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.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Bad Brains, Bambi Slam, The Stupids


Clarendon, Hammersmith, London

Melody Maker, May 16th 1987

by Simon Reynolds 

Live the Stupids are never quite as monstrous as on record. Tonight, hampered by the nonappearance of guitarist Marty Tuff, their frantic thrashing stirred up a strangely immobile cloud of noise that loomed in the distance rather than sweeping over to engulf us. Hard core should drown.
Bambi Slam songs are Pebbles tantrums. Sixties punk with tweaks of feedback and a beat like a little brat stamping its feet on the spot, or the Glitter Band at 78rpm. Interesting, but unfortunately made to seem puny and flat-footed by the noise and majesty of what followed.
Bad Brains double-stun with a tidal wave of their sound and the shock of their incongruity — imagine Burning Spear playing Anthrax. But the link-up of Rasta and speed core is totally appropriate; both sub-cultures have a total vision of the world, as unremitting tribulation and slavery, both imagine liberation in the form of apocalypse. Bad Brains' music similarly seems to consist in absolutes — of gravity, velocity, heat, cold. Blacks invented rock 'n' roll in the first place, so it's fitting that they're here at its outer limits, presiding over its ultimate super-nova, its whitest white-out. Their singer slashes out the beat with an outstretched arm, and it's like he's conducting the orbit of planets.
The shows are slick, as tautly rehearsed, as the Temptations or Zapp, right down to glib inter-song chat. An intensely glamorous bunch — the singer lashes the air with his dreadlocks, the guitarist wears a permanent gape of joy at his own brilliance, the bassist's bug eyes and Clinton eyebrows say "I can't believe we're doing this!" In a way, there's nothing of themselves in the music, it's anti-authentic: Bad Brains take the form of hardcore and perfect (exaggerate) it to the point where it's abstract art.
Such a fastidious assault, so exact, so exacting. Bad Brains are about astounding musicianship crammed within rigid parameters and so blazing all the more brightly. (The singer brings an almost scat feel to the straight-ahead melodies, throws in all manner of swerves and dips.) Similarly the emotional intensity of Bad Brains, of hard core in general, comes from when energy is caged, ricochets off the walls.
Bad Brains were like a visitation, a bolt from the heavens, and the vast sexless apocalypse of their music left even the grubbiest, most lumpen members of their congregation cleansed, elevated, re-born.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Mover + Sick Music / gabba + drum & bass in the 21st Century

Undetected Act from the Gloom Chamber
Planet Phuture / Boidae
Sick Music 2018
(Hospital Records)
The Wire, April 2018

by Simon Reynolds

In 1990, the German producer Marc Acardipane released “Reflections of 2017” under the name Mescalinum United – the first of many aliases, among them Pilldriver, Alien Christ, and most famously The Mover.  “Reflections” was the flipside of “We Have Arrived”, a blaring stampede that laid down the blueprint for gabba: the crazy-fast, ultra-hard style of techno that stormed to popularity across Northern Europe and established outposts of fanatical followers all over the world. “2017” would remain a leitmotif in Acardipane’s work, appearing in track titles like “Lightbringer (Escape from 2017)” and as the catchphrase “see you in 2017”.  Back in the early Nineties, 2017 must have seemed far off, a mind-swirl of dystopian mise-en-scenery out of Blade Runner, Robocop, and Terminator.  Fans could imagine the Mover as a faceless rave equivalent to Snake Plissken from Escape from New York: a lone-ranger anti-hero making his way through the chaos of a collapsed society or a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Flash forward to the present: we have arrived, indeed we’ve overshot. The future-now of 2018 is dystopian and apocalyptic, for sure, but in ways we could never have imagined back in the Nineties. Compared with that decade, when he released hundreds of tracks through the Frankfurt-based family of labels he co-founded – PCP, Cold Rush, Dance Ecstasy 2001, etc - Acardipane had a quiet 21st century. His output oscillated between gestures towards credibility (a 2003 album for Tresor) and panders to the remaining gabbers in the Netherlands (plentiful enough to propel him into the pop charts). But there were long silences too. Then last year The Mover remobilized, with high-profile “living legend” style deejay appearances at raves and the remastered reissue of his greatest tracks. The plan was for an all-new album to come out in 2017 – completing the circle – but it got bumped to this year.

The ungainly album title Undetected Act from the Gloom Chamber suggests a certain  awkwardness about returning to the fray. Which would be understandable, in so far as The Mover’s √§sthetisch / weltanschauung is built around a foreboding futurity that we’ve in some sense gone past. Almost inevitably, Acardipane picks up exactly where he left off. All the things fans like me love, hallmarks of the style some of us call gloomcore, are amply present: the sky-darkening swoops of raven-black synth, the parade-ground snares and thick thuds of kickdrum; the cold cavernous reverb; the piteous melodies and macabre jeering sounds.  Highlights include “Stealth,” an electro-tinged track bounced along by giant smacks of clap and a backwards bass-lurch like a tank’s caterpillar tread churning helplessly in mud, and “Doom Computer,” which drapes sickly drooping melody-riffs over a trudging march beat like a renegade legion of orcs on a dastardly mission.   

The Mover’s first album came out in 1993 and bore the title The Final Sickness; earlier there’d been two Frontal Sickness EPs. That’s my segue to Sick Music 2018, a compilation on Hospital Recordings, for some time now drum and bass’s leading label. Every so often I ponder, as a long lapsed D&B believer, how the genre has carried on for a full twenty years after I stopped paying close attention: a timespan four times as long as the genre’s original heyday of 1993-97. 

I wasn’t the only one to switch off. Once D&B commanded the attention of magazines like this one, as well as ideas-hungry pop stars like Bowie and Bjork. But now you’re more likely to see a review of a hauntological facsimile of 94-era jungle or darkcore-circa-93 in these pages, than a current exponent of the genre that is the extension of those sounds.

Not that the D&B scene cares particularly. Nor has it suffered from the external neglect. Arena-scale raves still happen regularly, scene elders like Andy C persevere and prosper, new DJs and producers replenish the field.  A stable fixture in the genrescape, D&B has also stabilized as a form, “the full circumference” (as they used to call it) of its stylistic variants long since set out. Andy C’s defiant comment that D&B “isn’t going anywhere” could be read in a less flattering way. On the other hand, perhaps it’s time to give the genre a break, forgive and forget its promises to keep always moving forward. Why judge it any more harshly than all the other vanguard sounds that have slipped into a steady-state?

Sick Music contains a fair amount of the head-banger style that drove me out of the scene in ‘98, although after a long period of abstinence a track like Unglued’s “Bootstrap Bill”, a clattery battery of growling bass and bad-boy beats, sounds rather invigorating. But the freshest stuff by far here expands upon the “musicality” moves of the mid-Nineties: the easy-rollin’ heights (or Haigh-ts) and cruise-control bliss of prime Moving Shadow. The core of Hugh Hardie’s gorgeous “Nightingale” is a reverb-smudgy piano lick whose effect is like a cinematic dissolve, a twinkle in time. Modulating this curl of liquid smoke as if rolling a sip of wine across the palate, Hardie braids the keyboard chords with vocal murmurs, fast-flicker hand-percussion, and soft spasms of double-bass. Who’s to say a stone classic can’t happen during a genre’s middle age, rather than its youth? 

Several of the best tunes here could be designated “lover’s jungle”.  London Elektricity’s tingling and tremulous “Just One Second (Mitekiss Remix)” features a lyric about freeze-framing a moment of rapture - “if this second was my life / I would happily die” – delivered with that characteristically Scandinavian singer’s quality of cold-water clarity by Elsa Hedberg. Kubaiko’s “Playing Tricks” wordlessly transmits a similar butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation, twining a sprite-like vocal sigh with silvery whooshes of texture. Meshing an Amen-break like a bounding antelope with trance-style pulse-work, Seba x Physics’s “Innocence” is repeatedly split apart by the awe and gratitude of a diva’s “you show me how to love.”  And Urbandawn’s “Spare Life” laces dewy synths and unexpected groans of shoegaze guitar over a midtempo groove.

Listening to Sick Music, it struck me that “drum and bass” seems almost a misnomer these days, directing attention as it does to what are now the least interesting aspects of the genre.  The drums and the bass do their job efficiently enough: the former skittering briskly, the latter either supplying pulsing warmth or slicing crossways across the beat as blaring stabs.  What holds and caresses the ear now is everything else going on in the arrangement and production:  keyboards, orchestrations, the wisps and whispers of unidentifiable instrumentation, the overall shimmerglow of the sound design.  Really, a better, more telling name would be “melody & mood.” 

If both these releases show that an elder artist and a no-longer-young genre can still generate strong, exciting, and in many ways absolutely valid music, there still remains a lingering sense that both reached their apotheosis around 1996-7. The Pilldriver anthem “Apocalypse Never” would be both Acardipane’s and gloomcore’s abyssal apex; Adam F’s “Circles” and “Metropolis” arguably stand as twin peaks of D&B’s musical and monstrous directions.

The point of “see you in 2017” - or jungle’s tropes of “living for the future,”  “we bring you the future” etc - wasn’t really about how tomorrow would actually be, sonically or otherwise. The year-date or the amorphous image of  “phuture” created a quickening in the present, as if you and the music WERE being pulled taut by a line attached to that distant destination.  Propulsive linearity was the feeling that ran through all the dancefloor electronica of the Nineties - trance and techno as much as jungle and gabba. A hurtling teleology, a ballistic sense of purpose, felt as a physical sensation: beats got ever more brutal and fractured, tempos accelerated, textures escalated in abstraction and noxiousness. Hearing them through a sound system was an onslaught and an ordeal: a test for dancers, forging new flesh.  And each individual track was a microcosm of the entire culture’s fast-forward drive. Rave was a movement, in the martial sense of a modernist vanguard, but with a hint of political mobilization too. Another reason why The Mover was such a perfect name.

But in the 21st Century, for the most part it feels like development in electronic dance became lateral not linear: sideways journeys across the genrescape, combined with a deepening of sound design and a textural thickness afforded by recurrent upgrades in digital technology.  Although you hear this laterality most in nu-millennium styles like micro-house and post-dubstep, you can hear it in Acardipane’s new work and in Sick Music’s nu-skool D&B producers.   Structurally, in terms of what the beats and riffs are doing, the music has not really advanced. But the sound has a high-definition gloss and dimension to it that’s 21st Century. The architecture is Nineties, but the interior d√©cor and exterior paint-job are totally now.