Various Artists, The Blank Generation


Painting by Gerhard Richter

[Strut]


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The Blank Generation sounds less like a collection of tracks than it does the words of a storyteller, an account of historical events related by someone who was there. The witness is producer Bob Blank, whose narration is captured by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. The DJ Historians, in their first collaborative release with Strut, have anthologized 13 tracks that Blank helped commit to tape between 1971 and 1985. The resulting album is both an essential document of cultural history and, as one of its tracks puts it, a better than good time.

The setting of the story told here is Manhattan, in a now difficult to imagine era before Mayor Giuliani had his way with Times Square. On the island’s Lower East Side, a (sub)cultural renaissance was in full swing, producing a cacophonous harmony of multifaceted origins and outcomes that left such a complex network of historical effects in its wake it becomes difficult to keep track. The scene is chronicled in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Downtown 81, a work of documentary fiction that runs parallel to this album. Just as Basquiat is seen walking through alleyways, lofts, clubs, and studios seeking the essence of contemporary culture, Bob Blank can be heard traveling through musical forms, documenting a movement retroactively fragmented by historiographical error.

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As the tale is most often told, disco, post-punk rock, and jazz were not just separate genres, but sworn enemies. Though DJ mixes by the likes of Larry Levan already offer evidence to the contrary, this anthology proves that connections between the era’s musics were not only forged on dance floors — they originated in the records themselves. Few may have expected at the time that the figures who would most affect the shape of music to come were not flashy soloists or charismatic frontmen, but behind-the-scenes workers like Blank. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, the standard narrative insists. But as Marx pointed out, while history has to be lived forwards, it can only be understood backwards.

Viewed through the prism of the present, producers of Bob Blank’s generation reveal themselves as the architects of a musical landscape that has engendered both celebrity craftsmen like Timbaland and reclusive artists like Burial. Appropriately, Blank is most closely associated with disco; his work on Jimmy Sabater’s kitschy 1975 “To Be With You” made him responsible for one of NYC’s first disco 12-inches. There is disco to spare on this compilation, including Debby Blackwell’s euphoric “Once You Got Me Going,” Mikki’s hard-edged “Itching For Love,” and soul legend Gladys Knight’s aforementioned unofficial title track “It’s A Better Than Good Time.” With the latter two featuring John Morales and Walter Gibbons on remixing duties, respectively, Blank’s classic disco credentials are undeniable.

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Yet he appears at the margins of the genre as well, with equally remarkable results. Patrick Adams’ Bumblebee Unlimited project, which has an unpredictability that transcends its gimmicky nature, is present with the percussive “I Got A Big Bee.” Like all the Bumblebee tracks, the entomological imagery both generates the entirety of the song’s lyrical content and defies any meaningful interpretation. Driven by another strange allegory, Leroy Burgess’ arrangement of Fonda Rae’s herky-jerky “Over Like A Fat Rat” makes it easy to dance to this. You can detect the bass line that would later form the foundation of Eric B. and Rakim’s seminal debut single, “Eric B. Is President.” “Music Trance,” by Charanga ’76 — named for a style of Cuban dance music — combines a quintessential disco flow with lyrics en espaƱol and Latin-inflected piano and brass arpeggios.

One of Blank’s most celebrated affiliations in the disco/not-disco continuum is with the legendary Arthur Russell, who is present on the mesmerizing “Wax The Van” — credited to Lola, the vocalist on Russell’s most famous disco cuts and Blank’s then-wife — and the charming “State of the Art,” by Russell’s rarely-heard new wave group The Necessaries. But the sweep of this album doesn’t end with a disco practitioner’s rock experimentation. Milton Hamilton’s groovy “Crystalized” is an irresistible facsimile of late-sixties psychedelic pop, while the disorienting “Emile” — by Blank’s own project, The Aural Exciters — combines lap steel guitar, vibraphone, and ominous moans, anticipating the nebulous approach to music sometimes referred to as “post-rock.”

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The sensibility that informs work like this clearly comes from a perceptive listener, and Blank’s knowledge of the ancestral origins of contemporary music is represented here as well. As an engineer on Sun Ra’s Lanquidity — one of the finest albums of jazz’s fusion era — Blank recorded “When Pathways Meet,” which sounds like a Fletcher Henderson arrangement of a folk song from Saturn. James Blood Ulmer, a disciple of Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic school of improvisation, offers the inarguable “Jazz Is The Teacher, Funk Is The Preacher,” substituting a steel resonator guitar for a mirrored ball and redirecting the Mississippi Delta into the discotheques of the Lower East Side. “A Cruise To The Moon,” from no wave goddess Lydia Lunch’s album Queen Of Siam, is the inverse of those recordings, finding a group of young punks adopting the mannerisms of a jazz band. The dissonant, but swinging, horn riffs form a sonic Ludlow Street for celebrated punk instrumentalist Robert Quine to pace across.

The guitarist’s appearance on this collection presents a direct link to the album from which Brewster and Broughton presumably borrowed The Blank Generation‘s title: Richard Hell and the Voidoid’s landmark debut, the first recorded showcase for Quine’s twisted solo work. For Hell, the title was a declaration of a sociocultural void — his generation could not adopt the facile assumptions of the Sixties counterculture, and punk rhetoric took rock and roll to an extreme that turned it into its own negation. Fittingly, this compilation is a perfect complement to Hell’s manifesto. After the cleaning of the cultural slate with the nihilism of punk, a reconstruction became possible, enabling a vision of utopian plurality and hybridity that the music to follow has been trying to catch up to ever since. Take it or leave it.

tom/pipecock  on April 15, 2010 at 9:57 PM

great review tying together the vast number of ideas, scenes, and musics included in this collection. big ups shuja.

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