Thursday, June 30, 2011

Camberwell Street Art

The pictures on the Camberwell Snooker Club in South London (junction of Camberwell New Rd and Camberwell Passage) are a bit past their best, peeling and graffiti'd over in turn. But something of their grandeur remains. Seemingly this is the work of the 'WCA Free University of Stencil Art'

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Promised Land

Last week in Iowa, Michele Bachmann launched her bid to become the Republican candidate in the nex US presidential election. On the Tea Party far right of American politics, she has a long, lamentable history of anti-gay and anti-abortion activism not to mention whitewashing the history of slavery.

As she made her way to the podium in Waterloo at the weekend 'Elvis Presley's Promised Land belted out'. Well the notion of manifest destiny and Americans as the new chosen people is a hardy right wing trope, and at one level there is a connection between the idea of the Promised Land and the American frontier.

But we cannot leave the Promised Land in the hands of US Conservatives. The name itself derives of course from the Book of Genesis where God promises Moses the land of milk and honey, not a metaphysical utopia but the actual land of Israel. Over the millennia that tribal foundation myth of a people in the prehistoric Middle East has taken on a universal appeal, holding out the hope of a better world somewhere, some place, some time

It's hardly suprisizing that Bachmann chose Elvis Presley's version of the song, rather than the original by its black songwriter. When Chuck Berry sings it there is no doubt that the songs works on at least two levels. On the surface it is simply a description of a journey from Norfolk, Virginia to California, part of the 1950s/early 1960s mythologisation of travelling across the USA (Route 66, Highway 61, On the Road).

But at another level, the journey retraces a moment in the mass migration of black people from the segregated Southern states. Surely it can't be a coincidence that he 'bypassed Rock Hill' where in 1961 Freedom Riders had been beaten for fighting against racism on Greyhound buses. And at the time Berry was writing the song in prison in 1962/63 Birmingham, Alabama was the front line of the civil rights movement - no wonder the narrator can't get away quick enough once 'stranded in downtown Birmingham'.

A few years later, Martin Luther King brought the Promised Land into the heart of the struggles of the period. In his final speech in 1968 during the Memphis sanitation workers strike, King famously declared: 'I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop... And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land'. The next day he was murdered.

It is this semi-utopian Promised Land that Joe Smooth (and Anthony Thomas) sings of in the early Chicago house classic: 'Brothers, Sisters, One Day we will be free. From Fighting, Violence, People Crying in the Streets... as we walk, hand and hand, sisters, brothers, we'll make it to the promised land'

In Bruce Springsteen's take on this, from the 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town, the Promised Land features only as a hazy image of a better life. The singer professes 'I believe in the Promised Land' but he is unclear about what or where this is. It is simply the negation of a life spent 'Working all day in my daddy's garage', a place that can seemingly only be reached on the other side of the destruction of all that stands:

'I've done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart...
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down'.

(see also Springsteen's Thunder Road with its line 'Oh-oh come take my hand, Riding out tonight to case the promised land').

In its Rastafarian and Garveyite inflection, the Promised Land is firmly located in Africa. Dennis Brown's 1979 song, produced by Aswad, pictures Africa as a land of abundance and freedom: 'There's plenty of land for you and I, By and By, Lots of food to share for everyone, no time for segregation in the Promised Land'.

Dennis Brown's song is the starting point for last year's 'Land of Promise' by Nas and Damian Marley. This is a track that bring the Promised Land song cycle full circle, dropping the names of American states just like Chuck Berry but comparing them to African places: 'imagine Ghana like California... Lagos like Las Vegas'.

Speaking from Africa, Nigerian reggae singer Majek Fashek wonders whether the Promised Land is to be found anywhere in the world as it stands: 'Promised Land is not America, is not Asia, Promised Land is a state of mind, Promised Land is a state of mind, Promised Land is not Europia, is not Africa, Promised Land is a state of mind, Promised Land is a state of mind':

So Michele, leave the Promised Land well alone. You wouldn't recognise it if you found it.

(OK just one more... I love Johnny Allan's 1971 cajun verson of Berry's song, which I always associate with the late great Charlie Gillet thanks to whom I first heard it)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Darker Electricity - Spiral Tribe blog

Mark Angelo Harrison, aka Stray Wayward, was involved with early free party sound system Spiral Tribe. So good to hear that he is working on a book about those times called A Darker Electricity. You can check out some extracts at his blog like this one:

'The arrival of the Acid House scene in the late 80s had transformed audiences into participants. At The Hacienda in Manchester and at underground parties in London, I’d experienced a real sense of involvement and social equality. Once that equality had been glimpsed there was no going back to the old rock n roll relationship between performers and audiences. A relationship that – whether intentional or not – reinforced the old power structures of us and them. At the underground parties, the dance floor was no longer the pit for the worshipping minions. No longer a place to gaze up adoringly at some contrived act strutting about on a pedestal. The dance floor had been reclaimed by the people as a free social space – a place where people felt centred, balanced – together. Not a new idea, but one that successive overlords have relentlessly outlawed – and attempted to write out of history'.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The worst disco sleeve of all time?

Wandering the streets of Peckham this evening I came across a box of records outside a house, mostly 1970s and 1980s and mostly not very good. I did pick up a 12" Scritti Politti single though (The Word Girl) and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasure Drome. Oh and 'The Hit Squad - Nightclubbing - over 60 minutes non-stop disco'...

This is a 1983 compilation from the last days of disco, with some decent tracks on it such as Freez's Arthur Baker-produced Brit-funk classic IOU. But that cover, designed so it says by Shoot that Tiger! with an illustration by Paul Cemmick... It's not that it's a bad picture - motorcycle emptiness chic would have been quite acceptable in the period in, say, 2000AD magazine or on a heavy metal sleeve. It's just so not disco. OK obviously there was a whole leather queen gay iconography at the time, but this is more Mad Max than Kenneth Anger. What were they thinking of?

It was released on Ronco records, which I believe focused on TV advertised compilations.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Darryl Pandy Moment

Darryl Pandy died yesterday (10 June 2011). Here's why he was important: 

Before the internet and satellite/cable channels the musical moving image was as severely rationed as food in the second world war. Today we can happily waste hours browsing our way through endless music videos; in those days we were limited to an hour or so a week, chiefly in the UK the half hour 'Top of the Pops'. Of course that gave that half hour an enormous cultural power, with millions of people avidly watching. And amidst all the dross there were moments when whole generations recognised that something had changed, when adolescent outsiders saw a new world of possibilities open up, when tiny subcultures exploded into the nation's living rooms. When the faces barely featured on TV during the rest of the week - black, gay, 'freaks' - seemed to have momentarily seized control of the transmitter. So, people of a certain age will spontaneously recall the impact of seeing David Bowie performing Starman on Top of the Pops in 1972 (still looks magnificently queer nearly 40 years later). For punk, the Sex Pistols 'Pretty Vacant' had a similar impact in 1977. For house music, that moment came in 1986. In August, the single Love Can't Turn Around entered the UK singles chart, climbing to a number ten position by 27 September. The record was credited to its producers - Farley 'Jackmaster' Funk and Jessie Saunders - but it was the vocalist who stole the show when the song made it on to Top of the Pops. Darryl Pandy had been a singer in the choir of the Church of Universal Awareness in Chicago, and he brought all of his gospel experience to an incredible live vocal performance on Top of the Pops, though not sure he learned to dance around in a sparkly top, kick off his shoes and lie on the floor in church.


In the conventional history of house music in the UK the impression is sometimes given that it all started when the South London clubbing crew (Rampling, Oakenfold etc.) returned from their 1987 Ibiza holiday and started putting on club nights. But a full year before that Darryl Pandy had helped detonate the house explosion in the UK, followed shortly after by Jack Your Body - a number one record in January 1987 for Steve 'Silk' Hurley. Incidentally Hurley had shared a flat with Farley Keith in Chicago, and had himself produced an earlier house version of Isaac Hayes' I Can't Turn Around. It is true that in these early days there wasn't a distinct UK house scene as such, but on dancefloors in London, Manchester and elsewhere early house tracks like Love Can't Turn Around took their place alongside other great electronic dance and funk tracks - 1986 was also a good year for Mantronix, Cameo, Prince, Janet Jackson and Joyce Simms, not to mention Madonna, New Order and early Pet Shop Boys. 

So thank you Darryl Pandy for kicking off house music for me and many others. In an early article on house music in Spin magazine, Barry Walters recognised that Pandy's vocal performance embodied part of what was essential about house music: 'Darryl Pandy is an enormous man, a Refrigerator Perry gone disco diva. He comes from a Broadway and opera background and has a six and a half octave range. Ask him to prove it and he’ll gladly sing selections from Porgy and Bess, taking on both Porgy and Bess. On record, notably ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’, Pandy resembles a possessed cross between his idols Yma Sumac and Minnie Ripperton, with a dark trace of Loleatta Holloway. Like Doctor’s Cat, Pandy sings with emotions endearingly inappropriate to the material. He begins ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ with all the hypermasculinity of an ill-fated Wagnerian baritone, to come back in the third verse as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. His dynamics are so ridiculously wrong by contemporary R&B standards that they become absolutely right for house. Pandy’s histrionics are emblematic of the house scene in general. House is about the loss of decorum and control. From sexual extravagance to dance-floor excess, everything about house is geared towards losing it’ (Burning Down the House, Spin, November 1986)

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Twisted - sweet pretty country acid house music in Brixton

Twisted (or Twisted a.m.) was a late 1990s/early 00s club night in Brixton playing a unique mixture of what the Alabama 3 once called 'Sweet pretty country acid house music'. It took place originally in legendary late night drinking den Brady's (formerly known as the Railway Hotel) on Atlantic Road, and was described in a 1998 article in the Independent by Oliver Bennett:

'Over the past few years, club life has become a bit corporate, with VIP rooms, sponsors and in-it-for-the-dough promoters and DJs. Where is the enthusiasm, the chaos, in this brave new world of blinking technology and oiled abdominals? The answer is that you have to dig a little. For instance, at a back bar in Brixton, Twisted club heralds a return to the spilt beer and out- by-midnight approach to nightlife that ruled in the Seventies and early Eighties. But it adds its own unique contemporary hybrid in the music it favours: country and western, mixed with dance tracks. "I've always loved country and I want to show that it isn't a dead music form," says Tim Perry, co-founder of Twisted with Piers Hawkins. "Jazz blues and world music have all crept into dance music, so why not a few country chords?"... Perry and Hawkins have had great fun thinking up names for their genre, among them Pharma Country, Honky Skunk, Trailer Trash, Swamp Hop, Fucked-Up Country and Bubba Beats. "I'm reminded of the Blues Brothers joke, where they say they play both kinds of music - country and western," says Perry, "except that we play country and techno." Patsy Cline, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton spin alongside dance sounds like Fatboy Slim and Orbital, interspersed with live acts like the local acid-country supremos Alabama 3 and guest appearances from the likes of Chip "Wild Thing" Taylor' (Independent, 15 March 1998)'.
Alabama 3 set the chemical country template with their debut Exile on Coldharbour Lane album in 1997 (Brixton's Coldharbour Lane is just round the corner from Brady's), and indeed their song Peace in the Valley gave the club it's name: 'she feels so twisted, she ain't never gonna fix it, she's just waiting for the light to shine on a brand new day'. Their genius was (and still is) to recognise that country's melancholic tales of addiction and redemption could speak to a generation coming down from ecstatic peaks.

The band were strongly associated with the club, and truth to be told were arguably the only outfit who successfully integrated electronic sounds with proper Hank Williams-style heartache. Just bringing in a few country elements to clod-hopping 4:4 beats was a recipe for Cotton Eye Joe-style cheese in less skilled hands.

So the music policy at Twisted was more a case of playing country alongside techno and hip hop, rather than lots of attempted country/dance music hybrids. For instance at the night featured on this flyer (which I was at with my late friend Katy Watson), Hank Wangford played a straight country set.

Twisted 1998 - 'This ain't no disco, this ain't no line dance, this ain't no foolin' around'

This review comes from On magazine, 1997:

‘Genre-bending reaches its illogical conclusion in the deep south (of London) with a new club for techno honkies. Expect chemical country, trailer trash, two step and honkyskunk. At their last hoedown they had the Million Gram Session from the Larry Love Showband fronted by the Alabama 3 singer himself with the Reverend D Wayne Love at his side. Jesus, there must have been a dozen people on the stage at one time, with others from from Alabama 3, BJ Cole on pedal steel, Fliss (from Joli Blon) on fiddle, Hacker on harmonica and guitar and loads others. Slim happened to look in on the club and when they realised he had an accordion in his car, the big man from the Cyder Co was co-opted into the band. Top night –a world-class group of musicans in Brady’s Saloon. Was it a dream? When you hear that they managed to play stuff from Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb and Lefty Frizzell next to Spiritualized, Underworld and Deep Dish, you’ll get an idea of how open things are at this particular ranch’.

The Railway/Brady's closed down in 1999 and remained empty for many years later before briefly becoming a branch of Wahaca (full story at Urban 75 - from where the photo below was sourced)*. Along with the George Canning (now Hootananny), it was a place where drinking went on late into the Brixton night. The front bar in its Railway days was mostly frequented by older African Caribbean men, playing pool in front of murals of island scenes. The back bar was more Irish/squatters/SW9 itinerants - I remember being in there one night at a London Celtic Supporters Club social with a band called Athenrye banging our republican songs. There was also a band called the Dead B Specials who used to hang out there.

Its relaunch as Bradys music bar later in the 1990s didn't signify much change apart from a few candles in bottles - it was still messy and drunken with the occasional punch up and the less occasional table being knocked over.

Twisted meanwhile relocated to the Windmill in Blenheim Gardens a sthe Twisted A.M. Lounger. I remember seeing American singer Chris Mills there in 2000 (flyer below), and Kelly Hogan and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts around the same time. Twisted co-founder Tim Perry has been running the music at the Windmill ever since, providing a platform for so many up and coming bands.

[updated July 2022]