Skipping on Air

When I lived in London in the post-swinging '60s, the Indian-run cornershop that would inspire an indie band's ironic name was far from a fixture. My own neighborhood didn't have one, for example. In those years, the stereotypical immigrant from the jewel in the crown was, as a nasty newspaper article I'll never forget put it, "the little man in the dark suit and umbrella." We didn't have any of those either. What we had was one big double-house of bedsits on a long road between tube stations, where all the Indians and Pakistanis lived. I lived there, too. Just rang the landlord's bell and lucked out. Room hunting could get fairly strange if you were "Coloured" or, like me, in a mixed couple. The sun had set on the B.E., and the Commonwealth had declared former colonials what Lord Macaulay had envisioned back in 1835--sort of English. But it wasn't really going over. I sometimes thought race was just a new twist on an English problem that went back to the Norman invasion--foreigners. Or maybe the English were one of those tribes whose word for themselves is their word for "human," and if you weren't them, draw your own conclusions. So you had to--that was the fringe benefit. Defined out of existence, you had to redefine existence. If their double talk didn't kill you, it would make you smart.

Tjinder Singh was smart to begin with--he has one of those brains. An English-born Sikh, he first toured the country as a child chess champion, and in 1992--inspired by William Morris, the arts-and-crafts socialist who believed art should "set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life" for the worker--co-founded Cornershop with Canadian-born college roommate Ben Ayres. Cornershop began as a noise collective and grew into a DIY band that leaped forward when, ignoring Morris's anti-industrialism, it bought a drum machine. Cornershop was one of the first to meld loops, sampling, and scratching with more conventional vocals-and-guitar, but the band's hallmark was its mix of Punjabi and English words and music. Starting with the tiny sitar fad of the Help era, U.K. pop's subcontinental forays had been slight and dated fast, like kurtas at parties. Though initially the Indian musical elements were dwarfed by a feedback-heavy sound, they grew as the band grew, and increasingly the dominant element became indefinable. That was what sucked you in. Feedback blurred into drone. Singh's sinuous voice evoked Nick Lowe one minute, temple chant the next.

By 1997's When I Was Born for the 7th Time--with its hit paean to Bollywood star Asha, its Allen Ginsberg track, its squeakily delicious instrumental scratch, and, like some time-warp tweak turned into an endless conceptual loop, its Punjabi cover of the Beatles' sitar-flavored "Norwegian Wood" (which had always been about negotiating someone else's strange flat)--Cornershop had a breakthrough identity. What made it irresistible was not so much the musical and verbal multilingualism, or even the its subtle political spin, but the giddy fluency of the thing, like some carnival feat so stomach-droppingly brilliant you couldn't tell if it was impossible or just a great simulation--moves his feet so fast while leaping it looks like he's skipping on air. When I Was Born for the 7th Time was so exuberant, so funny, so open-armed, it seemed the launching of a movement. Instead it proved a hard act to follow.

Handcream for a Generation arrives five years later and 25 years before. In part it's a period piece, including snatches of "Trans-Europe Express," vocoder, organ funk, acid-rock jam, DJ toasting inna U-Roy style, but most characteristically echoes of Stax or Hi horn charts, identified from the lead cut, where veteran r&b also-ran Otis Clay, recorded at a soundcheck, literally if somewhat uncertainly announces the track listing cut by cut. The conceit is sort of that this technologically alert, globally cool indie band introduced by some going-through-the-motions house-band MC is actually a second-string soul act in 1971. Handcream is leaner and less exuberant than When I Was Born, lower on warm drone and Indian elements generally and higher on Singh's sardonic mode--the avowedly anti-"soft rock" yet pretty damn easygoing "Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III," or the string of cryptic social observations that is "Wogs Will Walk." Yet between the understated retro, a few Clay reprises, and various unheroic vocal appearances (most explicitly the nervous Punjabi introducer of "Sounds Super Recording"), it gives off a friendly, used feeling, like old vinyl booths in a new club.

As usual, lyrics are repeated until they almost take recognizable shape. Just to give some idea of how abstruse the meanings can be--in Cornershop side project Clinton's 2000 CD, Clay's name is immortalized in "Welcome to Tokio, Otis Clay," and though the song never refers to the fact, or to Clay, Japan is the only place he was ever a star. How would I have known that without trolling Cornershop sites? Singh offered a few translations when I reached him on his mobile phone. "Motion the 11," a reggae showstopper featuring Jack Wilson and Kojak and a persistently unresolved harmonium, is the name of a dance move. But even when Singh explained "Staging the Plaguing of the Raised Platform," in terms of his political mission, I still didn't entirely get it, though I didn't mind; to me, that anti-"establishment" song was about a kid chorus singing "making the dope dope and the dope, dope," whatever that means, just as "People Power in the Disco Hour" wasn't so much about disco being "the halfway to a full discontent," which could be Cornershop's credo, as about the way it peaked with a most undisco sound, the doddering pips of an old English phone, followed by--this is the modern world!--the good-natured anticlimax of cell phones bleating. In a body of work like this, where linguistic comprehension or incomprehension is a theme, and where sound itself is so examined and intentional, the cliché of music as language gains telling coherence. It articulates one political mission more credibly than words usually can--coalition building. Sounds like corny "Love Train" idealism, brought in to suit the Handcream ambience. But because Singh has one of those brains, the idea's mess and contradiction are accounted for--both relished and understood for the limitations they are.

Fun though it was to make Singh giggle over my misreadings, I didn't call to ask about lyrics. I was trying to get some hard bio. For years he played down his personal details, even hiding his last name, because, unbelievably, his religious parents didn't know what exactly their son did, even after he became a star. Tjinder Singh was born in 1968, in the Midlands city of Wolverhampton, the same year anti-immigrationist demagogue and Wolverhampton MP Enoch Powell delivered his infamous Rivers of Blood speech. Wolverhampton was also the location of a news event that impressed me more in 1969 than Neil Armstrong on the moon: the successful conclusion of a two-year strike by the city's Sikh busmen to wear turbans on the job. I remember the photos in the London papers--after all that suit-and-umbrella malarkey, these guys looked so tough it would have signified even if they hadn't won.

When I brought the subject up, Singh paused for so long I was afraid he didn't know what I was talking about. Then he said tersely, "My father was a busman." Later, Singh went on, his father became a teacher. As for the son, well--dholkis are one thing. He wears his hair short. It's the old dialectical mystery of generational succession. Not that one throws away what the other fought for, but that the fight defines it as a choice. Who knows how redefinitions like Cornershop's will play out from here? In a full and reasonable life, maybe that heady trip to a sensibility between worlds could be the road home.

Village Voice, Apr. 16, 2002