It takes no small measure of courage and a great deal of goodwill to start a grass roots musical movement, writes Andrew Cowen.
There’s been an awful lot of dancing on the grave of the record industry in the past few years. I know because I’m one of those happily bopping away like a cake-crazed kid at a wedding.
The major labels can no longer get away with charging £15 for a CD when the music is easily available for free, often before the album’s release.
Like it or not, the rise of superfast internet connections, mp3s, file-sharing software and blogs have had a democratising effect. With a little help from the social networks, anyone can find an audience.
While it’s handsomely gratifying to kick at the likes of multi-nationals EMI and Universal Records, think also of some of the great record labels of the past, Stax, Sun, Tamla Motown, early Virgin and Island, Stiff, Rough Trade, Two-Tone and Factory.
These were labels you could trust, with a strong visual image and a pretty watertight guarantee that any record they released would be a classic.
This was the thinking behind Spritely Records which launches this weekend.
Spritely is the creation of Hunt Emerson, Birmingham-based comics artist, and Stately Homes of England, a duo formed by myself and Manchester-based Tim Bowden.
Let me take you through our first nine months and the evolution of Josephine and Spritely.
Hunt’s a neighbour and friend of mine. I’ve been a fan of his cartoon strips in Fortean Times and books published by Knockabout Comics for years, so working with him has been a privilege. Getting to know him, though, the real revelation has been his musical brain.
He’s an instinctive musician from a musical family. He can belt out a tune, carry a harmony and has a canny repertoire of back garden summer evening bonfire singsongs.
Hunt also designed the one-eyed smiley motif that adorns Stately Homes of England’s first release, a picture disc of three post-rock hip-hop tunes, 10 years ago.
Since then, Stately Homes of England have released a full-length album, a couple of collections of remixes and an EP. We finished our second album in late summer last year, deciding to woodshed it in the hope of finding a proper home and a physical release on a real label.
Our earlier stuff is available to download for free or buy or stream on bandcamp, a superb service that lets artists promote and sell their work online.
We hit upon doing the idea of Josephine during one of those list-your-10-favourite-songs sessions that gentlemen of a certain age are want to indulge in. The song tells a fabulous story, has a great melody, killer chorus and chords that are in every guitarist’s gonzo repertoire.
Hunt practised it, writer John Otway emailed us his preferred set of words and we recorded the first version in about 20 minutes. It was too slow and too tentative but Hunt nailed it when he came back a few days later with an electric guitar.
I’ve had a home recording studio for 20 years now and always love recording real instruments and voices.
Hunt left a lead vocal, four harmony tracks and three guitar takes and I later added some drums and simple synthesiser bits.
It sounded great. We’d got the raggedy bar-band vibe we were after but all parties knew that it needed more.
Handsworth is full of jamming musicians. Louise Kilbride’s informal Acoustic Bites sessions, formerly at The Public in West Bromwich, now relocated to town, has seen a skiffly collection of scratch bands duking it out with some of the best acoustic combos in town.
We knew we wanted Micky Jeynes to play bass and having Ron Collins on percussion and Dermot Walker on lead guitar was obvious, as Hunt has been playing with them for years.
We also knew we wanted a massive chorus of our friends’ voices at the end, like Hey Jude, but louder. Louise Kilbride’s voice was always a natural choice to lead the chorus, but we found more singers amongst our friends who all swore they “couldn’t sing a note”, but who sang admirably at the midwinter singaround in Hunt’s kitchen, gathered round as many microphones as we could muster to join in the final choruses.
The sessions came together quickly. Ron first with his duffel bag full of esoteric hitty things and bongos, then Micky, who provided solid McCartney slides and dubby lopes, Hunt came up with a primitive, but crucial, piano part and, finally, Dermot supplied classic British licks and superlative guitar solo.
The final version, the first one on the EP, is the result of hours spent chipping away at the raw material from these sessions, in order to do justice to John Otway’s classic.
But we couldn’t just leave it there.
>>Next page: exclusive remixes of Josephine