What're you listening for?
What was it Bill Shankley said about football being more important than life and death? Whatever it was I'm sure it was not at the back of Val Wilmer's mind when she was putting together her As Serious As Your Life collection of writings on free/experimental/avant garde Jazz, but it's a nice idea.
Like a lot of you, I have been lapping up the Serpent's Tail re-issue of the Wilmer work and while us rewriters of history have been kinder to Miles and Herbie the book is completely uplifting and leaves you hungry for the most ecstatic jazz noise.
So the Charley box set, Jazzactuel, has come along at just the right time. Particularly as I was getting withdrawal symptoms from an absence of Impulse! reissues. Exquisitely packaged, at a reasonable price, you get three CDs of some wild honking, yelping and most astonishingly the rush and roar of Sonny Sharrock's guitar which leaves all my beloved Contortions and Fire Engines excursions on the starting blocks. Curated in part by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore (for anyone with fond memories of his out jazz article in Grand Royal back in the days), it draws on the archives of the BYG/Actuel labels and shows up once again the way history books tell how the UK and USA led the field. Not sure what I mean? Immerse yourself in this collection.
Rob is right about the Vladislav Delay and Divine Styler releases, and I am very pleased to endorse all he said and I am thankful he has saved me the trouble. One other current release I really do love is the Broadcast full-length outing. I had not really held an opinion about them one way or another, but a chance encounter with the Papercuts EP made me very keen to hear The Noise Made By People on its release. Stylishly transcending the reference points they seem saddled with, Broadcast have (maybe more through nurture than nature) evolved a strong identity that uses the knowledge they obviously have and creates a pop that has an edge, and edginess that bereaks up the sound. Trish Kennan's the star of the show with her precise, pure tones and the glint of frosty menace. Broadcast are a determined collective, and while they may not yet have created a Pet Sounds they have created some great pop moments in 'Papercuts', 'Come On Let's Go' and 'You Can Fall' that are at least the equal of Saint Etienne's finest, and that's really meant as a compliment.
There is a lot going on in Broadcast's music, and it's refreshingly all non-rock. For any hint of their label's past (we're talking Warp here) there is as much a nod to, say, the Scepter Wand soul sound or Pentangle. Both are worth investigation. There is a great CD on Ace that draws on the girl (soul) sound of Scepter, featuring choice cuts from Ernestine Eady, Nella Dodds, Goldie and the Gingerbreads. The real treat on Where The Girls Are Vol 2 though is the original of 'Dark Shadows and Empty Hallways' by Diane and Anita. While we are on the soul side, can I put in a mention for a couple of recent CDs on Kent. Shereport Southern Soul... The Murco Story expands on themes touched on in the Dave Godin Deep Soul Series. It's worth buying for Dori Grayson's astonishing 'I Can Fix That For You'. The Atlantic family of labels provides the material for Sanctified Soul with some real gems from the Soul Brothers Six, Judy Clay, Fern Kinney (for which we can forgive her 'Together We Are Beautiful'), but the killer is the '70s cut from Sam Dees, 'Signed Miss Heroin'. Buy!
The Pentangle I mention as there is a great value double CD anthology out now. Arguably they played second fiddle to Fairport Convention, but in the late '60s / early '70s this collective took (in a Broadcast way) elements from several sources (the folk tradition, the new jazz, blues and complete pop) to create some magical moments. The very strong cast of Bert Jansch, John Renburn, Danny Thompson and, best of all, Jackie McShee's gorgeously clear tones are perhaps best known for the jazzy hit 'Light Flight' (but perhaps you know the Hurrah! version?) but there are plenty of other gems.
With The Fall there are plenty of questions to be asked. One is how far can you go? Personally it varies. Once I would never touch anything with Brix on, and I would say I'm a Dragnet man or a Slates man. More recently, I've been saying I'm all for Hex Enduction Hour and Perverted By Language, and you can see the softening towards Brix. 'Eat Yerself Fitter' being my favourite Fall moment. Right now, I would go as far as 1987-ish and Bend Sinister, if only for 'Dktr Faustus' and 'Living Too Late'. The next one, The Frenz Experiment, still leaves me cold, but it's early days yet. The Fall, like fine wine, I suppose must mature, which explains why the newly available on CD The Early Years '77 - '79 sounds so great. Basically it's a collection of the first four singles, with a few bonuses, and does bear out something I may have said about only Sister Sledge releasing a better set of pop records in the late '70s. Pop does not come any better than 'It's The New Thing.'
I had forgotten that Adrian Sherwood produced a few of the songs on The Fall's Slates (when was that? 1981? I must get a new copy!). It's funny really. Sherwood is one of those much revered figures, but I think there is little realisation of all he's achieved. Certainly I have been around and about long enough, but it's only recently I've been buying loads of the On-U re-releases to augment the few things I had by the likes of Creation rebel, New Age Steppers and African Headcharge.
The Sherwood story is a great tale waiting to be told. I for one would love to read in great detail about how a young white east End boy came to be selling reggae imports out of the back of a van in the mid '70s, how he got together with the mighty Prince Far-I at the height of the punk explosion, then came to be an innovative producer offending the reggae establishment and confusing the pop underground.
I think that I have said before that there is a picture of Sherwood (with the Prince) on the inner sleeve of Cry Tuft Dub Encounter Chapter One which sums up the spirit of punk. Forget your Sunday Supplement pontifications, this is the real thing.
Anyway, if you want to know about Sherwood and his magic touch, then a great place to start is the ultra cheap series of compilations on On-U, but I would like to think you had the faith to buy the full length (mid price) CDs. Like Kent soul collections, every home should have some.
I love Sherwood's vision. Moving on from his initial forays with the Hitrun label to having a dream of this loose collective releasing different records on different labels under different guises. Yes, records came out on Statik, Cherry Red and even the ultra-cool New York label 99 (home of ESG, Liquid Liquid, Bust Tetras etc.), but world domination did not happen. So, as the releases became more wired and eclectic, On-U was set up and there is so much there.
If you are going to start anywhere, then start with Creation Rebel's Starship To Africa. This amalgam of players formed the bedrock of many an On-U project, but this is the one. Essentially they were Prince Far-I's live backing group, but played out on their own and it must have been awesome seeing them on a bill with The Clash for example. Starship Africa is pure dub with all the experimental tinges people ten years on would hanker after. The Rebel evolved into the Dub Syndicate who proved that reggae did not die in 1979 but at its best evolved. Their first set, I think, The Pounding System, used the tagline 'Experiments in Ambient Dub'. Way ahead of Beyond if you remember their Ambient Dub collections. Speaking of the Dub Syndicate, can I also give a special mention to their collaborations with Dr Pablo (featuring long time Sherwood ally Pete Stroud on melodica. Oh, how I love the melodica in pop, and full credit to Clinic for keeping the flame alive!), North of the River Thames which has some very nice easy listening dub workouts such as the themes from Dr Who and A Taste Of Honey.
You can understand why some of the best outside lefts from the punk premiership were keen to get involved. Scour the credits and you will see contributions from Pop Group personnel (notably Mark Stewart on the New Age Steppers' High Ideals and Crazy Dreams howling away), sundry Slits and PiL people including Lydon providing humble backing vocals on Creation Rebel's 'Psychotic Jonkanoo'. Keith Levene at various times provides some of the best punk rock electric guitar moments indicating that Metal Box did not happen in isolation. Of course there is a whole treatise waiting to be written on the part of the slashing guitar plays in reggae/dub and how this vital ingredient has been missed by those who like to dabble in dub. Check Keith Hudson's 'Pick A Dub'!
On-U slightly sent themselves up by claiming to be ten years ahead of their time. This resulted in me studiously avoiding African Headcharge's second LP Environmental Studies because it said 'another 1992 On-U production', working on the premise that any On-U release pre-1985 should be bought but caution used for later ones.
I should have realised that Environmental Studies came out in 1982! In fact, any of the first four African Headcharge releases are essential, though it's best to start with the debut My Life In A Hole In the Ground, with the astonishing (must stop using that word but it does apply!) Prince Far-I grumbling and rumbling away on 'Far Away Chant' with AHC mainman Bonjo I on all manner of percussion.
Far-I can also be heard to good effect on the Singers and Players titles, with the sweetness of Bim Sherman providing a poignant counterbalance. I guess, however, my favourite On-U release has to be (so far, for today) Warzone by the Missing Brazilians from 1984. This was where Sherwood and his crew really went to town, with dub distortion and freeform ideas best heard to maximum effect on the two long vocal tracks, 'gentle Killers' and 'Savanna Prance'. The former features Crass acolyte Annie Anxiety in chilling form while the ululating on the latter supplied by one Shara Nelson, long before the days of Massive Attack but an indication of the links and lineage at work there.
I've a lot still to learn about On-U and all I am doing here is sharing a passion. I will leave this subject with a mention for one last relapse: The English Disease by the Barmy Army, which is essentially Sherwood indulging another obsession: football and particularly West Ham. Now anyone of a claret and blue persuasion over 30 is definitely going to be move to tears by 'Billy Bonds MBE' and 'Devo' (a tribute to the great Alan Devonshire) with the sampled chants and commentaries. There is also a track for Leroy Resensor, but that might test even Hammers prejudices. For the less discerning, there are also tracks paying tribute to Cloughie, The Crazy Gang and King Kenny (as he was then for The Kop).
What tickles me is that the project must have been bemusing to the Sugarhill acolytes providing musical backing, but I guess it may have been light relief moonlighting from Mark Stewart's Mafia.
That, as they say, is another story.
©Kevin Pearce, April 2000 2000