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Golf jackets. It could be all about golf jackets. Or at least what have come to be known as ‘golf jackets’: unisex, universal, unfussy, functional, timeless, perfect urban camouflage that is simultaneously bohemian and conservative. This is a zip-up casual jacket, with a proper collar, not stand-up one. It has buttonup cuffs, possibly checked lining, nonelasticated bottom, so it’s definitely not a Harrington, though it might be called a windcheater or windbreaker. Preferably it will not be too short: the Ralph Lauren ones have always tended to be far too short. As that implies it could be ‘branded’; the likes of Dannimac, Aquascutum, and Burberrys have produced great golf jackets, some with a leather trim. It’s more likely though that a golf jacket will be more ‘downmarket’, often from Marks & Spencer or bought second-hand in charity shops for next-to-nothing. There was a photo of Luscious Jackson, in Paris, probably around 1995, maybe in the Melody Maker, a publication that would only have been bought because it had the LJs in it. Jill probably, certainly one of Luscious Jackson, is wearing a golf jacket in the photo. As a photo, as an item of clothing, it may have
looked non-descript but to those who know it’s a signifier. There is another photo, possibly slightly later, a New York subway still with graffiti backdrop, and Jill, again, has a sort of navy golf jacket on which may have had more of a modern skate-wear twist but it’s there again to prove a point, for some people to identify with. There was a lot of that at the time with Luscious Jackson, particularly when the Natural Ingredients LP came out. When was that? Late 1994? “Oh I missed out on the In Search of Manny EP completely. As a consequence it hasn’t ever felt like it’s ‘mine’. It belongs to someone else, even listening to it, reading about it, somehow no matter how great it may be it doesn’t connect in the way Natural Ingredients does. Why did I miss out? I don’t know. I guess it’s something to do with the name. It was always a little misleading, a red herring. And I hated American Rock. That whole alternative thing: Husker Du, Pixies, Throwing Muses, Pavement, Big Black, Beck, Jeff Buckley, Sebadoh, Mudhoney, Smashing Pumpkins, Bongwater, Buffalo Tom, Babes in Toyland, Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, Tad, Lemonheads, Liz Phair, L7, Hole, Bikini Kill. A horrible time. There were one or two exceptions. You can probably guess what they were. And I realise this is really a personal thing, and not necessarily logical, but I don’t think I was wrong, and I am still pretty unapologetic. “But that changed when I heard Luscious Jackson. It must have been on KISS FM, either Gilles Peterson or Patrick Forge played something off Natural Ingredients, and it really struck me, really caught my attention, and I
remembered seeing a small article on them in The Face, perhaps, or maybe i-D, so read up on the group after hearing them for the first time. There was some good stuff in i-D around that time, when Matthew Collin was editor, or maybe Avril Mair for a little while. People like Kodwo Eshun and Simon Reynolds were writing for the magazine around then.” “And yet the Luscious gals aren't the same generation as their fans. They're not even really major skate freaks or anything. Who are they, these four who break all the rules so effortlessly? They are the last Downtowners, the first Bohemians for the Ex-Generation, the late bloomers who arrived just at the right moment. Think of Luscious Jackson as the last of the early '80s Lower East Side scene, think of longforgotten clubs where The Slits would play one week, Bad Brains the next and Afrika Bambaata the week after.” – Kodwo Eshun, i-D, October 1994
Even without reading in-depth interviews with the group it was so easy to feel an immediate bond with the LJs. It did, admittedly, have a lot to do with roots. They seemed to be quite happy to chat about growing up in New York at a particular time when musically and culturally there was a peculiar openness that took in punk, funk, disco, reggae, jazz, afrobeat, samba, salsa, electro, early hip-hop, and so on. With all these influences burbling away the LJs were reminiscent of the way Lawrence was singing: “In the 70's I was just a kid, still knew what it was all about. I soaked it in now it's all dripping out”. Without specifically sounding like any of them, the LJs were very much a group in the spirit of ESG, Bush Tetras, Liquid Liquid, Pylon, Gang of Four, Slits, Raincoats, Au Pairs, Delta 5, Essential Logic, Young Marble Giants, MoDettes, Passions, A Certain Ratio, Orange Juice, The Pop Group and its tributaries, all the things
they would have read about read about it in The Face etc. Think of the young A Certain Ratio, let loose in New York, while recording To Each ..., dancing in clubs, listening to the salsa and samba sounds on the street, making the Tribeca film, absorbing all the influences that later shaped Sextet. Then imagine what it was like actually growing up in that kind of climate. Jill and Gabby, Kate too, were teenage punks, on the same scene as the Beastie Boys, just kids running around the clubs like the Roxy, Tier 3, Danceteria, Hurrahs, though not the Mudd Club apparently, absorbing it all, being shaped by what they heard and saw, seemingly later becoming slightly more focused on hardcore punk and the emerging hip-hop scenes and sounds, and that evolving ‘80s entrenchment was similar surely to what was going on in UK where cooler kids came to be hunkering down to draw on the inspiration of Love, Byrds, Subway Sect, Fire Engines, staging their own revolt against consumerism. The LJs and the lingering influence of the postpunk cauldron, which on Natural Ingredients can most explicitly be heard on Pele Merengue, proved to be a handy angle for journalists seeking to provide context for the group, but in 1994 did it count for much? Simon Reynolds’ i-D Beastie Boys feature from March 1994, later included in his Bring The Noise anthology has Mike D. referring to how “that late seventies/early eighties phase, when post-punk bands were turning on to funk and reggae, is one of the great lost periods of music, and it was when music had its greatest impact on us.” But in the early to mid ‘90s what impact was this era having? The closest thing to spirit of the LJs was New York’s 99 label, or more specifically the label’s triumvirate of groups: ESG, Bush Tetras, and Liquid Liquid. Hitsville UK had Rough Trade, Factory, Postcard, Y, Fast, Zoo, Fetish, etc. but New York had 99 and Ze. It’s easy enough to glean information now about 99 Records, the label and the store, but one of the best passing references is in a piece about Gaspar Lawal’s early solo LPs from the 1980s on the Permanent Condition blog: “It’s worth noting that I bought both Ajomasé and Abio'sunni in what, for all intents and purposes, was a punk record store, 99 Records in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. Its proprietor, Ed Bahlman,
followed his instincts to good effect. It seemed then, and still seems appropriate all these many years later, to have acquired Gasper’s DIY albums at 99, a haven for adventuresome weirdos.”
“I didn’t even know that ESG LP had come out. Well, not until the mid-‘90s when I found a copy on CD in the Covent Garden Rough Trade shop and bought it out of curiosity. And I still don’t know much about that label, Pow Wow”.
“Oh yeah, now, sure 99 is rightly revered, but there was a time, and this would have been around the time Natural Ingredients came out, I would listen to Robert Elms’ show on Radio London or GLR whatever it was called at the time, and he ran a competition asking listeners to identify a song. It was You’re No Good by ESG. And he kept playing it, but no-one guessed it. I got so irritated I rang in, to put Robert out of his misery. Around that time you really could still go to Bristol, say, and pick up a copy of the ESG single on Factory for a pound.”
Pow Wow seems to have been run out of New York by Herb Corsack and Judy Cacase. Mark Kamins was certainly there at beginning which makes sense: he worked with Quando Quango, was a big influence on people like Mike Pickering, and his eclectic taste in music was the chief catalyst for Factory picking up on the rai-pop classic N’Sel Fik by Cheba Fadela. The ESG sleeve credits also state: “To Bill Coleman – we truly appreciate your efforts”. He was an adviser on the house and hip-hop side for Pow Wow, a writer for Billboard, and he discovered, then became manager of Deee-lite
In the ‘90s ESG were still plugging away. They kept going right through the ‘80s, into the ‘90s, and beyond, doing their unique thing. They were at the opening party for The Haçienda, the closing of the Paradise Garage. They can be seen performing in a club in the 1989 film Vampire’s Kiss starring Nicholas Cage. Bomb The Bass did a cover of Moody in 1991, included on the Unknown Territory, a record that features Doug Wimbish and Keith LeBlanc who had played on some of the great early rap singles on Sugarhill. ESG, Emerald, Sapphire & Gold or the Enterprising Scroggins Girls, had quietly put out in 1991 an LP on the Pow Wow label, which is now revealed to have such a fascinating discography, like a more underground version of Sleeping Bag, featuring the performance art of Karen Finley; lots of reggae, lovers and dancehall; lots of early house and hip-hop releases; and some wonderfully esoteric choices of records they leased by Quando Quango and Hector Zazou/Bony Bikaye.
The sleeve also says: “A special thank you to Carol Cooper for all the support you have given to ESG”. The great article on ESG is an interview Carol did with Renee Scroggins for Dance Music Report in 1990, now reproduced in the anthology of Carol’s writing, Pop Culture Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Ride – Selected Critical Essays, published by Nega Fulo Books in 2006. Carol is particularly good on August Darnell: “Darnell is possessed of an extremely chthonic imagination and is wholly intent on snatching the mask off anything that passes for respectability.” One can almost certainly hear Ian Penman standing up to applaud that line. Carol allows Renee to ruminate, capturing so many great quotes: “One thing that really bothers me is that even the clubs have become formatted like radio in many cases. When we first started out, not only were there still lots of places to play live, but the deejays playing in track-only clubs would mix the music up too.
You might hear James Brown, The Clash, The Emotions, and the B-52s all in one night. Now if a place is a ‘house club’ or a ‘Latin freestyle club’, you’ll hear nothing but records in that one style all night. It’s boring and it makes it almost impossible for original new artists to be broken in such environments.”
recordings was due to appear around the same time on Infinite Zero, the label run by Henry Rollins and Rick Rubin which had already reissued titles by James White & the Blacks, Contortions, Gang of Four, Devo, Trouble Funk, and so on, but there turned out to be problems with the parent company.
Carol started her own label, Nega Fulô Records, and put out a (limited edition) ESG 12” in 1992, Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills EP. ESG’s Moody and UFO have been endlessly sampled, and not just by hip-hop audience. The techno pioneers in Detroit understood, too. Carl Craig heard ESG and Liquid Liquid played by DJs at the Music Institute in Detroit in late ‘80s. Twitch from Optimo has written: “I was blissfully unaware of 99 Records at the time. It was only in the early 90's when I heard Carl Craig and Derrick May both play 'Moody' by ESG and 'Optimo' by Liquid Liquid that I became enchanted. I went on a mission to find those records and along the way learned that there were other great releases on the label too.”
“That Bush Tetras set, it had been advertised, probably in The Wire, and I’d ordered it direct from the label. Then someone rang me at work, which was odd, to say there were problems and the CD had been put on hold so they wouldn’t process the credit card payment. Then, god, it was months and months later someone rang again from Henry’s office to say the Bush Tetras CD was finally going to happen and if I was still interested they’d pop one in the post. I thought that was really sweet. In the end it seemed to be released by his 2.13.61 label through Thirsty Ear which is an organisation I’ve never really fathomed out. They must have picked up Paul Quinn’s Will I Ever Be Inside of You? from Postcard around the same time.”
In terms of compact disc archival activity, any focus on 99 output began with the 1995 Bush Tetras set Boom In The Night (Original Studio Recordings 1980-1983) issued by Neil Cooper’s R.O.I.R. which had been originally solely a cassette label, albeit one with an incredible pedigree, with releases from James Chance, Suicide, Bad Brains, Television, Raincoats, Dub Syndicate, Malaria!, Prince Far I, Richard Hell, Black Uhuru, Scientist, Big Youth, and many more. There was always a precariousness about cassettes which made them a risk, and often the R.O.I.R. tapes were only available on import in the UK, so CD reissues such as this were very welcome. Another Bush Tetras set, Tetrafied, featuring a collection of demos, dubs, live and unreleased
And then there was Liquid Liquid. Deee-Lite’s Build The Bridge was built around their Bell Head, and there had been the whole thing with Sugarhill where Grandmaster & Melle Mel’s White Lines was built around an unacknowledged replayed backing of Cavern, triggering that soul destroying legal battle and there was the weird way the original Lydon fine whine line “slip in and out of phenomenon” had mutated into “something like a phenomenon” and via LL Cool J had become a part of the pop lexicon. Then bizarrely Duran Duran 1995 covered White Lines in 1995, and the whole litigious process had started all over again, with a seemingly happier ending. Then in 1997 Mo’Wax and Grand Royal in a joint venture put out a beautifully presented Liquid
Liquid compilation, with a great Ben Drury sleeve. It was no surprise the Beasties would be involved, and to be fair the precocious Lavelle had been burbling about Liquid Liquid for a while, including New Walk in an i-D playlist in early 1993, for example. Sasha Frere-Jones (SFJ) of Ui wrote a piece for The Wire, the August 1997 issue, which read suspiciously like abandoned sleevenotes: “Cavern brought together two independent communities long on enthusiasm and short on money. Uptown, Afrika Islam (‘Son of Bambaataa, none hotter!’) began playing Cavern on his eclectic Thursday night WHBI show (Fantasy Three next to Thin Lizzy next to Liquid!). Downtown, Liquid played with Treacherous Three and Heart Attack (or was it Kraut?) at the Rock Hotel. Rick Rubin even asked the Liquids to back up The Beasties on their first tour.” On the sleeve of the Liquid Liquid compilation SFJ is thanked specially which struck many people as somewhat ironic as his group Ui drew very heavily on 99 rhythm excursions like Out. Indeed Ui’s 1996 CD Sidelong may lack any ooo-whee exuberance but it is a mannered mix of Liquid Liquid and Tortoise which retains a real charm. And in fairness, judging by a summer of ’96 in-store performance at the Covent Garden Rough Trade shop Ui had considerably more fire when playing live even if they blatantly lacked the colour and character that has defined the great groups, but in a way that was appropriate, for as SFJ wrote: “I remember seeing Liquid and Konk at Peppermint Lounge in 1982 or 83. The faithful were there – maybe 100 paying audience members in attendance – but the marriage to come wasn’t obvious. The group stood there, static, geeky ...” That Mo’Wax/Grand Royal Liquid Liquid collection was very much a turning point, but before that? Beyond the randomness of reissues by major labels, the post-punk sounds which wrought the LJs were only sporadically given a new lease of life. Reissues of the Au Pairs recordings appeared on RPM, and the Raincoats’ work began to reappear on the reactivated Rough Trade label. This was in part due to attention on these groups’ activities from the riot grrrl, grunge, and K Records international pop underground scenes. There were concerns about this, though. Vicky Aspinall of the Raincoats, referring to The
Kitchen Tapes (originally released by R.O.I.R.), wrote: “Listening to that gig now it’s hard to find much in common with today’s Riot Grrrl – the music sounds so fragile, so unrelated to a conventional approach to song, both in form and content, that it’s hard to see where the line, if there is one, continues into the present day. But in spirit there’s a continuation, perhaps in a desire to do things your own way and not be moulded by others’ expectations”. Paul Foad, guitarist with the Au Pairs, in sleevenotes for Playing With a Different Sex said: “I’ve always put Jane (Munro) on a level with Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth. Both her and Lesley (Woods) played from a feminine perspective, which is hard to describe, but you can recognise it from Viv Albertine of the Slits, and the Raincoats too. What disappoints me about the modern crop of women bands is the way they rock out just like guys. They seem to have copped out in some way.”
Elsewhere, the Young Marble Giants’ back catalogue appeared on CD through Crepéscule. The revivified Postcard label made the early Orange Juice recordings available again. Creation’s reissue outlet Rev-ola put out a Fire Engines compilation and the great A Certain Ratio LPs on compact disc, and This Heat’s Peel sessions attracted considerable attention when Made Available. Cherry Red released a number of On-U Sound related titles on CD, and Adrian Sherwood himself released a series of collections of archive collections: African Head Charge’s Great Vintage, Creation Rebel’s Historic Moments, New Age Steppers’ Massive Hits, Dub Syndicate’s Classic Selection, Singers & Players’ Golden Greats. Massive Attack are often said to have drawn heavily on the On-U Sound template, and there were certainly connections via Neneh Cherry,
Shara Nelson, Mark Stewart, and so on. There are similarities too between the Bristol blues and roots (c.f. Protection, Dummy and Tricky) and what Luscious Jackson were doing on Natural Ingredients with a similar melting pot of influences and moods. To make this explicit Tricky was invited to remix Here, a minor UK hit in the autumn of 1995, as part of a CD set which featured the great lost LJs’ moment Queen of Bliss, which is gorgeous, simply gorgeous. In the early 1990s when the LJs took shape in New York it’s easy to imagine Jill and Gabby listening to Kool DJ Red Alert in New York, eating dub for breakfast. This was the era of De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, Jungle Brothers, and it makes sense that this style of hiphop re-energised the LJs’ interest in new music. Hip-hop is very much at the heart of the LJs’ sound on Natural Ingredients. Kate has joked about how her tastes may have ossified in 1983, and there is a sense of ‘old school’ b-girlz culture about the approach, even down to the graffiti cover art and the reference to ‘the culture of dusty old vinyl’. But the LJs never have come across as librarians or butterfly collectors though, not in the compulsive cratedigging sense of an Egon, Dante Carfagna, or Peanut Butter Wolf.
The roots of Luscious Jackson are in a four-piece hip-hop outfit which Jill and Gabby were in, and from there they developed their unique blend of singing/rapping/chatting aided by the liberating effect of new technology being more widely available, allowing the group to put together Natural Ingredients using a collage approach of loops and samples mixed with live instrumentation. That period leading up to Natural Ingredients was rich in adventurous hiphop acts, particularly underground, with the likes of Souls of Mischief, Main Source, Alphabet Soup, Freestyle Fellowship, Poor Righteous Teachers, Organized Konfusion, UMCs, but somehow the outfit which feels closest to the
LJs’ outlook was Digable Planets, whose two LPs, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and Blowout Comb seem so glorious. “Digable Planets? I never could really tell if it was cool to like them, but I didn’t care about that. If you like something, you like something don’t you? That single Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) seemed like such a blast of fresh air. I remember going to see Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear at the Conway Hall in London, loving the idea it was an afternoon show on what should have been a working day but feeling frustrated that it seemed like such a regular rock gig in execution. And coming home playing the Digable Planets seemed to an antidote to all that squawking and screeching.” Digable Planets were laidback, wise, not afraid to be smart, with a feminine energy, unabashedly drawing on jazz and smooth funk but retaining bite and edge and experimental tendencies. Ladybug Mecca was effortlessly cool, and were any other female rappers given that much space in hip-hop collectives at that time? It wasn’t all abstract beat boho headnodding nonsense either: la femme fétal attacked pro-life fascists, for instance. The references to Camus, Mao, Marx, Mingus and Monk seemed to show serious intent rather than stoned goofiness, and particularly on the second LP there was a tougher and less samplebased approach which is one of the reasons the group’s output has grown in stature. Nevertheless presentation of Digable Planets as “Afrocentric Utopians” generated suspicion among critics who considered the collective’s progressive politics and music not hard enough, not real enough, whatever that was supposed to mean.
The Luscious Jackson approach was not universally welcomed, either. In the San Jose Metro Gina Arnold suggested they led too comfortable an existence: “And it's not that there isn't a place for this kind of personal musical statement in rock, but from a distance the members of Luscious Jackson -- with their New York background and groovy, highfalutin connections -- seem so cool and remote”. The LJs’ politics may well have been personal but there is surely no chance of missing or misinterpreting the fiercely feminist themes present in the songs on Natural Ingredients. Natural Ingredients: it’s a great title. It’s just unfortunate that now it has connotations of Innocent smoothies and Whole Earth Foods organic exploitation. But at the time it seemed more about being true to one’s self, learning, find your own space, which seemed close in spirit to the punk ideals, the collective spirit of Rough Trade, and so on. Jill’s credits include references to Jivamukti yoga, “authors Merlin Stone, J.A. Rodgers and Mary Daly and all who work to uncover forgotten truths and histories”. There seemed to be a steely determination about Luscious Jackson which brilliantly did not necessarily endear them to everyone.
Mantronix, while now detached from any original context their Something To Believe In LP is possibly the UK’s best example of post-punk funk freneticism, but it took quite some time for that realisation to dawn. There is something about the Luscious Jackson backstory that is inherently part of a New York tradition: precocious teens running around on the fringes of what was happening. Earlier there had been Laura Nyro and Janis Ian, hanging out on the corner singing doo-wop or doing the rounds of the Greenwich Village folk clubs, absorbing the new black American pop music played on the radio. It’s easy to imagine how later they might have been into punk and hiphop. And it’s easy enough to discern the spirit of Laura and Janis in the songs of Luscious Jackson. That doesn’t need much imagination.
What Luscious Jackson came up with on Natural Ingredients, on paper, seems simplistic, which begs the question why so few seemed to be working with the same elements. In terms of recognisable group dynamics (that is, partly, a gang one would want to be part of) and complete groove the LJs seemed to be the first to come up with something new since Happy Mondays circa 1986/87. For years most other outfits had seemed content simply to add funky drummer-style breakbeats and a spot of wahwah guitar, or get someone in to do a remix. The LJs and Mondays had a rolling rhythmic completeness that seemed to flow as a whole. Like the LJs though it was sometimes hard to tell if the Mondays were early or late when they did their Freaky Dancin’ thing. Who else was doing that at the time? Well, oddly apb were still around, and while the UK may have been indifferent to their ‘delayed’ funk there was a real appreciation of and appetite for what they were doing in the States and New York in particular. With the 1984 single, What Kind of Girl?, they found themselves on Sleeping Bag, as label mates with Urban Blight, Konk, Video,
But the aspect that is really striking about the LJs as they emerged fully-fledged on Natural Ingredients is how, beyond the post-punk and
hip-hop elements, the really big thing is the mellow fluidity, the self-contained sumptuousness, the unobtrusive groove of Fleetwood Mac that seems such a big part of the sound, almost incongruously. The songs such as Rhiannon, Dreams, Sara, Gypsy, Love in Store, Little Lies, Everywhere that surely the LJs must have absorbed by osmosis seem to have been a shaping force, consciously or not, and a case could be made for the way Jill and Gabby wrote and sang mirroring the way very specific identities were wrought by Stevie and Christine. Take that Fleetwood Mac thing, which still seems so close to the pop sensibility of Chic with Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, on Spacer, Carly Simon’s Why, and that is where Natural Ingredients seemed to be coming from. And there was never any irony, no archness in what they were doing, thank god. Certainly at the start the LJs would have been shaped by a thrift store sensibility, and there doesn’t seem to have been any desperate yearning to be successful at any cost. But they were not afraid to play the game, and almost defiantly they seemed to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in to the touring/promotional cycle as if to prove they could survive the madness with their health and sanity intact. Once the group structure was functioning they seemed to be touring consistently, even playing with REM pretty early on, though if they were to go on the road with any stadium rock outfit Stipe & co. would be logical choices as they could at least compare roots: “Pylon? Oh yeah we saw them playing with the Gang of Four? Oh it was just a small club.” What happened next with the LJs was actually forged by a survival strategy for coping with the touring routine. Kostars was a side-project featuring Viv and Jill of the LJs who while out on the road got into the habit of sneaking off and finding secluded spots to mess around with acoustic guitars and ideas for songs that were pretty much short stories and observations about characters and encounters and scenes seen while travelling around. Klassics with a K the record they put together for Grand Royal was a sharp swerve away from how the LJs were portrayed, and this was a little lopsided, rather ragged, endearingly rickety, appealingly unpolished, fetchingly funky, charmingly intimate record of inventive M.O.R. bliss.
Viv proved to be a third great singer-songwriter in the LJs’ set-up, and the record was very much the sound of the summer of 1996 with Nonchalant’s Five O’Clock. It was correctly filed in the hip-hop section of the Rough Trade Covent Garden shop, and subconsciously the Kostars tapped into what else people were listening to: Bobbie Gentry (“whispering in my ear again ...), Joni, Françoise Hardy, Astrud Gilberto, Nancy Sinatra, Buffy Sainte-Marie. There was even a homage to Claudine Longet at the close of the record. There are, coincidentally, strange similarities with a different age when Postcard’s protégés the Jazzateers aspired to sound like Maureen Tucker with the Velvets playing a set of Bacharach and David songs in a bistro, with increasingly country tinges to the sound. There was too the Marine Girls, Poly Styrene’s Translucence, the evolution from the Young Marble Giants into Weekend into what Alison Statton and Spike were doing when Klassics with a K came out, and curiously the Kostars fitted in with what seemed to be the more easy listening related sounds of Stereolab, The Sea and Cake, Red Snapper, Money Mark which helped create a more conducive climate for a new Luscious Jackson LP.
Fever In Fever Out after a prolonged period of eager anticipation appeared in the UK in late 1996 on import in shops like the Rough Trade Covent Garden one. It generated the LJs’ biggest success when finally released in the UK in April 1997, as Naked Eye became a Top 30 hit. The LP garnered quite a bit of attention by being produced by Daniel Lanois, who seemed on paper an unlikely choice. It was recorded partly in Kate’s NY apartment, but mostly in Daniel’s New Orleans mansion. To provide some
continuity Tony Mangunian who had been there from the start was heavily involved. And it is such a remarkable record. It feels very warm, stickily sensual, spiritual, unhurried and wonderfully erotic. There is a lack of physical weight but the sound is still significantly substantial. The drums often seem to float, and the songs really flow. “Oh I confess I was initially apprehensive. I wasn’t really aware of Lanois, and there was a certain amount of prejudice because of his associations with people like U2, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson. I really had a thing about U2. I had hated them ever since buying 11 O’Clock Tick Tock because of the Martin Hannett connection, and so often found them suffocating and over-bearing. You know, Bono’s presence, his bellow, the hair, his Cuban heeled boots. But, then, without Bono? Hmm. The Edge, well he was on Wobble’s Snakecharmer. And even I would confess there are parts of The Joshua Tree to admire, the guitar’s glide, Where Streets Have No Name.” “It’s funny how history comes to us out of sync, out of sequence. I only found out later about Lanois’ connections to the best of the ambient recordings, Michael Brook’s Hybrid, Harold Budd’s The Pearl, Eno’s Apollo. And then there was Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy. I didn’t even feel any urge to hear that until I read Chronicles and really warmed to Lanois and the way he worked. And I love Oh Mercy so much now. Would I have liked it when I was 25? Probably not. Music takes on new meaning as you age. You need different things, can identify in different ways.” It is easier now to understand how Lanois’ stubbornly eccentric or indulgently idiosyncratic approach was at the heart of Fever In Fever Out. His approach seems to have been very hands-on, and this becoming emotionally involved is a refreshing change from an autocratic overseer sitting at the controls, detached, effectively saying: “This is what I do, this is how I will make you sound”. The experimenting, the exploring, the drawing-out of the magic, the assumption of the role as mad conductor: it is much more fun. And so together the team of Lanois, Mangunian and the LJs avoided making the common mistake of contemporary pop recording, and
instead created something unique, oddly out of time, amusingly so much so that even the supportive parent record company (Capitol) panicked slightly and wanted some ‘identifiably’ LJs style beats, scratches and trimmings added. But Fever’s strength is its avoidance of anything overly fussy and faddy, though it is still very much the funky four plus LJs, still singing and rapping, growling and purring, and being endearingly oblique. The LJs and Lanois seem to have paid careful attention to pop structures. There is a lot of depth to these recordings, and yet even with added intricate harmonies there seems a lot of space to breathe. It is tempting to imagine plenty of old reggae, jazz, Rubber Soul being played in the build-up to these sessions. And a lot of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Sly, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, Syreeta: that sort of thing. But it is almost embarrassing saying that when classics are used against us, and the emphasis is too much on the expressiveness, emoting, the rhythm, the beat when the LJs at least understood those artists’ skill at composition, craft, the current flowing through the records, the way the songs course as a whole.
One initially disorientating aspect of Fever was the unexpected appearance of Emmylou Harris on backing vocals. But overcoming the delightful surprise of Emmylou’s involvement meant discovering eventually Wrecking Ball, the incredibly bold and beautiful record Emmylou and Lanois made in the mid-‘90s, an LP which really makes a perfect companion work to Fever. Was Lanois on a mission to ‘save’ the entire cast of The Last Waltz? Seems so. Wrecking Ball is remarkable for its restraint, and Emmylou and Lanois prospered by being oblivious to commerce, preferring instead risk and adventure, though this was not simply stripped-down rootsiness but rather about spirit and even rhythmic invention. There is a great
documentary available on YouTube about the making of The Wrecking Ball which gives an illuminating insight into where this record was heading, but maybe it’s still best to start with Emmylou and Gram, Desire, and onto her 1970s LPs then relishing the surprise of Wrecking Ball. The success of Fever In Fever Out and Naked Eye raised the LJs’ profile, and they were even signed up to do TV commercials for The Gap simply featuring the group playing. This may have irritated snobs, but in a way The Gap was an appropriate brand for the LJs, with their functional, unobtrusive designs and absence of lairy logo. Mainstream? Sure, but not too far from the very fashionable brands like Stussy, XLarge/X-Girl doing the fake preppie look. The LJs still seemed to be determined to play the game if only to demonstrate they could stay sane and healthy. But along the way they lost Vivien. She was not part of the original teenage gang, but added a certain cool sophistication, providing a certain amount of shade and contrast, having more of a modern art/dance background, adopting an air of bemusement. And she was great singing on the LJs’ cover of 69 Annee Erotique, the tip of the hat to Serge G. and Jane B.
than a soft spot for Teena Marie, Laura Branigan, that sort of thing. And, Electric Honey it wasn’t really a a rock record was it? I mean records made by the reunited Raincoats or Bush Tetras were far more rock formations.” At the time the LJs claimed Electric Honey was the record to put on after playing the Lauryn Hill LP. The original concept was to adopt more of a hip-hop approach and get in different producers in to do their thing. Ultimately Tony Mangurian was there for most of the songs again. Interestingly it is possible now to find aspects of the Electric Honey sound on Kelis’ Wanderland, N*E*R*D’s In Search Of, and very definitely on Rihanna’s Umbrella and in ideas recurringly appearing in pop music, like in say Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen. And there are parts of TLC’s Fanmail – Unpretty particularly – which are very Luscious Jackson. Was Dallas Austin an LJs fan?
“When did Electric Honey come out? Was it 1999. Again, I have to confess it’s not my record. Where was I? I don’t know really. I was aware of it, and hid. I was wary of such a big pop sound so confidently delivered. I had this morbid fear of crowds doing that arm waving thing, and so ran a mile from anything that could be considered too much of a splurge or at best a woosh! “Like REM and that stadium sound thing. I couldn’t handle that after Reckoning. I’m weird like that. I can’t even cope with any of the classic 1970s Bowie LPs. I could understand the LJs’ thing though. I suppose you must adjust your sound to fill stadiums if that’s where you are playing. It’s a question of dynamics, and in those environments it must be difficult to retain intimacy, inticracy, idiosyncracy. So, yeah, for me Electric Honey can make for uncomfortable listening. And the record company, were they aiming for the Fiona Apple, Jewel, Alanis Morisette, Sheryl Crow, Aimee Mann, Ani DiFranco market? Maybe. But I do like the idea of this AOR disco/R&B crossover. I have more
There are lots of fantastic things on Electric Honey which make it a great pop record. It starts brilliantly with Nervous Breakthrough, an irresistible uptempo disco stomp, related to Groove Is In The Heart, celebrating the finding of salvation on the other side of emotional turmoil. Then there is the catchier-than-the-Cardigans hit Ladyfingers, with its fun video where the LJs are dancing on the bus, and the wonderful Christine which is like Angie Baby by Helen
Reddy meets early ‘80s Siouxsie and the Banshees’ anti-gravitational glide.
for example) it just felt wrong, and far too narrow a range of influences.
Tellingly Fantastic Fabulous is co-produced by Tony Visconti and features Debbie Harry on vocals. Blondie around that time were back, hitting the top of the charts with Maria. The LJs’ Kate even played drums at one or two Blonide shows around that time. And it is easy enough to make a case for Debbie being the LJs’ patron saint. It is also too easy to take Blondie/Debbie/Chris for granted. Who else could have made Heart of Glass? Who else worked with the Chic Organisation and Giorgio Moroder? Who else explicitly linked the glitter era and the dawn of hip-hop?
A rather more interesting ‘retro’ project was Trevor Jackson’s Playgroup enterprise in 2001, which had a wider remit, taking in dub disco, punk funk, electro boogie, house rockers, and so on. Playgroup shared a name with one of the most appealing Adrian Sherwood masterminded On-U Sound virtual outfits of the early 1980s. Was this knowing appropriation? Well, Jackson has claimed not to have been a fan of the more reggae-oriented On-U releases, so who knows?
It is worth trying to see a copy of the book Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie by Debbie, Chris Stein and Victor Bockris. This was published in 1982 and as cash-in books go it is a work of art. It is written in a familiar first-person style, with Debbie telling her/their story. But it is the very many fabulous photographs that really tell the story about a singer who could be considered part of the pop establishment but who was equally at home being photographed with Joan Jett, Suzi Quatro, Fab Five Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, Anya Phillips, Buzzcocks, Jim Henson and the Muppets, Iggy Pop, Suicide, Chic, Andy Warhol, Ray Davies, David Bowie and Robert Fripp, all very naturally and nonchalantly without any suggestion of a stylist or svengali directing. After Electric Honey ran its course the LJs decided to call it a day. Ironically it was at that point that a resurgence of interest in post-punk sounds seemed to come alive. While some of these had been in gestation for some time there was a glut of releases: Strut’s Disco Not Disco titles, Anti-NY, the Acute label’s excellent catalogue got going, and so on. Archival titles by ACR, ESG, Konk, and Arthur Russell appeared on Soul Jazz. And Luscious Jackson were conspicuously absent, except for Jill who wonderfully aptly was playing with and writing for Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. Suddenly there were new releases from groups like The Rapture, Radio 4, LCD Soundsystem, Liars, Franz Ferdinand. All the right names were paraded as reference points, but it was a real struggle to identify similarities. And where there were familiar aspects (an Andy Gill-ian guitar riff,
The Trevor Jackson/Playgroup CD came with a detailed set of credits which include conspicuous thanks to “Martin Rushent, Arthur Baker, Chris Blackwell, Alex Sadkin, Bill Laswell, Trevor Horn, Martin Hannant (sic!), Ed Bahlman, Adrian Sherwood, Aldo Marin, Marley Marl”. There is no mention of Bob Blank though, despite Playgroup being a producer’s project like Blank’s Aural Exciters/ Spooks in Space set. Dennis Bovell is another name one might expect to be among the credits, but he is only there as a contributor, along side Edwyn Collins, Roddy Frame, Ted Milton, Dick Cuthell, Kathleen Hanna, K.C. Flightt, and Shinehead. There are also samples of Paul Haig, Joi, Slits, Scritti Politti, and Shoes For Industry. Was this the spirit of Ze born again or something modern and more avU.N.K.L.E-lar?
Musically, Trevor Jackson first seemed to appear as part of that vogue for abstract hip-hop, with the Skull track, Destroy All Monsters, which was on the 1994 Mo’Wax compilation Headz: A Soundtrack Of Experimental Beathead Jams). Trevor tells a great story. He seems to be a butterfly collector. He is very opionated, outspoken, obsessive. As a kid he was a sci-
fi/comics fan, then (like Luscious Jackson had been in NY) he was let loose in his early teens on the club scene in London: for example, at the Camden Palace where Colin Faver would DJ. He often mentions the Embassy Club, which was all very Sigue Sigue Sputnik mutant glam disco, and on to hip-hop, the pirate stations (LWR, TKO, KISS, etc.), the warehouse party scene, the arrival of house music. He was there.
Martin, and there was another project where Ice met The Underdog. Output had close links early on with the DFA label, and there is a common thread there: Trevor Jackson, Kevin Martin, James Murphy: so much of what they do and say seems so admirable, but it’s all ultimately so deadly dull. The right credentials do not necessarily make for great art: just think of David Peace’s books.
Using the brand name of Bite It! Trevor got into graphic design, doing work for Champion, Gee Street, the Network Records’ Bio Rhythm comps and so on. He branched out into hip-hop production, and started Bite It! Recordings, using local London talent to experiment with, like Scientists of Sound and Lewis Parker. His most successful work was with The Brotherhood, and in particular on their frustratingly unremarkable 1996 Elementalz LP which had a track called Punk Funk and used unusually esoteric source sounds and inspirations, such as Robert Fripp, ECM, Robert Wyatt and the Canterbury scene.
On the other hand something that should be a complete disaster can turn out to be totally irresistible. In 2003 a Cooler Kids record appeared that was gloriously calculated, contrived confectionary with the LJs’ Jill acting as ‘groove godmother’ heavily involved in the songwriting and production. The results were ridiculously infectious in a hands-up give me your glitterball glam bubblegum, brattish electro, dizzy disco, trash house, technicolour rave pop stock. The songs were very smart and enormous fun in an Ottawan, August Darnell w/Cristina, Lio, Madonna, SAW/PWL , Deee-lite, Beatmasters, Betty Boo, Sneaker Pimps, Kylie, Xenomania kind of way. How involved was Jill? Certainly the compositions seem cannily Cunnifferous, and on the Punk Debutante LP there is so much going on in songs. Too much? Perhaps that’s why Jill didn’t become an American earworms-r-us Cathy Dennis for hire.
For his own recordings Trevor used the name The Underdog, and there is a double CD set called The Attic Tapes of instrumental hip-hop, which is efficient and pleasantly functional if lacking in magic. People like Roots Manuva and the Ronin stable would later offer a more compelling vision of what UK hip-hop could be, particularly on the Countryman LP by Skitz. The Ronin organisation was run by 23 Skidoo, who would also oversee their own archival activity, reissuing some of their classic recordings, like the Seven Songs and Urban Gamelan sets. Oddly the Chemical Brothers had topped the UK singles charts with a track underhandedly sampling 23 Skidoo’s Coup. Moving away from overt hip-hop Trevor Jackson activated his Output label, and seemed to drift towards the abstract aesthetic, heavily influenced by the Chicago underground sounds of Tortoise etc. promoted by the Covent Garden Rough Trade shop and the Soul Static Sound label which were linked by Darryl Moore (aka D). Output in particular got behind a very young and appropriately named group, Fridge, which featured Keiran Hebden. Another track featuring Trevor Jackson, Skull vs. Ice’s Operation Mind Control features on the Macro Dub Infection compilation. Ice featured the Macro Dub Infesticonceptualist Kevin
Ironically with post-punk aspects back in the spotlight, ESG became a talked-about influence which gave the group a new audience. After Universal Sound put out the essential A South Bronx Story compilation ESG returned in 2002 with a new LP in a deal with Soul Jazz brokered by Carol Cooper. The resulting record, Step Off, was an extended family affair, with the core unit of Renee, Valerie and Marie augmented by Chistelle and Nicole. If anything the sound was more minimal, with astonishing use of space.
The shockingly sparse compositions used just voices, bass, occasional guitar and percussion making it seem more like the approach of a small jazz/blues combo, in the spirit of Peggy Lee’s Fever. The songs are beautifully put together, showing a bold belief in ability when so many artists hide behind layers of sound.
to blend modern R&B yearning with the more earnest but endearing jazzily acoustic approach of Joni or Janis Ian with a sense of kids sitting around strumming along to Bob Marley and getting away with it which takes some doing. Sadly the world wasn’t listening, but what a record!
ESG pulled off the same conjuring trick again in 2006 with the Soul Jazz set Keep On Moving which went further in terms of minimalism, making the song structures pared down even more. The record is pretty much bass, drum, and voice, oddly mirroring the then current vogue for minimal techno/house underground sounds. And it was such an irony that an outfit which had spent 25 years perfecting a particular approach could sound fresher than pretty much anything else around.
“And then there’s the ultrapop subversion of The Stoop by Little Jackie. This is Imana Coppola and Adam Pallin indulging in some role play, and coming up with some absurdly infectious songs, including the hit The World Should Revolve Around Me. It’s a great concept: the spirit of the Shangri-Las and Roxanne Shante, and all that. But even when playing it straight, Imani’s somehow sardonic and sarcastic. She’s at her best wielding withering put-downs and smart arse one-liners. In other words, Little Jackie is a lot of fun. You know, like that song by Carole Bayer Sager, You’re Moving Out Today. Now that’s a great song.
Generally in terms of new music the period 2002/3 onwards, maybe even earlier, has a sense of stasis, with the becoming becalmed not necessarily noticeable because of stirring breezes created by an intoxicating mix of old sounds to discover. But invariably R&B was the only thing happening progressively, that is R&B blending into hip-hop and mainstream pop. And because of that somehow when in 2007 the LJs’ Jill released her City Beach solo set it somehow seemed so right. “Oh there was so much good stuff that came out of that era. Records which were bought on the off-chance which became treasured possessions. I’m thinking of CDs by the likes of Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Amerie, Sunshine Anderson, Cassie, Floetry, Chrisette Michele, Jazmine Sullivan, Jaguar Wright, Georgia Ann Muldrow, Stacy Epps, J. Dilla, Lupe Fiasco, and so on. Some took off, but too many disappeared. I think it really was a golden age for inventive pop, if not for justice. “Two records, two particular favourites from around that time, for me have a very definite Jill-iciuosness or Jill-lusciousness. One is East Side Story by Emily King, a wonderful record where the young singer is on the cover in her old school Run DMC t-shirt and white denim jacket. The CD is packed with Emily’s great songs, produced by Chucky Thompson who brought with him something of the pioneering spirit of Mary J. Blige’s My Life which he had been responsible for. Emily’s record beautifully seems
“Maybe Imani can be relied on to spoil the party with her punky sneer. I suppose that’s why she’s not got on. Legend of a Cowgirl was a hit back in ’98, but she has never been very compliant. Her debut LP, Chupacabra, is a real long-term favourite. Well, it’s got that LJs/Neneh thing going on, as well as a thousand other things. And it’s no coincidence that Michael Mangini is at the heart of it. He was there on that first Digable Planets LP, and the Little Jackie one, which makes sense.”
Jill has put City Beach into context by saying: “I was attracted to hip hop, dusty samples, old and scratchy also beautiful, female-vocal heavy, Brazilian music.” This particular feel is beautifully captured by Jill’s lovely cover painting which suggests Joyce with her acoustic guitar seated singing one of her gorgeous songs. And the tone on City Beach is often contemplative and watchful.
The pace needs to be mentioned, too. The opening track celebrates lazy girls and laidback boys, while on Warm Sound Jill suggests it would be wise to "start the century again at a slower pace". And there is a sense of escape: the video for the single Lazy Girls has Jill with a portable record deck riding the subway out to the beach at Coney Island, as if to seek sanctuary from some of the mad modern ways. This is slightly disingenuous about a work of genius, though. City Beach is a brilliantly put together pop record, deceptively simplistic lyrically and structurally. There are some big pop surges too, giving a curiously contemporary feel to the LP, but not ostentatiously so. It is maybe more naturally new rather than militantly modern. Among the collaborators are Dave Schommer and Sam Hollander with whom Jill worked on the Cooler Kids record. The UK edition of City Beach had a lovely dubby reworking of Last Summer from Punk Debutante. Emmylou’s there on Disconnection. And Vivien Goldman cowrote Exclusively, which makes perfect sense because Vivien as an author, singer, songwriter, and film maker seems to link so many important things. She wrote for the UK music press, Sounds/NME/Melody Maker, when it mattered. And she uniquely links the labels 99, On-U Sound, and Celluloid. She has connections to The Pop Group, Slits, Bob Marley, PiL, Neneh Cherry, Massive Attack, Basic Channel, Eric B & Rakim, Tippa Irie, The Gist, Prince Far-I, Flying Lizards, Chicks on Speed, and so on. What more do you need to know? Again, when these things mattered, Ed Bahlman at 99 picked up on Vivien’s wonderful songs Launderette and Private Armies, and released these on his label as the Dirty Washing EP. This was all part of a cultural exchange going at the time between New York and London, and back and forth. Dick O’Dell’s Y label got to release titles by Pulsallama, Sun Ra, and The Fearless Four. 99 got Maximum Joy, Singers & Players, and the Vivien Goldman EP. Fetish got the Bush Tetras and Bongos. On-U Sound got Judy Nylon. Ed Bahlman, like Alan Horne of Postcard Records, has unusually disappeared from the music scene and resolutely kept his own counsel. It is hard to stay away though, and as Elizabeth Bowen wrote in The Heat of the Day:
“What’s unfinished haunts one; what’s unhealed haunts one.” Luscious Jackson are among those who have given into temptation, and in 2012 they announced they had reconvened and were putting together a new record. Through PledgeMusic the plan was to raise money to record and promote it. A stastement from Gabby, Kate and Jill said: “We are now a fully independent band, and we will be running the show ourselves.” Among other artists who have chosen the PledgeMusic option is Viv Albertine, once of the Slits, who in 2012 released her first solo record. The Slits’ influence on the LJs cannot be underestimated. When the second issue of the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine came out it featured a 1981 interview with Viv which was done in New York for the fanzine Decline of Art which Jill was involved in running with Robin Moore and maybe others. As Jill wrote in Grand Royal: “There was a time in my life when The Slits were the epitome, the ultimate, the coolest of the cool. They were everything I wanted from life.” This is a time Jill returns to in a moving tribute she wrote for Adam Yauch. It contains some lovely lines: “Adam was always at the center, the heart, the creative and fun loving core of all of these adventures in culture. He was someone who made it all feel healthy and legit.” Actually, that’s what it’s really all about isn’t it?
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