Backtracking 1983: Come Away with ESG and Madonna

Earlier this year, just in time for the 40th anniversary of the seminal ESG album Come Away With Me, music journalist Cheri Percy published the 172nd book in the sprawling just-turned-20-year-old 33 1/3 book series published by Bloomsbury. The album is an absolute unpolished gem from the early 1980s that seamlessly blends post-punk, funk, and dance music into a captivating and groove-filled experience.
This largely unknown yet highly influential album, released by the South Bronx-based group that includes Renee Scroggins and her sisters Valerie, Renee, and Deborah, showcases their unique and innovative approach to music and continues to leave an indelible mark on the evolution and future of various genres.
In 1981, ESG made a splash when they were one of the earliest signings of Factory Records with Martin Hannett producing. Their career was hobbled by a series of bad contracts and poorly run labels with nothing but a few EPs and singles to show for all of their hard work. The band's knack for creating compelling grooves is particularly showcased in early tracks like "You're No Good" and "Moody," where their minimalist approach allows each instrument to shine in its simplicity.
By 1983, they had recorded enough material to release their first full-length album and right from the opening track, "Come Away," it becomes evident that ESG (Emerald, Sapphire & Gold, duh) possesses a distinct sound and unique style. The sparse yet infectious drumming (which has been heavily sampled in the decades since), punctuated by handclaps and cowbells, sets the foundation for the album's rhythmic backbone. But what truly sets Come Away with Me apart is ESG's ability to infuse its music with an undeniable sense of fun and boundless energy. The exuberant vocal chants, layered over the vibrant instrumentation, make songs like "Dance" and "Parking Lot Blues" irresistibly danceable. The band's playful use of unconventional instruments, such as toy keyboards and makeshift percussion, adds an endearing quirkiness to the overall sound.
ESG's lyrical content is often shallow but their simplicity and directness perfectly complement the music. Songs like "UFO" and "The Beat" are built around repetitive, catchy phrases that further enhance the album's hypnotic quality. The band's ability to create a captivating atmosphere through exuberant rhythms and shout-along chants sets the template for their deceptively simple-sounding funk.
As Come Away with Me progresses, it becomes apparent that ESG's influence reaches far beyond the confines of the 1980s music scene. Their innovative approach to blending genres and experimenting with sound laid the groundwork for the development of hip-hop, dance-punk, and other contemporary styles. This album serves as a time capsule, capturing the essence of an era while also transcending it through its timeless appeal.
Despite its relatively short runtime, Come Away with Me is an album that demands repeated listens, rewarding listeners each and every time. Each track has its own distinct personality, yet they seamlessly flow together to create a cohesive and engaging experience. ESG's ability to convey a contagious sense of joy and liberation through their music is a testament to their talent and vision. Whether you're a fan of dance music, or punk, or simply enjoy exploring the roots of contemporary genres, Come Away With Me is a must-listen that will leave you craving for more of ESG's captivating sound. I wish I had heard this album in 1983 as I could have enjoyed it for 15-20 years longer than I already have.
There are a few excellent in-depth articles and write-ups regarding the making of the album Madonna but no one's published a book in the 33 1/3 series about it. Yet. Madonna's self-titled debut album, released in July 1983, inauspiciously marked the beginning of an iconic career that would continue to shape pop music and popular culture for decades to come. Madonna introduced the world to a young and ambitious artist, showcasing her unique blend of catchy pop hooks, infectious dance beats, and more than a hint of rebellious attitude.
From the shimmering opening track, "Lucky Star," it becomes clear that Madonna and her musical collaborators are a force to be reckoned with. The pulsating synths and irresistible groove instantly captivate the listener, as the album effortlessly moves from one attention-grabbing track to another, with standout songs like "Borderline," "Burning Up," and "Holiday" displaying Madonna's innate ability to create memorable pop anthems.
What sets Madonna apart on her debut album is her cooly confident and unabashed approach to her sexuality and individuality. Tracks like "Physical Attraction" and "Everybody" exude an unapologetic sensuality that challenged societal norms of the time. Madonna's sultry vocals and provocative lyrics push boundaries, encouraging listeners to embrace their desires and celebrate their freedom.
In addition to the album's catchy pop sensibilities, Madonna also incorporates elements of disco and dance music, which she soaked up as a veteran clubgoer herself. The pulsating bass lines, grooving rhythms, and glossy production give the album a perpetual energy that makes it impossible to sit still.
Lyrically, the album’s songs touch on love, desire, and empowerment, with Madonna's teasingly playful and charismatic delivery infusing each track with an irresistibly appealing charm.
As a debut album, Madonna showcases the raw talent and potential that would eventually propel her to superstardom. It stands as a testament to her ability to connect with audiences on a visceral level, tapping into their shared desires and aspirations. The album, despite several weaknesses, is a solid foundation upon which Madonna would build her empire.
The influence of this album can still be felt across the pop landscape today, as countless artists have drawn inspiration from Madonna's bold and unapologetic approach. It is a testament to her star power and ability, showcasing her knack for crafting infectious pop anthems, infusing them with a sense of rebellion and sensuality. While it may not be her most groundbreaking or artistically complex work, Madonna remains an important milestone in her illustrious career and a must-listen for fans of pop music.

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