From the Y Crate: Playgroup

From the Y Crate, #9:
playgroup1“Number One” by PLAYGROUP (Source)

I don’t know if the events are linked, or if it’s just a mad coincidence – but every time I drive my sister’s car and put XFM on, I hear a tune for the first time and it completely blows me away. I can remember dropping her off at Heathrow and hitting the M4 to the sound of Richard Ashcroft’s “Check the Meaning”. Biiiig tune!! (and not in the Y Crate because it was a hit, of course). Then there was the other occasion where I was driving somewhere in south London and this came on. Took me all the way back to the 80s, it did…

If you can remember the Eddy Grant tune “Walking on Sunshine” (or better still, the cover version by Rocker’s Revenge), you’ll have some idea of what this sounds like – then out of nowhere, in comes Edwin Collins (of Orange Juice and “Never met a girl like you before” fame) with a blistering guitar solo. A nicer slice of retro Brit-funk you’ll never find. I can’t say the So Solid Crew’s remix of it does much for me, though…

The Freed Bird Sings

 I haven’t been as prompt with my updates on here as I’d like to. But I should share a really heart-warming moment from a couple of weeks ago with you.

 Actually, I’ll go back further – back a few years to when I was hosting my World Beat radio show on UCB, and I first heard about an Eritrean gospel singer who was serving a prison sentence inside a freight container.

 Helen Berhane was a member of an Evangelical church in Eritrea – one of the many religious groups deemed ‘illegal’ by the Eritrean Government. When she refused to renounce her faith, she was arrested.

 Torture and imprisonment followed; Helen was held in a freight container in sweltering heat, with a mentally ill woman who’d tried to assassinate a Government official as a cellmate (probably in the hope that the mad woman would try to kill her too).

 Helen’s plight caught the attention of several people outside her homeland. Amnesty International joined Christian groups such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Release International in campaigning for her release. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie took up her cause. As well as give her album T’kebaeku airplay on my show, I also lent a hand in remastering the only available cassette of it for a CD release.

 In November 2006, we received the news that Helen had been released after spending two years in her makeshift cell. The following year, she was granted asylum in Denmark, where she now lives. And that brings us to Saturday before last, when she was a guest speaker at CSW’s annual conference in London.

 She couldn’t come to the conference in person, due to the terms of her asylum status (if she leaves Denmark within her first three years there, she loses all her benefits). But thanks to the power of Skype, we were able to see and chat with her, and have her sing for us. I don’t mind telling you it’s been ages since a singer’s voice made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end…

 Helen is free. But there are still hundreds more Eritrean Christians facing heavy persecution in their homeland. As long as that’s the case, the fight continues. 

From the Y Crate: Seeed

From the Y Crate, #8:

seeedrelease“Release” by SEEED (WEA)

 Berlin-based eleven-piece dancehall massive Seeed are one of my favourite Reggae acts of recent years; the fact that most of their songs are in German could be the reason why they’re not that well known in the UK. Having said that, each time they have played here, they’ve gone down really well. Their Glastonbury gigs a couple of years ago got rave reviews (please don’t tell Noel Gallagher that they’ve had ragga at Glasto; he’ll probably have a heart attack). And when they played east London’s Cargo as part of the amusingly named Fertiliser Festival, demand to see them was so high I spent half the duration of the gig in a long queue outside the venue, chatting with some very friendly Germans. Good times…

 “Release” isn’t my all-time favourite Seeed track (that honour goes to the first song of theirs that I heard: “Dickes B”, their ode to their home town). But it is the first one of theirs I heard that was entirely in English (well, patois actually. But that’s close enough). Its rhythm track borrows heavily – and quite cleverly – from the Cure’s “Close to Me”. 

From the Y Crate: Nash

From the Y Crate, #7: 

nashchancer“The Chancer” by NASH (Go Beat)                

 If you’re an Ali G fan, you’ll probably remember ‘Tha 4orce’, the house DJ on Da Ali G Show. What you probably wouldn’t be aware of is that he was in a band responsible for one of the funkiest (yet sadly overlooked) British albums from the beginning of the new millennium. Tha 4orce – Steve Ellington to his bank manager – did turntable duties for Nash, an eclectic London four-piece led by multi-instrumentalist Russell Nash.

 I was on a Swissair flight to Atlanta in the spring of 2000, and became quite taken with a song called “100 Million Ways” played on one of the plane’s audio channels. Its stop-start guitar groove (not too dissimilar to Madonna’s “Don’t Tell me”) just grabbed you the moment you heard it. After the song ended, the DJ mentioned that it was by a new British group. The moment I got back to Blighty, I tried to track it down.

 I never heard from Nash again until a few years later, when I was rummaging through the shelves of a budget CD shop that had opened on East Street Market and happened upon this – their debut (and only) album. Several tracks off it have since become favourites of mine: “Black Box” with its ‘go on, take the plunge – what’s the worst that can happen?’ message; the jaunty, string-laden “Just A Little Sign”; the defiant “I Don’t Care”, and the dark, moody reprise of “100 Million Ways” that closes the album.   

So, how will Jesus vote?

Well, Indecision 2008 (or whatever nickname Jon Stewart and his Daily Show chums have given it this time) is nearly here.

Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t be paying any attention to an election taking place in a country I don’t live in (yes, I know: a black man is running. Big woop). But when writing about Christian music is part of your job, you’re kind of forced to take an interest. You see, politics is a biiiig part of American Christianity, and a lot of the art, media and teaching that come from there are heavily coloured by the partisan stance of whoever produced them – a point many of us non-American Christians who feed voraciously on the Christian culture industry’s output often fail to realise.

Every April, I take a trip to Nashville to attend the Gospel Music Association’s annual GMA Week. I remember turning up at GMA 2004, and being greeted by a giant banner covered in signatures, proclaiming “The Christian music community supports our troops in Iraq” (this was the same GMA at which my friend Mike Rimmer went about wearing a T-shirt with WWJB? (Who Would Jesus Bomb?) written on it). As one of the millions who’d marched the streets of London in protest against the war, you can imagine how that made me feel…

I’d kind of resigned myself to accepting that Christian music = rightwing politics. But in recent years, I’ve seen quite a few of those fiercely conservative Gospel/ccm people become less so. You still have guys like Redeem the Vote (ostensibly non-partisan, but in reality very pro-Republican) rallying young Christians’ support – first for Mike Huckabee, then for McCain once Huckabee was out of the race. But it appears that this time round, Christian voters are looking at other options beside the GOP – and are being helped to do so by some of their favourite gospel/ccm acts. The Democrats – famous for not ‘doing God’ – have even enlisted gospel singers such as Donnie McClurkin and the Mighty Clouds of Joy to help bring folk round.

I met Frank Schaeffer (author of the book Crazy For God) at Greenbelt this summer. Not only did he openly pledge his support for Obama several times during the festival; he also had a lot to say about how Christian voters’ moods were changing.

“A lot of Evangelicals now realise that they were sold a bill of goods by the Republican leadership,” he told me. “The one stick in the mud that won’t go away is abortion. But that said, most Evangelicals – with that as a caveat – are becoming more comfortable with voting for a Democrat, because they see the absolute failure of not only the Bush administration, but also this idea that you have to pass a sort of theological test in order to be President. That’s insane; you’re not hiring the guy as Pastor-In-Chief.”

As I’ve spoken to American Christians (musical and non-musical alike) over the last couple of years, many have cited one guy as being the catalyst for so many of them re-examining their political views: Jim Wallis, the Vicar of Dibley’s husband (no, seriously!) and author of books such as The Soul of Politics and God’s Politics: How the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.

“People like Jim Wallis have taken a lead in getting people involved in a larger conversation than abortion and homosexuality as the touchstones,” said Jars of Clay’s keyboardist Charlie Lowell, when I interviewed him before the band’s last UK gig. “He’s got us looking at issues such as taking care of the poor and ultimately what we’re building as a future, rather than what we’re against.”

I’ve met Jim Wallis several times over the years – usually at Greenbelt, where he’s a regular speaker, as well as at events organised by Faithworks and Make Poverty History. He’s told me more than once that “the monologue of the Religious Right is over,” but I’d always had a hard time believing that when TBN – along with the other Christian satellite channels – shouted the opposite so loudly. Brian McLaren, another speaker at this year’s Greenbelt, had an explanation for that.

“Something people outside the US just don’t understand is the degree to which religious broadcasting has enormous power,” he said. “I sometimes – being very tongue in cheek – refer to it as ‘Radio Orthodoxy’. The most powerful denomination in the USA is actually not Baptists or Pentecostals; it’s the people who control the Christian broadcasting networks!”

Brian longs for more Christian musicians to be more questioning of the political process, and cites the singer Derek Webb as one bright spark in the ccm pool. Having heard Derek’s The Ringing Bell album and seen the hilarious video for his song “Saviour on Capitol Hill”, I have to agree with Brian. When I actually got to interview Derek, I wasn’t disappointed – nor was I too surprised to learn that some of his more edgy songs haven’t gone down too well within the Christian music scene.

“The Christian music market is traditionally a fairly conservative one,” Derek said. “So when you as a Christian artist start looking at the more social implications of following Jesus, it does kind of concern people. I’ve always found that ironic, because looking at just the simplest teachings of Jesus, he clearly puts a high priority on caring for the poor. When you start to look at the social implications of what Jesus said, applying it socially is not only inevitable; it’s commanded. And when you look at the social implications, it inevitably becomes political.”

As you would expect, Derek’s been observing Indecision 2008 with interest. “So far, I think it’s better now than it’s been in a long time,” he said enthusiastically. “There does seem to be a heightened interest in having a more nuanced political conversation. I’ve been surprised by some of my friends and people I know, who four or eight years ago would simply have looked for the conservative candidate and blindly pledged their allegiance to him. Now I’m seeing some of those people are more interested in a whole discussion.

“I’ve been hoping that over time, Christians would begin to realise that politicians are primarily in the election and re-election business; willing to go to any group of people whose language they can decipher, and say to them whatever they need to say in order to get their votes. That’s just how it works. As you look over the history of the last 20 or so years of Evangelicalism and how it touches elections, people are bound to start realising, ‘these guys aren’t necessarily on my side!’

“Whoever you discern as the ‘Christian’ candidate – the guy who seems to have all his spiritual ducks in a row – has more likely deciphered the Christian language and is able to get in front of Christians and make himself seem appealing and electable. That’s not to say that some of these men aren’t whom they say they are, but Christians have to be a little more savvy about the game that’s being played. The politicians understand what they’re doing, but unfortunately, the public – and most often, these Christians – hear the politicians talk about the few issues that those politicians know are the only issues that are important to them, and they’re just swayed really easily. We should be a little more careful.”

Derek has some valid points, IMHO. And I’m all for Christians getting involved in the political process, whatever side of the fence they’re on or whatever country they’re in – just as long as they don’t try to claim God as a member of their party of choice (which is why I agree 1,000,000 percent with the line in one of Derek’s songs that one of the two great lies he’s heard is that Jesus was a white middle-class Republican). But is this “more nuanced political conversation” going to have any real effect on the poll results? Well, they’re nearly in; lets see for ourselves, shall we?

From the Y Crate: Asia Blue

From the Y Crate, #6:

“Escaping” by ASIA BLUE (Atomic)

This song actually had a reprieve. Dina Carroll scored a Top Three hit with her cover of it in 1996 –  four years after Asia Blue’s version flopped (insert “Atomic bomb” joke here). The original’s still the better version as far as I’m concerned. I wonder what these ladies are up to now?

From the Y Crate: vintage ccm

From the Y Crate, #4&5:

“My Friend (So Long)” by DC TALK (Virgin)

“But dc Talk were huge!” I can hear their fans protest. Yes, they were – in the Christian market. But when Virgin picked them up for mainstream release in the UK, this single flopped like the proverbial lead baloon. They had a big page feature in The Independent; GLR’s breakfast DJs raved about it and gave it lots of play (and years before all this, they’d even had a mention in Touch magazine, courtesy of you-know-who)… but none of that translated into chart success. A shame, because I’d have loved to have seen Toby, Mike & Kev on TOTP. But as those protesting fans have pointed out, aside from doing nada in the UK singles charts, dc Talk were big business elsewhere. So somehow, I don’t think they’re that bothered.

“Wonder Why” by PFR (EMI)

Around the same time that Virgin were failing to chart with dc Talk, EMI were having an equally unsuccesful shot at pitching PFR to unchurched Brits. I didn’t even know this had been released as a single until I came across it in the “cheap to a good home” box at my local record shop. Another great tune the British public missed out on…

From the Y Crate: This Way Up

From the Y Crate, #3:

“Tell Me Why” by THIS WAY UP (Virgin)

After Culture Club imploded in the late 80s, their guitarist Roy Hay teamed up with a singer by the name of Robinson Reid to form the duo This Way Up. They released a few singles, but had nowhere near the success of Roy’s old band. This was the first of theirs that I heard; I happened to see the video for it whilst watching The Chart Show one Saturday morning (ironically, several songs in the Y Crate had their videos featured on The Chart Show; you’d have thought that with a name like that, they’d only show videos of songs that had actually charted). I have a soft spot for any song that drives me to pick up one of my three massively under-played guitars – and for this song in particular, because its simple guitar riff is the first one I taught myself to play.

From the Y Crate: Keoni

From the Y Crate #2:

“Keoni” by KEONI (Word)

One accusation frequently levelled at the Christian music industry is that it’s obsessed with finding “safe” equivalents of whoever’s big on the mainstream music scene. There’s some truth in that (you only have to listen to a lot of Christian music to see it), but there is one artist who’s always eluded the Nash Vegas copyists. As much as it’s tried, CCM has never been able to deliver a Christian Prince. Yeah, I know – we’ve got Tonex. But he isn’t really, is he? Topic for a separate debate, I guess.

Anyway, before Tonex, the closest Christian music got to a Prince soundalike was Keoni (and the fact that you’ve just read that sentence and said “Keoni who?” proves how successful he was).  This dude was funky and rocky in equal measure. Just listen to his cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s ‘You Can Make It’ that kicked off his self-titled debut album – man, what a punch! The album even had a couple of members of the New Power Generation playing on it. He could have been a contender…

Of course I have my own theories as to why Keoni wasn’t a hit. Keoni’s androgynous look on the photographs in the CD booklet can’t have helped matters much; they must have given conservative churchgoers – ccm’s core buying public – a major case of the heebie-jeebies. But Cross Rhythms magazine’s review best sums up the album’s undoing: “An intriguing album, though I have my doubts whether it’s a particularly commercial one.”

From the Y Crate: Stephen Simmonds

From the Y Crate, #1:

“Get Down” by STEPHEN SIMMONDS (Diesel)

I was in my first year at uni when this gem was released late in 1998, and GLR (my favourite station at the time) had it in heavy rotation.

Given GLR’s slightly elitist bent, that’s probably one reason it wasn’t a hit… but the mad conspiracy theorist in me has another. He reckons the powers that be felt the British public could only cope with one black Swedish soul singer at a time. And since Eagle-Eye Cherry already had that gig, Steve had to take the fall. Sad, really, ‘cos it was a cool tune – driven by a groove kind of reminiscent of Omar in his more esoteric moments (and there were times when Stephen’s voice reminded you of Omar too).

I got to interview Stephen at the time this single was released, and found him to be quite a wise, level-headed bloke – impressions that were confirmed when I then saw him sing live at Sound in Leicester Square. I hope he’s still making music, because we need more free spirits like his around.