Friday, November 17, 2006

Flash. Ahh, ahhh.

Something in the Observer caught my eye recently. Software that analyses music and can determine its hit potential is reportedly being used by labels to determine where they should put their promotional budgets, and may even lead to the demise of the poor A&R man (a nation weeps). Many of the objections to this sort of reductive analysis are neatly summarised by the article…but the main one, from a music fan’s point of view, seems to have been overlooked. Namely the difference between a hit and a good song that is culturally important. They’re not usually the same thing. For example, compare The Blobby Song by Mr. Blobby and The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel by the aforementioned Grandmaster Flash and his Furious Five. One of these songs was a huge hit, reaching the No. 1 position in the UK on two separate occasions. The other didn’t get within sniffing distance of the top 40, but changed the whole course of musical history. I’m guessing that you don’t need The Guinness Book of Hit Singles to tell which is which. I’d be interested, then, to see where Flash figures on the musical analysis spectrum; presumably, he’d be off the chart, uncategorisable, indefinable. Definitely not hit material.

The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash… represents a sort of year zero for those of us a little too young to have fully appreciated the icy blast of punk. At my primary school, we were vaguely aware that the Sex Pistols were not appreciated by our parents or the BBC, and so were, ipso facto, A GOOD THING; however, we only latched on to them around the time of Pretty Vacant, by which time Glen Matlock was gone and they were already becoming pantomime dames. Flash, on the other hand, came like a bolt from the blue four years later, and I can still picture the moment; lying on my bed, homework in hand, radio tuned to Kid Jensen’s show (he was on before Peel from 8pm to 10pm, in the days when Radio 1 was AM only), and BLAM. The world changed irreversibly. Even though pioneers like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa had laid the groundwork (and I highly recommend David Toop’s The Rap Attack and/or Bill Brewster’s Last Night A DJ Saved My Life for the full gen), it was Flash who pointed the way forward. Not quite the first hip-hop record, but definitely the first that sounded like a Bronx block party and the one that presaged sampling, cutting, bricolage, remixing and Jive Bunny. This is the record that changed my life. One of my Desert Island Discs, if Kirsty Young ever gets round to interviewing museum educators.

The purist in me would definitely acknowledge Flash’s primacy as a hip-hop progenitor. But hold up. Wait a minute. Just in case you thought you were going to get a free download of Adventures, remember this is Irk The Purists. It’s one of life’s great ironies that the record that really brought hip-hop to the masses was not Wheels of Steel, which, as stated above, had barely any impact in the UK, except for those lucky few who caught it on Peel’s and Jensen’s shows. No, the record before which LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Eminem and 50 Cent should be genuflecting every day, was made by five of the least funky, most white people on the planet. Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals (in case you hadn’t guessed) was even more strange than Wheels of Steel, and is usually overlooked when hip-hop histories are written, but DJ Greg Wilson restores it to its rightful place in a masterful article here.

Dissonant, complex, na├»ve, it’s difficult today to communicate just how radical and provocative the sound of this record was at the time. Much of its impact, I believe, was the result of two mismatched cultures clashing against each other, namely the New York jive of the World’s Famous Supreme Team (aka C Divine the Mastermind and Just Allah the Superstar) rubbing shoulders with the classically-trained, home counties boffins under the aegis of producer Trevor Horn. When Talking Heads recorded The Overload for their album Remain In Light, they reportedly tried to make a track that sounded like Joy Division, but, crucially, they’d never actually heard any Joy Division at the time. Instead, the sound they created was what they imagined Joy Division sounded like based on reports they’d read about the band. Buffalo Gals has a similar relationship to hip-hop. It’s as if someone had described a hip-hop record to the musicians involved (namely Anne Dudley, JJ Jeczalik and Gary Langan, later to metamorphose into the Art of Noise), and asked them to construct something similar. With possible additional references to square-dancing. The result owes as much to Stockhausen as it does to Spoonie Gee. That the participants had only a tenuous grasp of the mechanics of hip hop is illustrated by the record’s sleeve; on it someone (McLaren?) writes:

“The performance by the Supreme Team may require some explaining but suffice to
say they are DJs from New York City who have developed a technique using record
players like instruments, replacing the power chord of the guitar by the needle
of a gramophone, moving it manually backwards and forwards across the surface of
a record. We call it scratching.”

The writer imagined the scratching sound was made by moving the needle across the record, a move that guarantees a short life for your vinyl. As even my granny now knows, the needle stays perfectly still, and it’s the groove of the record that is manipulated back and forth.

As Greg Wilson, points out, though, it was the video as much as the sound that really brought hip-hop to a critical mass. I wasn’t in a club when I first saw it, sadly; I was in my pyjamas watching Top Of The Pops, but the impact was much the same. I was blown away. Grandmaster Flash had pulled the door ajar and allowed us a peek at a new world in 1981. But a year later Buffalo Gals kicked the door down and life was never going to be the same again. At the time, Trevor Horn claimed that making Buffalo Gals was the most fun he’d had in the record industry. After many soul-destroying years of twiddling the knobs on dreck by Seal, Rod Stewart and LeAnn Rimes, I imagine he looks back on the record with even greater fondness.

Watch Buffalo Gals

Anne Dudley (co-writer of Buffalo Gals!)

Talcy Malcy (does he still get called that, I wonder?)


CG said...

Buffalo Girls is a stock fave of mine and has been for years, used to pull it out when the DJ had passed out and I was the last man standing - wow people at house parties years ago - classic, glad my good taste is recognised....

C x

irkthepurists said...

Well, I always knew you had good taste. I just saw that Anne Dudley's publishing company is called Buffalo Music... Sadly, they don't sell the sheet music for Duck Rock. Which is a fantastically good album too. Do you have it CG? If not, I'll send you a copy.

jude calvert-toulmin said...

fookin ell irk that is a brilliant article!

> and may even lead to the demise of the poor A&R man (a nation weeps)

ha ha ha ha ha! perfect comic timing :)

and buffalo gals! one of the finest moments of musical history, ever :)

(ive already got it earmarked as one of my weekly youtubes on my myspace)

your writing and your blog ROCK THE BIG ONE irk...the world is a little tardy at waking up to the fact, but then...(she says airily, whilst polishing her nails) i'm often there before the world :D

nice one.