A Certain Ratio: Early; and Various Artists: In the Beginning There Was Rhythm

by John Dugan


In the Beginning There Was Rhythm
Soul Jazz Records

A Certain Ratio
Soul Jazz Records

When 1977 slash-and-burn punk rock flamed out, a new sound emerged from England's industrial corridor. In the late Seventies, with the economy in deep recession, England's postpunk youth thought better than to sport "Disco Sucks" T-shirts and crank up the Zeppelin. Rather, it was American R&B, funk, reggae, and, yes, the dreaded sounds of Studio 54 that kept them boogying their blues away in the nightclubs. Groups like Gang of Four, the Human League, and the Pop Group took elements from this dance music that saw them through the bleak times, and treated the songs with an attitude that was part art school and part street party.

Soul Jazz Records' new compilation In the Beginning There Was Rhythm catches British postpunk funkers (Gang of Four), industrial-noise pioneers (Throbbing Gristle), and experimenters (This Heat) in their fruitful early days. These groups either blasted the system (Gang of Four on "To Hell With Poverty"), pumped up the groove (the Slits), or existentially pondered futile romance (the Pop Group). But they held one thing in common: They required that you move--and move now.

A more detailed time capsule of the era is Early, a double-CD anthology of recordings by Manchester's A Certain Ratio (who also appear on Rhythm) spanning from 1978 to 1985. Tracks such as "Blown Away" consist almost entirely of percussion that could be field recordings from Latin America. In fact, the band picked up on Nuyorican rhythms after playing a gig in Manhattan (with Madonna opening, no less).

What's incredible is that the fresh sound on both albums hasn't passed its sell-by date--as has, say, "Like a Virgin." It hasn't been overexposed, but it's been influential. You can hear A Certain Ratio's influence on the Manchester sound of New Order in ACR's new-wavey almost-hit "Shack Up." And on In the Beginning There Was Rhythm, Cabaret Voltaire's "Sluggin' fer Jesus"--with its preacher sound bites--is a blueprint for today's abstract electronica. But it's the Pop Group's "She's Beyond Good and Evil" that's the comp's key track. Jerky, alien funk with shards of staccato guitar and dense rhythms, the tune jars the listener with its desperate vocals in a way that most music of the decade to come--the Day-Glo Eighties--simply couldn't.