Thursday 8 September 2022

Out of the Darkness

We need in the new dark times to celebrate the things that are helping us through. For me, NTS Radio has been heaven sent. My conversion is relatively recent, but this year the station has been a real bright spot. Many of us find routine helps, and it has become part of my day’s structure to have NTS on while preparing or eating meals, which has been great.

Opportunities to search the station’s archive, using the ‘Latest’ link, open up all sorts of glorious possibilities. There will always be shows to run a million miles from, but regular contributors, especially DJs Martha, Michelle, and Danielle, have become trusted sources of often superb new music, and it’s a delight to listen to their latest ego-free broadcasts when they appear. Indeed, the anticipation of waiting for new shows is a lovely experience in itself.

The station also is a treasure trove of old (though, often, new to me) music, and there is a welcome wealth of, for example, terrific dub, jazz, library music and psychedelic gems available. The station’s specials are often a bewildering treat, and shows that made a deep impression here include ones on Armenian sacred sounds and on outsider country 45s from 1968. There are also regular ‘specialists’, and for those of us who like their old soul music broadcasts like Dr Kruger’s House Call and Emel Ilfer’s Heavy Love Affair are ones to keep an eye or ear out for. The latest show by Emel is a particular treat, and her inclusion of ‘And the Rains Came’ by The Millionaires was one of those moments to cherish.

It's a song that immediately seemed naggingly familiar. It certainly wouldn’t be as an original 45 (as they go for £100-plus). Finally, I tracked it back to an old Kent compilation, the first in their Northern Soul’s Classiest Rarities series, from 2001. And, really who gives a damn about an old single when you can have such a great song on a CD where it eases into Karmello Brooks’ exquisite ‘Tell Me Baby’ and shares space with Charlie Rich’s ‘Don’t Tear Me Down’? What the CD doesn’t tell you is that ‘And the Rains Came’ was produced by one Pancho Villa. A direct descendant of the Mexican revolutionary? Who knows? It’s a nice link though to the superb Chicano soul shows on NTS by Los Hitters, a DJ team from Oakland.

One of the things that is so arresting about The Millionaires’ single is a sense of literary despair. It’s one of the things about Northern Soul that is always odd: here is a form of music immediately associated with the dancefloor and a sense of community, yet so often the lyrics are about despair and desolation, heartbreak and hopelessness. Oh well, what can you expect when one of the scene’s anthems, Tobi Legend’s immortal ‘Time Will Pass You By’ (Nick Lowe’s favourite song from when he was the Jesus of Cool, no less) was co-written by one J. Rhys. The Millionaires could indeed be singing a passage from one of the great Jean Rhys books, from when she would be eking out time, penniless, in a small café out of the way, or in a cheap hotel room all ready to buck up when someone says she is incredibly beautiful.

Talking of cafés, that Millionaires single had as its b-side ‘Coffee and Donuts’, though I have never heard it. Is there much of a café or coffee shop connection with Northern Soul songs? I heard John Edwards’ ‘Tin Man’ in the local Morrison’s recently, which impressed me no end, and there is a café in there, but that’s not quite what I meant. So, serious question: are there many Northern Soul songs set in cafés? There must be some, surely?

Well, there is certainly Eddie Wilson’s ‘A Toast to the Lady’, from 1964, which is a particular favourite here, partly because it is set in a dimly lit café, and is a real Graham Greene The End of the Affair drama with a slightly elusive storyline, which makes it even better. It’s such a great song, and we now know it’s our old friend Frank Wilson the “whenever I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord your soul to keep” man singing. I first heard ‘A Toast to the Lady’ on the Up All Night! double CD on Charly which is distantly related to the double LP of the same name which I have fond memories of from 1990. And if, like me, you have a weakness for cheap Northern Soul CD compilations this one is a real treat.

As for literature, well, there is no shortage of books that feature cafés. I could probably sail through a Mastermind round on the role of cafés in Shena Mackay’s novels. And in terms of Shena’s precursors, one of the delights of the past year has been discovering some of Stella Gibbons’ later novels, partly due to the diligence of the often-excellent Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. And many more of Stella’s novels are available now via Vintage.

Her 1956 book Here Be Dragons was a particular revelation, and cafés, tea shops and coffee bars feature heavily in what is one of the great London novels, and I presume now that it was one of the first books to feature London’s youth culture, pre-rock ’n’ roll, pre-anything, with an intermittent theme of posh kids slumming it as proto-beatniks, wasting their days in coffee bars talking about art and literature, spending as little as possible, and dancing to trad. jazz at Humphrey Lyttelton’s club on Oxford Street.

There is in the book a passage about going to see Humph’s band that is a perfect narrative accompaniment to Momma Don’t Allow, the Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson short film, and this was before the Angry Young Men were really a thing, a couple of years before Absolute Beginners and Expresso Bongo. Incidentally, Stella was in her mid-50s when she wrote Here Be Dragons. A slightly later title of hers, The Weather at Tregulla, returns to the sub-theme of bohemians-at-play and features a young girl growing up in Cornwall who is rather obsessed with the new playwrights, especially Shelagh Delaney, which is a nice contemporary touch.

Any modern studies of cafés in literature would surely include the enchanting Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, part of a wave of Japanese novels that have quietly become firm favourites in the West. This novel or collection of tales is set in a pretty unique Tokyo café, very much a small and out of the way place, where in pretty exacting circumstances, on rare occasions, a customer could return to the past briefly. It is often desperately moving, and there is a sharpness beneath the stories’ sweetness, a serious side to the endearing eccentricity, which seems a feature of some of the wonderful Japanese books which have attracted attention here, like Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste and Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.

I was inspired to reread Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Patti Smith’s M Train which I recently devoured after feeling rather restless and finding it difficult to concentrate on novels, which is exceptionally unusual. In Toshikazu’s tales customers wanting to travel back in time must be seated at a specific table, in a particular seat, while M Train has Patti going out first thing to the local café for her black coffee, and needing to sit in the same seat at the same table, amusingly getting into a panic when this is not possible.

While I have never been a fan of Patti’s music, something I have often felt guilty about, her memoirs are wonderful. I know she is gloriously serious about her art, but I think she is self-aware enough to send herself up in M Train, portraying herself as an eccentric old lady with her cats, her watchman’s cap, her notebooks, and her passion for TV crime dramas. And although our obsessions may be very different at times, I found M Train religious in a sense, the way Patti has her holy relics and rituals, which is something I can really identify with. Holy? Yeah, as in wholly necessary, as a way of getting through the day.

And one of my rituals, as I mentioned, is to tune into NTS on my little Fire tablet in the kitchen while I am getting my lunch ready or while I’m having my tea. There is always some intriguing show to investigate, or a particular resident DJ to keep an eye out for. One favourite here of late is YL Hooi’s monthly show, which in turn led me (and will hopefully now lead you) to her gorgeous reinvention of ‘Stranger’, Love Joys’ Wackie’s lovers rock classic. And, funnily enough, one of the highlights of this summer, was finding unexpectedly an hour-long Wackie’s mix going out live on NTS. We have to seize our pleasures where we can in these darkest of days, don’t we?









1 comment:

  1. Agreed on Patti Smith. Her books are wonderful. Check out her three albums with Soundwalk Collective. For me, they bring her poetry beautifully to life. Not song-based ar all, more an impressionistic modern take on the KLF's Chill Out. They're quite a trip.