11 Digital Funk Classics

Peaking between 1983 and 1985, the digital funk sound took the base elements of early pioneers James Brown, The Isley Brothers and Sly and the Family Stone and combined them with the new studio technology of the early ’80s.

Producers Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin, Leon Sylvers III (The Whispers, Shalamar), Kashif, Prince and Steve Arrington, and keyboardists/programmers such as David Gamson, David Frank and Robbie Buchanan, instigated a new kind of funk incorporating syncopated synth parts, percussion and intricate rhythm guitar.

The resulting sound is instantly recognisable and an influence on everyone from Beck and Bruno Mars to Daft Punk and Mark Ronson. Here are 11 tracks that still retain the wow factor. Play ’em loud…

11. Zapp & Roger: ‘More Bounce To The Ounce’ (1980)

Roger Troutman took the key elements of George Clinton/Bernie Worrell’s P-Funk template (squelchy synth bass, solid drums, clipped rhythm guitar) and stripped them back to their bare essentials, creating this classic single which made the Billboard top 100 in 1980.

10. The System: ‘You Are In My System’ (1982)

Later covered by Robert Palmer, this was the trademark track by the New York outfit comprising Mic Murphy on vocals and David Frank on keyboards and programming. Their most recent album is 2013’s System Overload.

9. Person To Person: ‘High Time’ (1983)

This was former ABC drummer David Palmer’s bid for solo pop stardom after jumping ship from the ‘Lexicon Of Love’ tour. Produced by David Frank, it’s catchy and beautifully arranged but lacks a decent vocalist and didn’t dent the charts on its 1983 single release.

8. The Girls: ‘I’ve Got My Eyes On You’ (1983)

Minneapolis was a hotbed of digital funk in the early ’80s too, not all generated by Prince (but I’d definitely have included ‘DMSR’ or ‘Erotic City’ if they were on YouTube…). This curio, produced by his 1979-1981 touring bassist Andre Cymone, lacks a decent chorus but is still a catchy funk stew all the same. The Girls released their one and only album in 1984.

7. Kashif: ‘Stone Love’ (1983)

This has more than a whiff of Luther’s ‘Never Too Much’ about it, but it was also a major influence on Scritti Politti (see below). Kashif released five studio albums between ’83 and ’89 and worked with Whitney Houston and George Benson before his death in 2016.

6. Chic: ‘Believer’ (1983)

The corking title track from their last studio album of the ’80s which received a critical mauling at the time. It sounds pretty fresh these days though maybe lacks the killer pop hooks that categorised their most successful work.

5. Scritti Politti: ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’ (1984)

Arif Mardin produced this classic single which made #10 in the UK chart in March 1984.

4. Wally Badarou: ‘Chief Inspector’ (1985)

Best known as keyboard player for Grace Jones and Level 42, Badarou also scored movies (‘Kiss Of The Spiderwoman’) and came up with this classic Afrocentric take on the digital funk sound.

3. Loose Ends: ‘Hanging On A String (Contemplating)’ (1985)

Obviously at the commercial end of the sound, this reached the giddy heights of #13 in the UK singles chart and was all held together by a superb performance by Ron Jennings on guitar.

2. Chaka Khan: ‘I Feel For You’ (1984)

Overfamiliar it may be, but this Prince-penned epic is undeniably the commercial apotheosis of the digital funk sound. The famous opening was apparently a total mistake, producer Arif Mardin getting trigger-happy with the sampler. Chaka was apparently not amused, wanting it erased, but Mardin insisted on keeping it in, telling her: ‘Don’t worry, my dear, it will be a hit.’ A hit it was, the only number one of her career.

1. Beck: ‘Get Real Paid’ (1999)

The Los Angeles chameleon revived the sound for his underappreciated 1999 solo album Midnite Vultures.

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‘Wendy & Lisa’: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 24th September 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1989?

8/10

Los Angeles, October 1986, just after the Japanese leg of the ‘Parade’ tour: Prince has invited his bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman to dinner (Lisa will later report in her excellent liner notes for the Wendy & Lisa 2013 reissue that she ‘knew something was up’ as soon as they arrived).

To cut a long story short, he gives them the boot – in the nicest possible way. The Revolution is no more. Lisa: ‘We were like Fleetwood Mac and Sly & The Family Stone rolled into one… I thought we were going to make records together for the rest of our lives.’ But Prince wants to take back his freedom and sex up his act again. Struggling for the right words, apparently he says to Wendy and Lisa: ‘I can’t ask you to wear crotchless panties or nippleless bras…’

After a period of introspection, the ladies get together with other sacked Revolution member Bobby Z and write a few songs. At this stage, they have no intention of releasing the new material as ‘Wendy & Lisa’. But once they agree to front the band, a record company bidding war ensues. Huge advances are mentioned. They settle on a ‘big but sensible deal’ with Virgin. Predictably, the suits are less than turned on by the more musicianly moments on the album, but the ladies are unapologetic, saying that they ‘wanted to show off all the colours in our crayon box’.

So much for the history. How does Wendy & Lisa stack up these days? Pretty well. The singles ‘Sideshow’ and ‘Waterfall’ are probably the weakest tracks, though the latter has a cracking chorus and was apparently deemed a surefire hit by the record company and musician friends. But it didn’t do the business, not helped by its rather humdrum video. As Lisa says in the liner notes: ‘I had paid my showbiz dues with The Revolution.’

But the album works brilliantly when it sticks to the ‘cool chord changes over good beats’ remit, when they genuinely do sound like a mashup of ’80s Joni Mitchell and Prince. ‘Honeymoon Express’ exemplifies this approach, nicking Sly Dunbar’s ‘My Jamaican Guy’ beat and adding a sumptuous melody. The vocal harmony in the chorus is just sublime. ‘Light’, ‘Everything But You’ and ‘Chance To Grow’ also succeed in a similar vein. Wendy’s multi-instrumental skills (vocals, guitar, bass, sometimes drums) and Lisa’s impressionistic synth parts mesh perfectly.

‘Song About’ sounds eerily like The Carpenters. Ballads ‘The Life’ and ‘Stay’ have become fan favourites, the former also turning up in an improved Trevor Horn-produced reworking on the soundtrack of Michelle Pfeiffer movie ‘Dangerous Minds’. The instrumental ‘White’, featuring Tom Scott on soprano and a killer bit of drum machine programming by Wendy, is possibly the standout. Test your speakers out with this one, kids.

Wendy & Lisa – perhaps surprisingly – was not a hit. Lacking a breakout single, it didn’t dent the US top 100 and only scraped to #84 in the UK. Better Wendy & Lisa albums would follow, but this is an ambitious, arresting debut. All the colours in the crayon box indeed.

Gig Review: The Revolution @ The Showbox, 15th July 2017

Our man in Seattle: Sebastian Wright.

A warm Seattle evening, just steps away from the iconic Pike Place Market. One of the definitive bands of the ’80s are getting ready to take the stage. But one member, the lead vocalist, is famously and notably absent. How can they pay tribute without becoming a tribute act?

The Revolution are close to the end of their 29-date North American tour. Reformed with the original line-up, they provided backup for Prince throughout his creative zenith (1980-86). It’s hard to think of a band who funked as hard in that era. And tonight, that’s what shines through.

The Revolution, 2017: From left, Brown Mark, Dr Fink, Bobby Z, Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin and guest Dez Dickerson

Gone are the ’80s fashions, the side partings, ruffs and glitter (though keyboard player Dr Fink maintains his scrubs and stethoscope). This is not a celebration of the past but rather a testament to how relevant Prince’s music remains today. In the diverse, 1,100 capacity Showbox crowd, there is no hint of irony or throwback-chic. These people, many of them tattooed with Prince’s ‘symbol’ motif, came to party. And from the opening bars of ‘Computer Blue’, party is what they do.

What follows is a two-hour set of peerless pop classics. There are no overwrought solos, no extended jams. Nothing outstays its welcome or is embellished. Wendy takes lead guitar but keeps true to her original riffs instead of trying to mimic Prince’s soloing. It’s a joy to hear a band this tight and disciplined. Their use of vintage keyboards and drum machines, at chest- splitting volume, has a transportive effect.

Joined by guest vocalist Stokley Williams, The Revolution power through ‘Uptown’ and ‘DMSR’ until noticeably dropping the energy level (and losing the crowd) with two tracks from Prince’s vault of unreleased songs. Then it’s back to the dancefloor, tearing through ‘Erotic City’, ‘Let’s Work’ and ‘1999’, until their next break in pace: Wendy and Lisa’s quiet, melancholic and clearly deeply personal tribute to their missing bandleader, ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’.

It’s at this point that you hear the tears from fans who continue to be touched by the passing of their innovative, imaginative hero. For many, this is a moment of quiet reflection, surrounded by like-minded people – a cathartic release for all, including a visibly upset Wendy. As the show goes on, climaxing with ‘Purple Rain’, the band are overwhelmed by the ecstatic energy of the crowd.

It’s not hard to understand how The Revolution, all now in their mid-50s, can keep up with touring such a high-energy show. The passion of the music, camaraderie of the players and discipline of their act transform the audience into just what they lack: their missing frontman.

Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby: 30 Years Old Today

CBS Records, released 13th July 1987

9/10

Yeau! The headline of Q Magazine’s September 1987 feature said it all. Perrier-quaffing Terence was correctly predicting a phenomenal critical and commercial reaction to his debut album and ready to dish the dirt. He had done it all on his terms; wrongfooted his record company (who had wanted a slick, current, ‘upwardly-mobile’ soul album) and played the press at their own game. But at what cost?

D’Arby had lived quite a life before becoming a ‘pop star’: he was born in the States, the son of a preacher father and gospel-singing mother, studied journalism in New York, became a half-decent boxer in his late teens, joined the army and was based in Germany throughout most of the ’80s during which time he worked on his music and acquired a manager (a strategy not dissimilar to another ex-army musical maverick, Jimi Hendrix).

Decamping to London in 1985, D’Arby worked on demos with Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware and, after being turned down by several major labels, finally got the nod from CBS. They pulled off a pre-release masterstroke when D’Arby was block-booked for four weeks running on ‘The Tube’ after a knockout debut live TV performance (I remember it well). To say that there was a buzz about him would be an understatement. The general consensus was: ‘Who the hell is this guy?!’

Hardline still sounds like one of the better debut album of the ’80s or any other decade. From the opening bars of ‘If You All Get To Heaven’ (mastered directly from a Walkman, by the sound of it), it’s clear that something pretty special and pretty different is going on, though the album inadvertently tapped into the ‘retro-soul’ revival that had built up in the UK over 1986 and 1987 – Ben E King and Percy Sledge had both had number ones in the months before Hardline‘s release, and The Pasadenas, The Christians and various others would bring forth similar grooves in the months to come.

Hardline also reminded critics and audiences alike of some of the great soul vocalists of the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s – Al Green, Otis Redding, Stevie, Prince, Michael Jackson, James Brown and especially Sam Cooke. All went into the mix but finally D’Arby sounded just like himself. He peppered ‘Dance Little Sister’ – a track that Prince would have killed for – with some outrageously over-the-top vocals. But, refreshingly, his singing throughout the album ain’t perfect – he’s much more into getting the emotion across and bringing a party vibe to the studio.

‘Sign Your Name’, ‘If You Let Me Stay’ and ‘Wishing Well’ are funky yet accessible (if the latter doesn’t make you move, you’re probably dead), but the a cappella, African-themed ‘As Yet Untitled’ is totally original. He even takes on Smokey Robinson and emerges unscathed on the closing ‘Who’s Loving You’. He plays a lot of instruments himself and only gets in occasional help when absolutely necessary (including future Skunk Anansie bassist Cass Lewis and Pop Group/PiL drummer Bruce Smith). As such it’s a remarkably cohesive album.

Hardline was a big hit, reaching number one in the UK, number four in the US and selling over eight million copies worldwide. D’Arby got the rep of being a ‘difficult’ artist when his follow-up album Neither Fish Nor Flesh missed deadlines and went over budget. Things would probably never be the same again. But we’d always have Hardline.

Prince’s Sign O’ The Times: 30 Years Old Today

Paisley Park/Warner Bros, released 30th March 1987

Album chart position: #6 (US), #4 (UK)

Singles released: ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (#3 US, #10 UK)
‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ (#67 US, #20 UK)
‘U Got The Look’ (#2 US, #11 UK)
‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ (#10 US, #29 UK)

At the time of Sign O’ The Times’ release, the general critical consensus seemed to be that it was a great double album but, shorn of a few tracks, would have made a sensational single album. But what the press probably didn’t know was that Prince had actually intended to release a triple album!

He believed the three-record set Crystal Ball would have been be a huge artistic statement after a relatively disappointing 1986, but the idea scared the hell out of Warner Bros and also his manager Bob Cavallo. Prince was reluctantly forced to back down.

The tracks intended for Crystal Ball but later abandoned for Sign O’ The Times were ‘Rebirth Of The Flesh’, ‘Rockhard In A Funky Place’, ‘The Ball’, ‘Joy In Repetition’, ‘Shockadelica’, and ‘Good Love’ (all hoovered up from two other aborted album projects, Dream Factory and Camille). But even after Prince removed these, he was still left with a 16-track double album, a brilliant mix of the sacred and profane, and a record which many fans believe was his finest hour.

The famous title track was recorded on 15th July 1986 in a single ten-hour session at LA’s Sunset Sound. Prince was experimenting with a new piece of kit – the Fairlight sampler/synth – but characteristically made the technology swing in a way that no other artist could. The track also demonstrates his love of space; it’s essentially just a minimalist blues featuring a three-note melody line, some sampled drums/bass and a bit of electric guitar. Listening again on the day after the Westminster terror attack of 23rd March, the song’s lyric also seems as relevant now as it was in 1987:

Hurricane Annie ripped the ceiling of a church and killed everyone inside
You turn on the telly and every other story is tellin’ you somebody died
Sister killed her baby cos she couldn’t afford to feed it
And we’re sending people to the moon
In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time
Now he’s doing horse, it’s June

It’s silly, no?
When a rocket ship explodes
And everybody still wants to fly
Some say a man ain’t happy
Until a man truly dies

‘Play In The Sunshine’ and ‘Housequake’ are pure party pop – it’s scarcely believable that Prince alone could generate such a raucous studio atmosphere with only Susannah Melvoin’s backing vocals, a few guests and Eric Leeds’ sax for company. The latter also represents his first recorded attempt at hip-hop (unless you count the brief ‘rap’ in ‘Girls & Boys’), typically supplying something usually missing from the genre: humour.

‘The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’, recorded in Prince’s Minneapolis home studio on 15th March 1986, may be his most psychedelic recording, the soundtrack to a dream with seemingly-spontaneous musical moments that no one else could have created. He demonstrates his mastery with the LM-1 drum machine and, vocally, sets up a novel ‘Greek chorus’ effect.

‘Forever In My Life’ takes a melody line very similar to Sly And The Family Stone’s ‘Everyday People’ (and maintains Sly’s key of G) but again demonstrates Prince’s remarkable sense of space and also features another extraordinary backing vocal arrangement. The heartfelt lyric was written when he believed he would settle down with fiancée Susannah Melvoin (twin sister of Wendy) – sadly it wasn’t to be.

‘It’, another bold experiment with the Fairlight, returns to the cold, sexualised world of 1999, while ‘Hot Thing’ is its flipside, a funky, James Brown-inspired one-chord romp with some great Leeds tenor sax.

‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ (another song about Susannah/Wendy), ‘Strange Relationship’ (another big nod to Sly), ‘It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night’, ‘Starfish And Coffee’, ‘U Got The Look’ and ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ are just brilliantly performed, beautifully written pop tunes with dashes of psychedelia and soul.

According to engineer Susan Rogers, Prince was very influenced by Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love during the recording of SOTT, the track ‘Cloudbusting’ a particular favourite. Other songs showed contemporary influences too – ‘Adore’ was apparently Prince’s response to the popularity of Luther Vandross’s Give Me The Reason and Patti Labelle’s The Winner In You, and it also hugely influenced the neo-soul movement, particularly D’Angelo’s ballad style. ‘U Got The Look’ – the last song recorded for Sign O’ The Times on 21st December 1986 – was apparently inspired by Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’.

Sign O’ The Times sold 1.8 million copies in the US, a very similar number to Parade. Some believed the slightly disappointing sales were due to the choice of ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ as the second single; it is strange that ‘U Got The Look’ didn’t get the nod. But if Prince’s popularity was levelling out in the States, it was growing across Europe.

Lovesexy Meets Ligeti: Terje Rypdal’s The Singles Collection

terje

ECM Records, released January 1989

9/10

It’s probably a good thing for a record label to have a USP, a recognisable visual concept and/or sound. It has certainly stood Blue Note, Impulse and 4AD in good stead. When one thinks of ECM, images of fjords, mountains or trees probably come to mind, alongside a certain sonic quality, a kind of rarefied ambience (producer/owner Manfred Eicher’s choice of reverb units are apparently almost as ‘secret’ as Colonel Sanders’ chicken recipe…).

The ECM formula worked for two decades. But then along came Terje Rypdal’s The Singles Collection in 1989 to throw a spanner in the works (though, admittedly, it does feature mountains on the cover…or are they fjords?!). Though the title is a joke – there are no ‘singles’ on the album – you wish more pop music was as bold as this collection which explores hard rock, early-’60s-style balladry, techno-fusion and even Prince-influenced funk to exciting and sometimes amusing effect.

The shorter tracks start out sounding a bit like Living In A Box jamming with Jeff Beck, before completely changing gear a minute in and turning into dark, introspective mood pieces with Messiaen chords and ethereal fretless bass. They chuck in the whole kitchen sink, as if desperate to avoid a boring listening experience. The ploy works. And, yes, it cannot be denied – this is the ECM album whose first track is titled ‘There Is A Hot Lady In My Bedroom And I Need A Drink’…

terje-back-cover

Rypdal’s album feels very much like ECM’s black sheep of the family, despite coming from an artist was very much part of the furniture – the Norwegian guitarist/composer appeared on Jan Garbarek’s Afric Peppperbird from 1970, only the label’s seventh release.

Influenced by Hank Marvin, Beck, Bartok and Ligeti, and still very much active today, Rypdal is a weirdly unheralded figure, even though his Strat-with-distortion-and-whammy-bar sound and use of guitar loops are occasionally detectable in players like David Torn, Andy Summers and Allan Holdsworth.

The Singles Collection was the third album in a row where Rypdal hooked up with The Chasers, a cracking bass and drums team comprising of Bjorn Kjellemyr and Audun Kleive. But a vital ingredient here is the addition of keyboardist Allan Dangerfield who contributes three compositions and all manner of weird textures, Synclavier drum/sequencer patterns and unhinged, hysterical Hammond organ solos very much in the Prince style.

‘Sprøtt’ (Norwegian for ‘crazy’) sounds like an outtake from Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop album with its chugging rockabilly rhythms and blistering lead guitar. Luscious noir ballad ‘Mystery Man’ will be familiar to fans of the Michael Mann movie ‘Heat’. If Mann hadn’t bagged it, you can bet David Lynch wouldn’t have been far behind. Maybe Dave can still put the gorgeous, glacial ‘Somehow, Somewhere’ to good use.

Elsewhere, ‘U’n’I’ fuses rockabilly and free-jazz beats with fusion bass, Ligeti chords and Van Halen guitar styles to thrilling effect. ‘Steady’ features some serious funk/rock riffing and another nutty Dangerfield solo. All in all, a striking, fascinating album.