Defunkt: Defunkt/Thermonuclear Sweat (Hannibal/Ryko)


DefunktThis two-CD reissue reminds me that back in the early ’80s, Defunkt was one of my favorite bands. I saw it play many times, most memorably a night at Danceteria when leader/singer/trombonist Joe Bowie’s older brother, trumpeter Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, sat in (brother Byron was often on sax as well, in person and on record). It was an era when there was much cross-pollination between styles, when the fringes of art music and underground pop intersected and all sorts of hybrids were conceived. Defunkt mixed jazz (ranging from jagged avant-garde to edgy bebop), a particularly sharp and sweaty funk groove, the alienated, disconnected lyrics of immigrant Janos Gat, and a punk attitude to make some of the most hard-hitting, abrasive dance music this side of the Contortions (in which some of the members of Defunkt had served time). It has the tense, frenetic energy I associate with the best New York City music of the era.

The self-titled debut album from 1980 leads with a powerful one-two-three flurry of sonic and lyric punches. When Bowie sings “Make Them Dance,” they are dancing “to the beat of the dance of death,” with rampant consumerism, jealousy, and resentment of privilege stirred in the mix. The rhythms are no normal funk groove, instead stuffed so tightly with polyrhythms that it seems the song might explode at any moment – and some “outside” blowing by the horns in the bridge certainly is an explosion. Then comes “Strangling Me with Your Love,” one of the most bitter, claustrophobic dissections of love (and what kind of love is this, exactly, that contains such mad desperation?) ever penned, with lines such as “you look at me as if you had no eyes/and when you touch me, I have no skin/I made love to a photocopy/and left your room in perfect order/by leaning out of my window/and traveling by ambulance.” Most brilliant is “In the Good Times,” an acerbic parody of the Chic disco hit “Good Times,” wherein the good times come from shooting up, with the process (ghetto-style: taking water from a fire hydrant, using cotton from a cigarette filter, and tying up with a shoelace) described with chilling clinical precision while the music boils in danceable violence.

The intensity lets up slightly after that trifecta – five more songs at that high-strung level would be more than most people could bear. But even “Blues,” with a fun, retro sonic surface, is about confusion. The long vocals-only intro to the title track/theme song is a joyous marvel, but the lyrics that follow once the instruments come in describe a situation of rejection held in abeyance to allow for psychic torture. In “Thermonuclear Sweat” (which is on the debut, not the album of that title), we are told, “dance to the beat or be beaten.” Here, not in the music but in the lyrics’ contrast of desperate celebration in the face of soul-scourging inhumanity, is the punk heart of the songs found. The instrumental “Melvin’s Tune” (by bassist Melvin Gibbs) comes as a psychic relief, and the closing “We All Dance Together,” allows for several interpretations but ultimately leaves one wondering: If we’re all connected, what are we doing to each other – and can we collectively survive it?

The bonus tracks are just as killer. First, a famous (in a small but dedicated circle) 12”, “Razor’s Edge” (no description needed – everything in the song fits the implications of the title) and “Strangling Me with Your Love Revisited” (not, contrary to the track listing, “live” – the credits on this reissue are sloppy and incomplete) with Lester joining for the only time on record. There’s more room to stretch out, more room for contrasts, and the revisited song is even funkier, though more relaxed and less hard-hitting – more of a musical experience, less of a philosophical attack. Lo-fi concert versions of “Defunkt” and “In the Good Times” from 1983 follow, redundant but plenty hot and welcome as bonuses.

The 1982 follow-up, Thermonuclear Sweat, suffers because Gat provides lyrics for only one song, “Believing in Love,” another bitter indictment that ended the original LP on a sour if intense note. But the cynicism keeps on coming, as is clear from the first track, “Illusion,” although there’s a ray of hope in “I Tried to Live Alone” (“but I couldn’t do it / I had to have someone”). Of course, when the title of “Ooh Baby”is also the complete lyric, and “Avoid the Funk” is half of that song’s lyrics (“but it’s gonna git you anyway” completes it), you know it’s about more than words. And musically the band was, if anything, even better by ’82, with guitarist Vernon Reid (later of Living Colour) on most tracks and especially fellow six-stringer Kelvyn Bell given plenty of room to wail. Kim Clarke replaces Melvin Gibbs as the electric bassist and pops more ferociously but also brings a jazz density to some tracks. Though the groove (with drummer Kenny Martin always amazing) is slightly more relaxed, at least in comparison to the almost painful (in a good way!) tautness of the debut though certainly still more complex than most funk, the arrangements are even busier at times, with every sonic space crammed full. For breathers, there are two jazz covers, “Cocktail Hour (Blue Bossa)” (by Kenny Dorham, Kenny Burrell, and “L. Jackstein,” whoever that is) and “Big Bird (Au Private)” (Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave”). Another cover, of the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” is no relief though, so ferocious – and with additional caustic lyrics – that Defunkt nearly makes it their own new song.

The supposed bonus on CD 2, listed as a live version of “Big Bird,” certainly isn’t from a concert and sounds exactly like the album version (perhaps a pressing mistake?). It’s the one more bit of sloppiness on a release that can’t even get all the musician credits in the booklet. But compared to how wonderful it is to have these classics available on CD (I think Thermonuclear Sweat is on CD for the first time!), such problems are minor inconveniences in comparison. Plenty of English music of a similar mindset is being revived nowadays; it’s great to be giving attention to this unique group as well. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem magazine and, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is way too compulsive about his music collection, which may explain why at somewhere over twenty thousand CDs (and plenty of vinyl) it’s a bigger selection than many stores offer.

A few yeas before Lester passed away, he drove me around Manhattan and played me some hip-hop jazz tracks he was planning on releasing. It was some heady stuff to say the least, but alas his label Columbia never did anything with the tracks. I'd love to hear them today.

As far as brother Joe goes: Defunkt was my favorite live band when I first moved to the city. I can remember being amazed at the musicianship and chops displayed by the band. I spent many a night at Hurrah's, Peppermint Lounge or Dancetaria to catch them or Konk. And a few times I believe they shared the same bill.


Yeah, Defunkt was/is absolutely one of my favorite Live bands. Saw them 2 or 3 times in the early 90th at the Quasimodo in Berlin where they were playing two nights on block. Totally rocks. I can remember that they were playing more than 3 hours. Don't know if they still making tours. Miss them live. Thermo nuclear is one of the best I know.

Peace, Joerg