Ultrafunk / Meat Heat
Released 16 November 2018
Twofer reissuing both albums recorded by studio outfit Ultrafunk, originally released in 1975 and 1977 respectively….LTW’s Ian Canty is hot on the trail of this mystery Funk band which linked a 1952 Olympic Gold Medallist, Barry White, The Great Rock & Roll Swindle and the Rubettes……..
Though never achieving the out and out success it did in the States in the UK, Funk worked its way into the mainstream here by stealth. As well as British-based bands and singers that branched out from their Soul roots into the new sound, Funk became a feature of TV theme tunes, film titles and incidental music. Session folk soon got accustomed to the form, witness Laurie Johnson’s splendid theme to The Professionals for evidence. Even Testcard F occasionally had some seriously Funky sounds accompanying the picture of the girl, chalkboard and somewhat creepy clown. It is from this milieu that the mysterious Ultrafunk emerged and though they never grazed the national charts, their records became fixtures on the burgeoning Disco scene.
As the band never appeared in photographs on their record sleeves and publicity or were even named, some assumed them to be an obscure US band. But the truth laid much closer to home. Ultrafunk were brainchild of Blues & Soul editor and Contempo label boss John Abbey. His idea of the band was a kind of British version of the crack backing outfits Soul labels had in the US, like (most relevantly to Ultrafunk themselves) MFSB on Philadelphia. His first move was to bring in Brixton-born Gerry Shury, who had worked with Maurice Gibb, Barry White and Soul act the Fantastics. By the mid-70s he had settled down to labour on the UK session scene. Later, whilst working on the Ultrafunk project, he also arranged Carl Douglas’s big novelty hit Kung Fu Fighting.
Shury in turn gathered up some top session bods in guitarist Chris Rae, Jon Richardson (later of Glam cash-in band the Rubettes) on drums and Frank McDonald on bass, with Shury himself completing the band on keys. Ultrafunk’s debut, a groovy instrumental (for they primarily were an instrumental band) version of Stevie Wonder’s Living In The City, was the first record on the newly launched Contempo label too. Though not a hit, it made more than enough of an impact for second single Gotham City Boogie and a self-titled debut album to be issued. But perhaps their third 7 incher was the one most fondly remembered, Kung Fu Man.
The Kung Fu Man single deviated from the normal instrumental path that Ultrafunk took and the incredible Freddie Mack AKA Mr Superbad provided the vocals. A childhood friend of boxing legend Floyd Patterson, he was no mean talent in the ring himself, winning an Olympic gold medal in the light heavyweight division. Having turned professional, he at one time was rated third in the world and retired in 1965 after a defeat on points to Jack Bodell. Settling in the UK, he developed interests in the fields of acting and music, forming the Freddie Mack Sound for live dates. Signing to K-Tel Records, he developed his Mr Superbad persona, which led to him singing with Ultrafunk on the aforementioned single. Later on in the 70s he featured in the Disco scene of the Great Rock & Roll Swindle film, talking over the Black Arabs’ melody of Pistols’ numbers.
But back in 1974 he put his Mr Superbad stamp on Kung Fu Man (and yes it was a bit of a cash-in on Kung Fu Fighting, which was riding high in the charts at the time). The influence of the Philly sound on Ultrafunk was clear on this track and most of the accompanying LP, with strings and deep bass lines prominent. Sometimes the bass runs are a little too simplistic though, much more invention was employed by the likes of Bootsy Collins and Billy Bass Nelson. Must have been a bit dull for Frank McDonald at times I reckon. Use me, a slower number is a bit more effective and both Buffalo Soldier (not the Bob Marley song) and Sweet F.A. could quite easily have been Funky fresh film themes. The smart Funky Al and two alternate takes of Kung Fu Man are appended to this disc as bonuses.
It was three years before Ultrafunk returned, at the height of Disco. Despite its profoundly odd sleeve that depicts some sort of macabre rite, Meat Heat is the pick of the two LPs presented here for me. Consisting of a mere five tracks and not having anything quite as catchy as Kung Fu Man (though Gotham City Boogie almost fits the bill, featured on the album in a re-recorded version), nonetheless this is where Ultrafunk truly captured the Funk style and fortunately the bass is far better deployed here too. Their take on Norman Whtifield’s Sunrise (the original featured in the Car Wash film) is right on the money Funk with a great horn section and Gotham City Boogie mutates Neil Hefti’s Batman theme beautifully for getting down purposes.
I Wish has some lovely brass on it too and elsewhere they do rum things to the old Bing Crosby hit Temptation. The album finishes with the title track, another horn-enhanced goodie. Indigo Country, a neat bit of guitar-powered Funk, is the sole bonus track on this disc. Meat Heat again did not sell in huge numbers, but the tracks were well liked in the Discos and nightclubs of the UK. Sadly any hope for further Ultrafunk waxings were cruelly dashed as Shury passed away after a car accident in 1978.
Though perhaps not truly essential to anyone but Funk collectors and crate digging breakbeat freaks, this is certainly an interesting curio. It is also a good listen and more often than not still gets the feet moving too. This collection acts as an example of the far reaching influence of Funk in the 70s and the drift that music would take towards the more commercial Disco sound as the decade wore on. Perhaps Ultrafunk weren’t quite the “real deal”, but their combined talents ensured that they could conjure up jams that were perfect for the discotheque and most wouldn’t be able to tell them from the real thing. Ultrafunk always played and constructed their material with the best intentions and as a result produced a few dancefloor fillers that have stood the test of time.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here