The Sweet, Blockbuster! (1973)

SweetBlockbuster.jpeg

Artist: The Sweet
Title: Blockbuster!
Description: single
Label: RCA
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1973

W-w-w-wuh-we just haven’t got a c-c-c-aargh-huh!

I hate the sound of sirens. The ghostly wail is actually the sound of air being pumped through a rotor, but there’s no way of boxing it off as practical mechanics when it pierces the everyday order of things and injects a note, or two notes, of alarm. In the case of the intro of Block Buster – also written as Blockbuster!, and Block Buster! – it warns of one of the most exciting glam rock singles of the era. I was seven when it was released in January 1973. The band’s classic line-up – Brian Connolly (vocals), Andy Scott (guitar), Steve Priest (bass), Mick Tucker (drums) – had been stomping around the pub/club circuits of Greater London and North Wales individually and in various configurations since the early 60s, playing R&B and bubblegum pop longer than I had been alive. In August 1970, they coalesced. And I started Abington Vale Primary School.

Painlessly guided into Bacofoil jump suits and winched aboard heels to match the age and destined for greatness under the industrial songwriting aegis of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman and producer Phil Wainman, the lads were only heard vocally on the first Sweet records until their musicianship was recognised and they were allowed to take over from the session players and even write their own b-sides.

To call these androgynous, pouting, stack-heeled, spaniel-haired hod-carriers of legend a “singles band” is an understatement. Between late 1971 and early 1974 they had eight consecutive UK hits, six of which went Top 5, one of which was number one, and not one of these hits was on an album. The Sweet were a band who knew that if you couldn’t suck it in three minutes and 13 seconds, it wasn’t worth a fuck. (Most of their UK hits throughout this golden run also busted the block in Australia, Europe, North America, South Africa and Canada; in total, they had 15 smashes in the Top 40, their last post the spooky, self-penned Love is like Oxygen in 1978.)

What’s strange about The Sweet, and their sweet-smelling success, is that while glam-racket contemporaries Slade and Wizzard are still hailed as a national treasures, with Noddy Holder, Dave Hill and Roy Wood cast as bona fide Queen Mums, David Bowie is an immortal, and even Marc Bolan is an impish icon whose legend was sealed in arboreal tragedy, the Sweet seem to have slipped into a nostalgic vacuum where ridicule in snarky captions on Top of the Pops compilations is their legacy. This must be rectified.

As a child on the edge of my first breakthrough, I favoured the Sweet and Slade equally, and held Alice Cooper and Gary Glitter in the same pin-up regard, but it was Steve Priest who captured my heart one Thursday night when Nan Mabel was round to hit her mark and ask me if the pancaked bassist was a man or a woman. (In truth, I wasn’t 100% certain myself, but it’s amazing how liberal you can be at seven because I knew that he was smashing.) I must have seen Little Willy and Wig-Wam Bam performed on the Pops before Blockbuster! summitted and remained at the toppermost for five weeks in the first months of ’73, but neither is stamped on my memory. I won’t have been philosophically and politically nuanced enough at that age to appreciate the proto-punk provocation of Priest wearing a Nazi uniform from the BBC costume department for one of the Blockbuster! recordings, but it helped to nail them to the post of posterity.

Out of that siren comes the song: a percussive guitar signature into a trucker’s beat, with handclaps, a thumping bass, celestial harmonies (“Ah-ahhhhhh“), and a duality of rock’n’roll riffs, one acoustic, the other electric. Then, a warning.

You’d better beware, you’d better take care, you’d better watch out if you’ve got long, black hair

I never really took it this literally at the time, but the lyrical thrust is that an “evil” gentleman called Buster needs to caught, taught and most pertiently blocked from “stealing your woman out from under your nose.” We’re advised not to look into his eyes, as there’s something “going on behind his disguise,” and the police have been called (“they’re running about”). He sounds like a bad hombre. And although “nobody knows where Buster goes,” (no wonder Steve hasn’t got a clue what to do), the chorus is more optimistic:

There’s got to be a way
To Block Buster!

As if to confirm Chinn, Chapman and Wainman’s combined debt to Phil Spector, the bridge at two minutes is engorged by timpani. While there is a compartmental cleanliness to the arrangement of each element in this gold blend of perfect pop, it has definite dirt under its fingernails, the perfect blend of spotless and spotty for your blooming generation.

The Sweet story ends sourly, with the decline of singer Brian Connolly after being beaten up, a cancelled support at the Who’s Charlton gig in ’74, an internal power struggle just as the band took control of their own songs and production, and the inevitable split in ’79. Andy Scott and Steve Priest both lead the inevitable dual incarnations of the Sweet (prosaically, Andy Scott’s Sweet and Steve Priest’s Sweet), with Connolly and Tucker no longer with us. If they’d only recorded Blockbuster!, their place in pop’s Valhalla would be assured. They got too much, they got too high.

Blockbuster! was the first single I ever bought.

Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding (1982)

Shipbuilding

Artist: Robert Wyatt
Title: Shipbuilding
Description: single
Label: Rough Trade
Release date: 1982; 1983
First heard: 1983

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

I wish I had the guts just to type out those three lines and leave it there. What more needs to be said about this lyric, written by Elvis Costello, that’s as profound as Strange Fruit, A Nation Once Again or What’s Going On, and a tune, written by Clive Langer, as mournful and affecting as the best blues? Shipbuilding couldn’t have come at a better time. It was the worst of times, in fact: the cruel, galvanising pomp of the first Thatcher administration, in which re-election hopes were boosted by a long-distance war with a South American country that claimed sovereignty over two island off its own coast that had been declared a “royal colony” in 1841. Such dominions were usually seized by war, and for trade purposes in the age of Empire. Whether or not the Falkland islands should or should not be classed territorially as “British” rather rests upon your feelings as to whether or not the same ought still to be said in the late 20th century of Virginia, Singapore, Rhodesia, Malta, Kenya or indeed any other far outpost stamped with the royal seal at a time when Britannia ruled the waves.

Well I ask you

The story of this mild-mannered, velvet-gloved protest song is complicated. In short, Langer, formerly of Deaf School, by 1982 a producer of great note (usually with Alan Winstanley: Madness, Dexys, The Teardrop Explodes), wrote the song for Robert Wyatt, formerly drumming vocalist with Soft Machine, now solo and surely the West’s most famous paraplegic Communist. Langer asked Elvis Costello (whose landmark Punch The Clock album he and Winstanley would produce a year later) to write some better lyrics and he did. Boy, did he.

The boy said, “Dad they’re going to take me to task, but I’ll be back by Christmas”

The single recording, produced by Langer, Winstanley and Costello, with Mark Bedford of Madness on double bass, Steve Nieve of the Attractions on piano, Langer on keys and Martin Hughes a quiet whizz on the drums, was released on Rough Trade in August 1982, two months after the capture of Port Stanley and the Argentine surrender. Too soon. A reissue in April 1983 charted, a historic first for Rough Trade. 

Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

A modest number 35 chart hit, then, but already hailed in corners as a modern classic and number 2 in the 1982 Festive Fifty behind New Order’s Temptation. (It was number 11 in the all-time Festive Fifty compiled in 2000.) Wyatt’s performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test remains a definitive document, and the beret and the beard worn in the little-shown video harken to his jazz roots. He had been paralysed from the waist down in 1973, but his appearance in a wheelchair – quite an arresting sight in those pre-diverse TV times (he’d had to argue his way onto Top Of The Pops when he had a bigger hit with I’m A Believer in 1974; the producer seriously tried to sit him in a chair so as not to frighten the faint-hearted) – seemed to amplify the power of the song. It does not shout. It does not scream. It does not call in expectation of a response. It cannot be sung at barricades. And yet its rage is intense. Wyatt’s high, plaintive vocal, tempered against overstatement by that hint of a lisp, could break your heart in two.

Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin

It has all the will in the world. It cuts deep with Costello’s observation that death in the South Atlantic will mean new shoes and a bike for working-class families on the Clyde. We should never forget that 255 British service personnel died in the pointless conflict and 649 Argentinians (including 16 civilian sailors), as well as three civilians on the Island. I was 17 at the time, and greatly affected. The Crass single How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead? is the only other that I remember to address this electioneering war. Sadly, it did not chart. Costello doesn’t write in slogans; rather, he pricks our conscience with passing, well-known idioms like “next of kin” and “back by Christmas”. In such short, simple phrases, he recalls other wars, other conflicts, other political campaigns and other political casualties. He even gets away with a pun (“take me to task”), proving that wit is permitted in all seriousness. The choice of “somebody” and “someone” before “people” is another sublime lyrical decision.

Sometimes, and it may only happen a couple of times per generation, a combination of voice, lyric, tune, instrumentation and timing says it all. Even, in this case, the choice of sleeve illustration: Stanley Spencer’s magnificent Shipbuilding On The Clyde series, painted between 1940-46 as a response to the Second World War, when a lot of rumours were spread around town. (The owner of the Glasgow shipyard where Spencer worked, Lithgow, did not approve of his interpretation, which is all you need to know about the art’s greatness.) You do wonder sometimes when you get to my age whether a constellation of talent as rich and influential as the one in the early 80s that gave British music 2-Tone, Stiff, Rough Trade, Costello, Langer and Winstanley could ever happen again.

Amid all the emotion and solidarity and protest, I remain in awe of Costello’s rhyming of “filled in,” “killed in,” “skilled in,” and “shipbuilding.” The Stanley Spencer of the Thatcher years.

Sly & The Family Stone, Family Affair (1971)

Sly-family-affair

Artist: Sly & The Family Stone
Title: Family Affair
Description: single; album track, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Label: Epic
Release date: 1971
First heard: circa 1970s

How are you with hand-me-downs? Have you spent any considerable time in secondhand clothes? Were you an Oxfam hipster before the term “vintage” legitimised the wearing of a dead man’s shoes? Have you driven a used car that smelt of a sales rep’s nicotine habit? Would you eat off a dining companion’s plate? Did your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight? If your answer to any of these is yes, then you’re probably a fan of There’s A Riot Goin’ On, one of the down-and-dirtiest LPs ever made and all the more legendary and essential for that. Even the flag on the front is grubby.

The sixties are dead. It’s on America’s tortured brow that Mickey Mouse has grow up a cow. Sylvester Stone, the man who fused psychedelic rock to funk and soul, is behaving erratically. He’s in with the Black Panthers and gangsters. He’s been missing gigs. It’s two years since the Family Stone’s last hit, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). The violin case he carries with him? Full of coke and PCP, by all accounts. But Sly has a plan. He’s holed up, like a horny Brian Wilson, at The Plant in Sausolito, or at his home studio in Bel Air, and he’s recording like crazy while his pet monkey tries to fuck his pet dog, by all accounts. He’s making his own Exile On Main Street, whether consciously, unconsciously or otherwise.

Though hailed, and rightly so, as a pop classic, There’s A Riot Goin’ On (its title an answer to the question posed by Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On?) is pure filth. The Funk courses through its every capillary. The sound is muddied and muffled, like there’s fluff permanently on the needle. And yet it sings! It zings! it brings! It soars! It punches through the fog of punished magnetic tape! For an ideas-clogged meisterwerk, it even concealed two three-minute chart hits to soothe the record company’s savage breast – not to mention shipping half a million in its first year of release after summiting Billboard in its own, flag-draped right. The most decisive of the pair was Family Affair, tucked away side one, track four. (The featherlight follow-up Runnin’ Away, a blueprint for all of De La Soul, is side two, track five.)

Amid all the gung-ho experimentation, jazz freewheeling, freakouts and yodeling, Family Affair feels as honed and polished as a diamond. There’s nothing here to frighten the horses: a clicky beatbox beat, a steady rubber-band bass, some Rhodes swirls from Billy Preston, Rose Stone’s repeated, magic-hour refrain (“It’s a family affair/It’s a family affa-ai-ai-air“), overlaid by Sly’s oak-smoked tones, riffing. The cumulative effect is akin to voodoo; though hooky, singalongable and populist in construct, it’s sodden with black history and as liable to crack as Sly’s voice. What went into the making of this record is right there in the grooves: the insomnia, the introspection, the self-medication, the peek over the lip of insanity, the whole superfly soap opera with that revolving door for fragrant female auditionees whose tryouts were committed to tape and then recorded over by the next candidate, by all accounts. This is why the grooves overfloweth.

Out of all the drug-taking, love-making and piss-taking arises a social conscience every bit as vivid as the one that beats beneath Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street or Marvin’s Inner City Blues, and achieved in fewer words.

One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn

Mom loves the both of them
You see it’s in the blood
Both kids are good to Mom
“Blood’s thicker than the mud”

Quite the chronicler. For a man whose vision must have been permanently clouded by what the actor Steven Toast would later rhyme with Children In Need, Sly’s perception was keen. And was there ever a more hopeful vignette than this?

Newlywed a year ago
But you’re still checking each other out, yeeeeeeaaaaaahhh!

For a song whose instrumentation actually sounds as if it’s in the process of tripping over right the way through, Family Affair is in full control of its faculties. It might not pass a breathalyser test, but you’d want it at your birthday party. Head in the clouds, brain in its pants, a fist raised to black power and the other hand up an available skirt – this is a sex, politics, social change and happy hour in one hit. Nobody wants to blow. Nobody wants to be left out.

The Beach Boys, Good Vibrations (1966)

Good_Vibrations_single

Artist: The Beach Boys
Title: Good Vibrations
Description: single; album track, Smiley Smile
Label: Capitol
Release date: 1966; 1967
First heard: circa 1970

Ooh, bop, bop

I cannot tell a lie. I saw the split-level Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy and it inspired me to reinvest. In the film, directed by Bill Polhad, Wilson is deftly and affectionately dramatised in studio-tanned situ amid all the oneupmanship, invention, pretention, fastidiousness, excitation, pep and beauty of the making of Pet Sounds, on which this stellar “pocket symphony” isn’t found. Good Vibrations is, in that respect, like the subsequent Strawberry Fields by that other band: a standalone single that exists in permanent danger of eclipsing the standalone LP constructed around it, but upon which it does not appear. It’s so good, you always forget and assume it’s on Pet Sounds. But it isn’t. (Where would it go? ) It came out as a single six months after the album, and wasn’t rehomed until September the following year, on Smiley Smile. It’s essentially a stray.

It’s tempting to attempt to describe the way this piece unfolds. (To call it a “song” seems impertinent.) But there’s too much going on at so many levels – including molecular – it would be a fruitless exercise without a degree in musicology. Indeed, musicologists seem to lay down their textbooks and gawp in non-academic awe at Good Vibrations, vouchsafing that the usual rules don’t apply. But it’s fine, I think, to pick out its greatest bits. The luminescent Hammond line that bounces the song into life. Those spare, almost counterintuitive slaps on the snare, delivered by Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew, a platoon of “first call” sessioneers every bit as legendary as the Funk Brothers or the MGs to my ears. The spooky theremin, which jellies in during the chorus, over the boot-deep tones of Mike Love, subsequently pedestalled by Carl and Brian Wilson’s harmonies. These ascending Filo layers turn even the first chorus into a crescendo and we haven’t hit the minute mark yet.

The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge structure is a decoy. It genuflects to R&B convention with its repetitions and toe-tapping potential, but then, at approximately 01.42, the clanky pub piano signals a twist. Biographer Jon Stebbins wrote that the section which follows the second chorus “might be called a bridge under normal circumstances, but the song’s structure takes such an abstract route that traditional labels don’t really apply.”

I don’t know where but she sends me there ...

Suspicions from the squares at Capital that Good Vibrations might in some way nod to psychedelic drug use are clearly unfounded. These elations and sensations are self-evidently rooted in good, clean, honest fun. “She goes with me to a blossom world”? It’s a walk in the park. (Brian said he’d written it on dope and not acid anyway, so not to worry.)

You can read elsewhere about how “radical disjunctions in key, texture, instrumentation and mood” make the track what it is. But let us not forget the way it makes you want to sing along and nod your head and, in my case, attempt to air-drum along with Blaine. (Good luck with that.) This is feelgood music with enough content to launch a thousand essays. You can think along with it. The sleigh bells ought to have been a kitchen sink too many (less sleigh bell!), especially for a song recorded between February and September 1966 in the Golden State, but if Brian Wilson wants to borrow Christmas, he can. And everybody loves the bit where it almost runs silent, just the harmonica and hi-hat, then:

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

And we’re back in the room. With locomotive cello this time, perhaps the song’s greatest contribution to popular music, rewarded with a key role in the fadeout.

I’m not the world’s most qualified Beach Boys professor – I didn’t even own Pet Sounds until the early 90s – but subsequent immersions tells me that when they were good, they were very, very good, and there’s little to touch the period between Brian’s panic attack in December 1964 and when Dennis met Manson in spring 1968. Although on certain wistful occasions I prefer the instrumental Let’s Go Away For A While or the harpsichord-assisted autobiography I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, in a pointless throwdown between Good Vibrations and God Only Knows, the former edges it for sheer operational bravado.

 

 

Althea & Donna, Uptown Top Ranking (1977)

AltheaDonnaUptownTopRankingArtist: Althea & Donna
Title: Uptown Top Ranking
Description: single; album track, Uptown Top Ranking
Label: Lightning Records
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1977

There’s no point in being coy about it: I once sang Uptown Top Ranking, the number one one-hit of Jamaican teens Althea Forrest and Donna Reid, in the appropriate patois and ting, onstage at no less than London’s famous 100 Club as part of a particularly memorable Karaoke Circus night. It is fair to say that my interpretation, as heartfelt and affectionate as it was, lacked a certain amount of pop and style, and was no match for the carefree unselfconsciousness of the irresistible original.

Inaccurately billing the artists as “Althia” & Donna on the original sleeve and label, Lightning was a subsidiary of Warner Bros, although the post-colonial plunder of Jamaica’s rich seam of musical ore really did help to broadcast it around it around the world, and it’s accepted now that reggae fed into punk, leading to the UK ska revival of the early 80s. Uptown Top Ranking might have seemed like a pop novelty to some in 1977 when it bogled up to the toppermost of the poppermost – two slightly cocky teens boasting of being “hip and ting” and threatening to give lecherous men a heart attack with their ’alter back (the “halter back” being a vest held up by a single strap, if you’re not fashion-inclined) – but its jerky charm is not withered by age. It feels now like an authentic explosion of youthful attitude.

Typically, it was John Peel who championed the track, and the duo, just as he did a few years later with Musical Youth, whose Pass The Dutchie was also a knee-high number one smasheroo. Although his patronage of reggae is more readily emblemised by dope-cloud dub, it’s to the great man’s credit that he was also a reggae pop-picker. As mentioned elsewhere, I was the right age circa post-punk and 2-Tone – and in the right ie. wrong place, geographically ie. Northampton – to find the West Indian influence effortlessly alluring. I can’t to this day confidently translate every romantically coloquialised couplet in Uptown Top Ranking, but you get the picture.

See me ’pon the road I hear you call out to me
True you see mi inna pants and ting

The protagonists’ focus on couture is paramount to the song’s trajectory. To the clothes hanger bearing “pants” (the “hot” variety we might presume) and that cardiac-risky “‘alter back”, we may add a “khaki suit”.

Meanwhile, the addition of a “likkle bass”

make me wine up me waist

Which, as any student of patois will tell you, refers to a form of dancing normally done by women, which involves gyrating the mid-section of body. Nothing to do with a glass of pinot. There are site-specific coordinates, too, which work best if you don’t look them up.

Drivin’ through Constant Spring
Them check sey me come from cosmo spring

Constant Spring is a residential district of Kingston, Jamaica, and I know this because I looked it up and that’s all its Wikipedia entry reveals other than the fact that it’s mentioned in Uptown Top Ranking. Cosmo spring? No idea. All I know now, as someone who’s not only looked up the lyric but learned it, off by heart, and sung it to a clubful of people through amplification, is that when I first heard it, in 1977, I made no effort whatsoever to understand it. I was transported by the order of its syllables, and you could just about sing along to the title, and to the manifesto line, “No pop, no style, something something roots.” It was sufficient.

Since we know for historical fact that the 1970s were a troubled decade, sexually, not least in Television Centre, where the 17- and 18-year-old Forrest and Reid performed their hit for Top Of The Pops that February, it’s reassuring to find that the pair seem so strident; their musical youthfulness appears to have escaped without patronisation or worse. That appearance, backed by a turtlenecked Top Of The Pops Orchestra who I suspect were largely non-Caribbean, survives as an organic little gem. Nothing about the packaging of the girls or their records (they followed up with an LP and further singles for Virgin’s Front Line, but none charted) seems exploitative, even in retrospect.

Althea and Donna get a writing credit along with Errol Thompson, one half of The Mighty Two with producer Joe Gibbs (the peak of whose endless studio CV must surely be Two Sevens Clash), so we might assume the young women had some input into the lyric. Let’s hope so. (The b-side of the UK issue, Calico Suit, is credited only to The Mighty Two.) Although the TOTP rendition is robbed of its roots, the vocal keeps it real, but you must return to the original recording to savour the full effect, from lazy opening rimshot to that teasing fade. But until you’ve actually learned precisely when to go “Ow!” (as in: “Watch how we chuck it and ting” “Ow!”), you’re a reggae weekender.

Ow!

Kanye West, Jesus Walks (2004)

KayneWestCollegeD

Artist: Kanye West
Title: Jesus Walks
Description: single; album track, The College Dropout
Label: Rock-A-Fella
Release date: 2004
First heard: 2004

I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long

I think I know what you’re thinking. But I used to like Tony Blair, Woody Allen and Christopher Hitchens, too, until I changed my mind (or in fact, to a degree, until they changed theirs). In the same way, we shouldn’t allow the global court jester Kanye West has turned into since his first two albums in 2004 and 2005 to blot his once good name. That was some run. (I know, other people retain a candle for his third LP Graduation in 2007, but he’d lost me by then and Auto-Tune has had him ever since.)

Having grown up with hip-hop, I’ve often despaired of the way it turned out in mainstream terms. The most powerful, profitable and influential music since piano-tie rock’n’roll, hip-hop has grown bloated and increasingly meaningless. Certainly, pockets of sincerity and invention exist, on the fringes (Death Grips, MF Doom, briefly Clipse – and those date me), but since the Wu-Tang Clan’s glory days, little has floated my boat. This is not snobbery; I’ve been into Jay-Z, had a crack at Nas, but in the main, I find that the genre’s been co-opted by careerists and poppets.

In 2004 (God, that’s a decade ago), it looked very much like we’d found a new saviour. Kanye, a man with no gangsta credentials, had overcome the industry commonplace that he was a producer not a performer through grit and determination, and crafted College Dropout pretty much singlehandedly. It was a visionary record, personal, palatable, ambitious and honest. The calibre of guest stars didn’t hurt, of course (Jamie Foxx, Common, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, also credited as executive producer), but this was essentially all his own work. A star was born. I knew nothing about him when I first listened to the LP, but plenty by the time I’d finished.

He’s not the first rapper to thank God, but there’s something almost militantly theist about Jesus Walks, far away the best track on the album and a hymn to convert any unbeliever. It had me at the military “Order Arms!” at the beginning. Remember, I’m the bloke who bought the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack album on the strength of Abigail Mead (Vivian Kubrick) and Nigel Goulding’s title song, which adds a modern beat to R. Lee Ermey’s drill instruction and attendant Marine call-and-response. The Bill Murray comedy Stripes was the first time I’d encountered the melodic singing of square-bashing US platoons but it kindled my imagination. Jesus Walks, built upon a similar marching rhythm, also samples Walk With Me, performed by The ARC (Addicts Rehabilitation Center) Choir and (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go by Curtis Mayfield. If there’s a message above, it’s that God is good.

It is to West’s credit that a lyric which had singlehandedly failed to win him a record deal during his wilderness period because open Christianity wasn’t “marketable” in a world of 50 Cent (West would have the last laugh there) should be so robustly and thumpingly framed in song. If you’d never heard Kanye before this tune, you’d be intrigued by his opening remarks: “We at war, we at war with terrorism, racism … but most of all, we at war with ourselves.”

Now, I was still visiting Northampton regularly when the Jesus Army became a ubiquitous sight around town in their camouflaged bus and have long associated Christians with soldiers, “marching as to war.” Jesus Walks is a natural progression of that association and makes a compelling rap: “God, show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’-a beat me down!”, he implores, that voice gritty and honeyed at the same time, angry and beatific. Not big on cussing, West has his urban cake and eats it by affecting the cry of “Niggaz!” [EXPLICIT CONTENT] as if it were some kind of echo and not him uttering it in the stanza:

Where restless [niggaz!] might snatch yo’ necklace
And next these
[niggaz!] might jack yo’ Lexus
Somebody tell these
[niggaz!] who Kanye West is

Third person: always a warning sign of megalomania, but we’ll let it pass. Such intrigues are common on this record, which is lyrically fleet and thematically grounded. When he talks of being “breathless”, he draws breath and wheezes in a way that will spook asthmatics everywhere, every time. He compares the way he believes in Jesus to “the way school needs teachers” and “the way Kathie Lee needed Regis” (a reference to the syndicated morning TV hosts). If he is testifying, he displays the common touch, insisting he “ain’t here to argue about His facial features,” or to “convert atheists into believers.”

He’s no angel after all, as implied by his fear of talking to God when it’s been “so long” since his last confession, or ecumenical equivalent.

It’s a pretty direct and inclusive concoction. The march time. The instructions. The shopping list of “hustlas, killas, murderas, drug dealas, even tha strippers”, accompanied by the choir invisible’s firm assurance: Jesus walks with them. For an artist-producer with all the tricks of the motherboard at his disposal, he and his collaborators are more than capable of stripping back and striking a line through some of the excesses that would dog his subsequent output.

It wasn’t long before West became the scourge of awards ceremonies, invading the stage when he didn’t win, and in the most famous case, interrupting Taylor Swift (“I’m-a let you finish”) and bloodsucking her moment of glory in 2006. Kanye the oxygen thief was not a good look. I could have lived with these antics if his music hadn’t started to reflect this messianic tendency.

It’s a free country and the lifestyle is not the artist (I didn’t go off Woody Allen’s films because of that business with his step-daughter, but because his films went bad). Kanye West can marry a woman from a reality show, start his own fast food franchise, design shoes, and it wouldn’t matter. But when a musician becomes more famous for being famous than for being a musician, I instinctively find myself looking elsewhere for stimulation. (It is not a pose to say that I didn’t really know who Kim Kardashian was for some years into her reign. The day I started writing this entry, her photograph was on the front of most of the smaller-format national newspapers, because you can see the whole of her large bum in it.)

None of which vampires the phenomenal impact of The College Dropout, or the aftershock of its follow-up Late Registration, whose singles Touch The Sky, Gold Digger and Diamonds From Sierra Leone shone brightly. One critic described Kanye’s arrival as “post-thug”, and I guess that’s why it felt as refreshing as De La Soul once did. But De La Soul never embarrassed themselves. Or sold their souls to Auto-Tune.

Remember him this way. After all, Woody Allen pulled one out of the hat with Midnight In Paris.

Chic, Le Freak (1978)

chic-le-freak

Artist: Chic
Title: Le Freak
Description: single; album track, C’est Chic
Label: Atlantic
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978

Listen to us, I’m sure you’ll be amazed …

Though my formative dancing years were complicated by hormones and punk rock, I was no wallflower, as romantic as that may autobiographically be. Once the school disco had established itself as a pre-sexual playground where manoeuvres could be rehearsed in the dark in civilian clothes, to not dance was to not participate in the social whirl. You couldn’t haltingly approach a girl you fancied for a slow dance at the end if you’d spent the previous couple of Fanta-sipping hours glued to a plastic seat. You had to spin it to be in it, and you had to be in it to win it.

I consulted my childhood diaries in order to assess the vivacity of the discotheque culture at Abington Vale Middle School, and am able to confirm that there were two discos on the French trip in 1978 (although I didn’t go to the second one, which I decreed to be “chronic”), and another which I called a disco but was actually a house party at Nina Thadani’s. I hadn’t really started dancing yet. After graduating to Weston Favell Upper School in September, things hotted up. There was a disco that Christmas, held in the sixth form common room but for third years only, at which, I chronicled, “everyone freaked out.” This was the year of Le Freak, aptly French-inflected in the cross-channel circumstances. At this milestone social event, I smooched with Liz Carr. I also did a pogo with John Lewis and a “footsie” with John, Bill, Lee, Si and George, who were the cool kids. (Even though a footsie would be imminently besmirched by Shakin’ Stevens.)

By March 1979, I had thrown my lot in with punk and would only dance – or effect the Doc Martened version of a violent can-can – to approved tunes, which remained in the minority. It is recorded that a disco in March 1980 boasted tunes by the Sex Pistols and the Skids; come December, we high-kicked to the Undertones, Sham 69 and, generously, the Tourists. But as my circle approached full adolescence, we occasioned to go to organised discos in clubs or booked rooms, and, post-enlightenment and keener to move closer to the other gender, we’d dance to a wider range of music: the Whispers, say, followed by the Jam, followed by Diana Ross. Which takes us back to Chic.

There remains no limited company as likely to make me dance than the Chic Organisation, especially in my older bones. Any one of their five consecutive UK Top 10 hits from 1977 to 1978 will do the trick, but there’s something alchemical about Le Freak’s siren call – that “one-two aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” – which yanks you onto the dancefloor. I’m right, aren’t I? You simply do not want to miss another second of its one-two-three-and-a-half-minutes of aerobic bliss. This song is like a form of conscription. Resistance is futile. (I hate being urged by others to get up on the dancefloor, and petulantly pull back, but when Chic are asking, I’m dancing.)

Sometimes it’s best not to lift the bonnet on perfection, although producer Steve Levine did just that with the mastertapes on his Radio 2 show The Record Producers and to hear the individual engine parts of Le Freak did not rob it of its mystery. So efficiently are Nile Rodgers’ forensic guitar, Bernard Edwards’ intricate bass and Tony Thompson’s surgical drums entwined in that intro, you wonder why Mount Rushmore wasn’t re-chiselled as a result and all those dead presidents replaced. As with a lot of monumental music, what’s left out is as important as what’s left in, and in the case of the intro, it’s a bass drum beat where that beat ought to go. Listen to it now. That’s mostly just Rodgers, a hi-hat and a snare. It’s the feeling you get when you ride a bike without holding the handlebars.

Had I owned the parent album – and who realistically owned disco albums? – I would have had the five-and-a-half-minute 12-inch mix, but there’s something pure about doing what has to be done to the seven-inch. There’s no fat on the record, and there can be no fat on your bodily expression. I don’t know if it’s Luci Martin or Alfa Anderson who sings the line, “Le Freak, c’est Chic,” – it could be both – but its a clarion to anyone yet to fully appreciate the international sexiness of this musical form, rooted in the warmth and sorrow of soul, schooled in the double-jointedness of funk, and smoothed of all rough edges in the studio by, in Chic’s case, the sages who wrote and played it (and engineer Bob Clearmountain). Songs like Le Freak were such staples of the disco, and remain so, you didn’t need to own them. They were being-out records, not staying-in records. They were in fact “being out, out” records.

I may have fancied myself a 14-year-old punk, but even at the height of my commitment to anarchy, I knew that disco didn’t suck. (What kind of a philistine would think that, even for a pose?) There was only so much jumping up and down you could do before your head hurt. I was never the greatest dancer, but I knew the primal power of fancy footwork’s release, even before I boast bum-fluff.

Chic wrote, produced and sometimes played some of the most significant dance music of my teens. I have hymned Diana Ross’s Diana album elsewhere. The canon of Sister Sledge twirls for itself. I even have room for Let’s Dance, which Rodgers underpinned like a master craftsman. In 2013, with Edwards and Thompson gone but never forgotten, Get Lucky reinstated Rodgers in the firmament.

Though for many of us there will always a hint of the Proustian about hearing Le Freak, this is a rush that never loses its momentum.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa –