Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Name it on the 'boogie' - the genealogy of a word and a feel

The Guardian, May 3rd 2011

by Simon Reynolds

When I saw the cover of Delta Swamp Rock, my first thought was: "Has Soul Jazz run out of black music then?"   Putting out a compilation of early 70s Southern rock seemed like an unlikely move for the label famous for its Dynamite! reggae anthologies and deluxe box sets like Can You Dig It ? The Music and Politics of Black Action Films 1968-75.

A little reflection cleared up the mystery: Southern rock as a style was born at the confluence of blues, country, and soul, so in many ways it's exactly the sort of white-on-black musical miscegenation that fits the Soul Jazz worldview.  Like Blood and Fire and Honest Jon's, the label belongs to a tradition of British connoisseurs who venerate black American music, a lineage that stretches back through Nineties house headz, Eighties soul boys, Seventies roots 'n' dub fiends, Sixties blues-rockers, all the way to Fifties trad jazz. 

This is one long continuum of white Brits who strove to master black musical idioms and also dedicated themselves to being custodians of black musical heritage through their parallel activities as deejays, discographers, and archivists. The only difference between the Brits and their white Southern counterparts was that the former  had to consummate their passion largely through recordings whereas the latter grew up surrounded by the music and could draw directly from the well-spring. 

Emerging from the Deep South in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights movement, at a time when some politicians still openly supported segregation, naturally meant that the politics of Southern Rock were complex and cloudy.  

There's no better example of this than what may well be the genre's defining anthem, "Sweet Home Alabama". The statement being made by Lynyrd Skynyrd on their 1974 breakthrough hit is confusing, to put it mildly.  The first verse gives the finger to Neil Young (not even a damn Yankee but Canadian) for his recent hit "Southern Man" and equally rebuking "Alabama". Okay, that's just wounded regional pride lashing back. But the next verse is dangerously ambiguous: it refers to George Wallace, Alabama's pro-segregation governor, in a way that could easily be read as an endorsement and definitely falls well short of condemnation. Finally, "Sweet Home" pivots to a celebration of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and its resident rhythm squad the Swampers. "Lord, they get me off so much / They pick me up when I'm feeling blue" exults Ronnie Van Sant. But in a further fold in the pretzel that is Southern Rock, while the Muscle Shoals team played on records by countless black artists (Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, et al) all four of the Swampers were white. 

Whenever I hear "Sweet Home" on the radio, I start out trying to decode what the song is saying, then give up and surrender to the mighty groove.  There's plenty more groove action to be found on Delta Swamp. Like Area Code 615's "Stone Fox Chase": even if the name and title don't click, you'll probably recognise it as the smoky harmonica-riffing theme to The Old Grey Whistle Test.  Hearing the full instrumental for the first time made me realise how near it is to a contemporaneous funk combo like War. Then it goes into an eerie plinky-percussive section that for all the world sounds like something by polyrhythmic postpunks The Raincoats. A decade after its original release, "Stone Fox Chase" became the source of a prized hip hop breakbeat.  Yet Area Code 615 were actually a bunch of Nashville session musicians who mostly backed up country artists.

Another revelation on this double CD is Bobby Gentry's "Mississippi Delta": with its bullfrog horns, rasped vocals and grinding funk, it belongs to the R&B realm of Lee Dorsey and Inez Foxx far more than the pop country world of Glenn Campbell and Tammy Wynette. But Delta Swamp's detailed booklet reveals just how tangled up black music and white music could get in the late Sixties/early Seventies South.  Phil Walden, the man who founded leading Southern Rock label Capricorn (home to Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, Grinderswitch, and more) had originally been Otis Redding's manager. Funding for Capricorn came from Atlantic Records via Walden's friendship with Jerry Wexler, the journalist-turned-A&R who reputedly originally coined the term "rhythm and blues".

If Delta Swamp has a flaw, it's that there's a bit too much soul and not nearly enough jazz. The hippie-fusion freak side of Southern Rock that involved 20 to 40 minutes-long live jams (Allmans being the pioneers and prime perpetrators) is not acknowledged.

 Generally, the anthology veers away from the hard rockin' end of things (populist arena-pleasers like Elvin Bishop, Charlie Daniels Band,  Molly Hatchet) towards stuff that has some kind of non-rock cred (Link Wray, Johnny Cash,  blue-eyed soul singers like Boz Scaggs and Billy Vera). I guess soul boys can only go so far into the hard 'n' heavy guitar zone. But does Big Star, a band who'd never dream of appearing onstage with a Confederate flag behind them, really need to be shoehorned into this context?  

Southern Rock overlaps with that broad strip of Seventies blues-tinged rock called boogie, which ranges from ZZ Top to Brit combos such as Humble Pie who toiled on the US arena circuit and became vastly more popular in America than in their homeland. Boogie has a technical definition: a musician friend explains that it has to do with 4/4 being subdivided by 12 rather than 16 notes, with syncopations on the third subdivision of each beat. But the best way of conveying it is to just point at examples: "Get It On" by T.Rex (Bolan's 1972 T.Rextasy-exploitation flick was titled  Born To Boogie), "Slow Ride" by Foghat, "Whatever You Want" by those dependable boys in blue denim Status Quo (who then got parodied by Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias on "Heads Down No Nonsense Mindless Boogie").

"Boogie" originally comes from "boogie-woogie", a piano-oriented style of blues designed for dancing, which emerged in the 1930s and filtered into numerous corners of American popular and roots music.  

strange, mobile word indeed to be appearing in all these different contexts:

By the time it filtered into rock, boogie signifies a black-and-bluesy swing, a funky shuffle feel.  What's odd is that boogie today has a third, completely different meaning: it is used by DJs and collectors to refer to an early Eighties postdisco style whose slick, synthetic funk couldn't be further from the low-down earthiness of Southern rock.

The origins of this other boogie go back to the late Seventies when the word started cropping up in the titles of disco-funk tunes like Taste of Honey's "Boogie Oogie Oogie", Earth Wind and Fire's "Boogie Wonderland", The Jacksons's "Blame It On the Boogie" and Heatwave's "Boogie Nights". 

The week before Delta Swamp Rock arrived in the mail, I received a boogie CD-mix from a deejay friend, Paul Kennedy, which he'd titled Juicy Nights and crammed with postdisco gems by outfits like Change and BB & Q Band.  A few of the names were familiar to me from the Eighties, when another deejay pal of mine used to buy U.S import 12 inches, an outlandish concept to someone on a student grant.

What defines this  boogie is that it's disco but slower and funkier: 110 to 116 beats-per-minute is the prime range, says Paul, with a strong accent on the second and fourth beats rather than disco's straight stomping four-to-the-floor. It's mostly played by bands, as opposed to being the creation of a producer, but synth-bass, electronic keyboards and drum machines get more prominent the deeper you get into the Eighties. Some of the most famous examples of the style are hits like D-Train's "You're the One For Me", Peech Boys "Don’t Make Me Wait", and Yarborough & People's "Don’t Stop the Music", while pioneers and exemplars include Kleer and Leroy Burgess  (of Black Ivory and Aleem).

Thing is, I don't recall anybody calling this stuff "boogie" back then; they'd just have talked about "club tracks" or  "discofunk".  In deejay Greg Wilson's exhaustiveetymological history of the genre,  the word "boogie" crops up as  a vague reference in the occasional club flyer or record shop section, or as a verb equivalent to "get on down" . But boogie only really becomes a genre tag retrospectively, to describe a kind of music no longer made, and even then only by a small number of London-based soul cognoscenti.  It's really only in the last decade that the term has achieved serious currency as a record dealer and collector buzz-word.

Boogie is a prime example of the creative remapping of the musical past that is rife today, with DJs and compilers retroactively inventing genres that had only the most tenuous existence in their original heyday (see "acid folk, "junkshop glam", etc). 

One of the prime movers behind the emergence of boogie as a collector-prized zone is Joey Negro, the deejay/producer behind the Destination Boogie compilations. Although the primary impetus is enthusiasm for the sound, there's an economic aspect to this syndrome: it reminds me of the way that real estate agents transform hitherto unprepossessing urban zones-- often nameless hinterlands between the established neighbourhoods-- into up-and-coming areas with twee names like, oh, Chisholm Village.  

The ploy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because once the urban pioneers move in, soon shops and restaurants start to spring up. Similarly, once you start looking for "boogie" or some other semi-fictitious genre, you'll find more and more obscure vintage tracks that fit the parameters. 

No harm in that if it unearths some lost gold and reshapes the pop past into entertaining new patterns. I just think they should have fastened on another name besides boogie, which does rather bring to mind long-haired, pot-bellied guitarists from Jackonsville, Florida trading solos for 18 minutes. It could lead to confusion.

No comments: