Thursday, August 26, 2021

the richness and range of reggae

Big Youth

Natty Universal Dread

Various Artists

A Jamaican Story

Uncut, May 2001

by Simon Reynolds

In Jamaica, the DJ isn't the guy who spins the records (that's the selector), it's the bloke who chats over the music. As misnomers go, it's a good one, though, since DJ is short for disc jockey, and the whole art of reggae deejaying is vocally riding the riddim – whether it's a loping nag as with the mellow skank of Seventies reggae, or a bucking bronco as with digital dancehall.

Alongside U Roy, Big Youth was one of the first and greatest roots-era DJs, his smoky voice unleashing a gentle torrent of prophecy and prattle: "one love" beseechings, get-up-stand-up exhortations, Psalm-like chanting, but also boasts, children's rhymes, laughter, shrieks and grunts. As a less musically compromised natty dread soul-Jah than Bob Marley, Big Youth was a potent icon of radical chic for white youth during the punky-reggae era; John Lydon was a fan, and even persuaded Virgin to sign the DJ for their Front Line reggae imprint.

Songs like 'Is Dread In A Babylon' and 'Every N***** Is A Star' capture the militancy of a period when Jamaica was feeling the cultural tug of post-colonial Africa while remaining geopolitically very much within the American sphere of influence/interference. Perhaps that's one reason Big Youth forged connections with the US's own black "enemy within", interpolating lyrics from The Last Poets into "Jim Screechy".

Worth acquiring just for the glorious rhythm tracks over which Big Youth toasts, Natty Universal Dread is Blood & Fire's best since their Heart Of The Congos reissue, and, typically for the label, this three-CD set is a beautifully designed fetish object.

Trojan's A Jamaican Story is a curious looking thing, by comparison. Culled from this veteran label's formidable archives, its cardboard chest contains 10 smaller boxes, shiny packets that look like bars of Ritter chocolate. Each of these three-CD micro-boxes is devoted to one era or aspect of reggae history: ska, rocksteady, lovers, DJ et al.

Unlike the Big Youth set's exhaustive annotations and accompanying essay, there's minimal information provided, just a rudimentary sketch of the specific genres. You don't even get dates of recording/release, or the identity of the producer and the engineer who did the mix (absolutely crucial information with dub). Truthfully, it's hard to know who A Jamaican Story is targeted at. Reggae fiends will want Blood & Fire-style data overkill (plus those vintage photo overlays and deliberately faded-looking graphics that emphasise the sense of bygone times), while neophytes are hardly going to shell out a few hundred quid for this 30-CD colossus.

All that said, it's impossible to quibble with the quality of music here: Story is a treasure chest. Its span stretches from Desmond Dekker to Scientist, a sonic journey from ska's two-dimensional cartoon jerkiness to dub's haze-infused chambers of deep space. Story also serves to remind just how much Jamaican pop falls outside the rudeboy/rootsman dialectic-there's goofy instrumentals, novelty songs, topical social comment, pure dance music, and love song after gorgeous love song.

What's faintly terrifying, though, is that, as crazily copious and encompassing as it is, A Jamaican Story still warrants that indefinite article: 500 tracks long, it only skims the surface of reggae's ocean of sound.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

New Wave

10 Album tour through New Wave

(for Radio Raheem - Milan, Italy)

by Simon Reynolds

 THE B-52’S – The B-52’s  (1979)

Especially after their international smash “Love Shack”, it can be hard to look past this Athens, Georgia band’s retro-kitsch image and hear how tough and stark their sound was at the start. The sinewy rhythms and unyielding riffs find the exact mid-point between Booker T & the MGs and Gang of Four. This monochrome minimalism is overlaid with the garish Americana of the lyrics and image, which inhabit the same ‘50s/60s world of B-movies and beehive hairdos as John Waters’s films. All this might still be just campy fun if not for the soul-power blast of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, whose vocals reach a scary intensity on songs like “52 Girls,” “Lava,” and “Dance This Mess Around”.

 XTC - Drums and Wires (1979)

New Wave lyricists tended to approach social comment in a methodical manner, as if checking off issues and themes on a list. In the years after punk there was also a widely felt imperative to write songs about anything but love (see Talking Heads album title More Songs About Buildings and Food). Which perhaps explains how XTC came up with “Roads Girdle The Globe” and “Helicopter”. But the approach works wonderfully on “Making Plans For Nigel”, an unsettling song about parents who’ve mapped out their son’s entire future, wrapped in music that reinvents psychedelia rather than repeating it. Elsewhere XTC’s whooping vocals and herky-jerky rhythms resemble a clockwork toy wound-up too tight and  careening dementedly around the room.


CHRISMA – Chinese Restaurant (1977)

Because New Wave put further distance between rock and its American roots, it seemed to open up possibilities for European musicians, who quickly embraced the  blues-less unswinging sound and the primary-color, plastic-look aesthetic of the clothes and record design. On their debut, Milan’s Chrisma sound like their heads have been turned around by Bowie & Iggy’s own Euro moves of earlier in  ‘77.  “Black Silk Stocking” recalls the moody monotony of “Nightclubbing” off The Idiot, while the drooping synths of “Lycee” could fit nicely with the twilight instrumentals on Low’s side 2. But the killer tune here is “C-Rock”. Its controlled throb and silvery glisten induces a Neu!-like trance (and the German group get a namecheck in  closing number “Thank You”).



Like Graham Parker and The Jam, Costello’s early sound is rooted in Sixties R&B and British beat groups, but cranked up on speed and spite and thus reflecting the tension and bleakness of a far less hopeful decade.  Where other New Wavers declared both their entanglement with history and their desire to start a new era by doing punked-up covers of classic rock songs, Costello attacks the past by sarcastic quoting of lyrics and recycling riffs in mangled or inverted form. It works as pop – hooks leap out, you can dance - even as the spirit is anti-pop, perhaps anti-everything. For the Attractions, playing this music must have felt as uptight and constricting as the skinny ties around their throats when posing for album cover shots.


THE STRANGLERS – Black and White (1978)

The Stranglers’s classic first three albums, all released within just over a year of each other,  work in the archetypal New Wave mode: antagonistic rewriting of the Sixties. In their case, though, there’s one specific ancestor: The Doors. Keyboardist Dave Greenfield froths over into extended solos of rippling arpeggiation just like Ray Manzarek. You can hear flickers of Robbie Krieger in Hugh Cornwell’s more lyrical guitar moments. And the overall vision is dark and brooding in the Jim Morrison style, especially on this third album with macabre tunes like “Death and Night and Blood”. They even go in for Doors-style jerky time-signatures, as with the waltz rhythm of the poignant and eerie “Outside Tokyo”.


THE WAITRESSES – Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful? (1981)

When they weren’t disguising and disfiguring their Sixties influences, New Wavers sometimes looked to contemporary club sounds, layering barbed or ironic lyrics over dance grooves. Hailing originally from Akron, Ohio --the industrial town that spawned Devo -  The Waitresses found a home in New York’s “mutant disco” scene around ZE Records. If Patty Donahue’s sardonic vocals suggest a gawky Blondie, the sax-powered funk and droll words recalls New Wave hitmakers Ian Dury & the Blockheads.  The lurching groove and taunting melody of “I Know What Boys Like” is the killer on Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?. Later came bittersweet single “Christmas Wrapping” and the group’s theme for Square Pegs, a cult show about high-school misfits, i.e. New Wave’s demographic of geeks and freaks.

LENE LOVICH – Stateless (1978)

One New Wave staple was the oddball female singer with a piercingly shrill voice and a kooky image: see Nina Hagen and Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons. Of partly Serbian descent, Lovich’s operatic warble and Gothic silent-movie-star appearance coincided with the era’s demand for weirdos (see also Devo, whose “Be Stiff” she covers here). The shtick can get wearing, but on the wonderful “Lucky Number”, a huge 1979 hit, Lovich’s sing-song melody rides the mighty rhythmic chassis of a propulsive groove. Elsewhere, the almost Cossack-like “Sleeping Beauty” recalls Sparks, glam-era hitmakers whose ultra-white sound anticipated New Wave.

SKIDS -  Scared to Dance (1979)

Imagine if rock’n’roll hadn’t been born in America’s Deep South but in the Scottish highlands. That’s the sound of Skids -  cold and clear like winter wind coming off the moors. The band’s stomping rhythms, slashing guitar riffs and shouted choruses create a martial feel mirrored in song titles like “Into the Valley”, “Hope and Glory”, and “Melancholy Soldiers”.   Equally influenced by the clean but florid lead playing of Be Bop Deluxe’s Bill Nelson and the skirling drone of the bagpipe, guitarist Stuart Adamson took this rousing “adventures for boys” sound into his successor group Big Country, who sparred alongside Celtic cousins U2 and Simple Minds in the Eighties genre known as “Big Music”.

MARTHA AND THE MUFFINS – Metro Music (1980)

This Canadian art-school group should have been called Marthas and the Muffins, because they contained two:  Martha Johnson and Martha Ladly, both of whom sang and played keyboards. Like The Members with their New Wave anthem “The Sound of the Suburbs”, the Muffins pinpointed their spiritual habitat in “Suburban Dreams”. But the ennui and occasional ecstasy of life on the outskirts of the action was never captured better than on “Echo Beach”, the hit single off their debut Metro Music. Gliding keyboards and rasping saxophone frame Johnson’s suave croon as she plays the workaday drone (“my job is very boring I’m an office clerk”) who fantasies about escaping to an imaginary seaside idyll.

 SUBURBAN LAWNS – Suburban Lawns  (1981)

From Long Beach, California, Suburban Lawns had the ultimate New Wave name. Lyrically, their prime subject is the post-WW2 landscape of American banality, that same prefab plastic world satirized in films from The Graduate to Edward Scissorhands. In “Flying Saucer Attack” the citizens of the fast-food nation don’t mind being abducted by aliens so long as “we’re back for work on Monday”. “Mom and Dad and God” scorns the parents’ “mindless devotion to lack of emotion”. As with so much New Wave, you sense that these CalArts students can really play: it’s the friction of their ability against punk taboo’s on flashy musicianship that creates the music’s delicious nervous tension. “Janitor” is the jewel: Su Tissue sings not like a rock’n’roller but a librarian with a very peculiar imagination.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Two Fingas interviewed on the emergence of jungle (in celebration of Repeater Books republication of Junglist)

JUNGLE EMERGES: A Flashback to 1993

director's cut of a piece written six years later, Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Years before Roni Size and LTJ Bukem became international hipster favorites, jungle was banished from the media limelight. To identify yourself as a "junglist" in 1993 meant you belonged to an outcast tribe, a scene feared by most London clubbers as a sinister underworld populated by speed-freaks and baby-gangstas. Born out of rave's Ecstasy-fuelled fervor, the music had mutated, under the influence of bad drugs and the desperation of the recession-wracked early Nineties, until it was too hard, too dark, and too black for most people to handle.

The emergence of jungle has everything to do with drugs. Its frantic breakbeat rhythms evolved because ravers buzzing on too many E pills and amphetamine wraps craved beats as hectic and hyper as their own overdriven metabolisms. The music's bad-trippy aura and disorientating FX simultaneously reflected and exacerbated the paranoia induced by long-term stimulant abuse. 1993 was the year of "darkside", a crucial transitional phase between hardcore rave's hands-in-the-air euphoria and jungle's guns-in-the-air menace.

"The production played tricks on your mind, " enthuses Two Fingas, co-author of the pulp novel Junglist, talking about twilight-zone jungle classics like Boogie Time Tribe's "Dark Stranger" and Origin Unknown's "Valley of the Shadows". "Darkside freaked out a lot of people, especially those still in the Ecstasy haze--because on E there's no distance between you and the music. Darkside was just evil, evil music--and that was good. Cos it got rid of the lightweights, to be honest".

One of the first all-jungle-DJs raves, Jungle Fever, went out of its way to scare off fans of happy rave and fluffy house, theming the venue with tombstones, coffins, and Gothic statuary. But the classic darkside moment in jungle mythology is an infamous inccident at a rave called Telepathy, where DJ Rap unwittingly played 4 Hero's "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare"---a song in which a father is informed about his son's fatal overdose--just seconds after a boy was knifed on the dancefloor.

Stabbings and muggings, friction and tension.... Many blamed the shift from rave's smiley-face glee to jungle's skrewface scowl on another drug: crack. After all, who else but rock-smoking fiends could possibly enjoy such insanely frenetic beats? Joe Wieczorek, owner of the hardcore rave club Labrynth, claims "the early dark jungle, you might as well call it crack music. There's nothing worse for a raver than being somewhere he doesn't feel safe, and if there's fifty rock-heads in the club, it's going to frighten the life out of you." But although there was a spate of anti-crack tunes like DJ Ron's "Crackman On the Line" in 1993, others reject the linking of jungle and crack as a crypto-racist slur.

If any substance has a claim to be the true junglist's drug, it's marijuana-- especially the hydroponically-grown ultra-strong weed known as skunk. An archetypal tableau in any jungle club is a group of boys stood in a huddle "building and burning." One youth clasps his hands together, fingers interlocked, and upturns the palms to form a flat surface for his friend to build a massive spliff on; in a crowded, jostling club, it's the only way to roll. Another friend leans close to block off the sight-lines of any security guard in the vicinity. "Burning"... well, that's self-explanatory. Marijuana is the reason jungle basslines started to run at reggae tempo, exactly half the speed of the accelerated breakbeats, thereby allowing dancers to skank rather than rave. And marijuana is why the nudge-nudge wink-wink references to E in tracks were gradually replaced by roots reggae samples exalting ganja, sensimilla and herb.

Jungle wouldn't exist without two black musics that also worship sub-bass and the chronic that intensifies the low-end boom: hip hop and reggae. The life arc of DJ Hype, founder of the labels Ganja and True Playaz, is typical. A white working class boy from the desolate East London borough of Hackney, Hype spent the Eighties playing on a reggae sound-system and competing in hip hop cut'n'mix contests. By 1990, he was spinning house on pirate station Fantasy FM and recording brutal Euro-techno anthems as The Scientist. Jungle is the only-in-London amalgam of all these different imported sounds, and crucially it was a collective invention. " I always say, we are the foundation, because there's no one record, no single DJ, no specific club, where jungle started," Hype declares.

If you wanted to pinpoint the emergence of jungle, though, one contender is the moment at the end of 1992 when tracks like Bodysnatch's "Just 4 U London" and Code 071's "London Sumting" hit the pirate radio airwaves. "That it's-a-London-thing stance, I always took as this-is-a-black-thing, y'know," says Two Fingas. "London has the biggest black population in Britain". It was black fashion that shaped jungle's style spectrum, which ranged from hip hop-influenced "ruffneck soldier" minimalism (puffy MA1 and MA2 flight-jackets, namebrand sneakers, baggy pants) to dancehall-reggae derived ghetto fabulous flashiness. At the ragga-dominated raves like Sunday Roast and Desert Storm, the 80 percent black British crowd "larged it" VIP style--the men flaunting Versace and Moschino, gold sovereign rings and bottles of champagne; the women flexin' their abdomens and winin' their waists in their skin-tight "batty rider" shorts, micro-skirts, bustiers, and thigh-high boots.

As well as changing the way people moved on the dancefloor, the ragga influence was decisive in another area that sealed jungle's break with house and techno: the crucial role of the MC. "Girls sticking their asses in the air and a MC really working the crowd, getting them to hold their lighters up and blow their horns to get the DJ to rewind the track." is how Lee Billingham, aka DJ Bo!ne, recalls his first encounter with jungle at the South London club Lazerdrome. 

"I loved the whole 'selector! wheel-and-come-again!' , rewind thing," says Two Fingas, another Lazerdrome regular. The democratic way in which the audience controlled the DJ via the MC, he argues, is part of jungle's renegade blackness--its participatory, call-and-response ethos. "As the jungle MCs like GQ, Det, 5-0 and Moose took on the Jamaican patois thing, they became more than crowd motivators, they were vocalizing what the massive was feeling, connecting you with the music more intensely, and adding a lyrical element to this largely instrumental music. There's an ephemeral, magical quality to the MC chants--especially on the pirate radio stations, they'd just go off on one, creating stuff on the fly."

It's the pirate radio stations that are the real heroes of jungle's story--they kept the vibe alive in the scene's early, pre-breakthrough phase. London has dozens of these illegal radio collectives, gangstas of the airwaves who broadcast from the top of towering apartment blocks and engage in a constant, quasi-military struggle to survive not just governmental suppression but the skullduggery of rival stations who'll gladly steal their pirate brethren's transmitters. Legend has it that one outfit, Rush FM, turned the derelict upper floors of an East London block into a fortress so impregnable that the DJ's had to rappel up the side of the building to reach the studio. They sealed the stairwell entrance with concrete, hollow metal tubes pumped with ammonia gas, and a wire connected to the electrical supply. When local government officials attempted to drill through the barricade, they hit the live wire and an electric spark ignited the gas, exploding the concrete and showering the workmen with shrapnel.

Yet for all its militancy and moodiness, jungle seethed with "a fierce, fierce joy", as convert Bjork put it. The speed of the music was crucial, as if you could somehow ride its future-rush, achieve escape velocity, and smash through to a brighter tomorrow.

"The breakbeats were so fast and chopped up, your body wanted to be pulled in twenty different directions at once," recalls DJ Bo!ne of his baptismal experience at Lazerdome. "Me and my mates just looked at each other, jaws dropped, and were, like, 'This is mental!!!!"."

Says Two Fingas: "Anyone can be a junglist, but for me, it's part of having a black spirit. Jungle is about getting sweaty and having a religious experience on the dancefloor. It can feel like the Holy Spirit is moving through you."

Buy Junglist here (US) and here (UK)

More information here and Another Mag's interview with co-author James T. Kirk here  

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Daft Punk

 "Digital Love"

(from NPR Music farewell to Daft Punk special, 2021)

My golden Daft Punk memory is not witnessing their 1996 U.S. debut at a muddy Wisconsin rave, or meeting the duo at their home-from-home in the Hollywood Hills in 2013. It's dancing to "Digital Love" with my two-year-old son in 2001, the year Discovery came out. The childhood link – if not my own, then my kid's – cuts to the core of Daft Punk. As hinted by the title itself, Discovery felt like a flashback to pop's primal scene: those first encounters, ears cupped to a transistor radio or eyes glued to the TV screen, with otherworldly transmissions from Planet Pop. A magical recovery of that pre-teen openness to everything, before you've learned the rules of cool and uncool.

On Discovery, Daft Punk took their existing filter-disco sound, as pioneered on tracks like "Musique," and blended in a palette of textures and tones sourced in 1970s radio rock at its most overground, overproduced and over-lit. This was the yacht-rock move, almost a decade ahead of chillwave or groups like Haim. But in Daft Punk's case, the balance of irony and awe leans far more to the latter. There's a transcendent artificiality to "Digital Love" especially, a splendor of sound at once camp and sublime. The hazy glaze of the filter effect on the twirling main riff is like plastic if it could rust. At the breakdown, Supertramp's keyboard sound is duplicated with eerie exactness (or not so eerie exactness, given that Daft Punk used the exact same Wurlitzer piano as the English soft rock group). Then there's the ridiculous majesty of that Van Halen-style guitar solo, frothing and bubbling over like a geyser of hot-pink liquid latex. Yet, within all the delicious knowing allusions, the heart of "Digital Love" aches with unrequited longing: it's a rewrite of "Jump" tilted to the tentative, whose last words implore "why don't you play the game?"

"Digital Love" is such an epic distillation of What Daft Punk Is All About that it's still slightly bemusing to remember it was the third single off Discovery and only a modest hit. Admittedly, on the album "Digital Love" jostles with rival delights: lead single "One More Time," with its astonishingly protracted minute-and-half breakdown during which the beat absconds leaving just Romanthony's Auto-Tune-crackling ecstasy; the baroque excess of "Aerodynamic"; frantic electro-funk bangers "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and "Crescendolls"; the shimmering 10cc homage "Nightvision" and bittersweet ballad "Something About Us"; "Veridis Quo", which sounds like the credits theme for a French movie about a lonely girl who's just moved to Paris.

Still, "Digital Love" is The One as far as I'm concerned: a wondrous fusion of disco, AOR, glam metal and New Wave (the choppy guitar-riff breakdown practically forces you to dance in jumpy formation like you're in a Toni Basil video). The actual promo for "Digital Love", like its precursor singles, was hewn from Daft Punk's anime movie Interstella 5555, a project that captured an abiding truth about pop as well as forecasting its emerging destiny in the 21st century: pop's pulpy essence has far more to do with cartoons, comics and video games than literature or the other high arts.

Of course, in a move that seems in hindsight both logical and fatal, Daft Punk fell out of "digital love." They abandoned sampling and embarked upon the back-to-analogue quest of Random Access Memories: an attempt to turn back time and resurrect the pop monoculture of the late '70s and early '80s, ruled by performers and producers like Chic, Giorgio Moroder and Michael Jackson. RAM was a conceptual and commercial triumph, but ultimately a dead end – where on Earth could the duo go next? How could they hope to top "Get Lucky" being on the radio each and every hour for an entire year, the six Grammys and the awards ceremony jam session with Stevie Wonder and Nile Rodgers? As a commentary on our atemporal and digitally-overdriven epoch, RAM provided a heaping portion of food-for-thought. But since it came out, I've never once felt the urge to play the record. Whereas "Digital Love" and Discovery are perennial, always there when I need an intravenous jolt of insta-joy. Happy daze.