My Pop Life #166 : Pacific 202 – 808 State

Pacific 202   –   808 State

The last few days of 1989 :  a Ford Granada with me driving, Jenny in the jump seat and my brother Paul and his boyfriend Colin in the back is driving the long endless East German autobahn towards West Berlin.  It’s cold outside and the road goes on forever.  We’ve been driving from England since morning.  For the last six months news reports coming out of the Eastern Bloc of change :  East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in particular seethe with popular unrest, and since November 17 the famous Wall dividing East and West Berlin has been tested and breached by demonstrators.  Refugees from East Germany have been granted asylum in Hungary.   Berlin is in flux.  Gorbachev is in power in the USSR talking about Perestroika (re-structuring : also the name of his book, which I read in 1989) and glasnost (open-ness), a new way forward, relaxing the tight rules on state power and movement of peoples and now in front of us, the Iron Curtain is creaking.

Mikhail Gorbachev stated in 1989 that German re-unification was a German matter

Historic times indeed.  Then on Christmas Day, hated dictator President Ceaușescu of Romania and his wife are executed by firing squad after a trial lasting one hour.  We decide to see in the new year in Berlin, in the centre of it all.  Armed with an address provided by Jonathan & Roberta, Paul and Colin’s friends from college, we finally arrive at around 10pm, climb the three flights of stairs to find a lovely two-room apartment, empty save for two Italians who had also been told that they could use the space for the New Year.  Mutual surprise all round, but these were pre-internet days.  The four English end up on two single mattresses in the main room.

Checkpoint Charlie : he didn’t crack a smile

The following morning we wake too late for hot water, our Italian friends having got to the bathroom first.  After breakfast Jenny and I drive through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin, receiving a small passport made of cardboard which is stamped, and we are told that we have to return before midnight.  East Berlin is eerie and strangely gentle.  At the first large square – almost deserted, very few shops open, there are rabbits hopping around.  We visit a large department store and buy AyeAye, a 1970s Donny Hathaway hat which we still have – a beautiful, madly out-of-date-in-a-good-way fashion piece, so out-of-date that it was back in fashion in the west.  We ate some unimpressive food in a quiet restaurant and made our way back to the western side.

 West Berlin was heaving with people, simply full up. Jenny and I had decided to get a hotel room, but there weren’t any.  She was something of a distraction for everyone, being black and sporting her eighteen-hole DMs.  That night, New Year’s Eve, we queued for an Italian restaurant (against my religion to Q for food : unless I’m in prison), only to be told it was a private party.  At another Italian the waiters took exception to Paul & Colin being gay, so Jenny gave them a piece of her mind and was escorted physically from the building.  We did finally eat somewhere, but seven million other people had had the same idea as us and West Berlin was rammed.  Still, if you can’t be original, join in, that’s my motto.  Sounds better in Latin.  si non potest esse prima iungas..  Imagine it on a little crest.  A badge.  Oh, never mind.

Approaching midnight and Paul and Col had gone clubbing somewhere, Jenny and I made our way to the Wall at Potsdammer Platz near Brandenburg Gate where crowds of revellers were partying on top of the Wall in full view of soldiers from both sides, dancing, smoking weed and chipping pieces of the Wall away with chisels and hammers.  An extraordinary atmosphere.  We stood in one of the holes in the Wall and could see No Man’s Land and the towers and barbed wire of the East.  I had a mini boombox and played a previously-recorded Martin Luther King “I Had A Dream” speech when a soldier told me to turn it off, despite clearly not speaking English and not understanding what it was.  I didn’t turn it off and there were too many people around to make a fuss.  In amidst the party atmosphere was a strange tension as many of the West Berliners felt decidedly ambiguous about everything opening up.  A kind of tense excitable hysteria, who are all these people?  The future was uncertain, and there were already some East Germans crossing the border, changing the nature of the enclave forever.

New Year’s Eve at The Wall 1989

We listened to cassettes on the drive over, handmade by each of us, or purchased at Our Price or Woolworths.  Certainly one of these was a best of 1989 compilation – and it was a great year for dance music in particular.

Hip hop had already come, seen and conquered.  Now we were into the Daisy Age thanks to De La Soul, while Heavy D & The Boyz had serenaded Jenny and I in D.C. with their own New Jack Swing thang  (see My Pop Life #33).  Janet Jackson was in the Rhythm Nation, Shabba Ranks was being Wicked Inna Bed, and in the summer I’d  choreographed a dance to Redhead Kingpin & The FBI‘s monster song Do The Right Thing (see My Pop Life #7) in a theatre workshop with a young David Walliams and 25 other teenagers for the National Youth Theatre.  Not to be confused with the Spike Lee film of the same name which had a terrific soundtrack featuring Public Enemy, Perri, Teddy Riley, Guy and Take 6.

The British had a great year – a new confidence in the air manifest by Soul II Soul and that Keep On Movin’ LP which dominated the summer.  Other acts which popped through were Rebel M.C. with Street Tuff, Neneh Cherry with Buffalo Stance and Stone Roses with Fool’s Gold.  But none caught my ear quite like this record.  Radio One played it every day – Gary Davies I think – until it was eventually released in November 1989 and became an immediate hit. An immediately intoxicating sound whether you had dropped ecstasy or not, we hadn’t heard much like it before on the radio.

I depended on Paul and Colin for bringing me club tunes since I didn’t really go clubbing.   I did go to legendary gay club Heaven with them a couple of times under the Charing Cross Arches but they were out listening to Frankie Knuckles, Mr Fingers, Phuture and the other stars of House Music regularly, and this year’s big song was French Kiss by Lil Louis.  Earlier in the year Paul had introduced me to seminal techno house track Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald, out of the Manchester underground, later a big hit, and this track Pacific by 808 State has his fingerprints all over it.

Graham Massey, Gerald Simpson, Martin Price – 808 State

808 State were formed in Manchester by Gerald Simpson (A Guy Called Gerald), Graham Massey and Martin Price in 1987 and named after Gerald’s Roland TR-808 drum machine.  Pacific aka Pacific State, Pacific 717 Pacific 202 etc etc was and remains a delicious electronic chilled dance tune featuring a wonky alto sax line and a collection of strange bird noises and it heralded Acid House and the Manchester rave scene, about which I know next to nothing.  My Manc friends Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill, Keith Davey and Josh Raikes all came of age through those Madchester years and I’ll leave it to them to explain it all to you (they all moved to Brighton though – make of that what you will…).   As for me, I never did like Happy Mondays, The Charlatans or Stone Roses THAT much and I certainly never bought the 2nd Summer Of Love designation, but I would never pour cold water over it either, I’m sure it was an intoxicatingly hypnotically fantastic and exciting time to be up in the north west of England.  Especially when Pacific State came out !   I bought the 12″ single on ZTT (Paul Morley, Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair’s label) which had Pacific 707 (the 7 inch version) and Pacific 212 and one other mix ?  There are about 20 versions out there.  The one below is Pacific 202.  I think.  It was released in America on TommyBoy Records in 1990.

We found a hotel and a bathroom on Jan 1st 1990 in West Berlin while Paul & Col made friends with their new Italian flatmates and stayed for three more weeks.  Jenny and I explored the groovy anarchist squat scene in Kreuzberg and went back to The Wall and picked up some orange spray-painted sections for keepsakes and drove back home shortly afterward one morning.  I went back to Berlin last year and invented the David Bowie : Where Are We Now ? tour (see My Pop Life #97) and some 25 years later the city is almost unrecognisable.  Only a few parts of the wall remain, tourist attractions, protected.  I stayed in the old East Berlin, now simply Berlin.  It is thrumming with activity and endeavour, much of it artistic, simply full of energy.

As we drove home through Germany, then Belgium, we were stopped on the French border for our passport.  Most cars were getting waved through and we were blocking the road.  The passport was in my suitcase in the boot, so I offered to pull over while I got out and unpacked.  No said the French border police.  Stay in the road.  I got annoyed with him and so they decided to search the car.  Jenny and I were processed through the system, stripped,  and searched.  And then made to wait in the little central booth as the border police tooth-combed the car.  While we waited, and waited, I noticed cars queuing to get into Belgium from France looking at me with quizzical eyes.  They were asking for permission to cross the border.  There was no one else there, so I started to nod at the drivers, and they would drive through.  It was ridiculous but fun.  Eventually we were interviewed by the boss.   He explained that busloads of tourists came this way from Amsterdam every day.  I told him that we’d come from Berlin.  Earlier in 1989 I had been filming in France (see My Pop Life #9) playing Eugene Delacroix the painter who appeared on the 200 Franc note (sadly now replaced by the Euro).  As I explained this to the police chief, he asked me if I smoked weed – “and is it used for inspiration, like Baudelaire?”  I agreed that I imagined it was.  “Ah you artistic types” he sighed.

We crossed the Channel at Ostende and landed in England in the brave new world of 1990.   Capitalism won, after extra time.

My Pop Life #50 : Breakin’ Down (Sugar Samba) – Julia & Company

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Breakin’ Down  (Sugar Samba)   –   Julia & Company

…I’m telling you this, you can’t resist you gotta get up and dance, breakin’ it down…

It’s hard to remember just how dominant dance music was in 1984 – punk and new wave had been and gone, leaving Elvis Costello and Paul Weller to re-invent themselves with each LP (they both did dance LPs around this time) 2-tone had sealed the deal, and the disco underground of the 1970s was now mainstream chart music.  Bestriding the world like a colossus was Michael Jackson, who was burned filming a Pepsi Commercial in January just before the release of his ground-breaking and game-changing video film for Thriller, the final single from that record-breaking album.   Number one in Britain for weeks were Frankie Goes To Hollywood with “Relax“, a genuine british dance hit record which the BBC refused to play presumably because it references orgasm.   Their 2nd single Two Tribes would also reach number 1 in April.  In the previous year, when I’d been at the Donmar Warehouse for five months (!) in Steven Berkoff’s WEST, even David Bowie had gone disco with Nile Rogers and Let’s Dance.

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And this surge of popularity gave many smaller acts their chance in the spotlight: Sharon Redd, The Pointer Sisters, and Washington D.C. resident Julia Nixon who produced a stunning 45rpm 7-inch single called Breakin’ Down (Sugar Samba) first on a local label District of Columbia then later on London Records – the one which I bought in a picture sleeve.  It is a major groove and will, under almost any conditions, make people dance…

  Featured image  Knowing nothing about this group until recently when I learned that Julia Nixon had replaced Jennifer Holiday in Dreamgirls on Broadway, and that after this cracking single in 1984 and the follow-up I’m So Happy, she finally released her first solo LP in 2007 some 23 years later.

Now, I’ve been an actor for some 33 years myself, and I consider myself lucky to have lived for the bulk of my working life doing what I am capable of, and what I enjoy.  To be precise : what I enjoy is the actual act of acting.  The business of show less so, because of revelations like this : a clearly great singer (listen to the song) with a hit single who has had to wait for over 30 years to get one miserable solo LP released.  She is clearly a better singer than the majority of chart acts, but pop music is merciless with talent, as is the TV and Film industry.  I’ve thought about this many times, why does person a) get work and person b) doesn’t ?

I’m not pretending to know the answers to this but certain things are clear.  Talent isn’t enough to succeed.  There are other elements at work :  luck, connections, and the greasing of the wheels.  Whether someone wants to have sex with you or not.  Whether they think that you’ll make them some money.   In the acting industry the disappointment of rejection becomes your regular companion;  if you took every defeat on the chin you’d never get up.  Some don’t.  In the music industry again the rejections may or may not fuel the fires of creativity, or someone younger and sexier might just jump into the gap.  Good actors often decide that the lack of control they feel doing screen work can only be balanced by regular stage work, where the actor is king.  Screen work generally is paid 10 times stage work.  Good musicians will often be happier with regular paid session work, playing on other people’s hit songs, or writing other people’s hit songs (secret corn!) than sitting at home trying to plot an assault on the charts under their own name.   And in both industries there are filters at work;  gatekeepers, paid to streamline the flow of artists into the hallowed name positions.

Julia Nixon has carried on acting and singing, and still earns her living from doing it.  She was recently nominated for a Helen Hayes Award in ‘Caroline, or Change’ in Washington D.C.

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I was at the beginning of my working life when I heard this song, which I still love today, if I ever DJ for a brief nostalgic hour at a party or some such this record is Always In The Box along with Kid Creole & The Coconuts and TLC.   I didn’t really have a plan in 1984, no strategy, no idea what I was doing frankly.   Following my nose.  No one ever sat me down and explained the industry to me.   People just don’t do that.   I wouldn’t have listened anyway.   Young people don’t listen – they surge, they feel, they deal with it.   The endless thought process dealing with “how it all works” is like trying to understand the dawn of time, or how dogs can smell cancer, or the endless mystery of why people are racist.   Why does the river flow into the sea?  Why is the sky blue ? (oxygen molecules)  Why can’t I bend my left leg in the same way as my right?  Does it matter?

We all get our moment in the sun.  This is a superb song.  Smooth, funky, sexy.  I give you the seven-inch :

London Records re-mixed the 12-inch version :

the original District Of Columbia 12-inch single :

My Pop Life #38 : Liberté – Franco & TPOK Jazz

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Liberté   –   Franco & TPOK Jazz

…Liberte, liberte eh na lingi na tikala libre Na sala oyo motema elingi…
(Freedom, I want to remain free and do what I want )
Mama mama ah

I think it was around 1984, I was living with Mumtaz in an attic flat in Finsbury Park and driving my 2nd ever car, a Hillman Minx series 1 (1956) in mulberry green and cream, with bench seats and gear change on the steering column.    I mention this because I drove this car down to an address off Balls Pond Road in London which someone I trusted had given me.   Perhaps they came with me, but I can’t remember.    Too much weed-smoking leaves holes in the memory.   And I was there to buy some more weed, because I’d run out.   The dealer was about 10 years older then me, Jamaican, rastafarian.   He showed me the grass.  It looked fine.  It smelt fine.   He suggested that I roll a joint and sample the wares.  It seemed frankly rude not to.  So I did.

Now I’ve been smoking mary jane since I was 14 years old.  I distinctly remember the first joint I smoked (puffed gingerly), in Simon Korner’s bedroom in King Henry’s Walk, Lewes, sitting at a drum kit (Andrew Rankin’s?) with Matthew Ford also present.  I think I spurned it initially, waving the drumstick airily about, but sooner or later I sampled.   I’d been smoking cigarettes for a couple of years anyway.   Most people smoked hashish in those days – because that’s what there was – black, red or gold.  Moroccan gold mainly, now and again Lebanese red , then Afghani black occasionally.   I don’t think I smoked actual grass until I was 18.   By 1984 though I’d smoked a huge variety of stuff, from the famous Triple Zero pollen from Morocco to the hallucinogenic Thai Stick (which is potent shit)  and also dabbled in other drugs including LSD, speed & cocaine, so smoking weed wasn’t an alarming thing, a challenge, or a worry.  I know it can be, and I’ve had my paranoid moments, but they’ve been very very few and reasonably far between, so what I’m trying to say I suppose is that smoking weed won’t kill you, even if it’s in a stranger’s house with a new crop.

So I rolled and smoked and passed to the left.   It was good.   I handed over a roll of cash and the transaction was finished.   The joint wasn’t though.   We puffed away pleasantly, there may even have been a cup of tea, hard to recall through the haze.   The music entangled itself around my ear, winding guitar lines that seemed threaded together and forever in a special new sinuous rhythm.   “Who is this playing?” I asked.   “It’s Congolese music” said my new friend, “It’s Franco”.

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I stared at the album cover.    Franco looked like a smiley Idi Amin Dada, a fat African dictator in a green military uniform, smiling back at me.    The music was of considerable beauty and depth.   In fact, it was staggering.   The following day, I had to know if the weed was particularly good, or whether I’d made a major musical discovery.   I went down to Sterns Record Shop on Whitfield St, round the corner from Warren St, very near the Diwan-e-Khas north Indian restaurant which did the best sheek kebab in town.  Sterns sold all African Music, I’d bought my Fela Kuti LPs Sorrow Tears and Blood and ITT from there, and true to form, they had the LP : 20eme Anniversaire and I bought it on the spot.   It scarcely left the turntable for the next two weeks, and I eventually went back to Sterns for more.

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I now have over 40 Franco LPs – less than half of his output.  An amazing guitarist, bandleader and cultural giant, he dominated african music for over 30 years from his power base in Kinshasa, starting in the late 1950s playing rumba with amazing fluidity and increasing complexity and beauty until his death from AIDS in 1989.   Born Franco Luambo Makiadi in 1938 his influence still overshadows almost of all the dance music of the African continent.  Landing in Cape Town for work many years later I took a taxi to the hotel and some soukous music was playing, I didn’t recognise it and asked the driver what it was.  “DRC” he answered.  This is what Africans call the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I didn’t realise Congolese music was so prevalent throughout that mighty continent.  And Franco is the colossus who bestrides them all.

I never got to see Franco live, although he did play in Belgium a few times, and I think the reason why so few people even know about him (unlike say Fela Kuti) is because his songs were almost all in Lingala the language of the Democratic Republic of Congo.   It is the most beautiful music in the world. Originally rumba was learned from Cuban sailors who docked in Kinshasa in the 1950s and was picked up by local musicians, but of course the Cuban music would in its turn have originated in Africa.

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Patrice Lumumba, democratically elected in 1960

The early songs are short and sweet : Independence Cha Cha (though not typical) celebrates the moment the Belgians formally relinquished power in 1960, but when president Patrice Lumumba (who had fought long and hard for independence) wanted to nationalise the mines in Katanga he was undermined and finally executed in 1961 by dark forces allied to the West in a coup d’etat.  Franco’s music of this early period steers clear of taking sides, giving people escape instead – the phrase ‘On Entre OK On Sort KO’ comes from this period (you come in OK, you leave knocked out!).  The epoch of Mobutu, installed by the US and Belgium, ran from 1965 to 1997, and Franco’s career ran alongside him, often critical, he was in and out of favour depending on the most recent hit and who it had upset.  Mobutu couldn’t afford to alienate him or his fans, and their relationship was interesting.  The music becomes more complex in the late 60s, emerging as a form called soukous and then we have the golden era from which the LP 20eme Anniversaire comes : long dance songs with a rumba beat characterised by the interlocking guitar lines which are so mesmerising and which caught my attention in Islington (no it wasn’t the weed).  But then halfway through each song there is a break : and the beat doubles up, a new shuffle, a new urgency flourishes – this is called the seben, and this is irresistible, to listeners and dancers.

I’ll return to the music of Franco et TPOK Jazz (Tout Puissant  = Almighty) but for now, enjoy this slice of congolese soukous played by the master.

Lyrics in Lingala the main language of The Democratic Republic of Congo, being sung here by Lola Djangi Chécain, Josky Kiambukuta Londa, Wuta Mayi and Grand Maitre Luambo Makiadi AKA Franco.   With Decca on bass, Ntoya on drums, Simaro, Michelino  & Franco on guitars.

My Pop Life #26 : At The River – Groove Armada

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At The River   –   Groove Armada

…if you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air, quaint little villages here and there…

It’s hard to re-create the feeling of 1999 years after it happened – but there was a distinctive atmosphere.   It was millenial.   There was a Y2K bug  which was apparently going to crash the internet, all the clocks and most of the electrical goods.   It was an end-of-the-world feel, simply to do with the numbers, and a frisson of nervous energy was pulsing around everything.   It was exciting to be alive in that very summer, when dance music had taken over the vibe and the mood, and down on the South Coast if you weren’t partying like it was 1999 to Fatboy Slim, Basement Jaxx, The Chemical Brothers and Phats & Small, then dude, you were never going to party or dance ever.   I was 42 and still going to nightclubs – one of the things I like about Brighton is that its legendary tolerance embraces old geezers inside nightclubs.   Nobody cares.   We’d frequent The Escape usually, sometimes The Zap, or maybe someone’s house with a crew that included Patrick Sullivan, Josh, Mark and Keith Davey, Louise Yellowlees, Yarra Mills, Debbie and Soriya, Stompers, Albion fans, plenty others, many of them named Mark, all hands in the air;  most people on a) cocaine b) ecstasy c) weed or d) all of the above.   Not to mention the lager lager lager.   Not my tipple, but back then it probably was.   Of course the bohemia crowd (see My Pop Life #14) were ever-present and a gang of DFLs were regularly in attendance.   Down From London of course!   The imminent apocalypse made every night party night and every party shimmer with sex.   But it wasn’t all jump around jump around.

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In the summer there were beach barbecues which stretched out til way after the sun had gone down, mini-bonfires in the stones you could sit around until the tide came lapping in and sizzled it out.   And that’s where Groove Armada came in I guess.   This is such a chill-out song, a lazy Sunday Afternoon song,  a greet-the-dawn song and I love every tiny detail about it.   The strange opening sample (blue shoes???) to the lazy drums, the Patti Page song “Old Cape Cod” which contributes all the lyrics and the general summer’s day feel but mostly the spectacular trombone lick which is the cherry on the icing on the cake.

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Tried to find out if it was Ashley Slater (Brighton resident bone man and Freak Power pop star) or Big Jim Patterson (Dexys and Elvis Costello boner) but I’m happy to report that Groove Armada DJ Andy Cato also plays the trombone, and played the phrase himself when they were putting the LP Vertigo together in the Lake District.

All put together this piece of music for me transcends time and place and rises up to somewhere holy and ethereal, untouchable and perfect, and is therefore one of my actual favourites songs of all time and ever forever amen.

We went to Cape Cod again last summer which gave me the excuse to play the song again over and over.  It worked its magic one more golden time.

Short Version :

Full fat creamy Version :