Making Plans For Time Machines.

I was reading an interview with Flare's indomitable LD Beghtol recently where he said that if he could live during any period of history it would be the end of the 19th Century, when all the chaps wore beards and flouncy ruffs. Personally, I figure I'd have to choose New York at the turn of the ´70s and ´80s. Of course I'm romanticising, as we all do with history, but it seems like such a magnificently vital point in the Pop cultural vortex: Punk's fallout merging into the post-punk no-wave creating marvellous mutant disco; the birth of hip hop; street and train writers duelling on the urban canvas; a heady mix of decadent excess and poverty-stricken decay, and Warhol somehow seeming to preside over it all, a peculiar fairy godmother of Pop. No surprise then that I've been frothing at the mouth over recent DVD developments, notably the Downtown 81 movie that stars Jean Michel Basquiat wandering the New York streets in search of an elusive model, on the way encountering a variety of esoteric doyens of the ´scene': Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy writing and hanging out; DNA playing unhinged swamp rock disco; Kid Creole in full zoot swing, his Coconuts looking like sleazy strippers chewing gum and throwing Cagney glowers; Debbie Harry as a bag lady / princess. Of course the ´acting' is wooden and the soundtrack is woefully dubbed, but regardless, it's a magnificent movie. I mean, how can you not fall in love with a movie that ends with Suicide's classic ´Cheree'?

Also essential viewing is the double DVD set of Style Wars. For an eye on the awesome urban canvas that NYC was in the Koch-era early 1980s, it is simply indispensable. Anyone who has even a passing interest in writing (call it ´graffiti' if you must) or in the historical context of the birth of Hip Hop NEEDS to see this movie and the DVD's bonus disk of interviews with the main protagonists. Historical document and inspirational artefact all at once, Style Wars is, in the words of Mr Stipe in that alternate take to ´Seven Chinese Brothers' that became ´Voice of Harold', ´a must'.

The sound of those early ´80s times of course was maybe best captured on Ze records. Kevin Pearce once listed it as one of the ten best record labels of all time, and he wasn't far wrong. He said of Ze:
    'All sorts of exotic treats in this esoteric pop bazaar. From Bob Blank's NY disco alchemy to the original French disco connection of Lizzy Mercier Descloux and Marie et Les Garcons. From Suicide's second LP (featuring the monumental ´Be Bop Kid') to Cristina's knowing coquetry. From the dramatically and literally psychotic free jazz/funk of James White/James Chance to the Massive Attack prototype of the Aural Exciters' ´Emil Night Rate', featuring August Darnell (Kid Creole) and Taara Gardner of Heartbeat fame.'
Which is maybe as much as you really need to know, except to add that the proof is shortly to be reissued on a series of CDs on a resuscitated Ze. The appropriately titled Mutant Disco (A Subtle Dislocation of the Norm) and N.Y. No Wave are fabulous introductions or revisitations to the era, and all the aforementioned artists are on there (although sadly no ´Be Bop Kid'). Every track a highlight, every note a teenage jerk and a re-bop contortion.

Having said that I'd want to go live in early ´80s NYC, I'd like to qualify that with the fact that I'd need to be allowed frequent flights across to the UK of the same era, because really there was just as much happening with a similar (although inevitably anglicised) flavour. The LTM label has been notable in casting light on this recently with some excellent collections, notably a forthcoming CD of Be Music productions from the '83 / '84 period. Of course Be Music was the moniker used by the members of New Order when on production duties, and whilst most of the tracks here are Bernard Sumner / Donald Johnson (of ACR fame), Hooky and the Other Two also get a look in with a couple of sublime efforts. Again, every track is a highlight, from Section 25's beautiful ´Looking From A Hilltop' (it's pure proto-´Every Man and Woman Is A Star' Ultramarine, and incidentally, check out LTM's fine Companion collection of remixes from that album), through Quando Quango's inspirational and influential ´Love Tempo' and 52nd Street's classic ´Cool As Ice' which gives the compilation its title. Also on there are tracks by Thick Pigeon, whose excellent Too Crazy Cowboys album was also reissued by LTM recently, and Paul Haig, whose '84 offering ´The Only Truth' was a terrific Rhythm Of Life offering that fittingly offered a cover of Suicide's classic ´Ghost Rider' on the flipside. Most of the tracks on the collection were originally released on Factory or Factory Benelux, and this is their first time on CD, so you can finally stop scrabbling in the second hand stores for the original vinyl, or making plans for time machines. Or actually, maybe do keep making those plans because I've just noticed that Cool As Ice isn't released until 8th September. Note the date in your diary now.
Available right now on LTM though is the great Black Music introduction to the label. With a mixture of cuts from reissued collections from the likes of Stockholm Monsters, Minny Pops, the Passage and Blue Orchids rubbing shoulders with exclusive tracks by Section 25, Ludus, Cath Carroll and The Wake, this is as fine a way-in to the magical mythical world of the LTM catalogue as any. Current favourite is the Wake's ´Town of 85 Lights' which is built on the opening riff of the Shangri-La's ´Heaven Only Knows' and which cheekily references Simple Minds ´New Gold Dream.' It's a priceless piece of post-modern Pop peculiarism.

Still with LTM, there's a Biting Tongues retrospective that yields up some choice cuts of art-house electro rock from 1980 to 89. It's the tracks from the start of the decade that sound best for me; the likes of ´Heart Disease' and ´Denture Beach' being particularly fine moments where textural tapes, pounding bass and squealing brass all come together to make a fine cacophony.

And on the subject of fine cacophonies, what about Essential Logic? They were surely one of the finest progenitors of the fractious funk/punk rock around at the cusp of the decades that some will tell you taste forgot. Of course those people just don't know where to look and really in the ´70s and ´80s there was so much marvellous meetings of high and low fashion art and music it was dizzying. Essential Logic at their finest were dizzying beyond comparison, and the ´Wake Up' EP for Virgin was astonishing. It's a shame then that those tracks are not included on Kill Rock Stars' otherwise exemplary Fanfare In The Garden double CD compilation. Instead there's a version of ´Wake Up' from their '79 Rough Trade album Beat Rhythm News which is altogether more restrained or resigned. It still sounds terrific, but it's a shadow of the wild assault of the Virgin version. It's a minor quibble though, because really Fanfare In The Garden is an essential artefact that captures the edges of the Punk story that have historically been pushed to the fringes, all but written out of the tale. So Lora Logic then lines alongside the likes of The Raincoats and Swell Maps (both of whom she played with) as one of the visionaries of Punk, avidly devouring possibilities and heading off in new trajectories, defying expectation. No surprise then that there's also a track here by the Red Crayola/Art and Language group; the 1980 single ´Born In Flames' (from Lizzie Borden's film about feminist revolution) that is all jittery joy with Lora pitching higher than the sun with her wavering delivery. Elsewhere there are slots of later Logic, recorded in the late ´90s, which sound beguiling and altogether smoother than the late ´70s Lora. Here her voice is almost impossibly different to that heard on those early assaults, instead being softly quavering like cracked plaster under honey. It's a terrific contrast, and makes Fanfare In The Garden a fabulously well-rounded retrospective that ought to be finding its way into your hearts and record collections at the earliest opportunity.

© 2003 Alistair Fitchett