Got My Direction Together

Don’t have anything interesting to say at the moment so here’s some random funkiness.

Norman Whitfield made his name as a writer/producer at Motown, particularly with The Temptations. After leaving Hitsville USA in 1975 he had his biggest hits with the theme songs to movies: “Car Wash” for Rose Royce, and this one by female trio Stargard in 1977.

“Which Way Is Up?” was the theme to a flop Richard Pryor movie that I would never have heard of if it hadn’t been for this fantastic record which has one of the greatest Disco-Funk grooves ever put on wax. Enjoy.

Download: Which Way Is Up? – Stargard (mp3)


Punky Funk

Though probably not as well known as your Gang of Fours and Certain Ratios, this single by The Higsons is one of my favourites of the Punk Funk genre. That time in the late 70s-early 80s when the Indie charts were full of skinny white boys trying to sound like Chic and James Brown and ending up somewhere different and interesting.

Formed in Norwich — the Funk capital of England — The Higsons released a few singles before being signed to 2-Tone records by Jerry Dammers who was looking to broaden the label’s style. They only put out couple of singles on 2-Tone, one of which was the great “Tear The Whole Thing Down” in 1982 which sounds like a hyperactive Talking Heads.

After just the one album Curse of The Higsons the band broke up in 1986. Band leader Charlie Higson went on to find success as a writer for comedian Harry Enfield and then fame of his own playing the immortal character of Ralph on The Fast Show.

I have a vague memory of seeing The Higsons at The Electric Ballroom but can’t remember a damn thing about it. I think that’s less a reflection on them than on my old age.

Download: Tear The Whole Thing Down – The Higsons (mp3)

Northern Class

Last week was also the 35th anniversary of the release of the first in Kent Records’ series of Northern Soul compilations For Dancers Only. This might not be as momentous as the death of Elvis but it was my introduction to the genre so it was a big deal to me. 

I bought nearly all the Kent albums in the 80s (still have them!) and it’s not easy to pick a favourite, but if I had to it would be Soul Class of ’66, partly because it contained this monster tune from Bobby Bland.

Download: Gotta Get To Know You – Bobby Bland (mp3)

Elvis Was a Hero to Most

Last week was the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. I first heard that he’d died when I was in my bedroom doing homework and my mum came in and told me it had been on News On Ten. It was a big deal to her which is why she felt the need to come up the stairs and tell me, but all I mustered in response was the verbal shrug “Oh” and went back to my schoolwork. Truth was I didn’t care all that much, to me then Elvis was just some bloke from the olden days who had nothing to do with me or what was going on in 1977. The Clash even sang a song about it that year.

But I was just being 14 and stupid. A few years later I bought The Sun Sessions and was fully aware of how wrong I’d been to dismiss him. You don’t need me to tell you how different the world would be without Elvis.

I’d been thinking about him because I recently got into a stupid Twitter argument (are there any other kind?) around the issue of him “stealing” black music. A tweet appeared in my feed from some idiot saying that Elvis stole “Hound Dog” from it’s original singer Big Mama Thornton and made millions from it while she was ripped off. Obviously this is ridiculous bullshit, the song was written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller — two white Jewish guys — so no one “stole” it from her.

I try and avoid internet fights for the sake of my mental health but this tweet got thousands of likes and RTs so I felt the need to wade in and correct the record. For my trouble I was told that wasn’t true and I was making it up by someone who had never even heard of Lieber and Stoller. Even when I provided a Wiki link to the song’s history there were still fools convinced it was Thornton’s song and it had been taken from her by a Southern racist. It was like arguing with Trump voters who ignore facts that don’t fit their personal prejudices.

Leaving aside that these twits didn’t know any music history or understand that the singer of a song might not own it, what bugged me the most was that they didn’t seem to understand how popular music works — or almost any art really. Elvis didn’t steal black music, he was influenced by it and integrated it into his own style. The Beatles were initially influenced by Chuck Berry, then borrowed from folk music, Indian music, even Classical. Was this “cultural appropriation” or just how the melting pot of popular music works? Was Ray Charles stealing from white musicians when he made a Country album? Or how about this one? It’s so ridiculous. If everyone stayed in their own boxes popular music would probably still be stuck in the 19th century.

It is true that Elvis became rich and famous partly because he was white while many great black artists languished in obscurity. But don’t blame him. Blame the white radio stations who wouldn’t play their records. Blame the businessmen who ripped them off. Blame the white motel and restaurant owners who wouldn’t let them stay or eat in their establishments while on tour. Or blame the artists who literally did steal songs from black artists and pass them off as their own.

As much as I love Public Enemy, I think their lyric “Elvis was a hero to most, But he never meant shit to me, Straight up racist the sucker was” is where most younger people got their opinion of Elvis and they haven’t bothered to look past it. So much cooler to strike right-on poses on the internet.

Here’s a Blues song Elvis stole from Lowell Fulson in 1960.

Download: Reconsider Baby – Elvis Presley (mp3)

One For A Girl

The great Blue Peter vs. Magpie debate is one that has raged among the children of the 60s and 70s for decades. I always come down in favour of the latter, not least because presenter Susan Stranks was one of my very first crushes.

But also because their theme song was so much better. Blue Peter‘s jolly intro tune sounds like the world of Ladybird books and Boy Scouts, while Magpie’s was a far groovier affair from the more modern world of long-haired teachers and Glam Rock.

Download: Magpie – The Murgatroyd Band (mp3)

As any fule kno, The Murgatroyd Band were actually The Spencer Davis Group (minus Steve and Muff Winwood).

It’s Not The Way You Smile

Silly haircut. Silly name*. Big in America. There were all sorts of reasons A Flock of Seagulls weren’t hip and have since become shorthand for all that was cheesy about the 80s. 

I liked this record though because I’m a sucker for melancholy songs with big riffs. This nine-minute 12″ version is especially good: an epic of synth washes, chimey guitars, and primitive electronic drums. This was their only hit in the UK which surprised me.

Download: Wishing (If I Had A Photograph Of You) (Long Version) – A Flock Of Seagulls (mp3)

*In case you didn’t know, their name comes from this song.

Something for the Weekend

This video still looks amazing. Made by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton who went on to create Max Headroom, this was one of the first animated pop videos and I think is a genuine work of art. It’s not just me who thinks so either, it’s held in the permanent collection of the V&A, Museum of Modern Art, and the BFI.

Though it was made in 1978 you can see a lot of what became “1980s” graphics tropes appearing here: geometric shapes, paint splashes, and bright colours. I think it was also influenced by the graphic surrealism of Barney Bubbles’ sleeve designs for Costello.

See more of Jankel/Morton’s great early work here.