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!
Maurice White,one of the musical icons who passed away this year,it best known as the founder of Earth Wind & Fire-the most commercially successful of the 70’s funk bands in terms of crossover. On the other hand,the band broke up in 1984. And one of the many reasons brought up was that White had it in his mind that Columbia (the bands record label) were looking for him to do a solo album. This album got released in 1985. Its biggest single was with a (mostly) uptempo version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”. But it still remains something of a footnote in EWF history.
When I first heard the album on vinyl album around 18-20 years ago,am not 100% sure it came off as anything all that exciting. Of course,that could’ve just been a case of seeking something different from it than what it was. And what Maurice White’s self titled (and sole) solo debut does is present a series of electronic,pan African rock/funk/soul fusions with a mild melodic pop new age vibe about them. The EWF message is still intact. Its just going more for an attitude than a sound by a large. The one song that always got my attention strongly was the opener “Switch On Your Radio”.
A totally electronic synth orchestration fades slowly on the intro. Than suddenly the song bursts with a bluesy funk melodic statement. And it has all the instrumental elements of the song itself. The drum machine and Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion play off the guitar,electronic hand clap and slap bass lines with this melodic electro funk wall of sound. This represents the choruses of the songs. On the refrains and the bridge,the mix is somewhat more stripped down to focus on the vocals a bit. An extended chorus with vocal ad lib’s finish out the song as it fades.
“Switch On Your Radio” has a sound that crosses a lot of musical bridges. The overall drum programming of the song has the bigness of sound that was very much of its time. Yet the live percussion accents along with Martin Page slap bass,Marlon McClain’s rock guitar and the ethereal synthesizers of Robbie Buchanan make for a powerful sound that basically amounts to a progressive dance/funk sound. And the melody has that strong song construction White and Page are so noted for. Its an extension of the EWF sound for sure. And it also pointed to a possible future solo direction for White which didn’t continue.
Filed under 1985, dance funk, drum machine, Earth Wind & Fire, elecro funk, Marlon McClain, Martin Page, Maurice White, Paulinho Da Costa, percussion, Robbie Buchanan, rock guitar, slap bass, synthesizer
Morris Day has a long and storied history with the Minneapolis sound. Again,blogging partner Zach Hoskins pulled this all together so well in his overview of The Time. He was originally in the local band Grand Central with Prince and Andre Cymone. After that,he was a member of a band called Enterprise. During the early 80’s,he was considered to be part of Prince’s spin off band The Time-at which time he went from being a drummer to being a lead singer for the group. Needless to say his persona as the flashy,pimped out OG helped give The Time their performance personality.
After The Time originally broke up in 1984 (they’d reunite 7 years later),Day began a solo career starting in 1985 with his debut album The Color Of Success. A couple of years later he released his follow up sophomore solo album entitled The Color Of Success. Had this album for years on vinyl but never listened to it much,until earlier this year. It was also around that time that I learned it didn’t do too well commercially. Still,there were a handful of songs on the album that still stood out as highly funkified moments. One of them was actually a hit entitled “Fishnet”.
A heavy,kicking drum shuffle starts out the song. A mix of synthesized and electric slap bass segue right into the main chorus of the song. That consists of a high pitched orchestral synths along with lower synth horns. On the refrains of the song,those are stripped out for what sounds like a low organ style rumble. This is accompanied by a piano playing a bouncing chromatic walk down up with Day’s vocals. There’s a heavy rock guitar solo that comes in as kind of a bridge on the middle chorus. The synth brass,Day himself and the piano all improvise in and out of that chorus until the song ends on applause.
“Fishnet” is one of my favorite Morris Day solo jams. Part of the reasoning for that is how it spans two eras of funky music. At the end of the day,its a Minneapolis take on the DC go go sound. And then cut down to a 6 minute song rather than the sometimes hour long go go jams. On the other hand,it has a jazzy vibe that kid of goes along with some of the jazz/hip-hop styled new jack swing songs that would become huge in a couple of years.Still,its synth brass and phat (often punishing) funky rhythms keep it going along with the most cutting edge Minneapolis funk of 1987.
Prince really did create a technical and musical marvel with his debut album For You. Still out of Prince’s two albums of the late 1970’s,its his second self titled effort that proved to be his commercial breakthrough. That is in the sense he had a tremendous hit with it. That hit was “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. This was late 70’s sophistifunk at its sauciest-with a sleek groove that’s both sweetly melodic,but has a full on chunky bass/guitar groove about it. It started off this album. And its also the song that many mainstream pop music listeners pre 1980 might cite as the very first Prince they’d remember hearing.
I first became aware of this record through a handful of its songs making the cute of Prince’s first anthology set The Hits/B-Sides. So its probably best to discuss those songs first. “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” is a very mainstream rock tune with some glistening,melodic power chords from Prince on this song written by Andre’ Cymone. The other is a classic Prince one man band version of “I Feel For You”. This is the first version I heard. And due to that reason,much as I love Chaka Khan’s far more famous cover,that’s pretty much its own thing next to this version.
Whats so interesting about this album for me is 3/4 of it is slow ballad oriented. When I first picked up the CD pre-owned,all there was to listen to CD’s were undependable bar code scanners some stores had. So it was a surprised that some songs such as “When We’re Dancing Close And Slow” and “Still Waiting” were rather country western/pop flavored ballads. “With You” has a 1950’s doo wop flavor to its slow ballad flavor. Of the slow songs on the album,my personal favorite is “It’s Gonna Be Lonely”-which has a then contemporary progressive soft rock flavor about it with its processed guitar reverb.
My favorite song on this album of course is “Sexy Dancer”. This is almost an instrumental. Prince’s panting becomes a percussive element to this lean,mean bass/guitar extravaganza that points to Prince’s signature early 80’s funk sound. Not to mention the jazzy Yamaha electric piano solo he takes on the bridge. “Bambi” is the other rocker here. This is a crunching hard rock number too. The focus of the song is on Prince having a crush on a woman who turns out to be a lesbian-spending the chorus trying to convince her “its better with a man”-seemingly for his own physical benefit only.
In the end,I have to agree with Prince on this album. It served its function very well in getting more people interested in his music. And as he implied,it did what it he intended it to do by featuring some strands of late 70’s pop music. On the other hand,Prince’s frank take on the sexual revolution of disco era and the albums general emphasis on funk made it clear the type of musician Prince would be. He would make melodies,rock out but never totally give up on the funk. In as much as it laid the blueprint for his commercial approach of the early 80’s,this album is a very significant one for Prince.
Prince’s history in terms of his unreleased vault material,shrouded in mystery as it is,does have a vital history all its own for the artist. He recorded during most of his free time. And loads of songs for each album project. One period that myself and many admirer’s of Prince’s music love to dip into is his huge 1986 production. In the early 80’s,Prince was seeking to make a name for himself as a new wave/synth pop artist with heavy rock overtones. And his funkiness would be a side dish. By 1985,Prince added The Family’s sax player Eric Leeds into the Revolution. And funk would no longer be a side dish for him.
There were two Prince projects that came and went in 1986. There was a Revolution album Dream Factory, a three album set called Crystal Ball (not to be confused with the self released 1998 outtake collection) and an album credited to the name Camille. This would feature Prince singing in a chipmunk-link voice he slowed down,then sped up. Many tracks from this album found their way onto albums and as B-sides. One,”If I Was Your Girlfriend” became a major hit later. One very exciting song I’ve heard from this album that hasn’t been widely distributed is “Rebirth Of The Flesh”.
An ultra sound like synth pulse starts out the song. And remains the primary percussive element throughout the song. Within a minutes time,Prince adds a brittle fuzzed out guitar and big,funky drums with tons of space in it as part of the mix. As the song progresses,with Prince’s vocals having a rangy and tonally complex conversation with itself,the horns of Eric Leeds and Matt Bliston accentuate the melody JB’s style. On the refrains,the deep fuzzy guitar and Leeds’ sax merge into a heavy sounding sustained melody. At the end of the song a goulish,thundering sound brings it to a halt.
“Rebirth Of The Flesh” was one of those songs that brought every element of Prince’s musical artistry together. Its got a hard driving funky rhythm-with some of the most intense horn lines Leeds and Bliston ever provided. It also has a very industrial rock tone-with some Hendrix like bluesy guitar licks. Its also got some of the melodic and rhythmic dissonances of jazz greats such as Duke Ellington. It lends much credence to George Clinton’s comment that Prince would be “one of the baddest out there if he released some of what he had in the can”. So here we have Prince’s funk at its hardest and most daring.
Filed under 1986, Atlanta Bliss, drums, Eric Leeds, Funk, funk rock, horns, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Prince, rock guitar, Saxophone, synthesizer, unreleased
Prince was the topic of a conversation between myself and Henrique for much of this past summer. One of the big related topics had to do with an episode of Calvin Lincoln’s TV show Soul School TV out of Vallejo,California. The Prince tribute had a subtext involving its guest about Prince being the prime musical of all time. Henrique,Calvin and myself all ended up agreeing that Prince’s was the prime musical figure,but of the 1980’s-not of all time. The album that probably epitomizes this,as well as Prince’s main persona,came in the very first year of the 80’s decade Dirty Mind.
Last week,this album celebrated its 36th anniversary. Hard to believe Prince’s third album is the same as as I am. So no irony is lost on me that I’m a little late to the party over-viewing this album here. Most of the songs on this particular album came to me by way of their inclusion on the compilation The Hits/The B-Sides. Upon finally hearing the album in its entirety on vinyl,it became clear that this represented the beginning of an ongoing process on Prince’s part to gain the attention of the rock audience. His first two albums in the late 70’s were funk/soul with a West Coast soft rock twist. Dirty Mind changed all that.
The main characteristic of Dirty Mind is the stripped down instrumental approach. As well as the raw demo style production. From my understanding and research,the post disco radio freeze out of black American music had a key tenant: using the than often maligned term of “disco” as a musically racist slur to keep uptempo hits from black artists from crossing over. Brittle,jerky guitar/synthesizer based new wave rock was the order of the day in the very early 80’s on pop radio. And for all intents and purposes Dirty Mind is Prince’s new wave rock album.
Most of the songs showcase pulsing synthesizers,stiffly grinding guitars with like minded bass lines and punkish “rage against the machine” attitude. What Prince added to this mix were melodic structures that were still very much in league with the funk/soul genre from which he came. He was still singing exclusively in his falsetto vocal register. The lyrical content also reflects elements of the sexual revolution from the disco era. The difference came from the explicit “punk” attitude with which Prince expressed what was generally only implied during the disco era itself.
Actually,this album is not particularly funky throughout. Even its ballads have more of a 1950’s doo-wop flavor about them. “Head”,with its naked electro Minneapolis funk,essentially set the stage for numbers such as The Time’s debut single “Get It Up” and his own “Controversy” from a year later. “Partyup”,with Morris Day on drums,closes the album with a tight new wave funk hybrid that lyrically sets the stage for his song “1999” a couple of years later. In the end Dirty Mind found Prince re-imagining his sound for what the decade required of it. And trying to reconcile the relationship between funk and rock.
With his next two albums Controversy and his breakthrough 1999, Prince pulled more funk into his mix of Minneapolis new wave. Sometimes even hybridizing for an entire song. This is the sound that Prince would make famous. Both of these albums were sleeker and had a hotter mix than anything on Dirty Mind. And of course Prince’s major breakthrough as a rock star would come in 1984’s Purple Rain. After that,Prince was primarily funk with some rock mixed in. Still Dirty Mind shows how Prince would still come into his own-even when the general music tide seemed to work against his style.
Filed under 1980's, classic albums, Dirty Mind, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, naked funk, New Wave, post disco, punk funk, rock guitar, sexual revolution, synthesizer
Writing about The Beatles for me (especially on a blog that isn’t essentially rock focused) proved to be grounds for a lot of reflection. Also,how much more writing and analysis can really be done about the Fab Four by anyone? In the end,The Beatles remain a band who always seem to engender new impressions of them. Only half of the band that defined a generation are alive today-namely Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Yet no matter what the two of them are doing today,whether doing albums of standards or performing in Maine with Todd Rundgren,its The Beatles that tend to always define them.
There’s one Beatle album I tend to view more as their definitive statement. And its not Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band-now itself an adjective describing any artist/band’s album masterpiece. The album I’m talking about is Revolver. It came out on August 5th,1966 in the UK. It represented for the Beatles a change in their performance ethic. The band members wished to concentrate more on their musicality as opposed to simply rocking hard for a sea of screaming fans in Beatlemania. So they stopped touring after this album. Which dovetails into the major revolution this Beatle album brought about.
Over the years,many rock musicians have tended to view their art in a rather more conservative way. Namely the idea of “rock is being able to pick up a guitar in a garage and just play 3 chords”. Rock ‘n roll is basically a very simplified variation of the 12 bar blues anyway. From the get go,The Beatles always had other things in mind. Songs such as “And I Love Her”,”If I Fell” and “In My Life” showcased the Lennon/McCartney talent for modulation-featuring unexpected chord progressions that were often very jazz and Brazilian in nature. Revolver took all of this to the next level.
McCartney for his part used his fascination with musique concrete by integrating backwards tape loops into many of the songs on this album-which came into play on Lennon’s Tibetan based psychedelic blowout album closer of “Tomorrow Never Knows”. These were fashioned in very melodic ways,not for showiness. Songs such as “Elenore Rigby” showcased producer George Martin’s symphonic strings as opposed to the Beatles rhythm section. John Lennon’s usually simple,almost punk style attitude about music began to change on the jazzy chord progressions of “I’m Only Sleeping”.
George Harrison even incorporated his newfound love of East Indian classical music into the song “Love You Too”. He combines Tabla drums and sitar with a melody that showcases that he is not writing a three chord pop song with Indian instruments. That he has come to understand the basics of the Indian classical forms fairly well. McCartney really shines strong on this album overall. One of my favorites is his melding of English marching band horns with a contemporary American soul shuffle in “Got To Get You Into My Life”,which inspired a hit cover version by Earth Wind & Fire twelve years later.
There’s little denying that all 14 songs on this album are amazing. But the ones I discussed merely reflect the level on which the Beatles were innovating rock. And at a time when the genre was entering its preteen years. This album contains a series of catchy pop songs,yet ones with unexpected chord changes. It also contains melodically strong music based in non Western forms such as Indian and middle eastern modalities. Above all,it does so with the keen understanding that what a rock band “rock” over is potentially the most enduring aspect of the music. And that’s what I feel as Revolver turns 50.
Filed under 1966, classic albums, European Classic Music, George Harrison, Indian Classic Music, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, pop rock, Psychedelia, Ringo Starr, rock 'n' roll, rock and soul, rock guitar, The Beatles
Prince got away with as much on his 1982 album 1999 as he did on his budget blowing debut from 1978. For one,he managed to convince Warner Bros to release a double album at the price of a single one. Not only that but he filled it with 12 songs that were mostly between 5 and 10 minutes long. This was an approach closer to that of an early 70’s James Brown/JB’s record than a pop directed album of the early 80’s. Yet it showcased the way in which Prince was looking to have his music marketed. And also spoke to a lot of his maverick spirit on that level that would come to full flower a decade later.
My first exposure to 1999 came in…well 1997. I decided to pick up Prince’s first four albums of the 80’s (Purple Rain included) on vinyl. 1999 was the coolest visually because you could see the closeup photo of Prince’s eye spinning on the custom labels spinning while playing the album. That summer my Aunt Deb came to visit us. We began talking about our mutual admiration for Prince. We both agreed 1999 was our favorite album by him. When we discussed our favorite song on the album,she said hers was “Little Red Corvette”. I said mine was the song I’m over viewing today: “Lady Cab Driver”.
A Linn drum beat thumping along with the sound of traffic sounds begins the song,as Prince is heard hailing a cab. After this,the main groove of the song comes in. This features a live funky drum,with Prince playing the rhythmic changes on a equally funky rhythm guitar. When the lead vocals come in,each vocal part features a low toned synth brass part. There are several sections to this song. One features Prince and said cab driver involved in a vocally intense sexual encounter. The other showcases thick slap bass,bursts of rock guitar and squiggly synths before fading out on traffic sounds just as it began.
“Lady Cab Driver” stands very much in contrast to the synth based Minneapolis sound permeating the rest of the 1999 album. Its strong live drum/bass/guitar oriented funk with the MPLS synth brass used as accents only. Conceptually,it seems like a fetish setup at first. Until during the mock sexual encounter,Prince reveals his envy of his brother,his disdain for rich people who don’t know how to give,and so on. I also realize now that the main chorus of the song is also a possible origin of Ready For The World’s Prince ripoff song “Oh,Sheila”. Even today,its still one of this albums most powerful slices of funk.
Filed under 1980's, 1999, drums, Linn Drum, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Prince, rhythm guitar, rock guitar, slap bass, synth brass, synthesizers
In taking to a lot of people with a casual knowledge of Prince,Purple Rain is often their favorite album. And song. Its the period most associated with him. And it isn’t hard to see why. The man had a blockbuster album and motion picture out in a year dominated by Michael Jackson,Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen. It was Prince’s most thoroughly rock album but to that point. At the same time,it was a new wave/synth pop record with a lot of black American musical content-such as jazz and gospel melodic/rhythmic references. As for myself,I do have personal favorite songs on the album.
One of these songs was a song Prince conceived in a very grand way. It would seem that he conceived this song as a 14 minute opus-likely with multiple complex parts. But it does seem interference from Warner’s had him edit the song down intensely. One possible reason for its length was the co-writing credit for his father,John L. Nelson on an element he referred to as “Father’s Song”. This still ended up in the song. Conceptually the song dealt with Prince’s love triangle between himself,Apollonia and Morris Day in the film. The name of this song was called “Computer Blue”.
A classic Minnapolis Linn LM-1 drum clap opens the song-over which Wendy and Lisa have a bit of mildly S&M inspired dialog about hot water in the bath tub. Over this,the main keyboard melody plays over which Prince plays some shrieking guitar flourishes. His piercing scream breaks into the main song. This consists of a quavering,high pitched digital synthesizer,that Linn drum rhythm that opens the song and call and response rock guitar from Prince. On an instrumental bridge Prince plays a fast paced,hard rocking guitar solo before segueing into the “Father’s Song” sequence.
“Fathers Song” is more or less the instrumental bridge of the song. It finds Prince playing his father’s melody on a jazz-rock style guitar solo-accompanied by equally jazzy acoustic piano touches. Prince’s guitar solo begins to rock harder again. And the song returns to its main theme-ending with the same shriek with which it began. This might be the most thoroughly musical song on the Purple Rain soundtrack. The “Computer Blue” part an economical,brittle new wave synth rock. Than Prince brings in his father’s jazzier tones over his Linn for that bridge. This takes “Computer Blue” to its own unique musical level.
Filed under 1984, jazz rock, John L. Nelson, Linn Drum, Lisa Coleman, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, New Wave, piano, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, Purple Rain, rock guitar, Soundtracks, synthesizers, Wendy Melvoin
Dexter Wansel first became known to me as one of the Philly PIR team who worked on the 1976 debut album by the Jacksons. Being more broadly aware of the Philly soul sound now,Wansel seems to have a very different approach to music than Gamble & Huff and Thom Bell did. With disco era classics such as the Jones Girls “Nights Over Egypt” and “Keep On Dancing”,one of my favorite Jacksons’ songs off that Epic label debut,Dexter Wansel’s arrangements were based in his keyboard and guitar playing. Therefore his productions seem to have some of the funkiest bottoms of 70’s Phily funk and soul.
One thing Wansel also did was maintain a solo presence on PIR concurrent to his productions. One of these albums,which I never managed to pick up on vinyl despite seeing it all the time,was 1978’s Voyager. The album cover always stood out to me as a Trekker/sci fi admirer because of the prominent Star Trek model kit bash featured as some sort of robot riding through the desert. Through MP3 and YouTube,I’ve been fortunate enough to hear this album all the way through.And its an album that starts out with a funky bang with the jam “All Night Long”.
An otherworldly space funk Moog bass starts the song off. Then the drums come in playing a disco era friendly dance/funk beat. This is accompanied by a mid toned rhythm guitar sustain,accenting horns and a SERIOUS slap bass thump. With the addition of an accompanying Fender Rhodes piano and Wansel’s falsetto/tenor vocal leaps this represents the choruses and refrains of the song. On the last part of the song,a major horn chart segues into a percussive,jumping beat over which a sassy,rocking blues guitar riffs with the phat slap bass and keyboard lines before scratching hard as the song closes out.
Without any hesitation, this is one of the hardest straight up funk jams to come out of the PIR camp. The beat has a swaggering,percussive shuffle. The keyboard/synthesizer parts are layered in a manner that lays somewhere between early 70’s “united funk” and mid/late 70’s space funk. And Wansel’s vocals (I’m pretty sure they’re his) have some of the slyly sexy attitude of his particular musical camp. Honestly I tend to think of Philly soul as the breezy,string laden proto disco sound of the 70’s. This helps showcase Dexter Wansel as a major player in the harder groove based element of the Philly sound.
Filed under 1970's, dance funk, Dexter Wansel, drums, Fender Rhodes, horns, Moog bass, Philadelphia, Philly funk, Philly Soul, rhythm guitar, rock guitar, slap bass, synthesizers