Renee Scroggins of South Bronx avant-funkers ESG on how they created ‘UFO’, their much-sampled track of 1980, as “something fun to dance to”
“I met Tony Wilson of Factory Records in a club called Hurrah in New York when we were the opening act for A Certain Ratio. It was in Manhattan, somewhere around 62nd Street. We’d played there several times as headliners. To be honest, I don’t remember the names of the other bands on the bill that particular night because this was such a pivotal point in our lives.
“I’d never heard of Factory or A Certain Ratio at the time but, after hearing their soundcheck, I thought ACR were pretty cool. I’d asked Ed Bahlman of 99 Records several times to put out an ESG single, but it wasn’t until Tony Wilson showed an interest that Ed finally wanted to do it. When Tony asked me, “Did you want to make a record?”, I thought he was joking around, but I said, “Sure!”. That was a Wednesday and we were in the studio on Saturday. I was truly shocked.
“The studio they booked – EARS, which stands for Eastern Artists Recording Studios – wasn’t actually in New York, it was in New Jersey. It was our very first time in a studio. The three songs for Factory were done in one day. We recorded ‘You’re No Good’ and then ‘Moody’. We only played ‘UFO’ that day because Martin Hannett – who was producing the session – said we had a few minutes of tape left and asked us if we had any other songs.
“I wrote ‘UFO’ after seeing the movie ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’. I thought to myself, ‘What would it be like if a UFO landed smack dab in the centre of our project playground?’. I knew that all kinds of chaos and madness would ensue. The weird eerie guitar note was written by me as an ‘alien strobe sound’ – or my idea of what an alien ship would sound like.
“To get that sound I had a distortion box, but I also played through a Roland Jazz Chorus guitar amp, which has many effects, such as chorus, reverb and other cool things. They are very hard to find these days, but it’s a really great amp, which I always put on my performance equipment rider. I don’t think ‘UFO’ has a jazz feel to it – unless you are playing it on the wrong speed. I don’t particularly consider it funk either, but just something fun to dance to.
“‘UFO’ was originally a song, not an instrumental. It had three words, but they’re something only earlier fans and my sisters will ever know. Those words were removed before we went into the studio. They were really just a private joke between me and my sisters. I knew they wouldn’t fit musically into an actual recording.
“Martin Hannett was a very mellow guy to work with, and I learned a lot about being in a studio in that one session. Working with him was something I’ve never forgotten. Martin basically taught me how to use the mixing desk – to separate sound, add more bass, treble, highs and lows. Believe me when I say that desks were way different then, as they are truly high tech and complicated today. My son’s an engineer, and I’m so thankful that I have him around to guide me through these new systems. People ask if Martin changed our sound – because of his reputation – but the answer is no. Our sound has always been our own.
“Everyone involved in the recording sessions was really happy with the results, and the actual seven-inch was available in stores two months later, on Factory, featuring only those three tracks. The record was a hit, and it got plays in the clubs and on radio. Then a couple of months later, Ed Bahlman put the tracks out again on 99. Ed added a ‘live’ side to the release, which I hate to this day. I refuse to play anything off that ‘live’ side, or have those tracks reissued.
“I also need to state that we, my sisters and me, hated the cartoon drawing on the cover of the UK seven-inch and the picture used later on the 99 EP. No one asked us for our input, they just put them out there the way they wanted… and we really didn’t like it.
“The first time I heard myself on the radio, was on a station called WBLS. It was an urban station and they played us in the Midday Mix. ‘Moody’ was the song that they played. Hearing your music on the radio always makes you feel great. It still does to this very day. All the people in our neighbourhood were coming up to my mother and saying, ‘We heard your girls in the Midday Mix!’. That made her very happy and she was beaming with pride.
“The first time I heard our music in a club, however, was a very different story. It was a very disturbing time! I heard ‘UFO’ playing and then suddenly Afrika Bambaataa was rapping on top of it. I was like, ‘What the hell is this?!’. It’s very hard as a composer to write a song in the first place, but to have someone using your song without asking blows you away. It was years before I was able to get compensation from any of the many rappers who’ve used this song without our permission. I’m truly thankful for the sample laws.”
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