When I Was Born for the 7th Time. Cornershop.
1997, Warner Bros. Producer: Tjinder Singh, Dan the Automator, Daddy Rappaport.
IN A NUTSHELL: An album that is really hard to categorize, featuring everything from turntablism to country to raga. UK-born Tjinder Singh leads his group through style after style, but keeps the music fun and tethers it to its trance-inducing Hindi roots. It’s music that’s hard for me to adequately describe – my usual “guitar/bass/drums” verbiage doesn’t really work. But I like the way it sounds – it makes me feel young!
In about six months I’ll turn 50 years old.
I’ve always equated “fifty” with “elderly.” Sometime around 1985, there was a contest sponsored by Canada Dry to win $1,000,000 OR: a date with Joan Collins. Collins was a TV star whose best work is generally agreed1 to have been her role as the villain “The Siren” in the 1960s TV show Batman. By 1985, however, she was the star of some ridiculous – and ridiculously popular – nighttime soap opera called Dynasty. Winning a date with a star has been a time-honored Hollywood tradition for years, but what was interesting about this contest was that the prize wasn’t some young, teenage heart-throb, but a fifty year-old woman. FIFTY!!! (Or a million dollars.)
I was in my first year of college, and my fellow 18 year old, male, heterosexual (I think) friends and I were aghast. “Who would take the date with a 50 year old??” we wondered. It was an age older than most of our mothers. Only one of us claimed we would take the date, and he did so because “I’d want to see if I could [share intimate physical contact with] her.” (He also later spent time in prison, not that it matters. (Although maybe it does.)) The rest of us were further aghast. FIFTY was old.
FIFTY IS OLD. It’s the age you become AARP-eligible, a fact that has been exploited for laughs by American spouses for 30 years, a membership being the ultimate BIG 5-0 gag-gift, as it’s humorous but also useful2. Rock-Music-Wise, Roger Daltry sang “I hope I die before I get old” in The Who’s “My Generation,” and he certainly meant well before age 50. FIFTY is even older than Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls was when he lamented growing old in rock-n-roll.
But big whoop. Who cares? The fact is, I’ve felt old at every “Big X-0” birthday since I turned 10. (Although at 10, “old” was a good thing.) Time moves in one direction, and such markers whiz past like telephone poles viewed from the bed of a speeding pick-up truck. When I turned 20, I hadn’t yet performed comedy, but I knew Eddie Murphy was a star by that age, so it seemed too late for me. When I turned forty, my kids were still so young and it seemed like it would be years before I’d get a little free time for my own – and by the time it arrived I assumed I’d be too old to enjoy it.
Now I’m turning 50, and I actually don’t feel as old as I thought I would. Sure, physically, I’m a little more achey than I used to be, and a nice long walk now substitutes for an hour’s worth of pick-up basketball, but emotionally I’m not experiencing anywhere near the level of concern I felt when I turned 30. Of all the X-0 birthdays, 30 hit me the hardest. That was the one that grabbed my lapels, slapped me in the face, spun me around with a kick in the pants and said, “Get on with it, boy! You can’t goof off forever!”
I’ve never forgiven 30 for telling me that.
I was living in San Francisco with my cool girlfriend3, in our cool neighborhood, with one cool cat and one mentally disabled stray cat we called “Lenny,” after the big sad character in Of Mice and Men. But even Lenny was cool! I was in a theater group, writing and acting in plays, I was performing improv – and getting paid for it4, and I was doing some stand up comedy. I was having a blast – but the BIG 3-0 hung over my head ominously.
All of my artistic pursuits were fun and important to me, however I was still earning my living as a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. I thought of myself as an actor/performer, but I had a series of W-2s going back 6 years that told a different story. The time had come to either ditch the well-paying job and dive headfirst into performance, or quietly admit to myself that despite my pursuits’ fun and importance, I really enjoyed having a comfortable lifestyle with an income I could count on. I quietly admitted to myself that performance – improv, standup, acting – was an AVOCATION.
This was all happening in the mid-90s. In a different era, there may have been music on the radio to help soothe my anxiety and stress. But not in the mid-90s, which was an era of some of the worst music imaginable: pseudo-alt-rock – a ripped-off, corporate-hijacked, style-over-substance form whose ridiculousness was perhaps topped only by the spiraling absurdity of the late 80s hair-band phenomenon. Pseudo-Alt-Rock was similar to the follies of the late-80s hair-bands in that a once-inspired musical style (in the case of hair-bands, Heavy Metal; in the case of pseudo-alt, College Rock/Grunge) had been fed through the record label Xerox machine so many times that only the faintest outline remained of the original form. All the subtle intricacy of true expression and unique character was lost, and a bunch of nondescript blobs were spat out and called “alternative rock,” in the hope that listeners wouldn’t notice the difference. And it was all over the radio.
As my 30th birthday approached, I felt my carefree youth slipping away, and I decided to make a last-ditch attempt to hang on by renewing my interest in what was new on the musical map. I decided that 1997 would be the year I would resume buying good, new music – a favorite pastime of mine that had peaked in the early 90s, but had waned some by 1997. It was a dubious era in which to claw back into the musical stew.
For every Yo La Tengo or Radiohead, there was a The Prodigy or a Creed. It wasn’t hard to enjoy Sleater-Kinney, and then be tricked by Veruca Salt. It was the era of the Trapdoor of the Catchy Alternative Pop Song, a phenomenon in which a tuneful song that immediately grabs your ear by a random Smashmouth or New Radicals, or even – shockingly enough – a Hanson5, could, if you didn’t give the song a second and third go-around to really listen, cause you to consider buying an album, and in doing so plummet, screaming, clutching in your hands a virtually unlistenable and un-re-sellable piece of shiny, plastic trash.
I did a pretty good job of avoiding the really lousy albums from the really shitty bands of the day6. I didn’t buy anything from Matchbox 20 or Bush or Third Eye Blind. I wasn’t tricked by a catchy single into buying albums from Luscious Jackson or White Town or OMC.
But I did purchase one album that summer on the basis of one catchy song that turned out to indeed be a one-hit wonder … in the UK. And after re-mixing. In the summer of 1997, Alt-Rock Radio – that foister of tepidry7 – was playing a Catchy Alternative Pop Song that could have been a trap door. The song was “Brimful of Asha,” by Cornershop, sung in a definitely-noticeable Hindi accent. It was part of Corporate Modern Rock Radio’s apparent push towards some bit of multi-cultural awareness, a song churned onto the playlist via some strange algorithm that also allowed a Los Lobos song to be played once a month, but still couldn’t spit out any hip-hop songs onto the playlist by any bands other than The Beastie Boys8. It caught my ear, and I read good things about the album (probably in Spin magazine) so I went out and got it. I wasn’t disappointed.
“Brimful of Asha” is a terrific guitar pop song, with great drums and a great beat. It starts quietly and simply: an easy electric guitar riff and basic drums. The song builds with each verse, adding organ and strings. By the time of the “Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow” chorus, it’s got a full sound. The song’s lyrics are a salute to Bollywood playback singer9 Asha Bhosle, and the band’s love of 45s. This is probably as good a time as any to mention the band’s Indian-UK heritage. Singer/Songwriter Tjinder Singh’s music incorporates his Hindi background into 90s-style UK funk, and the result is unlike anything else. For example, in “Brimful of Asha,” the repetitive guitar riff functions somewhat like a “drone” in Indian classical music, setting the table onto which the rest of the song is placed – including a pumped up bass drum, hand claps, and samples of orchestra strings.
That Indian drone technique is used throughout the album, and there’s something compelling about it. Sometimes I will find it repetitive, but most often it draws me in and keeps me hooked. A good example is the first track on the album, “Sleep On the Left Side.”
There’s not a lot happening in this song, but there’s an awful lot happening, too! What I mean is, the five notes that make up the drone are unchanging and run through the whole song. But throughout, the electronic squawks and accordion riffs and orchestral wiggles and flute trills and Singh’s laconic vocals provide the listener with much to consider. The lyrics seem to be a reflection on life in, and pride for, an Indian neighborhood in the U.K. (The name “Cornershop” is a reclamation of a UK slur for Indians and Pakistanis, so-called because of the many who owned convenience stores (aka cornershops) in the U.K.10) It’s got a trance-inducing groove, but in a good way.
The band’s Indian roots are on full display in one of the most Hindi-sounding pop songs I’ve heard since The Beatles’ “Love You To.” The song is “We’re In Yr Corner,” and the sitar starts flying immediately.
In addition to the sitar, the song is sung in Punjabi (apparently, from what I’ve read). I couldn’t find any English translations for the lyrics, but the song is catchy and melodic. At about 1:45 there is some spoken dialogue that sounds terrific. As with the first two songs I mentioned, there’s a repetitive drone aspect to the song which a) I love, but b) makes it hard for me to write about. I’m used to saying, “I like the guitar in the chorus,” and “How about those drums in the bridge,” but many of the songs on When I Was Born for the 7th Time have no guitar, chorus or bridge. However, the drums always sound great – whether drum kit, tabla, bongoes, or some other type with which I’m unfamiliar! But the sounds move me. And Western aspects are tossed in, such as the breaks around 2:50, or the false ending or the “IBM and Coca-Cola, motherfucker!” lyrics. The band has a knack for taking the unfamiliar and making it sound familiar.
So the band flies its Indian flag in all its songs, however, as I’ve said in many of my album write-ups, I love variety! Nothing makes me tire of an album quicker than a repetition of sound, and Cornershop is fluent in many styles. My favorite song on the album almost sounds like a Beck song: “Funky Days are Back Again.”
Drummer Nick Simms shines on the track, propelling it forward with tight rolls and syncopation. The typical Cornershop beeps and blips supplement the song, as Singh celebrates the 1990s good life, in lyrics that are clever and fun.
The album also contains a sort of turntable jazz song, “Butter the Soul,” that features a really cool-sounding turntable riff broken up by solos on Indian instruments, complete with bursts of applause from the “audience.” Also impressive is a country song, sung as a duet between Singh and American singer Paula Frazer. The song is “Good to Be on the Road Back Home.” It’s got typical country lyrics – how the road wreaks havoc on the traveler. It’s also got that Indian drone – with few chord changes and a constant chugging acoustic guitar. The band is just very creative.
This creativity, the desire to expand in sound and genre, leads to several songs that – for me – really miss the mark. “When the Light Appears Boy,” with lyrics by Beat Generation hero Allen Ginsburg, who also speaks the lyrics, is much better in theory than in execution. “What Is Happening” sounds like supermarket announcements read over raga drumming. Others are just fragments, really. But some of the experiments succeed wildly – like “Candyman,” another trance-inducing groove that sounds great!
Maybe the coolest song on the album – and I state this as an unabashed and irrational Beatles fan – is Cornershop’s cover of “Norwegian Wood.” Sung in Punjabi. Listen.
To me, this song is what the album is all about: taking the old (old songs, old styles, old languages) adding a bit of yourself (Anglo-Indian roots, love of rock and hip-hop) and creating something new and wonderful. In fact, this is probably what life is all about – take what’s come before you, add a bit of yourself, and make things better for those coming behind you. It’s why I probably shouldn’t get too worried about getting older – life was here before me, life will go on after me. I’m just here to improve things a little bit. I’ll let Cornershop have the last word, with another song I love for its song structure and beat; but most of all for its great message. Because as I approach 50, and I sometimes worry or fret, it helps to keep in mind: Good Shit’s All Around11.
“Sleep on the Left Side”
“Brimful of Asha”
“Butter the Soul”
“We’re in Yr Corner”
“Funky Days Are Back Again”
“What Is Happening?”
“When the Light Appears Boy”
“Good to Be on the Road Back Home”
“It’s Indian Tobacco My Friend”
“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”