Soul, Funk and Disco

Ramsey Lewis “Mother Nature’s Son” (Cadet, 1968)

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What happens when a black man covers songs on The White Album? Magic, as it turns out. Releasing an LP of 10 interpretations from a record that came out earlier in that year by the blessed Beatles might seem like a crass cash-in, but keyboardist Ramsey Lewis is a helluva classy, exceptionally talented interpreter, and Mother Nature’s Son is mostly fantastic—no matter if it was meant to capitalize on the world’s most popular rock band’s latest opus.

Cadet’s in-house studio wizard Charles Stepney (I highly recommend you especially check out his work with the Rotary Connection) convinced Lewis to record Mother Nature’s Son even though Ramsey was not the biggest Beatles fan. Lewis had covered “And I Love Her,” “Hard Day’s Night,” and “Day Tripper,” but hadn’t been converted into a hardcore Fab Four aficionado. In late 1968, Stepney insisted Lewis listen more deeply to The White Album, and the latter eventually came around—luckily for us.

Bolstered by Lewis’ Moog synthesizer treatments and an orchestra, the soul-jazzed-up instrumental versions on Mother Nature’s Son sound expansive and festooned with baroque ornamentation. Lewis and company blow out Paul McCartney’s spare “Mother Nature’s Son” into a dazzling symphonic tapestry and the unbearable “Rocky Raccoon” is made bearable—see, miracles do happen. John Lennon’s “Julia” is whipped into a creamy, drifting sigh of a piece that soars much higher than his original intimate ballad. “Back In The U.S.S.R.” oozes sophisticated swagger and the drums really bump with what sounds like Bernard Purdie’s funky slaps. Also receiving hot funk injections are “Dear Prudence,” “Cry Baby Cry,” and “Sexy Sadie,” which billow into compositions as grandiose as Isaac Hayes circa Hot Buttered Soul or David Axelrod circa Songs Of Innocence/Experience.

The orchestral confection “Good Night” is a bit too rich for my blood, but “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And Monkey” absolutely scorches; it’s the LP’s most exciting rendition. “Monkey” is among the Beatles’ hardest-rocking tunes, and Lewis transforms it into one of the wildest peak-time party jams the ’60s—a decade famous for its peak-time party jams—has ever witnessed. This version tops the Feelies’, if you can believe it. Album-closer “Blackbird” really elevates and elongates, its melodic contours perfect for jazz virtuosi like Lewis and his mates to extrapolate upon.

Obviously, the raw material of The White Album is mostly superb, but in almost every instance, Lewis and his musicians find ingenious ways to make them even more spectacular—and without a lick of singing. Shame about the absence of “Revolution 9,” though. -Buckley Mayfield  

Annette Peacock “X-Dreams” (Aura, 1978)

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Let’s be blunt: X-Dreams is all about “My Mama Never Taught Me How To Cook” and “Real & Defined Androgens.” The rest of the seven-track LP by singular American singer-songwriter-producer Annette Peacock is fine, but its aforementioned first two cuts tower over everything like the most dominant dominatrix.

“My Mama” is a tour de force of Peacock’s offbeat storytelling and innuendo prowess and surprising vocal shifts, from arena-ready belting to pillow-talk whispers. She relates how her upbringing didn’t predispose her for domesticity but rather for independence and sexuality. The backdrop is subdued funk rock in a tricky meter. “Daddy never taught me how to suck-seed, that’s why I’m so crazy crazy crazy,” she intones. “My destiny’s not to serve/I’m a woman/My destiny is to create.” Here’s your unsung ’70s feminist anthem.

But wait—it gets better. “Real & Defined Androgens” stands (or lies) as one of the sexiest songs ever written. This is low-slung, dangerous funk that would just as soon knife you as fuck you; maybe it’ll do both simultaneously. Peacock again flaunts her vast range, mostly reciting detachedly erotic lyrics in slow, seductive Sprechstimme, but occasionally blossoming into full-on testifying-Aretha Franklin mode. The music gradually intensifies into a madly thrusting yet controlled freakout haloed by a wild sax solo and laced with insanely cascading keyboards. “Real & Defined Androgens” is a perfect fusion of male and female energies and unlike anything I’ve ever heard… and I’ve heard a lot, because I’m old and obsessive.

Side two simmers with sophisticated, romantic jazz-pop ballads that feature Peacock using her most conventional crooning voice, with intermittent sensuous spoken-word passages to heighten the intimacy. There’s also a cover of the Otis Blackwell-penned Elvis Presley hit “Don’t Be Cruel” that Peacock smooths and accelerates into a Steely Dan-like, limousine-funk glide. The musicianship throughout X-Dreams is impeccable, featuring King Crimson/Yes drummer Bill Bruford, guitarists such as Mick Ronson, Chris Spedding, and Brian Godding (Blossom Toes), plus many other studs. It’s all very… nice, but the real thrills come hot and heavy on that opening diptych.

Thom Jurek summed up the record well on allmusic.com: “[X-Dreams] still sounds a bit ahead of its time. Peacock may have been wringing her own personal exorcism from these tracks, but for the rest of us, she offered a guidebook of complex emotional terrain, a treatise on the messy state of love, and a musical dissertation on how to integrate the nuances of form in rock and jazz.” -Buckley Mayfield

The Lafayette Afro Rock Band “Malik” (America, 1975)

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You’ve probably heard Lafayette Afro Rock Band without even realizing it. Their song “Darkest Light” has been sampled by Public Enemy (“Show ‘Em Watcha Got”), Wreckx-N-Effect (“Rump Shaker”), and Jay Z (“Show Me What You Got”). Other snippets of LARB tracks also have appeared in cuts by LL Cool J, Biz Markie, De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, Gorillaz, and Pizzicato Five. And it’s easy to hear why: LARB brought the funk with pizzazz. Through these stealth methods, they’ve become integral to club culture. But they created plenty of riveting music that’s worthy on its own merits, not merely as fodder for other artists’ output.

The Lafayette Afro Rock Band consisted of seven musicians from Long Island, New York who cut two albums in Paris after deciding they’d have a better chance of breaking out in Europe instead of in the funk-saturated United States. Things didn’t quite pan out for LARB commercially, but 1974’s Soul Makossa and 1975’s Malik have emerged as underground funk classics. Aided by French producer Pierre Joubert, LARB created a flamboyant brand of funk that soared with buoyant horn charts and grooved with intricate bass/drum interplay. Ultimate party jam “Conga” predates the stark, percussion-heavy Latino funk of ESG and Konk by about six years. The title track is a laid-back, summertime-cruise joint whose loping rhythms, organ swells, and Kool & The Gang-like soul-jazz horn swoops evaporate your worries and LARB dabble compellingly with Afrobeat on “Raff.” The notorious “Darkest Light” is a paradoxical classic: It rolls sublimely on an utterly seductive rhythmic undercarriage, but above it there ululates a deeply melancholic sax motif, all of it filigreed with rococo guitar and some weirdly distorted organ (or electronically muted trumpet?). Whatever the case, the song endures as a moving (in all senses of the word) tribute to LARB’s phenomenal chemistry and arranging skills. They conclusively proved that a funk band didn’t need vocals to keep you interested. Every instrument on Malik sings with great eloquence and vibrant litheness.

(In 2007, As The Record Turns reissued Malik on vinyl. That may be the easiest way to score it on wax right now.) -Buckley Mayfield

Patrick Cowley “Muscle Up” (Dark Entries, 2015)

pcPerhaps you don’t spend much time thinking about gay porn soundtrack music. No worries—it is a fairly niche subgenre. But if you happen to be curious about this stuff, you could hardly do better than to explore the output of Patrick Cowley. Luckily for us, the Dark Entries label has reissued two collections of Cowley’s ’70s and ’80s work, School Daze (2013) and, most recently, the double LP Muscle Up. Whatever clichéd vision you have of gay porn soundtrackage, Cowley will make you readjust your expectations.

Cowley’s music is often eerily atmospheric and, yes, funky, but not in any cheesy, hamfisted way. Some tracks—like “Cat’s Eye,” “The Jungle Dream,” “Uhura,” “Mockingbird Dream 2,” and “Deep Inside You”—sound more like scores for space travel or nature documentaries than they do of cinematic sex. Beatier numbers like “Somebody To Love Tonight” and “Pigfoot” pump with a sexy thrust, but are also adorned with the sort of astral synthesizer dust that will enrapture Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, and Heldon fans. “5 Oz. Of Funk” is the most lubricious/tumescent piece here, and it is sure enough filthy to the core. But then you get something like “Timelink,” which sounds like a didgeridoo hyperventilating in the ozone layer. It’s kind of funny and ludicrous to think that this tune thrummed in the background of some dudes’ orgasmic experiences.

But credit to Cowley for landing this sort of utilitarian job and creating something extraordinary and subversive; what was probably a low-rent gig resulted in high art. [Muscle Up comes with informative liner notes and an XXX-rated poster.] -Buckley Mayfield

The Equals “Hit Collection” (President, 1971)

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It says something that I’ve only seen two Equals albums in all my years of record shopping—and one of ’em is this double LP of chart-dwellers by the multi-racial British R&B/pop-soul group. What it says is that some enterprising label really ought to do the legal legwork and reissue a grip of the Equals’ best material. Until that happens, you might have to make due with Hit Collection or the other Equals release I see most often, Baby, Come Back (1968, RCA). To understate things, they’re better than nothing.

Hit Collection gathers 24 songs from the Equals’ hugely popular (in Europe and England) early phase, and if you dig instantly catchy ’60s R&B sung with gutsy gusto by Derv Gordon and accentuated by the attractive, clipped guitar riffs of Eddy Grant (yes, the bloke who sang “Electric Avenue”), you’ll want to nab this comp… or the 7-inches of which it’s composed, if you’re a very patient and affluent collector.

Highlights here include the Northern soul stomper “Softly, Softly,” the enchanting chugger “Baby, Come Back,” the bubblegummy “Green Light” (which the Detroit Cobras have covered), the marauding “I Can See, But You Don’t Know,” and the exuberant outlaw anthem “Police On My Back,” made famous by the Clash on their 1980 LP Sandinista!

There are a few sappy moments on Hit Collection, but overall the songwriting quality is brilliant. We repeat: Let’s hope some savvy record company is planning to get the Equals’ music back into circulation. It’s way too good to languish in obscurity. -Buckley Mayfield

Gino Soccio “Outline” (Celebration, 1979)

R-610679-1226275879.jpegItalians certainty do it better… Disco so cold and spacious you won’t know when one track ends and the other begins. Bass bloops, bass lines, high hat, hand claps… All sterile, airtight and sealed in grooves ready for play.

Gino was the producer behind this listenable longplayer and he actually came by way of Canada… Montreal. Apparently the disco backlash that occurred in the States didn’t echo up North and they welcomed changes in the dance form, like most of Europe. Opener “Dancer” is a classic that would be played out often in America’s remaining discotheque strongholds, with folks like Larry Levan playing two copies of the track in excess of twenty minutes. That’s a groove that can hold a crowd.

“So Lonely” is a piano/seagull/tone generator sketch, then we get to the other dance floor heavy hitters, “The Visitors” (Donna Summer/Kraftwerk) and “Dance To Dance” (Philly-esque). Five tracks in total, three long players that show icy kinship with Italo, the future of dance music production, and the hidden years of North American disco. Throw it on the table! -Wade

Armando “One World One Future” (Radikal Fear, 1996)

CS2580024-02A-BIGIn the shifting world between Chicago and Acid, House was changing. Classics like “On and On,” “Your Love” and “Acid Tracks” seemed to come from other worlds and were made in totally different ways, but they all culminated into Warehouse music. Recognizable names to those merely interested in House may have heard of Jackmaster Farley, Marshall Jefferson, Mr. Lee, Mr. Fingers (“Washing Machine”), Phuture… Across the water the early converts were 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald, Sweet Exorcist.

But when it comes to a true original hailed by House Heads and the first wave of House pioneers alike, Armando was the one true treasure. While acting as a coveted resident DJ in Chicago, Armando Gallup also operated as a producer, prolifically creating singles that would eventually be collected by TRAX for many posthumous compilations… he passed after a battle with leukemia in the mid-nineties.

While many interviews with larger House artists show fanaticism over his work, the only official album release by Armando is “One World One Future.” This double LP shows the square-root of House: an infectious beat that keeps pumping, stark soundscapes, trippy loops. Not every track is a classic in the home listening sense, but each shows what you can be done on the floor with minimum/maximum production. Dancefloor optimal. -Wade

Double Exposure “Ten Percent” (Salsoul, 1976)

CS1910491-02A-BIGIt’s soul, it’s disco, but “Ten Percent” wasn’t on the radio for more than a blip in ’76. It was in clubs where Double Exposure, a quartet with a soulful Philly sound by way of New York, would find success. What made the record a hit in the clubs, though, was the ever-present high-hat cast over extended grooves…

Early DJs in New York like Nicky Siano were really playing longer cuts of soul records, sometimes going between two copies to hold the rhythms longer, and the featured single of “My Love Is Free” is a perfect example of what was pumping through the P.A. around The Loft or The Gallery. Plinking guitar notes, walking bass lines and subtle metronomic drumming backed with lush strings isn’t a bad thing to have playing with beautiful people dancing all around you.

This is really one of the first record releases to define Salsoul as dance label. Double Exposure released their first 12” dance single on Salsoul as well, the first of it’s kind. It was so successful, in clubs and financially, that other labels soon took notice, and that was the birth of the commercial remix. Dance culture now had a format. -Wade

Earth, Wind And Fire “That’s The Way Of The World” (Columbia, 1974)

Whiskeytown-Stranger's_Almanac_(album_cover) Actually a soundtrack accompanying the film of the same name, “That’s The Way Of The World” set the scene for the world of hit music and record executives. In this perfect world, Harvey Keitel is a successful high-level businessman working with Earth, Wind And Fire as well as The Pages, a newly signed band that represents pastiche and conformity in popular music. Obviously his ties are with the group known later for “Shining Star.”

That single opens up the album and alone is worth the price of admission really, but many other numbers produce the feel-good-get-down hits that Keitel’s character cares about so deeply in the industry… “Happy Feelin” and “Africano” are huge funk grooves with beautiful production.

No matter who you are, the warmth and care from Earth Wind and Fire is infectious. If only for a minute, you can leave your troubles behind and “See The Light.” -Wade

Dazz Band “Joystick” (Motown, 1983)

Dazz_Band_-_JoystickIf you are into mid-Eighties Prince, Gap Band or their closest kin, Midnight Star, then the electro-funk of Dazz Band may be for you. Right out of the gate, super crisp drum machines and thick synth lines wreck dance-floor havoc on “To The Roof” and hardly let up for the next thirty some minutes.

Inclusion of the self-titled single “Joystick” is a no brainer, but it’s also a strange one, making full use of vocoder and sequencers that must have been pretty foreign to folks being blasted with it over the air across the country. While the album does have some old-school slow-jams attached (“Until You,” “Now That I Have You”), Dazz Band mostly encapsulates what was the future of funk and a whole lot of Motown right here.

Swoop, I’m Yours! – Wade

Scritti Politti “Cupid and Psyche 85” (Virgin, 1985)

Scritti_Politti_-_Cupid_&_Psyche_85A change of attack was needed for Scritti Politti when pop form went back into vogue. Green Gartside ditched the first version of his group to work with session musicians, crafting perfect pop on top-of-the-line equipment. No longer presenting the jumble of styles heard on earlier singles, Scritti 2.0 would be crisp, clean, and pristine beyond recognition.

Green’s own living habits changed to reflect his new music as well. Originally a squat-dwelling punk with circles under his eyes, Green had kicked speed, started a workout routine and took much better care of his hair. He made the switch from ripped up blazers to sweaters and track suits. He still waxed lyrical of far-left ideals, but these statements are much more esoteric in this new pop format… It’s easier to focus on his vocal ability now, all saccharine-sweet in the mix next to sleek and dizzying sequencer beats.

All across the country, the U.S.A. played “Perfect Way” and “Wood Beez” on the air? It’s strange messages were pressed overseas by someone who once thought of himself as a Marxist, but the singles pressed beforehand with his first group were much harder for the average listener to swallow. Half listening, Scritti here sound like a rather innocuous pop act… but what were they subjecting us too beneath this shiny new surface? Hearing the contrast between the Rough Trade material and this monolith of a hit album is startling, but it’s similarities even more so. -Wade

The Rolling Stones “Emotional Rescue” (Rolling Stones, 1980)

51H8tGhuOkL._SY300_Along with The Who pulling an “Eminence Front,” the Stones made some undeniably catchy tracks for more straight-ahead dancing. “Emotional Rescue” is the most blatant album example of this, and if you aren’t such a rock purist, it’ll sound pretty good to hear them put four on the floor in their opening tracks.

It’s all still The Stones though, even with their great chicken scratch rhythms and drum patterns squared off for tracks like “Dance” and “Send It To Me.” With less solos and almost no psychedelic intrusion, they still come off as an organic group, not sterile studio sessioners making a few bucks from Studio 54. Not all of the numbers are for the dance floor obviously, but then again “Indian Girl” doesn’t really scream for repeated listens the way their tackling of dance tunes do.

For Stones devotees, “Emotional Rescue” isn’t too bad to see them moving further sideways after the “Some Girls” punk reaction, into dance territory… and they avoid rubbing shoulders too much (ahem, title track) with white-soul New Wave, which is a blessing here. “Down In The Hole” helps confirm that they were exploring, and not drifting too far from their roots. -Wade