Johnny Guitar Watson – “Funk Beyond the Call of Duty” (1977)

funkbeyondthecall1There’s a sort of mythologization about the concept of dying while doing something you love.  It gets trotted out from time to time, often when someone dies doing something dangerous (or stupid).  In the sporting world we tend to hear it in motor sports when a driver is involved in a fatal crash.  In day-to-day life it’s more likely to come up when as part of a physical hobby – boating, mountain climbing, whatever.

In the world of rock ‘n’ roll this manifests itself by the artist dying on stage during a performance.  Thankfully it doesn’t happen often, because dying sucks and so does seeing someone die.  One performer who actually experienced an on-stage ending was blues and funk guitarist Johnny Guitar Watson, who suffered a heart attack at the start of his set in Yokohama, Japan on May 17, 1996.  He was only 61 at the time.

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I bought Johnny’s 1977 Funk Beyond the Call of Duty the other day simply because of the cover.  I mean, just look at it.  The suit… the swimsuit… the way Watson holds the guitar like a rifle on parade.  And on the reverse the pair are on top of a tank.  Which is pretty unfunky, really.  But the music?  Oh, that’s funk as hell.  “It’s About the Dollar Bill” is pure funky hustler lifestyle, complete with a reference to buying chinchilla (and you need those dollar bills to buy that chinchilla…).  I love the way Watson uses synths, including a Moog bass, throughout the album, adding a touch of new-waviness to songs like “I’m Gonna Get You Baby”, which already has a lot going on with its blend of rock, funk, and soul.

Quite a few tracks from Funk Beyond the Call of Duty have been sampled, perhaps most notably and recently “Give Me My Love,” which was used by Kayne and Kendrick Lamar on their 2016 “No More Parties in L.A.” and is a testament to Watson’s funkiness.

Contortions – “Buy” (1979 / 2002)

contortionsbuyMy first, and I believe only, prior experience with the Contortions was on the No New York compilation.  I’m fascinated with the idea of the brief supernova-followed-by-implosion of the no wave scene, which basically jumped the shark the exact moment that it became defined by its own genre – once you put a label on it, it was over.

I’d have preferred an original pressing, but this 180g (♠) 4 Men With Beards reissue was in the right place at the right time at the right price, so I scooped it up.  The Contortions are best described, IMO, as “saxophone funk punk”.  The songs are a bit disjointed and weird in a way that feels to intentional to be artistically naive, but Buy is still an intriguing album, one that you can never quite get a handle on, kind of like trying to “see” a really black object in the dark when you basically have to not look directly at it in order to actually see it, with it disappearing when you look right at it. (♥)  It has an undercurrent of free jazz combined with early punk vocals.  The only legitimate comparison I can make is to the contemporary Icelandic band Þeyr, but even there there’s a disconnect, the Europeans being sonically denser and a bit more organized in their song structure.  It’s really something you need to experience for yourself.

(♠) I have a love/hate relationship with 180g vinyl.  In general it seems like a bit of a waste and sonically it doesn’t bring anything particularly special to the table.  That being said, I seldom find a 180g that’s warped, and that’s a big plus.

(♥) If you’ve never experienced this before, you probably think I’m crazy.  Which is true, but doesn’t change the fact that this phenomenon exists.

Revenge of Calculon

By time Sunday rolled around during Iceland Airwaves we were all pretty well spent.  Holly was under the weather, we’d all been out super late the night before, and the weather had taken the kind of turn for the worse that the North Atlantic specializes in, that amazing combination of cold, heavy rain, and high winds that will leave you soaked (♠) and chilled to the bone within 60 seconds of stepping outside.  Since there wasn’t anything compelling on-venue closing out the festival we all strongly considered just sitting it out and chilling in our apartment, but I had that itch… I really wanted to see old school punks Fræbbblarnir who were playing an off-venue early evening set in the upstairs room at Dillon.  What eventually sealed the deal was that they were to be followed by a band called Revenge of Calculon who my buddy Ingvar insisted I had to see.  So Norberto, J and I braved the elements, got soaked to the bone on the four-block walk to Dillon, and caught Fræbbblarnir, who packed the joint full of locals and played a fun set.  When they wrapped we were able to grab some seats right by the stage and I got the chance to meet Life in the Vinyl Lane reader Paul in person after we’d been missing each other all over town during the week.

And then Revenge of Calculon hit the stage.  Wearing track suits.  And lucha libre masks.  And shit got weird.

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Revenge of Calculon come at you with one guy on the electronics and one guy playing funky bass, the music like the soundtrack of a 1970s blaxploitation sci-fi movie (♥), all bleeps and bloops and funky bass and audio clips from old films and TV.  They tore it up at high velocity and had a good sense of humor when their equipment suddenly went dead for a couple of moments during their set (did I mention the roof of Dillon leaks, and it was raining, and that water was dripping near the stage…?).  It was one of the two or three best performances I saw all week, and after the set I bought both 7″ records the band had on them, for which I was rewarded with my very own lucha libre mask!  As soon as we got home I ordered their other two singles as well – they were so good I wanted to have everything they had out. (♦)

The pace of the singles is more deliberate than that of the live performance, but the elements are all there and it’s funky as hell – if anything the studio versions are a bit heavier than the sheer recklessness of the live tracks.  “Hot Dog Man” b/w “Atari-Safari” is some radical stuff and my favorite of the four records, the closest you’ll get to their live craziness, feeling like it could all come off the rails at any moment, or at least that’s how you feel until you realize that in fact there probably aren’t any rails to begin with. “Meltdown” b/w “Neutron Star” is another great combo, particularly the B side with its vampire-movie-esque opening followed by a blend of creepy electronics, jamming bass, and hyper-modulated vocalizations that make it feel like you’re watching three different movies at once that somehow all seem to fit together like the pieces of a luchador’s mask.

All four singles are available on the band’s website HERE, and there’s a bunch of YouTube videos of their music you can check out.  My favorite, though, is the one they shot, edited, and released within a couple of days of their Airwaves off-venue show at Lucky Records – check it out below.  Beware the Revenge of Calculon… and watch out for vinyl with wet spines (see the 0:24 mark)…

(♠)  Though if you keep walking in the same direction, you’ll end up soaked on one side of your body and completely dry on the other since the rain is coming down at a 45 degree angle.  it’s weird.

(♥)  I know that’s not a real genre, but let’s be real – if Fred Williamson or Richard Roundtree or Pam Grier starred in a 1970s sci-fi movie you’d be all over that thing.

(♦) I believe there is also a five-song CD.

Rick James – “Throwin’ Down” (1982)

Every single Rick James song sounds like a party.  The kind of party with dancing and drinking and people getting loose.  The kind of party where people are getting down and hooking up.

Throwin’ Down (1982) followed hot on the heels of James’ hit record Street Songs (1981), the album that spawned the mighty “Super Freak”.  It didn’t crack the Top 10 like its predecessor did, but still peaked at a respectable #13.  But what I feel compelled to talk about isn’t the sexy funk jams, or the song he did with The Temptations (“Standing On The Top”), or that Grace Slick was a backing vocalist, or that a dozen people are credited for “Handclaps”.  No.  What I can’t get past is this cover.

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I get it – it seems a bit comical today.  But replace James with some white guy with equally long hair and what you have is about 27% of all the heavy metal album covers from 1981 to 1984.  Dude dressed like Conan, his guitar a bloody axe, with fire and skulls?  That’s straight up metal, and for every ounce of it that is metal, it’s also the complete antithesis of funk.  Could ANYONE in funk other than Rick James pulled this off? (♠)  The imagery has exactly nothing to do with the songs on Throwin’ Down, all of which are about women and what James wants to do with and to them.  HOWEVER, if you look at the back of the inner sleeve, there on the far right side is a rhyme called “Throwin’ Down”, and that’s where we get verse about dragons and maidens and battle axes, some Game of Thrones stuff that ends with:

You are the warrior, the seeker of truth
Your pen is your axe, your strength is your youth
Follow the path I have laid on this ground
And all battles you’ll win, by just throwin’ down HARD…..

Rick James, philosopher.

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Because this is a Rick James album we’re treated to plenty of funk and R&B, some sweet guitar licks, and double entendres (I’ll let you guess what the song “69 Times” is about).  That’s the thing about Rick – you always knew EXACTLY what he was about.  I mean, when you reportedly have a $7,000 a week cocaine habit FOR FIVE YEARS your judgement as well as any ability to be subtle will certainly suffer.

But man, James still brought the funkiest funk in funk.  And you can hear it throughout Throwin’ Down‘s nine tracks, a collection of the most delicious funk riffs anywhere.  If you don’t believe me, just give “Hard To Get” a listen.  So good.  The only time Rick trips is “Happy”, a more traditional unfunky R&B ballad.  The rest of the album is pure gold or, more precisely, platinum.

(♠) To be fair, I’m not sold that James actually pulls this off.

Sumy – “Tryin to Survive” (1983 / 2014)

sumytryintosurviveThere’s a weird thing that happens to me sometimes when I’m blogging.  I’ll be listening to something I’ve never heard or even heard of before, like this re-release of the 1983 funk album from Surinamese funkster Sumy called Tryin to Survive, and think to myself, “you know, this reminds me a bit of early Prince.”  And then I go do a little research and find a review of the same record on The Quietus that makes the exact same observation.  Scooped!  So what to do?  Make the same connection and have people think I just copied it from somewhere else?  <sigh>  These are the trials and tribulations of the non-professional music blogger.  The struggle is real.

So let’s get back to Tryin to Survive.  This is an interesting record to my ears – it’s definitely funk in its overall presentation, but done with heavy reliance on synths and what sound like mechanical beats, which gives the whole thing a sort of sterile feel that one usually doesn’t associated with funk.  It’s like if Ricky James decided that Kraftwerk was the future and went purely electro-funky. (♠)  So it’s sort of disco-funk, I guess.  The synths, though, make it a hard record to wrap your mind around – you can hear the soul, funk, and doo-wap influences all over the place, but they all feel at odds with the instruments used to express them musically.

Tryin to Survive is a fun period piece if you’re into a bit of funk-disco fusion.

(♠)  Go find that comparison in another review!