I was very late in coming around to Mission of Burma. Sure, I grew up in LA, so I liked X in the early 80s, but for Mission of Burma, I had seen their name here and there but never gave them a try. Their first go-round was short-lived, but fortunately they reformed for a few more albums. Even then, I didn’t catch their first album as a reformed band, but their second – The Obliterati. Ah, such delicious noise! And they can be catchy and even anthemic when they want to. Once I started playing that, I had to get everything. Now I love Mission of Burma. When I lived in the DC area for a year not long ago, I finally got to see them live at the Black Cat for short money – it was awesome.
So, if you need to kick out the jams a bit, give ‘em a try:
I love Brazilian music. Beleza Tropical, the record above, is what started it all. It was compiled by David Byrne and put out on his own label Luaka Bop (I’m not sure if he is still part of it). Damn you, David Byrne!!! Well, really, Thank you, David Byrne! (I just finished his Bicycle Diaries, which I really enjoyed, too.)
It took a while to come around to the prettier songs, but after listening to this with headphones in the early 90s while walking around Jamaica Pond in Boston, I finally started to catch all the percussive details (and the more-interesting-than-usual bass lines). A “pretty” song in America is often a bit shlocky, but in Brazil they are still free to do wonderful things with percussion – the song can be beautiful and funky at the same time. There are some groovier songs on this compilation, but please take a listen below to the pretty ones. These artists are the world’s foremost practitioners of pretty funk.
Let’s do a video today, “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie. There is some conjecture as to the true meaning of the song – whether it’s really about Major Tom in space, or drug problems here on earth, perhaps Bowie’s own. I’ll let others hash out all that.
Don’t ask me why he’s dressed as a clown. I think it was just a phase (and goes with the album cover for Scary Monsters – see the bottom of this post).
OK, here’s what I really like about this song. “Space Oddity” certainly doesn’t shy away from pathos and alienation, but for revisiting his first big hit, Bowie doesn’t just try to cash in on it. “Ashes to Ashes” has such interesting sounds (futuristic, spacy… and a particularly woozy guitar line in places) and somehow succeeds in grooving to this ambivalent-to-alienated/depressed funk. But there are a couple things in particular which really sell this song for me.
First, at the climax of the chorus, “Strung out in heaven’s high, Hitting an all-time low” the words “all-time low” are not belted out. Instead they are delivered with some reservation, perhaps with a bit of “it’s a shame” in his voice. And rather than having some musical climax at the end of the chorus, those words are accompanied by a return to the woozy funk from the beginning of the song.
Next, in the section where he sings, “I never done good things, I never done bad things…” he sings (speaks, really) a background vocal which repeats the words in a low and echoed voice. What kills me is that the last “word” is woh-o-oh, and even that little bit of decoration is repeated by the low voice. I love that! I hope after recording that, they all had a good laugh. For all the seriousness in the song, that detail is hilarious.
Finally, here we have David Bowie, one of the hippest stars in the world, who had just spent several years in bohemian Berlin, which was preceded by his glam phase, singing a moody and heavy song to woozy funk. Perfect time to wrap things up with a nursery rhyme, don’t you think? “My mother said to get things done / You’d better not mess with Major Tom.” I read that he got that idea from a Danny Kaye song, “Inchworm,” from the movie Hans Christian Anderson, but still rock and roll stars can pull that off convincingly? If you can think of some other nursery rhymes in rock, please tell me about them in the comments!
I love Toots & the Maytals. Toots is fantastic the way he mixes plenty of gospel, soul and funk into his reggae. Here, take a listen to this:
But I didn’t always see it that way. Once, some friends and I walked out on a Toots concert! I know, today I can hardly believe it myself. You see, we were there for Joe Higgs. It was 1989 and we didn’t know Toots from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. OK, I think we could’ve told you which one wasn’t the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but still. A friend (hi, Jorn!) had come across a new album called Family by this guy, Joe Higgs, who was also new to us. We really loved his honest and soulful voice. It carried the album (even if that album suffered from a certain bit of 80s-ishness). So when we heard about the show, we jumped at the chance to go.
Here are a couple of tunes from Family, and his best album, Life of Contradiction:
His singing carried his concert, too. His band was merely passable, kind of reggae-by-numbers, but he could sing like nobody. (It was this short man who wrote Steppin’ Razor, the song Peter Tosh covered admirably, but Tosh was tall and the line, “don’t you watch my size, I’m dangerous,” was always a stretch with him singing it. But we didn’t know anything about that yet, either.) Anyway, we loved his performance. One thing you may find when you branch out into “world” music is a certain earthiness, an honesty about just making good music with no artifice. No flash, no marketing, no attitude, no big public image. Well, compared to U2 anyway, and we still loved U2 (and some of it can be slick, but I’m not talking about that stuff). OK, it’s like finding the complete opposite of the hair metal bands of the late 80s. Joe Higgs, though reggae isn’t always mentioned in the same breath as “world” music, had that earthy expression in spades.
So when Toots & the Maytals came on, we weren’t ready for Toots’ brand of showmanship. Toots works hard to involve the crowd. But we didn’t need any urging to be involved, so it came off to us as completely unnecessary, more of a distraction. We thought the music should speak for itself, just like it did for Joe Higgs. The thing that chafed most was their inability to end songs. There were big hits and lots of climactic strumming, followed by more big hits, and maybe some more climactic strumming: BAM… BAM… BAMBAMBAMBAMstrummmmmmmmmmmmmm (for 10 more seconds), then one more big BAM. Or they might repeat the whole bamming and strumming. It surprised us and struck us as freakish allegiance to some ideal of how to end a song with a bang. Every song had to end with a bang. I have their excellent live album, it does a little of that, but not like we heard that night. We didn’t need to hear it anymore and left, maybe a little more than halfway through.
Here’s an example from the live album of Toots working the crowd. This is a famous song, 54-46 (Was My Number), and one where the breaks in the song where he exhorts the band and/or the crowd (“give it to me one time” Bam, “give it to me two times” Bam Bam, etc.) have been a part of the song from the beginning. It’s pretty fun and not as tiresome as what we experienced:
Later I would get to know and love Toots & the Maytals. Now I understand and I’m familiar with his R&B showmanship. I have seen him in concert a couple of times and loved it, well, he still tries too hard to get the crowd to sing along. He has a better voice than the crowd and I came to him sing, but I know that he is basically purveying a joyous event and doing his best to get everybody participating.
Now, to me they are both in the stratosphere of my appreciation. Just like Burning Spear and Lee Perry from the previous post, don’t ask me to pick favorites between them, they are all my favorites.
Sometimes you hear something and you’re just not ready for it. Maybe it’s too new to you, maybe you’re really into something else at the time. But you’ll love it eventually.
I had been loving the full band teamwork on the album Marcus Garvey by Burning Spear. Everybody contributes their part and the whole thing comes together sounding so organic and earthy. So I went of to Rhino Records in Westwood (this was about 1990) in search of more perfect reggae. Of course I could get more Burning Spear, but I’m always looking for something else, too.
Here are a couple of songs to listen to before we move on:
1. Marcus Garvey – a strident, political song
2. Live Good – a sweeter song about living right
As I browsed through the reggae section, an employee asked if I needed any help. I explained my quest to the kid (he must’ve been 20 to my 23) and he suggested: Lee “Scratch” Perry – Scratch Attack (2 albums on one cd, Scratch and Company Chapter One and Blackboard Jungle Dub, with some “enhancement” by Brad Osbourne, who put this collection out in 1988). Not really along the lines of what I was looking for, but his latest favorite reggae album.
I could sample it at a listening station. A reggae version of ‘garage’ came to mind. Not only is it much looser in vision than Burning Spear (being based on singles by different artists, that makes sense, but also, Perry is just very open to whatever sounds groovy), but I think Perry’s purposeful, heavy use of the phaser, causing some very groovy aural degradation, also made that term come to mind. There are a lot more rough edges overall (even the title of the first song is misspelled: Stratch the Dub Organizer), and more playfulness. There’s even a dub version of Pop Goes the Weasel (Pop Goes the Dread Dub). To introduce the 2nd part of Blackboard Jungle, Lee Perry says, “Welcome to Blackboard Jungle, Part 2,” then gives 2 growly roars, “Rrrrrrrr, Hhrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”
At the time, I knew I was going to like it, but I really had my heart set on something more like the Burning Spear. So I passed on it, but came back a couple weeks later to pick it up. Now that misspelled opening track makes me think of a grand entrance through gates to a completely different land. In fact, both albums have been favorites now for over 20 years.
Here are a few of the Lee Perry songs:
Extra points if anyone can tell me what the woman says at the end of the intro to Rubba, Rubba Words, just before the music comes in (10-12 seconds in).