Sounds like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital by Lloyd Bradley

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Sounds like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital by Lloyd Bradley

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A survey of how black music has been part of London's landscape and culture since shortly after the First World War.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846687617

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As Lloyd Bradley points out in the introduction to this book, if you stand long enough on any street corner in London today, you will hear music. More often than not it will be black music, whether it is dubstep, hip hop, reggae or any other genre. Once it was in effect the original ‘underground music’ long before the term was ever recognised, it gradually became the mainstream – and here we find out how.

The story begins in 1919 with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, an African-American outfit which had been formed the previous year in New York, arriving in London to play at the Philharmonic Hall and other venues. Not only was this combo partly responsible for bringing jazz music to Britain, it also blazed a trail for an influx of West Indian musicians who came to the capital during the 1920s and joined or led bands which played in various nightclubs and other venues in the metropolis. Arguably the most important of those who arrived from Trinidad and Guyana before the Second World War were Lauderic Caton, who built some of the first electric guitars in Britain, Cyril Blake, who introduced the trumpet to British jazz, and Rudolph Dunbar, who in 1942 became the first black man to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall.

Mass immigration came with the arrival from the West Indies of the SS Empire Windrush in 1948, shortly after the Second World War, and calypso, introduced to the capital a few years earlier, became all the rage. Among those who sailed into England was Aldwyn Roberts, who went under the showbiz name of Lord Kitchener and who was one of the first exponents of calypso - and the first to find stardom in London. Steel bands, ska and reggae had found their way into the city, on to Top Of The Pops and the heights of the singles charts by the end of the sixties. With the advent of rock’n’roll and the blues boom, what had at first been an often critically-derided novelty soon gained acceptance and became as valid as other forms of pop. Multi-racial bands like the Foundations and the Equals became household names, while other genres were assimilated into the pop and rock played by white musicians.

I was impressed by the fact that Eddy Grant is given his due recognition in these pages. Sometimes seen as little more than the eccentric-looking guitarist and songwriter in the Equals who sported a blonde wig and went on to make a handful of solo hits some years thereafter, he played a vital role in the scene with his own Coach House studios and record pressing plant in London, his championship of a fusion of Caribbean and African music with rock’n’roll, and his ready assistance to any group from the black community who needed somewhere to record, always ready to give advice and act as (frequently uncredited) producer.

Afro-funk pioneers Osibisa gained acceptance when the music press and British producers eagerly championed them, while Nigerian drummer Jimmy Scott-Emuakpor hung out with Paul McCartney in the Soho clubs, and ensured immortality for himself when his phrase Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, life goes on inspired one of the Beatles’ best-known (if least admired) songs from their latter years. Throughout the seventies reggae and funk became popular, helped by the disco boom; as Bradley is keen to make clear, disco did not start with Saturday Night Fever in 1978. By the end of the decade lovers rock, best described as a more gentle, soulful and less militant British refashioning of reggae, became widely regarded as the first black British musical form. The first major star of lovers rock was Janet Kay, who was working in the personnel department at Rank Xerox in London and had to ask her bosses at work if it was all right if she came in late one morning. She was rather tired, she explained, as the previous night she had been performing her current single on Top Of The Pops, and she was accordingly allowed the day off. Presumably she could afford to take more than the occasional day’s leave later on.

From the eighties onwards, it was not only club nights and festivals which helped the cause of black music throughout the capital. Pirate radio and the internet all played a vital role, with artists like Jazzie B and Soul II Soul, Light of the World, and Dizzee Rascal at the forefront. Sound system culture, London’s digital age of hardcore, drum and bass, jungle, UK garage, dubstep and grime developed to become part of British youth culture. Bradley has documented all these strands and more to tell the rich, fascinating musical history. It is brought alive by the fact that a number of the figures involved as part of the process from the sixties onwards, including the musicians and performers and the likes of BBC presenter Trevor Nelson, have contributed with their own reminiscences to this book.

Popular music in London (and Britain) is often seen as heavily Americanised, partly because the Americans benefited to some extent from the full might of a global entertainment industry. Black Londoners, however, often succeeded in spite of the British music business rather than because of it. They did this, Bradley writes, as they saw that the key was ‘for the music to interact with its London environment, rather than exist as a hermetically sealed subculture, or simply develop as a duplicate of some overseas style.’ As the music of London was shaped and consumed by the many cultures that called London their home, it eventually reached the point where it became irrelevant to speak of a ‘black’ music scene. These superbly researched pages tell us how very succinctly.

If this book appeals then we can also recommend:

I & I: The Natural Mystics by Colin Grant

Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling by Marcus Gray

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