23 Skidoo: Seven Songs, Urban Gamelan

Audacious avant-funksters re-released

THE DARING, dark 23 Skidoo were prime explorers of an area of sound that opened up in punk’s aftermath, when people were looking for a forward path to take them as far from, rock’s reeking corpse as possible. Funk, it was decided, was the new music of danger, the most suitable rhythmic template for experimentalism or militancy. Based on a quite small range of instances (the psychosis latent in James Brown’s frenzies, the voodoo grooves of Tago Mago and On The Corner, Sly Stone’s darker moments, Fela Kuti, Last Poets), a notion emerged of funk as a rhythmic metaphor for control, addiction, possession, exorcism. Mix in ideas borrowed from vanguard SF writers Ballard & Burroughs (sounds like a haberdashers!) and paranoid vibes from Seventies auteur movies like Klute, The Parallax View and The Conversation and voila, you’ve got the future.

Bridging avant-funk’s pioneering first wave (The Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire, A Certain Ratio) and a less distinguished second wave that formularised the genre (Hula, Chakk, Shriekback, 400 Blows), 23 Skidoo have enjoyed a spectral presence in Nineties dance culture, despite the out-of-print, terribly-hard-to-find status of their recordings. The bassline to their single ‘Coup’ was copied note for note by The Chemicals on ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, while early darkside jungle circa 1993 was often bizarrely Skidoo-like. And the group’s ethnological forgeries and tape-looped exotica pre-echoed the world music sampling of your Loop Gurus.

Mind you, this sort of talk — precursors, legacies, heirs, groups that were, yawn, ahead-of-their-time — is of academic interest only. Why listen now? Because 1981’s Seven Songs especially still sounds bloodcurdlingly intense. A malevolent tumble of congas, feedback and guttural chants, ‘Kundalini’ is as much Birthday Party as Gap Band. On ‘Vegas El Bandito’, seething slap-bass and brittle-nerved rhythm guitar are offset by dank, lugubrious trumpet, whose ailing wail is pure Miles homage. The track immediately cuts into ‘Mary’s Operation’, dropping everything but the horn, which is multi-tracked and mingled with tape-loop drones. The resulting gloomscape of wilting and billowing sound devolves further still into the churning cosmic cistern of ‘Lock-groove’. ‘New Testament’ is like dying machinery, a drum track massively slowed down, its rapid-fire percussive events elongated, snares smearing and cymbal smashes blossoming pendulously. ‘IY’ showcases Skidoo’s strength (percussion) and weakness (vocals), but ‘Porno Bass’ is just ill: booming bass drones reverberate in a cavernous murk while Hitler fan Unity Mitford, plucked from some ancient radio interview, rails against pop for displacing “manly” activities like sports, hyper-stimulating young people’s libido and generally being “the sign of a degenerating race”. When the rancid nutcase opines that youthful “ears become degraded by wrong style and senseless reiteration”, Skidoo mischievously double-loop the word “reiteration”.

Seven Songs’ closer, ‘Quiet Pillage’, references exotica king Martin Denny, whose Polynesian-flavoured ‘Quiet Village’ was a massive Fifties hit. ‘Quiet Pillage”s vibe of humid disquiet (sorta Apocalypse Now: The Day After) and its plinky metallic chimes look ahead to 1984’s Urban Gamelan, made after an expedition to Indonesia. ‘GIFU’ is basically an alternate mix of ‘Coup’, Skidoo’s most straightforwardly funky single, with a Viet-Cong war cry of “Gl, fuck you” added for anti-Western Imperialism edge. Mostly, though, the LP supplies what the title suggests: gamelan-influenced drumstrumentals, all tuned percussion, hand cymbals and gongs. Well produced compared to the hastily executed debut, Urban Gamelan frequently teeters on the thin line between minimal and underwritten. Its gently ominous atmosphere (space age bachelor padded cell music) grows on you, but it lacks the turbulence and sheer de-civilising ferocity of Seven Songs.

© Simon ReynoldsUncut, November 2001

Leave a Comment