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 Attack – Blue 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 Express –Sneakin’ In The Back
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.
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 Blackbyrds – Rock Creek Park
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 Adamson – Something Wicked This Way Comes
…and investigate the album. You’ll love it.