1. The Shamen Vs Bam Bam - Transcendental (Desire)
"...one of those intriguing fusions of differing musical styles that resulted in a classic dance track. Bam Bam; one of the first major innovators of the Chicago House scene, and The Shamen; a burgeoning UK indie band, collaborated on one of Desire Records' first and most successful recordings. You may never hear the like again!"
Or actually, we most certainly would. I remember creating a retrospective C90 compilation cassette of Baggy/ Madchester music for someone while I was at university, and I put "Transcendental" very close to the start of side one, feeling that while it's seldom acknowledged as such, it's actually a pivotal release. You can sense from the gushing liner notes above that it was seen as a significant moment for some people at Beechwood Music too, and indeed others beyond - suddenly, dance music remixes of indie tracks were no longer 12" single space fillers, with the drum breaks and instrumental sections puffed out to extend the run time. Suddenly, they could be huge and relevant records in their own right.
This is a tricky case to argue, though. For every one person who argues that "Transcendental" broke the mould, another might state the case for some of the Happy Mondays early recordings, or even some of the odder Balearic records (such as those by unlikely candidates The Woodentops). As always with movements in popular culture, it's very difficult to pin the change on some precise moment or tipping point.
Nonetheless, "Transcendental" is a fabulous early Shamen record, and one which is scarcely given any consideration these days. The original track, from the LP "In Gorbachev We Trust", was pleasing in a subdued, acidic (in squelchiness and grooviness rather than bitterness) way, but never sounded like a single. Bam Bam's remix of it pumps it up harder than a freshly inflated Spacehopper, slamming rhythms all over the place and sounding positively euphoric. Rather than sounding like a remix, it feels like what it was always supposed to become, with the original album version sounding like a mere demo in comparison.
I still prefer it to a lot of their later output, and it really needs to be reconsidered not just as an important and game-changing release for The Shamen, but also arguably one of the key moments when suddenly the club dancefloor and the indie chart could meet without a disaster occurring. From this point on, nothing much would be the same - until the early nineties, anyway.
As for the baggy compilation cassette I pulled together, the woman I made it for lost interest in me and never got hold of it. Oh well. I'm sure there's an idea for a Sarah Records song in there somewhere.
2. Front 242 - Headhunter (Play It Again Sam)
"Front 242 are now. They're Euro and they're in your face! It's time to make up your mind. You're either for them or trampled under foot.
"The Studos Brosos melo makos".
Some interesting track sequencing here - from forward thinking Indie House hybrids to industrial. Front 242, like their PIAS labelmates The Young Gods (on Side 2) were a huge deal throughout most of Europe already at this point, but were only just beginning to make inroads into the British charts.
"Headhunter" is a very cold and threatening little single, which does have a certain nagging dancefloor action going on, but in a very rigid, staccato way, typical of the entire genre. The snarled lyrics and the sheer minimalism of the arrangement mean you're either going to respond to this with excessive enthusiasm or be left slightly cold - to me, this always felt like it wanted to be a poppier track than it actually became. The chorus almost melts into something altogether warmer and radio-friendly, before they realise how close they've come and descend into harshness again. It beckons you forward only to push you away again. It's compelling but never once feels welcoming.
Their influence on the popularity of industrial music in the UK and USA really cannot be understated, however, and Front 242 felt like a key gateway band. "Headhunter" is just the start of that process.
3. A Guy Called Gerald - Voodoo Ray (Rham)
"One of the hottest tracks in the New York clubs - mixes by Derrick May & Frankie Knuckles; emerging from America. Gerald's influences range from Sun Ra to Edward Barton. Rham's most successful record to date. Gerald is from Manchester.
"Keep it abstract" - Gerald, March '89
It would probably have made more sense to follow "Transcendental" with this track, but no matter. "Voodoo Ray" was another huge, important release (for as much as you can place "importance" on anything in music). Hanging around the Dance Music chart, Indie Chart and the National Charts seemingly for the best part of an entire year, it's persuasive hypnotism charmed even the shyest of feet on to the dancefloor, and it remains a respected disc of its era even now.
Making a lot out of very little, it twitters and jiggles its way along, adding occasional flourishes and absurdly throwing Derek and Clive samples into the mix for no clear reason. And no, I'm not spouting nonsense here - the "Voodoo Ray" element stems from the "Bo Dudley" sketch from "Derek and Clive Live", as does the shout of "Later!" (The proof is here if you need it). It's lucky for everyone that Gerald didn't opt to sample them screaming expletives instead...
The relevance of "Voodoo Ray" to the post-House "Indie Top 20" series might be debated further, were it not for the fact that shortly around this time, it was becoming not uncommon to hear this kind of music in the more forward-thinking clubs. As I've already hinted, the times they were a-slowly changin'...
4. The Screaming Trees - Tangiers (Native)
"This incredible dance dream that takes you somewhere nice to do it - so do it!"
No, no, not THAT Screaming Trees! This lot had absolutely nothing to do with the American grunge band at all, despite what other websites might claim; although establishing firm facts about this band is enormously challenging and tricky - much more than most of the bands to appear on Indie Top 20, they appear to have fallen off the radar in incredible style.
"Tangiers" was their very last single for Native Records before they opted to rename themselves Count Zero, and straddles the genres of Industrial and Dance and Synth-pop in quite a daring way. This single sounded huge enough to cross over in a big way, but once "The Chart Show" had screened the video, that seemed to be the end of its mainstream exposure. A shame, because "Tangiers" sounds like a possible future being explored - one where the new Ibiza-influenced rhythms of New Order, the aggression of Front 242 and the nagging melodic hooks of Depeche Mode all combined to huge effect.
To this day, I have a huge soft spot for the track, and feel enormous regret that something so potent seems to become completely commercially unavailable. For five minutes, this sounded like a wonderful and very 1988 pop moment.
5. The James Taylor Quartet - Blow Up (Re-Elect The President)
"Inspired by the organ jazz of Jimmy Smith, former Prisoner James Taylor experimented at revitalising a series of old sixties TV and film theme tunes. Blow Up was the first - raw, aggressive and sparkling, it captured Peel's attention. Sessions followed, as well as an appearance in his Festive Fifty".
And why wasn't this track sequenced next to Inspiral Carpets "Butterfly" on Side One? Questions, questions... so many questions.
This is an evergreen cover of the Herbie Hancock penned film theme which was only very recently reissued as an Acid Jazz single due to public demand, and remains popular at various retro and Acid Jazz leaning club nights. Groovy in a very 1967 way, and exquisitely delivered, it seems to have usurped the original theme completely as the version of choice - a huge accomplishment for a cover. The original, however, is far more laidback, jazzy and smooth than this, so from a club perspective perhaps it's not surprising.
The track is both behind and ahead of its time on this LP. The Prisoners were an eighties approximation of a garage/ mod band whose moment in the underground spotlight seemed to have faded slightly by this point, as the public turned their heads to the future and not the past. However, the shuffle and swagger and the electric organ grooves here also pointed very definitely towards a certain strand of Baggy/ Madchester acts who also slowly morphed out of the Paisley patterned underground - The Charlatans being a prime example (whose lead singer Tim Burgess was originally in a band called The Electric Crayons, themselves named after the sixties Rubble compilation LP "The Electric Crayon Set") and The Inspirals being a significant other. There were many elements just waiting to add their particular shade to the sonic palette we were about to experience... but we'll have to wait awhile to see the full effects on this blog.