Me? I'm with the banned
Considered too risky by the venues they'd booked, So Solid Crew have had to cancel their tour. It's nothing new, says Nick Hasted. Pop, from Elvis to hip hop, has always attracted controversy
Friday 07 December 2001
The cancellation on Tuesday of the forthcoming UK tour by So Solid Crew, whose recent infectious, imaginative No 1, "21 Seconds", made them the trail-blazing kings of the UK garage scene, seemed somehow inevitable. An eruption of violence at their 31 October gig at the London Astoria in which two men were shot had made promoters and licensing authorities across the country, already jittery at garage's media reputation for gun play, primed to pull the plug.
Though So Solid Crew denounced the attack, they'd already been tarnished by one of their 25 members, Darren Weir (aka Skat D), punching a 15-year-old female fan in the jaw, cracking it in two places, when she refused to have sex with him last December. The criminal pasts of some other Crew members, the murder of a teenager outside another of their gigs, and the uncomfortable closeness of the "Gatt"-happy lyrics of support act Oxide & Neutrino to Neutrino's own recent gunshot wound to the leg while resisting a robbery made them too "street" to handle.
The Crew declared themselves "shocked at the draconian measures" and suggested it was because they "hail from the underground garage scene and not the usual route of rock or pop bands". Maybe. But 25 years ago this week, another despised collection of musicians began an equally doomed trek across a hostile nation. The 1976 Anarchy tour, which shoved the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned into a coach whose destination was first left blank, then named "Nowhere", had only a handful of dates survive as the bands were hounded by baying, brutal mobs and disgusted authorities. The similarities between the treatment of punk's vanguard and garage's isinstructive. And the precedents go back still further. Rock'n'roll, by whatever name, has been a target for suppression since the day it began.
The Crew should take comfort from the early career of Elvis Presley, who also had tours banned, and was dubbed "morally insane" by a Midwest preacher. The case of Jerry Lee Lewis, who arrived for a 1958 UK tour with his 13-year-old bride (his defence: "Hell, I'm only country"), caused still more vilification, only two confrontational gigs surviving before he was spat and hissed from his hotel, drummed from the country by tabloid ire. The wider cultural crackdown, in which offenders from DJ Alan Freed to Chuck Berry and Elvis were taken out of the picture (jailed, conscripted, whatever it took) while their records were deemed degenerate in their sexuality and musical miscegenation, and piled high and burned, was the real, unending story.
The Anarchy tour restoked that repressive fervour. Begun within days of the outcry at the Pistols' provoked swearing on the Bill Grundy show, it took place in a different world to So Solid Crew's – a world where words on teatime TV could cause a national fury that gunshots can't replicate now. But the tour's events also show that the climate of violence that the garage kings have attracted, through little fault of their own, is neither new, nor the preserve of inner-city black men.
The Anarchy gigs were cancelled daily: to "protect the children" in Newcastle; because the Pistols wouldn't audition for the local, pensionable Leisure Committee in Derby. The chasing press pack bated them into further condemnable acts. The bus spun like a cornered animal, trying to find somewhere that would take the hunted punks. They played in Leeds, and were pelted with rotten fruit. In Manchester, they ran for their lives from local hooligans who beat fans as they entered. "It got to us," the Pistols' Paul Cook shuddered years later, "you just thought, where's this all going to end?" And yet, from these violent, ugly scenes, in the places they did play, local artistry flowered – as it might from a garage tour now.
More pertinent still is America's reaction to hip hop in the 1980s, garage's partial template. The 1985 rap film Krush Groove, and its launch concert at Madison Square Gardens, lit the touch paper. Five in the gig's 20,000 crowd were injured, one was shot in the back. Screenings of the film, too, attracted violence. The problem rap faced then, as garage does now, was the violence in the streets that spawned it. And reporters and readers who feared those streets, and the people who lived there, feared their music, too. For evidence, look at Newsweek's poisonous 1990 article "The Rap Attitude", or any British tabloid headline about violence at gigs by ragga and jungle artists, early 1990s folk-devils predating garage. "You know how the press is," LL Cool J observed in 1986. "Things happen and they blow it all out of proportion, 'cause it's black kids and it's rap, and they don't understand neither."
Listen to So Solid Crew's aptly titled album "They Don't Know", or Oxide & Neutrino's "Execute", and there's little cause for alarm. Their skittering, nervous beats and bass are barely altered jungle, sounds that are almost a decade old. Unlike the Pistols, there's no real desire for social upset here. The violent imagery – as on Oxide & Neutrino's time-stretched plea, "Can't everyone stop gettin' sho-o-o-o-t?" on their hit "Bound 4 Da Reload" – sounds funny, clever or clichéd, not incendiary.
Garage's problem, instead, is where it's from: the wrong side of the tracks, the same place Jerry Lee Lewis went to hear barred black sounds, the place whose spirit the spat-on, carnage-attracting "Anarchy" tour trailed in its wake across Britain's grey leisure halls in 1976. It's because pop still touches the bits of Britain where musicians and their fans do and see unpleasant things that it's still targeted for attack. But imagine the alternative. It would sound remarkably like the anodyne, cocktail-soul brand of garage that So Solid Crew have recently replaced. Or like Pat Boone.
That doesn't excuse Skat D for breaking a girl's jaw, or the Crew for closing ranks around him. But by raising themselves to the top of the charts, bringing with them their sometimes unsavoury listeners, they make you think about the uncomfortable, intense, multiracial places that made them. Their eventual tour, however riotous, can't come soon enough.
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