Fifty Thousand Reasons (Tangents, July 2006)
They Made Magic These pen portraits build up into a gallery of special people. These people have made unique contributions to popular culture. Some of the stories will be fairly familiar, and some may seem slightly strange. There are some glaring omissions, and some odd inclusions. A thread of narrative runs through, and it’s all as subjective as hell.
Part 31 Nicolette
The saddest thing about Massive Attack in many ways is that familiarity turns magic to wallpaper. The first three Massive Attack sets had such an impact, and were played so much. Like, say, Joy Division or the Supremes, such familiarity almost breeds indifference. That is, until you are out shopping, and all lost in the supermarket, and 'Unfinished Sympathy' or 'Protection' pours over the speakers and you freeze by the tubs of ice cream as Shara or Tracey sing their hearts out.
The first time I heard 'Unfinished Sympathy' was when Gilles Peterson had a Saturday lunchtime show on Jazz FM. He played the Young Disciples’ 'Apparently Nothin’' on the same show. A few weeks later he didn’t have a show after filling one lunchtime with all the anti-war songs he could find in protest against the Gulf War. I’m sure he played Rotary Connection’s 'Black Gold of the Sun', and the Young Disciples sang: “Human worth is so inexpensive compared to gold, the root of most wars. Subtract the tears from countless offences. What is left but guns and scars?”
In his great pop book This Is Uncool, Gary Mulholland notes that 'Unfinished Sympathy' and 'Apparently Nothin’' entered the charts on the same day, heralding a new start for British pop. He also notes the Young Disciples steadfastly refused to follow up their sole (soul!) set, Road To Freedom, which is something of a lost classic.
The release of a best of Massive Attack set was another of those occasions that sent me scurrying back to the original records, and thinking about the group’s roots. It’s pretty well documented how Massive Attack evolved from the Wild Bunch collective in Bristol and a background of sound systems growing out of an anything goes mix of punk and soul, funk and reggae, hip hop and electro, and the Dug Out in Bristol has grown into one of those mythological places we have all visited in our dreams. The tale is told very well by Tony Farsides in the liner notes to the DJ Milo mix set that tells the story of the Wild Bunch sound system.
Part of the enduring appeal of the Massive Attack myth is that it is so exceptionally cool. Even my own favourite Massive Attack song, 'Sly' sung by the very great Nicolette, comes with a writing credit for journalist/visionary Viv Goldman, who once wrote the greatest thing ever by juxtaposing the strangeness of This Heat’s sound with a description of how easy on the eye the group was. And a look back at the credits on 'Safe From Harm' shows links to the Pop Group and Adrian Sherwood, 23 Skidoo/Ronin, thus joining the dots to the underground explorations beyond punk, but more striking are the connections to the culture of style and design.
There’s a passage in Robert Elms’ entertaining The Way We Wore that goes: “My particular contingent were still a small if swelling minority, lounging together in the Groucho or the Wag, boasting avant garde Japanese labels, always in black, or else green MA1 flying jackets, pristine Levi’s and Timberland boots, in a carefully groomed Buffalo Stance. All was well”. Hmmm. The Buffalo thing may have started with a Vivienne Westwood collection early on in the ‘80s, but the name became more closely associated with a loose collective of designers, photographers, stylists, and chancers, like Ray Petri and Judy Blame, that mixed street fashion with high camp, throwing together rockabilly flat tops and kilts or whatever. The collective’s influence permeated a wide range of media, from magazines like The Face, Arena and i-D, to advertisements (the famous Nick Kamen Levi’s ad) and catwalks, clubland and the charts.
Neneh Cherry’s classic pop hit 'Buffalo Stance' celebrated the collective, and the song was written with (partner) Cameron McVey (who would later produce All Saints and Sugababes) and Jamie Morgan and initially recorded as a b-side for PWL. Photographer Morgan went on to record a long-forgotten solo set, with support from pre-Blue Lines Massive Attackers. The record itself, Shotgun, while forgettable has the most remarkable collection of credits and participants, which is a whole story in itself.
These range from Neneh and McVey to old Pop Group-related associates like Bruce Smith and Sean Oliver, one time Rough Trade in-house producer Adam Kidron (more recently a champion of reggaeton and writer of a pro-immigration Spanish version of the American national anthem that so shocked the moral majority right up to the President), ex-Essential Logic guitarist Phil Legg who went on to produce UK pop-funk outfits like the Pasadenas and Terence Trent D’Arby, ex-Fall producer Richard Mazda, Tim Simenon of Bomb The Bass, Nellee Hooper who graduated from the Wild Bunch to Soul II Soul, Jon Moss from Culture Club, the JBs’ Fred Wesley, hip hop head Sam Sever, and even Neville Brody.
While acknowledging Massive Attack’s underground roots and pioneering urges, there can be little doubt that the style and design culture chancers’ connections helped create the climate where they could both experiment and get on. Being looked after early on by the likes of Cameron McVey and Perry Haines allowed them a certain degree of flexibility, space and stability in an avaricious industry. Haines had for example helped start i-D, dressed Duran Duran, recorded for Fetish Records, invented the absurd King, and would go on to be a campaigner for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, fighting the threat of an airport at Cliffe in Kent. You couldn’t make it up.
While The Jesus and Mary Chain were the greatest pop group on the planet for a few months in 1984, they were still stupid enough to profess that they were set up in opposition to Kid Creole and the Coconuts, who were led by one of the great showmen and songwriters August Darnell. One of the great songs Darnell created was 'Emil (Night Rate)' for Ze’s Aural Exciters, which almost set up the Massive Attack template ten years or more before with its beat box powered dubby torch song menace.
It springs from an era that Massive Attack’s old Wild Bunch ally DJ Milo retreated into, long after his sojourn with Japan’s Major Force collective, to create the astonishing set Live At The Cat Club 1979, reinventing the sound of the disco underground in exactly the same way so many dream of reinventing a night at the Dug Out at Bristol.
Of all the Massive Attack collaborations, the one people immediately remember is Shara Nelson, and in particular her contributions to 'Unfinished Sympathy', 'Safe From Harm', and 'Daydreaming'. It was the latter song, the first Massive Attack record I picked up, that provided the invaluable insight into the Massive Attack psyche, with its direct reference to the great David Essex 'Streetfight' track, proving that here was an outfit brave enough to look way beyond the accepted canon of modern classics, and say anything’s up for grabs. Although Happy Mondays had just beat them to it with a bit of David Essex on 'Lazyitis' the version with Karl Denver a collaboration too bizarre even for the Massive crew.
Shara Nelson first appeared with members of Massive Attack on the Wild Bunch reading of 'The Look of Love', where the smoothness of lovers rock met the minimalism of early hip hop. Before that she had worked occasionally as a member of Adrian Sherwood’s extended On-U family. She can be heard on his Voice of America outing, singing on 'In Another World', on the Missing Brazilians’ still astonishing Warzone, adding to the madness on 'Savanna Prance', on the Dub Syndicate’s arrangement of Je T’Aime, and on' Aiming At Your Heart' with The Circuit, though that one has always eluded me, as has her contribution to Jah Wobble’s 'Love Mystery'.
After the success of her contributions to Blue Lines Shara struggled to find a real musical identity, despite some great pop hits, and important appearances such as on Saint Etienne’s 'On The Shore' from the cruelly overlooked Tiger Bayset. It’s not a fate that befell another of Massive Attack’s collaborators Nicolette.
The second Massive Attack set, Protection, is actually my favourite. It’s more low-key, bravely so, with old comrade Nellee Hooper at the controls. This time out Tracey Thorn gets to sing a couple of numbers, and Nicolette gets to sing a couple of songs. The choice of collaborators is intriguing. Tracey is perfect, coming from the lineage of the Marine Girls and Everything But The Girl. She had achieved success on her own terms, and had a voice that could break hearts. Nicolette was also someone participating in the pop arena on her own terms, in a world of bass and breaks that was no more sympathetic to the strong-minded and visionary female expeditionaries than the orthodox rock circus. It’s still intriguing her Massive Attack hit, 'Sly', was co-written by journalist Vivien Goldman, a pioneer from another age almost, who had been lucky enough to work with the likes of Public Image and the Flying Lizards, though had just the one single under her own name to show for it. But what a single!
Nicolette has to date released under her name three of the greatest records ever, sets as great as the first three by Wire or indeed Massive Attack. Her first recordings were with the legendary Shut Up And Dance collective, who in the ‘90s released an incredible series of recordings that didn’t so much rip up the rule book as burn everything down without regard to reputation. Their beats and bass-ics were as rough as you like, their humour grim, and their cheek legendary. The recordings could veer from menacing roughneck jump-up madness to rave populism to sweet soul ballads to principled protest that makes Public Enemy sound positively cute. When they needed a bit of acoustic guitar on a track of theirs ('Autobiography of a Crackhead'), they just drafted in Kevin Rowland, which is about as perfect a collaboration as you could hope for.
Among the records Shut Up And Dance produced was the Ragga Twins’ Reggae Owes Me Money all time classic set, containing the wonderful pop song 'Hooligan 69', with its stolen Prince intro, which if it doesn’t have you winding up your waist, skanking berserkley, then nothing will. It sits perfectly along side tracks like 'The Homeless Problem', 'Illegal Gunshot', and 'Wipe The Needle', which say an awful lot about Britain in the ‘90s. Musically, like the early Rebel MC and Unique 3 recordings, it practically invents drum’n’bass, bleep, grime, dubstep, and any other musical development of note.
Quite simply that Ragga Twins record is one of the best ever. And yet the set Nicolette made with Shut Up And Dance is even better. On her Now Is Early collection, Nicolette looks fresh faced and angelic, but the bass still shakes the foundation of your soul, and the beats clatter and chatter like a museum full of typewriters being attacked by an army of hyperactive kids completely out of control. Somehow over the top of this chaos Nicolette sings a collection of the wisest, wittiest, wryest, wonkiest, wistful and winning words ever heard in pop.
Now Is Early led to Nicolette’s collaboration with Massive Attack, which in turn led to her Let No One Live Rent Free In Your Head set for Gilles Peterson’s occasionally blessed (eg Krust’s Coded Language) Talkin’ Loud label. Here Nicolette got to work with a number of the most adventurous producers around, like Plaid, Alec Empire, and 4 Hero. The set featured a reworking of her signature tune, 'No Government', which perhaps goes some way to explaining why our heroine did not quite fit in with the (albeit great) Brit soul tradition of Mica Paris (is there really a lost 23 Skidoo-produced Mica set out there?) and even Sade. This again is one of the great provocative pop sets, full of pithiness and poignancy, with some of the most warped arrangements ever.
Her collaborators Plaid are a fascinating example of how the possibilities of the ‘90s went awry. The Warp Records mavericks Andy Turner and Ed Handley as members of Black Dog had been at the forefront of the label’s electronic adventuresomeness, creating some of the most enduring active-listening sounds. Then in their own right as Plaid it looked as if they could have the world at their feet, but sheer awkwardness and obliqueness in their approach to pop creativity meant their moment passed, leaving them underground to produce the occasional classic.
Nicolette appeared on Plaid’s 333 set, and the duo returned the favour by helping out with a DJ Kicks set for !K7. There’s been all sorts of classic DJ Kicks sets, such as those from Andrea Parker, Kemistry & Storm, Rockers Hi-Fi, Chicken Lips, Daddy G (a must just for the inclusion of 'Non Non Non' by Melaaz, the French reimagining of Dawn Penn’s 'You Don’t Love Me', which had itself been reconstructed by digital dancehall doyens Steely and Cleevie), Smith and Mighty, and Annie, but Nicolette’s is one of the greatest yet. She throws together all sorts of musical madness, all paces, all hues, from the worldwide electronic underground, via Shut Up And Dance, Digital Hardcore, and Metalheads. An easy and obvious ride it’s not, but a whole lot of fun it certainly remains.
Nicolette took quite a shine to the DJ role, and it would be several years before her third set, Life Loves Us, appeared on her own Early label. It was very much the twisted pop record of 2005, with the Herbert-produced set from Moloko’s moonlighting Roisin Murphy coming a close second. This time around Nicolette (proving she can pretty much turn her hand to anything) was at the control desk, though the Plaid guys were still involved. It’s also good to see Lady Miss Kier credited, lest we forget how Deee-Lite’s 'Groove Is In The Heart', and that appropriation of a Herbie Hancock bass line, brightened up the world. It’s also good to see Leila Arab mentioned, lest we forget how far out there her Rephlex debut Like Weather was, or how the follow-up Courtesy of Choice was even better and even more cruelly overlooked.
Life Loves Us is a warm and wonderful record, full of skittering beats and wobbly bass, wistful and wriggly pop, and insanely catchy hooks that kibble and kindle. And there’re Nicolette’s insights: “Somebody asked me if it’s hard to be a woman like the song says. I said yes and no. You’ve got to have hidden strengths but on the other hand you can show your feelings without being shy. I’ve heard we girls must make choices based on being one thing or the other, but what if you know it’s not that cut and dried.
If the Wild Bunch’s interpretation of the Bacharach/David classic 'The Look of Love' provided the template, then Smith and Mighty were the ones to develop the potential of that blueprint. Garry Mulholland (again) in This Is Uncool cites the S&M adaptation of another Bacharach/David masterpiece, 'Anyone Who Had A Heart', as the point where pop began again. Smith and Mighty would repeat the magic trick on a version of 'Walk On By', where Jackie Jackson’s intimate and vulnerable vocals would ride a warmly melodic melange of depth charge bass, broken beats, and orchestral lushness, creating music for a new age to steppers’ delight.
The visionary journalist John McCready caught up with the Smith and Mighty collective in 1988 for an article in The Face, and made much of the 3 Stripe sound system roots, shadowing those of the Wild Bunch. The picture painted is one of prickly punks, immersed in music of all shades and guises, against their instincts on the verge of world domination. Their reinvention of 'Wishing On A Star' for Fresh 4 (whose circle included future drum’n’bass mavericks Krust, Suv and Flynn) had gone Top 10, and the Smith and Mighty magic touch was just being applied to an LP for Carlton, after which there would be no turning back.
I’ve seen an early Smith and Mighty interview where they explain that as principled old punks they refused to sign with Richard Branson’s Virgin empire, opting instead for London’s FFFR imprint, where like many others they found themselves pulled in all the wrong directions, and as a consequence great music was suppressed for far too long.
Carlton’s The Call Is Strong did emerge eventually at the start of the ‘90s, sounding like the missing link between Renegade Soundwave’s Soundclash/In Dub and Blue Lines itself. Somehow it got buried but should surely be regarded as one of the great British soul records? Carlton’s vocals eerily anticipate the utilisation of Horace Andy’s ghostly unreal vocals on future Massive Attack records.
So the machinations of the record combine stalled the Smith and Mighty masterplan, and it can be argued they never recovered, and were happy to retreat into the underground. When their debut Bass Is Maternal set finally emerged in 1995 it was quite contrary, being harsher and far more drum’n’bass-centric than the earlier lovers/hip hop soundclash. The outfit would defiantly use relatively unknown Bristol voices on its records, and a succession of Smith and Mighty sets would become cult favourites, with the support of the !K7 imprint.
Rob Smith in collaboration with Peter Rose would divert into running the More Rockers imprint, where they would release a series of much loved dancehall/drum’n’bass recordings as well as providing an outlet for kindred spirits like Irish marxist rappers Marxman, on the rebound from major politics nonsense, who put out the ridiculously and wonderfully uncompromising Time Capsule set on the label, and somewhere they must be smiling watching The Coup continue to fly the flag for the Marxist-leninist hip hop community.
At its most active More Rockers fitted in perfectly with a particularly active drum’n’bass community, led by Roni Size and his Full Cycle collective, comprised of the likes of DJs Krust, Suv, Die, and Flynn and Flora. And the records from that time still sound ridiculously raw and vital, despite a sense at the time that drum’n’bass drowned in a wave of fusion washes.
In fact the More Rockers team was involved in one of the earlier jazz-meets-jungle experiments, when they got together with LA producer The Angel to put the Jaz Klash set, Thru The Haze, together, bringing in real players, including the great English progressive Brian Auger. As a set it’s rougher than most of the explorations into similar territory. The Angel herself is one of the more intriguing figures in electronic music, popping up in the strangest of places, and in the oddest company, such as overseeing the soundtrack of the film Kidulthood, where her incidental music appears alongside many of the current London underground gutter stars, like Dizzee Rascal, Skinnyman, Roots Manuva, and especially Shystie whose classic 'Woman’s World' features. She as also released a series of titles under the 60 Channels brand name, featuring a variety of vocalists, including Japanese jazz adventuress Monday Michiru, and all manner of broken beats and bass.
Where Massive Attack have perfected the art of disappearing for years on end, Smith and Mighty are more from the school of steady plugging away, and the 2003 Rob Smith solo outing on the Manchester imprint Grand Central is a true survivors’ set. This is borne out by the credits, taking in fellow travellers from the worldwide rhythm underground, like Jah Shaka, Flynn and Flora, Full Cycle, Zion Train, Mad Professor, Scientist, and Mark Stewart. Bass, it seems, is eternal.
by John Carney