Brand Loyalty
Shop Around … pt 31
Our good friends at Honest Jons have certainly chosen a wonderful time to release the second volume of their London Is The Place For Me series. It’s a perfect soundtrack for these troubled times. The second volume bills itself as a collection of “calypso & kwela, highlife & jazz from young black London”. It’s going to make a lot of people smile and dance, and pay tribute to the way our popular culture has been enriched by black people choosing to make their home in our funny old capital city.

What is also true is that an awful lot of people are going to buy this wonderful salvage set because it’s on Honest Jons, and Will Bankhead has done such a fantastic job of designing and putting the package together. It comes in a book form just like the earlier and equally as essential set, Watch How The People Dancing ­ Unity Sounds from the London Dancehall 1986-1989. The cover photo is a lovely shot of a young black guy and white girl cuddling up for the camera. It says volumes. Inside there’s some wonderful shots from the Val Wilmer archives, which are so incredibly evocative. Jazz musicians in ‘60s Soho. Music as a universal language which so many people don’t speak.

The whole feel of the thing makes me think irresistibly of Colin MacInnes and his London novels. Interestingly it is the likes of MacInnes and white middle class liberal intellectuals that are challenged in Michael Collins’ The Likes Of Us. There’s been a lot of talk recently about this account of the white working class, and the supposed tribe that’s under threat. It’s certainly a powerful and provocative book, wonderfully well written and thought through. It’s also one of those “yes but …” works.

Intriguingly The Likes Of Us homes in on my own home town, and seems to pinpoint it as the last refuge of the working-class whites. There is even a mention of our favourite TK Maxx shop. In many ways he captures the place well. My home town, I mean, rather than TK Maxx. Candyfloss and hate on a bank holiday weekend, that type of thing, but you still want to say “yes but …”. Only this morning there was a girl trying to persuade her mum to buy the Roll Deep CD, and it’s only a matter of weeks ago that The Wire thought it was the only magazine that knew about grime.

Interestingly, though, Collins refers to the exodus from urban working-class neighbourhoods like Walworth, Rotherhithe and Bermondsey to the satellite suburbs of south-east London like Eltham, Welling and Bexleyheath, but doesn’t take the idea further and refer to the tribe’s subsequent migration out of London to the Medway Towns where the property’s cheaper.
The Medway Towns is perhaps most famous to readers for its odd music scene. Like anywhere, it’s dangerous to lump makers of music together. The Medway Towns are perhaps most closely associated with venerable buffoon Billy Childish, which is a shame. It should be The Claim, but that’s a story for another day. One of Childish’s earlier combos was The Milkshakes. Somewhere along the line they stopped trying to sound like the Swingin’ Blue Jeans, and went their separate ways. Somehow or other Wreckless Eric found himself living in the Medway Towns, and ended up hooking up with the Milkshakes’ rhythm section. They hit the road, made a right old racket, and recorded a couple of cracking LPs as the Len Bright Combo. I found a compilation CD in a charity shop recently, and haven’t stopped playing it yet.

Wreckless Eric (Goulden) is a bit of a character. He’s one of those guys you sort of wish recorded just that one song. That one song of Eric’s would have been 'Whole Wide World', a punk ballad from 1977. We used to bellow it on the way to school. Totally brilliant. I had no idea he had created such magic in the Medway Towns in the mid-80s. They’ve got to be two of the rawest and rollickingly raucous sets ever. Think of a great tradition from rockabilly swing through Link Wray, the Hamburg beat scene, freakbeat and 'Interstellar Overdrive', through to punk’s righteous row and round and round again. Absolutely classic and as spiteful as hell; it’s hardly surprising Eric lost the plot, and lost his way.

But I doubt if the music connected with the natives in the Medway Towns. I doubt if it ever will. You’d have to go some though to find a record to match it, and I’m so pleased I stumbled across it. One record that can compete is The Glory Road by Fern Jones, the latest release on our favourite salvage label Numero Group. The selling point is that here is a long lost record from 1959 that “brought to church music the same kind of untamed energy that young white Southerners were ringing to their rock’n’roll.” Amen. Fern was quite a lady. A preacher’s wife who toured the south singing in tents (intensely) to Pentecostal audiences. She looked as sexy as hell, and developed a rockabilly gospel style that would have even this curmudgeonly old codger praising the Lord. What a find for the Numero guys. It reminds me of that old REM song about the white Southern gospel records. Was it Voice Of Harold or something? I may still have it somewhere on the flip of S. Central Rain or something.

But as wonderful as The Glory Road is (and it is ­ Fern wrote and recorded the original of the Johnny Cash gospel standard 'I Was There When It Happened' if you need a reference point), I doubt if there is any way I would have bought it had it not been on Numero. They get the feel and look so right. Brand loyalty even here. Someone could argue I go for labels as much as the kid in his Lacoste shirt. It’s why I am so excited about seeing the Postcard kitten on a record cover again. I make no apologies for it. I just like shopping around though. Which reminds me ­ if you buy the Fern Jones set direct from Numero at you will get it sent promptly from the States and will have spent a few pennies over a tenner. I can’t wait to see what they release next!

© 2005 John Carney