What’s not to like about this! It’s A Certain Ratio, covering Talking Heads, on a track intended for Grace Jones, that features a guide vocal from the band’s Jez Kerr that ended up being on the released version. Mined from the band’s archives a couple of years ago and represented in new light on their all-encompassing 40-year anniversary box set, Houses In Motion bears all the hallmarks of classic ACR.
A Certain Ratio – Houses In Motion
It’s the bassline that hits you first. A fluid and chrome monster, it falls halfway between the mercurial slink of the O’Jays’ For The Love Of Money and an on-the-one makeover of the theme to Cheggers Plays Pop. The vocal, deadpan and spoken, apes David Byrne’s original, a hollowed-out shell of existential pondering and angst. Caught in the eye of his own storm, Kerr seems nonplussed as his band knock several shades of post-punk funk from the track.
Rattling, metronomic, beatbox percussion keeps the beat slow and steady before the guitars, scratchy and metallic, creep their way into the mix, dropping out and in again at the end of the lines, filling in the vocal-free sections. Echoing trumpets, heavily filtered through the mixing desk help to date the track – think Pigbag and Teardrop Explodes, even the Jam… any band from the era that saw out the ’70s and saw in the ’80s with an ‘anything goes’ approach to instrumentation. Off it flies, the brass section heralding the intent to take the track upwards and skywards. I’m glad ACR discovered they had it during that archival archaeological dig of theirs.
Talking Heads‘ original is, of course, also a beauty.
Talking Heads – Houses In Motion
It’s total claustrophobic funk that, with its bubbling bass and car horn keyboards, brings to mind Prince’s ridiculously pervy Lady Cab Driver. It’s more out there in places than ACR’s cover – those scatter-gunning, free-flowing trumpets, for example – and Byrne’s call-and-response vocals that almost fall into Slippery People‘s ‘Whats a-matter witchu?‘ hook; no bad thing, clearly…like the rest of Remain In Light, the track’s parent album. But you knew that already.
The record books show that this week Plain Or Pan turns 14. That’s about 800 articles and a whole lot of words on a whole lot of music that a whole lot of people have never read. If you’re a regular, please accept 14 years worth of thanks for adding to the wee electronic turnstile on the side there every time you visit. If you’re relatively new, welcome! Hopefully you’ll stick around.
Wonder Y by A Certain Ratio has been spinning regularly over the past few days. If you’re a neighbour you’ve probably heard its faint thump permeate your personal space. As you disentangle the Christmas lights from your garage guttering and wrestle the real tree out to the bins, that supersmooth fluid groove that you can hear pulsing through my living room wall is the very tune. You might even have caught me sillhouetted behind the blind on New Year’s Eve as my hips succumbed to its bubbling funk and forced me into some sort of spasmodic movement you’d have the nerve to call a dance. Great tune, innit?
A Certain Ratio – Wonder Y
In the grand, expansive and eminently investigatable ACR discography, Wonder Y and its parent album, Up In Downsville, signifed the band’s era-defining move from clattering, industrial, grey-painted post-punk funk (Joy Division with better clothes, to slightly misquote Tony Wilson) to the smoother-edged, electronically driven and chemically enhanced variant.
If it were a picture, early ACR would look like the jagged peaks of the Alps. By 1992, their sound was as smooth and rolling as the landscapes of Ibiza. Sequencers and samplers take prominence over scratchy guitars. Relaxed, whispered vocals replace urgent shouty ones. The bass is more rounded, less an assault weapon and more a rhythmic dictator. The jerky elbows and awkward jut of the 80s ACR have relaxed and grown into themselves. It’s a good look.
Wonder Y takes its lead from a spoken word sample and a Kraftwerk-inspired rippling rhythm, electronic stones making concentric circles when flung into rivers of fluid mercury, and floats off downstream from there. It’s a cracker.
ACR is joined on Wonder Y by the much-loved and instantly recognisable Denise Johnson. One of the defining voices of the Manchester music scene, Denise finds her spot in the track and surfs across the top, breathy and low one moment, skyscraping and divaesque the next.
By the time Wonder Y is halfway through, man and machine are as one, melded and welded together in holy head-nodding abandon. With Denise gradually taking control of vocal duties, the track is propelled further out into the stratosphere, its analogue bubbles and synth washes, keyboard stabs and nagging, three note bass giving it the auditory appearance of a long-lost melted remix of Primal Scream’s Don’t Fight It, Feel It. Joy and precision in better clothes, perhaps.
Early Talking Heads, with their tight, taut, highly strung guitars, meandering, fluid basslines and polyrhythmic percussion really takes some beating. I’ve written admiringly about their 4th album Remain In Light before, an album that continues to amaze and throw up new sounds even after all this time. With sonic architect Eno on ambient duties, the band are at the height of their creativity. An exercise in experimentation, the band cherry pick from the artiness of mid 70s Berlin Bowie and the disciplined grooviness of African music, Fela Kuti in particular, and weld them to the pop sensibilities of, aye, mid 70s Bowie and African music, Fela Kuti in particular. The big track from the album is undoubtedly Once In A Lifetime but dig deeper and you may find yourself with a brand new favourite album. There are many tracks that will grown on you just the same, believe me.
Like Houses In Motion, for example. The flop second and final single from the album, it’s the perfect juxtaposition of Sly Stone’s pitter pattering skeletal funk and the call and response paranoia of Talking Heads’ own Slippery People, still 3 years from release, but surely conceived in this very moment?
Talking Heads – Houses In Motion
It judders and jitters in all the right places, driven by scratchy funk guitar, an introspective vocal and honking keyboards. In Scotland, ‘honking‘ is often used in derogatory terms, especially at the football – see that big centre, he’s honkin’, so he is – but in this context I’m referring to the fact that the keyboards conjure up the sound akin to a midday traffic jam on 5th Avenue. A one chord groove that wouldn’t outstay its welcome were it twice as long, it’s the great lost Talking Heads track.
The reason I’m turning the spotlight on it is because just last week I received an email from A Certain Ratio‘s people, letting me know about the band’s own version of the track. Dug out of the archives for a warts ‘n all box set celebrating an outstanding 40 years of ahead of the curve yet under the radar music, ACR’s version sounds terrific; timeless, relevant and, like the original, far better than much of the new music that the taste makers and shapers on 6 Music etc would have you believe is worth parting with your hard-earned disposable income for.
Recorded in 1980 with Marin Hannett, the track was intended as a collaboration with Grace Jones. Retaining the edgy, claustrophobic, insular mood and cat-scratching guitar, ACR still contrive to make Houses In Motion their own, slapping a fantastic O’ Jays For The Love Of Money rubber band bassline on it and adding a muscle that was absent from the original. If it popped up right now on 6 Music and you knew no better, you’d be gushing over a fresh, new track that’s older than Jordan Rakei or Loyle Carner or Chali 2na or any of those hip young gunslingers that pop up with dreary regularity.
Amazingly, the version that appears on the box set and the brand new video above features ‘just’ a guide vocal from ACR’s Jez Kerr, intended to give Grace an idea of how the finished track might sound. Although Jones made it to Strawberry Studios and took part in the session, her vocals were never completed and remain frustratingly undiscovered. You can only imagine how the intended version might have sounded.
Funnily enough, I suggested in that article linked at the top that Grace could take Talking Heads’ Seen And Unseen and make it her own, so, y’know, great minds think alike ‘n all that. Another great mind who’s also ahead of the curve is Adam over at Bagging Area. He was first out of the traps to shine the spotlight on the ACR track. It goes without saying, but Bagging Area is a blog definitely worth adding to your bookmarks and favourites and what have ye for up to the minute, finger on the pulse observations.
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.
ACR– Du 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.ESGwas 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.
ESGwouldn’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:
ESG – Dance 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 Jazzdo a good run in re-presses.