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Ze Records - Dadaist Disco, Freudian Funk, Pessimistic Pop
Lee Arizuno , August 17th, 2009 12:42

When ZE Records opened its doors to NYC’s freaks in the late 70s, ‘mutant disco’ was the best-fit banner for what came out. As a new compilation celebrates the label’s 30th birthday, we guide you through its startling world and present our own ZE mutant disco mix

Barbara Leone & August Darnell, NYC '83

Always surprising and frequently great, ZE Records was a uniquely mercurial label. Each release hinted at a whole new way for pop to be, many of which have been taken up since (not least in the punk-disco, wonky pop and even minimal house of our own decade). Its output divided more or less into two camps — the cerebral but visceral No Wave scene in one, the art-pop and disco schemers in the other. But artists from each swarmed through the other’s highly conceptual, hooky-as-hell projects, with giddying results.

For the non-No Wave side of things, label-founder Michael Zilkha advocated a Roxy Music-style approach to the post punk era: "I wanted the records to make it clear what was happening, to be very pop and bright — but Pop Art, not pop music pop." And at its best, ZE represents a peak in pop's self-awareness. Following the punk and disco booms, its currency was good, but the industry was still open enough for inspired renegades to turn the form inside out; to make the reality question the dream and vice versa. ZE's location and cashflow also meant — unlike its UK counterparts — it had access to disco’s finest musicians on its doorstep, prepared to play alongside newcomers and amateurs on well-planned wrecking missions. This was true mutant disco, not A Certain Ratio dressing funk in glum shorts.


A simple process bought about these wild results. 1) Spot something bristling in the art spaces, discos or toilet venues of stagflation-era New York’s Lower East Side. 2) Invite it into a decent studio to work with great musicians and producers (in-house producer Bob Blank had worked with everyone from Chic to Sun Ra, and drafted in the best session players). 3) Wrap the outcome up in boldly designed covers based on the NYC checker cab. Simple, that is, when you have the Mothercare millions behind you, as Michael Zilkha — the ‘Z’ in ZE — did. This inherited financial leeway allowed them to, say, give the then-maligned Suicide $10,000 for equipment and send them to the prestigious Power Station studio to record a second album. The ‘E’ half of the ZE board, Parisian magazine editor and designer Michel Esteban, apparently provided the impeccable taste and knack for subversion.

All this can be heard across the selections on Strut’s new ZE 30 compilation. It’s a suitably eccentric assortment of ZE’s finest and weirdest moments, ranging from mutant disco highlights to curios like the bold, if dated, attempts at electrified Gene Vincent-style rock 'n' roll from Alan Vega and Marie Et Les Garçons (you may catch a whiff of Sigue Sigue Sputnik or even Ariel Pink from their itchy performances). However, Mutant Disco: A Subtle Discolation Of The Norm — the three-volume compilation Esteban pulled together on reactivating the label in 2003 — remains the best telling of the ZE story (as does its companion comp N.Y. No Wave for the other side of things). Chuck in the ZE Christmas Album and you’ll hear just what all the fuss was about.

But for now, our Spotify mix and artist guide (below) will give you a scorching introduction to ZE’s world of mutant disco.


The Quietus ZE Mutant Disco mix

Listen to our Spotify ZE playlist

Perhaps Material’s finest moment, ‘Bustin’ Out’ came about when Zilkha asked Bill Laswell for a disco beat, and to be “as strange as [you] like” on top. Cue heavy electro-funk and rock guitar (a harder, crisper version of the sound Talking Heads would use on Speaking In Tongues three years later) and Nona Hendryx belting out lyrics based on George Jackson’s prison letters. Zilkha says now: “It was a cynical, manufactured record. But not really — I believed that was what we should be making.” The extended version included on ZE 30 sounds somehow twice as devastating as the edit.

Was (Not Was) formed a sort of satellite ZE settlement. They were Detroit through and through, both in their cross-genre sound (R&B, rock and jazz were always common currency there) and in the simple fact that they played hard. Don Was has described his band as “prankster artificiers who try always to put the glitch in.” And sure enough, the subject matter, pioneering sampler abuse and Parliament/Funkadelic-inspired use of manipulated voices to represent jabbering, competing parts of the psyche lend their muscular disco a demented air. These alarmist techniques, from ‘Tell Me That I’m Dreaming’s surrealist dissection of the American dream to ‘Wheel Me Out’s litany of Martian-voiced anxieties, up the dancefloor energy to the point of delirium.

This dazzling sound was in part the work of Detroit disco king and remixer Ken Collier, and these tracks weren’t far off house music in form, years before the fact. That they threw the kitchen sink and MC5’s Wayne Kramer into the mix and still came out with killer pop music is remarkable; that they’re remembered mainly for their daft late-80s hit ‘Walk The Dinosaur’ is a crying shame. Was (Not Was) also produced other ZE highlights, mangling hip hop cut-ups with dancefloor-friendly R&B songwriting on Junie Morrison’s ‘Techno-Freqs’, and lending Cristina’s finest moment — ‘Things Fall Apart’, the least festive Christmas song you’ll ever hear — a brutal gravitas.

Cristina was the label’s great white hope: an imperious persona located somewhere between Debbie Harry and Grace Jones (whose mega-selling Slave To The Rhythm made John-Paul Goude's 'extended-neck' design concept, used on the cover of Cristina’s Sleep it Off a year earlier, world famous). But she was too limited by her ‘socialite nihilist’ role, not to mention a dearth of memorable songs, to cross over.

James Chance

Lizzy Mercier Descloux was perhaps the most likeable and consistently surprising ZE artist, with a career spanning years, continents and more styles than you could shake a stick at. In our selections you’ll hear triumphant, cowbell-frenzy disco (her inspired cover of the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown’s ‘Fire’), towering, unassailable funk (‘Funky Stuff’) and even a precursor of Matthew Herbert-style microhouse ('Hard-Boiled Babe'). Descloux chose a nomadic lifestyle, living in various African nations (hence the Zulu Rock album), India and Europe, acting and writing as well as making music. She made some of the best ZE albums, like Mambo Nassau and the No Wave-inflected Press Color.

Still, ZE specialised more in administering wittily pessimistic shocks to pop’s system than in Descloux's exuberant brand of exploration. James Chance streamlined his band’s ratty free-jazz funk into a pin-pupilled disco format on the best-known version of ‘Contort Yourself’ (as James White & The Blacks), while The Waitresses dragged the bratty nihilism of No Wave into girl-group pop on the ultra-cynical ‘I Know What Boys Like’.

ZE’s French chapter did their bit too. Caroline Loeb and Garçons pioneered that peculiarly Gallic speciality, obnoxious-sounding disco: Garçons’ version is cruelly fast and furious, while Loeb’s is pulled along by stridently cartoonish, flubbery bass. Les Rita Mitsouko would go on to synthesise these and other elements of ZE World to great success in 80s France, and it’s not much of a leap from here to Daft Punk’s aggravated filtered disco.

Cristina & Capezio Bros

ZE’s most prolific schemer, August Darnell played in or as Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, Don Armando’s 2nd Avenue Rhumba Band, Coati Mundi, Gichy Dan's Beachwood #9, Machine, Aural Exciters and of course the hugely successful Kid Creole And The Coconuts, collaborating with numerous ZE artists along the way. Darnell specialised in love songs for the experienced: lyrics that get right to the heart of the matter; plush arrangements that draw sparingly on disco, salsa, funk and calypso. His ZE debut, on Coati Mundi’s ‘Que Pasa / Me No Pap I’, was almost a manifesto for the cynically romantic; its blackly humourous rap (including the immortal line, “When I came from the V.D. clinic / I knew our love was finished”), once heard, is never forgotten.

When Darnell, pocket watch in hand, hit upon his dapper Kid Creole persona, the charts came calling. ‘Stool Pigeon’ is the most dancefloor-targeted of the Coconuts favourites (and the one our own Dolly Rockers are currently paying tribute to). Their smart, awkward edge never left them, even when Granada commissioned an hour-long TV muscial comedy special, the title track of which, ‘Something Wrong In Paradise’, got a Larry Levan re-rub (included on ZE 30) to prepare it for their home turf.

Suicide seemed to reach a resolution on the sublime ‘Dream Baby Dream’, whose discomfiting sincerity and romantic darkness play nicely off a rich production courtesy of The Cars’ Rik Ocasek. You can hear why their influence extended beyond the numerous synthpop duos who’d soon invade the charts, to the extended druggy trances of Spacemen 3 and Spectrum.

Full tracklist:

  1. Material feat. Nona Hendryx - Bustin' Out (Seize The Beat Version)
  2. Was (Not Was) - Tell Me That I'm Dreaming
  3. Lizzy Mercier Descloux - Funky Stuff
  4. Caroline Loeb - Narcissique
  5. Lizzy Mercier Descloux - Fire
  6. James White & The Blacks - Contort Yourself
  7. Kid Creole And The Coconuts - Something Wrong In Paradise (Larry Levan mix)
  8. Garçons - French Disco Boys Edit
  9. Lizzy Mercier Descloux - Hard-Boiled Babe
  10. Was (Not Was) - Wheel Me Out (Long Version)
  11. Coati Mundi - Que Pasa / Me No Pop I
  12. Kid Creole And The Coconuts - Stool Pigeon (12" Mix)
  13. The Waitresses - I Know What Boys Like
  14. Junie Morrison - Techno-Freqs
  15. Cristina - Things Fall Apart
  16. Was (Not Was) - Out Come The Freaks
  17. Suicide - Dream Baby Dream (Long Version)

ZE 30: ZE Records 1979 > 2009 is out now on Strut