One of the most sampled acts ever, a largely unacknowledged influence on a wide sweep of subsequent rhythmically inclined artists, the band who played the opening night at the Hacienda (with Bernard Manning!) and the closing party of New York’s legendary Paradise Garage… ESG are more looked on with awe by disco and punk-funk heads and historians, not to mention producers seeking samples, then heard. While there’s been compilations of the four Scroggins sisters’ work before, this two disc set – disc 1 contains the whole of the previous and most notable anthology, 2000′s South Bronx Story - is trailed as featuring everything that made them what they are, through four albums, the last in 2006. Inevitably, then, it’s nowhere near chronological order. Why do compilers of career retrospectives increasingly do this? If you’re that interested in a band’s legacy that you’re going to invest in something like this you’d want to get some idea of their development over time, not just have everything in random order. And it turns out it’s not exhaustive either, not including ‘The Beat’ despite it appearing on both their breakthrough EP and debut album.
Enough carping. The ESG blueprint, a bridge between cooler than thou New York state no wave and the nascent disco funk nights, is fairly simple but incredibly effective, not to mention infectious. It’s all about the space. Tight drums that work only to their own pacing pin down the rhythmic thrust, deeply mixed, pared down basslines string it along, the odd scratchy guitar joins in, while only where necessary Renee Scroggins deploys an offhand vocal style. Occasionally repetitive, sometimes not properly lyricised at all in the vocals-as-another-instrument sense, she seems at the same time girlish and gritty, willing to put up a gang fight. Think Mary Weiss of The Shangri-Las, who were also from New York, but if she’d grown up in a housing project, as the family did, and laid off the ‘Leader Of The Pack’ melodrama in favour of straight talking strength (see ‘Erase You’) and advocacy of the joys of dancing.
‘UFO’ is the song you’ll recognise most from samples alone but in its original form sounds completely of itself, an instrumental wherein sci-fi guitar clangs front and centre ahead of a strident bass and manually powered breakbeat the JBs would be proud of. Similarly ‘Dance’ was briefly used on a car advert a few years ago, but in its whole four minutes deploys a bassline that mostly gets by on one note, an unstoppable polyrhythmic groove heavy on clattering hi-hats, and whoops where most people prefer choruses. ‘You’re No Good’, like ‘UFO’ produced by Factory Records’ in-house production genius Martin Hannett, takes a languid beat and mocking lyric and sticks everything through light reverb for an almost girl group from Mars-esque effect. The insistent guitar tones of ‘Chistelle’ (named after drummer Valerie’s new daughter, who on their last live rounds was the band’s guitarist alongside a niece and three of the original siblings) sound like Public Image Ltd filtered through a 1982 Brooklyn street party. And so it continues with barely a quality let-up right through to 2006, from when come the Meters-like ‘Keep On Moving’ which is strong enough to survive its fretless bass undertow without sounding dated, and ‘Insane (Tambourine Mix)’, a strutting machine-like analogue disco made up of nothing but straight talking and percussion.
As much as it swings, it’s not a perfect collection. The second disc is essentially the best of the rest (although ‘Like This’ seems to be trying to reconfigure acid house through entirely unprogrammed means), rhythms and basslines occasionally seem to crop up more than once, ‘Hold Me Right’ proves ESG could never make a convincing swingbeat outfit, and with four albums and three EPs to choose from the selection of a number of 12″ mixes and alternate versions seems to be for completists and curiosity alone. But as a whole, by and large, it struts, coasts and gets down like few can or have. In here lies not just an endless supply of samples – this the band that pointedly titled a 1992 EP ‘Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills’ – ora sound that proved influential on a welter of bands but a youthful, exuberant sound gave plenty of its own as much as it took a core sound from others, a compacted, lightly industrialised dynamic space disco post-punk-funk of the block parties free from synths or overt electronics. You’ll hear all that from the Factory quango of rhythm, as much A Certain Ratio as New Order, through to the avant-disco floor fillers of today, your LCDs and !!!s, and less directly but just as arguable a line stretching through the roots of hip-hop, post-punk, art-rock and future funk. Beyond the second hand importance of influence, these 32 slices of untutored funk reek of a communal joy, something future-mindedly singular with which ESG defined themselves from the off, let alone plenty of others.