Various ‘Chris Sullivan presents Wag: Iconic Tunes From The Wag Club 1983-1987’ 4CD (Harmless) 5/5

wagThe 1980s London underground club scene is what this extremely well thought out and thoroughly researched compilation is all about, and it certainly provides a stunning overview to the eclectic sounds that were being spun at the Wag club, owned at the time by Welsh music aficionado Chris Sullivan.
Divided up over four CDs that are crammed with full-length versions, the music spans 1970s funk and soul, often with a jazz or Latin undercurrent, before making a brief intrusion into jazz and hard Latin on the third CD, and then on to the final CD into the mid-1980s early influence of hip-hop and house.
While there are simply too many tracks to make detailed individual commentaries. some are nonetheless worthy of note. Gil Scott Heron is best known in dance circles for, ‘The bottle’, but here, ’17th street’, conjurs up the multi-ethnic and lingual streets of New York like no other. One of Scott Heron’s most endearing compositions is , ‘Home is where the hatred is’, and the Esther Philips version is arguably an improvement on the original. Soul divas abound on the first CD and Doris Duke deserves a place among the very finest of female soul singer. Her take on, ‘Woman of the ghetto’, is a fine alternative to the more commonly heard interpretation by Marlena Shaw. For male singers, Aaron Neville personifies all that is best in New Orleans R & B and ‘Hercules’ has long been a rare groove favourite.

The second CD focuses more on groups and here a plethora of definitive examples are offered up. Fatback were at their zenith in the mid-1970s and ‘Spanish hustle’ predates the more formulaic dancefloor fodder, while War were always a group with multiple musical identities and ‘Galaxy’ is a fine illustration. Brass Construction could only have been a 1970s entity and ‘Movin’ is the more melodic side of funk while the harder edged Slave contribute, ‘You and me’. Disco with an attitude and an instrumental jazz flavour is provided on two stunners by flute maestro Herbie Mann on ‘Hijack’, and by keyboard virtuoso Dexter Wansel on the funk-tinged, ‘Life on Mars’.

Jazz hipsters predominate on the third CD with Oscar Brown’s evergreen, ‘Mr kicks’ a highlight and ‘The new killer Joe’ by veteran saxophonist Benny Golson revived his career and lit up the dancefloors when swing jazz was viewed as somewhat passé, but definitely not in this guise. Elsewhere master instrumentalists Roland Kirk and Freddie Hubbard reveal the groovier side to their personas with the immortal, ‘Making love after hours’ and ‘Return of the prodigal son’ respectively.

Coming full circle, the then contemporary sounds of hip-hop and house were beginning to dominate and their impact of lefter field musicians is hinted at on the final CD with Herbie Hancock scoring a major dance and pop hit with ‘Rock it’ that still sounds futuristic as does the end of era disco from Atmosfear, Dancing in outer space’. Dinosuar L’s ‘Go bang’ courtesy of the brilliant if esoteric mind of Arthur Russell is as far out as dance music could achieve, while in a more mainstream vein only Joyce Sims seems a litle out-of-place, though this was indeed what was being played at the time. Stomping disco is repreatented by the epic ‘Supernature’ from Cerrone and Linda Clifford’s ‘Runaway love’, both superior examples of the disco craze that outlived the era.

In any such overview, there are always likely to be omissions of collective styles as well as individual musicians. It is true to say that there is minimal coverage of the Latin music scene with the odd Brazilian number and plenty of soul-jazz influenced Latin sounds. However, the more specialist Latin sounds can easily be located on other compilations and this anthology never claimed a fully comprehensive vision. Nonetheless, it covers an awful lot of ground over five hours of music and in the process opens up new perspectives of musicians who might otherwise have been forgotten and even seasoned collectors will be enthralled by some of the more obscure selections.

Impeccable and luxurious inner sleeve notes add photos of regular club devotees, full details on the individual tracks, and a running commentary by the owner himself on the era, all tastefully rounded off by a box cover. If you temporarily left the country or even planet during the early to mid-1980s and wanted to know what the very best dance music away from the commercial side, then this is,where you would want to begin your quest.

Tim Stenhouse