Prince and The Revolution – Mountains & Alexa de Paris (1986 12″ extended remix)


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Prince and The Revolution
Mountains 12″ extended remix
1986 Warner Brothers 0-20465

45 RPM 12-inch single

Side 1
Mountains (9:56)
Side 2
Alexa de Paris (4:56)

Vinyl; Pro-Ject RM-5SE with Audio Tecnica AT440-MLa cartridge; Speedbox power supply); Creek Audio OBH-15; M-Audio Audiophile 192 Soundcard ; Adobe Audition at 32-bit float 96khz; clicks and pops removed with Click Repair (manually auditioned) and individually with Adobe Audition 3.0; resampled using iZotope RX 2 Advanced SRC and dithered with MBIT+ for 16-bit. Converted to FLAC in either Trader’s Little Helper or dBPoweramp.  Tags done with Foobar 2000 and Tag and Rename.


In Matt Taibi’s eulogy for Rolling Stone magazine, he mused that maybe the world had grown too angry of a place for Prince.  After waking up to today’s news headlines from Orlando, and having done some work on this post over the last few days, I keep thinking about that and wondering if maybe he’s right.  Who is going to write celestial tunes like this one, when we need them most?

Love will conquer if u just believe


I think I can measure how important the “Parade” album was to me by the fact that it was the last of Prince’s classic back catalog hat I listened to after his death.  It’s like I had to work myself up to it.  For one thing, it ended up being a swan song for this phase of Prince’s creative arc, as he dissolved The Revolution afterwards and lost a little (but not all) of the dreamy gauze of psychedelized folk-funk that took place in that unique musical alembic.  As great as the music still to come would be, I recall being distinctly bummed out when I heard that he’d fired nearly everyone.  “Parade” also marks the introduction of more pronounced jazz influences into Prince’s music, helped along by the presence and influence of Eric Leeds and Sheila E. There’s an art-house aesthetic going on too, with the monochromatic cover art (and film, which I didn’t see for years until after the record came out)… But let me save some of this energy for a full post on the Parade album (is that a promise? Sort of, I’m notoriously bad about keeping my promises here..) and get to talking about this single.

Mountains (extended mix)

Co-written with Revolutionaries Wendy Melvoin & Lisa Coleman, the  song “Mountains” encapsulates a lot of what I find so enchanting about the record.  For whatever reason, after the news of April 21 broke, it’s the song I wanted to hear.  “Sometimes It Snows In April” occurred to me instantly,  but it seemed almost too obvious, and anyway I wasn’t ready to hear it yet.  “Mountains” for me always embodied the warmth and transcendence that Prince & The Revolution were capable of at their best.  It’s truly one for the purple hippies out there.  Propelled by a Mu-Tron modulated bass riff and chugging rhythm guitar, it has an implied drone through it, which emerges fully with a tamboura-type sound at the three and 1/2 minute mark, after the bebop-inflected instrumental bridge.  On live bootlegs from 86, you can hear that they would often precede the song by an extended faux-Indian drone using this synth patch.  Prince plays finger cymbals on the tune.  The lyrics, which can be a little hard to make out as his falsetto gets enveloped by the sonic mountains, are cryptically mystical ‘love conquers all’ stuff.  In the music video he is seated cross-legged on a carpet in the middle of the band with a pair of maracas, wearing his bolero hat.  At this point Prince was a master of mid-tempo funk, and this tune lopes along like some sort of troop formation marching through the valleys of Neptune for an assault on the Holy Mountain or something else suitably epic.  The single immediately preceding this one from Parade was the number one smash Kiss,  and the lush soundscape here contrasts sharply with that tune’s austere minimalism.  In comparison this song did poorly on the charts, only reaching 23 on the Billboard Hot 100, and some fans blame that for an even worse chart performance of the next single,  Anotherloverholenyohead, with some arguing that the latter is a better song and should have come first.  I can see their point.  From one perspective, “Anotherlover” is perhaps a more immediately engaging song, a bit more melodically and rhythmically complex than “Mountains,” and it definitely has more dynamic tension.  In fact I always thought “Mountains” was the last single released from the record, maybe because it has a ‘coda’ kind of feel to it, like it should be at the end of a cycle (hell, it plays during the final credits of Under the Cherry Moon, so apparently they felt it worked as a coda too).

The extended version features Eric Leeds playing some saxophone solos worthy of the Parker Brothers (Charlie and Maceo), and some choice trumpet breaks by Atlanta Bliss.  A brief, fat-tone-with-the-treble-rolled-off jazz guitar solo bubbles up out of nowhere and quickly disappears.  There is some kind of wood flute piping out riffs that sound like some lost Traffic jam.  Dr. Fink gets to drop a few squalls of synth leads.  In all, this is one of the more interesting extended mixes in Prince’s catalog.  In fact,  it’s not just extended but fully remixed.  Compared to the album version, this mix is a lot more robust and dynamic.  (edit: Actually the vocals are a lot clearer on the album version, while this mix has more of everything else…)

From an unfinished book by Prince fan “madhouseman”:

After the original session on Saturday, November 30, 1985 at the Washington Avenue Warehouse in Minneapolis, some additional work was done on the track in Minneapolis and it was shelved until Friday, March 28, 1986, when it was edited for the 7-inch and 12-inch mixes for release (the 2nd released from PARADE). “Mountains, a song on the Parade album that I always loved which was Wendy and Lisa’s song, the horn parts on the album version are pretty sparse,’ remembered Eric Leeds. “There’s a couple of lines, but we did a 12-inch version of that which is my favorite 12-inch that Prince ever did. I think it’s a great, great performance, just the whole idea of the 12-inch. There’s nothing particularly heavy about the horns on that, but I just really like some very simple stuff. I just remember the whole thing, and just being a part of that was just really nice. I guess the horn parts in themselves don’t really stand out as being anything special, but it was just cool.“

The additional horns were overdubbed for the song on April 1, and more mixing and editing followed on April 6, 22, and 27th.

It was eventually released on May 7 1986 (single release) and the 12 inch was released on May 21.

On the flip side of this single is the instrumental Alexa de Paris which was not included on the album.  For anyone who lamented the absence of any extended guitar workouts on Parade, well then here’s a tune for you.   Although conditioned to expect the unexpected, I wonder how many fans anticipated an unabashed progressive rock -influenced track that sounds like it could have comfortably fit on a late-70s Genesis or Camel record.  The drumming is pretty unmistakably Sheila E., with her proto-metal kick and snare fills that are, again, a little unexpected from somebody who got their start playing jazz, jazz-funk, and salsa with Herbie Hancock, George Duke, and her dad Pete Escovedo.  Clare Fischer, whose understated string arrangements play a prominent role on the LP, apparently wrote charts for this entire song, but it sounds like they were only used for one brief section, settling in well like an extension of the band.  There’s a flashy drum solo near the end, but sorry – no break beats in this one.

Alexa de Paris

Although Alexa de Paris is a cult favorite among fans, rarely performed live,  and is great fun to listen to, I’m glad it wasn’t included on the album proper.  One of the things I really love about “Parade” is that, perhaps more than any other record in his back catalog, it sounds like it could have been recorded at any time in the last 30 years.  In 1986, it sounded to me like the kind of thing they could have put on the Voyager satellite to introduce Earth’s civilization to our extraterrestrial neighbors.  It’s an almost seamless patchwork of the past and future.  I am still unsure how Prince and his engineer Susan Rogers achieved some of the sounds on the record.  “Traditional” instruments often sound abstracted and processed, “synthetic” instruments sound organic and warm, and they achieve a real density to the sonic palette worthy of any of today’s avant-knob-twiddlers. And remember this was still being done on analog tape, before the days of non-destructive digital editing.   Okay, I guess the Linn drums are unmistakable 80s trademarks, but they are retro-cool again so that doesn’t count.  Anyway my point is that Alexa de Paris just screams mid-1980s in its aesthetic and doesn’t date as well as the Parade material.


On to more mundane things.  The impetus that prompted me to finally leave Blogger was  discovering a blog that a friend tipped me off to, Fun With Vinyl.  My friend, like many an unfortunate soul who either ran out of space or swallowed the industry propaganda of the time, sold or gave away all of his records at some point in the 1990s.  He’s been going back and finding all the extended 12″ Prince singles that he used to own.  I have a handful, but truth be told, although I’m plenty OCD about music in other ways, I have never been a completest collector of any single artist (that way, there is always more to discover!).  So, there is stuff on the Fun With Vinyl site that I don’t have and even things I’d never heard.  I was impressed by the clean look and easy functionality of the place, struck up a new online friendship with DJ Ritchie who runs the blog, and started planning my escape from the shackles of Blogger.

Apparently every June at Fun With Vinyl has been a Paisley June for years now, with special Prince-related posts, in honor of his June 7 birthday.  This year is obviously poignant, as he would have turned 58.  DJ Ritchie has decided to highlight the treasure trove of 12″ singles, which include many remixes and non-album cuts, by inviting guest bloggers to post their write-ups on individual releases.  It’s a great and fun idea, and there are lots of personal reminiscence and anecdotes from these bloggers – the kind of stuff I like.  I highly recommend you all check it out if you’re interested.

Today I’ve opted to share my own needledrop here, because it is something I enjoy doing and I have a near minty-fresh copy of this one.   I’ll probably post more of these singles from my stash, though not necessarily in the month of June, so head on over there to continue the celebration.

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The Gap Band – You Dropped A Bomb On Me (12″ extended mix) b/w Humpin’ (1982)

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THE GAP BAND

Total Experience Records (TED 702)

Vinyl, 12″, 33 1/3 RPM

Released:1982

A     You Dropped A Bomb On Me (Special Disco Mix – Long Version) (13:05)

    Remix  – Michael Evans 

B     Humpin’ (5:06)

    Produced For – Lonnie Simmons Productions
    Published By – Total Experience Music, Inc.
   Mastered by Kendun Recorders / Allen Zentz Mastering, Los Angeles

Welcome to the new home of Flabbergasted Vibes!

For a long time now, I’ve considered ditching the clumsy Blogger platform and moving to WordPress, but the thought of trying to migrate so many years of content was very daunting.  I finally took the plunge due to some inspiration from a blogging friend (more about him in another post, soon to come) and have been working on this in secret for the last month.  There are still a few wrinkles to be ironed out, but it’s coming along pretty well.

So, hoping that you are blown away with this news, and because I’m a corny dude, I figured the first post for the new site should be an extended mix of the monster electro-funk jam You Dropped A Bomb On Me.  Armed with an octave-splitting synth riff, a slamming drum beat, a couple of organ chords laying low like an ambush in the mix, some thunderous tympani rolls, and some toy laser guns they bought at Toys R Us, The Gap Band threatened to launch the funkiest World War III with this single.  Many rose to the dance-off challenge thrown down by a presiding DJ in 1982 over this one.  And here we have 13 glorious minutes of it, nearly 8 minutes longer than the album cut from The Gap Band IV.

Unfortunately, my copy has a tiny wobbly-warp at the tippy-top edge of the record that makes the first few seconds nearly impossible to track properly.  Luckily there is no music there: it’s an intro of somebody with a Vocoder saying something about dropping a bomb on you, followed by some laughter from the band, and then an air raid siren.  Through the miracle of modern technology, I was able to get most of this through wizardry.  Changing the weight on my turntable tonearm so that it could mostly track this intro (there is still a tiny glitch during the Vocoder speech) unfortunately makes the needle skip once the music starts, so I got creative and did two passes on this with adjusted counter weights, and then spliced them together.  Oh the things I will do for you, my beloved readers!  I bet you can’t even hear the “tape splice.” If you think you can, be the first to leave the exact time code in the comments section and, if correct,  you will win a prize of one $20 gift certificate to Toys ‘R Us.  Unfortunately the gift certificate expired in 1982, but it’s a collectors item so that should make you happy.

 

Which leads to the curious bit of trivia about this single.  When the Mattel toy corporation got wind that The Gap Band had bought an array of toy laser guns and rocket ships to take back to the studio and create the overdubbed “battle” sound effects that you hear in the second half of this extended mix, their marketing people hatched what seemed at the time like a mutually beneficial promotional campaign.  After talks with Lonnie Simmon’s Total Experience Productions, they decided to make the experience more total by shipping the first few thousand copies of the extended single with a $20 gift certificate to America’s biggest toy retailer, Toys R Us.  Mattel then released some Gap Band ray guns, boldly proclaiming “As heard on the hit song You Dropped A Bomb On Me in bright letters on the packaging, and even created a series of camouflaged action figures of the Wilson brothers, modeled on the outfits they wore in the music video.

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You Dropped A Bomb On me

The whole campaign ended up losing money, as most  fans came into the store hoping to buy a genuine air raid siren, sales of which were of course tightly restricted during the Cold War.   Disappointed, most ended up buying the electronic Simon Says game, made by Milton Bradley.  Mattel’s Gap Band Action Figures are thus extremely rare and super collectible today, almost never appearing on eBay or in private auctions.  Reportedly, Henry Kissinger has a full set on a bookshelf in his office.  I would never have thought the repulsive little man had a funky bone in his body, but when a TV reporter asked him in 1983 what kind of music he put on to relax, he answered, “The Gap Band, that’s my jam.”  It is safe to assume that this is the song that made him a lifelong fan.

In case any of you audio geeks wanted to know what one of these analog synth bomb drops look like visually, here’s a spectragram

06 - Spectral bomb

On the flip side is another hit, Humpin’, which is from their previous album, Gap Band III — which, to confuse things, is not actually their third album (any more than IV is their fourth album), but merely their third album since teaming up with producer Lonnie Simmons and signing to Mercury/Polygram.  They had also released albums on the Shelter Label and the RCA subsidiary Tattoo Records before they started numbering their releases.  Does that imply that we should consider the first two albums as non-canonical?  Prequels?  Lore?

In any case, Humpin’ is more than a little inspired by the P-Funk empire and is as infectiously fun as ‘Bomb’.  There’s no verse/chorus structure, it’s essentially all one extended chorus vamp, with delirious giggling and silly rhymes from Charlie Wilson throughout.  Chair dancing is permitted, but real dancing is encouraged.  Also I swear it sounds like Jimmy Castor doing the “heave.. ho” chant in the middle.  It should be noted that in spite of the label stating this to be a “long version,” this appears to be the same mix as the one used for the album release.

Humpin’

Thankfully, unlike Toys R Us gift certificates, great music has no expiration date.*  And, hey, neither do these links!

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*No money was received from America’s biggest toy retailer, Toys R Us, for the writing of this post.  If there had been, perhaps I wouldn’t have taken such a cheap shot at their lousy gift certificate policies.

Manchild – Power And Love (1977)


Manchild
Power And Love
1977 Chi Sound Records  CH-LA765-G

A1     Red Hot Daddy  3:25
Written-By – A. Johnson, K. Ferrell, R. Griffin
A2     (I Want To Feel Your) Power And Love   3:46
Written-By – C. Bush, S. Johnson
A3     Especially For You      6:06
Written-By – C. Bush
A4     Takin’ It To The Streets     4:04
Written By – M. McDonald

B1     You Get What You Give    2:31
Written-By – A. Johnson, K. Ferrell
B2     We Need We      4:06
Written-By – R. Griffin
B3     These Are The Things That Are Special To Me 3:37
Written-By – D. Simmons, K. Edmonds
B4     Funky Situation      5:46
Written-By – K. Edmonds

Recorded At – P.S. Recording Studios
Remixed At – Universal Recording Studio
Mastered At – Capitol Mastering

   Acoustic Guitar, Rhythm Guitar, Handclaps, Backing Vocals, Vocals – Kenny Edmonds (tracks: B4)
Backing Vocals – Harold Gooch (tracks: A1, A3, B1)
Bass Guitar, Effects [Mutron], Handclaps – Anthony Johnson (8)
Congas, Bongos, Percussion, Handclaps, Backing Vocals – Daryl Simmons
Drums, Handclaps – Robert Parson
Electric Piano [Fender Rhodes], Piano, Piano [Acoustic], Synthesizer, Strings [Ensemble], Handclaps, Backing Vocals, Vocals – Chuckie Bush (tracks: A3)
Handclaps – Dwayne Johnson (tracks: A1, A4), Thomas Henderson (tracks: A4)
Rhythm Guitar – Harold Gooch (tracks: A1, B1)
Tenor Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Lead Guitar, Soloist [All Solos], Rhythm Guitar, Clavinet, Piano [Acoustic], Handclaps, Backing Vocals – Reggie Griffin
Vocals, Backing Vocals, Handclaps – “Flash” Ferrell

Producer – Sonny Sanders
Co-producer – Sid Johnson
Mastered By – Wally Traigett
Photography By – Pamoja Photos
Engineer – Paul Johnson (5), Paul Serrano, Scott Rowley
Remix engineer – Bruce Swedien

Recorded at P.S. Studios, Chicago, Illinois.
Remixed at Universal Studios, Chicago, Illinois.
Mastered at Capitol

==================================================

This is a solid funk record in the vein of mid-70s Kool and The Gang or EWF, with a couple of well-crafted slow-jam ballads, one of which has a strong Commodores flavor to it. What the material lacks in originality, it makes up for in execution. These guys are tight and the record stays entertaining throughout. If they can make me actually enjoy the song “Takin’ It To The Streets,” then they’ve got something good going on. The socially-conscious lyrics sound more convincing when not coming from Michael McDonald’s beardy-face full of yacht sea-foam, too.  I know it is still tempting to skip right over it after those first few measures, but trust me that there’s a funky breakdown at the end that makes it worth hanging around at least once.

From the looks of it, I believe they got their name because these guys were all teenagers when they started. This Midwestern group featured a young Kenny Edmonds, later known as Babyface. Well he really earns his nickname here (see photo below). After two records with these guys, he would go on to be a member of The Deele in the 80s, and then obviously on to super-stardom in the 90s on his own, when he continued to collaborate with Daryl Simmons from this group. Babyface only sings on one tune here, the closer “Funky Situation,” which also happens to be the most complex funk-fusion jam on the album.  Most of the lead vocals are handled by one Chuckie Bush. The smokey, Moog-enchancing slow-burner “Especially For You” was a minor hit for these guys.  They probably would have had more success if the record had come out a few years earlier, as this sounds a lot more like a hard funk album from 1974 than 1977 in a lot of ways. It was reissued once on CD but for some reason the song “We Need We” was dropped from it. This is odd not only because it is one of the best tunes here, but also because its omission from this short album brings its running time down to slightly under 30 minutes.  It was written by multi-instrumentalist Reggie Griffiths, who also has a crapton of album credits with all kinds of artists, as well as being responsible for a monster electro jam called “Mirda Rock” in 1982.

http://flabbergasted-vibes.org/fv/D4BA3BCD511ADF84.rar

http://flabbergasted-vibes.org/fv/1C49D2B269B06945.rar

http://flabbergasted-vibes.org/fv/917C45D240C03073.rar 

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Bernie Worrell – All The Woo In The World (1978)

Bernie Worrell
All The Woo In The World
1978 Arista AB 4201
1.Woo Together 04:34   
2. I’ll Be With You 07:26   
3. Hold On 04:53   
4. Much Thrust 03:54   
5. Happy to Have (Happiness on Our Side) 07:36   
6. Insurance Man For The Funk 12:32   
7. Reprise: Much Thrust 00:40    
Lead vocals: Bernie Worrell
    “Assistant lead” vocals: Garry Shider, Walter Morrison, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins
    All keyboards: Bernie Worrell
    Additional keyboards on “Hold On”: Walter Morrison
    Guitars: Garry Shider, Walter Morrison, Eddie Hazel, Glenn Goins, Phelps Collins, Bootsy Collins, Michael Hampton
    Bass: Rodney Curtis, Billy Bass Nelson
    Drums: Tyrone Lampkin, Jim Wright, Gary Cooper
    Horns: Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Richard Griffith, Rick Gardner
    Saxophone solo on “Hold On”: Eli Fontaine
    Background vocals: Brides of Funkenstein, Parlet, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and the voices of the nation.

I’ve been absent from blogging lately for a variety of reasons, none of them important right now.  It’s been brought to my attention that keyboard genius and funk cosmonaut Bernie Worrell is suffering from stage 4 cancer without the means to pay for his treatment, and a fundraiser is being held tomorrow, April 4, at Webster Hall in NYC.   I’ve been throwing my support behind a different guy named Bernie lately, so it seems reasonable to do whatever small thing I can do to help draw attention to what’s happening with Worrell, who’s work has brought me endless hours of pleasure and bemused befuddlement.

For the many non-New Yorkers who follow this blog, you can help the man by buying a download from his Bandcamp site, which you can get to by following the links under “Music” on his main website at http://bernieworrell.com/.  You can also follow him on Facebook for updates on his situation.

I’d like to highlight his first solo release, All The Woo In The World.  If you search around hard enough on this page, you’ll find a link to an imperfect vinyl rip of this album.  I can’t even recall where it came from, to be honest (it’s not my transfer and has no lineage info included).  I’m deliberately going with this one because it’s serviceable but imperfect – if you want audiophile quality this time, consider getting it directly from the man himself and helping him out.

I’m unable compose a post that does the man or this record justice on short notice, but it turns out that the fine people at Wax Poetics have already done so.   I’m going to repost the text here, without permission, so please click on the link to the original piece and send them some web traffic and then wander around their site for a while.  Buy a print copy of one of their exquisitely produced issues while you’re at it.

All the Woo in the World and the legacy of funk

by Travis Atria

Thirty-five years ago, in 1978, Bernie Worrell released his first solo album, All the Woo in the World.
At that point, he was internationally famous for his laser-like
synthesizer licks in Parliament/Funkadelic, and in just five years’
time, he’d help Talking Heads transform from New York new-wave weirdoes
to funky world-music megastars.

Listening back to Woo, it’s no wonder Talking Heads wanted
Worrell’s guidance. The album, co-produced with George Clinton, is so
funky you can smell it through the dust jacket. In seven tracks, Worrell
shows how important he was to the P-Funk sound—in fact, the whole thing
could easily be passed off as a lost Parliament/Funkadelic record, if
not for Worrell’s name up top.

It’s impossible for me to listen to Woo, however, without
remembering an incredible day I spent with Worrell in a recording studio
a few years ago. He came to record an album in my hometown of
Gainesville, Florida, and the local paper asked me to cover it. At the
studio, I was ushered to the engineer’s console; lounging in a leather
chair was the man with the magic hands, slowed by arthritis but never
stopped. He wore a purple jacket that could have come from Prince’s
closet, a “FootJoy” golf glove on each hand to ease his arthritis pain,
expensive shades framing his face, and an ornate cap perched on his head
like an exclamation mark.

Worrell offered me a chair and spoke graciously about being George
Clinton’s songwriting soul mate. He recalled having a major role in
orchestrating P-Funk’s shaggy jams. He spoke honestly about the massive
amounts of drugs they all consumed, and how there was so much ass it was
hard to get anything done; he liked Eastern European women—“All fit, no
fat,” is how he put it. He talked about writing his first piano
concerto at the tender age of eight and realizing he had perfect pitch.
He remembered David Byrne as a painfully shy man, but sweet and eager to
learn. And he took much of the credit for leading Talking Heads down
the path of rhythm.

After our short chat, he went to work on a new song. As he helped his
bass player feel where the accents should go, it struck me that a great
player knows how to play the notes, but a genius knows why to
play the notes. “Slow your mind down,” Worrell instructed the bass man.
“It ain’t a North American thing. You got to feel the way they’d do it
in Jamaica—sensual.”

The album he worked on that day was never released, if it was even
finished, but Worrell has put out a few things since. And even though
those things don’t capture him the way Woo did thirty-five years ago, perhaps it is important to respect that funk’s flame still burns bright in him.

“This is all I know how to do,” he said to me just before I left the
studio. Then, after a beat, “To teach, to please, and to woo,” he cooed
with a grin.

Ben Sidran – Don’t Let Go (1974)

Ben Sidran
Don’t Let Go
1974 Blue Thumb BTS 6012 


A1 Fat Jam 3:23
A2 House Of Blue Lites 3:08
A3 Ben Sidran’s Midnite Tango 2:40
A4 The Chicken Glide 3:43
A5 She’s Funny That Way 3:34
A6 Monopoly 1:27


B1 Don’t Let Go 3:18
B2 Hey Hey Baby 3:30
B3 The Foolkiller 3:45
B4 The Funky Elephant 3:27
B5 Snatch 3:48
B6 Down To The Bone 1:08

Alto Saxophone – Bunky Green
Bass – Kip Merklein (tracks: B4), Phil Upchurch, Randy Fullerton (tracks: A1 to B3, B5, B6)
Drums – Tom Piazza (tracks: B2)
Drums, Percussion – Clyde Stubblefield, George Brown, Phil Upchurch
Guitar – James P. Cooke, Phil Upchurch
Harmonica – Jerry Alexander
Organ – Jim Peterman
Piano, Vocals – Ben Sidran
Tenor Saxophone – Sonny Seals
Horns arranged  by Sonny Burke

Strings arranged by Les Hooper
Art Direction – John P. Schmelzer

 

Vinyl; Pro-Ject RM-5SE with Audio Tecnica AT440-MLa cartridge; Speedbox power supply); Creek Audio OBH-15; M-Audio Audiophile 192 Soundcard ; Adobe Audition at 32-bit float 96khz; clicks and pops removed individually with Adobe Audition 3.0; resampled using iZotope RX 2 Advanced SRC and dithered with MBIT+ for 16-bit. Converted to FLAC in either Trader’s Little Helper or dBPoweramp.  Tags done with Foobar 2000 and Tag and Rename.

Possibly it is because of his uncanny resemblance to Neil Innes – or the suspicious fact that nobody has ever seen them both in the same place, at the same time – but  sometimes I don’t know how seriously to take Ben Sidran.  But I doubt that fact would bother him, because he’s been far too busy accomplishing an insane amount of things in his long and prolific career for my perplexity to concern him at all.  Although at this point in his life as an artist, Ben Sidran is pretty firmly ensconced in the “jazz” area of your local record store, his overall vision and his diverse body of work taken as a whole is pretty hard to categorize, and there is a touch of whimsy to much of it.  Plus, his records are always fun, a word that doesn’t get paired with “jazz” nearly enough.

In his early days, he flirted with the life of rock stardom when he teamed up with his old college friend Steve Miller.  Sidran contributed extensively to his most interesting record (Brave New World), co-wrote his most charming hit single (Space Cowboy), stuck around for a few more records before going back to his old home base of Madison, Wisconsin, where he has essentially stayed ever since. He published his doctoral dissertation (which he earned in England in the 60s while moonlighting as a session man) as a book, back when dissertations were actually readable,  called ‘Black Talk’.  He hosted a late-night television show as idiosyncratic as he was, called “The Weekend Starts Now,”  in which he had guests like Kinky Friedman and Jane Fonda when she was at her anti-war finest, as well as jazz heavies like McCoy Tyner and Danny Richmond.  He’s worked with Tony Williams, Jon Hendricks, Phil Upchurch (who appears on the album here), and produced records for Mose Allison, Van Morrison, and Georgie Fame.  And somehow he has managed all this while also hanging out with Eric Idle and George Harrison and producing an entirely separate body of work under the name Neil Innes.

On his own albums, Sidran’s stable of musicians was always interesting.  For “Don’t Let Go” we have fellow Madison resident Clyde Stubblefield on drums, Phil Upchurch on bass and guitar, and saxophonists Sonny Seals and Bunky Green all joining the party.  Jim Peterman, a colleague from his Steve Miller days, provides some organ on a few tracks. The original songs here are all compelling, and Sidran seamlessly blends in jazz chesnuts from other composers: a very free and liberal interpretation of fellow Wisconsin-ite Freddie Slack’s “House of Blue Lites” seasoned with some profanity and jabs at New York snobbery,  a similarly stylized “She’s Funny That Way” (recorded by Gene Austin), Bud Powell’s brief ‘Monopoly’, and “The Foolkiller” from Sidran’s most obvious musical idol, Mose Allison. The original tracks span jazz, funk, and even soul in the song “Hey Hey Baby,” which is almost catchy enough to be a hit, as soon as understated Mose Allison-like beatnik crooning comes back into style.    Allison’s “Foolkiller” is arranged in an unrecognizable way and ornamented with greasy slide guitars and harmonica.  The only track that really nods to his past as a denizen of 60’s swinging London is the group composition (mostly likely emerging from an improvised jam) titled The Funky Elephant,which sounds like Dr.John dropping acid with The Beatles.  But not the 1968 Beatles so much as the 1974 Beatles, so basically a few years before they formed Klaatu, I guess.  The cut “Snatch” showcases Stubblefield at his best on the drum kit, tossed over a bed of mixed Wurlitzer and piano, and horn and string charts that make it all sound so easy. (It also makes an appearance on Flabbergasted Freeform Fourteen.)

A curious bit of trivia about the title track of the album: it was written for the original television series adaptation of “Serpico” but was shelved when the project was put on hold for several years due to legal complications.  When the show finally took to the airwaves in 1976 (for only one season, alas), Sidran’s track was not used.  It was written for a scene in which Frank Serpico is a given a surprise birthday party by the rest of his precinct and gets all teary-eyed and starts hugging and kissing everyone.*

Sidran appears to be, constitutionally speaking, a workaholic unable to simply take it easy.  He continues to record, perform, and write.  One of his most recent endeavors is a book regarding the role of Jews in the music business, titled “There Was a Fire: Jews, Music, and the American Dream.”  I’m sure archive-based historians might turn up their noses a bit at his interloping, but as a Jew and a musician I think he’s got a right to explore the subject, and seems to have kept busy on the lecture circuit talking about the book over the last few years.  You can catch some of his talks on his YouTube channel.  This channel, incidentally, is one of the more impressive artist channels I have seen on YouTube, as somebody (if not Sidran himself, then a stalwart staffer) has uploaded a ton of archival material, including lots of clips from the aforementioned television program from the early 1970s.  Check it out here.

(*Disclaimer: this trivia fact may or may not have any basis in our consensual reality.)

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Black Ice – Black Ice (1977)

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Black Ice
“Black Ice”
1977 HDM Records (HDM 2001)
A1     Shakedown     7:06
A2     Blind Over You     3:36
A3     Girl, That´s What I Call Love     2:51
A4     I Feel The Weight (Over Losing You)     4:07
B1     The Wine Is Bitter (But The Grapes Are Sweet)     4:08
B2     Touch     3:35
B3     Making Love In The Rain     3:15
B4     I Want You Back     3:12
B5     You Got Me Going In Circles     2:46
    Producer – Hadley Murrell
Black Ice is: Antone Curtis, Gerald Bell, Cleveland Jones, Frank Willis, Ralph Lars
Associate producers: Ray Jackson and Eddie Horan
Arranged by Ray Jackson
Strings by Bill Henderson
Audio engineers: Angel Balestier and Dennis Sands (ALB Productions)
Mastered by Bob Mac Leod and Kevin Gray (Artisan Sound)
Distributed by Amherst Records, Buffalo NY

This is the sole sentence that somebody has entered into the Discogs entry for Black Ice: “A funk and soul unit from US who never sustained much commercial success or had any lasting aesthetic impact.”  Ouch. Sounds like somebody who is owed royalties or is otherwise carrying around a grudge opened up a Discogs account just to write that.  If I limited my listening habits only to artists who had a “lasting aesthetic impact,” my library would be much smaller. After all, all that ‘seminal’ stuff has to impact something, right?

Black Ice, who only made three albums spread out between 1976 and 1982, do come off a bit like a group in search of an identity, and their sound on this first record was slightly anachronistic.   Although the perfectly-cropped erotic cover of this album may have still been contemporary with 1977, the music recalls the early to mid 70s, a combination of  The Spinners and a less complex version of early Kool and The Gang.  In fact a listen to the best-known (and best) track off of it, “Breakdown” – recorded and released as a single before the rest of the material – is likely to give the impression that you are in for a wilder, funkier ride than you will actually get.  That song is a raw, uncut funk monster (which incidentally features a riff that is only a few sixteenth-notes shy of being Jungle Boogie).  Although the remaining tracks on the record can get pretty funky too, there is nothing nearly as heavy, nor anything where the band are given the space to cut loose as they do on this track.  So my own first reaction on buying this LP was a bit of anti-climax, based on the expectations of this first cut.  Most of the other tracks are slower or mid-tempo ballads.  But being influenced by or even emulating The Spinners or The Four Tops is not a bad thing at all, so it didn’t take long for me to readjust the parameters of my listening.  The fact is that Black Ice were a really solid vocal group and these are solid songs.

The first three minutes of “Shakedown” can be found here (the album version is 7 minutes!)

As harsh as the anonymous Discogs critic might have been, he or she is kind of right.  In the compressed time-space of popular music, this kind of group probably seemed a bit old-fashioned by 1977, and the sound of their next album, which didn’t come out until two years later – the wonderfully titled “I Judge The Funk” – reflects a consciousness of that and a desire to update their sound.  This had mixed results.  That record has its moments in the way of a few well-written ballads and at least one monster jam (the somewhat goofy ‘Play More Latin Music’), but there are also stabs at disco-funk that are not quite convincing.

Short of having a visionary in the group (or someone determined to leave “a lasting aesthetic impact), vocal groups frequently need a good producer to set an agenda and direction.  The small HDR Records seemed to lack this, although most of the tracks on their first two records have a writing credit from “Associate Producer” Eddie Horan.  I also don’t know anything about Horan, but he apparently recorded an album of his own in 1978 (which I have not heard), released on HDR but also picked up by TK Records out of Miami – oddly enough, a label that I would have recommended to Black Ice had I been around and had anybody asked me.  I am not even a blip on the map of soul music crate-digger scholarship, so what do I really know.  But TK Records (and their large family of affiliated subsidiaries) had a knack for taking artists who may have cultivated regional interest in clubs or local radio and getting some modestly-successful commercial recordings out of them.  With no releases between 1979 and 1981, the intervening history of Black Ice is unknown to me.  But their last album (also titled simply Black Ice) once again shows a stylistic shift, this time into the early 80s with bass synths and perhaps a mild influence of electro-funk – once again, these are elements that make up many a great record in my collection, but not ones which Black Ice were necessarily good at incorporating.   In my imagined, filling-in-blanks history of the group, I propose a narrative of  the group slipping into an undefined hiatus while some of them attempt solo careers, not having much luck, and then reconvening around 81-82 for one last reach for the stars.  This final album also involved a switch to a new label, Montage, who with artists on their roster like Rose Royce represented a potentially higher profile for the band.  Things didn’t seem to work out too well for them at Montage either.

 Is this ’77 record a lost classic?  I don’t  know.  But the opening track is pretty phenomenal, and the rest of it holds up well after repeated listens.  My one gripe might be the gratuitous female groaning during “Making Love In The Rain” that is mixed twice as loud as the music and makes me reach for the volume knob if there is anyone within earshot with whom I am not getting freaky.  It sounds like a producer’s afterthought, and the song doesn’t need it.

This was another vinyl transfer I had sitting on my hard drive for two years, reluctant to share because I didn’t like the audio quality.  My copy is kind of crispy, my stylus and cartridge at the time were a bit on the bright side, and there is one track with the hi-hat mixed so high that it might kill you (“decapitation by hi-hat” was a finishing move I tried to pitch to the creators of Mortal Kombat but nobody seemed to think it was as cool as I did).  While typing up this post, I noticed that one of the mastering engineers was a young Kevin Gray, which explains why (hi-hat on one track notwithstanding) the album actually sounds really good.  Gray has gone on to become one of the most respected mastering engineers out there, and in particular has been working on stellar reissues lately released by a few audiophile labels. 

To make my delay in this post even more shameful, a reader specifically requested this album after I played ‘Breakdown’ on one of my first podcasts.  I told him I planned to get around to it… Well here it is!