Soul, Funk and Disco

Chrome “Alien Soundtracks” (Siren, 1977)

Alien Soundtracks was where Chrome became the Chrome over which freaks worldwide have been flipping their lids for over four decades. Following the solid yet fairly trad 1976 debut LP The Visitation with founder Damon Edge at the controls, Alien Soundtracks is the San Francisco industrial-psychedelic-rock band’s first record with the uniquely blasted guitarist Helios Creed in the lineup. And what a difference he made.

Though recorded during punk’s first rude bloom, Alien Soundtracks aptly sounds as if it’s beaming in from a more grotesque and bizarre planet, one on which Johnny Rotten and Joey Ramone—gawd love ’em—would seem like innocuous cartoon figures. Allegedly recorded to accompany a live sex show, Alien Soundtracks indeed generates erotic charges, but in a form that Pornhub likely would regard as too twisted.

Album-opener “Chromosome Damage” fades in as if rising from a pit, then clicks into an accelerated, warped rock attack that reeks of rocket fuel and amphetamines. Edge croaks, “I wanna fly, I wanna fly away” before the song just fades out and morphs into a nightmarish, backward-sucking inversion of French psychonauts Heldon. Creed’s guitar sounds like if Jimi Hendrix were irradiated with Strontium-90; Helios forges some of the sickest tones ever to be associated with the mundane term “rock.” The lysergic intro of “All Data Lost” leads into a skittering, Jaki Liebezeit ca. Tago Mago ratatat and Edge’s voice downshifts into a Syd Barrett-like murmur that ripples into infinity. “SS Cygni” finds Chrome at their funkiest, but this is the hypnotic machine chug of This Heat more than it’s the bon vivant strutting of James Brown or the Meters. ‘Tis a pity it doesn’t last at least three times longer. By contrast, “Nova Feedback” is eerie, menacing, and woozy, as Creed peels off proggy, contemplative riffs that contrast with the doom-laden business roiling below. It’s a masterpiece of chiaroscuro.

The strangeness does not let up on side 2. “Pigmies In Zee Park” unloads helter-skelter guitar, percussion, synths, and mysterious vocal consternation before a gong hit produces a segue into a Floydian head trip. Edge dares a grotesque mockery of a Johnny Mathis croon about “pigmies [sic] in the park by the zoo waiting for you.” It’s damned creepy. Finally, things shift again into a manic, automaton shuffle, like a threshing machine operating in triple time. The move epitomizes Chrome’s masterly madness. “Slip It To The Android” almost comes across as a novelty-dance track, with its bustling bongo-like beats and insectoid Moog buzzes, but Creed’s needly guitar solos and Gary Spain’s Jean-Luc Ponty-esque electric-violin riffs reveal Chrome’s rarely noted Frank Zappa influence.

The methodical funk of “Pharoah Chromium” could be early Black Sabbath covering Funkadelic’s “You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks,” with an articulate, anguished Creed solo glazing this strange trudge. It sounds as if Helios let second guitarist John Lambdin take lead on “ST 37,” a Residents boogie cross-hatched with all sorts of wonky synth tones and percussion timbres. It was distinctive enough to inspire a ’90s Texas band to name themselves after it. “Magnetic Dwarf Reptile” is as bizarre as its title, and it enables Creed to flaunt that muted, radiated tone that hovers in the region of Richard Pinhas’ axe work for French sci-fi-obsessed psych juggernaut Heldon. Here and elsewhere, Creed proves he can finesse exceedingly precise arabesques or unleash massively distorted riffs that dwarf Tony Iommi’s.

That sound would dominate the essential 1979 follow-up, Half Machine Lip Moves and other otherworldly classics such as 3rd From The Sun, but all of Chrome’s ostentatious mutations cohered most rewardingly on Alien Soundtracks.

(Alien Soundtracks has been reissued on vinyl four times. A word to the wise, though: Avoid the Cleopatra editions—which is good advice in general for any release.) -Buckley Mayfield

Miguel De Deus “Black Soul Brothers” (Underground, 1977)

Miguel De Deus played guitar and sang for the outstanding Brazilian psych-rock groups Assim Assado and Os Brazões—the latter of whom were the fantastic Gal Costa’s backing band during the heady years of 1969 and 1970 and who should at least be as well known and regarded as Os Mutantes. Alas, De Deus—who died in 2007—and his bands still lack the high profile of Mutantes, but obrigado anyway to the Portuguese label Groovie for reissuing Black Soul Brothers and that hot Assim Assado LP in 2016 and 2017, respectively. These records provide a vivid picture of a musician with a brazen wild streak and keen instincts for the funk.

Right from jump of opening cut “Cinco Años,” MDD lets us know that the funk’s gonna be strong, bulbous, and bubbly on Black Soul Brothers. The female backing vocalist—who is maddeningly uncredited—soars in radiant counterpoint to MDD’s alpha-lech grunting. (His voice is an acquired taste that you may never embrace, but the music’s too good to reject the band outright.) You can practically smell the sexual friction in the elastic keyboard riffs twanging between the busy rhythmic hustle and bustle. “Pedaços” peddles a festive funkiness that would segue nicely in a set of tunes by War, Jimmy Castor Bunch, AWB, and Cymande (particularly, “Bra”). I don’t pass out compliments like that every day.

“Mister Funk”—which written by De Deus and Nelsão Triunfo—may be titled with heavy-handedness, but it’s a greasy, brassy groove bacchanal that will surely make your gang feel kool. The salacious summertime soul of “Flaca Louca” may test your patience due to MDD’s goofy growling, but the woman on the mic compensates for his shortcomings. At least you can’t say Miguel lacks enthusiasm…

The album peaks on “Black Soul Brother,” which was co-written by Paulo Rocco and the album’s producer, Santiago “Sam” Malnati. It’s extravagant funk that makes Sly Stone and Tina Turner seem like wallflowers. Whoever the woman singing with Sarolta Zalatnay-esque zest is, she convinces me that she needed her own album. Maybe she got it, but we’ll likely never know. The rowdy funk of “Lua Cheia” gets splattered with MDD’s gruff yelling, but the mellifluous sax parts and a bass line that coils like a gymnast working out on the uneven bars tilt the song into the W column. Bafflingly, MDD closes the record with the ballad “Fábrica De Papéis,” even though his voice isn’t in the least suited for this style. But the music’s nicely lush and seductive, the keyboard and guitar sparkling and caressing with tenderness, and the female backing vox is requisitely dulcet.

Forty-four years after its initial release, Black Soul Brothers still sounds like an explosive party platter that would make James Brown get up offa that thing, pronto. Its potency more than overcomes its creator’s grating vocal flaws. -Buckley Mayfield

Brute Force “Brute Force” (Embryo, 1970)

People of dubious maturity levels like to ridicule Herbie Mann for posing shirtless and exposing his man pelt on the cover of his very good bargain-bin LP Push Push. But listen up: Besides being a savvy musician with a keen ear for prevailing trends, Mr. Mann flaunted sharp A&R acumen for the Atlantic Records subsidiary Embryo in the early ’70s. (Oh, by the way, the flautist also released at least six great albums as a bandleader—which is six more than the mooks who mock him have made.)

Anyway, one case in point for Herbie’s acute scouting skills are Yellow Springs, Ohio’s finest, Brute Force, a sextet whose best-known member was Sonny Sharrock… who guested on some of Mann’s own records. Now that I have your attention, let’s discuss why you need this overlooked album by this obscure group.

Produced by the Herbster himself, Brute Force immediately busts out of the gate like a thoroughbred with its ass on fire. “Do It Right Now” is a rock-and-soul “seize the day” anthem with bandleader Richard Daniel’s vocals swathing heads in warmth in the mellow-vibrant vein of Terry Collier and Lou Bond. Sharrock’s fiery guitar filigree really launches this song skyward. The anti-conformity song “Some Kind Of Approval” bubbles somewhere between early-’70s Curtis Mayfield and Stark Reality. Daniel gets off a sublime keyboard solo and Sharrock adds zonked guitar roughage for this soul-jazz gem that’ll raise your spirits and heart rate.

The Deacon” rambles soulfully like peak Booker T. & The MGs, with its rapid conga slaps and peppy horns making me want to watch NFL highlights from the ’70s. “Right Direction” moves in said place, and you’ll want to shoot its euphoric Latin rock into your veins—percolating congas, sweeping horns, and Daniel’s vocal flights of unstoppable positivity and all. On “Monster,” an incredibly cool bass and conga intro leads into an uptempo horn-rock jam with guitar fibrillations stroked from the instrument’s nut. It sure sounds like Sharrock’s diabolical handiwork, although he’s not credited. Still, I’d bet your stimulus check that it is indeed Sonny shredding. The playing recalls his outré work on his and wife Linda’s Paradise LP. The song builds to an intensity and wildness that bear the Sharrockian stamp, so it can’t help being a highlight.

Speaking of which, “Ye-Le-Wa” is another one. 14.5 minutes of balletic free jazz that waxes and wanes with brassy verve, this track’s not unlike Pharoah Sanders‘ output of that same era, but with more of a grounding in out-rock protocols. Daniel’s soulful vocals may not match Leon Thomas’ high-flying yodelics from “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” but they’re certainly moving, even if they simply repeat the title. The record closes with “Doubt,” a tranquil, flute-enhanced comedown after the previous blowout. Strangely, it recalls the beautifully placid “Love Sketch” by Paul Revere & The Raiders side project Friendsound. Will wonders never cease?

So, whether you’re a Sonny Sharrock completist or someone who simply enjoys soul jazz that rocks with finesse and fiery interplay, you need Brute Force. Herbie Mann would never steer you wrong, shirt or no shirt. -Buckley Mayfield

Ben Sidran “Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth” (Blue Thumb, 1973)

One wonders how a nerdy-looking, non-famous white keyboardist/singer convinced legends such as Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams, James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield, and session bassist Phil Upchurch of Rotary Connection and Chess/Cadet Records fame to back him on his third album, Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth. Granted, Ben Sidran had co-written Steve Miller Band’s 1969 “Lady Madonna”-biting hit “Space Cowboy,” but still. You wouldn’t think a guy like this would have that kind of clout. Maybe Sidran simply charmed them into the fold, and coaxed Blue Thumb Records to compensate them handsomely? Whatever the case, praise your deity of choice that these cats somehow gathered to lay down this understated gem.

I’ve heard five Ben Sidran albums, and Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth is the best. Now, the opener, “Full Compass” (which Upchurch wrote), a 39-second burst of flamboyant, Mahavishnu Orchestra-like fusion, is a red herring. But on the next track, “Play The Piano,” Sidran’s true nature emerges. It flaunts Sidran’s hip, Mose Allison-esque vocals that express how doing the thing that the title says is salvation. Sidran tickles out wonderful cascades of chords on the far right side of a grand piano while Upchurch and Stubblefield lift the rhythm from Prime Mates’ “Hot Tamales,” one of the greatest Latin/New Orleans funk songs ever. Your ears will do somersaults of joy. The striding blues jazz of “Have You Heard The News” exudes that irresistible Mose bonhomie and is boosted by the deft Mr. Williams on drums.

Face Your Fears” features old Sidran buddy Steve Miller on acoustic guitar. It’s an inspirational jazz-pop song with Frank Rosolino on trombone and Sidran on Mellotron bringing new tones to the record, and it really soars in the second half thanks to Miller’s wonderfully warped electric-guitar solo and Tim Davis’ blissful backing vocals. “Walking With The Blues” is actually more dulcet smooth jazz than anything that sounds like Howlin’ Wolf. Here, Sidran sings in his most comforting, confidential tones as Bill Perkins exhales sultry, sinuous tenor sax solos. It’s quite precious.

As fine as all of this has been, Planet Earth really peaks on the last two tracks. I’ll be damned if the title track doesn’t share the same rhythm as that B-boy favorite, Can’s “Vitamin C.” Coincidence? I hope not. I love the idea of Clyde Stubblefield paying homage to Jaki Liebezeit. Upchurch lends crucial wah-wah guitar to this very classy approximation of blaxploitation-flick funk, while Sidran peels off keyboard runs that evoke Deodato circa “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”.

Even better is “Now I Live (And Now My Life Is Done).” An ultra-slinky groove snakes with guile as Sidran vamps with enough verve to make Donald Fagen green with envy while guitarist Curley Cooke is on crystalline form, somewhere between George Benson and Pat Martino. Sidran’s use of bells and boinger percussion toy really add spine-tingles to this surreptitiously funky song. Throughout, Sidran recites an existentialist poem written by doomed 16th-century prisoner Chidiock Tichborne, who was executed for plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. Crazy backstory, right? This is simply one of the most sublime tracks I’ve ever heard, regardless of genre, and alone worth the price of admission, and then some. -Buckley Mayfield

The Supremes “New Ways But Love Stays” (Motown, 1970)

If you abandoned the Supremes after Diana Ross departed the hit-making vocal group, you should reconsider. Start making amends by listening to New Ways But Love Stays, the second studio album with Jean Terrell as their lead singer. Ably assisted by Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong, and the Andantes, the Supremes proved they could thrive without their head diva, scoring their biggest post-Diana hit with “Stoned Love” (#7 on the Billboard singles chart), a slice of irresistible soul that’s at once brassy and blissful—a very difficult feat.

See, another reason not to bail on the Supremes sans Ross is that Motown in 1970 was still producing some of the most ambitious and ingenious soul music in the world. I wish I could tell you who’s responsible for the luxurious backing on New Ways, but Berry Gordy was stingy with credits for some unfathomable reason. Frank Wilson produced every song here except one, though, and he deserves plaudits for the maximalist, orchestral excitement happening here. And whoever selected the songs to cover merits a medal.

The album opens with a version of the Spinners’ “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music.” A love song, uh, supreme, this is sumptuous, busy soul that testifies with intricate vocal arrangements and vaguely psych-rock guitar embellishments. And is that a Minnie Riperton-like wail or synth hijinks at the end? Whatever the case, it’s awesome. A reverent cover of a reverent song, the Supremes’ “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is executed with utmost skill and nuanced feeling. It elegantly explodes when it needs to, although Art Garfunkel still has the ladies beat with that showstopping chorus. I bet Paul Simon was pleased, and not just for the royalty checks.

Doing one of the Beatles’ funkiest and oddest songs, “Come Together,” may seem counterintuitive, but the Motown brain trust and the Supremes made it something special. They made a sitar the lead instrument, surprisingly relegating the bass to the background. It’s pretty funny as well to hear Terrell sing “walrus gumboot” and to ham it up on the “hold him in his armchair, you can feel his disease” line. What goofy fun this is. Speaking of which, the rendition of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” is the album’s peak. I realize you may be skeptical, but hear me out. This accidental jock jam and 1968 chart-topper by one-hit wonders Steam has been transformed by the Funk Brothers into a clap-happy charmer with sitar accouterments, slamming beats, and sax filigrees to fly for. This is DJ gold, and you should see people’s faces when you tell them who’s responsible for it.

Some other highlights on New Ways include the mellow and funky “It’s Time To Break Down,” which hip-hop producer DJ Premier sampled for Gang Starr’s “JFK 2 LAX.” You just can’t deny orchestral soul with that mighty Motown budget behind it. And while “Shine On Me” may be boilerplate Motown upfulness, it bears so much vocal creamy sweetness and is inflated by inspirational horn charts, you may mistake it for a Rotary Connection joint.

New Ways‘ original title and cover caused some controversy within Motown’s offices. Stoned Love was deemed too drug-friendly and the women’s black turtlenecks were considered an endorsement of the Black Panthers, so compromises were made. Weak sauce, Mr. Gordy, but thanks anyway for releasing such a gem.

*The 1991 CD reissue contains a bonus cut of Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With.” -Buckley Mayfield

Eddie Harris “I Need Some Money” (Atlantic, 1975)

The late American saxophonist/vocalist Eddie Harris is king of the jazz bargain bin, now that Billy Cobham’s catalog is rising in stock. Nearly all of Harris’ albums go for under $10; if you see one from the late ’60s or ’70s, grab it.

Over his prolific career, Eddie Harris was an adept balladeer, bluesman, straight-ahead bop melodicist, funky party-starter, turbulent free jazzer, and experimentalist with a keen interest in the mind-bending properties of electronic effects. I Need Some Money arrived toward the end of funk’s reign and near the beginning of disco’s dominance, and you can hear Harris and his skilled group seeking ingenious ways to move bodies.

That approach is obvious from the opening track. More than anything, “I Need Some Money” resembles the soulful, swerving funk of the O’Jays, early Commodores, and Larry Young’s Fuel. Harris’ lyrics lament the high cost of living, a common theme in black music of the ’70s, and one that’s proved to be timeless. Hell, it’s been my anthem in this messed-up year of unemployment and limited opportunities. The refrain of “Everything is so damn high!” will prance through your brain for hours. “Get On Down” starts with unsettling stomach-hunger sounds (probably created with a quica) and Eddie saying “excuse me.” A tentative beat percolates and about 100 seconds in, the song shifts into an unstoppable jazz-funk groove that bubbles and shimmies like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious.” Harris drops in some chuckle-worthy scat singing and Leon Thomas-esque yodeling, adding levity to a track that’s almost too much fun. “Get On Down” is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Shifting into a sparser, lower key, “Time To Do Your Thing” is an Afro-Latin percussion fest and a dancin’/romancin’ soundtrack for the carnally advanced. Above all the timbrally interesting beats, Harris’ robust, snaky sax (alluding to Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby”), Bradley Bobo’s lubricious bass, and Ronald Muldrow’s clanging guitar engage in a vivacious conversation. Harris goes on another tangent with “Carnival,” a weirdly festive exotica excursion. It’s powered by the sort of drum-machine beats that would animate many ’80s synthwave groups, with Harris’ sax FX’d into timbres more associated with synthesizers the instrument Bird and Trane made legendary. African whistle, talking drum, cabasa, and massed, jokey chants add to the track’s otherness.

I Need Some Money‘s peak might be the nearly 12-minute “I Don’t Want Nobody.” Sounding like Spirit Of Eden-era Talk Talk over a decade before the fact, the musicians conjure a gospel-tinged blues of somber majesty. Harris sings through an electric sax at the beginning to feminize his voice while Muldrow’s guitorgan whirs into the church-y mode of Spiritualized’s “Shine A Light.” Rufus Reid’s six-string bass and the guitorgan entwine in a lofty dialogue, as the broken-hearted singer licks his wounds. (“You’ve always said that you love me/That I’d be the only one/You thought of me every night/Why did you say we have a future”). Absolutely crushing. (Trivia: Oh Sees’ John Dwyer is a huge fan.) The album ends with “That’s It,” an alternate-world version of Quincy Jones’ Sanford And Son theme—slower, but just as inspirational and grimy.

From what I’ve read, the title of I Need Some Money was the truth. Alas, Harris didn’t score a hit with it, but in his pursuit of lucre, he inadvertently cut his best album of the decade. If it’s a “sell-out” move, it’s akin to Miles Davis’ similar stab at commercial success that resulted in an uncompromising classic: On The Corner. Bonus: Money still commonly dwells in the cheapie bins. -Buckley Mayfield

Björn J:son Lindh “Sissel” (Metronome/CTI, 1973)

One of my goals in life is to bring Björn J:son Lindh’s outstanding music to more people’s attention. It’s hard work, but somebody has to do it. I’m by no means an expert on this Swedish fusion flautist/keyboardist, but I do think he has at least four albums that deserve precious shelf space in your home. These records—Ramadan, Cous Cous, Second Carneval, and Sissel—flaunt Lindh’s idiosyncratic way with melody and dynamic, funky rhythmic finesse. I’d like to explore in more depth Sissel, as that’s the LP I find myself playing out most in DJ sets.

When you hear lead cut “Bull Dog,” you’ll understand why I and other fusion-friendly disc jockeys rely on Sissel for rocking parties. The opening break stands out from your run-of-the-mill funk with its nimble metallic and woody percussion accenting a deep, methodical bass/drum groove, all slashed by Lindh’s staccato flute striations. Midway in, Jan Schaffer’s fluid, pointillistic guitar solo launches “Bull Dog” into John Abecrombie/Gábor Szabó heights. Shout out to Stefan Brolund’s staunch bass line, as well. “Storpolska” represents one of the great red herrings in music. It starts like an ancient folk song in an odd time signature, until Schaffer’s blaxploitation-funk, wah-wah’d guitar riff and Mike Watson’s churning bass materialize and shift things to Shaft-land. A wonderful cognitive dissonance arises when Lindh starts to blow pastoral-prog flute airs over the urban-turmoil soundtrack, which boils to Miles Davis/On The Corner levels, as Schaffer’s pyrotechnics soar into Sonny Sharrock/Pete Cosey dimensions of sculpted chaos.

Similar to “Bull Dog” in its sparseness and percussive vocabulary, “Your Own House” is even funkier and more laid-back. No wonder it’s been sampled in nine songs, including those by Aceyalone, Black Milk, Meat Beat Manifesto, and Attica Blues. The chorus recalls Herbie Mann at his most beautifully melancholy. Written by Jan Schaffer, it’s a perfect track with which to end a DJ set; it feels as if the music’s poignantly waving goodbye. The title track’s hard-hitting, action-packed fusion à la Deodato’s Prelude; Lennart Aberg’s soprano sax solo baroquely rips. Sissel closes with a cover of Joe South’s 1968 anti-hypocrisy country-rock classic, “Games People Play,” on which Schaffer’s guitar sounds a bit like a sitar. South’s melody is so well-suited for Lindh’s delicate euphony, and it’s amazing how the song sounds at once cheerful and downhearted, especially in this version.

Lindh’s ’70s albums are neither very common nor ultra-rare, but when they do turn up, they’re usually reasonably priced. Grab one next time you see it, and validate my thesis, if you’d be so kind. -Buckley Mayfield

Eddie Kendricks “People… Hold On” (Tamla, 1972)

After a hit-strewn 11 years with the Temptations, for whom he sang lead and arranged vocals on many songs, singer Eddie Kendricks embarked on a solo career in 1971 with All By Myself. But it was his sophomore solo set, People… Hold On, where the golden-falsetto’d soul man seriously realized his potential and stretched the parameters of what a Motown artist could accomplish on record, sashaying through the door to artistic freedom that Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder had opened.

People… Hold On enjoyed only modest commercial success (#131 in the US album chart, three singles that entered the top 100: “Eddie’s Love,” “If You Let Me,” “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind”), but it’s Kendricks’ strongest solo LP. (The silky-toned singer sadly died from lung cancer in 1992 at age 52.)

Album-opener “If You Let Me” saunters in nonchalantly, a seductive funk-soul charmer to the core. Its first words—“Baby, I know I blew your mind”—prefigure what the artist is going to do to the listener. True enough, the next track, “Let Me Run Into Your Lonely Heart” proves itself to be one of the greatest funk jams on Motown. In the Funkadelic/Sly & The Family Stone realm of filthy and heady groove science, this cut should be way better known. Another side 1 highlight is “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind,” a fixture throughout the ’70s at NYC DJ David Mancuso’s legendary Loft parties. It’s simply one of the silkiest, sleekest proto-disco songs to which your ever-lovin’ ears and ever-swivelin’ hips will get down. In a similar vein, “Date With The Rain” breezes in with a swift, danceable rhythm over which Kendricks sings ecstatically about walking and crying in the rain, his heart breaking despite the incredible groove soundtracking his dejection. Lovers of that paradoxical music/lyrics split à la Smokey Robinson will be in heaven.

Now, about 40 percent of People… consists of fairly trad, bubbly Motown soul balladry, and they’re fine, if sometimes saccharine, songs, but they don’t prepare us for the album’s pinnacle, “My People… Hold On.” This towering anomaly in the Motown catalog has been sampled at least 25 times, including by J Dilla on 2006’s Donuts and by Erykah Badu on 2008’s New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War). Understandable. The conga beats and bass line are deep and sensual, the chicken-scratch guitar very subliminal, and the backing vocals and Kendricks’ lead are poised yet impassioned, calling for unity and strength among black folks fighting systemic oppression. (It’s hard to imagine D’Angelo not taking comprehensive notes to it.) It’s phenomenal how Kendricks and company imbue so much gravity into this song, considering how few elements are deployed. An innovative benchmark in ’70s funk, “My People… Hold On” should play at every Black Lives Matter function.

Despite being created by such a popular musician on a revered label (which reissued it on wax in 2018), People… Hold On is still under-acknowledged. That’s a mystery… and a damn shame. -Buckley Mayfield

Can “Monster Movie” (Music Factory, 1969)

Choosing a favorite Can album is like pinpointing your favorite orgasm—damn near impossible, but fun to contemplate. As with many things music-oriented, it depends on your mood. One of the great things about these German geniuses (plus their American and Japanese vocalists) is how different each LP is. On any given day, your fave could be the unique funk bomb of Ege Bamyasi, the aquatic space-out of Future Days, the psych-rock/musique-concrète amalgam of Tago Mago, the proto-techno rhythmagic of Soon Over Babaluma, the alien dub and robo-funk of Flow Motion, or the raw-nerved, Velvet Underground-inflected trips and trance jams of Monster Movie. Or yet another one. Choose your adventure, etc.

My lifelong love affair with Can—whom I consider the greatest rock band ever—began with Monster Movie in the very early ’80s. I was smitten from the first seconds of “Father Cannot Yell,” which is a skewed, avant-garde take on the Velvet Underground at their most adrenalized—but with a loose-cannon, African-American sculptor on vocals instead of a NYC hipster. Nothing else really sounded like this in 1969: Holger Czukay’s ominous pulsations of sinewy bass; Jaki Liebezeit’s robust, tricky beats; Irmin Schmidt’s synapse-sizzling keyboard fibrillations; and Michael Karoli’s radiant guitar; Mooney’s spluttering of a disturbing, primal, parental scenario. “Father Cannot Yell” is not so much a traditional rock song as it is a surge of panicky energy that makes you think earth is spinning off its axis.

The next track, “Mary, Mary So Contrary,” ushers in a 180º shift to slack, clanging rock in the vein of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Cream’s “World Of Pain.” Karoli’s articulate guitar lead whines and snakes through the song like a tortuous siren and is underpinned by Liebezeit’s emphatic, deceptive funk beats. Mooney’s obsessive, lyrics about the titular woman are strange, but this might be the most conventional love song in Can’s canon, outside of “She Brings The Rain.” “Outside My Door” features a wonderfully doleful train-whistle harmonica wafting over a spasming psych-rock roar that’s somewhere between 13th Floor Elevators ca. Bull Of The Woods and Mass In F Minor-era Electric Prunes. Mooney looses a stream of discombobulated consciousness in which the standout line is “Any color is bad.”

Monster Movie climaxes on “Yoo Doo Right.” A 20-minute Ouroboros jam of throbbing intensity and sublime subterranean tremors, this is really Holger and Jaki’s show. The formidable rhythm section creates an undulating foundation of low frequencies, heavy on the bass twang and tom-toms, over which Schmidt’s keys and Karoli’s guitar fill the firmament with aching drones that hint at VU’s “Black Angel’s Death Song.” Mooney sings about his lust-object mantras as if possessed: “once I was blind now I can see/now that you’re in love with me/you made a believer out of me, babe/you made a believer out of me/she said, ‘yoo doo right, yoo doo right.’” At around 8 minutes, the song reduces to rimshots and Mooney sadly intoning the lyrics for a minute; then the rest of the band resume forging periodic swells of keyboard burbles and a fuzzed-out guitar riff that’s like a fanfare for an advanced civilization. Czukay and Liebezeit continue to build a mountain of rhythm out of bare necessities. Mooney’s OCD rants and tender singing capture the mindset of a man in an agitated state of romantic thralldom. It’s an exhausting yet exhilarating trip.

Monster Movie contains some of Can’s most straightforward rock moments, but also their most prodigious improv epic (just nudging out “Halleluwah”). It’s a start-to-finish mind-bender and a rewarding entry point into their incomparable catalog. -Buckley Mayfield

Betty Davis “Nasty Gal” (Island, 1975)

Betty Davis (1973) and They Say I’m Different (1974) are such flamboyant juggernauts of funk and soul that they overshadow all that came after. But Ms. Davis (née Mabry, ex-wife and muse of Miles Davis) still had plenty of creative fire in her belly, as her “difficult” third album, Nasty Gal, proves. This X-rated singer/songwriter may have lost Sly & The Family Stone drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham, Headhunters drummer Mike Clark, and Santana guitarist Neal Schon from the first two LPs’ lineups, but she still dropped gems with regularity. So while the band she enlisted for Nasty Gal may not be as renowned, but it is damned tight.

You can suss that from the first few seconds of the title track: seething, filthy funk apropos for its titular subject. Davis shifts from guttural growl that telegraphs feral lust to seductive purrs as the guitar, bass, drums, synths, and congas bump and grind with pornographic single-mindedness. The libidinous, swaggering funk of “Talkin Trash” evokes Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” thanks to James Allen Smith’s clavinet-like synth squawks. That seductive, squelchy sound recurs throughout Nasty Gal like a mating call.

This Is It!” is slamming, thrusting funk that takes no prisoners—so lusty, it could make even men pregnant. “F.U.N.K.” telegraphs its intent, serving as Davis’ manifesto for the funk genre while big-upping her musical inspirations (Stevie, Sly, Tina Turner, Ann Peebles, Al Green, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, O’Jays, Jimi, Aretha, Chaka, the Funkadelics [sic]). “Shut Off The Light” bears uncanny similarities to the lubricious funk romp “Turn Off The Lights” from Larry Young’s Fuel LP (which also came out in 1975 and which I also reviewed on this blog). Great minds think alike, for sure.

To show she’s not strictly sex-obsessed, Davis wrote “Dedicated To The Press,” a sarcastic dig at the media set to a throbbing, bubbling funk attack. Betty seems quite worked up about critics’ inability to understand where she’s coming from. Sadly, that’s what happens when you’re too far ahead of your time.

The only real dud on Nasty Gal is “You And I”—shocking, because this should’ve been a highlight; it was co-written with Miles and boasts brass arrangements by Gil Evans. Instead, it’s a somewhat limp ballad with Betty at her most tender and sincere. Curiously, this stab at serious airplay didn’t succeed.

That Betty Davis remains more of a cult icon than a household name on the level with Tina or Chaka might derive from her being too sexy and in your face for most heads to handle. Luckily, you sexy readers are more than up for the task.

(The good folks at Light In The Attic Records reissued Nasty Gal in 2009, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find—or very expensive.) -Buckley Mayfield

Bee Gees “Bee Gees 1st” (Polydor/ATCO, 1967)

Rock bands that emulated the Beatles were 10 a penny in the mid/late ’60s. But among the legions of Fab Four disciples from that era, few sounded as sublime as Bee Gees. They decisively proved this point with Bee Gees’ 1st (actually their third LP, but first to be released worldwide). It’s a cornucopia of baroque psychedelic pop that out-John-Paul-Georged nearly everybody in the field. (Klaus Voorman, the brilliant artist who designed the cover for Revolver, also did a fantastic job with 1st.)

1st came out about six weeks after Sgt. Pepper’s in the UK, and peaked at #7 on the Billboard album chart. That’s how sophisticated pop-music consumers were in 1967. At this point, the Gibb brothers—Barry, Robin, and Maurice—were working with Australian musicians Vince Melouney on guitar and drummer Colin Petersen on drums. Bill Shepherd and Phil Dennys handled the orchestral arrangements with panache. These musicians made for a formidable team.

Right off the bat, “Turn Of The Century” and “Holiday,” show Bee Gees’ vast emotional range. The former’s ebullient baroque pop with echt Beatlesque vocal harmonies, which contrasts with the latter’s lachrymose ballad of precious intimacy, although Shepherd’s orchestrations nudge “Holiday” into Moody Blues/Left Banke territory.

The album really takes off with “Red Chair Fade Away,” an eerie efflorescence of psychedelic pop in the “Strawberry Fields Forever” vein. It pushes a profound nostalgic button for people who love songs in which instruments such as flute and violin seem to be melting in the studio—a number larger than you’d think. Out of sheer quirkiness, Robin brays like a sheep after Barry repeatedly sings “red chair fade away” near song’s end, and “I can feel the speaking sky” is brilliant and terrifying synesthesia. Another towering high point is “In My Own Time,” whose strutting garage-psych recalls “Taxman,” a style I wish the Gibb bros attempted more often. (By the way, the Three O’Clock did a nice cover of this tune on 1983’s Sixteen Tambourines.)

New York Mining Disaster” uh, mines the old-timey vibe of the Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite.” However, it is the Gibbs’ perverse genius to turn a tragic story about a worker being trapped in a mine into a soaring, feel-good hit. The bittersweet vocal harmonies and phrasing come off as a combo of “Good Day Sunshine” and “Eleanor Rigby.” The delightful psych lite of “Please Read Me” is as shaggily wonderful as your favorite Help! or Rubber Soul tune. “I Close My Eyes” is a very special song, bristling with strange beauty, staunch drumming, bravura fragile vocalizing à la 1966-era John Lennon, and a bizarre ee-ew sound that seems like a mistake that producer Robert Stigwood decided to keep for sheer WTF? value.

Beatles panto is fine and all, but do Bee Gees have soul? Oh, they certainly do. Dig “One Minute Woman,” a blue-eyed-soul charmer with sophisticated swagger and elevated by sumptuous strings and horn charts akin to a Lee Hazlewood production. “To Love Somebody” was originally written for Otis Redding, and it shows. One of the greatest love songs ever, it bursts with soul as it swims in a profound orchestral pathos and Barry sings his ass off. No wonder it’s been covered by Nina Simone, Rod Stewart, Roberta Flack, Gram Parson, Janis Joplin, and many others.

Saving the best for last, we come to “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You.” Featuring anguished mellotron played by Maurice and Gregorian-like chants (“o solo dominique”), Bee Gees set a Moody Blues tone before shifting into a stoned bliss psych-rock gem that stands up to the best of Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour. Amazing that this song, with its odd dynamics and strange atmospheres, appeared on the B-side of the “Holiday” 45. I can’t be the only one who freaked upon hearing “Every Christian” on the radio for the first time. In the context of commercial airwaves, it’s hard not to gasp, “What is this?”

It’s that mad combo of sonic adventurousness and indelible catchiness that makes Bee Gees 1st the group’s zenith and a stone-cold classic. -Buckley Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield “Back To The World” (Curtom, 1973)

Imagine having to follow up Super Fly, one of the greatest soundtracks of all time and, to many listeners, a pinnacle of blaxploitation-film scores. No problem, though, for guitarist/vocalist Curtis Mayfield (no relation, by the way). The veteran R&B/soul/funk magus who established his rep with the Impressions showed he had plenty more inspiration from that gritty yet sumptuous palette on Back To The World, which peaked at #16 on the Billboard album chart and #1 on the R&B chart.

Wielding his supple falsetto and presenting himself as a sage street philosopher, Mayfield offered a concept album of sorts about a soldier returning from the Vietnam War and struggling to adjust to society and find a job. The buoyant, loping soul of “Back To The World” introduces you to this scenario, as it bursts with uplifting, swirling strings and punchy brass. Here and everywhere on Back To The World, Richard Tufo kills it with his ambitious arrangements, encompassing triumph and despair with panache. In a similar vein, “Right On For The Darkness” brings more dynamic, orchestral-funk drama. Sampled by everyone from Gang Starr to Insane Clown Posse, the song’s a lament for the human condition, particularly greed and temptation.

As for “Future Shock,” its stark, funky break has been sampled at least 23 times, and has been covered by Herbie Hancock on the same 1983 LP that bore “Rockit.” It’s certainly one of Mayfield’s most potent slices of message-heavy funk, laced with an ecological warning amid urgent horn stabs and weeping guitar interjections. Speaking of sample-worthy tracks, parts of “Can’t Say Nothin’” were lifted by Canadian hip-hop unit Dream Warriors for “U Could Get Arrested.” No wonder: its stealthy funk is as sleek and stylish as Dr. J breezing to the hoop during his ABA phase.

Back To The World climaxes on “If I Were Only A Child Again,” whose euphoric funk flaunts horn charts that inflate your heart to a planet-sized organ of joy. Mayfield’s protagonist expresses a desire to return to a state of innocence to avoid the grief caused by the way adults fuck up society. The music sweeps away any consternation the lyrics induce, exemplifying Curtis’ greatest feat—writing verses that depict hard times while composing music that elevates you far above their grim reality. -Buckley Mayfield