Indeep, Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life (1982)

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Artist: Indeep
Title: Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life
Description: single; track, Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life!
Label: Sound of New York
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

You gotta get up, you gotta get up, you gotta get down, girl

As with glam-rock thruster Blockbuster, the exclamation mark seems to be optional. But you’d be right to exclaim. The parent album of this curricular early-80s, post-boom disco mainstay bears the punctuation stroke, as if to make its claim of jockey-induced resuscitation even more exclamatory! But we’re not here to talk about its parent album. Or indeed any album. This, as so often with dance music, is not about albums. But it is about a long-player, for Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life(!) gets better with length, and when it comes in at five minutes, 40 seconds, you’ll still want it to go on for longer and never stop.

There was an album from Indeep. There was even a follow-up album a year later, called Pajama Party Time. And a Collection in 1991. But what can it have possibly collected? Indeep are, or is, or were, one record. A record that, in the mix, could remedy any ill.

Dance acts are often fronts; their two-step symphonies recorded indoors in lab conditions, then dressed in the casual finery of polite society before being released into the social network. With due care, dance acts can scrub up nicely actually. Think of Black Box in the early 90s: amazing record made by DJs and studio-tanned producers, mimed to by model Katrin Quinol, vocal actually sampled from a 1980 Loleatta Holloway single. It was a piece of theatre, accompanied by the sound of lawyers rubbing their hands in time to the funky Italo-house beat.

Dance records made by DJs and sung by ghosts were a new thing to get your head around, even in New York, a scene where disc-spinners had begun to forge a reputation in the late 1970s for being more than mere record players – a readjustment forced by the manifest destiny of rap. Pre-Sugarhill, dance records were made by artists and musicians, who as often as not stood in a line and wore identical outfits. Meanwhile, DJs had headphones and turntables and acted as conduits. But a boom in any sector creates jobs, and the rise of club culture engendered residencies and brand-loyalties, and the “name” disc jockey suddenly didn’t need to get a job on the radio to pull a crowd any more. I can’t pretend I was prominent on the New York bathhouse scene in 1977, but it must have been like Weimar Berlin for anyone “in” or “out”. I want to go to there.

If it wasn’t for the music, I don’t know what I’d do

That a DJ could save your life “with a song” is intrinsic to the cross-fade mythology surrounding the spinner that grew when people in clubs and discos started to genuflect towards the booth and wait for instructions, as if at a traditional us-and-them gig. The concept of a superstar DJ was still in the future, but the tide was turntabling. But Indeep were, or was, a musician and producer, not a DJ: New Jersey’s Michael Cleveland, then in his mid-20s, and prone to wearing a skinny tie pulled halfway down his chest. He is flanked – literally, in publicity shots – by singers Rose Marie Ramsey and Réjaine (“Reggie”) Magloire, who look much better.

Indeep nail it like this, and it’s not complicated: a basic boom-clap-boom-clap rhythm, encouraged by a just-as-prosaic hi-hat substitute (although I wouldn’t rule out it being the click-track work of an actual drummer), then we’re joined by a conversational bassline that mutters intriguingly away to itself before an auto-fill unleashes the Chic-influenced ostinato guitar vamp; at this point the framework is sound. As if to prove that this exquisitely understated sum of parts can look after itself, the 12-inch runs on for 25 seconds before anything vocal happens. Then Rose and Reggie start to testify in seductive marshmallow about last night and resistance is futile.

There’s a proper chorus (“Last night a DJ saved my life from a broken heart”) for the karaoke-inclined as well as funky asides to have fun with (“check it out”, “dub time!”) and the historic, sandpaper testimony of the unnamed DJ himself in the suddenly fashionable rap style.

There’s not a problem that I can’t fix, I can do it in the mix …

Extra value comes on what we used to call the B-side of the 12-inch with DJ Delight options, including an instrumental and an a capella version, plus free sound effects, thrown in by Cleveland as a gift to amateur mixologists in this brave new world of style-sharing: a toilet flushes (“away goes trouble down the drain”), a phone rings (“called you on the phone”), a whistle is blown, a car screeches. It’s like an afternoon play on Radio 4.

In its prescribed form, Last Night a DJ comes in at a tight 4.44 for daytime radio play, and a protracted 5.39 for the clubs. Put it on repeat and you’ll become convinced that you don’t need any other early-80s disco classic to get you through the night. I have it on a compilation of 12-inch mixes that also boasts IOU by Freez, Love Can’t Turn Around by Farley Jackmaster Funk, and Somebody’s Watching Me by Rockwell, but it still rises to the top of its class.

Having spun a few discs in a club situation in my time, I take my hat off to actual DJs, who do this for a living, and have CPR skills.

… in the mix … in the mix … in the mix

 

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

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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.

Scott Walker, Montague Terrace (In Blue) (1967)

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Artist: Scott Walker
Title: Montague Terrace (In Blue)
Description: album track, Scott
Label: Philips
Release date: 1967
First heard: 1990

Yes. I, too, was hoodwinked into the Easy Listening revival of the mid-90s when Mike Flowers stalked the earth. I, too, remembered with ironic fondness my parents’ Jack Jones and Andy Williams LPs, and enjoyed revisiting them with a straight face. But some years before it was officially decreed that “loungecore” and the theme to Animal Magic were cool, in 1990, PolyGram put out Boy Child, a fine 20-track compilation of Scott Walker’s best work, and it was with 100% sincerity that I lost myself in it.

Dimly aware of his work with the Walker Brothers through the pop radio of my youth, up to that point he’d not crossed my radar as this spicy cavalier of sleazy Euro-theatricality, from Hamilton, Ohio to swinging London via Brussels and Paris. Boy Child duly pointed me at his solo work, the albums so helpfully numbered for my listening pleasure. I knew less about Jacques Brel and only belatedly discovered that Walker was instrumental in popularising Eric Blau and Mort Shuman’s English translations, including a handful on Scotts 1-3, where he was clearly feeling the Brel influence on his self-penned tracks.

I’m still captivated by his whip-cracking, high-salt-content interpretations of Brel numbers like Jackie, Amsterdam, My Death, Next and The Girls And The Dogs, with their politically incorrect talk of “queers” and “procuring young girls”. However, it’s important to note that many of my favourite Walker tracks are neither the work of Brel and his co-writers, nor covers at all, but credited to Noel Scott Engel himself.

Having thrown myself into a Scott Walker maelstrom in order to sift out my all-time favourite, I find myself almost physically unable to listen to anything else. It all seems so mechanical, faceless and fashion-led by comparison. (This is not to do a disservice to All Other Music, but to accentuate what makes the sound of Scott Walker so different, so appealing.) As well as this piece de resistance, I’m also super-fond of Engel compositions Plastic Palace People (more of a suite), The Girls From The Streets (which you’d swear was a Brel original) and Always Coming Back To You. But I am not alone, I suspect, in falling deeply in love with Montague Terrace. (Nor looking for the actual street, in vain. I read somewhere that it’s in Bromley, not the West End, although I seem to recall Stuart Maconie recording a link for a Scott Walker radio documentary in Montague Street in Bloomsbury as if that was enough.)

The orchestral arrangement by Wally Stott (how excited was I when I discovered a link between Walker and Tony Hancock, whose theme and incidental music Stott composed?) is sublime. The expectant strings, the tinkle of the chimes, Walker crooning as if out of an open window at the moon: “The only sound to tear through the night comes from the man upstairs.” This man’s “bloated belching” and imagined propensity to “crash through the ceiling soon” evoke a similarly seedy, cheapside, harbour-lit milieu to one Brel might have painted. And then that crack of drums.

The orchestra swirls around the narrator, as if in some West End musical, Walker nudged into the background by the swell as he hits the lamenting heights with a brass-backed chorus that finally names Montague Terrace … in blue. The reveal of its colour scheme delivers us back to the limpid quiet of the intro. It’s just what grunge would do 25 years later when Walker was approved for a new generation: quiet verse, loud chorus. Or in his case, limpid verse, oompah-pah chorus.

I love the percussion. I love the shifts from foreground to background. But I love Walker’s acrobatic voice most of all. The image I conjure is of Fenella Fielding’s vamp in Carry On Screaming (released the year before), who asks Det Sgt Bung, “Do you mind if I smoke?” and then starts to literally smoulder on the chaise longue until she disappears beneath the erotic fug. There goes Scott Walker into that lively pea souper. He loves a party with a slightly threatening atmosphere. Especially if there might be some sailors. And a girl whose “thighs are full of tales to tell.”

Interestingly, as a student in the mid-80s, ahead of the curve, I’d compiled Mum and Dad’s easy listenin’ LPs onto a cassette one summer – perhaps as arch respite from the endless Goth, psychobilly and 4AD arthouse. Either way, I appreciated the potency of this expensive music. And Scott Walker’s first four solo albums – the last of which contained no covers, no Brel, the stablilisers were off – remain four of my favourites. Only Morrissey, Eno, McCartney and Peter Gabriel could make a claim for the greatness of their first four solo albums after being in a successful group.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going off to listen to Scott Walker.