If you were an American citizen and fancied a little bit of dancefloor action with an edge in the late 1970s to early 1980s, you knew exactly where to go. Michael Zilkha and Michel Esteban’s ZE Records catered for all your esoteric disco needs and made you feel incredibly cool while doing it. They even gave this hipper than hell genre a name to die for – Mutant Disco. Just imagine dropping that into an animated hipster conversation. In the UK, however, everything was a bit more cut and paste and rough and ready. You could still strut your stuff to some edgy tunes, but you had to dig a bit deeper to find them. If only Shake the Foundations: Militant Funk and the Post-Punk Dancefloor 1978-1984 had been around then.
Over three tightly packed CDs, you get a long, hard look at what the Ray-Ban-wearing cognoscenti were shaking their skinny asses to in the cooler clubs in Britain in the period between disco and Live Aid. Over 49 tracks, you get examples of the hits, the misses, and the curiosities. The good, the bad, and the ugly. But every track is a little bit fascinating.
Unusually for a compilation like this, the big hitters of the “movement” are represented here. Simple Minds, A Certain Ratio, and Visage are aided and abetted by a bunch of names that only the uber-hip would know – take a bow C Cat Trance, Wide Boy Awake and Vee VV among (many) others. Although it’s a pretty disparate bunch, all the artists share a similar aesthetic in as much as they’re making rhythmic music that owes as little to the blues as possible. Guitars are used judiciously. Synthesizers, drum machines, and recording studio techniques are pushed front and center and bonus points were given to bands with the most peculiar names.
Occasionally an established band would dip a toe into these unpredictable waters and the Stranglers, Haircut 100, and Ian Dury all feature here. The Stranglers’ tennis-themed ‘B’ side, “Love 30” shows an interesting, experimental side to their work which faded away as the years passed, which is a bit of a shame. Ian Dury’s “Trust Is a Must” fares less well, coming from a directionless part of the great mans’ career.
It’s quirky and angular, but there isn’t much else to endear it to a casual listener. The Haircut 100 tune, however, is a real revelation. If you thought that they were all about airbrushed soul-pop, “Evil Smokestacking Baby” will have you diving back into their albums to find something else like it. It’s a bass guitar-led, brooding instrumental, which twists and turns in a very pleasing manner. I wonder how many cutting-edge, bright young things bopped away merrily to this, without knowing that it was by – gasp! – a pop group.
One of the most interesting things about Shake the Foundations is that it’s so all-encompassing. One minute, you’re in a $1,000 a day studio complex with Simple Minds, the next, you’re in someone’s back bedroom, repairing a microphone with some duct tape with the Diagram Brothers. The bond that sticks these two vastly different bands together is the desire to create something new and interesting. And for a while, they nearly took over the world until people remembered that electric guitars still sounded pretty good.
It’s great fun playing “spot the influence” while listening to this compilation. There are some easy ones to detect – Kraftwerk (and late 20th-century German music in general) informs a hefty chunk of what’s on here. But there’s also a bit of punk in “Rob a Bank” by the Pop Group, jazz in “Why Are We in Love?” by Furniture, and disco in “Black Leather” by Nightmares in Wax. Some influences are slightly tricker to nail down. One can only imagine what bizarre collection of noises inspired “When Are We? (Now We Are)” by the Surface Mutants. Wherever they are now, I hope they’re feeling better.
Cherry Red seem to have cornered the market in chronicling the most obscure musical backwaters. In Shake the Foundations, they’ve put together a fascinating archive of material that was originally recorded when the world was looking in the opposite direction. While most of the population was getting all excited about Madonna, Mötley Crüe, and Michael Jackson, some British refuseniks found a bunch of music they liked and nailed it all together until something new happened. Some of it was a bit unwieldy. Some of it collapsed under the weight of its concept. However, some managed to combine the hips and the head in a very appealing manner. It’s got a good beat. You can dance to it. You can also listen to it post-hangover. And that was the whole point.