One Thing Leads To Another
Shop Around … part 48
One thing leads to another. It was pointed out to me in the paper that there was a story about a new mural being discovered in The Red House, the home built for William Morris, which just happens to be a few streets away from here. We were talking about William Morris as a result, and I realised that the name was not that familiar to my colleagues, except perhaps for his wallpaper patterns. So I was trying to explain about his utopian socialist vision, and that his writings included A Dream of John Ball, based on the Peasants’ Revolt. And to illustrate my point, as you do nowadays, I put it all into Google.

To my surprise, I was directed to a number of sites where you could download free copies of A Dream of John Ball, and more of Morris’ writings. So the old printer was soon churning out John Ball and Chants for Socialists, courtesy of Investigating further, I found where there are literally thousands of great works available as e-books. Almost at random I chanced upon William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Now many a great artist has paid tribute to Blake’s works, but I have to confess to being not that well up on his poetry. So, yup, I printed me off a copy of the Songs for the weekend.

Soul Jazz recently made available again Mark Stewart’s interpretation of Blake’s 'Jerusalem', though I continue to bemoan the fact that the Learning To Cope With Cowardice set it comes from remains elusive. Indeed if you look back to Mark Stewart’s earlier role as part of The Pop Group, and its various off-shoots, then one has to say for so much creative inspiration very little is available.

It is hard to think of any other group where all its members have gone on to be a part of so much adventuresomeness separately. Besides Mark Stewart’s solo recordings, Bruce Smith played with the Slits, Gareth Sager went on to form Rip Rig and Panic, Simon Underwood went on to be part of Pigbag, and John Waddington hooked up with Maximum Joy. Now The Pop Group’s own recordings are ridiculously unavailable. The Slits’ second set is available only as a Japanese import. There’s nothing out on CD by Rip Rig and Panic. There was that odd Mark Stewart compilation this summer on Soul Jazz, and some of his back catologue is available through Mute if you shop around, though hardly remastered, repackaged, and annotated. There was a great Pigbag compilation out through Camden a few years back, though it was hardly complete. And it’s only now that we’ve got the chance to enjoy Maximum Joy on CD.
I discovered by chance that German salvage experts Crippled Dick Hot Wax has just put out a Maximum Joy compilation. It is slightly frustratingly incomprehensive but absolutely wonderful. Interestingly, despite Waddington’s involvement, Maximum Joy’s roots owe more to the Glaxo Babies, another Bristol collective closely allied to The Pop Group who are supposed to have a compilation of their own out through Cherry Red sometime. Many people will be familiar with 'Stretch' by Maximum Joy, a big 99 Records-associated dancefloor hit in New York, and in many ways this is the blueprint for the musical miscegenation that was going down. Throw funk, Fela, jazz, lovers, roots into the pot with punk experimentation, and away you go.

While their compatriots may have generated more attention, the rather more subtle Maximum Joy have perhaps worn rather more well. Janine Rainforth’s vision and vocals at this distance sets them apart, and maybe provide a more recognisable link to the leading players of the ‘90s Bristol creative renaissance. It is perhaps no coincidence that Nellee Hooper graduated through the ranks of MXJY, and appropriately Adrian Sherwood (whose On-U label’s canon features many a contribution from ex-Pop Group personnel) and Dennis Bovell took their turns at the mixing desk.

Thinking of Bristol, and that astonishing spell when the world seemed to revolve around it, made me feel quite nostalgic. I guess Massive Attack, rather like Joy Division or The Clash, have suffered from over familiarity. When was the last time you actually sat down and listened right through Blue Lines or Protection? Yet their soul mates like Smith and Mighty have conversely dropped off the radar. And that’s a desperate waste. If you shop around various Smith and Mighty titles can be picked up really cheaply, and they are ageing remarkably well. The essential S&M blueprint of dubbed-up, hip-hop torch songs is surely ripe for revival, and would fit nicely with some of the stranger sounds from the r’n’b/soul underground.

Much of the Smith and Mighty back catalogue is available through the !K7 label. !K7 is perhaps best known for its DJ-Kicks series, to which Smith & Mighty have indeed contributed. DJ-Kicks is something of an institution now. Like the best concepts, it’s a wonderfully simple idea. Get a musical expeditionary, ask them to throw together a collection of tracks, mix them together, present the set in an appealing context, and off you go. There’s been some gems in the series over the years, and something for everyone. My own favourites include sets from Andrea Parker, Nicolette, and Rockers Hi-Fi. And Annie!

Annie, our pop star of the year, has put together a wonderful set for her DJ-Kicks outing, which is almost too good to be true. I mean, as much as say I may love The Sound of the Underground, and Amelie and Rihanna, I somehow doubt they would throw together a perfect party soundtrack that fuses the sounds of my own youth (Liquid Liquid, Bow Wow Wow, ESG, Alan Vega ­ wow! And I bet Annie was barely born when those came out!!) with some of the most energising pop of the moment. Of course part of the DJ-Kicks tradition is to slip in a couple of exclusives from the artist which should steal the show. Annie’s contributions here are no exception, and if Wedding is not a hit then I’m giving up and going home to sulk!

What is fascinating, however, is that cycle that somehow links Maximum Joy, whose 'Stretch' was a hit in New York clubs courtesy of the 99 Records connections, and 99’s own ESG tracks were a hit here through the Factory Records connection, with 99’s Liquid Liquid who found a new outlet in the ‘90s through Mo’Wax, a label so closely linked with the musical activities in Bristol in the ‘90s, and 99 released the 'Launderette' single by journalist and Pop Group comrade Viv Goldman as well as tracks by On-U artists, while 99’s back catalogue would be mined too by the Soul Jazz organisation, who also helped raise awareness of the Ze label, who originally released the Alan Vega Jukebox Babe set, and Annie is the perfect Ze starlet. One thing indeed leads to another.

© 2005 John Carney