Supernature, Cerrone’s third album, has opened with the unlikely disco fable of the genetically-altered creatures who take their revenge on their former masters. Over 10 pounderingly Moroder-ish minutes, the mutants have risen up from the depths, trampled through the night and dispatched humanity to the doom of extinction.
That’s when the title track blends into the post-apocalyptic percussion breakdown of Sweet Drums, as Cerrone is left to batter away at his multi-coloured Ludwig Vistalite drumkit all by himself, with nothing to accompany him but the sound of the winds whipping across the deserted planet.
The final five minutes of the continuously-mixed side one drop the pace from a dancefloor-friendly 123 to a surprising 81bpm for In The Smoke. The driving disco kick drum is displaced by a heartbeat figure, as if one of the now triumphant hybrid creatures, finally done with extracting eco-vengeance, is quietly contemplating what is left of the planet it has taken back. ‘Darkness all around and nobody makes a sound.’
In The Smoke uses the same musical material as Supernature, but it’s re-cast into some sort of melancholy memory of a dance: the dotted rhythms of the upper keyboard arpeggios are accompanied by plangently sustaining guitar licks and electronic wails, while the key component of the original verse melody is transposed into anguished, keening synth figures. Halfway through, the smoke seems to clear for 16 bars of brighter beauty, with the hybrid consciousness perhaps reflecting on ideas in the final verse of the title track: ‘Maybe nature has a plan to control the ways of man/He must start from scratch again, many battles he must win/Till he earns his place on earth, like the other creatures do.’ And then the darkness drops again.
All the quoted lyrics, by the way, are by future new wave vocalist Lene Lovich (whose genuine concern for non-human creatures led her to conclude her 1980s US tours with benefit concerts for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). But that’s not Lene at the mic, and you won’t find out who it is by looking on the album sleeve because that wasn’t the Cerrone way: according to former collaborator Alain Wisniak, who co-wrote Supernature and helped engineer the LP, the maestro thanked him for his contributions by offering him future work on condition that he accepted it would be uncredited (he didn’t). So far as I can work out, the lead vocal is by former session singer Kay Garner, who worked with Elton John, Dusty Springfield and Mark Almond, as well as Cerrone collaborators Don Ray and Alec R Costandinos, in a 40-year career brought to an end by cancer in 2007. (Her online bio claims it, and Wisniak’s credits for an LP he recorded at the same time as Supernature with the same set of musicians he used on Cerrone productions list Kay as the vocalist).
Listening to this brilliantly cinematic postlude now, I can’t believe I originally overlooked it when I bought a second-hand copy of the US edition of the album while on holiday in San Francisco in 1997 (from an excellent shop in the Castro called Streetlight Records, which I’m very glad to see is still in business online as well as in three real-world locations).
Although, to be truthful, I do know why I disregarded it until I started digitising everything: it simply seemed too slow to play in a disco set. Well, perhaps, and perhaps not: after all, legend has it that Larry Levan cleared the floor of the Paradise Garage the first few times he played Taana Gardner’s 98bpm Heartbeat until his crowd finally got what was going on with that slinky slow-burner.
Flip over the original vinyl and something peculiar happens: the music has kissed its environmental troubles goodbye, the bongos begin chirruping and we’re off into an entirely upbeat three-part sequence kicked off by Give Me Love and finished by Love Is The Answer. And you thought this was some sort of concept album …
The transition might seem jarring until you take another look at that cover image. Hunched in front of a gurney in an operating theatre, with what seems to be the flayed remains of a dead child behind him, Cerrone himself deadpans into the camera as a trio of animal-human hybrids gather at his feet. Fair enough.
But while the creatures are dressed in white lab coats as if they have emerged from the depths to take over the surgery, the disco pioneer himself eschews hospital garb for the kind of outfit that might have been favoured by any self-regarding player in the European discotheques of the era: bouffant hair, flared jeans and black shirt unbuttoned to the navel, naturellement. (Environmental doom might be on the way, but that’s no reason to let go of your sense of style.)
And as with the cover image, so with the official video for the single version of the title track, where sequences involving animal-human hybrids looking like refugees from Don Taylor’s The Island Of Dr Moreau (released the same year) are intercut with racier imagery borrowing from the gatefold image of the European editions of the LP, in which naked humanimals attempt to haul the producer (now dressed in white) into the foliage of what looks like a more fevered, less glamorous version of the cover image from Roxy Music’s Country Life (1974). Of course, all this was all too racy for the North American market, where Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion issued the LP in a single sleeve with no trace of nudity, having similarly bowdlerised the iconography of his first two albums, Love In C Minor and Cerrone’s Paradise. If you check out the different versions of the latter on Discogs – the original cover is here and the US version is here – you might even applaud the corporate puritans for taking a stand against such exploitative aesthetics.
So is Supernature half a concept album with a set of conventional disco appendices tacked on? Or does the juxtaposition of the apocalypse and the dancefloor allow us to make our own sense of the gap between them? I’d say that what we do with the contradiction between the worlds of side one and side two, how we segue between environmental awareness and hedonistic abandon and back again, is up to us. At any rate, I think we could do worse than contemplate the last line of the title track: ‘Will there be a happy end? Now that all depends on you.’