AN INSIDER VIEW…
On the warmest day of the year so far and one year on from Black Out Tuesday – #theshowmustbepaused – I suddenly felt inclined to pen a few words about Lock down FM – a book that I’ve spent the last 6 months editing. It was art directed and designed by the very excellent Hugh Miller. The process… the journey… was ‘long’! That said, we had a blast stitching it all together while consistently being dipped in a sea of music that – even I with a LARGE record collection – was old, new and consistently enlightening. The book arrived fresh from the printers in Sheffield around a week ago and having seen little press aside from tweaked versions of my own press release I felt the need to shed a little more light on the generous tome that is aptly subtitled L FM.
So, what’s the word on this surprisingly easy to handle 604 page hardback of biblical proportions?
The concept for Lockdown FM belongs to my good friend Gilles Peterson – broadcaster, club DJ and genre defying music aficionado. Working with GP is always a pleasure, even if he’s somewhat hectic – the man has got ’nuff energy – and is sometimes prone to the odd flash of stress! It was in the wake of that first Covid 19 lockdown that we got together at his studio – the Brownswood basement – in Stokie to chat about documenting what had been a unique moment, not just in our history, here in London, but globally. The pandemic had brought the world to a disorientating stand still. We’d been confined to our “bubbles”… allowed out only to exercise and take in a world where traffic had all but ceased and the bird song was incredible. The weather was amazing and the skies were free of planes endlessly circling. Everything moved online: food deliveries… our social lives… work! Zoom zoom zoom!
During Lockdown I’d shelved the notion of producing Vol.2 of Straight No Chaser / #SNC100. The live energy and face to face interaction needed to do the mag had evaporated and I was stuck in my flat with my partner and our son, both of whom worked all the way through that first lockdown. To tell the truth it was hard to focus. However, I could turn on my computer every morning and tune into GP broadcasting on Worldwide FM from around the corner. His life as a globetrotting DJ had ceased and he’d retreated into his studio to explore his ever expanding record collection.
“‘I wanted to document the most turbulent period in my life and how so many of us got through it, with music.” Gilles Peterson
The deaths of musicians … some of whom we knew, had interviewed, had admired… came thick and fast as Lockdown became a new reality. The news that Manu Dibango had been taken by Covid 19 in Paris was a shocker and others followed. To balance off against the deaths there were birthdays to celebrate… Stevie Wonder, Marshall Allen… musical careers to revisit… genres to illuminate… jazz waltz, trip hop, bruk beat, jazz funk… The 20s… plus there was non stop flow of new music… SAULT… Gilles’ sessions offered up passion, optimism… give thanks… the man was following the mantra… “Music is the healing force of the universe”.
In the summer of2020 Lockdown crumbled under the weight of the Black Lives Matter movement and in our own community there was a wave of deep, penetrating conversations, soul searching and reflection that demanded a response to the deep rooted racism that is all too often left unexplored and unchallenged. Writing this today, a week after the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a couple of days after the anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 we are still in that moment. The struggle goes on.
OK… back to L FM. The initial concept was to document the the journey through lockdown via the daily playlists – somewhere in GP’s mind were those anorak-ish books that you get in Japan documenting the releases of obscure record labels or artists. Gilles was broadcasting on Worldwide FM five days a week and had “key-worker” status that allowed him to drive into a desolate West End on Saturdays to broadcast from a deserted BBC6 Music. The shows were long – 2 to 4 hours. To back up the playlists we had GP’s instagram posts, the vibe of which could give the book a “social media” feel. To take us out of the Brownswood bunker and onto the streets we had a plan to incorporate the photography of local don, Dobie. Throughout lockdown he’d roamed far and wide on epic cycle rides around the city.
Through EYE magazine’s, John Walters, I was introduced to award winning graphic designer Hugh Miller. He arrived at Brownswood armed with a few examples of print to consider and, predictably, both Gilles and myself were drawn to a classy, minimalist, little hardback from Scandinavia documenting record releases from the jazz avante-garde. We had our template.
It was kinda crazy that we would embark on such a venture when we had no idea of how many pages the book would need! Improvisation was the name of the game… it’s just jazz baby! We just thought, let’s start collecting all this stuff together and see how it goes. We enlisted Pedro Montenegro… who was in our Brownswood bubble and a long way from his home in Rio De Janeiro… to type up and complete the playlists from each show. This was a mammoth task as Gilles was dealing mostly with first editions – not re-issues – and he was adamant that we needed each list to feature artist, track, name of LP, record label and date. It was the proper way to go… give thanks for discogs.
After toying with several flat plans Hugh and I settled on a basic structure. Pre-lockdown would begin on New Year’s eve at Oval Space and TRC and the follow Gilles on his crazy DJ/curator schedule to NYC, Chicago, the Worldwide FM Awards in London, Australia and New Zealand. The second section would be Lockdown… kicking off when our bumbling, bluffer of a PM, Boris Johnson, addressed the nation on the 23rd March… just 10 days after the Cheltenham Races (check out Matt Hancock’s connection that little super spreader) and the Liverpool v Athletico Madrid match which played host to 3000 fans from a Covid-19 ravaged Italy. The Lockdown part of the journey would be follow the daily time line and be built around the playlists which we farmed out to our man Gareth in Glasgow. He rose to unenviable, mathematical challenge of creating an airy grid system that would host Pedro’s diligent efforts.
On top of that we envisaged GP’s own Lockdown Listening and props for whoever contributed. However, the next monster task to emerge was the quest of photographing all the albums that GP chose to accompany each playlist. Enter Andrew G Hobb’s, a mate of Hugh’s who not only photographed all the LP sleeves, front, back and inside gatefolds but also meticulously cut out each one so as to retain the battered nature of each sleeve. Without this process many of the images would have been framed within an annoying white square. That design disaster that would not have sat well with Hugh’s fastidious approach to the design. The bonus for Hugh was that his studio flat was now home to a small mountain of rare vinyl gems that would provide an ongoing soundtrack to his daily endeavours. Believe me… on reflection, we re-lived that first lockdown, day by day.
On a regular basis I’d mask up, pocket the hand gel and make the bus journey across Hackney to Hugh’s studio in Bow. Some days it definitely felt like you were taking your life in your own hands. The months began to slip by. Deadlines evaporated. Pedro was on the cusp of burn out. While it was clear that this was Gilles’ book he was uneasy about his own visual presence and eventually we opted only for shots that showed him working. It also became clear that we need to source better shots of the artists who’d died and that raised the whole game. Fortunately I have my own Straight No Chaser posse of photographers like Peter Williams and Liz Johnson Artur who I knew had killing shots of artists like McCoy Tyner and Manu Dibango. Gilles put us in touch with Egon who came through with great images of Bubbha Thomas and the epic flyer, ‘Why do racists fear jazz?’ Momentum started to gather. We tracked down great photos of Henry Grimes. DC poet and primal force with Heroes Are Gang Leaders, Thomas Sayers Ellis, delivered a terrific shot of Marshall Allen and the late Danny Ray Thompson. It turned out that the super funky shot of Tony Allen in the studio with Fela on keys was shot by the mother of Remi Kabaka Jnr.
As the flow of scintillating spreads emerged so it became clear that we had a different beast on our hands. We were constantly adding to the mix. Gilles brought Kassa Overall on board to illuminate the lockdown of a back-pack producer. Louie Vega had been broadcasting nightly on WWFM so it felt right to commission some words from Louis and from Francois K as to how they’d negotiated lockdown in New York – a city that had generated nightmarish stories from their ICU and A&E frontlines. The flow of music released during lockdown was incredible. It was constant. It only seemed right that we hit up musicians like Zara McFarlane (her LP came out in the midst of lockdown) and Bluey Maunick (who finished the Strata LP with GP during lockdown.) It was a process. Weeks would go by and a new story would emerge that had to be included. Think: Jazz Is Dead or Indaba Is.
The music world is a very male orientated and Gilles’ focus on and homages to great women artists like Dee Bridgewater, Shirley Scott and Mary Lou Williams were essential to the book, as were images of Zara in the studio or Greentea Peng live in the basement during the Worldwide Awards (respek to Dan Moss for that BOOM shot!).
Obviously, we were, and still are, dealing with serious and deadly virus. Some things hit us harder than others. Ty’s passing hit us hard. He had come out of the induced coma and come off life support. People had rallied to aid his recovery. Sadly, that recovery was not be. Shock waves travelled via social media… which was where we discovered Paul Martin’s tribute and Bunny Bread and Jason Cabello’s mural. Similarly, the on-line video of George Floyd crying out, “I Can’t breathe!’ was devastating. The ongoing divisive agenda of Trump combined with ongoing police violence… the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.. and the killing of George Floyd sparked protests and support for Black Lives Matter worldwide. Nowhere is the depth feeling and bitter reflection captured that in the words of Erica McCoy who took to the airwaves on the 10th June 2020.
“We have created something unique in this book; a personal story with a collaborative spirit. An eclectic journal and cultural documentation of an unprecedented time told through music, essays, poetry, photography and design.” Hugh Miller
As I said earlier, deadlines came and deadlines went (sorry Simon!). We planned to have it done and dusted for Xmas. We weren’t ready. We were worried for Hugh. He’d been working non stop. The virus meant he couldn’t return to his native Birmingham to see his mum who is in her eighties. Luckily, a visit to deliver a present to his aunt in Thornton Heath resulted his being subjected to traditional Jamaican hospitality and rescued from Xmas alone on the east side. As we entered 2021 the end was in sight. I had culled 200 pages from the book to reduce down to a modest 600 pages. It was now down to Hugh who had finally corralled thousands of words and images into place. He needed the time to do his thing, to finesse the design, stamp his mark on those spreads that today are guaranteed to have peeps nod and smile in approval.
L FM is unique, It’s cultural. It’s political. It’s about community and power of music. It’s a goldmine for both the diggers and beginners! It’s a visual feast that documents a period of creative resistance not just to a deadly virus but resistance in the face of ongoing government incompetence and down right craziness when it came to leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro. L FM is a book that no regular publisher could have done. We bruk too many rules and at a certain point we just needed to get it right! And I think we’ve done that.
Paul B – Straight No Chaser
PS. the book is available from https://worldwidefm.ochre.store/merch/223140-worldwide-fm-lockdown-fm-broadcasting-in-a-pandemic. It costs £40.