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Dancing music in the C20: space disco (1976-77)

Featuring : Rockets + Space

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At some point, all cult genres visit space. Sun Ra pioneered jazz’s first astral expedition, and George Clinton bundled funk up into the mothership and blasted it out past Orion. New Age is ambient music with a Gaia complex in space. Even lounge, easy-listening and and elevator music has been retrospectively repackaged as ‘space music’ – a kind of Jetsons-chic kitsch retrofuturism.

It was inevitable that that shiny-shiny glitter music disco would grow silver wings and glide into the firmament. What is more, this transition towards cosmic wasn’t just a gimmick, it was a crucial evolution for what was previously a sweet, dancey soul music.

Spotify playlist: early space disco (1976-77)

The period in which space disco first flourished, 1976-77, is the period most observers link to the high watermark of disco. Usually this is because of Saturday Night Fever and its soundtrack LP – maybe the pinnacle of white disco acceptance. In Europe, though, disco was getting so white it was alien.

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In France, Cerrone, Rockets, Space and Sheila and B. Devotion; in Austria, Ganymed and Supermax; in in the UK, Sarah Brightman and Dee D. Jackson. In Germany, Nightflights to Venus-era Boney M!

Rockets – Space Rock

All of these artists were unashamed to have a gloriously blunt tin-foil sci-fi gimmick. It should have been Eurovision-grade naff, but actually, even now it’s still kind of endearing. And although I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper is basic – but good – novelty pop fluff, there was genuine musical innovation here.

For instance, while P-funk tip-toed around the issue of synths for the first time in our 20th century dance music chronology, space disco embraced synthesisers with gusto. Those Philly soul strings were now replaced by futuristic spirals and swooshes of Moog.

But were synthesisers a convenient add-on to space disco’s marketable sci-fi gimmick, or was the spacey aesthetic suitably contrived to accompany the sci-fi sound of synthesisers? Space chicken or space egg??

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French musician Didier Marouani had heard early Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream LPs and was fascinated by their use of synthesisers. When he was approached to compose music for a 1976 TV programme about astrology and space, he applied some of these synth learnings to its theme, a piece he called Magic Fly.

Space – Magic Fly

Now, let’s make no bones about this, Magic Fly is a banger. It has that sci fi, ooh, drifting out into space psychedelic end-of-2001 vibe – it’s slightly menacing and a bit otherworldly, although its uncanniness is offset slightly by its Popcorn synth sounds – but Magic Fly is also a dance music monolith. However, because of contractual obligations, Didier couldn’t release the tune as a single, and the world outside at large looked set to be denied this bizarre French answer to disco.

His solution was to dress up as a cosmonaut so no one could see his face, change his name to ‘Space’ – because that was what the tune soundtracked duh – and pretend to be a band. The tactic worked, Magic Fly was a huge hit, and Space had a year of pop success before Didier returned to more sensible music. This was the start of space disco.

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Even as the appeal of space disco’s Blakes 7 get-up eventually waned, the sounds of space disco drifted on, into new shapes. It got harder, minimal, less cheesy. Giorgio Moroder used these sounds to make I Feel Love, The Chase, and the best of his 70s work. Italo disco was basically space disco without the space bit. Patrick Cowley took all of this – and gay porn – and fed it into proto-house.

These space disco derivatives still had funk and you could dance to it, but you didn’t need a James Brown-type figurehead anymore – this music flourished in anonymity – and increasingly you didn’t even need a Bootsy to hold down the bass line, or the best drummer in town to kickstart the groove.

More synths, less band. This may be first stirrings of dance music as we know it now.

 

Serpent Serpent Sliding Funk

Featuring : Jorge Velez

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In The Preserving Machine, one of our favourite short Philip K Dick stories, a scientist who fears for the survival of the world’s greatest music in the face of nuclear armageddon creates a machine that translates musical compositions into living creatures, and releases the results into the forests.

But he hadn’t reckoned with the savagery of natural selection. The offspawn of peaceful songs are devoured by the aggressive ones. Only those that acquire  offensive or defensive traits – claws, horns, sting and armor – can survive. After a time, the scientist rounds up some of these survivors and performs on them the reverse transformation that he used at the beginning, from animal to sound.  A barrage of dissonance, shrieking and wailing explodes from his speakers, the sonic representation of the amoral violence which defines the natural realm, red in tooth and claw.

In his latest release in L.I.E.S., Jorge Velez plays a similar trick, synthesising sound from animals, but with results that are anything that harsh. Each of the songs has an harmonious cadence, an organic order and a mysterious, elegant, simmer. It is as if Velez had started from the pure essence of each of his subjects, their image and movement in an idealised linnaean classification perhaps illustrated by Katie Scott, and turned those into music.

The uncanny sense of serpent-ness in the track below attests to his success, as if our aural space had been turned into the setting of one of those hypnotic Attenborough high-res documentaries; a pure wave of deadly intent undulates funkily through the forests of this night, headed towards us; we stay fixed in our spot, mesmerised with a cool appreciation of the pattern, and its beauty.

Jorge Velez – Boa

Buy Animals in Disk from L.I.E.S.

The Birds Fly Upward

Featuring : Mark Barrott

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Mark Barrott is back within the frames of this webzine, doing his regular public service of opening a portal between this northerly island and his southerly paradise.   His Sketches From an Island records — now surely a series — are psychic field recordings smuggled amongst Balearic tempos and actual field recordings.  They chart a sense of place (purely imagined in my case), like folk records: often hyper local in focus but revealing of a larger, more universal feeling.

Where previous records have seemed to look at the world and wonder why it rushes past so much beauty.  This one’s been born into trouble.  This one seems to be a sign-post to sanctuary.  A liquid distillation of calm, a vital elixir to draw in the true believers.

Mark Barrott – der Stern, der nie vergeht

Der Stern, der nie vergeht emerges in the last third of the album, all polyrhythmic North African drums and gentle, drifting melodies.  Like a magical excursion through Motorik.  A Motorik from a land without Autobahns where the road (and the rhythm) is formed both by the irregular movements of wildlife and the lost wandering  of man.

Der Stern, der nie vergeht is taken from Mark Barrott’s new album Sketches From an Island 2.  It came out on his label International Feel a few weeks ago and it’s (currently) still in stock on vinyl at Juno.

Manna for caffeine junkies

Featuring : Paper Eyes

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In the 1990s, certain sections of the British music press began to enforce a ban on their writers using the word ‘eclectic’ due to overuse. If 20JFG were to enforce a comparative ban, it would surely be on the word ‘Russom’.

Gavin Russom – and his early sparring partner, Delia Gonzales – are names that have haunted this blog since its early days. Since before LCD. In our days on Mars.

Ecstatic Recordings – whose The Head Technician we’ve been plugging lately – have now recovered a capsule of retro-tech mega-lo-fi music puzzles that Gavin recorded in the mid 1990s.

These cryptic, cartoonish squiggles and belches of audio code were all fired out of the following thrift store noise rig: Sony TC-155 and TC-102 reel- to-reel tape machines a Silvertone guitar, ATUS AM100 mixer, Boss Harmonizer, a tiny Radio Shack mic, a Radio Shack Realistic Electronic Reverb, Casio MT-40, Univox Compac 2 and Casio SA-41.

Ecstatic’s excellent Source Cognitive Drive: Transmissions 1996-1998 compiles 16 of these exploding head doodles, but we’ve managed to get an exclusive, never-heard-before track from these sessions for you to download:

Paper Eyes – Understanding Fortran (Version 2)

Gavin also recently recorded this nearly 6-hour mix of the contemporaneous 90s NYC art-rock inspirations that fuelled Paper Eyes for Self-Titled Mag, which is truly manna for caffeine junkies like us.


Image is Unclassified Skull With Large canine teeth Hmmm and a time [email protected] is a Mistake by Eupalinos Ugajin via LastHuckleBerry

Dancing music in the C20: P-funk (1974-75)

Featuring : Funkadelic + Parliament

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Bernie Worrell died a couple of weeks ago. Who was Bernie Worrell? He was the future in Parliament-Funkadelic’s afrofuturist future-funk. If bandleader George Clinton (aka Supreme Maggot Minister of Funkadelia aka Maggot Overlord aka Starchild) was the cartographer of these strange outer limits of the African-American musical experience, and bass player Bootsy Collins was the mothership’s own alien, then keyboardist Worrell (aka Spaced Viking) was the whole mission’s technology.

Post-Parliament, Worrell would front or support in a variety of talented projects – most notably he was Talking Heads keyboardist from the Remain in Light tours onward, but he also lent his sounds to Fela Kuti, Bill Laswell and Sly & Robbie, and performed in supergroups with everyone from Buckethead and Les Claypool to drone metal producer Randall Dunn, Mos Def and Prince Paul.

As an early adopter of the Moog synthesiser, though, Bernie brought the first significant contribution from synthesisers to dance music in our timeline, although Worrell was still operating in the margins of the Parliament-Funkadelic funk-rock sound during this period – contributing what George Clinton called “sound effects” – smears and dashes of Moogy code. It wouldn’t be until Flashlight in 1978 that Worrell was holding the entire bass, rhythm and melody of the band’s hits in his fingertips.

The symbiotic psychedelic funk troupes Parliament and Funkadelic had both evolved from George Clinton’s 1950s doo-wop vocal group, The Parliaments, and their backing band, which became Funkadelic.

Funkadelic – Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On

Bass player Bootsy had been a member of James Brown’s JB’s, and the twin groups would later also absorb Brown’s legendary horn section – The Horny Horns – featuring Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker.

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By the mid-1970s, the two bands – who had shared musicians but assumed separate brand identities for a mixture of legal reasons – had been consolidated as ‘Parliament-Funkadelic’, and while Parliament was originally perceived as being Clinton’s soul outfit, with Funkadelic being his outlet for harder, rockier, more psychedelic stuff, the respective directions of the two groups had increasingly merged into something idiosyncratic, innovative and groove-laden.

Spotify playlist: early P-funk: 1974-75

This music was P-funk. It was music that was only ever played – and could only ever be played – by Parliament-Funkadelic, during the band’s sweet spot, right just when the eternal acid trip of early Funkadelic began to melt into a surreal, but angry, realisation of the world around them, but before the cocaine and moneystacks of late seventies Parliament rotted away the black hippy harmony that had had fostered their telepathic musical abilities and passionate work ethic.

Mothership Connection, released in 1975 under the Parliament brand, might be considered now as Clinton’s masterpiece, but it was Parliament-Funkadelic’s tenth full-length album in just 5 years, all  unloaded with barley a dip in quality.

Parliament – Give Up The Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)

This is pure P-funk. A lurid, lewd, brash, brave, hilarious-offensive dance music wrapped up in a surreal comic book cosmology that drew on Sun Ra’s afro-futurism but made it hyper-sexual, pop-arty, gloriously mad.

Sun-Ra used the concept of black space-travellers as a metaphor for an afro-centric cultural space that could operate to the limits of the imagination and beyond and draw exclusively from non-white, non-European traditions, while articulating a better tomorrow. It was Utopianism, but with a scathing cultural critique.

In Clinton’s hands, afro-futurism was a little hokier and more pantomime – live shows would open with Clinton emerging from a prop UFO that would descend from the stadium rafters, and his key characters, the puritanical Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk and hedonistic Starchild were locked in an eternal battle for the funk, which would typically resolve during live performances when Starchild (Clinton) shot Sir Nose (sort of a pimp version of Pinocchio) with a “bop gun”, causing the too-cool-to-dance Sir Nose to submit to the universal rump-shaking om sound of the funk and lose himself in a flurry of dance moves.

And if you’re wondering where Clinton and company got their ideas from, well, a 2011 Guardian interview with Bootsy might offer some clues:

 “Imagine a lot of chicks and people walking around naked – people doing the wild thing everywhere. Everyone’s taking LSD, smoking weed, no one is scared of doing anything. Whatever you can think of, do it! And it was like that before the gig, on the way to the gig, during the gig and after the gig. Truly, the freak show never ended. I took LSD every day for at least two years, right up until the point I began feeling like I was living in another world.”

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“One night this chick gave us all Purple Haze acid,” Bootsy continued, “and everyone on stage was turning into giants and butterflies, it was so beautiful! We were playing so well that we didn’t notice that the lights had come on and everyone had gone home. We were playing to an empty room.”

Parliament-Funkadelic may have been space cadets, but in their trippy Robert Crumb-ish album artwork and alter egos they exaggerated to the point of near-abstraction a spectra of insidious African-American caricatures and stereotypes, and in doing so had reclaimed them.

In their make-believe black America, Muhammed Ali was in the White House, Aretha Franklin was the first lady, Stevie Wonder was the Secretary of Fine Arts and Richard Pryor was Minister for Education.

This was an emancipatory, consciousness-elevating dance music. Pimps, gangsters, intellectuals and hippies alike loved this band and still do.

And that funk – throbbing, reality-dissolving, lysergic funk. A funk that could make you see through time.

Postscript: Not strictly dance music per se, but those early, pre-P-funk Funkadelic records really are the last word in face-melting acid rock. Largely built around the superior psych-metal guitar streams of Eddie Hazel, this was where Hendrix should have gone next, if he’d stayed alive and ended up fronting Acid Mothers Temple. For those who are yet to be initiated, we’ve created a 2-hour collage of the most far-out moments from those LPs:

20JFG – 20 Jazz Funkadelics

There are no Flashlights here. Just new worlds of aural nastiness. This is what being born must sound like, if you happen to be on a bad acid trip at the time.

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Astro Travelling Through Time

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The Search for T J Eerie is Johannes Palmroos’ brilliant documentary accompanying RVNG Intnl.’s latest release, Mount Liberation Unlimited’s (Eerie) For your Love.

It is a suggestive, Pynchonesque investigation into the career of the mysterious T J Eerie, who ‘shaped the modern electronic boogie sound without even realising at the time’, coming with a soft focus intimacy that reminds us in a hard to pin down way of Todd Terje’s heartbreaking Inspector Norse. It is also a gentle mockery of obsessive music nerds and cultural theorists who turn lost musical figures from a mythical past into Maltese Falcon-like McGuffins, and in so doing, mistake the trees of their lives for the forest of their art.

There was the risk that this could have ended a too meta and self-referential for your earnest 20JFG scribes (who have themselves built their careers with many a trans-mediatic, exaggerated nerdery) but the video pulls it off, not least because it unfolds over the backdrop of Mount Liberation Unlimited’s irresistible display of interstellar boogie foot ‘n’ fire-working – a perfect reminder of the un-codifiable mystery that exists in the best music, a kernel of pure joy and feeling in front of which we can only surrender our intellects, gasp, dance.

Get (Eerie) for your love from RVNG International.

As a bonus, here is another beautiful track from Astro Travelling Through Life, and older MLO release.

Mount Liberation Unlimited – Clinton Space Funk

Guest mix: PYE CORNER AUDIO’s The Head Technician

Featuring : Podcast + Pye Corner Audio

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This isn’t the first mix that Pye Corner Audio’s The Head Technician has fabricated for 20JFG – to experience that, you need to travel back in time to this post – but seeing as he has helmed two awesome albums that have been released in the past 9 months, it was certainly worth inviting the enigmatic engineer back for another spin.

The first of these albums was Pye Corner Audio’s Prowler LP, released at the end of last year.

And more recently, Ecstatic Recordings have supplied listeners with Zones, a revamped solo set from The Head Technician.

And here’s that mix…

The Head Technician – Mix for 20 Jazz Funk Greats

Buy Zones by The Head Technician from Ecstatic Recordings


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