Randomising the record collection #16: Royal House – Can You Party

#8148 – Royal House – Can You Party
(12-inch single, 1988) (Discogs tracklisting)

16 royal house

It’s the autumn of 1981, and I’m 19 years old. I’ve taken my first tentative steps towards coming out; a few close university friends have been told, all of them sworn to secrecy. But viewed wholly from the outside, the gay world looks alienating and terrifying. I cannot imagine that it holds a place for me.

None the less, I need to know more. I’ve spotted copies of Gay News on sale in a city centre newsagents. It’s time that I bought one.

My heart is pounding with fear. What happens if I run into someone I know, on my way back from the shop? I can’t let them see what I’ve bought. I need to hide it for the journey back.

I hit on a solution. First, I’ll buy an album. Then, I’ll slip the newspaper inside the sleeve. That way, even if someone asks what’s in my bag, I can just slide out the record cover.

The trouble is, I can’t think of anything that I want to buy right now. I’m in Revolver, flicking through the racks in a state of nervous agitation, trying to find something worthy of purchase.

Oh, this will do. It’s a double album, and I only half want it, but it’s the best that I can find.

Jacksons-liveThe Jacksons Live! opens with drum rolls, applause, a fanfare. The music stops, and a Jackson brother hollers to the crowd, thrice over, drawing louder cheers each time.

“CAN YOU FEEL IT!”

It’s the autumn of 1988, and I’m 26 years old. I’ve been on the gay scene for six years, and I’ve been partnered for three and a half. Every Thursday night, I’m the DJ at Fever, a mixed alternative club night “for lesbians, gay men and their friends”. My friend Mark promotes it and runs the door. According to the wry strapline on our flyers, we’re “An Equal Opportunities Dancefloor”.

House music is nothing new in Nottingham; thanks to Graeme Park at The Garage, we’ve been dancing to it since the summer of 1986. Up until this spring, dancefloors to the south of us have been a bit sniffy about it, but now they’ve caught up. The fabled 1988 “summer of love” passed us by – we just carried on as before – but the big house tunes in Nottingham are now the big house tunes everywhere.

Most weeks, I compile a Fever chart, based on dancefloor reaction. They’re handwritten – we don’t yet have PCs – and I keep them in my Filofax. My current Number One – it spends around three weeks at the top – is the latest track from Todd Terry, who releases tracks under different names.

On this one, he calls himself Royal House. It’s basically a re-jigged version of the previous Royal House 12-inch, “Party People”. Both are based around the same tiny snatch of one of the very first big house tunes at The Garage: Marshall Jefferson’s “The House Music Anthem”, also known as “Move Your Body”. On “Party People”, this annoyed me; I just wanted the original riff to continue in full. But on the more forceful “Can You Party”, the elements snap into place.

This time around, there are more vocal samples. Some of them are already well-worn; Todd Terry is a bit of a hack in some respects, but he’s having his moment, and the tracks work on the floor. So, there’s Malcolm X (“too black… too strong”), and there’s another slice of “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice…

…and there it is again, already familiar to my dancers thanks to The Original Concept, Simon Harris and Bomb The Bass, but did anyone else recognise it from that seven year-old live album?

“CAN YOU FEEL IT!”

From timorous closet case, wrestling with internalised homophobia, to co-founder of what we were almost certain was the first mixed alternative gay night outside London, Terry’s Jacksons sample bookended my journey.

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Randomising the record collection #15: Prince – Lovesexy

#2900 – Prince – Lovesexy
(CD, 1988) (Discogs tracklisting)

15 prince lovesexy

For the second time in three days, my randomiser has given me Prince – and also for the second time in three days, it has given me an officially documented (oh yes!) year-end favourite. There’s the confirmation, in the Filofax in the breakfast room dresser: Lovesexy topped my Best of 1988 list, beating off competition from Tracy Chapman, Pet Shop Boys, Michelle Shocked and Trio Bulgarka.

I’ve sometimes wondered about that choice. Didn’t I love Parade and Sign Of The Times more? Was Lovesexy really their equal, or was I just surfing the back end of my Prince-can-do-no-wrong fanboy wave, before Graffiti Bridge sent me crashing into the rocks? Or perhaps I had been overly influenced by the glories of the Lovesexy tour, which I caught twice – most memorably at Wembley Arena, still one of the greatest shows I have ever witnessed.

This morning, played on the CD bought many years later rather than the LP bought at the time, it sounded utterly magnificent, my top pick of the random choices to date. I was expecting at least a few fillers; not so. It peaked early with “Alphabet St.”, the best Prince party jam of all, and then peaked again with the sublime “Anna Stesia” (at the end of the LP’s first side) and the ridiculously infectious “Dance On” (at the start of Side Two).

On “Dance On”, the drumming alone floored me. I checked to see who was playing. Sheila E, surely? Like almost everything else on the record (apart from the opener “Eye No”, a full band piece), it was the man himself. Writing about Lovesexy on Then Play Long, which discusses every UK Number One album from July 1956 to April 1990, my longtime blogging compatriot Marcello Carlin suggests that its “skittering, randomly-stopping-and-starting rhythm […] must have been an influence on early drum n’ bass“. I am minded to agree.

Unlike yesterday’s Odelay, whose inventiveness rarely seemed to serve a purpose much beyond demonstrating the artist’s cleverness, the inventiveness of Lovesexy – and oh, there are so many fresh ideas on display here – is always pressed into serving the song, heightening the emotions and quickening the pulse.

Yes, there’s rather a lot of God here – people have called it Prince’s gospel album – but even though I don’t really do God, I can’t help being struck by the passion that is being expressed. This is his truth, and he has chosen the height of his fame to deliver it. It cost him sales – well, that and the lack of potential hit singles, and that cover art – but perhaps staying at Number One wasn’t his goal anymore. (Although in fact, Lovesexy became his first chart-topping album in the UK.)

I was expecting to be slightly underwhelmed, and instead I got to enjoy 45 minutes of brilliance. A morning well spent, then.

Randomising the record collection #14: Beck – Odelay

#1909 – Beck – Odelay
(CD, 1996) (Discogs tracklisting)

14 beck odelay

People of my age will have become familiar with the standard cycle of retro-ism: the music of ten years ago seems stale, the music of twenty years ago feels cool, the music of thirty or more years ago has become classic. In particular, the “two decades old = cool” aesthetic has long made itself apparent in the pop music of two decades later. Thus there were Fifties influences running through Seventies pop, from T. Rex to Darts. There were Sixties influences running through Eighties pop, from the mod revival to Marc Almond & Gene Pitney. There were Seventies influences running through Nineties pop, from Erasure’s ABBA EP to French filter house. And there were Eighties influences running through Noughties pop, from electroclash to La Roux.

But here’s the thing: I’m not seeing a repetition of this cycle in the current decade. Sure, there’s dash of Eurodance here and a sprinkling of shoegaze there, but the whole notion of Nineties Cool hasn’t really taken root. (Or maybe I’m just getting old and out of touch. But I think not, eh readers?)

All of which is by way of a long preamble (yep, stalling for time again!) to Odelay: a record from exactly twenty years ago, which still feels as stale to me now as it would have done in 2006. At the time, its magpie approach to genre-plundering, while not exactly new (hello Coldcut!), did still sound ground-breaking. By playfully splicing previously disconnected styles of music together – from hip hop to garage rock via blues, soul, country, grunge and lounge – he created something that sounded absolutely like Now, just as Prince did ten years before with yesterday’s “Kiss”. But that was then, and this is now, and Beck’s Now still feels stuck in Then. Are you still following this?

So I listen to Odelay, and I catch myself thinking: this is what a Silicon Valley startup millionaire would play in the car, to remind himself of when he first felt “edgy”. And I think that’s because the passing of time has somehow neutered the record’s original boldness. Sure, this often happens, but it has happened to Beck in a more specific way – because after two intervening decades in which tribal genre barriers have collapsed, we now live in a world where anything can be spliced (or at least playlisted) with anything, quite free of friction. This has robbed Odelay of its capacity to startle. And once that’s gone, what do we have left? A whimsical collection of mildly surreal ditties about nothing much, that’s what.

To be fair to Beck, he addressed this lack-of-substance problem in subsequent releases, accruing the sort of songwriting gravitas that eventually led him to Morning Phase, 2014’s critically acclaimed comeback.  Morning Phase wasn’t for me, though – and to be fair to Odelay, there are still plenty of pleasurable moments along the way: a deftly dropped sample, a cute tune, a groove that gels.

Perhaps it needs longer to hibernate. Perhaps “Odelay-esque” is still a journalistic cliché waiting to happen. Perhaps.

Randomising the record collection #13: Prince and the Revolution – Kiss

#1068 – Prince and the Revolution – Kiss
(7-inch single, 1986) (Discogs tracklisting)

13 prince kiss

(Video link)

And so the randomiser deals me a classic: my favourite single of 1986 (I still have the piece of paper which tells me so), and a song which has never been far away since.

I haven’t played “Kiss” on 7-inch for a long time, and there’s a smidge of audible wear – but that’s to be expected, given the number of turntables which the record graced during my DJ years. For right through until 1989, when the regular DJ-ing tailed off, it was always a failsafe choice, guaranteed to sustain or revive any dancefloor. Even today, as the song entered its closing moments, I felt a small “get ready with the next track” twinge. I guess the format must have been the trigger.

Like many at the time, I’d been thrown by the psychedelic curveball of Around The World In A Day, Prince’s 1985 follow-up to his mega-successful Purple Rain soundtrack. It felt out of step with what was going on – which was ultimately to its credit, and the album has worn extremely well – but I didn’t pay it much attention, other than forming a vague hunch that Prince might be sliding towards irrelevance.

So when “Kiss” dropped, it dropped with a big, bracing SLAP, a shimmering, dazzling BANG and an almighty WALLOP, slicing straight through the over-processed cod-sophistication of 1986 pop and instantly taking ownership of the Here and the Now. Taut, lean and urgent, sexy, funny and fresh, it felt for its first few weeks like the only song that mattered. We heard it everywhere, and yet we never tired of it. Unlike so many instant-appeal, saturation-coverage hits, it never ended up feeling played-out.

(Meanwhile, on the flip side, “♥ or $” jammed around a simple chant, and faded while the band were still cooking up a storm. A well-chosen companion piece.)

Parade swiftly followed, and didn’t disappoint. The second imperial phase commenced, scaling further heights a year later. I doubt I ever DJ-ed a Prince-free set, and I doubt I’ve ever seen a “Kiss”-free Prince show since (and I’ve seen him many times). There’s never a time when it feels wrong to play “Kiss”. It sits above and beyond, teasing and twirling towards eternity in its own, unique space.

Randomising the record collection #12: Can – Ege Bamyasi

#9272 – Can – Ege Bamyasi
(CD, 1972) (Discogs tracklisting)

12- can ege

An old friend, who loves Can in a way that I seem unable to (we’ll come back to this later, I’m stalling for time), went to see them in 1973. Arriving at the venue early, he wandered into the dressing room, which had no security, and fell into conversation with the person nearest to his own age. It took him a while to get round to asking what connection this person had with the band. “Oh, I’m the singer”, was the casual reply. Later that year, Damo Suzuki – for it was he – left the band (for good) and the music industry (for ten years).

In 2002, just as Can’s classic albums were finally being added to the established rock canon, I went to see Damo Suzuki at a small venue in Nottingham, playing his first gig outside London in fifteen years. On stage for well in excess of two hours, his five-song set swung between transcendence and tedium. Towards the end of the show, while the band chundered on, he came down from the stage and hugged each audience member individually. “It was a lovely, big, warm, sincere, proper hug – if a little moist (especially in the hair department)“, I blogged.

A couple of years later, Can’s fourth album was remastered and re-released in the short-lived SACD format. K doesn’t buy many CDs – well, he hardly needs to – but he snapped this one up, mainly for in-car purposes. He still plays it in the car to this day. It’s one of those albums – like King Crimson’s Red, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans – which he keeps mostly to himself.

I’ve listened to Ege Bamyasi four times since its number came up on Friday, with steadily increasing degrees of concentration and frustration. Why the frustration? OK, perhaps it’s time to level with you; I’ve never had much of an ear for Krautrock. In theory, the genre represents a perfect triangulation of elements that should, by rights, be bang up my Straße. (Plus, fuck it, I studied German for four years at university; how much more context does a man need?) In practice, I rarely progress beyond polite appreciation, with a particular leaning towards the more metronomic, proto-dance end of the genre.

Ege Bamyasi doesn’t exactly have metronomic moments, but it does sport some tracks where the band establishes a steady, loping groove. I like these tracks best of all, particularly the two singles: “Vitamin C” and “Spoon”, the latter a Top Ten smash hit in Germany. But elsewhere, where the band spins off into far-out freak-outs, while Suzuki unintelligibly mumbles and/or squawks, I’m lost. Thus “Soup”, the longest track, parts company with me at the five-minute mark. I’d have chopped the tape there and then.

In his liner notes, David Stubbs gives me further cause for concern. “Guitarist […] Michael Karoli later complained that the sessions were frustrated by keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and vocalist Damo Suzuki’s playing chess obsessively day in, day out. He stated that completing recording became a frantic process, with some tracks having to be recorded practically in real time and the single “Spoon” added to make up for a shortfall in material.” Stubbs does goes on to counterbalance this with fulsome praise for the band’s “process of collective telekinesis”, but it’s an observation which I can’t quite get past.

So I’m handing this one back to K, and sticking henceforth with “I Want More”, the band’s sole UK hit from 1976. In fact, I’ll almost certainly be playing “I Want More” this coming Saturday, when I’ll be DJ-ing at a new monthly gig night, just up the road. There may be other Krautrock picks, too; it’s going to be that kind of night. But they won’t be coming from Ege Bamyasi.

Randomising the record collection #11: Mychael Danna/Various Artists – Monsoon Wedding (soundtrack)

#3598 – Mychael Danna /Various Artists – Monsoon Wedding (soundtrack)
(CD, 2001) (Discogs tracklisting)

11 monsoon weddin

According to my spreadsheet, and why should it lie, there are 37 original soundtrack recordings in my collection (some home-taped, admittedly). I don’t make a habit of buying them, but they wander in from time to time, when the music in a movie has made a particularly strong impression.

And so it was with Monsoon Wedding, a film whose soundtrack is, so far as I can recall, notably integral to the action. I had hopes of watching it again last night – but alas, it wasn’t to be found on any of our telly’s three streaming services (so I’ve ordered the DVD instead, for a fiver). Its story centres around the preparations for a Punjabi Hindu wedding in Delhi, and the various complications that threaten it, climaxing with the joyous occasion itself.

The soundtrack was compiled by director Mira Nair (previously Oscar-nominated for Salaam Bombay) and Mychael Danna, a Canadian composer married to an Indian (and subsequently the winner of a Best Original Score Oscar for his soundtrack to Life of Pi). Danna composed nine instrumental pieces, which are interspersed with seven selections from other artists. Three remixes complete the 19-track package.

In her liner notes, Nair describes the soundtrack as “with the help of Music Express, this is my own intensely personal mosaic of music that mixes beloved love songs from Hindi films, classic Urdu ghazals my husband Mahmood sang to me in the heady days of our courtship, the bawdy celebration songs that routinely erupt at my family’s dining table.” And it’s that latter component which has stuck most clearly in my memory. “Mehndi/Madhorama Pencha”, sung by a large group of laughing women during the wedding’s mehndi ceremony, is a rambunctious call-and-response that includes, unless my ears deceive me, references to malt whiskey, disco dancing and Calvin Klein.

Earlier on, the movie’s theme tune, “Aaj Mera Jee Kardaa (Today My Heart Desires)”, is sung in Punjabi by a voice that might sound familiar: Sukhwinder Singh, who supplied lead vocals for Slumdog Millionaire‘s international smash hit, “Jai Ho”. Other familiar names pop up elsewhere: there’s a qawwali from the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and a dance track from the British-Indian producer Bally Sagoo, which adds a pinch of Goa trance to a burbling Eurodance rhythm. On “Fabric/Aaja Savariya”, Delhi’s MIDIval Punditz fuse a ghazal with a drum-and-bass breakbeat, while the three remixes at the end of the disc nudge into Talvin Singh/Nitin Sawhney territory (somewhat inessentially; the soundtrack proper ends with Sagoo’s piece).

Two songs are lifted from pre-existing Bollywood soundtracks. From 1973’s Loafer, there’s the romantic, string-laden old-school playback of Mohammed Rafi’s “Aaj Mausam Bada Beimann Hai (Today The Weather Plays Tricks On Me)”, and from 1999’s comedy Biwi No. 1, there’s the irresistibly lively and catchy “Chunari Chunari”, which fills the dancefloor at the wedding’s evening party.

This might all sound like a hodge-podge grab bag of conflicting styles, but it’s the diversity which makes this collection work. All I need to do now is re-match the tracks on the CD with the scenes on the DVD, and my experience will be complete. It was good to dig this out again. Props to the randomiser for forcing my hand.

Randomising the record collection #10: Actress – R.I.P.

#1757 – Actress – R.I.P.
(CD, 2012) (Discogs tracklisting)

10 actress

I’ve groaned at some of these selections: oh, must I listen to this and dredge up something to say? Not so with this one, which gave me a great deal of pleasure four years ago, and so excited me with the prospect of getting reacquainted.

Although abstract and instrumental, R.I.P. was never background music. I always gave it, if not full attention, as close to full attention as my flittering brain would allow. There were places where it worked best. In the car, I felt enveloped by its strange and unique sonic textures; there’s a distinct memory of hearing “Holy Water”, and feeling as if the interior was slowly being filled, water trickling and oozing in from right and left. In the cottage, where the same player was wired to three sets of speakers in three adjoining rooms, I preferred the smaller middle room, facing the garden. Here, the details came into clearer focus. Again, there was that remarkable three-dimensional effect, casting each track as a sculpture that I could examine from all angles.

I’ve been playing these records and CDs in the office below street level, where the turntable and laptop live. This time I moved upstairs, to use the same sound system that we brought from the cottage. The room, which looks out over the railway station, is rarely used during the day. I pre-warmed it and settled in, on the comfiest seating in the house. It’s the best room to listen closely to CDs. I should use it more.

Actress is the working name of Darren Cunningham, a British electronic artist who initially found favour with a more dance-angled sound. With this, his third of four albums to date, he moved away from beatmaking; only three of its fifteen tracks have any kind of pronounced backbeat, and you wouldn’t think to dance to any of them. Consequently, he fell out of favour with some of his previous admirers, who were left cold by the abstraction, and by the absence of much in the way of forward movement within each track. Typically, patterns are set in motion and left to hang there, with only subtle variations, or next to none.

I understand the frustration, but I don’t share it. By paring down the shifts, Cunningham has given the listener space to dig right into the inner workings of his constructions. As I say, it’s like looking at sculptures in a gallery. You have to cross that line between first, fleeting impressions and the deeper appreciation which only emerges when you give the pieces time, thought and concentrated focus. But many still won’t click, and that’s also fine.

The album’s narrative arc is reportedly inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the track titles bear this out: Jardin, Serpent, Tree Of Knowledge. You don’t have to pay attention to this, but if you do – and today, I did so for the first time – it can unlock an extra dimension. Milton’s framing of the Adam and Eve story extends further than the basic Old Testament text, casting back to Satan’s banishment from Heaven and reaching forward to an angelic revelation to a fallen Adam, showing him what lay ahead: the great flood, a hint of the Second Coming.

This helps to explain why the album starts in such a dank, murky fashion – casual dippers-in might never make it past the first few tracks – before introducing different moods and textures. Jardin marks a big shift, as we exit the warring cosmos and find ourselves in an earthly paradise. Or is it? The initially charming pastoral mood is extended so far – it’s the longest track on the album – that it starts to cloy and pall, suggesting that in the absence of wisdom, naivety is no place to be forever stuck.

There is no big, dramatic “and lo, the Lord did banish the wretched pair from Eden” moment here. We skip past its expected place, to Adam’s vision of Noah’s raven being sent from the ark, to see whether the floods were subsiding. It’s a vignette of hope. And by the penultimate track, N.E.W. – a beatific swirl, like a fugue of melted church organs – there’s a sense that the so-called Fall of Man has instead led us to a place of greater enlightenment. Or, if you want to skip all the chewy stuff, there’s at least a realisation that you have travelled from darkness into light.

That’s a hell of a lot of potential meaning to extract from nearly an hour’s worth of glitchy, uneasy and peculiar instrumental electronica, which many would dismiss out of hand as boring, weird, discomforting or difficult. As for me, I found returning to this album absorbing, thought-provoking and uplifting. I got stuff out of it that I’d never got out of it before. It’s days like these that make writing this series feel justified.