Osibisa. Hamilton Bohannon. Odyssey. Talking Heads. PiL. Slits. Ze Records. Burundi Beat. Rough Trade’s Soweto compilation. John Peel gleefully playing the glorious sounds of Bhundu Boys, Four Brothers, Kanda Bongo Man, and so on. These were all factors in waking me up to the music of Africa. One other major milestone was a special report on “Juju, Afrobeat and Highlife” in the April 1981 edition of The Face where I first came across the names of Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade if not their music, thus sowing some important seeds. My curiosity was aroused. And the feature, by Peter Murphy, is an excellent one.
Oddly that edition of The Face is one of the few I managed to keep hold of down the years. It has Adam Ant on the cover, and also mentioned on the front page are The Beat, Polecats, Gang of Four, Selecter, Delta 5, Bush Tetras, Lounge Lizards, and Aswad. Impressive! So, yeah it’s a relief that it’s not just rosy-eyed romanticism that makes me remember The Face of that era very fondly.
The interesting thing about this edition, in the context of ‘80s revisionism, is that it was issued just as we were entering the glossy optimism of the so-called ‘new pop’ era. And yet there is little sign of all that in this issue of The Face. Indeed its tone is rather grumpy. Delta 5 are struggling to make ends meet, The Beat are weary, Aswad are bitter, The Selecter are disillusioned, the Gang of Four critical. It’s a time of transition. Jon ‘Britpop’ Savage is scathing about the ‘Blitz kids’. Robert Elms on the other hand enthuses about Defunkt and the Lounge Lizards. Neil Norman raves about Cassavetes’ Gloria. Ray Lowry pokes fun at Julian Cope. And a future leading Labour politician complains at length on the letters page about an unfair Elvis Costello review by Geoff Deane. There is even a nice mention for Manicured Noise and an ad for The Ultimate Action.
The star of the show though is Julie Burchill, and my how the world has revolved in some strange ways since those days. I know what became of her. But she really was on top of her game back then, and her monthly ‘pop’ column was an essential read. In this one she has a go at the world, with a few exceptions like Girlschool/Motorhead, Dept. S, and Talking Heads. She suggests: “Hear Stalin Wasn’t Stalling by Robert Wyatt – Ilya Ehrenburg makes contact with the fantasy Phil Spector in Red Square. Read some of A.J.P. Taylor’s writing on the Second World War. Support Shakin’ Stevens, a fellow traveller. Find out about Kim Philby and the Spanish Civil War – you’ll be thrilled in a way you’ve never been thrilled before, I swear. Buy all John Lydon’s records – don’t do the dirty on him and desert him, because he’s the one who gave this country’s spirit the kiss of life and helped you be as smart as you are. Read the Old Testament and vote Labour.” It was all quite exciting in 1981.
In another of her columns from that time Julie would come out strongly in support of The Beat, and if my memory serves me well she suggests they are almost as perfect a pop group as the Pistols had been. The Beat win her backing for performing on Top Of The Pops in Russian Army outfits, using African highlife guitar melodies, and having a toaster on prime time TV as though it was the most natural thing in the world. That’s fair enough. But I would add introducing us to The Congos’ Heart Of The Congos via their own label, and having Cedric Myton singing with them on Doors Of My Heart, their finest moment. Though I’m with Julie about this ...