Episode 043

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Genius is a Weapon
By Neil Higgins

Almost all the tracks in this mix were released between 1980-82. The outside world seemed to be full of confusion & danger: huger strikes, riots, hostages, assassinations, glue-sniffing & imminent nuclear wipeout. That paranoia & anger fed into the music, giving it this edge of urgency & anger.

1. Cabaret Voltaire - The Voice of America’ (Intro) / The Cure - Three
Almost all the tracks in this mix were released between 1980-82, with maybe a couple from 1979. The artists I love from this period were fusing punk, funk, reggae, disco and electronics, all in an un-self-conscious way, because the rules hadn’t been written yet. Also, in the early 80s the outside world seemed to be full of confusion and danger: huger strikes, riots, hostages, assassinations, glue-sniffing and imminent nuclear wipeout. All that paranoia and anger fed into the music, giving it this edge of urgency and anger. If things continue to fall aaprt maybe we will get some of that back into music? Just a thought.

2. Virgin Prunes - Ulakanakulot
Probably Ireland’s leading art-goth-pagan-death-cult band of the early 80s. Actually, the only one. In conservative, catholic Ireland of the time the Prunes were an unbelievably confusing and unsettling presence. Gotta admire them for that. This track is from their debut LP ‘If I Die, I Die’ and is a suitably sinister groove.

3. David Byrne & Brian Eno - Regiment
In 1980 Brian Eno took a couple of months out from basically inventing ambient music to make the ‘My Life in a Bush of Ghosts’ album with David Byrne. Cutting and pasting tape loops of African and Arabic vocals and percussion with found-sounds from US TV news and radio evangelists over edgy punk-funk grooves. In the process they pretty much invented a whole new approach to music production, one that paved the way for an era of leftfield sample-based music. The fusion of world music, electronics and dislocated voices sounds like an obvious formula now, but this was 1981 – there were no samplers, MIDI, or laptops. 
The sampled words ‘… his insane desire to use his genius as a weapon...’ are referring to the silent movie director Erich von Stroheim, but they kind of capture the spirit of the music here.

4. James White & the Blacks - Irresistible Impulse
If anyone deserves the ‘punk-funk’ label, it’s got to be James Chance. Another slice of danceable but menacing New York no-wave funk. From the 1982 Album Sax Maniac. I saw him live in London a couple of years ago and he was still on fire…

5. The Slits - Heard it Through the Grapevine
‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’ was the b-side of The Slits first single in 1979 and follows a grand tradition of sarcastic punk versions of soul and funk classics. This slice of cynical joy mixes soul, reggae, pop and punk and delivers proper girl power. In fact there were loads of fantastic, strong and edgy female-led bands around at the time. What happened?

6. Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi’s Dead
Goth-Dub-Horror-Disco starts and ends with ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ This classic was released in 1979 as a 6-and-a-half minute 12” with a disco-style arrangement, dub effects and unashamed Hammer House lyrics. It should be ridiculous but somehow it’s majestic. Undead! Undead! Undead!

7. Yoko Ono - Walking on Thin Ice
Yoko Ono ‘Walking on Thin Ice’. Legend has it that it was while returning from the final studio session for this track that John Lennon was shot and killed, and he died clutching the master tapes. The discordant lead guitar on this song was Lennon’s last performance – a long journey from ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’. It gives Yoko’s great song a whole extra level of mystery and significance. ‘When our hearts return to ashes – It’ll be just a story…’

8. Japan - Ghosts
Seeing ‘Ghosts’ on Top of the Pops as a kid in 1982 had a huge impact on me. It seemed so new and strange – not a guitar or drums in sight, just two Prophet synthesizers and a vibraphone producing these incredibly lush, satisfying sounds.

The movie sample ‘Does all of this frighten you …’ and a couple of others on this mix come from the 1951 classic film ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, which has a fantastic, experimental score by Bernard Hermann using theremins and tape effects. Well worth a watch/listen.

9. PiL - Death Disco
‘Death Disco’: I remember my older brother bringing home awesome 7” singles like this every Saturday from Freebird Records or Dolphin Discs in Dublin city. I particularly remember the stark and disturbing artwork on this slice of malevolent magic. As a song title ‘Death Disco’ is a lot to live up to, but they fully deliver on this one. Heavy Dub bass, stark synth pads, the Swan-lake guitar riff, and John Lydon wailing about his dying mother (apparently). Fearsome. I think this might have even been on to Top of the Pops, possibly just before the Bee Gees or Village People… Weird times.

10. Linton Kwesi Johnson - Street 66
‘Street 66’ – from the 1980 album Bass Culture – a beautiful, heavy tune from the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. This is from a time when every punk and new wave fan had at least a few reggae tunes in their collection. But it was also a time when riots exploded in Brixton, Bristol and Birmingham in the UK as a result of blatant police racism, and the National Front were at their peak in the UK (they ran over 300 candidates in the 1979 general election).

LKJ’s next album featured a track dedicated to British broadcaster and former Black panther, Darcus Howe. The same Darcus being insulted by the BBC during the 2011 riots in London, in the sample at the beginning of the track.

11. Rip, Rig & Panic - Storm the Reality Asylum
Rip, Rig & Panic were one of several bands spawned by The Pop Group who led a vibrant post-punk scene in Bristol at the end of the seventies, and who incidentally worked with the reggae producer Dennis Bovell, producer of the previous Linton Kwesi Johnson track. ‘Storm the Reality Asylum’ is from the 1982 ‘I am Cold’ album and features vocals from Neneh Cherry before her ‘Buffalo Gals’ days, as well as Neneh’s stepfather, Don Cherry, the avant-garde jazz trumpeter, who played with John Coltrane in the 1960s.

12. Sun Ra - Nuclear War
In the early 80’s everyone was pretty much sure that a complete nuclear holocaust was imminent. There were constant programmes on TV imagining how everything was going to melt down once the button was pressed. It had to be part of what gave the music its edginess and urgency. On the track ‘Nuclear War’ interstellar jazz time traveller Sun Ra riffs on nuclear destruction like it was just another cause of the blues. I guess Ra knew he was headed for some other cosmic plane when it all went down.

13. Cabaret Voltaire - Black Mask
‘Black Mask’ from the 1981 LP ‘Red Mecca’. Way, way ahead of the game, Cabaret Voltaire were techno pioneers from Sheffield. This claustrophobic track echoes US paranoia about Islam back in the days of the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

14. The Pop Group - Justice
From the snappily titled For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? This album was slated by a lot of the press at the time. Paul Morley in the NME called it ‘the consequence of a failed revolution (Punk)’. Their brand of overtly political songs, grimy punk funk and stabs of avant-garde jazz was not subtle or smooth but I think this sounds brilliantly raw and genuine now.

15. A Certain Ratio - My Spirit
Northern industrial indie-soul with a heart of downtown New York funk. This could only be A Certain Ratio. Just one of the many classics they recorded on Factory Records in the early 80s. Never had the success of Joy Division and New Order but they sound more original the more time passes. I never knew it before, but according to Wikipedia their name comes from a Brian Eno lyric (The True Wheel) – a nice connection.

16. The Cure - M
‘M’: This mix starts and ends with music from the Cure’s 1980 LP ‘Seventeen Seconds’. This was The Cure before the mascara and back-combed hair kicked in. From the blurred pictures on the sleeve to the dry drum machine grooves, the one-fingered synth parts and the abstract song titles, I was totally mesmerized by this album when I was a kid and I kind of still am. Everything just fits together perfectly with no superfluous sounds. It also had songs that were really easy to copy, even with a Casio VL 1 (my first ‘keyboard’) and a £20 guitar plugged into a hi-fi.