Odd decade, the eighties. Reagan, Thatcher, early MTV, the cretinization of Hollywood, greed is good etc.—a sorry list. As far as music goes, many found it equally bleak—instancing the end of punk and any hope for rock music, the troubled aftermath of disco, Duran Duran, Flashdance or, crucially, the loss of real instruments and the arrival of various Rolands—303, 808, 909. Some of my friends have never recovered.
But—there was electro, early house and garage and, of course, hip-hop. Quite, you may say, my point entirely. If you don’t like that digital thing, if Afrika Bambaata, The Peech Boys or Jamie Principal represent to you the death of proper music, then avoid this album at all costs. For Re-Members Only is a tribute to those sounds of the early eighties. Specifically it is a “love letter” to the new techno-soul then being made on both sides of the Atlantic, replete with the crude, crashing drum-machines and all the brash creativity and naive inventiveness that marked the period. The care taken with recreating those sounds is considerable and as King Britt is something of a studio genius—who adds that little extra to each production—this gloriously self-indulgent project works a treat.
Forming the second part of a trilogy which will constitute, when complete, a unique autobiography, this volume moves the story on from When the Funk Hits the Fan (Ovum 1998). That was an aural filmscript built around “a day in the life” in Philadelphia in 1977. Now we travel a few years forward to a mythical radio station called WISH 130. Theirs is the “ideal” playlist for the times. Unlike the first outing, which was built around a formidable collection of local Philly artists, this sequel supplements that talent with some actual figures from the despised decade. Martin Fry, Alison Moyet, Grover Washington and others all contribute material and will perhaps encourage an audience unfamiliar with King Britt to investigate this singular opus. They add to the album’s intriguing authentic feel—but do not distract from the creative tension between past and present which is where Re-Members Only‘s strength really resides.
In the guise of Scuba, King Britt is a remixer given to deep, atmospheric electronica which, famously, leaves little that is recognisable of the original track. As Sylk 130, he wishes to highlight the history of dance music. But even in his retro guise the sounds of tomorrow are present. The idea behind the project is to stress the connections between then and now—to establish and investigate a musical continuum within various dance genres. Its success depends on each track evoking particular memories but the overall effect has to say something to the 2001 dance-floor. This is no easy task but generally that goal is achieved. The album features a number of then embryonic styles, popdance, digital soul and early hip-hop, but mixed into these are examples of Britt’s futuristic, ambient groove. The idea is, I presume, for the listener to do a sort of compare and contrast and to draw certain conclusions.
The English collaborations with Moyet and Fry are interesting in this respect. Fans of either will appreciate both songs as good examples of their heroes’ style. To me, they are too faithful to former glories—too respectful perhaps. They do serve to highlight the impact that English acts had on American dance music in the post-disco period. Whether they have any contemporary relevance is debatable. It probably depends on how much you liked that Brit-digi-soul style in the first place. I never rated it. I am more at ease with the Art of Noise pastiche “Beauty of Machines” which sums up a whole sound in very succinct fashion.
Much less problematic are the re-takes on American sounds. “Rising” (featuring Kathy Sledge) is a fine garage anthem, at home in any era. “Happiness”, with Alma Horton on vocal duties, is a cheerful soulful dancer that would move any room. “I Can’t Wait” by Twyla is, I think, the only non-original on the record and it is magnificent—sounds like something on Prelude or West End circa 1980. The other out and out soul oldie is “For Love”—with Washington’s smooth sax over a Palaeolithic drum program. It’s charming or crass, depending on your taste. The same could be said of the loving recreations of pre-gangsta rap. DeLa Soul and Britt’s old colleague from Digable Planets have fun getting extremely old school over those breakdance beats. Britt is here paying definite rootsical homage.
It is the inclusion of “Romeo’s Fate”, “Incident on a Couch” and “I’ll Do It For You” that make the album more than an academic exercise in reconstruction. These tracks, featuring the likes of Mark Bell and Viktor Duplaix, are bang up to date soulful, spacey, organic and synthesised at the same time. Yet they fit in with the more obviously ancient sounds. What is going on? It seems to me that we are being asked to listen to the “new” efforts, and to discover in them traces of the old, and likewise to find a modern value in the “old” material. If that is so, then this is very clever stuff. Britt has managed to give us a lesson in remembering, pay tribute to a few influences and then he shows how those influences work in his current creative practice. I, for one, am impressed.
This is not to say that the pleasures here are primarily intellectual.This album has all the exuberance of the best of the music it celebrates. Yet it has these moments of reflectiveness and, indeed, self-reflexivity, too. It all sounds rather post-modern, does it not? Well, it is a bit, but with a sense of history—and a belief in the power of the music rather than its kitsch datedness—that is rarely found in PoMo sensibilities. It’s a combination of good fun and evocative nostalgia with a sense of historical perspective. What more could one ask from an autobiography? Do investigate this disc and Britt’s many Scuba remixes. Discover his talented co-performers Ursula Rucker,Viktor Duplaix and bassist/arranger Philip Charles. Wonderful things are emerging from this new sound of Philadelphia—even if here it is disguised in the trappings of the past. You won’t learn to forgive everything about the eighties but you will find more worth rescuing than you had imagined.