C: Cool as Ice/Twice as Nice by 52nd Street – Factory Benelux, 1983.
52nd Street were a Jazz-Funk group formed in Manchester in 1980. They started off life gigging on the local circuit and quickly garnered support from Manchester based DJs such as Mike Shaft on Piccadilly Radio and Richard Searling, who also worked in A&R for RCA records and who had been partly responsible for uncovering Joy Division, in their pre Factory Records days when they were still known as Warsaw. From early on 52nd Street were in demand: Searling put them into a studio to produce a demo for RCA, while, at the same time, they were also being pursued by Warner Bros A&R, who put the band into another studio to record a demo for them.
At the time, 52nd Street were still without a manager and were under increasing pressure to sign for either RCA or Warner. In typically Mancunian fashion, the band decided to swerve the attentions of the big labels and instead got in touch with Rob Gretton, co-owner of Factory Records and manager of Joy Division. After seeing the band play live, Gretton convinced his partner at Factory – Tony Wilson – to take a punt, and the label signed 52nd Street, releasing their first single – the boogie pop track ‘Look Into My Eyes’ in 1982. The track was a commercial flop, and, soon after, the band started altering their sound towards a harder, more electronic sound.
This coincided with Factory Records label mates, New Order, becoming increasingly influenced by the proto house and garage sounds coming out of New York. Gretton spied an opportunity and put 52nd Street into the studio with New Order’s Bernard Sumner, along with a raft of cutting edge drum machines, sequencers and synthesizers. The sessions that Sumner oversaw brought about the track ‘Cool as Ice’. When Gretton heard the demo, he put it forward for the next single on Factory offshoot label Factory Benelux and the track was released as a white label in February 1983, getting radio play from John Peel among others. It eventually got a full release in the US on A&M records, and broke into the top 20 of the Billboard Dance chart.
The track is a relentless, driving, beast of a tune. A chaotic, shifting synth arp rubs up against a dirty, lolloping synth bass and a crisp, effected drum machine replete with backwards reverb and clattering percussive hits. The bass line rolls and rolls, with the slightly off key vocals of singer Beverly McDonald juxtaposed against all the industrial noise. The track is way ahead of it’s time from the get go, but the moment it becomes a stand out futuristic masterpiece is when the synth bass is mirrored by a huge acid – house-like line, that comes in around half way through and launches the tune into a different world of toughness. That’s an acid line in 1983. The original version is great, but the instrumental dub on the flip (called ‘Twice as Nice’) is the best mix – vocal snatches echo in and out, Mike Pickering’s sax line moving in from the background for the occasional dubbed out flourish. Jellybean Benitez later took the track further out there with his own re-work, emphasising the aggression and insistent repetition of the tune.
The sound of ‘Cool as Ice’ is a perfect hybrid: The swagger and futurism of 80s New York paired with the dark, laconically unhinged psyche of Manchester. Cool as Ice is still largely slept on, but it’s influence on electronic music can be heard seeping through in everything from the dark shades of modern garage to the recent resurgence of the acid sound.
Next week: D as in Doughnut.
By Joe Evans
Twice as Nice (Dub) by 52nd Street – Factory Benelux, 1983.