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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

 

Diana Ross, Upside Down (1980)

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Artist: Diana Ross
Title: Upside Down
Description: single; album track, Diana
Label: Motown
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980

Respectfully I say to thee …

Because life isn’t perfect, I sold my entire vinyl record collection to a voluble sounds-trader called Rob in 2005. Hundreds of circles went in the back of his truck bound for Newcastle and what was then a shopless mail-order service (he’s since reopened the shop, which I would love one day to visit). I hope those records that have been subsequently re-sold went to happy homes. They certainly came from one.

Of course I’m tinged with sentimental hoarder’s regret, but the back-breaking collection had come with us twice when moving house and with another move on the horizon, we made the Big Decision to set the LPs and 12-inch singles free, and clear some physical and psychological space. Every significant LP had been replaced on CD in any case, and that supposedly “compact” collection in itself was arduous enough to lift. Of course I was sad to see a few items of sentimental value go, but I squared it with myself by keeping back all of my seven-inch singles. Every single one. These now occupy a hefty flight case in the eaves and act as as a musical photo album. Flick through the 600 or so singles and each produces a Proustian memory.

And so to the seven-inch of Upside Down by Diana Ross. This, I can tell you with total confidence, I purchased in St Helier in Jersey in the Channel Islands while on a family holiday in July 1980. Staying in a hotel called the Merton, it was the Collins family’s first ever catered holiday after years in North Wales farmhouses and bungalows, and our first across a body of water. The quick-witted will have already deduced that this seven-inch single in its monochrome paper sleeve was a useless item. I couldn’t play it until we got home a week later. So why did I buy it?

I bought it because I was 15 and at that enraptured time measured out my life in seven-inch singles. These were affordable with saved pocket money and fitted snugly into the handled record box we all carried. I bought Upside Down as a trophy, because even though I was on holiday, the accumulation of seven-inch singles need not be put on hold. With limited funds, the choice of a single was no quick decision made lightly. Planning was involved. The selection process was complex. You didn’t want to waste your next turn.

I suspect we had extra spending money that fortnight because we were on holiday. I asked Twitter how much a seven-inch single retailed for in 1980 and the hive mind reckons between 99p and £1.29. It would have been a chart single as it went to number 2 and I suspect the record shop I bought it in would have been a Woolies and nothing too specialist? (Residents of Jersey at that time will be able to confirm this.) So let’s assume I set aside a pound which might otherwise have gone on a paperback or a miniature bottle of spirits (which I’d convinced my parents were collectable) and spent it on a piece of black extruded polyvinyl that I could only look at.

Such was the heady power of pop music. Now, Upside Down – a fastidiously produced nugget of disco funk from the Chic Organisation used to flag up the May-released Diana album – was not my usual poison, musically speaking. In 1980 I was all about angular post-punk and way more likely to be getting a penny change from a pound note at the record shop for Totally Wired, Holiday In Cambodia or Feeling Alright With The Crew.

That said, I was going to youth club discos at the time, because that’s where the girls were at, and among my immediate circle of friends, both Craig McKenna and Andy Bonner had begun to invest in disco 12-inches, which had piqued my interest with their executive-length and predominantly beat-driven mixes. If I didn’t hear Upside Down at a disco, I’d be surprised. I fell for it instantly and for reasons visceral not intellectual or even social. That it didn’t quite fit into my handled record box, as it were, was possibly part of its appeal. And at least it had a picture sleeve, which wasn’t a prerequisite of disco singles.

But I feel I appreciate its artistry more keenly now. I gamely attempted to copy Tony Thompson’s immaculately fluid drum fills at the time with rulers on a stool without even knowing his name, or fully appreciating that the people who made Le Freak, which I was also dancing to at discos, had made Upside Down. There is much I didn’t know then that I know now; crucially, that Miss Ross got into a funk with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards as she didn’t like their final cut of the LP, going so far as to remix it herself with an in-house producer. Motown put out her version and inflamed the wrath of Chic’s learned friends. It all got a bit nasty. Which is a shame, as the album – whose subsequent hit singles the declamatory I’m Coming Out and jaunty My Old Piano are also spectacular – does not sound of acrimony or post-rationalisation.

The lyric may not be Shakespeare – “Upside down you’re turning me, you’re giving love instinctively” – but the use of “thee” in “respectfully I say to thee” is cute and in any case, Ross’s voice, high in the mix (maybe higher than intended), is light, sexy and seamlessly authoritative throughout, aware of its space and reflected off the mirrored architecture of the Chic sound: Rodgers’ much-copied masturbatory guitar (the song is counted in by a jitter), Edwards’ spare bass and Thompson’s airtight beat, while the Chic Strings punctuate skywards. The single edit runs some 30 seconds shorter than the album version and gives Rodgers the elbow room to freak out a bit, but even in the fade, Thompson’s tactile curlicues are memorable, each concentrated splash of Zildjian a graphic marker flag. I’ve attempted in adult life to “learn” the drums on this track, and the sequence is beyond my capabilities. We may never see the late Mr Thompson’s like again.

Maybe I should have saved up the extra 50p and purchased the 12-inch in St Helier, although it would only have been the four-minute album track. With singles, the selection process was complex. But I didn’t waste my next turn.

The Beatles, Blackbird (1968)

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Artist: The Beatles
Title: Blackbird
Description: album track, The Beatles
Label: Apple
Release date: 1968
First heard: 1988

Alright, I know what you’re thinking. This is a Paul McCartney song. He wrote it. He plays it. He sings it. No other Beatle was involved in the making of this song at EMI Studios on November 11, 1968, unless you count George Martin as the fifth Beatle. McCartney even taps out the rhythm himself with his shoe. It’s a solo record in almost every sense, except the sense that it was recorded for a Beatles album called The Beatles and is credited to the Beatles.

You might also be thinking that it’s willfully perverse to consider the 200+ songs the Beatles recorded between 1962 and 1970, many of which altered the direction of popular music, many more of which are lodged in the global imagination for all time as modern standards, some of which are as barnstorming and unforgettable as A Day In The Life or Strawberry Fields or She’s Leaving Home or The Fool On The Hill or All You Need Is Love or Tomorrow Never Knows, and to pick fucking Blackbird.

But Blackbird it is.

Purism whispers in my ear and tells me that actually, what I really like listening to is the sound of a blackbird. Maybe so. But it was Paul McCartney who started thinking about the civil rights struggle in the southern states of America while he was up in Scotland and worked those thoughts into a folksy ditty that awkwardly pivots on the fact that “bird” is – or was – swinging slang for a “girl”. I’m quite partial to the sound of a blackbird singing, whether it’s in the dead of night, or the light of the afternoon, but I also appreciate the sentiment that McCartney is heralding the black population’s arrival at its “moment to be free”. It is both a delightful hymn to the natural order of things, and a stirring nod to racial emancipation (and indeed, a return to the natural order of things).

Sandwiched between the literal I’m So Tired, an India-penned Lennon tune, and Harrison’s Baroque but barely listenable Piggies – both played by the whole band – Blackbird is a blessed relief from the padded-walls insania of the bulk of The White Album and a welcome burst of melody on the largely tune-deficient Side Two, which has a certain bestiality to it, with a certain raccoon also on the slate.

A simply picked tune on a Martin D 28 acoustic (you know I looked that up), recorded outside, there is on the millpond surface so little to it, musically, although archaeology reveals roots in a tune for loot by JS Bach, Bourrée in E Minor, and that rather suggests, shockingly, that Paul McCartney knows what he’s doing when he sits down to write. None of this is news. But I do love the context of the song. The Beatles is a rollercoaster of highs both foot-tapping and head-pounding, and lows both minor and major. Blackbird is like a little, two-minute, sitdown chillout about a third of the way through.

Not sure why I’m making apologies for one of my all-time favourites. It was number 38 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Beatles Songs.

I was lent the vinyl album in the late 80s by my more classically schooled friend Chris. (He also brought me up to speed with Lennon’s solo albums and Peter Gabriel’s, for which I remain eternally grateful.) I later splashed out on the CD, which was, of course, a disappointment in physical packaging terms, with its tiny inlays and its frightfully ugly white plastic spine. It doesn’t matter, in the end. It’s still my favourite Beatles album.

So, we’ve done it. We’ve added the Beatles band to The 143. It feels good to bring them into the fold, even if George and Ringo were literally on holiday while the song was recorded (and John was in another studio doing Revolution 9); the Beatles are in. And so is birdsong.

Should I have gone for Dear Prudence?

Frank Wilson, Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) (1965)

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Artist: Frank Wilson
Title: Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)
Description: promo single; single
Label: Soul
Release date: 1965
First heard: 2002

What? No scan of the original 1965 sleeve on the Beat label to illustrate? Nor the 1979 UK reissue on Tamla Motown? No. The CD inlay of a compilation album from 2001. In the interests of full disclosure I am going to confess to you right now that the only “rare” record I own is the 7″ of Blur’s Wassailing Song, which I think is worth about £300 but I’m not selling it. I have never bought a record, in any format, as an investment. (The Blur one was given away after a gig.) I bought the singles I wanted, or could afford, as a teenager, and I still own every one of them. I sold the bulk of my 12-inch vinyl collection in the mid-noughties because, having moved house with it a number of times, I decided it was time to let it go and save my spine.

I’d acquired every album that mattered on CD and never played the vinyl, so off it went to Steel Wheels in Newcastle, where I hope it was redistributed to countless happy collectors via its shop and website. (Rob, the voluble guy who runs it, got back in touch some weeks after taking my collection away and informed me that he had found a “rare” Radiohead record among it which he hadn’t spotted when he priced it up at my house and he sent me a cheque for it. What an honest man. That’s how tuned in to the “rarity” of records I am!)

Frank Wilson’s unreleased pressing of Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) is the most valuable Northern Soul single ever. There are only a couple of copies of the 1965 original in circulation, which explains that. As it happens, it’s also one of the best known Northern Soul records. It’s in The 143 for neither of those two reasons. It’s in because I just love it; even a stint as the music to a KFC advert couldn’t destroy its magic. In common with every song knighted by northern treasure hunters, it has a chequered history and the power to make white men dance like loons.

Guess what? I didn’t really get a handle of what Northern Soul even was until the earliest days of working on 6 Music. I was aware of its importance in certain clubs in the North of England, thanks to the tales told by my friend Stuart Maconie, which had opened my eyes to the “scene”, but as for individual records? I was pretty clueless.

What’s particularly sweet about my long overdue conversion to the simple pleasures of obscure US soul cuts that had found new currency among DJs and scenesters in Wigan, Manchester, Blackpool and Stoke in the 60s and 70s, is that my magpie-like swoop on a kaleidoscope of musical genres in order to spice up the predominantly Caucasian 6 Music playlists in 2002-03 was overseen and encouraged by my producer, whose name – as older listeners will remember – was Frank Wilson. I took enormous pleasure in broadening my mind to reggae, ska, blues and old-style R&B through Frank’s deep love of black music, and snaffled up compilations aplenty – usually purchased with my own money round the corner at HMV on Oxford Street. The “show copy” of The Best Northern Soul All-Nighter Ever, a double-CD containing pretty much every key “side” at the top of the genre, became studio-worn very quickly, not least thanks to a simple feature called Northern Soul O’Clock. But some tunes would recur, and the “other” Frank Wilson’s was one of them.

Having read up on him, Wilson was a producer hired by Berry Gordy in ’65 who would go on to record the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Four Tops, and this was his only vocal recording, whose demo copies were deleted either by Wilson or Gordy, hence the rarity. Typically of Motown soul recordings of the era, you can hear the room, with arrangement coming at you from every corner: those exquisite vibes, strings and brass rising up around Wilson’s carefree voice as he answers his own rhetorical query. The rat-tat-rat-a-tat drum signature hallmarks the kind of record later pressed into service on the sprung dancefloors of Lancashire, but it’s the chiming notes that single this song out. We must assume the sterling work of Motown house band the Funk Brothers throughout, but there’s accompaniment all over the place, creating a joyous, celebratory racket against the pre-Dolby hiss. You can really explore the space on headphones, but frankly, it’s designed to be heard at the hop, two and a half Detroit minutes of affirmation.

I am the same age as this record. I hope I have aged as well as it, although I suspect Do I Love You will be around forever more. Indeed I do.