Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway

Stephen H. Morris Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway (2015)
Having spent some time living in and around the Medway towns in Kent, this history held obvious appeal to me. I lived in Maidstone from 1984 onwards, and then in Chatham itself for a couple of years prior to jumping ship in 1989. I played in a couple of Medway bands and knew quite a few of those involved in the local music scene, a scene which had one hell of a lot going on. It's difficult bordering on impossible to make such statements with any degree of objectivity, but it really did seem like the whole thing with bands in Medway - and not just bands but also artists, writers, people putting out fanzines and so on - was unique even in the context of all those other regional microcosms formed in the wake of punk. So this felt like a book which needed to be written. In fact, even at the time, back when I was living there it felt as though somebody should have been writing something like this.

What Morris has done here, he has generally done well, or for the most part well enough to cancel out any urge towards moaning on my part. His coverage of Medway's punk years, with bands like the Pop Rivets, Gash - who I'd never heard of - and Cenet Rox, seems very thorough; and he does a good job following through to the Milkshakes, Prisoners, Mighty Caesars, Daggermen, Dentists and others. I knew a couple of those involved, saw them play, bought the records and so on, so the first half of the book - dominated as it is by Billy Childish - is interesting to me. It seems fair to say the first half of these near five-hundred pages closely resembles that notional book I always felt needed to be written.

The problems become apparent as Morris' chronology aligns to the stuff I can actually remember in greater detail. In the introduction he writes that:

...this book cannot cover every aspect of music in Medway from the mid-seventies onwards. This book, thick enough as it is, would be double the size, perhaps more if I had attempted such a feat. As it is, I have aimed to cover the activities of the usual suspects - along with quite a few less usual ones. If anyone gets to the last page and wonders why their band didn't get a mention, I can only apologise.

Fair enough, and for the record I am myself mentioned in passing by Simon Bunyan of the Men from Memphis on page 206:

There was a guy [from Envy]. I think his name was Lawrence. He was basically miked up with a few sheets of corrugated iron, just hitting them on the floor. It was just arty and surreal - but rubbish.

Unfortunately he's right. It really was rubbish, although it's quite nice to have been remembered regardless of anything else, particularly as I'm surprised to have been mentioned at all. That said, Envy grew out of Apricot Brigade who were kind of a big deal at the time. Ignoring my own brief and not particularly impressive involvement, they played a shitload of gigs, accrued a fairly healthy following, and served as an apprenticeship for two drummers who ended up in the significantly better publicised Dentists - yet Apricot Brigade are referred to once in the whole book, whilst Envy are mentioned only in the context of my own pitiful Test Department impersonation.

It's based on records, I decided at one point, noticing how all bands discussed thus far were those who had released their music on vinyl to one extent or another; which in turn begs the question of why no mention of Konstruktivists. Glenn of Konstruktivists lived in Gillingham for most of the eighties, and if he was never what you'd call a major presence on the live circuit, he played a couple of times, knew a few of the people Morris writes about at length, made the local newspaper, and given Glenn's involvement in Whitehouse, half of the current noise scene is probably his fault. Konstruktivists sold albums all over the world before Glenn moved to Norfolk, and they receive not a single mention herein whilst the Claim get half a chapter about how some guy in Nevada had all of their records.

To be fair, I didn't really expect Konstruktivists to feature in any significant way, but weirder still was reaching page three-hundred and noticing that Tim Webster had been referenced just once due to his having played guitar on some Hyacinth Girls record. By page three-hundred, fucking Dodgy have been mentioned more than Tim Webster, and Dodgy were 1) shit, 2) not from Medway. I suppose the omission at least excludes the possibility of anyone having been left out owing to a bias in favour of bands who played live all the time, or who put out a shitload of vinyl, or who had that whole garage thing going on. Tim Webster put out a very decent six track 10" with the Sputniks, was in seven or eight bands at any one time, usually played about four gigs a night, and still found time to repair everyone's guitars for them. Tim Webster was frankly fucking amazing and I'm sort of surprised there isn't a statue of the guy somewhere. Never mind I can't write about everyone wah wah wah, lack of Webster in a book purporting to be about the music of the Medway towns may as well be that Beatles biography which never mentions Ringo.

Fuck it. I expected omissions, but while we're here the Product, All Flags Burn, Uninvited Guests, the Martini Slutz, Millions of Brazilians, Sexton Ming, and even whatever Smilin' Paul Mercer is calling himself this week - all achieved enough of a buzz in one way or another to merit references longer than one sentence in a five-hundred page book which nevertheless finds time to go through Claim albums a track at a time. There's no mention of the Blue Lagoon even in passing, and the final reference to Andy Fraser promises more on Unlucky Fried Kitten in a later chapter without delivering anything of the sort; so bollocks.

Past the halfway point, we move into the twenty-first century and younger bands I've never heard of, with the previously stated emphasis on do it yourself somewhat undermined by how much stock is placed in sucking dicks at XFM or hanging out with famous friends like that knob out of the Libertines. Some of the bands sound like they might be decent, but it's difficult to keep from tripping over journalistic landmines about things owing a debt to the first Ocean Colour Scene album or some other supposed indie landmark beloved of Jo Whiley. I can't tell whether the writing falls off once we're done with the Childish years or I'd become punch-drunk with Sandiferisms and references to Oasis and Blur made as though either could have anything to do with anything, but the book starts to read like your proverbial local news report about a skateboarding duck during the second half. Sentences are delivered with a wry tilt of the head or a raised eyebrow, and all musical heritage invoked will inevitably be rich, Alan.

The brass effects on the kerosene-fuelled title track recall moments from Shed Seven's glory days while the bluster and bravado from all involved would give Liam Gallagher a run for his money.

See, that would work better if Shed Seven hadn't been a massive pile of shite at the best of times, but never mind.

Then we have Kids Unique, a fairly decent rap group judging by what I can find on YouTube, and inspiration for Morris going full-Eamonn Holmes as he describes the music with its grim, gritty view of life in Medway, there is no affectation of keeping it real with an entourage of bitches and hos, because that's what the rappers do, don't they? You know - the rappers you see on Top of the Pops keeping it real with their bitches and hos.

Anyway, I ended up skimming a few of the later chapters.

I'm just going to come right out and say it. Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway is fine as a five-hundred page fanzine, but the writing is kind of lazy and more reliant on hyperbole and  journalistic clich├ęs than I like to see in fancy-pants print. There's too much along the lines of the Milkshakes were sort of like the Kaiser Chiefs of their day, and no-one cares about the fucking Libertines. I expected it to miss out a lot but it misses out a lot more than I expected, instead wasting time and pages on track by track analysis of albums which are almost certainly more fun to hear than to read about. That being said, the book is not without merit, there's a lot which is interesting, and it's still a book which needed to be written.

Nice try, but no cigar - at least not this time around.

...and if anyone is bothered, a load of anecdotal shite of the kind which never made it into this book, much of it involving Medway bands, can be found here by searching for posts tagged Chatham, and some of the music can be found here. You're welcome.

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