Monday 20 November 2023

"Too fat and too black" - How I lost my faith in the UK music industry

 I've nearly written this blog a few times. I started, but couldn't say what I wanted to say in language which wouldn't offend people who are friends of mine. I realised recently that this wasn't entirely true. It was more out of cowardice, not being able to justify the fact that I hadn't said this a very long time ago. Let me take you back to the late 1970's. The False Dots were just an idea, in the mind of myself and a local hooligan called Pete Conway. We both attended Rock Against Racism gigs and despised Eric Claptons racist comments. Our first act setting up the band was to write a charter that any new members would have to sign. The idea was that if you were a member of The False Dots, you were signing up to a full, political charter. There was a full list of causes we supported, a list of things you could and couldn't do. There was a list of bands that you had to like and list of artists that you had to hate. In truth we put more energy into writing the band charter, than we did learning our instruments. Pete carefully wrote it out and I sneaked into the school photocopying room and got ten copies made (it was when photocopies were purple, anyone else remember that). Two of the principles were that the band would be non sexist and non racist. The Clash were a big inspiration at the time. We made attempts to try and play reggae (failing miserably), we wanted a mixed line up, but this never materialised. By the time we'd learned to play well enough to recruit other members, we'd lost the charter. But we felt it was important to be more than just a band playing a few nice tunes. 

As the band developed, Pete left, new members came in. We developed. In 1983, Venessa Sagoe joined as our singer. Venessa was a force of nature. She was born of Nigerian/Jewish heritage. I'd never heard anyone sing as well as Vanessa. She could literally sing anything. As soon as she joined, we developed a brand new set. We just felt that the old material wasn't good enough for her. Venessa was quite shy on a one to one basis. Our only concern was that when she got up on a stage she might get stage fright. After 3 seconds of her first gig, we realised that our concerns were misplaced. As often happens when a football team uncovers a star, everyone raises their game. In February 1984, the band played at Dingwalls. I couldn't really see any scenario where we wouldn't get a deal and become rich and famous (unless someone pinched Venessa). The songs were great, the band was good and we could blow audiences away. 

We were approached by an A&R scout from a major and someone who wanted to manage us. It seemed like the world was at our feet. We recruited a keyboard player, the final piece in the jigsaw, recorded a demo and followed the managers advice, to let him deal with the label. Then....

Nothing happened. I couldn't understand what was going on. The manager stopped answering my calls. He'd said "leave all the business to me, I'll get you a blinding deal". By chance, I bumped into the A&R scout at another bands gig. He saw me and looked embarrassed. I asked him directly what was going on. He was a decent guy and asked "Is the band still with your mananger?". I realised that the only way to get a straight answer was to say "No, he didn't really come up with anything". I then heard the full story. He'd presented the demo, which the band had paid for (on my inistance as I wanted to own the recordings) as a demo for Venessa. No mention of the band. The label, who had initially been interested in the idea of the band, had told him "She's too fat and too black to be a successful pop artist". I was horrified. The A&R guy told me he'd got the band, but his bosses didn't get Venessa as a solo artist at all. The manager had told the label that the band were not up to scratch and that was the end of that. As there was no quick buck to make, the manager had simply cut us dead.

At the time I was 20 years old and lacked the life experience I had no. Myself and my then girlfriend were sharing a flat with Venessa and her boyfriend. I went home and was met by a smiling household. I was furious. But how could I tell Venessa what had happened. What should I tell the rest of the band? I believed that the label was absolutely wrong on every level, but we had lost momentum. I confided some of the details with our bassplayer Paul Hircombe. He was equally horrified and also took the whole thing badly. He decided to move to France with his girlfriend. I felt I'd failed everyone and also that the music industry was fundamentally crap. I'd spent my adult life trying to make a successful band and had what I thought was one of the best up and coming bands, but it had been made clear that the industry wasn't interested in bands that don't 'follow a formula'. I simply didn't know what to say to Venessa. I believed that she deserved better. When we'd written our charter, it was to break down the walls that meant great artists like Venessa found in their way. The whole thing fell apart. I felt incredibly angry about it. In hindsight, I wish I'd called a band meeting and told everyone the truth and said "if you are up for it, lets prove the F**kers wrong", done an independent release and used what allies we had to have a go. Instead, it all just fell apart and I felt resentful of everyone. If anyone had said "You are no good", it might have been different, but all we were told was that our singer was too fat and the wrong colour. Being good didn't matter. As for the manager, I had my doubts almost immediately. I was angry with muself for not acting earlier. I feel out of love with the industry. 

Fast forward to 2009. The band was doing a few gigs, mostly for charities and benefits. We weren't trying to get a deal. I was quite comfortable with playing the odd gig and just enjoying having a nice night with a few mates. Then a young Sudanese singer, Connie Abbe turned up. I had a few songs that Venessa had sung, that I'd never recorded. I asked Connie to sing them. I was blown away when I heard her. She, like Venessa, was immense. Although it was the last thing I intended, we started to play gigs in Camden and write new material. It was fun and it felt great. I knew that Connie's future lay beyond The False Dots, but I thought that we could enjoy writing a chapter. We recorded the material and got a gig at The Purple Turtle in Camden Town. I asked a few music industry contacts. We were brilliant, if I say so myself. I was elated, until I got the feedback. 35 years after Venessa, I got exactly the same response. Connie had a job with rapper Emmanual Jal, she took off on a world tour. I realised that nothing had changed in the UK music industry. 

I asked myself, how can it be that two of the best singers I've ever heard cannot rustle up any interest at all in the industry? The sad truth is that if I'd have sung the songs myself in 1984, in my Ian Dury-esque monotone voice, we'd have had more chance of success. If we'd just had Venessa and Connie as backing singers, maybe they could have snuck in through a side door? I was asked by a mate recently if I had any regrets in life. I have few, but I do regret not having a proper plan to circumvent the racist/sexist record labels that control UK music. 

If you don't believe me, consider a few facts. Before the rise of Bob Marley, Judge Dread, a white bloke from the black country was the biggest selling reggae/ska artist in the UK, despite all of his records being banned by the BBC. Of the top 20 selling UK singles, the only black artists to make an appearance are Pharell Williams and Boney M make an appearance. When you consider that Robson & Jerome, Aqua and WIll Young are in there, you can draw your own conclusions. When you consider that US giants Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Aretha Frankin and Gladys Knight didn't make the list it shows what the industry wants to promote, and how hard it is for homgrown UK black artists. When you watch the Jools Holland show, you see amazing singers like Ruby Turner, but they've never been seriously promoted by the industry. The likes of Pauline Black and Joan Armatrading have amazing catalogues, huge respect, but the sad truth is that the industry has never been interested in doing more than marketing them on the back of feeding frenzys such as the 79 British Ska explosion or as a niche artist. 

How can you love and industry that neglects its biggest assets. I'm an average guitarist at best, I play in a decent band, but the likes of Venessa and Connie had real talent and no one was interested. I was sounding off about this and a friend said "What about Lizzo?". Is she a sign things are changing? Not in the UK, she's American. It seems to me that there was a gleeful press ready to crucify her when she got into a dispute with her backing singers. When I see the success of Adele, I realise that it isn't the physical shape of an artist that defines success. The gatekeepers simply don't want certain people to succeed and this demonstrably racist. 

One of the reasons I loved the punk era was we could have singers like Poly Styrene emerge, who were not stereotypical. I believed things had changed. I now realise that was simply because the labels saw Punk as a short term fad to cash in on. When such things happen, the rules get stretched for a while. Then as soon as the labels decide the cash has dried up, the trapdoor slams shut again. I was asked why I felt The False Dots didn't achieve the success that at times, we seemed to be on the brink of. It is horrific to have to answer "Because the industry was too ignorant and racist to sign an unknown band with a lead singer who was not a stereotypical body type and colour". I'm not saying no black singers ever got signed or promoted by labels, but they were always marketed in niches and never given the support that some of their white peers got. Generally, they'd made their name as part of other set ups, where they were backing singers etc. 

The real proof of this is that the one track that The False Dots got released in the 1980's was not with Venessa, but another female singer, a year before she joined. It wasn't great, but there was interest. That says it all. 

And what hurts most is that it has taken me so long to say it how it is. 

This was Connie with the band back in 2010. She is rather good, isn't she?

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