My first exposure to the On-U Sound record label was purely accidental. I’d heard that KEXP’s DJ Masa had sold a considerable chunk of his record collection to Silver Platters, and that the local Seattle-area indie music store was setting up a special section featuring his vinyl at their downtown location. I swear I looked through every record in the surprisingly large section, one that probably measured a good 30+ feel of shelf space… and I doubt I recognized more than 10 bands/artists in the whole thing.
After considerable use of my cell phone, though, I picked out enough stuff to walk to the front counter with a stack of maybe 12-15 records. Eddie was working the counter that day, though I didn’t really know him yet at the time, and he looked at me with a smile and said, “I love that On-U Sound.” I honestly had no idea what he was talking about, not even realizing that the half dozen or so 12″ records in my pile by Gary Clail, Tackhead, and Barmy Army were all on the On-U label. I laugh when I think about that now.
I was at that same branch of Silver Platters a few weeks back when I ran across the newly released Sherwood at the Controls, a two-record compilation of Adrian Sherwood-produced tracks from the early 1980s, which is relevant to my story because Sherwood was the founder of On-U Sound and a member of Tackhead. Despite the fact that I only recognized a pair of the performers spread over the 14 tracks (The Slits and The Fall), buying it was an easy choice.
So tonight I find myself sitting in a hotel room in Kansas City, with a belly full of BBQ and an overwhelming desire to avoid checking my work email, which as it turns out is the perfect time to put in the earbuds and listen to Sherwood at the Controls. I’ve actually been playing the download of the album (the vinyl comes with a download card) quite a bit over the last few weeks, but this is the first time I’ve done so with earbuds – and it makes a tremendous difference. Sherwood’s production style from this period (and, frankly, later periods as well) is heavily influenced by dub, using lots of effects and reverb to change post-punk and new wave songs into something wholly different and alien-sounding, something jungle with it’s emphasis on bass and percussion and trippy with it’s post-production. Right from the opening horn, that gives way to some funky-ass bass at the start of Medium Medium’s “Hungry, So Angry,” you know you’re in for a bizarre experience. From the echoed percussion of Maximum Joy’s “Let It Take You There” to the Nina-Hagen-meets-dj-flugvel of Nadjma’s “Some Day My Caliph Will Come” (I absolutely postiive MUST track down the album this came from, 1984s Rapture In Baghdad), it’s like musical ping pong being played inside your skull. And I love it.
One of the album’s high points comes about half way through, with the instrumetnal “Mistah Linn He Dead” by Shriekback, an early techno-dub track that still sounds fresh today over 30 years after it was recorded. And that’s followed by a reggae-funk dub song by Voice of Authority, “Running (Feeling Wild),” the most traditional dub number on the comp. Things take a heavy, heavy turn for the downright strange by song #10, “Third Gear Kills” by Annie Anxiety aka Little Annie, which reminds me a little of The Doors’ “The End” in terms of its nuttiness, and Annie sings more than a little like Jim with her husky voice. The last four songs all more closely resemble traditional reggae dub as opposed to the post-punk and new wave influences of the earlier ones, a perfect way bring Sherwood at the Controls to a close
Adrian Sherwood’s production style resonates with me, as do the types of bands and artists he chose to work with. I need to start paying a bit more attention to these types of labels that have a unique sound, and I’m definitely going to start looking for more On-U titles.