The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, February 13, 2003
HOW WE USED TO LIVE
The first in an occasional series of pieces extracted from the pre-internet archives of my old Church, reprinted here unaltered

There’s A Riot? Go On!
It was a lovely and bucolically warm Sunday morning; the re-energising aura of early spring, the blissful sort of day which dares you to stay inside. We felt good, reasonably mellow – windows wide open to let in the Chelsea morning, both London and ourselves ready for anything. Also somewhat relieved, but that’s not necessarily another story. Put on Ulmer’s now decade-old Are You Glad To Be In America? - the sort of benevolent record which comes with its own inbuilt smoke. Then a little Axis: Bold As Love; then tentatively out into the city to inspect the wreckage.

One record not played, because we had played it over and over, perhaps hypocritically, the evening before: Fear Of A Black Planet, the third, and by several leagues the greatest, album by Public Enemy. Did you think that the age of hip hop attack had ended, receded and reversed into the divine dayglo of De La Soul? Well, no one’s advanced on what 3 Feet High And Rising proposed – not yet, anyway, though keep an eye on A Tribe Called Quest – and there’s no one attacking or hustling except NWA. LL Cool J thinks he’s George fucking Michael (don’t rearrange those last three words). The question is: have NWA forced PE to raise their game? Was their game even raiseable after Nation of Millions, that most solipsistic and self-referential of rap records – a record which, as sonically blistering as it was, concerned itself entirely with how controversial the previous one was?

We found it on Saturday morning, freshly in on import, in Bluebird Records in Berwick Street. An equally sunny day, we were doing some browsing/consuming before heading out west to Putney for the Boat Race. We very rarely come into London of a weekend, but if spring’s like this it’s sometimes irresistible. Had to have it. Not sure whether we needed to have the Professor Griff solo album, which was also in on import and which we also bought – I haven’t heard it yet and am regretting the £8.99 already – but anyway, Mandela’s out, the Berlin Wall’s down, the Roses and Mondays are in the charts; things are turning to spring generally. Let’s not worry about details. Details such as the procession of smiling mothers, weekend Londoners and kids strolling down Piccadilly in the opposite direction to the 14 bus which we have just boarded – they are off to Trafalgar Square for yet another poll tax protest. Not many Daily Mail readers evident among that lot. The ejection of Thatcher remains remote. And here we are, with our Public Enemy import album, off to break bread with High Tory nitwits, or at least stand on the same bridge as them.

We have a fine afternoon, wandering aimlessly around Bishops Park and the Palace of Fulham. It’s only when we cross the bridge to the Putney hostelry when we learn of the riots via the pub TV. Everyone scratches their head in bemusement, as though this were a parallel London, one which Baudrillard just invented. There’s blood spilling, hopeful but hopeless tugging at the iron gates to Downing Street; it’s a ruck, all right – Arsenal fans fighting with Millwall fans, but in two different sets of uniforms. We are in sunny, leafy, Tory Putney as “London” doesn’t quite burn but certainly disintegrates with the aid of bathetic batons. It’s no revolution; that’s abundantly clear – the riot’s already being contained, no it isn’t, they’ve broken off to Piccadilly, up Charing Cross Road and on to Oxford Street, or up Regent Street, smashing windows, looting (but are they running away with anything, or running away from something?). We exchange anxious looks. Our stuff is in Chelsea; we will have to get back there one way or another. Have the mobs reached the King’s Road yet? It’s reachable. With great trepidation we troop onto a number 22 bus. Stopping at Hyde Park Corner – no bus is going any further, and the conductor tells us we might well stop at Sloane Square. Fine by us, we only need to get to Chelsea Town Hall. Traffic builds up steadily and uncertainly, but it’s just a supra-standard backlog; we disembark and run back inside. It’s about quarter to seven. The sun’s still high; it’s still uncommonly warm. No signs of disturbance anywhere. King’s Road does its usual Saturday teatime closing down routine. As the sun sets we watch cautiously through the windows for dim, not-so-distant red skies aflame. Easy for Piccadilly mobs to jump on a 19 or 22 – let’s go down the King’s Road, dick-a-dum-dum a few of those Sloaney cunts, teach ‘em a fuckin’ lesson, trash ‘em! But the tube has been closed down and buses aren’t going within a mile of central London. They are isolated and already too tired to run another couple of miles. So nothing’s going to happen at our end.

We put on Fear Of A Black Planet. And my God is this an album. The quantum leap which rap needed; it’s already clear that Public Enemy, even without Prof Griff, have upped the bar and done a Fosbury flop into the bargain. The brilliant shotgun marriage between The Last Poets and Pere Ubu which characterised Yo! Bum Rush The Show will surely sound as monodimensional as a Bush radiogram when set against what they have achieved here.

The sonic layers which the Bomb Squad lay on FOABP are multiplex and mutilating. For the first time (except for De La Soul at the opposite end of a spectrum which I rushed out and invented) rap sounds as though it’s emerged into 3D. PE have taken what Eric B & Rakim suggested in Follow The Leader, combined it with a rationalised and more deadly version of NWA’s rage, and given you a blitzkrieg. The opening salvo “Contract On The World Love Jam” (why doesn’t Prince come out with titles like that anymore?) refers to “terrorists” and states that “the future of the group is in doubt.” Well, if they’re disintegrating, then they are dragging us all down into heaven with them. “Brothers Gonna Work It Out”’s avant-JB assault, constructed as if from Asimovian remnants of dead Soul(s), imposes on us the subtext that things are NEVER gonna work out. Like Gil Evans’ arrangements, you can listen to each musical element singly and be fascinated by them, or submerge yourself in the bliss of the whole. “911 Is A Joke” kicks Tracy Chapman’s sad butt out of the planet (or at least, out of Wembley Stadium) – moderate when compared with “Fuck Tha Police,” perhaps, but PE know what time it could be. They continue to idolise and glorify themselves, but they are turning their faces back onto the world. “Welcome To The Terrordome” (which we saw a drunken Pete Waterman rave over on The Hit Man And Her - “This is the REAL punk rock!” He resembles Tony Wilson more and more every day) is a calamitous rave-up where we clap the hands of corpses. Best pass over the queasy “Meet The G That Killed Me” (there are better targets, chaps, as well you know) straight onto the beyond-bizarre “Pollywanacraka” which stumbles along as disturbingly as George Clinton having just lost the key to his dormitory in the rehab clinic – smiling with crooked teeth which singe your neck with its mockery of blood. “Anti Nigger Machine” spits along in contrabass – Christ, if Archie Shepp were 23 today, this is what he would be doing! Forget punk rock, this is the REAL New Thing.

By the time we get to “Burn Hollywood Burn” with its cameo from Ice Cube, we are definitively aware of just how unprecedented in its inspiration of awe this record is. “As I walk down Hollywood Boulevard” as though he’s just about to shoot the whole place down, strings smouldering behind. We gasp at the horror of the realisation that this is a record to be played in a riot. Should we have stayed in Piccadilly and bled? Well of course not – the record would long have been nicked. Hypocrisy piles upon doublethink. We haven’t understood a thing, least of all a second of this record. Still we listen. “Who Stole The Soul?” by virtue of its very existence destroys “soul.” About time too. Abort the inverted commas.

As regards side two, there’s not much to say except sit back, or lean forward, and be stunned by this unrepeatable assimilation of the ascending fissure of Miles’ On The Corner combined with the benign destruction of, yes, There’s A Riot Goin’ On. The determination – rhythmic, politic, lyric – freezes you in its avant-garde ruthlessness. I can’t think that any other record this year could harness the power of “Revolutionary Generation” – a track where, yes, PE finally learn respect for women. A divine duality of double bass lines power the piece, winding in and around each other in spinal liquidity, but never losing the essential blood flow. And after that, the assault just keeps on doubling, trebling, the intensity now blindingly white in its heat until, finally, everything comes to the boil halfway through “War At 33 1/3” where the music atomises, explodes into freeform rebirth with a closeness and courage that I’ve seldom heard anyone achieve on record before now. No one could possibly hope to emulate, let alone surpass, the feat PE have achieved with this record.

Well OK, they could have ended the album with the Do The Right Thing soundtrack version of “Fight The Power” – in that form, there are few greater singles – rather than the radio edit, but perhaps they felt we needed to be let down gently after this mindfuck of a rollercoaster of a record.

And we should have blared it out in the streets as they burned and bled. Anyone can say that the day after, when they have the luxury of not actually having to dirty their hands.

Central London at Sunday lunchtime. We had to see it. Tourists standing about uncertainly, as if still waiting for yesterday evening’s buses. Every window broken, only a couple boarded up. All the banks, Tower Records, Lillywhite’s, Liberty, even the Woollen Mill (“hey, let’s loot the Woollen Mill! Anarchy!”) – they all got hit, and more besides. It was like wandering through a semi-dismantled stage set…not very populated, but not dead. Nothing much happening here. It’ll rebuild itself; why do you think we have an insurance industry? We have the whole of the city at our disposal now; and how little we have done with it, or to it.
(March 1990)


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