The Pitchfork 500 The Old Skool Revolution – Flash to Flash

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel
Funky 4+1 – That’s The Joint
Kraftwerk – Numbers/Computer World 2
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force – Planet Rock
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – The Message

1981 saw the release of one of those landmark records, without which modern music could potentially have been very different. The idea was simple – use the cut-up techniques that had previously been explored by people such as Cabaret Voltaire and Buchanan and Goodman, and apply them to hip-hop. The result was mind-blowing.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (praise the Lord for copy & paste) was that record. Listen to it today, nearly 30 years after its release, and you’re first struck by how modern it sounds. Like some other revolutionary records (like “Marquee Moon” or “This Charming Man”), it hasn’t dated one little bit. It kicks off with a sample of Blondie’s “Rapture” – a song by a New York band released in 1980, which was influenced by the house parties and clubs in the Bronx in 1979. This record was released in 1981. That’s how fresh it was. Then the bassline from “Good Times” and “Another One Bites The Dust” kick in, alternately, and then the scratching starts.

I wonder how many people in 1981, when they first heard this played, thought the record was skipping. John Peel must have had a heart attack1. Nothing like it had really been heard before on a commercial record – you could argue that some of Throbbing Gristle’s music was pretty shocking, but it certainly wasn’t out there to be liked. The rest of the song continues in the same way; constantly shifting, cutting bits of records in and out, with samples of old radio and movies, and all sorts of bits and bobs, with each new part introduced with some furious scratching. Four minutes in, he even throws in Sugarhill Gang’s “8th Wonder”.

Dear oh dear

Dear oh dear

That’s not to say that DJ’s at parties all over the Bronx hadn’t been scratching and mixing together records for years – they had. But none of them had used their prodigious skills to create a masterpiece, so Grandmaster Flash had the field to himself. Ironically, he wasn’t really a party DJ, more of a bedroom geek, by his own admission his friends thought he was a “dork”. And rather than spending hours on his own in his bedroom with his guitar, like so many other musically obsessed youngsters, he did it with some decks – the titular wheels of steel. Even now he’s obsessed with needles, the torque of the drive motor, and the weight of the platter. He was the inspiration for a whole new breed of musicians; those that instead of playing other people’s music and using them to build their own music, using guitar, or bass, or keyboards; no, they’d just take that music direct from the record and cut it together, sometimes using a rudimentary drum machine to provide the rhythm section. This record spoke to you, and it said, all you need are some decks, a good musical intuition and imagination. That’s it. Go and do it yourself.

It was a more revolutionary record than “God Save The Queen” 5 years earlier, and it changed music for ever. And what’s more, this was a big, shiny, pop song, and it was a massive hit. Hip-hop, and popular music, would never be the same again.

If you want to hear the sound of a Bronx party of the late ’70’s, then Funky 4+1’s “That’s The Joint” is the one. Unlike Grandmaster Flash or Sugarhill Gang, this lot were the real deal – proper party rappers, making a proper party hip-hop record. And as you’d expect, it’s a party tune, full of shout-outs and exhortations to just go and enjoy yourself. Made after their move to Sugar Hill Records, Funky 4+1 (the +1 being female rapper Sha Rock) never followed up their success with this record; amazing, given their obvious talent on this record.

Kraftwerk, meanwhile, were starting to sound dated. The initial shock of their astonishing ’70’s albums had given way to familiarity, and with it, a sense that they’d lost their edge. But they hit back with “Computer World”, which was about, er, computers. Home computers, pocket calculators, and how much fun it was to use computers. And pocket calculators. These crazy Germans, eh?

The two tracks on offer here2 both feature Kraftwerk intoning numbers 1 to 8 in a variety of foreign languages, over the classic Kraftwerk electronic beats and keyboards. As I’ve talked quite a bit about Kraftwerk before and their influence on modern music, so I won’t go on at length again. But I will share another funny story, after this fantastic live version:

Kraftwerk were, and still are for that matter, notoriously secretive. Their studio location in Dusseldorf was a closely guarded secret. They would not meet journalists in person, so getting an interview was very tough. One journo was given a phone number and an instruction to call at 10am, on the dot – not one minute later or earlier. He rang the number and it was answered after one ring by a member of the band, who then went on to explain that the phone did not have a ring tone, so the band would not be disturbed. If he’d called late they wouldn’t have known the phone was ringing.

Within a couple of seconds of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” you can hear Kraftwerk’s influence. The track kicks off after the initial (hugely-sampled) “Yeeeah!” with a sped-up, cut-up version of “Trans-Europe Express”, which underpins the whole track. Whilst “Adventures…” continually cut between songs, “Planet Rock” sticks to the same tune, adding layers on top, with rappers Soulsonic Force telling you to “Rock it, don’t stop it”. Again, it’s pure party music, but this time it’s reaching out to the whole wide world, and it’s using electronic beats to pass on its message. Another absolutely revolutionary song.

And finally, yet another revolution. Hip-hop, until Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”, had largely concerned itself with partying and saying how great they were, and nothing wrong with that. But Melle Mel wanted to tell the world about the real life they lived in – the deprivation, the violence, and the squalor. So he and Ed Fletcher (otherwise known as “Duke Bootee”) wrote “The Message”, which the rest of the band, Grandmaster Flash included, wanted nothing to do with3.

“The Message” is a sad, desperate social commentary. With its chorus of “Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge\I’m trying not to loose my head\It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder\How I keep from goin’ under”, followed by a strange, mad grunting laugh, Melle Mel leaves you with no illusions about what party songs like “Planet Rock” and “That’s The Joint” were trying to make people forget. Over Fletcher’s slowly funky beats, with their incipient paranoia, he talks about “Rats in the front room, roaches in the back\Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat” and “People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care”. And that’s just the first verse. Cheery stuff.

This took urban American music back to the social commentary of Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron, but with much of the soul replaced with a hard-edged anger, reflecting the violence and ugliness of everyday ghetto existence. Everything from Public Enemy and NWA, to 50 Cent would stem from here. Rap was now a force for reporting the bad times, not just selling the good times. It’s a battle that’s still going on today.

1 Yes, I know. But I’d bet you Peely would agree with me, and he probably did when he played it. I grew up with the sound of him putting records on at the wrong speed, or with fluff on the needle so the record skipped, or the time the needle slid all the way to the middle whilst he was in the loo, so we were treated to three minutes of a faint scuffling sound. I miss John Peel very, very much. *sniff*

2 And no, I don’t know why Pitchfork suddenly decided to allow two tracks on here and treat them as one. Yes, the seque into one another, but that doesn’t make them one track. They are two separate tracks on the album. But they’d often play them live together. Hmm. I’m confused.

3 Which does beg the question – why didn’t Melle Mel and Ed Fletcher just release it separately?

MP3: The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels Of Steel by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

MP3: Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa

Buy “The Essential Grandmaster Flash” Here (CD)

Buy Funky 4+1’s “Back To The Old School 2 – That’s The Joint” (CD Box Set)

Buy Kraftwerk’s “Computer World” (MP3)

Buy Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (MP3)

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News (and comment) – Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom is like Marmite. She’s made from the leftovers of the brewing process in Burton-On-Trent, England. Wait a second, I’ve got that wrong. What I meant to say is that you either love her, or you can’t stand the very sight of her.

And round these parts, we’re big fans of Joanna. I’d never heard of her before seeing her supporting (Smog)1 at the Conway Hall, back in 2004. When a harp was brought on stage we though “Uh-oh”, and when a fey-looking, if rather beautiful woman took the stage in full baroque gear, I really did think “Oh God, this is going to be awful”. But as soon as she started playing it was like someone had cast a spell over the audience. Then she started singing. At that point, about half the audience went “What the bloody hell is this?”, and the rest were amazed. For, it must be said, Joanna has a challenging voice. Bjork is the closest reference point; or possibly a drunken lady elf on helium.

And the words were astonishing: “We sailed away on a winter’s day\With fate as malleable as clay\But ships are fallable, I say\And the nautical, like all things, fades\
And I can recall our caravel\A little wicker beetle-shell\With four fine masts and lateen sails\Its bearings on Cair Paravel”. Of course, I didn’t catch all that the first time. But it was obvious that here was an astonishing new talent.

Since then, I’ve seen her a couple more times – once at the Royal Albert Hall, where she fitted beautifully with her band (the Ys Street Band – please don’t make me explain that to you) and finally her last live show last year, at Somerset House in London. At that show she played some new, mostly untitled material, and she played live a couple of days ago in Big Sur, as seen by Naturalismo.

The show was performed under the moniker The Beatles’s, playing with Mariee Sioux (who I must confess to never having heard before), and the setlist was made up of almost entirely new songs. According to Devin Woolf (alerted to the show by two sisters who’d casually asked at the venue who was playing that night), around 2/3 of the songs were harp-based, with the rest of the songs played on piano. Now, I’ve always preferred her harp songs, as Joanna’s piano technique is certainly weaker than her harp skills, but at Somerset House it was clear that her piano has come on in leaps and bounds.

It sounded like an amazing evening – one of those rare instances where you see a great musician trying out new material, without the pressures that usually attend the dreaded “Here’s one from our new album” scenario. There’s a full review at the Naturalismo site.

I’ve got to say, I’m thrilled that there is a new album on the way (at some point). Both Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys were favourites of mine, and both hit the tops of “Best Album of the Year” lists – could Joanna Newsom make it three in a row?

MP3: Clam Crab Cockle Cowrie by Joanna Newsom

1 As he was at that time; now of course he’s recording as Bill Callahan. And yes, I know they’ve broken up now.

Buy Joanna Newsom’s “The Milk-Eyed Mender” (CD)

EDIT: When making additions to a blog, like the nice little buttons below, always make sure they work in both Firefox and IE7. I guess that’s why I’ll never be a developer…

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The Pitchfork 500 Noo Yawk – The Clash to ESG

The Clash – The Magnificent Seven
Talking Heads – Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
Yoko Ono – Walking on Thin Ice
Klein + MBO – Dirty Talk
ESG – Moody

This part of the Pitchfork 500 concentrates on New York bands, or bands who’d come to New York to record. And the sound of New York in 1980/81 was hip-hop and disco.

I’ll start off by saying that “The Magnificent Seven” by The Clash still doesn’t change my mind about them. I really don’t see how them taking reggae and putting it into rock is still seen as somewhat revolutionary, when 10cc had done it two years early, to quite tooth-grindingly awful effect, on “Dreadlock Holiday”. Personally, I find Clash’s reggae just as bad. Maybe that’s just me. In any case, this track kicked off that quite terrifying sound of white English and American bands trying to rap. So there you go, The Clash are solely responsible for Limp Bizkit and Bloodhound Gang.

Ok, that’s being a little harsh. The Clash did at least really try to get involved in the genres of music that influenced them. This track, from 1980, was recorded in Jimi Hendrix’s old studio in Greenwich Village, where the band had decamped to record the sprawling 3xLP Sandinista. Mick Jones had been turned on by the rap music that had exploded onto the New York scene in the previous year (as I talked about in my last Pitchfork post)and wanted to incorporate elements of it into their new songs.

“The Magnificent Seven” is The Clash doing hip-hop, kind of. Rapping in an English voice just sounds wrong1 and posh-boy Strummers’ monotone delivery sounds stilted. The music itself isn’t too bad, I suppose. That’s me being nice.

I really still don’t know what gets my goat about The Clash though. Partly it’s that they just make huge pronouncements yet don’t follow them up. Like not using songs for advertising then selling themselves to Levis, or not wanting to sound like “The Beatles or Rolling Stones”, yet sounding like a not particularly competant version of the Stones on some songs. But, many, many bands I like adore The Clash – from Manic Street Preachers to The Hold Steady – so maybe I’m just odd.

“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” is Talking Heads’ third appearance in the Pitchfork 500 (out of four!)2. The song is a deeply odd mix of a kind of warped Afrobeat and uptight New Wave, with David Byrne doing his strange half singing/half talking thang over the top. Just as it can’t get any odder, there’s quite possibly the strangest guitar solo in history, from Adrian Belew (who’d later go on to play with King Crimson). Only Talking Heads could make dance music as uncomfortable as this:

Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice” came as a real shock to me. For years, like most people, I only know Yoko Ono for her marriage to John Lennon3, with all the attendant baggage that holds, including her, errr, experimental music. And frankly I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of Yoko Ono now without thinking of this:

But this is a great track. Over a funky bass, noisy guitars (played by Lennon himself) and non-more-Italo Disco piano chords, Yoko sings about having to suffer the pains of life, and how we forget what has been said and done. And then she sings that “I may cry some day\But the tears will dry whichever way\And when our hearts return to ashes\It’ll be just a story”.

After mixing this track with her husband, they left the studio with the final mix in John’s hands. It was then that they met Mark Chapman, who shot John dead.

Klien + MBO’s “Dirty Talk” is one of those influential tracks you may never have heard before. Along with ESG, they made proto-electro, heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, mixed with the disco- and funk-based rap then exploding out of the Bronx. And it was this music heard by visiting Mancunians New Order and A Certain Ratio, who saw the beauty in interlocking bass and lead lines on the synthesiser mixed with dance beats. New Order took it back to Manchester and made Blue Monday.

“Dirty Talk” itself is an early example of the mix of disco and electro that would become House music. It can best be described as the Kraftwerk you can actually dance to, with some additional smuttiness on top that would later be built on by the likes of Lil Louis’s “French Kiss”. Let’s face it – if you can get glum Mancunians dancing, then you’re really onto something.

ESG are one of music’s great enigmas. Massively influential, they have been sampled by everyone from TLC, through Tricky to the Wu Tang Clan – so much so that they released an EP in 1995 called “Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills”. Pitchfork themselves reckon that “If you like hip-hop…you have a 95% chance of owning a track that samples their 1981 song “UFO””.

Yet, if you went up to a man in the street, I’d bet you £1000 you’d need to speak to 100 people before you found one who’d heard of them. I only heard of them a few years back when my brother – who loves anything produced by Martin Hannett and living in New York at the time – played me some of their songs off Soul Jazz’s marvellous compilation “A South Bronx Story”. Right eye-opener it was too – ESG have that unusual ability to sound like loads of other people, yet totally unique. And of course, that familiarity is down to having their sound stolen/borrowed (delete as applicable depending on your moral stance toward sampling) by Man & Dog.

Produced by legendary genius, and total nutcase Martin Hannett, the song mixes jittery Post-punk with hip-hop and electro, with a fluid fretless bass making things funky at the bottom end. It’s a heady mix, and just as it’s building through the layers of echo that Hannett put everything through, it…..stops. You kind of expect it to restart, but you realise that’s it. It’s an audacious end to a stunning track.

So, go and enjoy ESG’s “Moody” and Yoko Ono’s “Walking On Thin Ice”.

1 And indeed has only recently been rescued by the likes of Roots Manuva and various Grime folk; sadly the great MC Buzz B appears to have been completely lost to music historians.

2 Four Talking Heads tracks but no room for Grandaddy? Say it ain’t so.

3 It won’t come as much of a shock to you to discover I’m not a big fan of The Beatles either.

MP3: Walking on Thin Ice by Yoko Ono

MP3: Moody by ESG

The whole list is available here.

Buy “The Magnificent Seven” by The Clash (MP3)

Buy Talking Heads “Remain in Light” (CD)

Buy Yoko Ono’s “Walking On Thin Ice” (MP3)

Buy Klien and MBO’s “Dirty Talk” (12″ Vinyl Is The Only Version I Found!)

Buy ESG’s “A South Bronx Story” (CD)

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