Monday, September 27, 2021

Chic are a proof of my theory-stance-contention that the best disco is the the disco that made the charts

there is a logic to the syndrome of "the best stuff crossed over and became pop"

for what are the premises on which disco is based, its metric?

Good beat, good groove

Strong vocal performance

Great melody

Cool shiny production

Those happen to be exactly the same premises on which successful pop music is based - a beat you a dance to, a tune you can sing along to it, a certain conventional idea of vocal power, bright slick shiny production, well played etc

up to a certain point, you can say that disco-ness is poptasticness

so underground disco means simply not known by that many people, means not that successful on its own terms

Underground disco cultists are very similar to the Northern Soul thing

The Northern Soul people liked Motown-type music. But Motown they considered “commercial” – meaning, simply that ordinary kids knew about it cos it had been in the charts. So they formed a whole cut around either Motown releases that had not been hits (cos they weren’t quite good enough)  and then the Motown-wannabes, of which they were droves. And there was so much of this second-division, solid uptempo soul made then that they could sustain a whole culture based on it, and never play the Four Tops or Martha and the Vandellas or the Supremes.

Eventually they moved into the third-rate and the overtly substandard.

You get the same thing with garage punk of the Sixties – which I was really into and I went pretty deep into the second-rate zone, cos I loved that particular energy and set of noises and vocal aggression

But the best stuff  - objectively - was either the British groups who inspired the garage punks or those one-hit wonders like Count Five with ‘psychotic reactions’

Oh here and there you’ll come across something you think ‘this could have been a hit, should have been a hit’

But the bulk of it is determinedly second-division and enjoyable on that level if you are that obsessed with the sound

Same with disco

Thursday, September 16, 2021

melodic spacing in postdisco

In the piece on Chic and Sister Sledge et al, I note of Nile Rodgers & Bernard Edwards's songwriting: 

"Chic favored chord changes sublimely poised between happy and sad while the choruses were staccato, the spaced-out notes seemingly plotted on graph paper."

Listening to all the ChicOrg classic-era tunes, it struck me that Nile Rodgers & Bernard Edwards were among the pioneers - perhaps the pioneers - of a stylistic feature of writing during the postdisco era, something I'd noted earlier in the year when listening to a ton of Eighties boogie and club tracks. It's particularly pronounced in the songwriting of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis for acts like The S.O.S. Band.

On Dissensus I observed:

One thing I've noticed recently listening to 80s club faves, is that a lot of postdisco / boogie tunes have this thing where the chorus is rectilinear - regular and spaced out notes - which creates a delicious tension with the grooviness of the music. The verse melodies tend to move in this more fluidly shimmying soulful way.

The choruses sound clipped - there don't tend to be long held notes, and there's rarely melisma or trills or any kind of flourish. Instead it's all about precision and staccato starkness.  

Odyssey's  "Inside Out" is a good example - and a wonderful song / vocal performance, from Lillian Lopez (with this ever-so slightly harsh nasally timbre and sort of yearningly imperious tone). 

(Also the lyric is a bit peculiar, if you pay attention to it - "When you're lying in her bed / And you're in her arms instead of my love /As you feel her tightening grip...."  Beg pardon ooer missus ....  and then "And she's always on that phone / And you just don't think that you got the strength to fight it" - the fantasmic scenario dreamed of by the rival-in-love singing the song seems to be "hold on, I'm coming to your rescue", which may not be the male's feeling about the situation at all)

Cheryl Lynn's marvelous "Encore" (written and produced by Jam & Lewis) is another prime case, with the spacing-out effect exacerbated by breaking up the chorus so that it's a sort of lurching back and forth between two voices (Cheryl and a backing singer, or it is Cheryl multitracked?).

(Listen to the fade of the 12-inch for the "all right!" as used in "Radio Babylon" and a thousand (slight exaggeration) rave tunes)

Change's Chic-like "Change of Heart" (written, arranged and produced by Jam & Lewis) has the melodic spacing in the chorus in full effect. But the verses are also quite rectilinear (not sure if that's the right word but I'm sticking with it).  It's a very controlled sounding record. 

Barney H in 1984 pegs Jam & Lewis as beatbox-era successors to "Nile 'n' Nard" and mentions "tightly clipped vocals" are key to the tradition of Chic Org hits like "Forbidden Lover".

As heard in "Change of Heart", this kind of chorus as was a 
hallmark of Jam & Lewis's writing, as with S.O.S. Band and particularly this tune "The Finest"

Melodically "The Finest" has that "plotted out on graph paper" quality - and Mary Davis's singing is just as restrained and near-formal as the melody is - which suits the kind of amorous constraints under which the song's character lives, a satellite of love. 

But then that exquisitely prim poise is blown with a horrible section that's all melismatic and oversouled, shattering the mood completely.

Apart from that thankfully brief excrescence, the whole of "The Finest" from the drum machine rhythm-track upwards, feels like a grid - or like a set of grids superimposed over each other.  

And of course nuumologists need no reminding what eternal anthem it led to... 

Jam & Lewis have similar things going on with certain Janet Jackson tunes and also Human League's "Human".

Rewinding to a few years earlier - Kool and the Gang's "Get Down On It" - I remember at the time this originally came out thinking that it had a curious quality of geometry, an oddly orderly symmetry.... but in this case that tension, the play of rigidity against loose 'n' groovy, is at work at all levels of the instrumentation not just the vocal melody.


A recurrence of that kind of feel - spaced-out, tautly controlled, geometric - comes in the late '90s with Timbaland, especially the Aaliyah tunes. Here the spacing is even more strikingly stark, huge gaps in the drum programming. Aaliyah often sings as if she's tip-toeing, the voice padding across the stave with a feline wariness

Bringing it around to where we started, I discover that Timbaland engineer Jimmy Douglass actually produced Odyssey's "Inside Out" (one of his other clients around that time was Gang of Four for Solid Gold). "Inside Out" was actually written by Jesse Rae, a Scotsman so steeped in funk and R&B that he could fluently write in the idiom and pass for the real thing (in the late 80s I  interviewed him about his own excellent music). 


Here's a rather good white copy of postdisco geometrics - the tune feels like glistening planes intersecting in space, like a mobile made of colored glass


bonus beats: later thoughts on melodic spacing in discofunk and postdisco

S.O.S. Band's "Looking for You" (1982)

This has the clipped, staccato melody thing that would be taken to the limit in S.O.S. Band's biggest (UK) hits "Just Be Good To Me" and "The Finest".  It's something I particularly associate with Jam & Lewis's songwriting for them and others (although in the case of "Looking For You" it's not actually written by them)

What's cool about "Looking for You" is that the staccato feel is really strong in the verses, as opposed to where it usually sits, the chorus. (The chorus in "Looking For You" is actually a little blah). In the verses, the choppiness creates a lurching quality that matches the song-character's frantic lovelorn / lover-lost state of  mind. That desperation is further supported by an equally jutting distorted rock-guitar riff, that - in tandem with the prickly rhythm guitar part - exacerbates the off-balance feeling. You picture a swivel-eyed person, literally looking around trying to spot their missing lover in the crowd... catching someone with a faint resemblance out of the corner of the eye and for a second hallucinating their face.

Chic's  "Good Times" (1979)

The spacing thing is going on not just in the chorus but the verse melody too. No long held notes, no melisma. Discernible gaps between notes, each sung note like a taut dab of sound. There's a almost prim clipped-ness. A delicious tension is created by the relative non-fluidity of the melody line (which is also a horizontal melody, not a vertical one - its catchiness is through the rhythmic patterning rather than moving up and down and around the octave).

These are characteristics of nearly all of  Rodgers & Edwards's big hits for Chic and Sister Sledge.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

the politics of dancing

A podcast conversation about rave culture and the politics of dance music I had with Francesco Tenaglia and Reece Cox as part of an exhibition / event series / program at Museion in Bolzano.

TECHNO Conversations” is a series of periodic podcasts in which some of the many aspects linked to the history of raves and clubs, such as communities, economies, stories and trends are investigated through the testimonies of protagonists including theorists and reporters. The series focuses on key historical moments and nightlife geography. A series of podcasts conceived and authored by Francesco Tenaglia."

Sunday, September 5, 2021

TAZmaniac devils (or, the desire called underground part 327)

Youth getting in a right TAZ-zy down under -  Robbie Mason on Australian anarchorave Temporary Autonomous Zoneheads aka netlabel ULTRAVIRUS, who mash up breakcore, hard tek, NeuroTrap, memecore, noise, deconstructed club etc and operate on the outskirts of "Sydney’s warehouse and bunker rave scene" 

Says ULTRAVIRUS operative Thorsten Hertog: “I was really inspired by early 2000s net labels, which came out of this early utopian idea of the internet being a democratic and commercial-free zone. Obviously we know that that idea of the internet has failed. But people just downloaded and uploaded music in bulk for free. The artworks were super tacky and it was very DIY.”

"Sydney went harder, weirder, faster and grittier in its rave music than perhaps any other Australian city" asserts Mason. (attention Thirdform!)

"In the face of lockout laws (only recently repealed) and severely underfunded creative industries, young Sydneysiders self-mobilised to rescue the city’s nightlife. The punk, rave and experimental art scenes especially have embraced alternative event spaces. Warehouse raves, squat parties and park gigs have sustained Sydney’s culture. The scales and frequency of these illegal events far exceed those in any other Australian city.... These grungy spaces of urban decay — warehouses, abandoned stadiums and empty office blocks — attract a particular type of crowd; one happy to push boundaries on a night out, happy to exchange the comforts of the club for the smoke-clogged claustrophobia of Sydney’s urban ruins and happy to brave mosquito swarms and mud. The extreme nature of these spaces, combined with the logistical nightmare of throwing parties within them, mean that any profit margins are guaranteed to be slim. These parameters lend themselves to left-field bookings and radical music. Unsurprisingly, Sydney DIY rave organisers have consistently platformed faster, harder genres including techno, hard trance, breakcore, drum and bass and gabber within these spaces."....

"Sydney’s hard dance revival is also due to 'our proximity to Newcastle and the Bloody Fist [Records] scene that existed there in the 90s, and the huge breakcore scene that exists in the Blue Mountains. These two cities pioneered these hard dance sounds. That has totally filtered back into Sydney.”

I remember Bloody Fist! In fact unless I'm completely mistaken I interviewed Mr Nasebluten himself by phone. Or was it email? No I think phone - I remember his voice. Bizarrely it would have been for a piece on gabber I did for the British version of Esquire! The unlikely things I have done in my life!They sent me to Arnhem in Holland and to Glasgow for Rezerection. I also trekked down to the most bereft zone of South London I've ever visited - a new-built estate of characterless semidetached houses right next to a Mordor-like chasm of industrial chimneys belching smoke and endless railways sidings and British Rail sheds stretching as far as the eye could see (which wasn't that far given the smoggy grey atmosphere that impended, but still improbably extended. It felt like some kind of rent had been fissured in the landscape). And in that little housing estate is where Loftgroover lived with his family. 

But that's an aside  - this ULTRAVIRUS is a very long, detailed piece, but well worth a deep dive. 

Not what I want to hear myself particularly, these days - Chic and Satie have been the listening this weekend - but I'm heartened somehow that people are doing this kind of thing ie. partying hard for their right to fight, or somesuch formulation.