Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Disco Ball's a Globe - pt. 6

Those of us in thrall to charity shops will know the feeling of staring all too often at shelves crammed with commonly discarded CDs. Occasionally, just occasionally, something will magically appear which seems so spectacularly out-of-place that the imagination whirls with wonderment: “How on earth did that end up there?” It’s what keeps us looking. It’s what we pretty much live for. One such gloriously illogical example is when a CD of Gerson King Combo Volume II popped up in the local British Heart Foundation shop. What was that all about?

I like to think I know a thing or two about Brazilian music, but I have to confess this record was one I was completely unfamiliar with. There was no way I was going to leave it behind though. The Samba & Soul stamp was enough of a clue, but the cover photo of an imperious Mr Combo resplendent in white top hat and tails and massive gold chain pretty much clinched it. And it’s one of the best spur of the moment ‘blind’ purchases I’ve ever indulged in. A lot of it is glorious James Brown-style exhortations and Barry White rumbling thunder ‘n’ satin sheets seduction. But there are a few tracks that veer towards more of a disco sound as befits its 1978 vintage. The opener, Pro Que Der e Vier, in particular is a winner.

A good reference point for the Gerson King Combo sound would be Tim Maia’s Disco Club from pretty much the same time. Disco Club, however, has rather more of a full-on disco sound which makes it completely irresistible. In terms of Brazilian soul/funk sounds Tim Maia has a pretty much untouchable position, and you can’t go wrong with any of his ‘70s recordings. But the exuberant Earth Wind & Fire big band feel to Disco Club is exhilarating. And there is a kind of appropriateness to that as Kool & The Gang in their world domination enterprise phase were closely associated with Eumir Deodato whom I’m sure someone somewhere has argued laid foundations for disco with his funky reworking of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Brazil and disco were not words I always immediately put together. After all, if you can’t dance to ‘classic’ Brazilian sounds you can’t dance, so why worry about the disco beat? But it was thanks to the unique logic of YouTube that several doors opened at once. I’d looked up Restricted Code’s Love To Meet You, a reforgotten classic pop single from 1981 by an Edinburgh group Paul Morley had included in his new pop manifesto at the end of 1980, describing them as “for radio, dancing and escaping from this room into that room, the fall popped up: pop to fall over with, still young (and) so right ...” YouTube then helpfully suggested I play the video of Corações a Mil by Marina, which turned out to be a glorious slice of Brazilian disco-infused pop from 1981, and if there is anything that should sum up what that year was supposed to be about it would be playing Restricted Code followed by Marina.

Again I have to confess I wasn’t familiar with Marina (Lima) or the TV show Fantástico on which the adorable video had been shown. But looking for clips from the programme of a similar vintage was a revelation, not least because it led to a cache of clips from another show at the height of the disco explosion, Mofo, featuring the irrepressibly over-the-top host Carlos Imperial and some of the most gloriously anarchic TV stage settings ever as Brazilian pop stars struggled to perform their hits amid a mass of showgirls and a screaming audience all keen to steal the show. If you think of Brazilian clichés, from Carnival to Copacabana, and magnify them by a thousand, you get a sense of the madness on these shows.

Nevertheless the mayhem did lead to some joyous discoveries, such as the fantastically named As Freneticas, an all-singing all-dancing troupe whose take on disco was rather on the Emotions’ Best of My Love anything-but understated side with definite Hollywood musical leanings along the lines of Donna Summer’s I Remember Yesterday or Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. I guess the Ritchie Family might be an apt reference point, particularly as that outfit started out with a disco take on Brazil which I’m sure is not entirely irrelevant and it is particularly fascinating when musical ideas ping back and forth. An even better discovery was Lady Zu, who was conveniently cast as Brazil’s answer to Donna Summer though that only hints at her magnificence. Her two late ‘70s LPs, A Noite Vai Chegar and Femea Brasileira, are absolutely essential Brazilian soul masterpieces.

Sifting through the clips from Fantástico I came across Sandra de Sa in 1980 singing Demônio Colorido. Sandra’s was another name I was unfamiliar with, underlining how much there is still to learn about Brazilian music. Sandra’s early ‘80s LPs are really worth exploring, particularly where they head into the treacly ‘last days of disco’ territory of, say, Shalamar’s Night To Remember or Patrice Rushen’s Forget-Me-Nots on tracks like the superb Guarde Minha Voz. It’s tempting to collar a Brazilian soul freak and force them to hand over details of other ‘secret’ 1980s works in a similar style.

Flirt with Brazilian disco sounds and you’ll inevitably come across Rita Lee, a far more familiar name for those of us who have approached via bossa and tropicalia. I love Rita’s post Os Mutantes work as it’s a bit of a confusing mess, particularly her late ‘70s recordings where you’ll get a fantastic mix of punchy, crunchy rockers and infectiously slinky disco pop. Search in the Fantástico archives and you’ll hopefully stumble across a glorious video of a rollerskating Rita singing Lancia Perfume. Rita’s disco numbers were incredibly popular in clubs, but not I understand to the liking of the funk/soul purists. That’s life!

You could spend a lifetime untangling disco’s roots, and it all depends where you start your untangling from. Jorge Ben’s 1973 LP Ben for example begat the track Taj Mahal that was later used infamously by Rod Stewart on one of his disco hits. In the late ‘70s and into the early ‘80s Jorge Ben himself recorded more explicitly disco-infused material, and as with all his other work up until that point you really can’t go wrong. A quick search on YouTube using the Fantástico code will bring you to a glorious 1979 video of Jorge Ben I think we can safely say thoroughly enjoying his work, singing Waimea 55000, a number that is by all accounts a bit of a lost b-side and had been something of a secret weapon in the armoury of those DJs inclined to play the best in Brazilian disco sounds . Now we can all know ...

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Disco Ball's a Globe - pt. 5

OPM - Manila Sound Machine is the latest in the special YHO series of mixtapes, and it’s available to download for free here. This collection of thrillers from Manila captures the sound of the Philippines in the 1970s. Drawing on the archives of the Manila Sound and O.P.M. (Original Pilipino Music) it will appeal particularly to those with a fondness for, say, the Starland Vocal Band’s Afternoon Delight, the Four Seasons’ Silver Star, and so on.

The Manila Sound was a phenomenon that took off when the music industry in the Philippines developed its own thriving scene with homegrown recordings, drawing very heavily on American pop trends but with songs delivered using lyrics in the Tagalog language with English phrases often wonderfully interjected at odd moments. Prior to this a lot of Pilipino pop was straight copies of the American sounds which flooded the airwaves. There’s nothing inherently wrong in that, and the teen outfit the Rocky Fellers were particularly successful with the classic Killer Joe, for example, in the early ‘60s.

I have to admit I was completely unaware of the Manila Sound and its successor O.P.M. until I chanced upon a video of VST & Co. performing Step No, Step Yes, and had to rub my eyes in disbelief at such exquisite execution of the late ‘70s disco/soft pop sound, complete with synchronised poolside dance sequence, and a melody as ridiculously addictive as Todd Rundgren’s I Saw The Light. There were a couple of other clips of VST & Co. in action to prove this was not a one-off, and from there I confess I was hooked on the Manila Sound.

The 1970s in the Philippines was a time of martial law under the Marcos regime and a time when the islands’ tourist industry was thriving. That sort of contradiction captures the Manila Sound quite nicely. VST & Co. were massive stars with their re-imaginings of US stylings. The irony is they were actually better at the whole thing than some of the people who inspired them (and rather brilliantly I saw an interview where Roger Rigor from the group mentions Dan Fogelberg and England Dan & John Ford Coley as influences). There are mentions too of Diana Ross being a fan of the VST & Co. track Awitin Mo At Isasayaw Ko which got played quite a lot at Studio 54 apparently.

The mix starts with a track from the group Cinderella, who have become particular favourites of mine. The influence of the Carpenters is inescapable, and singer Yolly Samson has one of those voices that just makes you melt in the same way Karen’s can or Françoise Hardy’s singing can. But vocal duties were swapped around, and when the guys took to the mic it entered David Cassidy sinisterly sweet territory. The sound of Cinderella is almost overly saccharine at times, but for that very reason it is fatally fascinating. Yolly, I’m afraid, died rather too young, and there seems frustratingly little about her instantly accessible, though perhaps that adds to the mystery.

Despite the appeal of soft pop and disco there was much more to the Manila Sound or OPM. Asin, in particular, mixed pop with Pinoy folk roots in a pretty radical way. The name Asin itself apparently derives from the Joan Baez cover of the Stones’ Salt of the Earth, which gives a pretty good clue to the group’s sound and the singing of the gloriously named Lolita Carbon. The Stones’ lyrics (“Raise your glass to the hard working people. Let's drink to the uncounted heads. Let's think of the wavering millions who need leading but get gamblers instead”) taken at face value summed up the Asin stance, identifying with the mass of people in the Philippines who didn’t have a voice under the Marcos regime. From what I can gather their songs were not explicitly political but their late ‘70s recordings struck a chord with people and their particularly Pilipino identity was something people could claim as their own. The track featured here, Himig Ng Pag-Ibig, is from Asin’s second LP and I’ve seen it described as “the favourite Pinoy love song of all time.” Freddie Aguilar was another successful singer who mixed folk forms and pop, and his version of the patriotic song Bayan Ko was an important part of the 1986 People Power Revolution leading to Cory Aquino’s election after the downfall of the Marcos regime. The song itself dates back to a 1929 poem by Jose Corazon de Jesus, protesting at the American occupation of the Philippines.

Elsewhere there are strong suggestions of a Brazilian influence. Bong Penera, for instance, was responsible for popularising bossa nova/samba jazz sounds in the Philippines, and you will usually see him mentioned as the Pilipino Sergio Mendes or Deodato. Again, nothing should be taken away from the excellence of his own recordings which could easily nestle along more celebrated sets on CTI. Interestingly both Cinderella and VST & Co. would later controversially redo their hits in a bossa nova style which would not be to everyone’s liking.

This mixtape comes with a huge health warning: there are many people who will know much more than me about Manila Sound and OPM. But these are songs that have thrilled and filled me with genuine joy and I desperately wanted to share a sense of some of the things I’d discovered. They are as you can imagine from ‘a variety of sources’ and you can hear a reference at one stage to Wilbert’s Music Library, which is deliberately left in as a tribute to the people who share their valuable resources with the world. Let's go Pinoy Disco ...

With thanks to Per-Christian Hille for another great cover design.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Disco Ball's a Globe - pt. 4

Disco Around The World is the title of a 1977 LP by the great Eurodisco group Voyage, and a statement of intent. Plenty of other disco-related acts shared Voyage’s passion for syncopated cultural tourism, and the Middle East in the broadest sense is one area that was flirted with outrageously, from La Bionda’s Sandstorm to Cabaret Voltaire’s Yashar. There will be many other examples of Middle Eastern disco hybrids, from camp exotica to genuine groundbreaking adventuresomeness, which could be wheeled out as evidence of this phenomenon.

The Ritchie Family tackled an extended Arabian Nights theme, but the Abdul Hassan Orchestra was an altogether more elaborate conceit concocted by keyboard-player Hans van Eijck (a former member of Dutch pop group The Tee-Set), featuring belly dancer Yonina, and giving us late ‘70s Middle Eastern flavoured delights such as the irresistible Disco Arab. Mike Batt covered similar ground when he composed the theme for the film Caravans, though with rather more logic as it was part of a superb and specific soundtrack, albeit one for a film set in a very indistinct Middle Eastern location.

The flipside of the same pop coin to the Abdul Hassan Orchestra is the pervasive Middle Eastern influence on Cabaret Voltaire’s early 1980s recordings, such as the Red Mecca LP and very definitely Yashar from the 2x45 set. The Cabs could claim with some conviction the Middle Eastern elements were in their music to reflect a changing political climate and explore its sinister implications. From much the same era the early Suns of Arqa took, among much else, aspects of disco music and Middle Eastern elements to create something genuinely strange and beautiful.

There is something too about words or phrases in music having a certain Middle Eastern exoticism. Hudson County’s Bim Sala Bim springs to mind. The song itself you might say has a history that is pretty odd, evolving from its mid-‘70s disco funk origins to being bootlegged as the Fantastic Soul Inventions to being covered by the James Last Orchestra as Welcome To The Party to being covered again by the Soviet Disco big band. In the USSR itself in the mid-‘70s there are examples of Middle Eastern disco exoticism, too, such as the bizarre bazaar scene from the 1976 film The Brave Chirac with a soundtrack by the great composer Alexander Zatsepin.

As for Egypt and its eternal mysteries? Well, Eurodisco queen Amanda Lear sang about aspiring to be The Sphinx, while Harry Thuman similarly evoked the spirit of The Sphinx. Alec R Costadinos used the alias of Sphinx for one of his unique style of over-the-top extravaganzas, the retelling of the New Testament stories about Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter set to disco suites which really do settle into flowing grooves that feel like they could comfortably go on forever. Costadinos was, at least, born in Egypt, so there was some logic to assuming the name of Sphinx during his remarkable progress through the disco world, via Kongas, Cerrone, Love and Kisses, the Syncophonic Orchestra, and so on. Another Egyptian born pop figure who has an important place in the history of disco is Dalida, a remarkable internationalist in a similar way to Shakira today. She is credited with having some of the earliest disco successes in France, and her song Salma ya Salama, based on an Egyptian folk song, in its Arabic version was a massive hit in the Middle East.

And then there’s the allure of glamour by proxy in the adoption of an exotic name, like the disco outfit Arabesque who, while undeniably delightful, were more Abbaesque than the name implies. Blue-eyed soul legend Kenny Nolan, for example, surfaced at the height of the disco boom recording for Casablanca (but of course!) as part of Persia who as far as I know recorded just the one fantastic LP in 1979, which included the irresistible Inch By Inch. Nolan by that stage had quite a track record, as a writer with Bob Crewe (including Lady Marmalade and My Eyes Adored You) and for the bubblegum soul he came up with for the Chelsea label (Jim Gilstrap, Linda Carr, and Dee Clark). He was also behind the remarkable Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes and The Eleventh Hour. For the Persia project Nolan paired up with German producer Jurgen Koppers who had been involved with so many of the great Munich disco creations, a considerable number of which were also released on the Casablanca label.

The irony is that the inventiveness and precision playing of the musicians on the Persia LP could have been perfectly replicated by Persian session men in the pre-revolutionary Iran of the late’70s. Thankfully we are now becoming more aware of this, and the Pomegranates compilation from Finders Keepers has been invaluable in providing clues to the wealth of incredible pop recordings made in 1970s Persia, like Googoosh’s astonishing Talagh and Nooshafarin’s wonderful Gol-e Aftab Gardoon. YouTube, naturally, is an invaluable resource for investigating the delights of Persian pop, and it’s completely compelling how great a lot of the music is. The mix of Western dance sounds and Persian orchestrations is a winning combination, and it is heartbreaking to wonder where the music might have gone if the 1979 revolution had not have happened.

It is so easy to succumb to music from around the world when it has absorbed stylings we are very close to, hence the particular appeal of the funk-infused tracks on the Pomegranates LP. The disco era was only really beginning to have an impact when the conservative clerics came to power in the new Iran, and ironically it would be Algeria that would forge ahead with rai music as the unique blend of traditional melodies and new technologies which would have an impact on Western dancefloors in the 1980s.

There is nevertheless an irresistible selection of disco inspired Persian pop sounds to enjoy in the nether world of YouTube, and particular fun can be had following the trail of Ramesh, described in the Pomegranates sleevenotes as an “elusive femme rocker”. I hope one day soon Finders Keepers will do a Ramesh compilation, including the likes of the gorgeous ballad Nemigam and the propulsive Mondanam az Boodanete. There is a particularly fascinating clip of Ramesh appearing on a live TV show, from I think 1978, singing Asmar Yaaram where the group is ultra-tight and there are what seems spontaneous outbursts of dancing among the audience which is amusingly almost reminiscent of that American Bandstand TV performance by PiL from 1980 where Lydon is urging some shall we say audience participation, and the crowd really gets into Poptones and Careering.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Disco Ball's a Globe - pt. 3

The forgotten book on “world music, politics and social change” which inadvertently triggered this global disco excursion includes a fascinating paper by Anna Szemere, “‘I get frightened of my voice’: on avant-garde rock in Hungary”, which focuses on the new wave or post-punk underground area of activity. It was with a small shiver of delight and self-satisfaction that I recognised the names Trabant and Balaton, and I was particularly excited by Anna’s description of these groups: “The Trabant/Balaton celebrate the precarious boundary between the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’, a floating sensation, by immersing themselves in a completely self-enclosed space of their own. Musical and lyrical trivia from 1960s pop styles are re-worked by exaggerated simplicity and also disrupted by micro-dissonances and the insertion of entirely alien textual elements.”

Not so long ago I stumbled across clips of Trabant on YouTube and was mesmerised. The song that really caught my attention was Ragaszthatatlan szív, a sort of reggae-underpinned piece of post-punk minimalism, with a hint of disco, not far removed from an early ‘80s Rough Trade YMGs/The Gist feel. Itt van, pedig senki se hívta covered similar ground. It all just seemed too good to be true. Further investigation revealed the songs were from the soundtrack of the 1984 Janos Xanthus film Eskimo Woman Feels Cold which featured Trabant and in particular singer Marietta Mehes in a lead role. As the Hungarian new wave blog No More Victim puts it: “It's a difficult story, with Trabant music. In this movie, we can watch a bit sex, we can watch difficult circumstances of life and we can listen new wave musics ... It's a great film!” You can’t argue with that.

An EP of Trabant songs from the film was I believe the only recording the group officially released. There, however, are scattered around tapes and video footage of rehearsals which are fantastic. From Trabant (and what a great name for an Eastern European group that is) it was a short hop to Balaton who it seemed covered similar ground, which makes sense as Anna Szemere mentions a shared history and overlap of members between Balaton and Trabant. I’m not sure Balaton ever made a record but there are some intriguing live recordings if you search around.

One other name I recognised from Anna’s article was Beatrice. In the context of the book Beatrice were Hungary’s leading punk rock outfit. In her paper Anna refers to a January 1981 NME feature by Chris Bohn on the Hungarian new wave, and in this he describes Beatrice as “a strange sight, a raggedy four-piece all pushing 30; curly, rattish hair falling to their shoulders, balding heads and gringo moustaches seem defiantly at odds with their status as most popular punk band in Hungary.” That’s not the strangest thing about Beatrice, though. I got very confused as the Beatrice I was familiar with from fishing around on YouTube played wonderful funky sounds like Gyere Kislany, Gyere, one of the songs that popularised disco music in Hungary.

With so much nonsense having been written about the funk/punk and disco-not-disco overlaps it’s amusing that Beatrice made the transition from disco pioneers to punk caricature. That messes up the story lines doesn’t it? But the Beatrice story is wonderfully strange, full stop. The group started back in the ‘60s as an all female outfit, led by Monika Czuka. In 1976 her husband Feró Nagy joined the group, and Beatrice gradually evolved into a funky outfit before disbanding, allowing Feró to start a new punk/heavy rock line-up. Ironically in Anna’s paper on the Hungarian new wave she refers to tensions and occasional violence between ‘hard rockers’ and ‘disco kids’, disparate tribes of working-class youths.

With the rise in popularity of disco music and the opening of more discos in Hungary in the latter years of the ‘70s the country’s singers and players naturally rode the wave. The glorious Judith Szucs (who I believe played keyboards with Beatrice at some stage) seems to have been the queen of the Magyar disco scene, and judging by the vintage clips posted on YouTube her charms would have been hard to resist. Is it wrong to be childishly delighted that Judith’s finest moment seems to have been the 1979 hit Urdiszko? It just seems so perfect after the number of times we have endured writers wittering on about so-and-so being ur-punk or proto-punk. Well, here’s Ur-diszko in all its infectious Biddu-bounce-along glory with quite possibly the finest opening 15-seconds ever in pop music.

Another phenomenally successful Hungarian disco ensemble was Neoton Familia. The group’s roots reached back to the ‘60s when the group Neoton was formed, taking their name from a brand of Czechoslovakian guitars (one for the Orange Juice fans there), and they seem to have created some fantastic psych-pop along the way. In the 1970s they merged with the female singing trio Kócbabák, and became Neoton Familia creating some outward-looking, gloriously inventive and very commercial disco pop which intriguingly proved to be very popular in the Far East.

It’s interesting that in Anna’s paper on the Hungarian new wave there’s nary a mention of the ‘60s generation that features on Well Hung, the wonderful Finders Keepers compilation of funky Hungarian rock. I guess that by that stage the established acts were viewed with the same disdain and despair that their counterparts were in the UK, say. One of the groups featured on that collection was Omega, and their keyboards player Laszlo Benko interestingly went on to make a wonderful record in 1982, the first part of his Lexicon (an A-Z of songs), which is pure electronic rock or what would now be called space disco. In the making of this record it is carefully noted that in the making of this record Laszlo used Roland drum-computer Roland Sh-1000; Roland Jupiter 4; Korg Polisix; Korg Mono / Poly; Yamaha CS 70M; Minimoog; ARP omni. The civilising effects of synthesizers and disco sounds ...

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Disco Ball's a Globe - pt. 2

The old Soviet Union had its appeal for pop and disco exoticists: from Telex and Moskow Diskow to Nina Hagen’s Russian Reggae to Manicured Noise and Moscow 1980 to The Lonely Spy by Lori & The Chameleons. But it wasn’t all one way traffic. The Soviet Union absorbed western disco music in its broadest sense and returned it with love and interest. For example, there are, quite rightly, those that swear by the recordings of the Latvian group Zodiac. Anyone hearing their early ’80 records now, for the first time, may understandably suspect an elaborate hoax. Their electronic rock fits almost too perfectly into the ‘space disco’ category, evoking what are already distant memories of Studio’s West Coast, Lindstrom, Prins Thomas and all those great tracks that helped spark a major resurgence of interest in disco sounds with a cosmic twist.

Zodiac’s first LP from 1980 was wonderfully titled Disco Alliance, though anyone anticipating a full-on dancefloor extravaganza may feel misled. Listening to this wonderful record it’s no surprise to learn that Magic Fly by Space was a massive success in the Soviet Union. It’s no surprise either to learn that there is a thriving market in vintage Soviet synths, but that’s another matter, especially as you sense Janis Lusens and Zodiac were outward looking and more interested in their ARPs and Yamaha keyboards. Zodiac’s second LP, Music in the Universe from 1982, was apparently very much inspired by stories the group heard from cosmonauts and this is certainly reflected in titles like The Mysterious Galaxy and The Other Side of Heaven. Both these LPs have been made available on CD in recent years, and YouTube has some fantastic footage of the group performing, in an early incarnation and somewhat later with appropriately a spinning disco ball in the background of the Russian TV set. Brilliantly one of the early Zodiac songs was called Provincial Disco which reminds me of ‘disco scholar’ Peter Shapiro describing 5000 Volts’ I’m On Fire as “somehow reminiscent of Cossacks dancing at a provincial disco in Staffordshire”. Withering put-down or irresistible selling-point?

The fourth Zodiac LP at the end of the ‘80s was a celebration of their Latvian roots, while at the start of the decade another Latvian pop outfit Eolika had celebrated their home on the fantastic LP Dreams of Riga. Piecing together Eolika’s story is a tricky business, but this record has some wonderful disco infused pop on, which will particularly appeal to lovers of the Silver Convention swish/kick sound, and that exquisite mix of the symphonic and the minimalist. Another track from the LP, Falling Stars or Zvezdopad, has groove collectors from around the world quite rightly drooling.

Another Latvian collective, Modo also captured the disco thing pretty perfectly, albeit approached from more of a jazz/funk direction. Zigmars Liepins, one of the group’s members, has made available some of the fantastic music Modo recorded via his website, and there’s a lot of fun to be had exploring the tracks posted from the Modo EPs, like the gorgeous Spele Vel from 1980. The tracks from Modo singer Mirdza Zivere’s 1979 solo LP are particularly recommended, especially the gorgeous Zozefino. The tracks from Zigmars’ own 1985 LP, Pulse 2, are also well worth investigating to get a taste of the Soviet take on electro (with a jazz rock/fusion imaginary soundtrack slant). That particular LP, part of a series on sport and music, also has one of the best covers ever.

Look up Eolika or Modo and the chances are you will come across a reference to Raimonds Pauls, the Latvian maestro and pioneering pop composer in the wider Soviet Union. His soundtrack work, such as for the score of a Soviet adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, is rated highly by crate-diggers and beat-seekers around the world that know a lot more than me about such things. And among the great Soviet artists his name is associated with is Alla Pugacheva, a singer who for once seems to suit the term diva and who has played a fantastically important role in Soviet pop history. She seems like one of those great contradictions whom the State sanctioned but grew increasingly wary of. Ironically in the West many of us will only have come across her name when 50 Cent’s people sampled her superb song Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and for that unlikely introduction I am enormously grateful to the rapper as it inadvertently led to a lot of pleasure rummaging around on YouTube among the old clips of Alla. And if the propulsive groove on those Soviet recordings sounds as tight and as metronomic as the finest Philly players then that’s because those guys could really perform with precision and flair. And I realise we are only aware of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Soviet and Eastern European funk and disco sounds.

Another great Soviet composer associated with Alla Pugacheva is Alexander Zatsepin. Among the songs they recorded together in, I believe, the mid-to-late ‘70s is the phenomenally titled The Shaman’s Tambourine and some great numbers from films like The Woman Who Sings. It is worth scouring around for whatever fragments you can find of Zatsepin’s soundtrack work (and he was by all accounts an electronics enthusiast so there's lots of wonderfully odd effects!), and particularly recommended is the astonishing 31st June, a late ‘70s film about what happens when you mix futures and pasts, based on a J.B. Priestley story, featuring dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet and a wonderful and bizarre disco-infused soundtrack sung by among others the delightfully named Tatyana Antisiferova ...

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Disco Ball's a Globe - pt. 1

Nothing is ever straight forward is it? I sometimes wish it was. Life would be simpler ... but a lot less fun. Let me give you an example of how nothing is ever straight forward. Recently I was engrossed in compiling a sequence of vintage Afghan pop for the Anywhere Else But Here Today project when I was distracted by one clip that featured a troupe of young girls performing a pop/traditional dance to an astonishing number that almost defied description. It was quite simply the best thing I’d found since stumbling on the video of girls from an Algerian high school dancing to the pioneering rai pop track Ya Salah by Noureddine Staifi. And there were very definite similarities, in terms of time, the mutant disco sound, clash between ancient and modern, the mixture of innocence and knowingness, the pure intoxicating glory of being alive.

The video itself had very little information, except being titled Gulshan Ey Sanam and being labelled simply “Tajik ‘80s video”. Putting together what information I could I began to understand that this was a performance in Kabul by musicians and dancers from Tajikistan, presumably in the early ‘80s. What amazed me though was learning the song itself was a cover or reinterpretation of a 1978 disco classic, Sandstorm by La Bionda. I wish I was clever enough to have spotted that straight off. That wonderful piece of information in itself raises more questions. After all, as far as I know, La Bionda didn’t have any hits in the UK. So somehow a mock-middle eastern flavoured track recorded at the height of the Munich disco explosion, produced by two Italian bothers (who also worked as D.D. Sound), written by Charly Ricanek from Czechoslovakia (who also worked with the great Amanda Lear), engineered by Harry Thumann of Underwater fame (who later returned to the middle east theme on Sphinx), made it to Tajikistan in the Soviet era and was seized upon and reinvented as something to share culturally.

But who had made the astonishing music featured on the video? Were the girls dancing to a recording? Were the musicians shown the ones that played on this? And who were Gulshan? You see! These things can keep you awake at night. Ah the thrill of the chase. Well, from what I can gather Gulshan was an ensemble put together by Karomatullo Qurbonov, a legendary figure in Tajik pop history who, with members of his group, was murdered in 1992 by militia during the civil war that followed the break-up of the old Soviet Union. There is footage on YouTube of Karomatullo talking about Gulshan, but my linguisitic skills fail me dismally so I can’t really add any more. There, however, are some great clips of Karomatullo performing, and the dancers from the Ey Sanam clip seem to feature. There are also a number of other clips of Gulshan (or Golssan as it seems to be translated on occasions) performing at various events with a variety of singers.

Hearing Ey Sanam I thought immediately of PiL’s Flowers of Romance. I almost feel ashamed saying that, clutching at convenient references, but there was something about the hypnotic swirl of sound, the thud of the drums, the mystery, the menace. Then I thought perhaps Death Disco with that guitar sound. And curiously when I sent the Gulshan link to the YHO artistic guru PC (of Music From The Third Floor) fame it was the shuddering bass he picked up on, suggesting it was as if Jah Wobble had spent the ‘80s in Eastern Europe. And there’s something in that. Eastern and disco influences certainly permeated Wobble’s works during that time: if you think of, say, the decadent disco mix of Invaders of the Heart and so on. The great man has also referred to getting inspiration from the mix of sounds from around the world he’d hear on his shortwave radio, like Egyptian singer Om Kalsoum. It’s tempting to play with the idea of Wobble hearing Ey Sanam through the crackle back home in his East London flat.

The sound on Ey Sanam is so fantastic that it makes you wonder what else Gulshan came up with? I have heard one other song on a Soviet disco mix. But were there records? Are they available anywhere? And was the Gulshan version the only reworking of Sandstorm around at that time in Tajikistan? I’ve heard an instrumental uptempo disco version which I think is by Na-Na, but I’m unsure of the vintage of that one. The song itself, Ey Sanam, seems to have a life of its own. Search around and you’ll find contemporary 'house' remixes and cover versions from around the world. But there is something enchanting about the grainy salvaged from VHS quality of the Kabul clip that captures perfectly a pop moment.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The Disco Ball's a Globe - intro

Searching for clues in the library of a drama college, I recently stumbled upon an unloved book from 1989 on “world music, politics and social change”, edited by Simon Frith, featuring papers from the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, and published by the Manchester University Press. Flicking through it out of curiosity I was struck by its totally topical opening sentence: “We live, we are often told, in a museum culture, clinging on to the artefacts of the past because we cannot invent appropriate ones ourselves.”
The general editors’ preface continued, pretty much capturing what I feel at the moment: “Yet even if this is true, it is also true that more people than ever before are interested in and enjoy some form of music: people who attend concerts of some or other kind and people who play music themselves, as well as the countless millions who buy records and tapes (themselves the products of a major industry) or simply experience the pervasive effects of music on radio and television and in films. Though heterogeneous, this public is enormous, including both those who are professionally involved in the production of masterworks and those who just ‘know what they like’ when they chance to hear it. For despite another of the claims often made about contemporary societies – that their rationalistic and utilitarian values have all but erased the spiritual, the emotional, in a word the distinctively human qualities of life – it is evident that the clamour for music not only survives but indeed is intensified, in such societies. In short, music matters ...”
While much of the book reeks of academia there is a prevailing sense of genuinely wanting to learn and share information about popular music and culture from around the world. I can understand that. It’s what I thrive on. It’s the opposite of nostalgia. And it’s what motivates me. There is no escaping the fact that I am ridiculously excited about discovering new information and new areas of music I know next-to-nothing about. But with the thrill of discovery there comes an ever-increasing sense that ‘the more you learn, the more there is to learn’. That’s why the thrill of the chase will never end.
Let me give an example: by chance on YouTube I chanced upon a whole cache of wonderful clips of Afghan pop music, predominantly I presume from the late ‘70s or very early ‘80s. There is an incredible number of these great videos, salvaged from the archives of RTA, the Afghan radio and TV station, posted by various people, featuring some incredible music and charming performances. But I would have to put my hands up and admit to knowing pretty much nothing at all about Afghan pop music, and to be honest I know very little more now.
You can see some of these clips for yourself over at the Anywhere Else But Here Today project. They are, I think, fantastic. The music is brilliant, the singers mesmerising. It’s tempting to draw comparisons with the Persian clips posted previously as part of that project. There are certainly similarities in the way traditional elements are fused with a more worldly pop approach. It’s tempting too to wonder what might have transpired in both Iran and Afghanistan if history hadn’t taken such ridiculous turnings. Certainly the sophisticated stylings captured in these videos could have had a similar impact on the pop music world as a whole in the way, say, Algerian rai music did in the 1980s.
I am assuming that many of the Afghan pop singers and players went into exile or gave up performing when such a horrible sequence of events followed the Soviet invasion. I have frequently fallen into despair while working on the Anywhere Else But Here Today project, angry at the way the world has turned out. Progress is not really what’s been achieved is it? One of the persistent themes in the book on world music, politics and social change is how pop music remains a democratising or civilising force. Well, compared to religion or nationalism that’s certainly true. It’s also a unifying force. And if you want a symbol of that you could choose an early portable Roland synth or electronic keyboard or an equivalent brand which was utilised by musicians pretty much everywhere by the start of the 1980s. Look at or listen to the clips on the Anywhere Else But Here Today site, from Iran to Afghanistan, from the Eritrean freedom fighters to the Algerian rai producers, from Ethiopia to Pakistan to the USSR, the keyboard’s there and it’s been part of some pretty incredible music.
There’s another great passage in that book, in a paper by Alenka Barber-Kersovan on “tradition and acculturation as polarities of Slovenian popular music” where in the context of The Beatles being replaced by Saturday Night Fever or disco as the prime shaping force she writes: “Since it is continually present in the media, pop has lost its exclusive character. It is not the Leitmotiv of a generation any more, but simply ‘pop music’, suitable for any situation and a medicine for every single disease. Pop music no longer has only one central value; it is multifunctional. It can be background noise, a possibility for enjoyment, a fashionable attitude, a means to self-realisation, identification and communication as well as a way to express discomfort when everyday life puts too much pressure on”.
Pressure? Pleasure? When you consider the damage done to the world in the name of religion and nationalism then the idea of disco music, itself an amorphous concept, taking hold without regard for frontiers seems incredibly appealing. And there are times when it would seem tempting to listen solely to vintage disco sounds and be set adrift on disco bliss (to borrow a title from the excellent Maria Minerva). Disco’s preoccupation with cosmic concerns is well documented, but its participants also had a healthy interest in globetrotting. So to celebrate the worldwide disco impulse we will, in the words, of Mexican model turned New York diva Martina “disco around the world” with a series of irregular stops for refuelling along the way. Come on let’s go ...

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Hiss & Shake - Legg's Eleven (collated)

Hiss & Shake – Legg’s Eleven is the latest edition of Your Heart Out, and it can be downloaded as a PDF for free here. It draws together a series of articles celebrating the studio work of Phil Legg, providing the perfect opportunity to share sounds and stories, from Essential Logic and The Gist to Baby Ford and Rodney P, via Ut and Terence Trent D’Arby, Cold Storage and No U-Turn, and much, much more. In other words if you believe pop music should defy compartmentalisation, then this is for you.

Enjoy the fully interactive digital version, or print a copy off and take it down to your local park or favourite cafe. And please spread the word and share your thoughts.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Hiss & Shake - Legg's Eleven pt. 11

Follow in the footsteps of Phil Legg and at some stage you’ll end up at Rhythm King. Any label that released Hey DJ/ I Can’t Dance (To That Music You’re Playing) by the Beatmasters and Betty Boo would have a special place in pop culture. But Rhythm King got off to a flying start with a selection of smartly chosen tracks they licensed (Taffy, Viola Wills, Denise Motto) and some pioneering UK productions like Renegade Soundwave’s Kray Twins, Pablo Gad’s Who Are The Terrorists?, argumentative hip hop from Three Wise Men, and the early North East house work of Hotline.

Then came Rhythm King’s pop assemblage explosion, riding the wave of hip hop and acid house, which resulted in a string of hits for the Beatmasters, Bomb The Bass, S’Express and Baby Ford. Rule books were gleefully ripped up, as all involved used new technology, DIY techniques and punk irreverence to transform the pop scene. The Rhythm King brand of rave pop thrived on creating havoc, and its acts were responsible for a number of exuberantly anarchic and memorably madcap performances on Top of the Pops. More to the point though, its chart successes still seem like a blast of fresh air, even stripped of their context.

Rhythm King started out as a subsidiary of Daniel Miller’s Mute label. He tells a brilliant story about the chance meeting that led to the setting up of Rhythm King: “There were two English guys I knew. I remember seeing one of them walking down the street one day with a bunch of 12-inches. ‘Where are you going with all of those records?’ ‘Oh, I've got a label and we're trying to do a deal. This house music thing is just about to explode.’ ‘House music? What's that?’ He explained what it was, came back to the office and played me some records, and I said that it sounded quite interesting. I didn't quite get it. It sounded like disco to me...but it sounded quite good. But it seemed like he had a passion for it, and he really knew it, so I had him start the label that became Rhythm King.”

The fact that Daniel had Rhythm King on one hand, and Blast First (home of Sonic Youth, Ut, Big Stick, Big Black, etc.) on the other as offshoots of Mute seems perfect looking back. After all Mute initially had an uneasy if brilliant balance between pop and noise: the Silicon Teens and Fad Gadget up alongside D.A.F. and Non. And the subversive ultra-pop approach of Betty Boo is a perfect complement for what Die Doraus und die Marinas were doing ten years earlier.

The story of Mute is a fascinating one, full stop. The turning point was succeeding in signing Depeche Mode, or maybe more pertinently Depeche Mode opting to sign and stay with Mute. The story of what happened to Depeche Mode is stranger still. The descent into darkness is one thing, but the resilience of the recalcitrant and retiring Vince Clarke is more remarkable. From the pop confectionary of Just Can’t Get Enough to the sheer oddness of Yazoo’s success to the brief liaison with Paul Quinn to the enduring Erasure, Vince is unvanquished. A lot has been made of the Pet Shop Boys artful perversity, but the stubbornness of Vince in the pop marketplace is extraordinary. And even the harshest critic of Clarke’s work will grudgingly concede his success has helped fund what might ungraciously and probably inaccurately be considered more substantial fare.

After that early burst of chart activity the Rhythm King stars didn’t take the easy options. Bomb The Bass, for example, literally headed for Unknown Territory on the 1991 LP of the same name. It featured two themes that would be commodified and become much more dominant as the decade progressed: trip hop and big beat. Among the people who worked with Tim Simenon on this great record were J. Saul Kane (Depth Charge) and Doug Wimbish of the Sugarhill Gang/On- U Sound peerless legacy. John Coxon was on there, too, around the time he was working on the Betty Boo phenomenon and before Springhill Jack got off the ground. Simenon also covered ESG’s Moody, suggesting he was several steps ahead in looking back in the post-punk funk direction.

And then there was Baby Ford, the precocious raver who crashed the charts and was almost too smart for his own good. Not only could he recreate the Chicago sound with an English twist but he just happened to come up with some irresistible bubblegum smashes which he’d occasionally sing on in a curiously appealing Prince meets Green voice. This approach pretty much reached its peak on Beach Bump (there’s a Phil Legg connection, for the record) and then things started to get stranger as Baby Ford gradually started to erase himself from the pop sphere.

BFord9, Baby Ford’s 1992 LP on Transglobal, a Rhythm King offshoot, was a brilliant and defiantly uncompromising techno set, which pretty much defined the direction his work would take. When he sang on this record it sounded strangely like Shaun Ryder fronting the early Cabaret Voltaire, or what Davy Henderson would sound like when he re-emerged with the Nectarine No. 9. Indeed Sashay Around The Fuzzbox sounds suspiciously like an NN9 title. Ford would revisit three of the BFord9 tracks on Normal Re, an EP for Rephlex in 1998, including the mesmerising Normal (Changed Version) which just may be the best thing he’s done. There’s a Phil Legg connection there too.

Among the things Baby Ford did after leaving Rhythm King and the pop contest behind was record as Twig Bud for the Mo’ Wax Excursions series. Other participants in the series were Steve Picton (aka the fantastic Stasis), Mark Broom and Dave Hill (together as Midnight Funk Association). This trio were very much kindred spirits of Peter ‘Baby’ Ford, and in various permutations they would continue to be part of the UK’s techno underground. Baby Ford, for example, has doggedly kept on with his music, releasing his take on minimalist techno on the occasional record for a loyal following.

It is fascinating how as each musical moment passes determined souls dig in and continue to plough their own particular furrow, do their own peculiar or particular thing regardless of what else is going on. They stick around. It is easy to lose track, though. It is impossible to keep up with everything. It can be all-consuming chasing after new information, foraging around in forgotten corners, following up clues from unknown territories. So, if you immerse yourself in something, inevitably other things pass by unnoticed. But it can be fun playing catch-up ...

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Hiss & Shake - Legg's Eleven pt. 10

The Stylistics, Manhattans, Moments, Tavares, Trammps, Tymes, O’Jays, Chi-Lites, Floaters: names that instantly conjure up a wonderful ‘70s soul soundtrack and images of black American male vocal groups with immaculate afros, intricate harmonies, ornate matching suits, and perfectly choreographed dance moves. It’s a pop phenomenon that formed such an essential part of that era, and is still regarded with enormous affection by people of all ages and from all sorts of backgrounds. Yet the UK never really succeeded in exploiting this market with homegrown produce. Manchester’s Sweet Sensation are the only act that springs immediately to mind as an exception, with the right sound, moves and look. Were there others? The Real Thing and Imagination really were far too esoteric to fit the bill.

Sweet Sensation first tasted success after appearing on the TV talent show New Faces (which also gave us Lenny Henry and Showaddywaddy), and were then taken under the wing of one of the programme’s judges Tony Hatch. The young group had a couple of classic hit singles, Sad Sweet Dreamer and Purely By Coincidence, in the mid-‘70s but soon faded from view. Singer Marcel King briefly re-emerged with a wonderful defiant anthem of optimism on Factory Records, produced by Bernard Sumner and Donald Johnson. Marcel topped the bill at the Hacienda on the occasion Madonna appeared there for a performance filmed for the The Tube, but the single was a one-off on Factory and sadly not part of an on-going celebration of the city’s soul underground. Thus acts like Chapter And The Verse and A Guy Called Gerald emerged on the Merseyside label Rham! but that’s another story.

The Pasadenas, when they exploded onto the UK pop scene in the late ‘80s, were blatantly ‘knowing’, consciously referencing the vocal soul group tradition in their sound and image. But early hits like the still glorious Riding On A Train were very much of their time, with its irresistible Italo piano house motif and infectious chorus, and it was only one or two steps removed from the likes of Ten City and Inner City. The Pasadenas’ meticulously choreographed moves, however, were a world away from Howard Melvin & the Bluenotes. The acrobatics and abundant energy were in part close to the jazz dance virtuoso displays of club outfits like Manchester’s Jazz Defektors and London’s IDJ, and in part what would become the boy band entertainment staple: The Jackson 5 led to the Osmonds, as New Kids On The Block followed New Edition in the States, so Take That followed The Pasadenas, you could argue. To Whom It May Concern, the first LP by The Pasadenas, stands the test of time pretty well. It was partly produced by Phil Legg, presumably hot on the heels of the success of Terence Trent D’Arby’s debut. The main producer, however, was Pete Wingfield, and it’s easy to see how the opportunity to work with a young London vocal soul group would appeal to someone who as a teenager in the ‘60s produced a soul music fanzine.

Somewhere around the same time that Pete Wingfield worked with The Pasadenas he would have been producing an LP for The Blue Ox Babes which would not be properly released until 20-odd years later when Cherry Red included the tracks on an excellent round-up of the group’s recordings. The Blue Ox Babes were the group put together by Kevin Archer, one-time core member of the Dexys Midnight Runners team. A lot has been said and written about the relationship between the two Kevins, Archer and Rowland. The excellent Young Guns TV documentary on Dexys, for example, focused on what happened. Well, we have all made mistakes and hurt people. But what does need restating is what an incredible combination Rowland and Archer were, their approach, their creations, everything. Together they were phenomenal, and apart they were still special. Kevin Archer’s Blue Ox Babes were a great group, criminally ignored at the time. Live they were wonderfully entertaining, with Yasmin Saleh a whirl of energy and the perfect foil to Kevin. On record, Kevin’s gift for song writing shone through, with some of the most addictive bubblegum soul not composed by Greenaway & Cook.

It was both natural and touching that Kevin Archer should turn to Pete Wingfield to capture what he was trying to express. Pete had played such an integral part in the creation of Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, what is still the greatest debut LP of all time, that the trust everyone involved with that record had in him endured. So, for example, when after the astonishing Keep It (Part Two) the two Kevins and Big Jimmy were left alone, the breakaway faction formed The Bureau and chose Pete Wingfield as producer for an LP which still managed to match much of the power and pugnacity of Dexys. The Bureau’s signature tune Only For Sheep still has a remarkable intensity, and Archie Brown’s vocals make it a wonderful match for Clock DVA’s Four Hours. Pete Wingfield would much later play keyboards on the opening two tracks of Kevin Rowland’s cathartic My Beauty, including the incredible cover of Rag Doll.

Pete Wingfield was the perfect choice as Dexys’ producer. The name was best known from his one-off solo hit 18 With A Bullet, and perhaps from his involvement with the Olympic Runners who had a couple of minor disco hits in the late ‘70s. That group, however, has a history stretching back to 1973 when it formed almost accidentally when a group of session musicians began jamming for fun. Vocalion has paired up the first couple of Olympic Runners LPs on a CD reissue, and they are a revelation in terms of clipped funk workouts, with repetitive riffs, minimal embellishments, very tight grooves and occasional reggae leanings. Pete Wingfield’s accompanying essay is equally revealing, as he admits part of the inspiration for the name came from a Soul Runners single by an early incarnation of Charles Wright’s Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band (note the Runners connection!), and how they came to record at Mike Vernon’s Chipping Norton studio with Barry Hammond as engineer.

Initially the Olympic Runners deliberately remained anonymous. The anonymity, combined with the shall we say striking covers, was because as Wingfield put it: “We were aiming at black US consumers, who, in the early ‘70s at least, were notoriously suspicious of anything remotely alien; conversely, British soul fans tended to apply reverse snobbery and dismiss any domestic effort as a pale imitation of the real thing.” It’s a familiar theme now. Dennis Bovell employed similar subterfuge with his early releases. And that British snobbery about black music has affected many artists and meant that truly great works by, for example, British jazz, soul, reggae, and hip hop acts remain woefully undervalued.

The Pasadenas’ biographical notes reveal that one of their sisters, Susie Banfield, was in the Cookie Crew, the pioneering British rap outfit who faced persistent struggles in being taken seriously by the UK’s hip hop audience and trying to fend off record business pressures to make them more pop . Thankfully along the way they got to record most of their debut LP, Born This Way!, with Daddy-O and DBC from the Stetsasonic team, and it retains a ragged charm that is enormously appealing. Nevertheless the Cookie Crew are best remembered (with genuine affection, though no doubt to the Cookies’ chagrin) for the part they played in the creation of hip house on the Beatmasters’ Rok Da House, which pioneered a tradition that occasionally still tears the chart apart, with the likes of Rolex and Bonkers etc.