Donald Fagen is turning 70 today. It has only been a short while since his partner in Steely Dan, one Mister Walter Becker, passed away. And it just occurred to me what a revival Fagen/Steely Dan’s music began to have during 1988. After five or six years of semi retirement, and only occasionally writing/producing for other acts, Fagen re-emerged with the song “Century’s End”-made for the Michael J. Fox movie Bright Lights, Big City. Last summer, I developed a love for the songs B-side entitled “Shanghai Confidential”.
This song is actually one of the very few instrumentals that Fagen ever recorded. And after the cassingle of “Century’s End” being in the family household so long? Am honestly surprised I’m hearing this song just now. Did want to credit music writer S. Victor Aaron’s article about the song for more musical information about the song. And even that was difficult for me to come by. Being that its largely the musicality of Donald Fagen that endears his music to me, this particular song really speaks to that end of his creative personality. So just what is the musical anatomy of “Shanghai Confidential”?
A clapping drum machine starts out the song-playing a sleek urban funk beat with Manolo Badrena’s percussion ringing along with a bell-like rhythm. The bass/guitar interaction of Steve Khan and Marcus miller take over with Fagen’s flute like synth part playing a very Asian style melody. The main melody is a cooperative affair-with a classic Fagen jazzy walk down with the lead synth, Fender Rhodes and the bass/guitar riffs playing off the other. Khan and Miller even get a substantial soloing space for a minute long bridge before the song fades out-again with the flute like synth leading the way.
“Shanghai Confidential” has a musically conceptual theme that Steely Dan had been playing with since Aja. One that flows back to Duke Ellington’s idea from his Afro Eurasian Eclipse that the entire world was taking on an Asiatic atmosphere. The drum machine, which I’d never heard used in anything Steely Dan related before this, as well as the bass and guitar are based slick jazzy funk sound. Yet the melody and mode of the song seem based heavily in the pentatonic scale. This makes for a song that provides a possible (and under explored) new direction for Donald Fagen’s music.
Queen have proven to be among the most enduring of the mid to late 70’s rock bands. Their densely layered rock opera based style came into its fullest flower on “Bohemian Rhapsody” from 1975’s A Night At The Opera. Known for their blend of musical professionalism and theatrical stage shows, it was the bands lead singer/songwriter Freddie Mercury who helped to conceptualize Queen’s musical adventure. And it took them through many different musical forms-from opera,rockabilly,hard rock and disco, to maintain their sense of drama. Even after Mercury’s early passing from AIDS in 1991.
In 1980/81, Queen had a huge dance hit with the heavily Chic inspired Another One Bites The Dust. During the early 80’s, Michael Jackson was a close friend of the bands. This likely spurred Mercury onto the possibility of Queen re-fashioning their music into a funkier dance/rock based form. This led to the 1982 release of the album Hot Space. Its regarded by many hardcore rock writers and fans as their worst album. Especially coming right in the middle off the anti disco radio freeze out. For me however, the albums first track instantly got my attention. Its appropriately called “Staying Power”.
A percussive drum machine, Roger Taylor’s live drums and a round, fat sounding synth bass and John Deacon’s rhythm guitar begin the song with Mercury’s grunts and vocal ad libs. On the second part of the intro, horn charts arranged by Arif Mardin play call and response to Mercury’s vocals, Brian May’s guitar and the synth bass. This also represents the B section to the chorus, where Mercury’s sings along with Deacon’s guitar and a whooshing synth riser. After an extended big band horn chart on the bridge,an extended chorus continues until Mercury ends the final horn fanfare with a whispered “gotcha”.
“Staying Power” is a great defining way to begin an 80’s Queen album. Its heavy duty post disco funk-full of big brassy horn charts. Both vocally and musically, its also pretty much Freddie Mercury’s show. He plays many of the instruments on this song-from the drum machine,synth bass to the big windy synth wash. So the rhythmic and melodic base of the song is his creation. Even if many in Queen’s classic rock style dislike them doing horn based electro funk without any lead guitars, Queen and Mercury’s musical power comes through both instrumentally and melodically on this hefty funk number.
Swing Out Sister began life as a UK trio in 1985. This consisted of keyboardist Andy Connell, drummer Martin Jackson and lead singer Corinne Drewery. While both Connell and Jackson had been in the bands A Certain Ratio and Magazine prior to this point, Drewery came from the world of glamour-being a fashion designer and model. This likely helped with their suave image. It was a member of another group called 52 Street, Diane Charlemagne. Connell’s association with her label Factory helped get the band signed. Charlemagne sang on Swing Out Sister’s original demos as well.
The bands debut album Its Better To Travel came out in the spring of 1987. Its jazzy,horn fueled and very catchy debut sing “Breakout” had become a major UK hit in the autumn and early winter of 1986. It happened exactly a year later in the US of course. It was actually only several years ago that I picked up the record on CD. Did so because,while vinyl copies were available to me, the CD contained four bonus tracks. Heard “Breakout” while growing up. And enjoyment of that groove helped me to appreciate another song on the album-their non charting debut single from 1985 called “Blue Mood”.
A theatrical,orchestral crescendo beings the song. Then the popping synth bass line pops in-along with the digital percussion that is soon joined by the electro funk styled drum machine. Bursts of rhythm guitar and MIDI horns leap in and out of the mix on the refrains. For the chorus, the chord changes key to a jazzy,keyboard based melody-coming after a leaner B section of the refrain. There is a bridge of sorts that showcases a frenetic rhythm guitar playing on where the vocal line. An extended chorus closes out the song until it all fades out.
“Blue Mood” combines a number of musical threads of the mid/late 80’s. The base of it comes out of the post disco, techno based club music. Rhythmically however, the song is structured more like an Afro-Latin jazz funk number. Tons big,bouncy percussion and freestyle drums. Accordingly, the melody is strongly based in jazz as well. It goes right in with the jazzier end of the post disco UK club scene-not dissimilar to the work of Basia/Matt Bianco in that regard. Its the emphasis on groove,from both the groove and the singer, that make this song do distinctive for Swing Out Sister.
Prince’s expanded edition of his breakthrough album Purple Rain is said to have been the last full musical project he ever worked on. My former blogging partner Zach Hoskins went into beautiful detail on the early reported contents of the album. There is one aspect to this 1984 album I brought out before though. The original albums contents,even according to some members of the Revolution,was a new wave dance/rock album with very little funk or soul influence. With the inclusion of vault material recorded during these sessions, the expanded addition of Purple Rain has changed that.
In August 1984, Prince recorded an 11+ piece just two days before “The Screams Of Passion”,which would eventually be given to The Family. Its been said Prince gifted the song to Andre’ Cymone after his mother asked him if Andre’ could record it-Andre’ apparently being “too proud” to do so. Andre’ then recorded his vocals for the song and released it on his AC album in 1985. It became a major success for Andre’. For years, Prince enthusiasts I’ve talked to have been hoping to hear Prince’s original version of the song. And now they can. The name of this song,of course is “The Dance Electric”.
A thick set of combined Linn Drum rhythms-filled with Minneapolis style flanger,shuffle and echoed claps begins the song cold. No decisive intro. And it stays there for the entirety of the song. Each clap is accompanied by a round synth bass tone. On the first chorus, high pitched and brittle synth strings are accompanied by a wiry wah wah guitar and laser beam like space synths moving between each segment. Every few choruses, the song strips back down to the the drum and synth bass intro. On the bridge,the laser synths and rhythm guitar take precedence before the extended chorus fades it all out.
There’s a distinct possibility that “The Dance Electric” is the most powerful piece of funk to emerge out of the sessions for the Purple Rain. I have no doubt Prince had every intention of releasing his version,even as a B-side,if his childhood friend hadn’t asked for it. The song is reminiscent of Alexander O’Neal’s 1987 number “Fake”. The overall rhythm of the groove is a punishing kind of funk. Its an end of the Minneapolis sound that finds the one right off. And lets that take the song exactly where it wants it to go. Its a great funky delight to hear Prince’s version of this officially available now.
George Michael celebrated his first posthumous birthday yesterday. His death came very sadly and suddenly on Christmas day last year. Since that time,I have learned (along with my boyfriend) just to how important George Michael and Wham were to the post disco UK dance/funk/soul scene of the 1980’s. Wham were one of the “big four” bands on the UK’s major music program Top Of The Pops. As for Michael’s solo career, it operated from 1987 through 1991 before his record company conflict began. Yet that five years had Michael as part of a huge growth period for cutting edge,funky dance music.
His final single before these record company conflicts was originally recorded for his sophomore solo album Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1. It eventually ended up being released for the AIDS charity CD entitled Red Hot+Blue in 1992. All the proceeds from that and Michael’s accompanying single went to HIV/AIDS related causes. It was also Michael’s first extensive use of sampling-from sound clips from The Graduate and The Tony Hancock Show to a sample from Jocelyn Brown’s “Somebody Else’s Guy”. The name of the George Michael song that did all these things was “Too Funky”.
A fast electronic piano drum rundown introduces the song. Its a thick,slow drum machine rhythm with some shuffling, Brazilian style conga/percussion accents. The melodic body of the song is a round,five note synth brass part-along with pulsing electronic strings and like minded bass line. The piano/bass/drum interaction make up the refrains. With each choral variation, the synth brass returns and varies in tone. After a bridge that condenses the song down to the drums and bass line,the chorus fades the song out to a close with the piano part and the final sound sample of the song.
“Too Funky” is a song that basically pulls together all of the funkiest elements of 80’s dance music innovations. It has the the percussive shuffle of DC go go, the dramatic synthesized horns of the Minneapolis sound and the repetitive bass and piano of house music. What makes it “too funky” is not merely the sexually free (yet somehow post AIDS) lyrical content. But also the somewhat slower tempo and that percussive jump on the rhythms. George Michael wouldn’t put any new music out for four years after this. But it sure capped off the beginning of his solo career with a strong groove.
It would seem that 1973 bought a lot of changes into the Family Stone. Sly Stone had pretty much recorded There’s a Riot Going On by himself in a state of paranoid isolation. Band members were dubbed in as needed,with some such as Larry Graham and Greg Errico barely utilized-if even at all. This combined with Sly missing gigs during this era,to the point of it being blamed for starting a riot in Chicago in 1970 meant that some serious changes were needed within the band,if it was going to endure. In 1972 Larry Graham left the Family Stone to form Graham Centeral Station,with drummer Errico leaving during the same period.
During this time Sly himself began revamping the band. He bought in Rusty Allen to play bass during the time Graham was leaving and Andy Newmark as a drummer to succeed Errico. A vocal trio called Little Sister,including future Mrs. Leon Russel in Mary McCreary also came into the mix. Sly recorded with somewhat more involvement from the band for the album that would become 1973’s Fresh. Being a musical perfectionist, Sly insisting on remixing these songs even after the album came out. While this resulted in the original US CD release of it containing some of these alternate takes,the album began with a very defining groove for 70’s era Sly entitled “In Time”.
Sly begins the song with Newmark playing a very idiosyncratic march that intertwines with his own Maestro Rhythm King,an organ based drum machine,to play an Afro Latin percussive rhythm. Freddie plays a very probing melodic guitar with Sly’s organ providing a melodic pillow in the back round. Sly’s two note bass line seems to be present on this part. On the choruses,the drumming gets seriously on the one along with the horns and Allen’s more flamboyant bass parts. And the horns also play their usual call and response role on each rhythm. On the two instrumental refrains,Jerry Martini’s sax solos accompany Sly’s organ before the song closes on it’s own repeated choruses.
What this song does is serve the best possible purposes an opening tune can on an album. It sets the state for the sound for what is to come in that regard. Fresh is an album that blends a stripped down production with a slick sound and a full instrumental approach. And this song can best be described that way. The funk on this song,especially with it’s heavy rhythmic breaks and Sly’s drawling vocals,is more fully formed than it was on the previous album. The sound of the Maestro Rhythm King on early 70’s Sly records would also find it’s way onto Shuggie Otis’s work from the same period. So again,Sly was on the cutting edge of blending innovative instrumentation with strong rhythmic funkiness.
Filed under 1970's, Andy Newmark, drum machine, drums, Freddie Stone, Funk, Funk Bass, guitar, horns, Jerry Martini, Maestro Rhythm King, Mary McCreary, organ, Rusty Allen, Sly & The Family Stone, Sly Stone, Uncategorized