I had this strong memory of Split Enz performing on stage at the oft-lamented (although nobody mentions the shitty sight-lines) lost Auckland theatre, His Majesty’s, in December 1974. My reccollection of a gig that changed my life – I’d seen nothing like it in New Zealand before and it opened the door to all sorts of possibilities and eventually the rest of my life – included Phil Judd lying on a deck chair on a stage covered in sand in a recreation of an iconic to the point of cliched End Of The Golden Weather styled New Zealand summer, playing the slightly surreal Titus (drawn lyrically from the Mervyn Peake book of the same name – about as a far from a New Zealand summer as was possible).
As the years passed I was increasingly unsure of my memory. Nobody but me seemed to have any recall of it. I’d even asked Tim Finn in the early 1980s, although he was – as the Enz pop star was then ascendent – disinterested in talking about those times and Phil Judd it seemed. I mentioned it a few years later in a series of interviews I did for the 2003 Give It A Whirl TV series, and – bing – when it went air Mark Everton, the director, had found footage and cut my words in.
Damon Albarn and Richard Russell have done – trying to find the right words – (maybe it’s) an admirable job on the new Bobby Womack album. And given that he’s not made a new record for a decade or more, I’m both thrilled and grateful that someone has.
It’s a record that won’t seem uncomfortable to anyone that liked the last (and final) Gil Scott-Heron album a couple of years back – as I did. Russell seems to have hit a working formula at XL – take an ailing legacy legend who’s best years are deemed behind him by the criterati, add modern audio embellishments and – bing – you have a career reviver with instant critical momentum.
The formula isn’t that new – Rick Rubin has been doing career refurbishments for years, albeit more by stripping back than adding, with mixed results from Johnny Cash (fantastic) to Neil Diamond (not quite so fabulous: Diamond has been a notoriously immovable stoner for years – ask anyone in his record company – who seemed to mostly loose his grip around 1973 when he began writing albums about seagulls, and then troughed a couple of years later whilst dueting with Babs Streisand, always a career low for anyone).
So to Bobby. I like it. As an album it’s mostly pleasant – nice (the word my English teacher told me never to put to paper) even. Loads of critics really like it – and some have even given it 5 stars (maybe the same writers who gave the mid 2000s Dylan albums 5 stars each too, which begged the obvious question then: if those get five, where does that leave Blonde on Blonde?). Given his previous work 5 stars here is also a mighty claim. As are even four.
This amazing recording of Split Enz (or were they still Ends then?), live in Palmerston North (!) in July 1975, has just surfaced and is the earliest known live recording of the band. Stranger Than Fiction is – of course – from their first, and, by a margin best, album Mental Notes:
The Telegraph (yes I know.. ) has a pretty decent interview with the long missing in action Neneh Cherry – her last album was in 1996 – to celebrate / publicise her new longplayer, The Cherry Thing, out next week:
One of her earliest memories is sitting on Miles Davis’s lap backstage in Paris when she was four. “People like that were just friends of the family, uncles and aunts that we’d see when we’d be out walking with Don around Manhattan. We’d always be calling in at Ornette [Coleman]’s house, so it was just everyday life…..
In 1990 Cherry won two Brit Awards and promptly melted one down into jewellery. “I gave a piece to Jazzie B of Soul II Soul,” she reasons with a chuckle, “because I thought he should’ve got a Brit. Neither Buffalo Stance nor Manchild got to number one, but Back to Life was there for 10 weeks or something. It was huge!”
Once upon a time there was a fledgling scene in the St Paul’s district of the ancient west-English city of Bristol.
The huge wave of immigration in the 50s and 60s from soon to be former UK colonies in the Caribbean and Africa had turned the city into a heady mish-mash of styles. When punk arrived, that too was thrown into the mix, as was classic soundtrack, dub, a raw indie ethos and a sense of isolation despite the nearness of big-city London.
So that’s the generalised history in a quick nutshell, now on to the music.
And, no, this post isn’t intended to analyse or provide a deeper history of that sound, apart from perhaps pointing to the very obvious: that without the pioneering work DJ Milo, Nellee Hooper, Rob Smith, Tricky, Robert Del Naja, Grant Marshall, Andrew Vowles, Ray Mighty and many more - some of which is below – the global rhythmic landscape in the years since the early 1990s would sound radically different. It’s the line that takes The Sex Pistols and The Clash through to dubstep and contemporary electronica, to the last Gil Scott-Heron record and Jamie XX.
Many of the records below sold less than a couple of thousand or so, and their YouTube hits are mostly under 10K, but without them…
So, to the mighty Pre-Bass selection:
Firstly, an incredible (in that it exists at all mostly) Wild Bunch promo video which dates to 1985. Made by Steve Haley (his brief notes on the YT page are worth reading) and Julian Monaghan, it’s unfortunately disabled for embedding – I have no idea at all why people do that – so you’ll need to go across to YT to see it, but it’s worth it:
And the Wild Bunch’s debut (only) release from early 1988 – by which time they’d actually broken up. This (the B side) helped establish a brief Bristol tradition of messing heavily with Dionne Warwick tunes (see further below):
That record wasn’t the first to feature The Wild Bunch name. Late in 1987 this remix of Eric B & Rakim’s Move The Crowd was quite a club hit in the UK. The record’s originators back in the USA however were mostly bemused and disgruntled by it apparently – as they were with all the UK remixes of their work. As much as I rate EB&R, they were wrong. I love it:
A Bristol style was identifiable when the next local release arrived, via Smith & Mighty, who ran the Three Stripe Sound System . On their own label, also called Three Stripe, the song they named Anyone was – of course – Anyone Who Had A Heart, the Bacharach& David tune, featuring the vocals of someone (who had a great voice, although it’s what Smith & Mighty did with it that matters more) called Jackie Jackson, and once again we have a Steve Haly video.
The noise had begun to filter beyond the westlands and, indeed, this was quite the anthem for a moment at The Siren in far distant Auckland:
Smith and Mighty followed that with yet another Dionne Warwick / Bacharach & David cover, this time it was Walk On By (and it was the last – Message to Michael or Trains & Boats & Planes seem to have not appealed). What this video (which is not original BTW) lacks in video quality it makes up for in the almost perfect way it syncs the cover vocal with old footage of Dionne herself:
For at least two years, this version of Walk On By was the very last song of the night at The Siren and then Box.
The sound that Massive Attack – who’d spun off from The Wild Bunch – would wrap around the planet in the early 1990s was increasingly developed by now, and here they are with their debut single Any Love, produced by Smith & Mighty and featuring a young Bristol singer, Carlton – who we will get to – on very distinctive post-Smokey vox. It’s uber raw and quite wonderful – and as far as I know this version (it was later re-recorded) of the song has never been on CD or legally reissued in any form:
And another band from Bristol who benefited from the Smith & Mighty touch, this is Fresh 4 (who included future drum’n'bass superstar Krust amongst their number) covering Rose Royce’s Wishing On A Star – into the UK top ten, the very first of the new Bristol sound system bands to do so. And another Steve Haly clip:
Smith & Mighty signed their Three Stripe label to London Records in 1990 and with it went Carlton. His album, The Call Is Strong, was the only long player issued on the label and remains a lost underground absolute classic. Much of the album was recorded in ’89 and ’90 and – given that the sound that Massive Attack produced on their first long player was obviously heavily indebted to M&S’ early work – there has to be a chicken/egg question here. Either way, it’s a formative and now lost British soul landmark – mostly thanks to London’s completely inept handling of its release – awaiting a Japanese 180 gram repress and the noisy acclaim it really deserves.
Do You Dream was the first single, and it’s – yep – another Haley clip:
The second single was the silky-slick Cool With Nature, although as far as I know there was no video (there were no more and you’d be allowed a pass for not knowing the album even existed in 1990 – given the huge Massive Attack success at the time it’s both bizarre and unforgivable). This single was, however, to the best of my knowledge, the first record to use the term Drum & Bass:
Three Stripe thereafter was just a vehicle for Smith & Mighty, with the 1992 Stepper’s Delight EP (a huge Box floorfiller):
And the less convincing 1994 Ashford & Simpson cover, Remember Me (the original non-Frankie Foncett mix is way better but MIA on YouTube):
Thereafter the label was killed off. Smith & Mighty made a couple of harder breakbeat records including an album (Bass Is Maternal), and Massive Attack increasingly lost their way after the third album. Nellee Hooper produced Madonna and U2 – and Tricky is Tricky although mostly nobody notices anymore.
But – really – if you ask anyone who really knows – Smith & Mighty defined the Bristol Sound.
In the first and second decade of the 20oos Rob Smith could still be found in Bristol making rather ace records, mostly as RSD.
Kingfisher (from 2007):
Good Energy (from 2009):
Bristol Archives Records have just issued a Three Stripe compilation, of the recordings up to 1990 (no Carlton album yet, sorry). Oddly, it’s on vinyl and CD only on Bandcamp, or via iTunes.
And for absolutely no reason at all, here’s Shut Up & Dance live in 1990: