... your heart out
have borrowed it for years) and is in fact turning out to be a beautifully and passionately written wander down the highways and byways of American traditional music and if there are any conclusions to be drawn it’s that there’s nothing pure and simple and straight forward, that everything is madly mixed up and anyway surely all that matters is that a melody or song can haunt you, move you, inspire you.
It’s stating the obvious but there are times when a record sneaks into your subconscious, fastens limpet like, and you are unwilling or unable to resist. Without any immediate apparent reason it’s been songs from Helen Merrill’s 1964ish LP, The Artistry Of ..., that have been haunting me most. It’s tempting to argue Helen is my favourite jazz singer. I listen to her even more than I listen to June Christy, Anita O’Day, Blossom Dearie, Chris Connor, Beverly Kenney. Even more than Ella and Billie, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. And The Artistry Of ... is the record of Helen’s I listen to the most. It’s tempting too to describe The Artistry Of ... as being a jazz twist on a folk or traditional songs theme. It feels that way. There is a sombreness and starkness that suggests the folk idiom. But then you realise it starts with Jobim’s Quiet Nights which seems perfectly placed alongside The House of The Rising Sun and Scarlet Ribbons. But then Scarlet Ribbons itself isn’t that traditional, dating back to the start of the ‘50s and Jo Stafford among others. But I like that sense of songs rapidly becoming standards and taking on a sense of being a part of folk traditions. Perhaps I am being tempted down such alleyways, working my way through When We Were Good, what seems a scholarly work on the Folk Revival of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s by Robert Cantwell which is on loan from the local library (though no one else seems to
The Artistry of Helen Merrill also features songs of Italian and Chinese origin, all gloriously mixed up on a record that’s incredibly beautiful, and in fact it’s a record that features some heavyweight participants including Charlie Byrd on guitar, Jimmy Giuffre on woodwind, and Teddy Charles on vibes. But in fairness to those guys all you notice is Helen’s singing. But then perhaps that’s what makes them so special as players, the being able unobtrusively to create a special atmosphere. The old adage about knowing what not to play being as important as knowing what to play. The first Helen Merrill record I came across was With Strings. I bought it because I loved the cover so much. And I fell completely under the record’s spell, probably because at the time I was easing myself into an obsession with the jazz vocalists of the mid ‘50s and beyond. The whole kit and caboodle of torch songs, jazz noir, and all that gazing into your empty glass thing. I realise now Helen would have considered With Strings too pop, and not really where she would have wanted to go after her session with Clifford Brown in what was it ’55? With arrangements by a very young Quincy Jones, this Clifford Brown session (like his one with Sarah Vaughan) is just so beautiful. And there’s something even then with Helen’s singing where she makes it seem so effortless but that is the artistry of it. The follow-up I think to With Strings would be much more Helen, as she put her foot down and insisted like hell that the arrangements on Dream Of You should be by Gil Evans. And you can see why the record company might resist because Gil’s work is blaringly challenging
in such a stately setting, and you can see how a lesser vocalist would have been drowned out, and you can see how this session led nicely on to his work with Miles, on Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess, Sketches of Spain. And Miles naturally was a huge fan of Helen’s singing, loving the way she seemed to be on such intimate terms with the microphone, only needing to whisper.
The second Helen Merrill record I bought was Parole e Musica, a 1960 LP Helen recorded while in exile in Italy. It features some beautiful performances by Helen in a small group setting, with each number oddly preceded by the lyrics being recited in Italian very melodramatically. The small group is led by Piero Umiliani who would go on to become the great soundtrack, library, early electronic maestro, and oh how you could easily devote the rest of your life to investigating the soundtrack work of Italian composers in the ‘60s/‘70s. Helen would herself feature on Umiliani’s Smog soundtrack, along with fellow exile Chet Baker, and this needs to be heard. Sadly I have not as far as I know heard anything Helen may have recorded with Ennio Morricone.. It was on her return to the US that Helen made The Artistry Of ... at what must have been a difficult time for jazz vocalists not keen on following the pop or cabaret routes. It was in this climate that Helen go on to make the particularly uncompromising The Feeling Is Mutual
with pianist Dick Katz. A real against the odds record. It was a struggle to get the record released. It was more of a struggle to get anyone to listen to it at the time. Or indeed its 1968-ish successor, the equally stark and bleak Katz collaboration, A Shade of Difference, which features perhaps definitive interpretations of Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most and Lonely Woman. Thankfully in certain circles history has been kinder, and these two titles (now available on one CD) are particularly treasured by jazz noir aficionados. By 1966 Helen had moved to Japan where she tapped into the enthusiasm for jazz, though bizarrely perhaps having Helen on the doorstep may have destroyed the mystique somewhat. Nevertheless she made some great records out there including Bossa Nova In Tokyo, where bossa sophistication and intimacy seems to have been something Helen might have invented. The version of Yesterday on the LP might just be the best or certainly the most haunting Beatles cover ever. There would later be a complete LP of Beatles songs and indeed a folk LP recorded in Japan, but these too have so far eluded me. Coming from a pop perspective, with its emphasis on youth, immediacy and newness, one of the revelations about jazz vocalists is the fact that ‘later’ works can still shake you to the core and steal your heart. I’m thinking of some of the Nancy Harrow works based on literary themes, Sarah Vaughan’s Brazilian trilogy, the way Mark Murphy has evolved. While in the broadest pop context we might celebrate Scott Walker for his risk taking, we still manage to overlook a work as special as an LP Helen Merrill made at the turn of the millennium as she was entering her 70s. Jelena Ana Milcetic is a remarkable work, drawing on her Croatian roots, mixing folk sounds and deeply personal family memories in a challenging jazz setting, with a central suite of traditional or folk songs so much a part of the American psyche, like Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger and Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, where she makes the seemingly obvious outstandingly unique.
But this was the first time I’d heard an Odetta record right through. And I played it over and over. Its power is remarkable. And magnified by the simple embellishment of Bill Lee’s string bass which gives a jazz feel to a selection of songs that could be individually ballads, blues, spirituals, traditional folk numbers but which collectively become something incredibly powerful. I love Odetta’s voice because it could be like Robeson’s, classical in execution one moment and in another blink of the eye as possessed and as eerie as Skip James’.
Jo Stafford singing Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair on her 1950 American Folk Songs LP is another one of those performances that makes you ache inside. Paul Weston’s gloriously subdued silky strings background adding shading to Jo’s astonishingly pure and true delivery which makes you want to indulge in clichés about clear cool water from mountain springs. The song itself has one of those wonderful mixed up provenances. Is it an ancient Scottish ballad that made its way to the Appalachians and worked its way into the American folk fabric or was it composed painstakingly by the enigmatic John Jacob Niles and passed off as a traditional ballad like his wonderful I Wonder As I Wander which Jo also performs exquisitely on this LP? Performances of Poor Wayfaring Stranger (and Jo’s version of this would be a real favourite of Dusty’s) and Barbara Allen (and it was this performance that got Judy Collins interested in singing folk songs) are also heartrending. Jo had a remarkable voice that is perhaps not fully appreciated because it was predominantly heard in a highly successful post-WW2 and pre-rock ‘n’ roll popular song context. But there’s a real beauty and bite there. I got those same chills on first hearing the Ace reissue of Odetta’s One Grain of Sand. Naturally I was aware of Odetta, and the impact she had on many including Dylan, those connections.
The choice of songs on One Grain Of Sand is significant. A few Leadbelly numbers. A Pete Seeger composition to close. And in this way she is tapping into the tradition that the McCarthy era tried to tear the heart out of. I remember something Ian Svenonius wrote: “Folk was, with all its Communistic rhetoric, the pageant of the plainspoken man or woman, attempting as it did to popularize Socialist politics through traditional song forms. Socialism could be characterised as a ‘maternal’ ideology with its emphasis on care giving and nurturing its subjects’ needs ...” And when Svenonius wrote that, and when I first heard Odetta’s One Grain Of Sand, there was something of a revival of interest in folk music going on, which seemed to home in on the acid folk era, the whole Joe Boyd Witchseason thing, Vashti and Incredible String Band, hippy passivity playing to well-off professionals at corporate-sponsored festivals, rather than the confrontational Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger variety. While I wouldn’t actually cast doubt on the depth of feeling some of those involved may have for folk music and their passion for rediscovering American primitives it just seemed a total cop out and betrayal of one strain of folk traditions in an age of political and economic madness, and you begin to sense conspiracies when an American of the stature of Pete Seeger is best known for allegedly trying to stop Dylan go electric. Ah but you ought to read Ian Svenonius on that ...
confused notion at the time of who Huddie ‘Leadbelly’ Ledbetter was anyway. It takes some getting used to the idea that this troubled itinerant blues singer who from time to time hung out with the folk song collectors and agitators, that this man who wrote Bourgeois Blues would also one way and another when he wasn’t in trouble with the authorities be responsible for Goodnight Irene, Black Betty, Rock Island Line, Midnight Special, Cottonfields, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.
“Once in the late 1930s when in the village alone I met Monte Kay. Monte and I used to hang out at a couple of places together, and one morning, as the sun was rising, we ran into Huddie ‘Leadbelly’ Ledbetter, the legendary blues singer and composer. We all sat down on the curb at I believe Seventh Avenue and 4th Street, and Leadbelly sang the blues for us with his guitar, himself in the middle, and Monte and I on either side of him. There were three of us, sitting on a curb in the Village at dawn, and Leadbelly singing his ass off. I guess this was the time he had just been released from prison through the efforts of Alan Lomax, the also legendary blues fan and anthologist.” - Bob Thiele I can vividly remember hearing Tav Falco and the Panther Burns’ Behind The Magnolia Curtain for the first time. I didn’t hear it immediately when Rough Trade (bless ‘em) released it in the UK. It would be a few years later that I caught up with it when a friend put together a tape and said you need to hear this song. Bourgeois Blues blew me away. Tav howling: “Home of the brave. Land of the free. I don’t wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie ...” I recognised the climax immediately where Tav appropriates the opening lines of Ginsberg’s Howl! “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix ...” I was hooked. But I had no idea that this particularly righteous racket originated with Leadbelly. I would have had only a
But that’s the beauty of the Panther Burns. In a twisted way Tav Falco for all his showmanship is carrying on the torch lit by the likes of the Lomax family and John Jacob Niles. The Panther Burns’ The World We Knew, for example, is a valuable document as well as a cracking rock ‘n’ roll record, with the sleevenotes giving all sorts of arcane information about the songs’ backgrounds, with great stories about Cordell Jackson and Moon Records and Arkansas Twist-er Bobby Trammell, and all sorts of wonderful lines like: “Tombstone eyes recall moments of brilliance – a lifetime of despair.” Or: “Esoteric noir beat with an unapproachable groove and cryptic lines that pierced the darkness”. The Panther Burns’ world is far more mixed up than the culture corps would want you to know. It’s one where rockabilly, tango, swamp/beat, big band swing, pipe and drum marching bands, and ten shades of the blues are all kept alive through a fantastic form of performance art that’s suggestive of a passage in Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good where he argues that perhaps the last expression of the progressive spirit behind the folk song movement occurred on 28 January 1950, at a Leadbelly memorial concert, where the jazz and folk traditions showed solidarity. Among those appearing were Sidney Bechet, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Jean Ritchie, Count Basie, Lord Invader, Revd Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and The Weavers. By this time the House of Un-American Activities Committee was casting a shadow, and many were exhausted, embittered, bullied or betrayed.
“Good music is a soundtrack to life--it puts you in a place, creates a mood. Jazz always seems to do it for me: Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, these musicians make me feel like I am in my life, whereas often I feel like I'm just racing through. With this album, I wanted to evoke a mood for the listener, a kind of slowed down longing. I also made sure to add some beats. I was attracted to hip hop, dusty samples, old and scratchy-also beautiful, female-vocal heavy, Brazillian music." – Jill Cunniff Jill Cunniff’s City Beach was one of the records of the summer of 2007. A successful return after the planned disappearance of Luscious Jackson. A record that suggests finding sanctuary and space, alone with the warmth of an acoustic guitar, but the beat’s reverberating in the distance, the city’s pulse beat. I remember reading an interview where the writer mentions how when he sat talking with Jill, they listened to the 1965 Charlie Byrd record, Brazilian Byrd. I love that record. And its follow-up, More Brazilian Byrd. The Tom Newsom arrangements. Those Jobim compositions. Byrd’s guitar playing. I have a real thing about jazz guitar playing. Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Jim Hall, Gabor Szabo and so on. I love so many records they’ve been involved with. But there is something in Byrd’s playing, the classical elements I guess, the links to Django and Segovia perhaps. It’s possibly this that links him more closely to the Brazilian tradition. Joao Gilberto, Baden Powell, Luiz Bonfa, Rosinha Da Valenca, Robert Menescal, Egberto Gismonti, and so on. Both the bossa tradition and the classical one. Byrd’s role in the popularisation of bossa nova is so important. It was during his visit to Brazil at the start of the ‘60s that he fell in love with the new sound. On his return to the States he shared his new found enthusiasm, and among those he galvanised would be Stan Getz, and the rest is history. Of course he wasn’t the only one to be inspired by the bossa nova revolution. But his particular passion did
trigger a certain sequence of events, and so there is a kind of appropriateness to Byrd making such beautiful Brazilian/bossa related records. There is a tremendous charm still to many of the early bossa related recordings made by musicians in North America in the early to mid ‘60s. Getz, Byrd, plus Bud Shank, Clare Fischer, Gary McFarland, Herbie Mann. These were evangelists for the new sound which would have worldwide repercussions. It’s impossible to quantify how many recordings were bossa nova related during the 1960s. The Bacharach sound, certain Beatles tracks, some Tamla tracks, and so on. The French reaction, via Pierre Barouh and Francis Lai. The influence on Italian soundtrack work, via composers like Morricone, Umiliani. And so on. The interesting thing too is the influences bouncing back and forth. Arthur Verocai has described how the Beatles influenced a lot of Brazilian recordings almost by osmosis. Earlier the Elenco label had released Brazilian editions of records by Chris Connor, Cannonball Adderley, and Dizzy Gillespie. It’s well documented too the impact Julie London’s recordings with Barney Kessell had in Brazil. One thing I’ve always wanted to ask Jill Cunniff is whether she’s heard the record Charlie Byrd made with Cal Tjader in the early ‘70s, Tambu. I think she would love it, and appreciate the poetry in the partnership. Two maestros who had spread the gospel about music from Brazil and latin America trying to tap into the spirit of the times once more. Of course it’s impossible to imagine what difference it would have made to development of popular music if people like Charlie Byrd and Herbie Mann had not visited Brazil at the start of the ‘60s and subsequently done so much to spread the word about the bossa nova revolution on their return to the States. The world would be a far bleaker place without the sound of bossa nova.
to fans of Joyce’s recordings from the same era and one track at least may be familiar as Passara turned up on a postTropicalia Soul Jazz compilation. There is also on Loronix a set of Jobim songs as part of a larger Talento Brasileiro series that included collections of Milton Nascimento and Chico Buarque compositions. The Nascimento set is available on CD and I wouldn’t want to argue with the sales pitch: “experimentation from the duo bursting with ‘60s soul and Brazilian melodies. It features beautiful choral arrangements, floating folk ballads and bossa laments.” What more would you need?
The interesting thing is that even now, in the internet age, we have so much to learn about Brazilian music. Labels like Far Out and Mr Bongo, websites like Loronix and Abracadabra have helped enormously. But the irony is that the more you discover, the deeper you go on to dig and delve, and it seems to get harder and harder to get background information. Fishing around on the internet, accessing lost classics, altruistically shared, I have been drawn to the name of Jaime Alem, but despite falling in love with a number of recordings he’s been involved with, I’m not much wiser. Jaime is maybe known now as the musical director for Maria Bethania, , the star of Pierre Barouh’s Saravah film, Caetano’s sister whose song about her I’ve just heard performed by Scott Walker on one of his lost early ‘70s LPs which remain stubbornly out of circulation. If in certain circles Jaime’s earlier work is known it would be the 1974 LP he made with Nair Candia. The opening track of this set, Sob O Mar, has something of a cult following in jazz dance communities, and has been remixed rather beautifully by the Kyoto Jazz Massive. The LP as a whole is a quite lovely set, with the Brazilian elements and close harmonies enhanced by a soft rock, folk fusion Laurel Canyon feel. The pair made a number of other recordings together, including Amanheceremos at the end of the ‘70s which would appeal enormously
It seems that prior to the partnership with Nair Candia, Jaime Alem was part of the vocal quartet O Grupo, who would appeal enormously to fans of MPB-4 and Quarteto Em Cy. Their 1968 debut seems to have been mainly arranged by the great Antonio Adolfo, who was also heavily involved in the writing, and the sound is not far removed from the wonderful Brazuca recordings he would be involved with. O Grupo seem to have gone on to make another couple of LPs over the next few years, which both feature exquisite and intricate vocal harmony work, but beyond that it’s impossible to add very much. I can’t even add anything about the other members of the group, and with a name as blank as O Grupo it’s difficult to delve deeper. That, of course, leads into the debate about whether additional background colour is necessary. Knowing nothing doesn’t preclude enjoyment. It can sometimes add to it. Yet there is that justice thing. When there’s music out there as special as these Jaime & Nair records, as these O Grupo ones, when you are sure there are so many more special ones yet to hear, there is a moral duty, if you like, that says we need to share, celebrate, illustrate these sounds. When looked at in such a light, the invaluable online resources such as Loronix take on a role and meaning not unrelated to the precedents set by Moe Asch, Alan Lomax, John Jacob Niles, Pete Seeger and so on.
price for singing Spanish Civil War anthems adapted from old folk songs. Not to mention the role of folk songs in Brazil as protest during the military dictatorship there.
There is a case to be made for Rock ‘n’ Roll With The Modern Lovers as the most slyly, subversive LP of all time. In its own context it was certainly one of the strangest, arriving at the peak of punk, but the incredibly heartening fact is that its oddness was hardly even noted, or questioned, except perhaps by clueless critics. Indeed one of its rummest tracks would go on to be one of the biggest ever instrumental hits. Following the success of Roadrunner in the summer of ’77, and the much delayed original Modern Lovers set, Jonathan perhaps perfectly gave the world a collection of songs that flew in the face of accepted logic, though to their credit record label Beserkley played along. The LP starts with the Chinese canticle The Sweeping Wind, and also includes a South American folk song, reaching out to and connecting with the traditions of different cultures, something considered now as Un-American and probably was even then but that’s one of the dumbest phrases because America is more than one country, and the States itself is made up of people from so many different ethnic backgrounds. And folk traditions are something all nations have in common. Phil Ochs a number of years earlier had on his African travels made recordings in Kenya, and had travelled to Chile to show solidarity with another folk singer Victor Jara during the Allende regime. And there are so many other examples, like the many recordings Miriam Makebe made in the US and Lette Mbulu’s recordings with David Axelrod, and all those that paid the
Then there is the issue of Jonathan singing kids’ songs. While as the ‘80s progressed there was something absurd about Oxbridge graduates and librarians skipping around stage in kids’ frocks and anoraks, Jonathan was tapping into a wholly different thing which is partly why shouldn’t you sing songs for children? Woody Guthrie did. Leadbelly did. Pete Seeger did. Tom Paxton did. In fact, after running foul of the mighty H.U.A.C. Pete Seeger found it difficult to get steady work, and often resorted to travelling round, playing kids’ summer camps, a fleeting appearance here and there in colleges, what he calls with a twinkle in his eye his guerrilla tactics. Tactics reinforced by sympathetic teachers playing folk music to kids in classrooms, planting seeds, innocently inculcating kids with folk songs like Where Have All The Flowers Gone , subversively subconsciously assimilated. Then there is the reggae issue. I have no idea how popular reggae was in the US in the ‘70s. I know the great Johnny Nash helped spread the word. But Egyptian Reggae is pure genius. Mixed up as hell. The rhythm stolen from Johnny Clarke’s None Shall Escape The Judgement. The reference to the music hall tradition of Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s sand dancing. In the UK we had the surreal treat of the dancers on Top Of The Pops doing one of thee most absurd routines to accompany the song. And the song still works. It even appeared as an ultracool Jazzman 7” a while back. Naughty perhaps but unutterably cool to use that rhythm then. And then there was the approach of Jonathan and the Modern Lovers. The kid who was such a massive fan of the Velvets taking everything back to its logical roots with an almost skiffle or folk acoustic approach which meant they could put the show on anywhere. Load up the truck and take the music to the people …
That’s the way Pete Seeger told it to Studs Terkel. And I’ve always argued that record labels should be born out of necessity, launched as a desperate crusade. One way and another many of the recordings Moe Asch’s Folkways label issued, documents of the ‘old free America’, would change people’s lives. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music would, for example, be a bible to people like Dave Van Ronk.
“You know how Moe got started making records? In 1939, his father said, ‘Moe, you have a recording machine. We gotta drive to Princeton to record Dr Einstein in a short message, which can be played on the radio, urging American Jews to give more help to their relatives in Germany to get out of Germany’ And they record the little five-minute message from Dr Einstein. “Over supper Dr Einstein says’ ‘Well, young Mr Asch, what do you do for a living?’ And Moe says, ‘I make a living installing public address systems in hotels. But I am fascinated with this little recording machine and its possibilities. I’ve met a Negro folksinger in New York named Leadbelly, and nobody’s recording him because they say he’s not commercial. I think someone should record him.’ Einstein says, ‘You’re absolutely right. Americans don’t appreciate their own culture. It’ll be a Polish Jew, like you, who will do the job.’ So Moe recorded Leadbelly. “Years later I asked Moe, ‘How many records did you sell?’ He said, ‘One hundred copies in one year.’ ...”
We all have our bibles, our turning points. For me, it was Postcard Records of Scotland. It was for a few glorious years at the start of the ‘80s my education, religion and cultural primer. I’d follow up clues all over the place, feeling that sense of recognition and illumination, the symbolism in the Ork 7” of Little Johnny Jewel, Eloise Laws’ Love Factory, The Sound of Philadelphia, Gene Clark’s tambourine, John Sebastian’s autoharp, Mavis Staples’ voice, Rob Simmons’ Fender Mustang, Mo Tucker’s striped tshirts, a photo of Bob Dylan and Francoise Hardy looking at an LP sleeve, Vic Godard talking about Maupassant and Sinatra, the Time’s Up bootleg, The Pop Group searching for love in the library of a ghost town, Salinger’s love and squalor, Jonathan Richman singing It Will Stand. Over the years I would keep my faith but oh too often wouldn’t recognise Postcard Records in the way the label would be written about. Accepted truths were rehashed. But where was the spite, the single-mindedness, the contrariness, the intolerance and intelligence, the parlous and peerless panache that was so much a part of my revolt into style. Provocatively pitched as punk’s first true independent, on its return in 1993 Postcard proclaimed itself to be the last of the punk independents. It was an absence of ten years or so, but it felt like a lifetime. It felt more like one of those old westerns where the old gunslingers are corralled and cajoled into action to deal with some unfinished action in town. Or if you prefer a Dickensian analogy the participants were recalled to life in a Tale of Two Cities sense.
1993. It really was the best of times, and the worst of times. The best of times with all the pirate radio stations blasting out jungle and rough house sounds, with ambient dub and Warp’s artificial intelligence series, with Bristol blues and roots and Mo’ Wax approaching. Yet it was the worst of times too, with Brit Pop, the shoegazers and the grunge kids. Some underground. It was a good time to return to the fray. The world needed Postcard but the last thing it needed was any traditionalist tendencies. I had some reservations. A few fears. Yet some things were impossible to resist, like the attention to detail, the ability to create an aura, the sense of illicit glamour, the cussed romanticism. And when I was paying attention one of the things that made me smile was Horne sticking doggedly with the old guns, resisting the temptation or logic of shipping in new talent which might have helped shift a few units but would doubtless have spoilt the magic. When Postcard resurfaced I didn’t even own a CD player. I couldn’t even play the new releases at first. But it meant I could appreciate them more as art objects. The records themselves, the compact discs, were issued in expensive digipaks, as Alan Horne refused to use ugly jewel cases, on aesthetic grounds, awkward so-and-so, remaining in his own words a virtuoso of unspecific anger. I have always been a soft touch record companies that allocate catalogue numbers to items that are not records. And the revivified Postcard did just that with a real flourish. I got hold of a limited No Variety A2 sized black and white poster, and swapped a book for a Postcard t-shirt. The t-shirt I wore with pride. The poster, an artful collage, I still treasure. Goodness knows what happened to the book. But it was the Catalogh I sat studying, in the same way I did with the original Postcard Brochure back in ’81. And, as then, it seemed to be brimming with phrases that seemed strangely familiar, as though thoughts floating around in my own head had escaped and been uttered by somebody else.
I liked the fact that in 1981/82 Alan Horne made up releases to boost Postcard’s portfolio as it evolved into an international concern (with all the hangers-on that come with such things), so the revivified version seemed to be rampant with films that may never be screened, scripts never written, plays never to be performed, books never to be published, radio shows never broadcast, club nights never hosted, sermons never delivered, soundtracks never issued, performers never recorded, songs never sung, and even if they were somehow I was out that night. Postcard persisted but the mood noticeably darkened. What was a secret organisation waging guerrilla warfare on the sausage factory that was the music industry became a backs-against-the wall concern, fatalistic, the loveless, preparing for failure. “Allow us to sidestep the collective amnesia that constantly threatens to engulf us.” I missed the final two-fingered salute, but liked the fact that the last I heard was how Horne hated Belle & Sebastian. It was a relief to know I wasn’t alone. Since then he seems to have resolutely resisted the urge to return again and take further bows. Instead he’s sat back and watched some warped takes on what he was trying to do. The temptation to intervene and turn into a talking head on a thousand documentaries will have been strong, so the prevailing silence is all the more remarkable. That takes guts. And long may it continue.
And you get wary of saying that NN9 had a way with tunes, but few have a way with tunes the way Davy Henderson does, especially when they emerge coquettish creeping out of the most unlikely and even ugliest of environments. But it is that contrast, the balance between discordance (discord dance!) and melody, like when Albert Ayler or Funkadelic or Beefheart settle down for a moment and the kinetic madness settles down and forms something quite beautiful, as if to say you see, you hear that! It’s there on The Fall’s Your Heart Out, on some Sun Ra, it’s why Bob Thiele got Coltrane to record Ballads.
For those of us that are Vic’s children, Postcard’s progeny, for us poor misguided souls Davy Henderson was, is now, and always shall be a sacred figure, symbolic of a destructive urge that would have had Leonardo leave the Mona Lisa with a stye on her eye. Thus the return of Davy Henderson with Nectarine No. 9 as part of Postcard’s resurgence was enough to get the juices flowing. If we needed the NN9 at all we needed the NN9 to be a little bit nasty and sly but with a pure pop heart that could if necessary bring song festivals to a stand still doubtless with a number that would mock the authorities if anyone bothered to listen to the words. On its release NN9’s A Sea With Three Stars would be one of the very few contemporary records with guitars worth getting a CD player for, and even then the temptation would be too much to get distracted by the tidal wave of reissues with oh so many gems packed tightly on to a shiny little disc from good people to do business with like Kent and Rev-ola. I think the first CDs I did buy were the Definitive Impressions and a Fred Neil collection, but that’s neither here nor there really. The point is most groups with guitars, well! Shooting would have been too good for ‘em.
NN9 followed on from the synthetic Win thing, and boy if you want tunes that was the place to go, but somehow it didn’t happen, and ridiculously, absurdly, it still hasn’t happened because it seems blindingly obvious that if some trash icon or pop poppet wants to hit the big time Shampoo Tears or You’ve Got The Power or even or especially Un-American Broadcasting would be just the ticket, like Leadbelly coming up with Goodnight Irene, or the good Captain’s Hairy Irene. One of the other great things about A Sea with Three Stars and its follow up the perhaps even better Saint Jack (soon to re-emerge on Creeping Bent’s digital salvage operation We Can Still Picnic, and Creeping Bent was of course home for NN9 for a long time and every single release is worth having) would be the imagery evoked by Davy’s cut-up collages which by juxtaposing words, seemingly erratically, created something that made perfect sense. My Trapped Lightning is a good example. And I love that song. “The compass is a fake, you’ve lost your way. You kick the dust, five, five times a day. Your holy ghost’s lost in the post. Please pa, don’t turn my P.A. off …” There’s some sad, down, down and out stuff on Saint Jack. Well, it seems that way, whether it’s meant that way or not. “You got failure written all over your shirt. You’ve never had it so bad. You never had it.” I love that. “Your angel’s got clipped wings. And every flower stings …”
of flow to it that made you think of jazz if you knew jazz.” Anyway, Kerouac’s first set, just him on a bar stool, reading, didn’t seem to work. Then Steve Allen hit on the idea of playing a bit of piano behind Jack for the second set, which worked so well the idea of doing a record like that took hold. What’s happened to poetry? Oh there’s hip hop and many rappers are fantastic poets and performers. But what about poetry as in people actually calling it poetry, like the great Ursula Rucker insists on doing. There was that whole black jazz poetry tradition. The Brazilian tradition where Vinicius, an established poet, was central to the bossa revolution. There was a time so many of the punk fanzines had poetry sections, Paul Weller set up his own publishing imprint to get some poetry to a wider audience, and some like Anne Clark graduated to making real records. Ah life. Poetry. The beat generation. And all that jazz. There was something, from a distance, about the whole Postcard milieu that seemed as cool and as absurd and as appealing as the original Kerouac coterie. Always thought that. It was my beat generation. Then Davy and the Nectarine No 9 go and record a song called Pull My Daisy, immediately identifying themselves with what seemed then the lost beat generation short film based on Kerouac’s poem. I liked that. It seemed wonderfully at odds with the dumbing down fare of those blaringly blurred times, this aligning yourself with the likes of Ferlinghetti, Corso, Burroughs, Ginsberg. I hoped it would be the theme Anita Ellis sings at the start of the film. The funny thing is at the time Pull My Daisy, the film, seemed something hopelessly unattainable, and the days you could type those three words into a search engine and instantly download it for random viewing seemed infinitely remote even then. There’s a great Bob Thiele story about Jack Kerouac and how he and Steve Allen went to see the great man perform at the Village Vanguard, having been deeply affected by Kerouac’s feel for music: “The way he read his poetry, there was a sort
The romance has disappeared somewhat from the image of a poet, the battered notebook, the involuntary scribbling, the chewed end of the pen, the preoccupied gazing into the distance, the need to get something down on paper. But in a strange way Davy and the Nectarine No 9 did their bit, improbably backing Caledonian character Jock Scot on a couple of Saint Jack tracks, and then making a full set of Scot poems with NN9 backing on what I assume is the last ever Postcard related release, leased to Sano Records. While I might not love the Burns night Bukowski barfly persona, Scot does have a way with words, and there are moments of magic on that record, like the imagery in White Cars Passing By of going up to the Hampstead Everyman to see Le Mepris. And the line: “My precious poetry, so easy to write, is becoming difficult to read ...” In a neat piece of symmetry Scot would later make a record with Gareth Sager. Sager had by then played with the NN9, and more recently Davy appears on Sager’s great Slack Slack Music. In 1995 the Nectarine No 9 would back Paul Quinn on a magnificently moving cover of Head’s Tiger Tiger, Gareth Sager’s bleak Blakey song of experience...
Jack Scott was. And it’s no wonder Alan Horne wrapped the whole Paul Quinn thing in imagery echoing Robert Gordon’s astonishing presence in The Loveless.
There are many artists about whom it can be claimed they are the unluckiest in the world. Cases can be made for Evie Sands and Jackie Paris. A large part of the appeal of deep soul and the blues is the ill luck its purveyors endured. That’s not even touching on the rockabilly and garage unknowns. Or the Brazilian Scott Walker, Jose Mauro who was killed in a car accident shortly after his first and classic Obnoxius LP was issued. Then there are some of the people we’ve featured in YHO like Judy Clay, Irene Kral, Mick Bevan of the Decorators, Paul Simpson, Robert Lloyd. Doomed souls. There is a growing momentum to cast Paul Quinn in this role. He is certainly a contender for the greatest star there never was. Thinking of Paul hunched, face contorted with pain, lips quivering, quiff tremulous, singing about all the troubles of the world on a transistor radio, it’s hard not to think of what might have been. And it’s hard not to think of Tav Falco and the world he knew: “Sinatra droops at the microphone ...”. What a voice. Potentially up with the acknowledged great voices. Scott Walker, Bowie. Johnny Ray singing Look Homeward Angel. Waylon Jennings doing Singer Of Sad Songs. Sanford Clark singing The Fool. Robert Gordon with Link Wray doing The Way I Walk in 1977 when we wouldn’t have had a clue who
Paul Quinn really was unlucky with his timing. Bit parts with the French Impressionists and Jazzateers, and then the big break with Bourgie Bourgie, the moment of genius that was Breaking Point, but it wasn’t what the world needed at that moment. And accepting Paul is cursed, then sadly Bourgie Bourgie’s Ian Burgoyne and Keith Band as a songwriting team must be too. But hopefully the world will shortly get to hear their early moments of brilliance as kids with the Jazzateers when early demos and tracks from the long lost Lee (Postcard) LP finally emerge. Just wait till you hear the original demo, the beautiful seven minutes of Natural Progression. You can see how with Postcard’s reignition Alan Horne must have felt that in Paul Quinn he had a contender to take on anyone, only to find no-one turned up to take on the challenge, and illness sadly stripped the world of the opportunity of a return bout, but at least there are those two Postcard LPs. Beautiful records. And I have to say what I loved about those records was the wrecking crew that got together as The Independent Group to lend support. Whew. These were some of the best songwriting credits since Chinese Rocks: Quinn, Horne, Kirk, Hodgens. The return of James Kirk on the Paul Quinn records was particularly poignant. The lost soul returning. There had, after all, only been that one Memphis single in the intervening post-OJs years (and incidentally what was it with Glasgow and the Apres-Ski? Memphis and Bourgie Bourgie with songs of the same name. Was it a nod and a wink to Vic Godard’s Nice On The Ice or the Invitations’ Skiing In The Snow?). It would be another decade before James Kirk would release his sole solo LP, the wonderful You Can Make It If You Boogie. He would also appropriately appear with kindred spirit Vic Godard on a pretty special Future Pilot AKA track, Love Of The Land.
Boy and Radio Drill Time hot on the heels of the Split Up The Money single. There was of course then a perfect appropriateness to Postcard stepping in to save the day and finally release End Of The Surrey People. For with Vic nothing’s ever straight forward. Traditionally it would be Geoff Travis and Rough Trade that came up trumps, but this time around they were the ones that went bust. Heavenly, if I remember rightly then got involved, and I can remember at the time seeing the original of the painting that would become the cover of End Of The Surrey People though I’m sure it was more than head and shoulders as I have this mental image of a rather natty diamond pattern sweater over a polo shirt. In September 1992 Vic Godard appeared playing at London’s Town & Country Club as part of a week of charity gigs put on by the NME and some deserving cause like Shelter. Vic took to the stage with an all-star line-up that featured Edwyn Collins, Paul Cook, Segs, and Duffy. You think that would be hard to beat, but a later line-up would have Dennis Bovell on bass. Anyway, this was probably the first time Vic had appeared on a London stage since the ill-fated Bay 63 appearance in 1986. It would bizarrely be shown a couple of months later on some regional independent TV channels in the late night slot. DVDs of this circulate still. The set would predominantly feature new songs that would the following year appear on the End Of The Surrey People LP, like On The Shore, Talent To Follow, Same Mistakes, Malicious Love and Nullify My Reputation. Exceptions included Keep Our Chains, which would emerge years later on the marvellously messy Long Term Side Effect, and Holiday Hymn. Holiday Hymn was a song that had Postcard connections and dated back to the March 1980 Music Machine Northern Soul sets Vic performed, which Alan Horne had witnessed and taped. Orange Juice would shortly cover Holiday Hymn, one of many indicators that Vic was Postcard’s patron saint. Oh, there were all sorts of clues to that, down to the use of photos on the record labels on Blue
But there was something about Heavenly being swallowed up by Sony, and the sausage factory didn’t want Vic as part of the new deal eerily echoing what happened with Blanco y Negro and Warners or whatever when Vic was in T.R.O.U.B.L.E. But thankfully Edwyn Collins kept faith with the recordings, got them all finished one way and another bless ‘im, and all too appropriately they came out on the revivified Postcard. You couldn’t make it up. Almost too perfect to be true. End Of The Surrey People. It’s still my favourite Vic record. The whole Faces and old soul and blues thing going on. Oh that’s a tricky area talking about the Faces, conjuring up the boozy rockers image, but there were moments of undeniable genius and beauty, and when some of the old songs come on the radio you wonder how on earth they managed to come up with something that special. Hummable tunes that stay with you. Some lovely lyrics and wonderful wordplay. It’s a gift. And some like Vic are genuinely gifted, no matter what. And the Postcard catalogh mentions a promotional film for Won’t Turn Back shot on Super-8 (Dubh 937eight), directed by Douglas Hart, featuring Dennis, Edwyn, Shepherds Bush Market and Northern Soul dancers. Ah. Does anyone have that?
perhaps made one or two pairs of eyebrows shoot up. But there is a connection between Vic, the music hall, and the hip hop traditions, which is about the words, the love of words, the use of words, the sound of words. In the emerging early ‘80s English DJ/MC tradition it could be argued that while Ranking Ann was the militant the likes of Laurel & Hardy, Tippa Irie, Benjie B, Smiley Culture used humour and pop culture references, sometimes to make a serious point or two, sometimes just to have some fun and show off skills, not unlike the old music hall artists who perhaps provided the folk songs of their day, like hip hop today, like hip hop in the UK. You do what you can to keep yourself going in these crazy times. To keep yourself busy. And the London songs project that’s ongoing is a lot of fun. Not least because it’s meant a lot of digging around in forgotten cardboard boxes, looking specifically for London related tracks no matter how tangentially, searching through the memory banks, following up half-remembered references one way or another, even if shamelessly it means using the web to track connections. One of the more rewarding sources of London songs has been naturally enough the music hall tradition. Understandable as it was very London focused. And it’s been great having an interest in music hall that could be traced back through the Kinks, through family roots, through Colin MacInnes’ Sweet Saturday Night. Among the delights that I have discovered has been Whit Cunliffe’s There’s No Place Like London where he sings about not wanting to go to the USA and how “English songs are now forgotten” as everyone sings to the tune of the land of cotton. It’s tempting to pair that with Vic Godard’s Americana on Fire where he remembers the Lenin poster in pillar box red he lusted after which shot straight from the hip in the Cyrillic script. Vic understandably is something of a music hall fan himself. He would also emerge as a fan of hip hop, which
There is a serious point there. There is a sense where UK hip hop is viewed often as a pale imitation, literally, of the US model, a perception of perpetually unimpressive under performers, with one or two exceptions. Nothing new here. The early UK reggae MCs will have faced accusations of not being authentic. Dennis Bovell used to have to pretend his recordings were imports from JA in order to get people to listen. UK soul would be sniffily dismissed as not the real thing. But at least 40 plus years on people may be more open minded and acknowledge ‘60s UK soul recordings as worth treasuring. Will UK hip hop have to wait that long? Well, if present portrayals persist, even when one way or another Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, and Tinchy Stryder are topping the charts, there are still highbrow articles bleating on about hip hop being the authentic soundtrack for the Thatcher years, the neo-liberal generation, and then failing to mention even one UK hip hop artist. And repeated portrayals stick like mud, people stick to their lines. Remember Horne’s line about collective amnesia? Should I have been surprised then when searching out London songs the underrated UK hip hop tradition would yield such great sounds, Black Radical, Caveman, Overlord X, and some genuinely great LPs that have not had special edition anniversary publications …
example of Rough Trade failing to capitalise on the Mighty Diamonds’ 'Pass The Coutchi', Green raging: “I think there’s some people at Rough Trade who’ve still never heard of the record, never knew they’d even released it. That’s really dreadful.”
Here in the UK you can read quite a bit about the Jamaican roots of hip hop and the role of and influence of the DJ and sound system traditions on block parties in the Bronx. It’s a good story, and all that, but there is potentially a better one to be told on our own doorsteps. Ironic that, ignoring the adventures close to home, the evolution of the British MCs/DJs working within the sound system culture in the early ‘80s, the superstars that graduated through the ranks of Saxon Sound for example. Hardly surprising these stories are ignored as there is so little available of the material from that era, not even the scene’s successes from Laurel & Hardy, Smiley Culture, Tippa Irie, let alone less well known though genuinely gifted mic controllers, fast style chatters, toasters, whatever you want to call them, like Papa Levi, Papa Benjie, Macka B, Asher Senator and so on. If you want to hear them you’re going have to scratch around, which is ridiculous because the more you dig the more gems you find. Oh we know how to celebrate unique contributions to our culture don’t we? One exception is Ranking Ann’s A Slice of English Toast, which is one of the best records ever and is at least available on CD, possibly due to its Mad Professor/Ariwa Sounds origins. The name Ranking Ann may resonate through its connections with Scritti Politti (good for Green getting Ann in to chat on Flesh And Blood/The Word Girl - Green, remember called underground labels “worthy but infuriating”, citing the
A Slice Of ... is an astonishing record. Ann is an accomplished toaster, with an acerbic and astute turn of phrase that confounds stereotypes by being the best, the brightest. And the Mad Professor’s productions provide the perfect setting with what would become his trademark eccentricities that were so unlike the mainstream JA sounds. This was, what, 1982, around the time he worked on the Ruts DC’s Rhythm Collision, carving a neat little niche for himself. The Mad Professor would later joke that it was only later that Ann got noticed when the intellectuals and hippies adopted her. You can imagine certain sorts gleefully seizing upon the phenomenon of a young black Londoner talking about everyday life and being a liberated woman rather than love, romance and beating down Babylon. Mod academic Dick Hebdige’s Cut ‘n’ Mix book in particular homes in on Ranking Ann’s spectacularly strident single, Kill The Police Bill, which wonderfully was financed by the Greater London Council’s Police Support Unit. As chilling and as caustic as Ranking Ann’s performance is on this single (added to the CD edition of her debut LP if any incentive is needed) it would be wrong to give the impression that her recordings are in any way arid and worthy. On the contrary, surviving footage shows Ranking Ann to have formidable presence, a wicked wit, and when she says she’s in love you’d best believe she’s in love. Ridiculously the subsequent LPs Ranking Ann recorded are out of circulation, and when you consider all the reissues Greensleeves has put out how odd is it that the Sister Nancy LP One Two similarly remains elusive, and it’s then you start putting conspiracy theories together and wondering whether people are genuinely scared of having cosy truths shattered or are they just stupid.
from a whole beach. One raindrop from a whole thunderstorm. Never repeating, always altering form. We don't conform to what you think is expected ...” The Demon Boyz were from North London, and there would be a parallel dancehall scene which is documented on the Honest Jon’s compilation Watch How The People Dancing: Unity Sounds From The London Dancehall, 1986 – 1989. Hip hop then it’s easy to forget wasn’t yet the world dominating force it would be, so scenes would be more mixed up than people would have you believe. It comes through naturally on Recognition. There’s even a throwaway reference to accciiieeed. One of the bona fide classic UK hip hop LPs that is available on CD is Recognition by the Demon Boyz, which was originally released at the height of one of rap’s golden ages in 1989. Its sheer exuberance, rumbustiousness and, dare I say it, youthful innocence is still incredibly infectious. That’s innocence in a sense of party music, the irresistibility of showing off your skills, so sure of yourself, the cocky assurance that is tempered by being disarmingly charming. You see it too in old clips of Tippa Irie and Smiley Culture. Sure some of the tracks sound gauche and technologically basic, but that seems to add to the appeal. Of all the early UK hip hop outfits the Demon Boyz were notable for a number of reasons. One is having the confidence to avoid being in thrall to American idols and so rap in an English accent, which is not exactly the Queen’s English but the vernacular of young Black kids kicking around London, with the slang that goes with it. And that slang would be closely connected to reggae traditions. That was the second aspect that set the Demon Boyz apart. The influence of the sound systems or dancehall culture which would be blended neatly with the hip hop breaks and beats. The delivery would be as rapidfire as the best of Jamaican DJs. No great social messages but some neat wordplay: “Vibes are in my body, mi say this is just a sample. This is one pence from a million pounds. One sand particle
Tracks on Recognition seem to predict that within a few years the ragga or dancehall influence on hip hop and house would be one of the prime factors in the evolution of jungle and hardcore sounds which would dominate London’s pirate stations in the early ‘90s. Others would make the connection, like the Shut Up And Dance stable. The S.U.A.D. guys were hip hop fanatics who happened to have links to the dancehall scene, while the Ragga Twins would graduate from the Unity soundsystem. Of course their trump card Nicolette had a far more complicated heritage, but that’s the beauty of it. A second Demon Boyz LP, Original Guidance, released in 1993-ish has subsequently been hid from view which is a tragedy as it hits considerably harder than its predecessor. The youthful zest is gone, the lyrics are tougher, angrier, and the sound much more obviously aligned with the jungle sounds of the time. Glimity Glamity, Outernational Karate, and Hocus Pocus are rough and intent on creating a rumpus. Among the junglist rhythms there is much more of a civil liberties theme in the lyrics, attacks on police harassment, traces of bitterness at industry machinations, and a massive irony in that the airwaves were becoming dominated by MCs chatting over tracks, with stream of consciousness flows and little to say of any significance.
he’s on the verge of combustion, about to blow up in your face, practically speechless with rage, and you get some fool casting aspersions because of where Joe’s been to school and you just wanna scream look at the man singing there, doesn’t that lift you?
There is a really lovely novella by Lawrence Ferlinghetti called Love In The Days Of Rage which is set in the Paris of May 1968 at the height of the frenzy which tells the story of a love affair between an American painter and a Portuguese banker who just happens to be an undercover anarchist. Undercover Anarchist is also the title of one of the great UK hip hop moments. A single by Silver Bullet at the end of the ‘80s. Silver Bullet was a particular favourite of John Peel, a big champion of UK hip hop in his way. The Silver Bullet tracks he played would explode out of the radio like Suspect Device or Oh Bondage Up Yours had once blasted the listener out of slumbering comfortableness. Unlike oh so many many performers that appeared often enough on the John Peel radio show the transition from small independent to major recording conglomerate in the case of Silver Bullet resulted in a record that was even more ridiculously raw. In the case of UK hip hop as in the days of post-punk this would be nothing short of a miracle. The one and only Silver Bullet LP, Bring Down The Walls – No Limit Squad Returns, came out on Parlophone in 1991. It now goes for silly money as befits its status as a bona fide ferocious UK hip hop masterpiece, which nevertheless far too few folks are fervent about. Silver Bullet’s performance throughout Bring Down The Walls is astonishingly angry, and convincingly so. Like Public Enemy or The Clash, Pistols or Boogie Down Productions. Like when you watch the old video clips of Joe Strummer and
20 Seconds To Comply. Undercover Anarchist. Bring Forth The Guillotine. Legions of the Damned. Silver Bullet’s songs still strike like situationist slogans. If the lyrics themselves are like rapid fire accusations, apocalyptic attacks and cutup manifestos then the rage itself seems scattergun too. Rather like Alan Horne’s virtuosos of unspecific anger. What are you against? What have you got? Come on, come on, I wanna hit out at everything. I wanna burn it all down before they come to get me. The other thing is the sound. You get the impression that the DJ (Mo? Mo! That’s it. Mo! God, that sounds like something out of Kerouac. And I keep on about Kerouac when I haven’t read him in years and am scared to do so ...) is less concerned about using a sample from some funk 45 no fink’s heard before than making a righteous racket that stirs up the fury further, fervour, and then coming over the horizon there’s the jungle thing, the holy row of ragga jungle, the terror years of Ed Rush and co. But whereas the drum ‘n’ bass thing would be all about the sound, on this LP it’s almost possible to forget what the DJ’s doing and focus fully on Silver Bullet’s mayhem. You know how the conspiracy theory goes. About how the industry likes to keep people in their place, and stop people getting ideas above their station, especially if they don’t fit into cosy cubbyholes and could be awkward sorts. Better to stick to the idea of the artist as minstrel. Putting on a minstrel show. Skits and slapstick. And the word minstrel is derived from mini-slave. Not Silver Bullet’s style. So he disappeared. Sort of. But like the old punks turning up in their transits with their ragtag bands long after their day in the sun, unable to give up the life, still with things to get out of their system, so good old Silver Bullet kept firing away in his way.
insidious message that covers casual racism, apartheid, the evils of Thatcher, the social security system of humiliation, homelessness, all over an infectious head-nodding jazz workout. It probably wasn’t a hit but it seemed to be everywhere, on the radio, the pirates and the barely legal stations at least.
You want to know about the decline of western civilisation? I saw Mark E Smith on Top Of The Pops with the Inspiral Carpets. That was the only time. There you go. It’s just the way things are, Joe. Manchester’s gotten good at marketing. Marketing itself. And like all good advertising campaigns, if something’s said often enough it sticks. The media works the same way. The usual suspects writing about the usual suspects. Selffulfilling fantasies. Soundbites selfperpetuate. Cities neatly niched. Identify your market segment. Mould your myth. Keep repeating it. When I used to quote Kerouac there were some lines from I think Vanity of Duluoz I loved about all clichés being truisms and all truisms being true. One cliché I do buy is that in 1991 there was a high tide mark culturally speaking with the seemingly simultaneous release of Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy and the Young Disciples’ Apparently Nothin’, though actually you don’t see that repeated too much. But for me there was always a third song that made up a kind of holy trinity, though memory recall cannot place it precisely as coming out at the same time, but it seemed to be there or thereabouts when thinking of those two songs. The third song was Black Whip by Chapter And The Verse. What a song! A swingin’ Ivan Boogaloo Jones referencing groove with a seemingly laconic rap that shuffles along in a very much of the moment Gang Starr or A Tribe Called Quest way but is actually closer to Gil Scott-Heron in its
An album, Great Western Street, would follow and it’s one of the best ever to emerge from Manchester. The Chapter part of the name would refer to a Smith & Mighty style production team consisting of Ariff Cousins and Colin Thorpe while The Verse would be a pool of excellent vocalists. The album’s a real melting pot of styles and influences, the hip hop and jazz of Black Whip, plenty of modern soul sounds, electro/house beats, a hint of reggae. The soul compositions are strong and often gorgeously infectious, but the showstoppers are Black Whip and Claremont Road. The latter, featuring Prince Kool, is a kind of Moss Side answer to The Message, up there with the absurdly neglected Yargo’s Another Moss Side Night as a bittersweet love/hate depiction of life on the wrong side of Manchester’s tracks. The start of Chapter and The Verse’s Black Whip features acknowledgements for Colin Clarke and Hewan Clarke, two DJs who are part of Manchester’s dub history or shadow story. There are plenty of people better placed than me to outline the role these guys played in the development of the Manchester jazz dance scene, and the tie-in to people like ACR, Jazz Defektors, Swamp Children, Kalima, in the same way that Paul Murphy and Gilles Peterson did in London. And if you want to press the point about the cosy compartmentalising of history then you might recognise the shorthand of Gilles Peterson equals Acid Jazz and Hewan Clarke equals Hacienda DJ but that’s the way things work. But dig around and you’ll find some other stories. Chapter and The Verse’s Great Western Street was released through Virgin on the Rham! label about which I know shamefully little apart from the fact it was based on Merseyside and had an eclectic catalogue, most famously including A Guy
Called Gerald with Voodoo Ray remixes and the debut Hot Lemonade LP. Gerald had close links at one time with Chapter And The Verse, playing together live and so on. Among the other releases Rham! put out would be Demonik’s Labyrinthe 12” which is a bass ‘n’ bleeps classic while The Bygraves’ Destiny is a classic cut of soulful house (swing bleep!) produced by Chapter. Beverley Bygraves would neatly be one of the Chapter and the Verse’s featured vocalists, such as on the gorgeous Keep On It
Ah. History. Manchester house nation. Somewhere in the notion of students going mad in the Hacienda the roots of house are lost. A Guy Called Gerald himself is particularly vocal about the true roots being in the electro sounds that were emerging in the early ‘80s, and which were particularly popular with the local black kids in Manchester at clubs like Legends where DJs like Greg Wilson would be the evangelists for the new music. It was from that scene that Manchester’s first breakdance crew, Broken Glass, emerged, and along the way they started making their own music, with Style Of The Street appearing on the UK electro Street Sounds compilation, and Greg Wilson at the controls. Among the ranks of Broken Glass would be MC Kermit Le Freak who would later join up with the Hinds brothers as Ruthless Rap Assassins, and continue to work with Wilson through his Murdertone label. Ruthless Rap Assassins would as the ‘80s became the
‘90s release a couple of classic LPs, Killer and Think It Ain’t Illegal Yet, which have disappeared from view, despite the RRAs having a neat hook for homely historians to cling to, which was that Kermit would re-emerge with Shaun Ryder in Black Grape. RRA tracks like Justice (Just Us), And It Wasn’t A Dream (sampling Cymande’s The Message appropriately) nevertheless are as great a slice of UK musical brilliance as anything issued by Factory, and say a lot more about life. And their Hard And Direct captures the dub musical history of Manchester in a way the media personalities never will, wonderfully showing how house and hip hop have the same roots in electrofunk, the technology, the mixing, the scratching, the rapping, the doing it for yourself. The RRAs’ work would have an undertone of weariness that acknowledged they were making life hard for themselves by refusing to compromise, not housing it up or having a celebrity remix and ridicule their tracks. Kermit’s sister would appear in Manchester hip hop duo Kiss AMC, with tracks like My Docs and A Bit of U2 (more Chapter connections there ...) that might fit neatly alongside the Cookie Crew, Wee Papa Girl Rockers, Monie Love, She Rockers and Betty Boo, but those tracks have an enduring appeal and exuberance that rises above the industry’s opportunism, which should provide consolation to all MCs under pressure to record a funky house number or two to pay some bills. Hip hop hasn’t been totally airbrushed from Manchester’s musical history. Greg Wilson, for example, is active again, trying to set the record straight. And in fairness it should be pointed out Dave Haslam did feature young black Manchester artists in the ‘80s in his Debris magazine, and did release tracks by MC Buzz B and Prince Kool on his Play Hard label. MC Buzz B’s later, solitary LP, Words Escape Me, is another classic out of circulation. Coming from a more mellow A Tribe Called Quest/De La Soul angle it’s another early ‘90s gem. Buzz B’s delivery is fairly unique as it is genuinely soft spoken with a distinct north west England take on Rakim’s style.
of songs on Brand New Second Hand that runs from Juggle Tings Proper, Inna, Soul Decay to Baptism is extraordinary and unmatched in popular music.
Oh occasionally critical consensus concedes something related to UK hip hop is worthy of interest. With eyes on the Mercury Prize it naturally helps if there is a convenient handle to hold on to. The classic case scenario is the Bristol blues and roots early ‘90s thing, or more recently Dizzee Rascal as the face of garage ‘n’ rhyme was seized upon. Somewhere in between in every way there was a flurry of interest in what was happening with Roots Manuva, Ms Dynamite and The Streets. Obviously it helps the broadsheets if there is an opportunity to work in some references to The Specials. After all, you need something you feel comfortable with. It is Roots Manuva’s debut, Brand New Second Hand, that has attained classic status. Indeed there is a case to be made for it as the greatest UK hip hop LP yet. Released on Will Ashon’s Big Dada imprint at the turn of the millennium it has all the menace and moodiness cultural commentators so readily seized upon in Tricky’s work. But Roots Manuva was, and remains, harder for the theorists and careerists to compartmentalise. The articulate bad boy done good, talking about the trials, tribulations, temptations and jubilations of everyday life as he sees it. The strict family upbringing that keeps the thoughtful tearaway’s feet on the ground, as he ducks and dives through south London’s neglected badlands. The way he has soaked up the area’s reggae traditions, twisted it into something unique, mixed up with a million other things. All of this would be merely worthy were it not for the incredible work that Roots Manuva produces. The suite
The clue is in the title. But also the reggae tradition that gets picked up on. The sound systems, blues parties, pirate radio stations, the youth clubs where kids start trying out their skills on the decks and the mic. It’s a tradition steeped in independence and necessity. Doing it for ourselves. The spirit of defiance that is the flip of the Thatcherite entrepreneurial culture. It is this spirit of independence that would be muscled in on during the rave era. It is this spirit of independence that would be swallowed up by corporate sponsorship which exercises its own subliminal control. But more than that. Brand New Second Hand. New to us. So redolent of living on the bread line. Not making do and mend, but taking something and making it into something better. Hand-me-downs worn with panache. There may be holes in your soles but the uppers shine. The sort of thing Mark E Smith often talks about as he sneers at students slumming it. Roots Manuva, with that Prince Far I voice of thunder, as the southern Mark Smith? Collaborations in hip hop both fascinate and frustrate me. On one hand it continues a tradition deeply ingrained in jazz and reggae. On another it can be a huge distraction. But when it works it can be magic. Roots Manuva puts in a fantastic cameo on 23 Skidoo’s ‘comeback’ LP released in 2000. He also appears on Skitz’s Countryman which appeared on Skidoo’s Ronin imprint and has acquired symbolic status because it embodies what might have been. Skitz as DJ and producer allows a real variety of MCs to do a turn. Among those putting in an appearance are veteran Rodney P, who had been part of UK hip hop pioneers the London Posse, and the curious Skinnyman. Looking like a cross between music hall comedian Gus Elen and Vic Godard, Skinnyman would a few years later release his Council Estate of Mind LP, which casts the rapper as a Jekyll & Hyde character split between
conflicting loyalties, on one hand too clever for his own good, able to see through all the lies and ties yet despite his way with words and talent for rapping he almost seems perversely resigned to residing with the damned and defining and delineating, capturing poetry despite the poverty, deprivation and madness, out of spite and contrariness shatter and confirming stereotypes.
their immediate sphere. Sometimes this would fall flat on its face, but there is a real appeal to this type of project. Similarly artists associated with the ‘90s trip hop scene faced difficult questions about where to go next, with almost a straight choice between the underground broken beats scene or the progressively grandiloquent projects which would draw in all sorts of participants adding their own flavour. Among the adventurers would be The Herbaliser, whose ambitious works would include Take London and Something Wicked This Way Comes.
The standout track on Skitz’s LP (and there is a recurring theme here with UK hip hop which is making the one LP) is Domestic Science where three of the best, brightest MCs on the scene Wildflower, Tempa and Estelle give their side of daily travails, with a London accent, "whether it's rapping or working on the checkouts at Asda." If you want to know more about how the media and music business works it's worth investigating what happened subsequently to all the particpants in Domestic Science. Wildflower steals the show with the lines, summing up the industry’s attitude towards female MCs: “With much less lolly in our pop, still we don't stop. ‘Coz we find resource turn water into wine every time ...”
Both of those Herbaliser sets included contributions from Wildflower, and Good Girl Gone Bad on Something Wicked ... would be her last appearance on record before she decided to take “a break from all this musical madness”. There’s something about Wildflower’s wordplay that conjures up the spirit of Marie Lloyd, Wanda Jackson, Missy Elliott and Marion Elliott (Poly Styrene to you and I). And oh the bitter irony of Good Girl Gone Bad becoming the title of Rihanna’s allconquering 2007 LP.
Wildflower had appeared rapping with Roots Manuva on Baptism, one of the highlights of that first LP, which saw the rap iconoclast flogging white labels from a suitcase down East Lane, yelling rag and bone style. Over the ensuing years Wildflower (Vanessa George) would work, in her own words, with a wide range of “producers and artists from the Brit hip hop scene”. Track those collaborations and you’ll disappear deep into the underground with appearances on records by Covert, Shadow Cabinet, DJ Fingers, Funky Fresh Few, Karl Hinds. The Funky Fresh Few LP, Stealing, is a lost gem on Manchester’s Grand Central.
Wildflower would return via her MySpace page where she states: “It appears my work here is not done ...” The tracks currently available hint at what might have been. What might have happened perhaps if her career had taken off after the collaboration with Saint Etienne on Soft Like Me, the, you guessed it, oh yes, the standout track on their Finisterre LP. But then Saint Etienne while being blessed for instigating the collaboration have a track record for putting the hex on rappers. Remember Q-Tee? Her appearance on Filthy from So Tough, completely stealing the show, and then what? Quite.
But there were high profile collaborations too, including See Thru’ It on Aphrodite’s Aftershock in the strange afterglow of drum ‘n’ bass when the still active artists had the (ultimate) dilemma of staying hardline/hardcore in the new millennium or trying something more mutant, and ambitious, which would often involve collaborations with artists from outside
The absurd thing is Wildflower doesn’t even seem to have released a record under her own name. Hopefully I’m missing the obvious. But I fear the worst. So what does that tell us about the music industry and the way it works? Wasn’t there one damn entrepreneur out there with vision who could have saved the day? What were they all so scared of?
... your heart out