Eastern mysticism, Sanskrit, mods, hippies, hip-cats, Deep Purple covers, Grateful Dead references, psychedelia, Knights and MLK, Kitchener and JFK…all of this, all of these, and so much more were the essence of Kula Shaker. A band who drew the ire of certain public school boys working for the likes of the NME by being (at least in part) public school boys who had dared to enter what journalists had decided was the preserve of the working classes; a ridiculous concept then and an even more ludicrous one now. Music and passion are the property of everyone regardless of colour, class, religion or creed. So there.
My first exposure to Kula Shaker came with the arrival of the blistering slice of sixties psychedelia that is “Grateful When You’re Dead/Jerry Was There” which burst into the charts at number 35 back in 1996. Quite the achievement for a song that paid tribute to a band that few other “Britpoppers” were paying any heed to. It was also rich in the sounds of the East. That love of Eastern culture dogged the band with accusations of cultural appropriation for a while but the truth of the matter is that there was nothing “minstrelsy” about what they were doing. Kula Shaker were magpies, casting their hungry eyes in all directions and taking whatever shone most brightly. It is also true that lead Shaker, Crispian Mills, is no tourist in the world of Eastern beliefs. In 1997 he was given a spiritual Hare Krishna name of Krishna Kantha das, a result of his long and, seemingly, deep rooted commitment to Hindu philosophy and Hare Krishna teachings. That is something a bit more real than your Notting Hill yoga teacher yelping “Namaste” at the end of a particularly challenging downward dog.
What followed “Grateful” was something remarkable. Where many bands at the tail end of Britpop found themselves with a top 40 single, a UK tour and an appearance on Top of the Pops or their video playing on the Chart Show (if it was indie week) very few enjoyed the sort of success that Kula Shaker enjoyed between 1996 and 1999. First of all the debut album “K” went double platinum and was a genuine cultural phenomenon and then there was the run of hit singles; “Tattva” (4), “Hey Dude” (2), “Govinda” (7), “Hush” (2), “Sound of Drums” (3), “Mystical Machine Gun” (14) and “Shower Your Love” (14). That is chart success that Little Mix would be happy with, never mind a guitar band singing entire songs in Sanskrit.
Britpop was, at least in part, a rejection of the dominance of American bands, specifically the dreadful, dreary, droning of the “grunge” scene. It is difficult now, given the deification of Kurt Cobain, to appreciate quite how awful grunge was. Hordes of middle-class university students wearing plaid shirts, ripped denim and refusing to wash their hair because…um, “the man” or something. Not a decent song to be found either…a near absolute rejection of melody.
The problem was that, eventually, the scene that replaced it was quickly hijacked by cartoon mockneys and people who thought that wearing a Fred Perry was all it took to be a Britpop star. It all became inward looking.
You couldn’t accuse Kula Shaker of being inward looking or of accepting that they were even part of a scene. They rejected labels and fought against being popped in a Britpop box. This probably stems from Mills experiences as a pupil when he would frequently change schools depending on where his mother was filming. At comprehensive, he was “posh” and at public school, he was “common”! That taught him a valuable lesson; labels are meaningless.
Therefore, while Kula Shaker shared a stage with many of their contemporaries there was always something of the other about them. Dare I say…mystical? I dare. Certain elements of the music press decided that this fascination with things outside of dog racing and getting pissed up in the Good Mixer meant that they were not “real”…posh kids slumming it in rock and roll. That was a bit rich coming from public school boys at the NME.
The truth is that Kula Shaker were just as real as Oasis. The things they sang about, the worldview they had and the mystical/spiritual elements of their art were heartfelt and genuine. Certain bands and certain frontmen adopted working class culture in an effort to present themselves as “geezers”…they would argue that there was no other way (ahem) but Kula Shaker showed that there was, being true to yourself.
The debut album “K” was a masterpiece. Featuring the singles “Tattva”, “Hey Dude”, “Govinda” and the already discussed “Grateful When You’re Dead/Jerry Was Here” it also featured a supporting cast of songs that matched them for riffs, hooks and crowd pleasing glories. There aren’t many bands who could record a song like “Into The Deep” and not release it as a single. An album is the very definition of all killer and no filler. Famously the artwork for the album features a kollection (see what I did there?) of people from history who have “k” at the start of their names, Kitchener, Karl Marx, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and, of course, King Kong!
The success of the album plus the enormous chart success of the singles meant that expectations were high for the follow up. It didn’t come until 1999 and was preceded by a standalone single in 1997 (a cover of Deep Purples “Hush” that reached number 2 in the charts) and then a leadoff single “Sound of Drums” in 1998. Both tracks pointed to the band’s ability to provide nods to British rock and pops rifftastic past while still sounding totally of the moment. The album itself was “Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts” and it was further confirmation of their status as a bona fide “big deal”. It cracked the top ten and spawned a further two top 20 singles. It also marked the beginning of the end of the band’s place at the top of the pops.
The music weeklies at this time were hot beds of a particularly complex and, arguably, inconsistent set of political. In 1992, they had viewed Morrissey’s decision to wave the Union Flag at Madstock as evidence of fascism. 5 years later and Geri Halliwell wearing a Union Flag dress is “girl power” and Noel Gallagher having a Union Flag guitar is seen as reclaiming it from the right. Much of that had nothing to do with a genuine commitment to tackling racism or fascism but was driven instead by whom the journalist liked or did not like.
Some journalists didn’t like Kula Shaker, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, so when Mills made some comments about the Eastern origins of the swastika and declared it a “brilliant image” in that context that was all they needed to launch a “Mills is a Nazi” witch hunt. Things were complicated a little by the fact that an earlier incarnation of the band, The Objects of Desire, had played at a conference at Wembley called “Global Deception” where the speakers included Eustace Mullins an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist. Mills responded to the accusations of fascist leanings in a fax to the Independent newspaper;
“I think there is no better example of my naivete and insensitivity than the swastika comments . . . my comments derive from my long interest in Indian culture, from which the swastika has its origins . . . I apologise to those who have been offended by my comment and humbly ask that they accept that I am completely against the Nazis, their crimes and any other latter-day form of totalitarianism. For the record I have never been an anti-Semite especially as my dear grandmother was Jewish . . . I loathe totalitarianism, far right thinking, oppression of all forms, denial of human rights and all things that would limit the free spirit of humankind. I stand for peace, love, generosity and learning.”
In 2016 he spoke again on the issue in an interview with Drowned in Sound;
“Looking back in 2016, Mills said, “We thought we were smarter than we were…that was the innocence of our youth ploughing into the adult world.”
It is worth noting too that Mills father, Roy Boulting, was one of the first filmmakers to use cinema against fascism with his 1939 film “Pastor Hall”. It seems unlikely that from such a background, a fledgling neo-Nazi would come but the press had done their job; the stench of far-right politics clung to the band for a short while and the band split.
It would be 8 years before a new album from the reformed Kula Shaker would arrive in the shape of “Strangefolk” and it received a lukewarm response from the critics…quelle surpise! That return in 2007 has proven to be permanent with two more albums (“Pilgrims Progress” in 2010 and K2.0 in 2016) as well as a clutch of live shows. People who care about character and characters in popular culture should celebrate the fact that Mills and co have returned; they offer something that is uniquely theirs, a world view and a sound that dares to drift from the mundane.