… and for Lady Marmalade, although that’s only the tip of the iceberg which is the Labelle canon. Formed in the early 60s as the Blue Belles, or Bluebelles, Labelle rose to fame with a Busby Babes-style front four of Patti Labelle (formerly Patricia Holt), Cindy Birdsong, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, singing perfectly acceptable but unremarkable bubblegum pop-soul. In 1967, Birdsong left to join the Supremes, which is probably where she belonged, and the remaining trio changed their name, their look and their musical style radically, to become the freaked-out funk/soul/disco/rock hybrid we know and love.
Their first album as the new-look Labelle was released in 1971, and was a strong, gospel -flaboured set that showcased their quality vocals on tracks like The Ladder:
Labelle was followed in 1972 by Moonshadow, a rocky, rootsy affair, its title track a Cat Stevens cover that really cooks, and found favour with the late 80s rare groove scene I was a small part of. The band were (was?) also used as “backing singers” on Laura Nyro’s covers album, Gonna Take A Miracle, which is pretty good apart from the Laura Nyro bits, and is, I believe, a favourite of Bobby Gillespie, all you Primal Scream fans.
Things really took off in ’73 with Pressure Cookin’, the first of the three Labelle albums I actually own, with its medley of Something in the Air and Gil Scott Heroin’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, although I’m more partial to Let Me See You in the Light, which showcases the softer, jazzier side of the group, and is not unlike the Pointer Sisters albums of that period (more about them when I reach P). It’s around this time they also began performing in space suits and feather boas, coming on like a female Funkadelic/Parliament, which can only be a good thing, right?
The following year Labelle recorded the breakthrough LP Nightbirds with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. This is the one with Lady Marmalade on, which is why – in typically perverse fashion – I don’t own it. Do I need to EVER hear Lady Marmalade again, good as it is? No. And nor do you. Check out the Phoenix album instead. This is a masterpiece, and includes my own Labelle favourite, Messin’ With My Mind, a total dancefloor headfuck.
The rest of the album is almost as good/deranged. Mind you, the follow-up Chameleon is pretty tasty too. Soon after that, the band broke up, citing the usual “creative differences”, with Patti leaning towards soul, Hendryx towards funk rock, and Dash wanting to move in a more disco direction. The camel’s back broke at a gig in Baltimore, home of the “Pope of Trash” himself, Mr John Waters, in December 76. Hendryx locked herself in her dressing room and began beating her head against the wall repeatedly until it bled. Okay, okay, you think the others might have said. We’ll play more funk rock! I mean, they were doing it already. What’s the PROBLEM? But instead they decided to split.
Truth be told, it was a good move for Patti, who cut a slew of AMAZING “underground” disco classics (The Spirit’s In It, Get Ready, Music is My Life, the Latin funk favourite Teach Me Tonight etc) AND she sings on three tracks from Bobby Womack’s The Poet II, one of the best soul albums of the 80s. Although there wasn’t much competition in the 80s.
Sarah Dash, the one who had wanted to do more disco, ended up singing with the Rolling Stones for her sins. The more experimental Nona Hendryx, meanwhile, has recorded everything from hard rock to New York art noise (Material etc) and put in a shift with Talking Heads on Remain in Light and The Name of the Band is Talking Heads (Live).
These days, although she still tours (and is playing London in January, I believe) Patti LaBelle is probably better known for her cupcakes and other bakery products, at least in the US. For me, she is simply one of THE best soul divas – up there with Chaka Khan – and Labelle were one of the most exciting female groups in popular music: the human voice at its raunchy, righteous, exhilarating, gender-bending, genre-bending best.
L is also for….
Laibach, Sympathy for the Devil (does the world REALLY need eight more versions of? Maybe, if it’s this weird/good)
Last Poets, This Is Madness (might not be a bona fide album but it’s one we listened to over and over again in the 80s, mainly for the awesome, hypnotic Mean Machine)
Lava, Tears Are Goin’ Home (opening track is proto-punk, Hawkwind-style Krautrock; after that, it gets all mellow and bongo-furious. Not bad though.)
LCD Soundsystem, LCD Soundsystem/Sound of Silver (attention, attention: 21st century album alert! The second is considered the superior disc, and it DOES have North American Scum on it, which is okay to like because it’s a North American singing about what scum he and his countrymen are, but the first album has Losing My Edge, so it’s a tough call to make which is better, really)
Led Zeppelin, I-IV, Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti (that’s all the Led Zep you need, six of their eight or nine albums)
John Lennon/Yoko Ono, Live Sometime in New York City (a total dog’s dinner, a bit like John apres Beatles, but with moments of genius, mainly from Yoko, and it has Frank Zappa on it, though he doesn’t really do much)
Jimmy Lewis, Totally Involved (& totally brilliant Southern Soul)
Bob Lind, Since There Were Circles (as approved by Jarvis Cocker, who wrote a song about Bob Lind. Incredible songs. Calling it “folk rock” doesn’t do it justice.)
Locomotive, We Are Everything You See (from 1970, when “prog” meant “interesting post-psychedelic music” rather than “knobheads in loon pants playing classical music on rock instruments”. Norman Haines. The Arthur Lee of Birmingham. He plays and records to this day. If he appeared on X-Factor they’d probably say “sorry, but the voice isn’t quite there, Norman, and you lack mass appeal.” So much the better. Your secret is safe with us, Norman.)
Love, Love, Forever Changes, Four Sail (Forever Changes is the go-to album, of course, but the first one has loads of cool stuff on it, and later albums like Four Sail are still, like, Love, with Arthur Lee on them, so what else do you need to know? Love are probably even more popular than the Beatles in Liverpool, and with good reason. Arthur Lee was a genius.)
Love Unlimited, In Heat (from the marvel that is the brain of Barry White, and his most over-used organ, just. Those strings! The drums on Love’s Theme! Everything about Move Me No Mountain!)
Lynyrd Skynyrd, One From The Road (aka Band On The Runway – once upon a time, I would have said “you know, the one with the live version of Freebird” but now I say, “you know, the one with Sweet Home Alabama, Tuesday’s Gone, The Needle & The Spoon etc etc.” The studio version of Freebird is better anyhow.)