Defunkt: Thermonuclear Sweat (1982)

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Skyscrapers of groove.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: The downtown scene of New York City circa 1980 was the nexus of punk, jazz and dance music yet few artists attempted to compile all three styles into one mega-style, citing reasons such as “technically impossible” and “virtually unlistenable”. Enter trombonist Joseph Bowie, who developed the Voltron-like powers to merge these genres into one sound with his group Defunkt, who released their debut album the same year. A hit with musicians and a miss with everybody else they returned in 1982 with a tighter yet schizoid follow-up, the pummeling Thermonuclear Sweat.

Named after a song from their first album Thermonuclear Sweat stacks fast and furious funk grooves on top of one another – horns colliding with guitars crushed by percussion – until every sonic cavity is bursting with sound, and then Joseph Bowie sings on top of that. If the orchestral funk of Earth Wind & Fire walks with military precision Defunkt moves like a prison break: quick and focused but chaotic and angry.

“Avoid the Funk” ignores its own advice, slapping horns upside their heads with mercilessly heavy low end. Ever the versatile band they can stampede “Ooh Baby” into a headlong fury of melting guitar harshness, courtesy of a pre-Living Colour Vernon Reid, yet also float into the straight jazz (kinda) of “Big Bird (Au Private)”.

Bowie sings like a football coach yelling plays, which makes the revealing “I Tried to Live Alone” much more engagingly paranoid, and their revved-up fluttery cover of the O’Jays “For the Love Of Money” increasingly desperate.

THE FALLOUT: Not only did Thermonuclear Sweat not gain Defunkt a larger audience but it divided their fans over the inclusion of more traditional jazz elements. Defunkt soon left their label.

Thermonuclear Sweat is available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

There once was a band from New York City who combined serrated punk guitars with high-speed polyrhythmic funk beats and made a breakthrough dance record in the early ’80s. That album was Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. Defunkt, ironically still together after 25 years, has yet to receive their due for pioneering the same sound years before.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Eugene McDaniels reaches the apocalypse.

7 thoughts on “Defunkt: Thermonuclear Sweat (1982)”

  1. Defunkt may still be together in the sense that Joseph Bowie is still fronting a band by that name, but AFAIK none of the other principals from back in the day are still involved.

  2. Your dates are out by two years, Defunkt’s debut album ‘Defunkt’ was released in 1980 and ‘Thermonucler Sweat’ in 1982 and I’m sure where you got “…it divided their fans over the inclusion of more traditional jazz elements.” It just wasn’t the case at all.

  3. In 1982, Defunkt was touring Europe and the States supporting Thermonuclear Sweat (in the U.S. we opened shows for The Clash, Prince, Morris Day and The Time, Steel Pulse, and Talking Heads.) In the fall of '82, personal issues put the band on hiatus for 7 months, followed by a Summer European tour in '83, well supported by the label. The reason for the Hannibal deal ending was a more extended hiatus from fall '83 to early '85, after which the band began touring again without a label until a deal was reached with Antilles/Island in '87.
    In my (biased) opinion the music was definitely ready for large audiences, (the Chili Peppers credited Defunkt as an influence). It was the unfortunate (but necessary) extended breaks that slowed the band down.

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