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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I'm Stupidly Obsessed With the Music of 1982, Thanks to Afrika Bambaataa Spinoff "Play at Your Own Risk"

Posted By on Tue, Jun 19, 2012 at 3:30 AM


[Editor's note: The Upsetter is a new weekly column exploring music news and pop history from a perspective that is both bewitched and bothered. Here, Andrew Stout will explode the old clichés of rock journalism to make room for some new ones.]

Nostalgia's only purpose is to make us dumber -- to mute the low-end of our memories and to rig our imaginations with HappyLights. That's why I recently decided to get over 1982.

Everyone has an era or a year in pop music history they romanticize out of proportion to the rest. For some it's 1966, for others it's 1977, and then there are those listeners, a couple years younger than I, who say 1992. My year is 1982.

Why 1982? Well, like all idealizations, it begins with a lack of firsthand experience. Nineteen-eight-two has always felt like a prophecy for the pop world I was eventually born into, several years later. My earliest musical memories came in the mid-to-late-'80s, and involved sequencers that girdled bloated synthesizer riffs. The year 1982 was the first time this sonic template truly announced itself in all its metallic brightness. It offers an origin, an alibi, and the start of an explanation for such later childhood ponderables as Mr. Mister's "Take These Broken Wings". Best of all, it was the year of Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force's "Planet Rock," released thirty years ago this spring on Tommy Boy Records.

In my efforts to deflate 1982, I've sought out all the music I can find from that year and read lots of back issues of magazines and newspapers. I've talked to people who threw Duran Duran-themed slumber parties. And I've slept with David Coverdale. Figuratively, at least.

In other words, I've searched for the banal and the second-rate. In the countless articles I've bookmarked and songs I've skipped through half-attentively, there is one artifact that best represents the times. It opens what I like to think of as an alternate history to the 1982 I love best. The song is "Play at Your Own Risk" by Planet Patrol, a record that was literally spun-off from the same mastertape that carried "Planet Rock".

"They weren't really a group per se," Tommy Boy founder Tom Silverman said in 2007 of the band credited for "Play at Your Own Risk" in Wax Poetics. "They were just some guys we got to sing on the track. Really Planet Patrol was John Robie and Arthur Baker."

Why did "Planet Rock" producers Baker and Robie parlay "Planet Rock" into a lesser, albeit still-pretty-jamming tune? While such thrifting and re-gifting has always been a cost-saving strategy of independent dance labels, Baker and Robie had the additional incentive of having already written an entirely different song underneath the tracks that became "Planet Rock." This makes "Play at Your Own Risk" a feat of excavation.

Famously, "Planet Rock" is built on interpolations of two melodies from Kraftwerk: "Trans-Europe Express" and "Numbers." By the time Bambaataa, Baker, and Robie entered the studio to record "Planet Rock", they hadn't cleared the rights for the Kraftwerk songs. Baker explained their strategy to

"When we went in to do 'Planet Rock' we were worried that we'd have problems with Kraftwerk so we did another melody line," Baker said. "So we had these parts on it and when we went to mix 'Planet Rock', Tom said, 'Oh just use the Kraftwerk melody on it.' So I said, 'Well, listen, there's another record here. This could be a big record.'"

Baker was right, twice-over. "Planet Rock" was issued in the form we now know it -- with "Numbers" and "Trans-Europe Express" intermeshed -- in April 1982. When paired with the original "Numbers", the record became that year's sound of the summer all around New York. (Spurred in part by the song's eventual crossover success to radio, it was at this moment the national media began reporting on a dance craze that by 1982 was already nearly a decade old in the Bronx -- breakdancing.)

But in the summer of 1982, if you really wanted to take the party to the next level, you would play "Numbers," "Planet Rock," then "Play at Your Own Risk". The spin-off track charted in the U.K. and was the most played record for six months running at the legendary Manhattan club the Funhouse.

In all, the "Numbers/Planet Rock/Play At Your Own Risk" suite was almost 20 minutes of music cut from the same cloth. "Play at Your Own Risk", though, was the most conventional of the three songs, at least structurally. Most conspicuously, the lyrics were sung, not shouted or vocoded, and unfurled a messy metaphor relating video-gaming to the perils of new love.

Thirty years on, we can hear in "Play At Your Own Risk" a different slant on the very same world Bambaataa forecast in "Planet Rock". The future Planet Patrol offers us is a little humdrum, a little workaday in comparison. Like "Planet Rock", it points a way forward for pop from 1982. Only its path is less brilliant and more ephemeral, which, as hindsight tells us, turned out to be a more accurate signpost for the decade ahead.

Nevertheless, despite my more rounded view, I'm still not over 1982. Not yet. In fact, when "Play at Your Own Risk" fades, after seven minutes (and on a cheap and artlessly employed echo trick, no less), I feel more drawn to my favorite year than ever before. It's a lot like when your ardour for someone cools and you're left with the staid comfort of simply hanging around them. I guess it's a lot like love, this thing I have for 1982. And I wish it would stop.

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