Various Artists Mutant Disco Vol.2


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"I'm a former scientist now on wheels." "I'm a disco clone!" "Spooks spooks spooks in space!" "Woodwork squeaks and out come the freaks!" These are just a few of the odder lines taken from some of the strangest, silliest, most colorful underground singles released during the late '70s and early '80s, all of which were released by Michael Zilkha and Michel Esteban's New York-based ZE label. A two-disc compilation released on the revitalized ZE, this swollen reissue of 1981's Mutant Disco adds 19 label highlights to the original album's six-track running order. At their most inspired, the artists on ZE found some middle ground between immensely accessible disco-pop and the avant-garde, without ever falling down the middle of the road. Music that appealed to Highlights-reading six year olds as well as their Village Voice-reading parents wasn't particularly common back then (surely there are no modern-day parallels); and it's just one of the voids that the ZE label filled, fostered by a very direct collision between the novelty of pop and the possibilities of artful experimentation. Three of Was (Not Was)' earliest, most thrilling songs -- "Wheel Me Out," "Tell Me That I'm Dreaming," "Out Come the Freaks" -- are here, in all their squealing, thoroughly batty, funk-driven glory. They practically make the remainder gravy. Lizzy Mercier Descloux transforms the Crazy World of Arthur Brown's "Fire" from a proto-Nick Cave stomp into a rollicking groove of clickety percussion and popping basslines, with the protagonist changed from a howling madman to a taunting siren. Garçons' zipping "French Boy" -- along with Martin Circus' "Disco Circus," released on Prelude and therefore not present here -- makes a strong case for French disco two decades before Daft Punk. "Blame It on Disco" is a breezy cross between lounge and dub from the equally flirty and dispassionate Cristina, a posh character who also made a song about her mink coat and covered Van Morrison's "Blue Money" on the same album. And then there's the Waitresses' bratty new wave, Kid Creole & the Coconuts' tropical brainstorms, and Material's lasergun funk. These examples only scratch the surface. The overall package, including dozens of photos and liner notes from the ever-insightful Kevin Pearce, is a must-have for anyone who loves post-punk, new wave, funk, disco, or any combination thereof -- or, of course, fun. Sometimes timeless music is created by people who have no interest in doing such a thing. Here's a whole lot of it.


"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 • CRISTINA • Disco Clone •  4.10
Written by Ronald Melrose. Published by  Rabbit Rabbit Music company (BMI).
Produced by Michaek Zilkha,Bob Blank & Cristina. Male Guest Vocal  : Kevin Kline
Mixed by Chris  Blackwell. Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1978.

02 • COATI MUNDI • Que Pasa / Me No Pop I • 6.23
Written by Andy Hernandez. Published by Cri Cri Music.
Produced by « Sugar Coated » Andy Hernandez.
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1980.

03 • KID CREOLE & THE COCONUTS • I’m A wonderfull Thing Baby • 6.15
Written  by August Darnell & Peter S.Schott. 
Published by Cri Cri Music & Schott in the Dark Music .
Produced  by August Darnell. Remix version . From the original  album « Tropical Gansters ».
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1982. 

04 • WAS (NOT WAS) • Out Come The Freaks • 7.11
Written by Donald Was & David Was. Published by Island Music Ltd.
Produced by Donald Was & David Was. Remix Version. 
From Was (No Was) original debut album.
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1981.

Written By  Brown/Crane. Published by Essex Music International.
Produced by Mercier Descloux, Esteban & Elliasson. Mixed by Tom Savarese.
From the original album « Press Color »
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1979. 

06 • AURAL EXCITERS • Spooks in Space (Discomix) • 5.44
Written by Ron Rogers. Published by Zem Sound.
Produced by Bob Blank. Mixed by Tom Savarese.
From the original  album « Spooks In Space »
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1979.

07 • WAS (NOT WAS) • Tell Me That I’m Dreaming • 5.03
Written by Donald Was & David Was. Published by Island Music Ltd.
Produced by Donald Was & David Was. From Was (No Was) original debut album.
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1981.08 • CAROLINE LOEB • Narcissique • 3.36
Written by Caoline Loeb & Ron Rogers. Published by Universal Music.
Produced by Ron Rogers. From the original album « Piranana ».
Edited by Charlus de la Salle.Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1983.09 • THE WAITRESSES • I Know What Boys Like • 3.16
Written by Chris Butler. Published by Cri Cri Music/ Merovingian Music.
Produced by Kurt Munkacsi & Chris Butler. 
From the original album « Wasn’t Tomorow Wonderfull ? ».
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1980.10 • LIZZY MERCIER DESCLOUX • Mission Impossible • 2.37
Written By Lalo Schifrin. Published by Chapell Music
Produced by Mercier Descloux, Esteban & Elliasson. Mixed by Tom Savarese.
From the original album « Press Color »
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1979. 11 • GARÇONS • Re Bop Electronic • 2.55
Written By  Vidal / Fitoussi. Arranged by Alan Wentz. Published by Emi Music .
Produced by Michel Esteban & Michael Zilkha. 
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1979.12 • GARÇONS • French Boy Disco Edit • 5.10
Written By  Vidal / Fitoussi. Arranged by Alan Wentz. Published by E sound .
Produced by Michel Esteban & Michael Zilkha. 
Original sound recording made by ZE Records © 1979. 13 • CASINO MUSIC • Faites Le Proton • 5.18
Written By Gilles Riberoles. Published by ZE Multimedia Music .
Produced by Christ Stein. Mixed by Chris Blackwell. 
From the original album « Jungle Love ».
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

DESIGNArt 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