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On The Stereo: ‘Ballplayers’ with Lenny Randle and Thad Bosley

Posted by: on Mar 9, 2009 | Comments (0)

Shea Stadium, July 13, 1977. 9:30pm. A 28-year-old slugger best known for punching out his former manager steps up to the plate against the Cubs. Bottom of the sixth, Mets are losing. Suddenly – POOF.

The New York City blackout of 1977 would become notorious. In the 24 hours of darkness, the city was ridden with looting, fires, arrests and a neverending din of blame. But what of Lenny Randle, the batter left at the plate?

Evidently, in 1983, Lenny Randle teamed up with fellow Major League Ballplayer Thad Bosley—they both had afros, they both loved music. They chipped off some of their pro sports salaries and went into the recording studio. They released three records, which somehow caught the ear, 25 years later, of People’s Potential Unlimited, who have just re-released four songs on Ballplayers, a 7″ EP. It sucks so bad that it doesn’t suck, if you get what I mean.

1983 was a weird time in music—the sound of electronic synthesizers, especially, was in flux, hovering between the modular analog Arp sound and the now-classic Casio sound. Funk music in 1983? Forget about it. Disco had leveled the scene. Those who tried failed in spectacularly awkward fashion, which is why now, of course, everyone wants to hear the stuff. Enter PPU, who’s been reissuing the era, and Ballplayers.

“American Worker” kicks things off with a Springsteen anthem via drunk O’Jays and terrible lyrics. If this is the theme for the American worker, then c’mon, unemployment. “Bos Music” is basically some drum machines with a poorly-played outtake from the War Games soundtrack. But things pick up on Side Two, with “Universal Language”—boogie handclaps by just one guy, hand drumming on a plastic bucket, space disco, wah-wah guitar, and the cruddiest breakdown of the early ’80s! (There’s competition.) There’s also no way, on top of it all, to resist “Jam With Us,” wherein Bosley and Randle repeat over a totally killer bassline, “Don’t you wanna jam with us?” Of course, the answer’s yes, because though they might have been intimidating ballplayers, their musicianship is on a level that just about anyone could join in, no prob.

As for that postponed game at Shea Stadium in 1977? The game was resumed—two months later. The Mets still lost.

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If you decide to order Ballplayers and wanna pick up some other People’s Potential Unlimited releases while you’re at it, here’s a few good ones:

 

Sir Bentley, “Sir Bentley Street Shuffle” – The sound of a slicked-out player in a polyester suit sliding down a 1976 side street, giving breathy directions. Whether they’re to the listener or himself, it’s hard to tell, and hardly matters. There’s a bitchin’ conga solo, and backup vocals that sound like they’re sung by iguanas. B-side is the extended version.

 

Crunch, “Cruise” b/w “Funky Beat” – Totally unbelievable analog entanglement, enjoyable at both 33 and 45 rpm. Kinda like if Liquid Liquid were more into meth. Every single fret buzz and pick sound is audible on the bass—a Hohner? a Rickenbacker?—and when the vibrato synthesizer hits near the end it’s like the arrival of the Zyklon droids. “Funky Beat” finds Crunch fucking around with the portamento switch and rapping in a horny Dracula voice about how funky the beat is, in spite of the fact that the beat is not really funky.

 

George Smallwood, “Lady Disco” b/w “Mr. Sunshine” – A man describes his plight: His girl cannot stay away from the disco floor. How can he keep up? Especially when she is the type of girl who warbles “III Liiikee Myyy Dannnncceiinngg!” after every chorus? Hence, the eternal struggle. Her man, or the disco ball? He accuses her of making “disco babies,” and the song fades with no resolution. (How many songs start with a hi-hat solo?) “Mr. Sunshine” gets a genius shuffling drum beat, at times totally rushed and wrong. But I get it. Sounds like something DFA would put out, except they’d make it slick and perfect. This isn’t even close to perfect, and it’s beautiful.

Kool & the Gang at Sonoma Jazz+

Posted by: on May 23, 2008 | Comments (1)

“I think my favorite line in the song is ‘She’s a lady,'” I said. “I mean, ‘she’ wouldn’t be anything but a lady, right?”

“No, because ‘lady’ is used as a term of distinction. Not all females are ladies. Plus, that’s only half the line: it goes, ‘She’s a lady that you really want to know.'”

“Oh, right! ‘Somehow I’ve got to let my feelings show. . .'”

We were strolling towards the tent in Sonoma, talking about “Fresh,” the still-stupendous Kool & the Gang jam which played for one blissful summer on constant repeat in my house growing up. I was 10 when the album Emergency came out, and I spent hours staring into the cover, checking out Kool & the Gang’s ’80s outfits, thinking the same thoughts that any 10-year-old thinks when they stare into an album cover: Those dudes are in a band. That’s so cool.

So I suppose we could have left happy after Kool & the Gang hit the stage in Sonoma with “Fresh.” But the song, complete with synchronized dance movements and choice poses, heralded what I’d figured would be the case with Kool & the Gang: they were out to deliver a totally scripted, well-oiled show of role-playing and crowd pleasing. This can be seen, in a lot of ways, a schlocky Vegas gimmick. But in another light, it’s also a lost art in the history of R&B, where great “show bands” or “stage bands”—even small, regional funk ensembles—used to never hit the stage without a perfectly-rehearsed set of joint-jumpin’ dances, perfectly executed breakdowns, and sewn-up patter.

To a standing-room crowd out on the dance floor, many of them in disco outfits and huge afro wigs, Kool & the Gang put on a dazzling show, not ignoring the early heavy funk that established them in the first place: “Jungle Boogie,” naturally, “Funky Stuff,” of course, and the song that every desperate DJ leans on to get people moving out on the floor—”Hollywood Swinging.”

Lite-rock hits like “Joanna” and “Cherish” mixed with disco hits like “Get Down on It,” which led into the most predictable encore in the universe: “Celebration.”

Dare I say that a little bit of jazz even crept into their show?

During “Funky Stuff,” everyone in the band except the guitarist took extended solos. Later on, saxophonist Dennis Thomas mentioned how they’d all grown up on Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And. . . well, okay, that’s about it. The rest was pure boogie.

The tent was really going nuts dancing and screaming, which Kool & the Gang acknowledged during the calypso-flavored “Island Shake,” bringing select participants from the crowd to strut their stuff on stage. First it was two ladies—you can see the results in the photo above—and then it was two guys, who actually used their time in the spotlight to square dance. I’m not kidding.

“Those guys,” the singer joked, “ain’t never been to the island.”

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P.S. My 10-year-old self can’t let the moment pass: you gotta check out the video for “Misled,” from Emergency, starring Kool & the Gang when they still had JT Taylor singing. Part Thriller, part Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s an amazing (and really, really low-budget) time capsule of MTV during the Reagan era: