virtual programming: Brit funk, gone but not forgotten?
In the late 1970s to early 80s, Britain was in a musical whirlpool. The aftermath of prog-rock, jazz and heavy influence in commercial media from stateside funk and soul acts created a fresh tablet for new artists to draw upon. Around this time racial boundaries had been broken down and both black and white artists began to work together, draw influence from each other and even perform together without any hassle. It was an exciting time; one could compare it even to now in terms of pure mystery to what you might hear tomorrow. However, something happened in the mid 80s that totally wiped out this sound, replacing it with a cleansed, more commercial sound. The blame is hard to pin upon any one particular person or group, but it is a very interesting subject and one that personally I find difficult to fully realise.
I’ll begin at the start, the start being the early 70s when this change started to occur. Prog-rock was seemingly in its most progressive and celebrated period. Jethro Tull, Yes, Supertramp and Pink Floyd were all at the top of their game, selling out live shows and the British public were seemingly quite content with what was happening. However, in a few groups, elements of funk and soul were beginning to overtake complex composition, in favour of a more simple rhythm section. Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express, a popular progressive rock band of the time, was one of the first to start experimenting with funk arrangements on albums primarily targeting prog audiences. One example Straight Ahead from the album of the same name contained a pure funk guitar riff leading the song throughout its 5-minute tenure. The rhythm was seemingly straight jacked from American bands of the same time doing the same thing i.e. The Blackbyrds and The J.B.s. However, Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express was still primarily a prog-rock band and shades of this can still be seen within the song. The jazzy keyboard solo in the middle and the chaotic breakdown at the end are pure prog. It seems as if they wanted to cater towards their primary audience whilst paying homage to bands they have heard producing exciting funk music stateside.
Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express – Straight Ahead
There was a light uproar when die-hard prog fans started hearing shades of funk within the scene. They started calling it the ‘sensitive seventies’ in response to the strange malaise that surrounded commercial radio. The unwillingness of the radio to cater to further experimental bands frustrated their audience, even though a lot of the bands at the time did not help themselves by crafting almost unlistenable songs. The initial soft funk influence seemed an answer to the radio’s problem with prog-rock. Even though bands like ELO and Genesis continued to evolve with their own sound, it was the influence from overseas funk and soul that started to seep majestically into Britain’s music culture. The Thin White Duke himself was one of the main early protagonists of this British movement. Bowie, always having one ear to the ground and one to the skies, had always loved doo-wop and soul and when The Jackson’s had America by the balls he saw a door open to him. His Diamond Dogs album flirted with the sound particularly in the funky nervousness of 1984, but it was his Young Americans album that really saw Bowie immersed in the sound. Fame is the famous example and one of the most exciting. A variation on his live staple Footstompin, it became what it is now thanks to a one-day session with John Lennon. Whether it is the conversations the two had together, or the willingness of Lennon to experiment in his new solo guise, the track certainly brought a fresh perspective to the British music scene. Whilst sounding highly American, mostly due to its direct influence, Fame stood out for Bowie’s vocal performance as usual and inspired a wealth of artists to try and put their own stamp on the overseas phenomenon.
David Bowie – Fame
One of the most important aspects of the funk scene beginning to emerge in Britain was the dominance of the bass and rhythm section, involving both drums and guitars. Guitars becoming the main protagonists of a rhythm section was a totally new thing to most British acts and the funky experimentation began to work wonders on new acts. With a hard funky rhythm, the Average White Band was one of the early experts of the British brand of funk. A cross between James Brown and an instrumental Earth, Wind & Fire, many were astounded by their American sound yet Scottish roots. Their move to Atlantic Records in 1973 spurned an album full of classic funk tracks including the Pick Up The Pieces. Topping the charts in America and reaching No.6 in the UK tells a story in itself. The irony of their name didn’t seem to affect anyone at all and a band with a white look playing (what people presumed to be) black music soon became second nature. A victory for racial rights soon washed over Britain and other bands tried their hand at their own brand of funk.
Average White Band – Pick Up The Pieces
Two more bands with a more pop-based audience and sound were influenced early on by the noises emanating from across the Atlantic. Ian Drury and the Blockheads and Level 42 were both British bands experimenting with a funk-based sound. Ian Drury’s Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3 was one of the last songs to be released by the original line-up of the Blockheads but became one of their most celebrated and original songs. Drury’s vocal performance was delivered in his signature cockney aplomb, but the Blockheads arrangement is the real treat here. The pounding tribal drums that carry the track and additionally the tin whistle and shaker were totally new to the British public and really shine in the arrangement. Take away the vocals and you are left with a pure stripped back funk instrumental. Another mainstream act that managed to break through (both acts appeared on TOP OF THE POPS coincidently) was Level 42. Although later albums were more disco/pop orientated, Level 42’s early work focused on band leader Mark King’s bass work. The single Love Games contains a steady bass and drum arrangement overlaid with simple synth lines and vocals. Early seeds of their disco sound can be heard but the funk arrangement really stands out and including it is more of an example of how commercial bands were utilizing the new strain of funk.
Ian Dury and the Blockheads – Reasons To Be Cheerful Pt. 3
Level 42 – Love Games
By this time, it is important to point out that the sound in America had evolved way beyond what had happened in Britain by this point. Whilst the UK’s scene consisted of more commercially viable acts and pop vocalists, America had experienced a wealth of funk and soul based bands and groups topping the charts and experiencing success and popularity. However, British acts were still trying to break into the mainstream. By the dawn of the 80s the term Brit-funk began to surface. Bands such as Heatwave (Boogie Nights) and Hi Tension were amongst the first to be labelled as such. Furthering the instrumental funk sound forged by now defunct British groups, Hi Tension added their own black and British twist to their songs. They were also seemingly happy to address their Britishness on stage i.e. not adopting American accents. Hi Tension was one of a number of bands to also start writing material about real-life issues facing black people within Britain, particularly London. Striking a note with mainly the working class whilst also maintaining a mainstream and commercial focus was very difficult and could be one of the reasons a lot of these bands did not find fame unlike their white counterparts. The funk/calypso song ‘British Hustle’ perfectly captures what they were feeling at the time and became a minor hit against all the odds.
Hi Tension – British Hustle
During the early 80s the Brit-funk movement seemed to be in full flow. Many black bands began finding minor success on shows such as TOP OF THE POPS but often failing to maintain their success for long periods of time. I myself am fascinated at these bands that craft particularly wonderful and thoughtful albums but find themselves with only one minor hit. The hunt and search for these tracks from a period that seemingly struggled to maintain focus is highly difficult but can be very rewarding. One black band in particular who found success with two chart hits of the time was Beggar & Co. Whilst a lot of bands at this time were experiencing taunting and ridicule of being carbon copies of funk and soul bands in America, Beggar & Co. managed to avoid this by maintaining a British pop sound with a much more quirky funk sound. The horn sections in particular were a defining part of their act. Along with the black British pronunciations of words (the singer had an amusing slight lisp) the instrumentation is top quality. This struck a chord with a similar white band of the time, Spandau Ballet. Spandau sing on Beggar & Co’s hit Somebody Help Me Out, whilst in turn Beggar & Co. provide the horn section on Spandau’s hit Chant No.1. Working in sync with a white band seemingly opened doors for Beggar & Co. and strings may have been pulled for them to gain access to the charts one might assume. A response to Spandau’s Chant No.1, Mule Chant No.2 also charted for Beggar & Co. Their TV performances also highlighted the plight of the black people at the time, similar to the lyrics of Hi Tension a few years before. Taking to the BBC stage wearing beggar’s rags and dancing around singing Somebody Help Me Out was poignant yet tongue in cheek and furthers the quirkiness and appeal of the band.
Beggar & Co – Somebody Help Me Out
Beggar & Co – Mule (Chant No.2)
The very picky soul/funk and indie scene of the time were seemingly quite harsh in reception of these bands. Tossing them off as funk rejects and very uncreative was a very boring and dangerous response in to what was a highly creative scene of the time. The enthusiasm of the bands was top notch purely judging them on stage performances, and musically even though not the most accomplished of musicians, they bought to focus music that was not easily attainable in Britain at the time. Often artists would perform on each other’s records and play at the same venues, a dynamic which can be compared to today’s highly creative dubstep scene.
At the same time there were also groups taking their own slant on the Brit-funk sound. The group Paradise, originally an offshoot of a gospel camp which picked talented vocalists for the label Ebony records, was one of these. Crafting, as stated, a mixture of gospel vocalists with talented and varied musicians, Paradise recorded two albums in the early 80s. Containing a mixture of funk, reggae and soul tracks combined with quite evangelical messages, the albums were a hit amongst a mainly young black continuum, but also some white DJs at the time. Some tracks however caused a lot of controversy within the churches at the time, often because of the music’s association with Rastafarianism. Possibly helping it in terms of popularity the act continued with gospel based funk on its second album and the track Your Love highlights the group’s glorious vocal performance on a great chorus and shows their funk arrangement with a great bass line throughout the track.
Paradise – Your Love
The emergence of disco and dance floor music also opened up a new door for artists to try their hand at. Whilst funk seemed to be stagnating a little bit in terms of popularity, disco was taking the world by storm. The British response was to jump on board as soon as possible. Whist falling behind in terms of picking up on funk and soul way after the Americans, the Brits soon became on equal terms creating fine disco/funk acts. One of the earliest examples was a group called Linx. A reasonably successful group possibly due to their band consisting of white members with two black front men, Linx had an early hit with You’re Lying. The arrangement in the track allows a more subtle approach to funk with a simple bass line and soft piano stabs. This approach seemed to gain radio airplay and the formula was soon followed by a slew of disco orientated acts. Even though You’re Lying is a great early example of simple disco/funk, the genre that went on to take over Europe throughout the 80s, Linx will probably be remembered for one of the front men dating that annoying ginger vocal coach from Fame Academy (Carrie Grant – shudder). One of Linx’s backing vocalists during their early days was Junior Giscombe. Turning towards a solo career in 1982 he quickly built a repertoire of great songs and quickly released Mama Used To Say which made No.7 in the UK chart. His nephew Richard Blackwood fondly covered this in 2000 (Just thought I’d mention that vital fact).
Linx – You’re Lying
Junior – Mama Used To Say
Two further acts, which continued on a vein of disco/funk songs, were the Nick Straker Band and David Joseph. The success of acts focused upon a more dance-able sound that really struck a chord with a lot of artists at the time. David Joseph who was previously in the band Hi Tension I discussed earlier, decided to leave to pursue a solo career feeling that the sound of Hi Tension was stagnating. In commercial terms he was correct. His single You Can’t Hide Your Love was extremely popular with the dance crowd of the time. The funk was still there within the rhythm of the song. The bass line, whether computer generated or not, complimented the synths throughout the song. These new digital sounds used by producers were being utilised in many new productions for vocalists. The change was quite noticeable within the clubs and many DJs were being celebrated by their rotations of some of these new ‘sounds’. One in particular was the legendary Greg Wilson who played Joseph’s track live on The Tube in 1983. The Nick Straker band on the other hand were predominately focused on live music and preferred to craft their own sounds from instruments. Their sound however is very similar. Unfortunately, they released quite a lot of terrible records catered towards their fan-base in Germany (Euro-pop). However a couple of songs stood out and came across as a disco/funk version of Spandau Ballet. Straight Ahead contains wonderful synths that you can continue to hear in many indie and pop acts to this day (a tribute to the timeless synthesiser).
David Joseph – You Can’t Hide Your Love (Extended Mix)
Nick Straker Band – Straight Ahead
The music press and many record companies at the time as stated were beginning to tire of the ‘one hit wonders’ that the scene seemed to produce. They felt they needed to change what was happening, probably in order to make more money, and more soul based bands were started in order to accommodate this. Haircut 100 and even Wham! were beginning to become the sound of Brit-funk by force as a way to commercialize the sound. By the mid 80s the sound had become diluted and it was very hard for a band to become popular without a pop based direction. Brit-funk unfortunately died out along with other forms of funk, soul and boogie. It is hard to pin the blame as most bands found it difficult for their sound to remain popular for long periods of time. However, the best music remains classic as hopefully demonstrated by this post. You could argue that Brit-funk never died, as there is a wealth of new bands totally indebted to its original influence. Tru Thoughts records in particular had focused from 2000 to bring funk, soul and foreign influenced music to the forefront of British dance music. Artists such as Quantic, Flevans and Diesler used funky instrumentation in their rhythmic instrumental tracks. The Quantic Soul Orchestra in particular is still going strong playing live shows and showing that Britain still can produce fantastic funk tracks. Their Stampede album was their first and arguably best, featuring a number of vocalists too, that harked back to a simpler time when funk could just be funk and there was no judging just enjoyment. Also The Bamboos (although Australian they enjoy their popularity here in Britain) create a similar brand of funk and work together with the QSO just like the hard-working bands of the late 70s did in order to craft their brand of soul/funk.
Quantic Soul Orchestra – Walking Through Tomorrow (Super 8 Part 3)
The Bamboos – Step It Up (feat. Alice Russell)
The argument here is that strictly these acts are not Brit-funk. Brit-funk was that period in time in the late 70s to mid 80s. And I am quite happy for it to stay there and for new artists not to try to re-create it in any way. Sure, it’s fine to be indebted to it and these new artists really know how to play, but the story behind Brit-funk speaks for itself. So, did Brit-funk really die? Well, yes. And sadly it died in a kind of old dog underneath the porch kind of way. But like most sad deaths, the stories are the best. And the music, well it remains timeless and most of all, funky as sh*t!
Further watching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSj4MgZf9hA Watch Lenny Henry dress as a transsexual spaceman and interview Bootsy Collins about Funk.