Listening to the Small Faces' 'Almost Grown', followed by JB's 'I Got You', then looking at the flyer for Soul Jazz Records' Saturday Night Fish Fry shindig (the hip chick in fab gear striking a hand-on-hip pose, the other arm raised, hand poised for a click of the finger, echoing the Stax symbol - snappy, cool) - it's obvious - The Past is a wonderland. Now Solomon Burke's saying how happy he is to be here tonight before reminding us that 'Everybody Needs Somebody To Love' - y'know - just plain fantastic - cue the hand-clap and girlie backing vocals singing "You, you, you" -
Ah yes, pastures Old look greener every day, but not just because I'm now of the age in which nostalgia truly takes hold to the point where nothing New sounds any good, oh no - please gimme some credit. You know me, I was there back in '95 spreading the message of the Tomorrow People along with my eclectic gang at The Rumpus Room - electronica (remember that?) was In, baby, and those crazy nu twisted beats signalled a brave step into The Future - hah! But today The Future's DEAD, and that's that. Haven't you noticed how a gig like Mouse On Mars at The Mean Fiddler now looks as crusty as any other Olde Rock gig? Surely, you must have done. How this came to be is a mystery, but it's happened and there's nothing anyone can do about it.
The only step believers (still) in The Future can take is to set their clocks by the time of a machine that will programme sound for (yawn) sound's sake and say, snootily, "Damn rhythm!". Wire magazine readers, market research recently revealed, now consist of 51% young scientists, 38% Improv-lovers, and 11% non-UK residents - it's true! The credo they live by is to avoid promoting music that encourages people to gather in public places and dance to songs. Why? I dunno, but that's true too. The Soul Jazz flyer, meanwhile, promises 'Eight Hours Of Non-Stop Dancing!' - and that, along with somebody to love, is exactly what we need right now.
The concept of friendship in the old-fashioned sense also being DEAD, bedroom isolation in pursuit of pure Sound in the realms of the intellectual, solitary senses, amounts to another step towards the end of the social world as we once knew it. Sure, Kids still go to their clubs, but they don't count. Kids have kiddie friendships, which don't last. Only in the adult world do you realise the enormity of what's going on in terms if human relationships, the angst of Existence, the alone-ness of Life, and ultimately, the value of a track like The Quick's 'Bert's Apple Crumble'. This is here and now. Future generations will either rejoice in the meaning of Fatboy, Britney, Robbie etc., or not be engaged enough in music to care - poor things - they're doomed either way.
Memory and nostalgia doesn't work the way people think it does. "There was loads of crap in 70s too", they (80s kids) say to me sometimes. That's true, but the degree of Great Stuff is never consistent, and they're wrong. Anyone's wrong who thinks that there's a continual percentage of Good in every age. Duh, I mean, are you sure? Show me the Great painters of our age, the Great writers, the Great composers, then, please. Shit, I've been here before (so many times?) and not so long ago (I retreat from this line...).
Friends are a good gauge of what's going on. If you're 18, they're telling you about the latest DJ ChipFat & Deep Fry twelve in a lite-step garrige style that's (fill in blank with whatever kiddie street term now stands for 'great'). If, like me, you're Old, a friend might ring up and say, as one did last night: "I've just bought one album by Fleetwood Mac and another by The Eagles" - and he's only 34. Then there's Alistair's Dylan thing - there's always a Legend waiting to be discovered by someone, and that someone is not necessarily a Kid, but someone who's avoided that scene for so many years, as it's healthy to do, but then enjoys it because he/she realises that The Future is dead and Pop/Rock/whatever's Past is magnificent.
Another friend recently said to me that the last copy of The Wire remained unread. He was with us, in spirit, five years ago, and we'd frequently share the delights of the latest little electronic noodle-fest. Now he never mentions anything like that, and neither do I, because we have an unspoken agreement/recognition of the fact that all that's Over. He now spends a great deal of time engaging in that ancient activity of playing his guitar. Thankfully, he has no intention of joining, or forming, a band, as far as I know.
Soul Jazz are the cool rulers of the retro market, collecting treasures and presenting them in semi-conceptual packages better than anyone else. Philly Soul, Studio One...Afro-Country - there's an idea, and here's another one: 'Starship Africa', Moog-tastic grooves from Jamaica. I'd compile it myself but I only have one (albeit brilliant) candidate so far - 'Star Trek' by The Vulcans. I'm sure they, being the hippest archaeologists around, could dig up many more.
Those of the new generation who are vaguely awake to music seem to be discovering The Past more enthusiastically than ever before. You can't blame them, looking at what The Present has to offer. The downside to this is that they can pack out clubs that were once the preserve of more dedicated fans who now find no room to move for mobile-huggin', stiletto-wearing girlies and their trendy male equivalents. Specifically, 100% Dynamite up at Islington, which is now Over due to the influx of know-nothing fashion-spotters and fake retro-chic people. Which is a shame because, for a while, it was a good place to go.
Fish Fry is still a good place to go but I'd go there very soon if I was you because it's cover might get blown any minute and it'll be packed with idiots. We went last month (April) and danced for at least three hours (too old to do eight). Any night that throws up '96 Tears' and 'Getting Mighty Crowded' has to be fantastic, so get there before Betty's title describes the situation. I would tell you the details (where, when etc.) but, actually, I don't want any more people to go (nothing personal), for obvious reasons...
There's talk of a Mod revival (oh no! oh yes!) - now, whether you consider that good or bad, it's possible to see it as a reaction, stylistically, against the lazy decades of corporate sportswear - no logo, indeed. Most of us find the concept of carefully-creased trousers completely alien today, so we can't expect to see a return, en masse, to sharp dressing. Yet to embrace a new sartorial attitude is not without it's political implications if other aspects of 60s modernist culture are taken on board. Back then, early modernists took full advantage of Youth's new found wealth by having their clothes tailored in the name of rising above, stepping out of, the sphere of the common crowd.
Money today is a tool, not for transgression, but aspirational uniformity. Our consumer culture now is such that cash keeps you in line with what's perceived as the common flow. To have some spare money, i.e., not be truly poor, and yet resist the logo-wearing, car-driving, fast-food-munching, mobile phone-using lifestyle is to be an outsider, of sorts. Only the other night I wore a pair of trousers that weren't denim, cargo pants, or any other casual variety, and a friend was truly amazed, saying he hadn't seen the like since - (he struggled to recall a time and couldn't).
Bang on target (pun intended) comes a 4-CD box set from Universal called The In Crowd, subtitled The Ultimate Mod Collection From The Original Style Movement. Those who were Teddy Boys might have something to say about that claim, but historical questions aside, there's no denying the place of Mod in UK culture. More than any other movement, however, it remains something of a mystery. Unlike most tribes, who welcomed a growth in numbers as a sign of their strength and influence, the original Mod shunned popularity. By the time the scooter boys were doing battle with Rockers on the beaches, the elite were sneering down from another position. Violence was just too yobbish, and mob mentality had nothing to do with original intentions.
As a collection of 100 tunes, The In Crowd stands loud, proud, almost perfect. To quibble over the 'obvious' choice of certain tracks is pointless since it doesn't claim to be for hunters of the obscure. Consequently, there's Martha & The Vandellas' '(Love Is Like A) Heatwave', Fontella Bass's 'Rescue Me', JB's 'Think', Booker T's 'Green Onions' - and that's just Disc 1. 'Well-known' is a subjective term, though, and so the choices will resonate in different ways to different people, naturally. Chris Farlow's 'Air Travel' is an amusing inclusion whilst, halfway through the first batch, The Elgins' 'Put Yourself In My Place' provides an emotional meltdown, regardless of familiarity.
This could still be a 'Mod' collection without the Small Faces, The Who, The Action etc., but their presence completes the equation, the stylistic marriage between black America and white, British R&B. Look, kids, you didn't think that The Who got their original licks from the genius of Townshend's mind now, did you? Of course you know the history - every white Rock/Pop god is in debt to some black guy strumming a beaten up guitar on the porch of his Southern shack in the 1920s. Amongst the other blue-eyed beat contributions, The Jay Jays' 'Cruncher', Spencer Davis Group's 'I'm A Man', and The Poets' 'That's The Way It's Got To Be' deserve a mention, but over all, there's too much gold to individually name-check.
The In Crowd has lots of Soul, some ska, R&B, jazz - it has all the hits and more - enough to make anyone get ready and steady themselves before Go-ing, if not out in search of a discotheque that's playing some of this stuff, then at least into a hip-shaking frenzy - doing The Jerk, Mashed Potatoes, Monkey, Duck - around the room. This box has just about the best set of tunes you could wish for if god made you either funky, cool, or the kind of person who's heart pounds just a little bit faster every time the beat to Smokey's 'Going To A Go-Go' kicks in - oh yes.
'There's a place right across town, whenever you're ready'
There is a place, but once already this year it was invaded by secretaries and students and squares who stumbled down there either by chance or a Time Out listing and that ruined the night, for sure - so, you know, I can't name it, I can't say where it is - it's precious, it's underground, and it's the best damn place to go in London to hear Soul and ska.
We go every month. Every month we go down the steps into the cellar bar to find skins and Mods and even rockabilly types, and guys wearing t-shirts that proclaim their membership to the 'West London Scooter Club' - and other guys in two-tone suits - or big old-school geezers in camel-coloured overcoats - and girls, girls with feather cuts, patent shoes, dancing to soul - and the black geezer in the best suit, ever, plus pork pie hat - and last week, two skinhead guys who looked like twins and never seemed to say a word all night but danced the Moon Stomp like Gilbert and George would - mad - there's a Face in a suit, there's an old guy who's definitely been around.
The sound system's basic, the decor's nothing, the beat and the way the beat breaks into your heart and soul is everything. Wear what you like because nobody's looking down at you except for, maybe, those two girls who hang out with what looks like the ultra-inside clique, but who cares about them? They'll see many come and go, but where have they been all these years that The Future looked so bright? Have they been hibernating, waiting for all this to happen? Maybe. Or maybe they just got hip before most and made their stance in readiness for what's now going on - what is going on? Nobody knows, and nobody seems to want to say anything about it. As someone once said about Northern Soul and media attention: 'We want to be left alone. We don't want to be on the telly, we don't want records in the charts, we don't want cameras in the venues' - you hear that? If any media came sniffing around they should be thrown out and have their cameras smashed - it could happen. I like to think that one look from some of these guys (or girls) would send them back up the stairs and into the street to go look for something else.
There's a feeling of Soul (and all that) just rippling beneath the streets of London town today. Or is that my imagination, my fantasy? Little flyers found in shops selling the right stuff - nights provided by the dedicated few, for those who are either lucky enough to tune in, or be part of the magic circle anyway. Mini 'Northern' revivals aside, the last twenty years have driven Soul deep, but it may yet rise again in line with scooter sales and dry-cleaning bills. Whatever happens, how sweet it is to savour parts of The Past, especially when The Future appears to be so tasteless.
© Robin Tomens (May 2001)