Saturday, May 20, 2023

"ahead of its time"

Recently, Bob Stanley tweeted about "Burning Up", a 1981 track by Imagination

An old subject, but Leee John's Imagination really must be the most underrated group of their age. As big in 1982 as ABC. This is, what, six years ahead of its time? Big fave of Frankie Knuckles apparently.

I can see what he means - the piano does sound like house music. 

But here's what I wondered - if I had heard it in 1981 (which I may well have done: Imagination were, as Bob says, huge) I doubt very much I'd have thought it was futuristic or  pointing forwards. 

If anything, the rinky-dinky piano might have seemed slightly old-fashioned. "Burning Up" seems like a late disco track, or something off a Chas Jankel solo album. So probably I would have heard it as par for the course contemporary club music, not as cutting edge as Peech Boys or Rockers Revenge or even France Joli's "I Wanna Take A Chance on Love".  

In the contemporary context, I'd probably have been more impressed by other Imagination tunes such as  "Bodytalk" and "Just An Illusion"

Imagination were early users of what would become key house music technology but for sounds-nothing-like-acid-house effects. They used the Roland 303, then a brand new piece of equipment, for a slippery, superlubed, lubricious bass sound. (Which then in turn inspired Orange Juice to use it on "Rip It Up").

Another thing Imagination did that was super-contemporary was their nearly-pioneering remix album Night Dubbing ("nearly" because League Unlimited Orchestra and Soft Cell both got there first. Actually I believe the B-52s were first of all with Party Mix). 

Night Dubbing I bought at the time (but never had Night Clubbing the proper album). I seem to remember it sold as a cheaper than normal album price - something it shared with the other early remix albums. There was a feeling that it would be ripping off the fans otherwise.  I do remember that remix techniques seemed very thrilling then and were increasingly heard on the flipside of the 12 inch version of pop records, even those not explicitly targeted at the clubfloor. Then quite quickly that first flush of remixology got to seem gimmicky and annoying! Indeed I sold Night Dubbing a year or two after buying it. 

Now it sounds charming all over again. 

That in itself suggests that timelines are much more wonky and subject to fashion curvature and sudden flip-arounds of instant obsolescence, where the value of something is abruptly voided. 

In these circumstances, establishing what is really ahead of its time is tricky. In a fashion economy, ahead-of-its-time becomes behind-of-its-time really fast.

Here's another example of how slippery this kind of temporal placing of music can get:  "Dancing Ghosts". I heard this for the first time only a few years ago and instantly had similar Bob-type thoughts: "this is WAY ahead of its time!".  Released by Chris & Cosey and a chap called John Lacey under the name CTI  and on an album titled Elemental 7 that was a soundtrack to a video,  "Dancing Ghosts" does sounds like the dreamier side of house (think Larry Heard) and the fluffier and floatier Detroit techno. But it was recorded in 1982 (and released in February '84).

But what I wonder now is: would I have thought that if I'd heard it in '84?  Most likely not.  Probably I would have filed it in the vicinity of things of that time, or a few years earlier, such as Liaisons Dangereuses, Hardcorps, Thomas Leer. An ongoing, already existing thing, off which the bloom had somewhat gone by then. 

(I remember in my early months of being a professional music journo giving a lukewarm review to a Chris & Cosey album. This was early '86. Electropop and synth noir type stuff seemed a bit  passé;  guitars were in the ascendant).

 "Dancing Ghosts" does sound quite close to something else that was very contemporary in terms of its technological uptake but went largely unnoticed in the moment of its release: E2-E4, by Manuel Gottsching.  At the time of release - 1984, same as "Dancing Ghosts" and Elemental 7 -  that album was neither ahead nor behind of its time, just simply to one side of everything.  Probably those few who heard it then, heard it as an incremental extension of the things that Gottsching had been doing on late '70s albums like New Age of Earth / Blackouts / New Inventions for Guitar - sequenced rhythm-pulses, feathery synth pads, glistening ripples of heavily effected guitar Then later it achieved recirculation within the Balearic / New Age House milieu and - its feel ideal for MDMA - was duly accorded some "ahead of its time" status. It became proto-house. But in its original moment, it wasn't proto- anything;  house didn't exist yet.

 "Ahead of its time", as a rhetorical trope or aesthetic claim, implies a kind of linear track to music history marked out by clearly indicated advances. A teleology. Tracks like these, dancing ghost-like across the timelines, throw all that into disarray. They show that history is constantly under revision; that "futures" when they emerge also reshape the past and suddenly confer the status of prophecy on things that in their original moment were marginal and disregarded. 


Leee John of Imagination, coming round again at the dawn of the new millennium, for a new moment of being absolutely contemporary, with this beautiful bit of 2step, a mutant form of house music. 


Here's what I said about it at the time: 

"Hearing this music is like moving through a mesh of pointillistic percussion, the body buffeted and flexed everywhichway by cross-rhythms and hyper-syncopations. On Leee John’s “Your Mind, Your Body, Your Soul”, the drums are so digitally texturized it’s as if the whole track’s made from glossy fabric that crackles, crinkles, and kinks with each percussive impact."


1 comment:

Matt M said...

What you're criticizing here sounds like some kind of Whig Theory of History applied to music.

Lots of unpopular artists claim to be "ahead of their time" - but obviously you never know for whom this will be true.

I note that none of your examples are from after 1990. Does anyone more recent fit into that category?

Thanks for the link to Your Mind, Your Body, Your Soul. I remember hearing it in some garage mixes back in the day and wondering if it was some 80s US R&B crooner I should have known. It regularly pops up in my mind as it's pretty gosh darn sexy.