From the mists of Geordieland they came… The Kane Gang, Prefab Sprout, The Daintees and Hurrah! Newcastle is calling with the sound of Kitchenware Records. But does it taste good? ADRIAN THRILLS (bonny words) and BLEYDDYN BUTCHER (canny snaps) find out just what is cooking in The Soul Kitchen.
ON THE TOP floor of a high-rise council block with a stunning panoramic view of Newcastle’s dockland skyline, a young man sits with his nose buried in a book. On an adjacent stereo system, the Donny Hathaway version of Bob And Marcia’s anthemic ’69 reggae hit ‘Young, Gifted And Black’ is spinning softly.
The young man is Keith Armstrong, head chef at the city’s ambitious, aggressive independent record label Kitchenware.
He is reading about the life of Martin Luther King and reflecting to himself how the pride and self-respect that King helped instil in a generation of black Americans during the late ’60s was in sharp contrast with the mood of hopeless resignation that exists in Britain now.
King’s creed was hardly ever intended for a fiercely idealistic upstart bent on chanting down the plastic walls of shallow pap that pass as modern music, but Armstrong nonetheless takes inspiration from his example.
Looking across the room towards the stereo, his spirits are lifted by the sentiments seeping from the speakers: “To be young, gifted and black is where it’s at. .” His gaze drifts to a couple of smartly packaged singles in his record rack. They are the debut singles by two local groups, Hurrah! and The Daintees, released last summer on Kitchenware.
If his label is to make a mark, he vows, it will be with a similar brand of loud, passionate optimism.
THE SUN SHINES HERE
THREE MONTHS later, fire in his eyes and a tremor of impatience in his soft voice, Keith is sitting in the same room with a view.
With disarming directness, he is talking about Kitchenware. Over in the vinyl rack, the Hurrah! and Daintees records are now stacked beside two more singles on the label, the debuts by Prefab Sprout and The Kane Gang.
“Everyone involved with Kitchenware is positive about what we are doing. It’s important to us to have pride, even when things seem to be going against us. We are searching for the spirit that you found on records like ‘Young, Gifted And Black’, ‘Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy‘ and ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud’. It’s not only the spirit that is lacking in most music today, it’s the spirit that was missing in the election, the spirit that is missing in this country.”
As a symbol of the pride and dignity he is striving for, Keith put a portrait of Martin Luther King on the sleeves of the Kane Gang single and used the phrase “young, gifted and black” on the label. It seems preposterous, of course, to draw a parallel between the aims of an independent record label on which all the musicians are white and the struggles of the civil rights movement.
It could easily be taken as a presumptious, patronising affront— but Keith is at least aware of the torrent of criticism he could be inviting. “lt certainly is not racist,” he says. “I completely detest all forms of racism, even down to the issue of any national passport, and I know that I could justify using that slogan to anyone who came up to me. It’s just that the phrase ‘young, gifted and black’ totally encapsulates the spirit that we are striving for, that pride in yourself.
“A slogan like that is important to how we regard ourselves. We share the sentiments expressed in the song, feeling proud even when people are trying to shit on you from a great height. It expresses our refusal to be kept down by the recession. So many people have just accepted the recession and use it as an excuse to justify being miserable and depressed, but it doesn’t have to be like that.
“You have to be positive about things.”
THE SOUL KITCHEN
KITCHENWARE grew out of a club run by Keith, his partner Paul Ludford and Phil Mitchell called The Soul Kitchen. Thoroughly frustrated by the lack of an adventurous live venue in the city, the three of them threw open the Kitchen doors at the Casablanca Club in the summer of ’81.
The first group they booked were The Fire Engines, with Keith personally leafleting every pub and bar in the locality to ensure that the evening was a sold-out success. Subsequent shows by Orange Juice, Josef K, The Jazzateers, New Order and Blue Rondo established The Soul Kitchen as something special and gave an ailing, reactionary local scene a sorely needed shot of adrenalin.
The Soul Kitchen – “It‘s not sarcastic, all great music is soulful” – was a great success. It was only an occasional club, switching its location regularly with the kind of hit-and-run nomadism of London’s Dirtbox, but it spawned a healthy activism.
Dancers were invited to bring their own records and groups encouraged to cut out the rip-off middle men by promoting their own dates. The club also branched out beyond the usual confines of a live show by incorporating slides, videos and photographic exhibitions into an evening’s entertainment.
More importantly, The Soul Kitchen acted as a focal point: it brought together local groups, designers and artists and fired Keith Armstrong’s imagination. When it closed in August’82 after being open exactly one year, the next steps had already been mapped out.
The last two shows at The Soul Kitchen featured The Bluebells and Aztec Camera, the former supported by Hurrah! and the latter by The Daintees, the two bands whose debut singles were to mark the start of Kitchenware as a label.
AS INDEPENDENT labels go in 1983, Kitchenware is virtually unique. Smart, colourful, uncompromising and idealistic, it builds on a tradition that dates back to post-punk labels like Fast, Zoo and Postcard, but shuns the inverted snobbery that characterises the independent scene. its quality control standards would shame any of the majors while its horizons extend far further afield than the cottage labels that occupy the grubby ghetto of the weekly indies chart.
Though he is a slightly reluctant catalyst, Keith is essential to the character and credibility of the label. At the age of 24, he is very much the man behind the men behind the music.
Newcastle born and bred, he works by day as manager of the large HMV record shop in the city centre. He was previously in charge of the company’s Derby branch, where he became their youngest ever manager after taking an EMI-sponsored course in marketing. The course entailed spending weeks on the road with sales reps and radio pluggers, vital experience that has served him well in setting up Kitchenware. An idealist at heart, he is far from naive, his enthusiasm being matched by an acute understanding of the seedier side of the music business.
He sees Kitchenware as more than just a record label. It is also a management company, looking after the interests of all tour of the bands, and a focus for local artists, designers and film-makers. The first Kitchenware product— SK1 — was actually a video made for Tyne-Tees TV of Hurrah!, Orange Juice and The Fire Engines at The Soul Kitchen. Additional activities extend to cassette compilations of otherwise-unavailable material and even an occasional magazine that is sent to all those writing to the label.
Armstrong is prepared to seek outside help from time to time, but only on his own terms. He has turned down offers from WEA for Prefab Sprout and Phonogram for Hurrah! and The Daintees, but recently signed a distribution deal with London Records for the Kane Gang single ‘Brother Brother‘. A publishing advance received from April Music for Hurrah!, The Daintees and Prefab Sprout has already been put to use improving the label’s rehearsal and office facilities in Newcastle.
One label with which Kitchenware is often compared is Postcard, although there are marked differences between the two set-ups, not least in Armstrong’s greater understanding of business matters. But as someone who booked every Postcard band into The Soul Kitchen and became a friend of the label’s Scottish svengali Alan Horne, he doesn’t deny that they were an influence. His respect and affection for the now-defunct Glaswegian independent, however, is tempered with criticism.
“One of the problems with Postcard was that Alan wanted to be as big a star as Edwyn Collins. He also tried to impose his own musical tastes on his bands too much. He‘d get them to do cover versions of his favourite songs, which was too close to manipulation for my liking. If anything, I try and get them to bring out and exaggerate what is already there.”
He claims his approach is closer to a McLarenesque mode of operation, though a more acute analogy might be with the combination of philosophy and propaganda with which Steve Dagger initially attracted media attention to Spandau Ballet.
Armstrong’s most obvious attention grabber is his sloganeering. The label was launched on a wave of catchphrases, many of them lifted from the lyrics of Hurrah! songs, and the trait has continued, his current favourite being the accusatory “are you scared to get happy?”
As long as they are not taken too seriously, the slogans are fine. There is a danger, though, that the theory could become so over-stated that it starts to over-shadow the groups themselves. Again, Keith seems aware of the pitfalls.
“In a way, it’s just playing the media at their own game. To a lot of people, music is secondary these days to image and we‘re just making fun of that with the slogans. You have to get noticed, even if it means kicking people in the bollocks to do so, which is why we sometimes come up with preposterous slogans.”
The Kitchenware story to date can be divided into two phases, the first being the launch of Hurrah! and The Daintees last year, the second the consolidation provided this summer by The Kane Gang and Prefab Sprout. All four bands, however, are treated on an individual basis by the label. So different are all four musically, that it would be pointless in trying to foster any kind of label “sound’ or even assume a smug ‘family’ identity.
“All the bands are there for a different reason,” says Keith. “But between the four of them, you’ve got all the qualities that you look for in music. Hurrah! are the big conscience, the Daintees are the big fun, Sprout are the big songwriting talent and The Kane Gang are the toughness.”
IN A small soundproofed rehearsal room in Clayton Street on the outskirts of Newcastle’s main shopping precinct, Hurrah! hold their jangling guitars high on the chest and run through a short, melodic set for the benefit of the NME.
The sound is pert and piercing. The Orange Juice shadows that have always haunted the group are hard to sweep totally under the carpet, although their stinging guitars and vicious snare drum cutbacks are closer to a more tuneful version of The Fire Engines.
A quartet, their debut single ‘The Sun Shines Here’/‘I’ll Be Your Surprise‘ was the first record on the label when it was released a year ago. Their involvement with the collective began long before that, though. They were regulars at The Soul Kitchen and later helped Armstrong and his partners to build the Clayton Street studio.
The three original members of the band, guitarists Paul Handyside and Taffy Hughes and bassist David Porterhouse, have been together for three years, initially as The Green-Eyed Children. Drummer Damien Mahoney is a more recent addition, coming to the group after a series of unhappy experiences in Dick Witts’ Mancunian ensemble The Passage.
Their singles – the debut plus the current ‘Hip Hip’/‘Flowers’ – portray Kitchenware‘s rugged, uncontrived optimism at its purest, although the group are far from happy with either of them.
“They don’t really give an accurate impression of what we’re like,” says Paul. “The new one is a step up, but it’s still not quite what we want. We wanted a rougher sound, but it’s hard to combine that with the level of quality that we’re striving for. We want to get daytime radio play, because it’s vital to get this kind of noise onto stations like Radio One. There’s got to be room for this kind of thing in a wider arena.”
Are they affected at all by the constant Orange Juice comparisons?
“It’s not an insult, because we do like a lot of early Orange Juice records,” says Taffy. “But I don‘t think it is really accurate. Maybe we both listen to a few Byrds tracks, but it doesn’t go much further than that. Orange Juice were almost deliberately bad at times and we’ve never gone along with that kind of amateurishness. It is possible to be rough and maintain a certain quality at the same time.”
Over tea and cake in the interview cafe, Hurrah! veil their natural buoyancy with a morose shyness. Beneath their reticence, though, lurks a deep desire to do things their way without moving too close to the chart mainstream.
“It might take time to become successful without compromising,” says Paul. “But we are hopeful. It took daytime radio three years to play New Order and Orange Juice, but they got there in the end. I’m not saying that we’re never going to sign with a major record label or anything like that. It’s just a question of finding the right label and the right people.”
FROM LONNIE Donnegan to Johnny Thunders, Hank Williams to Hank Marvin, The Velvet Underground to The Ventures and Roddy Frame to Roddy Radiation, nobody plays old guitar licks with as much freshness as The Daintees’ wide-eyed rosy-faced frontman Martin Stephenson.
On the stage of a graffiti-strewn community centre in their home town of Sunderland, The Daintees refresh the parts of rock’n’roll history that no one under the age of 20 should even know about.
They are playing in this concrete cell known colloquially as The Bunker for the purpose of a live recording, possibly a six-track mini LP for future release on Kitchenware. They had the chance to use a local studio, but felt that the live setting suited their exuberance far better.
Now down to a trio— they were a quartet when they recorded their sole single ‘Roll On Summertime’/‘Involved With Love‘ – The Daintees possess an innocence and vibrancy that is, as yet, untainted by the corrupting forces of the beat business.
In trimming their line-up down to just guitarist Martin, bassist Chris and drummer Marty, the group have given their music greater impetus and drive, the softer resonances of the single now detectable only on a couple of the tracks they play live.
“The music is a lot more gutsy now, ” says Martin, “We probably got a bit bored of being soft all the time. I think we’ve been influenced a bit by rehearsing in the same place as a lot of the local punk bands. I’ve always thought we’re more oi a live band than a studio one anyway. When we go into the studio, we can’t always capture the excitement that we feel live. We’re not like Paul Weller who can practically live in a studio, so we lack experience.
“I can’t get used to the fact that you pick a day, 2 October say and you have to be in the mood to record your song that day. It just doesn‘t work like that with us.”
The one occasion that they did manage to summon up the spontaneity came when they recorded their single. It was made the same day as Hurrah! cut their debut, The Daintees nipping into the studio and completing their two tracks in single takes while their label mates were out for lunch.
Though they have toured with Aztec Camera and recorded some unsatisfactory demos for Phonogram, The Daintees treat their music essentially as e hobby, something they are loathe to analyse in an NME interview. Influences? Aims? Attitudes? Talking about things like that simply isn’t on their list of priorities.
“I don’t really care about what people say about us,” concludes Martin. “Some will like us and some won’t. What’s the point of worrying. We’ll just keep on playing and whatever happens will happen!”
THE KANE GANG
IF THE first part of the Kitchenware campaign started with the ripples being made by the spiky pop of Hurrah! and The Daintees, then phase two began in the wilds of rural Durham. It was here that Adam raised a Kane, a gang of three bred on gumball machines and inspired largely by the power and purity of gospel music.
The Kane Gang are vocalists Paul Woods and Martin Brammer— the latter no relation to the former Fall person — and versatile multi-instrumentalist Dave Brewis. Despite their lack of a contrived image or the looks necessary to project any kind of snappy photogenic facade, The Kane Gang are currently Kitchenware’s great commercial hope. The distribution deal with London is a sign of their willingness to make a shrewd concession without compromising either their ideals or the morals of the label.
As a band, The Kane Gang are linked inextricably with their environment. They sing of pain and neglect, their music a perfect soundtrack to the decay and desolation wrecked by the recession on the small valley towns and mining villages of their native north-east. In songs like ‘Amusement Park’ and ‘Mighty Day’, they angrily acknowledge the wrongs, but never lose sight of the hope and humour that still survives the suffering.
This is the small town creed, expressed with a gritty, demented vocal passion rooted in gospel and set to a blistering white funk score that acknowledges the influence of George Clinton, Sly Stone and The Gap Band without being overtly copyist.
Apart from the drumming — which is provided by Daniel Jones, a guest from Prefab Sprout- all the instruments are played by Dave. If there is a criticism, it is an occasional messiness, the single being one example: it is far from sloppy, but it would certainly benefit from a tighter, more aggressive mix.
The three group members have been together from school, originally as The Reptile House and then as The Kings Of Cotton, the latter playing live around the Sunderland area with the aid of backing tapes. They eventually attracted the attention of Armstrong who, by then, had already started Kitchenware.
The very name of the group was an early indication of their infatuation with American gospel music. it is a genuine influence, but one which reveals certain flaws and contradictions when put under scrutiny. What, for example, have three lads from just outside Sunderland got in common with a music that only makes true sense in the Bible Belt that runs through the states of the Deep South?
“We’re just trying to create some atmosphere,” says the instrumentalist Dave, a little defensively. “I loved the sound of spirituals like ‘Oh Happy Day’ by The Edwyn Hawkins Singers. I just wanted to try and recreate a bit of that, without ripping anything off.”
The obvious comeback is that the Kanes are meddling with something that they can never fully understand, a music that in its most pure forms they can never hope to equal, let alone adapt and better.
“But there is nothing wrong with taking certain elements of a music and utilising it in your own way,” argues Martin. “The only reason that Paul and I sing the way we do is because we feel comfortable doing it. We wouldn’t feel right singing like the bloke out of Depeche Mode. it suits our voices to sing the way we do.
“We don’t do the same thing as groups like the Staple Singers, even though we admire them tremendously. There’s no way that a group like the Staples would write about contemporary subjects or about living in a small town just outside Sunderland.”
In fact, The Staples, in addition to some of their more spiritual tunes, did write some songs of immense social significance, but the general point that the Kanes are trying to make is clear.
“People can say all they like about lads from the north-east soiling their hands with soul and gospel. I think we’ve got a hell of a lot to do with it, even down to our circumstances. I’m not trying to glamourise the industrial North-East, but living in the back end of beyond like we do probably isn’t that different from strumming out the blues on your front porch in one of the Southern states. What’s so strange about someone from Sunderland having a similar kind of feel for things?”
Are they aware of the flak they could be laying themselves open to by being so blatant about the gospel influences?
“I think we are,” says Paul. “That‘s one of the reasons that the next few songs we do will move away from that slightly. None of us is particularly religious, so there are times when we feel a bit uncomfortable with it, but you can’t become too over-conscious of it.”
The group place great emphasis on the spontaneity of the singing, Paul and Martin take turns to improvise over a basic vocal line. “We try to be as natural as we can,” says Martin. “You can’t decide to stop the mix at a certain point and throw a scream in. We also don’t rehearse very much. If we rehearsed three times a week, we’d probably lose some of the anger and feeling. If you rehearsed the screaming, it might become clinical.”
Though they are nothing like any of the other Kitchenware bands musically, the Kanes share the uncompromising idealism that is one of the label’s hallmarks. They lack a glossy visual image, something that has already caused a few interesting confrontations. They are fond of relating a tale of how a team from Channel Four’s Switch show travelled up to Newcastle to watch them rehearse and were shocked to find that they did not look like Wham! There was no talk of tarting themselves up for the TV cameras, however, and the group recorded a slot for the show in all their small-town glory last week.
“We‘re coming up against people who expect us to do things in a certain way,” says Paul. “We just tell them that we won’t do them, unless we can do them our way. I just don’t see the point in doing anything that you don‘t feel comfortable with.”
THE NAME, of course, is wilfully awkward.
It is also totally apt for a group who seem to go out of their way to be unconventional rather than straightforward. Their penchant for the unorthodox, however, has not clouded the judgement of the many critics who deem Prefab Sprout the true jewel in the Kitchenware crown.
Among them is no less a commentator than one Elvis Costello who, on a recent edition of Gary Crowley’s Magic Box radio show, lauded their single ‘Lions ln My Own Garden (Exit Someone)‘/‘Radio Love’ as one of the best he had heard all year.
Originally issued on the group’s own Candle label and then picked up by Kitchenware, ‘Lions’ is a typical sprout song. The instrumentation is simple enough — acoustic guitar, bass, drums and a smattering of vibes — but the structure completely ignores the conventional verse-chorus pattern, the meandering melody line taking more than a cursory listen before it connects. The lyrics, too, are slightly unusual, almost surreal, the title being something of a puzzle in itself with the first letter of each word combining to spell the name of the French town Limoges, the subject of the song!
So who are Prefab Sprout, and why have they been playing unheralded around the pubs. clubs and colleges of County Durham for almost four years without making any significant impact until now?
Another quartet, the group are singer, guitarist and songwriter supreme Paddy McAloon, his bass-playing brother Martin, second vocalist Wendy Smith and drummer Daniel James, the latter also a part-time member of the Kane Gang. They have actually been together since 1977, while McAloon claims to have had the name since 1974! Patience might be a virtue, but this is taking it to ludicrous extremes!
Now that they have made that all-important Kitchenware connexion, the Prefab Four are all set to make up for lost time. They are currently recording an album, ‘Swoon’, in an Edinburgh studio for late autumn release, while a second single ‘The Devil Has All The Best Tunes‘/‘Walk On’ is already complete.
Despite his unnaturally long apprenticeship, Paddy McAloon, at 24, is still relatively young, and in the interview cafe, he certainly comes across with the vigour and determination of one who still has everything to prove. . . things like being the best songwriter in Britain.
“It might sound a bit pompous, but I really am ambitious to be acknowledged as the best. It’s not that I think I’m as good as the real greats – people like Steven Sondheim, Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney — but when I look at the competition around at the moment. I don‘t really see anybody to fear.”
This guy obviously isn’t pulling his punches, something that becomes clearer as he starts to write off one of the more celebrated contenders.
“When you compare some of those great songwriters with people like Paul Weller, you realise just how low the standards have sunk. The sentiments of something like ‘Say A Little Prayer’ or even ‘Alfie’ are better expressed, musically and lyrically, than anything Weller has ever done. He talks about emotion and heart, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything with less emotion than the Respond package!”
What is it that he admires in the work of someone like Sondheim that makes him so superior to anyone around now?
“What I like about Sondheim is that he can put a set of precise emotions into a song lasting a certain number of minutes. If he had an odd shaped sentiment, he would construct an odd shaped melody to accommodate it. There was never any sense of it being a happy accident.”
Asked to come up with a recent song fit to rank alongside the old masters, McAloon racks his brains before coming up with a couple, ‘Party Fears Two‘ by The Associates and ‘War Crimes‘ by The Special AKA.
“Both those songs were great because they broke the mould, in their structure, sound and harmony, they were both revolutionary compared with everything else around. I remember the interview in the NME in which Roddy Frame was saying that he’d given up trying to find unconventional structures in favour of a more direct songwriting style. Sometimes there is a pressure on me to do that, but I would rather be more adventurous. There are too many songs in which the writer is being pushed into saying a certain thing just by the shape of the rhythm, like with all the rock dance rhythms around at the moment.”
McAloon’s desire to elevate the art is admirable, although not always successful. A Prefab song will often get lost in its own complexities or an unorthodox chord change that tries the patience of the listener. Isn’t he placing craft about accessibility and emotion?
“Not really, because all my songs are written straight from the heart. In some ways, it is more contrived to write a song in the verse-chorus-bridge style that most people seem to favour. At the same time, the people who I respect most are those who can combine being adventurous with being commercial. I don’t think our songs are clever in the avant-garde sense.
“I like playing around with songs and titles. ‘Lions’ was written about my girlfriend being away at university in Limoges. I just saw the word Limoges written down on an envelope and tried to see what kind of phrase I could make from the letters.
“One of the best phrases became the title of the song, ‘Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’, which might not mean anything literally, but it does convey the sense of someone leaving and another person being vulnerable as a result of that. I hope that doesn’t sound too clever-clever, because I still think it is quite an easy song.
“The conservatism of the A&R men is one of the reasons why we’re staying on an independent label for the time being. When the LP comes out and people get a chance to really listen to the songs, I’m confident enough that they will see the quality in them. Just because the LP’s on Kitchenware and not WEA doesn’t mean it will be something that we’re going to be ashamed of in five years’ time. It will be true to what the songs are about and it will be good.”
Like the unwavering Paddy McAloon, Kitchenware’s Keith Armstrong is confident and determined. The groups on his label might be flawed in places, but in 1983 they are undoubtedly important. With pop currently in an awful rut, both morally and musically, Kitchenware are a beacon of sanity. Are you scared to get happy?