Paul Laird Reveals His Love For All Things CORNERSHOP In This Captivating Read

Published on 4 May 2023 at 10:33

By Paul Laird

Author of "The Birth And Impact Of Britpop: Mis-Shapes, Scenesters And Insatiable Ones"


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, 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 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 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’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 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, 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.  

Tag them. 

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.