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How The West Was One

The Bristol Music Scene - Iwonder if by any chance it's inter-related...

The sultry ambience of the Bristol sound in the mid-'90s bears little relation to the extreme music made there in the late '70s. But so incestuous are the links between the city's musicians that the one can be traced back to the other - if you try hard enough.

The Pop Group welded James Brown to Nietzsche in She Is Beyond Good And Evil, but remained firmly in cultland because they were equally capable of intolerable, ear-splitting noise to match Mark Stewart's howls of paranoid politics. Their soulmates were The Slits (the two bands "hung out" together at Glastonbury in 1979) who toured with jazz trumpeter Don Cherry in 1980. When The Pop Group imploded in 1981, Don's daughter Neneh formed Rip, Rig And Panic with keyboard maniac Gareth Sager. (She lived with, and had a child by, Bruce Smith, Pop Group drummer who spent the '80s in PiL, and she sang with Float Up CP, Sager's first post-Rip Rig outfit). Other PG offshoots included Pigbag and Maximum Joy, who drafted in eager percussionist Nellee Hooper to their line-up.

For three years, berets and a Roland Kirk album were de rigueur in every happening boho Bristol home. The other shared influence of all was reggae with a very tall, very cool youngster by the name of Grant Marshall providing a stream of dub plates at the best parties. Grant (aka Daddy G), Hooper and graffiti artist Roberto Del Naja (aka 3D) were soon DJing as The Wild Bunch at underground dive The Dug-Out. The Bunch decamped to tour Japan; Hooper left for London, teaming up with Jazzie B and Soul II Soul.

Guitars had become all the rage by 1984. The Blue Aeroplanes, whose frontman Gerard Langley was big on Auden before Hugh Grant, read his lyrics/poems from scraps of paper while his group tried to out-Velvet the Underground. The band drew on a pool of about 15 regulars, and guests included Tony Wrafter (formerly of Maximum Joy, played on Massive's Protection), Nigel Eaton (hurdy gurdy wizard on tour with Page & Plant this year) and Michelle Shocked. Truly, the word eclectic was made for them. Ten years on, Gerard's drumming brother John and guitarist Alex Lee now play in the disturbingly wonderful Strangelove. The Brilliant Corners (still around and now - believe it! - big in Canada) vied for top Bristol band stakes with the 'Planes, as later did skate-punk psychedelic popsters, The Seers, briefly infamous for their post Hungerford single Lightning Strikes. The avant-garde fringe was home to The Startled Insects, costume-wearing electronic multi-media types who now compose incidental music for BBC natural history progs and produced two tracks on Protection. They were briefly signed to Island after interest in all things Bristol and jazzy was stirred by Andy Sheppard, stalwart player at the Albert Inn, which was also a regular venue for guitarist Adrian Utiey.

1987 saw the release of proto-trip-hop Stranger Than Love, on which a gruff, low-key Mark Stewart intoned over an Erik Satie loop devised by Rob Smith and Ray Mighty, two dub fans who had been inspired by punk and The Wild Bunch. Stewart also launched the career of his drinking partner Gary Clail that year by betting him he couldn't get a record released. The Wild Bunch themselves renewed acquaintance with Neneh Cherry, producing the 12-inch of Buffalo Stance, and tracks on her hugely successful Raw Like Sushi at Bristol's Coach House Studios (where they would meet Geoff Barrow). They also took on Neneh's husband, Cameron McVey, as manager.

In 1988, the reshaped Wild Bunch, now known as Massive Attack, released their debut single, Any Love, co-produced by Smith & Mighty, who then signed an ultimately fruitless deal with London Records (they returned with the invigorating drum'n'bass outfit More Rockers). One of the featured rappers on Blue Lines, Tricky, cut some tracks of his own. But you probably know that now.

Campbell Stevenson