Despite the teachings of Reading Rainbow, sometimes it is perfectly fine to judge a book by its cover— or in our case, album cover. If it wasn't for this somewhat naive method of discovery, I would never have found the far-out album from Captain Sky (alter ego of Chicago-native Daryl Lonnie Cameron) in the crates of Better Days Records. The album I'll be highlighting, Pop Goes the Captain, never got much ‘buzz’ during its time, perhaps due to an overly saturated market, lack of promotion, or the record simply not being heard by the 'right' person. Even with its lack of success on the charts, I'll be trying to shed some light on this gem and provide some context around this mysterious record, and more specifically, the opening track, Moonchild.
Unfortunately, not much is known about Daryl Cameron; limited interviews and a relatively small catalog of music only add to his enigmatic persona. What's certain is that he was born on the south side of Chicago, began his recording career in 1978 at around 21, and recruited a massive group of session musicians and contractors in the process. Promotional pictures indicate heavy influences from the Afrofuturist stylings of George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, also reflected in his music. In contrast to similar artists of the period, Cameron wrote, produced, arranged and sang the vast majority of records released as Captain Sky. As far as the pseudonym itself, the only official statement came from the liner notes of his first album, which read, "...Daryl Cameron somehow entered the phonebooth of his mind and emerged as Captain Sky." It’s immediately obvious that a story is being told, one that might not be linear, but one that certainly sounds good.
Pop Goes the Captain was released in 1979 on Los Angeles based independent label, AVI Records. It boasted a colorful, comic book style cover with credits so long they nearly took up the whole back cover of the record. This full disco ensemble was made up of fully packed brass and string sections, as well as numerous vocalists, guitarists, bassists, saxophonists, percussionists and keyboardists. Although the studio must’ve been crowded during recording sessions, it’s rare to hear one section outshine another. This is thanks to two session musicians turned engineers, Danny Leake and Paul Serrano, who helped to make the whole record sound as big and boisterous as the old, analog equipment would allow at the time. Let’s get to the most cosmic track on this thing, Moonchild.
There are a few different versions of this track that got pressed, and I’ll be talking about Peter Lewicki’s remix, as the record itself easily outshines the album version. Not to mention, Lewicki was a pretty influential Chicago DJ, being the first in the city (alongside Kenny Jason) to mix records live on the radio. This version kicks off with a silly sounding patch on an ARP 2600 synthesizer, a sound which is more likely to be recognized these days for how Todd Terje used it on his seminal ‘Inspector Norse’ track. Your standard disco beat acts as the bedrock, while the rest of the groove is largely made up of two abbreviated but contrasting guitar parts, deep piano chords and an irresistible bass line. Lead vocals don’t come in until a little over two minutes into the piece, but Captain Sky sounds as sincere as he does strong and soulful. Strings and horns are mostly short and repetitious, while the lyrical themes range from individuality, exploration, and introspection. Each part of the arrangement complements each other so wonderfully, with a French horn and string accompaniment gently bringing the song to a close.
Moonchild is as deep as it is groovy, cinematic, yet undeniably funky and ahead of its time. Peter Lewicki’s remix had a very short run, promo-only release, making it a highly coveted single selling for upwards of $400 these days. Captain Sky would fade away to obscurity after a few more records and eventually be sampled by the likes of Public Enemy, De La Soul, Bob Sinclar and name dropped by the Sugarhill Gang and Wu-Tang Clan. Daryl Cameron is still active on social media these days, and has hinted at the return of Captain Sky, but until then, enjoy this piece of dance floor magic.