V/A Sources: ‘The Sleeping Bag Records Anthology’ Compiled by Bill Brewster (Harmless) 4/5

sleeping-bag-recordsRewind to the early 1980s, 1981 to be precise, when the Sleeping Bag records story begins in earnest. Dance music was in something of a state of flux with disco on its way out, but a flourishing underground club scene, most notably with innovative sounds being spinned at the Loft and Paradise Garage, had already replaced it. A close musical collaboration and relationship was founded between Will Socolov, who set up the label and financed it with his father’s support, and musician extraordinaire Arthur Russell. If the latter ultimately had little inclination to pursue commercial avenues, for a time Socolov managed to channel Russell’s creative talents and the results were spectacular. Arguably the finest dancefloor manifestation came in Dinosaur L’s ‘Go Bang’ and while the original remix by François Kerkovian is not included here, the acclaimed near twelve and half minute deconstruction by Walter Gibbons is and remains a landmark recording in dance music history. Other examples of Arthur Russell from the 24-24 album are included, but it would be most welcome to have a future edition devoted exclusively to the dancefloor hits and misses of this deeply creative musician, and one that goes beyond the usual contenders.

Reworking underground disco hits was another preoccupation for Sleeping Bag and in Bob Blank, who frequented Paradise Garage, they found the perfect accomplice. The original of ‘Weekend’ by Phreek was criticised by some because of major label Atlantic’s flawed mix. It was reworked by Class Action, this time with a tougher beat and one influenced in part by another emerging major talent Prince. The female vocals in particular seem to pay homage to Prince offshoot Vanity 6. Larry Levan championed many obscure bands at the time and the Jamaica Girls’ ‘Somebody new’ was a particular favourite of his.

Phase two coincided more generally with the dance music scene becoming increasingly diverse with rap and hip-hop seemingly ruling the roost, and even pop charters Blondie joined in the act with a number one hit in ‘Rapture’ and Tom Tom Club mixed club and indie beats to critical and commercial acclaim, while the sisters who formed ESG provided an altogether sparser and tougher edge. Into this a young and talented musician called Kurtis Mantronix stepped up to the mark and his production talents reached their zenith in 1987 with Joyce Sims’ electro dancer ‘Come into my life’ which reached number seven in the UK pop charts, proof that quality dance music could always reach a wider audience. Her first and now slightly lesser regarded hit, ‘You are my) all and all’ is included and still hits the mark. As Bill Brewster indicates from post-disco and nascent hip-hop, house music was about to surface, albeit in embryonic form, and one early example included here is Dhar Braxton’s ‘Jump back (set me free)’.
The third CD tends to focus on this emerging hybrid and, as a whole, the full 12″ versions throughout make for unbeatable value in one package.

It was always going to be a stiff challenger to include everything essential from this period and quite simply some of the were not necessarily on the Sleeping Bag label. However, Bill Brewster has done a sterling job of covering as much musical territory as he has and, as ever, the terrifically informative inner sleeve notes will immediately have you searching for those hard to find original 12″ beats once again. Fans of Mantronix can, in addition, check out his own early 1980s influences via an earlier Soul Jazz compilation, ‘That’s my Beat’, that makes for a useful companion with artists as diverse as T-La Rock and rubbing musical shoulders with Suzy Q, Unlimited Touch and the fabulous Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Tim Stenhouse