Various Artists Mutant Disco Vol.1


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PICHFORK REVIEW by Alex Linhardt 8.7 / 10


"Mutant disco" doesn't accurately describe the genre that, in the early 80s, lunged out of ZE Records, hit the UK Top 10, and dissipated into respectable obscurity for fifteen years. Mutant disco was not a genetic fluke in the disco DNA. As the squadrons of recent reparative 80s NY compilations attest, it was exactly the opposite: a small clubhouse of brash intellectuals, avant-garde crackpots, and underground flotsam calculatedly engineering a disco insurrection. They (post-punk, no-wave, new wave, post-wave) brought the disco; the disco didn't come to them.

The assumption here is that the only thing weirder than being weird is being partially weird. Going from the most outsider music possible to the most polished, mainstream sound smacks of an audacity we can barely comprehend. To list only a few of the credentials: James Chance was on the original No New York comp; Bill Laswell's Material featured Sonny Sharrock and Fred Frith; and Was (Not Was) littered their early singles with stream-of-consciousness surreal rants. To bring things into the present, this would be an event equal to Jim O'Rourke being produced by The Matrix. By any account, this merger should clear the dancefloor faster than Shaq's DJing skillz.

On this two-disc reissue of the original 1981 comp (effectively quadrupling the number of tracks), any hesitation is erased in the first moments of Was (Not Was)'s "Wheel Me Out". The great surge of generic disco hi-hat releases a flittering confetti of tin-foil synths. Jagged god-rawk garage feedback bides its time in the recesses of the track until it's propelled forward with punk rock slashes courtesy of the MC5's Wayne Kramer and pistonsful of Latin jazz. Even the lyrics skip along the thin line between naked pleasure-party and obscure psychopathy: "No one's discouraged by you who never push the wheels. You did it. And I'm next." You can be a street urchin or a glam princess: This irrepressible beast of a song will, at the very least, make you the most popular person alive and may very well make for the sort of nights that, in appropriate temperatures, cause some people to become pregnant.

Material's collaboration with ex-Labelle member Nona Hendryx stacks crepitating basslines with entire battalions of gradually digitized guitars lost in their own egomania. Kid Creole's hit, "Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy", sticks five genres that would be sublime easy listening by themselves and networks them until they take on a sonic glory, busking cuicas and crashing cymbals. Paternity tests have never been quite this riotous before.

And never mind that James White's "Contort Yourself" is to 80s NY compilations as "Happy Together" is to 60s Summer-of-Love ones. The rockabilly avant-jazz version of The Contortions' version is here streamlined and put on dubs with a life-changing beat and enough reckless sax to let you know this band came to disco and can leave at will. The ZE supergroup, The Aural Exciters, begins "Spooks in Space" with the utterly unimpeachable line, "Mama say there'll be days like this.. but she ain't say nothin' 'bout SPOOKS!" and forms a song out of bubbling potions, banana pratfall sound effects, and haunted dancehall trepidation.

A personal favorite is Cristina, a neglected diva that's alternately complacent and histrionic. Her version of "Drive My Car" renders the Hollywood dazzle of the lyrics even more playfully vacuous than the original. She sounds like a hollow shell of a ditzy bombshell in a car that refuses to conform to certain air pollution laws. "Blame It on Disco" has a lurching bass and a brass reggae pace, but for some reason there's also gales of sleet and when the swelled strings and backup singers tell us to "blame it on disco with a fascinating sound/ That's the talk of the town," it's somehow hard to not think of a coke-snorting Rogers & Hammerstein. "Disco Clone" is absolute mayhem: blaxploitating rumble and Bernard Hermann dagger thrusts with a refrain that's pitched so high my windows broke because the dogs ran into them. Also, it's a disco song with the word "sauntering" in it. I can die happy.

This is the tip of the iceberg. For a genre that often encompasses some of the most flagrantly irritating music this side of ragtime, there is such diversity here, from hewn guitar pyrotechnics to lilting bossa nova, two hours isn't hardly enough. We have hit the day when disco made a better double album than Pink Floyd. It just goes to show that two (or more) genres don't need any similarities except hedonism, narcissism, and drug abuse. Tell the hardcore punks it's time to go home.

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01 • WAS ( NOT WAS) •  Wheel Me Out • 7.08
Written by Donald Was & David Was. Published by Island Music Ltd.
Produced by Donald Was & David Was. Remix Version. 
From the original WAS (NOT WAS)  album « The Woodwork Squeaks.
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1980.

02 • MATERIAL & NONA HENDRYX • Bustin’Out • 6.40
Written by  Laswell / Beinhorn / Maher/ Hendrix / Scott / Draton.
Published by  Cri Cri music / Mez.
Produced by Material & Martin Bisi . Mixed By Tee Scott.
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1980.

03 • CRISTINA • Drive My Car • 3.21
Written by Lennon / Mc Cartney. Published by Norther Song.
Produced by August Darnell & Michael Zilkha.
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1980.

04 • KID CREOLE & THE COCONUTS • Annie I’m Not Your Daddy • 6.30
Written  by August Darnell. Published by Cri Cri Music .
Produced  by August Darnell. Remix version.
From the original  album « Tropical Gansters ».
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1982.

05 • AURAL EXCITERS • Emile (Night Rate) • 6:48
Written by August Darnell. Published by Unichapell Music
Produced by Bob Blank. Mixed by Tom Savarese.
From the original  album « Spooks In Space »
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1979.

06 • JAMES WHITE & THE BLACKS • Contort Yourself • 6:18
Writen  by James Siegfried. Published by Copastatic BMI / Zem Sound.
Produced  by James White. Remixed By August Darnell.
From the original  album « Off White »
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1979.

07 • LIZZY MERCIER DESCLOUX • Funky Stuff • 4:12
Written by Kool & the Gang. Arranged by Mercier Descloux & Steve Stanley.
Published by Universal Music.
Produced by Steve Stanley & Lizzy Mercier Descloux. 
From the original album « Mambo Nassau ».
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1980.

08 • GARÇONS • French boy • 3:08
Written By  Vidal / Fitoussi. Published by E sound.  
Produced by Michel Esteban & Michael Zilkha. 
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1979.

09 • DON ARMANDO’S 2ND AVE. RHUMBA BAND • Deputy Of Love • 5.29
Featuring Fonda Rae                           
Written By  Ron Rogers. Published by Chapell Music.
Produced by August Darnell & Andy Hernandez. 
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1979.

10 • GICHY DAN BEACHWOOD ≠9 • Cowboys & Gansters • 7.28
Written By  Ron rogers. Published by Chapell Music.
Produced by Ron Rogers. 
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1979.

11 • CRISTINA • Blame It On The Disco • 7.57
Written by August Darnell. Published by Cri Cri Music.
Produced by August Darnell Arranged By “Sugar Coated” Andy Hernandez.
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1980.

12 • GARÇONS • Encore l’Amore • 8.55
Written By  Vidal / Fitoussi. Published by E sound .
Produced by Michel Esteban & Michael Zilkha. Unreleased Italian version. 
From the session of the original album « Divorce ».
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1979.


(p) & © ZE Records Mundo Ltda 2009
Very special thanks to Michael Zilkha 
Edited & Remastered by Charlus de la Salle at Sounth Factory Studio


Art cover from original work by Bruno-Cristian Tilley
Booklet & Desing by Michel Esteban 

Photos credits : Page 2 Lizzy Mercier Descloux by Olivier Poivre / Page 5 : August Darnell by George Page 7 : Cristina by Guy Bourdin / Page 12 Was (Not Was) by Dirk Bakker


In 1976 a record was released which could have changed the world. It was by the Disco Dub Band; on the Movers label; an extreme reworking of the O'Jays' For The Love of Money. Arranged and produced by journalist Davitt Sigerson, it featured steals of James Brown guitar motifs, free jazz traces, and stripped down, dubbed out disco. Its reverberations would be felt for many years.

Five years on, consciously or not, it could certainly be felt haunting the dancehall that was home to ZE's Mutant Disco revolution. ZE by that time was ready to burst overground in a riot of colour. A perverse over-the-top Hollywood musical spectacular to complement the grainier, underground pop that could equate to the black and white French new wave films of tortured New York noir novels. So, Mutant Disco acknowledged that disco music circles were creating sounds as absurdly adventurous and radical as anything emerging from those fighting rock orthodoxy with more traditional instrumentation. We now know of course that disco alchemists like Arthur Russell and Larry Levan, labels like West End and Prelude, to use ZE's own words subtly discolated the norm in as spectacular way as say The Pop Group and A Certain Ratio, Rough Trade and Factory. What it boiled down to was that imaginations could soar and people could dance. The two were an irresistible force. The same as it ever was. ZE just gave us the best of all possible worlds, and opened up all sorts of new vistas. ZE's original Mutant Disco compilation came after the label's first few years of quiet artistic defiance, steadily releasing records from the US and French underground resistance. By 1981, however, ZE's records had caught the imaginations of the hungry pop press and daring DJs; and there was no turning back. And like any Hollywood spectacular, ZE had its own superstar-in-waiting in August Darnell. The pop press twisted itself inside out to find the right words to pay homage, and Darnell's Kid Creole persona lit up the pop sky. It's easy now to forget this man co-created the greatest disco song ever in Machine's There But For The Grace Of God Go I, and wrote the Aural Exciters’ Emile (Night Rate), which was downbeat dub disco ten years before Massive Attack.

Darnell's fingerprints were all over ZE. It's impossible not to play join-the-dots with the broad brush of Mutant Disco, and trace connections. Some of the artists involved with ZE went on to record and produce many a thing elsewhere. Myself, I thought some like Was (Not Was) and Material never produced anything as glorious and life affirming as their contributions here. Material's Busting Out, with Nona Hendryx on vocals links us back to Labelle and hence Laura Nyro ! the original New York poet-princess creating unique pop by paying her debts to inventive black dance music.

ZE had its own unique contenders to be New York's disco queen in Cristina and Lizzy Mercier Descloux. Exotic and quixotic, sexy and sassy, as they were, it's impossible not to imagine Madonna waiting in the wings taking notes ahead of the pop perfection of Holiday, Into The Groove, and Like A Virgin. And it seems only natural that the works of French disco experimentalists Garçons should be collated for Other Records by A Man Called Adam, unsung UK techno adventurers with a fevered imagination ZE would have approved of. Perhaps more than any other Mutant Disco artifact, the Aural Exciters' record features a special spider's web of links and lineages. Besides, the aforementioned August Darnell connections, the record was a side project of Bob Blank, ZE's in-house studio scientist and a man who can boast of being involved with Sun Ra's immortal Lanquidity set. The Aural Exciters also featured Taana Gardner, who later song on Heartbeat, her awesome West End disco classic, and Pat Place the sometime Contortion and Bush Tetra. It is irresistible to mention the Mutant Disco records she would produce with the Bush Tetras for labels like 99 and Fetish, homes to legends like ESG, 23 Skidoo, Clock DVA, and Liquid Liquid. Her Contortions' band leader James Chance (or James White) played a part too in the Aural Exciters, and no excuse is needed to mention his signature tune Contort Yourself. It has everything: the twisted James Brown guitar motifs, the free jazz colour, the taut minimal funk, and tortured screams. It was a record so extreme it would utterly inspire Edinburgh's Fire Engines to create a new pop form. And ZE would ultimately destroy new pop groups like the Fire Engines. For ZE hinted at all those possibilities, suggested that extreme sounds could fill dancefloors, that inventiveness did not mean playing to a dozen people in a dusty pub back room. It was almost too much to live up to, but the dream, the aspiration, was everything. It was as Suicide were singing: It's all you got you know, your dreams. Keep them burning ? forever. Yes, in 1981, people like Ian Penman, Paul Morley, and Robert Elms were writing about new torch songs on a par with Cry Me A River and Fever. But people like Alan Vega and August Darnell were making dreams come true with these new torch songs. And it would not have mattered if no one was listening or nobody dancing. The Mutant Disco show would have carried on regardless. In over 20 years, the world has changed a lot. Original copies of that Disco Dub Band single now change hands for small fortunes, and Davitt Sigerson went on to record two LPs for ZE appropriately enough, and more strangely to be Chief Executive of EMI.. Yet, the urge to let our imaginations run riot, and the need to dance to twisted sounds remain.


Kevin Pearce, London, March 2003

Track List
  • 1
    Wheel Me Out - Was (Not Was)
  • 2
    Busting Out - Material & Nona Hendryx
  • 3
    Drive My Car - Cristina
  • 4
    Annie I'm Not Your Daddy - Kid Creole & the Coconuts
  • 5
    Emile (Night Rate) - Aural Exciters
  • 6
    Contort Yourself - James White & The Blacks
  • 7
    Funky Stuff - Lizzy Mercier Descloux
  • 8
    Deputy of love - Don Armando's 2nd Av. Rhumba Band
  • 9
    Cowboys & Gangsters - Gichy Dan's Beachwood # 9
  • 10
    Blame it On Disco - Cristina
  • 11
    Encore l'Amore - Garçons