Neil Fallon was unlucky as a boy. His bandmate, Clutch drummer Jean-Paul Gaster, was able to escape after dark to Go-Go concerts in the city but Fallon’s evenings were a little more sedate.
“I did see the Junkyard Band at the 9.30 Club once or twice, and at barbeques,” says Fallon. “But convincing your suburban parents that you wanted to go to downtown DC at 10pm on a Saturday night was always a non-starter for me.”
Still, the intense, hours-long performances from Chuck Brown, Big Tony and Rare Essence created an unbroken groove that Clutch have carried forward to the present day.
This is despite the decline of Go-Go as a regional force – urban development and gentrification left fewer places for larger shows, and the core sound was sampled to the point of simplification by hip-hop producers.
“DC has been gentrified unbelievably,” says the frontman. “There are neighbourhoods I drive through and I’ll see a young mother in her yoga pants with a baby stroller and I’ll have to double-take, thinking, ‘You need to get out of here!’ Then I take a look around and it’s all condos.
“On the one hand that’s great because it’s giving jobs, but at the same time it’s the story that happens in countless cities across the world: what made it cool to begin with gets taken away.”
Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers
Neil: “Go-Go started in the 70s, and the man considered the creator is Chuck Brown. He passed away a couple of years ago. We use Chuck Brown’s Money for our intro every night. We’ve been doing that for at least five years – for so long that the crowd expects it. We covered it, too. The Go-Go concerts would last three or four hours and the bands would never stop playing, because they didn’t want people to leave. They got played on the radio quite a bit when we were teenagers, and high school marching bands would always play Go-Go beats. It was all-pervasive.”
The Junkyard Band
“Probably the best example of a proper Go-Go set would be Junkyard Band – Live at Safari Club. It’s either three or four CDs, because the set is three or four hours long, but it’s only got parts 1, 2, 3 and 4, which are 45 minutes each. You hear the crowd, there’s a lot of call and response, and little cues that developed almost as part of a local tradition – when you hear this riff, you know this is gonna happen. Go-Go is kinda funk and R&B, but with Afro-Cuban beats on top of it. John Paul had a Go-Go metal band which put Go-Go beats on top of metal riffs, which is something Clutch still does.”
“Rare Essence was another huge band, and I think they play every once in a while. They had huge hits. Cat In The Hat was the big one. I never really saw a proper show, but when John Paul was in high school he would go down to them. The best Go-Go records aren’t the studio records, they’re PA tapes, which were traded like currency. ‘Here’s Rare Essence at this club, or Chuck Brown at this club.’ There used to be a place called PA Palace, which I believe is now just a website, and now it’s digital and CDs. It used to be just cassettes.”
“They still play today. Trouble Funk is primarily a guy named Big Tony. Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways, on the DC episode they interview him. There’s a Clutch song named DC Sound Attack, which takes its name from the compilation Washington Go-Go Sound Attack where Trouble Funk appear. We were playing Go-Go beats in John Paul’s basement, and I looked up at that record at the right moment and thought ‘That would be the perfect song title’. Our song is more about Washington DC and geopolitics and warmongering, but it had also the DC Go-Go beats. That seemed like a very happy accident. There’s a line which says, ‘Drop the bomb’. What Trouble Funk would do, their keyboard player would make the classic cartoon sound of a bomb falling. It’s one of those moments that became trademarked by them – and we shamelessly ripped it off!”
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“Another great band from Washington. Go-Go came out of primarily southeast Washington DC, in Anacostia and Prince George’s County, Maryland, which is just on the other side of the river. When people think of Washington DC they think of these white marble displays of power. It’s very polished, but all you have to do is walk a couple of blocks in one direction to realize that there are people living in dire conditions, and these are people which have lived there for generations and generations. Most of the world’s best music comes from places with very difficult circumstances, and Go-Go still exists in DC’s roughest neighbourhoods.”
“The one time Go-Go got out of DC with a national hit was with EU and Da Butt. It had an associated dance, and I think Salt-N-Pepa did a crossover with them in 1988. A lot of hip-hop acts around that time started sampling Go-Go beats, but it was never labeled as such. It was just a rhythm that some kid in Seattle might hear without realizing that it was a regionally-specific thing. You still hear Go-Go on the streets. Young kids with plastic five-gallon drums, or maybe a drum kit. And for whatever reason it only really lives in Washington, DC – you don’t really hear it in Richmond, or Philadelphia – which are only 90 miles north and south.”
Psychic Warfare by Clutch is out now.