Whilst there is a wide range of music on ECM, there is a certain aesthetic that prevails, whether it be jazz, classical or improvised. We put the album on, wait for the six seconds of silence to pass and we’re there in a recognisable place.
This is very different though.
Released in 1986, L Shankar’s “The Epidemics” is not what you would expect from Manfred Eicher’s tasteful Euro label. Squalling heavy rock guitars, eighties booming drums, fretless electric bass and new wave vocals – there is literally nothing else like it in the ECM canon.
“The Epidemics” has a stellar and varied line up. Lead by Shankar, he was an established ECM artist, recording a number of traditional and Indo Jazz LPs featuring his 10 string double violin for the label.
He had also formed Shakti with John McLaughlin and performed with Frank Zappa. At the time of the LP though, he had played on a number of my favourite eighties LPs:
- Echo and The Bunnymen “Porcupine”
- Lou Reed’s “New Sensations”
- Talking Heads’ “Remain In Light”
He was given quite a role on “Porcupine”. It is Shankar that you can hear on the introduction to “The Cutter”.
He had also played on Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” and “I Missed Again”, so his talents were getting recognised in many different places. Collins had played in Brand X during the 70s, his jazz rock side project to Genesis. It is therefore probable that Collins put Shankar in touch with Percy Jones, who had also played with ECM alumni Bill Frisell. Jones fretless electric bass underpins the LP along with the electronic programmed Fairlight drums. Jones had played on the classic mid 70s Brian Eno albums “Another Green World” and “Before And After Science” and Masami Tshuchiya’s “Rice Paper”, not sounding a million miles away from Mick Karn. When Jones was asked about the Epidemics LP he said:
He kept saying that he was going to be doing some Indian music, and maybe doing some gigs in India, and I was really up for that, because I love Indian music and it would’ve been a good chance to learn. But it never happened, it just continued in this sort of Western pop format, and that never went anywhere. It was an unusual record for ECM I thought. I haven’t heard anything else on ECM even approaching that. I was disappointed that I never got to do any Indian stuff with him.
Shankar had been playing on PIL’s “Album”. Shankar’s showpiece tunes were the huge hit “Rise” (you can hear his violin on the introduction) and the side one closer “Round”. This is the most Eastern influenced track with tablas and a raga rhythm and Shankar delivered a swirling violin solo. I was a big fan of “Album” at the time and still am. It is great to hear John Lydon stretched by playing with such a stellar cast of musicians such as Ginger Baker, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Tony Williams. Williams had performed with Miles Davis throughout the 60s, appearing on much of Davis’ greatest work including “In A Silent Way”. Miles dropped by the studio whilst Lydon was working and commented that Lydon sang like Davis played the trumpet. Lydon said it was:
“still the best thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
By all accounts, the recording of “Album” was a fractious affair with a great deal of the work being supervised by Bill Laswell in Lydon’s absence. Whatever the circumstances, “Album” still stands up today. It isn’t quite Lydon’s best work – that title would be reserved for “Never Mind The Bollocks”, the first two PIL albums and his recordings with Afrika Bambaataa.
The star guitarist on “Album” was Steve Vai. He had got his break by sending a transcription of Zappa’s “The Black Page” to Frank himself and he was then given a job as salaried scribe, writing down Zappa’s work and touring with FZ. A Berkelee College graduate, Vai was up there with Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteem and Joe Satriani as eighties flash fingered guitar gods. I couldn’t really stomach their brand of show off fireworks but when Vai was harnessed by an ulterior motive other than displaying his chops, he got a little more palatable. He met his match with Diamond Dave Lee Roth, where the humour diluted the fret wankery. Having said that, the late 80s incarnation of Whitesnake that he played with were truly awful, losing the soul that the early versions of the band managed to retain. I can only think therefore that the PIL “Album” is where Shankar and Vai hooked up.
Back to “The Epidemics” then.
Making up the rest of the band were A.R. Rahman, later to become the Indian movie composer and provider of the soundtrack for “Slumdog Millionaire” and Shankar’s wife, Caroline.
I’ve scoured the internet and can’t find any information on how or why the album came together or why Manfred Eicher felt like moving so many million miles away from his signature sound. There is a fantastic blog called Between Sound And Space that has written about every LP that ECM have ever released (a significant undertaking) and “The Epidemics”.
It is the only ECM album I would ever hesitate to recommend.
In upwards of 1500 LPs, this says a great deal about the quality of ECM’s output and the Epidemics LP.
It is a strange record but probably the most accessible in the ECM catalogue for non-jazz or classical fans, sounding like a traditional eighties rock album. The opening track “Never Take No For An Answer” is the most PIL like. Substitute the recorded vocals for John Lydon and you really have something. The next track (“What Would I Do Without You”) though starts like “Born In The USA” and has bouncy female vocals courtesy of Caroline, sounding like the Gogos fronting up The War On Drugs. Vai’s crunchy guitars are all over “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” and it sounds like we are in a John Hughes movie. “Give An Inch” has Vai doing a passable impression of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” guitar sound but with Kirsty McColl doing the vocals. The LP was recorded in New York and it has a big rocky synth driven sound for much of its duration. Sonically, it sits alongside PIL’s “Album” but without Lydon’s vitriolic lyrics and twisted vocals.
The other problem with the record is the mechanised drums. Whilst PIL’s “Album” had the major talent of Ginger Baker, ex of Cream and Tony Williams, Miles Davis alumni on percussion, “The Epidemics” had a bloody great shuddering drum machine booming away. It just gets a bit wearing.
It really is quite unlike anything else that ECM released. It is far out of kilter with their normal output – think Berry Gordy putting out “White Light White Heat” or Factory Records releasing “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”.
In these days of retro-eighties nostalgia, it is actually quite sweet. Shankar’s violin work is bluesy and Vai exercises some restraint. The vocals are the letdown. A stronger singer and it really would fit in with the current success of the likes of War On Drugs. It does hark back to a time though that more risks were taken by record companies with collaborations becoming more commonplace. It’s just a Sex Pistol and a decent drummer short of a decent band.
With the introduction of ECM to streaming formats, you can hear the record for yourself here at Spotify:
Eicher has never gone anywhere the rock or pop market before or since. I really would love to know what possessed him to release “The Epidemics”. He gives an okay to everything that ECM release plus he gets a production credit, so it can’t have sneaked out on a quiet Friday afternoon. A 12″ remix of one of the tracks was released – maybe Manfred went out clubbing in New York with Shankar, Johnny Lydon and Afrika Bambaataa.
Really Manfred – what were you thinking?
Check out ‘Lask’ (ECM 1217) as well. I dunno what Manfred was smoking in the early to mid 80’s, but it sure widened his vistas…
Nice write-up, I love love love this weird album and enjoyed your take. Thanks.
One additional point you missed on the player connections: Vai and Shankar played together in Zappa’s band in the early 80s, when Frank also produced Sharkar’s “Touch Me There”. So these guys were probably well acquainted some time before the Epidemics.
I did not know of Steve’s work with PiL, I need to give that a listen.
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Thanks Bruce. I’m very hit and miss with Zappa. There’s a little that I Iove a lot and a lot that I hate. I have a mate who is a fanatic and I have tried, even going to a Dweezil show. I probably wouldn’t have gone looking for Touch me There knowingly.
That said, I really enjoyed the recent Zappa movie which gave me a new better perspective.
Thanks for reading and commenting.