Music that Passes the Acid Test
In England, the strident squall of acid house has united a bevy of fickle fandom factions, taken charts and tabloids by storm, and become a hallucinogenic experience identified by a what-me-worry smiley face. Yet this is no cabaret, old chum. These impatient pulsations and unnerving combustions are an antisocial irritant, a negation, a soundtrack for falling through Western society’s cracks at a time when the fall’s easier than ever. At its nastiest, acid house is Staggerlee 1989, and its apparent pop potential only makes the venom more intriguing.
“Chicago/The streets are mean/This ain’t no joke/It’ll make you choke,” an enigmatic man named Mr. Lee shouts in “Pump Up Chicago,” reviving horn-section R&B as a grating computer groove space jam. He divides the urban desolation into sectors of fire, takes on London and NYC in alternate versions. You picture a six-foot ex-linebacker who claims he’s the parking-lot attendant, and you give him 10 bucks so he won’t heist your tapedeck.
Recurrent stutter-syncopation peers back at Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s like That,” Public Image’s “Poptones,” and Sly Stone’s “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa,” summoning a stark, deadening stasis where evil’s always waiting to strike, to catch you off-guard just as the digital distortion detours. No quarter’s given to retro-notions of sophistication or class, even to the respectable just-say-no and don’t-drop-out niceties that castrate so much recent rap. The audience isn’t comforted; often, it gets what it doesn’t want.
“Art Of Acid,” Mr. Lee’s cut on Acid Trax Volume 2, runs a heart murmur from Art Of Noise’s ’83 crossover “Beat Box” through the salad shooter, and stomps on it. Bargain basement down to its plain white sleeve, the compilation is raw, unyielding outta-my-way music. Hula’s “Hot Hands” devours you with electronic loops, then turns swirls into peachfuzz, returning to its original motif just as your speakers start spitting. His “70th And King Drive” does more of the same, sneakier and more hesitant, with timbales for counter-rhythm. In “Box Energy,” DJ Pierre squeezes out a fingers-on chalkboard boom-chucka at some tortuous frequency that keeps climbing in pitch, setting tooth enamel on edge. I’m reminded of those new Black & Decker commercials in which you win a prize if you guess which power tool is making a particular kerrang.
In avant-garde rock, attempts at noise disruption are so old hat they no longer disrupt, but in dancing-in-the-streets genres, they’re a shock. R&B has relied on applied science, more on rhythm and less on blues, ever since soul became disco in early ’70s (if not since T-Bone Walker plugged in his six-string in the ’30s), but the barrage that emerged from Chicago in 1987 (initially with Phuture’s “Acid Tracks”) obliterated song and sense with machines: Lacking volcanic climaxes or overbearing divas, acid house was at first radically more knotted and desolate than house proper, but by now the forms have been blurred into a continuum. Brit DJs mixed in Mediterranean modulations for something they call “Balearic beat,” Prince and the Pet Shop Boys picked up the ball and ran the wrong way, art-schoolers reduced ingenuity into a self-important hoax. By the time the majors catch on, there might be nothing left.
Which is not at all true today. Phuture’s latest experiment, “We Are the Phuture”/”Slam!”/”Spank-Spank,” is background music that refuses to stay in the background, arrogant laser-zooms thickening into a dark, viscous gel as skeletal kickdrums push through wormholes that grind their conflicting gears against each other. (Think of Sun Ra’s cosmos-explorations, and William Burroughs’s assertion that you could kick off a riot with a couple tape recorders.) On the A-side, this monotonal roar vows to “own your body and soul”; on the busier B-side, gymnastic oildrum-like beats alley-oop between Phuture’s legs, around his back two times, through the hoop, into a conga line. No notes or melody, really, but if you’re expecting this to be “cold,” you might get burned.
Unless the singles are as proud as Phuture’s, which few are, it’s probably smartest to observe the evolving-idiom rule of thumb and investigate acid on anthologies. A pile of them have reached these shores (if only a few hundred at a time) through import channels. (Once again, limey ears-to-the-ground hear a new Yank sound and sell it back.)
In good acid house, slices of echo interlock like an elastic puzzle, and no matter how relentlessly the bass-drum four beat clashes with the blue-light boogie-woogie additives, they don’t dissolve into mere hissing hypnotics. The voices can flow disengaged from the rhythm, lag way behind, ascend with Sylvester-style intensity or descend through vocoders and octave multiplers, but mainly we’ve got to know these are breathing, yearning, loathing, midnight-rambling human beings, not Gobots or Transformers. It’s a tough trick, but the six acts on In The Key Of E (Desire, import), a dense dance hall of a collection comparable to Jamaica’s dreadest dub, pull it off.
Adonis’s three contributions are layered blocks of clutter that stay celestial, with ecstatic heaven-and-earth sighs rising above and eerie mullahs winding through, “hurting for the lack of love.” Fingers Inc. antagonizes green-world pastorality with an incessant bassline and a harsh but horny parson rasping Biblical quotes. Both Bam Bam and Count Bass-E conjure the surreal grits-and-grind feel of Westbound-era Funkadelic’s most indulgent throwdowns, sloppy suede singing opposing orchestral strings, disorienting stop-and-surge guitars, battalions of drum slaps, and sax work that harks back to the chitlin circuit. Bam Bam’s “Where’s Your Child” is scariest: Atop the slowest, sparest throb, gongs clank, babies scream, and this deep, electronically slowed vocal—half satyr, half Satan—groans “No one likes to be left alone/Especially when they don’t know right from wrong.” He starts laughing and cackling, but nothing’s funny.
“Where’s Your Child” could be an anthem in Detroit, where the crack a trade guns down black teens as a matter of course. But the seemingly war-torn town’s warehouses have already spawned their own, even more transistorized, acid branch; it’s called. “Detroit techno” in the disco biz, “Robocop pop” by me. Some, like Blake Baxter’s full-throttle pillow fight “When We Used to Play,” point toward Ted Riley’s melodic stable of chart-topping Nerf-funk new-jacks; such is the case with Inner City’s “Big Fun,” an upbeat-yet-disconcerting quasi-tribal shuffle with a flighty doo-wop whimper disappearing behind a curtain of steely bass and stately piano. “Big Fun” sold big in Britain and, thanks to its big-label support, could break out here.
But the inner-city blues that most make me wanna holler come from fellow Motowner Derrick May, a/k/a Rhythim is Rhythim, whose angri-fying Spanglish-percussed turntable symphony “Strings Of Life” jumbles brittle keys of ivory with hair-trigger agility and a deceptive logic that suggest the daunting note patterns of Cecil Taylor. If elegance this angular can make it in supposedly lowbrow clubland, just wait till May realizes his stated goal and starts scoring movies. You’ll see me waiting in line, nervous but smiling.
- Boston Phoenix, 20 January 1989
New Kids in the ’90s: A Decade in the Life
1990. March: Donnie Wahlberg is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Every white person in America should read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” The FBI immediately initiates a highly controversial Wahlberg file. June: Columbia releases Step By Step, which includes a good Beatles pastiche, a good Stylistics imitation, and one good rap. September: A fifth album is released, untitled save for five pagan runes said to signify “the cute one” (Joey), “the smart one” (Donnie), “the banana-nosed one” (Danny), “the preppy one” (Jon), and “the preppy one’s brother who often catches the flu” (Jordan). Amid false rumors of black magic, shark-meat orgies, and a particularly vicious assertion that NKOTB actually stands for New Kids on the Throne of Beelzebub, NODOZ (as the album is often referred to by the press) quickly becomes the best-selling LP in the history of the record industry.
1991. January: NODOZ places 41st in Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. Several well-meaning voters boycott because NKOTB once recorded “White Christmas.” July: Directed by Spike Lee and featuring an all-black cast except for the New Kids, the blaxploitation spoof Hard Day’s Nike opens to near-unanimous critical and popular acclaim. Though the movie receives no best picture nominations, Redd Foxx is awarded a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Donnie’s adopted grandfather.
1992. October: New Kids make what will be their final concert appearance. Donnie meets Naoko Yamano, who sings and plays guitar for the Japanese bubble-punk band Shonen Knife. December: Media Age of Afrocentrism, White Milk, and Safe Sex in the Streets begins.
1993. May: New Kids release Robert Mapplethorpe’s Lonely Art Schtup Banned, an agitprop kiddie-rap opera dedicated to the tax funding of dirty pictures. Comparisons to Bertolt Brecht abound, as do violins. “We are bigger than ‘Piss Christ,’” Joey declares. Nobody argues. August: Citing creative differences, NKOTB fires Maurice Starr and changes its name to the more adult People in Your Neighborhood. Sesame Street sues for copyright infringement, to no avail.
1994. May: Donnie weds Naoko, who seeks sixth New Kid status. June: People in Your Neighborhood records roots CD in order to regain fleeting esprit de corps; People In Your Neighborhood (The Black Album) is released instead but stalls at No. 78 on the charts. July: Donnie forms Plastic Bono Band with Naoko; releases include “Give Peas A Chance,” “Pride In The Name Of Lunch,” “Baby’s Heartbeat—It’s A Lovebeat,” and Like Two Virgins (produced by Madonna).
1995. February: Joey releases a self-indulgent solo LP of silly love songs; in the press kit, he calls Donnie a “pretentious creep.” April: Joey quits the band. May: The roots CD (now called Dorchester Calling) is released. June: Joey sues to dissolve PIYN.
1996. Greil Marcus publishes I Want You Back: Images of Situationist Struggle and Turn-of-the-Century Art Movements in Kiddie-Rap Music, likening “I’ll Be Loving You Forever” to select novels by Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Albert Goldman publishes One Bad Apple: How Donnie Wahlberg Spoiled the Whole Bunch. Dave Marsh publishes Hangin’ Tough, about the tribulations of growing up blue-collar in the Reagan years.
1996–2000. New Kids pursue solo careers: Joey gets the biggest hits; Donnie gets the best reviews. Danny buys the Red Sox and moves the team to Bangladesh. The Knights marry the Judds.
- Request, September 1990