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 :

 

Advertisements

My Pop Life #58 : St Elmo’s Fire – Brian Eno

Featured image

St. Elmo’s Fire   –   Brian Eno

Brown eyes and I was tired
We had walked and we had scrambled
Through the moors and through the briars
Through the endless blue meanders.
In the blue august moon
In the cool august moon

In the autumn of 1975 I had a crisis – my girlfriend Miriam Ryle had left me and meant it, I had left home and gone to live in the nurses’ quarters of Laughton Lodge Hospital, and I walked out of my Cambridge Entrance exam, and thus finally left school. All of these things happened in the same week.  It was a sudden collapse in the House Of Cards – woman, home and education all gone, finished.

Simon Korner and I were doing the Cambridge Entrance exam together but I was finding it stressful – both the expectation of the school and my Dad (who went to Cambridge, Downing College) and I was actually finding it stressful.  Conrad Ryle’s brother Martin who lived in Brighton was giving Simon and I extra lessons in English Literature but we still never got around to William Blake who was set sight unseen in the exam.

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
*
*
Featured imageI didn’t know what he was on about to be honest.  I found it disturbing.  I wrote some guff or other.  Then in the afternoon the paper was even more obscure and I drew some cartoons on it and left the room, and the school, and went down to the nearest pub to Lewes Priory – The King’s Head in Southover St and bought myself a pint of beer.  Had a fag at the bar.  Freedom.  School, dad, Simon would all have to be disappointed.   I wouldn’t be going to Cambridge.  I had a place at LSE anyway to read Law.   Fuck Cambridge.   My gap year started now !   This self-sabotage led me to leave home within days for Laughton Lodge, a hospital for the mentally disabled between Ringmer and Golden Cross, between Lewes and Hailsham indeed.   Two of my friends, Conrad and Tat (Andrew Taylor) were already working there and my interview for the job was mainly about not getting involved in any sexual scandals with the nurses (I did), so in two shakes of a lamb’s tail I was employed as a Nursing Assistant or NA.  I had a white coat, a blue badge, and that was it.
I had a nice high-ceilinged room in a huge Mansion House – the Nurse’s Home – I shared a kitchen with a couple of Mauritian fellas, a shared bathroom and a huge staircase to climb to get up there.  Good views of fields and trees and the hospital from my window, and we could get up to the roof too, but that’s for another story.  I took my clothes, my record player, my books.
Here I have to acknowledge brother Paul who had picked upFeatured image
the Roxy Music baton with a teenage vengeance and run with it all the way to strutting around Hailsham school with his mate Vince in tear-drop collars, fat ties and huge platform shoes, then winning a Roxy competition and being sent all five Roxy Music LPs in the post (he already had them all!), but he’d also religiously followed Brian Eno’s solo career, which started when he left Roxy in 1973 after their 2nd LP For Your Pleasure.  Paul bought both Brian’s first two solo LPs, credited to “Eno” : Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy).
Featured image   They were both scratchy rock-ish albums which I’d found quite hard to get into, but which I now adore.   We had them at home.  By then Paul and Mum were fighting badly and she eventually kicked him out with a solicitor’s letter – he was 16 years old.  He went to my Dad’s flat in Eastbourne but no joy there.  Paul ended up renting some flat somewhere in Eastbourne and working for the tax office.   I think that week of his life scarred him more than this week of mine did.   Paul probably owns all of Brian Eno’s albums.  I nearly do. I’ve got about 26 at last count, out of about 40, including his many collaborations.  There are a lot of them, but the quality never dips – he’s been a consistently interesting fellow both in his music and his mental meanderings through the music business and he is something of a genuine hero of mine.
(But why did he have to produce three U2 albums ?  To get paid probably – he’s been prolific but none of his LPs have sold in any quantity – even this one which is considered to be a masterpiece.)
Featured image
This is from Brian Eno’s third solo LP Another Green World which was more electronic and synthesised than the first two.  It was released in September 1975.   Only a few songs had singing – one of which is St Elmo’s Fire – quite a traditional pop song in many ways.  But his voice has a strange latent eerie quality that I absolutely love, but which I understand can drive other people up the wall.  I can play this LP over and over again and never tire of the sounds coming out of the speakers.  And that is true for most of his records.   If you don’t have any Brian Eno records, I would suggest that this be your introduction.  It’s also an essential listen as an influence on the next 30 years of electronica and pop.  St Elmo’s Fire itself – a strange electrical weather phenomenon – is a beautiful bubbling wickedly playful piece of music.
Brian made Another Green World in London using his Oblique Strategy cards which he would consult to keep things random.   Phil Collins plays the drums, Percy Jones is on bass on most tracks but on St Elmo’s Fire it’s Brian on everything including ‘synthetic percussion’ and ‘desert guitars’ (except for “Wimshurst guitar” credited to Robert Fripp, who’d been in mighty prog band King Crimson).  It is a song that’s easy to love, like most of his music.  He comes across as an egghead professor of ambient music, but his music has always been hugely accessible, certainly since Another Green World anyway.
You may think it strange that I left my mother who was being treated for psychiatric problems, on various drugs and treatments and regular hospital visits, to go and work in a Mental Hospital.   She’d been diagnosed by this point in my life (some 10 years after the first breakdown) as Manic Depressive, Schizophrenic, Paranoid Schizophrenic, they hadn’t come up with BiPolar yet, still testing drugs and side-effects.  But it didn’t scare me by then.  I was actually perfect for the job.  And look – it was just a job.  And it was temporary.  I was saving to hitch-hike round the USA with Simon next summer….

My Pop Life #22 : Ladytron – Roxy Music

Featured image

Ladytron   –   Roxy Music

You’ve got me girl on the run around, run around got me all around town

June 1973, Lewes Priory 5th form are doing their O Levels – for some reason I’m only doing six – English Literature, English Language, Geography, History, a split course Biology/Chemistry and Latin.  I know.  Latin.  I hated it.  The teacher was a permanently drunk Welshman called Dai Jones and I learned nothing and failed the exam with a 9.  The lowest possible score.  I’d already done French, Art and Maths in the 4th year, and the following year in the Lower Sixth I would take Geology which was my favourite subject of all time.   I very nearly did a degree in Geology because I loved it so, particularly the section-maps going underground to reveal the layered rocks beneath, which you had to draw only from surface evidence – wow that was cool.   I still love those maps.   Had I followed that particular nose I would have been lost to all but the oil companies  I suspect, perhaps the main reason, in the end, that I decided to do Law instead.   But in the 5th year all these considerations were way off.   There was a mini-cultural explosion in mid-June when the LP Roxy Music was released and kids started carrying the distinctive blue and pink cover with Kari-Ann Muller giving us her pin-up flex around the school corridors.

Featured image

16-year old boys with pin-up LP covers !  Further examination revealed a music that none of us had even imagined before, let alone heard.   This was a musical box of chocolates with every shape, flavour and colour and we became obsessed, none more so than me.   I couldn’t get enough of this record and played it to death over the summer of ’73, with the result that my younger brother Paul, turning 14, became an even bigger Roxy Music fanatic than me – almost an impossible feat!   Deep inside the carefully-designed sleeve were more delights, pin-ups of the band members who appeared to have beamed down from an outer space glamour convention, the lot “designed” by Anthony Price.

Featured image

Well Graham Simpson on bass looks pretty Andy-Williams-normal.  But Andy Mackay became my new saxophone guru although he also played the oboe and could do things that I couldn’t even contemplate on the saxophone, nevertheless I did play along with Ladytron from time to time, a moment that sums up everything about Roxy for me at that time – Mackay’s sax and Phil Manzanera’s electric guitar playing a harmonic riff together while a mental piano plinks and plonks some kind of rhythm around it under an odd electronic bubbling from weirdo Brian Eno (bottom middle in the pic above), making it all sound sci-fi, and still everything, and I mean everything is rooted to the rock-solid rock-steady drums of Paul Thompson (with a tiger on his shoulder above).   And Ferry, above all else, Bryan Ferry’s vocals, mannered, exquisite, English, haunted, pleading, romantic.   I worshipped the man.   This feeling grew over the ensuing three years as further LPs came out, costumes were worn, lyrics were caressed.    But for now all I had to go on was this picture, these strange but compelling gentlemen from the planet Rock which was in this incarnation planet  Roxy.   Some of them were wearing make-up!   They were clearly obsessed with style as much as music.  With glamour more than chasing a hippie dream.  That summer my first eyeshadow was bought, and worn, although not around the council estate where I lived.   I knew that young men were a little sensitive about these matters.

When I listen to the LP today it still has the same effect on me as it did when I was a 16-year old boy.   It thrills me to the core with it’s daring clashes of style, it’s thunderous drumming which anchors every splash of electro-wierdness, the oboe, the guitar, the lyrics about Humphrey Bogart, about World War Two, about Brief Encounter, but above all else a huge confident new sound, rooted in rock’n’roll but re-made, re-modelled for the future.   It became my musical badge of honour and remains my favourite of their LPs.   I have them all of course, and all of Ferry’s solo output and Brian Eno’s.   This LP is a pinnacle of art-rock, and they would never return there.   I’ve seen them live too, and met the man, but that’s for a later conversation.  For now, just listen to those castanets, and the sheer thrill of the beat doubling up for the instrumental drive-by.  Sensational music.