Al had created a nice little earner for himself from just one bright idea. He bought a van & made local deliveries, cheaper than the Royal Mail, for the many small London book companies. Yeah, it could be a pain negotiating a suburban bottleneck for just one package but the mail must get through & anyway, up in the city’s glittering West End, Charing Cross Road was rammed with bookshops. He could park up & make his day’s money in a couple of hours. The other bits & pieces were all gravy. Al had a couple of vehicles on the road & was doing alright thanks.
Our place was his last pick up of the day before he headed back south of the river, my part of London. The journey home was usually a jammed, sullen, armpit-infused Northern Line train so I started to blag a ride along with Al. It was in the right direction & he was good company. He was expert at avoiding the rush hour snarl-ups & could roll a joint one-handed before we hit Blackfriars Bridge, an admirable & hospitable skill. Al operated out of a lock-up unit in Peckham, all very “Minder” & “Only Fools & Horses”, the biggest TV shows, both concerning Cockney chancers, entrepreneurial London under Thatcher. If I had a quiet night ahead I’d stick around to give him a hand sorting the loads for the following day. We would roll a couple more, stick some tunes on his boombox, get him finished early then his last drop of the day was me…right outside my house. It was 1986, here’s one that was sure to have come around…
1986 was the Year of Prince, 4 great singles from the “Parade” LP but The Artist doesn’t do the Interwebs so not one of those then. Instead it’s a bright red codpiece & W-O-R-D UP ! Cameo were a decade & 11 LPs along with plenty of US R&B hits before this single went worldwide. They had started out as a horn-heavy, deep-funk big band influenced by Parliament & the Ohio Players. Through the 80s leader Larry Blackmon, the fine figure of a man with the scarlet crotch, had downsized & changed the group’s style with the times. It was 1984’s “She’s Strange” which began the crossover & “Word Up”, an assertive, steamroller of a song won Cameo, now a trio, all sorts of awards. When this Pop Hip-Hop is done right then, as the Fugees & Outkast found out, you sell a lot of records to a lot of people.
Al’s operation was expanding. He was getting another vehicle, needed a driver & I knew the very man for the job. The 3 of us met after work at my place, I played the genial host, refreshments were provided & I withdrew, leaving the pair to the business at hand. 45 minutes later I interrupted their circular, stoned conversation demanding to know the outcome. Mitchell had got the job. He said that it was the first time he had got high at a job interview. Great…we had a van ! Getting around London & further had suddenly got easier.
Colourbox released their first album in 1985. Early copies came with a free bonus LP. a lot of music, all we needed for our trips up the M1/M6 (the M40 if we fancied the pretty way) to Birmingham. Colourbox was mostly the Young Brothers, Martyn & Steven. Before rave, techno & trip-hop their electro-beats, reggae inclinations & a wide range of popular culture samples was imaginative, energetic & exciting. It sounded like the music from the future & it flipping well turned out to be just that.They recruited singer Lorita Grahame, recorded 2 great reggae covers, including the fantastic Naggo Morris’ “Say You”, & brought an effervescence & playfulness to everything they released. Colourbox rarely appeared live (just one grand clip on the Y-tube
). In 1987 they worked with 4AD labelmates AR Kane as M/A/R/R/S & had a #1 UK hit. We are still waiting for the follow-up. Colourbox, a class act, check them out.
Mitchell & I had lived, worked or played out together for some time. Our musical tastes were similar, we both liked the stuff that was good. I guess that it was around 1984 that we started to listen to more dance music. London’s pirate radio stations played this new Hip-Hop, electro-soul alongside the poppier hits (Dread Broadcasting took care of the reggae) & it was livelier than those serious sixth-formers whose Mum had bought them a synthesizer (got the Human League in to advise her). First Horizon then Solar then Kiss FM, which was everywhere, provided the daily soundtrack & at the weekend we found clubs around the city that played this music. We had a short-lived anarchist radio station operating out of our flat until The Man with his repressive jackboots appeared one Friday. The pirates were great but a little flaky. Mitch won a prize on a phone-in one night & they never sent the whatever it was…Bastards !
The van came in very handy for social occasions. We could meet up, pile in & know that Mitchell would get us to the gig faster, cheaper & more reliably than London Transport. I had left the book company but was still in touch with Al. We were friends, he confided in me about the sequence of bad luck that had caused him to serve a prison stretch for illegally importing 7 kilos of hashish from Holland to the UK. He bitched about the taxman’s punitive reaction to coming clean about his ducking & diving years when he was trying to do the right thing. When he bought a brand new motor on the day the new plates were issued (he was doing alright for himself) we cruised the Saturday South London streets where they appreciate a bit of conspicuous consumption. So, when we needed a favour I went round to see him.
We wanted to do the Glastonbury Festival right in 1987. Days off work had been arranged but transport &, Jah forbid, tents had not (we once took a 2-man for the 4 of us !). A van, Mitchell’s van would be just the ticket. I pointed this out to Al & he noticed that he would not only need an agency bloke to drive but a replacement hire van for 2 days. I agreed that this was the case & he only went along with the plan. Top Man ! We acquired some underlay & carpet from outside a shop in Pimlico, made things nice & the festival began just when Mitchell started the engine. What a time we had. I’d tell you more but…
In 1986 Janet Jackson was taking control, Anita Baker made some sweet MOR R&B while a couple of Roxannes (real or otherwise) were the noisy new kids. One of my favourite singles of the year was by a woman who had made her first record in 1966 when she was 12. Out of Miami, Betty Wright had a major hit in 1971 with the classic “Clean Up Woman”, charmed us out of our socks in 1975 with “Shoorah Shoorah” & through the years made some fine music. Her LP “Sevens” was written & co-produced by Ms Wright. “Pain”, the 12″ of course (this was the mid-80s), has all the hallmarks of the time, synth keyboards, slap bass robot drums. What marks this strong, mature song is the trademark Miami guitar groove of George Terry who drew the biggest names in music to Florida to get some of his good stuff on their records. I still play this one by Betty a lot.
Mitchell got sick of breathing in London’s exhaust fumes, of the daily irritations of traffic & handed the van back to the boss. I lost touch with Al which was a shame as the coolest book collection (that would be mine) was boxed & stashed in his Peckham lock-up. No matter, it was only stuff & it was just the sort of place a dodgy geezer (that would be me) should be familiar with. I’ve not seen Mitchell for some time either but he’s around my computer, he will read this & he’s a friend for Life. I’ll probably see him sometime soon.