So, I heard a song today, randomly, on Youtube… It was by the Electric Sound Group. The song is called, ‘Happy Station,’ (and I’ve posted it just below) off of the album, ‘Come N Do Electric Boogie Break Dance,’ which was released in the Netherlands in the 80s. Beyond being a fun, albeit seemingly-goofy (in retrospect) little synth tune, it provides a great example of something I’d like to refer to as ‘musical sandwiching.’
So what is this process of ‘sandwiching,’ you ask? Well, let’s start by taking a listen to this song for a moment… It’s definitely got some real and undeniable disco elements to it, whilst at the same time, it goes a bit further into the electronics department than, say, ‘Funky Town,’ or anything by the Beegees… Which isn’t to say that other disco groups of the time didn’t incorporate electronic elements (‘Funky Town’ definitely had a cool vocoder, for example) but this tune seems a little bit more futuristic a lot of it’s contemporaries. Yes, it’s labeled, ‘synth-pop,’ so what’s the confusion? What’s the problem? Well, here’s the deal…
The middle ground between disco and acid house
By the end of the 1970s, America was sick of disco – and when I say ‘America was sick of disco,’ what I mean is, basically, that the macho and homophobic AC/DC fans who couldn’t stand the sight or thought of gay minorities dancing to synthetic drums and electronic beeps. Now, that’s not to say that EVERYONE dancing to disco was gay, or a minority – and it’s also not to say that every anti-disco dude was an AC/DC fan… But there was definitely enough of that ‘Disco Sucks’ hatred in the mix to force a syncopated electronic genre like disco back into the underground, and fast!
So, what happened to disco? Did it really die? Well, yes and no. The 1980s was a time of unprecedented advance in technology, meaning old disco artists could trade in their TR68’s for something more modern – something more slick, and something that, all in all, could generate weird alien dance sounds that no one had ever heard before – which is always a fun thing to do, isn’t it?
Enter, acid house.
No wait, back up… Before disco made it’s complete transition into acid house, it went through a period of time that anthropologists now refer to as, ‘The Early Eighties.’ Reagan was just getting into office, America was just getting out of a recession, a younger generation was starting to get involved in music and culture (with a real anti-70s zest) and, for some reason, everyone fucking thought that neon colors and huge glasses were cool (and they weren’t being ironic about it, either)…
Acid house made it’s way into the clubs, made by fucking around with a TB303 drum machine in a way it wasn’t meant to be fucked with… Acid house music was born. It was really just disco, but… disco, five years later…
So, anyway, getting back to it, the song I played, a few paragraphs back, shows definite signs of being as disco-ish as it can possibly get: the syncopated rhythms, the retro-synth sounds, and, what we would now refer to as ‘diva vocals’ (but what were referred to, back then, as just, ‘contemporary vocals’)…
But, at the same time as the song fulfills many of the structural aesthetics of what was considered a ‘disco’ tune, it also incorporates slightly more modern synthesizers, the vocals sound (at times) manipulated) and there are those casual double-up’s in tempo right before the break (I mean, ‘drop’) and it has that kind of cold and ominous pulse that really typified a lot of synthetic dance music in the 80s… It sounds like a halfway between disco and acid house.
So, it’s a great example of music that would’ve barely received any play, whatsoever, after that brief but interesting segment in music history between the two time periods where: 1.) Disco was considered lame, and 2.) A new generation was ready to enjoy disco again (but this time, calling it house music)
There is a lot of “synth-pop” in existence, but hearing some synth-pop with as much authentic 70s hustle-down-disco-spirit as this is more of a rare treat. Like a thunderstorm on the West Coast, or the hot girl at the lingerie-espresso drive-thru telling you she likes YOUR outfit. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s great.
So, are there any other examples of this type of thing happening?
Well, the subtitle of this article references the, ‘Bossa Nova Effect,’ so I might as well explain that one to, eh?
Bosss nova and tropicalia
Baby boomers have always struck me as somewhat arrogant. But you know who else was just as blustery? The generation that came before the Baby Boomers. In fact, this older generation was SO arrogant, they have the gall to call themselves the “Greatest Generation.”
Ok, maybe that’s just something that folks in the cutting room stick on the title screen to get old people to watch their awful World War 2 documentaries… But still, there was a real feud between these two generations – they each had a lot of baggage, and they each resented one another. There was a gi-fucking-normous gap in between the two, with one of the only things they shared being the fact that they both went off to wars that took place on other sides of the globe (a tradition that we’ve kept alive in America to this day). Culturally, the two also differed in their preferred styles of music. While the Baby Boomers would eventually take to rock music, r&b, folk, and unnecessary psychedelic tunes that went on for twelve minutes, the Greatest Generation enjoyed everthing from swing to big band, and Frank Sinatra-style crooning.
So, where the fuck does bossa nova fit in?
Bossa nova was a Brazilian style that took off in the 1950s (the phrase, ‘bossa nova’ literally translates to ‘new trend’) and it could be described, more or less, as a kind of samba-jazz-pop music… Very easy listening, indeed. But, the problem with bossa nova (and it’s sister style, tropicalia) was that it was never as big as big band, and it certainly wasn’t as big as rock music, which showed up a few years later, squishing and absorbing everything in it’s path like some giant ball of silly putty with no real plan.
Sure, rock music is hailed as the big “American Music” trend of the century by rock aficianados, and most members of the Baby Boomer generation, but for the FIRST fifty years, that “American Music” would’ve been jazz – or, perhaps, the blues… But regardless, bossa nova, a wonderfully delicious piece of the musical pie, was left out in the cold; very few got the chance to really bite into it before a newer, and more arrogant pie was to show up and splatter itself all over everyone’s chins in a delicious, sugary mess.
That last metaphor got a little out of hand, I think… Ah well.
Bossa nova is a great style, though, but it’s no surprise it got sandwiched. Two gigantic empires of music and culture forced it into oblivion. Sure, you can still find it if you look, but it’s mostly confined to jazz stations – which, you might say, should be ‘good enough,’ eh? But the thing is, it could’ve been huge. Most people don’t even know what bossa nova is. Brazillian music in general had a lot of interesting and entertaining concepts going for it, especially in the 1960s – (like Os Mutantes and a myriad of psychedelic rock, a few years later) but America was too obsessed with itself and with England to notice, for the most part.
Thus enters the, “Engla-Ja-Merican Triangle Theory,” (which I won’t discuss now, because it would take far too long to REALLY get into, but I will briefly say that it concerns the idea that the majority of Western musical attention in the latter half of the 20th century was devoted to styles that came from either England, America, or Jamaica; or a mixture, thereof)
Sample-heavy hip hop from the late 1980s
A third example of this ‘bossa-nova effect,’ happened with hip hop in the late 1980s. Examples include Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Niggas Wit Attitude, and every other super-sample-heavy hip hop group with a record that came out AFTER Run DMC and Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa – but BEFORE the early 90s minimalist West Coast gangsta hip hop style ate up everything in it’s path. This period in between early rap and 90s rap sometimes coincides with the ‘Golden Era,’ of hip hop (a term that is always moving forward in time, depending on who you ask…) Personally, I think the Golden Era is sometime between the late 80s and the early 2000s, but I digress…
There were multiple reasons for why hip hop changed so radically since the late 80s, but the easiest reason to cite is legality. It’s far easier to put out a record with some run-of-the-mill staccato violin midi-riff by Dre than to dig up an old sample and risk having to go to court for it. All of these groups I mentioned earlier eventually stopped sampling nearly as much as they did in the late 80s and very-early-90s, which was a shame. Though, it is completely possible to do it, and get away with it – much of the time, anyway – provided you do it in a smart way… Pretty Lights releases all sorts of sample-heavy material, but it’s free. Speaking of sample-heavy dance music, Fatboy Slim made a career out of it – though his label probably paid for most of his samples.
Anyway, the main point of all these musical-sandwiching examples is to show you that, despite the hype that you might hear from some of the “official” music sources out there, a decade of culture is not typified by ONE style of music. In all the documentaries about the early 90s, you always hear the idiots at VH1 talk about how ‘everything was so grungy, OMG!’ when, in reality, YES, there WAS grunge… but there was also a lot of house music… and there was a lot of metal… there was all sorts of hip hop… there was punk, r&b, and there was that awful new-jack-swing bullshit, too. My point is, there are a lot of styles that spill through the cracks. Anytime you hear anyone associate one or two artistic achievements with an entire era of history, just remember, at least a LITTLE bit of what they’re saying is complete bullshit. Entire careers are often sandwiched on the whim of two larger and more arrogant pieces of bread – but in fact, they might not even be arrogant pieces of bread – they might be quite tasty!
There are benefits to living in an age where everything is recorded, but it really makes me wonder how many older styles of music (and art in general) were sandwiched-out and had the bossa nova effect driven all over them that were NOT recorded. Art movements in between bigger dynasties; musical directions from other countries and centuries; creative narratives that have long been misplaced and forgotten… There must be thousands and thousands of examples that we’ll never hear about…
So, whenever you feel you’ve ran out of ideas for a creative project you’re working on, just remember, there are potentially tons of untapped ideas and artistic potentials out there that are probably just hiding between the cracks of culture. Or, to put it in unnecessarily mathematical terms: for every idea you can come up, there’s probably another ten ideas WITHIN that first idea, and each of those ideas has ten within each of them, as well… It goes off in a fractal infinity and it never stops, so you never need feel as though you’ve gotten to the end of something, artistically, so if you really think about it, it’s probably not even possible to really ‘finish’ art. But, at this point, I’m getting far too esoteric and meaningless, and all I’m really trying to say is, ‘keep your eyes open,’ and, ‘be weary of cultural narratives by people in power,’ because people in power usually have an ulterior motive; if a piece of art really spoke to you in the past, no one can tell you that isn’t significant.
End of rant.