The week in audio: Dance Divas; Atomic: How Dr Strangelove Exploded Pop Culture; Decode

Dance Divas 1978-1988/1988-1998 (BBC World Service) | BBC Sounds
Atomic: How Dr Strangelove Exploded Pop Culture (BBC Radio Wales) | BBC Sounds
Decode: Dave’s Psychodrama | Spotify

Some lovely music programmes last week. First up, an excellent couple of hours with Dance Divas 1978-1988 and Dance Divas 1988-1998, two World Service programmes that can also be found as episodes of the BBC’s The Documentary Podcast. Hosted by the fabulous singer Martha Wash, of Two Tons O’ Fun and the Weather Girls, these shows are a thrilling insight into the often overlooked contribution of women to US dance music.

The first decade in discussion was the disco-turning-into-house era and the place was New York. Specifically, the Paradise Garage nightclub and, God, what a time it was. Even if you were to zone out during the speaking parts of this show, you’d be transported by the music: soaring, transformative, filthy, uplifting. Luckily the interviews more than held up, as DJ Sharon White and composer Gail Sky King gave us their stories of those times. Wash, a host with skin in the game, described a defining moment in her career: “We recorded the song in about 90 minutes, walked out the door… and went on about our business.” The result? It’s Raining Men. Hallelujah, indeed.

We heard from Yvonne Turner, now in her late 60s, an excellent producer and remixer, whose dub version of Colonel Abrams’s Music Is the Answer was a big hit in 1985 and signalled the shift of dance music into house. “First, they credited me as Evan Turner,” she said. “And then on some copies my name is not there at all.” Turner worked with Carol Cooper, the first black woman in charge of A&R at a major label (A&M). Cooper got Turner to remix a Willie Colón track (Set Fire to Me) and it was a success, but Colón couldn’t handle Turner getting credit and so refused to work with her any more. An interesting section on successful women DJs ended with a familiar refrain: do I still have to prove myself? After all my work and success? It was the same story for all these women: work hard, get success and then rewind, over and over. No gains, no accumulation.

The second part, 1988-1998, hopped into the cut-and-paste years. King talked about making the madly sample-heavy Put the Needle to the Record (a passing mention of Adam Yauch, for Beasties fans here), in a time before anyone thought they might need to clear snippets of tracks. This led to brilliant vocalists such as Loleatta Holloway, Jocelyn Brown and Wash herself having their vocals sampled and used to make new, chart-topping records, without receiving any of the monies made. “The fact is,” said Wash, “over the decades, many artists – men and women – have, in my view, been routinely ripped off. Sampling was simply a new means of doing it.” Oh, these documentaries are absolutely unmissable: funny, touching, informative and packed full of brilliant music. Producer Victoria Ferran should be proud.

A different approach to music came from Observer and Guardian journalist Jude Rogers, who looked at pop culture’s relationship with nuclear war, in BBC Radio Wales’s Atomic: How Dr Strangelove Exploded Pop Culture. A depressing topic, but Rogers moved us easily between real terror and camp madness. Eric Schlosser (of Fast Food Nation) gave some enthralling analysis of Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove, the film directly affected both the US and Soviet approaches to nuclear negotiations; Young Marble Giants’ Alison Statton discussed their end-of-the-world track Final Day; and we were also treated to ye olde scare-the-kids nuclear disaster programme Threads. And, of course, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes. Its opening bars made me recall a time when nuclear war seemed very present, an event you should prepare for. We used to practise hiding under our desks.

And yet another angle to examine the beauty and power of music, this time from the award-winning poet Kayo Chingonyi. Decode is a spin-off of Dissect, the US podcast that analyses albums by artists such as Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar; track by track, line by line, week by week. Decode is the UK version.

And the Great British album that Chingonyi is analysing is Dave’s fantastic Psychodrama, winner of the 2019 Mercury award. Chingonyi gives us the background to the album, diligently ticking through Dave’s first freestyles, the teenage piano practice, but also hints at the pain and anger embedded in the work. His presentation recalls George the Poet’s – a similar craft, intelligence and poet’s way with a phrase – but Chingonyi is more precise, using his own words, as well as Dave’s, to carefully build an exact world. It’s mesmerising. There are only a few people who can hold your attention while giving you this detail, and only a few albums that can withstand this analysis. Chingonyi and Psychodrama are in a league of their own.

A Gay and a Non-Gay: Sex, Drugs and Richard Coles

James Barr and Dan Hudson’s show is always an upbeat, interesting listen. Last week’s episode, with the Rev Richard Coles, is exceptionally good. Coles in full flow is a wonderful thing to hear, and his thoughts on being gay and a believer are refreshing, as is his understanding for those who don’t hold the same views. He explains how he embraced his activism in the 80s but finds the fight too tough these days, and instead works hard within his community to make life better for others. This isn’t a wishy-washy listen but an inspiring one. Highly recommended.

Archive on 4: The Hunger Strikes

This month marks 40 years since Bobby Sands died. The veteran BBC reporter Peter Taylor looks back at Sands’s death and those of nine other hunger strikers’, and assesses their long-term impact on the political process in Northern Ireland. Taylor uses his personal archive of interviews with IRA members and those working for the British government, including Maze prison officers (“If you have to get a prisoner out and he won’t, you put an arm-lock on him or get a smack in the mouth”). He pushes everyone he interviews, no matter which side, and this is a crisp and balanced telling of some of the most appalling events in recent British history.

The New Conspiracist

This show isn’t really going to change your mind, unless you believe in conspiracy theories, and, to be honest, I’m hoping you don’t. Still, this is an entertaining show, hosted by funny man Jolyon Rubinstein and investigative journalist James Ball. Tighter editing would make it excellent, but there’s some good stuff in this first episode of the second series, which tackles one of the biggest conspiracy theories of them all: that the moon landings were faked – by Stanley Kubrick: two mentions in one week! Later episodes will cover novichok poisonings, the Obama birther movement and, naturellement, Elvis. Plus, Adam Curtis will be a guest, which promises to be fun.

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