History lesson

From the most recent issue of the Economist. Click here for the full article, really interesting stuff.

Seven seconds of fire

How a short burst of drumming changed the face of music

IT IS 3am in a dank, sweaty studio in south London. Ear-splitting basslines pound from the sound system. Some of the young crowd gently bob along. Others are drinking, chatting or lurking in dark corners. Then, suddenly, the music changes. A throbbing pulse gives way to a clattering rhythm. Where there were 130 beats per minute, there are now 170. Where the mood was meditative, it is now maniacal. Within seconds the place is jumping.

This music is called “jungle”. Some of the people in the club were probably not alive when it was created. Certainly few would have been old enough to experience it in its heyday. These young revellers have an ear for the next big thing; they find trips down musical memory lane tiresome. Yet nothing seems to animate them like these tracks from almost 20 years ago.

To understand jungle’s roots, you must travel yet further back in time. On March 11th 1970 Richard L. Spencer, tenor saxophonist and lead singer for a short-lived Washington, DC, soul act called the Winstons, was awarded a Grammy for “Color Him Father”, a sentimental ode to a devoted stepfather released by the band the year before. The record sold well, but unlike some of his fellow winners that day, who included Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash, Mr Spencer was not destined for musical canonisation; the Winstons had already split up and later that year he quit the music business. The song, too, has largely been forgotten.

The same is not true for “Amen, Brother”, the B-side to “Color Him Father”. It is not immediately apparent why this should be. The two-and-a-half-minute instrumental, a funk update of an old gospel standard, is sprightly enough; the casual listener might be diverted by the energetic horn line. But there is little to distinguish it from hundreds of similar records released around the same time. The band recorded it quickly, says Mr Spencer; they needed a B-side and didn’t have any other songs.

Seven seconds of this track were enough to guarantee its immortality. One minute and 26 seconds in, the horns, organ and bass drop out, leaving the drummer, Gregory Coleman, to pound away alone for four bars. For two bars he maintains his previous beat; in the third he delays a snare hit, agitating the groove slightly; and in the fourth he leaves the first beat empty, following up with a brief syncopated pattern that culminates in an unexpectedly early cymbal crash, heralding the band’s re-entry.

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