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.

Lionrock, Fire Up The Shoesaw (Original Album Mix) (1996)

lionrock-fire_up_the_shoesaw

Artist: Lionrock
Title: Fire Up The Shoesaw (Original Album Mix)
Description: single; album track, An Instinct For Detection
Label: Deconstruction
Release date: 1996
First heard: 1996

It is through no sense of willful obscurity or self-love that I put forward a song that I suspect few outside of the dance cognoscenti will recognise from its title. I’m no expert. I just took receipt of this single from a friendly PR, presumably at Q or just after, spotted that “Lionrock” was essentially producer and DJ of note Justin Robertson, was intrigued by the name (largely because Stuart Maconie, David Quantick and I had self-regardingly attempted to launch our own musical genre at the NME circa 1992 and christened it, without much depth, Lion Pop) and gave it a spin. I believe we are calling it Big Beat, though I didn’t really care what generic pigeonhole it went into, or who it was aimed at, or why Justin Robertson had cooked it up in the first place; I just knew that it was a preposterously infectious piece of construction work.

Built, like the more saleable 45s of Fatboy Slim (who will find his way into The 143 twice over, I suspect), from flotsam and jetsam which, if I went under the bonnet, I could probably catalogue sample for sample, right here, right now, but part of me wishes not to let light in upon magic. If you’ve never heard this wondrous tune, seek it out; in the meantime, I’ll describe it, just to see if I’ve still got the old magic, as it’s more than the sum of its Frankenstein’s monster-style parts.

The CD single contains five versions of subtle variation, but it’s the Original Album Mix that strikes the optimum note of upper-case melodrama and comes in at an executive five minutes 45 seconds in length. It begins, as these things so often do, with a disembodied, echoey sample of an American announcer, seemingly reacting to a primary election result of some kind and the establishment of “a new candidate” and, less conventionally, a “new favourite vegetable which is … asparagus” and then we’re off: into the one building block that a child could identify: the double bass intro from These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (a classic single we’ll be hearing from again, I promise). It is artfully distorted by Robertson and mixed in with the squelching sound of water, until another disembodied American voice asks, “What is rock and roll?”

A second guitar and a big beat join the looped Lee Hazelwood riff and we hit our first groove. If it just did this, it would be a serviceable slice of white man’s dance music. But there’s more. At one minute in, a guess-which-nationality voice asks, “Where’d you learn how to shake that booty?”, heralding the next movement – and I don’t think it’s overstating the case to use the terminology of classical music with a piece as intricately composed as this – in which a fuzz guitar and some brass stabs seems to conjure that Jabberwockian “shoesaw” (and that’s not nearly as pretentious a description as it sounds). Think you’ve got the measure of it? Wait until one minute 53.

One of America’s great pranksters …

Here’s the wow factor, which possesses my body and my fingers on public transport every time it explodes into brilliance in my headphones: a skyscraping brass reveille from one of John Barry’s Bond soundtracks, instantly familiar and yet ingeniously punched up with some sampled jazz drums that coolly operate at the apex of Gene Krupa/Buddy Rich levels of technical skill (hey, they could be Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich). Paradiddling across the kit, this drum fill, repeated, takes Shoesaw to another level of synchronicity. It is akin to the skin-and-timber drumming sampled so adoringly by DJ Shadow. We’re so used to drum samples that either underpin with timekeeping or punctuate with a roll; these speak.

It’s actually a sad moment when the Bond section is over, and back to the fuzz guitar section, but stick around, we’re into a cycle now and only halfway through.

A disembodied American voice pleads “What are we doing here?”, and at one stage, the squelching is back, foregrounded, as if we are marching home from the trenches, at which Boots is our trusty companion back into a welcome rerun of Bond. Can it just be the drummer in me that so takes this record to heart? I don’t care. We all have our reasons. We all have our ways in. The snarework of a jazz sticksman is my way into Fire Up The Shoesaw. The title bespeaks superheroes, comic book action, maybe even the threat of violence in a megalomaniac’s underground lair, but what cinematic drama! What spatial awareness! And what generosity of length!

I’m sure Justin Robertson does not dine out on lobster too often on the royalties of a song made from other songs that only reached number 43 in the charts in 1996 when Fatboy Slim was winning superstar status, but I hope he is still in full and enriching self-employment, and held in appropriate regard by his peers and those who dance before his decks in superclubs in Russia, as he only went and created one of the best 143 songs of all time and he may not even know it.