Bubbling back up

Perhaps the most anticipated performance of Movement 2003 is that of the recently reunited Liquid Liquid. But just who are the legendary Liquid Liquid — and why should you care?

Liquid Liquid stand at the nexus of art-rock and dance music, a unique NYC brand of neurotic funk. They formed in the late 1970s, and their three early ’80s records — genre-defying, yet genre-defining — keep the Liquid Liquid cult growing. Some admirers come to the group through the search for classics of the “loft disco” genre, some through finding the source sampled for hip-hop classics, others through an exploration of the roots and fruits of post-punk and post-rock. It was once said of the Velvet Underground that everyone who bought their first record became a musician, artist, writer, promoter, or otherwise joined the fabric of the scene. In a dance music context, the same could be said of Liquid Liquid and their first three records. They are truly artists’ favorites.

The group is best known for the surprise hit “Cavern,” which provided not only one of the world’s most memorable bass lines, but the musical basis for Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It).” Yet it is not this seemingly unlikely hip-hop reference that makes them so revered in Detroit. It is the full range of their material, and specifically the crystalline power of their upbeat classic “Optimo” which finds its way into Carl Craig records and Theo Parrish DJ sets. Their fans range from deep-house heads to the younger, punkish electro kids to MTV icon Moby, who endorsed this year’s Movement festival on the basis of Liquid Liquid’s performance.

In an era of the micro-sub-gentrification of electronic music, it’s no surprise that fans are looking to zoom the focus out to include a wider range of influences. Across the board, we’ve seen a return to minimalism, the raw power of simplicity and rhythm. And once again, rock instrumentation, or the once-archaic notion of musicians playing instruments, seems exciting. Bands like the Rapture and LCD are referencing both this past era and modern techno-house to worldwide critical success. Detroit electronic bands like Adult. and Tamion 12 Inch are playing the electric bass guitar on stage and on record. It makes sense in this era of the never-ending apocalypse that the angst of punk is recombining with the decadence of disco.

For many of today’s generation, Liquid Liquid symbolizes a magic time in the street life New York City, a sort of lost melting pot of punk, funk and disco. New York City at the twilight of the ’70s, before the dawn of the pastel ’80s, must’ve been a very different environment than today’s cleaned-up city. People are longing for a return to that lawless time, an open-minded space where anything was possible.

Even in this musical context, Liquid Liquid are an anomaly. The music is stark and skeletal, yet almost entirely organic. This never stopped club DJs from spinning Liquid Liquid’s hands-on music next to synth-laden sequenced material. In Liquid Liquid’s music, electric bass combines with multiple percussionists, playing everything from traditional drums to cowbells to weird metal coils. Hypnotic melody comes from the marimba, while shards of words and visceral mouth sounds echo to make evocative moods and atmospheres.

Comprised of a free mishmash of the deconstructed rock of PiL, Can, Iggy and DNA — not to mention Fela’s afrobeat, dub reggae and other worldly influences — they synthesized an entirely new form of unpretentious urban funk, so pure it still sounds fresh today.

To the members of Liquid Liquid, the group is a spirit greater than the sum of its parts. “Liquid Liquid is bigger than us,” states vocalist Sal Principato, “the energy is bigger than anything I’ve ever touched.” Not surprisingly, the group is comprised of some pretty unique individuals. Founding member Richard McGuire is a world-famous illustrator and author of children’s books, who has also done covers for the New Yorker and has pieces in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Dennis Young has an improv band named Water Torture Chamber Music. Scott Hartley still plays his drums. And Principato promotes world music in New York City as New Africa Presents.

They released their first two groundbreaking EPs in 1981 on 99 Records — already legendary in its time for releasing ESG’s “Moody” and “UFO” as well as ESG’s debut album. But it was Liquid Liquid’s 1983 “Optimo” EP on 99 that changed everything for them. Flawlessly constructed, the EP is the sound track of the New York underground at that time; the songs range from the intense Brazilian batucada-style rhythms of the title track to the metal percussion of “Scrapper.” Yet it was the gem “Cavern” that caused the greatest stir at the time, receiving regular play on WBLS-FM, then New York City’s top urban station, and becoming a regional hit.

A young Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel borrowed heavily from “Cavern” — specifically, the bass line, drum parts and lyrical ideas (“slipping in and out of phenomena” from “Cavern” becomes “something of a phenomenon,” a standard hip-hop phrase these days).

The 99 Records label sued Flash’s label, the Mob-connected Sugarhill Records, and eventually won the lawsuit, including the costs of the extensive legal fees. But right when victory was in sight, Sugarhill declared bankruptcy. Liquid Liquid, soured by the litigation, took a break from making music, except for one lone EP as a trio in 1984.

But by 1997, they were reintroduced to mainstream American dance floors through Duran Duran’s hit cover of “White Lines.” Around the same time, the Beastie Boy’s Grand Royal and Mo’ Wax teamed up to reissue their three main EPs as an album, bringing these long out-of-print classics back to the underground. Last year, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour used “Cavern” as its theme song and trailer sound track music.

After years of going their own ways, the group felt it was time to get back together — “that if it was ever time to do it, now is the time,” according to Principato. Their instincts couldn’t have been better.

The word about their reunion debut in March at the Knitting Factory in New York has been stunning. Fans are saying the tunes sound better than ever.

Asked about playing in Detroit, Principato says, “I don’t think there’s another city in America we would have done.”

Meanwhile, marimba player and percussionist Young says the group is “more powerful, more intense, more mature. Be prepared!”


Liquid Liquid play the Underground Stage on Saturday at 7 p.m. A special showing of Richard McGuire’s animated video of “Cavern” will also occur.

Brendan M. Gillen writes about and performs electronic music. E-mail [email protected]
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