L’infonie – “Mantra” (1970) [‘In C’ by Terry Riley]
Presaging the rocking work Terry Riley himself would undertake with John Cale the following year, Canadian avant-garde rock-and-composition group L’infonie transformed Riley’s ‘In C’ into a rollicking, funky epic. Maintaining the guiding principles of the piece–53 short phrases in the key of C, played in order, each segment played the number of times chosen by each performer–L’infonie’s “Mantra” achieves the ever-shifting, push-and-pull patterns traditionally associated with the work. Their innovation was to disintegrate remaining lines between avant-garde, intellectual compositional music and popular music, adding double drum kits, electric bass, and percussion instrumentation, arguably changing the piece enough to justify the new name. They don’t quite complete the cycle–the tape ran out just around 30 minutes–but while it lasts it’s a hell of a ride. This probably shouldn’t be the first version of ‘In C’ you hear, but if you know and love other versions, this one will make you appreciate it anew.
Richard “Groove” Holmes – “Red Onion” (1973)
Hell yes. No tears here, just sweetness. Bernard “Pretty” Purdie slamming the funky drums, a tight bass-flute-percussion combo, lean guitar lines and well-tempered brass, and Holmes rolling his Hammond: this is a track to make even the Meters and the JBs weak in the knees.
Electronic System – “Time Trip” (1977)
Speaking of usually sharing things a few of you might not have heard–let’s follow up Kraftwerk with one of their very first disciples you might not know. No, this isn’t an pseudonymous outtake from Moroder–this is the sound of the influence of Kraftwerk spreading just west to Belgium, rather than south to Italy, and merging similarly with the spread of disco. It’s by Dan Lacksman, who should be just as well-known and revered as Moroder, at least for his work with his partners as part of Telex. Amazingly, the album from which “Time Trip” comes is easily found on reissued CD, while Telex’ admittedly more brilliant work is completely out of print–probably the most glaringly crazy O.O.P. I can think of at present. The album is not perfect–Lacksman was only a couple of years removed from pretty cheesy but promising sound library-esque synth-jingle-pop work–but it’s a lot of fun and sure to go down easy at your personal discotheque. [Electronic System are beatmatched at Musicophilia with the other disciples and children of Kraftwerk, and Kraftwerk themselves, on the “four LP set” ‘Le Meilleur de Les Rythmes du Monde‘.]
Kraftwerk – “Antenna” (1975)
I mostly try to share things at least some of you might not have heard. But sometimes, hearing a track that’s become embedded in our mutant musical DNA without setting out to do so can be just as amazing. That’s the feeling I’ve just had, hearing “Antenna” at complete random, not having put on ‘Radio-Activity’ in at least a year. Maybe there’s nothing left to be said about music upon which multiple genres are founded–this is as much the bedrock of modern music as James Brown, and hip-hop MCs in the late 2000s are declared geniuses when they have the insight to borrow heavily from the grandchildren of the disciples of Kraftwerk. The Knife, probably my favorite modern group to get started this decade, live and breath in the radiowaves of this album. Even my beloved OMD, themselves now well and duly canonised, were but a minor homage (however wonderful) when they aped the album outright eight years later to make ‘Dazzle Ships’. But there’s no need to say anything really, when thirty five years on, the music still sounds like the future. Simply resplendent (the track, the whole album), and worth being reminded of now and again.
Harold Ousley – “Come Get It, I Got It” (1972)
“Come Get It, I Got It” is just a laid back bit of swagger, a low-key stew of jazz and funk with a little bit of Meters-ish southern twang and a no-pussyfooting hip-hop beat. Harold Ousley was an slightly older cat getting hip to the funky young sounds of the late 60s and early 70s–having gotten started in the 40s, recording with Billie Holiday, and still playing with Count Basie in the 70s–but clearly he got it good. No “fusion” here, nothing avant garde or experimental (though there is one sound in common with ‘On The Corner’ Miles here), but it’s a sweet thing indeed.
Henri Texier – “Le Piroguier” (1976)
This is music that can only be called genre-free–spare, pure, feeling equal parts experimental and folk-made, calling to mind only other iconoclasts like Brigitte Fontaine & Areski or Emmanuelle Parrenin in its spooky stillness-through-rhythm. Consisting solely of acoustic and organic sounds–handclaps, wordless vocals, single-note bowed strings, and upright bass played in a whirling fashion–it feels vaguely Turkish or Moroccan. It’s elemental and at the same time futuristic, small and yet suggesting wide-open space. Simply beautiful–and inexplicably out of print, so grab it at the ever-essential Mutant Sounds.
Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers – “Affection” (1979)
In honor of Fathers’ Day, today I’m sharing one of my Dad’s favorite songs (at least of those I’ve shared with him over the years). It’s one my faves, too. I’ve known Dad to play this song several times in a row–and it deserves it. Jonathan Richman is one of the few people I’ve ever seen who seems genuinely imbued with real, unadulterated kindness and an openness to the goodness of the people around him; and in that way he’s a lot like my Dad, one of the world’s true idealists, who makes it his business create the good he knows we’re all capable of achieving. “Affection” is sweet, silly, and as a bonus it has that musical spookiness and energy we all love from the early Modern Lovers. Happy Fathers’ Day, Dad!
Michael Rother with Jaki Liebezeit – “Zeni” (1977)
While I would say Klaus Dinger‘s post-Neu! work (especially via La Dusseldorf, whom you can check out here) is generally fuller and more energetic than Michael Rother’s, the latter was buoyed by the involvement of Can‘s Jaki Liebezeit, who ably brings Dinger’s Motorik drumming to Rother’s airy and stirring melodic tendencies with the guitar and synthesizer. Other tracks are more representative of the flying-down-the-Autobahn side of Neu!, while this one is closer to the bands more contemplative, minor-key work, with Liebezeit emphasising the toms. [For more Can and post-Can music like this, be sure to check out two recent Can-centric mixes at Musicophilia.]
Tonio Rubio – “Bass In Action No. 1” (1973)
Sound library music doesn’t get any more stone cold than this track. Music of any kind rarely does. What should have been a cornerstone of golden-age hip-hop, “Bass In Action No. 1” is an incredible audio stroll consisting of sweet glistening electric piano glissandi, an ice cold single-note bass line, and the ready-made laid-back hip-hop breakbeat. It’s enchanting for the first minute; but when the beat kicks in at 1:05, you won’t be able to keep from grinning. [Tonio Rubio is featured in on an equally groove-laden mix of tunes from around the world at Musicophilia.] Update: Corrected the streaming link.
Fela Kuti – “Unknown Soldier” (1979)
Make the time for this track, I promise you won’t regret it. “The personal is political/the political is personal” doesn’t even come close to getting it for Fela Kuti. This track has everything that’s great about Fela’s music and Afrobeat–all participants serving the groove in the best JB’s-like way, some playing a repeating, individually tiny sound figure repeatedly for the duration of this 30-minute track in order to create something much larger than the individual, something hypnotic and transcendent.
But this is one instance where I’d insist on paying attention to the lyrics, too: the story Fela tells here is astonishing, and the way he tells it keeps my hair standing on end for the duration. I can think of few moments in music more wrenching, heart-breaking, and astonishing than Fela’s description of the murder of his mother peaking at the pure sound of loss at 22:55-23:05. But the whole thing is the most effective contrast of humanity versus the dehumanising effect of military-minded “order” I’ve ever known, in any medium. This is one of the high achievements of popular music.
Jane Birkin – “Kawasaki” (1973)
Birkin’s work here is indelibly imprinted with the signatures of Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier in top-flight ‘Melody Nelson’ mode, and that’s hardly a bad thing: those whirling strings, spare funky drums and bass, weeping guitar, and balanced temperaments of dynamism and melancholy are effective as ever. But Birkin’s half-sung, half-breathed vocals add a nice counterpoint to Gainsbourg’s more earthy speak-sing. The coy, coquettish album cover doesn’t hurt.
Bhutan Tibetan Buddhist Monks – “Entreaty to the Three Buddha-Bodies” (1971)
This highly dynamic piece of religious music created by Tibetan Buddhist Monks in the Kingdom of Bhutan (field recorded in 1971) captures many of the prevalent musical elements of the Tibetan Buddhist music I’ve heard, absent vocal chants. Deep booming horns, higher droning reed-like horns, percussive bells and drums, and semi-melodic percussive instruments create a sound that is definitively “other” to Western ears. And yet while the denotative meaning of the music is elusive, the austerity and beauty it creates is wholly evident, and intimates a concept of time and scale that is beyond most Western work.
Penguin Cafe Orchestra – “The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away And It Doesn’t Matter” (1976)
Penguin Cafe Orchestra sadly seem to be an anomaly, from some unknown space between prog, the avant-garde, neo-chamber music, proto-post-punk (think Essendon Airport or Durrutti Column) and even RiO. The later work has achieved some popularity, but their first album remains seemingly unheralded. To my ears, it is perhaps their best, or at least purest, less cute than later work, more emotionally direct. The guitar figuring here has a feeling not unlike something from ‘Chelsea Girls,’ but the strings and the electric piano add a slightly off-kilter warmth that is unique. This music could very easily have been recorded today, in the best possible sense: based in no fads or even prevailing styles, it stands apart from its time or origin. [Penguin Cafe Orchestra are featured in several mixes at Musicophilia.] Update: wrong audio stream when first published, now corrected. Thanks!
Paolo Renosto (Lesiman) – Moto Centripeto (1973)
Another brilliant cut from the alternate history of popular music, aka Sound Library music. Echoing and reverbed piano and harpsichord float over dulcet vibes with abstract sounds, all grounded by a breezily funky bassline. This is cool beyond cool, the soundtrack to the movie version of life as one wishes it were lived.
This Heat – “Repeat” (1979)
Few one-off experiments are more exciting than This Heat’s “24-Track Loop”. This Heat were an expansive band, but at some level were generally identifiable as a “post-punk” or “rock” act; “24-Track Loop” defied genre at its time, sounding little like any established repetition-based dance or electronic music of the time, though drawing from dub and musique concrete methodology. “Repeat” is an extended mix of the seminal track, allowing each phrase to burrow into the listener’s consciousness before new qualities are slowly introduced; it’s no less stunning than its briefer counterpart.
Brian Eno – “French Catalogues (Variations on Pachelbel’s Canon in D Maj., II)” (1975)
It’s the second, non-titular side of Eno’s ‘Discreet Music’ that has always affected me more deeply, and fascinated me most. Taking a classical work the beauty of which can sometimes be forgotten because of over- and misuse, Eno applies ostensibly cerebral experimentation, altering component elements of the score via mathematical formula. But the results, while perhaps momentarily disorientating, and intellectually engaging, are remarkably visceral; perhaps by breaking down our overfamiliar expectations the “experiment” create a heightened awareness of the existing beauty, while adding new beauty. That’s always been the trick of Eno, blurring the lines between the brain and the body, a “non-musician” getting in there and going at it without being in the least bit “punk” about it. But his variations on Pachelbel’s Canon in D are underrated pieces in his well-earned reputation. [The many sides of Eno are explored through similarly varied mixes at Musicophilia.]
Pharoah Sanders – “Astral Traveling” (1971)
This is jazz that escapes the entrenched dichotomy one might associate with 1971. It’s neither “traditional” nor “fusion” or “experimental” per se. It has a compositional feeling and an exploratory vibe that feels “astral” indeed, but it’s not necessarily head music, and there’s no funk or rock foundation. It is contemplative in a way that feels like a classic jazz ballad, but there’s no piano here, and the instrumentation is small-group but not strictly standard. It’s simply rich, beautiful, spiritually resonant music, effortlessly both accessible and experimental. [Sanders is featured in a Sensory Replication Series mix at Musicophilia.]
The Cure – “Grinding Halt” (1979)
I love the foggy ghost-world of ‘Faith’ or even the teenage widescreen-emotions of ‘Disintegration;’ and generally The Cure strike me as being one of the true keepers of the post-punk faith through the 80s, along with Sonic Youth. But I wouldn’t have minded if they’d developed the brittle, furtive, twitchy sound they had on their first LP a little further. The manic tracks of later Cure hint at it, but there’s a tininess and tinniness here that’s appealing in a different way. Never has a post-apocalyptic vision sounded more uptempo (or had a catchier bass hook), but the edgy paranoia comes through surprisingly effectively on the small black-and-white t.v. screen The Cure are filling here. [The Cure are featured on several mixes at Musicophilia.]
Brainticket – “One Morning” (1972)
With only a few exceptions, “Krautrock” has been a genre of the haves and the have-nots, for me: a few top tiers of very few acts of greatness, and a precipitous drop-off to the (wanky, noodling) rest. So I haven’t experienced a lot of “lost gems;” but if Brainticket is Krautrock (given that it’s made by Swiss, Italian and German musicians) the first two albums are gems. I prefer the second album, ‘Psychonaut’. If you can find it, grab the two-fer that houses the the first two albums. This track makes might appeal to fans of Animal Collective, based on what I’ve heard of their work, with it’s off-kilter, pretty-but-tense weirdo-folk feeling.
Ofege – “Nobody Fails” (1974)
Another gift from Exiled Records, and another taste of spinning Nigerian afro-rock greatness. With a shuffling rhythm that shifts from feeling triple-time to half-time, sweetly crooning guitar, and a vocal hook that doesn’t stop, “Nobody Fails” (like the whole album) is addictive. Apparently Ofege were a bunch of teenagers, aided on this record by studio session men, but the sound is anything but immature.
Iannis Xenakis – “Mélanges” (1979)
As an architect, Xenakis is a sworn enemy of mine, a direct disciple of Jenneret-Gris (aka “Le Corbusier”). Fortunately, unlike the avant-garde Modernists in architecture, their musical equivalents didn’t try to literally destroy what came before (or at least they didn’t succeed). Indeed, this percussion work at times recalls Indonesian gamelan; at other times it brings to mind the push-and-pull of the rhythm elements of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 4. Also unlike the blank, indifferent banality of post-war avant-garde architecture, this music is highly visceral, abstract as its highly dynamic progress may be. [Xenakis is incorporated into several experimental-but-visceral mixes at Musicophilia.]
Miles Davis – “He Loved Him Madly” (1974)
Don’t miss this one. This is deep, intense listening, and it won’t grab you if you don’t have the attention (and about half an hour) to devote. But I promise, it rewards the effort. This is beyond the cosmic-exploration of the Germans we love; this is an exploration of the infinite spirit, the depths of mourning, the heights of love. It is minimal, subtle, undulating, meditative, careful, above all beautiful. Anyone who questioned Davis’ motives for “abandoning jazz” and going fusion couldn’t have maintained that incredulity if their ears were open to the sheer expressiveness of this music. This wasn’t booty-funk, this wasn’t stoner-rock, though its elements are guitar, flute, drum kit, keyboards, electric bass, and echo effects: this is simply, utterly human music. Give it the time, give it your ears, and it will build itself slowly through you. [The glory of “Judas” Miles Davis is featured here, here and here at Musicophilia.]
Alan Parker & John Cammeron – “Ice Breaker” & “”Sahara Sunrise” (1973)
Sometimes it seems like the “sound library” world is a dream–this other world, this alternate history of popular music, kept like a secret until just the right time in a person’s music-geek-journey when it seems like there just wasn’t enough funk-with-strings, enough breakbeats-and-rhodes-and-percussion made in the real world. It’s really Blaxploitation soundtracks one step over, Serge Gainsbourg on a budget, Tamla-on-the-Thames, with a good dose of musique concrete and space-age-Moog thrown in for good measure, but for whatever nutty reason almost never commercially released at the time. These are two cuts from two of this alternate reality’s Big Names (who played with Serge and the Shadows et al in “real life”) from one of the most consistently great Library records (consistency is perhaps their one downfall, usually) and one of far too few that can be bought today, if you can find it.
Only Ones – “Lovers Of Today” (1979)
I don’t know if you call it post-punk or power-pop, but this is rock the way I like it. Smart minds through dumb drums, muscular guitar lines that are surprisingly svelte, working-class punk snarl and swagger that’s read a book or two, all rough-and-tumble (“we ain’t got feelings, we got no love, we ain’t got nothing to say”) that’s raw and emotionally affecting. There’s a little Television in there, if you want your art-rock roots.
Leda – “White Clouds” (1978)
“White Clouds” caps off a mini-them this week on Musicophilia Daily of less-heard music by well-known artists. The album attributed to Leda is perhaps the least likely offshoot of Tangerine Dream, apparently created by Peter Baumann. Even on the dancier/disco tracks there’s a definite touch of the cosmic TD sensibility, and it’s apparent on “White Clouds”. Floating female vocals are doubled by a sanguine synth line, above double-time arpeggiated synths and “epic” drums. It’s a lot of fun, and you should grab it from the Synopsis Elektronika blog. [And if you get going on the electro-space-disco trip, you can hear more Leda on the ‘Les Rythmes du Monde‘ “box set” at Musicophilia.]
Janko Nilovic – “Roses and Revolvers” (1970)
It’s incredible to think that this music was made as an aural hired-gun for advertisements or cheap television shows or films. If there were ever a track to get you excited about the of alternate universe of pop that is the realm of “sound library” LPs (which were almost never made available commercially), this is it. Fuzzed out guitar soars around twirling harpsichord and Rhodes over one mother-of-funk beat that is hip-hop ready, breaking things down and building up with incredible grace and care. But the coup de grace is the bassline, which has to be one of the best I’ve ever heard, remaining funky while carrying the core melodic duties of the track. I bet money you won’t be able to listen just once. This is the pinaccle, but if you dig it, it’s time to start digging those sound library blogs linked over at Musicophilia. [Nilovic is featured on several Musique du Monde mixes at Musicophilia, which you’ll definitely dig if you like this one.] (UPDATE: The wrong song was previously linked; it’s been corrected.)
The Embarrassment – “After the Disco” (Original) (1979)
This is one of those long-lost, unreleased-for-years gems that really makes you scratch your head and wonder, “who shelved this and what were they thinking?” It’s got all the manic frenzy and nerdy humor of Kansas’ best band The Embarrassment‘s early singles (and comes from the same sessions). It’s wonderfully wrong and catchy, the rhythms of the instruments and the vocals never seeming quite aligned but made all the more compelling for it. This is the sort of joy that post-punk is all about. The ‘Heyday‘ compendium seems to go in and out of print, but if you find it, buy it quickly. [The Embarrassment are featured on the ‘Amplifier‘ mix from the ‘1981‘ box set at Musicophilia.]
Curtis Mayfield – “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go” (1970)
Curtis Mayfield can have a lot going on in his tracks, but they never feel over-stuffed. Mayfield could absorb larger-scale soundtrack-ready arrangements of brass and strings without losing any of the sharp melodicism or the funk, a balance he was one of the first to master. In that vein, this track has long been one of my favorites–a real gateway drug to the musical joys of the 70s. Here the strings feel especially integral, not aloof in that great Gainsbourg/Vannier way but sharp and directly interacting with the rhythm instruments. But the tops is that fuzz-bass and the dubbed-out echos whenever Mayfield refrains, “don’t worry”.
Chrissy Zebby Tembo – “Lonely Night” (1974)
Another discovery courtesy of the good people at Exiled Records, the fairly mysterious Zambian Chrissy Zebby Tembo’s LP is my favorite kind of rock–minimal, raw, funky, tuneful. Informed by the first sort of “punk”–“garage rock”–“Lonely Night” is one I bet you won’t be able to play just once. For a song about loneliness, it really couldn’t be more fun. The record is currently reissued as a slightly spendy import, but if you like this track, then it’d be money well spent.
Duncan Browne – “Journey” (1973)
Browne’s first album is a lovely little record that calls to mind Donovan, Nick Drake, and that misty pastoral folk revival feeling. But on his second, self-titled LP from 1973, slightly less expected elements begin to filter into the strongly-composed singer-songwriter material–don’t let the petroleum-jelly-on-the-lense cover photo deter you. The sophisticated guitar work, hand-claps, percussion, bubbling synth lines and choral coloration on “Journey” provide a good introduction to a wonderful and underrated album. [Duncan Browne is featured in this ‘Le Tour du Monde‘ mix at Musicophilia.]
Yoko Ono – “Mindtrain” (1971)
I’m not even going to address the misconceptions about Ono as a person or re: the Beatles, other than to say they’re nonsense. If the recording personnel on Ono’s early albums are any indication, it’s clear that the Macca killed the Beatles, not this mind-expanding artist. I’ll grant that her vocal approach makes her no Carol King, but she never wanted to go down easy (in art, in life) and I think she gave Lennon balls, not took them. John Lennon never rocked like he did on her first two albums (not to mention Ringo, too) and the album he recorded simultaneously to her first. This track is a Krautrock-or-Fela-level stretch-out, kicking into a fully-fledged-funky groove and never letting up; Klaus Voorman bounces things along nicely on the bass, the drums slowly build the train-like churn from a breakbeat stomp into a Faust-like barrage; and John shreds and shards the guitar like a slightly-more-in-control-than-usual Sonny Sharrock. Ono’s freak-out vocalising (if you can’t call it “singing”) pushes the whole thing into the stratosphere. She’s like nothing you’ve ever heard; unless you’ve heard the stronger and more innovative women in music she surely influenced/freed up from post-punk onward. This is one time to open your ears and pay no mind to the haters. [Yoko Ono appears on a ‘Le Tour du Monde’ mix at Musicophilia in a singer-songwriter mode, with a track that uncannily anticipates Big Star’s gutting “Holocaust”.]
Roy Budd – “Goodbye Carter” (1971)
This soundtrack and Budd’s ‘Diamonds’ are two of the coolest British soundtracks, and this track captures it all: jazz-ish upright bassline, tabla, great echoing harpsichord (?), electric piano, and fantastic production with plenty of space in the staging. This track was featured in the most recent ‘Le Tour du Monde’ mix at Musicophilia; if you like this track, it’s a good bet you’ll dig the mix–and keep your ears open, further installments are coming soon, after a hiatus from the wonderful world of the funky 70s.
Modern Lovers – “I Wanna Sleep In Your Arms” (1972)
While more punkers and post-punkers probably cherished there Velvets and Stooges LPs, for me the Modern Lovers are the much more. . . realistic forebears. Nobody could really expect to be as cool as Reed or Cale, as batshit as Pop–or at least their images. Richman, Harrison, Brooks and Robinson–their non-image proto-punk was far more attainable. I wonder how things might’ve been different if they’d been heard in ’72 instead of ’76 (and in the case of this track, ’81). Of course, this romper with its deadpan but romantic lyrics and shards-of-guitar was still right on time even four (or nine, or 38) years late. [The Modern Lovers are featured at their most unguarded in a ‘Miniatures: Lullaby‘ mix at Musicophilia.]
Faust – “The Lurcher/Krautrock/Do So” (Live, BBC) (1973)
Don’t miss this one. This twenty-minute medley expresses a wide swath of Faust’s power and prescience. The first section, “The Lurcher,” is a drunken Germanic breakbeat-funk with treated saxophone and ethereal guitar that must have seemed to be coming from the future to whoever actually heard this performance in March of 1973. The second section, “Krautrock,” must have sent plenty running, if they hadn’t already; but those who remained in the center of this maelstrom-meditation may have experienced a religious conversion (even though Faust may have been having a pisstake at a nonsensical genre they never really fit, their humor was often sublime). And after all the build up, humor comes to the fore, as Faust reminds everyone not to take it all too seriously with “Do So,” a bent little pop ditty that is subtly as cyclical as their longer works disguised in song-form. If you haven’t heard this performance before–or especially if somehow you haven’t heard Faust before–I envy you the experience. For me, in contrast with Can, Faust took years to fully seep in, but once they did there was no going back–these sounds can reshape your ears. [For more Faust, check Musicophilia for a number of mixes.]
Karen Dalton – “Katie Cruel” (1971)
For me, Karen Dalton is at her best when she’s at her most spare, and this might be my favorite: jittery banjo, bittersweet voice, and aching fiddle, knitting a tale of loss and regret. This is where she transcends “folk revival” or “singer-songwriter” (or “Billie Holiday of folk music” comparisons) and simply creates pure American music, out of time, beyond any single persona. [Karen Dalton is featured in a wide-ranging ‘Le Tour du Monde’ mix at Musicophilia.]
Il Balletto di Bronzo – “Epilogo” (1972)
Prog is a form of music that when I enjoy it, I’m certain I enjoy it from all the “wrong” directions and for all the “wrong” reasons, as I place no intrinsic value of the purported paramount virtues of the genre (virtuosity, speed, complexity-as-an-inherent-good, constant change for its own sake, technicality). I’ve come to appreciate plenty of middle-period King Crimson, but via This Heat; I enjoy post-Wyatt Soft Machine, but through the lense of Miles Davis; I dig Amon Duul II only when they set aside the noodling and get a little Stooges rawness. Il Balletto di Bronzo, described elsewhere as “difficult at first” is an easy fit, coming from my prog-wrong directions. Apparently the album ‘Ys,’ from which this track is culled, represents the pinnacle of something called “Italian symphonic prog,” which had I known would probably have steered me clear of this recent Exiled Records acquisition.
Fortunately, I gave it a blind listen, and found that its stereo-experimentalism and weird choral vocals and moog-and-piano arpeggios work for me entirely against any “symphonic” assessment–this ain’t no Yngwie, thank goodness. The fast parts remind me of Death May Be Your Santa Claus or Burnin Red Ivanhoe or Os Mutantes–they have a sense of humor and psychedelic playfulness, rather than lockstep-prog guitar-faced seriousness. The long slow-burn phased-drums groove of the middle section of this track needs no apologies–it’s just damned spooky, dark-space heavy badassness.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – “Electricity” (1979)
OMD would soon achieve a much more sleek and sophisticated sound, creating some of my favorite music in 1981. But the plucky amateurism and youthful energy (cover art notwithstanding) of their first single is undeniably infectious. Helicopter synth-rhythm, jumpy bass, grandmother’s organ, and a xylophone hook acquit the DIY spirit of ’79 nicely, from a time when “post-punk” didn’t yet stand in the serious, monolithic sound that their Factory labelmate would lature embody against which New Pop/New Wave would react.
Arthur Russell – “I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face” (1974)
Anybody who’s followed Musicophilia for long knows Arthur Russell is one of very few I’d go so far as to call a “musical hero,” as he’s featured on at least half a dozen Musicophilia mixes and two Daily posts so far. But loving Arthur’s music is a little different than loving that of most artists: no two albums, whether released in his lifetime or culled posthumously, under his name or via one of a dozen groups or pseudonyms, is necessarily alike, though there’s always something indelibly Arthur about anything he touched.
He puts Janus to shame; his permutations were seemingly endless: avant-gardener, disco impresario, cello-and-vocals dub hero–there really aren’t adequate labels, as these clumsy attempts illustrate. ‘Love is Overtaking Me,’ released on Audika Records last year, revealed yet another side or three: singer-songwriter, modern loving rocker, high-country cowboy-poet, blue-eyed soul crooner. This very early, simple song reveals a touch of all of these, and representative of the under-appreciated compendium as a whole, captures some of his strongest and most accessible melodies via plaintive piano, Hammond organ, brass touches and above all Arthur’s resonant vocals.
Jean-Jacques Perrey – E.V.A. (1970)
I love Pierre Henry, but I prefer his “serious” work to his most famous track, “Psyche Rock”. “E.V.A.” is sort of an alternative to “Psyche,” blending similar early sci-fi pop electronics with a funky backbeat and even the large bell accompaniment–but I’d have to say, I like Perrey’s take better, since this sort of electronics-popularising was his main thing. Sampled regularly and with good reason, “E.V.A.” is as cool today as forty years ago.
Joni Mitchell – “California” (Live, BBC, 1970)
Singer-songwriter is for me like prog, metal, ska-revival, punk: a whole lot of utter detritus, pierced by moments of absolute brilliance. For me, Joni Mitchell is the absolute pinnacle–‘Blue’ was one of the first albums I ever identified as a “favorite” as a small child (my mother would sing us Joni songs and play her guitar, her hippie youth waning but still vibrant, as lullabies). And it remains a top-10 album, a quarter-century later. Her voice aged well, in my opinion, and at this point I find later albums more “interesting,” and beautiful in their own ways–but ‘Blue’ is a solitary achievement, and it still makes my heart ache in a wonderful way however many hundreds of listens on. Plus, I just love that dulcimer sound.
Funkadelic – “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” (1971)
Much as I love later-70s P-Funk, the rocking psychedelic-funk of early Funkadelic records really sticks with me, too. This is one of the best, with a nice piano/vocal groove and Sly-influenced socio-political lyrics; but what ultimately makes it a killer is that fantastic beat with the future-baiting tiny-room-reverbed drums sounding almost electro. You can certainly bet Andre Benjamin has been around this record a couple hundred times.
Franco Battiato – “Meccanica” (1972)
‘Fetus’ was undoubtedly a horizon-expanding discovery for me, adding another layer to my understanding of the roots of synth-based music, outre, proto-punk, etc. Battiato would go on to do much more abstract music, following a trajectory not that unlike Eno, until he entered the center of the Italian mainstream in the 80s. This early stuff is a great headtrip of early electronics, off-kilter pop-rock songwriting, borrowed/sampled sources, and what I take to be sort of sci-fi lyrics (from what I can gather via Italian-English cognates). [I’ve not used the album’s cover because some might find it disturbing; it does seem slightly shock-value unecessary to me and is not representative of the fun music contained within. Franco Battiato is featured from this period here and in a later form here in mixes at Musicophilia.]
1906 [Jean-Michel Jarre] – “Helza” (1973)
Early Jean-Michel Jarre is too hard to find, considering how crazy-good a lot of it is, like the insanely cool, spooky proto-synth featured in this mix at Musicophilia. This one is a sublime example of the sort of elegant but funky stuff the French/Italians/Germans were doing with instrumentation borrowed from Motown in the early 70s, bringing in choice touches of early electro. A solid, close-miced rhythm section (bass, drums, clavichord) carries the weight of the track along with spare percussion and rhythm-flute a la early Kraftwerk, but what takes it to a magic level is a ghostly, reverbed piano line that floats over the top, and electronic bits floating around the periphery. Magic stuff.
Stevie Wonder – “All Day Sucker” (1976)
You just can’t fuck with Stevie Wonder. Unless, I guess, you’re the woman to whom this song is directed. From a 7″ appended to a double-LP (who else could pull that off?) but running circles around most anybody else’s title track, “All Day Sucker” is proof, if any is needed, that everybody with good ears listened to Wonder, including weirdo post-punkers who’d try messing around with similar squelchy synths and percussive instruments and grooving basslines a few years later. [Stevie Wonder is featured in one of my favorite mixes at Musicophilia.]
Luciano Cilio – “Dialoghi dal Presente, Part 5” (1977)
Similar to some of the avantgarde chamber music undertaken by Franco Battiato, echoing the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s focus on sweet simplicity in a more melancholic vein, Luciano Cilio’s sole album (I think) is a hidden jewel for fans of this sort of music. Bell-like acoustic guitar, reed instruments, and mournful cellos create a perfect little vespertine moment. This album, with other tracks, was reissued under the name ”Dell’ Universo Assente’ a few years ago and can still be found in good shops as an import.