Saturday, 19 September 2009

A South London Story ... part two

It's 20 years ago today-ish that the Manic Street Preachers played their first London show, which was at the Horse and Groom in Great Portland Street. I've read quite a lot about this, including the group's own account, but I don't remember being asked about it. Odd really.

At the time I was running a small record label called Esurient, with a fantastic roster featuring The Claim, Hellfire Sermons, and Emily. Richey from the Manics had made contact in his inimitable and persuasive way, saying he'd loved Hungry Beat, loved The Claim, hoped I'd love the group he was involved with, that their name had come from the Jasmine Minks' All Good Preachers mini-LP. A passionate correspondence ensued, with lots and lots of quotes from Kevin Rowland and Paul Weller and William Wharton and Jack Kerouac. I don't remember him mentioning Guns 'n' Roses or Public Enemy. He sent rehearsal tapes, photos, poems, diatribes. All of which led to this show, with the Manics supporting The Claim in this quaint upstairs function room, where once mod/soul nights had been held. It cost £10 or so to hire. The West End at that time was dead on a Friday night, strange as it now seems.

It had been booked as a jazz night, which I'd forgotten to tell the Manics. So they were a bit confused when they got there, and were waiting outside in the van when I rolled up. I wish I'd taken some photos. They looked brilliant. They had these matching blue jackets, with arrows stencilled on, like prison uniforms. Very short hair. Tight, white Cavern jeans. The shirts were the infamous slogan ones. They were overwhelmed at the response, and refused to take any money saying it should be put towards a new Claim single as the world needed more of their sense of attack. And the rest is history, or is it?

I doubt if there was anyone in the room that night who doubted that of the two groups playing The Claim were the ones who were gifted and special. But the Manics, lovely lads and all that, were shockingly determined and driven. They wanted to be heard and to get on. They wanted to play an Esurient show every week, to be noticed, but the whole point of these events was to create a sense of occasion. To do something different. The best shows were at the Covent Garden Community Centre. One had The Claim, and a play by Vic Templar, and northern soul disco. The other had The Claim plus Billy Childish reading some of his poetry, though I thought he'd never shut up and we were as a consequence running dangerously to going over the allotted time and losing our deposit though the day was saved when the whole audience pitched in to help clean up the hall. Punk rock eh?

I guess I could have done a Manics single on Esurient. I had a sense it would have sold well. But it didn't really seem the thing to do. Instead they did a record with Damaged Goods, because it would lead to more gigs, and in time signed with Heavenly. Me, I never got the hang of pragmatism or expediency.

Esurient had started with ridiculously rough recordings of Hurrah! and the Jasmine Minks. This was a political protest, or strop, because the Hurrah! on Arista was not the Hurrah! I'd fought for, and because Creation was not agreeing to put out a Jasmine Minks 7" to go with the Another Age LP. In fairness, despite my stroppiness, both Kitchenware and Creation gave their permissions, and it all seemed very neat. A protest against gloss and polish, but with quite beautiful sleeves to make up for the 'organic' straight-from-tape recordings.

Then all hell broke loose. The music weeklies all ran big stories about Esurient putting out this illegal Hurrah! bootleg, and there were suitably mortified quotes from Keith Armstrong at Kitchenware. I couldn't work out what was happening. I had a letter from Keith giving his consent, and suggesting it should be an LP rather than the cassette I had proposed. The original idea had been along the lines of The Fall's Chaos tape or ACR's Graveyard and the Ballroom. Anyway a few days later Keith rang up to apologise, and explained he'd simply stirred things up to generate publicity for me. Oddly Alan McGee had suggested that this was what was going on. I couldn't get my head 'round it. The nedia had taken Keith's words at face value, not even contacted me, had no interest in seeing the letter, didn't apologise afterwards or print a retraction as it was old news. Then while this was going on James Brown asked if I fancied doing some writing for the NME. Hmmm ...

Anyway, Keith was right. The records sold like hot cakes, and we made enough money to be able to release an LP by The Claim, which was called Boomy Tella. Listening to it again after many years, I still feel proud to have been part of something so special. Anyway, the deal was that Rough Trade and The Cartel paid for manufacturing then distributed the records and claimed back their money through sales. The only trouble is they didn't actually get any records into the shops, because they were concentrating on the records that would sell well. The Smiths, Creation, etc. Fantastic logic. So piles of records languished in warehouses. The Stockholm Monsters wrote a song about all this. Personally I called it censorship. People deciding what others could buy. If my records were in shops and people didn't buy them, then fair enough. But when they're not making it to the shops because of a policy decision, that can't be right.

So future Esurient releases were self-funded and self-distributed. Unintentionally the process of putting out records had again become something of a political act or protest, when really all I'd wanted to do was be as special as Postcard. Somehow Esurient put out another six or so singles over the next few years. Initially this was through money I got as a grant for going to the London College of Printing to do their prestigious journalism course. Don't ask me what I lived on. The groups all paid for their own recordings, and never got a penny in royalties. I am amzed they still speak highly about being a part of something significant. They weren't very good at compromising themselves though so I suppose the major label thing would never have worked for them either. I do still have nightmares about not doing enough for the groups involved. They deserved to be heard, and our contrariness can't have helped that cause.

To cut a long story short, I called it a day with Esurient for an accumulation of reasons. One of these was a desire to pursue my own writing projects. This in turn led to a book, Something Beginning With O, which Heavenly published. The book was intended as a sort of blueprint, primer, or something for an imaginary group that was part of a continuum. That group may just have been what I'd desperately hoped the Manic Street Preachers would become. The book dealt with my own feelings of betrayal by an industry that had turned its back on things I'd believed in. It was originally far longer in length, but using skills learned on the journalism course I'd stripped it down to the bare bones because I hated all the drooling over Jon Savage and Greil Marcus. I wanted it to be more like the Terry Rawlings Small Faces book Paul Weller put out on Riot Stories. A pop single as opposed to a concept LP. Ironically the Jon Savage edited Faber Book of Pop features a quote from my book about pop being all about singles ...

So those Esurient singles. Well, when you're emotionally close to something you can get to a stage where you become estranged from something you love. So for years I didn't listen to any of the Esurient releases. A friend then posted on his blog a track by Emily, and I thought wow! Then by chance I was able to introduce The Claim to the Cherry Red salvage empire, which has resulted in a compilation which is all but out. Caught up in the excitement about this, I came across a YouTube clip of the final Esurient single from The Claim. Well, one side of it, and it was on the sort of day when you doubt yourself, and I played this clip and thought well it was worth it ...


  1. I'd just moved to London around the time of those Horse & Groom shows and the "special nights of action", and as a stranger in a big city, I can't tell you how important those gigs were to me. And as for the 45s...

    Really looking forward to picking up the Claim set. Hope to see you at the Dave & Dave gig-ette on Tim H's birthday...

  2. My story with the Manics is bookended like this - early '89 in Newport, my friends band were supporting them, but we left before they played, because I'd been told they were 'a crap Clash rip-off'. Plus they were from the valleys.

    At the other, Summer '94 I somehow ended up drinking with Richey in a club in Cardiff - I can't recall how we got talking - but he ended up telling me how Sarah were the first label he sent a demo to, and he still had the rejection letter from Matt Haynes under his bed.

  3. I'm re-reading this, in case there are lessons to be learned. And in any event, a great read - thanks for sharing this piece of history.

  4. That rings a bell. I recall Richie ranting about the rejection from Sarah in the first letter he sent me.

  5. Hi
    not 100% sure but I think I once came to your house (I think in Bexleyheath) to buy a couple of esurient 7" , must have been around 1980/1981 - I was staying with my girlfriend in Bexley Village at the time.
    Take care

  6. Jurgen, you may well be right. That does seem familiar. I was so surprised someone locally was interested I thought it was friends playing a joke on me!