I went up to that London recently, as a Bristol native once said.
Weird that. Bristol is an almost straight line, west to east, pointing at London. But still, you always feeling like the big city is ‘up’.
Where I grew up, which was north of that London, we also referred to going ‘up’ to London. Then some chauvinist sage pointed out that it was down.
He was strictly correct. Geographically.
But he mostly meant it metaphorically.
Metaphorically, we were being told that that London was somewhat inferior to our Wolverhampton.
Then I moved to London, and it was neither up nor down. Nor was it inferior to Wolverhampton (not superior, though, either).
Now I live on the south coast, and London is definitely ‘up’.
Which is all very confusing. But not nearly as confusing as knowing where to look for new music these days.
Music has become like the internet. The mainstream is like the worldwide web. You know how to find Amazon, and Wikipedia, and how to book your holidays, and post on Facebook. With the same limits of access, you can listen to the same few records on regular rotation on Radios 1 & 2.
But what if you want to find the musical equivalent of a hired hitman, or an AK47, or mind-altering drugs that will drop through your letterbox? That’s called the Deep Web, or the Dark Web.
(Which is also confusing, because they are two separate entities. But still you and I couldn’t get to either without the internet equivalent of GPS, programmed by someone else with postcodes only they know).
The web that most of us see is reckoned to be anywhere between 5-10% of what’s actually out there. But us mere mortals can’t see the other 90-95% because a) we don’t want to buy a nuclear weapon; and b) we don’t know how to dig that deep even if we wanted to.
So anyway, I went up to that London to see a gig featuring an old friend. And being in the room at the Phoenix Artist Club felt a little like being in the Deep Web. Practically everyone I met is a performer, and you’ve never heard of them, and very unlikely to because you don’t know they’re there in the first place.
There was JJ Crash, who told me nothing about himself other than that he played with Lucy’s Diary. Lucy herself turned out to be a stunning young woman of somewhat bonkers demeanour, who, I was later told, is the daughter of my old colleague Norman Jopling. I had no idea.
Watching a couple of videos of Lucy, you have to ask yourself how, in this anodyne era of formula pop, someone of such personality and edginess has a social media presence almost as well hidden as the hitmen and drug dealers of the Dark Web’s Silk Road.
JJ himself also has quite the background as a post-punk performer, described somewhere as ‘the pearly king of anti-folk’. (He’s from Welwyn Garden City. Go figure).
Here he is with Lucy’s Diary. JJ’s the guy with the maracas and the natty hat.
And then there was Ralegh Long. My friend John Howard had told me about Ralegh, a young performer he rates highly.
I’m not often surprised, but Ralegh sat at the piano, accompanied by slide steel guitar and French Horn. It’s such a lovely combination I have to admit I couldn’t wait to get home and try it for myself with one of my own songs (Sorry, Ralegh!).
Back in the day, when the pop mainstream was a vivid rainbow of colourful styles – folk, rock, pop, jazz, singer-songwriter, Beatles, Stones, Cat Stevens, Jim Hendrix, the Animals, Bob Dylan – Ralegh Long would have found himself on regular rotation on Radio One.
In the almost monochrome 21st century, he’s lucky to get the odd play on Radio 6 Music. Why do we bother? I asked him. His answer was the same as mine: “I can’t not”. Well, good for him. I’ve had my day, and if I choose to keep making music that no-one will ever hear, it’s nobody’s business but mine.
But young musicians have to pay the rent and feed themselves. Art for art’s sake, because they ‘can’t not’, is truly admirable. You can buy or listen to his album Hoverance iTunes or iMusic. I seriously suggest you do.
On the other hand, artists today are industrious in ways we never were. On stage later were John Howard & The Night Mail. The Night Mail consists of Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis.
In addition to performing as Rotifer, writing songs and starting this Night Mail project, Robert Rotifer also helps to run Gare Du Nord Records, a label with some hidden delights that are well worth investigating.
Ian Button played on the first four Death In Vegas albums. Before that he was in Thrashing Doves. Today he’s a leading light of Papernut Cambridge, a collective that includes many names I’ve mentioned above. If you like gorgeous-sounding pop with an insistent beat and hooky melodies, don’t get lost in the deep web – just Google Papernut Cambridge.
And then there’s Andy Lewis, currently moonlighting as Paul Weller’s bass player. Hardly able to contain his joy on the night, Ralegh Long shouted at me, “It’s like he’s got the whole history of soul music in his fingertips”. And that’s very accurate.
Here he is with Paul Weller singing, from Andy’s album You Should Be Hearing Something Now.
Robert, Ian and Andy all co-wrote songs with John Howard for the Night Mail album. It was a truly collaborative effort. But on stage, no question, Howard is the attraction. The audience at The Phoenix went nuts for him.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll never tire of saying it: it is an extraordinary oversight on God’s part that John Howard is not a superstar. At age 62 he is writing tunes and lyrics that shame many more famous artists. If you like great pop with a bite of satire, a touch of social commentary, and a huge dollop of human compassion, I implore you to check out John Howard & The Night Mail. It’s worth signing up to Apple Music for, if you’re not in a buying mood, and it’s also on Spotify.
And in those places you’ll also find Ralegh Long, Lucy’s Diary but not JJ Crash. You’ll also find Andy Lewis’s absolutely wonderful Billion Pound Project – a lush and soulful and timeless delight, the sort of album you think doesn’t get made any more, but here it is.
It really did feel like I’d found a secret chat room on the Deep Dark Web. Except, rather than trying to buy pharmaceutical grade cocaine (which would have turned out to be sulphate with glittering bits of ground glass) I found a bunch of sweet and talented people who make music I’ve been enjoying ever since, but would never have known existed if I hadn’t popped into the Phoenix Artist Club on September 8.