Wednesday, March 8, 2017

wobbly bass hooked lurcher - jiggling, burbling throbber

archive of disco columns by James Hamilton, pioneering British disco journalist

I came across his stuff when researching Energy Flash in the British Library, I think by the Nineties he was writing for DJ magazine maybe - as opposed to Record Mirror, his home in the disco and post-disco club music days. And I was struck by -

A/ his very precise measurements of b.p.m.  - and not just the main b.p.m., but the b.p.m in all the different sections of the track.

B/ his great nifty turn of phrase which in extremely compressed manner could convey the vibe and flavour of a groove and also  the various key appeal-elements in a track (the bass, the synth-riff etc). All of this done in not more than a tweet or two's worth of words per track.

His column was very useful for my researches because he reviewed a lot of ardkore and rave tunes as well as house etc. His having monitored the bpm down to fractions of an integer (he measured the tempo by brain and hand, apparently - counting it out and tapping) enabled me to  track the monstrous increase in b.p,m. between a late 91 tune, say, and how fast tunes had got by mid-93. It was like a jump of something 20 to 25 bp.m. in around eighteen months - a surge that felt cataclysmic and apocalyptic at the time and that had effect of driving away huge swathes of the rave audience into more clement zones of the dance culture, winnowing the audience for breakbeat down to just a (pill)headstrong hardcore. Rave dived into a Zone of Fruitful Intensification.


mike said...

The aim is to post all of JH's RM columns up to 1990, on a more or less daily basis - someone has been transcribing them from microfilm copies held in the New York Public Library. These early columns display a remarkably elastic definition of what counted as DJ-friendly at the time: a lead review for Kevin Ayers, approving notices for George Formby and Mel Blanc - and also, during a quiet week over Christmas, a commendably on-point special on dub reggae. And it's fascinating to see, over the course of just four weeks in early 1976, the column's first mentions of a) beat-mixing, b) 12" singles and c) remixing. Then, a couple of weeks later, JH complains about a sudden glut of disco product, coupled with a warning that the scene could soon burn itself out - which is basically Summer 1979, over three years early!


did he ever write any longer pieces or was it strictly the working-deejay oriented mini-reviews?

that early disco-era eclecticism is always a surprise. you get the same thing with Vince Aletti's columns don't you

mike said...

I don't believe he did write any longer pieces, but there are the occasional extended entries within his section, e.g. a Dreadful Warning about Drugs in summer 88, under the heading "Acid". There's also his grand introduction to BPMs in January 1979, after which he included BPMs with every review. He carried his beloved "clickers" with him everywhere, even to clubs, where he'd beat-count in situ. I've written more about him in a chapter for Mark Sinker's forthcoming book about the British music press, Underground Overground. Some of it is based on first-hand knowledge, as I he married my stepmother just over 18 months before he died.

You're right about that hardcore schism; I was definitely one of those driven into more clement zones! It was mostly because I felt that all residual links to R&B-derived culture had been severed. I'd happily ridden previous divisive shifts before - electro, house - but this was a fissure too far. I missed a lot of great stuff as a result, and only got the point years later.


Clickers! was that something you could buy, or did he cobble them together? i'm imagining something that looks a bit like castanets.

Oh yeah I came across something you blogged about him being your stepdad.

There's lots of great lost stories with the music press, especially the bits of it that have not been so endlessly historicized (i.e. NME). for instance I would love to know more about this cat Idris Walters who wrote for Let It Rock and did fantastic pieces on Tim Buckley and Northern Soul amongst other things. I went dug into Melody Maker's back page for Shock and Awe I discovered my received-wisdom view of it (i.e. progressive rock paper) was really far off. It was a proper newspapers, covered everything under the sun - from Donny Osmond to two-page spreads on Stockhausen and Sun Ra. And it had good black music coverage as well. Another story that's largely untold is Sounds - apparently it started as a left-wing breakaway from / alternative to Melody Maker! Then by the end of the decade it's supporting construably right-wing leanings music forms such as Oi! and New Wave of British Heavy Metal. then there's the people who disappeared, like Dave McCullough, who was Sounds's approximate equivalent to Paul Morley and a great quirky writer. Worked for half-a-minute at Blanco Y Negro in the mid-80s and then - a vanishing act seemingly.

mike said...

I'm trying to remember what the clickers looked like, and how they worked. He had a pair of them - I don't recall why - and they were manufactured, not home-made, so they must have had a different intended function. They were metallic - stainless steel? - and about the size of a tape measure. There was a section which you pushed down on, and a dial which increased by one each time you pushed - so it was basically just a counting device, to be used with a separate timing device.

My memory of MM was of quite a serious-minded and wide-ranging paper in late 73/early 74, which is when I started buying it. A bit too serious-minded for my liking aged 11/12, so I leaned more towards the wit of NME, Sounds (which printed an occasional satirical/parodical pull-out called Zoundz for a while) and especially the now almost completely forgotten Disc, which was sharp and funny about pop in a way that Smash Hits later took further, but whose reach extended beyond pop, too (Disc was my gateway to Kevin Ayers, for example). By the late 70s, I think that MM had been hijacked by a readership who still wanted to carry on reading about Genesis, so it felt way too square at that stage. But then it also had Caroline Coon, writing right from the heart of Punk in 1976.

Around 76/77, I favoured Sounds over NME. Jonh Ingham and Giovanni Dadomo, soon joined by Jane Suck, were my Trusted Voices on Punk, considerably more so than Parsons/Burchill. There was an electrifyingly exciting pull-out special on Punk in the autumn of 1976, which rounded up just about everybody doing anything at that time, and an equally exciting pair of consecutive supplements on "New Muzik" a year later, which mapped a new, more diverse way forwards. The Barton/Bushell right-wing backlash, which started to kick in at the end of 79, was accidental, I think - Bushell had been full-on orthodox SWP when first hired, and you couldn't have predicted the switch. And yes, McCullough was great on post-punk, very much another trusted voice.