Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Now That Fits Nice

In close parallel to the 1978-83 post-punk renaissance (as documented in Simon's Rip It Up And Start Again), funk, disco and the poppier side of side of soul was also having a damn good run of it at the same time (covered in Peter Shapiro's equally excellent tome Turn That Beat Around). With a vicious backlash, and fatigue at the cultural hegemony of Saturday Night Fever, the dust of disco settled into all kinds of interesting shapes - from the first stirrings of hiphop to hi-concept New York punky funky disco eccentrics like James Chance, Arthur Russell, the Was Bros. and Kid Creole/August Darnell. Punk, Afrobeat, reggae, fusion, electropop and Latino music were cheerfully appropriated for dancefloor use. Add the ominous dynamics of Reagan's victory and the constituencies he came to destroy, it made for a heady, implicitly political brew. It was perhaps unsurprising that new wavers like Talking Heads and The Clash hitched along for the ride. It was also apt that Bowie would end his run of greatness with Nile Rogers instead of Brian Eno. The integration of the audience was frequently as seamless as its collage of musical styles. It wasn't so much mutant disco, as hybrid; lending it a frequently unpredictable pizazz.

Of course, the arrival of Thriller, its almost totalitarian commercial impact, and the (arguable) backlash it provoked in the form of hiphop, swept this mini-utopia away; leaving dancefloors between a desexualised, deracialised, deradicalised Disneyland and the harsh admonition to 'keep it real' (until rave, itself a different kind of Disneyland, albeit existing largely in the head). Funk was eventually pushed to the margins, but for a while there the influence of George Clinton could be heard all over the place (yaoww!), and not just among his own P-Funk collective. This was before the horrors of AIDS and conservatism, when sexuality was openly celebrated; unlike the paranoid disgust of Jacko and his many imitators, or Material Girls insisting the only thing going on was the rent. Disco was assimilated into the default pop mainstream by the likes of Stock, Aitken and Waterman and Hi-NRG-lite like New Order and the Pet Shop Boys (their one true classic 'West End Girls' - the source of this blog's title - emerged from the New York scene mentioned above, but itself riddled with noirish sexual dread). The only Utopia Madonna pledged allegiance to was her own neoliberal success story. Jellybean Benitez served his instrumental purpose many movers and shakers ago. Despite her (increasingly desperate) bumping and grinding, the actual tracks sounded as sterile as any other by the late 80s. Disco vets like Prince stood out for the idiosyncratic niche he carved, but he was a rarity; reliant on MTV and Hollywood to make his mark. There were still somewhat anomalous exceptions, like Sly and Robbie's awesome 'Boops (Here To Go)'; but rather than prove influential, they ultimately suggested lost possibilities. 

Anyway, all the above is just an excuse to post some great tracks from the period. Ironically, the songs below are now most likely to be heard (if at all) in the twattier kind of hipster venue. Places that are far from sexy, integrated, adventurous, politicised or remotely Utopian. Where "fuck you" is the soulful refrain replacing "let's do it!" At least musically, things were a little more open then. Michael Henderson was an in-demand session player with fusion superstars, proving he could funk with the best of them, coiling his mighty bass around a filthy double entendre. Arthur Russell's deeply personal, spacious, spiritual style now has its due recognition. Rick James' Street Songs is the rare album that's excellent from beginning to end, and in a more just world, would have outsold Thriller to much healthier social and commercial effect. The production credits of Sly and Robbie speak for themselves, being in demand as producers with good reason. They eventually settled into the increasingly conservative and enclosed world of Jamaican pop. Frankie Beverly's Maze were relatively 'trad', reflecting the short-lived optimism of an emergent black middle-class; but never quite entered the mainstream with their lack of video glitz and high reputation as a live act. The last track (one of the greatest dance tunes ever, IMHO) is a lovely example of August Darnell's pop genius, and could be a manifesto for the whole milieu I'm lazily attempting to describe. Of course, with the exceptions of mighty Rick and Grace (for obvious reasons - look at 'em), none of these tracks had the pop videos that would be de rigeur by mid-decade. History was indeed made at night, but the Spectacle was closed to its potential; as pop (and nightlife) carried out its slowly gentrified, neutered facelift and eventual irrelevance. But whenever I hear this stuff, it can't help but evoke thoughts of a warmer world.


Phil Knight said...

I remember in the 80's a lot of critics used to unfavourably compare Rick James to Prince - he was seen as crude and lumpen in comparison to the fey, polysexual Mr. Rogers Nelson.

It used to to wind me up no end, because I thought RJ was fantastic, and Prince somewhat insubstantial.

There seemed to be a kind of prejudice at the time against anything that was obviously enjoyable, and RJ was in there with The Sweet, Stranglers, Knack etc. as someone who was just far too easy to "get".

W. Kasper said...

Rick James was great, and I know what you mean about being too easy to 'get'. It was very direct, visceral and didn't need all the high concept MTV rubbish that was Law by 1984. But if you hear 'Cold Blooded' it could have been made last week - people are still ripping it off.

He was also very, very resentful of Prince. He gave the little one his big break on an early 80s tour; but Prince's ruthless management brought in movie deals etc. He was also unfortunate enough to be at his peak while Michael Jackson was being rammed down the world's throat. I still remember his visible anger at the 1983 grammies.

Greyhoos said...

You would have to mention "Boops! (Here to Go)," wouldn't you? I couldn't stop playing that tune when it first came out.

And as far as Grace Jones is concerned, I think she's absurdly underacknowledged (espec concerning the "whole package" of music, image, persona, etc.).

It might be pointed out that there's another side to all of this. If anything, a lot of the mainstream dance music of the decade (particularly toward the middle of the decade) was very, very thin on account of a trend toward a sort of metronomic minimalism --- a very stripped-down beat and an unforgivable deficit of bass. It's why I found so much of the dance music of the era to be so lacking.

Although I am reminded of a remark by Giorgio Moroder which may have turned up in Shapiro's book, where Moroder said that he increasingly simplified the beat in his work, because he noticed that the more complex/poly- the rhythm, the fewer people would dance to it. Seems like that may have been a harbinger of things to come. It certainly was the case with most disco, which progressively moved further and further away from its funk and latin origins in that respect. Which partially explains why early hip-hop DJs and b-boys favored funk/latin breaks of a few years prior.

When it comes to P-Funk, I always viewed D.C. Go-Go as an effort to keep the rhythmic density and complexity of a 70s P-Funk groove alive. Part advance, part backtrack. If you hear early records by some of those early Go-Go acts, they were very disco in orientation. But w/in a few years they'd added all the additional percussion and plunged into a more complex rhythmic interplay.

W. Kasper said...

Shit. I completely forgot about go-go. Would have been very relevant. But the post was just cobbled together while listening to an ipod playlist really. Good point about why certain samples were used - I think there was some demand for some lost attitudes, textures and rhythms by mid-decade.

'Boops' was so good, I spent a whole week's pocket money for the 'cassette single' because radio DJs didn't respect the beginning and end. Whatever happened to Shinehead BTW?

Here's another semi-anomalous classic that seemed out of time, Def Jam go-go:


Pissed me off that I couldn't get that on 'cassette single'!

Greyhoos said...

Funny, I almost posted a Junkyard Band clip myself.

But the rule back then was that if you were aiming to go out and dance, best not to go to a place that catered to whites and/or heteros, because most mainstream dance music sucked something awful. That probably wasn't the case in NYC, but I'm sure it was in most other places.

And I was in the South at the time, a region that definitely had its own preferences when it came to such stuff. (I could go on at length about the "persistence of the local" and how Miami/Southern Bass fit into all this, but I'm pretty sure no one here cares.) Having spent a lot of time in New Orleans, I feel like much of what constitutes "funk" can be traced back to N.O. one way or another, to the music that long ago evolved from that city's streets. And the thing about D.C. Go-Go that always struck me was how (aside from sharing a comparable "afro-caribbean" beat) it seems to have similarly emerged out of a distinctly indigenous street culture.

Anyway, I'm dragging all this off-topic.

W. Kasper said...

No - its interesting. Some older NO R'n'B does sound way ahead of its time.

I was far too young to go to clubs then. I'm just going by what charted, what was on radio and music press, and what hipper adults were listening to. It really did feel like a kind of loosely-affiliated 'mainstream' that vanished almost overnight with Thriller and MTV. Soul/R'n'B was horribly bland by the late 80s, which probably explains why there was a big Stax/Motown 60s revival then. Or why chancers like Terence Trent Darby were so ridiculously hyped. I think hiphop took off because soul and funk became strangely 'Thatcherite' (Marvin Gaye advertising jeans etc.). And house, which tried to revive the more 'utopian' aspects of disco.

I also forgot another key example - the late great Teena Marie!

Greyhoos said...

Well, I think you guys are right that Prince's blowing up as a crossover act had a lot to do with why Rick James suddenly became passe. After that, I think the only time the guy grazed the charts in any significant way was when Eddie Murphy fed him some work. And then...nada.

And let's face it -- were it not for New Orleans, there would be absolutely no viable excuse for the continued existence of the tuba. HOOOOORRAYYYYYY, BASS!!

W. Kasper said...

It's funny - I used to love Prince as a teenager, but all that state-of-the-art production gimmickry sounds horribly dated and forced now.

Anyway Rick James lost his 'cred' when he guest-starred on the A-Team. Even Boy George didn't survive that.

W. Kasper said...

I find Stevie Wonder's 'classic period' very dated and forced for similar reasons (sacrilege!). Songs in the Key of Life is his 'Sandinista', I reckon.

Phil Knight said...

"Sandinista" = good, in my book. I can't stand the "classic" Clash records. The first album is a disgrace.

I was tremendously disappointed by the early Wonder records as well - there's much the same problem as with Prince for me, just really cloying melodies. It seems to be a recurring problem with people who are mega-talented. Todd Rundgren is another example. They can all play 100 instruments each, but there's a sort of bland unworldliness about them - as though their entire world consists of a practice studio, and they only vaguely hear of the world outside. Songs like "Living For The City" and "Sign O'the Times" don't feel experiential.

Might check out "Songs In The Key Of Life" now, though.

W. Kasper said...

I like Sandinista, but its four sides too long. "Disgrace" is a little strong for their debut, Mr. Iconoclast!

But I know what you mean about 'boy wonder' talents. I wonder if Prince actually had time to dance, have sex or experience life, if he's filling his OCD archive with 1000s of songs (ditto Bob Dylan and Zappa). Todd Rundgren's 'cleverness' is incredibly irritating. I mean, Jimi Hendrix used studio wizardry, but it didn't suffocate the songs or the dynamics. You could tell he was having a good time between studio sessions, anyway.

I also think anyone under 30 should be discouraged from making films. I feel like I've been watching homages to video collections for three decades. Or comics/videogames nowadays.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. Also, really enjoying reading Pere Lebrun. Terrific writing over here. Cheers.

W. Kasper said...

Is that you, mum? Online at last?

Anonymous said...

Nah. There just seems to be a lack of thanks round here, so thought I'd pipe up. But I am just... so very proud of you!

W. Kasper said...

Oh wow - I feel like Matt Damon at the end of Good Will Hunting!

Anonymous said...

And I feel like a sycophantic scumbag!

W. Kasper said...

Not sycophantic if it's anonymous! Your comments are too short for me to guess who you are, anyway.

Thank you for reading - and your compliments. It does actually mean a lot to me.