Words & selections by Balearic Mike.
It`s a glorious sunny day today. The kind of day when you want to hear this. I wrote these words for the sleeves notes of Down To The Sea And Back Volume 1 way back in 2010. It felt like a good time to revisit the track, and expand a little…
The Willow Band – Willowman – Epic 1976
I have this romantic idea in my head that one night, way back in the summer of 1976, in New York City, Jorge Ben, who’s in town on tour, gets invited to David Mancuso’s Loft party by a couple of members of Barrabas, who happen to be staying with David at the time. During the course of this magical evening, they are introduced to various musicians, including South Americans, Elkin & Nelson, and members of the group War. They all just happen to be there on the same night. This is my fantasy OK! In fact, let’s throw in Joyce as well – actually, she definitely recorded in New York in 1977 – the album has just been released on Far Out – but was recording in Paris in 1976. Sod it, it’s my fantasy, Joyce was there too! As night fades into morning and the party winds down, the newly acquainted gang of musicians, still high on a mixture of the incredible music they’ve been dancing to, and the pharmacopeia of substances being passed around, decide to relocate to a nearby recording studio for a smoke and a jam session. This wonderful record is the result of that jam session. Except it isn’t! Of course, that’s all complete bollocks, and none of it, in fact nothing even remotely similar, has anything to do with this spellbinding, glorious, 3 minutes and 19 seconds of music. The sad truth is, I don’t know anything about The Willow Band really, other than the few scraps of information on the record label itself.
Willowman was produced by a chap called Jesus Alvarez, who was a member of Brother to Brother, and Shirley & Company – of Shame, Shame, Shame fame – and he also co-wrote the song with a guy called Bill Bockhold. Other than that, it features a guy called Richie Salgado, who has no other credits to his name, and a chap called Kenny Guarino is credited as arranging the strings. Kenny’s also credited with playing on a Sylvia Robinson – she of Sugar Hill Records – LP, and co-wrote Jesus’ rare groove classic, Sooner or Later. But aside from that it’s a total mystery who this band were, what else they did and what happened to them. We must presume this was just a one-off!
I bought my copy from Nick The Record, at a record fair in Manchester around 2002 / 2003. The day started well, with me and Kelvin Andrews gorging on vinyl, before ending badly with a trip to Anfield. Should have stayed at the record fare. Nick had very cleverly already relieved me of about £300, before he slowly reached under his table and returned holding this. I’d been hassling him for years to find me a copy of The Hollies` Dragging My Heels US promo 12” – on the same Columbia Records Disco Series as this, strangely enough – and although I’d already found a copy by the time of this fair, I think my interest in that is what made him dig Willowman out.
“Do you know this track?” he asked in his soft, pushers whisper. “I think you’ll really like this, it’s a bit like The Hollies. It’s got that kind of Balearic vibe to it”. After listening to the song, and wiping the tears from my eyes so that I could make out the price sticker on the sleeve:
“Yes. Yes, it does”, I replied in resignation. “I’m just off to the cash point again”. Never regretted buying it though … simply perfection.
One of my favourite albums by one of my favourite bands was released 35 years ago today…
Depeche Mode – Music For The Masses – Mute Records 1987
I’ve loved ‘The Mode’ since their debut single back in 1981. Although I don’t think they made a bad album in the `80s, I would argue that their imperial phase was the period between 1986 and 1990, encompassing Black Celebration, this masterpiece, Music For The Masses, live LP, 101 – and subsequent ‘rockumentary’ / concert film – and of course their crowning glory, Violator. They shocked everyone by actually improving after main songwriter, Vince Clarke, left the band, with Martin Gore taking over writing duties, and leading the band into a slightly darker, less pop aesthetic. With the sound becoming ever more experimental and adult, as songs like Master and Servant gleefully illustrated, they then took a break after 1984’s Some Great Reward, with ’85 seeing the audacious move of a greatest hits compilation being released, along with the excellent Shake The Disease single. The band seemed to return in 1986 re-energised, with an extra layer of maturity, and their finest LP to date, Black Celebration, beginning a run of musical and artistic creativity which saw them become one of the biggest bands in the world – it’s just that no one in the UK realised.
The band followed up Black Celebration with this incredible album, recorded mostly in Paris with David Bascombe producing, who Dave Gahan suggested, after hearing his work with Tears For Fears – as well as being engineer on Songs From The Big Chair, David had also produced the first It’s Immaterial LP, Life’s Hard And Then You Die. This was a big departure for The Mode, as the previous 3 albums had all been produced by Mute head honcho Daniel Miller and Gareth Jones. As Fletch said, “Sometimes you do need some new jokes.” The songs for the most part have a hypnotic, repetitive structure to them, most evident on tracks such as show opener, Pimpf, live anthem, Never Let Me Down Again, and singles Little 15 and Behind The Wheel. This was very much Alan Wilders musical influence on the band, bringing in his knowledge of minimalist composers like Philip Glass, as well as his love of Michael Nyman’s soundtrack for Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed & Two Noughts.
The album was released a few weeks after I started my Art & Design foundation course at college, having sat my “O” levels that summer. Initially I taped it from a friend`s copy, but pretty soon I knew I had to have my own, finally purchasing this Italian pressing fairly cheap from a stall in Camden in November. It’s a flawless work of art – also with their best cover to date – and builds beautifully on their previous record. I listened repeatedly to the tapes I had of this, and Black Celebration, on my bus journeys to see Balearic Wife, when we first began our relationship that winter. It’s an excellent soundtrack to both winter and travelling.
Although their days of big hit singles in the UK were a few years behind them – lead single, Strangelove, was the only one of the 4 from the album which broke the top 20 – the LP helped to substantially grow their following in the US. The subsequent 101 date world tour culminated in the massive open-air gig at the Pasadena Rose Bowl for 65,000 people, on my 18th birthday – I didn’t go – which features in the subsequent D.A. Pennebaker documentary of the same name. They would hit musical perfection with 1990’s Violator, but this was the album that put them within reach of that huge audience.
I dug this out to play on last week`s radio show, after not listening to it for years, and now I can’t stop…
Faze-O – Riding High – She Records 1977
The website whosampled.com has a list of 116 tracks which sample this incredible piece of music, mostly from the world of hip-hip, and including such artists as Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, DJ Krush, The Roots, and J Dilla. It’s one to file alongside such unique and unforgettable pieces of music as Minnie Riperton`s Inside My Love, and Larry Young’s Fuel `s Turn Off The Lights. A late night, slo-mo funk masterpiece, dripping with atmosphere.
Hailing from Dayton, Ohio, the band were under the wing of the Ohio Players, regularly supporting them live. Keyboardist and songwriter Keith Harrison came up with the groove for the track one night at home, playing it for hours on his Fender Rhodes, but unable to come up with any changes, hence the hypnotic nature. The lyrics were written, quite literally, while driving back from playing a gig in Atlanta. Keith was smoking a joint up front, with the rest of the band crashed out in the back, and claims that the words just came to him, while ‘riding high’. Apparently, the lyric, “I’m riding high, there’s a funk in the breeze …“ refers to a point in the journey where he farted! He must have been really, really high! Clarence Satchell of the Ohio Players took them into the studio to produce their LP, but made it plain that the radio wasn’t going to play a song about getting high, so the second verse – which was also about getting high – was re-written by Robert Neal Jr. to re-frame the song with a ‘high on love type vibe.
The track itself is mind-blowing. A slow, sensual, psychedelic, druggy, orgasm of funk. It’s no great shame to say the band never quite hit that ‘high’ again: few do! Its hypnotic groove is augmented by that beautiful Fender Rhodes, while the atmospherics go stratospheric with the addition of the falsetto backing vocals – from Keith! – and synth work, inspired by Funkadelic keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell.
Both the LP and single went top 10 in the US R&B charts, allowing the band to record 2 further albums, but without similar success. In the UK the track took on a life of its own, becoming a staple through the mid `80s for the likes of Soul II Soul, at their nights at The Afrika Centre, and more generally on the London rare groove and warehouse party scene. Wikipedia makes a claim for the first track to sample Riding High, but Wiki is wrong folks. It was first used by hip hop act EPMD – Eric and Parrish Makin’ Dollars – on the track Please Listen To My Demo on their second LP, Unfinished Business, released in the summer of 1989. This was my first encounter with the song`s wonderful groove. Only a month or so later a UK act would do such an incredible job of sampling it, that they’d take it into the pop charts that autumn, but that’s for the next bit folks. Clue: it’s the one that Wikipedia thinks was first, it’s from Bristol, it’s a cover version, and it’s the nuts!
This only caused my now considerable obsession with the track to grow, but it would be years before I owned a copy of the original track, as it was really quite difficult to find before the era of reissues. I waited patiently until 1993 for the excellent Mastercuts series of compilations to include it on their Classic Rare Groove Mastercuts Volume 1. It would then be another couple of years before once again, that most wonderful of record stalls: Out Of The Past, in Manchester’s Affleck’s Palace, would turn up both the original LP and a 45 (although I’m a bit worried that I can’t find my 45).
In 2004 Warners would do a legit 12” UK pressing of the track for the first time, and that sounds properly gorgeous folks. You can never have too much of a good thing, can you now.
So, this is by my reckoning, the second record that year to sample Faze-O`s Riding High, following quite closely after the EPMD one, and becoming a surprise chart hit…
Fresh 4 (Children Of The Ghetto) feat. Lizz E – Wishing On A Star – 10 records 1989
Hailing from the vibrant underground music scene that was gestating in Bristol, Fresh 4 were the first group from the scene to break out and have any success, paving the way for what was coming in the form of Smith & Mighty (who produced this), The Wild Bunch, Massive Attack and Tricky. Wishing On A Star is such a great example of what was happening in the UK club scene at the time, emerging from that heady mix of Soul II Soul beats, daisy-age hip hop, house (Italo / acid / deep / New York / Chicago / hip-house) Balearic beats, new beat, techno and everything else. It’s a hauntingly beautiful cover version of the Rose Royce classic, but reimagined perfectly for the schizophrenic and exciting, eclectic, musical landscape of 1989.
Opening with judicious use of the Faze-O sample, before the Funky Drummer breakbeat is scratched into place. The whole track sounds like some roughly made bootleg DJ mix, and yet it works, due in no small part to the beautiful vocal performance from the mysterious Lizz E. As well as a mammoth club hit, the record sounded great on the radio. With BBC Radio 1 in the UK play-listing it, the track went on to reach #10 in the charts… but that was pretty much as good as it got. Despite 2 further singles, which didn’t find the same crossover success, the band fell out with the record label and their debut LP remained unreleased until 2015. Fresh 4 member Kirk Thompson did however, go on to become the phenomenally successful and highly respected drum & bass DJ and producer, DJ Krust, with his brother Flynn also having a successful career in that field as half of Flynn & Flora, as did Paul Southey as DJ Suv. So quite a happy ending really.
On this day – September 30th – in 1985 possibly the greatest single of the `80s was released…
Grace Jones – Slave To The Rhythm – ZTT / Island records 1985
OK, so maybe that’s overdoing it a little. It’s certainly one of the most `80s singles ever released, and The Face magazine did vote it best single of the year, and for me it certainly is one of the best of the decade. It’s also one of the greatest productions from one of the producers of the decade, Trevor Horn, rivalling his work with ABC on Lexicon Of Love, with Malcolm McLaren on Duck Rock, with Frankie Goes To Hollywood and that run of epic singles, culminating in the Welcome To The Pleasure Dome LP, and with Pet Shop Boys on Left To My Own Devices.
Slave To The Rhythm was originally written for Frankie Goes To Hollywood by Trevor Horn, Bruce Woolley, Stephen Lipson, and Simon Darlow, and the band recorded a demo version of the track, which Trevor Horn then assembled and produced, but it just didn’t work in that form. Horn was convinced of the track’s potential, hoping “it would become one of his biggest and most successful creations” according to Paul Morley, and so passed the project over to Grace. After Ms. Jones recorded her vocals in October 1984, taking approximately 9 hours, Horn and Lipson continued to work on the track for approximately 9 months, striving for musical perfection… and who’s to say that they didn’t achieve it. Slave… is an Imperial Star Destroyer of gleaming, intergalactic space-funk. The ultimate fusion of woman and machine. Its laser guided perfection and machine tooled gloss is, however, given an organic, human feel by the cunning addition of a group of musicians from Washington DC. Trevor Horn was enamoured by the sound of go-go music, the raw, percussion heavy, dance music coming out of the US captial, and rocking the dancefloors of the UK club and warehouse scene that year. He hired members of key groups, Trouble Funk and Experience Unlimited, to play on the track, but when it came to recording, found their loose, live, improvisational style incompatible with the precision he wanted. In the end all he managed to make use of was a tiny 4 bar loop of drums and percussion, and so they built the production around that.
Slave To The Rhythm became Grace’s parting gift to Island Records. Originally intended to feature as a new track on her farewell greatest hits compilation, Island Life, Trevor Horn`s obsession with it expanded it into a concept album, all based around this one track, with actor Ian “Lovejoy” McShane reading extracts from her former lover, the photographer John-Paul Goude’s book, “Jungle Fever” over the top.
I adore this record, and so as well as the original UK 12”, with limited poster – yes, I still have the poster, see – I also acquired the UK picture disc, although it has discoloured slightly on one side. I’ve included the copy of The Face with it listed as single of the year as well. Nothing like a healthy obsession.
For more from Balearic Mike you can find him on both Facebook and Instagram – @balearicmike.
Mike has a Mixcloud page packed with magnificent, magical, music, and you can catch him live on 1BTN, from 12 noon until 2 (UK time) every 1st and 3rd Friday.
You can also check out the super silk screen prints of “Balearic Wife” over at @jo_lambert_print – personally I think they’d make damn fine record sleeves / disco bags.