The Story of QQ
Where's Simon Topping Now ... pt 2
There are two moments only when I have heard things
on Radio One and burst out laughing. One was when Steve Wright used The
Smiths' 'Hang the DJ' refrain
from Panic or whatever it was to advertise the Radio One calendar. Great stuff!
And the other was when Mark Radcliffe (and the Boy Lard - I still struggle
with the great Fall guitarist becoming a radio stooge, but there you go!) solemnly
announced the passing of Factory Records, and said the only appropriate thing
to do was play 'Atmosphere'. So he did. He played the Russ Abbott song. 'I
love a party with a happy atmosphere ...' Appropriately!
Some people still struggle with the fact that Factory Records of Manchester failed to find gold on its doorstep and nurture the two big names in the neighbourhood. That is The Smiths and the Stone Roses. Personally I'm with Wilson on that one. More worrying was missing out on locals Laugh! and Twang, two groups that could have changed the course of history.
I don't know the stories there. Like a lot of people I totally lost interest in Factory (with occasional exceptional exceptions) for a long while in the ï80s. I really admire the dedication of people like James Nice though for sticking with it, and his diligence in salvaging and rehabilitating the reputations of the likes of Section 25, Stockholm Monsters, The Wake and Cath Carroll is creditable.
I only became interested in Factory again briefly on hearing Happy Mondays' 'Oasis' and 'Freaky Dancin'' singles, and being at the string of dates up till Bummed was rushed out, which were among the best ever. And let's not forget they were prophets without honour in Manchester back then, but that's a different story.
Anyway, anyone who chooses to question the A&R acumen at Factory needs only mention the names that came next: the Railway Children, Northside, and the Wendys. I wonder how far LTM will go in its excavations? God those groups were dull. And when you consider what else was out there then!
LTM's latest salvaged set from the Factory storeroom is Quando Quango's extended Pigs and Battleships collection. It's a decent record and all new to me. I may baulk at the idea that it laid the foundations of electronic dance music and house specifically, but the links are there. QQ for anyone who doesn't know was led by the partnership of Mike Pickering (Hacienda DJ and later leader of pop giants M People) and Hillegonda Rietveld, and they recorded a series of records for Factory during its wilderness years.
In his sleevenotes James Nice beats himself up for not really getting what QQ were up to, which seems pretty daft. On Pigs and Battleships it sounds as though they were not up to much at all, and certainly nothing exceptionally different than others like Colourbox were working away at. A bit of out and out electronic funk, some lovers rock, some smooth soul, a bit of Latin, a hint of a Fela feel. All pleasant enough and worthy, and ahead of the game maybe, but lacking say the sheer exuberance of the Lizzy Mercier Descloux recordings you should be listening to. I am certainly not going to feel guilty for listening to Hurrah!, Felt, and the Go-Betweens rather than shuffling my feet to the QQ beat.
Interestingly some of America's house pioneers genuinely do seem to have got into Quando Quango at the time. I would imagine that's to do with the appeal of distance and the different context it creates. We were just mocking with our knowing aloofness what was a perceived Factory policy of signing up friends, family, and a few accidents of geography. After all if Mike Pickering wasn't Rob Gretton's football friend would QQ have been so supported? Anyway all the Streetsounds compilations were better.
Now the really interesting thing about QQ was the temporary presence of Simon Topping in its ranks as percussionist and occasional vocalist, during the process of his strange reverse into anonymity. And therein lies the rub, for as Nancy's pa once sang: 'You've either got or you haven't got ...'. Simon may have done nothing musically for 15 years for all I know, but still he generates the warm glow true talents only can. Mike may have one of the best record collections in the world, he may have discovered Happy Mondays, he may even have been the first person to play house in the UK, and he may have created some enduring pop gems as part of M People, but still one goes: 'Yeah, maybe but I dunno ...' Now don't ask me to define it. I'll just celebrate the difference.
Topping and Pickering also worked together as part of T-Coy, producing the classic early latin flavoured house track 'Carino' which still surfaces on compilations. I have it on the I suppose legendary early Deconstruction set North - The Sound of the Dance Underground, which was probably the first collection of UK house tracks back in 1988. T-Coy were cheekily responsible in some way for seven of the eight tracks. The other contribution was the awesome 'Voodoo Ray' by A Guy Called Gerald.
Now you have to ask yourself why, with all this interest in house and so much activity close to home, Factory failed to capitalise on what was happening. Pickering would have been an ideal conduit to use to pick up on the new music at home or abroad. It is astonishing that T-Coy, A Guy Called Gerald, 808 State (again featuring ex-Factory folk) or even some of the people that became involved in Warp were not picked off for Factory farming. I actually think it's hilarious that money was invested in developing modern classical performers and composers rather than churning out lovely 12's of dancefloor fillers.
Mind you it's worth mentioning too that Simon Topping and indeed A Guy Called Gerald failed to capitalise on those early forays into house. There is a kind of irony too that it was the DJs instead that went off to become millionaires. As I take it that Simon Topping is not a millionaire now, can I ask again where is he? And can someone release that solo 12' which continues to elude me!
© 2003John Carney