The last few years have seen a much-deserved critical rehabilitation for Yoko Ono: once reviled as the Woman Who Broke Up the Beatles (whatever that’s supposed to mean), she’s now widely recognized as a key figure in conceptual art; even her avant-garde music has entered the canon as an inspiration for punk and alternative rock. But one facet of Ono’s artistry that I think remains underrated are the more commercially-minded albums she released in the 1970s, while married to (and in collaboration with!) ex-Beatle John Lennon. These albums were not only, in many cases, more interesting than the records Lennon himself was releasing around the same time (yeah, I said it); they were also arguably the first serious attempts to marry rock music and radical feminism–decades before the riot grrrl movement, and using her famous husband’s musicians, no less.
On “Yang Yang,” from her 1973 masterpiece Approximately Infinite Universe, Ono takes a grinding blues-rock arrangement by the Greenwich Village street band Elephant’s Memory (with a certain “Joel Nohnn” sitting in on guitar) and pairs it with lyrics that make “I am Woman” sound like “Stand by Your Man”: “No kick is good enough for lifetime substitution / No brick will give you a lifetime consolation / And whether you dig it or not / We outnumber you in population / And leave your private institution / Get down to real communication / Leave your scene of destruction / And join us in revolution.” This is the stuff of radical women’s liberationist pamphlets, not mainstream rock albums released by the wives of former Beatles. And while, predictably, Yoko never got her proper due for inventing feminist rock, at least we can appreciate it now.
If this post has piqued your interest, check out the full-scale guide to Ono’s discography I wrote last year; last month, my sister and I also recorded a podcast about her larger influence as an artist. And of course, we’re writing about important contributions by women in music all March on our blog Dystopian Dance Party. And, if you’d like to start seriously getting into Yoko’s music, you’re in luck: Secretly Canadian Records is currently reissuing her albums on vinyl and streaming services, from 1968’s infamous Lennon collaboration Two Virgins to 1985’s Bill Laswell-produced (!) Starpeace. It’s quite the journey, but well worth checking out!
August Darnell got my attention instantly when I first heard Dr. Buzzard & The Original Savannah Band’s “I’ll Play The Fool For You” in the late 1990’s on CD compilation Pure Disco. The first thought I had was that it reminded me of what Duke Ellington’s orchestra would’ve sound like had Duke been alive for the disco era. The song had a heavy swing in with the dance beat to it. And it had that street level mix of wit and elegance so common in the swing era. It instantly got me seeking anything related to Dr. Buzzard or Darnell’s followup ground Kid Creole & The Coconuts.
Darnell himself is something of a man of mystery. He’s a native New Yorker all the way. The Bronx native even went as far as developing the fictitious back round of his Kid Creole character during the 70’s and 80’s,as he become more involved with different musical and theater related projects. Conceptualizing himself as a Caribbean Cab Calloway,his music had the funky eclecticism and conceptually obscurity of both Prince and P-Funk. Only with more if an island twist. One song on the groups 1985 album In Praise Of Older Women And Other Crimes really encompassed this beautifully. It was called “Endicott”.
A round percussion line kicks the song off. The groove itself is pretty much defined by a straight vamp throughout most of it. Its all the funky sweeteners that make it so exciting. The vamp itself is built on a stomping drum,a melodic vibraphone,chicken scratch rhythm guitar and a thick jazzy slap bass line playing very close to that guitar. These are accnted by Darnell’s soulful screams. Darnell’s lead vocals are accented by big band horn charts throughout the song. On brief bridges throughout the song,the female “coconuts” sing lead over the percussive drums. The original vamp of the song then fades it out.
Instrumentally speaking,this song has a Caribbean big band Prince vibe about it all the way. Especially on the rhythm guitar parts. Though the bass line is far thicker than most of Prince’s. Lyrically,this song is so hilarious to me. Endicott is a conceptual character Darnell sings about the whole song. He is willingly self sacrificing to his wife,and is considered an upstanding man. The Coconuts ask Darnell “why can’t you be like Endicott?” to which he sings “because I’m free,free of any made to order liabilities”. Its a wonderfully funky romp through the world of male/female domestic schisms.
Filed under 1985, August Darnell, big band swing, Caribbean Funk, drums, Funk Bass, horns, jazz funk, Kid Creole & The Coconuts, New York, rhythm guitar, vibraphone
Cameo started off under the name of the New York City Players-changing their name when they signed Cassablanca’s generally funk based Chocolate City imprint. The reason for that is thought to be avoidance of a lawsuit by the Ohio Players. Either way,they evolved from Larry Blackmon’s first band East Coast. That group had included the late vocalist Gwen Guthrie. By the time of their 1977 debut album Cardiac Arrest,the now septet had spent nearly two years polishing their grooves based on everything from the dance floor friendly grooves of Brass Construction to the sounds of P-Funk.
With each successive Cameo album,the band developed a sound that grew more and more distinctive. Most interestingly how they kept the growling flavor of hard Southern funk while adapting to the stripped down instrumentation of 1980’s naked funk. There are far too many wonderful and influential Cameo songs to discuss here on Andresmusictalk. With “I Just Want To Be”,”Shake Your Paints” and “Flirt” being just a few of a couple dozen. For the sake of Larry Blackmon’s 60’s birthday,I’m going to cover a song from their debut that epitomized their overall musical focus called “Good Times”
Dancable,cymbal heavy drums and hand-clapping start out the song-accompanied by a round grooving Clavinet. That’s when the low rhythm guitar comes in-along with a gurgling synth bass and a jazzy electric bass line jam their way into the mix. On the refrains,smoothly melodic electric piano gooses all the other instrumentation right along. On the choruses that start the song and repeat throughout,the horn section play some sharp and intensely rhythmic charts. Towards the end of the song,the drum begins fan-faring around a squirrely space funk synth before closing out on the chorus.
Musically speaking,this song showcases the early Cameo sound extremely well. In terms of sound,it is built around the thick wah wah sounds that defined their first hit “Rigor Mortis” from the same album-while also maintaining it’s jazzy harmonics as well. It also has the faster tempo and loose jamming style that would show up on “It’s Serious” from their sophomore album We All Know Who We Are from later that same year. Upon first hearing Cameo with this fuller sound some years ago,it came as a bit of a shock. It all showcased the versatility of funk that is the Cameo sound.
Filed under 1970's, Cameo, clavinet, dance funk, drums, electric piano, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, jazz funk, Larry Blackmon, New York, rhythm guitar, synth bass, synthesizer, wah wah
David Byrne,Tina Weymouth,Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison had been honing their performance persona and songwriting skills at NYC’s CBGB’s for a few years before. They started as an opening act for The Ramones in the very late spring of 1975. Looking back at their early performances,the bands stripped down and precise grooves must have been very strange amidst the noisy atmospherics of mid/late 70’s CBGB’s. Their early recorded demos didn’t make of an impact until later the next year-when Seymour Stein of Sire Records signed them up and they began recording their debut album.
This first album entitled Talking Heads 77 has a very different vibe than most albums that came out of NYC’s original punk scene. The main inspiration for it’s sound wasn’t as much raggedy 60’s garage rock as it was the cleaner instrumental sounds of early 70’s soul and funk music. My personal experience with the bands music started more with their early/mid 80’s album and worked backward to this one. Not being the loud guitar thrasher type album I half expected,it’s opening song gives a good idea of the grooves that lie within. The name of this song is “Uh-Oh,Love Comes To Town”.
Byrne and Weymouth begin the song with a bass/guitar that scales up and down with each other until Chris Frantz hi hats turns over to a slow,shuffling funky drum with bouncy percussion fills. Weymouth turns out a late 60’s James Jamerson style bass line throughout in the spirit of “I Was Made To Lover Her” while Harrison deals with a sustained chicken scratch rhythm guitar line. Harrison’s organ like keyboards play a horn-like roll on the choruses which take the melody up a key. The bridge adds a shuffling steel drums solo before another refrain/choral pattern brings the song to a slowed stop.
One of the key elements of much late 60’s/early 70’s pop/rock was an imitation of the early/mid 60’s Motown sound. Now Motown has an effect on this song too. But Talking Heads were somewhat unique among funk inspired rock groups in that they were inspired by the present and the future of the music-not the recent past. So this song has the funkier melodic vibe of early 70’s Jackson 5ive style Motown-with the use of more James Brown inspired bass/guitar interaction and a light Caribbean flavor. In that way,it’s an excellent template for what Talking Heads groove would evolve into.
Filed under 1970's, CBGB's, chicken scratch guitar, Chris Frantz, David Byrne, drums, Funk Bass, funk rock, James Jamerson, Jerry Harrison, keyboards, Motown Sound, New Wave, New York, pop funk, steel drums, Talking Heads, Tina Weymouth
Bob James is actually an artist whom I discovered within the last decade and a half. A Missouri native whose music was informed by (and on) the city of New York,his sound drew a great deal of inspiration of theatrical Broadway musicals and film scores. This goes into James’ talents as a pianist,composer and arranger. His jazz bass and embrace of the 70’s funk sound led him to being one of the progenitors of the production style referred to as smooth jazz. His solo career has carried on for over four decades. And he was also a founding member of the smooth jazz group Fourplay.
It was actually due to another conversation with my parents that got me into first hearing Bob James music. The question posed to them was that,as a choreographer,had my mother ever done a piece based on a popular song. While the exact information was somewhat vague,she did remember that sometime in 1976 she had heard the Bob James song “Westchester Lady”. And something about it’s progression made it sound like it would be a good song for all the members of her troupe to choreograph as a group piece. So today,I’m going to endeavor to overview this song on a musical level.
Harvey Mason’s hi hat drum swing hugs Will Lee’s upscaling 7 note bass line on the intro,as Hugh McCracken’s mutron filtered electric guitar rhythmically plucks away. This is the entire rhythmic base of the entire song. The main melody of the song finds James’ electric piano playing a very riff filled with blue notes. That’s when the strings come in-at first playing along with the bass line. On the choruses,a huge horn ensemble comes in playing a very cinematic melody-accompanied by ringing bell like percussion along with the sweeping strings that grow in intensity.
The second refrain of the song features a bluesy sax solo from Grover Washington Jr. as the main instrumental part. The second chorus of string actually extends for a much longer time-adding more fluttering violins on the second turn of it. On the final refrain of the song,James’ electric piano and Eric Gale’s guitar play some bluesy call and response solos duets with the darting horn charts. As this bridge continues,their playing grows more intense and dramatic. Then the song simply goes back into the quiet groove of the first refrain as it proceeds to fade out entirely.
Considering the emergence of Isaac Hayes and Barry White during the first half of the 1970’s,it was no surprise that Bob James and the productions he did at CTI and on his forthcoming solo career would become part of the evolving jazz/funk fusion genre. The nature of this groove,with funkiness being the supporting element and the orchestration accenting it,indeed makes it ideal for a contemporary modern dance piece of it’s day for an ensemble of dancers. Each musician brings something important to this song’s funky dramatics. And that’s what brings this instrumentally danceable funk to life.
Filed under 1970's, Bob James, choreography, cinematic soul, drums, electric piano, Eric Gale, Funk Bass, Grover Washington Jr., Harvey Mason, horns, Hugh McCracken, jazz funk, New York, rhythm guitar, strings, Uncategorized, Will Lee
Atlantic Starr were known to me (as I’m sure they are with a lot of radio listeners) with their two late 80’s adult contemporary ballad hits “Secret Lovers” and “Always”. Though these weren’t the most instrumentally exciting songs ever made,they still showcased how talented the band actually were. The big surprise to me was that Atlantic Starr began as a heavy funk septet out of Greenburgh,New York. Central to the band was three Lewis brothers in guitarist Dave,percussionist and trombonist Johnathan and keyboardist Wayne-all of whom shared vocal duties. Today is Wayne’s birthday. And it felt right to tell the story of the bands early days.
While performing in Westwood,California the band were known by the name Newban. That is until they were signed to A&M sand Herb Alpert requested they changed their name. The clarifier “Atlantic” came from the bands East coast roots. And they were off and running to record their self titled debut in 1978. My friend Henrique Hopkins referred to one song from their early days to me through another source. It was a commercial for the LA soul radio station 1580 KDAY,which featured a cameo of a 20 year old Michael Jackson dancing to a song from Atlantic Starr’s debut. Henrique mused if MJ was dancing off it,it had to have been a special groove. And the name of this groove was “Stand Up”.
Drummer Porter Carroll kicks off the song,whose opener is defined by Wayne Lewis’s sharp and ultra melodic space funk synthesizer darting. Over this,the three Lewis brothers vocally harmonizes in unison with equally melodic horn charts. The refrain that follows deals with a thick interaction of chugging rhythm guitar,solid bass thumping,ringing percussion with the horns playing the accents. The pattern between the choral intro and this refrain repeats a couple of times throughout the song. There’s a bridge towards the end of the song that reduces the song down to it’s core elements of drums,percussion,bass and backup vocals before the horns chime back in until the song fades out.
I really want to thank Henrique for giving me a chance to really appreciate this song. As both of us agreed,Wayne Lewis’s opening synthesizer riffs are some of the most ear catching and powerful of the disco era funk sound. This song packs a strong rhythm punch about it,and has a really thick bottom layer bought bubbling up to the top as well. Clifford Archer delivers a great foundational bass line as well. It thumps and slaps pretty heavy in parts,but for the most part it provides a solid bed for the percussion and beat that are at the heart of the songs groove. And it was an excellent way for Atlantic Starr to kick off to a good start as a funk band.
Filed under 1970's, Atlantic Starr, California, disco funk, drums, Funk Bass, horns, KDAY radio, New York, percussion, rhythm guitar, synthesizer, Uncategorized, Wayne Lewis
Just over ten days ago Larry Payton,the drummer for the Brooklyn based band Brass Construction passed away at the age of 62. The man was considered in the funk community as one of the major drummers of the day. Especially as danceable rhythms became a major musical priority in the disco era. Being that my mother was working in the modern dance field in mid 70’s NYC and was herself a Brooklyn native,it amazes me to think of all the powerful funk bands from Brass Construction to the Fatback Band having their days in the sun during that era. The story of this band and their musical breakthrough also runs very deep as well.
One of the bands founders Guyanese born Randy Muller. Originally founded as Dynamic Soul in Muller’s adopted home of Bedford-Stuyvesant (also my mom’s origin point),Brass Construction came out of an area blanketed by music as the funk era developed. A huge fan of the Afro-Latin percussion strains of Mongo Santamaria,the intellectually minded Muller turned down an offer for the band to sign to Motown’s Rare Earth imprint and signed the band to United Artists. Their self titled debut dropped in 1975. And it began with a song that would not only launch the band success wise,but also change the face of the funk for the rest of the decade. It was entitled “Movin'”.
The song begins with one of the heaviest horn blasts in funk before going into a quiet Fender Rhodes solo that launches into the main song. It is a hard hitting,percussive drum groove driven by hand-claps right on every beat. The rhythm guitar and a pumping, chordally jazz phrased bass line holds the groove steady as the horns play the main melody. A series of scaling chimes create a dream like atmosphere on top. On the refrains of the songs brittle wah wah guitar,sci fi synthesizers and the horns themselves each take on upfront soloing time. As the song goes on,these many combinations of rhythm and melody work with each other in funky unison until song fades out.
In terms of bringing the Afro Funk sound with it’s tight melodic horn charts and percussive drumming to the American public,”Movin'” really can’t be beat. With the emphasis on the basic 4/4 dance beat at the core,it was the nucleus of the New York disco sound that emphasized heavy funkiness. Payton’s drumming on this song echoed on through what would be heard on jams like “Running Away” from the Roy Ayers Ubiquity a couple of years after this. And this song was also kept funk’s Afrocentric identification intact in order to get people to really dance to their tune. This has made it one of the most enduring and important uptempo funk numbers of the mid 1970’s.
Filed under 1970's, Afro Funk, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Afrocentrism, Brass Construction, Brooklyn, disco funk, drums, Fender Rhodes, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, Larry Payton, New York, percussion, Randy Muller, rhythm guitar, synthesizer, Uncategorized
LTD are yet another wonderful example of a funk band with true state to state ethic,in terms of it’s membership. They started in Greensboro,North Carolina in 1968. As they migrated to Harlem. It was in Providence,Rhode Island that Jefferey Osborne joined up as lead singer and drummer. Two years after being in NYC,the band went to LA and bought in Jeffrey’s brother Billy and in 1974 signed up to A&M Records. After two commercially unsuccessful albums,they shortened their name from Love,Togetherness & Devotion down to LTD. Their third album in 1976 Love To The World got them their first big hit in “Love Ballad”,redone as an uptempo song four years later by George Benson to similar success.
Today is Jeffrey Osborne is turning 68. During 1977,Osborne focused his musical energies on being the lead singer of LTD with his rich gospel/soul baritone. During this time, Osborne began to share drumming duties with Melvin Webb. This was especially important on the bands fourth album Something To Love. The band maintained their mixture of hard funk and richly arranged soul ballads across this album. To this day,I don’t actually have a copy of this album but have heard most of it’s cuts. The one song from it that made the most impact on my ear holes actually wound up being the bands’ most successful songs. It’s called “(Every Time I Turn Around) Right Back In Love Again”.
The groove starts right in with the basic groove that defines it. It’s a percussive rhythm with a bouncing drum swing. This is carried along by a chugging wah wah guitar-along with a rhythm guitar playing a JB’s/P-Funk style horn line. The actual horns themselves carry the main melody after a rhythmic break. And the horns themselves continually to play that melodic role throughout the song. On each turn,these horns are either accessorizing Osborne’s lead vocals,or the rhythm licks of the refrains themselves. At the end of each chorus,the backing vocals of Lorraine Johnson sings the title lyric. The instrumental refrain of the song grooves on until the song fades out.
Somehow I always felt this is one of LTD’s strongest funk number. Considering that a lot of people see this band as more ballad oriented,this song was an enormous success as a #1 R&B hit and reaching the pop top 5. My friend Henrique’s commentary on this song is the most meaningful to me personally. He illustrated a funk jam played on just about every turntable in the homes of the black community in it’s time. Most importantly,the song had been a huge dancefloor success with gay DJ’s at the Paradise Garage,a disco in lower Manhattan famous for popularizing early EDM. But it also featured many classic funk acts and songs. So all around this is a funky triumph for LTD and Jeffrey Osborne.
Filed under 1970's, DJ's, drums, Funk, horns, Jeffrey Osborne, LTD, New York, P-Funk, Paradise Garage, rhythm guitar, Uncategorized, wah wah