Nick Abadzis

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A Weekly Song: Episode 11 – Goldie Presents Metalheads (or is that Metalheadz?)

Goldie Presents Metalheads - Inner City Life

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There were a lot of anthems in the air in the mid-90s. By anthem, I mean popular tracks that stuck around, that seemed to exemplify a movement, a state of mind… for want of a better term, an attitude. Examples: Soul II Soul’s Keep On Moving and Back II Life (However Do You Want Me), The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy, Pulp’s Common People.

Each heralded an aspect of British youth poking its head above the parapet of the relative safety of its own dedicated teenage bedroom audience and making serious inroads into mainstream culture. Pop was already embedded in TV shows, movie soundtracks, documentaries, but now more “marginal” sounds were becoming a part of mainstream culture too, making their voices heard in clubs and on pirate stations but also represented on TV and public radio. The old hierarchies were breaking down, just a little.

Some context: at the end of the eighties, everything changed in British yoof culture. First you had acid house and the dance/rock crossover, a sort of cross-pollination of club culture and the indie scene that itself grew out of post-punk, electronica and a broader early eighties multiculturalism (remember that? It’s become a dirty word now, as if human beings haven’t always been multicultural, as if people mixing socially is somehow now unfashionable. If you visit the town in the next valley over, that’s being multicultural. So is visiting your next door neighbour. Your identity and traditions won’t be erased by doing so). 

In the early nineties there was Madchester, then came shoegazing which begat a great many bands that later became household names via Britpop, a media-invented idea AKA Cool Britannia that grouped all manner of different bands and outfits under one cultural umbrella for easier export to the rest of the world. There was also British hip-hop (and trip-hop); you had techno and rave and its various sub-genres, there was bhangra, ragga, dark ‘ardkore which evolved into jungle and later, drum ‘n ‘bass. I remember first becoming really properly aware of it at the Notting Hill Festival in either 1993 or 1994 where I registered a sound system playing something that sounded like breakbeats and techno with dub or ragga inflections, something fast and new. It caught my ear and it got into my brain and burrowed right down into my digestive tract. I loved it. British youth culture was rapidly morphing into bountiful new shapes, a creative Hydra with many and ever more collaborative heads, each one abundant with new ideas and potentials.

Every year is the best year ever for music** because there’s always something new happening somewhere, but in retrospect (especially the middle-aged kind of hindsight) perhaps not every period is as fertile as others. There was a lot going on in the mid-nineties, and I, a music loving “underground cartoonist,” was in the middle of it.

That is, in early 1994, I had no idea what I was doing. I was recovering from an ill-advised and short-lived marriage plus a resultant nervous breakdown; I was skint, I was lonely and I was ambitious; I had big ideas of how I could so something different with comics and help make them into a communications and storytelling art form that would be as fluid and abstract as music. Little did I know, it was already doing that with or without me, but anyway, ah! …the hubris of youth. I was a ball of confusion, a knot of creativity with a burning need to put it somewhere. (I did, but that’s another story.) I wanted something to change, I wanted to be changed, but I didn’t know what or how.

It was around this time that I became aware of this. I forget when exactly I heard Inner City Life for the first time, but of all the anthems around, this one captivated me the most, made its way onto the internal tape loop in my mind. It sounded like it was from the future, but it seemed to coalesce from everything surrounding me.

Certainly I heard it in the DnB clubs that emerged around that time – maybe at the Mars Bar, to which me and my mate Caspar would trek from the western suburbs so we could experience the dizzy heights of happening central London nightlife. There were many drum ‘n’ bass anthems, for sure, but this one made it onto TV. Seeing the video on some late-night yoof show was cathartic somehow – it opened with a shot of a shopping trolley going over the balcony of a tower block not unlike the one my gran lived on.

“Come to me…”

Diane Charlemagne was familiar to audiences for her appearances with Urban Cookie Collective, who’d had a couple of chart hits, but this was something else, something utterly different. Suddenly she was a sepia-toned diva calling across the rooftops and the airwaves, acknowledging the loneliness and burden of pressures that living in the big city brings. She was joining dots as if all the different anthems were pins on the urban map of modern British music. The tower blocks and council estates were marked just as surely as the pennants atop the Houses of Parliament were.

“I need to be, I need to be…

Living free”

The track was credited to Goldie presents Metalheads (later Metalheadz), known to me for a track called Terminator, but Inner City Life was an entirely different beast, a kind of yearning mutant, timestretched soul music fuelled by both paranoia and tenderness.

In mainstream terms, it wasn’t the huge hit that some of the other anthems mentioned at the top of this piece were, but for me it remains one of the definitive statements of 90s British music. It transcends all barriers, classes, backgrounds and yes, to my ears, it was a statement of the kind of hopeful (and multicultural) Cool Britannia a lot of other acts were being marketed as, but Inner City Life was the true dark horse, the outsider who found its way up from the streets.

Before finding its way onto Goldie’s sprawling debut album Timeless (as one movement in the opening title track), Inner City Life was remixed and re-released so many times, I lost count. I had the original 12” single and another pressing that featured mixes by other DnB luminaries, my favourite being Doc Scott’s version that showcased Charlemagne’s vocals.

The music itself was so mutable and yet remained recognisable, no matter whose hands touched it. There was an egalitarianism to the way Goldie (and his partner-in-production Rob Playford) shared the track, allowing numerous interpretations. In fact, he’s still playing around with it – a new mix was made available last year for Record Store Day.

Over the years, all sorts of superlatives have been heaped upon Timeless, which is certainly a great album and a defining document of that mid-to-late nineties era of extreme creativity in British music, but I’m not sure anything could ever match the feeling the initial release and the remixes generated in me.

And just to give you a sense of what a beautiful song it is, one that stands the test of being stripped to its basics, here’s a version featuring Jhelisa Anderson – yes, she of The Shamen fame and a formidable solo artist in her own right. Listen and enjoy.

Notes

Diane Charlemagne died in 2015 of kidney cancer at the terribly young age of 51. She was rightly celebrated by the DnB scene and beyond. 

The cover version of Inner City Life featuring Jhelisa is by German Jazz outfit [Re:jazz] from their album Point of View and it also features on Goldie’s “Masterpiece” Ministry of Sound mix collection.

At the end of 2009 when I moved from the UK to the USA, the wrong box of vinyl was sent to a charity shop and I accidentally gave away both the original 12” single version of Inner City Life, several remixes, plus a whole load of other DnB vinyl I hadn’t intended to part with. Still kicking myself about that. Oh, well… someone found ‘em and enjoyed them and the money went to a good cause, so, good karma, eh? I still have the CD collection…

*Consider the similarity between the two videos of Bittersweet Symphony and Unfinished Sympathy. One has Richard Ashcroft walking down a British street in one single, unbroken shot, the other had fellow Brit Shara Nelson doing the same in east LA. Two people from two musical collectives walking towards each other, at opposite sides of the planet at different ends of western culture.       

**To paraphrase David Stubbs. I think.

Not everybody loved Britpop.

Metalheadz - still going, listen more.

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