The Rebel Waltz
I like odd music. I’ve always liked odd music. When I bought my first long player – With The Beatles – it was odd music.
I’ve never quite recovered from the five note sequence when Lennon sings the last word in the title of Not A Second Time – a sequence which famously led The Times music critic, William Mann, to opine:
one gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches, so natural is the Aeolian cadence at the end of Not A Second Time
Forty years since I bought the longplayer with my saved pocket money, that song still rings odd. 1 It’s an odd few minutes in the same way the first few Velvet’s albums were very odd, The Ramones’ début was odd as fuck and so were the first two PiL albums. This, of course, needs to be placed in cultural context and to a kid now listening to that radical second Beatles album, Not A Second Time doesn’t sound odd. That’s because odd redefined normal. And normal thereafter was the acceptance of that odd. Not A Second Time still sounds odd to me because I can place it in the context it arrived.
What wasn’t odd was Paul McCartney getting a Grammy for Best Solo Male Vocal for a take of Helter Skelter on one of his bi-annual throwaway live albums. The best male rock vocal in the whole world in 2010 was, if you trust the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, a forgotten track on a forgotten album which covered a frankly average song from his 40-year-old once revolutionary and, yes, odd, band. That’s not odd, it’s tragic. Even the several years late coming to Arcade Fire in the awards can’t make up for that statement of major label reality divorce. Not that it’s anything new, nor an indicator of anything more meaningful than the fact that the Grammys have long been tosh.
I’m more interested in who will buy EMI, now that WMG is on the block too? Does BMG buy both? Can they be that stupid? No, of course not and the only way it makes sense for anyone to buy either label is to simply buy the copyrights and start afresh. The infrastructure of both is neither an asset nor a desirable burden for any buyer surely.
Early house music was very odd, and as with The Beatles, it’s hard to grasp exactly how odd twenty-five years on.
When it arrived we all stood back and asked ourselves (repeatedly) wtf is this? The first house record played in New Zealand was a Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk single in late 1986. I’d bought it at the recommendation of my usual UK disc supplier, Eastern Bloc in Manchester and when it had arrived I’d played it at home over and over trying work out what it was.
I liked it but knew not how it would work in a club environment. Roger Perry played it one night at The Asylum and it split the dancefloor – the soul boys were aghast, and the hairdressers loved it.
Which brings me to the long player I love the very most this particular week – the mighty Trax Re-edited collection released on DJ friendly vinyl, CD and, natch, digital, by the folks at DJ History and Harmless.
Some things are, by their implied nature, almost untouchable and so it is with much of the early house music. It recalls a moment when their oddness presaged a musical revolution (as much as those Beatles or Ramones records did) and there is, oddly still, something almost sacred about them. However, that said, they were mutants too – they were rough reworkings, using the newly available technology of drum machines and digital samplers, of the disco records that had filled the newly hungry dancefloors of the decade before.
They were totally disrespectful imitations of what came earlier.
I know that and part of what makes me love these old shittily pressed and appallingly mastered old Trax, DJ International and Underground labelled records is that they dissected their own roots so thoroughly and irreverently.
For all that, the idea of someone reworking the twelve inches of perfection that is Larry Heard‘s Can You Feel It – a simple but brutally intense few minutes without vocals (in its original mix – the versions with superfluous dubbed MLK and other vocals are not worth your time) that has rarely been equalled, filled me with dread. Or Jamie Principal’s Frankie Knuckles produced Cold World – easily one of my favourite 12″ singles of all time. My fears were mostly not grounded in rationalé but nostalgia.
And, this, despite the hype, is not the first time many of these have been reworked, or simply cleaned up. I have a series of quite stunning 10″ and 12″ singles issued in the late 1980s by Trax UK which matched up remastered Trax cuts with a bunch of fairly respectable and respectful remixes by the likes of The Advent and Basement Jaxx.
However that was a mighty long time ago (was it really? yes…) and much of this stuff has long been only available on cheap comps or bootleg 12″s often sounding little better than those original Trax pressings (notoriously on reprocessed vinyl – I have a copy of the seminal Acid Tracks with a large bit of paper poking out of the plastic – I love it all the more for that, but I can’t player the fucker).
But enough rambling – for the history of this mighty, but mightily dysfunctional record label, I recommend you to the videos here, where Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton of DJ History talk all things Trax and Chicago house with Ian Dewhirst.
It is of course to these three that we owe this new collection, and as importantly, the fact that it’s been done not only tastefully but also not overloaded with the obvious ‘Hits of Trax’™. That means that for every Adonis‘ No Way Back (likely in the top five compiled Chi house tracks of all time) there are at least three tracks that only the most hardcore, retentive, Trax trainspotter (or DJ History forum member) knows.
There isn’t a single moment when I’ve gone ‘no, please, no…’
There are a couple of tracks that seem to offer little more than a happy and affectionate touch-up, and that’s fine, but when it kicks it really kicks. The opening track, Virgo 4’s Take Me Higher, a song that owes more than a passing debt to Big Audio Dynamite’s E=MC2, as reworked by Rang Mang, is just lovely, all shimmers and waves, and that kicks into Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk’s Farley Knows House, an obscure-ish groove that is all clattering 808s and percussion, and I can feel the dancefloor dragging me back to 1987 and all that wonderful oddness.
That takes you to one of the album’s highlights, the aforementioned (and much loved) Cold World – a track that is either credited to Jamie Principal, or Frankie Knuckles (here, the latter, as with the 1987 OG) depending on the version. The Hotel Motel edit sounds like it’s another loving re-tweak until, at around 6 minutes (the original was only 5.30) it heads off in a padded percussive direction that the original only hinted at, finding itself touching on deep melodic acid a couple of minutes later. It’s gorgeous.
And so it goes, track by track it really does work. It’s warm, it’s reverential, albeit not overly, it’s vaguely modern but not desperately so, and best of all, the one track I was most dreading hearing, Mr. Finger’s Can You Feel It, not only doesn’t make me tear the CD out of the player, instead I now find myself returning to the way John Daly has turned the raw acid growl into a soft 303 shuffle, thus accentuating the melody in this most beautiful of all electronic recordings, over and over again.
A success? Nah, I’d say it’s a fucking triumph.
This mix, from Leftside Wobble, is a worthy way to check out the album. And if you feel yourself getting too precious about remixing this stuff, remember the spirit it was made in. Hell, even the grumpiest forum on the internet, Deep House Pages, gave it a thumbs up.