I want to connect the dots on something I noticed the other day when listening to the new Gorillaz single, “Stylo.” The dots to be connected are located in the years 1991 and 2010, respectively, and they are anchored to the 1991 Recoil album Bloodlines and the 2010 Gorillaz release Plastic Beach.
Part I: The Fountainhead
Alan Wilder was one of the synth guys for Depeche Mode during the period of their signature sound- large, clipped orchestral arrangements marked by swells and fat synthesizers. He left that band in 1995 to devote more time to his other more neglected project, Recoil. I had always thought that all the really finished Recoil material was released after Wilder’s departure from DM, but apparently Bloodlines was released in 1991. In a lot of ways, this is the logical realization of what some DM songs only hinted at- there is a hard edge and dramatic darkness to these songs that skirts the pathetic, pre-emo tendencies of Depeche Mode, and the swells and synth lines that were cut off in favor of a more pop sensibilities in his more mainstream band are given full, eccentric rein here.
Part II: The Pupil Learns from the Master
While this record didn’t make a big splash on American radio, tricks from Bloodlines‘ arrangements and style were snuck into the fakebooks and back jean pockets of more than one artist since. Notable among these musicians was Bloodlines guest vocalist Moby, whose ’99 hit record Play, one could argue, owes the full debt of its popularity to Wilder’s influence. You can hear the Wilder style on the orchestral swells of “Porcelain”, and, most relevant to this post, Moby’s use of samples of black spiritual music throughout the record. If, like me, you thought this Moby record sounded dated when it came out, that it’s aping the style of a mid-’80s stadium synth icon sounds like a pretty good explanation as to why, doesn’t it?
I suppose it’s only fair to give a taste of what I’m driving at. Below is Recoil’s track “Electro Blues for Bukka White,” a song that’s not much more than a proto-industrial drum sequence, a fat and driving synthetic bassline, and a sample of old Bukka White blues tune, “Shake ’em on Down.”
Part III: The Gift of Ancient Knowledge Gives the Hero Great Powers
With the release this month of Plastic Beach, Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s guest-driven project Gorillaz’ new album, I happily have another reason to dig out the old Recoil material and have a critical listen. Why? Because “Stylo,” their lead single featuring Bobby Womack and Mos Def, is a cleaned-up, groove optimized, updated version of the song you just heard above. There was always something plodding about DM’s, and Wilder’s, songs, but this has been corrected for on the Gorillaz record. That extra half-note or whatever it was that was holding up the tempo of Wilder’s song is gone on the Gorillaz track, but the allegiance to the basic structure of the bassline on “Electro Blues” is not.
What’s that? You say a lot of songs share similarities like that? That pop music only has so many tropes so a song that sounds like another one is bound to come along sooner rather than later? That’s as may be, but the similarities go beyond the bassline. Singer Bobby Womack seems to have been recruited because of how much his singing style here mimics the sampled Bukka White on “Electro Blues.” Right down to the inflecting flourishes with which he finishes his sung phrases (a few seconds after his first appearance in the song, listen to that spoken “right now,” or the “That’s what I’m talking about” later in the song), he proves that Albarn had to have drawn influence from Recoil. Womack’s flourishes are analogs to White’s barely decipherable “and it’s like that” utterances at rhythmically opportune intervals in the Recoil tune.
If you don’t believe me, have a listen to “Stylo.”
Proof that good musical ideas don’t go away, but if they’re good enough they may go uncredited.