“You know, there’s no real cupboard we can be put in. We’re constantly misfiled. That makes it harder for us. But isn’t there something brilliant in that too?”
When I was a little boy growing up in West Lothian I was surrounded by people who were just like me.
Just. Like. Me.
Whitburn was a small town.
It was the 1970’s and the only people of colour I ever encountered were on television. Usually this meant stereotypical representations of people from India, Pakistan and the West Indies. “Mind Your Language” was a big deal and so was “Till Death us do Part” where casual and vulgar racism was all part of the fun. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with this, how could I? I was a white kid in a white town surrounded by other white kids.
Mothers Pride bread and jam.
Then the shop next to my grandparents home was bought by an Asian businessman.
I would hear kids at school and people on the street use words like…do we really need to go there? You know. The corner shop wasn’t the corner shop. It didn’t matter than nobody actually knew where the proprietor came from. He was brown so he was…that. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to use that language too. But I was lucky. Really lucky.
My dad had grown up in a tough housing estate in Edinburgh in the sixties. He had fallen under the spell of the sounds of black America. He was a Mod. Then he got really lucky too. A West Indian family moved into his street. The dad of that family took a shine to my dad, taught him a bit about cricket, taught him a bit about ska. Love see no colour.
My dad didn’t do racism.
Of any stripe.
No casual use of that word.
His list of heroes read like a who’s who of the civil rights movement.
It could have been really different.
But that didn’t save me from hearing racist language or seeing the impact of racism. It hasn’t stopped me from being guilty of trying to excuse the inexcusable when it has come from, oh I dunno, a certain pop star.
Do you hear what I’m saying?
I have read supporters of that certain pop star trot out arguments that could have been written by Richard Spencer or some other alt-right degenerate in defence of…he who really shouldn’t be named.
I’m not innocent.
I reviewed, positively, his new album…trying very hard to defend myself by telling myself that I was separating the art from the artist. Maybe. Or maybe I just didn’t, don’t, have the balls to take a stand?
Maybe the fact that I acknowledge the cracks and faults in my own thought processes reveals a universal truth…that we are all capable of behaving badly if that bad behaviour protects something we don’t want to give up or that we don’t want to admit we have got wrong.
Here we arrive at Cornershop.
From day one they have been unafraid to take a stand.
That miserablist sings that “life is hard enough when you belong here”?
They burn his photograph outside of his record label.
It didn’t matter to them that The Smiths had been a thing of wonder.
A line had been crossed.
Somebody had to say, or do, something.
So they did.
They were brave and bold where many journalists were cowardly…happy to put the fact that “he” shifted copies when he was on the front cover ahead of the principle of standing against racism.
For a long time I rejected the notion that “Bengali in Platforms” was racist, I tried to see it as a clunky attempt at writing from the perspective of a “character”…or something. Cornershop though saw something much more troubling, they saw evidence of a belief system and they couldn’t stand for that.
It wouldn’t really have mattered what the stand they took was, it was enough that they took a stand. That they managed to do it by using the words of their target and setting them side by side with Public Enemy’s invocation to “fight the power” just made it more inspiring.
But principles alone are not enough reason to love a band…or even a person.
Man cannot live by principle alone.
What Cornershop also have is a, seemingly, encyclopedic knowledge and appreciation of everything that is good in pop music history, specifically in the history of English pop and roll. They have taken that knowledge and smooshed it up close with Asian culture and music to create something that can only be described as…unique?
You try and put a label on it.
Describe the sound of Cornershop.
Pop them in a category.
It is impossible.
On a single album you can hear Robert Plant, glam rock, electropop, sitar, country, dance, funk and goodness only knows what else.
It should, of course, be an awful mess.
Like a compilation tape made by somebody who only owns those old “Top of the Pops” albums where every hot hit was covered by some group of tired session musicians in a studio in the bowels of some BBC building.
But it never is a mess. It is always something coherent, glorious, inspiring, challenging, beautiful, fun, warm, generous and plain brilliant. Nobody, as Carly Simon would have it, does it better. Nobody.
From the ramshackle, rambunctious, rock and nearly roll of “England’s Dreaming” to “England is a Garden” their are more dizzy highs and soaring delights than almost any other band who could be called their peers. I know, the music press adore Radiodead because of how sincerely they mean it man…and Oasis are the bit of rough the private school kids at the broadsheets love…and Blur had more hit records…but Cornershop would never subject you to something as turgid as “Kid A” or as disappointing as everything Oasis released after “Be Here Now” or as plain awful as “Country House”. They have a level of quality control that should see these “big boys” casting envious glances in their direction.
Goodness knows how this has read.
I fear I have rambled.
I didn’t really have a point I wanted to make…I was listening, again, to “England is a Garden” and I just had to say something, anything, that would, maybe, convey just how much the album, and the band, mean to me in these dark moments.