I've always loved this quote from Derrick May, which is quite crisply evocative of the rich undercurrents of depth and mystery running through techno music. Actually, I'm worried I might be paraphrasing somewhat (in fact, it's rather likely, since I can't seem to find the interview I heard it in anywhere). But what the hell, it's a great quote and really ought to be in wide circulation. I'm willing to risk it... so there you go. Needless to say, if anyone can point me in the right direction for the original interview, I'd be most grateful...
Anyway... Techno. Born in the shadows of Detroit's 1980s progressive scene and forged in the unforgiving crucible of the global stage, it's truly one of the key building blocks of modern music — alongside house and hip hop — in the post-disco diaspora. One could trace a thin line leading back to 1970s Düsseldorf, all the way back to the Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express, when excavating its prehistory.
As Kodwo Eshun brilliantly put it, Düsseldorf is the Mississippi Delta, and expanding on that idea, Kraftwerk are to Techno as Muddy Waters is to The Rolling Stones.1Detroit is where the sleek German engineering of Computer World got rebuilt like an American muscle car, souped up for its joyride across dancefloors the world over. Juan Atkins just plugged it all in.
To further extend the metaphor, Atkins' Metroplex was to Sun Records as Derrick May's Transmat was to Chess (with Fragile standing in for Cadet), with Kevin Saunderson's KMS corresponding to Atlantic Records. Ok, ok, I realize that the timeline is inverted, but please believe the comparisons are airtight! You've got the laboratory on one hand and the conservatory on the other, with the proto-Motown assembly line of KMS/Atlantic waiting in the wings. And at that point, it's time to play domination.
Very quickly, it becomes a global affair. You've got vibrant forms springing up all over the place, from Sheffield bleep 'n bass to Belgian new beat and elegant Dutch techno to London ardkore. Auteurs start springing up everywhere, untethered to any sort of centralized scene (albeit often in orbit of crucial outposts like Warp, Sublime and R&S). The meme spreads and mutates and spreads and mutates and spreads... it's a beautiful thing.
The interesting thing to note with techno is how nearly everyone knows the term but so often they haven't actually heard any. Has there ever been a genre so misunderstood? Images of 2 Unlimited and Dance Dance Revolution hang in the public consciousness, even if neither have nothing much to do with techno qua techno. If you tell someone you listen to techno, chances are what they're hearing in their head isn't techno at all but some caricature drawn in broad strokes (the phrase boom boom boom springs to mind).
So at some point I just started saying Detroit Techno when the subject comes up. Not because I'm some sort of purist (I've actually got no time whatsoever for the impulse), but because it short circuits all the pitfalls that might wrong-foot whoever I'm talking with. Suddenly, you're starting from scratch rather than working against a bunch of assumptions. And you've reimbued the term with a sense of mystery which was its birthright all along...
I'd dug dance music in it's various forms going back to Janet Jackson circa Control (hell, Michael Jackson circa Thriller), running alongside the new wave of Depeche Mode and the Talking Heads on through what you'd call early indie dance (New Order and Big Audio Dynamite). Plus the obligatory swingbeat and hip hop, things like Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul, Wreckx-N-Effect's Rump Shaker and the Jungle Brothers. All of which seemed to flow naturally into things like Massive Attack, Underworld and The Prodigy.
Still... I can remember like it was yesterday when I got hit by the straight stuff.
It came in the form of Kevin Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio, and it quite simply blew my mind wide open. This was like everything I'd ever loved in music, only more so. Pure, uncut. I remember wondering about all the names on there: Who is this mysterious Outlander (R&S sorted me out right quick)? What sort of crew is Octave One (for whatever reason, I imagined them as a gang of Germans)? Why are half of these tracks credited to Dobre & Jamez (because they're awesome)?!
From there it was a short step to discovering techno strongholds like Submerge, R&S and Studio !K7 (surfing a rather hardcore crest at the time). I was set for life. I still remembering placing my first mail order, getting things like Kevin Saunderson's Faces & Phases compilation, Octave One's The Living Key (To Images From Above) and Drexciya's The Quest on a hot summer afternoon. Give all those to a high school kid in the late 90s and see what happens!
As a kid, I grew up in various apartments with my parents — who were actually quite young in retrospect (usually around a decade younger than the parents of my peers) — and later my brother Brian once he came along. We moved once a year for the first five years of my life before sneaking into the suburbs once school started. I remember nothing quite made sense again. The kids were different (some awful kids, truth be told! But some cool ones too... it all evens out), etc. Whatever. I suppose I should have adapted, and I suppose that in my own way I did, but then I always was a dreamer...
I used to dream to books, movies, video games... whatever I could get my hands on. I remember just laying on my back looking up at the sky, imagining other worlds. Then, around junior high music hit me full force. Before that I'd been into music at the level of osmosis, the ambient sounds around when you're young, but suddenly it was everywhere! I was feelin' it MAN!!
Like I said, stuff like new wave, hip hop, r&b, certain alternative records. I suppose deep, rhythmic music always appealed to me at the most basic level. Intercut it with a heavy sense of harmonic mystery, and I'm sold.
So when I came across techno it was a match made in heaven.
Walking around town, it wasn't the sound of Nas or Nirvana that would swirl in my mind, but things like 69's Ladies & Gentlemen, Mental Cube's Q and Jark Prongo's Spadet (that and Tricky's Aftermath, Primal Scream's Trainspotting and Bomb The Bass's One To One Religion (Skankapella Mix) on the downbeat flipside). It all seemed to move at the speed of life. At the end of the day, the vibes just synced up with my frequency I suppose...
So what do I like about techno? For one, it's the frequency, the vibe. Amiri Baraka's changing same. That low-slung groove, the scratchy high-end funk chopping between the beats, the compression of ideas. It's the Bug In The Bass Bin, the ever present spectre malfunktion that nevertheless pulses faithfully on. It's the ghosts of jazz and funk and kosmische and disco and industrial and juju lying just beneath the surface.
Not to mention the sense of longing, the alien wonder running through its core. It's Stranger In A Strange Land music, so naturally it made sense to me. Connected to the earth, the stones beneath my feet, but always surrounded by strangers. Something like Theme From It's All Gone Pear Shaped by Digital Justice makes the point better than I ever could... I mean where the hell else are you gonna find something like that but in techno?
It all routes back to a time when I used to dream about living alone on Mars (ha, used to he says!), riding some ancient starship with vast corridors and digital readouts in vivid crimson, three-year-old dreams back on Mollison in the hazy afternoons of late summer. Come to think of it, that was the last time I had a room of my own until college!
Space in both sense of the words. Room to think, room to breathe! That's what I found in techno. No matter what was going on, I could put on some headphones and play Dark Energy's Midnite Sunshine and everything would come into focus (or drift out of focus, if need be).
Put simply, it was an escape route into the rest of my life, when things would begin to make just a little bit more sense. Future music that gave me the gift of a future. Its beat pulsed faithfully like lights along a runway, guiding that starship into the pitch black darkness of the midnight sky. And all along, without a doubt, it helped a young brother find his way...
1. Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet, 1998. 100. Print.
2. Bova, Ben. Visions Of The Future: The Art Of Robert McCall. New York: Abrams, 1982. 107. Print.
Back in the day, I worked at the Clairemont Library, shelving books and helping patrons. Stimulating work, to be sure. On my lunch break, and occasionally after hours, I'd walk a couple blocks over to the Sunset Bowl to grab a bite to eat, play video games and lay out the plans for Mettrex Recordings. After all, this is where Soul Machine's Essential Funk Files were born. Good times. The general vibe in prevalence was sun-glazed and tropical, which meant of course that it was right up my alley.
There was a DJ booth near the bar that was all done up tiki-style, and I'd always dreamed of spinning disco at the midnight bowling sessions they held on Friday nights. Records like The Incredible Bongo Band's Apache, Freddy Fresh's Roller Rinks & Chicks, Loose Joint's Is It All Over My Face, Paperclip People's Floor and Stereo MC's Rhino. You know, basically the good good. It was a good dream, but alas the place closed down before I had a chance to hold court in the mix. Now, an apartment complex sits where the bowling alley was once comfortably nestled...
The other bowling alley where I spent a lot of time — and did most of my actual bowling — was the Parkway Bowl, down in El Cajon. I most recently hit the lanes again with my brother Brian and cousins Isabel and Joelle a couple weeks ago to discover that the venue hosts something called Cosmic Bowling, held in a backroom with psychedelic lights and dedicated lanes for the renting. Brian commented that it was like something out of Kingpin...
It all brought me back to hours spent at the Sunset Bowl, dreaming up the future, and as is often the case a whole lot of records began to conjure up in my mind. One thing led to another, and I ended up doing a little mix. Within the confines of this two-hour excursion, you'll find dub disco, new wave, Philly soul, French disco, hip hop, boogie, Italo disco, punk funk, gulf stream and disco-not-disco, all anchored to a bedrock of largely straight up disco in the Chic tradition. It's all of a piece.
No attempt was made to be historically accurate; there's anachronisms all over the shop, because this is a 2018 disco mix — unapologetically so — filled with music that lived well past its era to fuel dancefloor mayhem through the intervening years and still sounds cutting edge some 33 years on.
So without further ado, I give you...
The Parkway Bowl Disco Mix
The Parallax Sound LabNew York City Intro
Welcome to the show, featuring James Woods, master of ceremonies.
The Mike Theodore OrchestraMoon Trek (Westbound)
Kicking off with the orchestral soul of Moon Trek, from arranger Mike Theodore's Cosmic Wind LP. Mike Theodore actually from Detroit — not New York — but the track does seem to conjure up images of the Big Apple. He not only produced Rodriguez's enshrined Cold Fact (alongside frequent collaborator Dennis Coffey), but also a brace of sides for the Detroit Emeralds. In between, he put out two excellent LPs of instrumental disco (of which this is the first) that remain cosmic disco par excellence.
The ClashThe Magnificent Seven (CBS)
Which brings back memories of driving to Patrick Henry back in the late 90s. This jam kicked off all manner of C90s during that period, soundtracking the crisp, early-morning drive to school. The album version, from the triple-LP Sandinista! is where it's at, featuring ever more lush production and further discotheque sonics in evidence throughout. The Clash were cool. I've always assumed that this and Radio Clash were their take on the early Sugar Hill hip hop sound.
Part of what was great about disco is how it ultimately pulled anyone and (nearly) everyone into its orbit, from Marvin Gaye to The Rolling Stones, throwing up all sorts of possibilities and drawing unexpected sounds out of left field (making something like Disco Not Disco a necessary intervention, bringing together a whole raft disparate material together under its umbrella). Nowadays, it serves as shorthand for whole swathes of music. Kevin Saunderson later mined this record for Reese's awesome You're Mine, rugged Detroit techno of the highest caliber.
Démis RoussosMidnight Is The Time I Need You (Philips)
Luxuriant sun-glazed disco from Greek balladeer Démis Roussos, who of started out in art-prog band Aphrodite's Child alongside synth ambassador Vangelis before striking out on a long and winding solo career. This from '75 finds Roussos with an early entry in the disco canon, with gruff, soaring vocals holding sway over a lazy mid-tempo groove. Dig those gently psychedelic organs! Far and away the best tune on the Souvenirs album, although I have a hell of a soft spot for the motorik country-western vibes of Tell Me Now. Great sleeve too!
Martin CircusDisco Circus (Prelude)
When the chips are down, my favorite disco record. Laying the blueprint for Daft Punk, Cassius and Motorbass, this is French disco par excellence, with François Kevorkian reworking the fourteen minute album version by erstwhile-psych rock band Martin Circus into a seven minute rapid-fire edit replete with electro-boogie synths, soaring guitar solos, Moroder-esque sequences, group chants, rolling basslines, a second-line horn section and backing scat vocals that sound something like Bing Crosby duetting with Dieter Meier. I think the kitchen sink is in there somewhere.
Props to Prelude for licensing the track in the first place, putting François K in the studio to work his magic on the masters. Even as this tune perfectly captures the essence of peak-era disco, you can nevertheless hear the implied presence of the 80s waiting in the wings.
Kurtis BlowThe Breaks (Mercury)
How come these early rap tracks all of a sudden sound fresh as a daisy? Twenty years ago this would have seemed like ancient history, quaint even, but in light of everything we've discovered in light of the 21st century disco/post punk resurgence it sounds utterly of-the-moment. See also the Jason Nevins remix of Run-DMC's It's Like That, which now sounds hopelessly dated while the OG sounds as timeless as the Nuggets box set. The Breaks glides along on a nimble funk groove, with rolling percussion, juke-joint piano and Kurtis Blow's off the cuff delivery all coming together to conjure up the moody, half-lit atmosphere of Martin Scorcese's After Hours.
Bruce JohnstonPipeline (Columbia)
Erstwhile-Beach Boy-drummer-on-holiday gets in on some tasty solo dancefloor action, taking his place behind the kit to guide a string section through the cresting waves of the Pacific Ocean. A killer groove, and rawer than you might expect. Check that rude drum beat, sounding like something cooked up on an Akai! Everything goes atmospheric halfway through, when the sounds of the surf wash across the breakdown like high tide on the sea of flesh.
Incidentally, I've often thought that The Beach Boys conjured up a convincing proto-disco sound on their Sunflower LP, what with all those sun-glazed sounds and burnished edges. Lee Perry too, which is probably why — as great as Pet Sounds is — it remains my go to Beach Boys record.
OdysseyInside Out (RCA Victor)
In the popular imagination, disco was supposed to have died on July 12, 1979 at Comiskey Park's Disco Demolition Night. Of course, history's rarely quite that simple. Rather than some behemoth slayed in one stroke by arena rock, disco was more like the virus that mutated to turn up again nearly everywhere — from ABC and Duran Duran's new wave to the electro boogie of The Gap Band and Mtume to Madonna and Michael Jackson's chartbusting pop to the gulf stream sounds cooked up at Compass Point and played out at the Paradise Garage, the pandemic seemingly spread all over — outliving the dinosaurs and ultimately defining modern music via the sounds of house, electro, hip hop and techno.
Of course, in the Big Apple plenty of groups kept on grooving and the dancers kept on dancing to straight up disco. In truth, some of my favorite disco records actually come from well after its supposed expiration date. Take for instance Odyssey's Inside Out, an low-slung slab of passionate modern soul riding a down and dirty gutbucket groove. Should I be embarrassed that I first knew it as a Electribe 101 song? I suspect that I should, but I don't feel it. I'd even go so far as to say that Billie Ray Martin managed to top the original, if by only a whisker.
Montana SextetWho Needs Enemies (With A Friend Like You) (Philly Sound Works)
Salsoul Orchestra mastermind Vince Montana (who also spent time in Philadelphia International's MFSB) in full swing during roughly the same era with a slab of minimal, slap-bass propelled 4/4 magic in which his vibes take center stage. I once awoke from a dream with this tune still ringing in my ears, and as I gradually worked out where it came from — sometimes you can't quite recall the specifics of these things right away — it hung over the morning like a mist.
Eddy GrantWalking On Sunshine (ICE)
I've always loved the way figures like Eddy Grant, Grace Jones and Billy Ocean brought the idiosyncrasies of their island life to the gulf stream flavor to their music. Indeed, to this day they form a loose triumvirate in my mind. What is Compass Point if not the culmination of this notion, with these three toiling away in the seventies only to become bona fide stars in the decade to follow. Eddy Grant later provided the theme song to the blockbuster film Romancing The Stone, while Billy Ocean did the same for its sequel (Jewel Of The Nile). And of course Grace Jones managed to become a bond girl and trade scenes with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan The Destroyer!
In light of his high profile, I'm particularly fascinated with Eddy Grant's ICE imprint, formed as he built his solo career from the ground up, he nevertheless stuck with it after hitting the big time with Electric Avenue. Of course he'd already made his mark on dance culture some time before, with this tune and Living On The Frontline being staples at the Paradise Garage (see also Time Warp by The Coach House Rhythm Section). Walking On Sunshine is a brilliantly rewired electro-disco jam dominated by top-heavy afrobeat horns and Grant's loosely-delivered falsetto. The song was later covered by Rockers Revenge, yet not by Katrina And The Waves, who's song of the same title is completely different!
Billy OceanStay The Night (GTO)
Early Billy Ocean in this whiplash proto-boogie tune from his sophomore set (City Limit), which is propelled by a uniquely raw-edged drum beat that really snaps the track across the tiles of the dancefloor. Like Eddy Grant, Ocean would later top the charts in the mid-eighties with yacht staple Caribbean Queen.
Ian DurySpasticus (Autisticus) (Polydor)
The great Ian Dury in Nassau, on leave from The Blockheads and getting in on that Compass Point action. Very much of a piece with the surrounding records here, this was also a staple in Larry Levan's record bag over at the Paradise Garage. Dig this little interview1 with old Ian (who in his youth suffered from polio), talking about the story behind the song.
Grace JonesPull Up To The Bumper (Island)
Yet more peak-period Compass Point (perhaps the peak, in this case) with Miss Grace Jones in the driver seat. The video2 is excellent too (Neuromancer vibes in full effect). In case you haven't noticed, I'm a huge fan of the whole Compass Point phenomenon. At the moment, I have a feature in the works, which I'm planning to post here sometime around the release of the Parallax Pier sequel in June.
DelegationYou And I (Ariola)
Lush masterpiece of bedroom disco from the premiere British soul group. I've heard tell that this isn't even their greatest record, but it's the only one I own. You And I perfectly captures the tipping point between the string-laden groove of peak-era disco and the nascent machine boogie coming just around the bend. Check those aqueous, immersive synths straight out of the deep house playbook. Sublime, in a word, and a gorgeous tune.
The WhispersAnd The Beat Goes On (Solar)
Chartbusting disco, with a two note organ vamp that stands as one of the great tossed-off hooks of all time. Later propelling Will Smith's Miami into the charts, it also kicked off Jason Forrest's The Unrelenting Songs Of The 1979 Post Disco Crash record. Of course, none of that can touch the original. The L.A.-based Solar Records would later come to define the eighties electro boogie sound with artists like Shalamar, The Deele and Midnight Star.
My MineHypnotic Tango (Progress Record)
Italo disco. Like early Depeche Mode, this is bubblegum synth music with an even greater affinity for the dancefloor. That moody synth sequence was later sampled by both Bandulu and Carl Craig, for Thunderground's Amaranth and 69's Rushed, respectively, which is how I found out about this track in the first place. Sporting a peerless play of dynamics between the moody verses and joyous candy-coated refrain, Hypnotic Tango itself is a computer love masterpiece.
Giorgio MoroderPalm Springs Drive (Polydor)
From Moroder's third score, after Midnight Express and Foxes, for the film American Gigolo. This is probably my favorite of his OSTs. Everyone knows Blondie's Call Me, but this album also boasts the sleek motor-disco of Night Drive and The Apartment's moody paranoia (the latter even sounding like the lost score to The Parallax View). Palm Springs Drive — featured here — is my absolute favorite moment from the soundtrack, fusing Moroder's trademark motor-disco sound with an epic chord progression straight out of the Ennio Morricone playbook.
Ashford & SimpsonOne More Try (Warner Bros.)
Gloriously lush disco from the dynamic husband and wife songwriting duo of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson,. Penning some of the great soul songs of the era for other artists, including Ain't No Mountain High Enough, I'm Every Woman and You're All I Need To Get By, they also managed to put out twelve solid albums between the years 1973 and 1984. One More Try — from their third — finds the duo confidently entering the disco arena with a desperate plea for a second chance gliding over tricky dance rhythms, soaring ARP strings and some of the finest guitar soloing to ever grace a disco record.
D-TrainYou're The One For Me (Prelude)
The D-Train project was collaboration between James "D-Train" Williams and Hubert Eaves (previously responsible for the Esoteric Funk LP and later to play on some records with Mtume). Appropriately, this record lays down the blueprint for eighties electro boogie, with the zig-zagging synths that would come to define the decade's machine funk sound (see also Jam & Lewis), and took its rightful place as an immortal dancefloor classic. Even Liam Howlett couldn't help sampling its synth-squiggle magic for The Prodigy's Girls.
ForrrceKeep On Dubbin' (With No Commercial Interruptions) (West End)
The quintessential dub disco record, featuring François Kevorkianyet again reworking an original track to a higher plane altogether. West End had a phenomenal run as the 70s gave way to the 80s, putting out loads of great records hovering on the interzone between disco and dub. In fact, this is as close to the Black Ark as disco would ever get. You can practically imagine Lee "Scratch" Perry's trademark ad-libs over the top. Underground disco par excellence.
GQDisco Nights (Rock Freak) (Arista)
Conversely, this is disco from high street, crashing the charts and the airwaves alike. Studio 54 music. I first heard this on Magic 92.5, way back in it's early years when it was on fire with live DJs and a killer selection of soul/disco/funk/boogie the order of the day. I remember driving home from the Clairemont Library one day, crossing the bridge from Mission Bay onto Friars Rd., when suddenly Disco Nights comes on the radio. I'd already become unknowingly aware of pieces of it — looped by Chicago's Stacy Kidd in a house cut that had come out recently — and the rush of recognition upon hearing the original for the first time hit like a ton of bricks.
That was one of the great things about branching out from beats, hearing all those records that had fueled the music I grew up with for the first time (and still at such a young age!. The realization that there was this vast continuum stretching back to figures like Curtis Mayfield, Miles Davis and James Brown, rather than everything being these solitary islands of sound, well it was quite a trip. All of this must sound so boring to someone coming in the era of Youtube, where all that information lay at one's fingertips! Well, back in the day, it was a big deal, trust me. And I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Love CommitteeJust As Long As I Got You (Disco Re-Edit by Dimitri From Paris) (BBE)
If there's a pre-disco sound that was disco's most logical precursor, then it's surely Philly soul. Groups like The Three Degrees, The Intruders and MFSB were dealing in proto-disco way back in '73 with tunes like Dirty Old Man, I'll Always Love My Mama and TSOP, and they all wound up dovetailing naturally into the scene once it was in full force. As if that weren't enough, full-fledged disco groups like Double Exposure, The Trammps and Love Committee all hailed from Philadelphia, starting out under different names earlier in the decade as pure Philly soul. Double Exposure's Ten Percent and Love Committee's Law And Order are both great examples of good LPs in this vein.
This is Dimitri From Paris' exclusive edit from his (excellent) Disco Forever mix. I remember picking this up in San Juan way back when. My cousin balked at the sleeve (I can't believe you're buying that!). This remix is brilliant, opening up the locked-down original to aircraft-hangar size. Transforming those baritone backing vocals into the lead, echoing lonely from within with that same sense of isolation as Bernard Sumner on the early New Order records. Chopping the horn fanfare into a looped refrain that builds and builds the tension to the breaking point before releasing in a single strummed guitar. Exquisite stuff.
KanoI'm Ready (Emergency)
Good old Kano. Kano were great. They must have the highest volume of classics out of all the Italo disco groups (shoot me down, I'm no expert on the stuff). Rather than a Moroder-derived machine pulse, I'm Ready is driven by loose-limbed live drumming (as is its b-side, Holly Dolly, famously the template for the proto-Detroit techno of A Number Of Names' Sharevari). The production on this record is just perfect, it's rubberband rhythm underpins gently trilling synths, vocoders and those delicate lead vocals.
KebekelektrikWar Dance (Les Disques Direction)
This the original version, rather than the Tom Moulton mix. I go back and forth on which one I like more, each of which have their undoubted merits. Moulton's version grooves better, but this really places the synths front-and-center. Part of me thinks I made the wrong decision... like I said, it's a coin toss! This is Moroder-esque motor-disco of the highest caliber, always making me picture some motorcade/caravan cutting through the desert under the blazing sun, synth-lines melting in the heat.
Donna SummerI Feel Love (Casablanca)
The godfather of motor-disco disco tracks, produced by Giorgio Moroder for the prototypical disco diva, Donna Summer. Remember a few years back when everyone was calling themselves a diva? That was pretty silly. Donna Summer is the real deal. When I first heard this track, I assumed it was a recent remix and not the original version from 1977! Despite the utterly brilliant chrome-plated futurism in evidence throughout, Summer still manages to outshine everything else with soaring vocals eight miles high and rising.
Bettye LaVetteDoin' The Best That I Can (A Special New Mix by Walter Gibbons) (West End)
Going out with a bang! More West End, this time with Bettye LaVette at the wheel of a steadfast galleon constructed by none other than disco super-producer Walter Gibbons. It's impossible not to be moved by this beautifully rendered tale of getting over somebody one day at a time.
At the track's midpoint, when that plaintive organ line erupts out of nowhere, well if you're anything like me you're in disbelief. You've never heard anything like this before! Then, the strings cut back in — horns bobbing and weaving over that groove — and the whole thing goes triumphant, proto-acid lines tearing across the soundscape like it's the most natural thing in the world, before the organ returns and a sublime piano line drives the tune to it's natural conclusion. Every element woven into a disco symphony. She's herself again now. I Will Survive, indeed. An impeccable example of the magic that can be wrought from a 12" slab of plastic, and a perfect ending to our disco odyssey. Hope you enjoyed it!
The Parkway Bowl Disco Mix: The Records
Mixed By: Flynn & DJ Slye.
Special Edits: Do'shonne & Slye.
Samples: Fifty Foot HoseOpus 11, The Beach BoysLet's Go Away For Awhile, James Woods in Against All Odds, Nastassja Kinski in Paris Texas.
Vibes: Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson, FSOLISDN, Sudden Impact, Moodymann, assorted El Cajon dive bars and nightclubs, Disco Godfather, David Bowie's Station To Station, Patrick Cowley, Jefferson Airplane, Atari 2600 and those endless exquisite gradient skies, ARP Solina String, Palm Desert, Jedi Knights, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Club Stratus, Summer Of Sam, The Mizell Brothers, Arthur Russell, Bobby Konders, swimming in A.G., Morgan Geist's Moves, Hohner Clavinet, Herbie Hancock, Eddie Russ, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, Jack Kirby, Paul's Boutique, Lakeside discotheques, Lil' Louis & The World, Beck Hansen, Harlem River Drive, Night Moves, Scott Weiland, Wild Style, Terranova, The Parallax View, Innerzone Orchestra, Spoonie Gee, Radio Mettrex, Steely Dan, Fender Rhodes, The Op-art Hall Of Fame, Calypsoul 70, Opinionated Diner, Kirk DeGiorgio, Sly Stone, Sam Mangwana, The Isley Brothers, Glenn Underground, BBE, Parliament/Funkadelic, Ubiquity, Gram Parsons, The Honey Bee Hive, G-Street, East Village, Warren Zevon's Night Time In The Switching Yard, and of course Woebot.
Hey man, I'm back from the bodega. Nothing like a snack, deep fried, to give you a second wind. Here you go my friend. So you like new wave, right? Sure you do... after all, everybody likes new wave. For the moment, let us focus on the dubbed-out dancefloor sides perpetrated by The Clash in that period just after London Calling, which puts us at 1980 A.D.
I'm talking about the triple(!)-LP trawl of Sandinista! and its orbital 12" singles, records like The Magnificent Seven and This Is Radio Clash, the latter of which features four versions spread across its twelve inch surface, each one sequentially more twisted and dubbed to pieces than the last. Outside Broadcast (the third version), is one of the great hidden gems in the band's back catalog, conjuring up images of a careening taxi cab ride through fog-cloaked city streets deserted in the twilight.
The Magnificent Seven — which must be heard in its spacious, sprawling album version to experience its true sparkling third-eye-tactile black magic — finds, as mentioned in their last episode, this band of outlaws messing around with the Good Times bassline and twisting it to their own swashbuckling purposes. In other words, it's Disco Not Disco at its absolute finest.
Interesting to hear it as Joe Strummer's take on contemporary rap (note The Clash's turn as backing band for graffiti artist Futura 2000 on The Escapades Of Futura 2000, one of the infamous Celluloid rap records), like Blondie's Rapture but even more so. Think killer disco rap like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's Superappin', Kurtis Blow's The Breaks and Monster Jam by Spoonie Gee meets The Sequence (not to mention The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight if you want to get literal).
Noteworthy in the Parallax sense is also the fact that the intros to both The Magnificent Dance (the x-ray dub version of The Magnificent Seven) and Mensforth Hill form the basis of Reese's You're Mine (the b-side to Rock To The Beat), which suggests that Mr. Saunderson was working with both the album and 12" when vibing out in the studio to create that killer cut.
At moments like this, I'm reminded of Norman Cook/Fatboy Slim's review of Big Audio Dynamite's Sunday Best, in which he offhandedly placed The Clash at the genesis of indie dance. Which sounds about right to me, with New Order and Big Audio Dynamite arriving as fully formed ambassadors of the genre before it would go on to become a way of life.
Ah yes, that's right: Big Audio Dynamite! B.A.D. is, of course, a whole other can of worms. Now it's damn near painfully obvious to point out how that crew's merciless caning of the sampler and rewired approach to the dancefloor anticipated whole swathes of music in the nineties and beyond, but records like the proto-house madness of Hollywood Boulevard and Megatop Phoenix (which has nestled comfortably into Sgt. Pepper-status around these parts) serve to drive the point home and then some.
Their debut full-length This Is Big Audio Dynamite boasts not only obvious radio bounty like The Bottom Line, E=MC² and the sublime cool of Medicine Show (recently featured in Woebot's excellent 101-2001 — and for the record I agree wholeheartedly with the man's glowing assessment of the tune), but also a wealth of strange dancefloor material on its under-explored b-side (particularly Sudden Impact's phenomenal short-circuiting electroid groove and the proto-ragga dancehall of A Party).
Sudden Impact is particularly interesting in this context, with its strange spaghetti-western-by-way-of-Lee "Scratch" Perry guitar figure riding wicked rails of straight up electro, the track seeming to exist right at the very nexus of a number of contemporary sonic currents. For one, you've got electro boogie along the lines of Aleem's Get Loose, D-Train's You're The One For Me and C.O.D.'s cover of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's In The Bottle, all of which predict Sudden Impact's own nimble touch in their wiry, skeletal rhythmic structure.
But why stop there? It doesn't take much effort to draw a short line from Sudden Impact! to honest-to-goodness minimalistic electro missives like Hashim's We're Rocking The Planet, the Imperial Brothers' We Come To Rock and World Class Wreckin' Cru's Surgery, all of which had been tearing up dancefloors for the better part of a year. Of course there's also the flipside of the coin: straight up electrofunk shearing into electro territory, records like Cameo's She's Strange (along with its proto-rap 12" club mix), Whodini's Escape and about a thousand other rap records.
Japan (the band) had their own incursions in this arena, where even amongst their most well-known new pop-era hits like the crepuscular fragile beauty of Ghosts and the supremely funky Visions Of China2 you'd find records like Gentlemen Take Polaroids and The Art Of Parties riding a malfunktioning electroid framework of their own.
Yet it's just before the group's widely-hailed peak that you'll find my favorite music they made, from that period when David Sylvian and co. were still slumming it as twilight era glam rockers operating in a weird interzone between new wave and funk that just shades this side of the (totally imaginary) post punk divide, with not only their blinding Adolescent Sex debut album (which featured in the Parallax 200 just the other day), but also the Quiet Life LP (and it's precursor, the Life In Tokyo 12" warning shot — produced by Giorgio Moroder for those keeping track).
Adolescent Sex in particular is the sleaziest rock 'n funk grind this side of The Stones' Fingerprint File, with real red light district velvet curtain bizzness in tracks like Performance (named after the Nick Roeg film, I wonder?) and the slinky cinematic slow burn of Suburban Love. This is funk the way The Isley Brothers played it. By which I mean turn on a dime rhythmic panache, smeared synth stylings — as if every texture were washed out in sun-glazed daylight somehow in the dead of night — and searing guitar lines rising from the murky depths.
There's shades too of Steely Dan at their Royal Scam grimiest — bringing to mind The Fez and The Royal Scam itself in particular — on tunes like Wish You Were Black and the marathon nine-minute album-closing Television. This sort of half-lit bedroom funk is a personal favorite sound of mine (see Prince's debut For You for another example), and should if there's any sense in the world at all spawn a feature of its own sometime in the future.
If there's a neon-tinged eighties analog to the sound I'm getting at here, then it must be Mtume circa Juicy Fruit. The album's centerpiece is the title track, no doubt, but there's a wealth of sterling rubberband funk in evidence throughout. The high top blacktop moonwalk of Green Light is emblematic of the whole affair in its casual loose-limbed bounce, with the more explicitly electronic grooves of Hips and Hip Dip Skippedabeat shearing into prime electrofunk territory. The production throughout is just perfect, with none of the overly-harmonized, booming drums that you'd often wind up with during in the era.3 It's the flipside of all the canonical new wave records here and a stone cold classic.
And while we're on the flipside, Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is another unmissable slice of new wave electrofunk — from a crew that's arguably the progenitor of the form — and the flipside to PIL's Metal Box (the founder of this feast). The deconstructed start-stop groove of Funk Gets Stronger — featuring Sly Stone in full effect — is practically straight up new wave and never fails to make me flash on Adam And The Ants' Dirk Wears White Sox4 (particularly the distinctive guitar tone).
The whole record plays like a roadmap of eighties funk possibilities and beyond, and is absolutely essential listening. It will likely sound patchy at first, but give it time: what you're hearing is the familiar One Nation Under A Groove/Flashlight magic formula being warped and mutated beyond the point of recognition. Its strangeness is its calling card. The band even turn out the Lodger-esque freaky cod-reggae of Shockwaves, which starts out like a joke track (with fake accent to boot) before dropping out into the divine ravishment of the chorus. Definite shades of Bowie and très post punk!
On a related note, I make no apologies whatsoever for the heavy representation of Parallax 200 records here, since the sonic neighborhood on the table today couldn't help but throw up some of my favorite records almost by default. Wrapping up that list definitely put this sound firmly in mind. In truth, it likely inspired the whole trip! No doubt many of the remaining records will make the 300 when the time comes...
Now where was I... Ah yes, Japan. Coming a year after Adolescent Sex, Quiet Life and the Life In Tokyo 12" both seem to predict Duran Duran's self-titled debut in their sleek, chrome-eyed surfaces. Speaking of which, don't sleep on Duran Duran's 1981 debut, a record that is well worth checking out in its own right. The ace new wave disco of Planet Earth stands out as a particular highlight, but really the whole record is golden. Don't listen to the hipster haters — Nick Rhodes is way cooler than any of them anyway. Listened to back to back to back, these three records (Life In Tokyo, Quiet Life and Duran Duran) play like a tour of Europe by high-speed rail.
And while we're still on the continent, it's fitting to round out this strange punk funk-by-way-of-new wave triumvirate with Simple Minds, whose early records belie their Scottish origins and seem to point toward the most shadowy recesses of the Eastern Bloc. From the grimy claustrophobic corridors of Real To Real Cacophony to the sleek steel surfaces of Empires And Dance and even the Steve Hillage-produced widescreen canvases of Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, this is all prime real estate in the sprawling terrain of post punk/machine funk that just begs to be explored further. I've spent quite a bit of time here myself.
You've got the dead-eyed disco of Premonition, yawning gleefully with cavernous jaws and drip-dropping percussion, the slow-motion punk funk dirge of This Fear Of Gods and Today I Died Again's exquisitely swirling dread on one hand and the Kling Klang clanking funk of Sweat In Bullet (pointing the way to New Gold Dream) and the clockwork, backwards-crab-walking rhythm box black hole League Of Nations on the other. Taken as a whole, the four record run5 is a stellar excursion into post-Bowie In Berlin sonics.
So check them all out, the Simple Minds records and everything else here too. They won't do you wrong. I hear that the vendor across the street — yes, that gaunt gentleman in the robe — has them all on cassette, so don't sleep. Trust me... you need these records in your life. So fix up real quick. I'll be in the basement down the way grabbing some records from my homeboy Cornelius for the next chapter...
Actually, Prince's phenomenal Lady Cab Driver — from the glitzy 1999 double-LP — mines a very similar terrain. It's also got some crossover potential with The Clash's Outside Broadcast, come to think of it...
None can test. I'm on record as preferring the U.S. Version for its inclusion of the Zerox/Whip In My Valise, but only grudgingly so: I hate to give up the killer punk funk mekanik rush of not only Cartrouble (Part 1) (which is doubly salient in the current context) but also Day I Met God and Catholic Day. Life's full of tough choices...
Real To Real Cacophony, Empires And Dance, Sons And Fascination and Sister Feelings Call are actually preceded by Life In A Day, a solid new wave record in its own right that's well worth checking out too (especially for fans of early Ultravox and XTC. The ingredients just needed to marinate a little longer before morphing into the fractured splendor of Real To Real and beyond.
It's been three years and three days since I first posted the original Parallax 100, and I've been wanting to delve into the next 100 for some time now. Over the course of the intervening years, I've worked up a little list that I've tweaked here and there but have somehow managed to shape into a sequence as firm as the original rough-and-tumble 100.
The rules remain the same: each of these records have had a critical, sustained impact on me beyond the rush of a great new record, are all killer front-to-back and I still listen to them all the time. Albums, EPs and singles all rub shoulders here in what is — in the spirit of the original list — a deeply personal selection from the log book of my sonic travels.
Take it as a check-it-out list from a 21st century lapsed rave-dancing chrome-plated digital soul man chilling beneath the computer blue palms of the Parallax Gardens, sipping on a glass of cognac while the soundsystem is likely pumping out any of the following sounds on any given day while the Heights does its thing all around.
Once again, each and every one of these is a stone cold killer.
And so we descend...
Mystic exotica from the man who wrote Nat "King" Cole's Nature Boy (he once said that he "heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains"). A concept album shaped around a drifter's encounters on a mysterious island, with gently swaying rhythms cut adrift in an ocean of sound. It's tempting to think of this as one of the very first "head" elpees, arriving just in time for the new decade.
Smoldering Miami soul, like an even more lush and lived-in take on Willie Mitchell's Hi Records output (Al Green, Ann Peebles, et al.). Gwen McCrae's tough vocal presence, already in full force on this her debut LP, is one of the great treasures in soul music. The centerpiece here must surely be the lavishly glazed, smoldering sway of 90% Of Me Is You, which remains one of the great downbeat jams in seventies soul.
Improbably early oddball house from the two Fine Young Cannibals that aren't Roland Gift. The original version comes on like prime Yello, while the remix finds Derrick May stripping the track down to its essential organ/whistle framework (while not forgetting that trumpet!) and injecting a nagging piano vamp into this stop-start motor city groove.
West Coast g-funk spanning ten sides of vinyl like an endless stretch of California highway. There's an almost undisclosed amount of straight up techno running throughout, emerging in the moody surfaces of In Flight and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky, but the heart of the record lies in the blissed out machine soul of Brookside Park and I Wanna Thank You For (Steppin' Into My Life). The atmosphere takes me back to endless summer afternoons in the heat of the mid-nineties, daydreaming to similar moods and grooves for hours on end.
Raga-rock hybrid, in which massed choirs, oscillating Moogs and Shankar's sitar stalk the streets of Calcutta. First, you notice the excellent (and utterly unique) covers of rock 'n roll standards Jumpin' Jack Flash and Light My Fire, but it's the haunting downcast moments like Snow Flower and Sagar (The Ocean) that give the record it's unfathomable depth and dimension.
Icy disco inna new wave style by Yoko Ono, from the last sessions John Lennon ever played on (he was holding these tapes when he was shot). The surreal mood seems to predict both Yello's most atmospheric sides and David Lynch's later cinematic adventures, but Lennon's violent rubberband guitar solo still sounds wholly alien. It's all thoroughly in the tradition of the Plastic Ono Band records, with It Happened and Hard Times Are Over both incredibly moving expressions of a woman coming to terms with devastating loss and vowing to soldier on no matter what the future holds.
Well into his late-period career as a baroque pop crooner, Nat King Cole reunites with his original trio for some cool jazz action in a dream after-hours jam session. The group work their way through standards like It's Only A Paper Moon and a killer rendition of Duke Ellington's Caravan, while revisiting (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 and even cutting the opening song from Tin Men (Sweet Lorraine).
The birth of soukous, the Congo's beloved post-rumba musical export. In L'Orchestra African Fiesta (the group Docteur Nico formed with Tabu Ley Rochereau), his finger-picking style came to define the sound of the genre. This record the eighth entry in an flurry of LPs that emerged in the late sixties to chronicle contemporary Congolese music, three of which were devoted to Nico and remain the easiest way to get ahold of the man's music. The whole set should be reissued — in a spirit similar to the William Onyeabor box set put out by Luaka Bop a few years back — with gorgeous sleeve art intact.
Instrumental reggae 7" crafted by man from the EastHerman Chin-Loy around the singular Melodica stylings of Augustus Pablo. Its smeared exotica stylings and off-kilter skank always make me think of The Man Who Would Be King and Michael Caine and Sean Connery's long journey through the Khyber Pass and beyond.
Unfettered head to head guitar duel between two luminaries of MPB, wherein loose strings are bent into soaring fractals as guitars tango like clockwork in the sunset. Transcending even their most stellar individual work, the duo flutter between the lush calm of Nega and the wild careening frenzy of Taj Mahal. The fact that the vocals seem almost improvised, an afterthought even, only adds to the charm of this loose, freewheeling double-album.
Electronic hip hop epic in widescreen. MC Tee's trademark rapid-fire raps hit hard before flipping into sing-song mode for the chorus, all of it backed by impressively futuristic production from Kurtis Mantronik. You also get an extended mix thrown into the bargain, along with a dub version — which might be the man's absolute finest — in which the track's filmic descending spiral gets chopped into strange shapes before shocking you with a cyborg rap in the climax.
Chicago juke. I first crossed paths with Rashad's music via DJ Godfather's Twilight 76 and Juke Trax labels (this within the context of Detroit ghetto tech electro) back when I was living at the 1808, and I've kept an ear tuned in ever since. I was pleasantly surprised when he hooked up with Hyperdub a couple years back for both the Rollin' EP and this record, a true masterwork. Hypnotic synths soar over a bed of furious drum programming throughout, as slow-motion raps and bottomless bass twist and turn within. The man was a virtuoso and his music still sounds like the future.
Grachan Moncur's great galleon of soul-inflected free jazz, coming out of left field on the storied BYG imprint (arguably the genre's spiritual home). Moncur's trombone flourishes glide gracefully over the loose, swinging rhythms of Andrew Cyrille and Alan Silva's wide open double bass as he trades lines with the likes of Roscoe Mitchell and Archie Shepp. It's the sound of wide-open spaces and crystal clear skies, full of freedom and possibility.
Stranded in the south of France, The Rolling Stones lose themselves in the basement studio at Nellcôte and manage to wring magic from the whole affair. Careening from the dirty barroom rock of Rip This Joint into the raw Clavinet funk of Ventilator Blues and spending a satisfying amount of time with Gram Parsons-inspired country rock numbers, this band of dandy rogues turn out a ramshackle masterpiece that manages to capture the very essence of rock 'n roll.
Sun-warped post-Beach Boys blues. When You're Sad is a joyously aching teenage daydream with Alex and Rudi's gently soaring harmonies drenched in wild-eyed feedback. Meanwhile, the b-side's Haunting offers up an unresolved slab of guitar melancholy that seems to lay the blueprint for the whole shoegaze endeavor and by extension predicts the sound of nineties indie rock about four years ahead of schedule.
The birth of canyon folk, featuring songwriter Joni Mitchell front and center with virtuoso fretwork and that voice. In a bold move, Mitchell decided to rely entirely on new material rather than fall back on songs that she'd already provided to other artists (as was common practice for singer-songwriter albums at the time). The results are stunning, with a rich thematic continuity running through the record even as individual songs like Marcie and Cactus Tree glisten like gems in their own right, epitomizing everything that makes Mitchell's music such a treasure.
The Burning Spear's debut album, full of deeply spiritual roots music. Bottomless bass and rock hard riddims play out in stately slow-motion while Winston Rodney's haunting vocals hover above it all like a ghostly mirage. Songs like Ethiopians Live It Out and Fire Down Below ride tough rocksteady beats into the sunset, while the deeply moving Creation Rebel and Down By The Riverside are among some of the most gorgeous roots music you'll ever hear.
The final Funkadelic record, where all previous electrofunk innovations are taken to their illogical conclusion. P-funk's engine is deconstructed, the parts spread out across the floor of a Detroit garage while the band methodically rebuilds them into freaky malfunktioning warped machines. The deliciously bizarre Funk Gets Stronger (featuring Sly Stone), seems to rev its engine only to reel it back down again in a nagging stop/start groove, while the title track re-routes their early guitar freakouts through the new wave hall of mirrors before wiring it all up for the next decade's dancefloors.
Dutch techno par excellence from the inimitable Dobre and Jamez, in one of their myriad guises (Jark Prongo, Klatsch!, Tata Box Inhibitors, Chocolate Puma, etc. etc. etc.). The carnivalesque wild ride of Spectacle De Foire is undoubtedly the centerpiece here, but the Moroder-inflected digital disco pulse of Houp! seems to contain the germ of house music's next ten years in its gloriously geometric groove.
Algerian raï from a true pioneer of the form. Cheb Khaled plays the cosmopolitan desert mystic, singing his winding, hypnotic chansons over sun-glazed synths and spidery machine rhythms in a stunning roots 'n future mash up that defies its period of origin with striking clarity. He'd go on to international stardom and eventual political exile in France, but this record — released smack in the middle of the eighties — remains Khaled's crowning achievement.
Pre-eminent post punk malcontents lose themselves in the studio, intoxicated by the twin experimentations of krautrock and dub, in the process deconstructing the album format into three 12" singles packaged in a metal reel-to-reel film cannister. The ten-minute Albatross creeps out the soundsystem like a ghostly steamroller, Jah Wobble's ten-ton bass kicking you in the chest, while Keith Levene's searing guitar shoots sparks across its surface and John Lydon wails deep into the abyss. And that's just the first side...
Iconoclastic chanteuse Brigitte Fontaine blends sophisticated songcraft with Areski's droning inflections (inspired by music of the Algerian musicians that he grew up around) in a haunting set of skewed chansons. Les Borgias and Ragilia are shot through with a distinct North African inflection, while Il Pleut Sur La Gare and L'abeille come on like Medieval folk ballads. The duo also touch on their jazz roots in Déclaration De Sinistre and venture into acid folk with L'engourdie, a gently psychedelic reverie. Indispensable.
Brittle art techno masterpiece. BDP's deep space sonics remain in full effect throughout this sprawling set of electronic head music, touching on everything from skittering techno to ambient house and the abstract hip hop that had informed their music since day one when they first set to work cloistered in the mystery of Black Dog Towers. The esoteric current running through the trio's work — that ancient quality haunting the music's shadows even as they pushed headlong into the future — inhabits every corner of this record and sounds like the soundtrack to some secret society in lunar orbit.
Siren song in 3D. Sumptuously produced headphone r&b laid down by Da Bassment cohort Darryl Pearson and masterfully inhabited by star-in-the-making Mýa. From that period when a slowjam would casually sound like a UFO landing in your backyard. Every element, from the crisp beats to the blurred instrumentation and of course Mýa's wistful multi-tracked harmonies, is meticulously placed and blissful to the ear.
Lazing Texas rap from Devin The Dude, featuring guest appearances from the likes of Scarface, Spice 1 and the rest of his old crew, the Odd Squad. It's a supremely lush and mellow LP, to my mind surpassing even the excellent Fadanuf Fa Erybody as the finest full-length on Rap-A-Lot. A laidback, homegrown live sound prevails throughout, with deep blunted bass, smooth guitar runs, synth strings and dusted bleeps enveloping Devin's loose-limbed raps like a twilight mist.
Discomix reggae cover version of the Dazz Band's immortal Let It Whip, self-produced by the great Derrick Harriott, which somehow manages to surpass the sterling original. The version on the flip is reworked by Paul "Groucho" Smyke, who also dubbed King Sunny Adé's Ja Funmi into oblivion around the same time. The sumptuously pulsing bassline quickly grows hypnotic as myriad shards of sound reverberate across the soundscape, marking this out as the neon-bathed cousin to the x-ray dubs of Lloyd Barnes on Horace Andy's Dance Hall Style.
Definitive jazz funk produced by the Mizell Brothers during their blazing arc of seventies studio excursions. This one is without a doubt my favorite, featuring veteran key master Johnny Hammond tinkling the Rhodes over rock hard rhythms and soaring ARPs while that odd spectral chorus weaves its way in and out of the ether. The sound of the city.
Candy-coated ardkore from the man with the golden haircut, recorded well before he turned to the darkside and pounded the jungle scene into submission with his techstep brethren. The Full Mix rides tumbling breakbeats into the trancelike bridge before collapsing into a blissed out lovers rock chorus, while The L Mix brings hard-edged hoover stabs into the equation before exploding into the ecstatic piano-led climax.
My absolute favorite era of The Beach Boys is the six year period spanning between Smiley Smile and Holland. There's a strange charm and paradoxical rough-hewn smoothness to the sound that seems of a piece with both Lee "Scratch" Perry's sun-glazed productions at the Black Ark and latterly The Beta Band's oeuvre. The only trouble is, most of these albums are fairly patchy (thanks Mike Love). The one exception is Sunflower, in which Dennis Wilson emerges a master songwriter in his own right, kicking off the whole affair with Slip On Through's insouciant counter-clockwise groove and striking yet again with the immortal ballad Forever. Brian Wilson's presence remains in full force as well, lending his touch to the gorgeous sunstruck reverie Dierdre (co-written with Bruce Johnston), All I Wanna Do's ethereal drift and the ambient surf music of Cool, Cool Water.
Cheo Feliciano cut his teeth in legendary groups like Tito Rodriguez's Orchestra, the Joe Cuba Sextet and the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra before gradually descending into drug addiction and bad times. After a stretch of rough years and hard miles, Cheo kicks heroin for good and finally makes his record. A delicately crafted masterstroke, it finds him confidently working through a peerless set of Tite Curet Alonso songs like Mi Triste Problema and Poema De Otoño with unmatched depth and splendor.
Nocturnal electronic jazz from Detroit whiz kid Matt Chicoine. Standing outside the boundaries of any one scene or genre, he unfurled a number of exquisite delights on an unsuspecting public at the turn of the century, none better than this astonishing five track EP. Kicking off with the oddball deep house of Soul Clap 2000 before launching into Get There Tonight's off-kilter boogie and the bebop stomp of Landscaping, it's not long before he's easing into the half-lit downbeat moves of Insomnia In Dub and Four Ways Of Saying Goodbye's multi-part jazz funk excursion. A crucial record for me at the time, it's stayed with me ever since.
An utterly out of time acid-soaked masterpiece, existing in the netherworld between post punk and a living, breathing psychedelia. The Blue Orchids splintered off from the mighty Fall, and in the process stretched that band's speedfreak intensity out into a wild, pantheistic celebration of the great outdoors. Una Baines' ghostly keyboard mirages are the crucial factor in these eerie, widescreen sonic tapestries. The mood here curiously similar to On The Silver Globe, and I've often thought that this album could soundtrack the haunting ritual beach scenes from the first half of the film.
The soundtrack to your nightmares. Mark Arcadipane — the man behind The Mover — wrote the blueprint for rave hardcore with Mescalinum United's We Have Arrived and a sequence of uncompromisingly bleak 12"s that surfaced on his Planet Core Productions (yeah... PCP) imprint. This double-pack combines both volumes of the Frontal Sickness EPs into one blazing package of sonic extremism, ground zero for the zombie sound that would come to be called gloomcore.
Stone cold blues from the Mississippi Delta. Skip James' music remains deeply unconventional, full of shadow and mystery, marking it out as utterly unique even within the rich terrain of early blues recordings. Still, there's quite a bit of weary joy to be found hidden within this record's grooves, even if only in the promise of salvation after a lifetime of hardship and tragedy. Hope against hope, in other words.
Cymande — featuring musicians from Guyana, Jamaica and Saint Vincent — are the sort of group that could have only formed in a town like London. Merging Jamaican Nyabinghi rhythms (the bedrock on which reggae was formed) and American funk, the crew forged a wholly unique sound that on first listen seems almost too good to be true. The glorious rock hard beat of Bra rubs shoulders here with gentle moments like Listen and the slow-burning groove of Getting It Back, while the eleven-minute Dove finds the group stretching out into a rolling longform jam. There ought to be a copy in every home.
A particularly elegant slice of slinky UK garage, Love Bug's bionic two-step groove seems to expand on both the liquid garage sound of Roy Davis Jr. and Timbaland's android r&b. Diva Lynsey Moore's vocals get chopped and twisted through the tune's very fabric, in which every piece clicks like percussion in the clockwork machinery of this sultry digital juke joint jam.
Uptight New Yorkers cut loose in widescreen, stretching the impenetrable atmosphere of Fear Of Music to its outer limits as they mainline on African rhythms and the information overload of modern America. Each track is a dense web of sound spun from layers of throbbing bass, drifting synths, strange guitars and those rolling, polyrhythmic beats. Hard to believe the album predates the sampler, so intricate is its multifaceted construction. Indeed, you can hear the germ of nineties music (and beyond) buried deep within these unfurling, technicolor grooves... it sounds a lot like a blueprint for the future.
Eighties electro-afrobeat monster jam, with Fela Kuti's right-hand man in the driver seat, rocking the drum kit with singular style and finesse. N.E.P.A comes on like one massive arcing groove stretched over two sides of vinyl, each housing a song in two versions (with both an original and a dub) that probe different aspects of the same central theme. Sounding a lot like a pirate radio transmission from the distant future, this is the original groove that won't stop.
Digital dancehall! This the instrumental companion piece to Wayne Smith's epochal Sleng Teng LP, produced by Prince Jammy, which famously brought reggae into the computer age. Taking Sleng Teng's brittle electronic rhythms into the spacious realm of dub, these tracks embody a sort of machine perfection that one usually expects from places like Cologne or Detroit, but slackened and smoked out with a singular Jamaican flavor.
The Three Degrees hook up with Philadelphia International after their appearance in The French Connection, resulting in a vocal masterpiece of lush Philly soul. The ladies' breathless harmonies deftly swoop and glide through the gossamer orchestration of Gamble & Huff's Sigma Sound, their exquisite production ringing clear as a bell. You can hear disco's wings begin to spread in the driving pulse of Dirty Old Man, while in If And When's epic balladry and the swirling A Woman Needs A Good Man their pathos is undeniable. You also get When Will I See You Again, quite simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
A joyful hip hop symphony composed by the late great J Dilla just before his untimely departure from planet Earth. Slicing and dicing all manner of loops and breaks from his seemingly bottomless crates of arcane records and reconstructing them into rock hard beats and interlocking movements, he created his unassailable masterpiece: a boundless, wildly shifting song cycle that feels like a glorious tribute to life itself.
Dub techno par excellence. As difficult as it is to narrow it down to just one record from the dynamic duo of Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, for me Quadrant Dubjust edges out Lyot Rmx for the #1 spot. Its two elongated tracks — spanning one to each side — last the better part of forty minutes, dubbing Round One's soul-inflected I'm Your Brother deeper and deeper into shimmering cascades of four-dimensional sound. Over twenty years later, it still sounds like the future.
In a further elaboration on the towering eighteen minutes of Tago Mago's Halleluwah, Can submerge their mercurial kraut-funk deep into the swampy voodoo of their Inner Space studio and surface with a spooked out set of seven songs teeming with otherworldly atmosphere. The proto-world music of Spoon sets a rhythm box against a gently swaying, lopsided rhythm, while I'm So Green showcases the group's pop sensibilities at their absolute finest. The spectral tango of One More Night even points the way toward Future Days and beyond.
Offbeat slacker blues debut from the great Okie troubadour, this one goes down like the smoothest bourbon at sunset. Containing the original, superior versions of After Midnight and Call Me The Breeze, it's a veritable treasure trove of exquisite songwriting. That crawling rhythm box is a particularly far-sighted touch, putting Cale in shared company with Kraftwerk and Sly Stone as the first artists to put electronic rhythms on record. In the context of the hazy dreamtime sparkle of songs like River Runs Deep and Crying Eyes, it's almost as if they're springing naturally from the surrounding terrain itself. A casual masterpiece.
The a-side cover version of Jacob Miller's Augustus Pablo-helmed lovers rock standard is a post punk proto-trip hop masterpiece, submerging Lorita Grahame's torch song vocals within a murky stew of towering bass, metallic percussion and film samples from John Carpenter's Escape From New York. The flipside's Looks Like We're Shy One Horse, meanwhile, mines Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West over an apocalyptic groove skanking endless into some dystopian horizon as a blood red sun sets in the distance.
Remain In Light's (edgier, younger and slightly mad) sister record takes its forward-thinking fourth world moves further yet into proto-sampladelia and
the avant-garde. Side one is stuffed with non-stop crazy rhythms: The Jezebel Spirit is a left field disco staple for good reason, spooling an actual on-air exorcism out over a frenetic rhythm matrix, while Regiment's stone cold funk is something like the interzone flipside of Once In A Lifetime. Side two stretches out into pure atmosphere, its individual tracks seeming to materialize from the shadows before drifting off again into the night, spectral and sublime.
A quasi-compilation pulling together a whole raft of choice instrumentals from contemporary 12"s and unreleased material, this record offers a stunning glimpse into the mind of Larry Heard. Bookended by the genre-defining Can You Feel It — the song that took Europe by storm during the Second Summer Of Love — and Mystery Of Love (which has the distinction of being Larry Levan's favorite song of all time), the record also ventures into the deep space ambient house magic of Stars, Bye Bye's sleek electronic soul and the proto-acid madness of Washing Machine. Crucial in every respect.
Exceptionally lush and melancholy jazz for big band, orchestrated and conducted by the late great Duke Ellington. Moody and spacious, the record evokes lonely nights, long moonlit walks and downbeat solo blues. Melancholy meditations like Solitude and Willow Weep For Me are swathed in layers of sumptuous atmosphere, while wistful reveries like The Sky Fell Down and Prelude To A Kiss overflow with the promise of romance. There's even a solitary vocal showcase in Autumn Leaves, featuring the vocals of Ozzie Bailey intertwined with Ray Nance's weeping violin, a haunting duet in a lonely place.
Steeped in nuclear dread, economic uncertainty and post-Watergate blues, Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson casually laid down the definitive late-seventies soul album. I was turned onto this record by Moodymann's set at the first DEMF, which he opened with We Almost Lost Detroit (a rumination on the meltdown at Three Mile Island). I was blown away and simply had to track down the album, which includes songs ranging from Under The Hammer's synth-smeared funk to the downbeat blues of Delta Man and everything in between, each of them rising slowly from languid pools of soul.
The definitive statement in bleak mid-nineties hip hop, that era when the RZA's sphere of influence seemed to spread across the entirety of the genre. Showcasing the peerless words and sonix of Prodigy and Havoc, the loping unresolved piano figure of the epochal Shook Ones Part II is matched here by the more elusive first part, sounding like something that sprang from the same New York shadows that Terranova was just beginning to essay from across the Atlantic. You ain't a crook, son... you just a shook one.
The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers' eyes, sings Bowie as the record opens, setting the stage for his transition from plastic soul crooner to fearless sonic trailblazer. Using his recent forays into Philly Soul as a jumping off point into churning proto-disco rhythms — shot through with the motorik drive of German groups like Neu! and his avowed love of Kraftwerk — he kicks off with the ten-minute multi-part rush of the title track and closes with a heartbreaking rendition of Wild Is The Wind, touching on everything from the insouciant funk of Golden Years to TVC 15's robotic pop in between.
I'm a huge fan of Santana's music throughout the seventies, all of those excursions into space rock and interstellar jazz, but the raw frenzy of the debut remains my absolute favorite. This is where it all began, with the same band that rocked Woodstock within days of this record's release. Songs like Soul Sacrifice and the cover version of Babatunde Olatunji's Jingo are masterful in their building tension and release, while Evil Ways remains one of the great jukebox tunes of all time. If you dig the sound of the Hammond B3, then you need to get down with this record..
This is where Janetgoes deep. There's a breadth and depth to this record that one usually expects to find in an Erykah Badu or Moodymann LP — you can really get lost in this record's grooves — but it's really just a logical progression of everything she'd been up to since the days of Control. Jam & Lewis square their production finesse in the age of Timbaland and — with the help of Q-Tip and a young J Dilla — unfurl a set of tracks that are both state-of-the-art yet at the same time imbued with the timeless gravity of 70s soul, remaining right at home in the present all along.
Released hot on the heels of his excellent Visions LP, this is my absolute favorite moment from Robert Owens (the voice of house music). Teaming with master producer David Morales and Satoshi Tomiie on keys, this seems to be an attempt to recreate the dynamic of their epochal Tears (masterminded by one Frankie Knuckles) in sprawling widescreen. The Original Def Mix is a moody dancefloor burner of the highest caliber, but The Glamorous Mix takes it to another level altogether, where driving strings and organ runs are woven into an echoic epic over which Owens' voice soars.
Grime taken out to die in the frozen wastelands. Crafting a surprisingly varied landscape within this icy realm, Wiley roams between the crystalline garage moves of Doorway and the bleak tundra vision of the title track, essaying the almost straight up hip hop shapes of opener The Game and the shimmering r&b inflections of Special Girl along the way. I've always preferred Thin Ice to Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner, which is the classic grime LP by critical consensus (and a classic it is), but this ploughs a deeper furrow and remains my absolute favorite grime record.
Neon-lit bedroom funk from Miles alumni James Mtume, taking seventies cosmic jazz into the computer age. This is without a doubt the greatest electro boogie LP of them all, boasting computer blue dancefloor burners like Green Light and Your Love's Too Good (To Spread Around), while both mixes of Juicy Fruit remain twin pillars of atmospheric machine soul and a font of inspiration for so much music (from Dâm-Funk and SA-RA to Timbaland and The Neptunes) that I hold dear.
When weaving this record's captivating pan-global menagerie of sound, Yusef Lateef looked East for inspiration, predating just about everyone — from The Beatles to John Coltrane and even Sun Ra — in his exploration of the wider world's sonic shades and timbres. The Plum Blossom employs Chinese globular flute in it's off-kilter shuffle, while Three Faces Of Balal features a notably stripped-down exercise in rhythm. Rudy Van Gelder's peerless production imbues these sonic excursions with an almost exotica-esque sense of space, remarkable within the context of contemporary jazz.
The There's A Riot Going On of swingbeat, Sons Of Soul is a lushly multi-textured record that makes for a dense, absorbing listen. Some strange turns are taken in the shifting corridors of this record's jazzed-out r&b (see the almost subconscious funk of Tonyies! In The Wrong Key), even shading into the epic with the closing ten minutes of the Anniversary/Castleers suite. I can't think of many records that I get as much pleasure listening to, regardless of the mood I'm in (indeed, Fun may be the most honest song title you'll ever come across).
FSOL's sterling debut, featuring ten tracks of brilliantly vivid, four-dimensional breakbeat techno. A brace of tunes from the Pulse EPs get paired with new material like Expander and the epochal Papua New Guinea, rounding out a deft song cycle shot through with unmistakable cyberpunk vibes. From Buggy G. Riphead's striking sleeve art to the paranoid interludes and Central Industrial's slow-motion widescreen cascade, the whole thing conjures up imagery of Neuromancer, Blade Runner and Cabaret Voltaire in its long flowing corridors of Chiba City blues.
Exceedingly warped, fathoms deep disco on the legendary West End imprint. Forrrce unleash a proto-rap party jam with an unforgettable whiplash bassline tearing through its very fabric, while François Kevorkian works his inimitable magic on the flip, stripping the track down to its frame and rebuilding it like a ramshackle mine cart before running it off the rails through the illogical machinery of Jamaican dub.
Weird reggae forged by its greatest band and produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry at the peak of his powers. The title track is one of the finest dub outings ever, running down a languid skank before collapsing into a rock-hard slow-motion climax, while the Tell Me Something Good cover version blows away everyone I've ever shown it to. Throughout, Scratch coaxes the swirling sounds of the Black Ark into a singular negotiation of reggae roots and the deepest chasms of futuristic dub.
Of all the records to spring from N.W.A.'s axis, this is hands down my favorite. A dense, varied record, full of twists and turns like the liquid funk of the title track and the skittering fast-forward groove of Portrait Of A Masterpiece, it even features the entirety of N.W.A. on The Grand Finalé. Dr. Dre's ace production splits the difference between the hard edges of Straight Outta Compton and the nimble funk of Efil4zaggin, while The D.O.C. out-raps everybody else in the crew. No One Can Do It Better indeed.
Cosmic canyon folk from ex-Byrd and CSN main man David Crosby, recorded in San Francisco and featuring local luminaries like Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia (along with further members of Jefferson Airplane, Santana and The Grateful Dead) and a few L.A. colleagues for good measure (including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell). This ad-hoc supergroup shines in Cowboy Movie's low-slung, eight-minute canyon funk jam (a chronicle of CSNY's dissolution as seen through the prism of The Wild Bunch) and the murky tumble of What Are Their Names' abstract, blazing protest, while gentle, otherworldly moments like Traction In The Rain and Orleans quietly steal the show with a shimmering magic all their own.
Sparkling proto-new wave from a four piece group of hard-dreaming CBGB luminaries. Picking up where West Coast acid rockers like The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane left off, Television reshape yesterday's wild psychedelia into a contemplative sonic menagerie — with just a hint of punk attitude — that ushered in a whole new era for rock.
Pastoral Krautrock from a large, shifting group of musicians centering around the vision of Florian Fricke. Gentle instrumental sketches like Kleiner Krieger and Morgengruß set the stage, gradually giving way to the title track's lush, multi-part longform jam — featuring the ethereal vocals of Djong Yun — that dominates the entirety of side two. The common thread running throughout is a bucolic sense of tranquility and near-telepathic interplay between the musicians.
Two holdovers from eighties new wave are joined by younger techno DJ Darren Emerson and dive headfirst into dance music, sculpting a moody masterpiece of electronic noir. Karl Hyde's rock dynamics are crucial to the record's singular tone, with the overcast alternative rock stylings of Tongue and Dirty Epic's subterranean guitar moves utterly unique within the context of nineties dance. This is "binary skyline" music, to borrow a phrase from Snakes, shimmering on a cloudy horizon.
Twelve-inch post-disco dancefloor action from synth wizard Wally Badarou, lifted from his excellent Echoes LP of the same year (recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau). The Vine Street mix by Paul "Groucho" Smykle is the absolute best version of Chief Inspector (and it can only be found here!), gliding along with percussion inspired by D.C. go-go and slipping into a zero gravity moonwalk for its dreamlike refrain. Tying together strands stretching from disco to post punk, dub to hip hop and even the nascent house music, Badarou winds up with an eerily prescient hallucination of the next twenty years of club music.
Late sixties minimalism from one of the prime architects of the form. Absorbing the hypnotic electric pulse of Indian classical music as a prime influence, Riley treats the organ as a proto-synthesizer and plays every note by hand, becoming the human sequencer as he multi-tracks myriad layers of keyboards, harpsichord, tambourine and goblet drum into a cycling electronic ballet on the sidelong title track. The flipside's marathon workout, Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band, trades kinetic flow for gently droning arcs, with Riley's improvised saxophone dancing across its surface.
Jefferson Airplane are the embodiment of radical sixties counterculture's interface with rock and are the obvious precursor to seventies German groups like Amon Düül II (the commune that coalesced into a band) and Ash Ra Tempel. This 7" single stands as their greatest merger of righteous joy and anger into a triumphant firebrand vision of acid rock, continuing the everyone sing at once (preferably in a different key) and let the chips fall where they may late-period sloppy proto-punk vocal style that they'd pursued since Volunteers. Mexico, possibly the greatest song about smuggling marijuana into the country, expands on the spirit of songs like We Could Live Together, while Have You Seen The Saucers is quintessential West Coast space rock, setting the stage for Paul Kantner's Jefferson Starship and Blows Against The Empire.
Sleazy new wave glam rock, where punk meets disco in the red light district. You can see where Duran Duran got most of their ideas (executing the whole Sex Pistols meets Chic equation years before it had even occurred to Nick Rhodes and Simon Le Bon), and I've often thought that you can hear a bit of Royal Scam-era Steely Dan in the jazz-tinged grooves of Wish You Were Black and Television. An utterly original sound in evidence throughout, this record deserves to be be more widely heard (and imitated).
Cyberpunk jungle. Taking in the sonic skyline of Vangelis' Blade Runner Blues and sampling a snatch of Roy Batty's "tears in the rain" speech from the film's conclusion, Dillinja runs riot with his trademark depth charge bass bombs and speaker-shredding breaks to create one of jungle's all-time greatest rollers. The two tracks on the flip pursue the same path of shape-shifting, aerodynamic drum 'n bass intensity, rounding out a three-track set of superbly engineered breakbeat noir.
Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer may have gestured ominously in the general direction, but this monolithic, towering LP was the de facto birth of heavy metal. Slowing hard rock down to a robe-shrouded crawl, Black Sabbath injected a blood-soaked sense of the occult into their music while everybody ran for cover. A key outpost in rock's grappling with James Brown's elegant, funky beats inna caveman stylee, this stone tablet is cherished by rock, rave and hip hop heads alike (just ask Ice-T and Joey Beltram). Containing five ruminations on slow-motion fury, for me the debut remains their finest hour.
Mande music snaking its way through the desert sands of Mali, cooked up by the region's finest band and fronted by the inimitable Salif Keita, whose piercing wail cuts through the dense instrumentation like a knife. The towering title track rocks a dusty downbeat rhythm before breaking into a double-time frenzy in its coda, while Kandja refracts Caribbean music back across the Atlantic in mutant form. Balla closes the record on a gentle organ-led shuffle (think Booker T. & The M.G.'s), with a vibrant repartee between the band as they ride off into the sunset together.
Endless cosmic jam by an ad-hoc supergroup of Krautrock luminaries, the results edited down into a series of five spaced-out kosmische LPs (of which this is the first) by Rolf-Ulrich Kaiserwithout the knowledge of the band. This is true outer space/inner space music, with one extended track sprawling across each side. The opening Galactic Joke is a pulsing excursion into deep sonar architecture — its guitars arcing gracefully into oblivion — while the flipside's Cosmic Joy inhabits a dark textural sprawl that ultimately spawns a ten-ton bassline. The record should come with a spacesuit.
Brian Eno once called this the most important record ever made, and when you hear it booming over a nightclub soundsystem at full volume it's pretty hard to argue. Pulsing machine music produced by Giorgio Moroder, this forward-thinking computer disco remains wildly influential. And then there's the matter of Donna Summer, who takes the whole affair to another plane altogether, her voice soaring in graceful arcs around that central rhythm and putting all manner of would-be divas to shame in the process. This is hardcore.
For my money, the greatest late-summer hip hop LP ever. East meets West in this extended song cycle about two cousins from opposite coasts spending a summer together in the city that never sleeps. If you imagine a rap record produced by Roy Ayers, you wouldn't be too far off. Even the skits are good. This always takes me back to August of '95 when my brother and I were refinishing a deck for walking-around-money, tripping out under the blazing sun with Jammin' z90 coming through like a mirage in the Santee heat... Born To Roll, the man said.
The perfect encapsulation of Nu Groove's half-lit, anything goes vision of house music, where reggae, disco, ambient and acid rub shoulders on the dancefloor and nobody misses a beat. Of course it's hard to choose just one Bobby Konders 12", but this one's the reason the man's a household name where I come from. From the rolling pianos of Let There Be House to the searing 303 lines of Nervous Acid, Massai Women's eerie Serengeti atmospherics and the sprawling deep house epic The Poem, it's an unmissable EP of off-the-wall New York house.
This is the sound of my youth. I could have picked any of their first three LPs, but this one's dubbed out, rootsical bass architecture marks it as my absolute favorite. The voodoo calm of Karmacoma, Weather Storm's invisible soundtrack, Mushroom Vowles, Tracy Thorn's mournful croon, the smoked out Light My Fire cover version, Horace Andy's x-ray falsetto, the depth-charging 303 basslines, Nicolette's serenading of the spirits and Tricky's dread magic — still in full force at this point — all blur into the perfect prescription of blunted Bristol blues and a true smoker's delight.
Mingus' Impulse! debut finds him righteously at home in the house that Trane built, working through a series of four complex suites inspired by Duke Ellington that — with all apologies to Count Basie — seem to take big band jazz into the atomic era. Mingus was so impressed with Bob Theile's in-house production that in the liner notes he proclaimed that his fans could throw out all of his old records because this was the sound he was after all along!
Skeletal, dubbed out reggae from the concrete jungle. Black and white newsprint paranoia reigns supreme throughout, not unlike a remake of The Parallax View set in contemporary Kingston. Spying Glass, later covered by Massive Attack, drapes gutter-glazed synths over its stately, slow-motion crawl. Horace Andy's lonely falsetto is cloaked in layers of desolate production courtesy of Lloyd Barnes, who stretches these solarized riddims out into echo-chambered infinity.
Dark and moody electro dubbed out into a mirage on the fabled Cutting Records imprint. Hashim advances from the sparse, crisp edges of his epochal electro jam Al-Naafiysh (The Soul) into deeply blunted terrain, the sound of which seems to strangely overlap with that of certain late-period post punk records like 400 Blows' Declaration Of Intent in its slap-bass fueled approximation of William Gibson's visions of the future. This always makes me think of riding around with Snakes back in high school, bombing down the lonely corridors of Grantville and Mission Gorge at night.
The spectacularly powerful debut, and the unacknowledged midpoint between Kate Bush and Neneh Cherry (by way of 4AD). A treasure trove of striking moments, ranging from the machine rhythms of Jerusalem and I Want Your (Hands On Me) (which seem to trace a jagged line between Control and Buffalo Stance) to the warrior charge of Mandinka (featuring the unmistakable guitar of one Marco Pirroni) and the indie rock drone of Just Call Me Joe (sounding like The Breeders a couple years early), the record's heart lies in majestic numbers like Jackie and the drama of Troy's towering suite, while the lush folk balladry of Just Like U Said It Would B and Drink Before The War swoop in deftly to conquer all. O'Connor wields her voice like a weapon throughout, and on The Lion And The Cobra she takes no prisoners.
After his stunning major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar went on to top it soundly by improbably hooking up with jazzmen like Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner and Kamasi Washington, crafting a vital modern rap record in thrall to figures like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. There's a wealth of material here, from the staggering modal grandeur of How Much A Dollar Cost to King Kunta's nightclub stop and the free jazz interludes in between, while the bleak intensity of tracks like u and The Blacker The Berry are balanced by occasional moments of lighthearted euphoria like These Walls and i. The sonic breadth in evidence throughout is matched only by the vast array of subjects Lamar explores over the course of this often harrowing — if ultimately uplifting — record. Someday, someone will write a whole book about this record.
The kid from the Jackson 5 delivers yet another pop masterpiece, the claustrophobic machine shapes and soaring chorus of which mark it out as my absolute favorite moment from the man. The Extended Dance Mix stretches the tune's crashing groove to nearly eight minutes of sonic perfection, with Jackson vamping sublime over its protracted jam. I've often thought this tune was a kindred spirit with the contemporary techno output of Detroit's big three: when those gorgeous, soaring synths hit in the chorus — Jackson's vocals sliding effortlessly across the surface — you're cruising the same sprawling metropolis corridors essayed in Reese's Rock To The Beat, Rhythim Is Rhythim's It Is What It Is and Model 500's Off To Battle. File under futurism.
Swashbuckling ragga ardkore produced by PJ and Smiley of Shut Up And Dance. Setting the tone for the nineties, this swings wildly from the breakbeat madness of Ragga Trip and Wipe The Needle to Illegal Gunshot's straight up dancehall moves and the awesome EWF-pillaging groove of The Killing. The instrumental 18" Speaker — a bassbin-shattering slab of dubbed-out ravefloor magic — spools wild bleeps across a shuffling breakbeat strapped with a bassline like an oil tanker. One of those records where everything comes together to form an unlikely masterpiece (in truth SUAD had quite a few of those under their belt), this is what raving is all about.
Legendary proto-punk Detroit heavy metal. Maybe the wildest live album ever recorded, and certainly my favorite. The title track and Come Together ride great churning riffs deep into the redline, while I Want You Right Now seems to split the difference between Wild Thing and 1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be) in a slow-motion come-on of epic proportions. The closing Starship borrows from Sun Ra in a wild freeform launch into the stratosphere, rounding out a chaotic masterpiece that manages to transcend its era and feel brazenly alive in the present.
An urban troubadour rises from the streets of Detroit to cut a blistering folk LP. Rodriguez hits plain and direct throughout — rather than hiding behind layers of abstraction — as he chronicles his singular visions of the inner city. Each of these tunes progress with a wicked internal logic that slowly creeps toward their inevitable conclusion (like the baptism scene from The Godfather). I only recently learned that it was arranged and produced by disco/funk stalwarts Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey. Right on!
The lushest, most laidback LP from Stevie Wonder in the seventies, an era when the man could do no wrong. After surviving a near fatal car accident the previous year, he seemed to enter the studio in an even more introspective mood than usual. Indeed, aside from the blistering electronic funk of You Haven't Done Nothin' — the last in his line of songs to take on our very own Parallax icon Richard Nixon — this is by far his most mellow album of the decade. Even more lavishly arranged than usual, it features appearances by figures like Minnie Riperton, Syreeta and The Jackson Five, lending their rich backing vocals throughout, while Tonto's Expanding Head Band coax the verdant shapes of their machines into a sumptuous bed of sound.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, firing on all cylinders, dropped this 12" hot on the heels of their debut full-length and somehow managed to surpass everything on it. A crucial, forward-thinking elaboration on The Message, with a next-level reality rap flowing sharp and precise over skyscraper-crumbling beats and a searing, futuristic production, this anticipates and exemplifies basically everything I love about modern music.
Jungle came out of nowhere a few years back with this absolutely blinding album, a sterling debut haunted by a dozen of their gloriously fractured dancefloor hymns. Sounding wholly alien and unlike anything else around, I like to imagine this intoxicating hall-of-mirrors post-disco trip would have sounded right at home pumping out the immaculate soundsystem at the Paradise Garage. These shimmering grooves shift and slide like liquid metal, melting into a sonic T-1000 reclining at the cutting edge of dance music and pop.
The mesmerizing Edu Lobo's most intimate record finds him unveiling a thoroughly unique take on lush Brazilian samba. I always liked how Woebot would refer to him as "the Brazilian Bryan Ferry". Here you definitely get that same sense of sophisticated languor one finds in Roxy's more downbeat moments. The peerless Quarteto Novo, fresh from Miles Davis' Live/Evil sessions, provide sumptuous backing with their patented turn-on-a-dime rhythmic panache and nimble touch. Everything here is light as a feather, yet deep as the ocean.
Cinematic free jazz with its eyes locked firmly on India. Alice Coltrane takes her boundless vision into widescreen with a full string orchestra in tow for this record's five swirling rhapsodies. Her masterful reworking of late husband John Coltrane's A Love Supreme breaks into a left field beat that leaves you blinking in disbelief at the improbable perfection of it all, while the sprawling Galaxy In Satchidananda feels like the soundtrack to some metaphysical sword-and-sandal epic set on an alien planet orbiting a distant star.
Wild-eyed Celtic folk troubadour cuts loose with a jazz combo, reaching his true potential as he unleashes a stone cold masterpiece imbued with gentle soul and a spiritual elegance all its own. The heart of the record lies in sprawling character studies like Cyprus Avenue and Madame George, where Morrison lingers on these sad characters longer than most would dare. Sweet Thing and the title track seem to magnify the sum total of human love until it threatens to eclipse all of its bitterness and hate, embracing the world in its weary arms. And really, what could be better than that?
Dense NDW. This is a space music that sounds like something SETI picked up on a particularly long range scan, those churning alien sonics emanating from within the center of some distant black hole. Voices echo just on the outer rim of the soundscape as fractal synth sequences pulsate all around, literally absorbing everything within reach. It feels like a staircase spiraling off into oblivion as gravity's pull draws you ever deeper into the churning vortex below. Surreal and occasionally disturbing — like late-period David Lynch — and the true soundtrack to In The Mouth Of Madness.
Juan Atkins's second release on his own Metroplex imprint is characteristically ahead of its time with its ultra-modern stripped down production and racing computer blue sequences. A lone driver's tale unfolds, recounting a freaky trip through the nocturnal highways of Techno City and the mysterious passenger he encounters along the way. The flipside is a turbo-charged rework of No UFOs (the centerpiece of the first Model 500 record), which finds Atkins short-circuiting World War III by landing a spaceship in your backyard. A bold, angular line drawn through the middle of the 1980's... this is what Detroit Techno is all about.
Rising from the ashes of post-industrial Cleveland, Pere Ubu are without a doubt one of the great American bands (in fact, they're almost too good to be true), working up their own unique brand of post-Velvets racket long before punk — let alone post punk — even existed. In the past, I'd always gravitated toward their earliest sides (essayed on the Terminal Tower compilation) but over the last year or so the razor-sharp precision of The Modern Dance finally won me over once and for all. This is either the sound of perfection perverted, or perversion perfected... take your pick.
Dreamy, jazz-inflected folk from one of the early visionaries of the Laurel Canyon scene. Lazy reveries like Strange Feelin' and Dream Letter drift weightlessly beneath the setting sun, even as a curling undertow continues to build up deep within until the interminable jamming of Gypsy Woman threatens to pull all of its surroundings into orbit before collapsing into a swirling vortex of proto-Krautrock intensity. Sun-baked with an undercurrent of dread, this is the L.A. of Inherent Vice.
Monumental, unclassifiable moody psychedelic cabaret rock 'n roll from the days when giants roamed the lazy beaches of California. Jim Morrison comes on like a twisted beat-poet crooner (echoes of Eden Ahbez in full effect) while Ray Manzarek wields his keyboards as if they were synths. Meanwhile, John Densmore seems to draw his tricky rhythms from anywhere but rock and Robbie Krieger's crystalline guitar style anticipates Carlos Santana. The whole effect is entirely unique, yet so easy to take for granted owing to the sheer magnitude of their historical impact. Utterly essential.
German b-boys cut loose in widescreen with Krautrock legend on guitar. Basically a jazz record, Tokyo Tower is eight minutes of somber perfection, while the flipside's Clone is a slab of seriously bleak microtonal madness that drops you into the middle of The Parallax View without map or compass. Terranova's album from a couple years later was good, but this right here is magic. When this first dropped, it seemed to me like a record from another age... whether that age was twenty years in the past or twenty years in the future, I'm still not quite sure...
Chris Corner steps out of the shadows to front his own group — sounding like some unholy blend of Scott Walker and Marc Almond — who wrap him up in the raw architecture of feedback and ragged downcast beats on the long road to ruin. The whole trip feels deeply unhealthy and self-destructive — making plenty of stops in some incredibly dark places along the way — yet somehow in its resolute, brave stance finds itself at a strangely uplifting conclusion, crawling through the basement to find redemption. If OK Computer were as good as everyone says, it would sound an awful lot like this.
NOTE: To continue onward to The Parallax 100, click here.
A mix for a today. A brief history of the world. Originally conceived as a simple Spotify playlist, so the transitions are a bit abrupt here and there, a tad rough (like, who cares?) This is a case where it's about the story the songs tell. Soul-baring comments may be forthcoming... then again, maybe not. For the moment, I let the music speak for itself.
Rowland S. HowardDead Radio (Reliant)
Kate BushHow To Be Invisible (EMI)
Duran DuranSave A Prayer (EMI)
Patti Smith GroupDancing Barefoot (Arista)
Love And RocketsSo Alive (Beggars Banquet)
David BowieBlackout (RCA Victor)
Blank DogsSetting Fire To Your House (In The Red)
Ric OcasekJimmy Jimmy (Geffen)
Bat For LashesDaniel (Parlophone)
The CureLullaby (Fiction)
DovesM62 Song (Heavenly)
Echo & The BunnymenThe Killing Moon (Korova)
The Rolling StonesHeaven (Rolling Stones)
Lee Hazlewood & Nancy SinatraSome Velvet Morning (Reprise)
The Velvet UndergroundSunday Morning (MGM)
Young Marble GiantsBrand - New - Life (Rough Trade)
The Afghan WhigsAlgiers (Sub Pop)
The Jesus And Mary ChainHappy When It Rains (Blanco Y Negro)
Note: There is a sequel for this mix (in the works).
I once said that I could write a whole book about this record, so how about a (rather lengthy) post to start the ball rolling? It's often daunting to write about a record so close to one's heart, so personally significant is it that one fears they won't do it justice or the words won't come. However, lately I've found that you've just got to jump in there and get on with it, that once the work is done you have something to show for it (rather than a dream deferred indefinitely) and chances are it'll suit the subject just fine. So here goes...
Big Audio Dynamite - Megatop Phoenix
If ever I wrote one of those 33 1/3 books, the series that chronicles classic albums from There's A Riot Goin' On to Another Green World, then Megatop Phoenix would surely be the subject of mine. I remember nearly twenty years ago, after growing up with the Planet BAD compilation (an anthology of the band's music, spanning ten years of recorded output), tracking down the album based on an intense fascination with Contact and the wild acid breakbeat jam that closed out the track.
The compilation's lone selection from Megatop Phoenix - the other albums contributed at least two or three songs each - Contact marked it out in my mind as the group's weird record, and being the sort of kid perennially drawn to the strange, it seemed right up my alley. Somewhat harder to find than the other albums (the shops never seemed to have it in stock, for whatever reason), it wasn't until a bit later that it turned up at the Point LomaMusic Trader. My chance had come, so I snapped it up with haste. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As much as its bound to come off as hyperbole, I reckon that this is the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of the eighties. It may not have the reputation or sheer pop culture impact of The Beatles storied song-cycle, but it certainly ticks every other box available: here's a set of great songs recorded with cutting-edge studio-as-instrument techniques, dubbed full of effects and sequenced perfectly - almost symmetrically so - into one killer extended suite, recreating the feel of a multifaceted live performance. Plus, both records have breaks!
The fourth and final full-length of the original B.A.D. lineup, Megatop finds the group five years deep into their career and truly firing on all cylinders. Here is a band who knew exactly what they were doing and precisely how to do it. With a story stretching back to 1985 - and even further, truth be told, into the heady days of first-wave punk and The Clash - perhaps it might be worthwhile to rewind a bit and start at the beginning...
The Story Of The Clash
The Story Of The Clash (Epic: 1988)
The story of B.A.D. begins with Mick Jones, the lead guitarist for The Clash. As everyone undoubtedly knows, The Clash (along with bands like The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Damned) were the standard-bearers for the rise of punk in the media glare of 1977. Singles like White Riot, London's Burning and Complete Control were crucial cuts in punk's early arsenal, while their self-titled debut was - along with the Ramones debut, Nevermind The Bollocks and Damned Damned Damned1 - one of the first punk full-lengths to hit the shops.
The band quickly began expanding beyond the constraints of straight up punk rock, exploring reggae, rockabilly, New Orleans r&b and eventually mixing dub, disco and hip hop into their dense sonic stew. The group seemed to straddle the dividing line between new wave and post punk (much like Simple Minds' contemporary records, Empires And Dance and Real To Real Cacophany), but with a curious Sergio Leone-influenced image as outlaws of the American West, often trading in western imagery and bedecked in cowboy attire. This, of course, earned the band their detractors, but I find the whole trip quite evocative and endlessly fascinating.
In fact, this phase of the group remains my absolute favorite, as attested to by something like The Clash At The Edge Of Forever.2 Hooking up with figures as disparate as rebel country singer Joe Ely (Lubbock, Texas), dub scientist Mikey Dread (Port Antonio, Jamaica) and graffiti artist/part-time hip hop MC Futura 2000 (New York, New York), they ran the gamut of post-disco dance music practically at the dawn of the form's existence (see 1980's triple-LP Sandinista!). Tracks like The Magnificent Seven, This Is Radio Clash, Straight To Hell and Guns Of Brixton remain utterly unique dubbed-out post punk missives (all of which, on a personal note, were absolutely crucial records for me back in the day). Their presence on many of the era's key dancefloors - stretching from the Roxy to the Paradise Garage - attests to the music's strange brilliance, as does their latter day status as Balearic3 staples.
After their extraordinary fifth album - Combat Rock - the band were at a crossroads. Lore has it that Joe Strummer wanted to delve deeper into dub and dance music, while Mick Jones wanted to follow in the footsteps of The Who, basking in the band's status as stadium rock stars. What happened next, however, seems to betray the fact that reality was less cut-and-dried. Jones was unceremoniously fired from the band while Strummer recruited a group of young mohawked punks to take his place, steering the band toward a back to basics direction with their swansong Cut The Crap. Jones, meanwhile, struck out in another direction entirely...
This Time I Bet You It's BAD
B.A.D. in full effect (from left to right): Greg Roberts, Don Letts, Mick Jones, Leo Williams and Dan Donovan.
Interestingly enough, Jones was initially slated to be in General Public, laying down guitar on the entirety of their debut record before leaving to pursue his own vision. Linking up first with post-punk audiovisual man Don Letts, he began delving deeper still into hip hop and dance music. Rounded out by bassist Leo "E-Zee Kill" Williams (who would go on to record as Screaming Target and Dreadzone in the nineties), drummer Greg Roberts and keyboardist Dan Donovan, Big Audio Dynamite sprung into being as one of the original (alongside New Order) indie dance propositions.
Their debut LP, This Is Big Audio Dynamite, was a stunning mash up of stutter-funk sampladelia, machine rhythms and mid-period new wave songcraft. Immersed in contemporary dance culture, the sounds of New York club music, early hip hop and the nascent digital dancehall all informed the group's striking new sound. The iconic sleeve itself - capturing the crew (minus Donovan) in stark black and white - perfectly signalled the bold, deeply unconventional music contained within.
The first side of the record is dominated by radio hits like Medicine Show, E=MC² and The Bottom Line (the 12" single of which actually came out on Def Jam in the states, where the track was remixed by Rick Rubin), all of which are lush, multi-layered indie dance excursions, replete with film samples (particularily of the Sergio Leone and Nicolas Roeg variety) and chiming pop inflections. Their accompanying music videos featured Don Letts' striking visual sensibilities, ranging from a time-travelling DeLorean in the wild west4 to the band playing underground, decked out like nuclear power plant operators.
It's worth noting that the second side of the record takes a sharp left turn, given over to skeletal dance workouts like the dancehall-inflected A Party and Sudden Impact!'s third-rail electrofunk workout, both of which might just be my favorite things on the record. You also get the peculiar electro-hoedown of Stone Thames and closing track BAD's big beats thrown into the bargain, rounding out a solid set of state-of-the-art dance pop. All in all, the group were off to a strong start with an auspicious debut that plotted an utterly original vision.
Their sophomore record, No. 10, Upping St., finds Strummer temporarily back in the fold and manning the producer's chair. The drum machine breaks are even heavier this time out, in truth not a million miles removed from what you might expect on a contemporary Mantronix or Run-D.M.C. record. The LP finds the group descending even further into dance territory, and rather appropriately the video for the block-rocking C'mon Every Beatbox features the band performing in a basement dive5 while a group of b-boys-and-b-girls (including a young Neneh Cherry) dance their hearts out.
Conversely, V. Thirteen is firmly in the chiming pop vein established on side one of the band's debut, sounding for all the world like something from Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish. Switching gears yet again, the apocalyptic, album-closing Sightsee M.C.! rocks a titanic raggabeat over which Mick Jones and Don Letts trade verses, taking the group's side two sensibility into the lower reaches of the charts. Hollywood Boulevard, perhaps the best track here, finds Jones unleashing a rapid-fire series of images - with the same compression of language you'd find in both contemporary hip hop and amphetamine-era Dylan - over an early house beat complete with Derrick May-esque strings! Stunning.
Tighten Up Vol. '88, the third record, finds the group splicing their pop sensibilities seamlessly into contemporary dance rhythms. With the dividing line (nearly) effaced altogether, both sides of the coin bend to meet in the middle. The gorgeously evocative cover art, painted by ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, is emblematic of the whole affair, depicting a buzzing soundsystem party beneath a freeway overpass.
The rolling machine rhythms of Just Play Music!, casually unfurling like a lazy day at the beach in mid-summer, seem to betray an affinity with Paisley Park. In fact, whole swathes of the record feel thoroughly indebted to Prince circa Around The World In A Day (note that the group would later cover 1999 during live shows). The contemporary Lovesensi 12" - which features a mash up of the entire Tighten Up album in the space of five minutes - even features a nude Leo Williams sprawled out on a beach recliner in what must be a nod to Prince's contemporaneous album Lovesexy!
Indeed, there's a laidback, anything-goes spirit to the entire affair that's quite appealing. The Battle Of All Saints Road melds hoedown fiddle and banjo with extraterrestrial raggabeat sensibilities, while Funny Names and the nebulous title track seem to drift by coolly on an atmospheric plane, receding gradually into the horizon in Atari-esque gradient colors. Other 99 and Applecart, meanwhile, mark a winning return of the group's britpop sensibilities in a pair of soaring refrains that benefit from the record's rich production flourishes.
And yet, despite the marked development of B.A.D.'s sound, there's not yet evidence of rave's kaleidoscopic funhouse psychedelia at this point. Therefore, it's tempting shorthand to call Tighten Up Vol. '88 something like the group's Rubber Soul: a casually brilliant full-length statement wrapping up everything that's come before and setting the table for what's just around the bend. This is the final trading post on the road to this trip's ultimate destination.
On Death's Doorstep Born Again
Mick Jones in 1987 (background Paul Simonon's sleeve art for Tighten Up Vol. '88).
But the road had a few bumps yet to come. When Mick Jones' daughter Lauren came down with chickenpox, he caught it as well. While Lauren recovered quickly, Jones - who had never had chickenpox as a youth - took a serious turn for the worse and before long had fallen ill with pneumonia. Suffering severe infection of the mouth, throat and lungs, Jones checked into the intensive care unit of St. Mary's Hospital - where he was promptly hooked up to respirators - and found himself in critical condition. For eight hours he battled for his life, and remained unconscious for weeks after. In the process Jones sustained considerable nerve damage, which seriously affected his throat and vocal chords.6
Recovery took nine months, as Jones underwent protracted therapy to rebuild himself from the ground up.7 The whole ordeal seemed to bring everything into focus. In the hospital I could see things clearly, says Jones. Serious illness gives you time to reassess things. I saw that B.A.D. was going on to something new.6 Parallels could be drawn with Brian Eno's time spent in the hospital after being hit by a car, during which he conceived ambient music, or even Bob Dylan's fabled motorcycle crash and The Basement Tapes - recorded with what would become The Band8 - that followed in its wake. In any case, the revelation that presented itself to Jones was found in the buzzing sounds of the nascent rave culture that had begun to take Britain by storm.
A bit of context might be in order: the Second Summer Of Love was in full bloom by 1988, with raves springing up all over the UK and clubs like London's Shoom and Manchester's Haçienda9 fully indulging post-acid house tastes. Built on a foundation of import 12"s from cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago, the sound was a pile up of house, techno, hip hop and Balearic beats from around the world. House records like Mr. Fingers' Can You Feel It, Black Riot's A Day In The Life and Rhythim Is Rhythim's techno rhapsody Strings Of Life would rub shoulders with hip hop like Mantronix's King Of The Beats and Eric B. & Rakim's Follow The Leader, along with the industrial EBM of Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and Cabaret Voltaire, all spliced soundly with the requisite disco/post-disco sounds that lie at the root of the whole endeavor. Spike it all with choice Balearic records like New Order's True Faith, The Woodentops' Why Why Why and of course The Clash's own The Magnificent Dance, and you had the soundtrack for a musical revolution.
Almost immediately, homegrown acts began springing up everywhere, from the techno exploits of Manchester's 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald to the moody house music of London's Bang The Party and Bomb The Bass' block-rockin' beats. Over in West Yorkshire, the Unique 3 were making low-end rumblings of their own, resulting in a sound that would ultimately feed into the the proto-junglist innovations of Shut Up And Dance and 4 Hero about a year later. Even erstwhile indie rockers like The Shamen, Happy Mondays and A.R. Kane were getting into the groove, following the footsteps of New Order (who had themselves begun to tune into the sounds of rave culture around this time) down the slippery path of indie dance. It seemed like everyone - from soul boys to b-boys to rude boys and indie rockers - were all tuned into the same frequency.
With 1989 in full swing, this is the environment that B.A.D. found themselves in when they entered The Kinks' Konk Studios to record their fourth album. After operating for years at the intersection of new wave, hip hop and club music - in their own way already working out the same internal logic that would play out full scale on the ravefloor - it would seem that the band were more than ready for the challenge. Connecting with the energy around the movement, Jones exclaimed, We're talking thousands of kids getting together and dancing. It’s all about freeing up yourself and dancing and getting loose. Through this escapism you free yourself. The authorities don’t know what’s going on. They have no control. It’s just like punk was.6 With Mick Jones' near-miraculous recovery behind him, he and the band seemed to surf the waves of Second Summer Of Love dancefloor ecstasy with the palpable born-again passion of the moment. In truth, there was something in the air. B.A.D. seemed to have a new lease on life, a new mission to live down. So they pulled out all the stops, and dove headfirst into the rave...
A Phoenix Rises
Megatop Phoenix promotional poster.
Take a moment to gaze upon that sleeve. Depicting a stylized phoenix literally rising from the flames (surely a metaphor for Jones' own recent experiences?), it features a pixelated, halftone fractal looming large in the distance.10 Superimposed over the titular phoenix, the group's name appears in boldfaced type (while both the promotional poster and sleeve reverse feature the album's title), beneath which stretches a photo-strip of the band posing for a promo shot. Taken in its entirety its a bold, confident image, its brash juxtapositions and no-nonsense design offering a perfect hint at the sounds contained within.
So what does it sound like? Well, let me tell you... The key to this record is those beats, that rhythm. The drums hover somewhere between the gaussian-blurred, blunted beats of De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising and the delicately crisp machine rhythms of Prince's Lovesexy.11 Balanced atop the beat is everything but the kitchen sink: you've got guttertronic synths, rolling breakbeats, rave piano, squelching acid basslines, ethereal backing vocals, malfunctioning drum machines, hallucinatory guitar, gang chants and dancehall bottom-end, all blended into an absolutely superb palette of sound and threaded together in (im)perfect harmony. Not to mention... samples, samples and more samples! Think 3 Feet High And Rising (yet again!), Paul's Boutique and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back: there's film samples, sure enough, but also snatches of sixties garage punk, British music hall, Rule, Britannia!, soundtrack music, Broadway musicals, digital dancehall, comedy records, funk loops and the Godfather Of Soul himself.
The production - handled by Mick Jones and Bill Price - is gloriously supple, and with each texture seeming to push and pull against the other in a brilliantly unstable framework, everything up for grabs. Whereas it might have sounded dated to late-nineties ears - attuned to the self-consciously fat sounds of tech-house, gatecrasher trance and big room techno that held sway at the time - with the benefit of greater hindsight it all sounds righteously at home in the company of the rude, rough-edged, and absolutely timeless sounds of its era: Todd Terry, the Jungle Brothers, Tiger, Trax Records, A Guy Called Gerald and Shut Up And Dance. Todd Terry just might be the single most appropos comparison: imagine a pop album with the same spirit as Royal House's Can You Party? and The Todd Terry Project's To The Batmobile Let's Go, and you wouldn't be too far off.12
I'd venture that what gave B.A.D. such a strong grasp on rave's dynamics was their extensive experience with pre-acid dance music, tracing electro-funk, hip hop, soul, reggae 13 back into post punk and The Clash's own dancefloor endeavors at the dawn of the decade. This is pure, unadulterated indie dance, in the classic tradition of ex-punks messing around with club music and coming up with a gloriously ramshackle vision of the dancefloor. Think of contemporary records like the Happy Mondays'14Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, Primal Scream's Screamadelica, The Stone Roses self-titled debut and In Gorbachev We Trust by The Shamen, along with New Order's foray into similar territory with Technique, for example.
The surprising realization I arrived at years ago is that none of those records come close to the level of total immersion in dance culture that Megatop represents. The closest would be Screamadelica (which came out over two years later, an eternity in the blazing pace dance culture kept to at the time), but Bobby Gillespie and co. had the help of outside producers like The Orb, Hypnotone and Andrew Weatherall (even roping in Jah Wobble for a killer bassline). Even so, there's a handful of diversions into the band's southern rock tendencies - which they'd fully explore on 1994's Give Out But Don't Give Up - from the pentecostal rock 'n soul of Movin' On Up and the weepy country ballad Damaged. Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches on the other hand largely captures a band jamming live in the studio, with production duties handled by Paul Oakenfold, another dance music heavyweight. Surely New Order's Haçienda classic Technique would qualify, but aside from a couple tracks, it's largely dominated by straight-up indie rock in the same vein as that on 1986's Brotherhood (not to mention the fact that the 12" mixes are where the club cuts really catch fire). Now don't get me wrong, each of these records are stone cold classics in their own right. I'm only attempting to measure the level to which dance culture runs through these records' veins15 in the cold light of day.
In contrast, Megatop is absolutely dominated by sampladelia and ravefloor sonix, and without the help of any club culture insiders, its success rests solely on the core unit of the band itself. It's an ecstasy record through and through, managing to dovetail Jones' love of life (in the face of near-death) with the loved-up spirit of the times. The entire album runs together in the mix in a nearly non-stop flow of crazy rhythm and melody, threading the pulsing beats of club culture with snatches of overheard conversation and Swinging London songcraft, taking in everything from Ibiza to Chicago and Madchester to Paisley Park, and weaving them all into a stunning sonic tapestry that seems to soundtrack the ultimate party.
Now, it's not often at all that I'm led to break out into a track-by-track analysis of an album, but this is one of those rare cases where it not only seems warranted but absolutely necessary. The song-cycle structure of the LP, paired with the fact that its my absolute favorite record of all time, both lend themselves to such an approach. Each and every track (even the interludes) are their own distinctly individual creations - filled to the brim with ideas - even as they remain perfectly intertwined with the greater whole. It's as if a verdant terrain stretched out before us as far as the eye can see, inviting further exploration. So, then, why not dive headfirst into the sonic banquet and see what we might find?
Megatop Phoenix promotional poster (back).
This is the universe... big isn't it?. Kicking off with a sample from Powell/Pressburger's 1946 film Stairway To Heaven (starring one David Niven), the mood is set by bit of lovers rock declaring ain't nothing going on but- before being interrupted by an MC shouting The best band in West London, B.A.D.! before a live crowd.
Oh yeah, it should be kicking in by now...
The opening salvo drops immediately, with a fractal fast-forward acid sequence spooling out crimson in the thick, humid night air as the group chant (all together now):
The troop was weak and weary,
Rations running low.
Mission seemed impossible,
We had to save the show.
Then, the beat drops in at a steady-rocking half-time downbeat, a heavy dub bassline pulsing beneath it all.
Rewind, operator gonna kill em with sound,
Bawling out murder and selector come down.
The song seems to tell the story of B.A.D. rallying in the wake of Jones' protracted recovery, banding together again and getting down to business to run tings in the dancehall. It's all tied together with the same Western imagery that The Clash drew on back in the day, conjuring up the image of a band of sonic outlaws and all around badmen riding off into the sunset, pinned down by Jones' power chords in such a way as to recall the great Link Wray.
Suddenly, at the tune's midpoint, Don Letts quotes Tenor Saw's Ring The Alarm and the drums break into a canter. Tapes spool in and out before an interview snippet with Mick Jones plays out, distilling the influence of thirty years of Jamaican music spanning from Prince Buster to Prince Jammy down to only a little, only the bass. Sure enough, that sub-bass continues to pulse beneath it all as rapid-fire breakbeats begin snaking their way through the mix and, for the last minute or so, you're listening to straight up proto-junglist bizzness. This in 1989, when even the likes of 4 Hero and Shut Up And Dance were still working out their equations... well, it's pretty startling to come across, no question. The addition of Jones' guitar psychedelia equally stunning in this context, forging a link between the retro shades of the sixties revival (by then in full swing) and the technicolor possibilities of rave.
All Mink & No Manners
The first of the interludes, kicking off with a breakbeat nicked from Schoolly D before a squelching synth wobble unceremoniously slips into the mix and another of Jones' olde English samples16 declares I don't know what this world's coming to, everyone trying to be better than their betters... mink coats and no manners!
After a brief snatch of Rule, Britannia!, Union, Jack kicks off with the break from The Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Women. Way back when, Union, Jack was my least favorite song on the album. Strangely enough, everyone I show the album to seems to single it out as a highlight, and over the years I've grown to love it. It's in essence a football-themed britpop number with a rolling, filmic sweep. The chorus backing sports an almost symphonic quality. Still, there's no getting around that beat when it drops, bass kicking you squarely in the chest. It certainly would have made a good live opener.
Two thirds into the song, crowd noise - no doubt from some soccer arena - rises from the mix as Jones contributes his second bit of sixties-esque guitar, eerily recalling George Harrison's reversed guitar parts on The Beatles' Revolver.. A memorable sample from Britannia Hospital slips into the mix behind the guitar jamming, before everything drops into a rolling snare rush and a certain synth squiggle struggles to escape from the dense sonic tangle of the mix...
Descending on a dread shadow, slow-motion guitar stabs unwind into a dubbed-out intro (bassline and all), replete with textures that wouldn't sound out of place on a Pram record. A voice intones the memorable incantation, groovy, dynamite, heavy... wow, as ghostly chuckling - seemingly on loop - emanates from the ether. Then, that screeching guitar stab returns - playing at the correct speed this time - ushering in a liquid breakbeat that rolls out for a single bar as that trademark synth-squiggle returns with a vengeance.
Suddenly, you're in an epic. The mix here so very lush, with treated power chords locked into the rhythm as a disembodied fiddle scrapes dexterous between the beats. Jones coos Ooh, ooh!, on the one followed swiftly by a snatch of vocalise (it sounds something like ooh-wah) recalling the sort of wordless vocal you'd find in an Ennio Morricone film score. Jones sings:
Feeling flying round,
'Round up in the air,
Bouncing off the walls,
Getting under my hair.
On the carpet, in the weave,
Up in trees on the leaves,
Feelings flying everywhere.
Which seems to brilliantly conjure up images of a rave when the party's really going off, the DJ's on fire and everybody's locked onto the pulse of the rhythm, lights and colors flashing off the walls as everyone dances together in ecstasy. Taking matters to another level altogether, he adds:
I'm on the right track
For what I want to say.
I got to get it out
There ain't no other way.
To make contact.
There ain't no getting away
From how I feel today.
Which is about as perfect an expression you could ask for of everything Jones alluded to when expressing his enthusiasm for rave's social energy, and that need to interface with it on its own terms. To make contact, in other words. Variations on these words make up the entirety of the lyrical content, and really, what more do you need? Looping on and on, rave pianos drift in and out of the mix with Jones occasionally tossing off another one of his guitar asides, before - at the three-minute mark - a snatch of The Who's I Can't Explain drops into the mix (out of nowhere) in such a way that seems to predict Fatboy Slim's Going Out Of My Head seven years early.17
Suddenly, the tune's gone acid on you, with a squelching bassline threading its way through that same fluid breakbeat, punctuated occasionally by what sounds like a power drill(!) as the beat drops in and out of the mix. Then, an into the abyss sort of slowdown sample plays, and the feeling is as if you've been sucked into a vortex, tripping out on the dancefloor as the beat plays on and on. It's at this point that those knobs really starts turning, and we're all in for some serious acid breakbeat magic.
It should be categorically stated that this song is perfect. Just perfect! Its groove is improbably sublime, and even if unfurled into perpetuity it would scarcely get old. The three-minute pop song comprising its first half is on the order of something like the Talking Heads' Once In A Lifetime, sharing a similarly strange haunting brilliance paired with the sense that its rhythm is advanced technology, something that shouldn't even exist yet. Add in the acid breakbeat coda, and its all almost too good to be true.
I'd like to take a moment to note the video for this song18, which in direct opposition to the sumptuous, almost cinematic quality of B.A.D.'s other videos, boasts thoroughly bargain-basement production values and yet possesses loads of charm. Think of the video for The Prodigy's Out Of Space or Pump Up The Volume by M|A|R|R|S:
Scenes from the Contact music video.
You've got floating technicolor ravers dancing against a jet black backdrop as the band - in stark black and white - seems to play in cryo-sleep (so cool they've got panache to spare). Each player's head rotates across the screen in slow-motion, interrupted by the vivid hues of graphic psychedelia. Mick, looking like he's ready for a game of tennis, does his guitar thing before turning about face and miming the guitar riff from The Who's I Can't Explain. The DJ (one Greg Roberts) cues up the next record and shouts Go!, before the graphics and the dancers merge into one, with the puzzled bandmates - now in full color - wandering around the landscape with priceless WTF?!? looks on their faces as this acid jam unfolds.
Without a doubt, it's something special.
Out of nowhere, a loping big beat rides roughshod over Contact's acid coda, bringing in a surf rock flavor (shades off Rockafeller Skank) at odds with the Chinatown stylings playing out in the foreground. After a brief snatch of George Formby's Mr. Wu's a Window Cleaner Now, the brittle house rhythms of Dragon Town cruise into the mix on a razor-thin 909 beat pushed along by a pulsing synth bassline. The effect is not a million miles removed from the contemporary bleep 'n bass records of Nightmares On Wax, with that same sense of homespun futurism suffused with the unmistakable whiff of sensi.
I've listen to this album so many times that I sometimes forget how strange Dragon Town sounds on first listen. It's a sublime tune, swirling and carnivalesque as Jones unfurls a string of off-the-wall couplets in another one of his occasional detours into Asia (see also Sony and The Green Lady). Gorgeous choirs - most likely sampled from somewhere or another - trill in the background throughout, as a 303 acid line rises stealth-like from the mix. When the sampled Chinatown, my Chinatown vocals drop, in tune and on beat, hovering three feet over those knobs turning on that tiny silver box, the effect is ecstatic.
Baby, Don't Apologise
The house moves continue with Baby, Don't Apologise, an unapologetic club track, one built for the dancefloor. Caning those reverse strings and detuned chorus loops over a lonely rave piano, the groove drops without warning into a piercing baroque string section on the order of not only Marshall Jefferson's Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem) but also Derrick May's contemporary sides. Think of it as a homespun indie take on one of Ten City's Windy City epics burning up the dancefloors of the day.19
The tune's another absolute corker, hitting you with a soaring chorus (built upon the song's title) that's ensconced within a fully electronic orchestral arrangement - complete with a French horn simulation - before dropping into a bridge where synth brass (sounding like pure electric current rather than any actual horns I've ever heard) pulses over a looping Whoa-o-a-oh! bit of vocalise. It all grinds to a halt with a dangling rejoinder - another one of those slowdown sound effects - with the exception of the pulsing rhythm which persists undaunted, as the tune resets itself before wheeling back for another verse as the carousel spins just once more.
On reflection, I reckon this tune should have been a 12" single. It's the most straight up, no-nonsense club track on the album, and could have done serious damage on the era's dancefloors. With Judge Jules turning out the club mix to Contact, perhaps they could have roped in a Todd Terry or a Kevin Saunderson to give it the 12" treatment? I'd love to hear what a Reese remix would have sounded like. Well, a girl can dream...
Is Yours Working Yet?
With the closing beatless bars of Baby's symphonic outro, a looping aquatic sound (that brings to mind The Orb, for whatever reason) accompanies the question How do you do ladies and gentlemen? before volunteering I trust that everyone is enjoying the music. Well, no complaints here, mate... A vocoderized sing-song - which seems to represent the audience - replies, and another single-minded beatbox begins working out its own internal logic while MGM soundtrack strings cascade asymmetrically in the background.
It would all be ridiculous if it weren't so much fun.
Around The Girl In 80 Ways
Closing out side one on a distinctly breezy note, Around The Girl In 80 Ways sounds remarkably like something that could have been cooked up at Paisley Park (think Sheila E. or André Cymone) but with the same homespun charm we've come to expect from planet Megatop (remember Lovesensi?). The verses are faintly subdued with a muted electric piano carrying the melody as a reggaematic organ chops out a slight skank against the blunted machine rhythm. Jones' vocals are intimate within such uncomplicated production, and the chorus seems to appear with little fanfare as well - over more or less the same backing of unadorned piano - before dropping into a second-level chorus where he sings:
Around the girl in 80 ways,
Most of them I know.
All of them are substitutes
For feelings I don't show.
It's a truly excellent refrain, spooling out carefree and easy while a subdued string section and what sounds like ladies cooing envelope the song. And then, of course, there's that delightful synth squiggle straight out the boogie playbook punctuating each bar. Think freestyle, think Madonna's Holiday... the whole effect is just gorgeous.
The song continues for a spell before dropping into another one of Jones' mini-hoedowns - in the tradition of Stone Thames and The Battle Of All Saints Road - which eventually assume control of the song about 2/3 of the way through. After the third run of this impromptu hootenanny, soundtrack strings enter the fray and descend into the song's conclusion, punctuated by a final stroke of organ that puts an exclamation point on the whole affair.
It's a perfect conclusion to the first side of a record that's brought us track after track of brilliantly crafted pop music imbued with the rude edge of the late-eighties dancefloor. With a slowed down reggae record and then a snatch of Bernard Cribbins' Right Said Fraid - which offers the rejoinder and so we... had a cup of tea - side one ends in such a way that sets up the second, where the Godfather himself enters the equation...
Side two of Megatop begins with words from James Brown himself:
Now I can't say exactly what did happen...
You just don't understand unless you've been through it.
Back-masked saxophone and choir spool out steadfast in the background, dialling up the tension before dropping into the speed-demon house of James Brown (the track). Clocking in at nearly 140bpm, it outpaces the rest of the album soundly, operating at speeds the likes of CJ Bolland and Robert Leiner - with their sleek, muscular European techno - would soon call home in the early nineties. In 1989, when even proto-jungle was still working at sub-130 tempos, it's extraordinary!
If memory serves, at the time only hi-nrg was this fast, and damned if that rapid-fire bassline - cycling up and down the keyboard - doesn't sound like something Patrick Cowley might have approved of. Mix in a bit of rave piano pounding along to the beat, a dash of detuned house sonix, a helping of warped synth brass and spike it all with some racetrack orchestra stabs - bringing to mind The Prodigy's Speedway (Theme From Fastlane) - and what you've got is a shot of pure adrenaline.
The lyrics seem to offer up a first-person account of James Brown's high speed chase and subsequent arrest the previous year, while the chorus quotes freely from the man's music: Hot pants, she look fine,It's a man's man's world,Please, please, please. There's even an offhand reference to The Bottom Line! After a soaring guitar solo from Mick, as the song barrels toward its conclusion, you get a proto-rap stringing together a bunch of JB song titles.
There's this interesting bit of social commentary to the lyric, especially in the chorus:
It's a man's man's world in America,
Jump back in my cell.
Please please please in America,
Slipping into hell.
Not to mention the portion of the song America (from West Side Story) that thrown into the blender at the songs midpoint:
Life can be bright in America.
(If you can fight in America).
Life is alright in America.
(If you're all-white in America).
Well, it's certainly Food For Thought!
James Brown was actually the first single issued from the album, although - as far as I know - only ever got a promo release. As such, there's a music video and this time it's much more in the B.A.D. tradition of colorful, extravagant visuals in Don Letts' usual striking style:
Scenes from the James Brown music video.
The band's rocking out beneath a graffiti-daubed parking garage through which a James Brown lookalike leads police on a high speed chase in his camouflage jeep. He shows off his dance moves in front of some cheerleaders as B.A.D. plays, with Don Letts and Mick Jones even recreating the bring the poor man his cape routine from Brown's live performances!20 While perhaps not quite as much of an unexpected delight as the rave-fueled Contact promo, it's still a great music video.
Everybody Needs A Holiday
Commencing with another one of these improbable bass/beatbox interludes - this time riding a midi bassline and piano combination that cut in out of nowhere - we get a bit of computer sing-song as Jones repeats the song's title over a jaunty tune that wouldn't sound out of place on PBS programming. Within half a minute it's gone, and a disembodied voice frets I don't want a vacation. I just want to get away... for good! He's answered swiftly with a whistling-led exotica shuffle that plays for a couple bars, which then gives way to a laidback quasi-digital reggae beat.
A distorted bass synth matches the bass drum in a 4/4 pulse as a slow-motion rhythm unfolds beneath, punctuated by periodic hand claps marking the half-time beat. Gentle, cheerful organs hold down the verses while Jones offers up the first verse, and then the chorus hits:
Earned a rest,
I know you worked all day
And everybody needs a holiday.
I'll stand guard,
And keep the wolves at bay.
Watch the fire,
While you dream away.
During which Mick is joined by the rest of the group - and a return of the sampled whistling - for what is surely one of the band's great gang chants, in this context getting into a real sea shanty vibe. Jones strangles his guitar into wonderfully strange shapes that recall sliding Hawaiian slack key guitar while the occasional melodica trills on the horizon. Definite Club Paradise vibes in evidence throughout.
Every so often, the tune seems to break almost subconsciously into dancehall double-time on the back of pepperseed snares that shift the focus from the half-time hand claps to the bassdrum/distorted bass axis of the song. Jones guitar ultimately works its way to the sixties-inflected shades of psychedelia essayed earlier on the record (which makes this song something a laidback riposte to side one's Rewind).
I just want to get away... for good!
Mick's A Hippie Burning
The album's longest interlude by some distance, this is more a sound collage in the vein of Revolution 9 than anything else. Starting with a snippet of Bernard Cribbins' The Hole In The Ground before dropping into another one of these convulsing drum machine rhythms, this time on the electrofunk tip, it's loathe to stay in one place for very long.
The most extended port of call is a folk guitar mid-section that backs a spoken word sample before dropping a comedic sing-song on beat, but even that quickly fades into a bit of sixties rock (which then disintegrates into reversed crooning!). The whole thing concludes on another great slice of sequencer rock, riding a descending bassline and digital percussion loop into the sunset before being rudely interrupted by...
In which acid house paranoia enters full force with the dread vibes of Joey Beltram and Frankie Bones. Over Megatop's heaviest beat, Don Letts takes the mic to set the scene for another wild night out in raveland:
Park Lane Green, it's Saturday night.
West End Central, flashing lights.
We've come to dance the night away.
UV, dry ice and DJ.
The stomping 4/4 beat is held down by a dread bassline punctuated by the occasional orchestra hit/rave stab, before jumping off into the sparkling chorus:
Speaker pump that devil sound.
Everybody's getting down.
Moonwalk over to the gents.
Exit Zombie money spent.
Then a quote from Strawberry Fields Forever (Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to...") by Letts slips into the mix as a looped sample of the Ooh, ah, ooh ooh ah! vocals from B.A.D.'s first hit The Bottom Line plays out in the background. It's at this point that these relentless bleeps start phasing in and out of the mix as the chorus repeats once again. The second verse is no less evocative:
Turnstile toilets, I joined the queue.
Drinks at the bar, drugs in the loo.
I entered Jekyll, came out Hyde.
Mister Chevignon's inside.
Which is rather appropriately accompanied by a maniacal cackling and yet more guitar psychedelia from Mick Jones. The chorus repeats once again, before Letts sneaks another quote - thise time from Prince's I Wish U Heaven - into the mix.
Bouncers, bimbos, lager louts.
Zombie dancefloor bugging out.
Black outside, the night is still.
Smiley moves in for the kill...
Which of course references the unofficial mascot of acid house culture in the UK:
Smiley moves in for the kill.
Cops and dogs in transit vans.
At 4 o'clock we raid clubland.
T for Tango through the door.
First us two and then you four.
Rather brilliantly, a police whistle blows twice just after the Cops and dogs in transit vans. line! We get another round of the first verse (scrambled this time), chorus and Strawberry Fields quotation (this time from Jones) before the song goes completely instrumental. Reversed, distorted vocals enter the mix and then everything else cuts out for a moment before coming back with a vengeance: the engineer starts turning the knobs on the bleep sequence and a squelching 303 rises from within the tune. The whole thing perfectly captures the rushing sensation of music hounding you while you're tripping out on the dancefloor.
While we're on the subject of House Attack and Megatop at its most acid, it's as good a time as any to note the two b-sides to Contact and James Brown: In Full Effect and If I Were John Carpenter, respectively. Both of which are basically acid house instrumentals. In Full Effect - with its loping bassline (seemingly built on House Arrest's foundation), diva/hip house vocal snatches and cycling percussion loops - brings to mind Bang The Party, while If I Were John Carpenter rides a rapid-fire bassline and occasional string section in such a way that recalls The KLF. Samples from the LP are scattered throughout the tune in a different context, along with the requisite film samples. Significantly, both songs sample guru/new age/meditation tapes in the same way that a thousand trance producers would in the next decade.
Now back to Megatop proper: House Arrest. When we checked out, we were still tripping out on the dancefloor as the tune rushed to its conclusion. Suddenly, everything but the bassline cuts out and we're left with these spiralling rave sonix that trade verses with a wordless vocal loop. The beat drops back in and then out again, looping again and again, before the wave crashes into...
The Green Lady
Suddenly, we're in The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow Is Born but this time with a crashing electro beat laid out beneath. Shimmering sonix twinkle on the horizon and a crystalline synth tone carries the melody, while synthetic slap bass integrates itself into the beat. This is Megatop's unabashed britpop masterpiece, with a melody that grabs your ear from the word go and never lets up.
I've always thought that this should have been a single. Next to Contact, it's my favorite thing here. In fact, I envision the trio Contact, Baby, Don't Apologize and The Green Lady setting up the perfect sequence of singles from the album: one for the heads, one for the clubs and one for the radio. I have no doubt that The Green Lady would have been a hit on the order of V. Thirteen and Other 99, taking its place on the Planet BAD compilation alongside Contact in the all-star draft pick.
Unexpectedly, London Bridge starts with a spasmodic percussion loop - lasting about thirty seconds - that wouldn't sound out of place on Warp or Mille Plateaux about a decade later. It gradually fades into an ethereal operatic vocal and old-time soundtrack fragment (doing nothing to dissuade the Warp comparisons!) before the song proper commences.
It's another Paisley Park-tinged excursion, with Jones indulging in a bit London love (in fact, it's something of a laidback answer to side one's Union, Jack, bringing it all back home again). Like The Green Lady, it has some rather pretty guitar work from Mick Jones. Stately string samples carry the beat for a chorus where the subdued pop melody really takes flight:
London Bridge is falling down.
They're taking bids from all around
(Give me dollars I don't want pounds).
London Bridge is falling down,
But I still love this town
From the Tower to the Underground.
After coasting on a cool breeze for just over three minutes, the song crumbles into old-time soundtrack strings once again.
Shades of another soundtrack open Stalag 123, namely those of Elmer Bernstein's The Great Escape, which mix into an jazzed-out organ progression colored by gentle synth brass. The whole thing screams languid, as Mick Jones offers the opening lines:
I'm fixing on a jail break,
But the door is open wide.
Stuck in Stalag 123,
And there ain't no one to bribe.
Taking the Paisley Park-inflected dance pop aspect of Megatop to its logical conclusion, a rolling machine rhythm enters the fray to carry the song while a pulsing bassline bounces casually across its sleek surface. Alongside Everybody Needs A Holiday, this is clearly the most laidback material on the album. It's certainly the smoothest (no contest!) and provides the perfect leisurely conclusion to Megatop Phoenix:
I've got the studio blues and some other bad news.
(The basements been swamped by a flood).
I've got the studio blues and it's ruined my shoes.
(My boogie's all covered in mud).
With dialogue samples from The Great Escape scattered throughout, the song seems like it could stretch on dreamily into perpetuity. And yet, at three minutes, eleven seconds it cuts out abruptly...
The coda End interrupts Stalag 123 with an incongruous bit of bluesy guitar heroics from Mick Jones. A sad, muffled bit of piano creeps in as a woman's voice bids Goodbye. Suddenly, it seems, the trip is over.
The Nineties Are Gonna Make The Sixties Look Like The Fifties
Mick Jones in the nineties (from Planet BAD artwork).
Megatop Phoenix turned out to be the last full-length album by the original lineup of Big Audio Dynamite. The group lasted for one more single, the excellent Free (a sister record of sorts to Contact). It was recorded for the movie Flashback (starring Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland), which makes the connection between the two summers of love explicit. At the dawn of nineties, a decade during which the eighties innovations of dance music, hip hop and alternative rock would reign supreme, it struck a note of precarious optimism with a memorable line from faded sixties activist Huey Walker (played by Dennis Hopper) that was sampled prominently by the band:
Once we get out of the eighties,
The nineties are gonna make the sixties look like the fifties.
The Big Audio Dynamite II lineup followed swiftly in its wake with further escapades into indie dance in the form of the albums Kool-Aid and The Globe (along with the attendant singles). Further records like Higher Power and F-Punk followed different incarnations of the band through the decade, culminating in the excellent - but alas, unreleased - Entering A New Ride22 in that storied year, 1997.
Tracks like the Kraftwerk-inflected Kool-Aid and The Globe's proto-dusted beats were first-rate dancefloor burners, while Rush conquered up the pop charts21 with yet another of Mick's britpop gems. From the junglist bass of dread house groove I Don't Know all the way over to the honest-to-goodness drum 'n bass of 1995's It's A Jungle Out There, the group kept its finger to the pulse of dance music, turning in idiosynchratic fusions like Melancholy Maybe's 4/4 garage pulse and the big beat fury of Sunday Best.23
Eventually - around the turn of the century - the group morphed into The Big Audio Dynamite Soundsystem, touring the UK with a rotating crew of DJs, MCs and musicians. A mainstay at festivals and nightclubs alike, the crew pressed on faithfully through the intervening years. Mick Jones dabbled in various projects throughout the 21st century, including Carbon/Silicon, production of the first two Libertines albums and time spent with the Gorillaz (including their performance at Coachella). Then, in 2011, the unthinkable happened: the original B.A.D. lineup re-formed.
Twenty-one years after their parting shot - an era during which dance, rap and indie have only grown in stature and all-encompassing grip on pop culture - Mick Jones, Don Letts, Leo Williams, Greg Roberts and Dan Donovan emerged - as if from their DeLorean in the Medicine Show music video - in the 21st century. It would seem that everything's changed, but then it's always been the same song playing anyway (you've just got to know the tune). With the five minds that brought us the all-conquering brilliance of Megatop Phoenix back together in the same outfit, touring once again and doing their funky thang, perhaps the gang have a couple more tricks up their sleeve after all... only time will tell!
1. There are of course, many other records in this story: The Saints' (I'm) Stranded, Wire's Pink Flag, along with the O.G. New York stuff like The Dead Boys' Young Loud And Snotty, The Dictators' Go Girl Crazy!, The HeartbreakersL.A.M.F. all the way back to The Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls (Jon Savage's ground zero apparent for punk in England's Dreaming). There's an ocean of stuff out there, to be sure, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
3. Named for the Balearic islands off the south-east coast of Spain (including Majorca, Formentera, Minorca and Ibiza), which featured sensational nightclubs soundtracked by all manner of music - spanning myriad genres and points of origin - mixed together into an electrifying non-stop stream of rhythm. British DJs on holiday in Ibiza brought this open-minded anything goes spirit back with them to the UK. If the record had a killer groove, they'd play it, regardless of where it came from. Records as disparate as Fleetwood Mac's Big Love, Richie Havens' Going Back To My Roots and The Residents' Kaw Liga were all Balearic staples.
4. No doubt inspired by the movie Back To The Future, the setting of Letts' music video managed strangely enough to pre-empt the old west framework of the third film!
5. Interestingly enough, the tropical backdrop behind the group - also featured on the album's sleeve - was apparently inspired by the one in Frank Lopez's office from the movie Scarface.
7. In fact, Jones thanks his doctors and the entire medical staff at the intensive care unit and Almoth-Wright Ward of St. Mary's Hospital, along with his speech therapist, in the album credits.
8. Interestingly, The Band appear in the Universal Inspiration section of Megatop's liner notes.
9.The Haçienda was actually run by Factory Records (FAC 51) and bankrolled largely on the back of New Order's record sales.
10. Significantly, this is exactly the sort of visual one could expect at a contemporary party. The rave scene ascended just as computer graphics were maturing into a form that would also turn out to have a profound impact on pop culture. They developed alongside one another, often informing each other in the process. Indeed, from the stark cyberpunk computer graphics Buggy G. Riphead produced for Jumpin' & Pumpin' at the turn of the decade to the colorful 3d renderings of films like Lawnmower Man, Warp's Artificial Intelligence series and Studio !K7's X-Mix videos (not to mention countless rave fliers and projection visuals) throughout the nineties, extending late into the decade with the dystopioan visions of darkside jungle (see the sleeve for No U-Turn's Torque compilation) and The Matrix, computer graphics and electronic music have been steadfast fellow travellers throughout their long and winding existence.
11. Both Prince and De La Soul feature prominently in Megatop's Universal Inspiration list...
17.Who Beats, a b-side from the Contact, even features that same loop from I Can't Explain bolstered by heavier breakbeats and a stuttering sample of Mick Jones singing contact. The effect is tres big beat '96/'97!
Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance). The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry - and proving ground - for breaking artists. This was the format in which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).1 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude2 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues - artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf - often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album. The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd - artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies - made their initial splash.
Soul music - despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre - began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'sGreen Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook3).
If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock - progressive everything, truth be told - with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form. Indeed most rock - bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet - was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade - even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised - while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoingParliament/Funkadelic saga. Even reggae - that stalwart of the 7" single - was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade. Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tables of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed - even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums - and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded. Similarily, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You can't knock something like Virgo's self-titled album from 1989.
Aside from dance music - which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) - the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot. Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space to Bandulu's Cornerstone. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarily, jungle - like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre - had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject - 20 great dance CDs - kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Oukast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest, spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty - figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift - clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.
1. The 45rpm 7" record, which emerged around the same time, offered a compact, convenient format in which concision was key... ideally suited for the single.
2. Originally released as Billie Holiday Sings in 1953.
It's 4/5. '45. Little slabs of sunlight cut on seven inches of wax. From rock 'n roll to roots reggae and post punk to soul, it was the great equalizer: the domain where the upstart musician could go toe to to with the stars. Of course some of the biggest names were masters of the form - look no further than The Beatles' and The Stones' killer run of singles through the sixties for just one example - tucking away stellar tracks on the flip that wouldn't show up anywhere else for years, but figures like The International Submarine Band and The Del-Vetts would come out of nowhere with records like Sum Up Broke and Last Time Around and drop heat of their own. Although it would increasingly lean on the LP format in years to come, rock 'n roll was born on the 7" single.
If there was one genre that dominated the form, then surely it must have been reggae. From the Wailing Souls' Without You to Augustus Pablo's East Of The River Nile and Zap Pow's River Stone, there was a practically endless stream of brilliant 7" singles flowing from Jamaica for decades on end.
The other obvious contender is the soul/funk continuum, boasting James Brown's run of People Records (not to mention his own records!) and Sly Stone's genre-defining rubbing shoulders with The Beginning Of The End's Funky Nassau and Dark Skin Woman by Sir Mack Rice. This isn't even taking into account the winding catalogs of Stax, Motown and Philadelphia International.
Post punk had it's own horde of stone tablets like the five-pronged attack of electronic records coming from the likes of The Human League, Throbbing Gristle, Thomas Leer, The Normal and Cabaret Voltaire. The flipside was twisted records like The Pop Group's She Is Beyond Good And Evil, PIL's Public Image and the Minutemen's Paranoid Time (indeed, this the era that you'd get loads of 7" records that were essentially micro-LPs, records like Minor Threat and the Meat Puppets' In A Car).
In the nineties you had things like Beck's Deadweight come out on 7" (and why couldn't White Gold have been the b-side to The Dandy Warhols' Get Off like it was on the CD?). There were loads of records that would have lent themselves to the format, even if they never did surface. Records like Roller Rinks & Chicks by Freddy Fresh, Scott Weiland's Jimmy Was A Stimulator, The Orb's 7" Edit of Toxygene... practically any of the dusted records of the era would have lent themselves to the form.
In the digital era, a lot of exclusively 7" music finally found its way onto other formats, via expanded reissues or compilations like the Nuggets box sets. Labels like Strut and Soul Jazz chronicled entire genres/scenes around the 7" single, breathing new life into the form. And there's still nothing quite like a good b-sides collection...
The grand architect of rock 'n roll guitar, Chuck Berry stripped contemporary rhythm & blues down to its framework and rebuilt it like a Detroit muscle car. More often than not, he'd rev the engine of this souped-up sonic machine and race it down the road at a blazing speed, drums pounding at a furious pace - his wild guitar sound at the focal point, cutting through the mix like a straight razor. Along with Bo Diddley's red hot sides and The Sun Sessions, this is where the future was laid down in steel and chrome.
Whereas many of the early rock 'n roll sides would often employ what amounted to a downsized big band orchestra, Berry's sound was rugged and raw; where many of those bands still traded in the rhythm of swing, he accelerated the beat to a motorik stomp. Horns were out, and pianos played but a supporting role. He'd have been rock's first minimalist if he weren't rock's first, period. Where earlier artists might have gestured in the general direction - songs like Rocket 88 and Move It On Over offering the first warning shots - he was the living embodiment of rock 'n roll.
Not only did he redefine the guitar's place in music, he was also an ace songwriter and lyricist: rock's first singer-songwriter-performer... he was the whole package. Songs like Thirty Days (To Come Back Home) played like episodes in an ongoing travelogue (think On The Road with a sense of danger and a killer backbeat). He'd return to many of his favorite themes again and again - the road, school, women and the music itself - circling back to look at them from another angle, inhabiting different characters and descending into further capers each time out.
You listen to something like The Great Twenty-Eight (where I first started with Berry way back when), and the songs race past thick and fast - Maybellene zoom! Oh Baby Doll zoom!! Johnny B. Goode zoom!! - and the passage of sixty-odd years does nothing to dull the rush, the man's guitar simply tears out the speakers. This was one of my go to records when I'd cruise out past Lake Henshaw on one of my periodic sojourns back in the day, its shimmying beat the perfect soundtrack for hitching the '78 - by way of the '67 - and winding out past Santa Ysabel and beyond.
Now obviously that run of singles was red hot (and the basis for his legend), but his trio of excellent fifties LPs - After School Session, One Dozen Berrys and Chuck Berry Is On Top - broaden the scope considerably to include diversions like the Latin-tinged beatless pulse of Havana Moon (also the b-side to You Can't Catch Me, one of my favorite 7" singles ever), Drifting Heart's exotica-in-all-but-name, the circular, proto-surf machinery of Jo Jo Gunne, Down Bound Train's careening pulse and the gutbucket instrumental blues of Low Feeling, all of which betray a vision that expands far beyond the parameters usually ascribed to the man.
And yet even those usual parameters are simply staggering: from the fast-forward groove of Can't Catch Me - with Berry's rapid-fire delivery sliding across its shimmying surface - to the raw swagger of Around And Around and the complex tumbling rhythms of I Want To Be Your Driver, this is is some of the greatest rock 'n roll you'll ever hear. With the exception of Bo Diddley, nobody rocked harder at the time, and while you could call Bo a hard blues man in the tradition stretching from Howlin' Wolf to Captain Beefheart, with Chuck Berry you were dealing with something different altogether.
In an era when Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System began its stretch from sea to shining sea, Berry laid down the definitive soundtrack. There may have been car songs before Chuck Berry (see Route 66 and Mercury Blues), but he crystallized it into something in which the form matched the content. It's tempting to extrapolate the man's early years working on the assembly line at the Fisher Body automobile assembly plant into the mean machine music he'd ultimately engineer. You Can't Catch Me - again! - is the blueprint, but the motorik drive of a song like Carol makes this point as well, stretching well into the future and presaging Neu!'s endless horizons on the Autobahn. Cars, motorik, Detroit... all of this is no coincidence. In the mid-fifties Chuck Berry did to rhythm & blues what Juan Atkins would later do to electronic music in the mid-eighties, rebuilding it into a lean street racer set on overdrive toward the future.
The man's songs would form the bedrock for early rock 'n roll and beyond, endlessly cribbed (Come Together, Surfin' USA, etc.) and covered, fueling the nascent scene as it gained steam to go on and conquer the world. There's loads of crucial covers - The Stones had their hand in more than a few - some of them even managing to exceed the man's original vision, but then you hear a song like Too Much Monkey Business in its original context - shot through with a spartan elegance and those nagging vocal asides - and it becomes clear that its never been bettered on its own terms.
Along with Bo Diddley's work, this is ground zero for hard-edged rock 'n roll spanning from Link Wray and surf rock to The Rolling Stones and Nuggets and beyond (it's not hard to hear the interlocking gears of Queens Of The Stone Age in Berry's metal machine music). This is where the whole rock endeavor accumulated the energy it needed to reach critical velocity and escape orbit, where it took on molten form and splintered into myriad shards and sounds in the process. Ushered in by a brown-eyed handsome man from St. Louis, it's a sound that live on in the present day, over sixty years later. All of that, and the man lived to be ninety, riding off into the sunset a legend. So long, Mr. Berry.