Norman Whitfield 1941-2008

Just days after Popcorn Wylie’s death, another Motown legend is no more. Norman Whitfield (whose birth date has been variously ascribed as 1940, 1941 and 1943) died on 16th September following complications from diabetes.

Although he worked with many of Motown’s brightest and best such as Gladys Knight and the Pips, he will forever be most associated with the Temptations’ ‘psychedelic soul’ period which lasted from the release of “Cloud Nine” in 1968 to the Masterpiece album in 1973. The tunes he penned with Barrett Strong moved away from the simple love songs that the band had recorded up to that point into a new realm where politics, drugs, poverty, civil rights and black power were all on the agenda. The musical template of deep bass, wah-wah guitars, strings and tunes that could last for anything up to fifteen minutes was heavily influenced by the conscious funk-rock of Sly and the Family Stone, but was also hugely influential in itself, with traces to be found in the P-Funk bands, the heavier Philly stuff and all of the seventies Blaxpolitation soundtracks.

Much of the material that he wrote with Strong was recorded and re-recorded by different acts. He even had his own group of lab rats in the form of the Undisputed Truth who often did a dry run on material later made famous by the Temptations.

His post-Motown career wasn’t so successful, although he did have many hits with Rose Royce – a group who took the psychedelic soul sound into the disco era.

There’s more here.

Here’s Ball of Confusion from 1970.


Richard Wright 1943-2008

Just heard the sad news that Rick Wright of the Floyd died today of (unspecified) cancer. Best remembered these days as the quiet one caught between two battling egos, it’s worth remembering that his songwriting contributions were the equal of Waters and Gilmour’s between Barrett’s departure and Dark Side.

Here’s one of his, featuring a rare lead vocal. “Paintbox” from Belgian TV in 1968.

Hector Zazou 1948-2008

French composer Hector Zazou died yesterday after an (unspecified) serious illness. There’s an obit here.

The only music of his I really know is the Songs From the Cold Seas set of collaborations with the likes of John Cale, Siouxsie and Björk, whose “Vísur Vatnsenda Rósu” is one of the best things she ever did.

Not an official video, but still a fitting track to remember him by.

Cult Albums: #12 BIOSPHERE – Substrata (1997)

Geir Jensen is a native of Tromsø, the most northerly city in Norway, home to 60,000 people, the world’s most northerly university and the world’s most northerly brewery. Of all his albums under the Biosphere moniker, none captures the essence of the Arctic quite like Substrata.

Ambient music is too often little more than clichéd, mellow chill-out pap – soporific and dull. At its best, though, it paints aural pictures – unforgettable landscapes of sound. Opener “As the Sun Kissed the Horizon” is a perfect example. It’s nothing more than a field recording of the near-silence of the endless daylight of an Arctic summer night. The distant drone of an aeroplane is the only distinct sound, and yet it captures perfectly the clear stillness, and vast skies of the far north. You can almost smell the salt air. “Poa Alpina” introduces a gossamer melody so fragile it feels remembered rather than heard.

Substrata is more than just a collection of sweeping sound-pictures. “The Things I Tell You” is like the surreal experience of waking in a dream, only to eventually realise that you’re still dreaming. “Times When I Know You’ll Be Sad” is a strange cyclical song built on a chugging, plucked guitar figure, and “Hyperborea” continues the weird corporeal sequence, with lapping, icy water overlaid by a sample from Twin Peaks – a description of a dream by the Major Briggs character. Best of all is the icy chill of “Kobresia”. A Russian speaker coughs and shivers his way through a monologue as a looped synth motif swells and falls before fading into radio static, and distant, dimly heard voices. “Antennaria” is even darker, juxtaposing a sense of threat with the almost playful clinking of wooden chimes. It ends the sound of running water as “Uva-Ursi” brings the promise of spring and new life in the form of twittering fledglings.

The bellowing foghorns of “Sphere of No-Form” echo through the fog, and the lonely chime of a ship’s bell conjours images of the ghosts of great vessels calling from a watery grave. “Silene’s” chugging engines struggle to pierce the desolate oceanic emptiness, and drift away leaving the final sound that of the recordist himself. Setting a fire? Packing away his equipment? It’s hard to tell, but it’s a very intimate and small scale way to end an hour of music that emphasizes the beauty, but also the untamed threat, of nature.

Substrata was reissued in 2001 by Touch (TO:50) with an extra disc of odds and ends, including music written to accompany the Russian silent film classic Man With a Movie Camera. The main disc remains Jensen’s finest work to date, and one of the best musical interpretations of the natural world ever recorded.

1 As The Sun Kissed The Horizon 1:45
2 Poa Alpina 4:10
3 Chukhung 7:33
4 The Things I Tell You 6:29
5 Times When I Know You’ll Be Sad 3:44
6 Hyperborea 5:48
7 Kobresia 7:10
8 Antennaria 5:06
9 Uva-Ursi 2:51
10 Sphere Of No-Form 5:56
11 Silene 7:56

Substrata was originally issued as All Saints ASCD33 in the UK, and as Origo Sound 19 in Norway.

Kobresia performed live at the Leigo Festival in Estonia.

Cult Albums: #10 WAY OUT WEST – Way Out West (1997)

In some ways Jody Wisternoff and Nick Warren, aka Way Out West, were a little late to the party. Their debut album surfaced in 1997, by which time the UK electronica / dance boom had arguably peaked. It had taken a while to come together, with some tracks already three years old by the time it was released. It was more than just a career-to-date summing up, and garnered a lot of positive notices from the dance press and beyond. A decade later, it seems to have been largely forgotten. A state of affairs that needs to be addressed!

Nick Warren was an ‘A list’ DJ, who could count Paul Oakenfold, Sasha et al as peers. Unlike many of his contemporaries’ ventures into recording, Way Out West were never conceived as merely a vehicle for dancefloor fodder. The opener “Blue” rams this point home. It’s a slow breakbeat tune (based on a theme from the score of cult favourite Withnail and I) that builds totally unlike a dance track. It’s largely remembered these days (if at all) for the fabulous John Clayton directed video starring Harry Dean Staton that comes across like Paris, Texas meets Repo Man. “The Gift” takes a couple of lines from Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and uses them to build a dream-house classic that was famously used as part of Coldcut’s legendary JDJ 70 Minutes of Madness mix.

Both “Ajare” and “Domination” were also issued as singles. In contrast to the aforementioned pair, these were driving progressive house tunes that could get any crowd moving, but still had an intelligence to their construction that marked them out from the rent-a-trance crowd. “Ajare”, especially, is as hard as (nine inch) nails. There are straightforward trance tracks like “Sequoia”, but even these have enough about them to keep them interesting. Things end with the proto-grime “King of the Funk” and the gentle come-down of “Earth”.

Way Out West are still (I think) a going concern – at least they were as recently as 2006. They’ve not been especially prolific. A second album, Intensify, appeared in 2001 and Don’t Look Now in 2004. Both are strong, but not quite as consistently so as the duo’s debut. Both also lean more heavily towards songs, but are refreshingly cheese-free.

The culture that Way Out West sprang from may have largely withered away, but like many records from that era, it still sounds fresh. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of revival happening in the not too distant future in the same way that sixties garage bands lay unloved and forgotten for a decade before they were rediscovered and venerated.

Original video for “Blue”

1 Blue 5:16
2 The Gift 7:21
3 Domination 8:41
4 Dancehall Tornado 7:45
5 Questions Never Answered 8:44
6 Sequoia 8:01
7 Ajare 5:44
8 Drive By 6:39
9 King Of The Funk 5:38
10 Earth 3:17

Originally issued by Deconstruction (74321 50195) in September 1997.

Cult Albums: #6 IDAHO – Year After Year (1993)

Idaho could be the archetypal cult act. They’ve been going for ages with little in the way of mainstream attention or commercial success, but have a small, deeply loyal and dedicated following. I first came across them some fifteen years ago when they were featured on a cover mounted cassette that came with Lime Lizard magazine (blimey, I forgot all about that publication – I seem to remember it being pretty good) called Altered States of America. Nestling alongside some excellent stuff from Girls vs Boys, Jesus Lizard, Polvo and the mighty Come was “Skyscrape” by Idaho, a slow, sad, feedback drenched lament. I was smitten. Year After Year became high on my wants list, and when a copy fell into my hands, I wasn’t disappointed.

At the time of this, their debut long player, Idaho were a duo of Jeff Martin on vocals and John Berry on guitar – everything else was also played by the pair bar three tracks with guest drummers. Tempos were slow, and the mood uniformly sombre (except when it was positively anguished). This wasn’t happy music. Existing somewhere in the space between Red House Painters and Low, what marked Idaho out from the crowd was the guitar-work and the extensive use of sustained feedback as opposed to gentle strumming. It sounded as tormented as the songs themselves. “Skyscrape” was a highlight, but tracks like “Gone” and “Memorial Day” were its equal. The final track “Endgame” is magnificent, but an even more striking version entitled “You Are There” appeared on the group’s first release, the four song Palms EP.

Berry left before the follow-up record This Way Out was recorded. I seem to recall that some kind of substance problem was the issue. Happily he was back for 2005’s The Lone Gunman. In the interim, Martin put together a four piece group who were responsible for a series of excellent records. None quite matched the heights of their debut, though. The album is still in print and should be easy enough to track down.

“Skyscrape” recorded live at the Knitting Factory in 1996 and featuring the bleach-blond Dan Seta with some stunning, restrained guitar work.

1 God’s Green Earth 3:44
2 Skyscrape 4:11
3 Gone 5:21
4 Here To Go 4:56
5 Sundown 4:33
6 Memorial Day 4:25
7 One Sunday 2:12
8 The Only Road 4:00
9 Let’s Cheat Death 1:36
10 Save 3:46
11 Year After Year 5:48
12 End Game 5:36

Originally issued in October 1993 on Caroline, CAROL136 in the US and Quigley QUIGD4 in the UK.