Cornershop, Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook Remix) (1998)

CornershopBrimful

Artist: Cornershop
Title: Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook Remix)
Description: single; track The Greatest Hits – Why Try Harder (Fatboy Slim)
Label: Wiiija; Big Beat
Release date: 1998
First heard: 1998

Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow

How many number one records have made The 143? I reckon around a dozen, with the same number again for tracks that appear on number one albums. This is not necessarily because my tastes don’t often merge with the tastes of the nation. There are plenty of chart-topping groups and singers in my list, but in only selecting one song for any given artist, my final choice might not be their biggest hit. For instance, my chosen Elvis song is Suspicious Minds, which only reached number two in the UK. (It was number one in the US and Canada.) Similarly with those multi-chart-topping beat groups the Beatles and the Stones: neither Blackbird nor Wild Horses reached the top and had to stop. (Blackbird was not a single, and Wild Horses, a US-only single, reached 28 there.) All of which brings me to the rare thrill of agreeing with the British record-buying public and ending up on the same page. This happened in February 1998 when a peppy new remix of Brimful Of Asha beat all comers.

I was lucky enough to see Cornershop play before they were music-press darlings. I’d been sent by the NME to review the Rockingbirds at a club in Leeds in 1992 and Cornershop were the support. They were good and I met them afterwards. My main impression of them was that they seemed shy and polite. I don’t recall being that shocked that two members of an indie band were Asian, or that the Singh brothers used their ethnicity as both sonic turbine and sentient gimmick. It sometimes felt as if their adoption of Asian signifiers was partly done to bait an Anglocentric music press (or perhaps just Morrissey at the time); it was certainly deployed as an ironic weapon. You may recall the “curry-coloured vinyl” release of their first EP (which I still own), the Punjabi version of Norwegian Wood, more than one use of the thankfully now-moribund term of abuse “wog”, and of course, there’s their name. They are a fiendishly clever band, always one step ahead and one step to the side.

The smash hit version of Brimful Of Asha is 90% Cornershop’s achievement, and 10% Norman Cook’s. (I’m sure Norman would humbly accept this share, and I expect Cornershop thanked him kindly for unleashing its beast within.) Their original 1997 iteration of what would be their defining song – a langorous paean whose only signs of danger are a tambourine and a teasing string sample on the playout – reached number 60 in the national charts. Once Cook had got his hands on it, spotting its potential for immortality and universality, it roared back into national consciousness and topped the poppermost: a victory for “our” music over “their” music in those still-entrenched times before file-sharing and giveaway NMEs, and a red-letter day for the independent sector and in particular the Rough Trade-birthed Wiiija.

It was already a uniquely warm, personal and witty evocation of growing up against a rarefied backdrop of Hindi playback singers epitomised by Asha Bhosle (ennobled in the lyric as “sadi rani” or “our queen”), set to a lazily summery indie riff ideal for its original August release and appealingly sung by Singh; Cook simply sped it up, spiced it up, changed the key (or so I’m told by musicologists) and added a bigger beat, the kind that had only just been defined as “Big Beat” and twinned with Brighton. Like the Bollywood tunes that feed into the heritage singalong feel, it’s a tune for dancing. The beachfront remixer spotted that and splashed it up in massive letters.

There’s dancin’ behind the movie scenes

It informs as it entertains, listing Bhosle’s contemporaries Mohammad Rafi and
Lata Mangeshkar and going on to namecheck All India Radio, Trojan Records, Marc Bolan and French singer Jacques Dutronc. It’s a song about singers; it’s music about music; it’s a lyric about lyricists. It says, “Come on in, the water’s lovely.” Brimful of Asha is a celebration of itself, if you like. Even if you’re not on Cornershop’s actual wavelength, you get the gist. They care about RPMs. They acknowledge the power of radio. They love 45s. And so do you. After all, you’re holding theirs. And everybody, regardless of backdrop, ethnicity or accident of geography, needs a bosom for a pillow.

Cornershop continue to produce the goods on their own fluid terms (Tjinder and Ben Ayres survive from the founding squad), albeit away from the treacherous eddies of the UK chart. Their subsequent singles have been no less catchy and colourful, and who cares if Asha was a commercial fluke? It got higher than Strawberry Fields and Vienna. I reviewed their sixth album Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast in Word in 2009, and wrote that they “continue to forge a singleminded path between English pop kitsch and Asian birthright”, noting the use of “supplementary tambura and sitar,” and a preoccupation with “a surreal form of pacifism.”  I also stated that “a soulfulness roots Tjinder Singh’s elusively quirky lyrics in sincerity.” Hold that thought.

Advertisements

Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding (1982)

Shipbuilding

Artist: Robert Wyatt
Title: Shipbuilding
Description: single
Label: Rough Trade
Release date: 1982; 1983
First heard: 1983

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

I wish I had the guts just to type out those three lines and leave it there. What more needs to be said about this lyric, written by Elvis Costello, that’s as profound as Strange Fruit, A Nation Once Again or What’s Going On, and a tune, written by Clive Langer, as mournful and affecting as the best blues? Shipbuilding couldn’t have come at a better time. It was the worst of times, in fact: the cruel, galvanising pomp of the first Thatcher administration, in which re-election hopes were boosted by a long-distance war with a South American country that claimed sovereignty over two island off its own coast that had been declared a “royal colony” in 1841. Such dominions were usually seized by war, and for trade purposes in the age of Empire. Whether or not the Falkland islands should or should not be classed territorially as “British” rather rests upon your feelings as to whether or not the same ought still to be said in the late 20th century of Virginia, Singapore, Rhodesia, Malta, Kenya or indeed any other far outpost stamped with the royal seal at a time when Britannia ruled the waves.

Well I ask you

The story of this mild-mannered, velvet-gloved protest song is complicated. In short, Langer, formerly of Deaf School, by 1982 a producer of great note (usually with Alan Winstanley: Madness, Dexys, The Teardrop Explodes), wrote the song for Robert Wyatt, formerly drumming vocalist with Soft Machine, now solo and surely the West’s most famous paraplegic Communist. Langer asked Elvis Costello (whose landmark Punch The Clock album he and Winstanley would produce a year later) to write some better lyrics and he did. Boy, did he.

The boy said, “Dad they’re going to take me to task, but I’ll be back by Christmas”

The single recording, produced by Langer, Winstanley and Costello, with Mark Bedford of Madness on double bass, Steve Nieve of the Attractions on piano, Langer on keys and Martin Hughes a quiet whizz on the drums, was released on Rough Trade in August 1982, two months after the capture of Port Stanley and the Argentine surrender. Too soon. A reissue in April 1983 charted, a historic first for Rough Trade. 

Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

A modest number 35 chart hit, then, but already hailed in corners as a modern classic and number 2 in the 1982 Festive Fifty behind New Order’s Temptation. (It was number 11 in the all-time Festive Fifty compiled in 2000.) Wyatt’s performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test remains a definitive document, and the beret and the beard worn in the little-shown video harken to his jazz roots. He had been paralysed from the waist down in 1973, but his appearance in a wheelchair – quite an arresting sight in those pre-diverse TV times (he’d had to argue his way onto Top Of The Pops when he had a bigger hit with I’m A Believer in 1974; the producer seriously tried to sit him in a chair so as not to frighten the faint-hearted) – seemed to amplify the power of the song. It does not shout. It does not scream. It does not call in expectation of a response. It cannot be sung at barricades. And yet its rage is intense. Wyatt’s high, plaintive vocal, tempered against overstatement by that hint of a lisp, could break your heart in two.

Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin

It has all the will in the world. It cuts deep with Costello’s observation that death in the South Atlantic will mean new shoes and a bike for working-class families on the Clyde. We should never forget that 255 British service personnel died in the pointless conflict and 649 Argentinians (including 16 civilian sailors), as well as three civilians on the Island. I was 17 at the time, and greatly affected. The Crass single How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead? is the only other that I remember to address this electioneering war. Sadly, it did not chart. Costello doesn’t write in slogans; rather, he pricks our conscience with passing, well-known idioms like “next of kin” and “back by Christmas”. In such short, simple phrases, he recalls other wars, other conflicts, other political campaigns and other political casualties. He even gets away with a pun (“take me to task”), proving that wit is permitted in all seriousness. The choice of “somebody” and “someone” before “people” is another sublime lyrical decision.

Sometimes, and it may only happen a couple of times per generation, a combination of voice, lyric, tune, instrumentation and timing says it all. Even, in this case, the choice of sleeve illustration: Stanley Spencer’s magnificent Shipbuilding On The Clyde series, painted between 1940-46 as a response to the Second World War, when a lot of rumours were spread around town. (The owner of the Glasgow shipyard where Spencer worked, Lithgow, did not approve of his interpretation, which is all you need to know about the art’s greatness.) You do wonder sometimes when you get to my age whether a constellation of talent as rich and influential as the one in the early 80s that gave British music 2-Tone, Stiff, Rough Trade, Costello, Langer and Winstanley could ever happen again.

Amid all the emotion and solidarity and protest, I remain in awe of Costello’s rhyming of “filled in,” “killed in,” “skilled in,” and “shipbuilding.” The Stanley Spencer of the Thatcher years.