Book Review: Do It Yourself… Up To My Neck in the Muddy Medway Waters

book-cover2-199x300Local music scenes often offer far more to the locals than can ever be translated to a larger audience.  Even if you know for sure that such-and-such a band formed in a smelly pub on the waterfront; that this song references a certain store; and that lionizes a lady of local notoriety, unless you lived (or at least spent a lot of time) in the area as the sound was developing, that’s all it is – random pieces of knowledge.  Only the locals know the truth.

So thank you to Stephen Morris, author of Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway (Cultured Llama Press) for alchemizing a book that not only transports the reader to the area in question, but then assails him or her with all the background required to smell, taste and… well, whatever you want, really… all that is going on.

For the geographically impaired, Medway is a convenient umbrella name for a clutch of fairly disparate communities nestled, south-east of London, on the banks indeed of the River Medway.  Staid, gentlemanly Rochester, historically betrothed to the memory of former resident Charles Dickens, and possessor of one of England’s loveliest castles and cathedrals; rough and tumble Chatham, once home to one of the island’s most important Royal dockyards; and Gillingham, which never really seemed to have a point, but does at least have a half-decent soccer team.

Modern times have blurred the old boundaries somewhat, and in musical terms there was never much difference, at least since rock’n’roll came along.  Readers of Brian Joyce’s 2003 book Dumb Show and Noise: Theatre, Musichall and Cinema in the Medway Towns can certainly trace the democratization of the different towns’ contributions to the field, however, and that makes a fascinating prelude to Do It Yourself.

That said, Morris’s book is not strictly a successor to that earlier, remarkable tome.  For a start, the action only begins in 1977, thus allowing the area’s earlier musical strivings (which include Steve Ashley’s beginnings at Rochester Folk Club) to remain a tale untold.  And secondly, whereas Joyce concentrates on the venues and their audiences, Morris targets the performers, the wave upon wave of local youths who took up electric guitars, bass and drums to formulate what is now one of the primal strands of modern garage rock – Medwaybeat.

Welcome, then, to Billy Childish, the Prisoners, the Len Bright Combo… Milkshakes, Thee Mighty Caesars, Thee Headcoats and Headcoatees; those are probably the names you will recognize first, but dig in deeper and Morris uncovers a myriad more, all pounding out their own take on the essential sound, all revered among connoisseurs all around the world.

Welcome to the Dentists, the Claim, Swinging Time.  And off piste in garage terms, but out of the same streets regardless, welcome to Sally Ironmonger, Two Tone Baby and Lupen Crook, pushing further veins of Medway music into the general consciousness.

Barely a musician is mentioned without Morris interviewing them for the book, and that’s a major plus.  But more important is the fact that a world that you’d otherwise have to piece together from countless old fanzine articles and oddments (and even then, only get half the story) is laid bare here.  Local clubs, faces and record stores are pieced into the tapestry.  Out of towners touring through.  All the disparate influences that build a musical universe are tracked down and teased into the text.

Fall into the chapter that deals with the Len Bright Combo, and you’re back in the village hall where they recorded their debut album, with as little equipment as they could get away with, and frontman Eric Goulden (the Artist Formerly and Subsequently Known as Wreckless Eric) triumphantly phoning a friend one night to announce “we put some stereo on one song – there’s an organ noise that goes from one speaker to the other.”   The Len Bright Combo roost at the very apex of British rock in the 1980s, but most histories relegate them simply to a passing sunbeam on Wreckless’s road to glory.  Morris not only restores them to their rightful preeminence, he reminds you why they belong there.

As the Godfather of DIY, both here and elsewhere too, Billy Childish, naturally, dominates the book, as befits any artist who stopped counting his albums somewhere around the triple digit mark.  Indeed, Morris works marvels maintaining momentum as Childish flits from project to band, from garage to poetry, from noise to silence – it could have turned into a shopping list in the end, but he talks about the records, he reminds us of their highlights, he sends us all scurrying to the rack to pull our own collection of BC out to play.

He also acknowledges that Childish’s story is still only partially told; that the man demands a book of his own, to complement the art exhibitions that he now stages in cities that once felt so far away from the heart of Medway, but which a constricting modern world has more or less placed on the doorstep.

Even London is forty miles away, yet it creeps an alarmingly little closer every time another local authority approves one more flat-pack furniture retailer in what was once the countryside that separates the two.

And that’s an important point to remember, because soon, the whole of south east England (and the rest as well) will be buried beneath an unending vista of retail parks, shopping malls and commercial zones, all cloned from the same mutant garden shed that inspired the very first; and all staffed by the same disinterestedly gum chewing minimum wager, with dead eyes, blank expression, and a voice that peels paint from fifty places.

Wreckless Eric warned of this happening back in 1984, when his first Medway-based band, the Captains of Industry, cut “Our Neck of the Woods,” a coruscating prophesy of a time when society would purposefully breed these anti-sirens as a slave race for the most demeaningly mindless jobs.

But it’s not only humanity that is being sapped.  It’s the possibility of there ever developing any further scenes like Medway’s or elsewhere’s.  If every city looks the same, if every store, every office, every apartment is simply a note perfect recreation of its twin in the next town over, what will happen then to the concept of local identity, local pride?  And with those erased, what will happen to the notion of a “local band”? A “local venue”?  A “local audience”?

All will be gone, the same way as so much of what once made “society” a thing that people wanted to be a part of.  And books like this won’t simply be histories.  They’ll be laments as well.

Leave a Reply