Paul Laird Reveals His Love For All Things CORNERSHOP In This Captivating Read
Thrusting themselves into the public consciousness by burning photographs of Morrissey outside of his record label in protest at his flirtations with fascism, Cornershop were always going to be unlikely bedfellows with the Britpop scene which was, almost entirely, apolitical...save for the occasional nod to New Labour...but thanks to their ear for melody and a collaboration with a superstar DJ they are a key part of the story.
The first time I heard about Cornershop was when they burned an image of Morrissey outside of his record company offices in London at the height of the “Flying the Flag...” controversy that engulfed, and very nearly extinguished, his career in the early 1990’s. At the time I was a disciple of Morrissey, more cult follower than pop fanatic. As a result I dismissed them as talentless no-marks not worth worrying about.
Yay for Morrissey and his flirtations with fascism.
Boo to Cornershop and their desire to shine a light on the more unsavoury aspects of this music icon. Can I be forgiven?
I was young.
Cognitive dissonance too.
Trying to craft an image of myself as an outsider.
In an example of the twisted mindset of the young music obsessive I had to seek out the music of Cornershop...because they had featured in the Morrissey story, that also explains my owning albums by Jobriath and having seen “The Leather Boys” more times than is necessary.
So I bought “Elvis Sex Change” their debut E.P and dragged it back to my student digs ready to dismiss it as nothing more than the efforts of some chancers trying to make a name for themselves by grabbing the hem of Mozzer’s garment.
The trouble was...it was really good.
Littered with cultural references I got and cultural references I didn’t get.
I knew who Frank Bough was but I wasn’t sure about Hanif Kureishi.
I knew what a Kawasaki was but I hadn’t ever heard of a chapati.
The highlight of the whole affair, for me, was “England’s Dreaming” which was a glorious mess of fuzzy guitars, brutal drums...”Shut up shop, get on the streets, and fight...the powers that be.” It sounded like the Sex Pistols...familiar and yet frightening.
Despite being a bit bowled over I didn’t pay any attention to them after that.
They were still just a footnote in the Morrissey story for me.
Oh if I could just turn back time.
If I could find a way.
I’d take back these decisions that now hurt me. Ah well.
Then in 1997 they released “When I Was Born for the Seventh Time” and my life got flipped, turned upside down by an album that sounded like so many other things that I loved and that sounded like nothing else I had ever heard before at the same time. It was funky and soulful and poppy and sixties soaked and country tinged and uplifting and maudlin and British and universal and...so much more besides.
It is most famous for “Brimful of Asha” of course, thanks to the Fatboy Slim treatment that took it to number one in the charts...not the indie charts but THE charts. Imagine that, you go from punk agitators burning pictures of a God of the indie world to top of the pops within five years. That song is now a part of the musical heritage of the country, a floor filler still at student discos (do those still exist?) and Britpop nights (those do still exist...have you got your ticket for Star Shaped yet?) as well as regularly popping up in television shows and film soundtracks. It is a classic. Unlike some of the other big Britpop hits like “Country House” or “Wake up Boo” this is a song that doesn’t make your skin crawl, it is a glorious rush of everything good about pop music. A homage to the Indian film world...with “our Queen” Asha Bhosle, the playback singer extraordinaire of Bollywood, getting her moment in the mainstream limelight.
The album is about much more than this one track. A beautiful Punjabi rendition of “Norwegian Wood” highlights how music can transcend language, culture and nationality... “Sleep on the Left Side” is a trip-hoppy, Britpoppy, funky, slice of soul. Hypnotic drumming... metronomic...spoken word monologue...it’s a really beautiful thing. I’m listening to it as I write and my foot is tapping, my head is bobbing, my shoulders are rolling and that, I think, explains why I’m not really saying anything. It’s really good.
There are other incredible moments too like the hip hop, sitar soaked, Beastie Boys-esque, “Butter the Soul”, the upbeat, Bhangra-bop of “We’re in Your Corner”, the funky “Funky Days are Back Again” and “Good Ships” which, in an ideal world, would have been covered by James Brown...just an idea. But the moment that elevates “When I was Born...” from greatness to perfection is “Good to be on the Road Back Home Again”. “Good to be...” is one of the finest moments from the Britpop era by any band. It is brave because it turns to the world of country for its flavour...no Madness-lite, “Village Green” or post-punk copy here. Featuring vocals from Paula Frazer (an actual country singer) who is known for her melancholic tone the song is a Britpop “Islands in the Stream” (which, before you ask IS a compliment)...a duet that forces your hand to sing both parts in the car. There was no other band, no other British band, who would have made a choice like this at that point in time and there was no other British band who could have made a choice like this at that point.
I bought my copy of “When I was Born...” on cassette from an HMV in Dundee on the day it was released. I listened to it as I drove home to Fife after work that day. When I got to the end of side 2 I was pulling up outside of my parent’s home. I didn’t get out of the car, instead I turned the tape over and listened to the whole album again. I “got” all the references that the other British bands of the time were using...they were my references too. This was something different though. I didn’t know anything about Indian culture...music, film or literature. I didn’t understand half of the lyrics because they were being sung in a language I didn’t speak. It didn’t really matter though, there was something universal in the music itself. That’s a neat trick, to take a working class white kid from Scotland and make him listen to words, sounds, styles and names that were alien to him and make him love it and feel it.
From day one they have been unafraid to take a stand.
That miserablist sings that “life is hard enough when you belong here”?
They burn his photograph outside of his record label. It didn’t matter to them that The Smiths had been a thing of wonder.
A line had been crossed.
Somebody had to say, or do, something.
So they did.
They were brave and bold where many journalists were cowardly...happy to put the fact that “he”
shifted copies when he was on the front cover ahead of the principle of standing against racism. For a long time I rejected the notion that “Bengali in Platforms” was racist, I tried to see it as a clunky attempt at writing from the perspective of a “character”...or something. Cornershop though saw something much more troubling, they saw evidence of a belief system and they couldn’t stand for that.
It wouldn’t really have mattered what the stand they took was, it was enough that they took a stand. That they managed to do it by using the words of their target and setting them side by side with Public Enemy’s invocation to “fight the power” just made it more inspiring.
But principles alone are not enough reason to love a band...or even a person.
Man cannot live by principle alone.
What Cornershop also have is a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge and appreciation of everything that is good in pop music history, specifically in the history of English pop and roll. They
have taken that knowledge and smooshed it up close with Asian culture and music to create something that can only be described as...unique? You try to put a label on it.
Describe the sound of Cornershop. Pop them in a category.
It is impossible.
On a single album you can hear Robert Plant, glam rock, electropop, sitar, country, dance, funk and goodness only knows what else.
It should, of course, be an awful mess.
Like a compilation tape made by somebody who only owns those old “Top of the Pops” albums where every hot hit was covered by some group of tired session musicians in a studio in the bowels of some BBC building.
But it never is a mess. It is always something coherent, glorious, inspiring, challenging, beautiful, fun, warm, generous and plain brilliant. Nobody, as Carly Simon would have it, does it better. Nobody. From the ramshackle, rambunctious, rock and nearly roll of “England’s Dreaming” to “England is a Garden” there are more dizzy highs and soaring delights than almost any other band who could be called their peers. I know, the music press adore Radiodead because of how sincerely they mean it man...and Oasis are the bit of rough the private school kids at the broadsheets love...and Blur had more hit records...but Cornershop would never subject you to something as turgid as “Kid A” or as disappointing as everything Oasis released after “Be Here Now” or as plain awful as “Country House”. They have a level of quality control that should see these “big boys” casting envious glances in their direction.
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