Electronic

New Order, “The Perfect Kiss” 12” (Factory Records, 1985) plus live recordings

One of the miracles of modern popular music, okay I’m sure there’ll be some ready to debate and argue for the less-known New Order tracks here – note: I have heard them too – but this song, this song. Equally impressive for the mordant ambiguity of the lyrics:

I stood there beside myself
Thinking hard about the weather
Then came by a friend of mine
Suggested we go out together
Then I knew it from the start
This friend of mine would fall apart
Pretending not to see his gun
I said let’s go out and have some fun

as the music itself. This is music to collapse-dance to, to keep your limbs fluid because the music is so total, so totalising. Disco pure in its essence in its spirit: music that helps you ride out whatever you’re feeling, while retaining its own distance, pop music as ambivalence. Note too the animal SFX, to quote Wiks:

“The song's complex arrangement includes a number of instruments and methods not normally used by New Order. For example, a bridge features frogs croaking melodically. The band reportedly included them because Morris loved the effect and was looking for any excuse to use it. At the end of the track, the faint bleating of a (synthesized) sheep can be heard. Sheep samples would reappear in later New Order singles "Fine Time" and "Ruined in a Day".

Frogs, sheep bleating, keeping it Biblical …

As everyone notes, so there’s no need for me to be any different the outro on this track, from about 7’40” with its increase in sonic depth, is something to recognise, to appreciate: it carries within it the essence of energy in music, as the expression of freedom, of being free. But there is so much I love about this song, it’s hard to know where to start, all of those other sounds kept distinct – the pings, the frogs absolutely. There’s something about this music that brings out the kid in me.

Some of the motivation for my writing on hip-hop, and other forms of Black American music is a desire to not go backwards (for a long time this was writing for me, with no real “audience,” prompted by my curiosity and internal cues). Writing these pieces also allowed me to keep getting educated: start with the artist, trace it back, work out ways to put the music in context. (No, there is no kink in any of this as I was once asked by a person who grew up closer to the source. Don’t forget I live in Paris, not a suburban cul-de-sac or rural idyll. There’s nothing natural).

Spending time with music you don’t know that well, music that didn’t provide the foundations for earlier periods in your life also protects you from falling into comparisons past/present, as inevitably the new falls short when compared to what has been tested. Moreover, it stops you from doing what I did when listening to this song once again, after a long break, of posing unanswerable and not very useful questions, such as where is its contemporary equivalent? These is a dead-end, I know. I have no issue with the languid, drawn-out drums, that slowed-down sibilant shimmy that is so dominant now - the genuflection in front of vibey Roy Ayers and some of the softer music of Donald Byrd - this kind of beat has its own feeling, but which music today provides an energy fix similar to “The Perfect Kiss”?

Which songs meet our need to be pulled into the velocity? So much of what you hear these days is deep on mood and introspection (or over-synthetic pop that has always been there, always will be) where is the music that helps us lose ourselves?

New Order’s music is defined by its play with discomfort, what might seem blase. One listener below one of “The Perfect Kiss” videos, Noname, critiqued it on this basis, writing “Always had mixed feelings about this band. Magnificent, expansive, bombastic keyboards!...let down by those miserable weak vocals. Like an orchestra interrupted by a sad trombone.” (Another replied: “miserable? Bernard had a very good voice.” The most recent comment responding to the debate noted: “(Sumner) isn't a great singer but his voice fits in perfectly with New Order's slightly cheesy sound. If you had Frank sinatra singing here it would make things much worse.”)

But that verse where Sumner sings:

When you are alone at night
You search yourself for all the things
That you believe are right
If you give it all away
You throw away your only chance to be here today
Then a fight breaks out on your street
You lose another broken heart in a land of meat
My friend, he took his final breath
Now I know the perfect kiss is the kiss of death

it sounds urgent, it sounds heartfelt and a little desperate. “When you are alone at night/ You search yourself for all the things/That you believe are right …”

To quote Wiks once more: “In an interview with GQ Magazine Bernard Sumner said "I haven't a clue what (the song) is about." He agreed with the interviewer that his best-known lyric is in the song: "Pretending not to see his gun/I said, 'Let's go out and have some fun'". The lyrics, he added, came about after the band was visiting a man's house in the United States who showed his guns under his bed before they went out for an enjoyable night. It had been quickly written, recorded and mixed without sleep before the band went on tour in Australia.”

And:

“Despite being a fan favourite, the song was not performed live between 1993 and 2006 due to the complexity of converting the programs from the E-mu Emulator to the new Roland synthesizer. However, it returned to the live set at a performance in Athens on 3 June 2006.”

Here’s the B/side “Kiss of Death” described by Wik as:

"a typical New Order dub version: it is a mostly instrumental remix of the A-side with added effects; it notably features the opening of the album version. "Perfect Pit" is a short recording of synthesized bass and drum parts that sounds like Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris practicing.”

And the audio recorded live from the video shoot with director Jonathan Demme losing it with happiness/excitement at the end:

The very famous video you can watch here, see those final moments when each band member looks so composed and disengaged, having enacted their musical transaction in a way comparable to someone scanning goods at a supermarket. Apparently Demme was disappointed to discover that the drums were programmed as he wanted to film the band hitting that perfect beat.

Coda:

‘Mr Majestic’ Calibre & High Contrast (12” Signature Records, 2004) plus Horace Andy ‘Money, money’/ ‘Money is the root of all evil’ (prod. Phil Pratt/Bunny 'Striker' Lee/Lloyd Barnes/Scientist)

No interviews to cut and paste, no artist comment connected to the release, dated 2004, but it’s no issue as this track stands by itself as something that is immediately accessible and still effective more than a decade on. Whether you like it for the song construction, the sharp horn sample taken from the Horace Andy/Bunny Lee classic track, or the simple lyrical concept:

“I man no like/A man who tried to cheat her.”

Interestingly, this striking vocal sample remains unidentified. Many of the online sources claim that the horn sample comes from Horace Andy/Phil Pratt Allstars' 1976 single, plus dub, ‘Money is the root of all evil’ released via Pressure Disk, produced by Phil Pratt, but as you’ll hear that isn’t correct 

The source of that distinctive horn sample is the Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee produced version from 1978 (some places say 1979):

Lee returned to the song with Don Carlos/John Wayne in 1983, changing the focus to include women into the sources of corruption (as one listener below the line joked the one ‘down vote is from a female capitalist’).

There are other, maybe even many other versions of this classic song, here is the very beautiful one from Horace Andy’s Dance Hall Style (Wackies, 1983), produced by Lloyd Barnes.  

I've already written about this album before, see below, and referred to Jo-Ann Greene's AllMusic review, but I'll quote from it again here:   

By modern standards, a six-song set barely qualifies as a single, never mind as a full-length album, but with each stellar song featured in its extended form, Dance Hall Style doesn’t merely pass muster as an album, but as a masterpiece. As with all the Wackies sets from this era, it’s the riddims and arrangements that inspire absolute awe, but as Horace Andy gives each of them his all, this album is as notable for his performances as for Lloyd Barnes’ sensational production and his studio band’s phenomenal musicianship. Incidentally, Andy himself provided bass, rhythm, and lead guitar on the album. Not all the songs, however, are new — two revisit a pair of the star’s earlier hits. Andy cut “Lonely Woman” for Derrick Harriott back in 1972, and for it, Barnes created a sizzling new riddim that bristles with militancy, while still echoing back to the days of early reggae, before flashing over into pure roots rockers in the tense dub section. “Money Money” was cut for Bunny Lee a few years later in rockers style, and so Barnes instead takes it immediately into deep dread territory, filling the atmosphere with absolute menace.

Paris Récit: ‘La Ritournelle’ Sébastien Tellier, feat. Tony Allen (Politics, Record Makers, 2004)

Surprisingly my tolerance level for schmaltz, the eternal swoon is higher in music than in other art-forms, if this song by Sébastien Tellier is any guide. My feeling of affection for this song is genuine and real. This music touches my heart even if its techniques of manipulation are so explicit, all those strings, and so on the surface. Notice how Tellier sings his words of apparent devotion, the addition of the coy, or twee backing vocals after the line where he sings a line ending with 'I love you.'

Central to the music’s impact is the drumming of Tony Allen. There is such beauty to be found here, the way Allen maintains a kind of coiled precision in his drums, without his performance feeling caged in. This is the mark of his genius the way he keeps the rhythm so perfectly, with the impression that it could break out at any moment (as it does, just slightly, before the verses come in).

Oh, nothing's gonna change my love for you
I wanna spend my life with you
And we make love on the grass under the moon
No one can tell, damned if I do

Forever journeys on golden avenues
I drift in your eyes since I love you
I got that beat in my veins for only rule
Love is to share, mine is for you

Tony Allen is such a wonder on so many levels; he deserves all respect and praise that comes in his direction.

One listener said that this music is ‘a song for hope.’ I understand this. I have been listening to it on repeat over the past weekend until now, I’m not part-time in terms of my preferences, letting it flow into my psyche, as I make my way around Paris, letting the music become part of me, allowing it to soothe me.

Listening to it when walking through the grimy underground space of Les Halles and observing how people tend to congregate together, stand and move in groups, leaving space at the edges near the concrete walls; how they push forward in their movement, forcefully trying to be somewhere else. What I keep thinking is that even though this music is deeply sentimental, allowing us to feel a proximity with others it is equally manufactured. It is real and fake at the same time. It is the musical equivalent of the cinematic version of Doctor Zhivago

where the archetypal Russian male character is played by an Egyptian with an incongruous moustache. And yet, it loses none of its power for that, just as the final moments of the song is Tony Allen’s drums, unadorned, it allows us to transfer something of ourselves onto it as if it were a mirror. A musical surface offering solace. For this reason, I am grateful for its existence.

Coda: 

‘Mil Congojas Dub’ Bill Laswell (Havana Mood, APC, 1999)

Friendship, music, remembrance

He stands in front of the electric fire, switched on with a click, the flames flickering blue and gold, and lights another cigarette.

One of the many he’ll smoke tonight as he inundates me with quotations recited from memory (poetry, fiction, non-fiction) or interesting/surprising information read aloud from books, newspapers, political pamphlets, while he takes on the role of 'DJ-fascist' usually starting out with dub, jazz or obscure electronic avant-garde to (frequently) end the night, after a reasonable amount of alcohol has been consumed, with more sentimental choices linked to his origins: Klezmer and Robbie Burns poetry, or the less comprehensible (or acceptable) from my perspective, polka and/or Tiny Tim.

On my most recent visit to Melbourne, I ventured to recite a little anecdote and got it wrong. Correcting me on its source, it was from a film not a true story, he also expanded upon it (possibly even including the original lines) and with that, the talk continued to barrel along in its typical fashion, barely stopping for breath, as he shared his enthusiasm for cultural reference points that shaped his life and gave it meaning.

Listening to the dub versions on Bill Laswell’s magical Havana Mood last night, I thought of my friend. This man who first introduced me to dub in a rented, ground-floor flat with no heating where the sounds of traffic outside were a constant presence, and then over the years continued to encourage my (mad) love for the genre. I also remembered how he had once said that his interest was always in the cultural diaspora, always.

Dub and jazz, rather than music that solely manifests its 'African' origins, created and located in the ancestral sites; Klezmer rather than – what would it be? – Israeli folk songs, I’m unsure. Other genres, funk, soul/R&B, disco and hip-hop never came into the conversation.

There is a risk I’ll repeat myself here, as this is something I’ve already written on (following the death of New York MC, Prodigy, and in other pieces as well), but it is something I sincerely believe, the only thing that matters, and it matters more than knowledge and expertise, is curiosity and the openness to difference. The appreciation flowing from this is the simplest love that I know. In an era when both sides of the political divide seem to be calling for allegiances based on 'apparently' uncomplicated strains of racial identification, my interest forever lies with the art and music that is ‘impure’ (mixed/remixed), driven by an inexplicable desire of an artist to create from the debris that remains. 

The day before I left Melbourne my friend gave me a CD, Homage to Charles Parker by George Lewis, with Anthony Davis, Douglas Ewart and Richard Teitelbaum, released on the Italian label, Black Saint in 1979 that he had burnt for me. (The Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, AACM, was the most recent musical movement that he was insisting I learn more about, and appreciate). After ‘copyright breached August 2017’ he had written my name; following ‘in memoriam’ there was the name of my sister

***

This set contains a classic version of recordings of son and boleros with The Septeto Nacional, Raoul Plana and Tata Guinès; it is the ‘Straight Master’ recorded at the Egrem studio in Cuba. The second disc called ‘Rhum & Bass’ is as implied by its name an attempt at another treatment of this style of music: in Orange, New Jersey, we have attempted to produce a Cuban dub.
— Jean Touitou - Bill Laswell 01/1999

The 'Rhum & Bass' part of the album is the one that speaks to me; the version of 'Mil Congojas Dub' in particular, the way the trumpet returns - amid the softly ululating electronic sounds - is heroic. There is no other word to describe it. I haven't been able to locate this individual track online and the name of the singer is similarly missing, but you can listen to the albums here ('Mil Congojas Dub' is track 4, on CD 2). 

Ibrahim Ferrer released a cover of 'Mil Congojas' on his 2003 album, Buenos Hermanos. Here is a really moving cover of the song by José Antonio Méndez (1927-1989).

Creativity First: an essay on producer/composer Paul White

There’s something appropriate about the fact that producer/composer Paul White was born and still lives in London’s South (Lewisham); a part of the city brimming with immigrant voices, open-air markets selling fish, batteries and kitchen utensils, rich with Blakean echoes.

The great Romantic poet and mystic, William Blake (1757-1827) lived in Deptford, not so far from Lewisham. As a child, Blake would regularly go for six-mile walks in this untamed, bucolic part of the capital. At the age of four, it is said that Blake saw God’s head appear in a window and then as an eight-year-old on one of his walks in south London saw the prophet Ezekiel under a “tree filled with angels.” 

(Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist writes: “Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.”)

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During one of our two phone conversations in August/September, Paul White often speaking in a very quiet voice, his sentences full of pauses, interspersed with bursts of enthusiasm, I asked if there was any significance in the fact that many of the samples used for his production work with Detroit MC Danny Brown came from English artists. “Do you feel that you’re drawn to a particular sound that comes from the UK,” I asked.

Paul White: “I don’t think so, not necessarily, it’s a feel. I’m drawn to something that is totally different: someone being themselves and experimenting, that’s what I can really relate to. Something so wild and so free, that’s how I try and create.”

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In praise of: “Aground/Aerial” Rhythm & Sound (Rhythm & Sound, 2012)

There’s something extremely attractive about the stripped-back, but highly insistent minimalism of this 2012 release from Berlin producers, Rhythm & Sound. As even though you’d expect the cool of the music to reduce the feeling, in fact, it does the opposite.

Allowing the elements to be exposed like this makes the music appear rich and redolent of meaning (full of heart), while demonstrating a deep knowledge of the essence of the dub genre, which is all about purity. It helps that I discovered this music via these kinds of super-simple videos as well, forever my preference.

Below the videos is a sweet and earnest request that appeals to me : “To be played on a suitably loud system, bass being of great importance.”

My favourite of the two is perhaps “Aground” mainly because of the way the music maintains a self-contained universe, rarely diverging from the centre; and I just really like that sound that reminds me of drops on rain on animal-skin, alongside all those incidental sounds that create the highly textured background.   

Rhythm & Sound don’t seem to have a big online presence, at least based on my fairly speedy research; here’s some info from Discogs on their releases, dating back to 1996.  

Wikipedia tells us:

Rhythm & Sound is a dub techno German record label, a sub-label of Basic Channel. It was founded in Berlin by the duo Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, also known as Basic Channel. The label released seven 12-inch singles and one CD compilation album between 1997 and 2002.

But how about this, in 1998 they re-issued, or released, Chosen Brothers / Rhythm & Sound - "Mango Walk / Mango Drive"? See my appreciation of this pretty obscure track from 1979 that I published in June last year. Birds of a feather, it seems … (Or once again some angel looking out for me).