Wednesday 27 January 2021

EAST 17: Walthamstow


(#472: 27 February 1993, 1 week)


Track listing: House Of Love/Deep/Gold/Love Is More Than A Feeling/I Disagree/Gotta Do Something/Slow It Down/I Want It/It’s Alright/Feel What U Can’t C


(Author’s Note: The CD edition includes three bonus remixes – “Gold [Paws On The Floor],” “Deep [Dark Mix]” and “Slow It Down [Liverpool Mix].”)


Walthamstow was a rough enough area in the early nineties, long before its attempted gentrification – and it remained slightly foreboding after it had become gentrified. I became quite familiar with E17 in the middle of the last decade for reasons which are none of your bloody business, hence can speak with some authority on the matter.


It is one of the nicest of pop ironies that the rough Walthamstow boys East 17 were put together as a consciously tougher counterpart to those politely conservative Northerners Take That, yet still managed to beat them to number one in the album chart. They were managed by the late Tom Watkins, who also managed the Pet Shop Boys (who’ll be coming on here directly quite soon, don’t you worry, ooer missus) and Bros – and it is helpful to look at East 17 and see where and how Watkins managed to get the equation right.


For a start, there was no attempt on the group’s part to evoke the triple demons of Soul, Passion and Honesty, even though few boy bands could have been more soulful, passionate and honest, in the broadest of senses. There was no Young Businessmen of the Year prattle about “the industry.” I think Tony Mortimer, Brian Harvey, John Hendy and Terry Coldwell knew full well what they were getting into – and they managed to express things with quite fabulous brilliance.


The band began in 1991, when Mortimer – who wrote all of their songs - was offered a contract with London Records on condition that he put together a group to perform the songs. They then came under the tutelage of Watkins, who doubtless jumped at the chance of providing a Stones to Barlow’s would-be Beatles. There was no reaching out to appeal to middle-aged Radio 2 listeners. If anything, East 17 arose from a distinct early nineties working-class London lineage which also incorporated Carter USM and Flowered Up.


Most importantly, they were far more explicitly political than Take That. What is particularly striking about this, their first album, is its relentless socialist outlook. Their “Gold” outdoes the Spandau Ballet one because it is emphatically more direct; “Life is worth more than gold,” they proclaim. “Gold!” goes the chorus, “We don’t need it – do we?” Meanwhile, on the startling “I Disagree” – produced by Steel Pulse’s Mykaell Riley – we are presented with a systematically spoken list of the world’s evils; “I disagree with prisons/I disagree with war/I disagree with powers and all that they stand for.” This sounds like the real People’s Music, and I wonder what that former resident of Leytonstone, E11, the late Cornelius Cardew, would have made of it. The chants we hear, whether quiet (“Gotta Do Something”) or loud (“I Want It”), sound like rallying cries at protest marches.


None of this would have proved remotely as effective had it not been soundtracked by vast-sounding, inventive music. The introductory track (and debut single) “House Of Love” is a brilliant fusion of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, KLF and Snap! which seems rather more concerned about the prospect of imminent total destruction than “Two Tribes” did, all the more convincing because of its fast-paced and unapologetic Cockney drawl, delivered in the manner of Ian Dury’s renegade grandchildren (Brian Harvey's is one of the great voices in British pop, up there with Tommy Steele). Even when they are talking sexual politics and lower the temperature, they do not lose our interest. “Deep” is a tremendous, base East End response to L.L. Cool J’s “I Feel Love” (and Momus’ “Closer To You”) with ellipses of fluid beats and echoing piano which predicate what William Orbit would go on to achieve with All Saints. East 17 have no problems at all with sex (whereas Take That have always seemed a little embarrassed about it). “Slow It Down” is a phenomenal 70 bpm diffusion of early eighties Imagination (“In And Out Of Love,” “All I Want To Know”) and the Malcolm McLaren of Fans and Waltz Darling (those half-tempo string lines). If songs like “I Want It” are on premature nodding terms with what would go on to be known as “trip hop,” then that is because Howie Bernstein (later known simply as Howie B) is involved in their production.


Elsewhere, “Gold” is soundtracked by a raw but lush backdrop worthy of their unlikely funny uncles the Pet Shop Boys (of course they would go on to cover “West End Girls”!) and “Love Is More Than A Feeling” is an exercise in Mancunian musical relocation which quite brilliantly (since it is done so unobtrusively) segues New Order tropes into Happy Mondays ones. Little wonder that Walthamstow was shortlisted for that year’s Mercury Music Prize; this is courageous and energetic music which has endured with far more resonance than most of the “political” bands and movements touted by the music press of the period (Senser? The 25th Of May? The New Wave of New Wave?). An extra hurrah for the presence throughout the album of rep reliable mixmasters Phil Harding and Ian Curnow, who once assisted Stock, Aitken and Waterman on their more extreme adventures, notably the work of Mel and Kim. If “Showing Out” and “F.L.M.” pinpointed the failure of capitalism to provide any real and lasting happiness, then the more pointed songs on Walthamstow escort that viewpoint to a new, and hopefully more receptive, decade. "Everybody in the House of Love" - shout it down the length of Hoe Street!