...your heart out
Time and Chance
“Why do you not go to the public library and search intently along its shelves sampling page by page what might be good and might be bad, using your own brain and your own coordinates to assess and discriminate?” – John Murray, The Legend of Liz & Joe CHAPTER ONE Browsing in the local library a short time ago I chanced upon a copy of A Book of Blues, a collection of short stories by Courttia Newland, which was part of a display celebrating or promoting Black History Month. Something made me pick up the book and flick through it. I was intrigued to see, at the back, a discography where Courttia cheerfully acknowledged the musicians who had inspired this set of stories, the ones that he listened to most when he was writing. Looking at the list Courttia put together I was genuinely astonished to see so many of my own personal favourites and inspirations among the 150-or-so names. And what a fascinating list it was: Alice Coltrane, Aloe Blacc, Animal Collective, Anita Baker, Antonio Jobim, Arthur Verocai, Autechre, Big Youth, Bilal, Black Sheep, Black Star, Burial, Cameo, Chris Clark, Demon Boyz, Doug Carn, Dr Who Dat?, Eska, Gene Chandler, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Jaguar Wright, Jean Carne, Joe Harriott, Kaidi Tatham, Maxwell, Nicolette, Rodney P., Roots Manuva, Shackleton, Shuggie Otis, Teena Marie, Weldon Irvine, The Zombies, and many, many more. You get the idea, I hope. Standing there in the local library, looking askance at this list, almost disbelieving, I think if someone had tapped me on the shoulder and said, courteously, cautiously, that they were Courttia while I was looking at his playlist, then I just might have hugged them or given them a vigorous hand shake. Wow, I thought, wahey, woohoo, a book that credits Georgia Anne Muldrow and Arthur Verocai for inspiration, that‟s the one for me. But then I hesitated. Was it a little, well, shallow to get a book out purely on the basis of a long list of favourite musicians? Was this willy-waving one-upmanship? Was I falling for some very shrewd, specifically targeted marketing ploy? Right, yeah, yeah, a
mention of Cannibal Ox and Chico Buarque is really going to get the copies flying off the shelves isn‟t it? Nope, it was pretty simple really. I knew I had to read this book. And who was I to quibble about Courttia‟s list? I really like it when people acknowledge their favourite things and inspirations. I have studied LP sleeves by the likes of The Deviants, Labi Siffre, Galliano, Panda Bear and a hundred hip-hop acts where they‟ve included the names of influences and inspirations. I‟ve been fascinated by that McLaren/Rhodes list of hates and loves. I have studied lists by Nurse With Wound and Randy Cozens. I love songs that are lists: Ian Dury, Denim, and so on. So I‟m hardly going to criticise Courttia for what seems really to be a lovely gesture. But, but, but, generally, I could rant for hours about lists and the way they are used in journalism nowadays: the Top 50 this, the 10 most important that, my favourite albums, and so on. It‟s everywhere, it‟s a plague, it‟s lazy and dangerous, a creeping disease. It was only when I got Courttia‟s Blues book home that the penny dropped, and I realised the publisher was Flambard Press, once of Hexham and latterly of Newcastle, and now it worryingly uses the past tense on its website. A sign of the times. Looking around my room, at the paperbacks piled up perilously, I noticed copies of the Sid Chaplin novels, The Day of the Sardines and The Watchers and the Watched, wonderful works which Flambard had put out as part of its Modern Classic series. These glorious grrritty Sid Chaplin books I‟d picked up in what was once a regular haunt, Judd Books in Marchmont Street, in the Bloomsbury-ish part of London, a place I miss madly. But that‟s another story. Flambard Press is a name I most immediately associate with John Murray, and I would describe John Murray as one of my particular favourite writers, right up there with Shena Mackay. Once I boldly declared: “He does for Cumbria what Shena Mackay does for South London. He captures something strange amidst the outwardly normal. He has an ear for how people speak, and an eye for how we act. He clearly is torn between love and hate for the
homelands he exiles himself in. And he loves words. Oh how he loves words!” I could have added that they both make me laugh out loud, embarrassingly so at times. I keep Shena‟s books and John‟s novels on a special shelf, in a cupboard, out of harm‟s way. And, yeah, I love his writing so much that indirectly prompted by Courttia‟s list I found out Flambard had published a John Murray novel in 2009 that I‟d completely missed. Some fan! It must have been fate then that made someone put that Courttia Newland collection on prominent display in the local library. So, was it worth reading that book of short stories.? Yup, I enjoyed it. Let‟s face it, any writer that claims Georgia Anne Muldrow is an inspiration, mentions Carol Cooper and the Demon Boyz in his stories, well they are going to be worth reading. And his stories are strong, and I got a real sense of a writer stretching himself, reaching out, trying different voices, themes, locations, using new rhythms, ideas, words, coming up with something not typical but still very impressive. CHAPTER TWO Happenstance. It happens. Happily. The last name in Courttia‟s list is 4hero, which is pretty eerie as I think in recent months I have probably listened to 4hero more than anyone else. I should rephrase that: I have perhaps played certain 4hero records more than I have played anyone else‟s records. Possibly I could put that another way ... In particular I have played the 4hero LPs Two Pages and Creating Patterns an awful lot. They fascinate me those two records. 4hero intrigue me full stop. I love tracing their (logical) progression, from rough „n‟ tumble beats and rumbustious bass to expansive, symphonic soulscapes, with a sense of adventure always intact. Creating Patterns is the one that really enchants me. It is the 4hero record I listen to the most often. I think I was pretty unaware it even existed when it was first released in the autumn of 2001. But things change, and now it can be listened to in a very different context. You can probably even find it for next-to-nothing in your local Poundland if you are in the UK. And in theory Creating Patterns really should not work. It has nine or ten featured vocalists, covers a wide range of musical styles, and seems to have been put together by two partners who appear
to have approached the project pretty much independently of one another. But as a record it flows, and fits together surprisingly well. It is a very satisfying, substantial listening experience, sitting down, putting the CD in the machine, and sitting back and becoming absorbed in the record as a whole. I really can‟t remember if Creating Patterns was critically acclaimed at the time it was released. I know Parallel Universe, the 1995 4hero LP was much loved by cultural theorists who willed it to fit in with the ideas about breakbeat science they were trying to express. But even on that record the clues were there, signs suggesting how they would evolve, the flickers of fusion and soul sophistication, particularly on the opening track Universal Love, with its spiritual theme, the sax, the vocals of Carol Crosby, the fully-fledged song structure, the focus on vintage instruments and the vintage equipment like the Arps, Fender Rhodes and Moogs. The development of vocals and verses, choruses, and harmonies even, in drum „n‟ bass music is something I‟m curious about. Someone, somewhere, surely has put together a detailed study of how things evolved. What was the turning point? How did things develop from using random snatches of vocal samples to getting real singers to come into the studio and indulge in a spot of gospel-style ululation to having carefully structured songs? I know Goldie used Diane Charlemagne at a pretty early stage to do some wailing on Kemistry and Angel. And 4hero worked with Diane too on Better Place from their Golden Age EP. Then a couple of years on there was Diane again, singing on the incredibly ambitious Timeless suite with Goldie and Moving Shadow‟s Rob Playford. There may well have been plenty of other examples (e.g. Rachel Wallace on Suburban Base) but the choice of Diane Charlemagne intrigues me as it kind of goes against the idea of drum „n‟ bass as a do-ityourself adventure where you really did not need experience and could genuinely make it up as you go along. Diane, however, had previous. Back home in Manchester she had been drafted in to be lead singer of 52nd Street, appearing on the group‟s final Factory release Can‟t Afford (To Let You Go), and moving on to 10 (Virgin) with Lindsay
Reade as manager, and signing to the Profile label in the States where their reputation thrived in select clubs. Diane sang on two great 52nd Street LPs, and the group had a few minor hits in the UK as part of a mini mid-„80s homegrown soul/funk boom alongside the Cool Notes, Loose Ends and the very real and very strange success of Five Star.
4hero‟s Creating Patterns has a very strong soul feel, in terms of song structure and sound, and this is where they had been heading since Universal Love. Like an old Earth Wind & Fire LP, Creating Patterns has its experimental interludes, just to stop things becoming too comfortable. But by the time it appeared soul in its neo or R&B form had once again become the dominant art form, the one where real invention was taking place. So, it fits. And the LP features Jill Scott, one of the new soul stars. But all of that only hints at what is going on within Creating Patterns, and doesn‟t take into account the Brazilian influences and the contribution of Patricia Marx on Unique or the more esoteric spiritual aspects which suggest the work of Lonnie Liston Smith and other jazz-funk pioneers. The most curiously cosmic track on Creating Patterns features the jazz singer Mark Murphy who had already been recording for more than 40 years. His contribution is pretty much a spoken word performance, one that perfectly complements Ursula Rucker‟s track Time earlier on the record. Mark‟s theme is exceedingly enigmatic and esoteric, deep into the mystical territories. That‟s almost irrelevant, as it‟s the nature of Mark‟s delivery that bewitches. It‟s the rhythm with which Mark recites, the way he rolls his words with real relish and elongates syllables dramatically, speeds up and slows down, like Mark‟s hero Jack Kerouac reading his own poetry used to do.
But then it‟s Mark. What would you expect? This is the guy who was the epitome of cool, proving there was life beyond rock „n‟ roll. You just have to look at the cover of Rah! Mark in the shades holding up that sign. Mark “the original method singer” who was such an influence on Scott Walker, not you suspect just as a vocalist but in terms of scope, in the way Mark was associated with a knowledge of and passion for European literature and films, modern classical music and philosophy. The same Mark who would in the 1980s be taken up by the jazz-dance enthusiasts in the UK, his adaptation of Oliver Nelson‟s Stolen Moments becoming an anthem, Mark becoming part of a new „rediscovered‟ holy trinity alongside Jon Lucien and Terry Callier. Mark who immortalised that whole London jazzdance scene on his whirlwind of a track Sunday Afternoon at Dingwalls, sounding as exciting as Ti Jean himself had when celebrating Bird and Monk once upon a time.
CHAPTER THREE I first came across John Murray‟s writing via his 2003 novel Jazz etc. Our local library, and this was before it was rebuilt, had a copy and I was intrigued by the title and no doubt attracted by the glowing endorsement from Jonathan Coe who described John as “one of the best comic writers we‟ve got, the only natural heir to Flann O‟Brien”. Catherine O‟Flynn is another writer whose work I have enjoyed thanks to a heap of praise from Jonathan. Jazz etc. I think at the time had recently been long-listed for the Booker Prize, along with Shena Mackay‟s Heligoland appropriately enough. Straight away I absolutely loved Jazz etc. and returned to it later more than once. Ironically I now own the copy I first borrowed, bought it for 30p on 30 April 2010 when it had been
“withdrawn from stock”. Alarmingly or amusingly I found my own bookmark still inside, a postcard advertising a couple of titles from the publishers Berg, one of which was Cinema by Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour which I have a copy of somewhere. In the preamble to the book, Flambard helpfully mention that John likes jazz and foreign films. And there is a lot of jazz in this novel. It is always such a tricky subject, music in books, and so much can go wrong, and our own prejudices can get in the way. But oh it‟s a lovely book Jazz etc. It‟s lovely on so many different levels, whether that be the comic capers of the central character Vince Mori, an Italian immigrant who‟s well and truly rooted in Cumbria, an icecream salesman by day and trad. jazz clarinettist by night, or the two more modern jazz musicians John invents for us, the guitarist Fanny Golightly and the violinist Toto Cebola. In fact, John is so successful at unrolling their career trajectory, the ECM phase etc., that I confess I‟ve found myself looking up their names, just in case, though knowing this is exceptionally stupid as they are clearly created characters. There‟s lots of real jazz in the book, too. Eberhard Weber, a current favourite, gets a mention. And appropriately there is on the title page a quote from guitarist John Abercrombie: “The name of that song was Spring Song and it was written for one of my cats”. There is, for example, a brilliant passage about hearing Extrapolation by John McLaughlin as a teenager when it first came out and was accompanied by a “feverish ecstatic encomium by someone called Giorgio Gomelsky”. This passage, I suspect, is pretty autobiographical, and if my mathematics aren‟t too rusty I make Murray just the right age to be a teenage jazz fan when Extrapolation was first released. Passages of the book are devoted to passionate arguments for and against jazz. So, for instance, when the narrator had been caught playing a Jimmy Smith LP by his dad (Vince Mori) and the lodger Watson Holland he explains: “To them this delinquent Smith chap seemed to be going bloody nowhere while attempting to go everywhere like a brainless maddened dog. Such a centrifugal yet centripetal, integral yet differential, nihilistic yet infinitely over-assertive music seemed all the more impudent when it originated from the fingers of a black man.
Black men weren‟t supposed to be highbrows, existentialists, omnidirectional composers”.
There is another fantastic passage about the “unusually provocative” Pharoah Sanders LP Tauhid, which incidentally I remember buying on the recommendation of Tim Gane from Stereolab when he‟d cited it as one of his inspirations in a list, probably in The Wire. I am tempted to quote the passage in question in full here, as it is so fantastic, and does it seem absurd to say that if you read this passage aloud it fits perfectly with Pharoah‟s “defiantly pugnacious excess” and “rapturous melodic tenderness”. Jazz etc. itself was directly responsible for me seeking out New View! By The New John Handy Quintet, and being enchanted by it, partly because of Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, finding that yes it does have the healing powers John writes about, but the anecdotal line about getting it for 60p in the bargain racks of Oxford‟s Woolworth‟s has the ring of authenticity about it, too precise to be made up entirely, because you cannot help musing on the fact that there really were times when you could find such records on the high street for next to nothing. Ah and until I read Jazz etc. I only knew Hard Work by John Handy, and I find myself thinking I‟ve read Siouxsie Sioux talk about dancing in clubs to that in the pre-punk days, or I guess nights to be precise. There are so many funny parts in Jazz etc. but for me one of the highlights is where the curmudgeonly and intellectual/classical snob Watson Holland the lodger is converted to jazz on hearing Keith Jarrett‟s Facing You, or more precisely the track My Lady, My Child. I hope
I‟m not giving too much away there. But it gets even better when Watson‟s new wife (and they are shall we say a pretty mature couple) discovers free jazz and in her 70s becomes a regular attendee of concerts by the likes of Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and Lol Coxhill. Watson Holland, himself, is the book‟s unsung hero and one of the great comic creations: he was, well, it seems an argumentative pharmacist with what we used to call highfalutin ideas and a bombastic nature, off-set with a sense of mischief, who loves some mental and verbal sparring. If this were a situation comedy he‟d be granted his very own spin-off show. As it is he is responsible for some cracking lines: “It‟s a sad fact that people scarcely know how to play any more, my boy. Look to Shakespeare, if you want any proper guidance in that respect. He loved to play, he was the biggest player ever. Even his tragic plays he leavens with the idiots, the rude mechanicals and the punning artisans.” CHAPTER FOUR The 4hero LPs Two Pages and Creating Patterns were released on the Talkin‟ Loud label, the record company most closely associated with Gilles Peterson, one with substantial backing, initially from Mercury. Gilles is, I guess, someone who everyone has an opinion about. But then that applies to anyone and anything. But facts are facts. Gilles, in one way and another, has helped introduce a lot of people to all sorts of great music over the years. And Talkin‟ Loud put out some great records during the ten years or so it was active. Again, people will have very vivid ideas about Talkin‟ Loud as a label, and it‟s easy to make generalisations. But exceptions are so much more fun. So, for example, one of Talkin‟ Loud‟s early chart successes was All About Eve by Marxman, which made the UK Top 30 in the spring of 1993. This was a song that dealt with the theme of domestic abuse, violence against women and the charade of outward respectability, made by a hip-hop collective with Irish and Bristol roots who were explicitly and militantly left-wing and did little to soften their serious-minded approach and openly credited Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Bobby Sands and C.L.R. James as inspirations.
And then there was Nicolette, one of the greatest things in pop music ever, who released the Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head LP on Talkin‟ Loud in 1996. Her debut LP, Now is Early, had been released by Shut Up and Dance in 1992, following on from a series of strikingly singular 12”s. This was at a time when participants in the hardcore/breakbeat scene had successfully reduced lyric writing to a stark sound bite or one-line refrain repeated randomly. With Nicolette, in contrast, there was a surreal spectacle where she was coming up with strange little songs, ones which were witty and wise, sassy and saucy, playful and profound. She was somehow in the tradition of Blossom Dearie and Noosha Fox, Norma Tanega‟s Walking My Cat Named Dog, Lynsey De Paul‟s Sugar Me, and Carole Bayer Sager‟s You‟re Moving Out Today. And these seductively smart songs came complete with Shut Up and Dance productions, which at times on the Now is Early collection came across with an Art Blakey swing, and all the hallmarks of a Hollywood spectacular featuring a pool of typists speeded-up manically and a horde of handymen going at it hammer and tongs. At that time the Shut Up and Dance team were pretty much unstoppable, and had almost universal appeal but came up with some of the most chillingly confrontational recordings of any era, such as Autobiography of a Crack Addict which wonderfully and distinctively features Kevin Rowland on acoustic guitar because fortuitously he just happened to be working in the next studio. And it‟s testament to the vision of the Shut Up and Dance guys that they realised it was the right thing to do to give Nicolette the freedom to do her own thing. Astonishingly, given the way the history of major labels works, Nicolette was also allowed to do her own thing while making her LP for Talkin‟ Loud. By that time she had enjoyed some
success with Massive Attack, singing on a couple of the songs on Protection. Sly, on which she purred, is quite possibly the best thing Massive Attack ever recorded. Personally I am still intrigued about the credit Viv Goldman has on that song, assuming it is Viv, but I like that little bit of detail, just as I love Viv‟s co-credit on Jill Cunniff‟s Exclusive, which joins the dots nicely given Luscious Jackson‟s post-punk roots. Nicollete‟s Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head is in comparison to her debut deliberately disjointed. She took the opportunity to work with a variety of producers, engineers and collaborators, so the music itself covers a wider range of electronic sounds. Nicolette herself produced some, Plaid did some, Dego from 4hero produced a couple, as did Alec Empire, and Felix did another one. But it works all that fragmentation. It‟s a statement in itself because it feels like a definite choice rather than something imposed upon the performer. That‟s pretty rare. It‟s genuinely pretty rare that someone is allowed to get away with that kind of activity when major label budgets are involved. Another absolute classic masterpiece Talkin‟ Loud put out was Krust‟s Coded Language, which came out in 1999 and remains one of the full-length drum „n‟ bass sets that really rewards prolonged investigation. It is both beautiful and brutal, and retains an air of mystery. Krust is someone I first came across on the Full Cycle compilation Music Box: A New Era in Drum and Bass compiled by Roni Size. Krust‟s track Priorities seemed to be the highlight of that set. A few years on, and you can understand the thinking at Talkin‟ Loud: Krust was a core part of Reprazent who had such unexpected, unusually ubiquitous success, both critical consensus and popular appeal, with New Forms, so could that kind of crossover be repeated? The brilliant thing is Krust‟s Coded Language made absolutely no concession to the mainstream or to the drum „n‟ bass faithful. I suppose this was the great thing about Talkin‟ Loud: it acted as a buffer between the artist and the major label money-men. In much the same way Mo‟ Wax enjoyed major label funding and promotional clout while creating a climate where its acts could do pretty much what they wanted. Could that happen now?
From this distance the success Talkin‟ Loud had with Reprazent‟s New Forms was pretty strange anyway, particularly when considering the sprawling two-CD edition. It‟s a record that hardly goes out of its way to endear itself. It suggests an earlier era when, say, Wire, PiL, and Magazine were doing what they were doing on major labels. Roni Size and his comrades didn‟t go soft on New Forms. Sure, there were jazz influences at work. But it‟s still pretty much music that pushes the listener rather than cossets them. And they didn‟t get softer. Roni Size & DJ Die went on to do the Breakbeat Era record for XL and that was pretty punk in approach. Krust meanwhile made Coded Language and stretched things further. The big talking point at the time was the title track, and lead single, featuring the poet/rapper Saul Williams, which Garry Mulholland in This is Uncool (The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco) described as “less a pop single than an intimidating intellectual experience”. There is a massive debate to be had about how actually pretty often the greatest pop singles are intimidating intellectual experiences, but I take Garry‟s point and in one of many great passages in that book he writes: “In the seven minutes or so that Coded Language rumbles and rages, Williams tackles the connection between The Funk and displaced African people, the abuse of the language of violence, the gap between what the human mind is capable of understanding and the shit we are fed, a spine-tinglingly inspirational list of counter-cultural heroes – black, white and all points in between – and the terrifying flipsides that have shared the modern world, and how music, art and communication are the frontline against a planet that has declared an unending war on the human spirit”. I don‟t know how the collaboration between Krust and Saul Williams came about, but when drum „n‟ bass artists used spoken word performers it seemed somehow more riveting than the more orthodox rapper/MC approach. 4hero worked with Ursula Rucker, and her words seem to surf the music effortlessly. Flytronix (Danny DeMierre) on his Moving Shadow double-CD Archive uses a couple of poets too, on tracks that seem to deal specifically with the hip-hop culture that drum „n‟ bass music evolved from. The track Not Much Music features Roger Robinson who is now part of King
Midas Sound, while A Rosary For Rhythm is the work of Remi Abbas: “One dawn that summer holiday I rose, looking out of my window into the skate park, to see sound boys sway, shivering like weeping willows in the windows, black boys without jobs and big dreams and it seemed, the speaker cable in their hands twisted into knots that they fingered like a rosary for rhythm”. Lovely! The main featured vocalist on Krust‟s Coded Language set is Morgan, and I confess that even now I know pretty much nothing about her. I have seen, recently, footage of her appearing live with Krust, in I think 2000, performing the track Soldiers which is the real highlight of the CD. Morgan has something strident and commanding about her but jazzy, like Julie Tippetts, which I really like. That particular track, Soldiers, is astonishing, and the strings arranged by Simon Hale add to the disturbing dramatic nature of the song which has the savage emotional punch of one of Pat Barker WW1 novels. Simon Hale‟s string arrangements on Coded Language are particularly striking. They are occasionally mournful, and often add to the dissonance and sense of unease. They do little to soften the harshness of Krust‟s productions. And the six-minute track One Moment, which follows the title track, is purely orchestral and incredibly moving. It‟s interesting the songwriting on this record, how Krust has been part of the most successful attempts at blending drum „n‟ bass music with more orthodox song structures, and that he has reached this point in a very different way to, say, Everything But The Girl did on their great LP Walking Wounded. The journey Tracey and Ben had taken, from Orange Juice to Omni Trio, was one I could understand and identify with.
Si John features on Coded Language playing bass, and he was really the secret hero of Reprazent‟s New Forms, particularly on the hit Brown Paper Bag. New Forms featured the very human drumming of Clive Deamer, who was part of the Portishead set-up. On Coded Language this was taken further still by Yuval Gabay of Soul Coughing. This drift towards „live‟ drumming was interesting, almost replicating the programming of producers, and all sorts of conclusions could be drawn, though all that really matters is the effectiveness of the beats, be they human or digital. Watching old re-runs of Top of the Pops, it‟s been useful to be reminded how in 1977 the live drummer was so much a feature of the what were then pioneering electronic works, by Giorgio Moroder‟s team, Space, Rah Band, and so on. Another of the truly great Talkin‟ Loud releases featured very human drumming, and that was the ironically titled Programmed by Innerzone Orchestra, which was another highlight of 1999, though I confess it would only be in subsequent years that I would grow to really appreciate this Carl Craig project. The drummer on this record was Francisco Mora, who played with Sun Ra for several years in the „70s after he moved to the States from Mexico. Francisco had already played drums on the jazz version of Carl‟s Innerzone Orchestra classic Bug in the Bassbin which Mo‟ Wax put out. The original version of this track had been a massive influence on elements of the emerging drum „n‟ bass scene, and there seems a definite connection to, say, 4hero. Carl is such a fascinating figure, seeming at once so significant a presence and yet so elusive. I was walking through a supermarket recently and did a double-take on seeing a photo of Carl and a little dog on the cover of a magazine. On closer examination it seemed Carl was the guest editor, and among the delights on offer were pieces on rollerdisco in Detroit, Carl interviewing Throbbing Gristle, and more on Moog, Mies Van Der Rohe and Malcolm X. The magazine itself was Mixmag, which I had no idea was still in existence. There was even a free Carl Craig/Planet E mix CD, featuring tracks from old favourites Urban Tribe and Kirk DeGiorgio. Very curious! The credits of the Innerzone Orchestra CD quote Carl as saying: “I‟m glad to be a part of the
movement”. This may be specifically a reference to the Talkin‟ Loud organisation, but could equally apply to the wider Mo‟ Wax circle for whom he had recently appeared on records by As One (Kirk DeGiorgio) and Urban Tribe. By this time influences were pinging back-andforth. People in the UK who had been inspired by Detroit techno were now making music that was having an impact on the thinking of those very same Detroit luminaries, particularly the jazzier electronica with its cosmic flourishes. And for a producer/composer like Carl Craig who is steeped in electronic music the challenge of working with experienced jazz musicians on Innerzone recordings must have been pretty intoxicating. Jazz and electronics were hardly strangers, either: Herbie Hancock, a number of the ECM people, Lonnie Liston Smith‟s electronic colouration, and so on. On the Innerzone Orchestra CD Carl primarily works with the keyboards player Craig Taborn, who would later record for ECM, and the drummer Francisco Mora. There is a fascinating piece in that Carl Craig/Mixmag edition about Francisco‟s mother Elizabeth Catlett and her „revolutionary art‟. There‟s a lovely quote from Carl where he says: “When Francisco introduced me to his mother and her work it was like discovering the Miles Davis of art.” One of the paintings featured in the article is a portrait of Francisco, which Carl chooses: “It‟s really important to see the man who not only introduced me to his mother‟s work, but also inspired me to try to combine jazz with my work with Innerzone. He is an inspirer and a conspirer!”
CHAPTER FIVE Once I became aware it was out there it didn‟t take me long to track down a copy of John Murray‟s 2009 novel The Legend of Liz & Joe, and I soon got totally absorbed in it. In the classic John Murray way it shoots off in several different directions at once, but all the strands are neatly tied together with a very neat flourish at the end. Right near the beginning the narrator (Joe) muses: “It is truly beyond parody all of this, this miserly grudgingness here in Albion in 2008, and that set my old mind thinking.” That sentence sets the tone nicely. And John Murray rises to the challenge, and beautifully parodies modern day Britain. Joe the narrator and his wife Liz are 70something rebel spirits. Liz is a gig-going interior designer who gets tangled-up in her first affair at the age of 70. Joe is a writer of cook books no one wants to buy, who fritters away a late-inthe-day inheritance on a gourmet vegetarian guest house he makes as difficult as possible for people to get to stay at, and who is used a way of having a bit of a rant about this-and-that. Among Joe‟s (or John Murray‟s) targets are attitudes towards the elderly, dealing with dementia, and (deep breath) the entertainment industry as a metaphor for life in the 21 st century with specific attention on arts centres relying on tribute acts and clairvoyants in order to break even. Another of Joe‟s obsessions (and I bet John‟s) is language, and in particularly compound words. And then there is the use of Cumbrian dialect throughout the book, and pretty much all of John Murray‟s Flambard novels. On this occasion it is used in a satirical tall story, which shall we say highlights the petty-mindedness of central government. And it‟s bloody funny, too, but I sense it‟s just as much about the poetry of language and the challenge and very real fun of phonetically capturing everyday speech. The hero of the tall story, Fenton Baggrow, neatly has a name that echoes that of another character in Radio Activity, the first of John Murray‟s great comedies. There‟s a bit of jazz in this book, and a nice mention of the films of Emir Kusturica, but there is a lot more food, particularly vegetarian recipes of a highly exotic nature. Vegetarian cooking, I suspect, or rather I bet, is another passion of
John Murray‟s. And amusingly the gentleman who owned the book before me seems to have been particularly taken with the tips for using fennel on page 79. The cover of the book once again has that Jonathan Coe line about John Murray being “one of the best comic writers we‟ve got, the only natural heir to Flann O‟Brien”. Interestingly there is a terrific riff on or rant about comedy in the book where Joe really lets rip, and I hope John Murray will forgive me for quoting it in full here: “The truly comic conforms to the dimensions of the soul, meaning it is deep and is always in a reversible equilibrium with the tragic or the sorrowful. I am currently in unashamed didactic mode, so let me tell you that my hero Charles Dickens is one of those rarities, the truly comic, because Charles Dickens among other things plumbs the depths of the grotesque, the cruel, the deformed, the desolate, the desperate and the lunatic, the fearful crenellations of the immeasurable because infinite soul. Whereas e.g. Messrs. Clive James, Ben Elton not to speak of ten thousand apprentice „new‟ or „alternative‟ comedians, no matter how hard they sweat, will never be truly comic, meaning truly funny, because they are far too infatuated with the merely associative one-liner. The oneliner alas will never be anything but an indication of shallow breath and ideation, something that comes and goes like froth on the sea or like a monotonous hiccup. The truly comic is all about deep breath, expansiveness, hugeness, a straining and intimation towards that which is limitless (q.v. Dickens, Rabelais, Flann O‟Brien, and unfortunately not many more).” Goodness only knows what John Murray has made of life in Albion, the relentless march of Facebook, Twitter and smartphones etc., the cyclical carnival of comments, all the things that have accelerated alarmingly since The Legend of Liz & Joe was published. Perhaps he has decided all that truly is beyond parody.
CHAPTER SIX It may depend on the edition you have, but the chances are that 4hero‟s Creating Patterns ends with The Day of the Greys featuring the incomparable Terry Callier on vocals. It‟s such a beautiful, beautiful track: “We wanted for nothing, and all of the cosmos was ours”. And listening to it today, it has me crying quietly, about oh so many, many things. The strings are so lovely too, and the song seems such a perfect antidote to the days of grey that go on and on and all the vultures on my back. I‟m crying too, for Terry, who left us recently. And his death seemed to hit a lot of people pretty hard, which is intriguing. But I think something about Terry‟s death maybe made us think about our own mortality, and the voyages of discovery we have been on over the past 20 years or so, the dangers of taking things for granted, and so on. I guess like a lot of people I first came across the music of Terry Callier via either Gilles Peterson or Patrick Forge playing his records on the radio. It was probably Ordinary Joe too, the perfect song in so many ways, connecting so many special things and times. And on Terry‟s death it seemed only appropriate for Eddie Piller to revisit the story about how he doggedly went about tracking the singer down in Chicago with the intention of tempting him back into making music, thus precipitating that strange period where we were simultaneously in the process of investigating his back catalogue just as new material was beginning to emerge: The New Folk Sound, the Essential compilation with sleevenotes by Dr Bob Jones, appropriately so too as it was the Doc that had played I Don‟t Want To See Myself Without You in a club where it had captured Eddie Piller.
It was Gilles‟ Talkin‟ Loud label that put out Timepeace, Terry Callier‟s magnificent return to recording in 1998. He was, what, in his early 50s at the time? This was really a Lazarus-like return in so many ways. And, dare I presume, that when news of Terry‟s death filtered through, on social media, that it was Timepeace that people first turned to. Maybe even more precisely it was the Love Theme from Spartacus, the tune Terry turned into his very own „new freedom song‟. Ah those words: “Only love will set us free”. Because many of us who first heard Terry around 1990 will now be getting on for 50, we will have had our own dreams thwarted, and we will now understand about the significance of being offered another chance to do what really matters the most to us even if that is at the expense (ironically) of a regular income.
That trio of LPs Terry Callier made for Cadet in the early „70s: Occasional Rain, What Colour is Love? and I Just Can‟t Help Myself have over the years taken on an almost mystical significance. Their beauty and importance seemed to bloom as more information emerged about Charles Stepney, his achievements as an arranger, composer and producer gradually unfolding: Marlena Shaw‟s California Soul, Woman of the Ghetto, Liberation Conversation; the Rotary Connection records, especially Hey Love, and in particular Black Gold of the Sun and maybe Love Has Fallen On Me for the oddness of the Lloyd-Webber credit but then what Stepney and Rotary Connection were doing was not that far removed from the original studio version of Jesus Christ Superstar; Minnie Riperton‟s Come To My Garden; The Dells singing Dionne Warwicke‟s Greatest Hits; Ramsey Lewis‟ Mother Nature‟s Son and The Piano Player; the two Phil Upchurch LPs Charles oversaw. And then there was Richard Evans‟ role, his work with Soulful Strings, Young Holt Unlimited, his own Dealing With Hard Times but in particular those
Dorothy Ashby LPs Afro-Harping Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby.
Much of the specific detail I know about Charles Stepney, his techniques and philosophy, comes from an extended feature in the Feb/March 2007 edition of Wax Poetics which gives a fascinating insight into what was behind the way Stepney and co. stretched ideas about pop music with instrumental and electronic complexities. It‟s revealing that much of Stepney‟s own inspiration came from the classical and avant-garde spheres, and names that are cited in the feature include Ligeti, Henry Cowell, Bartok, Bach and Stravinsky. He also had a passion for music originating from Spain and Africa. That is all wonderful, great detaul to know, but only relevant for background on the way Stepney put together such incredible opulent orchestral and cyclonic choral arrangements. It is interesting the way Charles Stepney‟s work has seized imaginations over the past 20 years. When he was active at Chess/Cadet etc. there were plenty of other great composers/arrangers/producers at work: Jimmy Webb, Bones Howe, Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin, Jimmy Haskell, Gary McFarland, Bobby Scott, Oliver Nelson, Claus Ogerman, Eumir Deodato, Bob Crewe, Charlie Calello, and so on. There were The Beatles, Beach Boys, the Motown people. There was Phil Wright and Gamble & Huff. There was Gene Page, who had put together the arrangement for Al Wilson when he was singing Fred Neil‟s great song about the dolphins swimming in the sea, which Terry Callier would later sing so beautifully with Beth Orton. In the UK there were people who had evolved from the light orchestral world like George Martin, Laurie Johnson and Wally Stott, and there was John Cameron, Tony Hatch, Ian Green, John Barry. There was Michel Legrand and Ennio Morricone and so on. But perhaps most importantly there were record company executives like Marshall Chess, Bob Thiele and Creed Taylor prepared to push things further, and sanction anything. As the 1990s progressed there was a definite shift in attitudes, emphasis and interests. Whereas say the work of David Axelrod was initially of interest to the hip-hop community for its beats and bass lines, gradually more attention would be focused on his arrangements, his use of
strings and brass and voices, the way he mixed different forms of musical disciplinres. Or, to put it another way, instead of listening to On The Corner people were getting just as inspired by the arrangements on Sketches of Spain. This may not be everybody‟s idea of progress. But it does explain what 4hero were doing on Two Pages and then Creating Patterns. People change, times change. There is a time for dancing and a time for contemplation. Or, to paraphrase Robert Wyatt, after a Saturday night there is always a Sunday morning. 4hero and others drew inspiration from the work of Charles Stepney in the way others had drawn on Can or the Velvet Underground. For many discovering Charles Stepney‟s extravagance was like being presented with the sound of the future. So it is natural that 4hero should choose to tackle one of Charles Stepney‟s great moments, Les Fleur from Minnie Riperton‟s Come To My Garden. Stepney himself loved to do reworkings of other people‟s creations, so it made sense. And it certainly wasn‟t the first or last cover 4hero would produce. But it was an incredible leap to Les Fleur from, say, Mr Kirk‟s Nightmare a decade-or-so earlier. And, again, Talkin‟ Loud deserve credit for making this ambitious work, not just Les Fleur but all of Creating Patterns possible. There was a very real difference, however, in the approach of 4hero and what Charles Stepney was allowed to do at Chess. Where, for example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were hired to perform Stepney‟s arrangements, 4hero were far more about „doing it yourself‟. The Creating Patterns LP, for example, was painstakingly put together in their own Dollis Hill studio with engineer Brad Somatik and a small group of like-minded musicians playing their part in creating an ornate masterpiece. There was in 4hero‟s case no „known‟ producer hired in to oversee proceedings, and no experienced Gil Evans or Charles Stepney figure involved. 4hero‟s development is fascinating, their passion for learning, the evolution from creating hardcore/breakbeat tracks to Parallel Universe through Jacob‟s Optical Stairway to the Talkin‟ Loud LPs. It was a long way from where they started, but the beauty of their back catalogue is that we have all the variations to enjoy, so it‟s not a case of choosing sides and it most certainly is not an either/or situation.
CHAPTER SEVEN So where did it start all this about John Murray, the Cumbrian comic genius, the wordy wise wizard with his preposterous tales? Well, Radio Activity (A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions) was his first comic masterpiece. There had been earlier novels, which by all accounts were „serious‟ works, which I‟ve not read. And I understand John struggled for some time to find a publisher for Radio Activity. My copy was put out by Sunk Island Publishing in 1993, and it has more recently been issued as a Modern Classic by Flambard Press. To borrow a phrase from the book itself Radio Activity just might be the “first manifestation of Cumbrian Magical Realism”. I have a very real prejudice against writers and their weighty tomes which are considered to be “state of the nation” novels (with a capital N, of course). I confess to taking against most contemporary authors who are enthusiastically reviewed in the broadsheets and featured on TV arts shows. They tend to be the type of books you start to read, almost out of a sense of duty, but find them to be horribly hard work so you cast them aside and return to an old favourite for the umpteenth time, or go and pick out something that looks far more intriguing in the local library or charity shops. But still publishers persist. So, it is with a little hesitation and a degree of trepidation that I suggest Radio Activity is or rather was a bit of a “state of the nation” novel. But only a little bit. It‟s more a “state of the county” affair, tackling the themes of Sellafield and the nuclear fuel industry in Cumbria and the way the local media works. John does this by, quite simply, taking the piss. It‟s a great way to tackle horribly serious themes. And if in the
process John pokes fun at the people of Cumbria, that‟s okay because he sends himself up something rotten, too. Radio Activity, typically as we may now know, is made up of a number of interlocking stories which, again to steal a phrase from the book, form “an invigorating, picaresque, teeming, fevered tableau”. There you go, to put it in a nutshell, that‟s John Murray and his words for you. It, erm, doesn‟t pay to hurry a Murray, or you might miss out on some gorgeous flows of words that could make your head spin. Take it easy, savour the flow of words and ideas. Perhaps not everyone will appreciate such freeform displays of virtuosity, but I adore this showing off. But then I used to have a special fascination for Leonard Sachs‟ tortuous introductions on The Good Old Days when I was a kid, and still feel like punching the air, for all sorts of reasons, when I see a John Murray riff about “esurient, edacious earthworms”. The book itself is set in 1986, and the novel‟s central character is William Stapleton, a college lecturer in General Studies, who is a bit of a short wave radio enthusiast, shutting himself away and twiddling his knob in search of arcane delights, and in particular tuning in to any frequency where he might find “the Islamic „artist mode‟ of dolorous yearning manifested itself in the folk music”. Funnily enough there‟s a similar theme in parts of Jah Wobble‟s autobiography, which is itself at times as funny and wise as a John Murray book. Another of John Murray‟s great comic creations is the character Klaus Asbach, a former Sudeten-German P.O.W. who settled in Cumbria after WW2, later becomes a factory hand and makes a few bob on the side with his paintings of the Lakes. Klaus‟ uniquely developed “linguistic monstrosity” allows John plenty of opportunities to mangle words and ideas, and there is one particularly funny episode where the police pick Klaus up for drunk driving, while his wife and son sit up waiting for him “happily listening to John McLaughlin and Ornette Coleman”. Thinking about it now I wonder if the name Klaus Asbach is in any way a reference to Gunner Asch, but it is a long, long time since I‟ve read any of those books. And I guess it‟s not very likely they are going to turn up in the local library
nowadays. Or am I thinking of The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek? That‟s not in any of the local libraries either, funnily enough.
CHAPTER EIGHT It was with the Young Disciples‟ single Apparently Nothin‟ that Talkin‟ Loud signalled its intent. The record reached the charts in February 1991, the same week symbolically as Massive Attack‟s Unfinished Sympathy; except that it was Massive who were credited on the single, as the Attack had been dropped unattached due to the Gulf War and some absurd sensitivities. Meanwhile the Young Disciples‟ Carleen Anderson was singing her words: “A popularity of invasion, handed down through centuries. A force of arms called gentle persuasion. What have we learned from history? Human worth is so inexpensive compared to gold the root of most wars. Subtract the tears from countless offences. What is left but guns and scars?” And a little earlier, probably when that was being recorded, Gilles Peterson had been sacked from his Jazz FM Saturday lunchtime show for playing two hours of „peace‟ themed songs. The Young Disciples were one hell of a strange group. That single, Apparently Nothin‟, was enormously successful and eventually influential: you just sense that in the States the likes of Lauren and Erykah were listening. The same with Guru too. And this was another occasion when influences were pinging back and forth, as Gang Starr with their lyrical and musical invention, serious-minded approach, the consciousness and the positivity, will have had a huge impact on the YDs as they got themselves together. Essentially the Young Disciples were the core collective of Femi, Marco and Carleen, augmented by a fluid rustle of collusionists, contributors and co-conspirators. Their roots
were in the jazz dance/rare groove London club scene, hip-hop (and it‟s easy to forget the YDs were active in what was very much a boom period for UK rap), and the template created by the Style Council. This collaborative approach meant that their Road to Freedom LP was a disjointed affair, with guests flitting in and out of proceedings. But it works. And there is a kind of beautiful boldness to the fact that this remains the one and only Young Disciples LP. Who for example can recall a fourth or fifth Massive Attack LP? And the title, too, Road to Freedom, and even the three-part Freedom Suite 13minute extravaganza, pitches the record perfectly, somewhere between Jean-Paul Sartre Paris existentialism and Max Roach civil rights protest. Road to Freedom is a record I have played many, many times. But for a long time the identity of its co-producer Demus remained something of a mystery. I quite liked that. But I was more than happy to find out a little more about him when I caught up with the work of Two Banks of Four, belatedly, eventually. The smartly named Two Banks of Four are essentially Demus (Dill Harris) and Rob Gallagher‟ Rob I had grown to love (or rather rediscovered) through his Earl Zinger persona. Together Demus and Rob have created a trio of exquisite LPs that are incredibly uplifting, moving and inventive. But, and it‟s a tricky but, they operate within a sphere of music where critics can get sniffy, unnecessarily. Rob Gallagher had pre-Earl Zinger/2Bof4 led Galliano, which is always a great name to lob into conversation like a live grenade to gauge the reaction. Personally I have something of a soft spot for Galliano, not least because indirectly they led me to Doug Carn‟s Power and Glory, the Revelation LP and more generally the Black Jazz label. And for the superbly melancholy London song Roofing Tiles I could forgive anything. The same goes for the minor hit Twyford Down, which is very TSC circa Our Favourite Shop, and let‟s not forget what Ian Svenonius wrote about Paul and the Style Council in The Psychic Soviet, and how of all Weller‟s incarnations they were “by far the most conceptual, the most politically radical, the most effeminate, and certainly the most interesting”.
Two Banks of Four I guess could be considered to have emerged from some part of the jazzinspired broken beats community/scene, which probably never existed, and if that encompasses say 4hero and New Sector Movements that‟s no bad thing. Well over a decade on from the Two Banks of Four debut City Watching none of that matters anyway. Another record of that time and place was Download This by New Sector Movements. Listening to it now, that LP feels at certain points like the future. If any producer put out certain tracks on that record now, with the skittering beats and very deep vocal excursions, they would instantly be hailed as a pioneer or visionary. The person behind New Sector Movements was producer I.G. Culture, one of the more fascinating underground figures who could‟ve and should‟ve and would‟ve but you know how it goes and for some people it never really goes the way it should. He was part of the hip-hop outfit Dodge City Productions, he appeared rapping on Road to Freedom by Young Disciples, worked with Roots Manuva on his debut LP, and so on.
That New Sector Movements LP, Download This, has some pretty special moments on. The musical influences are pretty evident: Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Latin and fusion sounds. But it‟s the pool of people taking part that is so striking, and the gifts they bring to the project elevate it above and beyond being too
reverential and too tasteful. The singers include Bembe Segue, Eska and Julie Dexter: strong, individualistic soul voices who can really write too – and whenever Bembe seems to on a record she seems to steal the show. The LP itself is far too experimental and meandering to ever really „crossover‟ but played now alongside 4hero‟s Creating Patterns and Two Banks of Four‟s City Watching it feels like some sort of victory. The Two Banks of Four LPs seem to have grown darker and stranger. The second LP, 2003‟s Three Street Worlds, includes a cover of Carlos Garnett‟s Banks of the Nile, with Valerie Etienne taking on the Dee Dee Bridgewater role. This explicit reference to early „70s spiritual jazz sets the tone nicely. There seem equally to be nods to Terry Callier, Jon Lucien, Danny Thompson, Swingle Singers, Working Week and again the Style Council, particularly that group‟s magnificently inventive and boldly perverse Confessions of a Pop Group LP. The third 2Bof4 LP, from 2007, Junkyard Gods, rather like 4hero‟s Play With The Changes from the same time, feels like artists thinking they have only themselves to be true to, so let‟s be bold they say! It‟s astonishingly beautiful music, and there still feels so much there to explore. It‟s no wonder that on their website they clench their teeth and add with a grim grin the comment: “The Wire magazine called the album „too mainstream‟ to review . . . Oh that we could break the mainstream”. There is a notable overlap between Two Banks of Four and 4hero in terms of personnel: such as Andy Hamill on bass, Bembe Segue and Valerie Etienne on vocals, and in particular Chris Bowden on sax. Chris played on Two Pages and Creating Patterns. And his links with 4hero go back to an experimental 12” they made together in 1997 for Satellite, what was then a new subsidiary of Soul Jazz. The two extended tracks on that record are Hero and Lullaby, which feature mournful strings, embellished by very low-key jazzy beats and punctuated by occasional devotional voices and sax squawls. It really is a stunning piece of work. Prior to that Chris had made a full-length LP for Soul Jazz, Time Capsule. It wasn‟t the only LP around at the time called Time Capsule: Marxman had returned with an LP of that name on Smith & Mighty‟s More Rockers label. But
there wasn‟t really anything else around like Chris Bowden‟s Time Capsule. Where people might be expecting funky, jazzy, head-nodding beats and fusion stylings the music leans heavily towards a more ECM/modern classical sort of sound which seems incredibly audacious for a debut full-length set which if it was going to attract attention from anywhere would be the wider jazz-dance world. It seems a particularly ambitious release by both Chris and the Soul Jazz label. Soul Jazz at that time (1996) was just beginning to get into its stride, and had already put out vitally important compilations of Nu Yorica! Latin sounds, an overview of Strata-East, and the Universal Sounds of America free jazz collection, as well as the London Jazz Classics series which displayed the label‟s roots rather nicely. I don‟t think anyone at that time could imagine how the whole Soul Jazz/Sounds of the Universe setup in Ingestre Place would grow into an institution over the next 15-plus years, right through to recent times and collections like the stunning lovers rock in the UK 1975-1992 set, the aptly named Harmony, Melody & Style, with its sumptuous 82-page book.
There are so many exquisite and infectious tracks on that lovers rock set, but the highlight is the cover of People Make The World Go Round by the Cool Notes. It‟s not the only classic lovers cover of an old Stylistics song: Sandra Cross and the Mad Professor did a stunning version of Country Living, which was a massive success. The Cool Notes on this adventurous six-and-ahalf minute track had Mark Lusardi at the controls, an engineer who was equally at home working with Jah Wobble or Killing Joke as he was with say Pablo Gad or the Cool Notes. It was originally the flip of a pretty M.O.R. cover of
It‟s Not Unusual, which just about sums up the lovers medium. Carl Craig also covered People Make The World Go Round on the Innerzone Orchestra CD in 1999, stating in the sleeve notes: “I first heard it on the radio a couple of years ago and fell in love. I had to have heard it while I was growing up but I was only into electronic stuff. It was the album version with full strings, almost like an epic disco mix. It blew my mind.” The Cool Notes were a very curious, very versatile group. Even in the early „80s, on their Down To Earth LP they were mixing lovers rock tracks with soul and funk numbers, then using very conscious/political lyrics on other tracks. It really wasn‟t the done-thing at the time to mix things up quite so much. Gradually they became an out-and-out soul/funk act, scoring a string of hits on the Abstract Dance label run by Edward Christie, who was part of their management team. The parent Anagram label was more associated with punk acts like New Model Army, UK Subs, Outcasts, Redskins, Gymslips and Three Johns, though it is worth mentioning Joolz the punk poet worked with Mark Lusardi and Jah Wobble on some very adventurous spoken word tracks for Anagram. It is Deniece Williams‟ gorgeous soul hit Free, which reached number one in the UK singles chart in May 1977, that is said to have provided the vocal template for the young girls that sang on so many classic lovers rock recordings. Watching old footage of Niecy singing the song on Top of the Pops it probably wasn‟t only her vocal style that caught the attention of the new generation of singers. Free was one of those songs that charmed everybody. People always go on about the Sex Pistols and Donna Summer, but Free was thee record of 1977. Its impact was considerable, and a good indication of this was Michael Head boldly tackling the song when the Pale Fountains got to appear on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1983. The Deniece Williams LP, This is Niecy, actually features an eight-minute jazzy number If You Don‟t Believe which sounds even more like a Pale Fountains song. The LP also features an incredible six minute version of Free which really stretches out. Free, the single, and This is Niecy, the LP, were produced by Maurice White (of Earth Wind & Fire) and Charles Stepney. Maurice had known Charles from back in the Chess days, and he‟d encouraged him to get involved with working
with Earth Wind & Fire as a producer. The EW&F LPs that Stepney worked on were phenomenally successful, particularly in the States, but they contain some very experimental and ambitious tracks. Or, rather, hopefully, that should be „because‟ rather than „but‟. Sadly Charles Stepney died in May 1976 while working on EW&F‟s Spirit. He never got to see the success Deniece Williams had.
CHAPTER EIGHT The Flambard Press edition of John Murray‟s 2004 novel Murphy‟s Favourite Channels has quite possibly the worst cover ever. It‟s like a photo of Bill Murray impersonating Danny Baker with TV eyes. But it‟s nowhere near as interesting as that may seem. In fact it‟s quite shockingly bad. But the book, oh the book is fantastic. TV is the theme that John chooses this time around to improvise upon, as Roland Kirk-like he honks away delightfully and wildly, extravagantly conjuring up distant memories and current concerns. The book is set in November 2001 as Cumbrian-born and based journalist Roe Murphy contemplates this thing called life. The chapters flick back and forth, zapping relentlessly between terrestrial and digital TV. The analogue parts allow Murray to draw upon a Cumbrian upbringing and beyond and to expand on the part television played or how it intertwined with life and helped shape the narrator. I suppose understandably these stories that John weaves have the most impact when they collide with the reader‟s own personal obsessions, our own interests. I am, for example, jealous of any young kid that grew up watching The Wednesday Play and Armchair Theatre in the „60s, anyone who
witnessed first-hand the riotous clout of Joe Orton‟s work on prime time TV for the first time, who felt the impact of Dennis Potter on impressionable young minds in 1968, and John it has to be said is particularly good on these subjects, but you sense this is pretty close to his own heart. He also excels when writing about the shock of seeing the first episodes of Steptoe & Son, the Beckett-catharsis nature of the series: “East End Dostoiebloodyevsky”. By contrast there are brilliantly bitter rants against the modern-day mass consumption of soaps, and in particular the writers. It‟s easy to imagine John hammering away at the keyboard, rhythmically, writing this: “You know some of those folks who write the soap scripts take themselves oh so seriously. They wouldn‟t dare to describe themselves in their true colours as jobbing pimps, so instead they declare themselves to be writerprotagonists for the working class, the literary arbiters for the working man and woman! Twenty years ago it used to be agitprop playwrights giving us Everyman morality plays in village halls packed with middle-class socialist teachers. These days it‟s these deluded fantasists who think they are the new Shakespeares, because they command unbelievably enormous tele-audiences up to four times a week! Did you know half of these telly writers are actually failed novelists who have given up the fight and turned to where the money is? They go on a Granada TV writing course and learn how to write a soap and also how to make a packet. This package is called a „soap packet‟ and once you go for this whiter than white Omo or Daz there is no going back.” And into the „70s there‟s that BBC adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre‟s Roads to Freedom trilogy, with special praise reserved for “that wispy little genius” Michael Bryant who played Mathieu: “His wavering eyes and his piquant look of shrugging diffidence were wholly riveting”. This is not the only time the Roads to Freedom trilogy pops up in John‟s books, and the TV series if I remember rightly also features in Jonathan Coe‟s The Rotters Club but when I cheated just now and looked that up on the internet all I found was something I wrote in 2005 about John Murray‟s Murphy‟s Favourite Channels where I ask about the BBC adaptation of Roads to Freedom: “I am sure this was in Jonathan Coe‟s The Rotters Club, or was it?”
The parts about the up-to-date digital channels and the strange world of satellite TV somehow balance notions of attention deficiency and what were then recent momentous events (the Foot and Mouth epidemic that affected so many farms in Cumbria and the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York) and how these and related issues were treated in the local and international media. And these passages allow John to tee up some displays of comic virtuosity. The finest of these is the account of a four-hour train journey from Carlisle up to London in August 1999 on the day of the total eclipse, where the narrator Roe Murphy gets revenge on a software sales executive who is a menace with his mobile and ruins the reading of a subtle Kate O‟Brien novel. I think John Murray‟s greatest comedy moment appears in his 2001 novel John Dory when some hens get plastered and plucked. It‟s a comic episode that is so powerful that even retelling it can make people howl with laughter. John Dory is set in the Cumbrian coastal town Maryport, and the fish referred to in the title lives in the local aquarium: “In all his sullen gloriousness reposes the magnificently ugly, indescribably inscrutable and charismatic species known as John Dory”. The book‟s narrator has quite a time of it in the aquarium, one way and another, with smiling fish and “minatory” omens and warnings: “Do whatever you need to do to keep your head above water in your provincial town in the last decade of this millennium. But whatever you do with whatever is left of your life, you must take great care of your past in so doing”. Not that John Murray really needs any encouragement to revisit a Cumbrian upbringing. And this book‟s narrator, George Singer, has some great tales to tell, some of which feature his childhood friend Squinty Bar Radish. George, himself, runs an ice-cream kiosk in Maryport, a working-class intellectual, an over-educated fool who didn‟t make good. There are other familiar themes present which John returns to time and again in his books, such as infidelity, spirituality and visions. It‟s also one of the books where the phrase “time and chance” occurs ominously, as if those three little words explain everything.
And the jazz? Oh, yes, there is a bit of jazz in John Dory, when George reflects on his time in the late‟60s running a book and record shop in Maryport which he bravely filled with Oxford and Penguin Classics “including Lementov, Saltykov-Schedrin and Turgenev. But no one wanted Saltykov-Schedrin in Maryport and my bold array of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor LPs was also slow in shifting.” And then an enquiry about Eça de Queirós leads to all sorts of trouble. This is not the only time Eça de Queirós appears in John Murray‟s books. I hope it‟s not giving too much away to quote a passage from the very end of John Dory, but I think it‟s such a beautiful piece of writing and one that sums up John Murray‟s wizardry. It should also be spoken aloud as you sense John regularly does when writing: “His explanation left me speechless, but then so did everything else in life that mattered. Bach‟s Masses. Joe Pass‟s guitar. Summer sunsets over the Solway Firth. Especially those over the unspoilt wilds of Flimby shore where the plaice teem around the old shit pipe and the fishermen‟s dialect sounds as raw and old as the haematite hills.”
CHAPTER NINE One constant of the 4hero LPs, Two Pages, Creating Patterns and Play with the Changes, is the presence of Ursula Rucker. On each of these records she appears on one track, casting a magic spell with her spoken word performances, her hip-hop poetry, bewitching us by weaving words, conjuring up moods and demonstrating perfect rhythm in her writing and delivery. Her contributions on the first two of these LPs get into the mystical and spiritual side of things, but there is a dramatic change of mood on 2007‟s Play with the Changes. Her track, The Awakening, seems to have an explicit link to the new generation of hip-hop/soul
performers like Georgia Anne Muldrow and Stacy Epps. The theme of The Awakening is Ursula challenging the youth about whether they have any revolutionary fire burning inside of them: “In my youth revolution was what we rose with the sun to seek”. And on and on: “Time for you and your generation to put this universal chaos in order”. To which the youth thus challenged replies, brilliantly: “Mama I still question the meanings of freedom and people but I will not retreat. I will instead meet this challenge head on and heart strong, sing my protest song.” It‟s a track, a sentiment, not out of place at all on Play with the Changes. So, for example, there is also Bed of Roses, a collaboration between Marc Mac and Jody Watley that begins: “Job‟s gone rent‟s due. I don‟t know what I‟m gonna do. Baby‟s crying, baby‟s daddy always lying. Childhood flashback, a little kid with a dream. Can this really be what happened to my dreams?” I love how much of the LP is surface gloss, music as smooth as silk, in the R&B invention mode, but underneath there is a real sense of bleakness and desolation underpinning some of the songs (Dollis Hill street blues), particularly a couple of the Dego ones, Gonna Give It Up and Sink or Swim (No Choice For Me), which are sung beautifully if deceptively sweetly by Lady Alma. The debut stand-alone Ursula Rucker record, Supa Sista, came out in 2001 on (Studio)!K7, the first of three LPs she made for the label. It showcases perfectly her mellifluous fluidity, the sing-song softly-spoken nature of her delivery, which nevertheless has a deadly venomous sting. The accompaniment is generally unobtrusive, jazzy electronica/hip-hop. The words are always enlightening, entertaining, and invigorating. She is cool, choleric, acerbic, astute, and audacious. The absence of hectoring makes it all the more shocking when Ursula pounces. Where hip-hop is concerned we can pretty much be immune to shocks, bored with the inanities of profanities, but when Ursula swears you sit up, startled. She can arouse, animate, intoxicate. And she understands about the sound of words and the rhythm of speech. I suppose it‟s something to do with time, but I tend to associate Supa Sista with the Castle CD
reissue of the two LPs Wanda Robinson of “souljazz poetry” made for Perception in the 1970s. There is a strong tradition of black jazz poetry. But at that time I hadn‟t heard, say, Jayne Cortez‟s Celebrations and Solitudes on StrataEast or Sarah Webster Fabio. The Wanda Robinson CD hit me really hard, just like Gil ScottHeron‟s work did when I first heard that, and no doubt some Patrick Adams arrangements helped. Listening to Wanda now I am bizarrely reminded more of Cristina at times in terms of tone and intonation. Ursula on the other hand is much more post-hip-hop in terms of how she creates rhythmic patterns with her words. Two of the songs on Supa Sista were produced by 4hero. One of these is the combative What???: “We were talking about the state of black music today Or maybe I should say the near non-existent state of black music today And we were also discussing the responsibility of music artists Or shall I say the lack of responsibility... anyway I put this tape in, and We were listening to this track and it made me wonder ... So now what you gonna do Wit' your rhyme, wit' your flow? Well how about Talkin' about the injustices The numbers The blunders Of black males in jail Or why not speak truth About our misguided youth Their daily dying From thugging and drug selling That leaves them yelling From behind bars far... From the glamour you pimp Leaving scars with that dope cut You might as well be saying... Fuck the masses Long as my ass is gettin' paid Your mishandling of the mic and music's power It's played, it's time for change So what you think... you up for the challenge?
I demand reparations From all irresponsible Fake mogul Crap musicmakers and movefakers Your bad examples could kill my children's future But we're here to supply the sutures needed To close the bleeding hole... In the soul of black music Don't misuse it or abuse it... Use it to send positive not negative messages Bless the kids with dope, but heartfelt lyrics they need to hear it You can still be hard And keep regard For your sisters, and shorties and human life See formidable minds pay the price for your microphone mistakes So it's either change... or be changed Break the chains Don't be slaves” (Studio) !K7 is an intriguing label, and has done well to survive and thrive over the past 20 years. Its DJ-Kicks series of mix CDs is rightly legendary, and I cherish in particular ones by Nicolette, Rockers Hi-Fi, Smith & Mighty, Andrea Parker, Kemistry & Storm, Daddy G. and Annie. The label has also released great records from artists such as Earl Zinger, A Guy Called Gerald, Herbert and Dani Siciliano. They have in addition reissued classic titles such as Nicolette‟s Now is Early and Smith & Mighty‟s Bass is Maternal.
The early years of Smith & Mighty are endlessly fascinating, and I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to wanting to lap up the minutiae of how the Bristol blues and roots phenomenon evolved. And the recent irresistible Bristol Archive collection of Smith & Mighty/Three Stripe
recordings (1985-1990) does nothing to diminish the allure; Rob and Ray brilliantly have no interest in talking about the past, just as they had no wish to be photographed when The Face came calling in 1988. So on this occasion Martin Langford provides the insights and background colour, avoiding the same old same old: “If Revolver had been the Bristol scene‟s record shop of choice for the early eighties, a mid-decade change of ownership and staff had seen the title of the city‟s number one musical emporium roll down the hill to 58 Park Street and Tony‟s Records”. As appealing as the old stories of Smith & Mighty are, all the tales of contrary old punks, the lure of sound systems, pirate radio, blues dances, the obsession with reinventing old Bacharach & David standards (and the Pale Fountains a little earlier shared this passion, though some idiots like Julian Cope didn‟t approve), the success of Fresh 4‟s cover of Wishing on a Star, that eerily spellbinding Carlton LP, The Call is Strong, which desperately needs to be given a rigorous revisiting, and so on, it does have to be acknowledged that the production team‟s best work came in the new millennium on a couple of LPs for !K7. It was on these records that their ideas about fusing lovers rock, dub, hip-hop, acid and quiet storm soul ballads really bloomed. These two LPs, Big World Small World (2000) and Life Is ... (2002), contain so many strong songs. Life Is ... is a particularly fascinating record as it features a number of vocal tracks that take the sound deep into progressive soul/R&B territory, naturally enough. Both of these LPs feature a selection of great singers we really haven‟t heard enough from. It seems so strange we haven‟t had an opportunity to enjoy a series of full-length records from Alice Perera, Louise Decordova, Hazel Jayne and Rudy Lee. Another of the singers showcased on these records is Tammy Payne, who does the vocals for four of the songs on Big World Small World, including Same which is probably the best known S&M composition. At the time Same was accompanied by a beautiful video shot in Cuba. Tammy also sings on Flash of Joy from Life Is ... which is simply beautiful, with quite a pronounced jazz/torch song bent. It is one of life‟s mysteries how on earth Tammy Payne has avoided becoming the great jazz
singing sensation of her generation. There was not even an LP of Tammy singing in the 1990s, which seems absurd. Tammy, as far as I know, first released a record in 1990 when WEA put out a great 12” of her singing Deniece Williams‟ Free, which was very big in the clubs. Production was by the Bristol Baseline team of Andy Watkins and Paul Wilson. They did a remix, in much the same vein, around the same time, of Take Me by Everything But The Girl. I‟ve read that it was that mix that persuaded the Massive Attack guys to ask Tracey Thorn to sing on Protection. This may be true, but I would prefer to think of the Wild Bunch as old time Marine Girls fans who‟d been listening to A Distant Shore ever since it first appeared.
The Bristol Baseline duo somewhere along the line became known as Absolute, and went on to work with the Spice Girls, and indeed Breakbeat Era. Tammy meanwhile in the early „90s made a couple of great singles for Talkin‟ Loud on the jazzy-soul side which were very well thought of, but there was no LP. She later made a great EP, In Deeper Life, for the much-loved Bristol label Cup of Tea, which gets uncompromisingly into the Flora Purim fusion thing. Again, alas, there was no subsequent LP. Perhaps, brilliantly, Tammy did something like the Simon Topping/ACR trick of disappearing behind drums and going to New York to study Latin percussion. The records she later made as part of Jukes are certainly worth exploring, but do not quite make up for the disappointment of not having a Tammy Payne LP that oozes 1998. Maybe there are some lost recordings hidden away somewhere. That‟s something I would dearly love to come across.
CHAPTER TEN I‟ve been searching for my copy of John Murray‟s 2006 novel A Gentleman‟s Relish. I have been looking everywhere. I really have no idea where I could have hidden it. The back cover of The Legend of Liz & Joe made me think of it. There‟s a quote from an Independent on Sunday review, where it says with some consistency that the book is “a Flann O‟Brienesque romp”. I have, however, found my signed copy of John Murray‟s 1996 novel Reiver Blues: A New Border Apocalypse. On the back cover of that there‟s a photo of John looking alarmingly like Guy Stevens when he was producing London Calling. On the front there‟s a quote from William Scammell, taken from a review in The Spectator: “A direct line to Rabelais and Flann O‟Brien”. John‟s next book John Dory would be dedicated “to the memory of the poet and critic William Scammell”.
I am being deceitful, actually. I have a very strong suspicion that I know exactly what I did with my copy of A Gentleman‟s Relish. I would, I am sure I would, I know I would have passed it on, pressed it upon a loved one, urging them to read it. I hope they still have it. I hope they told other people about John Murray‟s books. The
trouble is now I feel I need to reread A Gentleman‟s Relish. And I know for a fact my local libraries don‟t stock any John Murray titles these days. I bet if I go online and track down a bargain copy it will turn out to be a withdrawn library edition. Ah life‟s little ironies. My local library does, on the other hand, have a couple more Courttia Newland books. These are both crime/detective novels featuring the private eyes Carmen Sinclair and Ervine James. I enjoyed them. I cared about what happened to Carmen and Ervine. I wanted to sit down with Ervine and have a chat about music. I do have a fondness for crime titles, and often take books out of the library from that particular section. I don‟t just mean the old classics. There are even modern writers I look out for. You can‟t beat a good Walter Mosley when he‟s on form. Christopher Fowler‟s Bryant & May books are wonderful works of London fiction. I like John Lawton and Cathi Unsworth. I have a soft spot for Alan Furst and Philip Kerr, and admire what they can do with historical detail. The Benjamin Black books which John Banville writes are great, very elegant and precise, and I like them far more than the real Banville books. Crime fiction can be like pop music in that the most progressive and inventive ideas can be used and often occur within a fairly well-defined format. There‟s often, well nearly always more imagination and skill at work in such fields than there will be in the novels-with-a-capital-N by the big-names. The same is true of music. And sometimes this can lead to delightful surprises. I like browsing through the „pre-used‟ CDs in my local branch of Poundland. These are cheaper than most of the charity shops now, and you never know what will turn up. I like looking for classical titles, because I‟m at that stage where I‟m finally heading down that road, confronting my ignorance, but feeling particularly dizzy with excitement when grappling with an idea of just how much glorious music there is to learn about and be enthralled by. My Poundland also tends to have all sorts of titles from the „90s (whatever happened to swingbeat?) and beyond that I really had no idea even existed or which I might well have once turned my nose up at when I was younger and more stupid. So recently I found myself at the till with a copy of Bach‟s Brandenburg Concertos and Grooverider‟s Mysteries of Funk. I have to
confess I had no idea Grooverider had even made a major label LP, but was intrigued to see that Optical shared the writing and production credits, and that Roya Arab was one of the featured singers. This (1998) would have been around the same time Optical was working with Ed Rush and Roya was singing with her sister Leila on the classic Like Weather LP for Rephlex. I just hope the girl on the checkout was suitably impressed by my irregular choices. She didn‟t comment, but hey life‟s not perfect. Actually the two CDs work together remarkably well. The Grooverider CD turned out to be a bit of a revelation, with lots of unexpected features that shatter any suggestion this might be an example of drum „n‟ bass music going through the motions. I guess the Optical connection was the clue to this being no run-of-the-mill romp. It‟s certainly not a flaccid affair, despite quite a strong jazz influence. The jazz partly comes via some nice (almost ACR-ish) trumpet from Andrew Blick (whom Discogs reminds me played on Moonshake‟s monumental The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow). Cleveland Watkiss provides some nice scat vocals on C Funk too, where things get quite electric-Miles-ish. I realise pretty much every article in The Wire at the time tried to make a case for drum „n‟ bass music being close to the electric Miles, but sadly this was rarely the case. Oddly this Grooverider LP does achieve this feat, and gets pretty sinister at times to boot. I wasn‟t expecting that.
The presence of Cleveland Watkiss on the Grooverider LP got me thinking. I think I first came across his name among the credits on Carroll Thompson‟s wonderful Hopelessly in Love LP, which came out back in 1981 on the Carib Gems label. Look up any information on that record company, and the chances are you will come across the name of Adrian Sherwood. Soul Jazz have recently reissued this classic lovers rock set, and I confess I haven‟t seen a copy but desperately hope they‟ve kept the original cover. That photo on the front of Hopelessly in Love is I think one of the most evocative in popular music, and captures perfectly a very specific time and place. I really would love to read a short story by Courttia Newland about the day that photo session took place from the perspective of a kid playing in the street nearby. I think he could make the scenario come alive on the page. “Carroll reclining on the cover of car. Braids in her hair. A smile in her eyes. Fur jacket and jeans. And the car. I‟m not clever enough to know the make. I know nothing about cars now of course. But I remember the names from back then. Cortina. Capri. Granada. Ghia. Escort. Avenger. And the row of terraced houses. Looking out onto a planted verge. You can almost see the kids kicking a ball about in the street. You can almost smell the cooking. You can almost hear Earth, Wind & Fire playing in the background.”