the boy looks at Johnny
Soul Family Sensation

Last year, on a tv programme about the Monkees, the late Bryan Maclean of 60's heroes Love was interviewed. By then a born-again christian and looking every part the faded Californian rock star, he nonetheless came out with some fantastic quotes. Distinguishing Love from the Monkees (for whom he auditioned), he said:

"We saw ourselves as pioneers. We were trying to create something timeless."

I found these words particularly inspiring because so often ageing musicians get it wrong when they look back. Whether they're trying to titillate younger readers with tedious tales of drug abuse or have simply forgotten, they rarely seem able to articulate the original spirit that their music seemed to embody. Often, like John Lydon, they play down the significance of what they did, making out it was all a big prank. Or, more worryingly still, they seem to genuinely believe that what they are doing now is superior to their youthful efforts, a view that is almost invariably wrong. It's enough to make you wonder if your parents were right all along: maybe it was just a phase you were going through ... For reasons of self-protection I long ago came to the conclusion that musicians are usually the worst judges of their own music and carried on accordingly.

I wonder what Johnny Male thinks of his earlier work with Soul Family Sensation? He's now a bona fide pop star playing guitar with Republica and presumably has very little reason to look back, yet whenever 'Ready to Go' comes on a pub jukebox I can't help thinking of 1991 and SFS's New Wave.


You wouldn't have gathered it by reading any of last year's tenth anniversary retrospectives, but the truth is that the cultural shocks of acid house took rather longer to filter through to the indie set than most people are prepared to admit these days. This was understandable. If you were a teen pop outsider in the 80's it's likely (unless you were into old school hip-hop and electro) that you would have viewed dance music with, at the very least, suspicion. Whether you were into Morrissey or the Mary Chain, 'dance' meant bland chart pop and a club was a place run by Peter Stringfellow or, even worse, your local friendly small-town nite spot where you might venture occasionally to get your head kicked in. You defined yourself against all that. Add to this a vague post-punk anti-drugs stance and some misguided ideas about guitars and musical authenticity, and you were singularly ill-equipped to deal with acid house when it happened. So when amazing records started coming out of America a lot of us weren't listening. Like the prog rock fans in 76/77, we didn't get it. In some cases, for quite a while.

There's a great story I know, from a very reliable source (the driver), about Primal Scream cruising around Brighton in 1989 when the Weatherall mix of 'Loaded' was first mooted. Apparently the band were, at the time, bitterly divided over this new direction and one member, in tears, threatened to quit altogether if it was released because ... well that kind of music was the enemy, wasn't it? It represented everything they had formed a band to be against.

I relate this not to belittle the Scream but rather to illustrate quite how confusing that time was for some of us and how official histories tend to simplify cultural change. Growing up in Britain in the 80's, however many New Order records you owned, it seemed inconceivable that the next revolutionary sounds would come from clubs. It's worth remembering that except for the Mondays and one or two others, most indie/house crossovers didn't start appearing until 1990 at the earliest.

Interestingly, it seems that Johnny Male did get it and pretty early on too. A singer-songwriter into Felt, with big ideas but nothing to show for it, he suddenly found himself - by one of those happy coincidences of time and place that drive musical and personal change - in the middle of the nascent acid scene, going on mad magical mystery bus trips to stately homes and other wild destinations. I would imagine that before long, out there and out there, he hit upon the idea of SFS: a new soul vision combining his songs with these new sounds he was hearing ...

This wasn't, as it turned out, a particularly original idea. Virtually every sussed indie kid would come to that conclusion at some point between 1989 and 1991 and before long everyone had a dance element to their music. But the timing and circumstances were significant because SFS drew far more on deep Chicago house than others, their sound much purer than the mix'n'match efforts of many of their contemporaries. And hardly anyone translated that vision into reality with such finesse.

New Wave works above all because it's true to what I assume was Male's pre-1988 aim: writing classic sad songs. For a product of the rave era it's a strangely melancholic affair. The lp's standout 'I Don't Even Know If I Should Call You Baby' is a sublime case in point, all sighing strings like Dusty produced by Marshall Jefferson (almost literally as Jefferson re-mixed it). It's truly one of the great lost songs and I live in hope/dread of it turning up on a jeans commercial or being murdered by some singing soap star. The rest of the record is almost equally gorgeous, with Johnny sharing vocal duties with a pre-Dorado Jhelisa Anderson. Tracks like 'Messed Up and Blue' and 'Perfect Life' come across like pocket symphonies for the real e-generation; not the trendy set but the suburban kids who get the train up to London at the weekend. It's a soundtrack to the midweek blues and falling in and out of love as much as a celebration of high times. 'Sheffield Song' has a refrain that goes 'life must mean more than this!' while 'The Day You Went Away', ostensibly a straight ballad, turns out to be a lament for an absent backpacker lover. Throughout the record the understated house influences combined with the lovelorn songs work so beautifully, so naturally, the result is an exquisite masterpiece right up there with Screamadelica and Blue Lines. I find it quite extraordinary that New Wave has been all but expunged from history.

But despite a bit of interest from the style press and some radio play for ' ...Baby', Soul Family Sensation bombed. A second lp, Burger Habit, recorded without Jhelisa, disappeared without a trace and the band split. Keyboardist Pete Z later played on some early Nuphonic releases and Male - after reputedly writing songs for Jimmy Nail - turned up in Republica. Too white for the dance kids, too black for the indie kids, SFS were stuck in a sort of no-mans land in-between. Rather like Love, in fact.


A few years later, I met Johnny a couple of times. He wasn't over-friendly and I certainly wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of some fan trip. But I couldn't help wondering afterwards what he would have said about SFS. How does he think of them now? Immature, youthful dabblings before he joined a 'proper' (i.e. successful) group or something more? The joke is that he's now a purveyor of exactly the kind of lowest common denominator techno-rock that Soul Family Sensation used to piss on.

But then, like I say: why on earth would you want to ask a musician if his records were any good?

© Pete Williams 1999.