Billy Stewart - Summertime
Once upon a time I was accused of disappearing into my world of books and films where darkness came too soon. Total nonsense of course. There was music too. But the suggestion was that I was missing out. Total nonsense too. Products have so much to teach us. So many stories to tell …
Uncle Joe’s Mint balls. What’s that all about? I went through Wigan for the first time on Friday when I was on the train going up to the Lake District. We were doing a photo shoot up there for a fashion house. All very tweedy and rustic. Quite handy actually as I got to keep some of the clothes. That whole Barbour type look is very big back in the States right now.
Wigan’s always been this big mythical type of place for me. And it makes me think of my English summer. This was 1987, right, and the plan was that I spend a few months staying with friends in London, having some fun before going on to do a photography course at the London College of printing, which was this wonderfully sinister looking building overlooking the Elephant and Castle. Is it still there? You really had to see it to believe it. Anyway I never actually got there, but that’s a different story, and I won’t bore you with my domestic dramas.
So that summer everyone seemed to be very hung up about Northern Soul. And coming from the States it seemed so strange that theses old soul records which we had discarded were being worshipped quite so passionately all these years later.
The people I was staying with only seemed to play old soul records that summer. But they were also quite into what I guess you could call the underground music scene. They kind of pretended they hated nearly every guitar group. Yet they religiously went along to this really quaint little pub in Camden Town. It was called the Black Horse. And all sorts of groups played upstairs in this really funny little room. There was no stage, and no dressing room, and everyone just accepted this as though it was perfectly normal. So I was sort of like, okay, why not?
Anyway, the guy who ran the place, booked the bands and everything, was this madly passionate character called Jeff Barrett. A real charmer. He could drink more than anybody. Talk more than anybody. And he knew more about music than anybody. I was completely fascinated by him. He always seemed to have about 50 projects on the go, another hundred ideas bubbling away, and he knew everyone. He’d rant obsessively about the things he either loved or hated.
I was the eternal innocent abroad and I lapped it all up. I can’t quite recall the sequence of events but somehow I ended up agreeing to film this ultra cool group from Manchester that Jeff was particularly enthusiastic about. They were called Laugh, and Jeff was absolutely adamant that they had to be filmed. Captured for posterity.
And I got carried along on the wave of it. Jeff was dangerous like that. He would carry you along in this rush of excitement and you could find yourself agreeing to anything. I mean I hardly knew him, and I knew hardly anything about filming. I just happened to mention I was a photographer that was interested in experimenting with film. And next thing I knew I had hired a Super 8 thingie, and was shaking like a leaf about to film this group I knew nothing about.
Jeff was right though. The guy had taste. Laugh were, was, were? Well they were amazing. And I think this particular Black Horse show has to be about the best thing I’ve ever seen. They were supporting the Jasmine Minks, who were great, but Laugh … wow! There weren’t too many people there, so it was quite easy getting close to the group and doing my filming bit. I just pretended I knew what I was doing. What really struck me was how different this group was. They looked so great. Most of the groups that I saw that summer were so scruffy or really rock’n’roll, which was really depressing. All that really was not me at all.
Laugh though were sort of preppy, or what you’d call mod but a bit beat, with great haircuts, and expensive looking jerseys, and beautiful guitars like that Adrian Henri poem about beautiful boys with red guitars sailing through the spaces between the stars. Or have I just made that up? The bass player, he had one of those violin style Beatles instruments, which was appropriate as they had this song about dreaming of being Paul McCartney. And this night they all had red jumpers, which apparently had some historical significance for Jeff and his crowd. Did the Subway Sect or Fire Engines wear red jumpers or something? I’m not sure, but it was very much ok with this girl.
So I did my bit, and it was a great night. Everybody got horribly drunk and emotional and I felt on top of the world. The next day though once I was alone again I just wanted to die. Somehow the sound hadn’t come out on the film. I still don’t know how that happened. It still makes me cry. But everyone was so lovely about it. The footage was great I have to say. Jeff thought it was hilarious. He couldn’t stop laughing. I wasn’t sure if I loved or hated him for that. he kept saying we should do what they did on that Blank Generation film, and dub the music on top. Have you seen that film? The Amos Poe one. Where you get the footage of Television and Talking Heads and so on performing totally out of time to the music. It has a certain charm, but you don’t really want to go there.
Laugh were all great about it. They were coming down to London again soon to record some songs for the John Peel radio show, and we all agreed to meet up. Somewhere along the way I had my big idea. Why not do something different? Why not superimpose the sound of something completely different on top of the footage? And I thought of Billy Stewart singing Summertime. It was an old single we played a lot around the house that summer. And I loved it because it reminded me of home. And it was so over the top, and some of his vocal mannerisms made me think of the way Martin the singer in Laugh did things, rolling his rrrrrs, and all that. And it was a song the group loved because they were really into the Northern Soul thing, and Wigan Casino soul scene. So somehow we got it arranged to take one of their songs, which was Come On Come Out, and get this wonderful old recording of Summertime put onto the film. We’d done our maths, and the times worked and everything. And it worked wonderfully. Really easy to do too.
I was still thinking this is all somehow wrong though. I’d messed up but was dictating what should happen. So I was like well shouldn’t we use one of the songs from the Peel session for the sound? I have to say I absolutely loved the tracks they recorded for that. I had them on a cassette, which I played endlessly for years, until it just got worn out, and could I find another copy? Huh. But no the group were so great about it, and the idea was great, and exactly the right thing to do. I’m not sure their manager was so thrilled. Maybe I’m paranoid but she seemed suspicious about my intentions, and I was terrified of her because she was so smart and organised, and understandably very, very protective of her wayward charges.
So yeah the group were great really, and one of my happiest memories is of sitting around in a pub in Clerkenwell, which was where Jeff had his office. Well, it was more of a closet, at the back of the main Creation Records office. And the guys were telling me about Northern Soul and this place called the Wigan Casino, which I knew from a Fall song, and I thought it sounded really romantic. But I kind of gathered it was a bit grim really, and not as chic as Manchester, and that’s when they were jesting about Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls when I asked what else Wigan was known for.
Wigan really meant very little to me as a place. I have to say my sense of geography was not too good, and I’m ashamed to say I hardly got outside of London that whole summer. Mind you, they were no better. Just because I came from the States they thought I should be hanging out with Farley Jackmaster Funk, who seemed to be a bit of a hero to them just then. But I really knew nothing about house music. Fortunately I did know a bit about go go from an old boyfriend I’d go visit at college in DC and we’d go out to parties where all you heard was go go or hardcore, and I hated hardcore. So at least I could bluff a bit when they asked about that. Actually it was quite interesting that they were into the electro or funk thing as most of the groups I came across that summer seemed to have only a musical vocabulary that stretched from the Byrds to the Velvets, which was pretty tiresome.
The tragic thing is I have absolutely no recollection of what happened to the film itself which is absolutely criminal. It’s no excuse but there was a very sudden family crisis, and I had to fly home, and my life was turned upside down. The upshot was that I never did get to go to college at the Elephant and Castle, which is really sad as I missed my chance to hang out there with Rankin and Jefferson Hack by all accounts. Oh well …
The funny thing is I heard Billy Stewart singing Summertime on one of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time radio hours while I was in the Lake District. It was the first time I had heard it in years, and it sounded so good. It just brought back this flood of memories, and Martin doing his Northern Soul moves in that tiny room. I was so lucky to be there.
© 2007 John Carney