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.

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The Beach Boys, Good Vibrations (1966)

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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.

 

 

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 –

XTC, Making Plans For Nigel (1979)

XTCMakingPlansForNigel

Artist: XTC
Title: Making Plans For Nigel
Description: single; album track, Drums and Wires
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

Not yet proficient, I was nonetheless convinced around the turn of the decade that drums were my instrument. The components of rhythm caught my ear in the music I listened to and seeing a drummer hunched over a kit caught my eye. Although the desire to mime playing the guitar is instinctive to all of us, learning notes and chords never really had any pull for me. Whereas hitting things …

I can’t source it, but I definitely saw some kind of documentary or even news item about XTC around this time, and it showed the band in the studio: four young blokes in shirts from Swindon called Andy, Colin, Dave and Terry. I was instantly taken by Terry – Terry Chambers – whose inventive proficiency was mesmerising at a time when I had only the vaguest idea of how a drum kit might be assembled around a drummer. I can only think that the band must have been laying down their Black Sea album in the summer of 1980 in London’s Townhouse Studios, which had the famous “stone room” for an exceptional live drum sound. I was already a fan of the band from Top Of The Pops, but had only belatedly taken their previous LP, Drums and Wires, out of the record library, and taped it. The connection I’d formed with Chambers gave me extra purchase with their sound. And if ever a pop song is beat-driven, it’s Making Plans For Nigel.

It opens the album with that mighty Chambers rhythm, treated by Steve Lilywhite to give it a space-age resonance as it rumbles almost musically around the available space from the floor tom through the mounted toms, a luxuriously sucked hi-hat attracting attention away from the featherlight snare. It’s BIG without being caps-lock. In my imagination it goes unaccompanied on forever before Dave Gregory’s sci-fi guitar and Colin Moulding’s underfloor bass come in, but in reality it’s only a bar. Such is the impression it makes.

The single came in a limited-edition board-game sleeve, which I never owned, and neither did anyone I know. I found one, already sold, on eBay, but there’s no photo of it unfolded. It adds to the myth of a single that was much more inventive and content-led than most New Wave of that time, its arrangement spare and meticulous, the punctuating canine yelp “Oh-woo” adding abandon to the social comment and the ker-ash! of Chambers’ cymbals close to the sound of breaking glass, which I love. Written by Colin Moulding, it speaks of jobs for life, the dying days of British industry, the allure of conformism, and parental control. Nigel, so acutely named for that era, is “not outspoken”, but he “loves to speak and he loves to be spoken to.” He is ordinary, he is normal, he is no agitator or subversive, and yet, as his Mum and Dad coo over the fact that “if young Nigel says he’s happy, he must be happy in his world,” we suspect the worst. (The Undertones would subsequently create their own Nigels – Jimmy, Terry, Kevin – achieving similar pathos through Beano comedy.)

But we never hear from Nigel. We have no idea what goes on in his world (a line bent into a tragic lament by Andy Partridge, and curved away in cold echo by Lilywhite). Steeped in studio drama, Nigel is a song in the saddest key of life, a Play For Today in which the titular character has no lines. Does he have “a future in British Steel”? Does British Steel have a future in British Steel? This is pop to turn over in your brain long after the needle’s come off the record. Life may begin at the hop, but it ends in a future that’s as good as sealed.

The other songs on Drums and Wires are much more choppy and perverse and staccato. I liked them, but I was truly moved by Nigel and didn’t feel that way again until the end of Side Two, and another epic studio sweep, the closer Complicated Game. Its infinite echo chamber finds Partridge tearing his heart out and raging against the dying of the light (“I said, God, it really doesn’t matter where you put your world/Someone else will come along and move it/And it’s always been the same/It’s just a complicated game”). Because of the fabled sleeve of Nigel, I linked the two bookends together, Nigel’s parents’ “helping hand” perhaps touching fingertips with Partridge’s powerless God in mockery of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. In the creation of Nigel, the complicated game was life, the universe and everything. Not bad for four young blokes in shirts from Swindon called Andy, Colin, Dave and Terry playing guitars, drums and wires on the Goldhawk Road.

Following Partridge’s dramatic breakdown and the band’s withdrawal from touring (which saw the gig-hungry Chambers bail out), the studio-only XTC found sanctification by connoisseurs of intelligent, pastoral pop and English folkedelia. Gravitas was theirs. I can’t claim to have kept up with their every move, but enjoyed Oranges and Lemons at the end of the decade which incidentally saw British Steel privatised, and wished them well. The compilation Fossil Fuel in 1996 cemented my appreciation, although it was hearing Nigel again that made me happiest in my work.

I was assembling and hitting my own secondhand drum kit by 1981, but never as elegantly as Terry did.

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

Nancy_Sinatra_single_cover_These_Boots_Are_Made_for_Walkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ha!