Thursday, October 15, 2015

Miami Sound Machine: Not Actually A Machine, But Led Zeppelin Wasn't An Actual Zeppelin

Fifty years hence, when the young village children gather ceremoniously in the makeshift square carved out of an abandoned warehouse, after the civilized world has morphed into a post-industrial wasteland, and the youth begin to inquire as to the ways of their forefathers, they will drag me to the square. They will drag me to the center of the square and ask, "Oh great village elder! Please tell us what life was like in your time! What powerful message can you pass on to the last remaining children in your lineage? What words of wisdom from the olden days do you wish to share?" And I will take a deep breath, and with my creaky, withered lungs, I will utter these words:

"Come on shake your body baby do that conga I know you can't control yourself any longa feel the rhythm of the music getting stronga don't you fight it till you try to do that conga beat!"

It's become a bit of a running gag that every famous '80s artist I cover on the blog turns out to have had a long, convoluted, obscure career before becoming "famous overnight," but the Miami Sound Machine may have taken things a bit too far: by the time they'd released their first hit album, 1985's Primitive Love, they'd already recorded eight prior albums. Of course, one of the reasons those albums all flopped on the charts probably had something to do with the fact that the first seven of them weren't in English. Hey, Spanish might work on restaurant menus, but it wasn't going to cut it on MTV. Besides, only the Germans knew how to have non-English language MTV hits. And so, albums such as Otra Vez and A Toda Maquina have been forgotten in the lime juice of time, not even being blessed with a CD release.

Nope, Gloria and the boys were barely even a pimple on the acne-covered face of '80s pop until "Dr. Beat," which only made the dance charts in the US but became a Top 10 hit in the UK and most of Europe. As for the video, well, I figured Miami hospitals were poorly funded in the '80s, but I didn't realize they'd degenerated quite this far. This is just a guess, but any medical professional going by the name of "Dr. Beat" probably has very suspect credentials. Again, I'm no expert, but a saw, hammer, scissors, and power drill hardly seem like appropriate surgical tools.

It turns out that the Miami Sound Machine (consequently not the name of a very sweaty Edison invention) discovered an untapped niche in the musical landscape: latin jazz ... that was in English! All the pleasure of those hot Havana grooves, without the hassle of a pesky foreign language. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ... "Conga."

Miami Sound Machine's other breakthrough was to combine percolating salsa percussion and sparkling piano with tacky '80s drum production and hideous synthesizer squiggles. But let's be honest here: in the world of 1986 Top 40 radio, it didn't take much to stand out. Sure, all Miami Sound Machine did was add some contemporary touches to a genre that already existed. But next to Survivor and Atlantic Starr ... that was enough! They sounded so ... Latin. Honestly, after downloading Primitive Love, I almost went ahead and deleted my Tito Puente anthology, but decided to hang onto it for sentimental reasons. Also, extra points for the way Gloria Estefan combines the last syllable of "conga" with the "I" which begins the next line, so that she technically sings "Come on shake your body baby do that cong(a/I) know you can't control yourself any longer." It's like a trans-sexual vowel sound.

The "Conga" video finds our beloved Dade County Sonic Device as unexpected guests at a prestigious Latin American ambassador's dinner held at the "Copacabana of Miami," or so we're being led to presume. Initially, when asked to follow a classical pianist, the band members have their doubts, but it turns out their spicy brew is just what the occasion called for (but how did they set up their equipment so quickly?). Even the ambassador ultimately succumbs to the charms of a leggy showgirl, while still managing to hang on to his monocle.