Various Artists - Chris Sullivan Presents The Wag

by Rob Taylor Rating:10 Release Date:2016-06-10
Multi-storied brown tenements, frozen in time against a seemingly unalterable background of decrepit structures; clapped out old cars,unsightly taggings adorning the sides of industrial walls - seamy ghetto environments, tough, militant places where blacks and Latinos united to build dreams, dreams of a life unshackled by poverty and cultural isolation. These were also the birthplaces of some wonderful soul, funk, hip-hop and disco music in the 1970s and 1980s.
 
These shabby, tumbledown urban environments were often free from the kind of commercial racketeering that sanitised culture, whilst at the same time, the outsider mentality often fostered a striving creativity, one where individuals could stick it to the man. Or at least try. Or dream.  
 
Soho, London 1982. Not a ghetto but a bohemian hub, a place where artists, prostitutes and pimps hung out, and a place as likely as anywhere to embrace an appetite for hot and sweaty black dance music, one which built upon the appetite for Northern Soul. Soho, also the home of the goth subculture at The Batcave, and of the dancehall nights held at the same venue.
 
Chris Sullivan grew up on a council estate in Merthyr Tidfil, Wales, a place ‘’you don’t want to go’’. His taste for soul music and outrageous fashion meant an escape was inevitable. Moving to London to attend art school, he soon tapped a market for those uninterested in the Electro/New Romantic movement; one where partygoers could dance ostentatiously, wear mismatched and gaudy outfits, takes drugs and have debauched sexual experiences within its confines. Where the music, be it soul, cool jazz, hip-hop, disco and funk would fill the dancefloors, the louche subculture a far cry from the perceived aloofness of the new age crowd. 
 
In 1982 The Wag Club in Soho was born. Theme nights would cater for the forgotten musical forms that Chris Sullivan loved. The Wag boxset presented by Chris Sullivan presents the music one might have heard on any given night during the club’s tenancy between 1983 and 1987. 
 
Each of the four discs is roughly themed in a manner which reflects the shifting emphasis of the theme nights at the Wag. 
 
The funk material presents both the familiar and the rare sides. You have the hard-core funk of Earth Wind and Fire, with its glossy production values surely an answer to the sterile West Coast sounds of Steely Dan. You have a jazzed up James Brown on ‘The Boss’ or the slightly more relaxed canter of Aaron Neville’s ’Hercules’. Of the less familiar, Don Julian and the Larks present a breezy funk with a kind of sexed-up Isaac Hayes machismo imbued with gospel, just to make the sleaze more palpable. The exaltation of ‘Yeah’ on ’Shorty the Pimp’ carries with it a kind of narcissistic self-satisfaction. Cool. Miami’s ‘’Kill That Funk’’ doesn’t practice what it preaches but its languorous prowl is all hormone.   
 
The jazz stuff is awesome but of a particular kind. This isn’t some jazzman’s paean to divinity brothers, this is the kind of cool struttin’ shit brought to prominence by the likes of Sonny Clark and Lee Morgan in the late 50 and 1960s, the kind of jazz which mimicked the inimitable cool of French film characters in the 1960s. Thus, Roland Kirk’s ‘Making Love After Hours’ sounds like ruminations over Take 5, with slinky piano and crisp high-hat. One can also imagine Schroeder bent over the piano in Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to the Charlie Brown and Snoopy series.
 
Mel Torme’s fabulous ’Coming Home Baby’ is a standout, as is Oscar Brown Jnr’s ‘Mr Kick’ a precursor to the Stray Cat Strut. Tamiko Jones and Herbie Mann play Lee Morgan’s 'Sidewinder', with Mann almost losing a temporal lug with his manic flute playing. Of course, there is the Latin persuasion like Snowboy’s ‘A Night in Tunisia’ all Buena Vista in style and groovy sashay.
 
On the disco front, you have your big names like Cerrone, glossier than a Las Vegas ballroom and production values that would make Quincy Jones blush. You also have Arthur Russell’s Dinosaur L with ‘Go Bang’ and its leftfield disco of drunken bass runs, oddball vocals and jazzy keyboards. Or Benny Golson’s ‘The New Killer Joe Q’ a torchlight number which is one part Chic and two parts Commodores. Undisputed Truth knocked me over with their evangelical zeal, the singer belting it out like it’s the last thing she’s going to do as a mere mortal.
 
On the soul front, Esther Phillips shines on ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’ a song perhaps uncomfortably misappropriated for the lascivious benefit of Soho socialites, especially given its themes of social isolation, domestic violence and drug use… ''home is where the needle marks try to mend the heart'' Phillips sings over some formidable soul-funk fusion. Great track though. 
A cruel hand is also dealt to Doris Duke on ‘Woman of the Ghetto’ another soul track given over to clubland hip-grinding.
 
Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’ and The Junkyard Band’s ‘The Word’ eschew traditional form in favour of an electronic sound in the former, and a traditional sound in the latter, both artists striving for relevance in the way forward for black musicians. The truth is, much of the material here proves that the artists involved were always relevant because of their uncompromising artistry. 
 
Wag presented by Chris Sullivan is a significant release of some truly wonderful and timeless music. 

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