Soul, Funk and Disco

Earth, Wind & Fire “Open Our Eyes (Columbia, 1974)

The first popular Earth, Wind & Fire album, Open Our Eyes went gold and topped the R&B charts, but Maurice White and company still hadn’t made the leap to superstardom. That would come in 1975 with That’s The Way Of The World, with its hit singles “Shining Star,” “Reasons,” and the title track. But the Chicago group’s fifth LP, Open Our Eyes, represents their last stand of stripped-down funk and R&B before their act inflated to a soul revue for stadia. As such, it’s an interesting transitional work and a solid entry point into the EW&F universe.

White front-loaded the LP with two hits. “Mighty Mighty” is the better of the two: fleet, flinty, feel-good funk that hints at the supernova soul to come soon after. Very much in the vein of early-career Kool & The Gang, the song boasts a chorus (“We are people of the party/party people of the sun.”) that can’t help lifting your spirits. It reached #4 on the US R&B chart, #29 on the singles chart. “Devotion” is a silky Commodores-like ballad that verges on innocuous, although Philip Bailey’s supple falsetto and equally smooth backing falsettos are undeniably sweet. This one reached #33 on the singles chart.

Co-written by Rotary Connection mastermind Charles Stepney, “Fair But So Uncool” rolls out some bittersweet midtempo funk that could’ve comfortably slotted onto Sly & The Family Stone’s Fresh, while “Kalimba Story”’s strutting, coiled funk showcases the titular instrument’s enchantingly wonky metallic timbre. The album’s zenith comes on “Drum Song,” a deep, sinuous, kalimba-enhanced afro-funk jam that sounds nothing like future big-budget EW&F smash “September.” The slow, sleazy funk of “Tee Nine Chee Bit” is the closest EW&F ever came to emulating early Funkadelic and Ohio Players, and therefore is great. The closing title track surprises with its slick, Latin soul-jazz and bubbly scat singing, somehow bringing to mind Santana and early Chicago.

Obviously, Earth, Wind & Fire released a lot of amazing music after Open Our Eyes, but they definitely lost some of the gritty charm exemplified by the best moments of this important 1974 record. -Buckley Mayfield

Weather Report “Sweetnighter” (Columbia, 1973)

Here’s the Weather Report album most loved by club DJs. The grooves these fusion virtuosi wrangle on Sweetnighter run hot, long, and thick.

From the get-go, keyboardist Joe Zawinul’s “Boogie Woogie Waltz” proves Weather Report aren’t messing around. Swift, swaggering, and suave, this is epic blaxploitation-film funk. The auxiliary percussion by Dom Um Romao (chucalho, bell, tambourine) and Muruga (Moroccan clay drums) really lifts this undulating python of a track to the next level of groove trigonometry. Another Zawinul-penned marathon, “125th Street Congress,” comes out of the gate growling and prowling, its loping, chunky funk ready to dazzle your legs for 12 freakin’ minutes. Miroslav Vitous’ bass is gravid and funky enough to get Miles Davis to strut (and he never danced) while Romao’s panoply of percussion toys get a serious workout. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “Non-Stop Home” features phenomenally intricate and unconventionally funky drumming from Eric Gravatt and Herschel Dwellingham (think CAN’s Jaki Liebezeit circa Ege Bamyasi) while he blows an unusual melody. Wayne’s other composition, “Manolete,” boasts complex polyrhythms in a festive, almost prog-rock configuration. It’s one of his most anomalous and interesting tracks.

But Sweetnighter is not all dance-floor heat. Weather Report get sublimely moody here, too. Take Zawinul’s “Adios,” for example: It’s a beautiful, desolate, twinkling meditation clearly left over from his days composing with Miles Davis’ electric-era groups, especially circa In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. On Vitous’ “Will,” the group creates a shaker-heavy fantasia, its languid, Latin jazz introversion all subdued sublimity and subliminal slinkiness.

Make no mistake: Sweetnighter is one of the brightest jewels you can still find in bargain bins. -Buckley Mayfield

Dennis Coffey And The Detroit Guitar Band “Evolution” (Sussex, 1971)

Even if you’ve never heard Evolution in its entirety, you’ve likely heard bits and pieces of Dennis Coffey And The Detroit Guitar Band’s debut LP sampled in dozens of hip-hop tracks. Head over to whosampled.com and gawp at the profusion of producers who’ve used Coffey and company’s extravagant funk and lysergic guitar tones to punch up their own cuts. (“Scorpio” alone has been sampled or covered 104 times.)

So, yeah, Evolution can safely be considered a foundational building block of hip-hop. The album’s essentially divided into freaky psychedelic funk heaters and simmering mellow joints that still possess traces of funk in their trunks. In the latter style you’ve got “Summer Time Girl,” “Sad Angel,” “Wind Song,” “Garden Of The Moon” (the last sampled by P.M. Dawn for their track “Even After I Die” from their stellar 1991 debut LP). These songs spotlight Coffey’s nuanced melodic chops and unerring ability to write carefree tunes. It helps that he enlisted fellow Motown session badasses like Bob Babbitt (bass) and Jack Ashford (percussion), as well as Rare Earth’s Ray Monette (tenor guitar) and Joe Podorsek (baritone guitar).

As lovely as those pieces are, though, you go to Evolution for the pure, uncut funk. Album-opener “Getting It On” busts out the gate with guitar pyrotechnics that portend extraordinary action over a taut funk rhythm; Coffey gets off a wild wah-wah solo near the end foreshadowing many other moments here. Sampled by Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, and nine others, “Getting It On” is a potent way to start an album.

“Impressions Of” is the epitome of blaxploitation-flick funk. Bolstered by chikka-wakka guitar and laced with interludes of crystalline languidness, it makes you want to sprint 100 yards in 9 seconds flat. “Big City Funk” is exactly what it says on the tin. Thankfully, that big city is Detroit, and its innate funkiness is world-class and filthy as hell. Then there’s the radical makeover of “Whole Lot Of Love” [sic], which funks the fuck out of the Led Zeppelin metal-blues classic. Genius.

The record’s climax (and Coffey’s career peak), obviously, is “Scorpio,” one of the unlikeliest American hits ever, though eminently deserving that status. Very few instrumentals make the top 10 in the US, and the fact that there’s an extended drum/conga solo in the middle of the song further distinguishes “Scorpio” as an anomaly. Babbitt’s bass solo also is a master class in maximizing funkiness with minimal gestures. It’s no surprise why this track’s become a fixture in breakdancing circles.

As a lad growing up the Detroit area, I’d hear “Scorpio” on the radio and become transfixed by its galvanizing dynamics and percussive audacity. How could this be happening on a medium as humble as radio? It’s still a mystery—plus, Sussex was an indie label. (For additional appreciation of “Scorpio”’s greatness, go YouTube its airing on Soul Train. You won’t be sorry.)

In case you haven’t gathered by now, Evolution is a funk classic with sizzling psychedelic flourishes, and it still turns up occasionally in the wild at reasonable prices. Grip it with gusto. -Buckley Mayfield

Sonny & Linda Sharrock “Paradise” (ATCO, 1975)

Paradise is an odd entry in the Sonny and Linda Sharrock discography. First, they made the leap to a major label—which, if you know the husband/wife duo’s earlier, highly uncommercial Black Woman and Monkey-Pockie-Boo LPs, made little sense. Second, ATCO tapped Turkish avant-garde electronic-music composer Ilhan Mimaroglu to produce Paradise. Huh?! Hahaha. Did the execs think ol’ Ilhan had the golden radio ears? Uh, no. Third, look how glammed-up Linda looks on the cover. ATCO sure seemed determined to get the Sharrocks’ unruly music into many consumers’ ears. Spoiler alert: Paradise bombed.

While the record company’s bigwigs may have been disappointed by this album, you, the smart listener at home, should find at least half of Paradise to be freakin’ amazing. Whereas Linda’s Yoko Ono-esque wails and shrieks and Sonny’s free-jazz skronk and busted blues and gospel excursions dominated the aforementioned two records, Paradise represents the couple’s attempt to temper their wildness into something resembling songs that humans might want to listen to without fear of breaking their leases. Hell, it seems like the Sharrocks were even trying to make folks dance to their music.

“Apollo” starts as if S&L are going to sex you up properly with some soulful balladry. Their hardcore fans must’ve been furiously scratching their heads. But 100 seconds in, the Sharrocks get freaky in a whole different way, accelerating into a bizarre fusion of early Mahavishnu Orchestra and Billy Preston circa “Outa-Space.” Kenny Armstrong goes nuts on clavinet and Sonny sounds like he’s auditioning for a No Wave band—a couple years before No Wave was a thing. It’s one of the craziest guitar solos I’ve ever heard—and I’ve heard a lot. And then for “Apollo”’s last minute, they return to the original balladic blissfulness… because they’re perverse like that.

With its Mellotron, Linda’s plaintive chants, and Sonny’s spidery guitar filigree, “End Of The Rainbow” carries an air of earthy Alice Coltrane mysticism. “1953 Blue Boogie Children” finds Sonny getting off some unbelievably strange guitar tones and outlandish solos within a fairly conventional blues framework. He really shatters the form, while Linda enters near the end for some distressed vocal ecstatics. The celestial gospel reverie of “Peaceful” almost hints at Spiritualized à la “Shine A Light.” Album-closer “Gary’s Step” harks back to the Sharrocks’ 1970 records with its ebbing and flowing amorphousness, Linda’s acrobatic, Annette Peacock-like “ah”s and “la”s, and Sonny’s furious stroking of the strings at the headstock, creating high tension amid the song’s ostensible placidity.

Last but most, “Miss Doris” is a funk-rock scorcher, but with frenetic Moog embellishments last heard on Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein.” Linda scats up a feral storm as the band bustles with the bravado of Funkadelic circa the crazily cataclysmic “Wars Of Armageddon,” cowbell and all. I occasionally spin this in DJ sets, and its 9 eventful minutes of splintering guitar heroics and undulating rhythms—including Dave Artis’ On The Corner-evoking bass line—sure get everyone’s attention.

Paradise may strike some Sharrock aficionados as too slick for their avant-skronk tastes, but listen closely and you’ll hear Sonny and Linda inserting tons of subversive actions into the mix—and on a major label’s dime. I don’t care if it gets me kicked out of the Actuel Records Fanboy Club, but Paradise is my favorite Sharrock album… by a plectrum. -Buckley Mayfield

Merl Saunders “Fire Up” (Fantasy, 1973)

Merl Saunders (1934-2008) was a Hammond B-3 demon and all-around keyboard badass who is best known for his recordings with the Grateful Dead legend Jerry Garcia. In 1973, Saunders, Garcia, Creedence Clearwater Revival guitarist Tom Fogerty, bassist John Kahn, drummers Bill Vitt and Bill Kreutzmann, and others cut a hot LP aptly titled Fire Up. If you’re familiar with Hooterroll?, the record Garcia made with keyboardist Howard Wales in 1971, you may hear similarities between that and Fire Up. Both are great, if under-acknowledged, gems in the constellation of Grateful Dead satellite releases.

Fire Up starts strongly with “After Midnight,” which Merl and company render in the laid-back style of the song’s composer, JJ Cale, but they make it even funkier, with Jerry Garcia exuding his patented mellow bonhomie on vocals and embellishing the heaven out of the main chugging guitar riff. For even more savory flavor,Saunders gets off some mad, rococo flourishes on organ and electric piano. This might be the best version of this oft-covered song, outside of the original. The low-key party atmosphere continues with a suave, soul-jazz treatment of Huff-Gamble’s “Expressway (To Your Heart).” “Soul Roach” is a greasy af boogaloo-inflected jam that sounds like the best shindig you’ve ever had south of the Mason-Dixon line. Saunders brings in an Arp synth and Kahn helps out on extra organ, because that’s how dang generous ol’ Merl was in 1973.

Fire Up peaks on “Chock-Lite Puddin’,” a cruising funk rambler with Saunders on Arp and flute. This has become my go-to cut from this LP for DJing, along with “After Midnight.” Drummer Gaylord Birch and bassist Chuck Rainey really fatten up the groove here, with bonus mercurial hand percussion making “Chock-Lite Puddin’” dance-floor dynamite. The record closes with a nearly nine-minute version of “Lonely Avenue,” as Saunders and crew turn Doc Pomus’ classic, frequently covered 1956 song into a slinky exercise in melancholy R&B, with Walter Hawkins singing and Garcia soloing with soulful dexterity.

Fire Up is a front-to-back solid collection of keyboard-powered songs that surely illuminated many parties throughout the ’70s, and could do so now among folks of a certain age. Plus, if you’re a fan of Jerry Garcia’s spidery virtuosity, you definitely need this in your collection. -Buckley Mayfield

Bobbie Gentry “Fancy” (Capitol, 1970)

Even though she had a massive hit in 1967 with “Ode To Billie Joe” and released a grip of great LPs from in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Bobbie Gentry is not quite the household name she should be. Much like her English counterpart Dusty Springfield, the Mississippi-born Gentry is a soulful, nuanced vocalist who could work wonders with country, funk, rock, and pop material. Aside from singing in her supple, sensuous contralto, Gentry also wrote, produced, and even did the artwork for some of her album covers (including Fancy). She exerted a lot of control over her career for a woman in a male-dominated industry that wasn’t as progressive as it wanted to think it was.

Although she had sporadic chart success in the US and UK, and even hosted her own variety show on BBC TV, Gentry faded from the music biz and the public eye in the early ’80s. But her profile’s received a boost in recent years after being name-checked by young country-music stars like Kacey Musgraves and Nikki Lane, as well as the recent release of the 8-CD box set The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters, should further raise Gentry’s profile… [ahem] as well as this review.

The title track establishes Fancy‘s main mode: slick, orchestral country-funk executed by excellent session musicians from the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and in Columbia Studios in Nashville. The lone Gentry original, “Fancy” finds the singer recounting the rags-to-riches story of an 18-year-old woman whose mother nudges her into a life of prostitution to lift the family out of poverty. It’s so good, one wonders why Capitol larded the rest of the LP with other people’s compositions. On the two Bacharach-David tunes—“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”—Gentry’s Southern-belle gravitas doesn’t thrive in the famous songwriting team’s spick-and-span suburban pop, no matter how well-crafted it is. She sounds a bit uncomfortable and out of her soulful element here. Similarly, the cheerful, waltz-time pop of Rudy Clark’s “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” does not play to her strengths.

Thankfully, Gentry shines on the rest of the album. While Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” may not be the most copacetic vehicle for Gentry, the melody is so sublime that she can’t help making a gorgeous swoon of yearning heartache out of it. Leon Russell’s “Delta Man” is a song into which Gentry can really sink her incisors. She switches the original song’s genders and lays into Russell’s rousing chorus with less brio than Joe Cocker did, but Bobbie out-finesses the English geezer by far.

“He Made A Woman Out Of Me” (written by Fred Burch and Don Hill and earlier covered by Bettye LaVette) is Southern country-funk that’s as lubricious as Tony Joe White at his most seductive. It’s a momentous coming-of-age tale… so to speak. The album’s highlight is Harry Nilsson’s “Rainmaker”; it’s the funkiest, most sweeping track here, augmented by banjo and violin—not exactly staples of the funk genre, but Gentry, producer Rick Hall and his Muscle Shoals crew, and strings arranger Jimmie Haskell make it work to the max. This is my go-to track on Fancy for DJ sets—so it has that going for it, too.

While I’d prefer to hear Gentry perform her own songs, on Fancy she inhabits other composers’ with sly charisma, imbuing them with a strong wiliness that was rare for its time among female entertainers. -Buckley Mayfield

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