My Pop Life #189 : Lost In Music – Sister Sledge

Lost In Music – Sister Sledge

we’re Roxy Music caught in a trap no turning back

we’re Roxy Music

Yes confession time as I count down the days towards my 60th birthday.  To be filed alongside My Pop Life #11 where I discussed the merits of the Bay City Rollers having decided after listening to 2 uncredited radio minutes that I liked them.  This one is perhaps more embarrassing, perhaps more forgivable.   Perhaps not.

Spring 1979.  My final term at LSE.  Living in Honor Oak, SE23 with Mike Hil and Rosie (see My Pop Life #151).  Very post-punk, my ears were switching from Talking Heads to The Undertones, Teddy Pendergrass to Elvis Costello, Donna Summer (On The Radio) to The Specials.   Just around the corner was Off The Wall, one of the greatest records of the 20th century, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones re-writing the rules of dance.  The sound on the streets of London was no longer punk, the three-chord snotty-nosed kids had grown up and were playing reggae and funk covers.  London’s Calling was a long way from The Clash’s first LP.  And coinciding with punk rock subsuming into the mainstream was the disco backlash.  But not in London.  London was always open-minded about music I’d like to think, and my brother Paul had always sought out nightclubs on weekends and had a special penchant for Disco music, right from it’s early days in 1975, when it wasn’t called Disco, just dance music – I’m thinking of Barry White, The O’Jays Love Train, Fatback’s The Spanish Hustle, and George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby.  Not to mention the great Johnny Bristol.

1975 had been the year of the fifth and last Roxy Music LP – entitled Siren, it contained mighty smash hit Love Is The Drug, and extended triptych song Sentimental Fool which Paul had suggested in a Roxy Music competition for Smash Hits (perhaps) was their greatest song, giving reasons why of course.  He won that competition and my respect and a complete set of Roxy Music LPs, which he already had. The band then announced that it was over and they split up.   Wow I hated that.  Bryan Ferry continued to produce solo LPs, using Roxy band members : guitarist Phil Manzanera, drummer Paul Thompson and sax player Andy Mackay on Let’s Stick Together, In Your Mind and in 1978 The Bride Stripped Bare (which is a tremendous record by the way).  Being a full-on dyed-in-the-wool Roxy Music fanclub member and aficionado I bought all of these without question, without reading the reviews in the music press, without any doubt that they would make me happy.  They kind of did, but not like a Roxy Music record would.  And pining for this great band to reconvene, I heard that in the spring of 1979 they were playing a more dance-oriented style, less rock, less art-rock, more r’n’b.  They’d gone disco!  They’d always changed up from album to album, but this was tantalising!

Then listening to the radio one day I heard “We’re Roxy Music” clearly being sung by women over a disco beat, but in a very laid-back way.  “Caught in a trap.  No turning back.”  It was catchy, bouncy, smooth.  There was an itchy rhythm guitar scratching over a bubbling bassline and and eight-count hi-hat.  “We’re Roxy Music”.  And pretty weird too, singing the name of the band like that, like an advert.  Post modern and typically art-school pretension, I thought.  I liked it.  No.  I flippin’ LOVED IT.  What a rhythm guitar lick! How the beat slides behind itself on every turnaround!   The bass line was speaking to me!  IT WAS PERFECT!

IT JUST WASN’T ROXY MUSIC! YOU DICK!

WOW.  Disappointed and embarrassed as I was to learn that it wasn’t my heroes performing some arch all-knowing song with tongue firmly planted in cheek and that it was in fact an American group called Sister Sledge singing about being lost in music.  Which I clearly also was.   Without a paddle.  In fact Roxy Music had reformed and their new LP Manifesto was released that autumn of 1979 along with hit single Dance Away which was a dance-floor filler but even so.  Even so.

The shame can only now be shared.  Luckily I have recovered and the song Lost In Music hooked its way into my subconscious and my legs and it is an irresistible moment in any party of nightclub.  It is a disco classic and I love it.  It reminds me of Off The Wall from the same era – the idea of leaving your 9-5 up on the shelf and getting out on the dance floor was just as radical as any punk stance.  And of course we are now told by pop historians that disco was black, gay, female, latino and revolutionary and everyone remembers – something.  Not me because I wasn’t there.  I was walking outside in eye make-up and ripped jeans and dyed hair.  But disco music was huge alongside my punk era, largely indulged through my brother’s taste.  He was right.  He was being supported and acknowledged in his own identity while simultaneously discovering the idea of being Lost In Music.   Lose Yourself To Dance as Daft Punk (with Nile Rogers) encouraged us to do in 2015.   It is a fantastic musical form and will stand the test of time against any other pop trend of the last 70 years.  For me personally I have become fonder and fonder of Disco music as I’ve grown older.

But it has always been my favourite music to dance to  – along with ska.  I just always liked the groove, the beat.  The arrangement.  Like a jigsaw puzzle.  The syncopation. The timing.  All of it.  Many memories of dancing in formation with Millie, Jenny, Mandy and others to Odyssey, The Bee Gees or Michael Jackson.  Or of course Chic, the genius pair behind this song.

Chic was Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards, rhythm guitar and bass, songwriters from New York City, the heart of disco in 1976.  Rahter incredibly I recently learned that Nile Rogers was partly inspired by seeing Roxy Music live in 1975 to form Chic.  Without getting into the whole history of disco, it was he who heard Donna Summer’s Love To Love You Baby in a discotheque getting mixed by the DJ into the next track amid a heaving multi-racial gay/straight dance floor mix all in a trance pulsing to the beat.  He was sold.  The heart beats at 60-90 bpm while at rest, but once you’re in the club and the DJ puts on Sister Sledge you fill find your heartbeat going up to around 120bpm, and many disco records are around this pulse.

Off The Wall – 119 bpm

You Should Be Dancing – 123 bpm

Le Freak – 120bpm

Don’t Leave Me This Way (Thelma Houston) – 121bpm

I Will Survive – 117bpm

Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) – 118bpm

We Are Family – 119bpm

Maybe this is why these records – and my disco playlist – is perfect for a morning workout and stretch, pilates, weights, floor crunches and so on.  The body understands the beat, the gentle acceleration is what it needs each day to get the blood flowing round.  So for the last couple of years Jenny and I have put on either a reggae playlist  – also with a friendly bpm – or the classic disco playlist.  Usually my favourite record is Odyssey’s Use It Up, Wear It Out but that will have to wait for a more pure day.  This post has mainly been about the humiliation, the embarrassment, the acceptance.

In 2012 I read a book called 33 & a third Revolutions by Dorian Lynskey which was a history of the protest song from Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit to American Idiot by Green Day, covering civil rights, gay disco, anti-war songs, riot grrl and punk.  If he updated the book it would have to include Russia’s Pussy Riot and something from the grime scene, but I loved it (of course) and got in touch with the writer.  We had lunch in Groucho one day in 2012 and talked about the possibility of making a documentary based on the book.  Neither of us had ever made a documentary before of course.  But enthusiasm is all, and over the next few weeks we produced a pitch document.  The key to getting it made was asking Public Enemy frontman Chuck D to do the voice-over, or maybe even front up the doc, take us through the protest song.  Fight The Power (My Pop Life #61) was one of the songs in the book.

It won’t surprise you that much to know that the documentary remains unmade as I type.  But in November that year Dorian – who lives in London and writes music reviews and interviews with singers and bands for a living – put up on Facebook a spare ticket to Chic that night, playing in Kentish Town at the Forum.  I’d never seen them, and it was time.  We met nearby and went in.  Bernie Edwards had died in 1996 but there was Nile playing that scratchy catchy insistent rhythm guitar – that signature sound.  It was an incredible gig – the sound was perfect, and Rogers played us through his repertoire, not just Chic’s Everybody Dance, I Want Your Love and Le Freak but also Sister Sledge’s He’s The Greatest Dancer AND We Are Family, Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Diana Ross’ Upside Down, and cherry icing on the cake of love, Sheila E. Devotion’s wonderful single Spacer, all songs produced by Nile Rogers & Bernie Edwards and often written by them too, mainly after the Disco Sucks backlash, a racist homophobic spasm in the summer of 1979 that shames the perpetrators.   At the finale of the gig Chic played monster song Good Times with that massive bassline which kickstarted hip-hop and invited people onto the stage.  I walked to the front but stood in front of a speaker and danced with glazed eyes in a happy trance.  I both wanted and didn’t want to be onstage at that point.

They didn’t play Lost In Music which has a bpm of 114, representing a very slightly laid-back groove but nevertheless still an insistent disco heartbeat rhythm.   Sister Sledge themselves are from Philadelphia, the daughters of Broadway people and Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy really are Family – they’re sisters, naturally.  How extremely odd that I should mistake their close harmony vocal for that of Bryan Ferry, presumably buried in the mix in my foolish analysis.   Or perhaps not – they’re not so very different.  But disco had the last laugh, and in no way does it suck.  It never did.  I remain, as ever, Lost In Music.   Joni Sledge passed away this year aged 60 of unknown causes.

The music is my salvation

Joni Sledge sings lead :

 

My Pop Life #53 : My Girls – Animal Collective

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My Girls   –   Animal Collective

…I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things

like my social status

I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls…

Just a beautiful song – from Animal Collective’s 8th LP Merriweather Post Pavilion (named after a real place in Maryland) which has many fine moments, and was for me, the best album of 2009, although looking back at my music, it wasn’t a vintage year by any means.  Funny how that happens.  We had Cesaria Evora (see my pop life #14), Drake, Laura Marling and Duckworth Lewis Method, we had Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ ‘Empire State Of Mind’ and Dizzy Rascal’s ‘Bonkers’, we had Fever Ray, Dirty Projectors, Tinariwen and critical darlings the XX who did nothing for me.  I have got other stuff from 2009 to post, but it was thin stuff on the whole, or to be diplomatic…it was a transitional period shall we say…

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Animal Collective in 2008-9 comprised of Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Avey Tare (David Portner), and Geologist (Brian Weitz), all on keyboards and eletronica.  Guitarist Deakin (Josh Dibb) had taken a sabbatical from the band at this point, and there is no guitar on the LP.

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This song would have stood out in any year –  the strange time signature, soulful vocals, unusual melody and honest lyrics – about the reasonable ambition of providing your family with a home .   The way the economies of America and Europe are at the moment, the way the music business has shrunk since the internet stole the music, musicians can no longer earn enough money to pay a mortgage sadly.  I’m talking about established musicians like Animal Collective or Everything Everything, people who’ve been doing it for years, been in magazines, on TV, released LPs.  They can’t afford to buy a house.

I was a part-time musician while I lived in Brighton and all the musicians I know there work really hard for very little financial reward.  I’ve sat in a pub and played piano for £40, belting out your favourite songs while the hubbub vibrates around you.  Background music for midweek drinkers.  It’s one of the best things about Brighton, the amount of free live music there, reminding me of Boulder, Colorado or Austin, Texas, live music pouring from every bar door.  Even when my band, the mighty Brighton Beach Boys, played a “proper gig”, eg Shoreham Ropetackle or Worthing Pier, we’d get £100 each max.  That’s just how it is.  When I saw the Mingus Big Band in New York the other week and got chatting to the alto player, they were on the same money too.  A hit single used to be a way to supplement all the live income, but not any more.  It’s just not enough.  3 hit singles, 4 and 5 and an album – well maybe.   Even David Bowie’s last album only sold 700,000 copies, apparently.  The record companies ripped us off for so long though.  The CD era was the worst, they only cost $2 to make maximum, they were charging £17 at one point.  There’s a guy in the North Laine selling CDs for £5 each, clearly he’s making a profit, why were we paying so much in the 1990s?

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But plus ca change.  People don’t decide to play music, or become actors for the huge earnings.  But think twice before you rip that next song?

2009 was also the year I started to participate in Readers Recommend, part of the GuardianMusic online community.  This has been running since 2005 and was initiated by journalist and writer Dorian Lynskey.  There is a new topic every week – the first week was Songs About Change.  The idea is that readers of the column suggest songs they like for a final playlist to be compiled and printed a week later.   Dorian’s first playlist included Sam Cooke, Notorious BIG, The Who and Muse.  The column has now been running for over 14 years.  I joined in that January in 2009 when I stumbled across it online, as I guess most people do.  Songs about Anti-Love was the topic and I suggested Bessie Smith’s version of Careless Love.  By that point Maddy Costa had taken the chair and she chose Bessie for her playlist.  I was hooked.

I’ve been playing it off and on for the last six years.  The playlist compiler has become known as the “Guru” and I have taken the chair myself on a number of occasions, now that the community is democratic and volunteers from the readership are encouraged to put their names forward.  It’s quite a task, to listen to everyone’s songs, and choose a dozen that will illuminate the topic.  I have begun to prefer the more musical topics (such as songs with great middle eights, or songs with falsetto singing), over the plainly lyrical topics.  The game isn’t just about scoring A-listers, although it is competitive.  It’s about discovering new music, and being diplomatic about other people’s taste in music.  Very rare on the internet!  Which is why we keep coming back I guess.  All the information is available at The Marconium, a compendium of all of the Readers Recommend columns and playlists in handy format, compiled by one of our brethren Marconius7, who resides in British Columbia.  It’s pretty addictive, people flounce off every now and again, sometimes with no fanfare, I’ve done it myself quite a few times, but I’ve always come back, because, well I’m addicted to music, and it’s generally good fun.

This last weekend I have been the Guru again – for the seventh time I think – the topic set by Peter Kimpton, our current Guru of Gurus (ie a paid writer at The Guardian!) was Songs About Ambition.  Many many great songs were suggested, and as ever, I had to whittle them down to 12 A-listers.   My Girls made it, naturally.  The final column can be found here : Ambition Playlist!

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January 2009 was also when Barack Obama was elected President Of The USA for the first time.   A true landmark moment.    Why?   Because white Americans had voted for a black American, that’s why.   It was the start of a healing process which is going to take longer than two terms.  As I write Baltimore is going up in flames for all the usual reasons – neglect, loss of jobs, marginalisation, leave the cops to sort it out.

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And now I find, sitting in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn on Wednesday April 29th 2015 with my two cats Boy and Roxy, that I am missing My Girls.  My #1 girl is in Dublin tonight.  My wife has gone to see our dear friend Catherine Walker in Hedda Gabler at the Abbey Theatre before celebrating her sister Lucy’s birthday and seeing her parents.  My #2 girl Skye, daughter of Tom and Scarlett has just turned 9 months old, Jenny will get to see her on this trip but I’m missing her baby year.  My #3 girl Delilah-Rose, daughter of Millie is my god-daughter and aged 7, also lives in Brighton and I miss baby-sitting her, picking her up from school, taking her to school and everything else.  Here I am in Denver, sipping California wine, and I’ve got all night to remember them, I’m in a Lone Star state of mind.  Kind of thing.

My Girls  –  Animal Collective: