Blaze / 25 Years Later

25yrs Later

Way back in the day there were no house albums. House Music I mean. This is obvious I guess – way back in the day there were no hip-hop albums either, more or less because there was no hip-hop.

It has to start somewhere (and please don’t tell me that hip-hop began in the cotton fields/with Cassius/Last Poets/chain-gangs/Africa-ca-ca-ca all of which were raised – plus more – in a forum discussion of recent: you know what I mean).

And so it was with House Music 1.

From 1986 there were singles galore – by mid 1988 you could almost say the planet was awash in jack. Next came compilations and there were hundreds. Jack This, Jack That, Jack’s Greatest Hits, Jack Went To London, Jack to the Underground, Jack on 45 and so on. The Germans were particularly ruthless in compiling every sonic fart recorded with an Roland 808 or 303 machine in Chicago or New York onto a shoddily pressed and overly compressed LP complete with the obligatory ”House Megamix” from some DMC hack remixer (Sanny X where are you?) on side four.

The first artist albums were slow to come and the earliest were just collections of singles with a few extra tracks added to fill it out – in the honoured industry tradition that played a big part in killing the album as a dominant format.

One of those was Fingers Inc.’s Another Side, a monumental long player despite its knocked together origins – but I’ll get to that in weeks or months to come as I find time.

Then came the DJ International albums – the long players built around the line of big club hits released by Tyree Cooper, Fast Eddie and – this one was actually very good but it’s forgotten – Joe Smooth. In New York Todd Terry‘s mutant slicing of hip-hop and house produced an album under each of his pseudonyms, but mostly they were still just singles padded out.

Then there was Ten City. And really they were the first. Produced by one of the new house wunderkids, Marshall Jefferson, the first Ten City singles arrived in 1988 from out of nowhere and they immediately added another dimension – almost a rupture if you will – to the raffish rawness that had defined house to that time, by adding house rhythms and production techniques to classic hamonised rhythm and blues that could draw a comfortable line back via groups like The Bluenotes, The Temptations and The Miracles to street corner doowop and gospel vocal ensembles like the Soul Stirrers and The Ravens. Their debut album, Foundation, in 1989 was the very first soul album to evolve from the House revolution.

And without being obvious in its on-the-sleeve it also seemed to draw from the classic garage and early pre-garage recordings that had exploded in the New York club scene in the 1970s and 1980s on labels like Prelude, Salsoul and West End (once again: read Jahsonic kids).

Which takes us to Blaze and the parallel sound of urban New Jersey.

Blaze, 1989

As Ten City were restating the vocal group Chicago, Blaze, formed in 1984, were doing the same on the US East Coast.

The early Blaze were a trio, releasing a quartet of singles for back-room indies in mid to late 1980s, and it’s this trio, Kevin Hedge, Josh Milan and Chris Herbert that we’re concerning ourselves with here (Herbert left after this album).

Of those early singles I absolutely loved – and still do – this one:

And then came 25 Years Later. On Motown – this at the tail end of the time when being signed to the soul label really, really meant something. PolyGram/Universal had still to turn it into the watery conduit for anything with a dark skin regardless of the quality of the product – it was a huge thing. Atlantic with their street-grit soul history made sense for Ten City, but no other major label had taken the plunge into house music or anything close.

And thus, for arguably the most soulful of the soulful and exquisitely produced of the early house acts, Motown was both significant and absolutely appropriate.

And Blaze delivered.

25 Years Later was both a thematic protest album (especially on the compact disc which had more tracks and interludes) built around urban black activism, and a celebration of Black musical heritage and musical consciousness of the 1970s and early 198os. It articulately fused together Marvin, Curtis, Sly, Gil and more with the new music and as a result was critically acclaimed by both the UK & European media who understood house music, and by the US Black media who were still utterly confused by it.

Sadly it sold nothing at all and was swiftly deleted by a staggering Motown in the midst of a swarm of corporate realignments and takeovers as Berry Gordy tried to get out, and by the time the dust settled and PolyGram owned the company Blaze had been dumped and Chris Herbert had departed taking his voice with him.

The other two carried on with the name and became one of the biggest house acts of the mid 1990s, and 2000s, although they were never again able to create an album like the wonderful 25 years Later – a long player that had a brief Japanese (of course) reissue in the 2000s and a couple of bootleg pressings but otherwise has been unavailable since the early ’90s in it’s released form.

Enjoy…

Lover Man:

All That I Should Know:

So Special:

Gonna Make It Work:

Get Up:

Miss My Love:

And finally the glorious Timmy Regisford skanking 12” mix of We All Must Live Together:

 

Stevie, 1973…

Stunning live Stevie, German Beat Club 1973….

 

Bobby’s Back…

Damon Albarn and Richard Russell have done – trying to find the right words – (maybe it’s) an admirable job on the new Bobby Womack album. And given that he’s not made a new record for a decade or more, I’m both thrilled and grateful that someone has.

It’s a record that won’t seem uncomfortable to anyone that liked the last (and final) Gil Scott-Heron album a couple of years back – as I did. Russell seems to have hit a working formula at XL – take an ailing legacy legend who’s best years are deemed behind him by the criterati, add modern audio embellishments and – bing – you have a career reviver with instant critical momentum.

The formula isn’t that new – Rick Rubin has been doing career refurbishments for years, albeit more by stripping back than adding, with mixed results from Johnny Cash (fantastic) to Neil Diamond (not quite so fabulous: Diamond has been a notoriously immovable stoner for years – ask anyone in his record company – who seemed to mostly loose his grip around 1973 when he began writing albums about seagulls, and then troughed a couple of years later whilst dueting with Babs Streisand, always a career low for anyone).

So to Bobby. I like it. As an album it’s mostly pleasant – nice (the word my English teacher told me never to put to paper) even. Loads of critics really like it – and some have even given it 5 stars (maybe the same writers who gave the mid 2000s Dylan albums 5 stars each too, which begged the obvious question then: if those get five, where does that leave Blonde on Blonde?). Given his previous work 5 stars here is also a mighty claim. As are even four.

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Random Noise 5

This amazing recording of Split Enz (or were they still Ends then?), live in Palmerston North (!) in July 1975, has just surfaced and is the earliest known live recording of the band. Stranger Than Fiction is – of course – from their first, and, by a margin best, album Mental Notes:

As is Spellbound. I love Spellbound:

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Pre-Bass….

Once upon a time there was a fledgling scene in the St Paul’s district of the ancient west-English city of Bristol.

The huge wave of immigration in the 50s and 60s from soon to be former UK colonies in the Caribbean and Africa had turned the city into a heady mish-mash of styles. When punk arrived, that too was thrown into the mix, as was classic soundtrack, dub, a raw indie ethos and a sense of isolation despite the nearness of big-city London.

So that’s the generalised history in a quick nutshell, now on to the music.

The Wild Bunch

Out of that – via a whole bunch not least were the radical and massively influential post-punk-isms of The Pop Group – came The Wild Bunch and the whole Bristol Sound.

And, no, this post isn’t intended to analyse or provide a deeper history of that sound, apart from perhaps pointing to the very obvious: that without the pioneering work DJ Milo, Nellee Hooper, Rob Smith, Tricky, Robert Del Naja, Grant Marshall, Andrew Vowles, Ray Mighty and many more - some of which is below – the global rhythmic landscape in the years since the early 1990s would sound radically different. It’s the line that takes The Sex Pistols and The Clash through to dubstep and contemporary electronica, to the last Gil Scott-Heron record and Jamie XX.

If you want to delve more, check out the great Bristol Archive Records, including this page of (sadly patchy) documentary mostly notable for NZ’s Shapeshifter in there), the excellent but sadly abandoned archival Electric Pavilions (last updated in 2005), or this Japanese TV interview with Smith & Mighty from 2000 which should be interesting but proves rather hard going. (part 2)

Many of the records below sold less than a couple of thousand or so, and their YouTube hits are mostly under 10K, but without them…

So, to the mighty Pre-Bass selection:

Firstly, an incredible (in that it exists at all mostly) Wild Bunch promo video which dates to 1985. Made by Steve Haley (his brief notes on the YT page are worth reading) and Julian Monaghan, it’s unfortunately disabled for embedding – I have no idea at all why people do that – so you’ll need to go across to YT to see it, but it’s worth it:

And the Wild Bunch’s debut (only) release from early 1988 – by which time they’d actually broken up. This (the B side) helped establish a brief Bristol tradition of messing heavily with Dionne Warwick tunes (see further below):

That record wasn’t the first to feature The Wild Bunch name. Late in 1987 this remix of Eric B & Rakim’s Move The Crowd was quite a club hit in the UK. The record’s originators back in the USA however were mostly bemused and disgruntled by it apparently – as they were with all the UK remixes of their work. As much as I rate EB&R, they were wrong. I love it:

A Bristol style was identifiable when the next local release arrived, via Smith & Mighty,  who ran the Three Stripe Sound System . On their own label, also called Three Stripe, the song they named Anyone was – of course – Anyone Who Had A Heart, the Bacharach& David tune, featuring the vocals of  someone (who had a great voice, although it’s what Smith & Mighty did with it that matters more) called Jackie Jackson, and once again we have a Steve Haly video.

The noise had begun to filter beyond the westlands and, indeed, this was quite the anthem for a moment at The Siren in far distant Auckland:

Smith and Mighty followed that with yet another Dionne Warwick / Bacharach & David cover, this time it was Walk On By (and it was the last – Message to Michael or Trains & Boats & Planes seem to have not appealed). What this video (which is not original BTW) lacks in video quality it makes up for in the almost perfect way it syncs the cover vocal with old footage of Dionne herself:

For at least two years, this version of Walk On By was the very last song of the night at The Siren and then Box.

The sound that Massive Attack – who’d spun off from The Wild Bunch – would wrap around the planet in the early 1990s was increasingly developed by now, and here they are with their debut single Any Love, produced by Smith & Mighty and featuring a young Bristol singer, Carlton – who we will get to – on very distinctive post-Smokey vox. It’s uber raw and quite wonderful – and as far as I know this version (it was later re-recorded) of the song has never been on CD or legally reissued in any form:

And another band from Bristol who benefited from the Smith & Mighty touch, this is Fresh 4 (who included future drum’n'bass superstar Krust amongst their number) covering Rose Royce’s Wishing On A Star – into the UK top ten, the very first of the new Bristol sound system bands to do so. And another Steve Haly clip:

Smith & Mighty signed their Three Stripe label to London Records in 1990 and with it went Carlton. His album, The Call Is Strong, was the only long player issued on the label and remains a lost underground absolute classic. Much of the album was recorded in ’89 and ’90 and – given that the sound that Massive Attack produced on their first long player was obviously heavily indebted to M&S’ early work – there has to be a chicken/egg question here. Either way, it’s a formative and now lost British soul landmark – mostly thanks to London’s completely inept handling of its release – awaiting a Japanese 180 gram repress and the noisy acclaim it really deserves.

Do You Dream was the first single, and it’s – yep – another Haley clip:

The second single was the silky-slick Cool With Nature, although as far as I know there was no video (there were no more and you’d be allowed a pass for not knowing the album even existed in 1990 – given the huge Massive Attack success at the time it’s both bizarre and unforgivable). This single was, however, to the best of my knowledge, the first record to use the term Drum & Bass:

Three Stripe thereafter was just a vehicle for Smith & Mighty, with the 1992 Stepper’s Delight EP (a huge Box floorfiller):

And the less convincing 1994 Ashford & Simpson cover, Remember Me (the original non-Frankie Foncett mix is way better but MIA on YouTube):

Thereafter the label was killed off. Smith & Mighty made a couple of harder breakbeat records including an album (Bass Is Maternal), and Massive Attack increasingly lost their way after the third album. Nellee Hooper produced Madonna and U2 – and Tricky is Tricky although mostly nobody notices anymore.

But – really – if you ask anyone who really knows – Smith & Mighty defined the Bristol Sound.

In the first and second decade of the 20oos Rob Smith could still be found in Bristol making rather ace records, mostly as RSD.

Kingfisher (from 2007):

Good Energy (from 2009):

Bristol Archives Records have just issued a Three Stripe compilation, of the recordings up to 1990 (no Carlton album yet, sorry). Oddly, it’s on vinyl and CD only on Bandcamp, or via iTunes.

 

And for absolutely no reason at all, here’s Shut Up & Dance live in 1990:

 

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