This is a sidebar to the current Sunday series that is looking at the singular life of Luke Haines. I did promise that I wouldn’t feature any of the Black Box Recorder singles on the basis that he was part of a collective within that group rather than the main focus of attention….however, re-reading Post-Modern, his second volume of memoirs which covers the period in which BBR were to the fore, reminded me of a great tale that has to be shared, if nothing else to show up how messed-up the music industry was at the tail end of the last century.

The Auteurs had, to all intent and purposes broken up, albeit not quite as a final album would later emerge (something which will be covered in the Sunday series). Luke Haines was at a loose end and bored, and when that happens, he gets himself into mischief. This time round he found two partners in crime in the shape of John Moore (a one-time member of the Jesus and Mary Chain whose current speciality was playing a saw in a 20-strong indie-folk band) and Sarah Nixey, a sultry backing vocalist with the same band for whom Haines would occasionally play glockenspiel. The trio decided to form Black Box Recorder whose debut album, which eventually came out on Chyrsalis Records, was made thanks to five different record labels providing them with sums of £1,000-£1,500 to record demos.

England Made Me, was released in July 1998. It’s lead-off single is Child Psychology but receives no radio play thanks to it having a chorus of ‘Life is Unfair….Kill Yourself or Get Over It’. The follow-up single is the title track of the album, but it too fails to come close to the charts.

The record label bosses feel that the band’s cover of the reggae track Uptown Top Ranking, a huge hit for Althea & Donna in 1977, should be the next single as a further push to improve sales of the album.

mp3 : Althea & Donna – Up Town Top Ranking

Somehow, Luke Haines and his manager persuade the label to cough-up a further £1,000 as a ‘reggae reserach budget’ in advance of the album version being re-recorded for release as a single, a budget which is spent partly on buying reggae singles and albums but mostly on sustaining a rock’n’roll lifestyle.

The fact that the record label thought the cover was worthy of release as a single was just insane. Here’s Luke Haines to explain:-

‘Uptown Top Ranking’ is, in its original form, a thing of true joy as any child of the 70s will attest to. By the time BBR finish with the song it sounds like it’s been fucked with elephant tranquilliser. Any notion of dreadlocks has been replaced by dread.

The cover version started off as an afterthought during the England Made Me sessions; whilst producer Phil Vinall is mixing an album track, we go off and commandeer a little eight-track recorder. The entire song is constructed in the studio vocal booth. John Moore has brought in a sample of an old recording by rum 70s suave man actor Peter Wyngarde. The Wyngarde sample is from a song called ‘Rape’ (a rakish comedy skit on sexual assault). The Wyngarde monstrosity goes into the sampler and we slow it way, way down until we hit negative equity.

Next up is ‘The Turn’. Sarah Nixey doesn’t know Althea and Donna’s original which is perfect; she is also magnificently hungover. Again, perfect. We write out the lyrics – mainly Jamaican patois which we cannot make out – phonetically, and she reads them out into the microphone in one take, with the enthusiasm of a cash and carry shelf stacker. If schoolgirls won’t sing along with our songs on the top deck of the bus, then we will make records that sound as if they’ve been made by a schoolgirl on the bus – a schoolgirl from The Village of The Damned of course. Bung on a bit of bass – lemme wind out me waist – press record, and catch a few incongruous whoops from Moore, and the track is finished in an hour or so.

mp3 : Black Box Recorder – Up Town Top Ranking

Six months later and the trio find themselves in On-U Sound to do the remix. In Haines’s words, a studio where you could record a brass band from Grimsby and it would come out sounding like Augustus Pablo. After a few hours of mucking around, they have something which to Haines’s ears sounds pretty much the same as it did when they first recorded it,  and they hand it over to the record company:-

mp3 : Black Box Recorder – Up Town Top Ranking (remix)

A few days later word comes back that Chrysalis will not be releasing a third BBR single nor will they be contracting a second BBR album. But, as a way of saying sorry for this turn of events, the label offers some more money for further demos so that BBR can try to find a new home at an alternative label. In due course they do, and the second album and one of its singles turn out to be hits.

As I said, the music industry was particularly messed up at the time….bloated with cash from the short-lived boom in CD sales as many abandoned vinyl and bought replacements via the shiny silver discs.  There will be many more similar but untold stories out there……


5 thoughts on “NO POP, NO STYLE

  1. I’m not sure that I can bring myself to playing the BBR version!
    Surely the greatest one hit wonder of all time

  2. The BBR version is not like the original, yes. But you should listen to it CC. If we all had the opinion that the original is the only one to listen to, we would not have had Bowie singing Wild Is The Wind (nor Nina Simone, for that matter), John Cale singing Hallelujah (nor Jeff Buckley) or any of the 2,200 cover versions of Yesterday.

  3. Aneka, now that’s going back some. A decent enough pop song but I always found that the singer seemed to be a physical ill-fit for the time. She just looked so awkward and seemed to have one eye on the nearest escape route to a Scottish folk convention.

  4. The remix of Uptown Ranking is one of the most wonderfully incongruous Pop songs I have ever heard. Urgency dialed back to the speed of waking up from and edge of death drug haze, a shuffle that’s like steel toe Doc Marten’s stepping through muck but not stopping. The effect of making it at On-U Sound is evident treatments and dubby effects. It’s mesmerizing, has Pop at it’s core – repetitive, gentle and a beat that’s hidden deep within.

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