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.
If you want to delve more, check out the great Bristol Archive Records, including this page of (sadly patchy) documentary mostly notable for NZ’s Shapeshifter in there), the excellent but sadly abandoned archival Electric Pavilions (last updated in 2005), or this Japanese TV interview with Smith & Mighty from 2000 which should be interesting but proves rather hard going. (part 2)
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:
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):
And for absolutely no reason at all, here’s Shut Up & Dance live in 1990: