Get This!, Hard-to-find, New! Now!, Sampled

Velvet. Underground.

phenomenon
[fəˈnɒmɪnən]

a remarkable person or thing.
“the band was a pop phenomenon just for their sales figures alone”

I’m annoyed at myself. I’ve somehow managed to miss the two Sault albums that were released at pivotal points this year. It’s only now, as the movers and shakers and barometers of hip opinion are revealing their favourite albums of 2020, that I’m discovering that a band I found quite by fortune a year ago via a succession of blogs and Bandcamp links (snapping up both albums LIKE THAT) has released another two albums – both doubles! – in 2020.

Sault, it would appear, are a proper phenomenon.

They arrived a year or so ago with no fanfare or front page spreads. They have next to no online presence. No press shots exist. There appears to be no record company at work. Their artwork is sparse, dense and free of information. They are, like the good old days of yore, a proper underground sensation.

That a band can slip under the radar in a world of streaming and playlists and metatags and analytics and appear at the top of the tree above your Bruces and Bobs and Idles and Swifts is both remarkable and admirable. Phenomenal even.

They are, we have worked out, a collective of anonymous musicians, possibly a group of megastars, possibly a collaborative of home studio boffins or a mixture of both, with their music fine-cooked into its heady soulful stew by the hands of ace producer Inflo, the man who steered Michael Kiwanuka’s most-recent album to Mercury success and healthy worldwide sales. Urban Gorillaz, you might say.

Their music is eclectic, taking in straight-ahead, knee-dropping soul, sample-heavy gospel funk and the sparse, skittering sound of New York’s post-punk No Wave scene, that on-the-one bass and chanting sound pioneered expertly by ESG and their sing-song nursery rhyme vocals. In short, it grooves. And, short ‘n sweet, the songs never outstay their welcome. The albums – those first two at least – beg to be played again immediately after the needle has hit the run-off groove on side two.

SaultDon’t Waste My Time

Their first album – teasingly titled ‘5‘ (did this mean there were another 4 releases before it? I looked, believe me) is everything that’s great about the band; expert playing that treads a fine line between an ‘is it real or is it a sample‘ conundrum, interesting/weird synths and ambient noise, insanely catchy and street-sussed, super-confident vocals, sulky as hell one minute, smooth as velvet the next but always irresistible.

SaultWhy Why Why Why Why

SaultNo Bullshit

Their second, ‘7‘ (they’re messing with us now!) popped up a month or so later and continued in the same vein. No drop-off in quality, no less essential, no more clues as to who Sault actually is.

Sault Smile And Go

To discover that they’ve released another two albums – four sides of guaranteed-to-be wonderful music – is both frustrating and exciting. I should have known about this! I didn’t, though, so there’ll be some good new music to look forward to and there’s nothing better than that, is there?

A quick search led me to an Alexis Petridis review in the Guardian. Even he has been caught slightly off-guard as the review is built around this year’s two releases, both untitled (yet both titled.) How very Sault.

Untitled (Black Is) came first, a record apparently put together in the hours and days that followed the George Floyd murder. The follow-up, Untitled (Rise) crept out just a few weeks ago. It is, for those in the know, the album of 2020.

Jeez. I gotta hear it.

Them.

But, look! Their Bandcamp page is sold out and the eBay scalpers are having a laugh. Yeah, you can play the soundfiles to your heart’s desire – and there’s a superb Kiwanuka-voiced Afrobeat belter amongst them, but we need physical product man! Surely a quick repress is on the cards? Everybody loves you, Sault! Everybody! (You knew that already though).

 

 

 

Cover Versions, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Sampled

Rasta-Far-Out

The ghosting season is upon us, the one time of year I truly despise. I hated it as a child. I hated it as a parent when my kids were young enough to participate. I just hate it. The dressing up… the greediness… those creeping Americanisms of going trick or treating for candy around cobweb-frosted front doors and plastic gravestone-enhanced gardens can do one.

Amazingly, brilliantly – God bless ye, Covid – this year there’ll be no drip-nosed grubbers standing at my door in their various states of grotesqueness, reeling off the same combination of tired and/or risque jokes (Q. ‘What’s the difference between the tyres on my dad’s car and a blonde?‘ A. ‘A blonde will go down quicker than my dad’s tyres.’) in return for a handful of Haribo and a “have you told your mum that joke?” telling-off from me. The wee girl who first let slip that horrorshow of a party piece four or five years ago, and every year since, might finally stop telling it for good now.

Anyway.

Reggae.

Bob Marley‘s Mr Brown is one of his earliest recordings, dating back to 1970. It just so happens to be a ghost song, written in response to local legend that told of a duppy/ghost that could be seen hurtling across Jamaica late at night on a three-wheeled coffin. Perched atop the coffin alongside the ghost were three crows, one of which could talk. The talking crow would repeatedly ask for a Mr Brown. If you ever saw this hideous and creepy apparition, the story went, then RUN!, because you didn’t have long left on this earth. 

Bob Marley & The (Wailing) WailersMr Brown

The tune itself is a gently lilting three chord skank, played at relaxed pace and featuring some sweet falsetto backing vocals. Guitars and keys lock the rhythm and never deviate, allowing Marley to tell the story of the out of control ghost-driven coffin and the talking crow. Not yer average subject matter, and all the better for it.

Mr Brown was produced by the ubiquitous Lee Perry. Lee Perry is synonymous with reggae. The more dubified the music, the more prominent his involvement. His blunted, mercurial touch has been applied to literally thousands of records from Jamaica and beyond, fried at the edges and sprinkled with madness but beating with a heart of thunderclapping echoes and cavernous bass.

As I get older, I’ve begun to appreciate his more outré work in much the same way age has allowed me to appreciate a fine malt. Slightly unpalatable at first, you quickly develop a taste and ponder how you could go an evening without it.

Playing around with the Wailers’ track, Perry removed the vocals, credited the instrumental to The Upsetters and manouevered it onto the flip side of the Wailers’ single. In keeping with the original’s ghostly/horror theme, it was given the title of Dracula.

The UpsettersDracula

I don’t for a second think that Bob, Bunny and Peter sat around in rehearsal saying, y’know what….what this tune really needs is a funky, alien vibration every now and again. That ever-present deep electronic shimmer that sounds like the ancient central heating pipes in a school I used to teach in was clearly the madcap work of Lee Perry. Half a century later, it’s that sound that’s become the record’s signature.

Removing Marley’s vocals also allowed Perry the opportunity to incorporate the instrumental version into his soundsystem and toast across the top of it should he fancy doing so. Forever forward-thinking.

Eco-aware long before there was such a thing, Lee Perry not only grew his own herbs, he recycled tunes for his own benefit. In a burst of foresighted creativity, and long before many a future hip-hopper or soundscaper was out of short trousers, Perry actually sampled the vibe from another record entirely and enhanced the Wailers’ and, subsequently, his own tune.

Jackie MittooPeenie Wallie

He’s lowered the pitch, from toe-tapping shuffling ska to head-nodding deep-fried reggae, but you can hear exactly where Perry welded the backing track onto the Wailers’ own easy skanking shuffle, enhancing and filling out what is a fairly straightforward run through by a band still finding their musical feet.

The track’s title – Peenie Wallie – intrigues me. Here in Scotland, if someone is unwell, pale faced, or indeed ghost-faced, we refer to them as peelie wallie. Not a million miles away from the Jackie Mittoo title. I’ve often thought the owner of Studio One might’ve been referring to such a person, albeit in slightly interpolated form. Which of course, would bring us back onto the subject of pale-faced make-up and ghouls and ghosts.

*Bonus Track!

“And for our next track….!”

Bob Marley & The WailersDuppy Conqueror

Bob and the Wailers went on to record an ‘answer record’ to Mr Brown, the self-explanatory Duppy Conqueror. Proving that there’s great mileage in reggae, it too used a variation of the same backing track as Mr Brown.

Poke your nose in and you’ll discover that reggae is full of wonderful, recycled tunes. You knew that already though.

 

 

Sampled

Between The Lines

Massive Attack‘s Blue Lines added new textures to electronic dance music. It didn’t go for impersonal repetitiveness or hands in the air euphoria. It didn’t care much for sticking helium-voiced anonymous female vocals atop pounding 130+BPMs. The music sat around a head-nodding 100 beats per minute, occassionally dipping lower and slower into deeper, darker, dubbier moments. Blue Lines, a fantastically original mishmash of dub reggae, string-soaked house, parochial rapping and the choicest of samples opened many an eye and many a mind to the possibilities and endless limitations of sample-based electronic music. It’s a considered classic, and for good reasons.

You’ll know the album inside out, from the perpetually rolling Safe From Harm to the meditative Hymn Of The Big Wheel, via the peerless, timeless Unfinished Sympathy. I thought I knew it back to front until this week. With no distractions – I wasn’t listening on an iPod as I exercised or via the car CD as I commuted to and from work, I was in my favourite chair in the living room, the kids remotely jostling for their share of the bandwidth upstairs – and I stuck it on, sat there and listened. Then I flipped it over and continued. And when side two had finished, I did it all again. And again. New things leapt out at me, in particular a previously unnnoticed sample on the title track, Blue Lines.

Massive AttackBlue Lines

Tricky totally owns this track, spooling out a freeflowing stream of conscience rap that takes in relationships, paranoia, ethnicity, territorial tribalism – take a walk Billy, don’t be a hero – and existentialism in all its guises.

Built on a base of groovily shuffling drums and keys, all side-of-the-stick rim shots and noodling Fender Rhodes, it’s one of the album’s most downtempo moments. A scratching DJ and stut-stut-stuttering woozy re-set knocks the track briefly out of sync before a familiar guitar riff (James Brown?) brings the slo-mo rhythm back. It’s a sublime soundbed, the tight but loose rhythm and popping bass line making it a headnodder’s delight, no matter how many times you’ve heard it before.

The soundbed is lifted wholly from Tom Scott & the L.A. Express‘s 1974 jazz funk epic Sneakin’ In The Back. Contrast and compare…

Tom Scott & the LA ExpressSneakin’ In The Back

Cheeky sample

You can practically see the wispy blue curl of nicotine from smouldering Lucky Strikes jammed into headstocks, and the handlebar moustaches, white ‘fros and oversized baker boys caps as it plays.

With an expansive sax solo as wide and willfully free as a generously-cut bell bottom, the track would become something of a signature tune for Scott and his 5 bandmates. In the world of sampling and reappropriation, it was only a matter of time before someone such as Massive Attack would bend and shape the tune for their own ends. Or lift it, hook, line and wink (uh-huh) and base a whole new sound around it.

But what of that familiar guitar riff?

It had to be a James Brown riff, surely? Tighter than a pair of hot pants and ceaslesly funky, it had me scouring the tracks on the 4 album Star Time set until I found it.

I couldn’t.

Ashamed of myself, I resorted to Google. And discovered it was a Blackbyrds riff. Of course it was. Massive Attack ground it down to 33rpm – I worked that out myself – a high intensity cardio-vascular workout slowed to the natural pace of resting breath and used to colour the Tom Scott track with some low in the mix additional funk. Like the final ingredient in a bowl of your granny’s soup, it helps take Blue Lines just that wee bit further into the out there.

The BlackbyrdsRock Creek Park

*Extra Track!

As an interesting aside, that brief and unexpected DJ scratch that Massive Attack employ at the start of their track became part of the fabric of Barry Adamson‘s Spooky-stealing Something Wicked This Way Comes. Poachers turn game keepers ‘n all that. If you’ve never heard it or its parent album, Oedipus Schmoedipus, you could do worse than rectify that right now. Listen out for the sample…

Barry AdamsonSomething Wicked This Way Comes

…and investigate the album. You’ll love it.

Alternative Version, Cover Versions, Peel Sessions, Sampled

Orderly Cue

New Order‘s Power Corruption & Lies has just had the luxuruious, deluxe treatment. Not for any anniversary reasons it seems, but it follows swiftly on the heels of the similar treatment afforded to its predecesor, Movement. Movement is a landmark album for New Order in some ways, not least the band’s decision to continue making music in the aftermath of Ian Curtis’s death, but Power, Corruption & Lies, as you know already, is the album where New Order is truly born.

Gone are the self-conscious carbon copy Curtis vocals and mannerisms. (Almost) nowhere to be heard are the rattling, richocheting Hannett-affected steam-powered drums. The high up the frets bass is, crucially, still there, more to the fore even; post-punk liquid mercury, fluid and meandering, creating that signature New Order sound without anyone being aware at the time.

Where the synth lines on Movement were occasional and minimal, on Power, Corruption & Lies they’re elegant and glacial, polishing New Order’s confident new sound with a reflective sheen. From the flowers on the cover – the juxtaposition of old and new worlds, explained sleeve designer Peter Saville – and its code-cracking tracklisting on the back, via the grapple and struggle with new technology to Bernard finding his own shaky voice, everything about Power, Corruption & Lies screams fresh new start.

The soul of the band’s adventurous new sound can be found at the end of the 1st side.

New Order586

Peter Saville’s original sketched idea for the back sleeve

586 is, to begin with, a bit of a strange track. Those rattling, richocheting drums make a brief appearance at the start before a squelchy, squiggly keyboard line assumes the role of lead. Freeforming for a good couple of minutes, and just as you think it might be running out of ideas, a familiar ghostly synth line introduces itself, curling in like a cold, grey fog off the Manchester Ship Canal. Back in 1983 (or ’93 or ’03 or even right now,) New Order obsessives listening for the first time would have pricked their ears in a Proustian rush of recognition.

Coupled with the clattering sequenced electro and rapid-fire snare that follows immediately afterwards, 586 reveals itself to be Baby Blue Monday. It’s got it all going on – the tempo, the four to the floor dancefloor beat, the breakdown in the middle…but mostly, it’s in the propulsive, forward-thinking rhythm and pulsing, sequenced synths. Blue Monday was the stand alone single, released before the album, but 586 was clearly conceived at the same knee-trembling session behind the mixing desk. 

Peter Saville’s guide to cracking the tracklisting code

It’s significantly different in other ways though. Bernard’s voice is in a higher register, falsetto occassionally, and nothing like the bottom of the boots Curtisish vocal on Blue Monday. There’s an energy of its own to it and a high synthy melody that repeats throughout, giving way to warm and fuzzy synths before the gears begin to grind to a halt and the whole track sloooooows doooown to a juddering stop, bringing both itself and side 1 of the album to a definite close.

586 began life in May 1982 when Tony Wilson asked New Order for “20 minutes of pap.” The original version was put onto video and played when the Haçienda opened its doors for the first time. A shorter version was redone for the band’s Peel Session a month later.

New Order586 (Peel Session)

With backwards sections and helicoptering synths, bendy bass and a rhythm track made up of heavily treated sleigh bells and jangling percussion, it isn’t the “20 minutes of pap” that their label boss asked for, but it’s very much a lyric in search of a better tune. That tune duly turned up a year later, half of it soundtracking the album version, the other half lending itself to the greatest 12″ single of all time.

New Order/Ennio Morricone bassline

Talking of which – where would Blue Monday be without that twanging, Spaghetti Western bassline? Stolen twang for twang from Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for For A Few Dollars More, it became Peter Hook’s signature sound on New Order’s signature record, and a sound that’s still very much likely to prick the ears of people of a certain age forever.

Hard-to-find, Sampled

Hopping In A Barrel Is A Barrel Of Fun

Hall & Oates seem to be on a wee bit of a renaissance just now. In recent months the hip-to-the-jive stadium announcer at Rugby Park has started playing You Make My Dreams Come True at the end of every game. Plastic soul for a plastic pitch, it’s a positive nod to Kilmarnock FC’s lofty league position, where they currently occupy the European spot with one game left to play. The duo has just played the Hydro (terrible sound, by all accounts) and are currently winding their way around the larger arenas of the UK and beyond to generally sold out (and affluent) crowds. Did you see the price of the tickets? I can’t go for that, no can do, ‘n all that.

While their best songs endure as shiny FM pop/soul hits – Maneater, Out Of Touch, the just-mentioned I Can’t Go For That, they were always a bit too slick for me; it was the moustaches ‘n mullets ‘n multitude of sleeveless t-shirts that failed to engage me. The nadir was their appearance on American Live Aid. It was a forgettable performance by and large, but the images of vests and leather trousers and blow-dried Lady Diana bouffants are as burned to the retina as those of Bono clambering into the Wembley pit and Freddie Mercury leading that mass clap along during Radio Ga Ga.

De La Soul famously copped I Can’t Go For That’s “you want my body now you want my soul” chorus refrain and used it to great effect on their own Say No Go. Hippy and trippy rather than tough and bluff, in radical, revolutionary fashion, De La Soul ripped up the accepted rules of rap and rewrote them over the course of their terrific catch-all, sampleadelic debut 3 Feet High And Rising. Out went standard outsider braggadocio about guns ‘n girls built around James Brown drum breaks and in came all-inclusive, socially-conscious, self-proclaimed Daisy Age rap constructed from all corners of the trio’s parents’ record collection; The Turtles sit happily (together) next to snippets of Sly Stone and Steely Dan, slowed down Johnny Cash vocals, sped up Detroit Emeralds guitar riffs, George Clinton keyboard parts and even Liberace adlibs.

Eclecticism runs through the grooves like the lettering in a stick of Blackpool rock. Bo Diddley maraca shakes jigsaw into Lee Dorsey drum breaks….. the hits of a sky high Michael Jackson are pushed aside by bits of a superfly Run DMC… Richard Prior skits give way to Wilson Pickett hits…. Sewn together by an inter-track gameshow, it’s an album that’s as cartoonish and day-glo and fun as the sleeve it comes (w)rapped in suggests.

3 Feet High And Rising is terrifically, brilliantly all over the place. Its carefree abandon to copyright are both a lawyer’s nightmare and dream, and a spin of the album today throws up new things still. There are websites upon websites breaking down the samples used, but as my own taste becomes increasingly catholic with each passing year, it’s much more fun to play spot the sample without over-reliance on Dr Google.

With my fairly decent knowledge of music, I could argue the case for the group renaming themselves De La Stole, but then, the sticky-fingered pilfering is what makes the album so enduring. No one, least of all the band themselves would dare dream of taking such a cavalier approach to record making again, especially when the lion’s share of all future royalties go straight to the original songwriters, ie anywhere other than the people who put it all together. It’s no surprise that since the album’s release, hip hop producers such as Dre and Pharrell have steered clear of sampling and instead created their own sounds via keyboards and computers and alchemic wizardry.

De La SoulSay No Go

Say No Go is the album in miniature. Constructed from half a dozen or so samples it manages to be hip hop and high pop, as boxfresh as a new pair of Nikes on Thanksgiving. Crashing in on the horn part from Sly Stone’s Crossword Puzzle, creating a hook by playing Detroit Emeralds’ Baby Let Me Take You In My Arms at 45 rather than 33 and employing a beat mishmashed from both Hall & Oates’ Say No Go and The Turtles’ I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (to be honest, I Googled that one), De La Soul manufactured one of their most enduring tracks.

Sly StoneCrossword Puzzle

Detroit Emeralds – Baby Let Me Take You In My Arms

Hall & Oates Say No Go

 

The vocal sample that lends the track its name is the icing on a cake packed full of interesting ingredients; blink-and-you-miss-‘em parts of The Emotions’ Best Of My Love jostle for ear space alongside the Dragnet theme and the Funky 4 + 1’s That’s The Joint. The sprinkle on top of the icing, the lyric is a terrific stream of (social) conscience that addresses the issues of inner city drug abuse:

Now let’s get right on down to the skit

A baby is brought into a world of pits

And if it could’ve talked that soon in the delivery room

It would’ve asked the nurse for a hit

Undoubtedly political but undeniably populist, the finished track (unwittingly, perhaps) manages to be influenced by James Brown, although not in the usual cut ‘n paste manner favoured by hip hop artists: De La Soul realign that hybrid HallnOates/Turtles’ beat so that the track kicks off ‘on the one’, lending it that driving, forward-seeking groove. It’s propulsive and insistent and downright funky. I could listen to it for ages.

Gone but not forgotten, Sampled

Covert Operations

I’ve Been Watching You by The Southside Movement is exactly the sort of record that could have even the most conservative of Sunday drivers pick up the pace to an even 32 mph and cruise the streets while Detroit leaning like a Fedora’d pimp in heat-hazed Harlem. Its mid 70s groove, a head-nodding amalgamation of on-the-one funk bass lines and metronomic kick drums is tailor-made for the job. One look at the band responsible for putting such a groove together should give you an idea of what it’s like, should you be lucky enough to be listening to the track for the first time.

The Southside Movement I’ve Been Watching You

The mid-paced care-free groove belies that fact that underneath the funk there’s a mildly stalkerish theme going on, essentially the tale of a married man watching unseen as the (married) woman of his desires goes about numerous clandestine affairs. Spy and the Family Stone, if you will.

Its four-to-the-floor funkiness wasn’t at all lost on the Beastie Boys. Where other rap acts take a huge chunk of something groovy and loop it forever in the foreground, I’ve Been Watching You was ‘bitten’ (the band’s term for underhandedly borrowing a desirable part of a record that could be played by the band themselves) and used as the basis for So What’cha Want, one of the Beastie Boys’ greatest tracks.

Starting with the sound of the Southside Movement’s bass drum spinning in full effect on an old Technics turntable, Ad Rock jumped on board, adding extra kicks and snares and building layer upon layer of that huge dunk, kack, da-dunk, kack… rhythm. It’s Trampled Underfoot While The Levee Breaks, the sound of John Bonham playing loudly in a cave. Slightly sloppy but very massive.

Beastie BoysSo What’cha Want

Once the beat was in place, Ad Rock looped it ad infinitum and called his Beastie bandmates in to hear what he’d done with the sample. The vocals came quickly, the trio weaving in and out in trademark fashion, their voices distorted by happy accident through the cheap karaoke mics they were using in place of the more sophisticated microphones normally found in a recording studio. When the track began taking shape, Adam Yauch suggested the band throw away the sample and play the whole thing themselves, which they ultimately did.

So, not quite sampled then (there’s no writing credit at any rate, which wasn’t uncommon in 1991), but if you strip away the layers of noise on top, disregard the whacked-out distorted vocals, dismantle the incessant guitar riff, the squeaky Hammond and the cinematic atmospheric fade-ins, the genesis of the whole record breaks down to that simple kick drum beat. Kick it!, as someone once said.

From the album Check Your Head, So What’cha Want is the product of the band’s relocation to LA, where they built a studio and furnished it with vintage equipment. Such was the era, the studio-based musicians of the day favoured more portable keyboards and digital equipment over bulky, fragile and unreliable vinatge gear from the 70s. The Beasties were eagle-eyed scanners of the classified ads and would be first to react when any listing for Fender Rhodes or Moog synth jumped out at them – a sad irony they said, as the musicians selling the equipment were usually doing so because they’d ‘failed’ to ‘make it’. Here were the Beastie Boys though; forward-thinking, vintage-loving musical magpies.

There’s a terrific Beastie Boys Book out just now, a chronological telling of the band’s history through eye-witness accounts, whacked-out recipes and mix-tape suggestions. Packed full of brilliant candid shots of the band plus associates (and NYC), it goes without saying you should have it on your Christmas list. Expect more Beastie-related stuff in the coming weeks as I work my way through it.

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Sampled

MCR NYC

If it’s scratchy, scuffed at the knees post-punk with a groove yer after, all roads lead to the twin metropoli of Manchester and New York.

A Certain Ratio are something of an enigma. They’ve been around long enough to have witnessed every important youth movement since punk and have steadfastly ploughed their own furrow, grooving somewhere between the hands-in-pockets introspection of Joy Division and the hands-in-the air exhibitionism of the Hacienda and the rave culture it gave birth to, while sometimes dressed like wonky extras in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. They’ve seen off grunge, grime and good old Britpop as well as the entire careers of The Smiths, New Order (the real New Order that is) and just about every influential band these isles have produced.

Revered by all manner of bands whose funk DNA pops up in the least likely of places, from Talking Heads and Happy Mondays to Red Hot Chili Peppers, ACR have the dubious fortune of being incredibly influential yet incredibly unheard of. It’s just the way they like it. They have the freedom to bypass trends, to surf across the wave of whatever zeitgeist is hip that week and get on with the job of making records for themselves.

Du The Du from 1979’s The Graveyard And The Ballroom album is the perfect jumping off/jumping in point.

ACRDu The Du

 

 

It fairly rattles along on a barbed wire bed of steam-powered, clattering industrial funk, with powerhouse drummer Donald Johnson somehow making his kit the lead instrument. Lo-fi guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Josef K record do their chicken-scratch thang, an Asda-priced Nile Rodgers played by cosmopolitan Mancunians. The vocals, all pent-up anxiety could be Ian Curtis on Lemsip. There’s even an elastic band bassline midway through which threatens, but never quite gets to Level 42 on the muso-meter. I defy you not to wiggle at least a finger to it.

Du The Du also happens to be the track by which LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy measures (measured?) his own funkiness. If the New York band’s latest track seems weak by comparison, it’s binned forever until something more in keeping with ACR’s wonky, jerky funk turns up. Du the right thing indeed.

Talking of New York…

Such a melting pot of cultures and styles is always going to be responsible for inspiring exciting new trends and movements. ESG was formed by the three Scroggins sisters from the Bronx. Given a variety of instruments by a mum keen to keep them on the right side of wrong, the group took equal inspiration from their Motown favourites and the nascent New York hip hop scene. The result, in a way, was neither. As with ACR, much of their stuff is sparse, cold and music for the feet rather than the head.

A show in Manhattan’s Hurrah club brought ESG to the attention of Factory’s Tony Wilson, himself no stranger to an ACR record (he’d go on to release 5 of their albums on Factory). Wilson brought ESG to Manchester where they recorded with Martin Hannett, fresh, believe it or not, from manning the desk as ACR recorded Du The Du. There’s serendipity right there for you. Or plain old musical incest. 

ESG wouldn’t go on to sell all that many records, but in the intervening years they’ve been a clear influence on bands such as Luscious Jackson and Warpaint. They’ve also found themselves heavily sampled by acts looking for something beyond the usual James Brown riff; Beastie Boys, Tricky, even TLC have found gold within their basslines and rippling drums, leading to a late-era ESG releasing the telling Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills EP.

1982’s Dance To The Beat Of Moody from their EP of the same name is where you should start though:

ESGDance To The Beat Of Moody

 

 

As fresh as a hot pretzel on Avenue Of The Americas, it’s great, innit? You wouldn’t be in the least surprised if it were to pop up on BBC 6 Music next week, rotated heavily on the a-list as the hottest new thing. It’s only 36 years young. Original vinyl is almost impossible to track down though and, even of you’re lucky enough to uncover a 1983 press of Come Away With ESG, you’ll need a small bank loan to pay for it. Thankfully, the wonderful Soul Jazz do a good run in re-presses.

Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten, Sampled

Teenie Credit

Mabon Lewis “Teenie” Hodges is possibly not the first name you alight at when thinking about guitar heroes, yet he’s responsible for creating some of the most instantly recognisable riffs in soul music. In an era when all the focus, all the spotlight shone on the name; Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Al Green etc etc, Teenie Hodges played out the groove in the background with a fluid anonimity that should by rights have seen him carved up there on the Mount Rushmore of soul alongside the singers he helped elevate to greatness.

Teenie began playing at the age of 12, when he and his two brothers played in their father’s band. From there, he came to the attention of legendary producer/arranger Willie Mitchell and Teenie and his brothers left life on the road to form the famed Hi Rhythm house band at Hi Records. The band would play on all the label’s releases, creating a sound and an identity that was instantly recognisable. It’s mainly his work with Al Green that he’s known for. Amongst others, Teenie co-wrote Here I Am (Come And Take Me) and Take Me To The River with the Reverend, his soulful, steady rhythm guitar underpinning two head-nodding accepted classics.

Al GreenHere I Am (Come And Take Me)

It’s the subtle flourishes and signature riffs that differentiate Hodges from other players of the era. Perhaps it was Al Green’s lack of ego that allowed his guitarist to express himself, or perhaps Green knew raw talent when he heard it, but either way, Green left plenty of space in his music for Hodges to step to the fore. Listen to any number of Green classics  – Let’s Stay Together or I’m Hooked On You or How Can You Mend A Broken Heart? for example -and you’ll spot Hodges gently arpeggiating triplets cascading in the background. His playing on the Bee Ges’ cover is particularly lovely.

Al Green  – How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?

Now and again, Hodges would write an all-out classic riff. Let’s Stay Together and L.O.V.E. (Love) benefit from intro riffs that define the very essence of soul music. What’s soul music? someone might ask. Point them in the direction of these tracks and it’ll all become clear.

Al GreenL.O.V.E. (Love)

Hodge was Green’s musical director by the time of the Al Green Is Love LP and his horn arrangements, understated keys and gentle riffs define the album. L.O.V.E. is a cracker. Green rightly takes centre stage, offset by a gently cooing trio of backing singers. The music allows the vocals to be the focal point but if you can look past Green’s heartfelt vocal delivery and focus your attention on the guitar playing you’ll be in awe of an incredible piece of music. I’ve tied many a finger in knots trying to get the notes and chords down pat. That’s the easy part. Hodges’ feel for the music is just terrific. I doubt it’s something I’ll ever quite get to.

One determined west of Scotland guitar player who had a good stab at it was Edwyn Collins. On Orange Juice’s You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever LP, the band close side 1 with a sincere though slightly ragged run through of it; Hi horn parts, falsetto vocals and a terrific facsimile of Hodge’s original riff. In a post-punk wasteland where angry young men shouted angry thoughts with angry guitars, it was a brave move by Orange Juice. Forever with one eyebrow arched and never far from taking the opportunity to poke fun at machismo, it’s just perfect, even if the record-buying public thought not. Orange Juice’s brave attempt at L.O.V.E. staggered to the giddy position of number 65. There’s no accounting for taste.

Orange Juice L.O.V.E. (Love)

Fact

Teenie Hodges made the lion’s share of his money throught his co-writing credit for Take Me To The River. It wasn’t the royalties that came via record sales of Green’s original, nor the countless covers (Talking Heads and Annie Lennox amongst them) that balooned his bank balance. That honour goes to Billy Big Bass, the singing fish that plays the track at the press of a button. The ubiquitous toy ornament that was all the rage 15 or so years ago made more money for Hodges than all his other writing credits added together and certainly helped his 3 wives and 8 children to enjoy the lifestyle they were accustomed to before Hodges death in 2014.

Another fact

Teenie’s nephew is hip hop star Drake.

Hard-to-find, Sampled

Shake Your Money Maker

The Beastie Boys might have portrayed themselves as three street-smart, sharp-witted goofballs with expensive tastes in trainers and sports-casual wear, but anyone with half an inkling knows they were much more than that. Behind the facade was a ruthless business empire including a record label, a magazine and their own clothing line, all of which were as undeniably hip as their Brooklyn-based beats. Working alongside the trio (but forever just out of shot) was a handful of trusted associates, pulling the strings, wheeling and dealing, making sure the well-oiled Beastie machine crept forever forwards. Alongside the film makers who captured their good sides on celluloid and the payrolled sneaker pimps who forever kept them in box-fresh trainers were a core of musicians and producers who could be relied upon to enhance the Beastie’s sound in the studio and on the stage. One such entrusted friend was Money Mark.

Money Mark was born Mark Ramos Nishita in Detroit to a Japanese-Hawaiian father and Chicano mother. The sounds he continues to coax from his assorted vintage keyboards are as exotic and interesting as his background suggests. He came to the Beastie Boys via producer Mario Caldato Jnr. when the producer asked him if he was able to fix the fence at the studio where the Beastie Boys were recording Paul’s Boutique. Mark was quick to point out that not only could he build fences, he could build recording studios too and, after duly building the Beastie Boys their dream studio, he began helping out with the recordings that followed.

Between 1992 and 2011, Money Mark collaborated on every Beasties’ release. Considered wisdom suggests that Paul’s Boutique is the highest of high points in a flawless discography, but when pushed, I’ll always choose Check Your Head. In no small way that’s due to Money Mark’s Fender Rhodes being allowed to roam all over its 20 tracks without a leash. It’s Mark that drives Sure Shot on Ill Communication, his rudimentary beat box vying for space with the understated keys, trying to reign it all in while the Beasties’ signature Panzer attack vocals spit and snarl from start to finish. It’s Mark who triggers the siren assault on mega-hit Intergalactic, and that’s him again, holding the groove behind the multitude of samples on Triple Trouble from the post 9/11 To The 5 Boroughs. You might not realise it, but Money Mark probably plays on at least 4 out of your top 5 Beastie Boys tracks.

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As well as being the Ian Stewart of the Beastie Boys, responsible for much of the general funkiness but stuck stage right, half-hidden behind a bank of speakers, Money Mark makes music in his own name. Push The Button, his second album is a melting pot of stoner grooves, clattering hip hop and gorgeous Fender Rhodes piano. Released in 1998 (shit – that’s 20 years ago!) it’s worth discovering if you’ve never heard it. And if you have, it’s worth a revisit. I bet it’s been a while.

The lead single Hand In Your Head is a mid-paced shuffler that takes its lead from Sly Stone circa There’s A Riot Goin’ On.

Money MarkHand In Your Head

Bass on this track is played by Sean Lennon, himself signed to Grand Royal, the Beasties’ label and drums are provide by Russell Simins, another who’s no stranger to a Beastie Boys record. In short, this has all the ingredients of a prime-era Beasties’ track without the gobby, snotty icing on the cake. And while you might enjoy that gobby, snotty icing, you can’t deny the simple mellowness of it all.

The b-side, if CD singles have b-sides, is just as good. Old track Cry is given a Dust Brothers remake, keeping the original’s downbeat groove and descending bassline – sampled from Quincy Jones’ version of Summer In The City, I think.

Money MarkCry (Dust Brothers remix)

The scratching and stu-stu-stuttering horn samples are very of their time, but the vocals! Man, it’s Sly all over again. Actually, it’s probably more Shuggie Otis. By the time the keyboard solo meanders in, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d regressed to some Hispanic neighborhood in uptown New York in the summer of 1973, fire hydrants gushing their escaping load out and across the stoops of the brownstones as kids play in slo-mo inside it.

Mark wasn’t always kept in the Beastie Boys’ shadows. At a memorable Barrowlands show during the Ill Communication tour, he waited until the encore – So Whatcha Want if I remember correctly, before launching himself over his bank of keyboards and out into the first couple of rows. He reapeared a minute or so later, trainerless but smiling, helped back onto the stage by MCA and a wee baldy G4 security guy who never even noticed him flying over his head in the first place.

Gone but not forgotten, Sampled

Sound Affects

There are a million bits in records – not necessarily the whole track – that stick in the brain and when re-heard trigger some sort of euphoric high in the brain. Off the top of my head, the galloping acoustic rush as Johnny Marr leads The Smiths into Bigmouth Strikes Again, The Clash going full pelt on White Riot, the popping bass intro to Sly & The Family Stone’s I Get High On You, the 14th fret D chord that fills every second line in Rip It Up, Liz Fraser’s voice on Song To The Siren, the gear-changing riff on The Breeder’s Cannonball, the stomping goosestep that opens Holidays In The Sun, the wild-eyed storm at the end of The Beatles’ Helter Skelter, the clattering industrial funk that holds Happy Mondays’ Mad Cyril loosely together, the bit in I Am The Resurrection when Mani’s riff kicks in and the whole band head off into an episode of Starsky & Hutch for 5 minutes, Marvin Gaye’s ‘Up early in the morning!’ when the Funk Brothers momentarily drop out on Can I Get A Witness.….That 10 Favourite Albums thing that’s doing the rounds just now on Facebook is good fun ‘n all, but if you were to ask me my 10 favourite bits in music, I reckon I’d be at it, one a day, for months on end. And I’m sure any of you reading this would be similarly challenged.

There’s no doubt though (this week at any rate) that the sound of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards playing together is just about my favourite sound in music. Nile, with his chattering funk guitar, all major 7ths with extra pinky action, found the perfect foil in Bernard (pronounced with the emphasis on the 2nd syllable – it rhymes with ‘hard’ (just like those bass lines he plays)), a seasoned jazz player who ran up, down and across the 4 strings under his fingers with an effortless glide. When the pair of them lock into a groove it’s like an old married couple nattering over the kitchen table, Nile leading the conversation with positive excitement, Bernard uhm-ing and ah-ing in contended agreement.

Listen to their playing on Sister Sledge‘s Thinking Of You.

Sister SledgeThinking Of You

Rodgers’ idea for Chic was always that they’d be a hit-making machine writing songs for others as well as themselves. They’d have their own act, Chic, who took their cue from Roxy Music by dressing to the nines and fronting the band with a couple of glamorous females who wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Roxy album sleeve. Chic ran up all manner of hit singles; Le Freak, Everybody Dance, I Want Your Love….. and when Nile and Bernard weren’t guiding them to chart success they were busy helping others fill the gaps in the charts they’d just vacated.

The Chic Organisation played on all manner of records, a disco-era house band akin to the Funk Brothers at Motown or the Wrecking Crew in LA. And the best thing about those Chic Organisation records is that every one of them sounded exactly like Chic themselves.

Take the Sister Sledge record above. It opens with that none-more-recognisable Rodgers’ guitar sound, played high up the frets on the first 3 or 4 strings, simple enough to listen to but devilishly difficult to play with the same bounce as its writer. When Edwards’ bass comes in along with the vocals, the whole thing takes off in airy abandon.

“Everybody, let me tell you ’bout my love,

Brought to you, by an angel up above….”

And away we go. Strings sweep up and down, the bass drops in and out, congas and pitched percussion keep the whole thing groovy and the sisters Sledge sashay on the spot, ice-cool four-part harmonies and backing vocals from beginning to end. The Chic Organisation thought the finished track was just OK and stuck it on a b-side. A b-side! The a-side? That would be Lost In Music.

Thinking Of You finally gained chart success in 1984 when a down on their luck Sister Sledge were releasing records to ever-diminishing returns and some clever soul at the record company pointed out that that old b-side from 5 years ago hadn’t been too bad after all. By this point, Rodgers was working with Bowie and Madonna, his sound forever in demand. Listen to Let’s Dance or Like A Virgin and you’ll hear his clipped guitar all over the records like a happy rash. Not for nothing has he nicknamed his white Strat ‘The Hitmaker’.

Nile of course is everywhere nowadays, front and centre stage, in a forever-touring version of Chic. “No, it’s not the same musicians,” he’ll happily tell you, “but no-one complains when they go to hear a Mozart piano concerto and ol’ Wolfgang fails to turn up.”

A few years ago we (I say ‘we‘ – I’m part of a group who put on local gigs) were looking for a headline act. We had enough money for either Nile Rodgers or The Magic Numbers, but not both. Nile lost out on the vote, which greatly upset me…..and the others when he popped up a few months later owning the stage at Glastonbury, at that very moment reborn. Our Magic Numbers gig a few short weeks later was great, but, y’know, not Nile Rodgers great. Nowadays, believe me, you could probably fund a Magic Numbers World tour for less than the cost of putting on Nile for one night. On stage, Nile plays with a smile as wide and long as the zeros on his royalty cheques. And who can grudge the man! He’s survived a very disfunctional childhood. He’s beaten cancer. And he seems like an all-round decent man. If you haven’t already, you really should read his book.

Bonus Tracks

Paul WellerThinking Of You

Taken from his Studio 150 album, clearly a contract-filling album if there ever was one, Weller treats the original with politely-scrubbed acoustic respect but not the required funk.

Sister SledgeThinking Of You (Dmitri From Paris remix)

Dmitri From Paris takes Sister Sledge’s original and turns it into a rolling, soulful house cut. Sensibly, he keeps all of Edwards’ and Rodgers’ parts. There is, after all, some music DNA that you just don’t mess with.