JPMS Online: POP/IASPM-US Sounds of the City Issue, David Laing

by justindburton on October 22, 2012


Dave Laing

[Editor’s Note: After last March’s POP/IASPM-US joint conference, Sounds of the City, a collaborative project was hatched to feature the work presented at that conference in both print and online versions. This collaboration pulls in the Journal of Popular Music Studies (Karen Tongson and Gustavus Stadler), the EMP Museum (Eric Weisbard, also on the IASPM-US executive committee), and IASPM-US (Anthony Kwame Harrison, also on the JPMS editorial collective, and Justin D Burton). A print version of JPMS appearing in Fall 2012 (24:3) features eight essays from the conference, and we’ve selected several more to publish on the IASPM-US website this fall. This particular piece was written as a companion to the Robert Christgau essay published in the JPMS print edition, “The Original Sound of the City: How Charlie Gillett Named This Conference.” So enjoy the reverberations of a spectacular March weekend in New York, and don’t forget about the 2013 conferences for IASPM-US and EMP’s POP.]


If you had 34/6 [about $2.65 at the 2012 exchange rate – DL] to spend on the last weekend of September, and more than a passing interest in popular music, there was what seemed like a difficult choice to make about how to spend your money. From 7.00 pm Saturday to 7.00 am Sunday, the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors were playing at the Roundhouse; and from 10.00 am Saturday to 5.00 pm Sunday, with only a nominal break through the night, the blues were being talked about, sung, eaten, smoked and played with very little pause in most of the halls and chambers of Conway Hall.                                                       (Charlie Gillett, Shout, October 1968, quoted in Vernon 2008:86)

In 1968, Charlie Gilett was a regular contributor to Shout, a British roneod (duplicated) fanzine devoted to soul and blues. The contrasting venues mentioned  in this extract are the Roundhouse,  built in the 19th century as a locomotive shed and an iconic site for the “underground” scene of the late 1960s, where Cream and Jimi Hendrix played memorable gigs and where in 1967 the Dialectics of Liberation congress was held with Herbert Marcuse, Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panthers, Allen Ginsberg, R D Laing and other luminaries; and Conway Hall, a venue owned by a long-established secularist organisation and named after a prominent 19th century anti-slavery advocate and biographer of Tom Paine.

This quote is symptomatic  both for its illumination of London as a music city in the late 1960s and its indication of Gillett’s own preferences.  The contrast between contemporary rock and ‘the blues’ is a reminder that a city can contain contrasting and dissonant music scenes. The phrase “seemed like a difficult choice to make” with the emphasis on “seemed” reassured Gillett’s readers that he made the “right” choice. He made no secret of his antipathy towards the directions white rock took after the early 1960s, having, for example, hated the Velvet Underground when he saw them in New York in 1966.

Gillett was, in any case, a participant in the Conway Hall event, which was billed as the inaugural National Blues Convention. It was a mix of illustrated talks on blues records and live shows from British bands, including the debut gig of Free.  Charlie himself gave a record recital entitled ‘Rocking Rhythm & Blues’.  According to one participant, Paul Vernon, this included  “Wynonie Harris’s ‘Bloodshot Eyes’, which knocked me out… as did Amos Milburn’s ‘Chicken Shack Boogie’”. It was probably the one event of the whole weekend that got people’s feet tapping rather than their heads nodding” (Vernon 2008:88).

This introduces one motif of Gillett’s career – that he was often, or often presented himself as,  the outsider among any in-group or network to which he seemed to belong. He wrote the first significant history of American rock and roll, but was a European; He was a blues fan, but one that favoured rocking blues; a music journalist on various magazines whose taste was out of synch with the majority of his colleagues’; a radio presenter who eschewed DJ professionalism; and a music businessman who didn’t behave like an classic indie record man.

“Outsider” was a term Charlie also used about his relationship to London. Referring to the so-called pub rock scene of the early 1970s – he said in an interview,

“I think it’s quite significant that a large number of people in this scene we’re talking about didn’t themselves grow up in London. We all came to London as outsiders and I’m sure we all had different ideas about what we thought London would be like – the metropolis, the source of the media, the embodiment of our dream city” (Birch 2000: 141).

Great Britain, like Ireland, France and the Nordic countries was a heavily centralized nation state in the 1960s – and to a large degree, it remains that way. London was then the national centre of politics, administration, finance capital, media and culture, including the music industry. This “dream city” exerted an almost irresistible centripetal force, for Gillett as for thousands of other wannabe writers, broadcasters, and artists of all kinds including musicians. He had grown up in the rural North East of England, attended Oxford University and then spent just over a year in New York (1964-6) where he undertook the research that was to become The Sound of the City,  as Robert Christgau explains in his paper “The Original Sound of the City.” Afterwards Gillett moved to London to find work as a teacher and writer.

The Sound of the City was published in Britain in 1971 and its impact contributed to Charlie Gillett’s appointment as a radio presenter on the BBC local station in London. This was the start of a shift in Charlie’s activities as he moved away from writing as his principal means of communicating his musical enthusiasms and perceptions. In an unpublished memoir, he wrote that he found it much more effective to play the music directly to his audience than trying to describe it for them in print.

The initial concept for his weekly show, called Honky Tonk and launched in 1972, was to “share records discovered while researching and writing The Sound of the City” (this and other unattributed quotes are taken from the unpublished memoir).  The show coincided with a “retro” moment in British pop, with various sorts of rock ‘n roll revival taking place. Honky Tonk was enthusiastically greeted in the weekly listings magazine Time Out, whose music editor wrote:  “Dust off those drapes and prise those crepe soles from the bottom of the wardrobe: at last a radio show devoted to rock ‘n roll. The show is presented by Charlie Gillett….if like him, your musical taste was formed in the mid and late fifties, then you’ll have the right criteria to be involved in the show.”

In the event, this was not simply an “oldies” show, but one that also featured music by “new artists who seemed connected to the earlier music”. And so it was that Honky Tonk continued to drive his love affair with the music of the American South throughout the 1970s through playing recently issued records by such artists as J J Cale, Jesse Winchester and Delbert McClinton and live interviews with touring American acts like Peter Wolf of the J Geils Band, Bonnie Raitt and Ry Cooder.

After Honky Tonk had been going for some months, Gillett was visited by Dave Robinson, the Irish born godfather of the nascent pub rock genre, who informed him that many London musicians were avid listeners. Indeed, one pioneering pub rock band, Bees Make Honey, had included the line “Charlie’s on the radio, 12 till 2” in one of their songs. Charlie later wrote that  “I was too embarrassed to play it”.

Gillett now began to get out and see various bands in London pubs. According to Barry Richardson, the leader of Bees Make Honey,  “I sent Charlie a tape and that evening, just as we were getting ready for the gig, this extremely sweaty person turned up. It was Charlie who’d run all the way from Clapham to Kentish Town to see us.” (quoted in Birch 2000:130)

If accurate, this meant that Charlie had covered more than 10 miles across the centre of the city from his home south of the Thames to the Tally Ho pub in Kentish Town, North London. But even if Barry Richardson was exaggerating (the interview was done nearly 20 years after the event) it introduces another dimension of Gillett’s persona, his athleticism.

At high school he had been a local champion in sprinting and hurdling. And in London he occasionally competed in track and field in the 1970s, while continuing to play park soccer until he was over 50. The music writer Barney Hoskyns took part and recalls that by the 1990s many fellow players were young African immigrants. Charlie even wrote a short educational book,  All in the Game (Gillett 1971), about the social significance of professional sport.

His life as an athlete had some relationship to his aesthetic. His estimation of singers, particularly of soul artists in the 1970s (for example, Joe Simon and Tyrone Davis), seemed often to be based on his perception of the extent that they were operating at the limit of their talent and capability, the same qualities to be found in great sprinters.

Bees Make Honey was not the only band to send a demo tape to Charlie at Honky Tonk. Soon he was featuring a demo from an unsigned soloist or band every week.  Among these were Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, and Mark Knopfler’s band – his contribution was an early version of “Sultans of Swing,” with its lyric reference to the “way on down south London town.”

It should be said that these were not typical pub rock acts – Gillett’s hindsight view of the genre was disappointment. He told Will Birch, historian of pub rock and drummer of the Kursaal Flyers, that “most of the pub bands felt stiff and unexciting, unlike American musicians, and because they were playing music that invited comparison, I felt I wasn’t being unfair” (Birch 2000:206). But, adjacent to the dead centre of pub rock were other, outsider, musicians to whom Gillett was drawn, none more so than a band called Kilburn and the High Roads (Kilburn High Road is the main thoroughfare of a centre of the Irish community in London).

After Gillett  had recommended the band to his radio listeners,  the singer, Ian Dury, persuaded Charlie and his business partner, Gordon Nelki, to manage the band. Gillett and Nelki had already set up Oval Music, a label to licence and issue American recordings that were unavailable in Britain. The name was a reference to the major cricket stadium that was very close to where he lived in Clapham – as well as the playful allusion to the shape of discs.

Although Charlie got a record deal with a subsidiary of Warner Bros for Kilburn and the High Roads, that label was closed down before an album could be issued and Ian Dury decided to change managers. But Gillett persevered with Oval, launching the label with Another Saturday Night, a 1974 reissue of swamp pop and rock ‘n roll tracks from the Jin label of Ville Platte in South Louisiana in  and pursuing an idiosyncratic path through the London music business for the next  three decades. A few new wave acts were discovered but the most successful side of Oval Music was publishing. The company published hit songs by Lene Lovich, Paul Hardcastle and others, successes that subsidised Charlie’s poorly paid radio work.

Around 1983, Gillett  “discovered” African music  – he wrote that he first heard about it from guests on his radio show such as the multiracial band The Beat,  but this new interest  was also linked with his disillusion with contemporary pop music which he felt was  “going round in circles.”

London’s position as a postcolonial city helped to make it an early hub of the  “world music” scene,  within which Gillett became an influential player as a DJ on various stations including the BBC’s World Service and  as a CD compilation expert. Oval issued some albums by African artists and Charlie took part in the 1987 meetings of independent labels that saw “world music” chosen as a genre title.

This narrative of some of Charlie Gillett’s various activities over 40 years his emphasised his own view of himself as an  “outsider.”  But there are  a couple of ways we can see him as determined in some degree by his contexts, intellectual and geographical.

Firstly, it makes sense to see the “outsiderdom” expressed in his passion for American music in a long European tradition, stretching back to the early scholars of jazz such as the Belgian Robert Goffin, then the blues researchers led by Paul Oliver (another speaker at that 1968 National Blues Convention), even perhaps the “negrophilia” epitomised in the 1920s by the British aristocrat Nancy Cunard so well analysed in a book by the Jamaican scholar Petrine Archer (Archer 2000).

This tradition has often been praised for its ability to value black culture in a way that contemporaneous white Americans seemed unable to do.  After all, how was it that a Brit was the first to write a definitive history of rock ‘n roll? But it may also be time to consider the possible limits of such outsiderdom – one of the most striking elements of Charlie’s book is his confident assertion that there were five (not four or six) styles of rock ‘n roll. Was this too confident, something only a writer distanced from the complexities of the music could dare to do?

Secondly, there is his immersion in a particular city. The American urban sociologist Saskia Sassen has defined global cities as “a function of crossborder networks rather than simply the most powerful city of an empire.”  And the geographer Edward Soja has theorised a shift in the last quarter of the last century in terms of the move from “modern metropolis” to “post-metropolis.” Both authors cite London (and New York) among their prime examples.

In these terms, Gillett’s London was mutating from a national and ex-imperial capital to a global, post-metropolis  as he turned his attention from rock and roll and pub rock to world music: the restrictions on the activities of finance capital within the central business district (confusingly known as the City of London) were removed in 1986, almost contemporaneous with the production of “world music” at that meeting attended by Charlie in 1987. And the growth of that globalization from above in the City of London was complemented by a globalization from below, as populations from ‘elsewhere’  relocated to London, which is now (like New York and Toronto) a city where over 100 first languages are spoken. And, as several authors have surmised, the relocation or restaging of music from Africa and other parts of the global South is part of the complex process of globalization.

One very recent sign in London of the next phase of the world music saga has been the reclaiming of African music by a young generation of London-born or London domiciled musicians of African parentage. It is a pity that Charlie Gillett is not around to witness this process as he surely would have championed these musicians as he did so many before them.


Archer, Petrine. 2000.  Negrophilia. Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s. London, Thames & Hudson

Birch, Will. 2000. No Rest till Canvey Island. The Great Pub Rock Revolution.  London, Virgin Books.

Gillett, Charlie. 1971. All in the Game.  London, Penguin Education.

Vernon, Paul. 2008. Last Swill and Testament.  York, Music Mentor Books.

Dave Laing, an IPM Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool, has been active in the field of Popular Music Studies for over 40 years. He published his first book The Sound Of Our Time in 1969 and was co-editor of one of the first scholarly reference books, the Encyclopedia of Rock, in the mid 1970s. His other monographs include two studies of the work of Buddy Holly (1971 and 2010) and a pioneering account of punk, One Chord Wonders (1985).

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: