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.
Notwithstanding a title that could easily apply to the mess the UK government is currently making of things, Life During Wartime is the greatest-ever Talking Heads track, and here’s why.
Their first two albums – ‘77‘ and ‘More Songs About Buildings And Food‘, good as they are, were mere amuse-bouches for what would follow. On those albums, Talking Heads developed an out of step sound far removed from the shouty three chord ramalama of the bands of the day. They flirted with wired, claustrophobic paranoia, the vocals delivered with one-eye-over-the-shoulder nervous energy, the music transmitted via guitar strings as tight and tense as a head-to-head on Hart To Hart. Hints of the funk bubbled underneath, suppressed perhaps, or maybe subdued due to a lack of confidence. By 1979’s Fear Of Music though – that’s three albums in three years, Radiohead! – they’d hit their stride.
Fear Of Music was a conscious decision by the band to make an album that ran deeper than the standard two or three singles plus filler model that was prevalent at the time. With an eye for Duchamp and an ear for disco, they set up in a New York loft, transmitted their sonic ideas via extra-long cables out of the windows and into a mobile studio parked outside, and went about creating a record that was equal parts cerebral and celebratory.
With Eno again at the controls and a supporting cast including The Slits’ Ari Up and some wild guitar Frippery from the former King Crimson soundscaper, the band stretched out to great effect. Polyrhythmic African beats and twin chattering desert guitars carry I Zimbra to the fringes marked ‘far out’. Police sirens, scratchy no-wave guitars and body-popping bass propel Cities to great, new uncharted territories. The breathy relief of ‘Air’, all bing-bonging keys and guitar riffs and tones that surely made the young Johnny Marr reach for his six string and crib some notes is as wired and weirdly funky as Funkadelic, and deliberately so, you’d have to think.
It’s the penultimate track on side 1 that hits the sweet spot between art and dance. Just two chords from beginning to end (Am and E, should you fancy riffing along with it) Life During Wartime begins on a funky gutteral groove, a combination of on-the-one grinding guitar, bass, keys and drums. No countdown, just Bam! and we’re into it. It’s magic.
Talking Heads – Life During Wartime
There’s hardly time for the band to develop the theme before Byrne announces himself on vocals. His flaky, jittery performance is less singing, more acting, the way Christopher Walken, say, might deliver the plot-defining lines of a particularly tense thriller, Mad Max as scripted by Stephen King.
Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons, Packed up and ready to go
Heard of some grave sites, out by the highway, A place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I’m getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, lived in a ghetto, I’ve lived all over this town
This ain’t no party! This ain’t no disco! This ain’t no fooling around! No time for dancing, or lovey dovey, I ain’t got time for that now!
Talking Heads – Life During Wartime (alternative version)
The alternate version that was considered then rejected for the album is worth hearing too. There’s more emphasis on the guitar, with little staccato morsecode signals that are quickly drowned out by a freeform, freeflowing freakout that may well be the work of Fripp himself. Whoever is playing it is certainly going hell for leather with a guitar line that wouldn’t be out of place on Bowie’s Lodger album or Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets, even if the player does run out of steam roughly three quarters of the way through the track. As interesting as it is, the released version remains definitive; urgent, insistent, incessant and never anything less than vital when it comes on.
While Byrne’s lyrics suggest an uneasy tension, part Baader-Meinhof reportage and part first-hand experience of NYC’s Alphabet City, the band compenasate with the groove. The subject matter might be uncomfortable, they say, but you’ll feel better after shuffling that skinny white boy ass of yours across whichever sticky dancefloor is nearest. It ain’t the Mudd Club or CBGB’s, it’s not even the Attic anymore, but as far as advice goes, it sure works.
Talking Heads – Life During Wartime (live Central Park, NYC 1980)
In the live setting, the track morphed even further into the funk. You’ll find it of course, in perhaps definitive form, on the ubiquitous and well-played Stop Making Sense, but it also appears (as above) on the second record of the double The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, arguably a more accurate representation of the band at two points in time.
On the second record, the extended ten-piece version of Talking Heads, including soul singers and multiple multi-instrumentalists and living and breathing actual funk merchants in the shape of Bernie Worrell delivered a sped-up version of Life During Wartime that positively grooves with a cross-pollination of punk’s edge and funk’s sheen. No concept, no arty angle, just a band playing their stuff on stage. Close your eyes though and you can see those ten musicians moving as one to the infectious stew they themselves are cooking up. It is a party, and it is a disco. They’re definitely not fooling around though.
It’s May 1989 in the Barrowland Ballroom and REM are winding up a marathon Green World Tour show with the second of three encores and an inspired version of a song that reminds me greatly of Jonathan Richman’s Roadrunner. It circles around a repetitive 2 chord riff and as it builds to a groove, drummer Bill Berry gets out the drum stool and without missing a beat takes the guitar offered to him by Peter Buck and takes over guitar duties as Buck gamely assumes the sticks and continues the backbeat to the song’s conclusion with an almost, but not quite, metronomic precision. Only later, after finding a bootleg tape at the Barras market did I learn that the song was Ghost Rider, by a band (Suicide) I’d yet to hear of.
The Buck/Berry swap over was a carefully timed bit of fun, two musicians afforded the time to do their party piece by the other half of the band as the end of a fantastic, career-encompassing show drew to a close. For all I knew, REM did the same schtick every night, but that encore in Glasgow seemed spontaneous and instant and as in the moment as live shows get. I can still see the two musicians now, Buck stage left, arms outstretched offering the sacrificial axe, Berry banging away at the bass pedal as he straps on the Les Paul (or maybe it was a Rickenbacker…it was 30 years ago, after all) while Mike Mills gamely keeps the whole thing together.
Bands swapping instruments on stage is nothing new. Adam and Edge used to swap bass and guitar whenever U2 played ’40’ and The Band would routinely do likewise mid set, mid song, whenever. Fleetwood Mac used to do similar at their height in the mid 70s. Of course, they went the whole hog and swapped wives, girlfriends and partners too, but it’s when the band takes it into the recording studio that the fun really begins.
When it was time for Bob Dylan to record Rainy Day Women #12 &35, he wanted to capture the sound of controlled chaos, a wonky ‘n warped Salvation Army band under the influence of, good god!, whatever. Copious amounts of alcohol and marijuana were taken, the mood was lightened and, the piece de resistance, the musicians were ordered to swap instruments.
Bob Dylan – Rainy Day Women #12 &35 (Take 1)
Bass player Charlie McCoy was given the forlorn task of finding a horn section in the middle of the night – “Go an’ git me a Salvation Army band!” – before too being given a trumpet as the tapes started rolling. Guitarist Wayne Moss switched to bass and Henry Strzelecki jumped from guitar to Al Kooper’s organ. Kooper plays the tambourine that rattles enthusiastically from start to finish, counting every beat, the glue that barely keeps it all together. Only Kenny Buttrey on drums maintained his usual instrument, but even then he dismantled his kit and played just the snare and the bass drum.
The recording captures the daftness of the occasion. Hoops and hollers and yee-haws and yeahs fill the gaps between the sloppily-played 12 bar blues. Dylan is on fine form. In the middle of an imperious stretch of writing and recording – the same session would yield accepted stone-cold Dylan classic I Want You – he lets his guard down, giggling and cackling his way through the numerous verses. Listening to it, you can practically see the ear-to-ear grin he sports. The whole thing is dangerously close to falling apart, which is of course Dylan’s modus operandi and the intended appeal of the finished version. A daft song with a daft refrain – ‘Everybody must git stoned!‘ – it’s the perfect product of its environment.
Talking Heads‘ 5th album Speaking In Tongues closes with the fantastic This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody). The bracketed part of the song title comes from the fact that the guitar and bass play exactly the same 3 chord melody throughout. Real musicians, ratlionalised David Byrne, would never opt to play the same thing.
Talking Heads – This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)
That naïve melody is a product of Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison moving from their comfort zones. Weymouth relinquishes bass duties on the track and swaps 4 strings for 6. Harrison, relieved of his guitar plays the bassline on a Prophet synthesiser.
Accomplished as they are, the two musicians lend the track a slight edgy don’t look down! feel, and the track precariously wobbles on a tightrope of new wave funk. On their previous couple of albums, Talking Heads had flirted with the polyrhythms of Fela Kuti-infused Afrobeat. That This Must Be The Place never wanders makes it all the better. As Mark E Smith was wont to quote, repetition is discipline.
If you want even more repetition, look no further than the extended version…
Talking Heads – This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody) 12″ version
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.
‘You can take The Lexicon Of Love away, but I’m keeping Remain In Light….‘
The Mystery Jets, in their (as it would turn out) ironically-titled ‘Greatest Hits‘, knew the score when they were penning their great break-up song. ABC’s album is a masterclass in heaven-sent melodies and hit singles, but stuck in the 80s with slightly more style than substance and a Trevor Horn production to boot. Talking Heads‘ 4th album endures, remains in light even, to this day.
Arty, smarty, punky and funky, Remain In Light benefits from the combined talents of the four ‘Heads, Brian Eno on sonic architectural duties, Bowie foil Adrian Belew on weird ‘n wonky guitar textures and R’n B belter Nona Hendryx on occasional backing vocals. It’s an astonishing album which, as the cliche goes, sounds as relevant and fresh today as it did in October 1980.
Side 1 (Pffffft. Everyone’s a hipster nowadays) begins with the knockout blow of Born Under Punches, a track that starts as if you carelessly dropped the needle near enough, but not quite at the start. Not for Talking Heads a gentle warm-up to ease into the flow. From the off, Frantz and Weymouth, the symbiotic, married rhythm section drive the track with polyrhythms and a body-poppin’ bassline that George Clinton might’ve strived his whole life to perfect. ‘Take a look at these hands!‘ barks David Byrne, before his own call-and-response vocals allow the chorus to ebb and flow. The music though is relentless throughout, a fantastic opener that sets the scene for what follows.
And what follows is more of the same. Crosseyed And Painless maybe even betters the opener. Short, sharp, barking verses and crooned choruses, with the band whippersnap tight and taut. Eno’s contribution is undeniable. The band are on fire, but the extras he adds lifts the whole thing into the stratosphere. Whooshes and effects, possibly heavily-treated guitar, possibly cutting edge keyboard technology are liberally splashed across the top adding colour to the Talking Heads’ stark noo wave punkoid funk. ‘I’m stiiiiiill waiting!‘ points out David Byrne, as he’s doubletracked with himself into oblivion.
Talking Heads – Crosseyed And Painless
Even more incredibly is the 3rd track, side 1 closer The Great Curve. Without ever dropping a beat, Frantz and Weymouth’s incessant funk continues. Thers’s space here for both Nona Hendryx to do one of her skyscraping hollers in the chorus? The verse? The bridge? Who knows?!? and Adrian Belew to get in on the act with a metallic squall of lead guitar that coulda come straight from a Bowie ‘Lodgers‘ session. It’s just as well you’re forced to get up and turn the record over at this point, as to this day, I still need to catch my breath when the side closes.
Side 2, without being glib, is more of the same; one chord grooves, polyrhythmic percussion, effect pedal-heavy guitar and Eno’s golden ambient touch. Houses In Motion, the flop second and final single from the album is the perfect juxtaposition of Sly Stone’s pitter pattering skeletal funk and Talking Heads’ own Slippery People, still 3 years from release, but surely conceived in this very moment?
Talking Heads – Houses In Motion
Seen And Not Seen is an atmospheric spoken word groove, with a backing track that Grace Jones might’ve utilised to her advantage. Second last track Listening Wind is very Can. Or maybe Can is very Talking Heads. Chanting vocals, meandering, textured music….. there’s lots going on here. It’s great late-night headphone music. You should try it. Pour yourself a drink of whatever, maybe supplement it with an extra something of your choice. Then close your eyes and see where it takes you, but remember to get up before final track The Overload kicks in. If the previous track is very Can, then The Overload is very, Very, VERY Bowie. More chanting vocals and more ambient textures, it closes the album with a sense of impending doom. Scary Monsters indeed. Perhaps they should’ve left it off the album. It still scares me half to death whenever I forget to lift the needle before it starts.
The big track on the album is Once In A Lifetime, the number 14-with-a-bullet hit single. It’s omnipresent and, I’d wager, so ingrained in the fabric of most of the readership on here that you can hear it just now as you read. You can call it up from the virtual iPod in your brain and it’ll play for you from start to finish, with no need for you to go and find the actual track. The chorus is playing just now, I bet. Amazing that, isn’t it? But have you ever stopped to truly listen to it? It’s an incredible piece of music.
Talking Heads – Once In A Lifetime
How do you even go about writing a song like that? Did it come from the band riffing on the light ‘n airy grooves of Fela Kuti, whose ‘on the 1’ influenced James Brown? Once In A Lifetime starts ‘on the 1’, but as Eno has since said, each member of the band had a different ‘1’ to follow. That’s what makes the track sound so different. There’s that brilliant opening bass whoomph and bam! we’re on the one and away with it…..
Did Tina Weymouth come to the session with a killer bassline looking for a song? Did Jerry Harrison, swapping guitar for synth, say, “Hey! I’ve got this little synth riff that I kinda stole from the Velvets’ What Goes On – let’s build a song around it!” Did producer Eno pioneer his Oblique Strategies on the track, the four Talking Heads plus guests individually recording overdubs, unaware of what their fellow band mates had played? The answer really is that the song is (even) greater than the sum of its parts.
Want more? Here’s the extended version of Once In A Lifetime.
Talking Heads – Once In A Lifetime (Extended Version)
Random fact. Bassheads‘ 90s rave anthem Is There Anybody Out There? samples the wee tingaling bleeping and blooping keyboard track that weaves it’s way throughout Once InA Lifetime. But you knew that already.
As if to underline that Fela Kuti reference, sounding like a manic Moroccan market in the height of summer, here’s Fela’s Riff, an African-influenced unfinished outtake from the album.
Talking Heads – Fela’s Riff
If you’ve never heard Remain In Light, I suggest you rectify this forthwith. You can thank me later.
Somehow, some way, Plain Or Pan has turned 9. Or, to be more accurate, is just about to turn 9. But at this time of year, when you can never be entirely sure if it’s Sunday morning or Thursday night and inspiration goes out the window along with routine and work ethic, it’s tradition that I fill the gap between Christmas and Hogmany with a potted ‘Best Of‘ the year compilation, so I’ve always made this period in time the unofficial birthday for the blog.
Not that anyone but myself should care really; blogs come and go with alarming regularity and I’ve steadfastly refused to move with the times (no new acts here, no cutting edge hep cats who’ll be tomorrow’s chip paper, just tried ‘n tested old stuff that you may or may not have heard before – Outdated Music For Outdated People, as the tagline goes.) But it’s something of a personal achievement that I continue to fire my wee articles of trivia and metaphorical mirth out into the ether, and even more remarkable that people from all corners of the globe take the time out to visit the blog and read them. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, one and all.
Since starting Plain Or Pan in January 2007, the articles have become less frequent but more wordy – I may have fired out a million alliterative paragraphs in the first year, whereas nowadays I have less time to write stuff and when I do, it takes me three times as long to write it. To use an analogy, I used to be The Ramones, (1! 2! 3! 4! Go!) but I’ve gradually turned into Radiohead; (Hmmm, ehmm, scratch my arse…) Without intending it, there are longer gaps between ‘albums’ and I’ve become more serious about my ‘art’. Maybe it’s time to get back to writing the short, sharp stuff again. Maybe I’ll find the time. Probably I won’t.
The past 9 years have allowed me the chance to interview people who I never would’ve got close to without the flimsy excuse that I was writing a blog that attracted in excess of 1000 visitors a day (at one time it was, but I suspect Google’s analytics may well have been a bit iffy.) Nowadays, it’s nowhere near that, but I still enthusiastically trot out the same old line when trying to land a big name to feature. Through Plain Or Pan I’ve met (physically, electronically or both) all manner of interesting musical and literary favourites; Sandie Shaw, Johnny Marr, Ian Rankin, Gerry Love, the odd Super Furry Animal. Quite amazing when I stop to think about it. You should see the list of those who’ve said they’ll contribute then haven’t. I won’t name them, but there are one or two who would’ve made great Six Of the Best articles. I’m not Mojo, though, so what can I expect?
A quick trawl through my own analytics spat out the Top 24 downloaded/played tracks on the blog this year, two for each month:
Michael Marra – Green Grow the Rashes
Wallace Collection – Daydream
Jacqueline Taieb – Sept Heures du Matin
The Temptations – Message From A Black Man
New Order – True Faith
Bobby Parker – Watch Your Step
Jim Ford – I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me
Doris – You Never Come Closer
Ela Orleans – Dead Floor
Mac De Marco – Ode To Viceroy
Teenage Fanclub – God Knows It’s True
Iggy Pop – Nightclubbing
George Harrison – Wah Wah
Magazine –Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again
Future Sound Of London – Papua New Guinea
Bob Dylan – Sad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands (mono version)
Richard Berry – Louie Louie
REM – Radio Free Europe (HibTone version)
The Cribs – We Share The Same Skies
Johnny Marr – The Messenger
McAlmont & Butler – Speed
Talking Heads – I Zimbra (12″ version)
Style Council – Speak Like A Child
Darlene Love – Johnny (Please Come Home)
And there you have it – the regular mix of covers, curios and forgotten influential classics, the perfect potted version of what Plain Or Pan is all about. A good producer would’ve made the tracklist flow a bit better. I just took it as I came to them; two from January followed by two from February followed by two from etc etc blah blah blah. You can download it from here.
See you in the new year. First up, Rufus Wainwright. Cheers!
As fresh as it sounds, this track coulda been recorded an hour ago by some hep band of skinny-jeans ‘n slick-backs from Brooklyn. Listen again and you could be forgiven for assuming that it was spawned a decade earlier in the windswept deserts of Africa, playing out tinny AM radios anywhere between Mali and Mozambique.
The more switched-on amongst you could be forgiven for suggesting Can in one of their relatively straightforward moments; foreign chanting, infused with the groove and with nary an eye on the clock. Squint, and it could even be Happy Mondays around their first album; chiming and repetitive, a hands-in-pockets baggy-trousered circular mooch around the scuzziest parts of town. Slow down the little counter riff that plays between the chanted lines and it’s almost the later-era Loose Fit.
Truth is, it was recorded in 1979 by Talking Heads and featured on their 3rd LP, ‘Fear Of Music‘.
Talking Heads – I Zimbra (LP Version)
It’s African in origin – a twin guitar attack – one playing the incessant, loping guitar riff that rises and falls with the tide of the song, the other playing a demented desert blues somewhere beyond the 12th fret, both fighting for ear space with poly-rhythmic Afro beats pinned down by the muscle of Tina Weymouth’s solid ‘n steady bass.
It’s snake-like, enhanced somehow, someway, by sonic architect Brian Eno. He’s credited with adding guitar to the stew, but I doubt we’ll ever really know for sure. Done in the days before his oblique strategies, perhaps he told himself to play more orange, or something like that. Either way, the combination of musicians, producers, instruments and ambience created one groovy mover.
What a shitty few weeks. The previous post below will fill you in if you’re an infrequent visitor. Thanks for taking the time to leave your comments. I read them all, even if I couldn’t face replying. Truly, thanks.
Anyway, what better way to get back on track than by digging out some slick Nigerian Afrobeat from 1977?
Fela Kuti is a real musicians’ musician. A multi-instrumentalist, equally at home on sax, keys, trumpet, drums….you name it, between 1960 and his death in 1997 he was responsible for around 60 LP releases. Perhaps only The Fall would appear to be able to top that. Much like The Fall, many of his albums are live affairs. A few are also dubious-looking compilations of indeterminate origin. Amongst the regular studio recordings, there are whole LPs of collaborations with other musicians (‘Stratavarious‘ with Ginger Baker, ‘Music Of Many Colours‘ with Roy Ayers.) All Fela’s albums are tight and taut, superbly played and full of meandering grooves underneath the politicised lyrics.
In the 70s, Fela changed his middle name. Ransome, he said, was a slave name. And Fela was nobody’s slave. He was a folk singer. The Nigerian equivalent of Woody Guthrie, singing the songs of the ordinary man. He took to singing in his own unique pidgin English as a way of ensuring Africans throughout the continent would understand his message – they all spoke in their own native tongue, but they also all understood basic English. He sang of the barbaric Nigerian Government and had a smash hit (‘Zombie‘) on the back of it. This resulted in him barely surviving with his life after a severe beating from government flunkies whilst his studio was burned to the ground. More than just a fly in the ointment, Fela galvanised his fellow countrymen into action, a real anti-establishment hero.
Fela’s music is terrific. There’s a real discipline to the playing. Much of it is simple and repetitive. The musicians could easily break out and rattle off a little lick or two, and sometimes they do. His brass section in particular (sometimes just Fela) are fond of the odd up-the-garden-path solo. But mostly to Fela, the rhythm is King. It’s a bit like Can at their grooviest – hypnotic, shamanistic, designed to subconsciously affect the limbs. Feet will tap. Hips will sway. Heads will bob. Before you know it you’ll be on your feet and wondering how you got there.
1977’s Sorrow, Tears and Blood LP is typical of his work at the time. The title track formed the entire first side, a relentless guitar ‘n sax-led tour de force, all polyrhythms and funk bass, lightly toasted with electric piano.
Fela Kuti – Sorrow, Tears And Blood
Atop the non-stop one chord groove is a lyric worthy of Joe Strummer at his authority-baiting best;
Everybody run….Police they come….Army they come….confusion everywhere…..someone nearly died….Police don’t go away….Army don’t disappear….them leave sorrow, tears and blood….
Fela’s work is absolutely ripe for sampling and reinterpretation. Mr Mendel has done this excellent remix of Sorrow, Tears And Blood:
Fela Kuti – Sorrow, Tears And Blood (Mr Mendel mix)
….and a couple of years ago, someone came up with the brilliant concept of Fe La Soul, where they took the Daisy Agers raps and placed them on top of Fela’s funkiest fills. There are whole albums of the stuff if you look in all the right places. Here‘s one of my favourites;
Fe La Soul – Itsoweezee
….and no doubt inspired by the relentless, driving grooves of Fela, during the sessions for 1980’s Remain In Light, Talking Heads recorded Fela’s Riff, a terrific piece of instrumental New York, new wave funk. I really need to do a Talking Heads feature at some point…