions cyborg hip hop science.
Another Teutonic auteur of the abrasive was Martin Damm (aka Biochip C.). In contrast to Arcadipane's pounding rhythms, Damm spent a satisfying amount of type working with breakbeats, which he splintered across his tracks sounding like nothing so much as wickedly twisted video game music. His debut album, Biocalypse, is one of rave's crowning achievements, gliding from grinding downtempo to speedfreak hardcore with nary a thought given to convention. One of the most impressive records of the decade, taking electronic music's development well past the breaking point, it deserves to be more widely available.
If you rewind back to the 1980s, there's a handful of figures that laid the groundwork for all these lofty achievements. I've spent some serious time on the unassailable merits of Kevin Saunderson, and we've already discussed New York's terrible trio, but there's one man I've left out: Mr. Todd Terry. Across a whole mess of records released under names like Black Riot, Lime Life, Royal House, Orange Lemon and Swan Lake, he near singlehandedly defined the sound of cut-and-paste house music. His music often played like hip hop reworked to a 4/4 beat.
The output of labels like Fourth Floor, Atmosphere and Nu Groove were defined by this sound, putting out records both abrasive and deep (and everything in between) over the course of their limited run. This strand gets picked up by Strictly Rhythm in the 90s, a label that put out later records by Todd Terry
and refugee from ChicagoDJ Pierre (alongside scores of new artists like Damon Wild, George Morel and Roger Sanchez), coming to dominate the city's club landscape throughout much of the decade. At its best, it was the sound of raw, rough edges and floor-busting dance.
Appropriately, there's a particular wing of techno that runs parallel to all this, a rough and tumble sound a million miles away from the sleek futurism of Kraftwerk. I'll place its genesis with Eddie Flashin' Fowlkes' Goodbye Kiss (which was for all intents and purposes a house record), but I have none other than Carl Craig down as the true guardian of the form. The original trio of 69 records (4 Jazz Funk Classics, Lite Music and Sound On Sound) enshrined this sound around rough cut rhythms, raw analogue basslines and tarnished synth textures, offering a hard-edged take on his Psyche/BFC-era material and the dreamlike, synth-smeared stylings his earlier Retroactive imprint.
Operating at the interzone between house and techno, it's no wonder that Craig's Paperclip People project often sheared into similar territory on tracks like Oscillator, Paperclip Man and Tweakityourself, where breakbeats and tricky polyrhythms are usually as prominent as the pulsing 4/4 groove. See also Designer Music and his remixes for figures like Alexander Robotnick, Telex and Cesaria Evora. Tangentially, I've often thought that Stacey Pullen's Black Odyssey records from the turn of the century (particularly Sweat and The Stand) were in thrall to this slabs-of-synth sound, albeit executed with a far more linear approach.
Interestingly, despite his reputation as Detroit's mellow man (see records like Metaphor and The Narcissist), my favorite stuff by Kenny Larkin is often his rawest. His sophomore release was the Integration EP, an ace selection of four percussion-heavy technoid outings shot through with wild bleeps and built on chunky drum machine riddims. He also indulged in the harder stuff with his Dark Comedy moniker, culminating in the Seven Days LP (which featured the pulverizing techno claustrophobia of The Bar).
I remember Larkin performing at the DEMF with a deep, blues-inflected sound unlike anything we'd yet heard from the man. I remember asking around about it at the time and no one seemed to know anything! It remain was to a mystery until the release of the second Dark Comedy album, Funkfaker: Music Saves My Soul, which presented a hybrid of both the shimmering shapes found in his most gentle LP material and his spectral Seven Days maneuvers on the darkside.
The other area where Larkin excelled was in the remix. Of the top of the dome, I can think of his shimmering remix of Carl Craig's Science Fiction, a speaker-shredding edit of E-Dancer's Pump The Move and the SadeSurrender Your Love remix for Illegal Detroit. He turned in a duo of serious dancefloor burners on the KMS label with Paris Grey's Smile/Life double a-side 12" at the turn of the century, and then doing it again more recently with his remix of Kevin Saunderson's Future.
Three of his vintage remixes of Inner City material turned up on the label a few years back on the aptly titled The KMS Remixes 12". These remixes often seemed like a chance for the usually contemplative Larkin to get down and pump some bass on the dancefloor.
Of course even Derrick May, Master of Strings himself, had his own fair share of down-and-dirty techno in the shape of Kaos, Salsa Life, Emanon and even that untitled track tacked to the end of the Strings Of Life 12". Plus, don't forget that Intercity's Groovin' Without A Doubt was May and Kevin Saunderson jamming out some basic jack trax in the studio. Even the most ethereal producers often had something darker hidden just around the corner...
In point of fact, I can remember that the techno grind of Strand's Bloated Juggernaut Mix (from the EP Floyd Cramer's Revenge) had me imagining they were this mysterious, ultra-underground crew (along the lines of UR) when in reality they were a trio of deep house mavens (who usually recorded under the name T.H.D. for Antonio Echols' Serious Grooves imprint) getting freaky with the machines. Records like this exist at the very axis where the jagged edges of post punk intersect with the moods and grooves of machine funk.
If you remain skeptical, I direct you immediately to Claude Young's entry in the DJ-Kicks series, which was mixed on two decks in a friends bedroom.
In the liner notes, Young elaborates:
I wanted it to feel live. You can hear a few pops and crackles. Everything's a bit too sterile these days. I take a more street level approach...I usually play with two copies, bounce the beats around, do spinbacks and scratch tricks. I don't mind taking a chance. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but life is all about taking chances.
Sure enough, its a down-and-dirty vision of no-nonsense street techno that sidesteps the often linear nature of much of the more typically stripped-down techno. Skating on the edge of a funktional minimalism, it's nevertheless informed by a healthy dose of wildstyle spirit that finds Young rockin' doubles like a hip hop DJ. This is to Cybotron what Cybotron was to Parliament: a no-nonsense distillation of the funk into highly concentrated form.
Featuring multiple appearances from Clark's Lofthouse, both sides of the Man Made EP and two tracks from The Skinless Brothers supremely funky Escape From Vienna, it's an absolutely blinding mix of juke joint machine funk busting out some street corner dive on the edge of the city. See also Patrick Pulsinger, especially his classic Dogmatic Sequences records (which have recently been collected on the Dogmatic Sequences: The Series 1994-2006 compilation), all of which offer up similar hard-as-nails shapes with a restless, nimble touch.
All of which have their roots in the granddaddy of elastic machine funk (a dead giveaway being the presence of Young's own Acid Wash Conflict), the vintage acid house that seeped out of Chicago in the latter half of the 80s like a contagion. Phuture's Acid Tracks is often considered the prototypical acid house record, but to my mind the don of the form is Armando, whose Land Of Confusion remains the perfect acid house track. Also worth a look-in is The New World Order double-pack from 1993, packed with stripped-to-the-bone acid jack trax like Venture 001 and Trance Dance.
It's interesting to note that there's this whole side of acid house that was mapped out by the dons of deep house, with Mr. Fingers' Washing Machine being first out the gate and sharing space with the epochal Can You Feel It way back in 1986. Larry Heard also pumped the 303s on those Gherkin Jerks records (also recently compiled on the appropriately titled The Gherkin Jerks Compilation), and even as late as 2005 he was still flirting with acid alongside his more typical deep, jazzed-out cuts on Loose Fingers: A Soundtrack From The Duality Double-Play.
Deep house icon Marshall Jefferson also got stoopid Sleezy D.'s I've Lost Control, on which a sustained paranoia ran rampant, while sometime associates like Adonis and Bam Bam went on to represent the acid life to an even greater degree. Farley "Jackmaster" Funk, who made waves with his careening house covers of Isaac Hayes' Love Can't Turn Around and Stevie Wonder's As Always (even turning in one of the great unsung deep house cuts, Farley Knows House), had plenty of time to deliver acid trax of his own, particularly on the No Vocals Necessary LP.
All of this got picked up on in the U.K., where it fomented a revolution in the form of the Second Summer Of Love. Intriguingly, many of the early figures to adopt acid house were post punks lurking in the shadows of the movement, figures like 808 State's Graham Massey (of the Biting Tongues), Warriors Dance kingpin Tony Thorpe (of 400 Blows) and The Orb, which was masterminded by the triple threat of Dr. Alex Paterson and Youth (roadie and bassist for Killing Joke, respectively) and Thomas Fehlmann (of German post punk group Palais Schaumburg).
I've always loved the wild shapes thrown on 808 State's Newbuild, perched as it is midway between acid house and techno, cut while Gerald Simpson was still in the fold. The dark psychedelia of Narcossa still stands as one of the great acid/techno workouts ever conceived, and the remainder of the record remains a brilliantly rude fusion of the forms. Rephlex did a timely reissue of the record at the turn of the century that I was lucky enough to snap up at the time (please believe a young man's mind was blown).
This was mirrored by the early stirrings of The Future Sound Of London, who had their own thing going in the late 90s with the Humanoid project. Their output ranged from the vocal house of records like Slam, The Deep and the Global Humanoid album to the wasp buzz mayhem of Stakker Humanoid. Even as their records grew ever more lustrous, they still had plenty of noise left to bring in the form of tunes like We Have Explosive, Moscow and The Tingler. The archival Sessions 84-88 compilation (curated once again by Rephlex) is a veritable cornucopia of such unreconstructed electronic noise.
One record that I was always surprised that Rephlex hasn't gotten around to reissuing is Bleep's The North Pole By Submarine, a record that label boss Richard D. James at one time admitted to listening to once a day! (Barr 52)2b The 1990 debut techno outing of Geir Jenssen, who started out in 4AD-esque group Bel Canto, North Pole featured an intricate web of samples, synths and drum machine rhythms that was utterly of the moment (if not even slightly ahead of it).
These angular shapes lived on in certain corners of Jenssen's later output as Biosphere, moments like Baby Interphase, Novelty Waves and his score to the movie Insomnia. Jenssen hailed from Tromsø, Norway, a city located 350 kilometers within the Arctic Circle, and the glacial climate of his hometown would be increasingly felt on his music as his recording career progressed. On later ambient excursions like Substrata and Cirque, he seemed to be standing shoulder to shoulder with figures like Brian Eno and William Basinski.
Rewind back to the Bleep era, when across the North SeaThe Black Dog were following up their preposterously ahead-of-their time Virtual and Dogism EPs (both 1989) with the Techno Playtime EP. Arguably the godfathers of the whole Artificial Intelligence strain of electronic music, which they explored extensively across albums like Temple Of Transparent Balls and Spanners, they were also somehow messing around with proto-ardkore breakbeats before everyone just about everyone, from 4 Hero to Genaside II and even Shut Up And Dance!
Actually, SUADdid put out 5 6 7 8 in 1989 as well, but that was largely still a relatively straight-up U.K. rap record. It was the following year's £10 To Get In that really cemented their status as drum 'n bass trailblazers, the promise of which they fulfilled time and time again with records like Raving I'm Raving, Death Is Not The End and The Ragga Twins' Reggae Owes Me Money. Without a doubt, SUAD (the artist and the label they masterminded) were one of thee key institutions in jungle's protracted genesis. Rave records don't come much better than the cloud-stomping mayhem of Cape Fear!
The most stripped-down — and dare I say techno — of all the acts on Shut Up And Dance were Codine, who put out two 12"s on the label, and Rum & Black, who were thankfully a bit more prolific with four 12"s and even a full-length album. 1991's With Ice yoked abrasive bleeps and synth textures to sample-heavy breakbeat burners, essentially hammering down the sound of quintessential ardkore with tunes like Wicked, Tablet Man and We Were Robbed Of Our... Religion, Culture And God, winding up with a stone cold classic in the process.
At this point we descend into the kaleidoscopic whirlpool of ardkore rave, darkside and straight up jungle. Figures like Genaside II, Foul Play, Acen put out genre-defining records, and true to Nuggets style there were blazing records cropping up all over. My absolute favorite progenitors of the form, 4 Hero, brought the music through its dawning years to the depths of its twisted darkside before Journey From The Light launched them through the stratosphere into to the cosmic jazz utopia of Parallel Universe.
Their lone album as Jacob's Optical Stairway ploughed a similar furrow of deep space ambient jungle, while Nu Era records like Beyond Gravity and Breaking In Space found them essaying their own unique vision of techno music. This vision was showcased further on the two-volume The Deepest Shade Of Techno that they curated on their own label, featuring luminaries from Detroit and beyond (but mostly Detroit!) alongside Nu Era's own lushly produced Cost Of Livin'.
A Guy Called Gerald blazed a similar trail on his Juice Box imprint, when — after a solid discography of prime techno output like Voodoo Ray, Emotion Electric and Inertia's Nowhere To Run (released on Carl Craig and Damon Booker's Retroactive imprint) — he transitioned into pure breakbeat music, blazing a singular path from the genre-defining ruffneck vibes of 28 Gun Bad Boy to the shimmering ambient jungle of Black Secret Technology in the space of a couple years.
At this point Goldie — who had been closely aligned with the Reinforced crew — became the figurehead of the scene in the public imagination after unleashing records like Rufige Kru's Terminator, Metalheads' Angel and the Ghosts EP on an unsuspecting public. His Metalheadz imprint put out loads of genre-shaping records like Dillinja's The Angels Fell, Photek's Natural Born Killa EP and Ed Rush's Skylab. The latter presaged the cold robotics of techstep that would swarm across jungle over the next few years, arguably the point at which it became drum 'n bass, and therefore something else altogether.
Figures like Source Direct and Photek epitomized the moodiest (and in my opinion greatest) corner of drum 'n bass, with records like Exorcise The Demons and Modus Operandi (respectively) moving the music in a deliciously paranoid direction that would have been the perfect musical counterpoint to The Parallax View and actually ended up scoring Darren Aronofsky's debut feature film, Pi (see also Blade, which made great use of Source Direct's Call & Response). Dom & Roland's The Planets explored similar isolationist territory, its fragmented breakbeats and lonely textures offering up the perfect metaphor for the deep black of space.
A figure that — much like Marc Arcadipane and Martin Damm — took these sounds to their absolute limit was Alec Empire, with a brand of post-rave noise he dubbed Digital Hardcore. Forming Atari Teenage Riot with Hanin Elias and Carl Crack, the crew raised much mayhem over the course of the decade, fusing the spirits of punk and rave more literally than just about anyone else ever has. However, Empire released his finest music under his own name, with records like Low On Ice and Les Étoiles Des Filles Mortes rivaling even that of the abstract dons of electro-acoustica.
By the mid-nineties, there had developed a strange détente between the abstract wing of electronica and jungle, figures like Squarepusher, µ-Ziq and Aphex Twin, whose 1995 record Richard D. James Album was a masterstroke of insane digital programming. This was music that had little relation to the dancefloor proper; rather like prog or the even more abstract end of jazz fusion, it was music to enjoy while daydreaming in your living room, ideally while leaning back in a comfy armchair.
Even outside the more obvious Warp-related records of Autechre and Boards Of Canada were a cadre of figures from all across the globe specializing in warped techno, ranging from Germany's Alter Ego (especially in their Sensorama guise), Italy's Bochum Welt and Japan's Ken Ishii (whose records sound galaxies away from anyone else's). U.K. figures like Cristian Vogel and Neuropolitique were also key progenitors of a particularly skewed brand of techno. The operative word in this wing of techno being idiosyncrasy.
In one of those lovely twists of fate that seemed to happen every other week in the 90s, Japanese girl group Nav Katze were remixed by a brace of U.K. techno artists rounded out by The Black Dog, Aphex Twin, Global Communication and Ultramarine. If you've ever read The Parallax 100, you'll know that its one of my favorite records ever. The Retro 313 Future Memory Mix of Crazy Dream, perpetrated by Global Communication in their old-time Reload guise, is a jacking techno workout along the lines of the whole 69 continuum (Carl Craig even included it in his DJ-Kicks mix that he did at the height of his genre-defining work within the form), albeit with a dreamy, cinematic haze moving across its surface like mists over the ocean.
The lion's share of the record, however, is dominated by gently skanking downbeat numbers like Nobody Home Ultramarine Mix and the unclassifiable — but above all else utterly beautiful — Never Not Black Dog Mix #1. Often whimsical but never frivolous, I've often thought that Never Mind runs parallel to the spliffed-out electronica of To Rococo Rot's Veiculo and Mouse On Mars (especially early records like Autoditacker and Iaora Tahiti) as a sort of languorous electronic head music that never takes itself too seriously.
This thread gets taken to its logical conclusion at the dawning of the 21st century by certain stateside figures, the best of which were Blectum From Blechdom, whose scatological take on electronic music seemed to rewire it all back through pre-dance forms in the days of The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music. It was brash, irreverent, restlessly creative and miles away from the stuffy climate of much abstract electronica to surface during the era. Matmos were another duo who went against the grain of the times, applying Burroughs-derived cutup techniques to their music and arriving at a sound that felt of a piece with electro-acoustic music modes of operation.
Similarly, there was a wing of abstract electronica that reared its head as the 90s progressed exemplified by Oval's glitched-out symphonies and Panasonic's abrasive black leather desolation. The latter tapped into the same sense of isolationism as the post punks, even collaborating with Suicide's Alan Vega on the Endless LP. This was the sound of flutters and flashes of light in the loneliness of a pitch black room, with nothing but a madman to keep you company.
Slightly later the German duo Funkstörung combined the glitched production techniques of Oval with Panasonic's abrasive isolationism to arrive at the cold brutality of Appetite For Disctruction, which featured the awesome Grammy Winners (featuring Triple H of Antipop Consortium). The track seemed to update the white noise hip hop of the Death Comet Crew and Gettovetts for the 21st century, with all the subsequent developments in complex rhythmic tricknology that implies. This is the sound of computers deconstructing one another.
The isolationist side of the coin was taken to its logical conclusion by Pole, with a glitchy take on electronic dub that transformed the music into android tears in the rain. In some ways, one could read the Pole trilogy as a precursor to Burial's lonesome dubstep architecture. Richie Hawtin — who became ever more abstract as the decade wore on — checked into similar territory with Plastikman's Consumed, an awesome dub-scape that found the man veering from his past in acid-tinged techno into the elegant architecture of minimalism.
Now the minimalist streak in techno was never my favorite strain of the form, and in many ways I think it sounded the slow-motion death rattle of the scene's vibrant immediacy. Still, there were a handful of auteurs that I wound up warming to. Surgeon's black country sound was a bracingly physical take on minimalism, informed as it was by krautrock and his alliance with Scorn's Mick Harris. Tracks like Badger Bite and Reptile Mess (from the Pet 2000 EP) were crumbling Gothic noisescapes that actually delivered on minimalism's promise of back-to-basics hi-jacking intensity.
His full-length albums were worthwhile as well, with Basic Tonal Vocabulary being the definitive document of the early Surgeon sound (and mimicked a Faust sleeve in the process!), while Force + Form arrived at a sort of machine funk elegance over the course of its four marathon suites. Perhaps minimalism was the point where the chin-stroking tendencies of IDM were re-absorbed into techno's base dancefloor intent? In passing I should also note Luke Slater's Planetary Assault Systems output, which consistently delivered great clanking slabs of minimal techno that remain my favorite stuff he's done.
Of course there was a healthy brace of Detroit minimalism, with the widely acknowledged dons being Jeff Mills and Robert Hood. However, I tend to prefer their more introspective material to banging records like Waveform Transmission Vol. 1 and Internal Empire. Jeff Mills' re-imagined score to Fritz Lang's Metropolis remains my most treasured of his albums, the flickering sonics of tracks like Perfecture: Somewhere Around Now perfectly matching the films monochrome futurism.
Similarly, my favorite Robert Hood records are his Nighttime World trilogy, which seemed to reroute their energy through machine funk back to classic soul records like Marvin Gaye's I Want You, Leroy Hutson's Hutson and Leon Ware's Musical Massage. Jeff Mills struck a similar chord with his Every Dog Has Its Day series, full of lush techno soul like Now Is The Time, Arcadia and Dr. Ice, songs that would have sounded right at home on any relatively adventurous r&b radio station at the time.
If you want to talk minimal Detroit, then my favorite material comes down to things like Black Noise's Nature Of The Beast, Sean Deason's The Shit (which is the stateside cousin to Dave Clarke's Red 2) and Scan 7's Black Moon Rising. However, if there were one auteur that I'd single out for praise, then it's Kalamazoo's Jay Denham. His involvement in techno dated back to the early years, and he debuted with Fade II Black's In Synch on Transmat's Fragile subsidiary, a record that already betrayed a blistering simplicity that would come to define his work in the intervening years.
He launched his Black Nation imprint in 1992, the output of which included records like Blackman's Redrum EP, Vice's Player Hater EP and the awesome Birth Of A Nation Part II compilation (which featured Chance McDermott aka Chancellor's blistering Insane). Denham's records were minimal the way Chicago records had been: by default (even down to the artless grit of those almost-photocopied center labels). Which all makes perfect sense when you realize that Kalamazoo sits equidistant between the cities of Chicago and Detroit.
Denham was perhaps the most successful of all the minimal producers in capturing the raw jack of Chicago's original acid trax. In fact, the output of Black Nation bears a striking similarity-of-intent to the banging post-acid sounds of Chicago producers like DJ Skull and Steve Poindexter. However, despite the fact that their no-nonsense approach resulted in some of the most blank-eyed nosebleed techno imaginable (see Skull's Guard Your Grill and Poindexter's Short Circuit), they nevertheless possessed a scientific precision that somehow prefigured the pristine hall-of-mirrors sound of micro-house.
Similarly, The Holy Ghost Inc.'s Mad Monks On Zinc turned up preposterously early (1991) for this sort of oneiric trance-inducing minimalism. One almost imagines the titular monks wandering out of the mountains to unveil secret knowledge to the villagers below. I'm reminded of Bandulu's Guidance, which similarly invokes images from the caves in Altered States. Another crew that seemed to hint at minimalism before its time, they delved deeper yet into dub techniques and everything they did was imbued with a spectral mysticism lying just beneath the surface, forever setting them apart from the pack.
If we're speaking of dubbed-out techno — and we are — the dons are undoubtedly Basic Channel. Their pulsing, motorik grooves were quite simply magnetic, drawing tiny particles of sound into their orbit as they slowly coalesced into discrete tracks. Hypnotic 4/4 slates like Quadrant Dub stretched out toward infinity, while Lyot Rmx nearly eschewed beats altogether in its glorious descent to the center of the world.
Detroit's Terrence Dixon gradually developed a similar approach in the wake of Basic Channel's innovations, a sound showcased on his Minimalism and Minimalism II 12"s, ultimately culminating in the awesome From The Far Future LP. The record was shot through with the shadows of machine soul, its ghost funk best heard in the game grid techno of Shuffle All Circuits (the sound of the Tron: Legacy soundtrack ten years early). Convextion was another minimalist auteur that walked the path with elegance, and his early records coming out on Sean Deason's Matrix Records essayed a spectral vision of techno's soul in the machine.
I remember first hearing the track from the debut Convextion EP in the context of Juan Atkins' MasterMix, which even in the esteemed company of Martin Circus, Black Noise, Blaze and A Number Of Names spun me around and caught me completely off guard. It was the first time I really grasped the idea of minimal techno's implied funk, and whenever those skeletal sequences starting shaking up up and down the soundscape I was slayed. That mix, presented by the godfather himself, remains an unmissable romp through techno/house/disco/machine soul, moving through their varied worlds with ease. I imagine that it must capture the spirit of all those early shows the Deep Space crew put on back in the mid-eighties.
Of course alongside these trailblazers Magic Juan himself certainly had a hand in shaping micro-house's path with his Infiniti output. The early works were all scattered across various 12"s and compilations before being handily compiled for The Infiniti Collection. Listen to Flash Flood and tell me that isn't pure micro-house. And in 1993, no less! He followed up with the Skynet album and the Never Tempt Me 12" which featured remixes from Cristian Vogel and 3MB (Thomas Fehlmann and Basic Channel's Moritz von Oswald).
It was a perfect fusion of the machine soul shapes of Model 500's 90s records and the minimalist austerity of micro-house, a circle that he'd begun to square as early as 1995 with the Deep Space LP. The majority of the album was engineered by Moritz von Oswald (who also remixed Starlight for the 12"), with the machine soul of The Flow and I Wanna Be There rubbing shoulders with the gentle techno of Milky Way (co-written with Kevin Saunderson and mixed by François Kevorkian) and the sparse digital funk of Last Transport To Alpha Centauri.
The final piece in the roots-of-micro-house puzzle is the lustrous, playful techno that emerged from Cologne in the 90s best represented by Jörg Burger and Wolfgang Voigt (aka Mike Ink). Burger turned out the Gaussian-blurred techno of The Bionaut's Lush Life Electronica before bounding into 1997 with The Modernist's pristine Opportunity Knox. Its liquid machine funk pooling somewhere between house and techno, it was micro-house avant la lettre.
Mike Ink's early classic Life's A Gas, which featured snatches of everything from T. Rex to Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, just might be the first instance of a straight-up micro-house full-length. Coming in at 1995, its nimble grooves and spangly textures still sound like the future. Ink descended ever further into ambience with a succession of four records under the name Gas, before starting Kompakt Records, the spiritual home of micro-house.
Micro-house proper as defined by the likes of Isolée, Villalobos and Luomo really came to the fore around the turn of the century. Isolée's debut LP Rest is widely acknowledged as a classic, and rightly so, as its mind-tickling tactile micro-funk is utterly engrossing. Even better are the 12" mixes of Beau Mot Plage (which does feature on Rest in edited form), particularly the glistening hall-of-mirrors tango of Heaven & Earth Re-Edit and Freeform Reform Parts 1 & 2's 11-minute tech jazz rave up.
When it comes to micro-house, my favorite micro-house long-player remains Luomo's Vocalcity, a six-song set of marathon (only one track clocks in under ten minutes) deep house workouts that veer into a sort of neon-lit bedroom funk. One can almost sense the flicker of SA-RA in the rolling, deconstructed boogie of Synkro (unsurprisingly my absolute favorite cut on the album). The half-lit, burnished edges of Vocalcity make readily apparent that, when all is said and done, micro-house was always an outgrowth of the initial deep house impulse.
One needs look no further than Virgo's lone self-titled album for all the proof you need. The record is as perfectly realized as prime Kraftwerk: Ride's perpetual trance dance is the blueprint for the deeper end of micro-house, while the gentle machine soul of School Hall is quite simply sublime. Virgo fulfilled the promise of everything Larry Heard laid out on his early Mr. Fingers sides (collected on the absolutely essential Ammnesia compilation). See also Marshall Jefferson's Jungle Wonz records, rounding out this trio of Chicago deep house auteurs.
This mirrored in New York by the Nu Groove imprint, particularly the output of the Burrell Brothers and Bobby Konders. Records like Aphrodisiac's Song Of The Siren and the N.Y. House'n AuthorityAPT. record epitomized a quintessentially Big Apple, cosmopolitan take on deep house, while Bobby Konders' House Rhythms and Dub Poets' Black & White opened the floodgates of Jamaican dub pressure into the music. Those nimble, casually funky rhythms of the New York mix of Open House's Seven Day Weekend add a healthy big city swagger to the Compass Point vibes in evidence throughout.
All these deep, dark maneuvers formed the perfect backdrop for the lonesome vocal stylings of a certain type of house producer exemplified by Jamie Principle, who pioneered a murmuring, moan-inflected sound that figures like K-Alexi Shelby, Blake Baxter and Bernard Badie then went on to run with. Records like Your Love, Cold World and Baby Wants To Ride established an icy, new wave-informed style heavily indebted to Prince (and I've often thought you could hear a bit of Bowie in there as well). These all informed by a distinctly European flavor that I suspect overlaps significantly with that of progressive-era Detroit.
Unfortunately, Principle never got to deliver an album in the 80s (making that happen is on my Doc Brown bucket list). Thankfully, Lil' Louis did, and From The Mind Of Lil' Louis was every bit as iconoclastic as one might hope from the author of the ten-minute orgasmic house masterpiece French Kiss (its pulsing sequences often pointed to as the birth of trance). Moody, spiritual and introspective, it was nevertheless intercut with a deeply freaky bent, boasting the original stalker track (I Called U) and the apocalyptic Blackout. An undeniable classic, it deserves a spot on all the 80s lists.
Curtis Jones aka Cajmere aka Green Velvet brought out the freak in full force for the 90s on his Cajual and Relief imprints. Tunes like The Stalker and Land Of The Lost picked up where Lil' Louis left off, bringing an added punch of technoid minimalism to bear on the sound. Indeed, Velvet brought the noise too, as anyone who's heard Answering Machine or Flash will tell you. On Whatever, the martial rhythms bled into EBM/industrial territory that was thoroughly post punk (and well before it was cool again!), with La La Land even becoming something of a hit.
We're now rounding into the home stretch for all of you falling asleep back there! Moodymann's post-post-soul sound, featuring dense layers of overlapping synths and textures, resulted in some of the earliest filter-disco music (a sound French acts like Daft Punk and Cassius would later take into the charts. Other Detroit figures like Terrence Parker, Alton Miller and Theo Parrish had similarly rootsy sounds that seemed to stretch back to the days when Westbound was king of the city, all three equally comfortable with deep, spiritual slates and tracky noise in equal measure.
I've often thought that if there was one crew that unexpectedly mirrored all this Motor City activity, it was the Lords Of Svek. Hailing from Sweden, the trio of Adam Beyer, Jesper Dahlbäck and Joel Mull formed the core of the output on the Svek label. This lot were the realSwedish house mafia! Offering up a perfect fusion of technoid futurism and jazzed-out house, the label's rich discography deserves to be more widely heard. You could do a lot worse than to start with the Stars compilation, which features not one but two tracks from Conceiled Project's awesome Definition Of D (my favorite of which is the loping deep house paranoia of D-Weqst).
Aside from the obvious stylistic comparisons (of which I'd venture that Svek was ECM to KDJ's Impulse! and Sound Signature's Blue Note), there were also a number of literal connections made around this time. Not only did Aril Brikha's Deeparture In Time and Art Of Vengeance EP (which featured the micro-house classic Groove La Chord) came out on Transmat, but Wild Planet's post-bleep 'n bass-era output like the Vocoder 12" and the Transmission full-length were released by Octave One's 430 West imprint. The Transmitter album in particular is a great little record that I never tire of, its sound hovering twenty feet above the ground in the interzone between techno, house and electro.
Octave One themselves are one of my key groups, in the upper echelon with SA-RA and Smith & Mighty. Everything they put out in the 90s is solid gold, with tracks like Siege, Black On Black and The Neutral Zone holding up as perfect techno workouts (see also the exquisite Art And Soul EP). Random Noise Generation was the sample-warping anything goes side project in contrast to Octave One's geometric precision, tunes like Hysteria and Falling In Dub the dark, twisted flipside to the Inner City records.
From the very beginning, there was a distinct machine soul current running through Octave One's output. Most obviously in I Believe (especially in its Magic Juan Mix), but also
the lush, low-slung rhythms of Nicolette and The Neutral Zone's rewired funk (not to mention Burujha's 1970s soul OST inflections). However, it all came crashing into the foreground at the turn of the century with Blackwater (featuring the vocals of Ann Saunderson), a rework of an earlier instrumental that found the tune remixed by Kevin Saunderson to brilliant effect. All of this two steps away from Ginuwine and Aaliyah.7
I hear similar ties to machine funk running through Stacey Pullen's discography. Going back to his earliest Bango sides, records like Ritual Beating System Tribal Rythim Mix and Sphinx had more than a bit of vintage soul about them. Pullen's Kosmic Messenger output — as compiled on the Electronic Poetry collection — makes an excellent case for picking up where Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies left off (alongside the electrofunk of Zapp and Mtume), especially tunes like Eye 2 Eye and Death March that rewire the funk to ever deeper levels of abstraction.
The Silent Phase record that Pullen recorded for Transmat made similar connections (especially in the Curtis Mayfield-reminiscent stylings of Love Comes And Goes), although in tracks like Body Rock and Spirit Of Sankofa one can hear distinct pre-echoes of The Neptunes. This strange pact between the two sides of the coin was further developed on Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday, a record whose undeniable jazz funk sensibilities were backed by a distinctly 21st century rhythmic tricknology.
Which reminds me of Anthony Shakir's quote about only getting into techno because he didn't like the last Parliament record! (Sicko 86)1b More than any other figure his music seems to be shot through with the fragmented remnants of soul. His more dancefloor-oriented sides like Breathe Deeper are post-Funkadelic music in the same way Kosmic Messenger is, reminding one of the imagery around progressive Detroit and The Electrifying Mojo. New wave and funk colliding on the airwaves. See also the wild house shapes of That's What I Want. Mesopotamia, innit?
His moodier, more introspective sides might be even better. Often dealing in splintered breakbeats, he seemed to formulate the broken beat sound near simultaneously to 4 Hero. My absolute favorite the Tracks For My Father EP, a record that I managed to pick up after school back in the day for a few dollars from the cheap bin at the record store next door to Club Elements. It's a great four-track EP, showcasing broken beat shapes and the mutant electro-soul of Fact Of The Matter before it all collapses into the flickering machine soul of Travelers. Shakir later actually worked with the German post punk band F.S.K. in 2004 on First Take Then Shake.
Which brings us to the final outpost in today's elevator ride, the music of young Jimmy Edgar. Any further over the line and you're literally listening to Supa Dupa Fly, which is too far (at least until next episode!). Edgar released the jaw-dropping Morris Nightingale/Kristuit Salu record to little fanfare back in 2002. It should have been massive. Machine funk deconstructed, this liquid r&b is the split of Kraftwerk, J Dilla and Timbaland.
The largely instrumental work later caught the attention of Warp Records, where Edgar found a home for a spell, releasing the Bounce, Make, Model mini-album and the Color Strip LP. Both of which are prime android funk in the Juan Atkins/Prince tradition. True machine soul, in other words, and the perfect segue into the final episode of Terminal Vibration, when we go searching for the soul in the machine...
Terminal Vibration 9: Elevator Music
The MoverBody Snatchers Impaler - First MixPlanet Core Productions
4 HeroThe PowerReinforced
The Black DogSeers & SagesBlack Dog Productions
Smart SystemsTingler Four By Four MixJumpin' & Pumpin'
Royal HouseParty PeopleIdlers
69My Machines Parts 1, 2 & 3, including Extraterrestrial RaggabeatsPlanet E
StrandBloated Juggernaut MixFrictional
Suburban KnightThe Art Of Stalking Stalker MixTransmat
I remember Pennington turning in burning hot mix on Groovetech around the same time. Unfortunately, that site (which was something of an online record store, only so much more) is long gone, but someone seems to have uploaded the mix to Youtube:
Pennington, James. Suburban Knight @ Groovetech. Groovetech, Suburban Knight, 23 Nov. 2001. Live DJ Mix.
At the flipside of darkside hip hop's ragged breakbeat architecture lies the elegant beat matrix of electro. Simon Reynolds once opined that electro was to rave what the blues were to rock 'n roll, and Kodwo Eshun famously quipped that Kraftwerk were Detroit's Mississippi Delta. In other words, it all started with Kraftwerk. Their influence stretches outward to touch on everything from techno and electro to post punk and synth pop, from electrofunk and hip hop to rave and r&b; it's all been subject to the influence of this besuited bunch from Düsseldorf.
After four records of hard, abstract space music (one of which was released under the name Organisation), Kraftwerk perfected their sound with the sprawling 22 minute opus Autobahn, taking up a whole side of their 1974 album of the same name. With its gently pulsing electroid groove sprawling out beneath an idyllic Beach Boys-inspired melody, it was a turning point in pop music's trajectory so profound that it took a number of years before its repercussions were truly felt.
With fellow travelers like Cluster and Heldon also developing a sequenced electronic music of their own, Kraftwerk delivered Radio-Activity a year later. Featuring a darker, more austere mood that seemed to predict the prevailing tendencies of post punk's coming dalliances with electro, it seemed to fuse the pop developments of Autobahn with their earlier experimental LPs.
By this point, British visionaries like David Bowie and Brian Eno were sitting up and taking notice, and Kraftwerk refined their sound further with Trans-Europe Express. A timely fusion of electronic rhythms backing the spare German vocals, with melody carved out entirely with synthesizers, it was arguably the first synth pop record through and through. Unsurprisingly, Trans-Europe Express would ultimately have a seismic impact on the future of music.
Across the North Sea in the U.K. — in apparent synchronicity — a brace of 7" singles arose in 1978 that picked up where the Germans had left off. Daniel Miller aka The Normal released the T.V.O.D. on his own Mute Records imprint. A pulsing electro-punk shimmy, it also featured a J.G. Ballard-inspired slab of noise called Warm Leatherette. This was the track that proved to have the greatest impact, with its proto-electro rhythm setting the template for Britain's grimy take on post punk synth pop.
Despite the fact that he'd originally envisioned Mute as an outlet for just the one single, Daniel Miller received demo tapes from all over the country and — impressed with what he heard — he decided to release some of them. Records by NON and Fad Gadget followed, with Fad Gadget's awesome Back To Nature and Fireside Favorites standing as awesome slabs of apocalyptic post punk synth pop.1 Most famously, Mute would became the long term home of synth pop superstars Depeche Mode starting with 1981's Dreaming Of Me.
The Human League, that other bunch of synth pop superstars, got their start on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint with the second of the 1978 U.K. stone tablets, the Being Boiled. A buzzing micro-masterpiece of dark proto-electro, this was miles away (and an entirely different group) from The Human League that ruled the pop charts in 1981 with Dare!. This was pure post punk music, albeit with a ruthless pop edge. The group further developed this sound across two LPs (Reproduction and Travelogue, their masterpiece) and a handful of seven inches before the original crew split in 1980.
Two Scottish figures — Thomas Leer and Robert Rental — were responsible for two of the other great 1978 stone tablets, Private Plane and Paralysis, respectively. The homespun other to these other groups' uncompromisingly bleak futurism, Private Plane was a motorik nocturnal journey through inner space recorded softly under the covers so as not to wake his girlfriend.
Paralysis was even more of an outlier, with a droning guitar sound warped by wah pedal. Both records have heavy kosmische overtones, very much indebted to the murky visions of krautrock. The duo collaborated on a stunning album in 1979 called The Bridge, which was released on Throbbing Gristle's Industrial imprint.
Throbbing Gristle themselves are responsible for the fifth of the U.K. stone tablets, with 1978's United. The a-side was a loosely-organized bit of synth almost-pop, with electroshock beats and analogue textures, while the flipside featured Zyklon B Zombie, in which a menacing synth sequence unfurled beneath the sort of noise-infested soundscape that would become their trademark. Their 1979 album 20 Jazz Funk Greats also featured Hot On The Heels Of Love, which was pure proto-techno from its pumping 4/4 beat and cycling electronic bassline on down to its claustrophobic synth figures and snapping drum fills.2
The duo of Chris & Cosey would splinter off from TG, indulging in further electronic hijinks as they explored proto-electro/techno with records like Trance and Technø Primitiv. As one might expect from the name of their label, TG are considered one of the godfathers of industrial music.
The other being Cabaret Voltaire, who started out in the early seventies recording in an attic (check Methodology '74 / '78. Attic Tapes) before signing with Rough Trade and releasing the Extended Play EP (the sixth and final 1978 stone tablet). Featuring tunes like Do The Mussolini (Headkick) and The Setup, they were claustrophobic slabs of dubbed-out post punk in which ticking rhythm boxes spooled out beneath skanking bass and guitar, processed until it sounded unreal. A trio of LPs followed in a similar vein (Mix-Up, The Voice Of America and Red Mecca), featuring ragged, dessicated soundscapes that seemed to be crushed paper thin beneath the weight of their paranoia.
Starting with the 2x45 mini-album, they wired the sound up to the machines in a fusion of their earlier atmospheric sides and the increasingly dancefloor-oriented electronic music to follow. The centerpiece is undoubtedly Yashar, a searing mini-epic built from synth arabesques, pounding percussion and a sample from The Outer Limits. It's one of those tracks that seems to exist in a loose continuum with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, an utterly artificial music seemingly composed by fictional tribes.3 At this point, the group mutated into a duo with The Crackdown, which laid the blueprint for the whole EBM (electronic body music) strain of industrial music later made explicit by Front 242.
There's definite cyberpunk vibes running through the the entirety group's output, with 1984's Micro-Phonies expanding on The Crackdown's innovations to cement their new sound and standing as the proto-typical industrial record. Tangentially, it was Psyche's Crackdown that pointed me to the group in the first place. Come to think of it, BFC's Galaxy was what hooked me up with Liaisons Dangereuses — via a sample of Peut Être... Pas' machine rhythms — so double thanks to Carl Craig. Liaisons Dangereuses' lone (self-titled) LP is a stone classic of early industrial music, featuring the stark proto-techno of Los Niños Del Parque alongside Peut Être... Pas' stunning electro pulse.
German duo Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (who consequently were licensed in the U.K. by Mute) had a trajectory comparable to Cabaret Voltaire, starting out with a straight up post punk, sound collage vein with records like Produkt Der Deutsch-Amerikanischen Freundschaft and Die Kleinen Und Die Bösen before reinventing themselves as a state-of-the-art hard-edged dance outfit with Alles Ist Gut, and over the course of a trilogy of albums (rounded out by Gold Und Liebe and Für Immer), throughout which they explored a bruising — but nevertheless pop-inflected — sound that did as much as anyone to lay the blueprint for EBM.
As mentioned earlier, Front 242 were the standard bearers of EBM (even coining the term Electronic Body Music4 in the first place), along with the next generation of industrial outfits like Severed Heads, Ministry and Nitzer Ebb. Records like Head Hunter, Dead Eyes Opened, Everyday Is Halloween and Join In The Chant played like calls to arms, which were answered by figures like Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly and most famously Nine Inch Nails, who came to define industrial in the popular consciousness over the course of the 90s with records like Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral.
Interestingly enough, many of the highest-selling industrial acts turned out to be American (and Canadian), but then the States had their own progenitor of the form in San Francisco's Chrome. Led by Damon Edge, the band started out on their 1976 debut The Visitation essaying a sound triangulated somewhere between the acid rock of Jefferson Airplane, Santana's winding rhythmic pulse and — in another strange bit of synchronicity (as neither had yet released a record) — post punk-era Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle.
Guitarist Helios Creed after The Visitation, bringing a visionary x-factor to the group as they set about releasing increasingly machine-inflected records like Alien Soundtracks, Half Machine Lip Moves and 3rd From The Sun, recklessly negotiating the territory between The Sex Pistols, Kraftwerk and biker rock.
Another San Francisco group that was something of an artier, gentler flipside to Chrome's scorching blast was the inimitable Tuxedomoon. Their debut 7" happened to coincide with the six British stone tablets released in 1978, featuring the chaotic blast of No Tears, a menacing slab of electro-punk that rivals the heights of The Normal's Warm Leatherette. Over the course of albums like Half-Mute and Desire the band grew increasingly arty, melding the very European atmosphere of cabaret with a proto-electro pulse. Rather appropriately, Tuxedomoon ultimately relocated to Europe, where there sensibilities were more in sync with the prevailing atmosphere.
It's worth noting that in 1978 Kraftwerk managed to further refine their sound with the elegant The Man-Machine, managing to stay ahead of the pack with elegant machine music like The Model (a track that never stops sounding like the future), The Robots and the title track. Perhaps more surprisingly, there were shades of Giorgio Moroder's electronic disco in the tracks like Spacelab and Metropolis.
Of course, Moroder's production for Donna Summer's I Feel Love — way back in 1977 — was one of the key developments in an electronic form of dance music, and his own records like From Here To Eternity and E=MC² further explored the possibilities of sequencer-driven dance music. Interesting to hear Kraftwerk reflecting this sound back in their own particular way.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Yellow Magic Orchestra were making waves with their debut LP, featuring the proto-electro masterpiece Computer Games/Firecracker. Much like Kraftwerk, their influence spread further than one might have expected, with the group even performing on Soul Train! And if Kraftwerk dabbled in digital disco, then YMO reveled in it, with 1979's Solid State Survivor opening with the one-two punch of Technopolis and Absolute Ego Dance. There was even a new wave-inflected cover version of The Beatles' Day Tripper!
Interestingly, YMO were something of a supergroup, with Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto involved in innovative solo careers before, during and after their group's protracted reign. Hosono plied a sort of electro-tinged exotica — pre-dating the likes of Arto Lindsay and Beck Hansen by a couple decades, but also indulged in more straightforwardly electronic excursions like Paraiso and Cochin Moon.
Ryuichi Sakamoto created an electronic paradise of his own on 1978's Thousand Knives Of Ryuichi Sakamoto, before returning with the more austere (and post punk aligned, featuring figures like Dennis Bovell and XTC's Andy Partridge) B-2 Unit. The centerpiece was undoubtedly Riot In Lagos, an unbelievably loose slice of proto-electro that practically glows with futurism.
Along with YMO's output, it seems to have set the stage for the later weird sonic adventures of figures like Ken Ishii, Rei Harakami and Susumu Yokota, in much the same way that the first wave of British electronic musicians set the tone for large swathes of music to come in the wake of the Second Summer Of Love.
The first — and most obvious — example is bleep 'n bass, the first indigenously developed form of post-rave dance music produced in the U.K. Emerging from the industrial city of Sheffield (from whence Cabaret Voltaire sprung over a decade earlier) in late 1988, bleep 'n bass was the interface between techno/acid house and what would become ardkore. Perhaps it was the first genre invented with the rave in mind? Unique 3 seemed to have invented the sound from scratch with The Theme, a strikingly minimal tune built on little more than a brittle drum machine rhythm, spectral synths and a tattoo of seemingly random bleeps.
A deluge of records soon followed, records like the Forgemasters' Track With No Name and Ital Rockers' Ital's Anthem, while even Sheffield godfathers Cabaret Voltaire reinvented (and reinvigorated) themselves as Sweet Exorcist with records like Testone and Clonk. Interestingly, some of Cabaret Voltaire subsequent records like The Conversation (released on R&S ambient subsidiary Apollo) seemed to connect their earlier Red Mecca-era material with the modern wave of electronica (which is actually where I started with them in the first place).
The spiritual home of bleep 'n bass was the mighty Warp Records, who started out releasing records by the Forgemasters and Sweet Exorcist long before they became one of the biggest electronic labels on the planet. They also were the home of two groups that started out in bleep 'n bass only to go on to have long careers in drastically different directions.
The first was Nightmares On Wax, who put out crucial early bleep records like Dextrous and Aftermath before unleashing the incredible A Word Of Science: The 1st & Final Chapter album on the world. Splitting the difference between bleep techno numbers like Biofeedback and the proto trip hop of Nights Interlude, it caught NOW at a transitional phase before moving into straight up downtempo adventures with Smoker's Delight.
LFO, meanwhile, provided early bleep classics like LFO and Track 4 before rewriting the blueprint for British techno with Frequencies. Maintaining a sense of Kraftwerk-esque elegance throughout, it was an absolute classic that had a strong electro pulse to its rhythms. They followed it with the more abrasive Advance, a notoriously difficult follow up, before splitting to pursue solo projects like Clark and Gez Varley. In whatever form they chose, LFO remained one of the stalwart figures in British techno's development.
Another figure entwined in this story is Andrew Weatherall, whose Two Lone Swordsmen partnership with Keith Tenniswood produced increasingly electroid output before ultimately dabbling in post punk outright. Even the earlier twisted dub/funk/trip hop of The Sabres Of Paradise's Haunted Dancehall had already hinted in this general direction, but records like Bag Of Blue Sparks, Stay Down and Tiny Reminders found the duo carving out a unique strain of electro that seemed to be filtered through a dubbed-out, post punk prism. Their Rotters Golf Club label was a playground for post-electro madness, featuring myriad aliases including Tenniswood's Radioactive Man project, which unleashed the awesome 2-step electro fusion of Uranium.
There was plenty of techno from the era that seemed to have a fair bit of electro in their DNA, even if you wouldn't necessarily peg them as such. Minimal icon Surgeon, whose rhythms — especially at their most delicate — often seemed to have strong electro inflections, is one example that springs to mind, while Austrian techno provocateur Patrick Pulsinger always had a corroded electro flavor to his output (especially on the series of Dogmatic Sequences EPs).
This during an era when a lot of erstwhile techno figures were dabbling in electro, bringing their own unique strengths to bear on a brace of records that weren't merely retreads, but very much their own animal. Jamie Bissmire — of fellow travelers Bandulu — collaborated with Ben Long on the Space DJz project, with records like On Manoeuvres In Uncharted Territories (featuring the awesome Celestial Funk) and On Patrol! dancing across the thin dividing line between hard techno and electro.
Meanwhile, Ian Loveday (aka ardkore nemesis Eon) also got down and dirty with some killer electro as Sem on D.C. Recordings. This was all exemplified by D.C. label head honcho Jon Saul Kane, whose output as The Octagon Man mutated electro into ever more twisted shapes, seemingly becoming more sick with every release (just check the development between The Demented Spirit and Itô Calculus). I remember picking up the Vidd 12" when it came out5 and being utterly overwhelmed by that dismal wall-of-synth sound,6 just utterly pulverizing and depressing.
If The Octagon Man gestured toward the sick sound of 80s synthesizer music (as essayed by The Minimal Wave Tapes), then I-f essentially brought it back to life with their epochal Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass. Built on a dead-eyed bassline, ear-shattering synth strings and vocodored chorus, it is essentially ground zero of what would come to be called electroclash.
Put loosely, this was a post-electro revival music that added a healthy dose of synth pop to the equation, offering up a more European take on the sound (emerging in 1998, this was arguably the first wave of the post punk revival). Figures like The Parallax Corporation mixed this sensibility with a pummeling take on techno, while Anthony Rother had his own little electro empire (and even a should-have-been pop hit with Little Computer People).
DJ Hell, whose output had carried traces of electro from day one (even turning in a cover version of No More's Suicide Commando), did as much as anyone to bring electroclash crashing into the mainstream with his International Deejay Gigolo imprint. This was mirrored by ambient heroes Global Communication significant dalliances with electro (after all, they tried their hand at nearly every other form from drum 'n bass to industrial and deep house) as the Jedi Knights.
On the surface, their 1996 LP New School Science might have seemed like a purely nostalgic endeavor, but dig a little deeper and you'll find wholly unique tunes like Dances Of The Naughty Knights and Solina (The Ascension) that sound like nothing from the classic electro canon (or outside it, even).
Of course the entire IDM project could be read as an abstract take on post-electro music. The Black Dog — who had their fair share of breakbeats — nevertheless seemed to center on a sort of skewed electro mysticism, while Plaid — who ultimately split off from BDP — were only more so aligned with electro and post-hip hop blues (even working with vocalists like Björk and Nicolette). Similarly, behind all the abstraction an experimental mainstay like Autechre were nevertheless firmly in thrall to electro and hip hop. One could even read them as a yet more abstract update on Mantronix.
Ditto Aphex Twin, with records like Analogue Bubblebath, Polygon Window and even large swathes of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 seemingly built on a chassis of pure electro. Even a second-generation outfit like Boards Of Canada, with all their attendant drifting hauntological textures, rode cutting electro beats (albeit at a downtempo pace). In retrospect, it's no wonder that they connected with the abstract hip hop heads.
Of course it all came full circle with Radiohead's Kid A, which was supposedly inspired by an in-depth trawl through the entire Warp back catalog. A tune like Idioteque is certainly indebted to the continuum of dark, post punk electro stretching back to figures like The Normal and Thomas Leer.
If there's one figure that seems to make sense of all this, tying the wild-eyed abstraction of IDM back to the street sounds of electro then it must be Andrea Parker. Starting out with a series of dark electronic records — a sound that she termed uneasy listening — that were perhaps too singular to fit in with the prevailing trends of the time, she also found herself on Apollo working with frequent collaborator David Morley as Two Sandwiches Short Of A Lunchbox. Too Good To Be Strange was a subtle masterpiece of elegant electro, which in a strange turn of events even features during the nightclub scene in Vanilla Sky.
As the 90s progressed, Parker ultimately hooked up with Mo Wax for the excellent Kiss My Arp, a masterful collection of dark torch songs and experimental electro that took in elements ranging from musique concrète to analogue electronics, dirty trip hop breaks and even a chamber string section. After such dizzying heights, she got back to basics with the Touchin' Bass (formed with Detroit's very own DJ Godfather), bringing it all back home, so to speak.
Home in this case being the prototypical electro as laid down by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force on Planet Rock way back in 1982. Produced by Arthur Baker and John Robie, it was built on a structure of re-purposed (and re-played) bits of Kraftwerk: the eerie synth progression from Trans-Europe Express and the drum machine beat from Numbers.
Planet Rock launched Tommy Boy into the stratosphere, with the label becoming indelibly associated with electro's rise. This was further solidified with Bambaataa's follow up records like Looking For The Perfect Beat and Renegades Of Funk, along with figures like Planet Patrol and The Jonzun Crew.
Of course, being the forward-thinking Teutonic gentlemen that they happen to be, Kraftwerk had laid out the blueprint a whole year earlier with Computer World. As mentioned in passing before, Numbers provided electro's most durable rhythm matrix, while It's More Fun To Compute sounded like the sort of hall-of-mirrors electro the the rest of the world wouldn't catch up to until the late 90s; and no less a stadium-filling proposition than Coldplay saw fit to mimic the central synth motif from Computer Love.
Kraftwerk continued this development with their momentous Tour De France record, which was produced by François Kevorkian (who also remixed The Telephone Call from their 1986 swan song — for awhile, at least — Electric Café). Fellow krautrocker Manuel Göttsching contributed the awesome E2-E4 around this time as well, unfurling sequenced synths and his trademark guitar architecture over a gently shuffling electro rhythm that ran for just under an hour.
Swiss duo Yello also cut an uncompromising path through the 80s pop landscape with strange new wave-inflected post-disco records like Bostich, Desire and (most famously) Oh Yeah. Their sound was unlike anyone else around: not quite synth pop, not quite post punk and certainly not straightforward dance music, it was a fantastically warped sound — not without a sense of humor — that nevertheless maintained a killer pop edge. They even messed around with big band and Latin jazz on records like The Race and La Habanera.
Of course there had always been a particular strain of jazz with a weird détente with jazz, which culminated in the whole tech jazz trip as essayed by figures like Kirk Degiorgio and Innerzone Orchestra. Dating back to the 70s with records like Herbie Hancock's Sextant and Les McCann's Layers, it was the crucial ingredient of electronic rhythm that puts it in league with electro of the day.
Herbie Hancock's Future Shock trilogy foregrounded hard electro beats and rude synthesizers, even featuring Grand Mixer D.St. cutting it up on the decks. All of this shouldn't be surprising given Hancock's seminal influence on electronic jazz (see Nobu and Rain Dance) and continued endorsement of the form (2001's Future 2 Future, featuring collaborations with Carl Craig and A Guy Called Gerald), but it also managed to creep up in the most unexpected places.
For one such example, take a listen to Cat Stevens' Was Dog A Doughnut?, an impossibly early (1977) slab of jazz funk. Essentially a Chick Corea vehicle, it wove Fender Rhodes organ, ARP strings, zany electronic keyboards and a barking dog(!) together with a stop-start electronic rhythm in a gently psychedelic — think Shuggie Otis — cocktail that got swept up in electro's putative development (even getting covered a few years later by Jellybean Benitez).
I've often thought that you can hear the legacy of Was Dog A Doughnut? in certain corners of Man Parrish's output: things like Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop) (Special Disconet Remix), Six Simple Synthesizers and Together Again. His self-titled 1982 album is certainly a good example of electro stretching out into varied territory (Heatstroke is practically a Hi-NRG song!). His productions are also well worth looking into, for instance C.O.D.'s The Bottle, which showcases that same slinky electro sound (as opposed to the often rigid beats of synth pop and electro) evidenced by Hip Hop, Be Bop.
Of course, by 1982 electro was everywhere. Even Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five had an electro classic in Scorpio, while Message II (Survival) seemed to build it all out into fresh territory. Reigning primarily between the years 1982-1984, the original wave of electro encompassed figures from all over that musical map: from the relatively straightforward electro of Twilight 22 and Knights Of The Turntables to the r&b-inflected singles of Aleem (often in conjunction soul man Leroy Burgess) and Newcleus' electronic funk.
During this period, Cutting Records put out some of the most durable, timeless electro. Records like Hashim's Al-Naafiysh (The Soul) and Imperial Brothers' We Come To Rock traded in a stark minimalism later favored by figures like Drexciya and Aux 88, often featuring killer dub versions on the b-side.
One of the finest examples is actually from outside the '82-'84 timeframe, on Hashim's 1986 slap-bass odyssey, Primrose Path. I know I've gone on about this record many times before, but it's one of the key records in this whole Terminal Vibration saga, in the electro stakes rivaled only by the output of Juan Atkins.
Operating out of Detroit, Michigan, Atkins started out making electronic music on his own, trying to recreate the sound of a UFO landing in his backyard, before hooking up with Rick Davis to form Cybotron. Releasing Alleys of Your Mind in 1982 (nearly concurrently with Planet Rock), they followed swiftly with records like Cosmic Cars and Clear. All of this activity culminated in the album Enter, which — though perhaps uneven — featured further innovations in the brittle electro elegance of Cosmic Raindance, whose textures seemed to predict both Drexciya and Red Planet at their most progressive.
In fact, the duo seemed to shear off from electro around this point, with Techno City rather appropriately heralding the arrival of the new form. Juan Atkins went solo at this point, launching his own Metroplex imprint to release records like No UFO's and Night Drive as Model 500.
Songs like Future and Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) were stunning, psychedelic elaborations on electro, No UFO's stands as probably the first fully-formed techno record. Nevertheless, Atkins maintained an affinity with electro throughout his career, even revisiting it from time to time (such as on the Channel One's Technicolor, which was famously the basis for Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back).
Magic Juan is the primary conduit into Detroit's substantial electro (alternately termed techno bass, electro/techno or ghetto tech) subculture, which — within the city limits — is arguably even stronger than techno's. Drexciya probably had the greatest following amongst techno heads, with an impenetrable, mysterious vibe — much like Red Planet's — that hinted at a vast aquatic mythology. Records like Deep Sea Dweller and Bubble Metropolis were genre-defining third wave electro, with rushing drum machine sequences that played like Kraftwerk rebuilt as a Detroit street racer.
Drexciya's early output was masterfully collected on 1997's two-disc compilation The Quest by Submerge, and then given the box set treatment a few years ago by Clone with the four-disc Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller box set. Drexciya — , who turned out to be the duo of Gerald Donald and James Stinson — grew increasingly abstract as the decade wore on, culminating in their return with Neptune's Lair.
The duo also released solo side projects with names like Elecktroids, Japanese Telecom, Transllusion and — most notably for today's purposes — Dopplereffekt. A partnership between Gerald Donald, Micheala Bertel, William Scott and Kim Karli, Dopplereffekt specialized in a retro style of electro that harked back to the days of Kraftwerk. Tunes like Speak & Spell, Sterilization and Denki No Zuno blurred the lines between electro and electropop, prefiguring the likes of ADULT. by a good five years.
Another key axis in Detroit's electro story was the Direct Beat imprint, set up by Octave One head honcho Lawrence Burden as an outlet for Aux 88 and a loose collective of surrounding artists like (sometime Aux 88 member) Keith Tucker, Microknox, X-ile and Will Web. Spanning 58 releases, Direct Beat's output focused on a strain of fast-forward, down-and-dirty electro personified by Aux 88's no frills approach.
However, my favorite Aux moment actually exists outside of the Direct Beat catalog: their awesome Take Control remix of Underground ResistanceElectronic Warfare offered up a naggingly simple (and quite memorable) take on old school electro dynamics. Interestingly, it originated on a remix 12" for UR's Electronic Warfare double-pack, which also featured a remix by Drexciya.
At the most street-level end of Detroit electro — even more so than Direct Beat — lies ghetto tech stalwart DJ Assault, who essayed the sound on his Straight Up Detroit Shit mix series before unexpectedly breaking through to the mainstream. Along with Mr. De', he was one of the point men for Detroit's Electrofunk records. Another memorable figure was the idiosyncratic auteur Aaron-Carl, who straddled the line between electro and deep house, making waves with his ubiquitous Down, a seductively stunning bit of machine soul.
DJ Godfather's Twilight 76 label was another key outpost of Detroit electro, which essayed some of the grittier precincts of the city's electro. Importantly, the label also connected out into the wider world with other strains post-electro street beats like Chicago's jerk music (with figures like DJ Rashad and DJ Deeon both recording for the label).
Similarly, a strain of club music would arise in Baltimore during the 90s that fused electro rhythms with sped up breakbeats, with figures like Frank Ski, Jimmy Jones and K-Swift (whose Ryder Girl was a genuine phenomenon7) defining the sound. Rewinding even further back, Miami had its own form of bass music with figures ranging from Dynamix II to Duice, holding down the fort for the electro faithful during the form's lowest ebb.
Yet of all the places where electro's germ spread, the repercussions of its journey to the West Coast seemed to stretch it the furthest. The Egyptian Lover was one of the true originals out in L.A., with records like Egypt, Egypt and My Beat Goes Boom culminating in the On The Nile LP, alongside figures like The Arabian Prince and The Unknown DJ who unleashed their own succession of killer 12" singles. Then of course there was the World Class Wreckin' Cru, featuring Dr. Dre's earliest productions on wax, the highlight of which is the awesome Surgery (speaking of which: Dre, Lonzo said to work on that slow jam!).
The underlying principle with the development of a distinct strain of West Coast hip hop is that it all seems to spring from electro's initial reign back when figures like Uncle Jamm's Army and Ronnie Hudson & The Street People held sway. Even hip hop giants like Ice-T started out making electro, while all sorts of electro renegades wound up in the first wave of L.A. rap groups: The Unknown DJ in Compton's Most Wanted, while Dr. Dre, Ice Cube (formerly of Stereo Crew and C.I.A.) and The Arabian Prince in N.W.A. (who quietly shuck in electro moments like Panic Zone and Something 2 Dance 2 amongst all the hardcore hip hop).
Also noteworthy is The Arabian Prince's solo turn after leaving N.W.A., Brother Arab, which split the difference between electro's uptempo rhythm matrix and the burgeoning breakbeat-driven sound of 1989 hip hop.
Moving up north to Bay Area figures ranging from Too $hort to Ant Banks and E-40 to JT The Bigga Figga (damn near the lot of them, actually), it's clear that they were equally shaped by the sounds of electrofunk. Just look at records like E-40's In A Major Way and Mac Mall's Illegal Business?. In that sense, even mega-selling albums like Dr. Dre's The Chronic, Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle and DJ Quik's Quik Is The Name can all be sourced back into electro and its boogiefied cousin, electrofunk.
Birthed by George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic machine, particularly on records like Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome and Uncle Jam Wants You, the crucial ingredient being Bernie Worrell's synth sound taking center stage alongside Bootsy Collins' throbbing bass, electrofunk brought a cartoonish futurism to funk just in time for the dawn of the eighties.
This streamlining of funk's groove around electronic elements was picked up on by Roger Troutman's Zapp, whose 1980 debut (and subsequent records) defined the electrofunk sound, laying the groundwork for funk and disco's transformation into what would come to be called boogie.
Just compare Cameo and The Gap Band's records from before and after Zapp's 1980 debut, with the peak-era disco sounds of Rigor Mortis and Shake giving way to She's Strange and You Dropped A Bomb On Me. Ditto figures like Kleeer and Mtume... it was quite simply everywhere, from George Clinton's Atomic Dog to D-Train and Jam & Lewis' electronic productions and even Prince's Erotic City, which was nothing if not his take on electro in the vein of Laidback's White Horse.
Across the country on the East Coast, Mantronix offered up the definitive take on electronic hip hop with records like Bassline, Needle To The Groove and Scream, a sound that would come back to currency as the 90s drew to a close, before moving into increasingly dance-oriented, r&b-inflected sides. This coincided with the development of freestyle music, just as the contemporary output of Cutting Records began shearing into similar territory with records like Sa-Fire's Let Me Be The One, Corina's Out Of Control and Tolga's Lovin' Fool.
Freestyle was essentially the sound of Planet Rock getting down in The Bronx. This sound was a big influence on New Order circa Confusion (which was produced by none other than Arthur Baker), while Jellybean Benitez took its vibe into the mainstream with his early productions for Madonna, which had a profound shaping influence on her sound. See also Company B. At any rate, if you're looking to investigate the roots of r&b's tendencies toward futurism, you could do a lot worse than to look into freestyle.
Which of course leads us into the quintessential chrome-plated r&b purveyors Timbaland and The Neptunes, who reinvigorated the form in the latter half of the 90s onward by infusing their music with elements of nearly everything discussed today. This at a time when, as mentioned earlier, the electronic rap of Mantronix seemed to return with a vengeance in the beats of dirty south producers like Mannie Fresh and Organized Noise (with Outkast and Cash Money in full swing).
In fact, this all begins to lead so patly into what will be the final episode of Terminal Vibration that I'm gonna step back for a moment before we get into figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk and J Dilla. With a brief stop on the horizon in the penultimate episode of Terminal Vibration (which takes place in the proverbial elevator where Kraftwerk got down with George Clinton), I will see you all next time...
Terminal Vibration 8: Modern Funk Beats
The Human LeagueBeing BoiledFast
Ryuichi SakamotoRiot In LagosAlfa
HashimAl-Naafiysh The SoulCutting
KraftwerkIt's More Fun To ComputeKling Klang
I-fSpace Invaders Are Smoking GrassDisko B
Space DJzCelestial FunkInfonet
The Egyptian LoverMy House On The NileEgyptian Empire
Underground ResistanceElectronic Warfare Take Control Mix by Aux 88UR
Little Computer PeopleLittle Computer PeoplePsi49net
And also standing in for the hordes of bedroom synth iconoclasts essayed on the Minimal Wave compilations, artists like Oppenheimer Analysis and Bene Gesserit, figures that were largely unsung in their day but nevertheless put out some incredible music.
The record also opened with the dead-eyed drunken sway of Exotica, featuring the group's trademark detuned horns and dreary synths cascading over a laidback downtempo electro rhythm. It's another highlight that sounds like something that could have come out on Patrick Pulsinger's Cheap imprint.
I remember being quite confused when I first heard the term EDM as a genre, which I at first misheard as EBM. Were kids suddenly checking Front 242? Not the case! (Although it certainly sounded like Kanye had been circa Yeezus).
Kane turned in a great volume of the Electro Boogie series around the same time, which was released under the Depth Charge banner but was firmly grounded in twisted, mutant electro. I always thought it was strange that it wasn't credited to The Octagon Man, although it may have been down to the greater name recognition that the Depth Charge brought with it. After all, I suppose it was his primary identity.
Much like — as I never tire of pointing out lately — those blaring titanic synths in Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch's score to Blade Runner 2049. My Bloody Valentine recreated with synths, etc. etc. etc.
Nearly ten(!) years ago this little package came tumbling out into the shops with little fanfare, brought to you by the good folks at BBE. It's a sprawling selection of 21 shimmering dancefloor dubs from the first half of the 1980s, brilliantly compiled by Dimitri From Paris across two discs in original unmixed form, while The Idjut Boys mix the third (playing the soundboy to Dimitri's selector), all lovingly presented in an indispensable 3½ hour anthology (recalling Dimitri's Disco Forever triple-disc extravaganza).
Whereas that set chronicled peak-era disco by the likes of Charanga 76 and D.C. LaRue, Night Dubbin' shines the limelight on the time period just after. Post-disco and pre-house, the music captured here is a spectral, electro-tinged dance music imbued with half-lit neon glow. This is the sort of thing one might have heard at Tony Humphries' Zanzibar and Larry Levan's Paradise Garage (indeed, this is the genesis of the sound that would come to be called garage), where the sounds of disco mutated into the forms that would light the fuse on the Second Summer Of Love.
Touching down with the reverb-soaked acappella vocals of Aurra's Such A Feeling Part 2, you're hit immediately with the sort of organ line that would come to define large the garage sound in years to come. However, a delicious electro boogie squiggle enters the fray to complicate matters with spiral synths twisting and turning in orbit around the track's crisp percussion. That right there gives you a great thumbnail of what to expect here, so if that sounds like a good time to you, then feel free to proceed with the knowledge that you're in for a treat.
With The Idjuts segueing smoothly into Thug Rock Chimental Mix by Sandy Kerr, the final crucial ingredient of today's journey takes center stage: I'm talking about low-slung, deep-grooving slap bass magic. Together with the dubbed-out vocals, garage-inflected keyboards, wasp-leg synths and that rolling 1980s drum matrix, all the elements are present and correct.
There's even this whistling, high-pitched synth that prefigures the sound of mid-nineties digital-era Detroit techno figures like Kenny Larkin and Stacey Pullen (particularly the Silent Phase record). That's actually not uncommon in this mix, where one will often do a double-take on some fragment of a track (or idea within it) that sounds utterly ahead-of-its-time.
Suddenly, incandescent synths drift into view with an almost steel drum, calypso flavor. Island disco vibes to a man. This is the Limited Edition Special Remix of Serious Intention's You Don't Know. I have the original version on 12", but this remix takes the track in a radical new direction.
What were once relatively straightforward soul vocals in the original version are now fed through what sounds like a harmonizer, pitched-up and mutated into Smurf territory. This is the sort of dancefloor psychedelia that Prince was perfecting around this time, going to show the continued usefulness of Eno's concept of scenius. Something In The Water Does Not Compute.
It's worth pointing out that You Don't Know was one of the foundational building blocks of garage, which when you connect the dots forward fifteen years to the So Solid Crew's They Don't Know becomes all the more fascinating. It's a continuum, folks! And as in The Matrix, once you see the connections they're with you to stay.
Collapsing into the hall of mirrors intro from Michael Wilson's Groove It To Your Body Instrumental Mix, it's not long before you're flooded with rolling waves of Clavinet funk like a fast-forward Stevie Wonder (one pictures the cyborg keyboardist from Vibrations in action). The only respite is a cool breeze of cascading chimes, still rapid-fire but serenely so, before the bridge hits with a snatch of breezy acappella and then you're back in the thick of the Clavinet jungle.
Shades of Nu Groove-esque moody atmosphere announce Lenny White's My Turn To Love You Dub Version, a streetlight moonlight foray into post-jazz funk boogie. Yet another track fueled by clockwork slap bass, the tune's moody rumblings ultimately get subsumed into the track's metronomic forward motion. Shards of synth creep through the tune's murky aura, giving the track that extra punch as outer space effects unfurl at the edge of the soundscape, looped sax trilling off onto the horizon.
This from Lenny White's 1983 LP Attitude, which also has the twilight burner Didn't Know About Love Til I Found You, finding the erstwhile fusioneer (and member of Return To Forever) keeping up with the times and rolling deep with the Jamaica, Queens crew (see also Don Blackman, Bernard Wright, Tom Browne and of course Lenny White's own Twennynine project).
Aside from Easy Street, if there's one label that fits the remit of this mix then it's Prelude. And who better to represent the label's trademark post-disco machine boogie than James "D-Train" Williams, whose You're The One For Me defined the sound of the era's machine funk (even as Jam & Lewis picked up the baton and ran with it)?
In this case, you've got the stellar dub of the "D" Train Theme, also from the You're The One For Me LP, which picks up where that record's genre-defining title track left off (albeit with a greater presence of funk guitar and even a little proto-rap worked in for good measure). If there's one figure here that you could claim to be the founder of this feast, than it would be old D-Train.
With the Theme shimmering out across a pulsing electro-bass riff, the Paul Simpson Connection is in full force with Treat Me Dubmental Mix. Like the Aurra track, this is very much a proto-garage moment, with that skipping hi-hat rhythm underpinning club pianos and soulful keyboards. Gradually building before it all explodes in a crescendo of intricate synth filigree and dubbed-out, churchy vocals, it maintains a vibrant elasticity throughout. That rubberband synth bassline practically glows in the dark.
Ever so subtly swinging one bassline to another, The Boys drop into Wuf Ticket's The Key Dub Version, an electro boogie masterpiece driven as much by a rhythmic vocoder loop as much as the beat itself. There's vocals happening on something like three or four planes, with a baritone voice rising from the cracks in the beat as synths shimmer above it all, falsettos rising from within. Interesting to note the appearance of another jazz funk luminary, with James Mason (the man responsible for the sought after Rhythm Of Life LP) making his presence felt in this shadowy electro crew.
Like a line drawn in the sand, Radiance's You're My Number 1 Dub announces its presence in the mix with a soulful keyboard line before dropping into a mass of descending chorused guitar, and suddenly you can just feel that you're about to be hit by something drastically different. That guitar — sounding not unlike one of Jungle's luminescent six-string figures — cuts a rakish angle across the track's electroid bass 'n boogie, while Andrea Stone's vocals echo ethereal in the distance.
When it all drops into that unadorned mid-section, grooving on a simple organ refrain, it's as if the 90s have come seven years too soon and you're soaking up the purest uncut garage down in Jersey. Either that or a Moodymann record. Which hooks up brilliantly with the next record...
Raw Silk were best known for Do It To The Music (with its immortal music's hypnotizing refrain sampled seemingly hundreds of times over the years), but instead are showcased here for their other record on West End, Just In Time & Space Dub. Like it says on the tin, this is spaced-out dub disco shot through with swirling interplanetary sonix and disembodied girl group vocals, sporting an electronic sequence that predicts techno's minimalist streak before exploding into an absorbing chorus starring verdant synths and the funkiest of piano rolls.
All things considered, this might very well be the superior record to Do It To The Music and in it's . Like Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man OST, it's a record seemingly made with another era in mind (an era whose time had yet to come). It very well could be the most forward-looking song here, it's vast, hollowed-out stretches of atmosphere predicting techno's trajectory as the 90s progressed.
With the outer space sonix disintegrating into a cloud of stardust, Mikki's Dance Lover Dub Mix slips onto the scene with the sort of bassline that Metro Area would kill for. Indeed, this whole mix gives a bit of context to the uninitiated for all those Metro Area records: this is the sound that Morgan Geist was pining for (also check the excellent Moves EP, a personal favorite of mine from the man's oeuvre). The track is pure skeletal perfection, like Kraftwerk or Isolée... just perfect. When those electro boogie synths creep into the mix — disembodied vocals drifting out into the ether — the whole thing crashes through the heavens and sails across the stars.
Well... something has to follow what might be the most sublime moment here, and that tune is the instrumental of Electrik Dred's Butter Up Gimmie Some Bread. Another vocoder-fueled electro-bass odyssey, it rides a loose rhythm matrix into the island boogie of Cloud's Steppin' Out Jam Special Instrumental Dub Version, with its flanged guitars feeding into the track's motorik propulsion this is the most four-to-the-floor moment here.
In fact, its most minimal moments sound just like something out of an acid techno mix circa '95 (Plastikman's Mixmag Live!, for instance). Both these tunes serve to offer something of a breather before the last two tracks kick into high gear and all the rules get broken accordingly.
Surfing in on the derezzed collapse of Cloud, the RAH Band's offbeat European boogie comes crashing in at a lackadaisical pace, seemingly fifteen BPM slower than anything else here. Clouds Across The Moon strolls along with that moon bounce beat, bassline pulsing in tiny low-gravity arcs as sunshine guitars wander lonesome up and down the soundscape. As if beamed in across interplanetary transmitter, the wistful strings of some old-time orchestra drift across the stars as Nelson Riddle were conducting from orbit.
When it all reaches its crescendo, with those trilling hi-pitched synths almost sounding like something from Super Mario World, it's as if your locked in some yearning romance transpiring within the reality of some deserted arcade machine. The Super Nova Mix is a dubbed-to-pieces rendition of the original 12" version, which was a paean to a lover stranded on Mars (or is he?).
The biggest surprise here is saved for last, with a track originally from Wham's first album closing out the set. Enjoy What You Do Wham RapVocal finds George Michael rapping over a sunny bit of island funk that builds into frenzy of slap bass, chicken-scratch guitars and soaring brass, electroid synths weaving through it all as drums crash with wild abandon.
You could just picture this in the final scene of some contemporaneous movie — say a comedy with John Candy, Shelley Long, Robin Williams and/or Bill Murray — and everyone's getting down at the big party before the end credits roll. If pressed, I'd volunteer that it rivals Everything She Wants, although I haven't been able to find this particular version anywhere (none of the others are nearly as good this one).
A left-footed swerve from the seemingly kitsch to the sublime, it's a rather fitting end to a visionary mix that reclaims an era's music that people would have scoffed at as tacky and/or dated twenty years ago. Maybe they still do? Well, at least you know better...
What I'm really getting at is that this whole package, from the presentation on down to the extensive liner notes and of course the music within, is that it really hammers home the idea that the wildest strains of 80s dance — post-disco and pre-rave — were the era's head music par excellence.
It's something that dawned on me years ago when first confronted by the music of Kleeer and Mtume (to say nothing of Hashim's Primrose Path, Model 500's Night Drive, Mr. Fingers' Can You Feel It and Reese's Just Another Chance). It's a terribly evocative music, stripped to it's essence, yet possessed of visions of the stars. It's music to dream to and music to dance to... but most of all it's music to live to.
...and on and on and on. And so we've reached the halfway point in the Terminal Vibration saga, concluding the core eighties segment of the trip. The second half will trace these many pathways into the nineties and beyond, through electronic music, hip hop and finally through the machine soul of Timbaland, The Neptunes and SA-RA right up to the present day. It all leads back to the question I (off-handedly) laid out two years ago: Where does machine funk intersect with post punk? The story of which can start nowhere but the eighties.
Usually when discussing the eighties, one will descend immediately on what might be termed new romantic music: dawn-of-MTV groups in eyeliner, synths front and center, the second British invasion. I remember this all being a punchline all through the grungey nineties - even as I still carried a torch for the music, tee hee (I've no shame!) - it was supposedly anathema to the era. Never mind that beneath the surface image of the decade lodged in the public imagination there was a whole other eighties, the eighties of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Metal Box, Critical Beatdown and Ammnesia, traces of whose DNA ran through the very fabric of nineties music. No! All of that was old music.
Of course now we all know how this ends, with the 21st century, the post punk revival and suddenly the eighties were cool again. And yet I think the caricature that was erected as a result missed large swathes of what the era was all about. Only natural, I suppose. Still, the case could be made that what you had in the eighties with records like My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Learning To Cope With Cowardice and Dance Hall Style - incidentally some of my favorite records ever - was essentially a dry run for the whole nineties m.o. In short, they play like a hallucination of the future.
I'm talking about the relationship between Tricky and Mark Stewart, Timbaland and Mtume, Goldie and David Sylvian, The Chemical Brothers and The Bomb Squad, Carl Craig and Kraftwerk, The Neptunes and Prince, Andrew Weatherall and The Clash, Terranova and Manuel Göttsching, Daft Punk and Lil' Louis, Bandulu and Creation Rebel, Drexciya and Hashim, Underworld and... Underworld: it was all hovering there, just below the surface, quietly defining the decade.
Terranova's DJ-Kicks and The Prodigy's Dirtchamber Sessions make this point brilliantly. Alternative rock? Everything laid out by December 31st, 1989. Hip Hop? Logical progression from Straight Outta Compton, Strictly Business and Straight Out The Jungle. Techno and house? Well defined eighties roots. Jungle? Well, you might have me there...
None of this is to take away from the nineties own innovations, which were of course considerable, but to bring them into relief within the context of the surrounding era(s). Much of the music from the eighties that fascinates us in this whole Terminal Vibration saga plays like attempts to work out music from the next decade before the groundwork had even been laid (oftentimes laying the groundwork by default in the process).
This experimentation took place in the wide-open terrain left in the wake of disco's dominance, more often than not at the interface between post punk and machine funk, which in roundabout fashion answers my initial question: Where does machine funk intersect with post punk? They intersected on the post-disco dancefloor, that wide-open space where anything was possible, where they linked up and rode the wave right up to the present day. Truth be told, we're all still riding it now.
Starting next week, we'll take a look at how it all happened.
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 — verging on electro, at times — to arrive at a twisting, wiry vision of swashbuckling post-disco. 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 dub disco 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 free fall. 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 catalog, 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.
A large part of the 70s' appeal (and why it remain such an impressive era) 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.
The b-side to Should I Stay Or Should I Go?, Cool Confusion is surely one of the strangest songs in The Clash's discography. With a quasi-reggae rhythm riding a single bass drum beat punctuated by bleeps, Strummer unfurls heavy lyrics as spectral guitar occasionally flutters in the background with the odd synth flourish. It's utterly unique for 1982 and the sort of thing that wouldn't sound out of place on a Gorillaz record.
Hey man, I'm back from the bodega. Nothing like a snack, deep fried, to give you a second wind. Here you go my friend. So you like new wave, right? Sure you do... after all, everybody likes new wave. For the moment, let us focus on the dubbed-out dancefloor sides perpetrated by The Clash in that period just after London Calling, which puts us at 1980 A.D.
I'm talking about the triple(!)-LP trawl of Sandinista! and its orbital 12" singles, records like The Magnificent Seven and This Is Radio Clash, the latter of which features four versions spread across its twelve inch surface, each one sequentially more twisted and dubbed to pieces than the last. Outside Broadcast (the third version), is one of the great hidden gems in the band's back catalog, conjuring up images of a careening taxi cab ride through fog-cloaked city streets deserted in the twilight.
The Magnificent Seven — which must be heard in its spacious, sprawling album version to experience its true sparkling third-eye-tactile black magic — finds, as mentioned in their last episode, this band of outlaws messing around with the Good Times bassline and twisting it to their own swashbuckling purposes. In other words, it's Disco Not Disco at its absolute finest.
Interesting to hear it as Joe Strummer's take on contemporary rap (note The Clash's turn as backing band for graffiti artist Futura 2000 on The Escapades Of Futura 2000, one of the infamous Celluloid rap records), like Blondie's Rapture but even more so. Think killer disco rap like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's Superappin', Kurtis Blow's The Breaks and Monster Jam by Spoonie Gee meets The Sequence (not to mention The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight if you want to get literal).
Noteworthy in the Parallax sense is also the fact that the intros to both The Magnificent Dance (the x-ray dub version of The Magnificent Seven) and Mensforth Hill form the basis of Reese's You're Mine (the b-side to Rock To The Beat), which suggests that Mr. Saunderson was working with both the album and 12" when vibing out in the studio to create that killer cut.
At moments like this, I'm reminded of Norman Cook/Fatboy Slim's review of Big Audio Dynamite's Sunday Best, in which he offhandedly placed The Clash at the genesis of indie dance. Which sounds about right to me, with New Order and Big Audio Dynamite arriving as fully formed ambassadors of the genre before it would go on to become a way of life.
Ah yes, that's right: Big Audio Dynamite! B.A.D. is, of course, a whole other can of worms. Now it's damn near painfully obvious to point out how that crew's merciless caning of the sampler and rewired approach to the dancefloor anticipated whole swathes of music in the nineties and beyond, but records like the proto-house madness of Hollywood Boulevard and Megatop Phoenix (which has nestled comfortably into Sgt. Pepper-status around these parts) serve to drive the point home and then some.
Their debut full-length This Is Big Audio Dynamite boasts not only obvious radio bounty like The Bottom Line, E=MC² and the sublime cool of Medicine Show (recently featured in Woebot's excellent 101-2001 — and for the record I agree wholeheartedly with the man's glowing assessment of the tune), but also a wealth of strange dancefloor material on its under-explored b-side (particularly Sudden Impact's phenomenal short-circuiting electroid groove and the proto-ragga dancehall of A Party).
Sudden Impact is particularly interesting in this context, with its strange spaghetti-western-by-way-of-Lee "Scratch" Perry guitar figure riding wicked rails of straight up electro, the track seeming to exist right at the very nexus of a number of contemporary sonic currents. For one, you've got electro boogie along the lines of Aleem's Get Loose, D-Train's You're The One For Me and C.O.D.'s cover of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's In The Bottle, all of which predict Sudden Impact's own nimble touch in their wiry, skeletal rhythmic structure.
But why stop there? It doesn't take much effort to draw a short line from Sudden Impact! to honest-to-goodness minimalistic electro missives like Hashim's We're Rocking The Planet, the Imperial Brothers' We Come To Rock and World Class Wreckin' Cru's Surgery, all of which had been tearing up dancefloors for the better part of a year. Of course there's also the flipside of the coin: straight up electrofunk shearing into electro territory, records like Cameo's She's Strange (along with its proto-rap 12" club mix), Whodini's Escape and about a thousand other rap records.
Japan (the band) had their own incursions in this arena, where even amongst their most well-known new pop-era hits like the crepuscular fragile beauty of Ghosts and the supremely funky Visions Of China2 you'd find records like Gentlemen Take Polaroids and The Art Of Parties riding a malfunktioning electroid framework of their own.
Yet it's just before the group's widely-hailed peak that you'll find my favorite music they made, from that period when David Sylvian and co. were still slumming it as twilight era glam rockers operating in a weird interzone between new wave and funk that just shades this side of the (totally imaginary) post punk divide, with not only their blinding Adolescent Sex debut album (which featured in the Parallax 200 just the other day), but also the Quiet Life LP (and it's precursor, the Life In Tokyo 12" warning shot — produced by Giorgio Moroder for those keeping track).
Adolescent Sex in particular is the sleaziest rock 'n funk grind this side of The Stones' Fingerprint File, with real red light district velvet curtain bizzness in tracks like Performance (named after the Nick Roeg film, I wonder?) and the slinky cinematic slow burn of Suburban Love. This is funk the way The Isley Brothers played it. By which I mean turn on a dime rhythmic panache, smeared synth stylings — as if every texture were washed out in sun-glazed daylight somehow in the dead of night — and searing guitar lines rising from the murky depths.
There's shades too of Steely Dan at their Royal Scam grimiest — bringing to mind The Fez and The Royal Scam itself in particular — on tunes like Wish You Were Black and the marathon nine-minute album-closing Television. This sort of half-lit bedroom funk is a personal favorite sound of mine (see Prince's debut For You for another example), and should if there's any sense in the world at all spawn a feature of its own sometime in the future.
If there's a neon-tinged eighties analog to the sound I'm getting at here, then it must be Mtume circa Juicy Fruit. The album's centerpiece is the title track, no doubt, but there's a wealth of sterling rubberband funk in evidence throughout. The high top blacktop moonwalk of Green Light is emblematic of the whole affair in its casual loose-limbed bounce, with the more explicitly electronic grooves of Hips and Hip Dip Skippedabeat shearing into prime electrofunk territory. The production throughout is just perfect, with none of the overly-harmonized, booming drums that you'd often wind up with during in the era.3 It's the flipside of all the canonical new wave records here and a stone cold classic.
And while we're on the flipside, Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is another unmissable slice of new wave electrofunk — from a crew that's arguably the progenitor of the form — and the flipside to PIL's Metal Box (the founder of this feast). The deconstructed start-stop groove of Funk Gets Stronger — featuring Sly Stone in full effect — is practically straight up new wave and never fails to make me flash on Adam And The Ants' Dirk Wears White Sox4 (particularly the distinctive guitar tone).
The whole record plays like a roadmap of eighties funk possibilities and beyond, and is absolutely essential listening. It will likely sound patchy at first, but give it time: what you're hearing is the familiar One Nation Under A Groove/Flashlight magic formula being warped and mutated beyond the point of recognition. Its strangeness is its calling card. The band even turn out the Lodger-esque freaky cod-reggae of Shockwaves, which starts out like a joke track (with fake accent to boot) before dropping out into the divine ravishment of the chorus. Definite shades of Bowie and très post punk!
On a related note, I make no apologies whatsoever for the heavy representation of Parallax 200 records here, since the sonic neighborhood on the table today couldn't help but throw up some of my favorite records almost by default. Wrapping up that list definitely put this sound firmly in mind. In truth, it likely inspired the whole trip! No doubt many of the remaining records will make the 300 when the time comes...
Now where was I... Ah yes, Japan. Coming a year after Adolescent Sex, Quiet Life and the Life In Tokyo 12" both seem to predict Duran Duran's self-titled debut in their sleek, chrome-eyed surfaces. Speaking of which, don't sleep on Duran Duran's 1981 debut, a record that is well worth checking out in its own right. The ace new wave disco of Planet Earth stands out as a particular highlight, but really the whole record is golden. Don't listen to the hipster haters — Nick Rhodes is way cooler than any of them anyway. Listened to back to back to back, these three records (Life In Tokyo, Quiet Life and Duran Duran) play like a tour of Europe by high-speed rail.
And while we're still on the continent, it's fitting to round out this strange punk funk-by-way-of-new wave triumvirate with Simple Minds, whose early records belie their Scottish origins and seem to point toward the most shadowy recesses of the Eastern Bloc. From the grimy claustrophobic corridors of Real To Real Cacophony to the sleek steel surfaces of Empires And Dance and even the Steve Hillage-produced widescreen canvases of Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, this is all prime real estate in the sprawling terrain of post punk/machine funk that just begs to be explored further. I've spent quite a bit of time here myself.
You've got the dead-eyed disco of Premonition, yawning gleefully with cavernous jaws and drip-dropping percussion, the slow-motion punk funk dirge of This Fear Of Gods and Today I Died Again's exquisitely swirling dread on one hand and the Kling Klang clanking funk of Sweat In Bullet (pointing the way to New Gold Dream) and the clockwork, backwards-crab-walking rhythm box black hole League Of Nations on the other. Taken as a whole, the four record run5 is a stellar excursion into post-Bowie In Berlin sonics.
So check them all out, the Simple Minds records and everything else here too. They won't do you wrong. I hear that the vendor across the street — yes, that gaunt gentleman in the robe — has them all on cassette, so don't sleep. Trust me... you need these records in your life. So fix up real quick. I'll be in the basement down the way grabbing some records from my homeboy Cornelius for the next chapter...
Actually, Prince's phenomenal Lady Cab Driver — from the glitzy 1999 double-LP — mines a very similar terrain. It's also got some crossover potential with The Clash's Outside Broadcast, come to think of it...
None can test. I'm on record as preferring the U.S. Version for its inclusion of the Zerox/Whip In My Valise, but only grudgingly so: I hate to give up the killer punk funk mekanik rush of not only Cartrouble Part 1 (which is doubly salient in the current context) but also Day I Met God and Catholic Day. Life's full of tough choices...
Real To Real Cacophony, Empires And Dance, Sons And Fascination and Sister Feelings Call are actually preceded by Life In A Day, a solid new wave record in its own right that's well worth checking out too (especially for fans of early Ultravox and XTC. The ingredients just needed to marinate a little longer before morphing into the fractured splendor of Real To Real and beyond.
Two years ago I asked the question Where does machine funk intersect with post punk? It's a question I'd meant to jump into deeper at the time, but then the moment seemed to pass. I'd been toying with the notion of revisiting it recently, weaving a narrative around these two strands of music that seemed to run in tandem for much of the eighties (and beyond, truth be told).
Just the other day, my brother Matt was over and we were listening to a selection of music that in large part sprang from this continuum and he commented on the striking sonic overlap between post punk, disco and funk, that the three genres almost formed the sides of a triangle that — and I'm jumping in here — had a profound shaping influence on modern music.
The tune that instigated the comment was Jermaine Jackson's Erucu, playing out on the heels of a bunch of late-period post punk along the lines of A Certain Ratio and 23 Skidoo, but something like Barry Waite & Ltd.'s Sting or James Brown's I Can't Stand It "76" would make the case just as strongly.
That is, the stripped-down tautness of funk, aspects of disco's four to the floor minimalism and the funky edge of post punk's year zero reinvention of the rhythmic wheel (sourced in large part in the very no-nonsense funk of the seventies in question here) share a certain sonic kinship that (teasing in reggae here as well) seems to have laid out the next decade(s) in advance.
Wheeling this back to my original comment about post punk vis a vis machine funk, what you had in the eighties was this great convergence between the two worlds, almost as if two dimensions overlapped for this blessed spell of time and characters were able to move freely between the two worlds in a great exchange of ideas. I'm talking about Bernie Worrell joining the Talking Heads on tour, Blondie's Chris Stein providing those moody dubplates for Wild Style, New Order hooking up with Arthur Baker and John Robie in New York for Confusion, and about a thousand other examples.
Speaking of Baker/Robie (the producers of Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force's Planet Rock), the picture really falls into place when you take things like electro and early hip hop into consideration. On one hand, you have the spectral missives of Hashim (whose Primrose Path sounds like the digital cousin of 400 Blows' Declaration Of Intent, both sharing in those same slap-bass future shock vibes) and Man Parrish's Special Disconet Remix of Hip Hop, Be Bop Don't Stop.
Hip Hop, Be Bop Don't Stop, whose rubberband bassline seems to recall The Clash's The Magnificent Seven (whose bassline seems to recall Chic's Good Times (whose bassline was seemingly imitated by everybody else as well)), while on the other you have The Cold Crush Brothers' Punk Rock Rap and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's New York New York. All of which could theoretically soundtrack a rough-and-tumble cinematic take on William Gibson's Neuromancer. Of course, it doesn't stop there...
Take Prince and his affinity with not only new wave but also PIL, whose Metal Box is one of the cornerstones of post punk; if the genre does indeed have a pantheon, then it's right in there at the top. Interestingly, along with dub and funk, PIL were deeply shaped by Can's krautrock/funk, whose Ege Bamyasi and Saw Delight slide right in this continuum without much fuss at all.1
Once krautrock enters the discussion, the elephant in the room is obviously Brian Eno, who — along with David Bowie — were one of the main conduits of the music into the post punk collective consciousness (and beyond). Indeed, Bowie jumping from the plastic soul of Young Americans into the Autobahn-surfing Europe-endlessness of Station To Station and on into the Berlin trilogy — where the aerodynamic funk of those two records gets yoked to an electronic framework that is firmly in this continuum (see Breaking Glass, Blackout and D.J. for starters).
And Eno of course went on to become the crucial guiding force in not only the Talking Heads' post punk trilogy (particularly Remain In Light) but also the tremendously prescient My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Both of which are defining records in this post punk/machine funk district, and lie at the heart of what I will call my idea of the eighties.
You can hear the overlap between the rolling rhythms of these two strikingly modern records and — on the one hand — West African monster jams like Tony Allen's N.E.P.A (Never Expect Power Always) and — on the other hand, perhaps more unexpectedly — early rap excursions like Spoonie Gee's Spoonin' Rap, with all four records sharing that same sense of thick atmosphere rising like vapors from the twilight city streets.
We will hang out in this neighborhood for awhile, so don't go anywhere, but I must leave you for a moment to score some alcapurrias from this bodega on the corner. Chill here on this bench for awhile and listen to Remain In Light and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts back to back while watching the traffic, and I'll be back in a bit.
To be continued...
TV002: Remain In Ghosts
James BrownI Can't Stand It "76"
A Certain RatioShack Up
Barry Waite & Ltd.Sting Part 1
Talking HeadsI Zimbra
Grandmaster Caz & Chris SteinSouth Bronx Subway Rap
400 BlowsDeclaration Of Intent
New OrderConfusion Substance Version
Man ParrishHip Hop, Be Bop Don't StopSpecial Disconet Remix
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious FiveNew York New York
Tony Allen with Afrobeat 2000When One Road Close Another One Go Open
Talking HeadsBorn Under Punches The Heat Goes On
Spoonie GeeSpoonin' Rap I Don't Drink Smoke Or Gamble Neither I'm The Cold Crushing Lover
Indeed, I've always thought that the oft-derided late-period Can records like Flow Motion, Saw Delight and Can only suffer by comparison to the band's seismic earlier material; taken on their own merits, I think they stack up quite favorably as shadowy precursors to things like Fear Of Music, Remain In Light and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Just because something isn't Halleluwah doesn't mean it's worthless! So don't sleep...
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 lens to listen through, as this music should certainly appeal to fans of Brian Eno, The Black Dog or Aphex Twin and their excursions into inner space 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 Pannalal 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 (birth date-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 and Shri Camel 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.
I once said that I could write a whole book about this record, so how about a (rather lengthy) post to start the ball rolling? It's often daunting to write about a record so close to one's heart, so personally significant is it that one fears they won't do it justice or the words won't come. However, lately I've found that you've just got to jump in there and get on with it, that once the work is done you have something to show for it (rather than a dream deferred indefinitely) and chances are it'll suit the subject just fine. So here goes...
If ever I wrote one of those 33 1/3 books, the series that chronicles classic albums from There's A Riot Goin' On to Another Green World, then Megatop Phoenix would surely be the subject of mine. I remember nearly twenty years ago, after growing up with the Planet BAD compilation (an anthology of the band's music, spanning ten years of recorded output), tracking down the album based on an intense fascination with Contact and the wild acid breakbeat jam that closed out the track.
The compilation's lone selection from Megatop Phoenix — the other albums contributed at least two or three songs each — Contact marked it out in my mind as the group's weird record, and being the sort of kid perennially drawn to the strange, it seemed right up my alley. Somewhat harder to find than the other albums (the shops never seemed to have it in stock, for whatever reason), it wasn't until a bit later that it turned up at the Point LomaMusic Trader. My chance had come, so I snapped it up with haste. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As much as its bound to come off as hyperbole, I reckon that this is the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of the eighties. It may not have the reputation or sheer pop culture impact of The Beatles storied song-cycle, but it certainly ticks every other box available: here's a set of great songs recorded with cutting-edge studio-as-instrument techniques, dubbed full of effects and sequenced perfectly — almost symmetrically so — into one killer extended suite, recreating the feel of a multifaceted live performance. Plus, both records have breaks!
The fourth and final full-length of the original B.A.D. lineup, Megatop finds the group five years deep into their career and truly firing on all cylinders. Here is a band who knew exactly what they were doing and precisely how to do it. With a story stretching back to 1985 — and even further, truth be told, into the heady days of first-wave punk and The Clash — perhaps it might be worthwhile to rewind a bit and start at the beginning...
The Story Of The Clash
The story of B.A.D. begins with Mick Jones, the lead guitarist for The Clash. As everyone undoubtedly knows, The Clash (along with bands like The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Damned) were the standard-bearers for the rise of punk in the media glare of 1977. Singles like White Riot, London's Burning and Complete Control were crucial cuts in punk's early arsenal, while their self-titled debut was — along with the Ramones debut, Nevermind The Bollocks and Damned Damned Damned1 — one of the first punk full-lengths to hit the shops.
The band quickly began expanding beyond the constraints of straight up punk rock, exploring reggae, rockabilly, New Orleans r&b and eventually mixing dub, disco and hip hop into their dense sonic stew. The group seemed to straddle the dividing line between new wave and post punk (much like Simple Minds' contemporary records, Empires And Dance and Real To Real Cacophony), but with a curious Sergio Leone-influenced image as outlaws of the American West, often trading in western imagery and bedecked in cowboy attire. This, of course, earned the band their detractors, but I find the whole trip quite evocative and endlessly fascinating.
In fact, this phase of the group remains my absolute favorite, as attested to by something like The Clash At The Edge Of Forever.2 Hooking up with figures as disparate as rebel country singer Joe Ely (Lubbock, Texas), dub scientist Mikey Dread (Port Antonio, Jamaica) and graffiti artist/part-time hip hop MC Futura 2000 (New York, New York), they ran the gamut of post-disco dance music practically at the dawn of the form's existence (see 1980's triple-LP Sandinista!).
Tracks like The Magnificent Seven, This Is Radio Clash, Straight To Hell and Guns Of Brixton remain utterly unique dubbed-out post punk missives (all of which, on a personal note, were absolutely crucial records for me back in the day). Their presence on many of the era's key dancefloors — stretching from the Roxy to the Paradise Garage — attests to the music's strange brilliance, as does their latter day status as Balearic3 staples.
After their extraordinary fifth album — Combat Rock — the band were at a crossroads. Lore has it that Joe Strummer wanted to delve deeper into dub and dance music, while Mick Jones wanted to follow in the footsteps of The Who, basking in the band's status as stadium rock stars. What happened next, however, betrays the fact that the reality was less cut-and-dried. Jones was unceremoniously fired from the band while Strummer recruited a group of young mohawked punks to take his place, steering the band toward a back to basics direction with their swan song Cut The Crap. Jones, meanwhile, struck out in another direction entirely...
This Time I Bet You It's BAD
Interestingly enough, Jones was initially slated to be in General Public, laying down guitar on the entirety of their debut record before leaving to pursue his own vision. Linking up first with post-punk audiovisual man Don Letts, he began delving deeper still into hip hop and dance music. Rounded out by bassist Leo "E-Zee Kill" Williams (who would go on to record as Screaming Target and Dreadzone in the nineties), drummer Greg Roberts and keyboardist Dan Donovan, Big Audio Dynamite sprung into being as one of the original (alongside New Order) indie dance propositions.
Their debut LP, This Is Big Audio Dynamite, was a stunning mash up of stutter-funk sampladelia, machine rhythms and mid-period new wave songcraft. Immersed in contemporary dance culture, the sounds of New York club music, early hip hop and the nascent digital dancehall all informed the group's striking new sound. The iconic sleeve itself — capturing the crew (minus Donovan) in stark black and white — perfectly signaled the bold, deeply unconventional music contained within.
The first side of the record is dominated by radio hits like Medicine Show, E=MC² and The Bottom Line (the 12" single of which actually came out on Def Jam in the states, where the track was remixed by Rick Rubin), all of which are lush, multi-layered indie dance excursions, replete with film samples (particularly of the Sergio Leone and Nicolas Roeg variety) and chiming pop inflections. Their accompanying music videos featured Don Letts' striking visual sensibilities, ranging from a time-traveling DeLorean in the wild west4 to the band playing underground, decked out like nuclear power plant operators.
It's worth noting that the second side of the record takes a sharp left turn, given over to skeletal dance workouts like the dancehall-inflected A Party and Sudden Impact!'s third-rail electrofunk workout, both of which might just be my favorite things on the record. You also get the peculiar electro-hoedown of Stone Thames and closing track BAD's big beats thrown into the bargain, rounding out a solid set of state-of-the-art dance pop. All in all, the group were off to a strong start with an auspicious debut that plotted an utterly original vision.
Their sophomore record, No. 10, Upping St., finds Strummer temporarily back in the fold and manning the producer's chair. The drum machine breaks are even heavier this time out, in truth not a million miles removed from what you might expect on a contemporary Mantronix or Run-D.M.C. record. The LP finds the group descending even further into dance territory, and rather appropriately the video for the block-rocking C'mon Every Beatbox features the band performing in a basement dive5 while a group of b-boys-and-b-girls (including a young Neneh Cherry) dance their hearts out.
Conversely, V. Thirteen is firmly in the chiming pop vein established on side one of the band's debut, sounding for all the world like something from Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish. Switching gears yet again, the apocalyptic, album-closing Sightsee M.C.! rocks a titanic ragga beat over which Mick Jones and Don Letts trade verses, taking the group's side two sensibility into the lower reaches of the charts. Hollywood Boulevard, perhaps the best track here, finds Jones unleashing a rapid-fire series of images — with the same compression of language you'd find in both contemporary hip hop and amphetamine-era Dylan — over an early house beat complete with Derrick May-esque strings! Stunning.
Tighten Up Vol. '88, the third record, finds the group splicing their pop sensibilities seamlessly into contemporary dance rhythms. With the dividing line (nearly) effaced altogether, both sides of the coin bend to meet in the middle. The gorgeously evocative cover art, painted by ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, is emblematic of the whole affair, depicting a buzzing soundsystem party beneath a freeway overpass.
The rolling machine rhythms of Just Play Music!, casually unfurling like a lazy day at the beach in mid-summer, seem to betray an affinity with Paisley Park. In fact, whole swathes of the record feel thoroughly indebted to Prince circa Around The World In A Day (note that the group would later cover 1999 during live shows). The contemporary Lovesensi 12" — which features a mash up of the entire Tighten Up album in the space of five minutes — even features a nude Leo Williams sprawled out on a beach recliner in what must be a nod to Prince's contemporaneous album Lovesexy!
Indeed, there's a laidback, anything-goes spirit to the entire affair that's quite appealing. The Battle Of All Saints Road melds hoedown fiddle and banjo with extraterrestrial ragga beat sensibilities, while Funny Names and the nebulous title track seem to drift by coolly on an atmospheric plane, receding gradually into the horizon in Atari-esque gradient colors. Other 99 and Applecart, meanwhile, mark a winning return of the group's britpop sensibilities in a pair of soaring refrains that benefit from the record's rich production flourishes.
And yet, despite the marked development of B.A.D.'s sound, there's not yet evidence of rave's kaleidoscopic fun house psychedelia at this point. Therefore, it's tempting shorthand to call Tighten Up Vol. '88 something like the group's Rubber Soul: a casually brilliant full-length statement wrapping up everything that's come before and setting the table for what's just around the bend. This is the final trading post on the road to this trip's ultimate destination.
On Death's Doorstep Born Again
But the road had a few bumps yet to come. When Mick Jones' daughter Lauren came down with chickenpox, he caught it as well. While Lauren recovered quickly, Jones — who had never had chickenpox as a youth — took a serious turn for the worse and before long had fallen ill with pneumonia. Suffering severe infection of the mouth, throat and lungs, Jones checked into the intensive care unit of St. Mary's Hospital — where he was promptly hooked up to respirators — and found himself in critical condition. For eight hours he battled for his life, and remained unconscious for weeks after. In the process Jones sustained considerable nerve damage, which seriously affected his throat and vocal chords.6a
Recovery took nine months, as Jones underwent protracted therapy to rebuild himself from the ground up.7 The whole ordeal seemed to bring everything into focus. In the hospital I could see things clearly, says Jones. Serious illness gives you time to reassess things. I saw that B.A.D. was going on to something new.6b Parallels could be drawn with Brian Eno's time spent in the hospital after being hit by a car, during which he conceived ambient music, or even Bob Dylan's fabled motorcycle crash and The Basement Tapes — recorded with what would become The Band8 — that followed in its wake. In any case, the revelation that presented itself to Jones was found in the buzzing sounds of the nascent rave culture that had begun to take Britain by storm.
A bit of context might be in order: the Second Summer Of Love was in full bloom by 1988, with raves springing up all over the UK and clubs like London's Shoom and Manchester's Haçienda9 fully indulging post-acid house tastes. Built on a foundation of import 12"s from cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago, the sound was a pile up of house, techno, hip hop and Balearic beats from around the world.
House records like Mr. Fingers' Can You Feel It, Black Riot's A Day In The Life and Rhythim Is Rhythim's techno rhapsody Beyond The Dance would rub shoulders with hip hop like Mantronix's King Of The Beats and Eric B. & Rakim's Follow The Leader, along with the industrial EBM of Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and Cabaret Voltaire, all spliced soundly with the requisite disco/post-disco sounds that lie at the root of the whole endeavor. Spike it all with choice Balearic records like New Order's True Faith, The Woodentops' Why Why Why and of course The Clash's own The Magnificent Dance, and you had the soundtrack for a musical revolution.
Almost immediately, homegrown acts began springing up everywhere, from the techno exploits of Manchester's 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald to the moody house music of London's Bang The Party and Bomb The Bass' block-rockin' beats. Over in West Yorkshire, the Unique 3 were making low-end rumblings of their own, resulting in a sound that would ultimately feed into the the proto-junglist innovations of Shut Up And Dance and 4 Hero about a year later.
Even erstwhile indie rockers like The Shamen, Happy Mondays and A.R. Kane were getting into the groove, following the footsteps of New Order (who had themselves begun to tune into the sounds of rave culture around this time) down the slippery path of indie dance. It seemed like everyone — from soul boys to b-boys to rude boys and indie rockers — were all tuned into the same frequency.
With 1989 in full swing, this is the environment that B.A.D. found themselves in when they entered The Kinks' Konk Studios to record their fourth album. After operating for years at the intersection of new wave, hip hop and club music — in their own way already working out the same internal logic that would play out full scale on the ravefloor — it would seem that the band were more than ready for the challenge. Connecting with the energy around the movement, Jones exclaimed:
We're talking thousands of kids getting together and dancing. It’s all about freeing up yourself and dancing and getting loose. Through this escapism you free yourself. The authorities don’t know what’s going on. They have no control. It’s just like punk was.
Steve Dougherty and Linda Russell (Back from the Brink of Death)6c
With Mick Jones' near-miraculous recovery behind him, he and the band seemed to surf the waves of Second Summer Of Love dancefloor ecstasy with the palpable born-again passion of the moment. In truth, there was something in the air. B.A.D. seemed to have a new lease on life, a new mission to live down. So they pulled out all the stops, and dove headfirst into the rave...
A Phoenix Rises
Take a moment to gaze upon that sleeve. Depicting a stylized phoenix literally rising from the flames (surely a metaphor for Jones' own recent experiences?), it features a pixelated, halftone fractal looming large in the distance.10 Superimposed over the titular phoenix, the group's name appears in boldfaced type (while both the promotional poster and sleeve reverse feature the album's title), beneath which stretches a photo-strip of the band posing for a promo shot. Taken in its entirety its a bold, confident image, its brash juxtapositions and no-nonsense design offering a perfect hint at the sounds contained within.
So what does it sound like? Well, let me tell you... The key to this record is those beats, that rhythm. The drums hover somewhere between the Gaussian-blurred, blunted beats of De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising and the delicately crisp machine rhythms of Prince's Lovesexy.11 Balanced atop the beat is everything but the kitchen sink: you've got guttertronic synths, rolling breakbeats, rave piano, squelching acid basslines, ethereal backing vocals, malfunctioning drum machines, hallucinatory guitar, gang chants and dancehall bottom-end, all blended into an absolutely superb palette of sound and threaded together in (im)perfect harmony.
Not to mention... samples, samples and more samples! Think 3 Feet High And Rising (yet again!), Paul's Boutique and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back: there's film samples, sure enough, but also snatches of sixties garage punk, British music hall, Rule, Britannia!, soundtrack music, Broadway musicals, digital dancehall, comedy records, funk loops and the Godfather Of Soul himself. The production — handled by Mick Jones and Bill Price — is gloriously supple, and with each texture seeming to push and pull against the other in a brilliantly unstable framework, everything up for grabs.
Whereas it might have sounded dated to late-nineties ears — attuned to the self-consciously fat sounds of tech-house, gatecrasher trance and big room techno that held sway at the time — with the benefit of greater hindsight it all sounds righteously at home in the company of the rude, rough-edged, and absolutely timeless sounds of its era: Todd Terry, the Jungle Brothers, Tiger, Trax Records, A Guy Called Gerald and Shut Up And Dance. You can hear echoes of Gerald Simpson's acid-era recordings like Voodoo Ray, Hot Lemonade and Automanikk in Megatop's loose-fitting, ramshackle riddims.
Todd Terry just might be the single most apropos comparison: imagine a pop album with the same spirit as Royal House's Can You Party? and The Todd Terry Project's To The Batmobile Let's Go, and you wouldn't be too far off.12 Don't forget that Todd's rough-edged sampladelia — perched midway between house and hip hop — ran in parallel with what B.A.D. had been up to in the late eighties. With Megatop, the band embraced Terry's cut-and-paste aesthetic wholeheartedly as the charged headlong into the rave.
I'd venture that what gave B.A.D. such a strong grasp on rave's dynamics was their extensive experience with pre-acid dance music, tracing electro-funk, hip hop, soul, reggae13 back into post punk and The Clash's own dancefloor endeavors at the dawn of the decade. This is pure, unadulterated indie dance, in the classic tradition of ex-punks messing around with club music and coming up with a gloriously ramshackle vision of the dancefloor. Think of contemporary records like the Happy Mondays'14Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, Primal Scream's Screamadelica, The Stone Roses self-titled debut and In Gorbachev We Trust by The Shamen, along with New Order's foray into similar territory with Technique, for example.
The surprising realization I arrived at years ago is that none of those records come close to the level of total immersion in dance culture that Megatop represents. The closest would be Screamadelica (which came out over two years later, an eternity in the blazing pace dance culture kept to at the time), but Bobby Gillespie and co. had the help of outside producers like The Orb, Hypnotone and Andrew Weatherall (even roping in Jah Wobble for a killer bassline). Even so, there's a handful of diversions into the band's southern rock tendencies — which they'd fully explore on 1994's Give Out But Don't Give Up — from the pentecostal rock 'n soul of Movin' On Up and the weepy country ballad Damaged.
Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches on the other hand largely captures a band jamming live in the studio, with production duties handled by Paul Oakenfold, another dance music heavyweight. Surely New Order's Haçienda classic Technique would qualify, but aside from a couple tracks, it's largely dominated by straight-up indie rock in the same vein as that on 1986's Brotherhood (not to mention the fact that the 12" mixes are where the club cuts really catch fire). Now don't get me wrong, each of these records are stone cold classics in their own right. I'm only attempting to measure the level to which dance culture runs through these records' veins15 in the cold light of day.
In contrast, Megatop is absolutely dominated by sampladelia and ravefloor sonix, and without the help of any club culture insiders, its success rests solely on the core unit of the band itself. It's an ecstasy record through and through, managing to dovetail Jones' love of life (in the face of near-death) with the loved-up spirit of the times. The entire album runs together in the mix in a nearly non-stop flow of crazy rhythm and melody, threading the pulsing beats of club culture with snatches of overheard conversation and Swinging London songcraft, taking in everything from Ibiza to Chicago and Madchester to Paisley Park, and weaving them all into a stunning sonic tapestry that seems to soundtrack the ultimate party.
Now, it's not often at all that I'm led to break out into a track-by-track analysis of an album, but this is one of those rare cases where it not only seems warranted but absolutely necessary. The song-cycle structure of the LP, paired with the fact that its my absolute favorite record of all time, both lend themselves to such an approach. Each and every track (even the interludes) are their own distinctly individual creations — filled to the brim with ideas — even as they remain perfectly intertwined with the greater whole. It's as if a verdant terrain stretched out before us as far as the eye can see, inviting further exploration. So, then, why not dive headfirst into the sonic banquet and see what we might find?
Megatop Phoenix: The Tracks
This is the universe... big isn't it?. Kicking off with a sample from Powell/Pressburger's 1946 film Stairway To Heaven (starring one David Niven), the mood is set by bit of lovers rock declaring ain't nothing going on but- before being interrupted by an MC shouting The best band in West London, B.A.D.! before a live crowd.
Oh yeah, it should be kicking in by now...
The opening salvo drops immediately, with a fractal fast-forward acid sequence spooling out crimson in the thick, humid night air as the group chant (all together now):
The troop was weak and weary,
Rations running low.
Mission seemed impossible,
We had to save the show.
Then, the beat drops in at a steady-rocking half-time downbeat, a heavy dub bassline pulsing beneath it all.
Rewind, operator gonna kill em with sound,
Bawling out murder and selector come down.
The song seems to tell the story of B.A.D. rallying in the wake of Jones' protracted recovery, banding together again and getting down to business to run tings in the dancehall. It's all tied together with the same Western imagery that The Clash drew on back in the day, conjuring up the image of a band of sonic outlaws and all around badmen riding off into the sunset, pinned down by Jones' power chords in such a way as to recall the great Link Wray.
Suddenly, at the tune's midpoint, Don Letts quotes Tenor Saw's Ring The Alarm and the drums break into a canter. Tapes spool in and out before an interview snippet with Mick Jones plays out, distilling the influence of thirty years of Jamaican music spanning from Prince Buster to Prince Jammy down to only a little, only the bass. Sure enough, that sub-bass continues to pulse beneath it all as rapid-fire breakbeats begin snaking their way through the mix and, for the last minute or so, you're listening to straight up proto-junglist bizzness.
This in 1989, when even the likes of 4 Hero and Shut Up And Dance were still working out their equations... well, it's pretty startling to come across, no question. The addition of Jones' guitar psychedelia equally stunning in this context, forging a link between the retro shades of the sixties revival (by then in full swing) and the technicolor possibilities of rave.
All Mink & No Manners
The first of the interludes, kicking off with a breakbeat nicked from Schoolly D before a squelching synth wobble unceremoniously slips into the mix and another of Jones' olde English samples16 declares I don't know what this world's coming to, everyone trying to be better than their betters... mink coats and no manners!
After a brief snatch of Rule, Britannia!, Union, Jack kicks off with the break from The Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Women. Way back when, Union, Jack was my least favorite song on the album. Strangely enough, everyone I show the album to seems to single it out as a highlight, and over the years I've grown to love it. It's in essence a football-themed britpop number with a rolling, filmic sweep. The chorus backing sports an almost symphonic quality. Still, there's no getting around that beat when it drops, bass kicking you squarely in the chest. It certainly would have made a good live opener.
Two thirds into the song, crowd noise — no doubt from some soccer arena — rises from the mix as Jones contributes his second bit of sixties-esque guitar, eerily recalling George Harrison's reversed guitar parts on The Beatles' Revolver.. A memorable sample from Britannia Hospital slips into the mix behind the guitar jamming, before everything drops into a rolling snare rush and a certain synth squiggle struggles to escape from the dense sonic tangle of the mix...
Descending on a dread shadow, slow-motion guitar stabs unwind into a dubbed-out intro (bassline and all), replete with textures that wouldn't sound out of place on a Pram record. A voice intones the memorable incantation, groovy, dynamite, heavy... wow, as ghostly chuckling — seemingly on loop — emanates from the ether. Then, that screeching guitar stab returns — playing at the correct speed this time — ushering in a liquid breakbeat that rolls out for a single bar as that trademark synth-squiggle returns with a vengeance.
Suddenly, you're in an epic. The mix here so very lush, with treated power chords locked into the rhythm as a disembodied fiddle scrapes dexterous between the beats. Jones coos Ooh, ooh!, on the one followed swiftly by a snatch of vocalise (it sounds something like ooh-wah) recalling the sort of wordless vocal you'd find in an Ennio Morricone film score. Jones sings:
Feeling flying round,
'Round up in the air,
Bouncing off the walls,
Getting under my hair.
On the carpet, in the weave,
Up in trees on the leaves,
Feelings flying everywhere.
Which brilliantly conjures up images of a rave when the party's really going off, the DJ's on fire and everybody's locked onto the pulse of the rhythm, lights and colors flashing off the walls as everyone dances together in ecstasy. Taking matters to another level altogether, he adds:
I'm on the right track
For what I want to say.
I got to get it out
There ain't no other way.
To make contact.
There ain't no getting away
From how I feel today.
Which is about as perfect an expression you could ask for of everything Jones alluded to when expressing his enthusiasm for rave's social energy, and that need to interface with it on its own terms. To make contact, in other words. Variations on these words make up the entirety of the lyrical content, and really, what more do you need?
Looping on and on, rave pianos drift in and out of the mix with Jones occasionally tossing off another one of his guitar asides, before — at the three-minute mark — a snatch of The Who's I Can't Explain drops into the mix (out of nowhere) in such a way that predicts Fatboy Slim's Going Out Of My Head seven years early.17
Suddenly, the tune's gone acid on you, with a squelching bassline threading its way through that same fluid breakbeat, punctuated occasionally by what sounds like a power drill(!) as the beat drops in and out of the mix. Then, an into the abyss sort of slowdown sample plays, and the feeling is as if you've been sucked into a vortex, tripping out on the dancefloor as the beat plays on and on. It's at this point that those knobs really starts turning, and we're all in for some serious acid breakbeat magic.
It should be categorically stated that this song is perfect. Just perfect! Its groove is improbably sublime, and even if unfurled into perpetuity it would scarcely get old. The three-minute pop song comprising its first half is on the order of something like the Talking Heads' Once In A Lifetime, sharing a similarly strange haunting brilliance paired with the sense that its rhythm is advanced technology, something that shouldn't even exist yet. Add in the acid breakbeat coda, and its all almost too good to be true.
I'd like to take a moment to note the video for this song,18 which in direct opposition to the sumptuous, almost cinematic quality of B.A.D.'s other videos, boasts thoroughly bargain-basement production values and yet possesses loads of charm. Think of the video for The Prodigy's Out Of Space or Pump Up The Volume by M|A|R|R|S:
You've got floating technicolor ravers dancing against a jet black backdrop as the band — in stark black and white — seems to play in cryosleep (so cool they've got panache to spare). Each player's head rotates across the screen in slow-motion, interrupted by the vivid hues of graphic psychedelia. Mick, looking like he's ready for a game of tennis, does his guitar thing before turning about face and miming the guitar riff from The Who's I Can't Explain.
The DJ (one Greg Roberts) cues up the next record and shouts Go!, before the graphics and the dancers merge into one, with the puzzled bandmates — now in full color — wandering around the landscape with priceless WTF?!? looks on their faces as this acid jam unfolds.
Without a doubt, it's something special.
Out of nowhere, a loping big beat rides roughshod over Contact's acid coda, bringing in a surf rock flavor (shades off Rockafeller Skank) at odds with the Chinatown stylings playing out in the foreground. After a brief snatch of George Formby's Mr. Wu's a Window Cleaner Now, the brittle house rhythms of Dragon Town cruise into the mix on a razor-thin 909 beat pushed along by a pulsing synth bassline. The effect is not a million miles removed from the contemporary bleep 'n bass records of Nightmares On Wax, with that same sense of homespun futurism suffused with the unmistakable whiff of sensi.
I've listened to this album so many times that I sometimes forget how strange Dragon Town sounds on first listen. It's a sublime tune, swirling and carnivalesque as Jones unfurls a string of off-the-wall couplets in another one of his occasional detours into Asia (see also Sony and The Green Lady). Gorgeous choirs — most likely sampled from somewhere or another — trill in the background throughout, as a 303 acid line rises stealth-like from the mix. When the sampled Chinatown, my Chinatown vocals drop, in tune and on beat, hovering three feet over those knobs turning on that tiny silver box, the effect is ecstatic.
Baby, Don't Apologise
The house moves continue with Baby, Don't Apologise, an unapologetic club track, one built for the dancefloor. Caning those reverse strings and detuned chorus loops over a lonely rave piano, the groove drops without warning into a piercing baroque string section on the order of not only Marshall Jefferson's Move Your Body The House Music Anthem but also Derrick May's contemporary sides. Think of it as a homespun indie take on one of Ten City's Windy City epics burning up the dancefloors of the day.19
The tune's another absolute corker, hitting you with a soaring chorus (built upon the song's title) that's ensconced within a fully electronic orchestral arrangement — complete with a French horn simulation — before dropping into a bridge where synth brass (sounding like pure electric current rather than any actual horns I've ever heard) pulses over a looping Whoa-o-a-oh! bit of vocalise. It all grinds to a halt with a dangling rejoinder — another one of those slowdown sound effects — with the exception of the pulsing rhythm which persists undaunted, as the tune resets itself before wheeling back for another verse as the carousel spins just once more.
On reflection, I reckon this tune should have been a 12" single. It's the most straight up, no-nonsense club track on the album, and could have done serious damage on the era's dancefloors. With Judge Jules turning out the club mix to Contact, perhaps they could have roped in a Todd Terry or a Kevin Saunderson to give it the 12" treatment? I'd love to hear what a Reese remix would have sounded like. Well, a girl can dream...
Is Yours Working Yet?
With the closing beatless bars of Baby's symphonic outro, a looping aquatic sound (that brings to mind The Orb, for whatever reason) accompanies the question How do you do ladies and gentlemen? before volunteering I trust that everyone is enjoying the music. Well, no complaints here, mate... A vocodered sing-song — which seems to represent the audience — replies, and another single-minded beatbox begins working out its own internal logic while MGM soundtrack strings cascade asymmetrically in the background.
It would all be ridiculous if it weren't so much fun.
Around The Girl In 80 Ways
Closing out side one on a distinctly breezy note, Around The Girl In 80 Ways sounds remarkably like something that could have been cooked up at Paisley Park (think Sheila E. or André Cymone) but with the same homespun charm we've come to expect from planet Megatop (remember Lovesensi?).
The verses are faintly subdued with a muted electric piano carrying the melody as a reggaematic organ chops out a slight skank against the blunted machine rhythm. Jones' vocals are intimate within such uncomplicated production, and even the chorus appears with little fanfare as well — over more or less the same backing of unadorned piano — before dropping into a second-level chorus where he sings:
Around the girl in 80 ways,
Most of them I know.
All of them are substitutes
For feelings I don't show.
It's a truly excellent refrain, spooling out carefree and easy while a subdued string section and what sounds like ladies cooing envelope the song. And then, of course, there's that delightful synth squiggle straight out the boogie playbook punctuating each bar. Think freestyle, think Madonna's Holiday... the whole effect is just gorgeous.
The song continues for a spell before dropping into another one of Jones' mini-hoedowns — in the tradition of Stone Thames and The Battle Of All Saints Road — which eventually assume control of the song about 2/3 of the way through. After the third run of this impromptu hootenanny, soundtrack strings enter the fray and descend into the song's conclusion, punctuated by a final stroke of organ that puts an exclamation point on the whole affair.
It's a perfect conclusion to the first side of a record that's brought us track after track of brilliantly crafted pop music imbued with the rude edge of the late-eighties dancefloor. With a slowed down reggae record and then a snatch of Bernard Cribbins' Right Said Fred — which offers the rejoinder and so we... had a cup of tea — side one ends in such a way that sets up the second, where the Godfather himself enters the equation...
Side two of Megatop begins with words from James Brown himself:
Now I can't say exactly what did happen...
You just don't understand unless you've been through it.
Back-masked saxophone and choir spool out steadfast in the background, dialing up the tension before dropping into the speed-demon house of James Brown (the track). Clocking in at nearly 140bpm, it outpaces the rest of the album soundly, operating at speeds the likes of CJ Bolland and Robert Leiner — with their sleek, muscular European techno — would soon call home in the early nineties. In 1989, when even proto-jungle was still working at sub-130 tempos, it's extraordinary!
If memory serves, at the time only Hi-NRG was this fast, and damned if that rapid-fire bassline — cycling up and down the keyboard — doesn't sound like something Patrick Cowley might have approved of. Mix in a bit of rave piano pounding along to the beat, a dash of detuned house sonix, a helping of warped synth brass and spike it all with some racetrack orchestra stabs — bringing to mind The Prodigy's Speedway Theme From Fastlane — and what you've got is a shot of pure adrenaline.
The lyrics seem to offer up a first-person account of James Brown's high speed chase and subsequent arrest the previous year, while the chorus quotes freely from the man's music: Hot pants, she look fine,It's a man's man's world,Please, please, please. There's even an offhand reference to The Bottom Line! After a soaring guitar solo from Mick, as the song barrels toward its conclusion, you get a proto-rap stringing together a bunch of JB song titles.
There's this interesting bit of social commentary to the lyric, especially in the chorus:
It's a man's man's world in America,
Jump back in my cell.
Please please please in America,
Slipping into hell.
Not to mention the portion of the song America (from West Side Story) that thrown into the blender at the songs midpoint:
Life can be bright in America.
(If you can fight in America).
Life is alright in America.
(If you're all-white in America).
Well, it's certainly Food For Thought!
James Brown was actually the first single issued from the album, although — as far as I know — only ever got a promo release. As such, there's a music video20 and this time it's much more in the B.A.D. tradition of colorful, extravagant visuals in Don Letts' usual striking style:
The band's rocking out beneath a graffiti-daubed parking garage through which a James Brown lookalike leads police on a high speed chase in his camouflage jeep. He shows off his dance moves in front of some cheerleaders as B.A.D. plays, with Don Letts and Mick Jones even recreating the bring the poor man his cape routine from Brown's live performances!21 While perhaps not quite as much of an unexpected delight as the rave-fueled Contact promo, it's still a great music video.
Everybody Needs A Holiday
Commencing with another one of these improbable bass/beatbox interludes — this time riding a midi bassline and piano combination that cut in out of nowhere — we get a bit of computer sing-song as Jones repeats the song's title over a jaunty tune that wouldn't sound out of place on PBS programming. Within half a minute it's gone, and a disembodied voice frets I don't want a vacation. I just want to get away... for good! He's answered swiftly with a whistling-led exotica shuffle that plays for a couple bars, which then gives way to a laidback quasi-digital reggae beat.
A distorted bass synth matches the bass drum in a 4/4 pulse as a slow-motion rhythm unfolds beneath, punctuated by periodic hand claps marking the half-time beat. Gentle, cheerful organs hold down the verses while Jones offers up the first verse, and then the chorus hits:
Earned a rest,
I know you worked all day
And everybody needs a holiday.
I'll stand guard,
And keep the wolves at bay.
Watch the fire,
While you dream away.
During which Mick is joined by the rest of the group — and a return of the sampled whistling — for what is surely one of the band's great gang chants, in this context getting into a real sea shanty vibe. Jones strangles his guitar into wonderfully strange shapes that recall sliding Hawaiian slack key guitar while the occasional melodica trills on the horizon. Definite Club Paradise vibes in evidence throughout.
Every so often, the tune seems to break almost subconsciously into dancehall double-time on the back of pepperseed snares that shift the focus from the half-time hand claps to the bass drum/distorted bass axis of the song. Jones guitar ultimately works its way to the sixties-inflected shades of psychedelia essayed earlier on the record (which makes this song something a laidback riposte to side one's Rewind).
I just want to get away... for good!
Mick's A Hippie Burning
The album's longest interlude by some distance, this is more a sound collage in the vein of Revolution 9 than anything else. Starting with a snippet of Bernard Cribbins' The Hole In The Ground before dropping into another one of these convulsing drum machine rhythms — this time on the electrofunk tip — it's loathe to stay in one place for very long. Which brings to mind not only big beat's perversely omnivorous sampladelia, but also latterly the The Avalanches' oeuvre.
The most extended port of call is a folk guitar mid-section that backs a spoken word sample before dropping a comedic sing-song on beat, but even that quickly fades into a bit of sixties rock (which then disintegrates into reversed crooning!). The whole thing concludes on another great slice of sequencer rock, riding a descending bassline and digital percussion loop into the sunset before being rudely interrupted by...
In which acid house paranoia enters full force with the dread vibes of Joey Beltram and Frankie Bones. Over Megatop's heaviest beat, Don Letts takes the mic to set the scene for another wild night out in raveland:
Park Lane Green, it's Saturday night.
West End Central, flashing lights.
We've come to dance the night away
UV, dry ice and DJ.
The stomping 4/4 beat is held down by a dread bassline punctuated by the occasional orchestra hit/rave stab, before jumping off into the sparkling chorus:
Speaker pump that devil sound.
Everybody's getting down.
Moonwalk over to the gents.
Exit Zombie money spent.
Then a quote from Strawberry Fields Forever (Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to...") by Letts slips into the mix as a looped sample of the Ooh, ah, ooh ooh ah! vocals from B.A.D.'s first hit The Bottom Line plays out in the background. It's at this point that these relentless bleeps start phasing in and out of the mix as the chorus repeats once again. The second verse is no less evocative:
Turnstile toilets, I joined the queue.
Drinks at the bar, drugs in the loo.
I entered Jekyll, came out Hyde.
Mister Chevignon's inside.
Which is rather appropriately accompanied by a maniacal cackling and yet more guitar psychedelia from Mick Jones. The chorus repeats once again, before Letts sneaks another quote — this time from Prince's I Wish U Heaven — into the mix.
Bouncers, bimbos, lager louts.
Zombie dancefloor bugging out.
Black outside, the night is still.
Smiley moves in for the kill...
Which of course references the unofficial mascot of acid house culture in the UK:
Cops and dogs in transit vans.
At 4 o'clock we raid clubland.
T for Tango through the door.
First us two and then you four.
Rather brilliantly, a police whistle blows twice just after the Cops and dogs in transit vans. line! We get another round of the first verse (scrambled this time), chorus and Strawberry Fields quotation (this time from Jones) before the song goes completely instrumental. Reversed, distorted vocals enter the mix and then everything else cuts out for a moment before coming back with a vengeance: the engineer starts turning the knobs on the bleep sequence and a squelching 303 rises from within the tune. The whole thing perfectly captures the rushing sensation of music hounding you while you're tripping out on the dancefloor.
While we're on the subject of House Attack and Megatop at its most acid, it's as good a time as any to note the two b-sides to Contact and James Brown: In Full Effect and If I Were John Carpenter, respectively. Both of which are basically acid house instrumentals. In Full Effect — with its loping bassline (seemingly built on House Arrest's foundation), diva/hip house vocal snatches and cycling percussion loops — brings to mind Bang The Party, while If I Were John Carpenter rides a rapid-fire bassline and occasional string section in such a way that recalls The KLF. Samples from the LP are scattered throughout the tune in a different context, along with the requisite film samples. Significantly, both songs sample guru/new age/meditation tapes in the same way that a thousand trance producers would in the next decade.
Now back to Megatop proper: House Arrest. When we checked out, we were still tripping out on the dancefloor as the tune rushed to its conclusion. Suddenly, everything but the bassline cuts out and we're left with these spiraling rave sonix that trade verses with a wordless vocal loop. The beat drops back in and then out again, looping again and again, before the wave crashes into...
The Green Lady
Suddenly, we're in The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow Is Born but this time with a crashing electro beat laid out beneath. Shimmering sonix twinkle on the horizon and a crystalline synth tone carries the melody, while synthetic slap bass integrates itself into the beat. This is Megatop's unabashed britpop masterpiece, with a melody that grabs your ear from the word go and never lets up.
I've always thought that this should have been a single. Next to Contact, it's my favorite thing here. In fact, I envision the trio Contact, Baby, Don't Apologize and The Green Lady setting up the perfect sequence of singles from the album: one for the heads, one for the clubs and one for the radio. I have no doubt that The Green Lady would have been a hit on the order of V. Thirteen and Other 99, taking its place on the Planet BAD compilation alongside Contact in the all-star draft pick.
Unexpectedly, London Bridge starts with a spasmodic percussion loop — lasting about thirty seconds — that wouldn't sound out of place on Warp or Mille Plateaux about a decade later. It gradually fades into an ethereal operatic vocal and old-time soundtrack fragment (doing nothing to dissuade the Warp comparisons!) before the song proper commences.
It's another Paisley Park-tinged excursion, with Jones indulging in a bit London love (in fact, it's something of a laidback answer to side one's Union, Jack, bringing it all back home again). Like The Green Lady, it has some rather pretty guitar work from Mick Jones. Stately string samples carry the beat for a chorus where the subdued pop melody really takes flight:
London Bridge is falling down.
They're taking bids from all around
(Give me dollars I don't want pounds).
London Bridge is falling down,
But I still love this town
From the Tower to the Underground.
After coasting on a cool breeze for just over three minutes, the song crumbles into old-time soundtrack strings once again.
Shades of another soundtrack open Stalag 123, namely those of Elmer Bernstein's The Great Escape, which mix into an jazzed-out organ progression colored by gentle synth brass. The whole thing screams languid, as Mick Jones offers the opening lines:
I'm fixing on a jail break,
But the door is open wide.
Stuck in Stalag 123,
And there ain't no one to bribe.
Taking the Paisley Park-inflected dance pop aspect of Megatop to its logical conclusion, a rolling machine rhythm enters the fray to carry the song while a pulsing bassline bounces casually across its sleek surface. Alongside Everybody Needs A Holiday, this is clearly the most laidback material on the album. It's certainly the smoothest (no contest!) and provides the perfect leisurely conclusion to Megatop Phoenix:
I've got the studio blues and some other bad news.
(The basements been swamped by a flood).
I've got the studio blues and it's ruined my shoes.
(My boogie's all covered in mud).
With dialogue samples from The Great Escape scattered throughout, the song seems like it could stretch on dreamily into perpetuity. And yet, at three minutes, eleven seconds it cuts out abruptly...
The coda End interrupts Stalag 123 with an incongruous bit of bluesy guitar heroics from Mick Jones. A sad, muffled bit of piano creeps in as a woman's voice bids Goodbye. Suddenly, it seems, the trip is over.
The Nineties Are Gonna Make The Sixties Look Like The Fifties
Megatop Phoenix turned out to be the last full-length album by the original lineup of Big Audio Dynamite. The group lasted for one more single, the excellent Free (a sister record of sorts to Contact). It was recorded for the movie Flashback (starring Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland), which makes the connection between the two summers of love explicit.
At the dawn of nineties, a decade during which the eighties innovations of dance music, hip hop and alternative rock would reign supreme, it struck a note of precarious optimism with a memorable line from faded sixties activist Huey Walker (played by Dennis Hopper) that was sampled prominently by the band:
Once we get out of the eighties,
The nineties are gonna make the sixties look like the fifties.
The Big Audio Dynamite II lineup followed swiftly in its wake with further escapades into indie dance in the form of the albums Kool-Aid and The Globe (along with the attendant singles). Further records like Higher Power and F-Punk followed different incarnations of the band through the decade, culminating in the excellent — but alas, unreleased — Entering A New Ride22 in that storied year, 1997.
Tracks like the Kraftwerk-inflected Kool-Aid and The Globe's proto-dusted beats were first-rate dancefloor burners, while Rush conquered up the pop charts23 with yet another of Mick's britpop gems. From the junglist bass of dread house groove I Don't Know all the way over to the honest-to-goodness drum 'n bass of 1995's It's A Jungle Out There, the group kept its finger to the pulse of dance music, turning in idiosyncratic fusions like Melancholy Maybe's 4/4 garage pulse and the big beat fury of Sunday Best.24
Eventually — around the turn of the century — the group morphed into The Big Audio Dynamite Soundsystem, touring the UK with a rotating crew of DJs, MCs and musicians. A mainstay at festivals and nightclubs alike, the crew pressed on faithfully through the intervening years. Mick Jones dabbled in various projects throughout the 21st century, including Carbon/Silicon, production of the first two Libertines albums and time spent with the Gorillaz (including their performance at Coachella). Then, in 2011, the unthinkable happened: the original B.A.D. lineup re-formed.
Twenty-one years after their parting shot — an era during which dance, rap and indie have only grown in stature and all-encompassing grip on pop culture — Mick Jones, Don Letts, Leo Williams, Greg Roberts and Dan Donovan emerged — as if from their DeLorean in the Medicine Show music video — in the 21st century. It would seem that everything's changed, but then it's always been the same song playing anyway (you've just got to know the tune). With the five minds that brought us the all-conquering brilliance of Megatop Phoenix back together in the same outfit, touring once again and doing their funky thang, perhaps the gang have a couple more tricks up their sleeve after all... only time will tell!
There are of course, many other records in this story: The Saints' (I'm) Stranded, Wire's Pink Flag, along with the O.G. New York stuff like The Dead Boys' Young Loud And Snotty, The Dictators' Go Girl Crazy!, The HeartbreakersL.A.M.F. all the way back to The Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls (Jon Savage's ground zero apparent for punk in England's Dreaming). There's an ocean of stuff out there, to be sure, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Named for the Balearic islands off the south-east coast of Spain (including Majorca, Formentera, Minorca and Ibiza), which featured sensational nightclubs soundtracked by all manner of music — spanning myriad genres and points of origin — mixed together into an electrifying non-stop stream of rhythm. British DJs on holiday in Ibiza brought this open-minded anything goes spirit back with them to the UK. If the record had a killer groove, they'd play it, regardless of where it came from. Records as disparate as Fleetwood Mac's Big Love, Richie Havens' Going Back To My Roots and The Residents' Kaw Liga were all Balearic staples.
Significantly, this is exactly the sort of visual one could expect at a contemporary party. The rave scene ascended just as computer graphics were maturing into a form that would also turn out to have a profound impact on pop culture. They developed alongside one another, often informing each other in the process. Indeed, from the stark cyberpunk computer graphics Buggy G. Riphead produced for Jumpin' & Pumpin' at the turn of the decade to the colorful 3d renderings of films like Lawnmower Man, Warp's Artificial Intelligence series and Studio !K7's X-Mix videos (not to mention countless rave fliers and projection visuals) throughout the nineties, extending late into the decade with the dystopian visions of darkside jungle (see the sleeve for No U-Turn's Torque compilation) and The Matrix, computer graphics and electronic music have been steadfast fellow travelers throughout their long and winding existence.
Who Beats, a b-side from the Contact, even features that same loop from I Can't Explain bolstered by heavier breakbeats and a stuttering sample of Mick Jones singing contact. The effect is tres big beat '96/'97!