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.
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.
Dorothy Ashby – “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” (1969)
There were some German guys like Jonny Teupen who gave it a good showing, but Dorothy Ashby is pretty clearly the royalty of funky jazz harp. Her playing and song selection is top-notch–but she was produced magically, with incredible arrangements that merged jazz, funk, rock, and bits of subtle studio trickery (as here with the subtle delay on the flute hooks) in fantastic ways on her late 60s and early 70s albums (hurry and purchase the ones that are in print–several are priced to move). I could pick half a dozen showstoppers from Ashby, but I recently heard this album thanks to the Joe Blow, The Sample King blog, and it’s a stone-cold killer. The bass line is remarkably modern, and the syrupy string arrangements counterpoint the ultra-heavy beat perfectly. [Dorothy Ashby is featured at Musicophilia with a track even more brilliant than this one, a heavy-hitter that starts of with a funk-sci-fi-theramin intro and never looks back, as part of ‘Le Tour du Monde, Volume 7‘]
Phantom Band (Jaki Liebezeit with Rosko Gee) – “You Inspired Me” (1980)
Phantom Band, Jaki Liebezeit’s post-Can band and the most sustained project of any Can member, morphed considerably over four years and three albums (see this post for a track from their next album) but maintained a very high quality throughout. The second and third LPs have a distinct arty post-punk feel to them. But their self-titled LP from 1980 picks up largely where Can’s ‘Saw Delight’ and ‘Out of Reach’ left off, bringing in strong elements of African pop music and polyrhythmic percussion (as well as the underrated Can vocalist Rosko Gee). But in my opinion, it improves on these albums with greater focus and musical clarity, stripping things down a bit, and bathing everything in a gentle warmth combined with a feeling of mystery that reminds me of the best of Hamilton Bohannon‘s late 70s work (the echoed guitar at 3:20 is a virtual homage) and a touch of fusion-era Miles Davis. “You Inspired Me” is especially Bonannon-esque, combining major-chord joy (matched by Gee’s lyrics) and minor-chord ambiguity (in the instrumental sections) deftly. [For more Can and post-Can music like this, be sure to check out two recent Can-centric mixes at Musicophilia.]
Irmin Schmidt with Jaki Liebezeit, Michael Karoli & Rosko Gee – “Endstation Freiheit (Title Theme)” (1981)
The “breakup” of Can was apparently not an acrimonious one, if judged by the frequency with which its members collaborated on one another’s projects and with one another on production work–it seemingly matched pace with Can’s album output. It also often matched the quality of Can’s work, as with this piece, involving three core members plus late-era vocalist and bassist Rosko Gee. [Be sure to check out two recent Can-centric mixes at Musicophilia for an in-depth exploration of late- and post-Can music.]
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.
Gang of Four – “I Love A Man In Uniform” (1982)
Gang of Four’s transition into slinky-sexy New Pop is certainly not as deftly graceful as that of, say, Scritti Politti. And they’re not quite reaching Fela-like sublimity in their “move their asses and sneak in a message” approach–they wield their politics as forcefully as ever to really give your ass equal consideration. But I suspect there’s a reasonable sense of humor at work here not so evident in earlier work; the music is servicable, and the satire of Thatcherite machismo and gun-as-“self-respect”-as-sex-organ psychology is pretty fun. I mean, “the girls, they love to see you shoot,” “I need an order,” and “to have ambition was my ambition” are pretty succinct and biting. The vocal crooning style du jour–well, again, not graceful, but enjoyable in its campy employment.
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.
Betty Harris – “There’s A Break In The Road” (1969)
Betty Harris is great, Allen Toussaint is a legend; the lyrics here are an iron maiden of don’t-fuck-with-me clarity, and the vocal hook is no less deadly-sharp. The bassline is timeless, and the feedback howls make your hair stand on end. But I can’t lie: it’s Ziggy Modeliste that makes this track the indelible mind-blower it is. One of the master’s best, the beat rides on its edge full-speed for the duration, never settling into what other drummers would consider the normal expression of the rhythm. If d’n’b had ever really had half this power of the beat–this is the feeling, sped up, it was going for, it seems–I’d be listening to it every day. This was the b-side of the single?!?
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.
“Bob” Darin – “The Harvest” (1969)
Walden Robert Cassatto briefly emerged from his better-known persona, Bobby Darin, to create a couple (very) surprisingly great singer-songwriter-rock-funk albums in the late 60s. I guess it could’ve been a cash-in on the rising hippie tide, but to my mind the risks of alienating his established crooner audience for the ears of (most likely highly skeptical) kids doesn’t seem to make a lot of financial sense. Especially when it turns out the music is pretty great, and the politics are pretty pronouncedly progressive–it seems sincere to me. In any case, the resulting music is sometimes beautiful, sometimes funny, and always enjoyable, as on this rollicking, jumpy track that warns of the hubris of man and the folly of power with a series of clever couplets. [The funky feeling of this track is found throughout this mix that features Mr. Darin 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.
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.)
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.
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”.]
Eddie Gale – “Black Rhythm Happening” (1969)
For those who don’t quite buy the defiantly unpopular Art Ensemble of Chicago’s claim to making “Great Black Music,” the Sun Ra Arkestra might instead capture what AEC were after. Here Arkestra trumpeter Eddie Gale lays claim to “Black Rhythm happening everywhere,” and here it takes the form of a chorus’ voice dancing in call and response around a snaking guitar line, snare-heavy drums and hand percussion, all enveloped in a warm wide reverb. Not quite funk, not quite jazz, laid back and open-ended, happening it certainly is.
Zapp – “More Bounce to the Ounce” (1980)
This is the sound of the West Coast 90s to those of us in our late 20s and 30s, even though it was made in 1980 in the Rust Belt. The ultimate in minimal parts, maximum results, you could walk for hours without noticing, if this were your soundtrack on repeat. A truly perfect track.
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.
A Certain Ratio – “Do the Du” (1980)
The “other” early Factory band to most people, and generally teased and mocked as the lightweights compared to Joy Division. But I’ll take A Certain Ratio’s herky-jerky British attempts at funk (and later tropicalia) over the glum seriousness of Division any day; and it rarely got better than this little slice, with it’s perfect beat, scratch guitar, and judiciously applied reverb.
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.]
Bill Cosby’s Badfoot Brown & The Bunyon’s Bradford – “Martin’s Funeral” (1971)
Unless you’ve heard other non-standup Bill Cosby records, and maybe even then, I can almost guarantee this is not what you’ll expect. Stewed deep in the heady musical freedoms of 1971, “Martin’s Funeral” is Free Funk, with what sounds like a pretty large group of jazz/soul/funk players stretching out and able to roam and coalesce at will over a strong second-line rythmic foundation, ending up sounding almost like a funk take on Terry Riley’s “In C” (which does exist, and which you’ll hear here soon. . .). It’s emotional and something of a roller-coaster, but it maintains an underlying grace and nobility that befits its namesake and inspiration (Dr. King) via an uplifting four-chord cycle. In print last year on Dusty Groove’s reissue label, you should definitely pick this one up.
Bernard Estardy – “Emeute À Tokyo” (1972)
Top-notch early-70s sound library stuff here from a Frenchman who seems to be consistently strong, whether working in this “Psyche Rock”-ish electro-jam mode or in a Gainsbourg-like Chanson idiom. This one is a nice funky breakbeat (with phasing no less!) and rollicking piano surrounded by diving, swirling synths, for a resulting high fun factor. Check it the full album at the completely essential Library Hunt. [Bernard Estardy is featured here in a fairly different mode at Musicophilia.]
Erkin Koray – “Sir” (1974)
Erkin Koray is touted as “Turkey’s Jimi Hendrix,” but for me, while the Arabesque guitar lines are compelling, the interest is often in the beats, the baselines, and the clean funk-psych-prog way the music is produced. This one starts out with a decidedly Turkish, almost traditional groove (were it not for the dancing electric bassline), moves into rock-out territory, and back again in just under three minutes. [Koray is featured here in a mix of miniatures from the early ’70s at Musicophilia.]
Our Daughter’s Wedding – “Buildings” (1982)
Another celebratory track, this is joyous singalong ramshackle synth-pop from the white-kids-who-dig-Bernie-Worrell-and-Prince school. The lyrics are basically “Someone’s out there building tonight | Everybody’s Having Fun | Yeah!” I loved it from the moment I first heard it, and wished it’d been released in 1981. ODW were recently given the compendium treatment on CD (‘Nightlife: The Collection’), and it’s well worth seeking out.
UPDATE: Backup stream: