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

 

Herbie Hancock, Rockit (1983)

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Artist: Herbie Hancock
Title: Rockit
Description: single; album track, Future Shock
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1983

Herbie Hancock may not even have been previously known by the generation that learned his name anew from Rockit, an out-of-the-blue instrumental hit that was so of its time, so cutting edge, so future-shocking, it would have seemed inconceivable that its creator had his roots in 1960s jazz. But Hancock – classically trained, something of a prodigy, but one who “learned” jazz with his ears – was no stranger to changing the game. As a pianist, he’d been sought out by Miles Davis for his egalitarian Second Great Quintet in 1963, where he was able to fuse elements of free jazz into something more structured.

It’s perhaps ironic that Davis’s interest in other music – soul, funk, even rock – led to the dissolution of the Quintet in the late 60s, because Hancock would prove just as open to other forms, expanding into soundtracks and experimentation with electronic instruments. Like a freeform shark, he kept moving – and still does. These days, aged 74, he’s indentured at UCLA and Harvard, lecturing on “the ethics of jazz”. Nice. And here, in the early 80s, when hip hop and electro ripped up the road map out of the ghetto, he was, Zelig-like, nailing a whole new hybrid sound to the gatepost along with fellow explorers bassist Bill Laswell and synth scientist Michael Beinhorn.

Scholars usually cite Rockit as the first hit to feature “scratching”, although Malcolm McLaren’s seminal Duck Rock album landed the same year, preceded by its early-adopting Buffalo Gals single, which as well as popularising synchronised skipping and South African sounds, also prominently showcased turntablism – a new, tactile artform unpacked by McLaren in the album’s sleeve notes as “a technique using record players like instruments, replacing the power chord of the guitar with the needle of a gramophone, moving it manually backwards and forwards across the surface of a record.”

No matter who beat whom to the North Pole of the patent office, Rockit was a hit in over a dozen countries, exploding like a rocket. There was no rapping or singing on it, just a galloping robot beat injected with sampled brass bursts, a side order of extraneous bongo, an almost atonal riff on bold, squelchy synthesiser and – dig it – a needle being moved manually across the surface of a gramophone record. Actually, to be pedantic, it’s the surface of a gramophone record being moved manually under a needle by New York’s Grandmixer DXT, the Bert Weedon of groove-wristing. It was science fiction that announced: greet the new dawn. The moreish Godley & Creme video, which featured android legs and torsos created by artist Jim Whiting, helped to make Rockit an event.

I remember hearing Afrika Bambaata’s Planet Rock for the first time and recognising a tectonic shift happening before my very ears, but Rockit was universally bought and loved. It crossed over, without, to my mind, losing a gram of its avant-gardist, underground veracity. Pretty soon, graffiti and baseball hats and rapping would be used to sell yogurts, but the subculture remained thrilling for a number of years. And Rockit does not lose its shine with the passage of time. The breaks where it’s just scratching and a vestige of the beat are pure circus.

There’s no lyric to unpack, beyond a punctuation-mark “Come on, y’all” towards the close. The music does the talking.

If it were just historic, it would be something. But to still induce dancing 30 years later is something else.

I know one thing: all this scratching is making me itch.

 

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.

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.

Blondie, Heart Of Glass (1978)

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Artist: Blondie
Title: Heart Of Glass
Description: single; album track, Parallel Lines
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978

Soon turned out to be a pain in the ass …

The plain paper sleeve with the record company logo doesn’t quite do justice to the delights contained therein. But this was 1978, which was just before punk in Northampton, and the picture sleeve revolution was still in its pupal stage. (Although punk “exploded” in 1976 in London after the Sex Pistols swore on a local news magazine programme, and thereafter in other major cities that were plugged into the zeitgeist, it didn’t arrive in the provinces until two years later, and I didn’t latch onto it until 1979.)

When Heart Of Glass – underwhelmingly the third single from Blondie’s third album – was purchased “for the house” in 1978, I must have been aware that it was a cool record by a cool band with a cool singer, but how it slotted into “punk” was probably too nuanced for my 13-year-old brain. That it was essentially a disco record (working-titled The Disco Song when first demoed in 1975) didn’t seem that important to my young ears, suddenly pricked on a regular basis by so many noises coming out of the radio in Mum and Dad’s “music centre”, whose built-in space-age cassette deck was pressed into service every Sunday in order to cherry-pick the Top 40. The essentially American schism between rock and disco held no sway at 6, Winsford Way.

Blondie were quite the package, whose sex appeal to a 13-year-old slotted in with Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman and Legs & Co. It is with infinite sadness that I accept that 13 year-olds today are already mainlining hardcore porn; for my generation, a lot more was left to the imagination, and Debbie Harry’s come-hither eyes, forces’-sweetheart looks and diaphanous dresses were the height of confused arousal. The blokes in their black suits and skinny ties looked aspirational, too, with their New York states of mind, and the sleeve of Parallel Lines was something you had to own. (I didn’t own it – we hadn’t really moved into LP ownership at that age – but you always knew someone who did.) They were a supreme singles band. But Heart Of Glass shines harder for many reasons.

One of the reasons is Clem Burke. I have retrospectively learned to appreciate the sheer craft of this most imaginative of timekeepers – able to twirl his sticks and keep the beat, but capable of what are disparagingly called “fills” that light up the room. Listen to Heart Of Glass through to its protacted fade and you will hear variation upon variation rattled out across snare and tom toms in a way that mocks the metronome of dance music. (He is said to have disapproved of the song initially.)

In the hands of hitmaking producer Mike Chapman, who’d co-authored so much dazzling British glam with Nicky Chinn, the whole of the stompy, poppy, bubblegummy Parallel Lines lifts off, but examine the way he runs Blondie’s brash new wave through a car wash and wax: a bubbling Roland CR-78 backbeat that ought to have been anathema to the CBGB gang paves the way for the intro, for which the individual components are neatly arranged in perspective. The smell of repetition really is on them. Bass, guitar, that Moroder-like pulsing synth, Burke’s whooshing hi-hat, the whole thing pre-programmed to shift key but in hybridising the synthesised and the organic it’s alive with personality and possibility. Debbie Harry’s diaphanous, triple-tracked vocal, all hard edges removed, actual words tricky to pick out, is more of a cloud than a statement. A kind of magic.

Blondie were apparently mainlining Kraftwerk during the recording, putting them well ahead of the pack in terms of the New Romantic regeneration, but it was never the song’s technical specs, nor its pioneering place in pop history, that took it to number one.

I went to CBGB in the early 90s. I’m glad I did. But it was dirty in there. Blondie did well to sell out.

Bobby Womack, Across 110th Street (1973)

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Artist: Bobby Womack and Peace
Title: Across 110th Street
Description: single; album track, Across 110th Street
Label: United Artists
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1997

Help me sing it …

Bobby Womack and I share a birthday: March 4. I was able to bond with him over this vital piece of information in 2003 when he came into 6 Music to promote his Lookin’ For A Love: The Best of 1968–1976 compilation and shot straight into my ever-fluid Top 10 favourite 6 Music guests chart (jostling with Rita Marley, Siouxsie Sioux, Kings Of Leon, Gerald Scarfe, Peter Flannery, Damo Suzuki, Glenn Gregory, Carol Decker and potty-mouthed Sylvain Sylvain). I loved meeting this soul legend – the man worked with Sly Stone, married Sam Cooke’s widow and had a song covered by the Rolling Stones when he was barely out of his teens – and it was privilege enough to bask in his aura, never mind to play out Across 110th Street, one of my favourite funk-soul numbers.

A prerequisite of live music radio it may be, but I can promise you, it’s very weird to sit in a radio studio listening to a classic song booming out over the loudspeakers – and the airwaves – while the person who wrote and recorded it 30 years before sits directly across the desk from you. It seems rude to chat over the playback and yet rude to sit in silence, so you tend to toggle between the two. (I’m guessing it’s weirder if you wrote and recorded the song.) I recall stupidly asking Bobby, “What was across 110th Street?”, just to say something, and he grinned and replied, “Listen to the lyric.” It’s good to have Bobby Womack effectively tell you to to shut up.

Penned as the theme song to the 1972 “blaxploitation” crime thriller of the same name in collaboration with bebop-schooled composer JJ Johnson  and recorded with the backing group Peace along with four other original tunes, the lyric to 110th Street says it clearly enough, although in its genesis it’s not 100% straightforward. Bobby rasps, “I was the third brother of five,” which he was, raised a Baptist in Cleveland to a minister father and church organist mother and something of a child prodigy. But the film – which I’ve never seen – is set in Harlem, not Cleveland, and 110th Street is the boundary between “white” New York and “black” New York. (This was far more of an unofficial “colour line” in the early 70s; it certainly sprang to mind when a cab driver taking me from Manhattan to JFK in the 90s drove that way to avoid the congested tunnels and, yes, we crossed 110th Street.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Womack’s autobiographical take on “breaking out of the ghetto” dovetails perfectly into an urban blues for New York, where rich and poor rub along in a melodramatically heightened way, the whooshing hi-hat, intricate guitar, anxious keyboard jitters and lazy whooo-oo-oo-ooohs of that intro setting the scene with cinematic evocation. “Doing whatever I had to do to survive” in a “day to day fight”, he dreams of “a better way of life.” What’s potent about this bulletin from the frontline of the racial struggle is its ghetto’s-eye view. Pimps “trying to catch a woman that’s weak,”  drug dealers who “won’t let the junkie go free” and that emblematic “woman trying to catch a trick on the street.”

Inevitably, this vivid, urgent, soulful lament to social exclusion and ethnic deprivation becomes a freedom song, those bah-bah orchestral stings pointing up the pledge, “Hey brother, there’s a better way out.” As Bobby said to me in 2003, years before his trendy rehabilitation by Damon Albarn and Gorillaz: listen to the lyric. And listen right to the end, when the fly-on-the-wall commentary (“look around you”) gives way to broader political observation.

The family on the other side of town
Would catch hell without a ghetto around
In every city you find the same thing going down
Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town

Every ghetto town like Cleveland, for one, whose African-American population increased sevenfold between the 20s and the 60s, as city jobs drew workers north (the ethnic mix was still over 50% black in the 2010 Census). The great soul music of the 60s may have been political by its very creation, but it was rarely explicit above a certain seam of despair. Marvin Gaye moved the goalposts at the dawn of the 70s and Across 110th Street seems to be to be in the great tradition of What’s Going On – and indeed Ball Of Confusion by Whitfield and Strong for the Temptations around the same time.

As you know from other entries in The 143, soul about boy-meet-girl is fine by me. But soul and funk with content frees your mind.

Oh yeah, that’s what the world is today.

The Velvet Underground, Venus In Furs (1967)

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Artist: The Velvet Underground
Title: Venus In Furs
Description: album track, The Velvet Underground & Nico
Label: Verve
Release date: 1967
First heard: circa 1988

I came at the Velvet Underground from the wrong direction. Which was, for me, the right direction. Alerted to their significance by all those bands who formed because of them, I identified many of their key songs via covers in the early 80s – Sunday Morning by Strawberry Switchblade, All Tomorrow’s Parties by Japan, Femme Fatale by Propaganda, Sister Ray by Joy Division, Bauhaus’s live version of I’m Waiting For The Man – and came to fully understand their disproportionate influence when Bobby Gillespie stood up and drummed a few years later. I can say with confidence that I didn’t intimately acquaint myself with a Velvets LP until the 90s, when my rock history radar wouldn’t stop twitching and I discovered the archeological beauty of HMV’s 3-for-2 warehouse-clearers.

Can coming at the Velvet Underground via Lou Reed be considered the wrong direction? In 1989, by then a cub reporter, I treated the brand new New York as a pivotal LP, and loved every pore of it. I went to see Lou live at the Hammersmith Odeon and found my heart in my mouth when he actually told someone in the circle off for talking while he was doing a link. War stories from fellow NME scribes who’d had an audience with the man (and had to wait for him) mounted up. I put on some wraparound shades, applied a wraparound tourniquet and waded in.

What I really liked about the Velvet Underground, aside from the self-evidently attractive art school context for their willful, Warholian wailings and the fact that they existed in black and white, was how slow they were. These unknowable people, one of them apparently Welsh, barely visible behind an imagined lava-lamp slide show, seemed in no hurry to change the course of narco-art-rock. Even the jittery Waiting For The Man seemed a prelude to subsequent slowdown. While I cherish Pale Blue Eyes and I’m Beginning To See The Light on the third, Cale-free album and bits of Loaded, there really is only one Velvet Underground LP, The Velvet Underground & Nico. And from it, Venus In Furs always rises to the top and blooms like an exploding plastic inevitable in a heroin muffin.

I realise now that it’s John Cale I miss on the subsequent albums, as it’s his shrieking, bird-like viola that gives Venus both its macabre momentum and its reason for being. (Perhaps it’s also Andy Warhol’s absence I lament as his curatorial influence also fades post-banana.) I know little of the source novel of the same name by Leopold Sacher-Masoch, who sounds like a rum sort, and have myself lived a stimulating enough life without recourse to sado-masochism, “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather” and “downy sins of streetlight fancies”, but isn’t that the point of the Velvet Underground? To sound like they’re having way more deviant and complicated sex than you are?

This song sounds like forbidden fruit, a sacrificial drone recorded in a secret place behind a secret door with a secret knock, in a thick fug of analgesic vapour among cross-dressing whiplash folk. It’s in the Library of Congress these days, of course, but even subversive art can be co-opted into a verified canon with the luxury of time passing. I am surely now too old and sensible to be fooled by the Velvet Underground (Venus was recorded not in Noo Yoik but in Hollywood, for God’s sake), and yet, if anything, their parallel recitation of the end of the 60s becomes more vivid and exotic. I guess part of it is academic – Venus Is Furs is important because of who made it, when they made it, where they made it, what books they were reading at the time, and for whom they played it; it’s also important because of the album from whence it was never ripp’d (one of those albums for which every track has its own Wikipedia entry) – but the bulk of its appeal remains visceral. It gets me right there.

When Lou calls out “Severin, Severin!” to the book’s submissive protagonist as he blurs the lines between master and servant, it would be rude not to get sucked into the costumes and the adornments and the bended knees of whatever wickedly unsubsidised kind of theatre this is. Cale’s caterwauling catgut, Tucker’s death-knell beat, Morrison’s almost inaudible bass, Reed’s intoxicating guitar with its strings tuned to the same note … on and on and on it marches. Who actually wants it to end after five minutes?

There’s simply no way this music was recorded ten years before punk. It’s obviously a Capricorn One-style conspiracy. There are bands making so-called rock music today that sounds like it is an early evolutionary step on the way to a generation of bands who might one day dream of sounding like the Velvet Underground, if only they could be arsed to read a book.