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Mutant Disco

Mutant Disco

Been meaning to get this amended article onto the blog. It’s something I originally wrote back in 2003 for Grandslam magazine as a feature revolving around the release of 2 No Wave compilations at the time, one on the re-activated ZE label, the other on Soul Jazz. The piece was originally published under the title ‘When Punk Met Funk’.

When Punk Met Funk

Funk and Punk, 2 of the major musical movements of the ’70s, were regarded as distinctive areas of expression with little in common until New York’s underground brought them together as the most unlikely bedfellows under the banner of No Wave, which flourished during the late ’70s / early ’80s.

The most influential labels of the movement, ZE and 99 Records, made their mark back in the days before House music, when New York was at the epicentre of the Dance universe and creative energy overflowed in the city that never slept.

Rewind to December 1976, when Punk burst onto the UK Pop scene following the release of ‘Anarchy In The UK’ by the (then notorious) Sex Pistols. As a young DJ with aspirations of being a black music specialist, playing Soul, Funk and Disco at my hometown clubs, Punk was another scene altogether. It was irrelevant whether I was into bands like The Stranglers, The Clash and the Pistols on a personal level, I could never have played them in the clubs in which I worked. The same was true of the majority of DJs throughout the country, the Punk scene revolving around live venues rather than the discotheques and clubs of the time.

Roxy Bowie

However, one area of infiltration was via the numerous Roxy / Bowie nights, which would later evolve into the New Wave or Futurist scene. Roxy Music and David Bowie were both mainstream favourites in their own right, but a large enough audience wanted to hear other tracks, not just the singles, in a club setting, as well as records in the same inventive vein by bands that weren’t as popular. It was on these Roxy / Bowie nights that tracks by early electronic pioneers like Kraftwerk, the Human League (before half the band splintered into Heaven 17) and Ultravox (the John Foxx rather than Midge Ure version) were first played.

Bowie had already released a number of singles geared towards the dancefloor, all recorded in the US, beginning with his live cover version of Eddie Floyd’s ’60s Soul classic, ‘Knock On Wood’ in 1974, followed by a trio of blue eyed Funk hits, ‘Young Americans’, ‘Fame’ and ‘Golden Years’ in ‘75. Bowie’s ‘soul period’ had been inspired by the Philly Sound of acts like the O’Jays, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes and MFSB (the orchestra behind so many of these great records), who paved the way for the Disco era, having found their own inspiration in the grittier Funk of seminal groove guru’s like James Brown and Sly And The Family Stone. In 1976 (the year the groundbreaking German band, Can, had their only British hit with a leftfield Disco cut, ‘I Want More’) Bowie re-located to Berlin in order to experiment with the new electronic sounds, working alongside visionary producer and synthesizer wizard, Brian Eno (formerly of Roxy Music). This resulted in the release of a futuristic album in ‘77 called ‘Low’, which featured yet another hit single and a further club favourite, ‘Sound And Vision’.

Kraftwerk Afrika Bambaataa

One German recording released in ‘77 would have an atom-splitting impact that few could have imagined at the time. Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ (in which Bowie receives a namecheck, along with proto-Punk hero Iggy Pop) was destined to become a Hip Hop anthem once Afrika Bambaataa decided that these ‘funky white boys from Germany’ could rock the house. Bambaataa’s open-mindedness would quite literally alter the course of popular culture, for in 1982 he (along with his collaborators, Arthur Baker and John Robie) performed musical alchemy by fusing Kraftwerk’s technological approach with the energy and attitude of Hip Hop, to create a new Electro sound. ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and a later Kraftwerk track, 1981’s ‘Numbers’, would provide the basis for the Soul Sonic Force’s future-shock, ‘Planet Rock’ (1982), and from that moment onwards Dance music would change radically.

But ‘Planet Rock’ was still five years away in ‘77 as the Punk Rock scene kicked into full swing. At this point Punk might not have seemed to have much in common with US black music, but there was a healthy mutual respect between Punk and Reggae, as illustrated by tracks like Bob Marley & The Wailers’ ‘Punky Reggae Party’ and Dillinger’s ‘Funky Punk’ – this crossover had been inspired by DJ Don Letts, who played Reggae to the Punks at the movements most fabled venue, The Roxy in London. Reggae would of course be a major influence on the next wave of British hit-makers, including The Police, UB40, Madness, The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter. Away from the charts, Adrian Sherwood would be laying the blueprint for the hugely productive On-U Sound, a British Dub Reggae institution with Punk affiliation.

Ian Drury

Punk continued to inspire, entertain and offend in equal measures and the do-it-yourself ethos was taken up by a new wave of musicians throughout the country, with an ever-increasing amount of independent record labels setting up to cater for this growing movement. Stiff Records was held in the highest regard throughout this time and it was one of their acts that most successfully funked-up the Punk. This was Ian Dury & The Blockheads, who soon became mainstream favourites during 1978/79 thanks to highly danceable tracks like, ‘Wake Up And Make Love With Me’, ‘Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll’, ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful (Pt 3)’ and their number one smash, ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’. Stiff also scored a minor hit in ‘78 with the Eno produced ‘(I Can’t Get Me No) Satisfaction’ by US cult-heroes Devo, whose distinctive take on the Rolling Stones classic was built around an infectiously jerky groove.

As big as Punk had become, Disco was the real money-spinner. Following the runaway box office success of the film ‘Saturday Night Fever’ it was now a global phenomenon and all of a sudden it was the Bee Gees rather than then O’Jays who defined the genre. This new found popularity would provoke a backlash, eventually resulting in the racist and homophobic ‘Disco Sucks’ campaign in the US, including 1979’s infamous ‘Disco Demolition’ at Comiskey Park Baseball Stadium in Chicago, when Rock fans indulged in a ritual record burning frenzy. Nothing quite so drastic happened in the UK, but Disco’s cool certainly suffered, with former enthusiasts quickly jumping ship and now finding refuge on the newly emerged Jazz-Funk scene (which still included Disco with a funkier edge).

Blondie

Despite all the hostility, across the Atlantic New Wave was meeting Disco head-on, resulting, most notably, in Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’, which would subsequently go all the way to number one on the British charts in ‘79. Blondie would continue to pack the dancefloor throughout the following years with further chart toppers, ‘Atomic’ and ‘Call Me’, before drawing their inspiration for another club winner, ’Rapture’, not from Disco but Hip Hop, which would soon begin to make a big impression outside of New York’s black and Hispanic hardcore. Another band who embraced the Disco sound in ‘79 was Sparks, reviving their career and returning to the top 20 in the UK with the Giorgio Moroder produced ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ and ‘Beat The Clock’.

On the NYC underground the No Wave movement had begun to take shape. A creative young community had formed in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a part of the Big Apple long connected with artistic endeavour and the avant-garde, and had begun to experiment in areas like fashion, theatre, film, literature and, of course, music (with Eno’s ‘No New York’ compilation setting the tone). Influenced not only by Punk, but by the Free Jazz of Sun Ra and Albert Ayler, the work of composers like Stockhausen, Glass and Reich, and the no-holds-barred approach of earlier artists like the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, and even Yoko Ono, receiving some belated appreciation, No Wave would soon forge it’s own unique identity. With the additional inspiration of the wide range of Dance music that dominated the city’s clubs, the melting pot was well and truly bubbling.

Mutant Disco Box Set

It’s somewhat ironic that ZE, the epitome of New York hip, was launched by an Englishman, Michael Zilkha, and a Frenchman, Michel Esteban (in 1978). The label soon caught the attention of Island Records’ supremo, Chris Blackwell, who licensed it in 1980, bringing the music to an international audience during the following years. To help promote ZE in the UK, Island mailed out the impressive ‘Mutant Disco’ box-set of 12” singles to its DJ list, myself included. The tracks were by Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Was (Not Was), Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band, Material, Coati Mundi and Gichy Dan, and it’s sub-title, ‘A Subtle Discolation Of The Norm’, summed-up the package perfectly. A t-shirt that was also mailed as part of the promotional campaign carried another memorable slogan – ‘Funk Art Lets DanZE!’.

Kid Creole, led by the zoot-suited August Darnell, linked back to Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, who’d made their mark at the height of Disco via their big band styled singles, ‘I’ll Play The Fool’ and ‘Cherchez La Femme’. Material was formed by bassist Bill Laswell, who would go on to play a major role in unleashing Hip Hop on an unsuspecting planet, via Rockit’, his Grammy winning collaboration with Herbie Hancock in ‘83. Detroit brothers Don and David Was were also pushing at the boundaries. They’d enjoy commercial success later in the decade, but many would regard the 80-84 period as their most creative, with ‘Wheel Me Out’, ‘Tell Me That I’m Dreaming’ and ‘Out Come The Freaks’ amongst the finest Was (Not Was) releases.

By 1982 the lines between Punk and Funk were no longer as rigid. The Clash had scored club successes with ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘This Is Radio Clash’, while old favourite Ian Dury, a polio sufferer, was back with ‘Spaticus Autisticus’, which was hastily banned by the BBC for fear of offending sensibilities. Tracks like ‘No GDM’ by Gina X, ‘Bostich’ by Yello, ‘Waiting For A Train’ by Flash And The Pan and Yoko Ono’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ had continued to twist the Disco formula in the early ’80s. One of the best examples would be Pigbag’s unforgettable ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag’, which failed to make any impression on the charts following its 1981 release, but was re-issued the following year and, having found an unlikely champion in Radio 1’s Dave Lee Travis, climbed all the way into the top 5 (it was DLT’s support that was also largely responsible for Coati Mundi’s ‘Me No Pop I’ becoming ZE’s first UK chart entry in ‘81, when it reached number 32).

Bush Of Ghosts Speaking In Tongues

Brian Eno continued to break new ground, hooking up with David Byrne of Talking Heads (another band he produced), to create the outstanding experimental album, ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’ (1981), which included some serious groove action, most notably on ‘Regiment’ and ‘The Jezebel Spirit’, whilst providing an early masterclass in the use of samples. Meanwhile Heads offshoot, Tom Tom Club, were appealing to more commercial tastes and filling dancefloors in the process via the singles ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ and ‘Genius Of Love’. Talking Heads, whose tracks ‘I Zimbra’ (‘79) and ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (‘81) had found favour in the clubs, especially in New York, would later fully embrace the Funk on their album ‘Speaking In Tongues’ (1983), working alongside a wicked crew of kick-ass black musicians (and backing vocalists), including the legendary keyboard player Bernie Worrell, who was not only a key member of Parliament / Funkadelic, but previously one of James Brown’s backing band, and Ednah Holt, whose ‘Serious Sirius Space Party’ had been an underground club hit in ‘81 following its release on NY’s essential West End label. The brilliant film (and accompanying album), ‘Stop Making Sense’ (premiered in ‘84), perfectly captures a truly unforgettable live performance by this inspired line-up, with highlights including ‘Burning DownThe House’, ‘Slippery People’ and Al Green’s ‘Take Me To The River’ (incidentally, a cover version of ‘Slippery People’ would result in former Stax favourites, the Staples Singers, returning to the US R&B chart after an absence of some years).

ESG

Back on the underground Ed Bahlman’s 99 Records was, alongside ZE, the most important NY Punk-Funk outlet, with ESG, Liquid Liquid and Bush Tetras amongst those who recorded for the label. ESG hailed from the birthplace of Hip Hop, the South Bronx, yet for their debut release, ‘You’re No Good’, British producer Martin Hannett (who first made his name working with fellow Mancunian’s and Punk heroes, The Buzzcocks) was behind the recording desk. The resulting single (which also included what have become their best known tracks, ‘Moody’ and ‘UFO’) was issued in ‘81 both by Manchester’s Factory Records in the UK (7”) and 99 in the US (12”). Hannett was working with the Factory band A Certain Ratio at that point, and ESG had been their support act at a New York gig. ACR, along with other British acts like 23 Skidoo, Gang Of Four and APB, shared common ground with the No Wave bands (their cover of Banbarra’s ‘Shack Up’ in 1980 enhancing their own Punk-Funk credentials). The New York / Manchester connection is perfectly illustrated by ESG, who have the unique distinction of playing the opening night at Manchester’s Haçienda (where they shared the bill with ACR), as well as the closing night of Larry Levan’s church of Dance, the Paradise Garage in NYC!

Kool Herc

During the early ’80s it seemed that the whole of New York was buzzing with new ideas, but one area more than any other caught the spirit of the times. This was, of course, the Boogie Down Bronx, where Hip Hop had been developing more or less in isolation since DJ Kool Herc began to rock the block in the early ’70s. New York was primed for something big to happen and the rest, as they say, is history.

1982 was the year that the Electro sound began to re-define Dance music, with Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five at the forefront of a new musical movement, which Warp 9 referred to as ‘Nunk’ (short for New Wave Funk) but we’d call Electro-Funk in the UK. The fact that black musicians were drawing influences from white artists like Kraftwerk, Human League and Gary Numan mirrored developments in downtown New York, where white artists were taking inspiration from black music. The rules were being re-written throughout the Big Apple, and NY club culture was beginning to make a huge impact both in the US and overseas.

Legend Manchester

In Manchester, before the Haçienda had opened its doors, Legend, another club in the rainy city, was at the cutting edge. Between 1980-82, Legend’s Thursday Futurist night was regarded amongst the best in the country, with DJs Paul Rae and Ralph Randell at the helm playing a superior selection of alternative music (which featured tracks of the Punk-Funk variety) to an audience that would include many of the original Haçienda members. Wednesday at Legend was something altogether different, the club was packed full of black kids into Funk, Soul and Jazz, and it was here (along with sister club Wigan Pier) where the British Electro-Funk scene first took root. As the DJ on Wednesday’s between 81-84, most of the records I played were US imports, with the lions share coming out of New York on labels like Prelude, West End, Sugarhill, Emergency, Streetwise and Tommy Boy. Some of the tracks on the ZE and other more leftfield labels affiliated with the No Wave scene also caught on with the black Manchester audience back in the day. Kid Creole’s ‘I’m A Wonderful Thing Baby’ got its first plays on the Jazz-Funk scene (as it was still rather misleadingly called at that point), and ‘Tell Me That I’m Dreaming’ by Was (Not Was) was also a Legend floorfiller. The Jean Michel Basquiat produced Hip Hop favourite ‘Beat Bop’, by Rammelzee Vs K Rob, was unsurprisingly huge, while Liquid Liquid and Aural Exciters (their post-ZE release ‘Chinese Rap’ on the Top Flight label) were amongst the artists featured on the Wednesday.

Hacienda Membership

Factory in Manchester would experiment increasingly with Funk, Jazz and Disco grooves, and acts like 52nd Street, Quando Quango and Swamp Children found their way onto my playlist, along with New Order’s ‘Confused Beats’ (an instrumental version of their Arthur Baker produced hit, ‘Confusion’), which was big on the black side of the tracks in ‘83. Eventually I was approached by The Haçienda to become their first Dance resident, launching the Friday night Funk sessions (which would be the forerunner to the clubs ‘Nude’ night) whilst introducing the mainly alternative Saturday night audience to the upfront black sounds I was playing at Legend and the Pier.

Great club tunes were now coming from the most unlikely sources. One of the defining records of the decade was Malcolm McLaren’s top 10 hit ‘Buffalo Gals’ (released towards the end of ‘82), which introduced the UK to the full-force of Hip Hop via its inspirational promo video. McLaren, the mastermind behind the British Punk explosion, clearly understood that these two major youth movements represented opposite sides of the same coin, and following his overwhelming endorsement many former Punks began to sit up and take notice of the Dance scene around this point. Having grown out of ’70s Funk, Hip Hop eventually broke through on the back of Electro. Who’d have thought that McLaren, the great Rock & Roll swindler himself, would be the channel through which the black audience in this country were finally exposed to the revolutionary street-science of Planet Rock, the Bronx! Suffice to say that British popular culture would never be the same from this point onwards.

Liquid Liquid

As Hip Hop gained momentum, the No Wave scene was gradually forgotten (although Madonna would go all the way by adopting the attitude of Punk, whilst making music aimed squarely at the dancefloor). In a sad twist of fate two of the most innovative labels of the time, Sugarhill and 99 Records, would both fold as a result of a dispute surrounding the Grandmaster & Melle Mel hit ‘White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)’, which had been based around Liquid Liquid’s underground favourite ‘Cavern’, but without any credit. A lengthy legal battle ensued that was eventually won by 99, but Sugarhill couldn’t pay up and declared itself bankrupt. Under the stress of it all Liquid Liquid gave up a very promising career, no doubt deeply embittered by the whole experience. It wasn’t until 1995 that a cover of ‘White Lines’ by Duran Duran (of all people) finally brought it’s originators some well deserved and long overdue royalties.

As the ’80s became the ’90s dancefloor hits by British ‘Indie’ acts like Manchester’s Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, along with Glasgow’s Primal Scream and Liverpool’s The Farm, heralded a new genre, Indie Dance, which echoed the Punk Funk of earlier times. In the 2000s, with the advent of Electroclash (a movement instigated by New York DJ Larry Tee), and the continued fascination with all things Proto-House, No Wave enjoyed a renaissance. Both ESG and Liquid Liquid reformed, and ZE Records set about re-issuing its back catalogue, updating some of its classic tracks in the process via remixes from the likes of Output’s Trevor Jackson, 2 Many DJs, and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, plus re-edits from DJs including Todd Terje, Idjut Boys, Rub ‘N’ Tug and myself (on the 2009 compilation ‘Zevolution’).

Zevolution

A Nu School of No Wave exponents, including The Rapture and Radio 4 emerged, drawing from the past whilst bringing the music very much into the present, bridging a two decade gap. A young enthusiastic UK audience, many of whom weren’t even born when the original tracks were first released, re-discovered the work of people like Arthur Russell (Dinosaur L, Loose Joints etc), Konk, James White & The Blacks and Lizzy Mercier Descloux, who finally gained some of the long-overdue acknowledgement that their once unconventional artistic endeavours undoubtedly deserved. The fact that much of this music made more sense to people in recent times than it did when it was first issued is testament to just how ahead of the curve it once was, with the bastard child of Punk and Funk finally coming of age, and No Wave, as an important catalyst, rightly claiming its proper place in the music tapestry.

First published in Grandslam Magazine 2003. Amended 2014.

NY NO WAVE ALBUM

No Wave Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_wave

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2 Responses to Mutant Disco

  1. Jason Dodd October 31, 2014 at 11:56 am #

    A brilliant article…..Think I might have to have mentioned the album London Calling when reaching the area of Reggae’s influence on Punk, but a
    part from that this is an incredibly insightful piece of of music journalism…hats off GW once again

  2. The 70’s & 80’s were a nostalgic era of music as I relive every-time a classic disco tune is played especially when demonstrated on DJ Greg Wilson mixes and his live gig recordings! Excellent article revisiting the time I first heard punk and disco as a little tot and a pleasant start to the week even-though “I don’t like Mondays”? 05/11/2014 08:15am

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