Saturday, March 27, 2010

Trouble Funk -- "Hey Fellas" (1982)

Hey fellas
Do you want to take time out
To get close to the ladies?

One reviewer has written that Trouble Funk's best songs "consist of an irresistible beat and an unforgettable phrase" -- which sums up "Hey Fellas" very well.

"Hey Fellas" is one of the happiest songs I know -- it is very hard to maintain your bad mood when this song is playing. (Believe me, I've tried.)

This is another song I know about only because of my public library -- I can't imagine I would have stumbled across it otherwise. (I've now added a "library" label to each post about a song that I discovered that way. I've also added "not about me" and "all about me" labels to distinguish the posts that are mostly about the music from those that are mostly about me. This is an increasingly rare "not about me" post.)

It's on The Sugar Hill Records Story, a five-CD box set that has the essential hits released by Sugar Hill Records, the New York City-based label that brought rap/hip-hop to the masses.

Trouble Funk was a Washington, DC go-go band, and its first album was released by Sugar Hill in 1982 -- it was, in the words of Gyrofrog creator Joe Castleman, "an opportune moment in musical history which straddled the apogee of disco and the burgeoning of rap." Why go-go never really caught on outside of Washington is something of a mystery. Wikipedia has a very good article on the history of go-go and the musical characteristics that defined the genre, and I recommend it as a good starting point for those who know as little about go-go as I do.

To quote Gyrofrog's review of the Live CD, "Trouble Funk's go-go sound is characterized by call-and-response interplay with the audience, as well as lots and lots of percussion (as critic John Leland has noted, "in no other North American music does the cowbell play such a major role"). Like earlier funk bands, Trouble Funk features several horn players, as well as scratchy rhythm guitar . . . . Additionally, since the music is made for dancing, the emphasis is on rhythm, rather than melody ; the horn and keyboard riffs re-emphasize the beat more than the tune . . . . The rhythm differs a little bit from earlier funk because go-go, having come hot on the heels of disco, is able to draw (if only a bit) from that style's cultural cross-fertilization. Other than the heavy interaction with the audience, the vocal style is essentially identical to early rap. Therefore, the main difference between go-go and rap music seems to be that go-go employs a full band ; why go-go has not caught on as well as hip-hop has is quite puzzling."

Unique to go-go is the use of not only standard conga drums but also "junior congas," which are 8" and 9" in diameter and about half as tall as the standard congas, a size rarely seen outside of go-go. (See the photo just below.) According to Wikipedia, they were first used by Rare Essence when they were just getting started and couldn't afford enough full-sized congas, and have become ubiquitous in the go-go scene ever since.

Washington had a very rich and diverse local-music scene in the early 1980's, highlighted by go-go and the "straight edge" hardcore punk movement. Trouble Funk occasionally shared the stage with "harDCore" bands like Minor Threat. I lived in DC during that era, but I pretty much missed all that -- I certainly never ventured into the venues where go-go and hardcore bands played.

I have a feeling that Trouble Funk must be mentioned in one or more books by George Pelecanos. He drops the names of many, many worthy local bands.

Two brief anecdotes. I have a friend who went to Vassar College (class of '89) and says that Trouble Funk played on campus when he was a student there. Not exactly the band's usual audience. (When my oldest son was looking at colleges, this friend told me he should go to Vassar because the Princeton Review college guide had said Vassar had the happiest students in the country. When I told him that wasn't really one of my primary criteria in choosing a college for Nick, he looked at me right in the eye and very seriously said: "Don't you want your son to be happy?")

Another friend has a daughter who used to sneak out to local go-go shows when she was 15 or 16 and had to lie about her age to get admitted to the clubs. (Sometimes the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.) One night she attended a Trouble Funk show in Langley Park, MD, and failed to mention when she came home that there had been shots fired outside after the show. There are some things your parents don't really need to know. (Actually, it may have been a Backyard Band show. But it makes a better story if we say it's Trouble Funk and this is not exactly The New York Times when it comes to journalistic standards.)

Here's an interview with "Big Tony" Fisher, the band's bass player and front man.

Trouble Funk is still around. Until recently, they played every Friday night at a Holiday Inn in Alexandria, VA.

Here's a link to a July 2009 Washington Post review of a Trouble Funk appearance at 9:30, which unfortunately attracted only 200 or so fans -- and here's the first 10 minutes or so of that show. (For some reason, the band always seems to start their shows with their horns playing the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show.)

That show paid tribute to one of the band's founders, Robert Reed, who had recently succumbed to pancreatic cancer. Here's his New York Times obituary.

Finally, here's a video of "Hey Fellas":

If you'd like to buy "Hey Fellas" from Amazon, be my guest:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Raconteurs -- "The Switch and the Spur" (2008)

Any poor souls who trespass against us
Whether it be beast or man
Will suffer the bite or be stung dead on sight
By those who inhabit this land

This is a very odd song.

Actually, it's an extremely odd song – unless you think a song told from the point of view of a rattlesnake who has just delivered a lethal amount of venom into an escaped outlaw isn't odd. (If you don't, I'd say that you might be a little odd.)

Rattlesnakes ahead!
Off the top of my head, I can't think of a song with an odder theme. System of a Down's Old School Hollywood – which is about the singer's experience playing in a celebrity baseball game in Los Angeles with Tony Danza and other B-listers – is pretty odd, but I don't think it comes close to a song featuring a rattlesnake gloating about adding another notch to its belt.

*     *     *     *     *

I had never heard this song until earlier today, but I knew almost immediately that I'd be blogging about it. 

What sold me initially was the trumpet hook – think Latin-type fanfare. (Not salsa-dancing Latin, more bullfighter-ish . . . or spaghetti Western-ish.) Once that little trumpet riff gets into your brain, you might as well introduce yourself and offer it a seat – it's going to be staying around for a while.

The song tells a Western-movie kind of story about a man who breaks out of jail and is making his escape across a burning desert on an Appaloosa horse. (You can almost hear the Sons of the Pioneers crooning, "Cool . . . clear . . . water" in the background.) 

The horse shies when they encounter a rattlesnake, and the man is thrown from the saddle – breaking his hand, but more significantly falling within range of the deadly rattler. He remounts the horse after he is bitten, but he's a dead man riding:

The poison pumps through his veins
There's no stopping this
And now he's powerless
Still holding the reins

After delivering the lines quoted at the beginning of this entry, the snake throws down a verbal gauntlet on behalf of not only himself but also all of his deadly brethren – scorpions and the like – to any beast or man who is foolish enough to invade their turf: "You shall never return!"

*     *     *     *     *

As you may know, the Raconteurs was formed by Jack White of the White Stripes and his pal, Brendan Benson. I was completely unaware of the 2008 Raconteurs CD this song is from – Consolers of the Lonely – until I stumbled across it at the public library a couple of weeks ago:

I decided to listen to it while driving to basketball refereeing gig today, and by the time I heard this song the second time, I was hooked. I have sort of an addictive personality, and I'll probably listen to this over and over and over on the way to and from my refereeing assignment tomorrow. (God help any of my kids who are stuck riding with me somewhere tomorrow.)

*     *     *     *     *

Click here to learn more about the Stylophone, a $19.95 pocket synthesizer invented in 1967 that was sold mostly to kids but was also used by some serious musicians then and now – including the Raconteurs, who sponsored a contest inviting fans to send in videos of themselves playing Stylophones.  

There's a Youtube video of a dual-Stylophone performance of "The Switch and the Spur" by a fan that you've got to see.  Click here to view it.

A Stylophone
Click here to listen to "The Switch and the Spur" in its entirety (sans Stylophone).

Finally, click here for a video of a live performance of the song – it's very good, and the drummer (Patrick Keeler) is an absolute beast . . . but there's no trumpet!

Click on the link below if you'd like to order the song from Amazon: