Where Is Simon Topping Now?
part one
It's that time of year again when you feel the urge to dig out old A Certain Ratio records, and be once again amazed at how great they sound. And yet you wonder at the way ACR would come across to anyone who only knows of the group from the film of Twenty Four Hour Party People. There they are (possibly ironically) portrayed as a plaything of Tony Wilson, supposedly playing jazz to a handful of people at the Hacienda. At least in the book Wilson has the grace to portray the group's spiritual leader Simon Topping as a lost talent and misplaced genius. He has truly been misplaced. As far as I know after dalliances with Quando Quango and T-Coy the post-ACR trail has gone cold.

I have been listening a lot to ACR's I'd Like To See You Again this week. It's a lovely record, but it is still the one ACR fans struggle with. Searching for Simon Topping briefly on the internet, I came across an ACR chronology put together by Factory fanatic (and patron of the regularly wonderful salvage operation LTM) James Nice. His own prejudices soon become clear (which is fair enough), with phrases like 'Plot being lost: jazz + funk = junk'. Interesting!

Jazz funk is one of those areas of music that can really alienate. I know of eclectic music obsessives, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of seemingly everything, who will really really struggle with the idea of jazz funk or fusion. Soulless, they will say. Indulgent muso meanderings, fretless basses, characterless and colourless muzak. They might even argue fusion killed off drum n' bass.

I can see all that. But, a bit like a tongue and a sore tooth, I keep going back. Once in a while I will take a chance on a Stanley Clarke or Chick Corea title, or dig out a Weather Report or Pleasure record, or really get into Herbie's Thrust. A bit like public holidays, my jazz funk phases will come around.

I guess it is a fact that ACR got so close to the cool, aloof, glossy anonymity of jazz funk that it upset the post-punk community. James Nice pointedly quotes one review that says: 'ACR aren't sounding like ACR anymore so much as the latest NY disco imports. Is that enough?' Why do I suspect that similar things were said by the highbrow jazz critics when Herbie released Thrust and Manchild?

Jazz funk is one of those phrases that trigger Jonathan Coe-like flashbacks. I guess he has written books on less than the reason I feel compelled to really get into jazz funk. Another review James Nice quotes is: 'ACR are eager to please with their abstract remembrance of the late 70s soulboy - all warped and wired nostalgia of an allnighter in Southend.'

Not sure what all that would mean to a group of Manchester lads, but yes indeed! The soulboys then, off to the Goldmine down at Canvey Island, with their Capris and Maze window stickers, turning the heads of all the girls my age. The soulboys my age were all flick fringes, wedges, Farahs, diamond Pringle jumpers, Lacoste tops, white socks, loafers, lots of jewellery, off to Flicks down at Dartford. Me? I was too busy obsessing over The Jam, Subway Sect, Echo and the Bunnymen, and so on. I thought I was different.

The irony was that Subway Sect, and indeed the early Pop Group, dressed in second hand quality cast-offs that echoed what the soul boys were wearing. The Gabicci and Roberto Carlo tops, the old men's trousers, sheepskin coats. And the charity shops were full of Lacoste shirts the French exchange students left behind and the golfing sportswear the older geezers were giving away.

Anyway the thing was that the best looking girls liked going out and about with the soulboys, so the temptation was huge to fall in line. Asking what someone thought of the new Delta 5 single just didn't seem to work as a chat-up line. And the jazz funk the soulboys played permeated everywhere, and it was hard to resist walking in rhythm. Anyway Greg Walker's Soul Spectrum Saturday evening show on Capital Radio, along with Rodigan's Rockers, was compelling listening. I mean I would still prefer to hear Wire's 'Outdoor Miner' than Lonnie Liston Smith's 'Expansions', but jazz funk triggers some strangely pleasant memories, and Herbie's Thrust sounds fantastic today.

A year or two ago ACR got the Soul Jazz compilation treatment. Now the label is to be commended (grrr! I know, I know!) for its British Hustle: the sound of British Jazz Funk from 1974 to 1982 set. Maybe it is a little light on the jazz, but it's a wonderful selection of funky pop. And little excuse should be needed to dig out tracks by the likes of Hi Tension, Heatwave and the Olympic Runners.

I have been playing it all week, and had forgotten how great 'Southern Freeez' was, and I am all in favour of encouraging everyone to succumb to the mutant disco delights of Atmosfear's 'Dancing In Outer Space'. And tracks don't come much more gorgeous than Light of the World's capital anthem 'London Town'.

This is a compilation everyone should own, and if you want to dig deeper it might be fun tracing the links many of the musicians here forged with others outside their own circles, like The Jam and Style Council for starters.

I don't know if either James Nice or Tony Wilson will be buying copies of this CD for Christmas stockings, but I will share their jazz funk disquiet on one thing. And that's the vexed question of wet perms. Somewhere, somehow, sometime, wedges gave way to wet perms and there was just no way that could be condoned and anyway a mod crop was better. Farahs made life difficult enough, but wet perms were a step too far. Ah if only the soulboys had picked up on Simon Topping's haircuts ...

© 2003 John Carney