Conversations about music’s innovators are dull. The same names, the same tired arguments, the same imagined value system that says Band X was more important than Band Y. But why is Dylan more lauded than Donovan? Why do we love Pink Floyd but hate Yes? Why do I have to like The Prodigy but laugh at Utah Saints? It’s just not right – sometimes the real pioneers are the ones that history derides. Sometimes it’s their very innovation that dates them and tarnishes their legacy, their zeitgeist quickly turning from a blessing to a curse with the passage of time. So it’s time to stand up for the real pioneers – the maligned and misrepresented; the derided and decried. Here are 5 acts that history needs to re-evaluate right away.
I know what you’re thinking. “Es are good, Es are good.” And you’d be right. But that aside, Aberdeen’s favourite house/dub/cheesey pop combo have been consigned by most to the novelty bin of history. However, although Ebeneezer Goode did represent part of what the band were about, in terms of taking electronica to the pop charts, there was more to them. Listen now to the En Tact or Boss Drum albums and, yes, they sound dated, but The Shamen were important, dammit. They opened the gates to a generation of teenagers, using just enough guitar to entice the indie kids and build a path that would lead them to the magical land of psychedelia. They led surly teenagers, full of Orweliian thoughts like “guitars good, drum machines bad,” gently by the hand and showed them that Pink Floyd wasn’t the only thing they could listen to while they were getting stoned. From there to The Orb and Orbital, and thence to the time of their lives in dance clubs around the country. History is unfair – we’re told that we should worship at the altar of the KLF, but we ought to laugh at The Shamen who did essentially the same job. Colin ‘Shamen’ Angus was every bit as vital a gatekeeper as Bill Drummond: we’ll even forgive him for recruiting the Tony the Tiger of rap, Mr C.
Kool and the Gang
‘The Gang’ must have been a fucking big collective to come up with Jungle Boogie and Celebration, but this range pretty much sums up their contribution to 1970s music. Everything about them, from their name, to Oh La La La, Let’s Go Dancing, screams ‘cheese’ to the untrained eye. Their unbreakable association with 70s disco which is, apart from the odd fleeting moment of revisionism and revival, generally considered the daftest period in pop history, also contributes to their widely-held status as a bit of a joke. There’s no denying it, there’s a whiff of gorgonzola in the air whenever they’re around, but let’s scrape the mould off and see what’s underneath. Jazz, blues, soul, funk – all the roots of Black America, presented on a plate for a worldwide audience. There were lots of acts in this era serving up their own version of black music to the mainstream, but none so fully embraced all the strands of black music and none were so popular with the white record-buying majority without getting any respect, most of which went to The Jacksons. Why? Maybe it was the matching suits or the much-parodied, lower-than-Atlantis backing vocals. Their influence is clearly visible in what came after them. For example, www.the-breaks.com lists them as the 2nd most sampled act in hip-hop. Only James Brown can top them. For that alone, they should take their rightful place in the pantheon of the pioneers.
Rock history is chock-full of misunderstood songs, from anti-war anthem Born in the USA being commandeered by flag-waving Americans, to stalker anthem Every Breath You Take being the first dance at the weddings of idiots. Frankly, people aren’t always that bright, and the misinterpretation of Babybird’s You’re Gorgeous, a lyric about sleaze and manipulation, as a soppy love song sums up the flawed perceptions of Babybird overall. Often grouped in the soft-rock, one-hit-wonder category, the work of songwriter Stephen Jones is rarely granted the same respect as his contemporaries, usually based on ignorance of the material. In a way, the wounds to his credibility are self-inflicted. Jones’ combination of meandering experimentation and 3 minute chart pop has been as much a hindrance as strength in terms of his success. Even in the ‘pop’ numbers, the darkly wry lyrics sit at odds with the melodies and don’t allow a simplistic thumbnail of what Babybird is (or was, as the 2012 tour was apparently the last). Anyone who can write a song called The Failed Suicide Club, with the opening line, “step 1, don’t kill yourself, step 2 don’t do yourself in,” and can still be perceived as a soft-edged balladeer is clearly a complex and challenging songwriter. With humour, melody and attitude, Jones played his part in shaping Britpop and the accessible indie that has since become the main fodder of the music industry, and it’s time he was paid his dues.
Alright, stop – collaborate and listen. Listening? Good – because it’s time we showed the original wigger some respek. Be honest - you know all the words, and you knew at least one person who had the haircut. Rob ‘Vanilla’ Van Winkle wasn’t just cookin’ MCs like a pound of bacon; he was smashing down barriers, altering the music industry forever and creating a cultural phenomenon. Granted, he did it by nicking what black people had been doing for years, but to write him off as a comedy figure is to underestimate the importance of what he achieved. It seems unimaginable now that hip-hop could be anything other than a huge global phenomenon, but although there were plenty people making money out of it in the 80s, it wasn’t part of the musical mainstream. It was going to take something or someone different to push it into the mass market. By different, I mean white, obviously. In a sense he was the modern Elvis, bringing black music to white people and allowing them an entry point to the real stuff. Okay, so maybe Pat Boone would be a better comparison, but still. The argument ‘no Vanilla ice, no Eminem’ is a fairly brittle one, but it’s based on common sense. Someone had to be the first. The Beastie Boys get the love because they were ... well ... good, but Vanilla was more important in getting rap to the top of the charts. It’s not just the marketing that puts Ice on the list, though. You may recall it killin’ your brain like a poisonous mushroom, but Ice Ice Baby was a better song than people remember – it knocked some of the rough edges off traditional hip-hop and presented something slick, slinky and seductive – a sound that would be developed by the likes of Death Row Records. Does that make Ice the original gangsta? Maybe not, but turn off the lights and he’ll glow.
EMF? EM bloody F? Now you’re taking the piss surely? No – I kid you not. There are a lot of bands from the late 80s and early 90s that rightly get credit for incorporating dance music into indie stuff. The Stone Roses, Primal Scream et al deserve their recognition for this, but as is often the case, the ones who push it a little bit further are the ones who make something that is truly of its time. And as far as the annals of musical history are concerned, for ‘of its time’, read ‘dates quicker than a bag of Tesco value bananas.’ ‘Just how exactly did EMF push it further than Primal Scream?’ I hear you ask in enraged tones. Well, they may not have been nearly as psychedelic, but they pushed a DJ into an indie band that performed on Top of the Pops, pushed dance rhythms into perfectly-structured radio-friendly power-pop, and if you believe the legend, they pushed the word ‘fuck’ into a top 5 hit over twenty times, completely uncensored. So let’s hear it for the boys from the Forest of Dean, especially bass player Zac Foley, who further established their rock ‘n’ roll credentials by dying of a drug overdose in 2002. For complete and seamless integration of dance culture into rock music at a time when that really wasn’t the norm, they’re here on merit. Convinced? Well, it could have been worse – at least Flowered Up aren’t on the list.
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