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Undivided Attention: Gareth Williams & Mary Currie – ‘Breaststroke’ / Hymn to South London

The centrelessness of South London, where I was born and bred, has always fascinated me. While north of the river Thames lies the pull of Central London – the tourist target of London’s monuments and palaces, the financial hub of the Square Mile, the warm glow of the West End and Theatreland, the intricate invitation to sin of Soho – South London remains a world apart. Rather than orient itself around the nucleus of Central London (whose draw remains more palpable in the North or West of the city), South London unfurls in a meandering chain of High Street after High Street: one concentration of life – Brixton say, or Catford or Wandsworth – yields to a green space or mixed industrial zone or car dealership or supermarket car park before another High Street begins, with no sense of a centre point. As a child, growing up in the very multicultural enviroment of Lewisham, I wondered whether this was why so many immigrants, not least my own family, felt at home in South London. Being here but yet from somewhere else – a country you left behind but also longed for – what place could suit you better than one imbued with a sense of something missing?

As I grew older, and music became an all-consuming influence in my life, something else about South London struck me: the amount of musicians and musical movements that had developed – and still were developing – on the streets so familiar to me (1) and I realised that the other side to the sense of longing, of being off-centre, that typified South London’s psychogeography was a contrary, but related, outpouring of creativity.

This might be a good subject for a book had Michael Bracewell not already written England is Mine in which he enlarges this conception of South London creativity to embrace the city’s hinterlands and satellite towns, taking in The Jam from Woking say, or Crawley’s The Cure, and summing up why the sense of being outside the centre and artistic invention are inextricable:

‘the violence of English talent inculcates in the frustrations of suburbia or the blind edges of indifferent conurbations. What turns a spotty mod into a glorious pop hero is not the glamour of London but the confines of his dismal bedroom in the suburbs.’

This idea inspired me as a teenager – how could it not? It seemed to suggest that I too, stuck in the confines of my suburban bedroom, had enormous resources of creativity that could transform the world. While with every year that passes there seems to be less danger of that happening, it’s an idea that still retains enormous appeal.

Bracewell, whose inclinations tend towards punk and rock culture, pitches this as a more violent outpouring than I would venture. The sense of being outside, of longing for something that doesn’t exist, can manifest itself in different ways via different sensibilities. All of which brings me to Flaming Tunes, of which this song ‘Breaststroke’ is very much the jewel:

This was the music Gareth Williams made with his childhood friend Mary Currie after he had left This Heat and had returned from the first of several trips to India to study Kathakali. Initially released on cassette and bootlegged on CD later in the 90s, it is infused with  – and, in the video, transfigured by – the spirit of South London, which includes but is not congruent with, Bracewell’s idea of rebellion.

‘Flaming Tunes was a collaboration that came out of a friendship. Gareth and I would meet at “Danger de Mort” Gareth’s house in Balham usually during the daytime when my son was at nursery. Sometimes we’d be joined by others. A room full of instruments and things that could make noise. We made some of our own too and used available objects for percussion. Later on we had more sophisticated equipment – full size keyboard and 12 track recording facility. Sometimes things happened and sometimes we just indulged ourselves in making a bit of a racket. I can’t begin to describe how Gareth put things together and this was often done well into the early hours of the morning. I’d go away and come back and what had started out as a fragment had become another flaming tune.’ (2)

The resulting music is free, open, aleatory, dryly humorous. Humble but, in being a product of accumulated wisdom, in no way naïve. Moreover, it is inherently and audibly political: egalitarian both in the value it places on the process and not just the product of creation and in the relationship between its collaborators: ‘Gareth… never assumed a superior position. As it says in “The Best Weapon“: “Beware of the friend who becomes a master.”‘

But, what is it that makes ‘Breaststroke’ in particular one of the greatest moments of 80s (outsider) pop? And what does it have to do with South London? For me, it’s all to do with how the song lets us access the spiritual through the mundane. Take the lyrics:

Lift your head and breathe in deeply
Let your head go down
And blow while you breaststroke

Butterfly

Lift your head and breathe in deeply
Let your head go down
And blow while you breaststroke

Utterly banal, no? And yet, despite their appearance on the page, the more we listen to these words the more magical they become: a simple description of how to perform a swimming stroke slowly and surely transcends itself. The fact that there are so few lines obliges us to focus all our energy on them, weighing them with more significance than if they were 4 of 50. And soon, we feel that the action Williams is singing about, the simple breath and glide of the stroke, is much more than a question of how to move our body through water (3); ‘Butterfly’, when he sings it, seems to be less a reference to a swimming stroke than to something we might become if we immerse ourselves fully in the practice he’s describing. Light. Free. Beautiful – if only for a moment.

And this is why it seems so very apt that this music comes from South London: what at first appears dull and quotidian, like South London’s unremarkable suburbs, holds within it astonishing beauty.

I do not know if this is as true of South London today as it was during my childhood, given the wave of gentrification that has washed away the grotty betting shops and run-down launderettes and smoke-filled video arcades and old men’s pubs and replaced them with fromageries, coffee shops, designer boutiques and gourmet burgers. The cocktail of boredom, frustration and simmering discontent that gave birth to so much creativity seems hard to associate with today’s ostensible self-satisfaction. And while I do not wish to romanticise an era that was so miserable for so many people, whose excesses – most notably an excess of inequality – still cast a long shadow over all our lives, the thought continues to inspire me: that outside a Victorian bay window in Balham or tower block off the Walworth Road or open sash on any number of quiet streets of terraces I might linger, perhaps on a summer’s evening, and hear musical serendipity pour forth, lifting me higher than my troubles, before the sun goes down and darkness falls again.

Flaming Tunes is still available on CD from the website of Life And Living Records, an independent label operated by Gareth Williams’ close friends. It has also inspired its own Pierre Menard-style homage in the form of Diamond Age’s Beguiling The Hours.

        

Notes:

(1) Off the top of my head, looking back, there was Bowie, Mick Jones of The Clash, Sid Vicious, Siouxsie and the Banshees and punk’s ‘Bromley Contingent’; there was reggae and soundsystem culture, not least UK Lovers Rock; My Bloody Valentine had re-located here to create their greatest work; there was Leftfield, Orbital and musicians making key contributions to a host of electronic music genres up to the present – jungle, UK garage, grime and, not least, dubstep.

(2) See the Flaming Tunes website.

(3) This is also due to the way in which it is sung so frankly, without affectation – the antithesis of much of today’s buffed, autotuned pop. The flawed, humble delivery lends the words a profundity in their sung state that cannot be conveyed when transcribed. We miss so much when we consider song lyrics on the page as if they were poems – a pitfall no less a critic than Christopher Ricks steps into in his study of Bob Dylan, Dylan’s Visions of Sin. Ricks, whose detailed analyis of Robert Browning astonished me as an English undergraduate, often fails to communicate the total experience of Dylan, the inflections, intonations and expression of his voice. It is important that it’s Williams himself that delivers ‘Breaststroke’ – in order to convey the message that each one of us can access a higher plane through thoughtful practice – and not Mariah Carey.

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