White Label Wednesday: The Future Sound of London, “Papua New Guinea”

Written by Music, White Label

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Imagine my surprise when I visited my then-girlfriend – anyone who read my Valentine’s Day piece knows her well – over Christmas break in 1992, and in her car was the soundtrack for Cool World. Her taste in music…well, let’s put it this way: she needed lots and lots of guidance. Before we met, her CD collection consisted of Milli Vanilli and Debbie Gibson. After we broke up, she dedicated her musical life to country. Basically, she was a chameleon with music, adapting to her surroundings. But while she was with me, she liked what I liked, or to a point, anyway. Still, if the idea of her buying a soundtrack that featured Ministry, the Cult, a pre-Play Moby and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult was amusing to me then, it’s downright hilarious now. But buy it she did…and steal it I did. I assure you, she doesn’t miss it.

My original interest in the soundtrack was due to the title track from David Bowie – reunited with Nile Rodgers, and it feels so good – the instrumental track from the Thompson Twins, and “Disappointed,” the third collaboration between Electronic and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant. Then I heard “Papua New Guinea,” and tossed the other three songs aside. There was something in the octave-jumping keyboard riff combined with the ethereal vocal (more on that later), minimalist bass line and staccato synth line, that simply mesmerized me. The song was an Indian guy playing a punji, and I was the cobra. That’s a fitting analogy, considering that my then-girlfriend and I got along in the same way a cobra gets along with a mongoose.

Of course, I think there was another reason why I found the song so appealing: it sounded like sex. Hot, steamy, wildly passionate sex. I’ve never seen the movie that shares the soundtrack’s name– though the Wiki page dedicated to it is loaded with juicy stories – but I always assumed that this song appeared in a sex scene. Which could have been all kinds of kinky, given that Kim Basinger played a “doodle” (read: all your impure thoughts about Jessica Rabbit come screaming to life), but I’m sure that whatever I came up with in my head is far more erotic than anything that wound up on the screen.

Three years later, I played the song for a Chicago co-worker of mine, and she said, “They’re stealing from Dead Can Dance.” I was stunned. My CD single gave no sample credits, and there was no internet to reference that sort of thing, so I was in the dark. But sure enough, she lent me her copy of Dead Can Dance’s Within the Realm of a Dying Sun, and as my pop-wired brain struggled through listening to this obtuse record, Lisa Gerrard’s haunting vocal eventually revealed itself on “Dawn of the Iconoclast.” My first thought was, “Wow, how did FSOL not have to pay for that?” This was 1992, and the sampling laws were definitely in place (ask De La Soul, Biz Markie, Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer). And holy shit: looking this up, I just realized that the bass line and drum track owe one heavy-ass debt to Meat Beat Manifesto’s “Radio Babylon.” Do you think that DCD and MBM were pissed when FSOL took their ideas and made them into something better? They had to be, right?

The Future Sound of London would go on to become one of the most versatile and admired electronic groups of the ‘90s. They followed “Papua New Guinea” with a double album that owed more to Tangerine Dream than 808 State. Two years later, they made the seminal Dead Cities, which Rolling Stone described as the sound of deep shit at high tide. That may not sound like a compliment, but it was. The amazing thing about FSOL’s music is how well it’s held up. The electronic music of the early ‘90s is now a boneyard of ill-conceived techno experiments (“James Brown Is Dead,” “Cotton Eye Joe,” “Sesame’s Treat”), but “Papua New Guinea” sounds as beautiful – and sexy – as it did 16 years ago.

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The Future Sound of London – Papua New Guinea (Original 12” Mix)
Dead Can Dance – Dawn of the Iconoclast