Philadelphia International Classics: The Tom Moulton Remixes
Disco music never recovered, from both critical and public views, from the 1979 “Disco Sucks” backlash, but reading the glowing and thoughtful eulogies of Donna Summer after her passing back in May made this writer think that perhaps enough time has passed since then for a widespread re-evaluation of the phenomenon. Undoubtedly, the numerous shameless, sub-par, bandwagon-jumping cash-ins made many weary of the genre during its time, but as a popular music form, it is perfectly valid; its best offerings can and should be enjoyed wholeheartedly and without irony.
The four-CD boxed set Philadelphia International Classics: The Tom Moulton Remixes centers on the disco era and highlights two of its towering pillars: the hit-factory label Philadelphia International and the pioneering remixer Tom Moulton. Label founders Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were an overachieving songwriting/producing powerhouse, inextricably linked to the Philly Soul sound. Moulton invented the 12-inch single and the breakdown section, and the words “A Tom Moulton Mix” on a record was a guarantee of a certain level of quality and craftsmanship, made with a sense of balance, letting songs unfurl without being belaboring.
The set includes the entirety of the 1977 compilation Philadelphia Classics, 17 new mixes made during the last few years, plus assorted other classic-era mixes. Its historical merits alone make it a worthwhile purchase, including Moulton’s very first remix for Philadelphia International, “Do It Any Way You Wanna” by People’s Choice and key tracks such as MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” which was used as the to “Soul Train,” The O’Jays’ hit “Love Train,” and the epic “Love Is The Message” by MFSB, one of Moulton’s all-time favorites. One of the most striking tracks is the soaring 11-minute “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, with Teddy Pendergrass on lead vocals with his commanding, almost intimidatingly emotional singing. Like the entire boxed set, it dispels the notion of disco as being a disposable music form.
“How can you stoop so high?”
This quote from Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch sums up the unusual, simultaneously high-brow and low-brow concepts of the album, brimming with obscure references and multiple meanings. The album’s title itself also reflects this methodology, with “bish” being slang for “bitch” and Bosch referring to the masterful Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch’s paintings are an apt comparison for Walker’s trajectory, which began with the Walker Brothers 1978 album Nite Flights and continued to the perfectly dark and thorny albums Tilt and The Drift; like Bosch’s paintings, Walker’s work is nightmarish and complex, depicting both the sublime and crude.
But back to the quote. It’s from the lengthy track “SDSS 1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole sitter),” which is seemingly incomprehensible upon first listen. Here’s where liner notes are particularly enlightening, showing a method to Walker’s madness. We’re told that SDSS 1416+13B is the name of an exceptionally cold, brown dwarf star and that Zercon was a different kind of dwarf: a 5th century Moorish jester with deformed feet. Bish Bosch is infused with an unsettling sense of humor, mixing terror and grotesque scenes with malformed jokes. For example, “I don’t come around and put out your red light when you work” is Walker’s idea of an insult.
Walker’s voice is haunting, with a sort of wailing operatic style; his shouting is downright terrifying, and at times, one wants him to allow his voice to soar more. The arrangements are tense and stark, utilizing everything from strings to anxious drums to deranged electric guitars, and foley art is prominent, with sounds such as knives being sharpened or flatulence. It’s an album of strange contrasts, like the Hawaiian pedal steel on “Epizootics!” punctured by bright brass outbursts.
Ninety-nine percent of the human population will likely find it unlistenable, but those who favor mind-bending, labyrinthine works of art may appreciate its singular brilliance. Like a flagpole sitter, Walker’s doing something that may seem silly, yet he’s high above everyone else and so very far away.