Wax Runoff: Fatback [SP-1-6721]
Earlier this week as I sat in my chair at my dreadfully dreary office day job, a groovy song crept from my memory caves into my head. I strained to recall what it was as I lightly tapped my foot to the riff now endlessly looping in my brain. After about an hour of trying to figure out what it was, it finally hit me; “Hesitation” from the 1979 Spring records release Brite Lites, Big City by The Fatback Band, or more colloquially – Fatback.
I purchased this gem earlier in the year from an old funk-gangster Vietnam vet who sets up crate-after-crate of forgotten and rare funk and disco grooves every weekend at the local market. The art direction for Fatback releases was consistently superb and I had seen their albums before, but never made a purchase because I never agreed with the price. It was only because this gentleman priced this album for a single dollar.
Within minutes of popping the plate onto my platter, I was blown away for a few reasons. This record absolutely does not sound like it was produced in 1978/1979. During that time, recording engineers really weren’t using heavy compression in the studios. Most funk and soul tracks were much more organic sounding – like a live recording of a band. Furthermore, the drums would be mixed down below a sonic focal point. This record was doing the opposite: loud and compressed drums very foreboding of how house and hip-hop music would be produced 15 years later. I was so curious why these jams were so uniquely different and forward thinking than their peers of the time.
The answer was very simple: no recording engineer was used. All production credits go to the Fatback Band itself and likely many of the creative decisions were made by mastermind and front man of the band, Bill Curtis.
It wasn’t just technical originality that set this record apart for me but the unique musical theory behind each track. There is a very heavy reliance on repetition and loops, again reminding me of dance music that would come many years later. In addition, rather than having lyrics in the traditional sense, much of the vocals on the tracks are spoken word, a future trend that Curtis and his band heavily utilized before others.
In fact, it is not just “Hesitation” that has been randomly stuck in my head. Each of the six tracks on the album have an infectious groove.
The A side is more of a funk affair, though all the tracks are written in 4/4 time signature which was more common for disco at the time, and indeed there is much disco influence. “Freak The Freak The Funk (Rock)” kicks it all off with a fat distorted guitar riff and structuring similar to many of the classics made popular by George Clinton. Much like the other tunes, it is an incredible fusion of funk and disco styles. “Let Me Do It To You” comes next and stands out the most with slick guitar plucks and a tambourine line that always causes a case of the head-bobs. This one is more slanted to the disco side of things and really works for a dance floor. Then the final A cut “Brite Lites, Big City” flips the tempo down to 95 BPM with a pure funk take. Of notable mention is the ripper of a sax solo by band member Fred Demery during which Bill yells “Keep the wine flowing!” and claims he lost his voice because the party was so good.
The B-side is definitely where the disco shines through brightly. B1 “(Do The) Boogie Woogie” is a classic late ’70s jam. What makes many of the tunes from that time unplayable today, though, was how overly cheesy the horn sections and vocals could be. Fatback stays true to form while taking all the classic elements but strictly adheres to the repetitive style. “Hesitation” on B2 is an absolute jam with the 1/8 note closed hi-hats we know so well. This is the only tune that truly has lyrics but is still as sweet as the fruits and the rolling big disco bassline that plays during the bridge phrases always impresses me. The release wraps up with “Wild Dreams” on B3. Another heavy disco influenced number, but slower and most importantly – jazzy as hell. Jazz influence is actually prevalent across Fatback’s discography but it really only shows on the final cut. If it had existed at the time, I would say I hear so much lo-fi jazz sample house influence in this track. But it’s just another example of how this album was ahead of its time.
Fatback was insanely prolific. From 1972 to 1988, Fatback released 23 full-length studio albums and tons of singles. Surprisingly to me, Brite Lites, Big City was one of their least regarded albums. But if you listen to the other albums before and after this one, there is not as much of an experimentation with sound design or music theory. This album was less safe, and in turn not as popular, but from a 2017 perspective, it was massively genius. It avoids all the major pitfalls of funk and disco of that era, while pushing the envelope of innovation and achieving stunning originality.
It’s somewhat tough to snag a mint copy of this 12”, but there are certainly some options on Discogs for varying degrees of quality and price. More likely, you stumble across this record while flipping through the crates and searching for the lost grooves. Ideally, you meet an OG funk-gangster of your own who can supply you with this and countless other long lost heaters.
Wax Runoff is a weekly feature that will showcase new finds and crate favorites. Nick States, of Boston, bought his first vinyl record in 2010 and has been hooked ever since. The record shop tends to be his first stop in an any city he visits.