Soul, Funk and Disco

The Human League “The Dignity Of Labour” (Fast Product, 1979)

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think the Human League peaked with this EP. At this early juncture in their career, the band consisted of primary composers Ian Craig Marsh and Phil Oakey and keyboardist Philip Adrian Wright. Oakey didn’t sing a note on these four tracks, and that’s fine with me. Without his stentorian, romantic emoting, the Human League had more room to flaunt their excellent ear for strange textures and alienating atmospheres—you know, the stuff that makes life worth living.

Divided into four parts, The Dignity Of Labour begins with a slice of dark, quasi-industrial electronic music that’s not quite in Throbbing Gristle’s diabolical domain, but it’s certainly more morbid than what would follow in the Human League’s catalog. Marsh and Oakey work up a slightly upbeat death-disco lather, but it doesn’t match the club-friendliness of other late-’70s League releases such as “Being Boiled” or “Empire State Human.”

Parts 2 and 3 enter some deep Teutonic territory. The former is the EP’s peak, its stark, foreboding maschine musik recalling the innovations of German geniuses such as Conrad Schnitzler and Seesselberg. The crystalline timbres the League summon on this track are just incredible. “Pt. 3” is a dizzying whirl of high-pitched, Theremin-like synth and vibrant arpeggios reminiscent of some of Harald Grosskopf’s and Tangerine Dream member Peter Baumann’s work. “Pt. 4” ends things on an eerie note of BBC Radiophonic Workshop-like atmospheres, a sound miles away from what the League would be doing on 1981’s Dare or even 1980’s Travelogue.

As with a lot of things reviewed in this space, The Dignity Of Labour could use a reissue, as it hasn’t seen a repress since the year of its initial release. Seems like a no-brainer for a label like Minimal Wave, Dark Entries, or Medical to re-release it—although there could be thorny legal hurdles. Anyway, I’m just putting that idea out there… -Buckley Mayfield

Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band “Bluejeans & Moonbeams” (Mercury, 1974)

For decades I avoided Bluejeans & Moonbeams, because conventional wisdom and consensus opinion deemed it one of his worst works and an embarrassing stab at commercial success. (Spoiler alert: The album flopped with the public and critics.) Perhaps the former assertion is true, but when you’re dealing with an artist on the exalted level of Don Van Vliet, that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. As for the second assertion, yes, B&M sounds relatively accessible when compared to Beefheart’s other releases—save for the equally reviled Unconditionally Guaranteed. However, this is still Beefheart, a musician incapable of making a record without something sounding interesting. And therefore I am going out on a withered limb and championing B&M… albeit with reservations.

One thing that makes this album different from most of Beefheart’s others is a new lineup that lacked a musical director who could translate the untrained band leader’s ideas into chords, notes, etc. Consequently, B&M‘s songs are much less complicated than usual for a Beefheart work. Nevertheless, side one is filled with good-to-great songs that may not tilt the music world off its axis like Safe As MilkTrout Mask Replica, or Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), but still go to some fascinating places and hit some familiar sweet spots.

B&M kicks off in grand style with “Party Of Special Things To Do,” a funky blues number that appealed enough to that learned rock scholar Jack White for the White Stripes to cover it on a 2001 Sub Pop 45. There are some serious Dr. John-like swamp vibes here, and Van Vliet’s in his trademark gruff Howlin’ Wolf vocal mode. The cover of JJ Cale’s “Same Old Blues” could never equal the original’s archetypal laid-back blues funk, but kudos to Van Vliet and company for attempting to do so.

B&M peaks with “Observatory Crest,” probably the most beautiful melody Beefheart’s written (with help from Mothers Of Invention/Fraternity Of Man guitarist Elliot Ingber). This dreamy, spacey tune was covered by Mercury Rev and the Swedish band Whipped Cream, and if you can’t luxuriate in the spectral shimmer of this tune, you need to make some major aesthetic adjustments. Side one closes with the funky blues-rock of “Pompadour Swamp,” which harks back to Beefheart’s The Spotlight Kid, but sounds not as menacing or off-kilter. “Captains Holiday” is a laggard, Stones-y blues-funk jam without any input from Beefheart—hence, the title.

The quality drops substantially on side two, unfortunately. “Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Evil Doll” has all the charm of a post-Jim Morrison Doors song, a C-plus blues-rock bump and grind of which Van Vliet and company seem to be going through the motions, while “Further Than We’ve Gone” comes off as a blundering yet snoozy “soul” ballad in which Van Vliet sounds unconvincing and everyone else sounds bored. “Twist Ah Luck” emulates a mid-level Rolling Stones chugger with a straight face, a move that should be beneath Beefheart. But dude was in a slump, as “Bluejeans & Moonbeams” conclusively proves; it’s Beefheart at his sappiest. Try not to cringe at this attempt at tender balladeering, corny orchestrations, and slide-guitar soloing—I dare you. This might the second lowest point in the Beefheart canon, after “This Is The Day.”

Still and all, Bluejeans And Moonbeams has two bona-fide classics (“Observatory Crest” and “Party Of Special Things To Do”) and enough flashes of deceptively dirty funk to be worth your time, if you can find it on the cheap. And at least it’s better than Unconditionally Guaranteed. -Buckley Mayfield

Can “Can” (Harvest, 1979)

Can’s 11th studio album, Can (aka Inner Space), generally receives less attention and praise than their earlier, better-known full-lengths, but it’s actually a pretty strong record. There are some duds here, to be sure, but when they’re good, they’re very good. Even at this late, these krautrock legends still had mad creative juice.

By 1979, Can were in a weird place. Original bassist Holger Czukay was relegated to editing tape in the studio; Traffic and Stomu Yamash’ta bassist Rosko Gee replaced him, while fellow Traffic member Rebop Kwaku Baah joined the group as a percussionist. Wonderfully idiosyncratic singers Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki were long gone, so guitarist Michael Karoli assumed vocal duties with a workmanlike blandness. Yet despite this inauspicious situation, Can still delivered five excellent tracks (out of eight), which is quite respectable for a band 11 years into their career.

Can opens with one of the unit’s greatest tracks of any period, “All Gates Open.” (Note: The new Can biography by Rob Young and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt uses this phrase as its title.) Jaki Liebezeit kicks out a busted-metronome beat that sort of mocks disco while Czukay ladles in mysterious, menacing noises and Karoli jams out a riff that the Fall stole for “Shoulder Pads 1 & 2.” Eventually and without warning, Schmidt generates a radiant swell of tones that overwhelms you like an orgasmic epiphany. And then there are the bluesy harmonica parts—about the last thing you’d expect in a Can composition. This is an eight-minute epic worth every odd second. Another eight-plus minutes of weirdness, “Safe” finds Karoli channeling Carlos Santana’s rococo, piercing runs and Czukay creating a bizarre, cavernous soundworld as Liebezeit keeps lopsided martial time. “Sunday Jam” offers more Latin-rock lushness with a rhythm that gushes forth with an abundance of “Black Magic Woman” intrigue. Side 1 slays all in its path.

Side 2 starts extremely well, with “Sodom” and “A Spectacle.” The former is a very ominous rock song that bears the gravitas of Goblin or post-Syd Pink Floyd, as Karoli wrenches serpentine, liquid silver from his guitar. The latter is an elegantly spluttering specimen of disco (not disco) that starts startlingly in mid-stride. As Gee’s bass line sends your ears on a thrilling roller-coaster ride, Liebezeit concocts a miracle of stutter-funk footwork and sticksmanship. You need at least three legs to dance to this track properly.

“E.F.S. Nr. 99 (Can Can)” is where things get dicey. This admittedly spirited cover of a piece by the 19th-century composer Jacques Offenbach was seemingly done for its wordplay potential alone. Let us never speak of it again. “Ping Pong” captures 25 seconds of a ping-pong ball bouncing. Why?! Dunno. Because they could? Finally, the flamboyant biker-rock blowout of “Can Be” recalls “Full Moon On The Highway” from Landed, but it’s not as badass.

So, yeah, Can ends bafflingly badly, but its high points are so stratospheric, they’re cancelled out. Don’t pay attention to the fans who say Can didn’t make any great records after Future Days or Soon Over Babaluma. This one’s a stunning sleeper. -Buckley Mayfield

Tom Tom Club “Tom Tom Club” (Sire, 1981)

Tom Tom Club’s debut LP is proof you can judge an album by its cover. Artist James Rizzi depicts the band members—led by Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz—playing their instruments in a tropical paradise. It’s a busy illustration exploding with cartoonish glee, and it captures the carefree, buoyant spirit of Tom Tom Club’s music—a fantastical vacation from the Heads’ angsty, cerebral art-rock. (Not that Talking Heads couldn’t have fun; but their sound always has possessed a more prominent veneer of intellectualism and Eno-fied studio magic.)

Recorded in Barbados with Weymouth’s sisters Loric, Lani, and Laura on vocals, Adrian Belew on guitar, Steven Stanley on percussion and co-production, Tyrone Downie on keyboards, Uziah “Sticky” Thompson on percussion, and Monte Brown on guitar, Tom Tom Club reached #23 on the US album charts. That success was largely due to the two hit singles that lead off the record.

“Wordy Rappinghood” is one of the best songs ever with typewriter sounds in it, and it’s also one of the first tracks to feature rapping by a white woman, though it has to be said: Tina Weymouth is no Debbie Harry. Overall, “Wordy Rappinghood” is elite novelty electro-funk with a fantastic conga solo and insanely adorable Japanese-language (or is it nonsense?) chants by Tina’s siblings. “Genius Of Love” is the album’s peak, and one of the definitive tracks of the ’80s—and it’s been sampled a staggering 147 times, according to whosampled.com. This worldwide club smash is an über-sexy, supremely funky dub jam with nearly the same clapper beats as George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” and an absurdly elastic keyboard riff that bears the DNA of Bernie Worrell (who worked on Remain In Light). Tina’s fathoms-deep bass line is worthy of Robbie Shakespeare (one of many musicians extolled in the song’s lyrics, along with Bohannon, Smokey Robinson, and other funk-soul legends). It never gets old—and I’ve heard it about 200 times.

While the rest of this lovely full-length can’t match that opening 1-2 punch, there are lots of other mood-elevating moments. “Tom Tom Theme” is a rolling, minimalist tom-heavy percussion workout of low-key dopeness that leads right into another highlight, “L’Éléphant,” which features Belew’s guitar emulating the strident wail of the titular animal over a martial yet tropical dance rhythm, while “As Above, So Below” is an eerie, festively ominous funk number that could almost slot onto side 1 of Remain In Light. The album closes with the breezy banger “Lorelei” and the kitsch sci-fi funk of “Booming And Zooming.” (The 1982 reissue contains remixed versions of “Lorelei” and “On, On, On, On,” plus a bubble-funk/reggae-fied version of the Drifters’ “Under The Boardwalk,” which supplants “Booming And Zooming.”)

On their enchanting debut, Tina and Chris let the rhythm hit ’em, and the world’s been swerving and swooning to it ever since. -Buckley Mayfield

Larry Young’s Fuel “Larry Young’s Fuel” (Arista, 1975)

By 1975, jazz keyboardist Larry Young was straying far from his modal, Coltrane-esque dates for Blue Note, his contributions to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and his fiery fusion experiments with Tony Williams Lifetime and Love Cry Want—and even his 1973 oddity, Lawrence Of Newark [a review of which you can find on this blog]. Signing to a major label like Arista may have had something to do with this change in direction, as it represents some of Young’s most accessible work. Yet for all its leanings toward R&B libidinousness and funk decadence, Larry Young’s Fuel remains an interesting and very DJ-friendly anomaly in the avant-gardist’s catalog.

“Fuel For The Fire” immediately lets you know that though the songwriting’s more overtly commercial, Young is still going to fire off some bizarre flourishes on his Moog, Hammond, and Rhodes. The funk here is complex, with bassist Fernando Saunders (Lou Reed, John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck, etc.) and drummer Rob Gottfried engaging in twitchy interplay that’s as groovily coiled and coked up as anything on Miles’ On The Corner. Laura “Tequila” Logan’s scat vocals aren’t as off-the-wall as Linda Sharrock’s or Urszula Dudziak’s, but they’re still odd for a funk/R&B context. “I Ching (Book Of Changes)” sounds like ELP going off on a torrid funk bender, with Young channeling Keith Emerson’s manic, rococo filigrees. “Turn Off The Lights” could easily be a Betty Davis sex-scene-setter thanks to Logan’s lusty vocal pyrotechnics and a bass line that’s rated XXX. Young gets off some amazing Moog ejaculations, to boot. An exciting side one, to be sure.

Side two begins with the instant dance-floor-filler/mood-elevator, “Floating.” The lithe buoyancy of Saunders’ bass and Gottfried’s hi-hat-enhanced 4/4s coupled with Young’s radiant Hammond whorls gives the track an almost cosmic-disco atmospheric strut. “H+J=B (Hustle+Jam=Bread)” is another proggy funk workout in which Saunders and Young appear to be dueling each other to see who can most peel off the most outré notes and chords (Young wins). The hyperkinetic, intricate “New York Electric Street Music” replicates the furious bump and grind of On The Corner (that record again), with Santiago Torano’s guitar finally breaking through Young’s extravagant solos to snarl and wail with authority. The only thing keeping this track from classic status is Young’s goofy vocalizing about the the titular city and ad libs like “Humor is better than a tumor” and “Charisma is better than a caramba.” Oy.

Oh, well, that’s a rare misstep on an album that will surely rankle Young’s more purist jazz fans, but should please those open to a world-class musician trying to weird up a mid-’70s mainstream genre on a big corporation’s dime. -Buckley Mayfield

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles “Make It Happen” (Tamla, 1967)

There’s something slightly quaint about even the greatest Tamla/Motown releases from 1967 and earlier, as heard with 21st-century ears. The psychedelic movement hadn’t yet hit Berry Gordy’s radar in a meaningful way, and funk had yet to gather serious momentum, so the legendary label was still pushing the straightforward, orchestral-soul formula that had made it world-famous and widely loved. Even a sophisticated composer and sublime vocalist like Smokey Robinson seems a bit trad more than 50 years on from the release date of this solid LP, Make It Happen. But there is one tune on this record that eludes the era’s trappings and represents a pinnacle of songwriting that transcends all. More about that later.

Loaded with endearing, romantic ballads (five songs have the word “Love” in the title, the best of them being swoon-inducing yet heartbreaking “The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage”—“sweetness was only heartache’s camouflage/the love I saw in you was just a mirage”), Make It Happen showcases Smokey’s gorgeous, honeyed vocals—perhaps the epitome of androgynous R&B expressiveness. And then there are the Northern soul dancers like “My Love Is Your Love (Forever),” “You Must Be Love,” “Dancing’s Alright,” and “The Soulful Shack,” all of which glide with that patented Motown effortless grace, putting a ridiculously sprightly spring in your step.

But as lovely as all those songs are, they cannot compare to “The Tears Of A Clown.” Hundreds of listens to it have convinced me that it is perhaps the greatest song ever written. I know, huge claim. But I’m utterly serious. With music by Stevie Wonder and Hank Cosby and words by Mr. Robinson, “Tears” has been riveting me ever since I heard it on the radio when I was 8. We often blithely say certain things “never get old,” but I can assert with every fiber of my being that this is the case with “Tears.”

Lofted skyward by that helium-powered, circus-friendly calliope motif, “Tears” is the ultimate ebullient music/sad lyrics song (take that, Morrissey/Marr). The pell-mell rhythmic propulsion, that one flat tuba chord, spine-tingling keyboards, and the champagne-supernova backing vocals seem to assure you that everything’s groovy to the max, but Smokey’s genius words paint a picture that’s 180º opposed to the sonic levity. Every verse is a masterpiece that reinforces the theme of the singer not letting “glad expression” give you “the wrong impression.” I look forward to another 5,000 listens.

(In 1970, Tamla reissued Make It Happen under the title The Tears Of A Clown to capitalize on the title track’s stunning radio success. Somehow, those savvy marketing cats at one of history’s most lucrative record companies didn’t think “Tears Of A Clown” had hit potential upon its initial release. We should never stop shaking our damn heads over this music-biz fail.) -Buckley Mayfield

Rotary Connection “Aladdin” (Cadet Concept, 1968)

Sprawling multiracial/multi-gendered Chicago-based ensemble Rotary Connection were the Sly & The Family Stone of the Midwest. Over the course of six albums from 1967 to 1971, Rotary Connection achieved a zenith-y fusion of loose, hippie-rock dynamics and orchestral-soul flamboyance—as well as a knack for bizarre, enchanting reconfigurations of other artists’ songs. Arranged by the studio genius Charles Stepney, this music should’ve been topping charts and entering critical canons and selling out arenas. But, alas, heads weren’t quite ready. And while some 21st-century sticks in the mud might grumble about Rotary Connection sounding “dated,” I would counter that observation with “What a time stamp for a band to carry for eternity!”

Rotary Connection’s second album, Aladdin more effectively flaunts the group’s songwriting chops than does their cover-heavy 1967 debut full-length—which, I hasten to add, is fantastic in its own way, too. “Life Could” sets the tone with a flourish; it’s like if Blood, Sweat & Tears had more finesse, more soul, and better vocalists. Rotary Connection’s not-so-secret weapon, Minnie Riperton, establishes her dominance right away, her solar-powered range and emotional depth propelling the song to heights most rock groups cannot dream of reaching. “Life Could” is a paragon of horn-rock bombast and grandstanding psychedelic soul. Holy shit, what an opening salvo… And it’s followed by the aptly soaring “Teach Me How To Fly,” a tune nearly hysterical with hope and inspirational brio. Two tracks in, and the listener may already be overwhelmed.

“Let Them Talk” downshifts the tempo a bit, as its intro of Lothar And The Hand People-like quirkiness blossoms into a rambling slice of Free Design-esque sunshine pop, before it deviates into a withering critique of squares who can’t handle “hippies, yippies, and freaks.” This song may make you think of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band at their most cynical. Written by Japanese psych-pop phenom Harumi Ando, “I Took A Ride (Caravan)” finds Stepney and company blowing out the original to a phenomenal psychedelic swirl of sitar, harp, strings, and horns, with Riperton shining at her most dulcet. The title cut is a mellow, Motown-like stormer with strings, flute, and cloud-busting chorus. It’s an absurd sunburst of optimism, especially when heard with a set of 2018 ears.

While “Magical World” broods with a lush 5th Dimension/Supremes glow, “I Must Be There” comes off like a more ornate and sophisticated take on what the Beatles were attempting on “The Inner Light” or what It’s A Beautiful Day tried to achieve on their symphonic-psych debut LP. “I Feel Sorry” puts similar efforts by late-’60s Moody Blues into the shade, bolstered by a serpentine guitar solo worthy of SRC’s Gary Quackenbush. But “Paper Castle”—an ostentatious anthem about the fragility of civilization—steals the show. It’s an ultimate album-closer, radiating an ecstasy that borders on the apocalyptic. The ambition here is off the scales, the bombast as baroque as heaven.

While every Rotary Connection album has much to offer—even the holiday-themed PeaceAladdin is the work that best demonstrates their compositional brilliance and whip-smart dynamics. Fifty years after its release, this cult classic can still be found for relatively low prices in used bins… at least for now. -Buckley Mayfield

Secos E Molhados “Secos E Molhados” (Continental, 1973)

Secos E Molhados recorded six albums, but I’ve only heard this one, their 1973 debut. Because Secos E Molahdos is so great, maybe I don’t need to her anything else by this Brazilian group. Oftentimes, bands peak with their first full-length and their discography becomes a case of diminishing returns. I suppose curiosity will get the better of me and I’ll eventually check out later releases. But for now, Secos E Molhados will keep me sated until further notice.

From the first seconds of the opening tune, “Sangue Latino,” you’re struck by the excellent production values here. Willi Verdaguer’s bass tones have the richness of Dave Richmond’s playing on Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire De Melody Nelson (pretty much the gold standard, along with anything massaged or thumbed out by Herbie Flowers and Larry Graham), and it contrasts extremely well with Ney Matogrosso’s countertenor, which initially fooled me into thinking he was a woman. Now that I know his gender, Ney comes across as a Freddie Mercury-esque presence on the mic—and one of the best goddamned singers I’ve ever heard.

More proof comes from Matogrosso’s unbelievably gorgeous lead vocal and from João Ricardo and Gerson Conrad’s dulcet backing vox on the acoustic guitar ballad “O Patrão Nosso De Cada Dia.” Even better is the heartbreakingly pulchritudinous “Rosa De Hiroshima,” a sparse folk-rock ballad whose emotional resonance could make a dictator cry. For variation, there are the strutting, rollicking glam-rock of “O Vira” and “Mulher Barriguda” the latter of which boasts strafing harmonica and manic piano, summoning the over-the-top energy of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz.”

Secos E Molhados peaks on “Amor” and “Assim Assado.” The former is my go-to Secos E Molhados jam in DJ sets, as it possesses an ascending, sidewinding bass line and vocal harmonies that caress your frontal lobes like the tenderest lover does your nether regions, all while being festively funky. Yes, the erotic imagery is necessary for this almost unbearably sensual song, which stands up to anything by peak-era Os Mutantes. Another DJ favorite, “Assim Assado” is spiced by quirky ocarina motifs (by Zé Rodrix of Som Imaginário), fuzzed-out, Blue Cheer-like guitar soloing, and a melody that arches and curves like a swan’s neck.

Fala” provides an ideal note on which to close the album—a ballad that gathers momentum and orchestral sweep as it goes, soaring to the vanishing point with the grace and grandeur of a bald eagle. That Dick Hyman-esque synth solo that squiggles into earshot, though, steers the piece toward a surprisingly charming and absurd tangent.

Secos E Molhados isn’t as well known as other classic Brazilian albums by Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Gilbert Gil, Gal Costa, and Tom Zé, but it deserves to be worshipped just as fervently as those essential documents of South American music. -Buckley Mayfield

Commodores “Machine Gun” (Motown, 1974)

Commodores’ debut album is a stone funk classic. Devoid of the sappy ballads that made them beloved with suburban, mainstream folks and companies that pipe music into retail establishments and medical offices, Machine Gun bursts with lubricious groove science.

Right from the off, the title track glides into one of the smoothest clavinet-powered, pimp-roll rhythms ever cut, then gets festooned with flamboyant analog-synth oscillations, chikka-wakka guitar, and minimalist, grunting bass. An instrumental that the Beastie Boys (and their producers, the Dust Brothers) had the good sense to sample for “Hey Ladies,” “Machine Gun” is practically glam in its flashy gestures, its extravagant strut. The track reached #22 on the charts; not bad for a funk instrumental. That it appeared in the porntastic 1997 film Boogie Nights should not surprise anybody with a libido.

The rest of Machine Gun finds myriad ways to exploit said libido through funk’s manifold, malleable rhythmic tricks. The lascivious, loitering, and not a little creepy “Young Girls Are My Weakness” foreshadows Commodores’ smash 1977 hit “Brick House,” while “I Feel Sanctified” and “The Bump” stimulate party muscles in a very effective manner. The lyrics won’t win any Nobel or Pulitzer prizes, but they get the job done, allowing future solo star Lionel Richie to get his dirty-young-man ya-yas out. Another fantastic, clavinet- and synth-enhanced instrumental joint, “Rapid Fire,” closes the LP’s first side.

Side two opens with “The Assembly Line,” an oft-sampled, slow-blooming explosion of soulful euphoria written by Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer that recalls Anglo-Caribbean greats Cymande [see my review of their 1972 debut album in Jive Time’s archives]. Though it starts with a parody of circus music, “The Zoo (The Human Zoo)” is Machine Gun‘s most socially conscious song, and it went on to become a favorite on the Northern soul circuit, but with “Gonna Blow Your Mind,” we’re back to decadence in excelsis, with an intimate boudoir-funk jam. “There’s A Song In My Heart” harks back to “The Assembly Line”’s easygoing sunniness, while LP-closer “ Superman” is an urgent bustle of extroverted funk, blown out to aptly superheroic dimensions to match the titular subject.

Without a doubt, Machine Gun is essential for funk aficionados, and, low-key, it’s one of the highlights of Motown’s 1970s discography. To quote one of their best-known tunes, it’s “mighty mighty, just lettin’ it all hang out.” -Buckley Mayfield

Sun Ra “Disco 3000” (El Saturn, 1978)

In the last half of the ’70s, music-biz law mandated that every artist had to cut a disco record. James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, the Meters, esteemed jazz veterans like Yusef Lateef and Miroslav Vitous—it didn’t matter how established and respected you were; the industry-wide disco diktat had to be obeyed.

In 1978 while in Italy, Sun Ra and his tight quartet, the Myth Science Arkestra, paid lip service to disco (see the LP title), but as you’d expect from Herman Sonny Blount, the results here don’t at all conform to the genre’s major traits; nor are they exactly music to snort coke to, nor do they serve as preludes to getting laid. Rather, Disco 3000 is yet another anomaly in Sun Ra’s vast, strange discography. And that’s quite enough for me—and for you, too, I would wager.

On the astonishing 26-minute title track, over a chintzy rhythm-machine’s quasi-cha-cha beat, saxophonist John Gilmore and trumpeter Michael Ray blow mad, exclamatory arabesques, while Mr. Ra busts out some of his most severely warped tones on multiple keyboards and Moog synthesizer, raising plumes of alien glitter gas. All pretenses of regular meter quickly fly out the window. Throughout, Ra engineers passages of brilliant chaos, letting his insane menagerie of feral fibrillations and disorienting drones lift the piece into freeform, uncharted territory. If this is disco (it isn’t, let’s be honest), it’s a particularly Saturnine interpretation of the genre. I don’t think even renowned Italo-disco DJ Daniele Baldelli could smoothly segue “Disco 3000” into a KC & The Sunshine Band or Tantra track.

On “Third Planet” and “Friendly Galaxy,” piano, sax, drums, trumpet, and drums (played by Luqman Ali) cohere into rather conventional, bustling bop compositions. They offer respite before Ra and company head outward-bound again on “Dance Of The Cosmo-Aliens,” whose splenetic, galloping rhythm-box beats get wreathed with the sort of eerie, fairground organ motifs that haunted the Eraserhead soundtrack. The piece throbs with a manic intensity not unlike that of Killing Joke’s “Change,” oddly enough. Again, this ain’t disco as your lewd uncle Tony knows it.

On Disco 3000 in Sun Ra’s eloquent hands, space continues to be the place. And that’s quite enough for me. (Art Yard beneficently reissued Disco 3000 on vinyl in 2009.) -Buckley Mayfield

The Meters “The Meters” (Josie, 1969)

Here it is—the muthafuckin’ blueprint for a style of funk that seemingly has infinite staying power. The Meters’ debut LP is an ideal specimen of precision-tooled, just-the-brass-tacks-ma’am of New Orleans dance music, which has influenced generations of funk musicians and turned on millions of aficionados—while also providing a banquet of sampleworthy passages for hip-hop producers. Eternal thanks to Leo Nocentelli (guitar), Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste (drums) George Porter Jr. (bass), and Art Neville (keyboards) for their evergreen innovations.

On The Meters, these cool-headed gentlemen concocted a spare geometry of rhythm that always equals satisfaction where it counts: in the hips and the ears. Their concise compositions get to the point—which is a very important, rewarding point—and then efficiently move on to the next fundamental equation, which they elegantly solve, over and over again. That may sound a bit dry, but trust me, what the Meters do here is very lubricious.

The opening track, “Cissy Strut,” actually was a hit in 1969, selling 200,000 copies in two weeks, according to Wikipedia. It’s staggering to think that we once lived in a world where a stark instrumental funk cut could chart; my, how far we’ve fallen. Anyway, “Cissy Strut”—which has been sampled at least 60 times— is a seminar conducted by badass musicians casually placing every element in a song to maximize its innate funkiness. Special mention to drummer Modeliste, whose embellishments are tricky as hell while never losing the funk. Amazing four-limb dexterity!

Elsewhere, “Here Comes The Meter Man” comes off as both Southern-fried and as cool as sweet tea, with Neville’s organ a churchy swirl of carefree joy and Nocentelli’s guitar a quicksilver wonder of economy and liquid bliss. “Cardova” the epitome of the Meters’ special brand of methodical funk. You’d think something this orderly wouldn’t be interesting, but you’d be quite wrong. “Sophisticated Cissy” is more laid-back than its kissing cousin, “Cissy Strut,” and perhaps a tad funkier as a result. In my considered opinion, “Sophisticated Cissy” is summer-porch-sitting jammage par excellence. The cover of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Simple Song” slams just as hard as the original, but with fewer frills (like horns and vocals); it’s tighter than a military drum corps and infinitely more exciting.

The Meters is the purest distillation of the band’s utterly democratic, telepathic chemistry, before they kinda sorta ruined things with vocals and some ill-advised covers (Neil Young’s “Birds,” Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With,” etc.). Make no mistake: This album should be studied in universities as a paragon of bare-bones funk. It’s also a fantastic party platter, if you’re one of those freaks who enjoy feeling really good. -Buckley Mayfield

Mustafa Özkent Ve Orkestrasi “Gençlik İle Elele” (Evren, 1973)

After much listening and thought, I have to conclude that Mustafa Özkewnt VE Orkestrasi’s Gençlik İle Elele is a perfect record, a paragon of Turkish funk. Its 10 instrumental tracks average a little over three minutes in length, but they’re so rhythmically tight and tonally and texturally fascinating, that they feel like teases. Every element here—swarming, swirling John Medeski-esque soul-jazz organ, trebly, frilly-tendrilled guitar, in-the-pocket drums, furious bongo- and conga-slapping and other hand-percussion accents—is laser-focused to get your head bobbing, your hips swiveling, and your loins flooded with do-it fluid. So, yeah… a perfect record.

This LP, as you may surmise, contains loads of chunky funk that’s ripe for sampling by enterprising hip-hop producers; it’s a veritable breakbeat orgy. But according to online authority whosampled.com, only four Mustafa Özkent tracks have been sampled. That seems low for an album of such bumpin’ bounty. Not surprisingly, Madlib’s brother Oh No used two songs from Gençlik in his own work; surprisingly, Madlib himself hasn’t plundered it… not yet, anyway.

The concision and airtight beat science displayed by Mustafa Özkent and company recall the Meters’ disciplined approach to funk. Of course, being Turkish, Mustaf Özkent sound a tad more non-Western in their melodies and timbres. (According to Andy Votel’s liner notes in the 2006 B-Music reissue, Özkent modified his guitars with extra frets to make it sound more like a saz or a lute.) And that makes a big difference with regard to the stunning impact this album makes on the Western listener. All that being said, the phenomenal bass solo on “Dolana Dolana” would make Larry Graham give two thwapping thumbs up.

Reissued again by Portland label Jackpot in 2016, Gençlik İle Elele—which means Hand In Hand With Youthshould never fall out of print, nor stray far from your DJ bag, if indeed you DJ. Hell, this record just may inspire to start working the 1s and 2s yourself… -Buckley Mayfield