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By Steve Weinstein
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When Liquid Liquid take the stage at Madison Square Garden April 2 as the opening act for LCD Soundsystem's last show, they will, at some point in their set, launch into a tune featuring the Most Famous Two-Note Bassline Ever. Whereupon some percentage of the crowd will bob their heads and think it's really cool that these older guys are covering Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines."
Which will be ironic, because not only is "White Lines" not Grandmaster Flash's song (it's Melle Mel's), but it won't be "White Lines" at all, but rather Liquid Liquid's own "Cavern." The story of how "Cavern" became "White Lines" (resulting in the demise of two seminal New York labels, Sugar Hill Records and 99 Records) is one of the more fascinating tales in NYC musical history. But it's only part of Liquid Liquid's remarkable and still-evolving tale, with the long-dormant art-rock-punk-funk pioneers only recently emerging from hibernation to enjoy even more critical acclaim than the first time around.
Liquid Liquid's first act virtually defined the early-'80s sound of downtown New York—that heroic era in nightlife history when you didn't have to choose between going dancing and going to a rock show, because they were the same thing. Using a distinctive lineup of bass, marimba/percussion, drums, and vocals, the band's sound mixed minimalist percussion, dubbed-out vocals, and punk-edged funk riffs. It reflected the cultural collision of the downtown scene, where the same crowd went to punk shows at CBGB's, danced at discos like Paradise Garage, and stopped by the gallery openings of young graffiti artists. "There was a lot of crossover," remembers vocalist Sal Principato. "Especially '79, early '80s, there was this sense of exploration and cross-pollination and experimentation, and you're just getting all these influences from all these different directions."
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The band caught the ear of Ed Bahlman, who ran 99 Records out of his record shop at 99 MacDougal Street. Liquid Liquid quickly became something of a flagship act for the label, which also provided a home for ESG, Glenn Branca, and the Bush Tetras. "Now everybody calls us punk funk, and I guess that makes sense," says Principato. "But I don't know what we thought of ourselves—we thought of ourselves as a rock band, but making music to make you move by."
The band recorded three EPs for 99; 1983's Optimo was the last and the best. From the furious punk-samba of the title track to the snarling "Out," this music today sounds astonishingly contemporary, a precursor to bands like the Rapture, !!!, and, not coincidentally, LCD Soundsystem themselves.
Optimo also had "Cavern," which evolved, says bassist Richard McGuire, "like everything, out of a group jam." Almost unfathomable in our era of corporate-controlled radio playlists and Balkanized nightlife scenes, the track, underpinned by McGuire's minimalist-funk bassline, made Liquid Liquid favorites on black radio stations like WBLS, and got them regular gigs at discos like Paradise Garage and Danceteria. But within months of Optimo's release, WBLS and other stations began playing a new, almost identical track called "White Lines (Don't Do It)," released by Bronx-based Sugar Hill Records. Credited to Melle Mel + Grandmaster (allegedly a ploy to trick record buyers into thinking it was a new Grandmaster Flash release), the record didn't technically sample "Cavern," instead featuring the Sugar Hill house band replaying it note-for-note, adding only Mel's verses and the "Get higher, baby" bridge (while also turning Principato's original "slip in and out of phenomena" vocal hook into the now-iconic hip-hop phrase "something like a phenomenon").
Bahlman sued Sugar Hill as "White Lines," whose writing credit listed only Melle Mel and Sugar Hill co-owner Sylvia Robinson, became a huge hit. Though he eventually won a lengthy court case and set an early precedent in the still poorly defined realm of sampling law, the results were disastrous for all involved. Sugar Hill declared bankruptcy rather than pay the ordered $600,000 settlement; faced with enormous legal costs and disillusioned with the music business, Bahlman folded 99 Records. McGuire left Liquid Liquid to pursue an art career, and the rest of the group disbanded after recording another 12-inch, Dig We Must, as a trio.
And that's where the story would have ended, except that Duran Duran's insipid "White Lines" cover in 1994 prodded Liquid Liquid to reissue their entire oeuvre as a joint Mo Wax/Grand Royal release in 1997. ("That's when we realized, 'OK, this shit isn't going away,' " says Principato.) Which led to more interest in the group, triggering an on-again/off-again rebirth that first began in 2003 and has seen them play a handful of international dates, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and now, LCD Soundsystem's MSG farewell.
It's been a circuitous but beneficial route, as the guys now say that this extended second act—with set lists that mix reworked classics with new material—is musically their best. "The funny thing is," says Principato, "that it seems to have taken us 30 years to really come to fully understand our own material, its strengths and vulnerabilities, and to proudly display both when we perform."
Liquid Liquid will open for LCD Soundsystem March 28 and 29 at Terminal 5 and April 2 at Madison Square Garden