Until around the mid-90s I knew jack shit about Sun Ra. I was an ex-raver, an indie-dance-rocker, thrown from the ecstasy express as The Second Summer Of Love somehow – god knows – separated into factions of handbag and progressive house. Forced by doctors orders to also dry out, I focussed on music in an attempt to find some kind of transcendence without the shortcut of drugs. I was aided my esoteric search, in no small measure, by monthly hits of The Wire. To be honest I can’t quite remember where or why I first picked the magazine up – I eventually became an annual subscriber, this lasting until my move to Japan in 2006 – but I’m guessing it was in Rough Trade – the one beneath Slam City Skates in London`s Covent Garden. Dave and Nigel in there never failed to recommend way-out stuff – from rude, raw, digital dancehall 7s to BYG Actuel box sets. I no doubt bought The Wire upon their suggestion, or, otherwise spied it whilst paying at the counter, and had recognized someone on the cover. Anyway, The Wire fucking loved Sun Ra. He seemed to be referenced in every review, where he was written about – rightly – in hallowed terms.
This isn’t everything, just everything that was shelved where it was supposed to be. I don’t own anything rare. I`m pretty sure I have Nuclear War on a 7 somewhere.
The world of Sun Ra at this point was hermetic. His music an occult alchemy really only shared by a small number of initiates. I mean no one, or virtually no one, had the records. They were beyond rare, often privately-pressed, with custom-made covers. I had to take The Wire`s word for it that they even existed. There was no Youtube, no googling to be done, no online full stop. Then one Saturday afternoon I was shopping in Exotica, a cool store, over west, in Ladbrooke Grove – browsing through the racks of obscure soundtracks, not really having any idea of what I was looking for. Settling for a few reasonably priced Martin Denny LPs. Exotica had a gallery in its basement, where they regularly held exhibitions of local artists work. Usually silk-screen or woodblock prints. Always music related. On this particular day Sun Ra LPs covered the walls. There were even a few for sale down there – going for 100 quid and up. Completely outside my then budget, but there they were, in the flesh.
A couple more bits.
Shortly afterwards, very probably due to wider interest piqued by The Wire, bootlegs began to appear. In fact all of a sudden there were so many to choose from that I had no idea where to start. Selectadisc on Berwick Street had a stack of them. So every month, come payday, I buy one, deaf, dumb, and blind. Each purchase – while I might not have “got” the entire LP – contained at least one track that clicked, and seemed totally unique, completely different to everything else that I`d heard. All of it certainly out-there, mind you. So unique that despite frequent “binge & purge” vinyl culls over the subsequent decades I haven’t managed to part with any of my Sun Ra records. Despite them only really getting played in this cyclical kind of ceremonial stay of execution. Then, one Sunday night, as I listened to Gilles Peterson on Kiss, Twin Stars Of Thence slowly lollopped, super funkily shuffled, out of the radio – which was when I was truly, smitten. I already knew, and absolutely loved, its enormous, seemingly stoned, contrabass groove, `cos Major Force had sampled it for a tune released on Mo`Wax – James Lavelle`s label being then very much in vogue. Naturally, I had no idea what the sample was until Gilles announced it. Clipped guitar licking cascading electric keys – which twinkled like the heavenly bodies of the track`s title. Although it`s pretty “avant”, it has a very hummable hook.
Gilles started to include more and more Sun Ra on his show – the “accessible” stuff I guess, the “songs” with the terrific June Tyson leading the Arkestra across celestial galaxies of sound in choruses of call-and-response. As a consequence I was no longer buying at random, but now had specific “wants”. Soul Jazz delivered Space Is The Place, then Inner Rhythm, in Streatham, came good with a Luv N’ Haight 12” of Where Pathways Meet. A effortlessly, rolling, floor-filing, number. Tight, and at the same time loose, in the way that only the Arkestra were / are. As if everyone`s playing a different tune – dancing to the music in their own head – yet somehow these tunes tessellating, synergising within a larger whole.
Back in Rough Trade I struck gold with Strange Strings, and then finally landed a copy of Lanquidity. In the late `70s the Arkestra were regulars on the circuit of clubs that populated downtown Manhattan – places like Hurrah and Tier 3 – and as a result in July 1978 they performed on Saturday Night Live. Following the show, the 17-strong Arkestra then recorded Lanquidity, in an overnight session at Bob Blank`s Blank Tapes studio. The record was in shops a month later on the short-lived Philly Jazz label. Flirting with fusion it features 8 horn players, 4 percussionists and the dual electric guitars of Dale Williams and Slo “Disco Kid” Johnson. All of them anchored by Richard Williams bad, bad, bass.
On May 14th this year Strut will reissue the album in a choice of formats – 4 LPs or 2 CDs – combining the originally released, plus alternate, takes. The OG contains 5 tracks in total, where the opening joint journeys from a sea of sonic tranquility – rippling piano, horns in harmony, echoes of plugged-in Miles – to a closing group roar. There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of) is a kinda lullaby – a Night Of The Hunter dream-like drift. Simultaneously familiar and alien, twisting, subverting trad form as the Arkestra whisper, imparting their secrets. The combined crazy chops from all involved being definitively demonstrated when they drop to almost ambient passages and back again without missing a beat. Operating as a completely cohesive unit, a very singular organism. Traveling toward enlightenment and transporting the listener with them. Questioning a reality that others have foisted upon you**.
The differences in the mixes and arrangements of the songs` alternate versions, with one exception are not radical, but they are noticeable. The instrumental interplay altered, with the rhythm section sometimes more sedate, lower in the scheme of things. Conversely the timpani on occasion is more dynamic. Sometimes the arrangement focuses faster on the brass, or the axe work is a little more intricate. The `50s Sci-Fi synths can be pushed further to the fore. The voice of Ra himself more prominent. In the majority of cases this is neither better or worse, but definitely different. The version of That`s How I Feel, however, is a highlight. Significantly slower, and longer, at 12 minutes, with a more laidback swing. Where the Philly Jazz cut`s confident march – built around drums and that bass – a big bounce in its collective step – is stretched, spaced, out into a mighty modal meditation – riding a bold bottom end swagger, the saxes still firing beatific be-bop runs.
You can order a copy of the expanded edition of Sun Ra`s Lanquidity directly from Strut.
*In the very early 2000s I dragged my wife-to-be to a screening of the Sun Ra movie, Space Is The Place. It was projected in a double-bill with Derek Jarman`s Throbbing Gristle-scored, In The Shadow Of The Sun, shown somewhere desperately trendy, which on that summer evening was also packed and impossibly hot. Sweat dripping from the ceiling, running, pouring, down the audience’s faces. I’ve got the DVD, lost in a box in the loft. I also bought a copy of Hartmut Green`s Ominverse – a tome comprehensively dedicated to Ra`s catalogue. Huge and heavy – full of amazing photographs, artwork, and essays both personal and scholarly – with the vibe of a holy text, and its magick akin to Crowley`s Book Of Thelema. A sacred object for sure.
**Inspired, I once printed the slogan “Be open to the idea that you might be wrong” on a T-shirt.