Judging by the release dates, it must have been 1987. I had decided with the money I had earned from my year out of my degree to treat myself to my first CD player (and I think speakers and an amplifier). There may have been some birthday money chucked in as well.
So off I went to the hifi department in Beatties in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, England. Beatties was the Grande Dame of Black Country department stores. Established in 1877 it had the following company policy, known in the Victorian era, rather grandly as the “Four Corners of Responsibility”:
“To provide the customer with a good range of well chosen, good value merchandise. To offer this to the public in attractive surroundings, backed by pleasant and effective service, and in an atmosphere of complete integrity and responsibility. To demonstrate at all times a genuine desire to please.”
As retail mission statements go it still sounds good to me. Going to Beatties was always a bit of a treat. It was the nearest the Black Country got to Selfridges.
Anyway I plumped for a Sony, but in any event I don’t recall there being a great deal of choice. The alternative would have been to take myself off to my local specialist dealer, probably for an experience somewhat akin to this, only without the tweed and the cravat (they were to come later in life).
Anyway, having picked what was probably the only CD player in my budget range, I noticed that there was an offer to choose five complimentary CD’s. Rather startlingly in retrospective, I ended up picking five humdingers, undimmed by the passage of time and untainted by the worst that the 1980’s churned out. This is the first of a series of posts that take a trip down Black Country Memory Lane.
CD one was Yo! Bum Rush The Show by Public Enemy. This was the wildest punt in my selection. At the time in my neck of the woods, Public Enemy were primarily known as label mates of the Beastie Boys on Def Jam. Reading the music press, I was aware of some emerging controversy around the militaristic posturing and Louis Farrakhan but new little else other than it was getting great reviews as a debut. This predated the classic second and third albums and game changing singles like “Fight the Power”, “Bring The Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype”.
Put it this way – they weren’t getting played on Radio One or Beacon Radio 303.
The whole album was a revelation to me. A combination of the powerful social and political messages and the fantastic soundscapes fashioned by the Bomb Squad made for an incendiary package. The albums stands up brilliantly aside from “Miuzi Weights a Ton” and “Sophisticated Bitch” (with guitar by future Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid on the latter number), which don’t fit into where Public Enemy went next. Beyond these tracks, the remainder still stands up to scrutiny and was unlike anything I had heard before.
Two tracks in particular grabbed my attention. The first was the opening track “You’re Gonna Get Yours”.
As a side one track one, it was some way to get out of the starting blocks. It probably sounded great blasting out of the tape deck of my Mum’s Renault 5 as we cruised the mean streets of Dudley and Stourbridge. At the time, the Bomb Squad use of the kinetic guitar riff that created the groove for the track sounded unheard of. In those days, the notion of sampling was new and it is only with the benefit of the internet that you can hear the source material from Dennis Coffey without crate digging and finding the following track by chance.
By way of background Dennis Coffey was a session musician who was part of the Funk Brothers studio back up band at the Motown studios. I can guarantee that anyone reading this piece will be intimately familiar with his work. He played the way way guitar on the Temptations hits “Psychedelic Shack”, “Ball of Confusion” and “Cloud Nine.” He also played on Edwin Starr’s “War” and Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold”. He branched out into Blaxploitation soundtracks in the 70s and even became the first white artist to appear on Soul Train in 1972, paving the way for David Bowie amongst others.
The second track that stood out for me was “Timebomb”.
Chuck D and Flavor Flav are central but again it’s the use of a guitar sample that really drew me in. Years later I bought an album of New Orleans Funk and Soul and immediately recognised the track, “Just Kissed My Baby” by the Meters. The guitar line twists and lopes and has that wonderful fractured N’Awlins relationship with the rhythm section – syncopated but disjointed at the same time.
Again, the Meters were, amongst other things, the go-to studio band for people who wanted that unique New Orleans sound. Paul McCartney courted them and they were the backing band for Robert Palmer’s “Sneaking Sally Through The Alley” album. I’ve looked for any live footage of Robert Palmer and the Meters together but have failed miserably. May be they never made it out of the studio?
Here in 2015 with all of the controversy around the Blurred Lines legal ruling, it would be incredibly sad if musicians were discouraged from the creative use of samples. It’s noticeable though that the original writing credits for the tracks on the Public Enemy album did not recognise the original authors of the samples. This was an album that relied on “Funky Drummer” by James Brown for many tracks as did many other hip hop tracks of the era along with a musical collage of many different samples. The difference for me though was that whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. It wasn’t just the wholesale lifting of a chorus as happened as we moved into the 90s. The common theme with all of these samples was they had a metronomic quality that I am sure is in no small part generated by the fantastic musicians who produced them. This fluid rigidity made them ideal for the cut and paste sampling techniques that the Bomb Squad and their less innovative successors used.
We’ll come back to JB (and may be even JB’s) another day though, along with the remaining four CDs.