by Simon Reynolds
Shame there's no good genre term sufficiently evocative and open-ended for the kind of music 23 Skidoo made. "Avant-funk" is too ugly, "death disco" is melodramatic and PiL-specific, "industrial"'s been tarnished by its latterday exponents. Whatever. Skidoo were prime explorers of a sonic terrain that opened up in punk's aftermath, when people were looking for a forward path to take them as far from the reek of rock's corpse as possible. Funk, it was decided, was the new music of danger. Based on a quite small range of instances---the madness latent in James Brown's most frenzied polyrhythms, the voodoo grooves of Tago Mago and Davis's On The Corner, Sly Stone's darker moments, Fela Kuti (Africa's JB), Last Poets--the idea of funk as a sinister energy emerged: rhythm as enslavement, as addiction, as possession. Mix in ideas borrowed from vanguard sci-fi authors Ballard & Burrough (sounds like a confectioners!) and paranoid vibes from Seventies auteur movies like Pakula's Klute and Coppolla's The Conversation, and voila, you've got the future.
Proteges of Genesis P. Orridge (who let them rehearse at his Death Factory space), 23 Skidoo bridged avant-funk's first-wave (Pop Group, Cabs, A Certain Ratio) and lesser second-wave (Hula, Chakk, Shriekback, 400 Blows). Their records have been out-of-print for years, but Skidoo have enjoyed a spectral presence in dance culture: the bassline to their single "Coup" was copied note-for-note by The Chemicals on "Block Rockin' Beats"; early darkside jungle circa 1993 was often bizarrely Skidoo-like, despite the absence of any direct lineage; the group's ethnological forgeries and tape-looped exotica pre-echoed the world music samplings of your Loop Gurus.
This sort of talk--precursors, legacies, inheritors, ahead-of-their-time, etc--is pretty academic, though: the real question is, why listen now? Because 1981's Seven Songs especially still sounds bloodcurdlingly intense. A malevolent tumble of hand-percussion, guitar feedback, and gutteral chants, opener "Kundalini" is as much Birthday Party as Gap Band, while the seething slap-bass and brittle-nerved rhythm guitar of "Vegas El Bandito" is offset by a lugubrious wail of lost-in-endless-fog trumpet. The track immediately cuts into "Mary's Operation", dropping everything but the dank, ailing Miles-like trumpet, multi-tracked and mingled with tape-loop drones. This resulting gloomscape of wilted, billowing sound in turn devolves into "Lockgroove", a roiling cosmic cistern. "New Testament" is dying machinery, a drum track massively slowed down and elongated, its rapid percussive events blossoming into pendulous cymbal-smashes and smeared snares. "IY" showcases Skidoo's strength (percussion) and weakness (vocals), but "Porno Bass" is just ill: booming bassdrones reverberate in a cavernous murk, while Hitler fan Unity Mitford, plucked from some radio interview, rails against pop music for displacing "manly" activities like athletics, sexually hyperstimulating da youth, and generally being "the sign of a degenerating race". When the rancid old nutcase opines that young people's "ears become degraded by wrong style and senseless reiteration", Skidoo mischievously double-loop the word "reiteration".
Seven Songs's closer "Quiet Pillage" references exotica king Martin Denny (whose Polynesian-flavored "Quiet Village" was a massive Fifties hit) but evokes an Apocalypse Now: The Day After vibe of humid disquiet. The track's plinky metallic chimes look ahead to 1984's Urban Gamelan, made after an expedition to Indonesia. "GIFU" is basically an alternate mix of "Coup", Skidoo's most straightforwardly funky single, with a Viet-Cong war-cry "G.I., fuck you" added for anti-imperialist edge, but most of the album is precisely what the title promises: gamelan-influenced drumstrumentals, all tuned percussion, hand-cymbals, and gongs. bals, gongs, and woodblocks. Well-produced compared with the hastily executed debut, Urban Gamelan often teeters on the thin line between minimal and underwritten. Its gently ominous atmosphere--space age bachelor padded cell music--grows on you, but it lacks the turbulence and sheer
de-civilising ferocity of Seven Songs.