Quite a time, those early ’80s in this here New York. The subways were dangerous, the clubs weren’t, and you could still shoplift refillable markers from Pearl Paint. Artsy-fartsy types danced to live bands, and sometimes there were people of color on the stage and in the audience. The DJs edutained us by playing what they wanted to play, and clubs like the Ritz played videos like they were something special to look forward to. (I am not making this up.) Misty, revisionist nostalgia? Or was the bang bang boogie qualitatively different then? Get yourself some digitized past and make the call yourself. At the very least, you can figure out why so many Brooklyn bands in 2002 are trying to party like it‘s 1982.
Without encumbrance of plot or character, the film Downtown 81 (Virgin import) documents, pretty accurately, the Lower East Side and Tribeca and the tenants on their way to boldface: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Deborah Harry, Arto Lindsay, Kid Creole, Fab 5 Freddy, and many Mudd Club regulars I swear I see at the Grand Union now. The soundtrack, blessedly inexpensive but weirdly unnoticed, captures a cross section of the NY hybrid strain. You get Basquiat’s band, Gray, playing their one great abstraction, “Drum Mode”; some sweet tango from Pablo Calogero; essential live tracks from Kid Creole and the Coconuts (now performing a ’70s disco revue in Hamburg, sigh—Ohwhatanight.com); refusenik noise from Lydia Lunch and Suicide; and three of the most important songs of the era: Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern,” DNA’s “Blonde Redhead,” and Rammelzee & K. Rob’s gob-stopping “Beat Bop,” which backpackers will continue to not reproduce for years to come.
Anti NY (Gomma import) compiles seven downtown rarities, pads the album with five Euro remixes, and puts our buddy Ba$quiat on the cover. Sounds like some Hamburger Helper aggregation of justly forgotten curios looking for cred, but it works. The subsection here is a clump of bands that played Mudd Club and Hurrah, or imagined they did. The celeb quotient will pull some—Gray, again; an early track by Rammelzee (not yet set free from human cadence); and a tune by Jim Jarmusch’s band, Del/Byzanteens, co-written by Luc Sante (literate, new wavy, kinda dope)—but the unknowns hold it together. Ike Yard’s rough electro piece is so Right Now you’ll think the surface noise is a plug-in. Sexual Harassment’s monotone come-on sounds like an answer to the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette,” except this guy’s not very scary: “If I gave you a party, would you come? If I offered all my loving, would you run? Well, I’m throwing you a party, please come.” And then everybody has a party! In the background! Photographer-writer Vivien Goldman’s sole 99 Records single, “Launderette,” is a disarming lil’ dub song about dating and washing recorded with members of Aswad and PiL: “I wanted 10 pence for the dryer/Yes, that was how we met/My laundry bag was broken/My clothes were soaking wet/I felt I needed hugging/You needed board and lodging.” “Launderette” exhibits two of the attributes bringing people back to this music: a sense of fun that didn’t instantly drag wacky and dumb along for the ride, and an artless approach to cultural borrowing that favored party-starting over impressing trainspotters. Samplers hijacked that process a few years later, but it’s not like folks weren’t looking for ways out of the rock box.
But where would New York be without England to remind us of our successes, without New Order and A Certain Ratio to appreciate Man Parrish more than we did? (For starters, notice that none of the comps discussed here are on U.S. labels.) The thesis of In the Beginning There Was Rhythm (Soul Jazz import) is that punk met funk over in old Blighty and something beautiful happened. Compared to the NY culture clash, the U.K. results have a higher quotient of politics and Jamaican ingredients and a wider spread of scores, too. A Certain Ratio’s cover of Banbarra’s breakbeat classic “Shack Up” still sounds like somebody’s dad trying to catch wreck; Human League’s “Being Boiled” got better when it became Visage’s “Fade to Grey”; and the difference between Throbbing Gristle’s probably very subversive 20 Jazz Funk Greats and Gray’s equally boring but sensually pleasurable “Drum Mode” is probably the difference between England and America. (The difference between “Drum Mode” and This Heat’s “24 Track Loop” is the difference between luck and genius, though.) But there’s always a Led Zeppelin—an English group that can find a sweet spot between Euro and African American rhetoric that we just can’t. In 1981, they were called the Gang of Four, and if you’ve never heard “To Hell With Poverty,” I wish I could be there when you do. You’ll be forming a band within the week, even if you’re the mayor. And if you’re Kenneth Lay, you’re already singing it! If it’s white boys on funk we’re after, Mark Stewart and his Pop Group (or Maffia) seem to be aging better than, say, James White and his Blacks (or Contortions). It’d be nice to think it was their early anti-globalization stance that pulled the kids, but more likely “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” appeals to kids because the caterwauling and feedback are a more comfortable road into the funk than, say, putting on a sharkskin suit and punching people. (If it’s not white boys you’re after, be warned: This history is looking whitewashed. Either Defunkt or James “Blood” Ulmer coulda smoked everybody here with their black/white cookies, but neither are being name-dropped. No, not at all.)
By the ’90s, all this folderol was forgotten. Dance music could no longer contain both a song and a beat, rock bands were redirected instantly to Wetlands if they essayed a dance number, and non-narrative lyrics became the status quo for indie bands. You can turn back the clock and live larger than that. They had a party, so why don’t you go?