In an industrial estate on the edge of London, surrounded by Middle Eastern bread and cake shops and an idiosyncratic shisha bar there is a corner that is forever rock n roll…
The sprawl of warehouses and work spaces huddles together seeking protection from the swirling cold of the winter rain and in the distance a rumbling bass line locates the scene of the action.
A door opens and a well worn studio calling itself The Bunker, appears like some sort of 96 decibel tardis decorated with memorabilia and posters of the solar system, clocks set to the time of several world cities and an idiosyncratic portrait of the father of modern Turkey Ataturk. It all gives few clues to who owns the space but the mixing desk and the music pumping out from the stage as a band readies some of the songs for tonight zones you straight into the bullseye of the action.
Mick Jones is dealing out the licks on his white Les Paul as the Rotten Hill Gang run through a version of Tapper Zukie’s MPLA with the Clash man calling the shots in that genial but highly efficient style of the old school band leader in front of a packed room of scene vets and familiar droog faces from the generations of rock n roll.
It sounds great and the studio space is full of the warmth of the R n R and the associated bonhomie of the gathering. Tonight it is hot and packed and fired up by the knowledge that something very special is about to happen. It’s that expectant hum of electricity that accompanies all the great gigs and events in our culture.
Onstage is Mick Jones, the Clash and BAD guitar hero with the endless glowing CV who is even more dapper than usual with a white tie affair creased and coaxed into a perfect angle over his starched white shirt. True rock n roll is about the details and dressing sharp is as vital as playing sharp in this corner of the high octane. The programme itself is the idea of the Rotten Hill Gang the Notting Hill based band who have gathered up fellow renegades and got the whole thing filmed in an attempt to make music and TV thrilling again.
Mick has that trademark ear to ear grin going on oozing the joy of getting immersed in the music and is the perfect host floating around the room with an extra spring to that already springiest of steps. He is hosting Rotting Hill TV in his bunker/studio HQ – the ad hoc TV series being filmed by his campadres and associates from the band The Rotten Hill Gang. It’s pretty clear that what once started off as a pretty cool after hours idea from the band has steam rolled into something quite special.
Music in TV seems to have hit a dead end in recent years. There just isn’t very much of it at all on the cathode ray- the powers that be seem to be terrified of its unpredictable electricity and have tidied it up into a few sensible slots. These days we get Jools Holland’s Closer, the Mercury Awards and non stop coverage of Glastonbury festival which is all very fine but not very much in the course of a year. Taking matters into their own hands the motley crew dressed like outtakes from a 1930’s gangster movie in this tight space are flying the standard for the holy stuff with a show that is going to broadcast on the web at some point and features a solid gold guest list of great players and that easy going, off the cuff, chaos vibe that all great music thrives on.
I’m there as occasional presenter/links person – doing bits and bobs to camera. Whatever I’m asked to do it always changes on the night- that’s the nature of something like this and, to be honest, it really doesn’t matter because this is a pretty special thing to be involved in with its ad hoc mixture of veteran legends and upcoming fresh faced youth making sure that it has a fast forward purpose into the future.
Aaaah yes, why is there that the extra spring in Mick’s step tonight?
Well the door has just creaked open and in walks Ian Hunter the Mott The Hoople legend who is fresh off the road from playing five dates with the legendary band who were Micks favourite band from his youth where he followed them up and down the country as a skinny youth. One of the ‘Mott Lott’ Mick learned about rock n roll from one of the greatest rock n roll bands this country has ever produced and is thrilled to be playing with Ian Hunter tonight.
Before Ian takes the stage his daughter Tracie who is a great singer in her own right, takes the stage with The Rebelles, who deliver a great version of the Merseybeats classic Sorrow which she sings in perfect harmony with Phoebe and Anna.
The format of the show is quickly becomes apparent with the band being the house band and backing up the variation of performers on the programme with a deft and eclectic skill. Each guest plays a cover – if they need musicians the Rotten Hill Gang step in thriving on the spur of the moment chaos to create beauty in the madness.
Next the ageless Mott frontman takes the stage- or the corner of Mick’s studio where this is getting filmed and with Mick to his right and the Rotten Hill Gang behind him strikes up a song- a version of Sonny Bono’s Laugh At Me which Mott covered on their self titled debut album decades ago in 1969. It’s interesting to note that the band’s debut was in 1969- it’s too easy to lump Mott in with glam and whilst they were certainly a key band in that era and by extension my youth they are also very much part of the sixties with their pre glam Guy Stevens guided period. The version of Laugh At Me is emotional and powerful and underlines what a great and underrated songwriter Sonny Bono was.
There was once this dopey theory that still remains with, oddly, middle aged journalists that there is some sort of age limit for great rock n roll but time and time again we see this dumb theory trashed and tonight is no exception. The 73 year old Hinter not only looks fantastic- glowing with a vitality and looking virtually the same as he did when he was banging out the hits in the glam wars- he also has that charismatic presence as he strums his acoustic guitar and croaks his way through the song. His voice is temporarily shattered by the triumphant run of Mott the Hoople dates but, like Bob Dylan, it matters little- the more cracked and croaked his voice is the better is it sounds- these are voices of wisdom and experience- voices that have been lived in and should be listened to.
It’s a great rock n roll moment- Mick is cast back to being the skinny teen lieutenant of the ‘Mott Lott’ – the gang of lunatic kids following Mott up and down the UK in his latch key youth, getting to play with Ian Hunter for the first time in public- sure they have worked on records before but this was live and crackled with the warm energy of great rock n roll as the song ebbed and flowed towards its climactic crescendo.
They follow it up with a romp through Little Richard and you can feel the long line of rock n roll as it is passed through the generations- Ian Hunter is one of those people who was there at the beginning when the whole damn thing arrived seemingly fully formed with these outer space, genius, lunatics like Little Richard himself at the helm. A cast of mavericks arriving to paint the monochrome greys of the UK into a multi coloured mayhem that it has, brilliantly, never recovered from.
The uplifting backing vocals are provided by Tracie Hunter with ex Westworld vocalist Elizabeth Westwood who swell the song with their powerful voices.
I get to chat with Ian Hunter after the mini set we talk of the Mott tour, Dylan and rock n roll. He tells me of playing a gig with the enigmatic Bob a few weeks ago where they both appeared in silhouette and sang together- it’s hard to make out what he is saying in the noisy room but it sounds great. Dylan himself rang Ian to do the gig and has worked with him several times before recognising the Mott frontman surely as an equal and not an apprentice.
As the band play the room is electrified. There must be about 80 people in there crammed into the lock up studio. It’s all suits and boots and the dandy end of the rock n roll dream- the veteran rock n rollers know they have just seen history and the youthful next generation are taking notes without being bulldozed by the weight of tradition because Mick is still carrying that Clash thing of moving forwards with him- being the fan of the new and a fan of the old just like any alert musician should be- this is no my generation is better than your generation yeah! bullshit- this is about the music from the teenage bands to the old stagers.
Strictly Rockers! Next up is another legend- Tapper Zukie and the warmth of the bass fills the room for a reggae masterclass with a version of MPLA with STeel Pulse hero Basil Gabbidon guesting with him and the Rotten Hill Gang impeccably laying down the dub groove.
With a history that is entwined with legend Tapper Zukie puts out the Jamaica via London vibe of his masterful music which glows with a power of its own. Don Letts- who is intro-ing the bands tonight with author Chris Salewicz and your humble scribe is stood in the crowd with his head nodding. Don’s nodding head and the enveloping bass make me think of him talking about how modern music is in danger of losing the bass and you think and pray that maybe, hopefully, this won’t happen.
The bass, like the drone in eastern music, is everything and is the heartbeat and the soul of all Western music as well- maybe not quite to the extent of dub and reggae but its warm oozing, graceful power and, in the case of dub, it’s pure melody is everything and once you hook into the bass you hook into the heart and soul of all music.
Tapper Zukie deliver a killer version of MPLA, which is still hypnotic with that great wandering bass line- one of the great bass lines and the dub stylee drumming delievred with perfection by the Rotten Hill Gang who have got to be one of the great house bands of these times with a deft hand at delivering any style of music needed (including their own songs…).
Zukie still has that wonderful voice and that pure, silky delivery of a Frank Sinatra of the dub world. His voice is perfect and sounds like the pure silk like the perfectly creased hanky in Mick’s jacket pocket.
The youth then get their chance with Liverpool’s Sugermen- Carl Hunter, the ever affable bass guitar player from the Farm is in the crowd beaming like a proud dad- maybe that’s because he is a proud dad! Onstage his son, Che, is playing the kind of blistering, distorted telecaster guitar style that only a teenager with all the wonder and noise and confusion of the world at their fingertips can- looking like Chris Iassc and a fifth member of the Clash, Che is in some kind of dream world as he plays teenage kicks guitar hero to frontman Luke Fenlon is a curly haired, velvet jacket wearing, classic Liverpool working class hero who has a fizzing confidence and rasping voice as the band really deliver a great version of Lou Reed’s Hanging Around in what is, despite the warm vibes, a pretty tough place to play.
Surrounded by your heroes in a tight space and playing live to camera can be a rock n roll dream and a rock n roll nightmare all at the same time but the Sugermen have the assurance of youth as they blitzkrieg though the song and one of their own top tunes.
The night is brought to a close by the show’s creators The Rotten Hill Gang with Hollie Cook on vocals and a really on the case teenage rapper doing a great version of the Loony Tunes cartoon riff that they have turned into their own insane ragamuffin anthem. The song bounces with a great Metallic KO guitar lick that clanks in that wonky and brilliantly slightly out of tune way that made Captain Beefheart so addictive. Add Hollie’s sassy vocal to this and the interplay with the rapper and you have a piece of fab contemporary British pop culture – that fantastic cut and paste assimilation of all the bits and bobs of music mosaic that pours into our beautifully porous island.
It’s this recreation of found art that has always been what we are so good at- grabbing the flotsam and jetsam of pop culture and recreating them on out own terms and making great fuck you pop music out of it and in this case it also sounds like a hit single.
At some point this is all going to edited together and will be part of a series that is currently planned to go out on the internet- although plans change in this camp every day…watch this space- there is something very special happening out here…