January 27, 2006

Universal Robot Band - Barely Breaking Even

Reanimation1980s12"DiscoR & B

The rare conjunction of two of the finest producers in the underground disco scene, Leroy Burgess (Logg/Aleem/Black Ivory) and Patrick Adams (P & P Records, Cloud One,) “Barely Breaking Even” is an underground anthem still so resonant today that a label was named for it (the influential BBE Records.) Built around a propulsive walking bass, polyrhythmic hand-percussion, Chic-like guitar and one of Adams’ infamous wonky synthesizer lines, it’s alternately throbbing and shuddering, exploding itself into a vibrant groove that seems almost too strange to dance to, yet cannot be resisted. Mercilessly funky during the instrumental intro alone, by the time Leroy Burgess breaks into his opening “Well, well, well” you feel struck by a lightning bolt. What carries it across a staggering eleven-plus minutes is the conjunction of Burgess’ impassioned vocals and the insistent, wobbly funk of the instrumental.

The story that unfolds is one of economic hardship (”well, I just got my paycheck, and I’m on my way home/ between the rent and phone bills, it’s nearly gone”) and the desire to escape it (”Just barely breaking even/ I’ve got to get some for myself”)—hardly unfamiliar territory in black music. But where we might hear the likes of a Young Jeezy casting about for reasons to justify their own avarice, “Barely Breaking Even” finds joy in the face of adversity: the struggle as evidence of life, rather than the struggle as means to the end of monetary gain (”but I just try to make it into another day / Long as the Lord is with me, I’ll find a way.”) Coupled with a groove that is uplifting to a spiritual degree, this is the kind of song that endures because it acknowledges and addresses the ever-present material difficulties of our lives with optimism and hope rather than blitheness, blame or despair.

Combining elements of disco, latin, boogie and R&B, “Barely Breaking Even” is a great dance song, pure and simple. Musically, it’s a perfect fit for today’s DJs and artists exploring that fertile early 80’s crossover period. Lyrically, it is wholly timeless—a gospel feel and a spirit of struggle in the face of economic challenges that surely haven’t vanished in the two decades since it was first released. Currently still available (mixed and unmixed) on Dimitri from Paris’ stellar Disco Forever set, Moonglow Records have also reissued it on vinyl, featuring the full original version and a slightly shorter instrumental edit.

Moonglow / 103
[Mallory O’Donnell]