Sounds Like London

Issue section: 
(385)

Lloyd Bradley, Published by Serpent's Tail at £12.99

"Stand for long enough on any street corner in London, and you'll hear music. Chances are, these days it'll be black music of some description - dub step, hip hop, grime, reggae, R&B".

Split into three main sections ("They come over 'ere....", Nobody's going anywhere and Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner), Sounds Like London is a trip through the last 100 (well, 94) years of the influence of black music on London life.

Although opening with Calypso singer Lord Kitchener's descent down the gangplank of the Windrush and ad-libbing of "London is the place for me", Bradley points to the earlier Southern Syncopated Orchestra, a West Indies jazz band, as being the first black band to make it big in Britain. They headlined at the Royal Albert Hall for a concert on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, played at Buckingham Palace and included many legendary jazz musicians.

At the same time many other bands were packing out clubs around the capital, such as the Paramount Ballroom, where the clientele was working class black people, "who had probably had enough of white people for that week, and wanted nothing more on a Friday or Saturday night than to relax".

Other jazz clubs became the places where a small but growing black intelligentsia as well as political dissidents could meet, including Amy Garvey, and would later go on to be instrumental in the break up of the British Empire in both the Caribbean and parts of Africa.

Bradley takes us through the introduction to London of calypso, steel pan, African jazz and rock, rhythm and blues, ska, britfunk, lovers rock, soul sound systems and warehouse parties, garage, drum 'n' bass, to dubstep and grime. He looks not just at how those early musical genres were introduced to London, but particularly for the generations born here how growing up in London influenced them and the music they made.

Bradley goes into great detail at times - where else could you find out that one of the first recorded football songs was 1956's Manchester United Calypso or that in 1975 Barry White was the fourth highest album selling artist in this country? - frequently listing the musical connections between band members, producers and label owners, which definitely appealed to the musical anorak in me. Nevertheless Sounds Like London manages to put black music into a social context.

Bradley looks at the impact of immigration legislation, the welcoming of South African jazz musicians during the apartheid era, the New Cross fire of 1981 and the trial of the Mangrove Nine. He also looks at the unwillingness of the music industry to develop black artists, the failure of radio stations playing black music to have black DJs and presenters, or indeed for clubs to let in black people.

BBC soul presenter Trevor Nelson recalls the door policies of clubs like Lyceum and WAG, saying, "The WAG was a classic - the first time I was ever allowed in the place was when they phoned me up and asked me to deejay - they'd never ever let me in as a punter."

Elsewhere Bradley interviews Teddy Osei, the leader of the Afro-rock band Osibisa, who remembers being one of the first all black band on Top of the Pops in 1971: "One of our things was that... we would be wearing African clothes. On television, it made such a difference. It let everybody see we were a proud band, proud of the music we played."

Much of Sounds Like London emphasises the "do it yourself" aspects of black music, often necessary because of the racism of the established music industry. Stern's record shop, for example, began life as an electrical store where African students paid for repairs with vinyl which led to it developing into a music shop.

The sound systems like Soul II Soul and Shake 'n' Fingerpop were, Bradley argues, the product of a multicultural city where the kids who grew up and went to school together were unable to go out in the West End and get into clubs together.

Norman Jay of the Good Times system says, "In our area it was Greek kids or English kids... and as we got older we got into music together, just like we'd been playing football together... There wasn't a masterplan; we were just reflecting what was going on around us as kids growing up in London."

This is mirrored in the sections on dub step and grime where, as technology has developed, young musicians have become able to produce their own music independently of the major labels, even if they ended up signing to them and becoming household names with a very distinctive "London" style.

Overall it's almost impossible for one book to cover every aspect of the last 100 years of Black music in the capital, but Sounds Like London has a good go. It would be easy to list the omissions, but that wouldn't do the book justice - anyone with a passion for music and interested in finding out one aspect of the impact of black culture on the city will find something interesting here.

Liz Wheatley presents Soul Chronicle on Urban Jazz radio.