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Avon Calling "Straight Outa Bristol" (The Independent 11th August 1996)

If you believe in the theory of site-specific popular music, of musical movements that are geographicaly determined (and in the mysterious power of port), then the Avon is the latest river to follow the tides of the Mississippi and the Mersey in beaching p a revolutionary new musical form. The trip-hop sound of Massive Attack, Smith & Mighty, Tricky and Portishead (and that's just the first wave) has helped to make British dance music perhaps the most influential pop movement in the world today, for discerning listeners at least. And while the British pioneers may till be in advance of the public taste, just as any avant garde should be, their example of being translated into mega sales by the likes of Everything But The Girl, with rock dinosaurs such as Tina Turner and U2 (who have threatened a dance album as their next release), follow in their wake. All this from a city that can't even manage a decent football team.
It is admitedly, an unlikely scenario; dance music that you don't dance to, produced in the main by non-musicians, in a city whose only previous claim to pop fame was a few novelty singles by toothsome pianist Russ Conway in the days before the Mersey sound swept his like away forever. In the 60s, while Liverpool had the Beatles, Manchester the Hollies, Birmingham the Spencer Davis Group, and Newcastle the Animals, Bristol had, well, no one much ... unless you count those dedicated to regionalists Adge Cutler and the Wurzels.

It was at least partly because Bristol remained such as taula rasa of rock, with no real music business structure to speak of, that allowed the stars of the present scene to emerge with their own sound so stylistically intact. The history of the city had its part to play, too. A pe-industrial capital of the provices grown, rich from trade with the new World (including the trade in slaves), Bristol had a prideful complancency about its laid back ways that is second to none. When, in th 50s, descendents of those slaves arrived in the inner city suburb of St. Paul's to seek their fortune, a kind of Notting Hill of the soul was estabished, with Jamaican country manners meeting with country cidar-head culture head on.

With few local models to conform to other than the pervasive influence of reggae sound-systems and the examples of early 80s funk-inclined punks like the Pop Group and Rip Rig and Panic, the current Bristol artists developed largely at their own, famously slow, pace. The spark that was to ignite them same from American hip-hop, which in Bristol was apropriated not just as music but as part of an intergrated subculture of beats and attitude, art and dance, eaggerly lapped up by the old slave port's mix of black, white and mixed race kids. Providing the social context was the aftermath of the St. Paul's riots of 1980. When Bristol's inner city erupted in the first and most shocking of the decades cvil disturbances.

Despite the claims to the contrary - not least from the artists themselves who hate to be lumped together - the Bristol sound does exist. I've got proof. In the summer of 1985, the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol put on a show of graffiti art, with the artists - including 3-D, aka Robert del Naja, later of Massive Attack - spraying directly on the gallery walls. thw work was perhaps a little disspaointing, its rae energy losing something between the institutioanl context and the rather porous qualit of the wals, but for one night the hip-hop sound-system crew to which Del Naja belonged - the Wild Bunch - were invited to put on ajam in the main downstairs gallery, and videotaped it for the Arnolfini archive.

Looking at the tape is like scaning throgt the quaint hitorical newsreel. There, gathered aroun the turntables, is the Wild Bunch: Mile Johnson and Nellee Hooper, cutting up tracks. Grant Marshall picking out the next record as the very young Andrew Volwes stands by his shoulder looking on. In the audience are the Pop Group's Mark Stewart, the producers Smiith & Mighty, Tricky and, on his first trip to Bristol without his mum, the barely adolescent Geoff Barrow, late of Portishead. As the Wild Bunch mixed the eclectic choice of records - a permuttation of soul, rap, reggae and funk - kids dressed in hooded sweat tops, break danced dangerously around the gallery and occasionally a group of adult Aldofini regulars walked past the camera like safari - jacketed anthropoloists on a field trip.

Now, Del Naja, Marshall, and Vowles are Massive Attack, the group whose '91 album Blue Lines has been described by Radio One's Pete Tongas as the best album of the decade, Miles Johnson, The Wild Bunch's leader, lies in New York, where he is working once again with his protoge, Tricky, Nelee Hooper, who went on to form Soul II Soul with Jazzie B, is probably the most in demand record producer in the world, largely as a result of his brilliant work with Bjork. Geoff Barrow's group Portishead made a debut album in '94, Dummy, that has sold more than 1.5 Million copies worldwide. Smith and Mighty still remain the leas commerically successful of the lot, but they've more than made their contribution: you could argue that they pretty much invented Jungle, the first fully naturalized form of British electronic dance music.

The Pop Group's Mark Stewart is still an outsider, though his influence on the scene has been crucial. In 85, he booked the Wild Bunch for a sound-system battle at London's 1st rap club, The Language Lab, Through which Soul II Soul was born when Nellee Hooper met Jazzie B, he also introduced the Scandinavian punk Neneh Cherry o his Pop Group colleagues Gareth Sager and Bruce Smith, with whom Cherry started the group Rip Rig & Panic, and he made probably the first recording of the Bristol sound, when he took a Smith and mighty version of Eric Saties 'Gymnepedie No.1", set it to some words from West Side Story's "Somewhere", and put it on his 87 solo album.

Later, Neneh Cherry ot members of the Wild Bunch to work on her first album, "Raw Like Sushi", and then enrolled Geoff Barrow to write music for the follow up.

Massive Attack came about after Cherry and her husband Cameron Mcey, signed the remains of the Wild Bunch to their management company and got them a record deal with Virgin, from which Blue Lines emerged.On Cherry's latest album, Tricky who first came to prominence as a rapper with Massive Attack, is featured. tricky's new album includes tracks produced by Miles Johnson.

Despite the incestuousness of the musical relationships, or possibly because of them, the notion of a handy, catch all Bristol sound does not go down well today with the participants, many of whom are no longer on speaking terms. Miles Johnson, whom many see as the most creative force in the Wild Bunch, has not talked to Nellee Hooper or the members of Massive Attack for eight years.

Bristol today, is full, too, of people who had a hand to play, in the early days but who never go the breaks their successsful peers managed to engineer for themselves. The latest wave of British artists includes the Full Cycle Records team of drum and bass producers such as Way Out West and Henry and Louis, and real a band like the hotly tippd Crustation, and Ariel, whom Massive Attack have signed to their own label, Melankolic.

With Tricky's new, defiantly uncommercial, album about to hit the shop, Portishead's folow-up due shortly (though "shortly" ca, in Brisol, mean a very lohg time), and Massive Attack's third, reputedly punk-inspired, album set to appear some time next year (only their third album in 6 or 7 years, a period longer than the Beatles entire career,) The Bristol sound is set to keep on goin, through iertia as much as anything, for quite a while yet. Which allows, even more time for everyone else to catch up with it. And, as in the wonderful early singles by Smith and Mighty, the Wild Bunch and Massive Attack - all now unobtainable, though Massive Attack's label might rerelease them soon, there's a lot of catching up to do, before the jaugernuts of U2 and the other imitators make us forget where the new Brits dance music - the kind you don't dance to - came from.

by Phil Johnson