Massive Attack, Unfinished Sympathy (1991)

Unfinishedsympathy

Artist: Massive (Massive Attack)
Title: Unfinished Sympathy
Description: single; track, Blue Lines
Label: Wild Bunch
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

Heyyy hey hey-hey

Always good fun: a partial list of songs withdrawn from air by the BBC during the Gulf War in 1990-91

Abba Waterloo
The Bangles Walk Like An Egyptian
The Beatles Back In The USSR
Kate Bush Army Dreamers
Cher Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)
The Cure Killing an Arab
Cutting Crew I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight
Jose Feliciano Light My Fire
Roberta Flack Killing Me Softly
Elton John Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting
Lulu Boom Bang A Bang
Rick Nelson Fools Rush In
Queen Flash
Bruce Springsteen I’m On Fire
Stevie Wonder Heaven Help Us All

Indeed. Massive Attack had bigger problems during the blackout. They were forced to foreshorten their name to “Massive” to avoid the BBC shit-list of unpatriotic words while the Scud missiles and the B-52s exchanged fire. Bristol’s trailblazing trip-hop faculty made a rare concession to wood-panelled elite institutions and avoided ending up on the infamous list of 67 titles deemed unsuitable for life during wartime. Radio silence, especially on wonderful Radio 1, was unthinkable. Somerset and Avon’s co-operative of collectivist cool reasoned that it was better to be heard than unheard while the bombs dropped.

That said, Unfinished Sympathy wasn’t released until after the war, in February 1991. (Desert Shield shocked and awed from August 1990 to January 1991, and Desert Storm was over in February, so just in time for culture to resume.) But the question remains: how can you have a day without a night? You can’t. Just as you can’t have silence without a noise, or peace without a war. When I think of Massive Attack, I imagine dusk and all its subtleties, illusions and possibilities. It’s where they live, in that twilight zone between day and night. In the shadows. At the back of the hall. Under cover of darkness. Blue Lines, the debut, was a finished symphony, a new kind of dance record from an old set of heads on young shoulders with ready foreshortened names: 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom. (Thinking about it, Mushroom ought to have been banned during the Gulf, too.)

Into every dream home a little darkness. The world seemed ready for the heady aromatic moan of trip hop when it found a shape and was given a name at the dawn of the 90s. Run on inventive studio beats at a leisurely speed, cloudy with the fug of war and wearing a late-nite philosophical hat, it was post-rave comedown music that mixed drum and bass with a multi-media appetite for reconstruction. Robert Del Naja – 3D – is a graffiti artist and a contemporary of Banksy’s (whatever happened to him?), and there’s a sense of Massive Attack being less a band and more of an initiative, possibly council-funded, certainly artistic. Bristol is a bohemian port city which has seen everything pass through at one time or another.

An impatiently tapped hi-hat, some rogue warm-up scratching, a resonant bass drum, a typically relaxed count-in (“two … three”), someone nattering in the background and then the first epochal movement falls into step. The hi-hat is suddenly and all at once augmented by a rattling chorus of trebly cymbals and bells, then, over deeply cinematic chords, the first heyyy hey hey-hey – a distress signal as much as a chorale, trapped in the middle distance. I always assumed it to be sung by Shara Nelson, but it’s a sample of a high male voice from John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, possibly bassist Ralphe Armstrong. You see, it’s wrong to make assumptions about this record.

The string section sounds so parodically luxurious you start to wonder if it’s actually the work of synths, but Massive Attack were convinced to travel down the M4 and record the strings at Abbey Road with arranger Wil Malone, blowing their budget in the process. The core beat is expertly extracted and spun out of the brief percussive opening of an instrumental recording by bebop trombonist JJ Johnson, Parade Strut (featured on his score to the 1974 blaxploitation film Willie Dynamite). Magpie eyes are always hungry for a prize.

Shara Nelson makes herself felt at 30 seconds.

I know that I’ve been mad in love before

As well as the siren of this remarkable record, Nelson is also one of five songwriters credited, along with the three chaps and co-producer Jonathan “Jonny Dollar” Sharp. The germ of the song was hers. She means it when she sings of the “curiousness of your potential kiss” that has got her “mind and body aching.” While she channels the great soul singers of the past, she also luxuriates in echo and space that didn’t come as standard in the studios of the 60s. The gentleman about whom she is aching, is a book that she has opened – “and now I’ve got to know much more.” It’s easy to be distracted by the studio hardware and the collection-tin percussion and the melodramatic orchestration: the heart of the matter is a protagonist on the cusp of a love that may consume us all. There are two gulfs at play here.

Like a soul without a mind
In a body without a heart
I’m missing every part

There’s more nattering over the end section, as if someone has left the talkback on in the studio, while the various parts of a strange arrangement recede like a film set being dismantled, and it actually finishes in a squall of echo and a ball of confusion. It is track six on Blue Lines, with its queue of guests, the feral input of Tricky, the earth-mother Zen of Neneh Cherry and the faltering tones of Horace Andy, but if one piece were to represent, it’s Unfinished Sympathy. It never bores us, but neither does it get to a chorus.

Unwitting future suppliers of the heyy hey hey-hey, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, sang these words in 1976, not knowing how pertinent they would sound in 1990-91, or beyond: “We’re planetary citizens of the human race and we want to make the world a better place. Love is the answer to all the wars, when we love one another, we can open doors.”

Asian Dub Foundation, Free Satpal Ram (1998)

ADFRafi'sRevenge

Artist: Asian Dub Foundation
Title: Free Satpal Ram
Description: single; album track, Rafi’s Revenge
Label: FFRR
Release date: 1998
First heard: 1998

Kicking up a fuss because it could happen to us …

Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs. I would go further than the immortal Edwyn Collins in A Girl Like You and say that there are not enough protest singers, either. In Dorian Lynskey’s book 33 Revolutions Per Minute, he dissected 33 such songs. But the problem with a protest song is that sometimes the protest is more admirable than the song, or vice versa. I have to be in a very forgiving mood to listen to Give Peace A Chance, but its message speaks to me. Likewise The War Song. Conversely, I love Another Brick In The Wall, but I’m note sure protesting against boarding schools is quite as vital as, say, railing against the tactics of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. And so it goes.

Free Satpal Ram is for me the very definition of a classic protest song. Its message is crystal clear and the song is robust, catchy and energising. It’s impossible to hear it and ignore its plea. (Whereas, for instance, David Cameron was able to listen to Eton Rifles and miss the point, or ignore it, entirely.) Whether or not Free Nelson Mandela – a comparably effective union of medium and message – led directly to the freeing of Nelson Mandela is immaterial, and an irrelevant test of the song. You cannot always measure and gauge the crackling of social synapses. But Free Satpal Ram was ingrained into the campaign of the same name, and, it being a local issue with national, geopolitical or even existential implications, there’s an argument that ADF actually freed Satpal Ram.

Asian Dub Foundation were the band of the moment in the late 90s, perhaps by dint of the very fact that they weren’t really as easily pigeonholed as “a band”. They were, and remain, more of an amorphous collective, their own arts council, an umbrella beneath which creativity and activism can coexist. But in 1998, with the release of their unassailably coherent second album, when even the NME had become re-politicised in the wake of Tony Blair’s first and second betrayals, the hour was theirs. Their ethnicity itself was political, with institutionalised racism a big-box issue and lessons that ought to have been learned in the riot-torn 80s proved anything but. Indeed, although Satpal Ram is by definition a single-issue song, the lyrics contextualise with the élan of a score-draw.

Birmingham six
Bridgewater four
Crown prosecution, totting up the score
Kings Cross two
Guildford four, Winston Silcott, how many more?

One more. Satpal Ram was arrested in 1986 after an altercation in a Birmingham restaurant during which a group of white men abused the staff over the choice of music playing. Ram was attacked with a broken glass by one of the men, whom he stabbed in self-defence with a knife. Ram was convicted of murder and went to prison, despite what was later identified as misinformation from his QC about the self-defence defence, as it were, and the lack of an interpreter in court to translate for Bengali witnesses. But enough of my dry interpretation of the facts.

Out on the town
Thought they had something to prove
Self defence, only offence
Had to protect himself from all the murdering fools

It’s rap, by definition, but this song is firmly in the English folk ballad tradition. It tells a story, it delivers the news.

Cutting remarks on account of his race
A plate to his chest and a glass to his face
An Asian fights back, can’t afford to be meek
With your back against the wall you can’t turn the other cheek

It helps if you sympathise with the plight of the defendant, of course, but listening to this recording – and I can only imagine the visceral, inclusive power of hearing it performed live – might just turn your head. If anger is an energy, it powers this three-minute-44-seconds of righteous fire. It begins, quietly, with what sounds to my untrained ears like an Eastern, Bhangra-style stringed instrument, looped presumably by turntablist Pandit G, although it’s arguably anathema to single out individuals from an autonomous collective. (All songs on the Mercury-nominated Rafi’s Revenge – the title a reference, by the way, to a Bollywood playback singer – are credited to Dr Das, Pandit G, Deeder Zaman, Sanjay Tailor and Steve “Chandrasonic” Savale.) When the thudding, metallic beat kicks in, nirvana is instantly sealed.

There’s a less subtle, even more hobnailed remix by Russell Simmons on disc two of ADF collection Time Freeze, but it seems only fair to induct the original, whose mix is credited to Brendan Lynch and Primal Scream. The protest in the lyric (“Self defence is no offence!”) would be stirring and true enough with an acoustic, strummed backing, but beefed up with industrial beats, scratching, dub effects and hardcore electric guitar, the meeting of mind and matter is literally impossible to walk away from. The break at two-minutes-eleven where the sound drops out, rebuilds from a rumbling threat through the aforequoted rap, then an echobox frenzy, before hitting full throttle again. The arrangement is masterful and subtle. No blunt instrument, this.

Taking in not just racism, miscarriage of justice, police brutality and direct action (thank heavens all those issues have been solved, right kids?), Free Satpal Ram also finds time to have a pop at the Freemasons and the CPS. Better fix up your brain, indeed.

Satpal Ram was released from prison in June 2002 after a European Court of Human Rights ruling.

Herbie Hancock, Rockit (1983)

Herbie_Hancock_-_Rockit

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.