Herbie Hancock’s electronic experiments for Columbia are quintessentially 80s, every bit as much as "hair bands" like Poison and Winger. But Hancock’s vision, and that of his co-producer Bill Laswell, has stood the test of time in a way that 80s rock most certainly has not. Granted, most of the music on Future Shock, Sound System,
and Perfect Machine
now sounds hopelessly dated to our digital-age ears — funny how that always happens to yesterday’s high-tech breakthrough. However, if you look at today’s music scene, particularly the creative stew of turntables, beats, sampling, and other forms of high-tech collage collectively known as electronica, Hancock and Laswell’s synthesis of old-school hip-hop and spacey, Eno/Byrne-variety rock comes out looking incredibly prescient. Popular music of the 90s and beyond has taken Herbie’s road, not Poison’s.
At the time, these records represented an ultra-radical departure for Hancock, who arguably remains the most influential acoustic jazz pianist of his generation. That the move caused such dismay in the jazz world is hardly surprising — often repetitive and dull, the albums can be interpreted as a wholesale rejection of jazz aesthetics. But just as Hancock is now searching, with less success, for the "New Standard," here he was searching for the new fusion. While his deliberately robotic new sound didn’t make much use of his vast harmonic knowledge and unparalleled improvisational skills, it established him as a pop innovator.
"Rockit," the big hit song from Future Shock,
appears a second time on the reissue as a bonus remix, spliced with references from other tracks on the album as well as the famous riff from "Chameleon." The remainder of the record is pretty forgettable, but there are nice piano chords anchoring "TFS" and even some tasty single-note lines on "Autodrive." Sound System
begins with "Hardrock," a near-shameless attempt at another "Rockit." But on the whole, this second album has more to recommend it: a screaming guitar solo by Henry Kaiser on "Metal Beat" (which also appears as a bonus remix); Wayne Shorter playing lyricon on the hip world music track "Karabali"; and subtle, exotic sounds from Foday Musa Suso’s kora on "Junku." Perfect Machine
is distinguished by the presence of bassist Bootsy Collins and vocalist Sugarfoot, and the memorable dance tracks "Vibe Alive" and "Beat Wise." The tripped-out treatment of "Maiden Voyage," one of Herbie’s classic jazz compositions, is also good for a few kicks. And the mournful ballad "Chemical Residue," the only track out of all three albums written solely by Hancock, offers a brief glimpse into deeper harmonic territory.
Some maintain that electronic music has elbowed aside live musicians and ushered in an era of soulless, manufactured music. The argument may hold water in some cases, but the historical move from Lita Ford and Quiet Riot to Moby and the Chemical Brothers, for instance, hardly represents a decline. Resistance to electronic music is often little more than a prejudice. Viewed in the entire context of 80s pop, Herbie Hancock’s machine-dominated records pulse with a vibrancy and creativity wholly lacking in the work of many a flesh-and-blood rock-n-roll band.