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Beginnings of the Bristol Beat

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

July 23rd, 2008 / 

Gil Gillespie traces the city’s modern music back to its roots 30 years ago…

If there was any kind of music scene in Bristol before 1977, his name was Russ Conway and he liked to play piano. In fact, it wasn’t until the jagged edges of new wave began to cut the shock tactics out of the punk movement that the first serious local bands began to emerge from their Clifton and Redland hideaways. So we’ll make 1977 our starting point for a tour of the Bristol music scene.

First out of the blocks were The Cortinas, four sneering teenagers in torn blazers not long out of grammar school sixth form. Fittingly, their feisty and dangerously energetic double A-sided single ‘Fascist Dictator/Television Families’ set the standard that others would have to follow. And sure enough, by the middle of 1979, hundreds of nervy young punk bands were popping up all over town. A fanzine called Loaded sprang up in support like a regional Sniffin’ Glue. Suddenly, there were six or seven live venues with the Guildhall Tavern in Broad Street at the epicentre of the punk scene. Then Heartbeat Records released the Social Security EP which featured four irreverent dum-dum bullets, including the immortal I’m Addicted to Cider.

Bristol was up and running as a music town. The fledgling label followed its debut release with another excellent single, The Europeans, by The Europeans. The Europeans became the first but certainly not the last Bristol band to be linked with a major record deal that never quite came off. The likes of the Pigs, the X-Certs, Joe Public and the Numbers all followed. Aggressive, confrontational upstarts all.

But from here on in, the sound of young Bristol splintered in several different directions. There was the wheel-spinning R&B in the shape of 14-year-old rebel-rousers the Untouchables. There were experimental types such as Art Objects, Glaxo Babies and Essential Pop. Black Roots introduced the dub influence while Shoes For Industry volunteered to be ringmaster for weird circus rock and confirmed their status by getting the lead singer to wear an inside-out brain on his head. And most controversially of all, Melanie, the daughter of Bristol City manager ‘Alan-Alan-Alan’ Dicks did a puty Wendy James type of thing for a band called Double Vision. Ashton Court Festival became a canvass for the city’s eclectic range of characters. The Wurzels were not welcome.

But lording it over this newly built sonic kingdom were the mightiest of all the pre-Nineties Bristolian hollerers, the Pop Group. How good were the Pop Group? Well, when Nick Cave and his growling Birthday Party entourage first landed on these shores in 1980, they spent every night going to gigs all over the capital but were shocked and disappointed by the limp, bloodless bands they found. Then one night he saw the Pop Group. The experience changed his life. As part of Channel 4’s Music of the Millennium series, Cave chose We Are All Prostitutes as his favourite piece of music of all time. “The beginning of the record is the greatest start of any record, ever,” claims the awesome Aussie. And you wouldn’t want to disagree with him.

This is why it’s the Pop Group who are cited as being the biggest influence on what became known as the Bristol Sound. Even if it’s not all that easy to see why or how, they laid the foundations for Massive Attack. The Pop Group, y’see, made a fearsome chaotic noise that was always experimental and sometimes unlistenable. Their first single, She is Beyond Good and Evil, might have been as infectious as it was deeply disturbing, but much of the Y album sounded like a load of out-of-time clanging and primeval hollering, interrupted by the occasional blast of raucous feedback. These elements burned on a fire already white hot with punk, funk and thunderous dub to make a protest music completely out on its own.

So what does all this have to do with the birth of the Wild Bunch and everything that followed them? Crucially, Mark Stewart’s unholy Pop Group crew were the first to assimilate the city’s black, or more accurately, Rasta counter-culture into their social life, their worldview, and ultimately their sound. Back then music allowed you to define your enemies more clearly. “With the roots worldview…the feeling of spiritual uplift was undeniable,” says singer Stewart of his dub days. As if this wasn’t significant enough, the band also spent their youth going to clubs and listening to dance beats. “We were like the Bristol funk army,” recalls Stewart. “We’d go to clubs and dance to records by T-Connection, BT Express, Fatback Band, all this heavy bassline funk.”

This is how the Pop Group invented the politics of dancing. It was a warped, out-of-shape boogie, but a boogie none the less. “They even used to dance in the most peculiar way,” remembers one fan. Sadly, by the time they’d made their third album For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? all the incendiary radicalism had got out of control. Maybe it’s best to let the band explain. “We were creating a wall of noise for the lyrics to fight against,” sighs drummer Dan Katsis. “We were challenging the production process, disrespecting the machines.”

Something, inevitably, had to give, and the six memebers went their separate ways. Gareth Singer formed the distinctly patchy Rip Rig and Panic, bassist Simon Underwood sought relief in the happy honking of jazz-funkers Pigbag and had a top 20 hit, and Mark Stewart sank still deeper into the well of nihilistic creativity in which he had always prospered.

They were only around for two years or so but the Pop Group cast one hell of a long shadow. There were a lot of bands who found themselves permanently stuck in the shade. Performance art, free festival politics, second-hand clothes, a vibrant live scene and copious amounts of free drugs all played their part in a shift towards an artier and more offbeat order. If you can track down any copies of the compilation albums Avon Calling, Fried Egg-Bristol 1979-1981, Wavelength/Bristol Recorder 1979-1980, or Western Stars Vol 1-The Bands That Built Bristol (now on Sugar you can hear for yourself. It’s from this increasingly bohemian atmosphere that Gerard Landley’s first band the Art Objects sprang.

What we didn’t know then is that Bristol was about to rewind to a second year zero. This time it began down amoung the funk jams and scratched beats of the St. Paul’s cafe sound system scene. With the fragments of post-punk scattered all over the place and pulsing electronic dub everywhere, something truly remarkable began to bubble to the surface.The Slits made an unlikely union with Dennis Bovell, the Clash raised swords with Mikey Dread, and the Specials united black and white to fight against anyone who wanted to make something of it. Bristol had reggae collectives Talisman, Black Roots and Restriction. At the Dug out on Park Row, DJs were lining up Chaka Khan against Superfly Soul as the first blasts of urban hip-hop began to filter from across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, somewhere around town, Robert Del Naja was getting arrested for decorating walls with a spraycan. Soon he joined Nellee Hooper, Daddy G and Milo Johnson in a hip-hop collective called the Wild Bunch. That same year, St. Paul’s Carnival played host to a number of heavily-amped crews such as 3 Stripe Posse, 2Bad, City Rockers, UD4 and FBI Crew. But bigger and bolder than the rest were the Wild Bunch, who blocked off Campbell Street with their colossal, towering bass bins. The band’s reputation spread by word of mouth and they were invited to play at London’s Titanic Club. Then they set up residency on Wednesday nights at the Dugout, spinning 12 inches, rapping over the top, heads nodding eerily in time.

Hindsight has given the Wild Bunch a legendary status in modern music folklore. But Milo’s retrospective album, Story of a Soundsystem, suggested this is as much myth as reality. It’s party music, full of sax burps, cheesy disco jangles and it is very much of its time. Robert Del Naja puts his own perspective on the Wild Bunch. “People always ask us about the Wild Bunch,” he says.”But the truth is it’s just history to us now. I don’t know why people go on about it so much.”

No, the first truly staggering thing the Wild Bunch ever did was to become Massive Attack. And the first thing Massive Attack ever did was to take a giant leap ahead of anything else that had ever come before. Daydreaming is one of the most startlingly original and self-assured debut singles ever made. Even now it sounds as fresh and as relevant as it did back in the early Nineties. And there was so much more to come.

From its majestic opening line-’Midnight rockers, city slickers, gun men and maniacs’- it was obvious the Blue Lines album was going to be a classic. Three hit singles-Daydreaming, Safe From Harm and Unfinished Sympathy- propelled the band right across the globe. At the same time, they redefined what dance music could be. As 3D put it at the time : “We’re not just interested in making something for people to throw their arms and legs about to on a dancefloor.”

Everything had changed. Suddenly, Bristol was being talked about as the ‘coolest city on the planet’. Then someone, somewhere in the media, labelled the sound ‘trip-hop’ – a supposedly softer, near-ambient version of hip-hop unique to the South West. Apparently. And within minutes, the city was overrun by gangs of A&R clowns frantically searching for the next Bristol Sound sure things. Not only was the local music mafia not talking, they were also trying to get as far away from the term as possible.

This is an extract from the music chapter in The Naked Guide to Bristol by Gil Gillespie, published by Naked Guides Ltd, ISBN 9780954417765 (

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