Big Audio Dynamite – Megatop Phoenix

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

(Columbia: 1989)

If ever I wrote one of those 33 1/3 books, the series that chronicles classic albums from There's A Riot Goin' On to Another Green World, then Megatop Phoenix would surely be the subject of mine. I remember nearly twenty years ago, after growing up with the Planet BAD compilation (an anthology of the band's music, spanning ten years of recorded output), tracking down the album based on an intense fascination with Contact and the wild acid breakbeat jam that closed out the track.

The compilation's lone selection from Megatop Phoenix - the other albums contributed at least two or three songs each - Contact marked it out in my mind as the group's weird record, and being the sort of kid perennially drawn to the strange, it seemed right up my alley. Somewhat harder to find than the other albums (the shops never seemed to have it in stock, for whatever reason), it wasn't until a bit later that it turned up at the Point Loma Music Trader. My chance had come, so I snapped it up with haste. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

As much as its bound to come off as hyperbole, I reckon that this is the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of the eighties. It may not have the reputation or sheer pop culture impact of The Beatles storied song-cycle, but it certainly ticks every other box available: here's a set of great songs recorded with cutting-edge studio-as-instrument techniques, dubbed full of effects and sequenced perfectly - almost symmetrically so - into one killer extended suite, recreating the feel of a multifaceted live performance. Plus, both records have breaks!

The fourth and final full-length of the original B.A.D. lineup, Megatop finds the group five years deep into their career and truly firing on all cylinders. Here is a band who knew exactly what they were doing and precisely how to do it. With a story stretching back to 1985 - and even further, truth be told, into the heady days of first-wave punk and The Clash - perhaps it might be worthwhile to rewind a bit and start at the beginning...

Chapter 1
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...

Chapter 2
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.

Chapter 3
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...

Chapter 4
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'14 Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, Primal Scream's Screamadelica, The Stone Roses self-titled debut and In Gorbachev We Trust by The Shamen, along with New Order's foray into similar territory with Technique, for example.

The surprising realization I arrived at years ago is that none of those records come close to the level of total immersion in dance culture that Megatop represents. The closest would be Screamadelica (which came out over two years later, an eternity in the blazing pace dance culture kept to at the time), but Bobby Gillespie and co. had the help of outside producers like The Orb, Hypnotone and Andrew Weatherall (even roping in Jah Wobble for a killer bassline). Even so, there's a handful of diversions into the band's southern rock tendencies - which they'd fully explore on 1994's Give Out But Don't Give Up - from the pentecostal rock 'n soul of Movin' On Up and the weepy country ballad Damaged. Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches on the other hand largely captures a band jamming live in the studio, with production duties handled by Paul Oakenfold, another dance music heavyweight. Surely New Order's Haçienda classic Technique would qualify, but aside from a couple tracks, it's largely dominated by straight-up indie rock in the same vein as that on 1986's Brotherhood (not to mention the fact that the 12" mixes are where the club cuts really catch fire). Now don't get me wrong, each of these records are stone cold classics in their own right. I'm only attempting to measure the level to which dance culture runs through these records' veins15 in the cold light of day.

In contrast, Megatop is absolutely dominated by sampladelia and ravefloor sonix, and without the help of any club culture insiders, its success rests solely on the core unit of the band itself. It's an ecstasy record through and through, managing to dovetail Jones' love of life (in the face of near-death) with the loved-up spirit of the times. The entire album runs together in the mix in a nearly non-stop flow of crazy rhythm and melody, threading the pulsing beats of club culture with snatches of overheard conversation and Swinging London songcraft, taking in everything from Ibiza to Chicago and Madchester to Paisley Park, and weaving them all into a stunning sonic tapestry that seems to soundtrack the ultimate party.

Now, it's not often at all that I'm led to break out into a track-by-track analysis of an album, but this is one of those rare cases where it not only seems warranted but absolutely necessary. The song-cycle structure of the LP, paired with the fact that its my absolute favorite record of all time, both lend themselves to such an approach. Each and every track (even the interludes) are their own distinctly individual creations - filled to the brim with ideas - even as they remain perfectly intertwined with the greater whole. It's as if a verdant terrain stretched out before us as far as the eye can see, inviting further exploration. So, then, why not dive headfirst into the sonic banquet and see what we might find?

Chapter 5
The Tracks

Megatop Phoenix promotional poster (back).
  1. Start
  2. 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...

  3. Rewind
  4. 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.

  5. All Mink & No Manners
  6. 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!

  7. Union, Jack
  8. 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...

    Contact
  9. Contact
  10. 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.

  11. Dragon Town
  12. 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.

  13. Baby, Don't Apologise
  14. 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...

  15. Is Yours Working Yet?
  16. 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.

  17. Around The Girl In 80 Ways
  18. 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...

    James Brown
  19. James Brown
  20. 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.

  21. Everybody Needs A Holiday
  22. 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!

  23. Mick's A Hippie Burning
  24. 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...

  25. House Arrest
  26. 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...

  27. The Green Lady
  28. 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.

  29. London Bridge
  30. 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.

  31. Stalag 123
  32. 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...

  33. End
  34. 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.

    Epilogue
    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 Heartbreakers L.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.
    2. The Clash - The Clash At The Edge Of Forever (Compiled 2016 by Coqui & DJ Slye and released on Cheap Hotel Records: http://cheaphotelrecords.com/playlist.php?release=CHR-006)
    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.
    6. Dougherty, Steve and Russell, Linda. Back from the Brink of Death, Former Clash Rocker Mick Jones Is Reborn as the Man from B.a.d.. People. Jun. 1989. (http://people.com/archive/back-from-the-brink-of-death-former-clash-rocker-mick-jones-is-reborn-as-the-man-from-b-a-d-vol-32-no-21/)
    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...
    12. ...as does Mr. Todd Terry...
    13. ...along with Zapp, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aswad, Bob Marley...
    14. ...and Shaun Ryder's gallant gang of dandy rogues.
    15. The MDMA in its DNA, if you will...
    16. Sampled from the 1946 film Mrs. Miniver.
    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!
    19. With Marshall Jefferson listed among the Universal Inspiration section of the liner notes, this very well may have been the band's intention.
    20. Check it out for yourself in this awesome performance of Please, Please, Please: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vruy2GRUsV8.
    21. Rush was B.A.D.'s highest chart placing, in fact.
    22. Which came full circle, bringing General Public's Ranking Roger into the fold.
    23. I remember reading a contemporary review by Norman Cook, who praised the record, drawing conections to The Clash's post-disco dancefloor moves.

Album Cuts

Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance). The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry - and proving ground - for breaking artists. This was the format in which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.

Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.

The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).1 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude2 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.

Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues - artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf - often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.

Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.

Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album. The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd - artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies - made their initial splash.

Soul music - despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre - began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'s Green Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook3).

If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock - progressive everything, truth be told - with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form. Indeed most rock - bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet - was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade - even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised - while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.

It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoingParliament/Funkadelic saga. Even reggae - that stalwart of the 7" single - was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.

As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade. Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tables of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).

Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.

And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed - even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums - and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded. Similarily, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You can't knock something like Virgo's self-titled album from 1989.

Aside from dance music - which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) - the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot. Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space to Bandulu's Cornerstone. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.

Similarily, jungle - like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre - had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject - 20 great dance CDs - kicking around somewhere.

At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Oukast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest, spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.

The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.

Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).

So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty - figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift - clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.


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.
3. See, for instance, Whitfield, Norman.

’45

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...

Chuck Berry

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.