Missing In Action
The release of the first phase of 23 Skidoo reissues is extremely welcome. As with ESG and Liquid Liquid compilations, one hopes that a new generation will feel the urge to explore one of the most adventuresome passages of music. The imminent release of the Soul Jazz sponsored compilation In the Beginning, There Was Rhythm, will surely open up the punk/funk goldmine.
I like the fact that the 23 Skidoo reissues are on the collective's own Ronin label. It neatly ties in with what they were doing nearly 20 years ago with all the hip hop explorations now being undertaken by the likes of Skitz. And Skitz' Countryman set seems to have grown in stature all the time, and overshadows even Mr Roots Manuva and Cannibal Ox. The 'Domestic Science' cut is possibly my song of the year.
Yet, there is an inner voice expressing some disappointment that the 23 Skidoo reissues are not linked to the original Fetish imprint. For Fetish was one of the significant small labels of the early '80s which balanced releasing totally mad, out there records with a completely cool profile. So, packaged in a series of exquisite Neville Brody sleeves came a string of great records by (among others) Clock DVS, Bush Tetras, Lydia Lunch, 23 Skidoo, stretching the imagination.
Even at the time I never knew much about Fetish, but the Neville Brody designs captured the spirit of the age, as it spread to other releases (notably Cabaret Voltaire and Defunkt), magazines (The Face) and books (like Colin MacInnes' London novels, Jon Savage's Kinks biography, that Up-Tight Velvets one).
Other great labels of the time like FAST, 99 and Ze have also faced the ignominy of seeing their identity whittled away by time. Ze, for example, has seen important records salvaged on Blast First and Henry Rollins' Infinite Zero, but so much seems lost for now. I even wonder what reaction I would get by doing a survey on what Ze now means to people. Many may recall Kid Creole, Waitresses, Was (Not Was) and Material's 'Busting Out' from the days when The Face and the NME favoured what Ze was doing. Yet much of the most significant things Ze dabbled in were released where the '70s became the '80s, and the only place Ze got covered was in a magazine called ZigZag.
Kris Needs published a tabloid-style account of his escapades over the years, but he was too self-deprecating about what he achieved during his years as editor at ZigZag. People like the Pop Group. Subway Sect and Scars got coverer there best, but in retrospect more pertinent was Needs championing many of the current reggae and disco releases along side the punk pioneers.
Somewhere between the two, you would see mentions of some of the mad records Ze were putting out by Mars, Lizzy Mercier Desclouz, Rosa Yemen, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, Marcie et Les Garcons. Exotic fare that I guess is appropriate for a label headed by an heir to Mothercare millions. Michael Zilkha could afford such extravagances, like a touched PG Wodehouse created patron of the absurd arts.
There is one early Ze release I particularly want to mention. It's an LP called Spooks In Space by the Aural Exciters from 1979. Some of it is straight, kitsch disco nonsense. Some of it is totally brilliant and completely visionary. In particular, 'Emile (Night Rate)' sounds like a blueprint for Grace Jones' 'Nightclubbing' or Massive Attack's 'Safe From Harm' dubby torch songs. It may surprise you to learn it was written by one August Darnell, a man who in his time has played many a role. You may have hated him for being Kid Creole, but you have to love him for creating Machine's 'There But For The Grace Of God Go I' a few years earlier.
The credits on the LP sleeve bear closer inspection. As with many of the great Ze records, it was recorded at Blank Tapes Studios by Bob Blank. I have to confess I know very little about Bob Blank, though I am aware he recorded Sun Ra's Lanquitidy sets at his studios on 1978, at the same time some of the best Ze records were bing produced, which may explain a lot. I also remember that a list Kris Needs put together of the best disco records for Jockey Slut featured a few Bob Blank productions.
So, it seems right that one of the Aural Exciters' featured vocals was one Taana Gardner, who two years later would be the singer on 'Heartbeat', one of the great West End disco productions of the early '80s. This from the time when producers like Larry Levan and Arthur Russell were famously doing magic tricks with the disco format in the way King Tubby and say Scientist were doing with the reggae template. Appropriately, the term Disco Dub may well have been first used by the Disco Dub Band on their mutated version of the O'Jays 'For The Love Of Money' in the mid-'70s on the Movers label, licensed to Island in the same way Ze would be. The man behind that astonishing record, Davitt Sigerson, would later record for Ze.
Also among the credits on the Aural Exciters record were James Chance on brass and Pat Place on guitar, which may seem a mighty long way from their day job as the Contortions, those punk/funk/free jazz antagonists who had the big hit on Ze with 'Contort Yourself', now featured on the K-Tel style Punk compilation I believe, and a song that would be a blueprint for Fire Engines' beat noise. Pat Place of course later formed the Bush Tetras.
The Blank Tapes studios would also be the venue for the production of the two LPs that would help raise the Ze profile in overground circles. Both ZigZag and Ian Penman in the NME would focus on the new torch song charms of Lydia Lunch's Queen of Siam and Cristina's debut set. Now, they both sound great, but then they were extremely exotic and strange.
Cristina was a saucy vehicle for August Darnell, again exploiting the tackier end of disco with the lovely lady vamping it up in a coquettish way, not entirely removed from the great Kylie hit of now. Arguably, Cristina's finest moments would come later with 'Things Fall Apart', and her rendition of 'Is That All There Is?'
Lydia Lunch, however, would not match Queen of Siam, though she has had moments of infamy. The cover was a delight, but the performances as striking. Essentially, it was a couple of standards ('Gloomy Sunday' and 'Spooky') plus a number of Lydia's own songs, performed in a mock noir jazz big band way, with Robert Quine of the Voidoids on guitar and what I believe would later become the Lounge Lizards moonlighting as the Billy Ver Planck Orchestra in the same manner they would rip it up with Arto Lindsay on their debut LP. Great stuff, and very evocative of Chandler and David Goodis, or Jim Thompson's classy darkness in The Grifters.
I remember a ZigZag article at the time which quoted Lydia Lunch as saying the only artiste she respected was Siouxsie Sioux. That didn't cut much ice with me at the time, but she and Sioux are much closer now with the acquisition of a few cheap Banshees' CDs. Time has been kind to their music, and songs like 'Hong Kong Garden' (why is there not a blue plaque outside the old Chislehurst takeway?), 'Happy House' and 'Christine' have worn well.
It would be nice to be able to pop into HMV and buy batches of old Ze classics, but it ain't happening. How big a hint do you have to drop? By the way, how about someone salvaging some of the early Clock DVA records? Particularly the Thirst set, which was probably the best record Fetish released.
© Kevin Pearce 2001