Wire “Behind The Curtain” (1995)

Where haaave you been hiding this, life?! Uhh, Behind The Curtain. Heh heh.

Believe it or not, we had no idea this lil’ corker existed until the other night, when after already extending the gentlemanly gesture of giving us a lift, our buddy lays this one on us for the ride home. Sand In My Joints! Map Ref 41 N 93 W? Underwater Experiences, and a bunch of other songs we’d never heard?!?! Driver, you really know how to talk to a girl.

Behind The Curtain, it turns out, is a collection of demos, live, and, unreleased Wire material from 1977-78 – i.e., songs that would wind up on Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154, a near-flawless triumvirate of albums if ever there was one. Rawer, and even more urgent than their album versions, some of these takes may actually get a leg up on their better-produced counterparts. While some of this stuff has surfaced here and there over the years, there is a lot of material that hasn’t, with 13 tracks unreleased in any form. Even this compilation seems to be in short supply, having only seen release in the UK, and languishing in out-of-print purgatory for years.

Collections like these often serve little purpose beyond the label’s ongoing compulsion to get more product into the market. With Wire though, it’s an essential document (and eyewitness) of a band’s all-too-brief formative stages. Unlike many of their peers, Wire’s progression from the trappings of punk into a bolder, more experimental sound occurred at a staggering clip. It’s mind-boggling to think that this band went from the 1-2-XU, barely-holding-it-together snottiness of the early live tracks here to the stark and nuanced ambient mood pieces of “A Touching Display” in a span of 18 months. Which makes this material all the more crucial. After Pink Flag, one of the more cohesive statements to come out of punk, Wire would tear up the map, never to return for the most part. Behind The Curtain puts this in perspective, connecting the dots for those that care to follow. This is how it started, and how they got to where they were going. —Jonathan

Rosebud “Discoballs – A Tribute to Pink Floyd” (1977)

Being neither a massive fan of Pink Floyd OR Disco at the time I discovered Rosebud, you’d have been hard-pressed to convince me of this record’s genius based on description alone.  But holy crap – this record goes beyond likes and dislikes, preferences and prejudices.  Throw this sick puppy on the turntable once and JUST TRY to deny the power.  I defy you to.

Like nearly all Disco success stories of the day, Rosebud was a studio project, strategically assembled from the cream of French session musicians of the era.  The group lineup here is as impressive as it is confounding, featuring two members of the esteemed prog outfit, Magma, and a future Oscar and Grammy award winner in producer/arranger Gabriel Yared.  Yared would go on to future triumphs with highly-acclaimed scores for “The English Patient,” “Cold Mountain,” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” but Discoballs made his name as a world-class producer/arranger, hinting at his bright future in composition.

A project like this could easily have slid down the treacherous slope into novelty, but the performances and arrangements are too combustible and visionary to dismiss.  The dance floor incinerating transformation of “Have A Cigar” checks all of the boxes requisite for a disco track, while managing to sound fresh and exciting, building steadily to an ecstatic finale.  The band play in such a tightly-coiled and controlled funk pocket that it almost sounds looped, and Yared’s subtle touches – hand claps on the breaks, cowbells dropping where the conga line would be,  swooping string stabs – capitalize on the tension the band builds, whipping it into a frenzy of aural sensation by track’s end.  All of this without the musicians ever breaking, or even varying from the initial vamp set up at the outset of the track.  Even if there wasn’t an entire album of Floyd standards to ice the cake, “Have A Cigar” would be a legendary statement in and of itself.  This is one of those tracks that feels like a total genesis moment – pointing the way forward to the House, Techno, and Electro movements of the ’80’s.  I’d wager to guess there’d be no LCD Soundsystem without this record as well.

As my uncle always says whenever he hears this – “Man, when this song would play at Circus people would go crazy – dancing, fighting, pushing…” —YouTube comments for “Have A Cigar.”  Nuff sed.  —Jonathan Treneff

Giorgio Moroder “Cat People” (1982)

Another record I dismissed on first sight, Cat People has become a go-to, both for Djing and home listening.  Although I’ve still never seen the questionable-looking sci-faux film this was made for, it’s almost beside the point.  This thing could have been made to soundtrack an instructional guide to the cat’s cradle and it would still rule.

Cat People followed Moroder’s American Gigolo soundtrack by only a couple of years, but the departure from the Italo-disco sound he helped trademark is considerable.  Everything here is slowed down to a twilight half-speed.  David Bowie’s “Putting Out Fire (With Gasoline)”, a slow-to-ignite, soul-rock number, actually sounds more at home here than on his chart-busting Let’s Dance album, and is the most muscular piece by far.  Breaking the synth lines and drum programming of his earlier work down to a sinister, skeletal slow-pulse proved yet again Moroder’s vision in his unflinching willingness to break with the past to stay a step ahead of the game.  However, this time it would be nearly 20 years before the bedrock vibrations emanating here were felt at all, first surfacing in the brief synth-electro revival of the early 2000s, and more recently in the narcotic crepuscule of Chromatics, who brought the new crop of interpreters to wider recognition with their work on the Drive soundtrack.  A direct line can be drawn from Cat People and everything Chromatics producer Johnny Jewel and his Italians Do It Better label have done to bring the new wave of synth-italo-disco to the masses in the last half-decade.  The heavily reverb-ed, delicately plucked and muted guitar lines and cinematic synth wash of Chromatics, Glass Candy, Desire, and their current legion of followers can be traced directly to this record, one of the most compelling and original records of it’s era, soundtrack or otherwise. –Jonathan Treneff

Arthur Brown & Craig Leon “The Complete Tapes of Atoya” (1984)

A high-level head-scratcher in the best of ways, The Complete Tapes of Atoya is one of those records that defies reason by it’s very existence.  As confounding a pair-up as it reads on paper, it’s still somewhat hard to believe that a record featuring these two forces (yes, Crazy World Of Arthur Brown Arthur Brown) would go un-noted to the extent it has.  Although Craig Leon may not signify as a household name, he was a significant figure in the development of the NYC punk and new wave scene of the mid-late ’70’s and beyond, working A&R and producing for Sire Records – bringing the Ramones, Blondie, Richard Hell, and Suicide to the label and working on all of the aforementioned classic debuts.

Recorded in ’81 Atoya sat unreleased for three years – not that it made a difference.  It’s doubtful the world was more prepared for this in 1984 than it was three years earlier.  Working a musical program of what would now be termed “minimal synth,” Leon’s stark synth and drum machine backdrops resemble the early output of Cabaret Voltaire or Depeche Mode, even flying close to Human League levels of anthemic pop with the jubilant “Strange Romance”.  On top of it all perches the inimitable Arthur Brown, eccentric and wound up as ever, holding forth with formidable accent on the big issues: dinosaurs, big guns, and the King of England.  Perhaps best of all, and worth the price of admission alone, is what could be the definitive swipe at the Diddley/Holly chestnut “Not Fade Away”.  Many have thrown their ring in the hat with this standard, but no one has ever quite done it this way.  Sounding more than a bit like Suicide, the skeletal, mechanical funk boils all of the swagger out of the song, save for Brown’s straining, leg-caught-in-beartrap howl, rivaling Devo’s wry covers of “Satisfaction” or “Working In A Coalmine” in terms of visionary, bizarre re-animation.  A record who’s time it feels, may have finally come. —Jonathan Treneff

Roxy Music “Manifesto” (1979)

Though they don’t exactly fly out of the used bin like the early records, a strong case can be made that Roxy Music’s “second act” releases are, in their own way, just as singular and compelling as their genre-defining early efforts. Manifesto was the first Roxy Music album to emerge after a four-year hiatus that saw most of the group venture off into solo territory, with mostly satisfying results. Still, a lot had changed in the time they’d been away. Disco’s four-on-the-floor pulse had fully asserted it’s dominance of mainstream pop music, conveniently, right around the time the earliest drum machines were appearing on the market. Never ones to be left in the dust, Roxy managed to embrace the new zeitgeist without sounding cloying or desperate. Manifesto succeeds on it’s own terms, somehow compelling the old, brittling skeleton of their art-rock roots to support new, unfamiliar flesh.

Opening with the disco-ball pulse and crawl of the title track, Ferry and crew come out of the gate (quiet) storming, as if they’d never been away. The deep groove is completely in step with the times, while retaining the subtle menace and mystery that touches all their best work. Ferry sounds both acutely aware of their potentially precarious position as would-be-elder statesmen entering a new era, and characteristically blithe in the utter confidence that he and his band will sail through unscathed to victory. After an extended intro, Ferry finally struts into the mix, ready and willing to silence all naysayers, intoning “I am for a life around the corner/that takes you by surprise/that comes and leaves all you need/and more besides.” Manifesto, indeed. —Jonathan

From A Whisper To A Scream: Allen Toussaint, The Meters, and the Funky Sound of New Orleans

Allen Toussaint is one of those names people know, but don’t know why. One of the enduring figures of the New Orleans music scene, he got his feet wet in the late ’50’s as a session man for the likes of Fats Domino, moving into production and ghostwriting in the ’60’s for soul luminaries like Lee Dorsey and Irma Thomas and penning many of the songs he is (or other people are) known for today. However, it wasn’t until the ’70’s that Toussaint really hit his artistic and creative stride, when he started consistently working with The Meters and releasing records under his own name. Despite penning and producing reams of classic tunes during this period, his name remains one that, while not unknown, isn’t fully understood. The albums below are a handful of our favorite moments, some better known than others, that defined Allen Toussaint and the New Orleans sound in the ’70’s.

Dr. John In The Right Place (1973) Dr. John’s early “Night Tripper” recordings are classics of n’awlins hoodoo spook, fully evoking the hallucinogenic world of the crazed Creole witchdoctor he built his image on. But after four albums of this kind of dark mojo, the Dr. understandably grew curious as to how the other, day-light-dwelling half lived. Initiating this move with the previous year’s Gumbo, Toussaint and The Meters helped bring it all together on In The Right Place, stirring in an extra dose of traditional New Orleans R&B and funk that helps propel and lift the songs in ways he’d never dared before. While the mood is definitely brighter, some of the signature touches of his early recordings remain, like the moody tribal hand-drumming that pops up on the slower cuts. And then there’s that voice – few things exude the charm and menace of the Deep South like Dr. John’s slurred creole growl – a tool no amount of polish can completely neutralize. This one catches the key players of the scene at the height of their powers, bringing the untouchable sound of The Meters and Toussaint’s stellar horn and songwriting arrangements together with one of the more singular voices of their generation.

Labelle Nightbirds (1974) Though they’re rarely mentioned with the same esteem held for their predecessors (Aretha Franklin, The Supremes) or their direct descendants, Labelle effectively built the bridge between the two. Their high-energy, funky modernization of the classic soul/R&B girl group sound looked forward to the disco inferno of Donna Summer as much as it did the unhinged ’90’s diva-isms of En Vogue or TLC. Notable for the presence of the Toussaint-penned hit and calling-card, “Lady Marmalade” Nightbirds is probably their best album through and through, thanks to Toussaint’s spacious production and arrangements and the lithe maneuvering of The Meters in the pocket funk support. Patti Labelle’s move into a more mainstream solo career sometimes overshadows just how great Labelle were for awhile, especially Nona Hendryx, who wrote most of the group’s material and was responsible for their increasingly flamboyant attitude and image. Along with P-Funk, Labelle were at the vanguard of Nubian-space-glam, predicting the outre stylings of Kool Keith, Outkast, and any number of modern Hiphop/R&B divas.

Wild Tchoupitoulas (1976) Tchoupitoulas St. is an ancient New Orleans thouroughfare, named for the Native American Indian tribe who cut it’s original path along the Mississippi as a trade route. The deep history of the name bleeds through this joyful and unique album at every instance, imbuing the proceedings with a real sense of place, and the people who inhabit it. The band was made up of members of The Meters and their extended family – representatives of the nearly-extinct Tchoupitoulas tribe – and produced by Allen Toussaint. In terms of definitive New Orleans records, this ranks with the best work of Dr. John in the way it wholly embodies the spirit of the city, taking the Meters signature groove and riding it through the streets of the Mardi Gras parade without a care in the world. You could be sipping a cup of dirty Mississippi River water and still be in a good mood when the needle drops on this one.

Allen Touissant Southern Nights (1975) Toussaint seemingly gave some of his best stuff away, perhaps having the intuition (and humble nature) to know when a song was just right for someone else. No matter how many times they’re covered in a House Of Blues revue, Lee Dorsey’s versions of “Working In A Coalmine” and “Get Out Of My Life Woman” will always be the definitive ones. However, like any good man-behind-the-scenes, Toussaint managed to hold back some of his best material for himself. All of his solo albums from this period are more than worthwhile, but Southern Nights may be the crowning achievement of his solo oeuvre. The record employs some of the same tools that made his hand in The Meters and Dr. John’s output of the period so evident while side-stepping the confines of the typical soul-funk record, with laid-back, soul-baring deliveries that roll as much as they groove. He filters his vocals through what sounds like a Hammond Leslie on many of the tracks, contributing to the humid, swampy effect of the proceedings, and transporting us into the otherworldly night scene depicted on the cover. Glen Campbell popularized the title track, but Toussaint’s performance of it remains one of the more moving things ever committed to tape, and a convincing, sublime love letter to New Orleans and The South.

The Meters Struttin’ (1970) It would be remiss (and nearly impossible) to write about New Orleans music in the ’70’s without mentioning The Meters own studio albums – though so much ink has already been devoted to this pursuit, we chose not to single one out here. They are the building blocks of all the aforementioned classic albums, and a bunch of other songs you’ve heard and loved without knowing why (it’s The Meters). Struttin’ is a highlight, but it’s hard to go wrong with any of their early ’70’s albums.

Further listening: One of  Tousaint and The Meters’ more interesting appearances proved to be Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, the debut of one Robert Palmer. Although remembered for his MTV-era hits (and the models in his videos) of the ’80’s, Palmer was a dedicated dilettante…err, soul man, at heart. Although not quite a classic, The Meters, Toussaint, and Lowell George help make Sneakin’ a pretty compelling look for Palmer, making his white R&B moves as close to natural as he’s likely to get. Not for the faint of heart, Toussaint’s involvement in The Mighty Diamonds Ice On Fire remains one of the more curious entries in either of the aforementioned parties’ repertoires and one of the few known specimens of the ill-fated Reggae-Funk sub-genre to this day. File under: much further listening. — Jonathon Treneff

Kid Creole & The Coconuts “Tropical Gangsters/Wise Guy” (1982)

Coming out of the same NYC/Ze Records school that fostered the likes of Tom Tom Club, James Chance, and Was (Not Was), Kid Creole managed to stand out in a scene with no shortage of eccentrics, jokers, and flat-out freaks. One glance at the album covers confirms that no two words could have better summed up the entire ethos of this bizarre ensemble better than Tropical Gangsters, the UK title of the Coconuts third album. Kid Creole was an ex-English teacher who put his Masters degree into the service of a theatrical, but light-hearted take on the post-disco-funk explosion that was setting NYC clubs on fire in the early-’80’s. Creole’s former career bled through into the highly conceptual narratives that pre-occuppied his songs and albums, and Tropical Gangsters is no exception. The loose theme of the album revolves around the group being shipwrecked on an island of outcasts and their “gruesome ordeal”, as they are forced to play “RACE MUSIC” to broker their escape. Being of Latin descent, the Kid and his half-brother and bandmate never demurred from their background, often winkingly embracing it in the music and image of the band. Their sense of humor naturally extended into the songs themselves – “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” employs the female Coconuts in a dialogue wherein our hero must settle a question of paternity the only way a tropical gangster knows how – with brutal frankness – “See if I was in your blood/Then you wouldn’t be so ugly”. Tropical Gangsters takes the coconut and runs with it from here, with seven more hilarious tales of island-life scandal and intrigue that duly threaten to grind the dance floor to dust while they’re at it. KC had made good albums before this, but this was where the songs and the groove finally came together to create the perfect tropical storm. —Jonathan

Curtis Mayfield “Curtis/Live” (1971)

For better or worse, Curtis Mayfield is destined to forever be identified with Superfly. Never having been much of blaxploitation film buff, or funk disciple, I’d more or less shelved him under “important, but not for me”. Then one day – one misbegotten, hungover Sunday of yore, a friend unassumingly dropped the needle on Curtis/Live and blew what was left of my delicate mind. In the moment, the sounds emanating forth felt like a godsend – the only thing that could have possibly soothed my shattered and disheveled mind. This was music beamed down from the cosmos, painstakingly prepared by benevolent hands. This may sound like a lot of hyperbole, but I’ve kept myself honest, revisiting the record months and years after the point of impact, and the results remain the same: this record is a stone-cold masterpiece.

Curtis/Live gets across everything a live album should, but rarely does. For starters, Curtis had the savvy to assemble a batch of musicians who knew how to set up a vibe and dig their heels into it. The band is supernaturally in tune with each other, letting the songs expand and contract with an unhurried precision that intuitively follows Curtis’ restrained, yet highly emotional delivery. Many of his best known songs make appearances here; “I Plan to Stay A Believer,” “If There’s A Hell Below (We’re All Gonna Go), and “Superfly” all get makeovers, and are the better for it. Stripped of the flowery arrangements and porno-funkisms that could de-tooth his studio recordings, these songs are allowed to breathe and inhabit the loose-limbed bodies they deserve. The meditative readings almost border on the devotional, conjuring the same spirits as Sun Ra’s Arkestra at it’s peak, or the hazy and haunted spirituals of Rastafarian nyabinghi music. Thankfully, the recording quality matches the performances, with a room sound so stunningly balanced and alive you can almost hear a guitar pick drop onstage. The definitive Curtis effort, and a must-hear for anyone interested in music, or feeling, period. — Jonathan Treneff

Prefab Sprout “Two Wheels Good” (1985)

Some records just need a proper context. Older (and clearly wiser) friends tried to sell me on Prefab for years, but I would need to process The Style Council, ’80’s Roxy Music, and the Pet Shop Boys before being in a place where I could appreciate the genius of Two Wheels Good. It’s not that the music here specifically recalls any of the aforementioned groups so much as it gives a context for understanding certain production choices of the era, and the overall less modest aesthetic and ambition emblematic of the mid-’80’s. High-gloss or not, the best Prefab stuff stands-up to any of the premier UK indie acts of the day. Opening track “Faron Young” sounds like a snappier version of something the early Smiths would have attempted, and lead singer/mastermind Paddy McALoon’s lyrics have a self-absorbed sting and way with wordplay that outwit Morrissey. Although this record did contain the minor hit “When Love Breaks Down,” it may have been this same intelligence that ultimately thwarted their wider success. For a pop album, most of the songs are ambitiously complex in their construction, with eccentric arrangements and forward-thinking production flourishes (courtesy of Thomas Dolby) that consistently decline to make the safe choice. Of course, these touches are what make the album a classic, unique in it’s era, and any other. —Jonathan Treneff

Glass Palaces:
Navigating the Paisley Underground

Even by the fleeting standards of today’s internet-fueled micro-movements and trends, the Paisley Underground was a particularly short-lived musical moment. Springing forth from the Southern California suburbs in the early-’80’s, the movement eventually coalesced around Los Angeles. While most of the bands quickly splintered, or lost their spark under the influence of commercial pressure, their influence can be felt more acutely three decades down the line, coming home to roost in the contemporary indie underground’s renewed infatuation with all things psychedelic and of the ’80’s. While “psychedelic” bands with a Velvet Underground fetish or a Byrds fixation are as commonplace as yoga mats and kombucha in a Whole Foods re-usable tote today, they stuck out like a sore thumb in the new-world synth and drum machine landscape of the early ’80’s, when the initial stirrings of the bands that would come to be synonymous with the sound began. The following are some of the standout efforts from a scene that disappeared almost as quickly as it arose.

The Dream Syndicate The Days of Wine and Roses (1982). Without a doubt the most commercially viable of the Paisley Underground fleet, the Dream Syndicate were the Trojan horse that snuck everyone else into the party. Not that most of their brethren would have anything approaching mainstream success, but many would land major label contracts and a degree of recognition, at least for a time. The Days of Wine and Roses has endured for good reason – it was, pound for pound, one of the more bulletproof releases from the Paisley scene, or any of the era in general. Of course it helped that they were doing something pretty far out-of-line with the times – reviving primitive guitar meltdowns and folk melodies in the age of New Romanticism and Eye Of The Tiger.

Rain Parade Emergency Third Rail Power Trip/Explosions In The Glass Palace (1983/1984). Although many of the Paisley Underground’s main players would manage to sustain careers in some form or other, The Rain Parade’s Steven Roback was perhaps the only figure who would go on to eclipse the success and popularity of his PU-era acts. Growing up in the age of Mazzy Star, it would be years before I realized Roback had been quietly refining his hazy whisper-core for a decade before the commercial breakthrough of “Fade Into You.” Hope Sandoval would first appear in later incarnations of Opal, but it was with Rain Parade that Roback began crafting his strain of hushed psychedelic pop that would become so influential years down the line. It’s no secret that a lot of pop music from this era did not age well, but Rain Parade’s modern take on the dark side of psychedelia manages to hold up well, even among their Paisley peers.

True West Drifters (1984). One of the more overlooked bands in the PU orbit, True West approximated what The Church might have sounded like with a touch of the great plains (via the Central Valley) stirred in to taste. Though the early lineup (featuring songwriter Russ Tolman) didn’t last long, they would manage to squeeze out a couple of great EPs and this superlative full-length debut. While Tolman and many of his peers from the Paisley scene would go further down the wagon trail of Americana and Alt-Country/No-Depression, Drifters remains the perfect balance of crisp, sparkling songwriting, with a kiss of twang felt in the flourishes of the occasional plangent guitar lead and brooding lyricism. Fans of early Robyn Hitchcock or The Go-Betweens darker material should investigate post-haste.

Game Theory Real Nighttime (1985). Scott Miller’s Game Theory were outliers in a scene already on the fringes. They came up in the same circuit, and shared bills and basic aesthetic choices with many of the Paisley school, but were closer to a traditional power pop band in execution. I know – the words “power pop” are a kiss of death for some of you out there, but don’t let that scare you off. Miller and his rotating cast of players churned out some of the most infectious albums of the era – songs stacked with hooks, each catchier than the one that preceded it. No one talks about it, but there’s no way Real Nighttime and The Big Shot Chronicles were not formative influences on The New Pornographers and their ilk.

Opal Early Recordings (1989). Although some of it came out under the Clay Allison moniker, most of this material didn’t see wide release until well after the departure of Kendra Smith, who, starting with The Dream Syndicate, appeared to be making a tradition out of quitting bands just when they were peaking. Though a lot of people swear by Happy Nightmare Baby (recorded later with Hope Sandoval), this material is perhaps the perfect literal embodiment of the enigmatic darkness that a term like “Paisley Underground” implies. The template for Mazzy Star is even more in evidence here, with Roback and Smith’s dark torch songs stretching out into extended, loose-limbed psych/folk jams without warning. If The Days Of Wine And Roses was a modern interpretation of White Light/White Heat’s pathos, Opal’s early movements were the equivalent of the third VU album – candlelit meditations of uninhibited beauty and longing.

Further listening: Hex was a collaborative project featuring Donette Thayer (ex-Game Theory) and Steve Kilbey of The Church. Their self-titled effort from 1989 is one of the more unique and beguiling albums of the era, taking the swirling psychedelics of the Paisley bands, slowing it down, and applying an ashen layer of goth to the mix. The heavier 4AD vibe makes it predictive of both the early-’90’s Trip Hop trend, and today’s indie underground new-goth-wave/industrial revival. Like many of their compatriots, Green On Red came out of the gate steaming with a couple of formative EPs, then quickly retreated into the safe harbor of alt-country. Nevertheless, a significant band for their magnetic force in pulling the early scene together into something resembling a movement. The Three O’Clock also deserve a mention here, being responsible for the coining of the term “Paisley Underground.” They too would lose the plot fairly quickly but their Baroque Hoedown EP is worth seeking out for it’s jangly, Buzzcocks-ian immediacy. Happy hunting! — Jonathan Treneff