Closer to the Bone
EVERYTHING ABOUT 23 Skidoo suggests fallibility: the uneasy switching between instruments, their urge to ground every twist and turn in spattered polyrhythms. The vocals are rabidly garbled until only single phrases jut out: “Get On Your Knees,” say Skidoo, yet they’re trembling all the while, unfocussed, wrongly realised Lilliputians before the squandered irrelevance of their backdrop of films and slides. It can be a mockery of aspiration, but some of their echobox harshness has stuck in my memory.
Skidoo’s is a funk built in flints; Defunkt have made themselves into steel. Defunkt’s jive ass slippers hurt. Joe Bowie has made Defunkt sharp beyond belief.
This is the new Defunkt: even nearer to the bone, the lip curled tighter, the crease ironed closer. Defunkt have blurred the borders between party-down and agonisation so effectively that the contradiction no longer exists — dancing into a thermonuclear sweat never seemed so tenable a proposition.
And Defunkt move; even the comatose Venue regulars crowded the dancefloor. Were they aware of the ominous bile Joe Bowie, chicken-wire frame jerking and snapping to the beat, was directing at their complacency? Bowie’s cunning has been nurtured on a history of (black and white) audience delusion. Plenty of people are talking about ‘funk’ just now, almost as many purport to play it. Defunkt play around it — their funk is the cornerstone of a vocabulary writhing with birth pangs.
It’s not the playpen nonsense of George Clinton’s funk language, hitched to a freakout medicine show that finally collapses under the weight of its own trivia. Bowie’s funk uses skeleton wordplay, cast-offs from the dictionary of hipspeak: “Funkin’ down the street, listenin’ everybody talkin’ funky”. It’s just something to say; and when he says it, the vocals infused with a scathing derision, Bowie is questioning it too. So: Defunkt, de funked (you must already know).
If Chic’s ‘Good Times’ was the zenith of bubblegum disco cynicism, Bowie twists the sneer a stage further. When he says happiness is just an ILLUSION, believing in love is just a FALLACY, the point looks obvious; but a minute later he’ll rap out a line wrapped in the ancient hieroglyphics of R&B baby baby songs — I tried living alone but I CAN’T DO IT! We all dance TOGETHER! A flip of the coin; a double-headed loser.
Defunkt are about progress, a positive outlook, an assault to destroy and reconstruct. Bowie has himself rebuilt Defunkt to channel his outrage down a single barrel. The Defunkt sound, diversified on their LP and eventually diffused in earlier live incarnations, has sacrificed space to maximise impact. The blistering tempos demand extraordinary ability, but Defunkt are superb players. Guitarists Kelvyn Bell and Richard Martin bookend the group on stage and lock into a duel — Bell’s torrential articulation and Martin’s corrosive slide imaginings, Elmore James riven by desperation — that simultaneously mingles with the groundbeat and shoots the rapids into the clearing. Byron Bowie’s sax has departed, but the chopping bite of the trumpet trombone duo upfront suits the breathless, clipped cogency of Defunkt now.
That concision is expressed in tersely dealt hornplay deliberately pared to the simplest motifs — there’s no time for slack, distended melody lines. Just as the lyrics are curtailed to brittle basics, so the cool cat riffing is gutted down to the essential. Only once, in a heavenly interlude of ‘Manha De Carnival’, Bowie’s trombone almost languorous, is there any easing of the tension — and that turned a few heads too.
Bowie has them play fast, yet he’s developed a course of variation that doesn’t diminish the punch. When he cuts out a soloist or brings it down to the rhythm section with a wave of the arm, he’s picked his moment with exact judgement: the edge of hysteria is never quite breached. When all but the drums disappear and Kim Clark’s shark-toothed wah bass suddenly rips in it’s a moment of wild exhilaration.
Disparagements as to lumpy jamming and defeatist soloistic self-indulgence no longer hold good. Players’ features are held on a tight rein; the discipline remains constant. Who would say this was a jazz group? Ah, yes, jazz: Bowie doesn’t forget. He’s leading you towards it without actually delivering the final kick in the ass into the maelstrom. One song closes with the brass bawling into a duet that suddenly peters out — you finish it off, you take another, deeper look. Defunkt want to make you try.
So there are myriad justifications and plus-points in the Defunkt ethos. What’s most telling is that they deliver unstintingly in performance every iota of what they promise. Eighty minutes of Defunktion had me totalled, footsore and howling for more. This is no illusion. Defunkt will make them dance. Who’s going to stop them now?
© Richard Cook, New Musical Express, 7 November 1981