America, A Horse With No Name (1971)

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Artist: America
Title: A Horse With No Name
Description: single; album track, America
Label: Warner Brothers
Release date: 1971; 1972
First heard: 1970s

There’s a strong imperative to enshrine this classic afternoon delight right now, because it’s been purloined and pillaged for use in a TV commercial for a make of car. It’s not a refusenik pose to say that I have no idea which make of car it’s advertising. Partly, I usually fast-forward through the ads; mostly, I don’t much care about makes of car. In any case, it’s something to do with a driver singing along to A Horse With No Name by America in his car, which is stuck in traffic, but he doesn’t care. I think we are supposed to divine that he doesn’t care because he’s in this particular vehicle. But surely it’s because he’s listening to A Horse With No Name, a song that can only soothe the savage breast.

My appreciation of the song is sincere, although I sense that some people consider it a bit of a joke. Written by Harrogate-born Dewey Bunnell, I’ve discovered that the other two members of the band – which famously comprised the sons of American fathers and British mothers united by the USAF base at Ruislip – didn’t much like it either, which is presumably why it was initially left off their debut LP. I have certainly made quips about Bunnell’s lyric, to whit: if I’d been through the desert on a horse with no name, one thing I’d definitely have done is name it. On paper, a line like, “There were plants and birds and rocks and things,” is lazy in the extreme – no matter what Bunnell was or wasn’t smoking – but perhaps it accurately reflects the frazzled state of the horse rider’s mind. Suitably fried in the desert sun, you might well complain that “the heat was hot.” it’s not the meaning but the rhythm of the line “there ain’t no-one for to give you no pain” that makes it so memorable. It’s a song, for singing in traffic, not a university lecture.

In any case, the lyric evokes. I didn’t even think to examine it after those first, osmotic hearings. I was right there with him, on that unchristened nag, traversing the hot sand. And I was bereft when he had to let his steed go after nine days, thus facing almost certain death by dehydration and heat stroke, unless he could land him a bird with one of those rocks or things. Its innocence is what’s beautiful about this song, which sold a million, pushed the album to the Billboard heights, landed them a best new artist Grammy, and made America massive in the land of their fathers, with hit albums throughout the 70s over there and over here, even enjoying a commercial renaissance as a duo in the 80s. And then, in 2010, A Horse With No Name was used in a Season Three episode of Breaking Bad, providing its title, Caballo sin nombre.

It was already cool to me.

Sometimes, literal is just the ticket. That this song about a horse should be made motile by a clip-clopping beat is perfect. (Ray Cooper provides the on-the-nose percussion to augment session man Kim Haworth’s drums.) The texture is acoustic guitar and plenty of it, unhindered in Cliff-linked staff producer Ian Hamwell’s production by kitchen sink. I believe the first guitar we hear is the 12-string of Gerry Beckley.

It’s Crosby, Stills & Nash. It’s Neil Young. It’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. (Many apparently thought they were listening to a new Young track at the time.) It’s what the 60s sounded like when the 70s came calling. This verdant period, with the compass set to point West and Laurel Canyon a sort of Mecca, is often dismissed as the limp, malleable epicentre of “soft rock”, but rock – and things – can’t always be hard. The sound of three young men harmonising can be as lilting and elevating as birdsong. (All songbirds can sing; but not all young men can – it deserves a round of applause.)

Bunnell sings the lead although he resists being described as the lead singer, and as if to prove why, when fellow Americans Beckley and bassist Dan Peet (sadly no longer with us, as of 2011) throw their vocal weight behind him for the first course of la-la-las, and then the second chorus, the lift is palpable. It’s a sad song, whether taken literally – in which case, a man loses his horse, gets sunburnt and finds himself in the sea – or cosmically – whereby man is clearly adrift from nature and royally screwing up the planet, running its rivers dry and self-servingly wearing out God’s creatures and this ride is a retreat back to Eden. And the melancholy tone of metaphysical ennui is exquisitely described by these uncorrupted voices. And the somersaulting strings in the bridge are actually like rain. Clever, that.

America always felt they ground their own unique blend out of the West Coast harmonies of C, S, N & Y and the British Invasion nod/wink of the Beatles – having a pretty good biodiverse claim on the Transatlantic middle – but I grew up thinking they were simply Americans, from America, writing and recording in America (the album America was, of course, recorded in London and part-written in Puddletown, Dorset), and it was always fine by me. There’s nothing British about Ventura Highway with its sunshine and chewed grass and “alligator lizards”.

Sometimes, as in Hollywood movies, America wins.

Bauhaus, In The Flat Field (1980)

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Artist: Bauhaus
Title: In The Flat Field
Description: album track, In The Flat Field
Label: 4AD
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980

Bliss it was in the early 80s to be alive, but to be in Northampton was very heaven. Bauhaus were our band. Formed in our town. Forged in our town, where so little else was forged in those dark days before Alan Carr, Matt Smith, Mark Haddon, Jo Wiley and Marc Warren. Even after they became pop stars in late 1982 with a cover of Ziggy Stardust and Pete Murphy did the Maxell tapes advert, you’d still see David J, Danny Ash and Kevin Haskins in the wine bar on Bridge Street. (Don’t look for it, it’s not there any more, although the area around it has been turned into the Cultural Quarter, which is nice.) Not that any of us Goths were uncool enough to stare, or approach these local heroes. It was enough that they were still in town, when they could be anywhere else, like Pete Murphy always was. We never saw him.

Not that any of us thought of ourselves as Goths. Nobody did in 1982. But we were. Like Bauhaus, we wore black, and netting, and makeup (I never went that far), and we wore our hair high and hard. It was a heady time. I was 15 when I went to my first gig – U2 supported by Altered Images at Northampton College of Further Education, and yes, Dad picked us up in the car afterwards – and in that same year, I saw Bauhaus play at Lings Forum, a gathering of the Northampton tribes, most of whom were more aromatic and Gothic and sexually provocative than me and my friends Pete and Craig. But it didn’t matter. We were there. We lived close enough to walk home. My Mum and Dad still live within view of Lings Forum.

Bands did not slot Northampton into their national tour itineraries in 1982; it was a rock desert and we had to make our own entertainment (we were all in bands). People in raincoats and leather jackets had to take coach trips to Leicester and Nottingham and London for that particular cerebral fix. But Bauhaus, some of whom did the same art foundation course at Nene College that I would subsequently enroll for, were already here. (Our art history teacher, filling us in on the actual 1920s German art school, made the devastatingly cool claim that he’d taught members of the band about it and thus helped give them their name.)

Not since the 1960s when Northampton Town FC ascended and descended the four divisions in near-successive seasons – “The real miracle of 1966,” according to Manchester City’s then-manager Joe Mercer – had our town even been on the map. So you can perhaps imagine our excitement at Bauhaus’s ascent to the top of the pop table.

The nine-minute debut Bela Lugosi’s Dead makes a solid claim to be their meisterwerk. It was a national anthem for much of my youth, and thrills me to this day with its depraved dub and Grand Guignol. But the five-minute title track of their debut album, which, fittingly, I borrowed from Northampton Record Library and taped, distills all of what made Bauhaus far more than just a cheap, powdered novelty. The drums are fast, tribal and spotless and keep time in deafening haste. The bass rubs your loins. The guitar makes a blackboard of your senses, then become a writhing bag of spiders.

It is a waking fever dream, Pete Murphy’s hallucinogenic imagery moves from cut-up mind games (“into the calm gaping we … Calm eye-flick shudder … of black matted lace of pregnant cows … my slender thin and lean”) to punk-rock ennui (“I get bored, I do get bored”). He sounds like a ravaged, consumptive marquis in search of ever more filthy kicks, from Piccadilly whores to whatever the holy fuck “filing cabinet hemispheres” were. I’d never heard of a “lumbar punch” but I knew it wasn’t good that he was up for one. Aged 16, the very utterance of “spunk-stained sheets” was X-rated. Sometimes, especially when you’re a teenager, you need your favourite band to be on another plane, in another place, on another planet. (Even when some of them are in your wine bar.)

In The Flat Field is at once apocalyptic and Edenic. A runaway rapture of Hammer horror and Kafka nightmare that lifts the humdrum listener to unimagined heights of fetid fantasy. “Assist me to walk away in sin”, Murphy intones. To quote a road safety advert of my childhood, he don’t need any help, does he?

The sleeve shrouded around this record is none more black. Within, the band are picked out only in shirtless, emaciated shadow. The low, guttural, metaphysical moaning that underpins the song’s protracted outro is a primordial sound that would recur in Bauhaus’s canon, as they first got darker, then became more music hall, then fell apart in dub. I salute it. This was music to pore over. To take apart. To unpick. To offer yourself up to. To raise a blackcurrant-coloured drink to, as you had borrowed your Mum’s Mini Metro, which was parked up by the Guidhall.

For a couple of years, there really was energy in Northampton.

Eric B & Rakim, Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness – The Coldcut Remix), 1987

Eric B & Rakim Paid In Full (4th & Broadway) 1987

Artist: Eric B & Rakim
Title: Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness – The Coldcut Remix)
Description: single
Label: 4th & B’way
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

This is a journey into sound …

Christmas, 2005. Amid the more expected and doable selections on the first Pop edition of the karaoke videogame SingStarLove Machine by Girls Aloud, It’s Not Unusual by Tom Jones, Let Me Entertain You by Robbie Williams – sits Paid In Full by Eric B & Rakim, unloved and literally unsung. In a doomed attempt to gain some middle-aged cred with the kids at a seasonal family gathering when the PS2 was warmed up, I selected it and sang, or rapped, along with what will always be one of my most beloved and best known hip-hop tracks, right to the bitter end. In my own mind, in that magic moment, or moments, I was Rakim, thinking of a masterplan with nothing but sweat inside my hand.

Rapping along with rappers ain’t easy. But we all do it, don’t we? And by “we” I mean we who find the rhythm and metre of predominantly black American men slotting idioms and street argot into beat-poetic couplets as if off the tops of their heads but usually read and memorised like any other lyric utterly intoxicating. It’s a fool’s errand. The best raps cannot be reproduced, even by another rapper. Like poetry and jazz – and it is like both – hip-hop is not a karaoke form.

Those lyrics oozed by the artist formerly known as William Michael Griffin Jr. before he joined the Nation Of Gods and Men and was reborn as Rakim Allah were actually not that complex during he and Eric Barrier’s first flush of dual-control genius. The Long Island rhymer leans on childlike constructions and throughout his and Eric B’s curricular first and second albums Paid In Full and Follow The Leader, he sidesteps cuss words, lewd allusions and armed threat. (On the second LP’S rampantly self-descriptive Lyrics Of Fury, he warns of being “rated R”, but this refers to his name and certainly not to scenes of a sexual nature; even when calls himself an “MC-murderer … servin’ a death wish,” he’s talking about, well, talking.) Rolling Stone noted his “novelist’s eye for detail.”

The first Eric B & Rakim tune to which I bore awestruck witness was the definitively James Brown-indebted I Know You Got Soul during my late-80s studio-flat exile when I taped almost everything off John Peel and Tackhead would hand-segue on the same TDK cassette into the Pastels then the Very Things then Scott La Rock then The Wedding Present. A golden age of enlightenment for the mind-broadening constituency. I feel certain I paid for the hundred-dollar 12-inch Paid In Full on an educated whim. Even if I had heard the album version, Coldcut’s Seven Minutes Of Madness remix was a ticket to another world. A journey into sound, indeed.

Eric B and Rakim are, one gathers, divided on the merits of the remix, but it was a club and chart hit, and for many defines the song. It showcases not just the innate, unforced chemistry of B and Rakim, but the knob-twiddling intuition of our very own desk jockeys Matt Black and Jonathan Moore (whose incredible work with The Fall on Telephone Thing gave focus to the first ever NME cover story I was commissioned to write in 1990 but that’s another tale).

New colour, new dimensions, new values …

That unerring sampled beat thunks and hissssssses from the Soul Searchers’ Ashley’s Roachclip. You should seek out the original online – but you have to listen about three and a half minutes in before you hear the clean break that supplied it, and that’s an example of the sixth sense of sublime sampling, a facet of musical arrangement every bit as legitimate as writing or creating a rhythm or riff of your own when it’s done this well. Meanwhile a dismembered bongo rattles around in the loop, not to mention that tiny bit of mid-70s flute also mined from Ashley’s Roachclip. However, these are but entrées to the main course: the inspired combination of the swaggering bass from Dennis Edwards’ Don’t Look Any Further and Ofra Haza’s aromatic Yemenite aria Im Nin’alu. Other ephemeral delights flit in and out of Coldcut’s cut – Humphrey Bogart, a JB count-in – but what I particularly love is the cheeky way they transplant in bits of I Know You Got Soul, notably the instruction “pump up the volume”, which mere months later led off another pioneering act of British plunderphonia from M|A|R|R|S. There was a lot of transatlantic grooveshare going on during this period of detente and all benefited.)

A lot of great hip-hop is about the infrastructure, but without that beat poetry, it’s simply world-class mechanics. In these verses is the skilled communication of Rakim confirmed.

Search for a nine to five, if I strive
Then maybe I’ll stay alive
So I walk up the street whistlin’ this
Feelin’ out of place ’cuz, man, do I miss

A pen and a paper, a stereo, a tape of
Me and Eric B, and a nice big plate of
Fish, which is my favorite dish
But without no money it’s still a wish …

A nice big plate of fish, which is my favourite dish? He’s the Edward Lear of hip-hop. At the end of these seven minutes of madness – which evolve through as many movements as a classical symphony and whose introduction of new colours and new dimensions is, ironically, as controlled as the safe landing of a 747 – you’re left with the frankly endearing image from the five-minute mark of Eric B and Rakim agreeing to go back to their respective girlfriends to beg forgiveness for working such long hours.

You go to your girl house and I’ll go to mine
’Cause my girl is definitely mad
’Cause it took us too long to do this album

And they outta here. As were the kids I tried to impress at the Christmas family gathering with my mad verbal skills. They wanted Blink-182 putting back on.

Nancy Sinatra, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (1966)

Nancy_Sinatra_single_cover_These_Boots_Are_Made_for_Walkin

Artist: Nancy Sinatra
Title: These Boots Are Made For Walkin’
Description: single; album track, Boots
Label: Reprise
Release date: 1966
First heard: circa 1970s

In his fourth volume of memoir The North Face Of Soho, Clive James makes this astute observation about legendary lyricist Johnny Mercer and in particular his words for One For My Baby, written with Harold Arlen, “which today still sets my standards for the way a colloquial phrase can be multiplied in its energy by how it sits on a row of musical notes.”

Though originally sung by Fred Astaire in the musical The Sky’s The Limit, it was popularised by Frank Sinatra, who was a man who really knew how to sit a phrase on a row of notes. In fact, it ran in the family.

Sometime in the mid-90s when I was working at Q, Albums Editor John Aizlewood gifted me four of Nancy Sinatra’s seven solo Reprise albums, released we must assume for the first time on the new-fangled Compact Disc. My familiarity with Ms Sinatra’s catalogue was limited to three songs* so I eagerly immersed myself in Boots, How Does That Grab You? (on whose sleeve she is dressed in boots, a nice jumper and – whoops – no trousers), Nancy In London (where of course she is perched at the back of a London double decker) and Sugar (a thumb hooked suggestively in the waistband of a pink bikini in some pampas grass), all four of which came out within two years.

*The three songs, by the way, were John Barry’s theme song for You Only Live Twice, Somethin’ Stupid with her dad, and These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, which I owned by way of the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack. Kubrick’s film had cemented the song and the Vietnam war in my mind, although I hadn’t known then that Boots had actually been adopted by US soldiers on the ground. In my ignorance, I thought the cruel fade at two minutes 26 seconds – when the song gets going, the song gets going – was imposed upon it by the compilers of the soundtrack. Wrong. It fades at that very moment in the original single edit. It was designed to do that. Planned. Choreographed. Just as Nancy asks her boots if they’re ready and instructs them to “start walkin'”, the tempo changes, the horns blast, the world does the twist and the volume reduces. It may be the cruelest ten seconds in pop.

It’s like there’s a party starting  but you’re not invited. It’s happening behind this door that’s just about to close in your face. Maybe this adds to the intrigue? It certainly speaks of a commanding level of self-confidence – that this record has already done quite enough. The coda is just a coda. Get over it. Singles in the 60s faded out before they outstayed their welcome.

These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ is the very height of musical expertise, of knowing what goes where and how. Ex-serviceman Lee Hazelwood had given tips to Phil Spector before Reprise lassoed his studio acumen and tasked him with rebooting the career of Nancy, who was about to get dropped from her Daddy’s label after five years of nada in the US charts. A Svengali of pop Hazelwood may have been – he lowered her voice and instructed her to think lewd thoughts while singing, all of which matched her new short-skirted, bottle-blonde, Carnaby Street image – but like the man in the James Brown song, it wouldn’t mean nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl. Boots is all about her interpretation of that swaggering lyric. Some of the higher female pop voices of the time, many of them more admired than Nancy’s, lack her screw-you attitude. Maybe five years of failure on your father’s tab gives you that.

“You keep saying you’ve got something for me,” she snarls, impatiently. “Something you call love, but confess.” This is not a woman torridly imploring a man to take her back, this is a woman grinding her heel into his chest. He’s been messin’ where he shouldn’t have been a messin’, after all, not to mention lyin’ when he oughtta have been “truthin'” (touché, Mr Hazelwood, a “colloquial phrase” for the statute books). Her boots are going to carry her out of this unsatisfactory situation, but not without an over-the-shoulder threat as she leaves: “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.” (She might well take one for her baby, too.)

It’s dark material indeed when she dissuades this ungrateful cad of the notion that he’ll “never get burnt.” Ha! She’s found a brand new box of matches that says otherwise. If you want to hear a singer go “Ha!” with all the contempt of someone taken for a ride, take a seat. As gleefully repeated in all his obituaries in 2007, Hazelwood instructed Nancy to sing “like a 16-year old girl who fucks truck drivers.” Like Frank eventually, she proved a good actor.

Billy Strange needs saluting, the arranger of this dirty, defiant warning shot across the patriarchy’s bows, which credits five guitarists (including Strange himself). Between him and Hazelwood, rows of musical notes were slotted together with sparkling orginality, not least the descending scale played by double-bassist Chuck Berghofer that puts us all in the mood at the start. While Nancy does her thing, you’re mainly hearing gossamer strummed guitars and a brushed beat, with a brass section politely underpinning in the background, barely noticed. Sultry doesn’t quite cover it.

After this, it was hits, hits, hits all the way for the rest of the 60s. How does that grab you?

Ha!

The Eagles, Hotel California (1976)

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Artist: The Eagles
Title: Hotel California
Description: single; album track, Hotel California
Label: Asylum
Release date: 1977; 1976
First heard: 1994

Such a lovely place …

I’d been aware of the Eagles and their importance to drivers of imaginary open-topped cars, having long ago absorbed Hotel California by osmosis without ever sitting down and giving it much thought, but it wasn’t until 1994 when, as features editor, I was tasked at Q magazine with “tidying up” some raw copy by the legendary Tom Hibbert, that they truly entered my life like God might. In Tom’s turn, this elusive sprite of a man had been tasked with writing a brief history of America’s once-biggest rock band and he’d done so in a style we’ll kindly call “inimitable”. It was a barrel of fun, but it was not a history of the Eagles. I reached for the office copy of what must have been the Omnibus book of the Eagles and digested it.

It was the Eagles’ story that sold them to me. Although I was agnostic at best about classic 70s West-coast FM rock, since joining Q in 1993 I’d moved the parameters of cool to take in all sorts of modern adult-oriented music like Sheryl Crow, Croweded House and Aimee Mann, and willingly submitted to a slow-train-comin’ appreciation of Peter Frampton, The Carpenters, Jimmy Webb and other artists of yore interviewed on equal terms by the magazine. We had no interview with Glenn Frey or Don Henley to mark the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over reunion, hence the Hibbert “think-piece”. By the time I’d edited it, it was only just recognisable as his, I’m ashamed to say, save for a few choice wisecracks, but it did read as a potted biography of the band, about whom I was now an overnight expert. I knew when Timothy B Schmit had joined (after they’d toured Hotel California and former Poco bandmate Randy Meisner had quit), and I knew how Bernie Leadon had handed in his notice (by pouring beer over Frey’s head).

Opening the gates to their music was only a matter of time. Come the end of the century, I’d invested in a greatest hits to tide me over and a number of individual albums, and it was Hotel California – and its archetypal title track, which is bigger than all of us – that hooked me in.

I never really thought of it as – tut! – “white reggae”, although there’s little mistaking the offbeat rhythm or the laid-back chukka-chukka guitar, and Henley certainly adopts a Jamaican twang when he almost sings, “de Hotel California” (Don Felder’s instrumental demo was working-titled Mexican Reggae). But we quibble over scattergories. What I’m hearing in these six-and-a-half minutes is drama, simple as that. It’s Felder’s tune, but it’s a workout without the words, and Henley and Frey’s lyrics could easily be the treatment to a short film.

If you’ve visited LA – and I clocked up most of my hours there as a music journalist, usually tailing some rock band or other and ordering jugs of frozen Margueritas on a record company tab – you’ll know how difficult it is not to hear it in your head, especially if you drive at night, or at the magic hour when the photo of the Beverly Hills Hotel on the sleeve was taken. That’s how these new kids in town apparently came up with their evocation of life in the fast lane.

Quite apart from the sheer theatre of the intro riff being played right through – by Felder, Frey and possibly Joe Walsh – and then, after a gap, played through again, Hotel California oozes confidence in so many other ways. We know the Eagles rehearsed hard and expected military precision from themselves onstage and in-studio, and although this made them seem supremely unfashionable and patrician come the end of the 70s, such professionalism and attention to detail can be enjoyed by the unselfconscious. This song is hand-tooled. The arrangement, under Bill Szymczyk – a former Navy sonar engineer, no less – is considered and panoramic. The whump-whump tom-tom beat that kicks it all off is typically prosaic. Fabled as the nadir of soft-rock noodlery, it’s not exactly a virtuosity exhibition; the beat is kept, guitars complement one another, the words coming out of Henley’s mouth are legible and po-faced, and sweetly harmonised by Frey and Meisner. But what words!

That “dark desert highway”, the “cool wind” in your hair, so far, so generic. Then the “warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air,” which is a weed reference I think I might taken a wild guess at, even before Wikipedia, and then, “up ahead in the distance,” that “shimmering light.” It’s evocative stuff, but there’s darkness on the edge of this town, too. “My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night …” it’s a horror story! The mission bell, it could be Heaven or Hell, a lit candle, voices down the corridor …

Umpteen theories abound as to what exactly the Hotel California is a metaphor for. It can’t just be a hotel in California, right? We soon meet this sad woman, “Tiffany-twisted” with the “the Mercedes bends” – a pun, incidentally that Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine would have been proud of – and then those courtyard groovers, some dancing to remember, some dancing to forget. It’s Elysian stuff. This Captain bloke, the wine, some “spirit” they haven’t had since 1969. How did this intoxicating picaresque, this cinematic allegory, this nightmare vision of the American Dream, ever get filed away under “boring” or “middle of the road”?

There seems to be some kind of torture chamber under this particular establishment, either literal, or figurative, with prisoners and a master and mirrored ceilings, and a feast where “steely knives” are plunged into an unkillable “beast”, relayed over the most delicate reprise of the song’s intro. It may not be Throbbing Gristle. But neither is it REO Speedwagon or Racey.

And if there’s a denouement as blood-chilling as this elsewhere in the annals of AOR, I’d like to hear it.

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax,” said the night man,
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!”

And then the solo. Two minutes of it. But we need some time to mull over that last line, don’t we? The night man? A passage back? Programmed? To receive? You can never leave? Who were these high-lit, hairy men from Michigan, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska and Florida (ie places not California) and did they have steely knives in their cowboy boots?

For the first time in my hitherto musically bigoted life, I danced to remember.

DJ Scott La Rock, Blastmaster KRS One & D-Nice, South Bronx (1986)

ScottLaRockBDP_south-bronx

Artist: DJ Scott La Rock, Blastmaster KRS One & D-Nice
Title: South Bronx
Description: single; album track, Criminal Minded
Label: B-Boy
Release date: 1986; 1987
First heard: 1987

Many people tell me this style is terrific …

I vividly remember back in 1982, a friend who was a couple of years older and had left school to work in Our Price in the town centre, Alan, brandished an import 12-inch by somebody called Afrika Bambaata. As he excitedly placed it on the spindle of my record player, he confirmed it to be the future of all recorded music. Planet Rock certainly sounded big, bold and different, albeit a bit fuzzy and not entirely to my taste at the time. (I was only just getting my head around Kraftwerk.) I must say though, Alan was a prophet.

It took me until 1986-87 for my own tectonic plates to shift. It was in this tumultuous period that I really went apeshit for hip-hop, a new-to-me genre that had been shaped by Afrika Bambaata when I was still at school. A graduate now, I wasn’t exactly flush, but I was living in a flat, eating boil-in-the-bag meals-for-one and spending my spare cash on Street Sounds Electro compilations, each of which, clearly numbered, acted as a vital, hit-and-miss primer into, well, street sounds. Catching up with this vast series which, thanks to the import acumen of label boss Morgan Khan, had been paving the UK dance scene since 1982, gave me a sense of purpose. John Peel played hip-hop, too, as questing as any of us schooled in rock about this vibrant, politically-charged American block party music (whatever block parties were).

I first heard South Bronx on Peel. Because I was carefully taping anything that sounded promising, I was able to play this tune until the magnetic layer wore off – although I never actually purchased it, and it wasn’t on any of the Street Sounds LPs I bought during that spree. I’d cut off the intro, in which Scott La Rock, KRS One and D-Nice politely introduce each other (“What’s up Blastmaster?” “Yo, what up, D-Nice?” etc.), so I had no real idea who was rapping and who was DJ-ing or if either of them was MC-ing or perhaps even toasting. Indeed, I had Scott La Rock down as the main rapper, as his name came first. And I didn’t really know where Boogie Down Productions came into it. I’ll tell you what I did know, though: South Bronx was as riveting a piece of music I’d heard in years.

A disarmingly simple staccato horn signature (da-da-da-da-da) announces a primitive, spidery beat with a drum-fill so Teutonically synthetic it’s almost comical, the sparse arrangement punctuated with single sampled notes, over which our three unidentified cheerleaders chant, “South Bronx, the South, South Bronx, South Bronx!” It is where you’re from and where you’re at. I had no context for this bulletin from what I didn’t know were the “Bridge Wars”, a fairly typical internecine hip-hop feud between the South Bronx and Queensbridge. Verbal border skirmishes were described in the rap, although this is an “answer song”, so I was coming in long after it had started (with Marley Marl and MC Shan’s The Bridge), to whit: “So you think that hip-hop had its start out in Queensbridge? If you popped that junk up in the Bronx you might not live.” Drum fill. Chant.

My reaction then was my reaction to much subsequent hip-hop: it was like watching an exciting film set in an urban part of the world I would be unlikely ever to visit. It was laced with threat, danger and deprivation (“Instead of trying to take out LL, you need to take your homeboys off the crack”), and seemed to tell a potted history of the musical form, name-checking Afrika and Flash, whom I already knew. I used my imagination to fill in the blanks.

B-boys gettin’ blown away, but coming outside anyway …

My planet was rocked. I subsequently learned that Scott La Rock was in fact the supple-wristed DJ of the outfit when I read of his death by gunshot, aged 25, in the NME. (The NME was all over hip-hop, and I remain grateful for the education.) The rapper whose rhymes I had so righteously and whiteously learned and parroted was KRS One (“the holder of a boulder, money folder”). The habit of rappers to rap about themselves in the first person made it a minefield without a Brodie’s Notes. Their braggadocio was new to me. None of the singers I’d admired sang about how great they were at singing, or threatening to kill singers from other bands. Call me shallow, call me a colonial, but I was electrified by the whole thing. La Rock and KRS wielded firearms on the album sleeve – an unhappy landmark for the genre, apparently – but I never had the album.

I arrived at the NME in 1988, wearing a baseball cap, but one with the Age Of Chance logo on it, as I’d welcomed the white, British indie rappers into my life with arms flung wide, and would witness Pop Will Eat Itself being coined offstage by a predominantly black audience at Brixton Academy before that year was out. It was a vexing time, but never dull.

Not all old-skool hip-hop stands the test of time. I retain a soft spot for the comedy of Doug E Fresh and the lack of self-consciousness about those early samples of Bugs Bunny, and I sometimes hanker after the sheer pioneering simplicity of much of what was on the Street Sounds LPs in the prelapsarian pre-Gangsta years: Whodini, Mantronik, Kid Frost, Roxanne Shanté, Newcleus, UTFO, early Run-DMC … so much treasure, but none more valuable than South Bronx, the South, South Bronx, South Bronx, the South, South Bronx.