Pop: Old values, new treats from Cornershop
Backed by a glittering review in `Rolling Stone', Cornershop could soon receive recognition that is long overdue at home, writes Ben Thompson.
Friday 26 September 1997
Congratulations. You have just achieved a distinction in part one of GCSE will-power. Now listen to Cornershop's When I Was Born for the 7th Time and try to stop your lips lapsing into a foolish grin. Struggling? It's not just the resounding call to arms of "Sleep On Your Left Side"; "Brimfull Of Asha's" Bollywood rhapsody - with its impossibly insistent hookline of "everybody needs a bosom for a pillow" - or the crazy good- time scratching of "Butter The Soul" that make this album's opening three- punch combination such a knockout. It's the knowledge that a courtly country duet, a few words from Allen Ginsberg and a Punjabi version of The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" are still to come.
Now that the global impact commensurate with a four-star review in Rolling Stone (only undiscovered duets between Bob Dylan and the late Karen Carpenter get five) is finally being echoed in Britain, all would seem to be rosy in the Cornershop window-box. Talk to the group's velvet-voiced, Wolverhampton- raised vocalist and song-writing mainstay Tjinder Singh, however, and the story is very different. "We've been doing this for more than five years," he sighs, "and we've still got no money. I'm the band's only full- time member - the others have all got jobs.
"Saffs (sitar player) works with old people and Ben (guitarist) works for the record company and can't get the time off, so we have to tour without him in Europe."
But surely Tjinder must be looking forward to the triumphant homecoming which next week's UK gigs with Teenage Fanclub are sure to represent? "If we're still together by then," he answers. This all sounds a bit apocalyptic. "It's just so much of a strain - both mentally and physically getting people to rehearsals, let alone gigs, that we can't carry on without more resources.
"We're glad that this album has justified us carrying on for as long as we have, but if we can't get things on a more secure material footing, it might be a good time to stop and do something else."
So much for the prevailing notion of Cornershop as crest-of-a-wave party animals, but it's actually the undercurrents of tension holding their shiny new sound together which make its smooth surface so inviting. And the fact that they had to go to America (where their Anglo-Asian ethnicity fits snugly under David Byrne's Luaka Bop label's umbrella of internationalist cosmopolitan sophistication) to get a fair hearing makes one wonder about the colour- blindness on which British pop music has always prided itself. Not without good reason does Tjinder advise sleeping on the left side to "keep your sword hand free".
The story of how his band got to where they are today sheds an intriguingly conflictual light on the developing consensuses of the past few years.
When Cornershop's name first started to crop up in the music press in early 1992, the domestic pop scene was in the doldrums. In the summer of that year, when Morrisey draped himself in a Union Jack at the first of the Madness Finsbury Park comeback gigs, he was bombarded with skinheads' coins and critical brickbats alike.
Yet what seemed like a last-ditch bid to save a fading career turned out to be an act of prophecy and catalysis ... within a few months Suede and Blur and Pulp were all seen to be putting Britishness - or rather its most culturally self-confident sub-set, white Englishness - firmly back on the agenda.
Four more years and Euro '96 down the line, from Noel's guitar to Geri Spice's surgical bodice, the Union Jack has reverted from the cloak of fascists to a harmless pop art artefact. As if to signal in advance their disdain for this new patriotic agenda, Cornershop's response to Morrisey's Finsbury Park performance was to burn a flag outside the London headquarters of his record company EMI.
The initial music press interest guaranteed to any band indulging in such newsworthy antics soon turned to hostility when Tjinder and Co's unfashionable politicisation turned out to be more than just skin deep. Reviewers' unanimous praise for Cornershop's current album has accordingly been balanced by almost frenzied disparagement of its three predecessors.
The strange truth is that the elements which make "When I Was Born For The 7th Time" such a fine record were all in place (albeit in less polished form) on its less celebrated forbears. The journey from the scratchy agit- pop of Cornershop's debut single "In the Days of Ford Cortina" to the seductive sensuality of "Butter The Soul" involves no Damascene conversion, just a steady progression from music as gesture to music as an expression of physical pleasure.
It's not so much rough and ready production values, as a willingness to challenge the unspoken white supremacism of the British indie establishment that has kept Cornershop, up to now, from their rightful place in the critical sun.
The conventional wisdom on their newly heightened profile is that stroppy Anglo-Asians find redemption through dance culture, lose their political edge in a cloud of dope smoke and unexpectedly turn out the student party album of the year.
Does Tjinder recognise himself in this? He laughs. "That's certainly not the way we look at it. I don't think the political edge to what we do has softened at all - there's the same strength of feeling, but this is just a different approach to it ... We'd still be quite happy to see people burning Kula Shaker posters in the streets."
The song open to most obvious political interpretation is that delightful Punjabi-language rendition of The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood". This might be perceived as an ironic attack on those, like George Harrison or his less reputable pseudo-spiritual descendant Crispian Mills, who have sought to use Eastern cultural forms for their own ends. For Singh it's not quite as simple as that. "The word `reclamation' has been used, but that's not right," he insists. "We don't have any objections to people appropriating anything, so long as they add something of their own to it. The reason we did a cover of that song was because so many British bands are just ripping off The Beatles 100 per cent at the moment - we wanted to put our own twist on it by translating the vocal into Punjabi."
So if anything is being reclaimed, it's not some dubious notion of cultural purity, but rather the spirit of creative adventure that motivated the Beatles in the first place. " I suppose so," Singh agrees doubtfully.
The great thing about today's Cornershop is that their music's diverse constituent parts complement each other rather than cancelling themselves out. The best introduction to the kaleidoscope of good vibrations they currently have to offer is the deliriously upbeat former single "Funky Days Are Back Again". With its series of triumphant proclamations ("Big shoes are back again! Tax in the post is back again!Workers' strikes are back again!") this song somehow manages to be both a celebration of the gleeful absurdity of fashion and a stirring statement of the value of political organisation.
So what inspired this perfectly up-to-the-minute summation of the spirit of the moment? "It's just about something we missed," says Tjinder, "the community feeling of the Seventies."
`When I Was Born For The 7th Time' (Wiiija CD/LP) is out now. Cornershop tour with Teenage Fanclub, starting this Sunday at Glasgow Barrowlands and concluding on Friday 10 October at Brixton Academy
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