Saturday, September 30, 2017

Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983, by Tim Lawrence

Tim Lawrence

 Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983

(Duke University Press)

director's cut version, Bookforum, Sept / Oct / Nov 2016 issue

by Simon Reynolds

The title of the new book by disco scholar Tim Lawrence has taken on an unintended ominous overtone following the massacre at the Orlando nightclub Pulse. Of course, the grim reaper alluded to in Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor is not a homophobic terrorist, but a disease: AIDS, which ultimately scythed a deadly swathe across the cast of characters in this absorbing history of early Eighties Manhattan: performers, artists and promoters such as Klaus Nomi, Keith Haring and Bruce Mailman, to name only a few casualties.  Less literally, Lawrence identifies club culture with a vitalist spirit of Eros, celebrating the ways in which desire, communality and improvisation dissolves boundaries. Conversely, the opposed puritanical and purist principles - segregation, regulation, etc - are implicitly marked down as forces of Thanatos.

Life and Death is the sequel to Lawrence’s 2004 book Love Saves the Day, which chronicled disco’s emergence in the 1970s. But the British academic has already taken a first pass across Eighties New  York with 2009’s Hold On To Your Dreams, albeit using a single, if widely networked, artist – Arthur Russell - as a prism.  Originally a minimalist composer in the 1970s “New Music” mold, Russell explored a dizzying range of absurdist disco directions via numerous artistic aliases. For Lawrence, this flux and mutability made Russell (another AIDS casualty) an exemplar of the fully deterritorialized artistic life. This new  book looks at the larger subcultural landscape through which Russell moved and finds many other figures informed by that same spirit of flux and mutability. Operators like Michael Zilkha, whose ZE label was the home of “mutant disco”: genre-bending collisions of rock, funk, jazz and Latin music perpetrated by outfits like Was (Not Was), Material, and Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

One of the valuable things about Lawrence’s book is the way it focuses attention on a period that’s usually considered an intermediary phase, a mere gap between the classic disco era and the house explosion. For want of a better term, some have come to call it post-disco; at the time, people just talked about club music. Disco’s official demise in terms of its mainstream profile occurred circa 1979, the year of the “disco sucks” backlash, radio stations dropping the format as swiftly as they’d embraced it, and major labels closing down their disco departments. But dancing as a leisure activity did not fade away, obviously, and nor did music made purely for dancing.  Its consumption and production became more concentrated in certain cities – New York paramount among them – and it became the preserve of independent labels like West End, Prelude, and Sleeping Bag (co-founded by Russell).

The clubbing industry that had emerged during the disco boom didn’t wither away either: it adapted and in some instances even escalated in ambition.   One of the most interesting barely-told stories here concerns the lavishly designed gay club The Saint, with its planetarium-style ceiling. Owner Bruce Mailman engineered a total environmental experience for dancers, using disorienting lighting and engulfing sound to create sensations of transcendence and absolute removal from reality.

 “Post-disco” also fits what happened to the music, which mutated and fragmented into substyles: the slower, blacker grooves of what some DJs nowadays call “boogie”; the bouncy, diva-dominated Hi-NRG that eventually took over gay clubs like the Saint; a brash, crashing style known as freestyle that was particularly popular with Latino kids.  In all these subgenres, electronic textures and programmed elements  – thick synth bass, sequencer pulses, drum machine beats, early sampling effects – gradually took over,  as heard on classic tracks like Peech Boys’s “Don’t Make Me Wait” and Man Parrish’s “Hip Hop Be Bop.”

There are other  terms featuring “post-“  as prefix that apply to the four year period Lawrence examines here.  Postpunk, for instance, fits the way that No Wave groups like the Contortions strove to be more extreme than  the CBGBs bands like Ramones, only for their assaultive approach to be itself eclipsed by more groovy sounds from outfits like Liquid Liquid.  “Postfunk” pinpoints  the way that hip hop isolated the percussive quintessence (the breakbeats, the half-spoken half-sung chants) of James Brown style R&B.  And then there’s that old reliable “postmodern”: the early Eighties was when  retro first became a term in hip parlance, with revivalisms galore and camp parody infusing nightspots like the Mudd Club and Club 57. Staging themed parties based around concepts like  blacksploitation movies or dead rock stars, these clubs were more like arts laboratories than discos – Lawrence terms them “envirotheques”- although deejays remained key and dancing was always a fixture.

Life and Death provides the most intensive mapping of this relatively brief era of New York subculture we’ve yet seen. The book’s strength is its depth of research, drawing on the real-time journalism of the era and a huge number of new interviews. The detail is fascinating, Lawrence salvaging from the fog of faded memory such ephemeral brilliances as the deejay Anita Sarko’s Cold War themed party at Danceteria, during which she played  Soviet-banned music such as ABBA alongside state-sanctioned music like socialist men’s choirs, while the club’s co-founder Rudolf Piper, dressed as a commandant, periodically entered the room and pretended to arrest dancers. But strengths can become weaknesses, and Life and Death sometimes gets too list-y: there’s rather too many passages where, say, 21 bands are lined up to indicate a venue’s booking policy without anything much substantive conveyed.  Part of the art of a book of this nature is knowing what to leave out.

Writing about an era so roiling with overlapping and simultaneous action presents formidable structural challenges.  Dividing by theme or genre loses the narrative dimension. Focusing chapters on individual artists, labels, or clubs means that you keep the sense of storyline, but have to double-back to the era’s start for each new narrative. Lawrence opts for chronology, dividing his book up into year-long sections: 1980, 1982, 1982, 1983. That has its own downside, though:  the reader feels like the story is constantly flitting across to another figure or scene, to catch up with where they’ve gotten to by this point. The same places and persons crop up repeatedly: clubs like Better Days, Pyramid, Hurrah, Negril, Funhouse, Paradise Garage....  movers-and-shakers like Anya Philips, Ann Magnuson, Steve Maas, Jim Fourratt, Diego Cortez, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ruza Blue....  There simply isn’t a perfect solution to this tricky task – writing the collective biography of an epoch – and Lawrence’s approach does at least retain the sense of forward propulsion through time.

By the end of 1982, the processes that Lawrence valorizes – cross-fertilisation, eclecticism, hybridity – are peaking. “The melting pot city was entering its hyper-whisk phase”, he writes. Ideas travel back and forth between disco, rap, postpunk, avant-garde composition, and more.  Nor was the border-crossing limited to music: this was an era of polymath dilettantes, a time when most people in bands were also poets, actors, film-makers or visual artists, while a club maven might found a Lower East Side gallery as readily as organize a themed party.   

The book’s last section, covering 1983, is titled “The Genesis of Division”. That begs the question: if “the drive to integration and synthesis” was so potent – and by ’82, so febrile and fecund - what went wrong?  Like an ecosystem, the polymorphous jungle of New York bohemia flourished thanks to biodiversity – the frictional intermingling of different ethnic groups, different sexualities, different character typologies, different artistic traditions, different income levels. But every tendency produces its counter-reaction. In some sense the sheer variedness of downtown culture encouraged a kind of re-tribalization, the emergence of music-based identity politics. By the mid-Eighties concepts like punk-funk and mutant disco had gone out of fashion:  rock became un-danceable noise with the rise of Swans and Sonic Youth; purist strands of club culture emerged; hip hop increasingly defined itself as its own movement and extended nationwide. 

Club culture has always evolved through a dialectic of open-ness and exclusivity. Its rhetoric leans towards inclusive populism, but in practice, when the Bridge and Tunnel types arrive, hip early adopters move on.  Achieving a “mixed crowd” is usually what promoters and DJs exalt as their ideal, but such a balance is hard to maintain. In Life Against Death, The Saint provides an example of a dynamic that goes against the boundary-crossing ethos that Lawrence prizes and praises. Both the owner and the membership decreed that the club’s peak night, Saturday, should be restricted to 98 percent male attendance.  According to deejay Robbie Leslie, owner Mailman believed “that gay men danced well together... had this body chemistry where they moved on the dance floor as a tribe, as one entity” and that furthermore   “women’s body movements were contradictory to this flow.... He didn’t even want gay women there.” This admission policy fed into an increasing uniformity of appearance (what one attendee described as “pectoral fascism”) and a taste conservatism that kept the deejays on a tight leash. But the whole point of the Saint was that it provided a sanctuary for a segment within the city’s population, a stronghold for a certain vibe.  And vibe, as a vernacular concept, could be defined as “collective singlemindedness”. 

Alongside the centrifugal force of self-segregation, other factors brought to an end the belle epoque. Far more than AIDs, the killer was finance capital and real-estate speculation.  In his conclusion, Lawrence ponders whether  downtown artists and musicians were not just on the cutting edge of their particular forms of expression but an unwitting vanguard serving the purposes of realtors, enabling them to rebrand run-down areas as cool-rich neighbourhoods.  Bohemia priced itself out of its own habitat. That raises a further question that Lawrence toys with but leaves unresolved.  Why are these culturally potent ferments so weak in the face of money and power? The Stonewall riots provide one example where an embattled site of pleasure, creativity and identity gives birth to forms of activism. But generally speaking the politics of partying are too diffuse and motile to translate into anything as permanent and disciplined as a political party.

Writing about club culture in Interview in the early Eighties, New York scenester Glenn O’Brien argued that dancing is the ideal form of cultural resistance against fascism, because its rhythmic fluidity worked to dissolve the rigidities of what Wilhelm Reich called character-armor.  A more skeptical take on dancefloor utopianism can be found in a 1993 Greil Marcus column for Artforum.  Discussing  Design After Dark, a history of UK dancefloor style, Marcus praised the book for capturing the vibrant, ever-changing creativity of  these “tribes of black and white Britons”, but ultimately found the book  “a little depressing. So much flair, so much energy, so many ideas, so many good smiles, and, finally, no power. Style changed but not society; no-future didn’t move an inch from where it stood in 1977”.  When I first read those words in ’93, as a convert to rave culture, I resented this dismissive verdict. But in 2016, with political darkness roiling turbidly on both sides of the Atlantic, I wonder about the Eros-aligned liberating energies of music and dance, their ability to withstand the forces of division and death.  The dance club as micro-utopia seems terribly circumscribed, terrifyingly defenseless.  How do you get the fascists to dance?

Thursday, September 28, 2017


Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis 
by Norman O. Brown
University Of California Press

Village Voice, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

 Jim Morrison dug him. Camille Paglia rates him as far superior to the French pomo pantheon of Lacan, Derrida, Foucault et al. Susan Sontag thought he was cool for putting "the eschatology of immanence" back on the intellectual agenda. Who is he? He's Norman O. Brown, the classical scholar whose mind was blown by psychoanalytical theory and whose 1957 masterwork "Life Against Death"  was a radical, disorientating re-interpretation of Freud. Brown took issue with the degraded version of Freud perpetrated by American psychoanalysis, and attempted to return to the heart of the Freudian problematic: how can human beings be healed and whole when human culture itself is neurotic?

 Brown's obsessions - polymorphous perversity, Dionysian madness, androgyny, the replacement of the work ethic by play - prefigured those of the counter culture and Sixties utopian sects like the Situationists. But, perhaps because of his age or his scholarly temperament, Brown's quest for an end to alienation led him neither to armed revolution nor drug-induced oblivion, but to mysticism. Freud showed that regression to animalism, the beasts' blissful ease with their own sexuality and mortality, was not an option. So Brown's search for "the way out" led him to an idiosyncratic creed of mystical materialism, a spirituality which revelled in the flesh instead of denying it. At the close of "Life Against Death", Brown called for "the resurrection of the body" - a perfect, polymorphous, androgynous body, as imagined in pagan beliefs and certain apocalyptic Christian heresies. "Love's Body" (1967) was a collection of aphorisms whose goal was to end the opposition "between mind and body, word and deed, speech and silence". Brown's renunciation of politics and conclusion that "there is only poetry" , prefigure post-structuralism's post-1968 retreat to the text.

  Nearly 25 years later, "Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis" is the final volume in Brown's trilogy. A motley collection of essays and speeches,  "Apocalypse" can't be said to complete Brown's life work so much as fine-tune and fill gaps. Many of these pieces are purely of academic interest, in both senses of the word. "Daphne, or Metamorphosis", "My Georgics: A Palinode In Praise Of Work", and "Metamorphoses II: Actaeon" find Brown entertaining himself, and quite possibly only himself, in elaborate, arcane games with etymology and mythology. The aphoristic style of "Love's Body" disintegrates into the barely written condition of lecture notes (which, in some cases, is exactly what the essays are). Brown's intellectual shorthand (lots of sentences without verbs) and punning mental shortcuts often seem like an overloaded brain shortcircuiting.

 "Revisioning Historical Identities" is Brown's "intertextual autobiography", the account of "a life made out of books" : a trajectory that takes him from Marxism and modernist poets like Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky in the Thirties, through the political disillusionment of Henry Wallace's failed Presidential campaign of 1948, to his discovery, via Freud, that the arid science of Marxism needed irrigating by the Power Of Love. Again, one suspects that, despite Brown's elegant, elliptical style, this tale of intellectual wanderings has a rather limited resonance;  Brown himself describes the essay as a "hermetic game of hide and seek with esoteric erudition". In the opening piece, "Apocalypse: The Place Of Mystery In The Life Of The Mind", Brown calls for a reinvention of the academy, imagining it transformed from the hidey-hole of bookish refugees from life into a forum for scholars drunk on the wisdom of antiquity, infused with enthusiasm (in its root meaning, "god-in-us"). But the atmosphere of too much of the writing in this volume is dusty rather than Dionysian.

  The other, redeeming side to Brown's learning is his fervent syncretism: he's continually on the look-out for kindred spirits in unlikely places. "The Apocalypse Of Islam" celebrates a mystical strain within Islam comparable to the utopian offshoots of that other monotheistic, repressive religion, Christianity. Brown compares the bewildering maze of interruptions, collisions, lapses in tone and ejaculations that is the Koran's "Sura 18" to "Finnegan's Wake": both are examples of human language shattering under the force of the Divine Word. Spinoza is hailed as the prototype for all those thinkers (Freud, Nietzche, Marx, and by implication, Brown) who tried to fuse the roles of philosopher and prophet. For Brown, Spinoza's proto-communist, mystical dream of world unity anticipates his own own ideas about "Love's Body," (a body politic without a head, a polymorphously perverse society).

 Brown is often eager to make out that all the revolutionary thought of the ages culminates in his own work. But he's also gracious enough to admit when he's been pre-empted. He ruefully hails "El Divino Narciso", a mystery play by the 17th Century Mexcian mystic Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, as a masterpiece that renders "my encyclopaedic scholarship superfluous" . He's also a recent convert to Bataille. In his closing essay, "Dionysus in 1990", Brown uses Bataille's theory of a fundamental human lust for excess and ruinous waste as the missing piece in his intellectual jigsaw. In a final fit of ragged, syncretic exuberance, Brown links Gerard Manley Hopkins, Goethe and the 14th Century Sufi master Hafiz of Shiraz as participants in a  continuum: mystics who longed to be consumed in the fire of Dionysian excess. His closing, distinctly woolly contention - that the 1990 revolutions in Eastern Europe were an upsurge of Dionysian consciousness, because the masses were demanding the right to consume as recklessly and extravagantly as the West - is silly but endearing. At the very least, it shows that Norman O. Brown is still capable of being carried away by his enthusiasm for new ideas.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017


Parts and Labor 
(Rift Records)
Melody Maker, 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Ain't it peculiar the way that so much of the trendy lo-
fi weirdness that's coming out of the US underground - prime
examples being Truman's Water and God Is My Co-Pilot -
actually sounds a helluva lot like the shambles of Bogshed
and The Shrubs? Once again, there's that funny feeling of
being back in 1986.  But I'm not complaining so long as
there's bands as excellent as Timber. Like Thinkin' Fellers
Union and Cul de Sac, Timber offer the listener a dose of
eclectic shock therapy, an epileptic mish-mash of Fall,
Beefheart, Ubu, and other avant-garage avatars.

What's cool about Timber is that they rarely get so
quirked-out they forfeit "feel" or groove.  Rhythmically
adroit, they can shift from supple to jagged in a trice.
"There's Always 1 & 9", for instance, boogies like ZZ Top
covering "Trout Mask Replica", while samples whizz about
overhead for added mayhem. "At The Same Time" has a happy-go-
lucky, bucolic vibe reminiscent of Meat Puppets' circa "Up On
The Sun": pretty remarkable since the band are from the grimy
Lower East Side of New York, not Arizona.

Timber are pretty fucking versatile. They can do total
noise avalanche Faust-style ("I'm 30, I'm Having a Heart
Attack"), ambient drone-scapes ("The Evidence Is Shifting"),
and dismembered blues ("The Real N.Y."). They add stately
horns to The Blue Orchids' "A Bad Education" (drummer Rick
Brown's previous band Fish & Roses also covered BO's "A Year
With No Head"). I guess the line in "Bad Education" about
"the law of dissipation" was slacker-delia 10 years before
the fact. "Belay That" reminds me that Stump actually had
their moments, believe it or not. The sheer truckin' glory of
"Stupid Reasons" and the mellifluous, manna-from-heavens
blues of "A Passage From Pakistan" are kind of what I always
hoped Grateful Dead would sound like. And Timber have a whole
bunch of "songs" like "Deerslayer" which suffer from a bad
case of Sun (Ra) stroke.

Timber show that instrumental virtuosity and a bit of
learnin' really do help if you want to throw weird shapes,
rather than merely "reinvent the wheel". The UK's inept-and-
proud-of-it nouveau shamblers could afford to take note.  Not
so much pushing the envelope, as putting it through the
shredder and pasting the pieces into a mosaic collage, Timber
turn the avant-garde into a playpen.


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Timble bimbles


Tim's Bio – Life from da Bassment

Spin, January 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Maybe you've heard of the Jamaican tradition of "version" albums: a dozen or so tracks all built on top of the same bass-and-drum undercarriage. Different songs, different dubs, same riddim. Timbaland isn't quite so frugal with his creativity, but Tim's Bio does pretty much consist of 18 variations on that beat. For the last 18 months, Timbaland's convulsive kinesthetic — double-time kicks, crisp snares, spasmodic flurries of hi-hat — has dominated the R&B soundscape. So what's immediately striking about Bio is its failure to probe a fresh new direction.
But perhaps this complaint misses the point. Ever since it lost the "-'n'roll," rock has had a problem with repetition: Albums and shows are supposed to have dynamics, pacing, contrast, demonstrations of versatility; at a certain point more is always less. But in dance music, more is...more; repetition accumulates intensity, creates and sustains that crucial intangible known as "vibe." Black dance scenes (and their white mutations) work according to the principle Amiri Baraka dubbed "changing same": minute variations on the same building blocks (jungle's "Amen" breakbeat, Miami bass's sub-woofer-quaking 808 boom, dancehall's "pepper-seed" rhythm, and so forth). Mercenary copyists and opportunistic cloners play their part, too. For when a certain sound is doin' it the audience can't get enough of the good stuff. If you're in it, the slight tweaks and twists to the reigning formula have enormous impact whereas the uninvolved outsider hears only monolithic monotony.
That said, Timbaland really does need to come up with a new cyberfunk matrix. His frequent complaints about "beat-biters" are rich when Tim's Bio verges so frequently on self-plagiarism. Likewise the lyrics: Where last year's album with Magoo was thematically impoverished, this one's destitute, reaching its self-reflexive nadir with 'Here We Come' — a song based around the Spider Man theme. What does catch the ear is all the stuff interwoven around the basic grid-groove: the scurrying infestation of percussive detail, the digitally warped goblin vocals, the Afro-Dada grotesquerie of keyboard licks and sample squiggles, the onomatopoeic bass-talk.
The viral spread of ideas in dance culture works to erode the auteur theory, our ingrained impulse to fixate on originators. Timbaland's twitchy hypersyncopation was widely attributed to a drum'n'bass influence, something steadfastly denied by Tim and Missy. Now you can hear that imagined compliment being repaid by the children of jungle, in the form of the two-step garage style that currently rules London. Dropping the four-to-the-floor house pulse and "versioning" Timbaland's falter-funk kick, producers like Ramsey & Fen, KMA, and Dreem Teem are basically making smoov R&B filtered through a post-Ecstasy sensorium. Call it lover's jungle, strictly for the ladies' massive: midtempop bump'n'-grind, sped-up and succulent cyborg-diva vocals, a playa-pleasing patina of deluxe production. With the next phase of beat science being researched and developed in England, the "bumpy pressure" is really on for Timbaland, if he doesn't want to go the way of ex-pioneers like Jam & Lewis. The dance floor has no brand loyalty.

KING AND QUEEN OF THE BEATS: Timbaland and Missy Elliott

published as "Partners in the Engine Room of Rap"

director's cut, New York Times, August 1st 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Although history tends to focus on glamorous vocalists and visionary songwriters with something to say,  black  pop's evolution is as much about changes in rhythm and production. From the house sounds of  Motown and Philadelphia International to the Chic Organisation's streamlined disco style and George Clinton's mini-empire of funk bands, it's a history  made not by sacred cow artists but by session musicians and backroom technicians: musicians, producers, engineers, and, not least, their machines. 

            Typically, an up and coming  producer taps some unforeseen potential in the latest technology and, for a couple of years,  rewrites the rules of  rhythm. In the mid-Eighties, Janet Jackson's producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis drafted a new blueprint for dance pop, using drum machine beats and synthesized basslines to build  angular, abrasive grooves. By the end of that decade, producer Teddy Riley installed a new paradigm, marrying R&B's mellifluous melodies with hip hop's aggressive beats and sampled loops to create the style known variously as new jack swing or swingbeat.

            In the last two years, Timbaland and Missy Elliott have reigned as unchallenged king and queen of the beats.  Producing and writing for a stable of proteges that includes Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Nicole, Total, and Playa, they have scored a  run of  hugely successful smash singles on both the R&B and pop charts. Ms Elliott has also written hits for artists like Brandy, Mariah Carey, SWV, and Whitney Houston, and can reportedly demand $100, 000 per song. Ruling producers have hitherto tended to remain behind the scenes (Jam & Lewis) or subsume themselves in a band identity  (Teddy Riley now operates as part of the harmony group Blackstreet). But Timbaland and Missy Elliott have pushed themselves forward as stars. Timbaland released a collaboration with rapper Magoo called Welcome To Our World in 1997 and a solo album proper late last year; Ms Elliott has just released her second album Da Real World, the sequel to 1997's platinum selling, Grammy-nominated Supa Dupa Fly.

            The real testament to Timbaland and Elliott's hegemony, though, is the massive influence they've had on other R&B and rap artists. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the duo ought to be feeling pretty good about themselves. Instead, they  seem rather  embattled. Only a few minutes into Da Real World, Elliott is lambasting all the producers who have copied Timbaland's distinctive jittery beats and stop-start grooves: "beat biter, dope style taker... you just an imitator, stealing our beats like you're the one who made them." That style really came together on Aaliyah's  late 1996 hit "One In A Million,"  which was written by Elliott, produced by Timbaland, and typifies their collaborations  in the way the beat is as hooky as the melody. .  A ballad built around a push-me-pull-you groove, the song introduced many of Timbaland's trademark tricks:  syncopated bass drums stuttering in triple time spasms, irregular flurries of hi-hats, and skittery snares. As with earlier rhythmic innovations, from Seventies funk to Nineties jungle, the Timbaland sound practically enforces a new kind of dancing, full of twitches, jerks and tics. You can see it in Missy Elliott's videos like "Beep Me 911" and the current "She's A Bitch," where the choregraphy resembles a kind of geometrically precise epilepsy and sometimes recalls the body-popping style of Eighties breakdancing. 

            Alongside their massive influence on American R&B, Timbaland's twitchy beats have caught the ear of British electronica artists. On their new album Surrender, The Chemical Brothers sampled a vocal hook from Nicole & Missy Elliott's's "Make It Hot" for their track "Music: Reponse", transforming the sexual come-on of "I got whatcha want/I got whatcha need" into a DJ's boast. In London, a whole scene and sound has emerged called two-step, based around the merger of Timbaland's hyper-syncopated drums with jungle's booming bass and house's succulent synth licks. The respect that Timbaland and Missy Elliott have received in the electronica field shows that although the duo are classified as R&B, their skills at digitally manipulating rhythms and creating eerie sounds make them among the most accomplished and innovative electronic artists on the planet. Indeed, critics have long suggested that Timbaland's assymetrical grooves owe something to jungle; Timbaland has denied this, but does give the nod to electronic artists like Prodigy, Tricky, and Bjork, whom he's sampled a couple of times.

            Like techno artists, Timbaland and Elliott are obsessed with the future. They are determined that their records sound avant-garde and  futuristic, and they're infatuated with special effects laden science fiction movies like The Matrix. The title of Ms Elliott's new album comes from a pivotal line of dialogue in The Matrix: "welcome to the real world".

Both Missy's music and her Hype Williams produced videos have a hallucinatory quality. Supa Dupa Fly is a shapeshifting phantasmagoria of sampled sound, where unlikely sources (baby's gurgles, birdsong, insect-like chitters, horse whinnies, and dog barks) are transformed into polyrhythmic devices. Listen closely, and beats turn out to be made from  gasps or giggles, and a bassline is molded from the human voice.  It's headphone R&B, and like electronica, it's most inventive on the level of rhythm and texture, rather than songcraft. "Hook on songs are more major than verses. People hardly remember verses,"  Elliot told rap magazine The Source. For the most part, Elliott's vocal hooks are delivered in a style midway between singing and rapping, and generally work percussively as much as melodically. She specialises in devising complex vocal arrangements which interlock with the rhythm tracks like cogs. Timbaland and Elliott also pepper their tracks with tiny, almost subliminal vocal riffs--onomatopeic noises and nonsense chants,  half-spoken ad libs--which add to the rhythmic density of the music.

            Da Real World arrives at a critical moment for the Elliot/Timbaland dynasty, when the duo's influence remains endemic but their own momentum shows signs of flagging. They've maintained their profile in 1999 with Elliot penning the R&B smash "Where My Girls At?" for diva trio 702 and Timbaland producing Ginuwine's second album and the hit track "Jigga What?" for rapper Jay-Z.  But Timbaland's solo album was generally received as a disappointment, and some wonder if his production skills peaked with last year's astonishing Aaliyah hit "Are You That Somebody?."  It's an abiding dilemma for pop innovators. Do you repeat what was so successful before at the risk of adding your own self-plagiarism to the melee of clones and copyists? Or do you struggle for self-reinvention at the risk of alienating your audience? This quandary has undone many artists in the past. Synth-pop pioneers Kraftwerk, for instance, became paralysed by the enormity of their own influence and the challenge of staying ahead of the state-of-art.
Da Real World sees  Elliott and Timbaland struggling to come up with fresh twists to their formula.  Sonically, Da Real World marks a shift to a harsher sound that Timbaland has called "real dark, real ghetto". The new style includes bombastic quasi-orchestral riffs, booming sub-bass, and stiff, angular beats and booming sub-bass, all of which sometimes recall  Curtis Mantronik's late Eighties productions for T. La Rock and  Mantronix in the late Eighties, but is more likely a nod to the current popularity of  New Orleans bounce, an electro-influenced style of rap.  Persona-wise, Elliot has swapped  the playfulness of Supa Dupa Fly  for a pugnacious "street" attitude and a dramatically increased level of profanity.  Abandoning Supa's kooky surrealism and free associational lyrics,  Elliott has penned a series of tough-talking songs: "You Don't Know" threatens a girl who's trying to steal her man, "All 'N My Grill" reprimands a deadbeat live-in lover who won't pay  his way, and "Hot Boyz" is a hormone-crazed paean to sexy roughnecks who tote machine guns, flex Platinum Visa cards and drive expensive jeeps. The harder, ghettocentric sound and lyrics smack somewhat of a calculated attempt at repositioning Elliot in a market where "real-ness" is back in favor thanks to rappers like DMX and Jay-Z.

            Coming from a debut artist, Da Real World would be garlanded with acclaim. But given the expectation that Missy and Timbaland would rewrite the rules of R&B again, the album is anti-climactic. Da Real World peaked at #10 on the pop charts and rapidly slid to #22. Furthermore, Missy Elliot's audience seem unconvinced or, worse, alienated by her image tweak. The first single off the album, "She's A Bitch"--a strained and tuneless attempt to project bad attitude, with a baleful monochrome video markedlly different to the polychromatic psychedelia of the earlier promos--only reached  #30 on the R&B charts. For an artist of Missy Elliott's stature and track record, that's a flop.

            But then the rap and R&B marketplace is cruel even by pop standards; brand loyalty barely exists, artists are only as hot as their latest track. So are Missy and Timbaland going to go the way of other ex-pioneers, like Jam & Lewis? Elliott has her own major label funded imprint Gold Mind and a long line of proteges waiting in the wings. Timbaland might want to consider a strategic retreat from the spotlight in order to concentrate on crafting tunes for his proven hitmakers Ginuwine and Aaliyah, and to R&D some new gimmicks (he's talked about creating beats built from the sound of a stylus skipping on a scratched record). Perhaps the greatest solace for the duo is that there's no powerhouse producer threatening to usurp their throne. (Although there might have been a hint of anxiety when Timbaland recently gave his seal of approval to a young pretender: Swizz Beats, who's crafted beats for Jay-Z and for his own outfit Ruff Ryders).   At the moment, there's an interregnum in R&B--everyone's waiting for the new king of the beats to take over.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen

The Observer, The, 9 May 1993

by Simon Reynolds 

With their jazz-tinged soft-rock and mordant lyrics, Steely Dan were critics's favourites and a staple of FM radio throughout the Seventies. After classic albums like Countdown To Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, and Katy Lied, and hits like 'Rikki, Don't lose That Number' and 'Reeling In The Years', co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker went their separate ways in 1981. Fagen quickly resurfaced with The Nightfly, an elegant and witty album of veiled autobiography, concerning the dreams of a late Fifties/early Sixties adolescent caught up in the anticipation of Kennedy's New Frontier.

But after this successful album, Fagen succumbed to a mid-life crisis and a severe writing block. "I fell into a depression," recalls the singer, who is now 45. "I wrote every day but disliked what I produced. I went into psychotherapy, and eventually realised that I'd run out of steam."

In Fagen's absence, the legacy of Steely Dan lived on. In northernmost England and in Scotland, a crop of groups emerged – Prefab Sprout, Danny Wilson, Hue and Cry, The Kane Gang – who aspired to Steely Dan's blend of opulent music and sardonic lyrics.
One band, Deacon Blue, took its name from a song on Steely Dan's Aja LP. Even more unlikely, mellow rappers De La Soul sampled a lick from 'Peg', another Aja track.
Eventually, Fagen "figured stuff out, went through a transformation," and re-emerged. His creative ducts started flowing again, and the result is a new solo album, Kamakiriad. Set a few years closer to the Millennium, it's a concept album in which a Fagen-like protagonist sets out, in his ecologically sound, steam-powered Kamakiri car, across an American landscape that's alternately futuristic and decrepit.
Fagen admits that it's a science fiction allegory of his Eighties experiences, although the word 'allegory' makes him grimace: "I remember they were always the most boring things to read at school. I hope the album isn't as dull as Pilgrim's Progress. But, yes, it's a journey of loss. I like the sci-fi idea because it divorces you from the present. It lends itself to a mythic, heroic plot, gives the story a magical quality. Plus you imagine all kinds of marvelous technologies."
From Steely Dan through his solo records, Fagen's work turns around a paradox: his music is steeped in the lush romanticism of jazz, but his lyrics are suspicious of romance, even cynical.
"Odd, isn't it?" laughs Fagen. "I've grown more suspicious of romance as I've grown older. When Walter Becker and I were first working together in the late Sixties, we were jazz fans, but the vocabulary of jazz had already been co-opted for commercial purposes. Our idea was to use that already corrupted vocabulary, with its romantic connotations, and combine it with anti-romantic lyrics."
The burnished, deluxe quality of Steely Dan's music was, it seems, always ironic. "It was pseudo-opulence. I remember that as a child I was conscious of the world moving from the aesthetic of the immediate post-War years, which seemed authentic, to the Fifties aesthetic, which seemed inauthentic. That pseudo-luxe sound I use is a symbol for a loss of authenticity, which was exchanged for an illusion of the good life. To this day, my parents' values are still bound up with comfort and convenience. A lot of values were dropped after the war. So I grew up with the paradox that the music I love, jazz, was commodified before I was even born."

On Kamakiriad, Fagen is still playing his favourite trick of juxtaposing romantic music was with anti-romantic lyrics. The song 'On The Dunes', he says, "has a very romantic setting, but it's where the character reaches his lowest point," while 'Counter-Moon' is about "a moon that makes people fall out of love."
'Tomorrow's Girls' likewise concerns relationships going sour. "People change, and the extreme case would be if you woke up one morning and you’re suspicious that the woman in bed with you is actually an alien. I've put the song into a sleazy B-movie context, where aliens are replacing yesterday's girls with pseudo-women."
But the album ends happily in 'Teahouse On The Tracks', when the hero reaches a nightclub in a run-down urban zone called Flytown. Fagen admits it's a very old idea: "dance away the heartache".
The making of Kamakiriad saw Fagen reunited with his former partner, Walter Becker, a development which may presage the resurrection of Steely Dan. Lacking confidence, Fagen felt he needed someone to lean on. He and Becker have a telepathic understanding when it comes to making music, he says, and, they share a sense of humour. "I know when we've done something good because we start laughing at it. That's how I respond to excellence. I don't relate to art that doesn't have a sense of humour."


I like the obvious things you hear on the radio - especially "Reeling" - but  I've never managed to get fully into Steely Dan, despite a couple of efforts over the years. It's a bit too smart for me - "smart" in both the non-scruffy, un-scuffed superslick sheen sense and the clever-clever encrypted 'n' oblique sense. I don't see why I should be having to sit there puzzling out what a song is saying  (come right out with, man - time is short!). The cynicism that must have seemed so bracing and so valuable in its bleak disillusion in the Seventies amidst the surrounding soft-headedness .... it doesn't appeal that much nor seem necessary or remarkable in a New Wave, post-Costello world. 

But I love love looooove The Nightfly, so much more open-hearted and lyrically direct. 

Kamakiriad is not a patch on it, sadly. I remember getting to hear the album for the first time in a Manhattan listening session shortly before the interview - maybe even the same day - through some kind of incredibly expensive hi-fi set up, or possibly even off the mixing desk in a recording studio. Massive speakers, sound so crisp.   A couple of the tracks in particular sounded incredibly burnished and intricate, like your ears were staring into the inner workings of a clock, copper and silver cogs whirring and interlocking in perfect precision. Unfortunately, listening at home later on, off a compact disc on a much lower-end music system, the effect was more of a fussed-over sterility.  

Very nice guy though, Mr Fagen. I enjoyed meeting him, which is more than can be said of my other broadening-my-range Observer feature of that era, which entailed visiting Paul Simon at his office in the Brill Building.