Want to inject some life into your gathering, get the party started, unite the drinkers and the dancers, the populists and the independently minded? Out on the town in a rare excursion and want your last few hours ‘pon da floor? Then it’s time to return to what has become the touchstone for British party music – the revered quartet of soul-funk-reggae-disco. In certain areas of the country such as the northwest this spirit is found in greater volume but this is definitely a nationwide thing. Wherever your local strip of entertainment dens of iniquity are, there will be a ‘funk tavern’ or similarly named basement bar to match your needs. Stop talking; get your body moving.
Only soul-funk-reggae-disco will do. Obviously such a spirit has been around virtually unbroken ever since the 80s Southport/Camber Sands weekenders/warehouse rare groove scenes, exemplified by the dub and rare groove fraternal tag team of Joey and Norman Jay. Though both coastal and urban blues party depended on a certain crate-digging knowledge, in the modern scene it’s as much about whacking on a ‘best of reggae’ (Marley, Desmond Dekker, Althea & Donna) or ‘This is Soul’ CD purloined from the petrol station as it is a dj-controller judiciously going through his boxes and digging deeper. Crucially the party wouldn’t work it you had either too many knowns or unknowns. Play ‘Heatwave’ to get things going then sail through to a Trojan disco dub. Also remember Camber Sands was about having a laugh on the coast, getting high (but not out of it) and maybe getting your end away, unlike at those modern [experi]mental dance dos by the sea.
Pleasingly transatlantic and predominantly black, produced in the great musical hubs of Kingston, Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere, soul-funk-reggae-disco allows Britons to put broken Britain to one side and dance the night away happy to have squared their hedonic intentions with their liberal beliefs. In our heads an innocently poptimist version of this was what it was like down at the town hall disco/youth club in the 70s and 80s, Britain a network of Wigan Casino-lites, tripping on our flares and high on pop and crisps. A lad who decamped to rural Kent said his (black) pal put on a soul/funk nite at the village hall last year and the place was rammed; no surprise with all the 30-40-something London exiles having been through ravey times and still wanting a bit of exultation. Think Davina McCall and the insulting way she always talks about her rave past, like a badge of honour (not saying she wasn’t ‘there’, but it now seems we can all have been ravers simply by being of that age).
In this development, ‘northern’ soul and plain vanilla soul elide as, again, this know-your-history fanboy curation has little currency when you’re throwing some shapes at a wedding and the girls (women) are baying for more of the same, or in the backroom of a pub, or whacking on the compilation at a dinner party. If it has that stomp and that emotion, then it’s in. Inclusion fusionists may not know their Martha and the Vandellas from the Ronettes, their Sly Stone from the JBs, Augustus Pablo from Lee Perry, Chic from Rose Royce, as the mood the music creates is the thing, rather than the artifact.
Always liberal, soul-funk-reggae-discoheads are not wedded to that early 60s to late 70s time zone or exclusive about what hits the spot – other genres (still usually Black-American) can cut it: hip-hop, for example. But take care, early hip-hop when it was still wedded to disco or funk is ok, but there is a hiatus of acceptance when it goes too electro and then too defunked/minimal/gangster to fit in. Luckily, there is a renaissance of funky hip-hop in the late 80s/early 90s – Young MC, JVC Force, and the like, that will do the job. You would think the golden period of ATCQ/Gang Starr/Pete Rock would make the cut but usually this stuff is seen as too refined, too anorak and certainly not euphoric enough – warm-up business only. Throughout there is there is the persuasive Brit insistence that the funk be explicit. Modern r&b with its jagged rhythms and slower tempo can also struggle to make the cut for this reason; Mary J Blige preferred over Missy Elliot.
There is some scope for incorporating the lighter end of post-punk – Talking Heads, the Beat, before them the Blockheads, but this stuff doesn’t wear the all-encompassing generic fit so well. If it can’t easily be summed up it wont parse. While some of the soul-funk-reggae-disco crowd have a naturalist tendency to prefer music made by musicians together in a studio, the populist end is not averse to electronic music. A deftly chosen 80s British pop nugget or anything from the heavily produced big 3 – Madonna, Prince or Michael Jackson – can often fit in, while rave is now old enough to count. Given that rave is most people’s only adult knowledge of music transcendence rooted in a valid contemporary socio-cultural moment (even if they were only watching from the sidelines/benefiting from the filtering down of its energy), it is no surprise that some of that spirit is tapped for the party crowd – think May and his Strings of Life, Inner City or a soulful Knuckles production, the later sometimes discofied stuff of Morales/Masters of Work that dominated a rejuvenated clubland would also work in dispatches.
Yet even in the circles of discerning next-level music DJs now display knowledge of their precedents and also spin updates of older sounds. This undercuts nostalgia, having gone beyond the function of spinning an avowed classic to get the crowd back on side or indeed the specific setting of a retro night. It’s an irony then that the output of modern black US and UK producers has never been LESS in debt to the holy SFRD quartet – far too much modern output to reference.
Though obviously some early Mod will do, 60s or 90s Britpop fits poorly into the picture despite often having the requisite energy levels – too white, too male, too beery, too narcissistic, too knowing. No-soul. Frankly that’s a relief. This music isn’t about cuddling a mate as you’re too drunk to dance, it’s about drink fuelling the desire to dance. Mind rather than body-focused whiteboy scuzz rock. 70s country rock would work if any of the main practitioners were more well known. While obviously those recent artists who have aped the sound – Amy Winehouse, Plan B, Gnarls Barkley, are waived through no questions asked. It now seems soul or funk can only be rendered in pastiche or with complete mimickry, au Plan B, using any of these genres for inspiration seems too difficult.
The further ‘cabaretisation’ of nightlife where anything goes extends to the music is also slowly letting a new-old sector into the scene – good ol’ rock ’n roll. It fits the preference for transatlantic black music, for notions of ‘good times’ in yesteryear by convenient historical amnesia. The jive nights at Crofton’s Rivoli Ballroom carry that same spirit but with a more specific playlist. Judging by the mass of cars parked up and down lower Brockley Road when it’s on, it’s a hit with the same suburbanites who fill SFRD’s core audience.
When I used to play the birthday dos, I wouldn’t reach for the Stones’ Satisfaction but Otis Redding’s cover of Satisfaction (the pumped up, brassy version that Keith Richards said he had in his head). Virtually all 6 Music DJs subscribe to the ostensibly open bible of SFRD, which must be one of the reasons it was so preferred over the BBC Asian Network in the media’s mind when BBC came to cutting some stations, even when it’s fairly clear we get 80% of 6’s output on a plethora of stations elsewhere.
With virtually all music’s rhetorical gestures done as evinced by the latest moments resolutely refusing to sit within genre, there is less opposition to soul-funk-reggae-disco on an anti-nostalgist basis. If it really is all about the music, then these are some of the most effective places to start.