Paul Morley Showing Off ... Cornershop

Paul Morley asks Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres of Cornershop how the Beatles influenced their sound

I often against my will – or whatever is left of it after 33 years of writing about pop music – find myself being sucked into the now clearly never-ending magical mystery world of the bloody Beatles and their damned songs, and what does it all mean, and what do they all mean, and how much meaning can a pop group or a pop song possibly actually really contain? Can we now not simply say that the Beatles ultimately existed to supply a certain sort of fairly rich treasure-filled content for a certain sort of efficiently engineered game that does things to the idea of meaning that make a point-scoring mockery of the very idea that pop music was ever meant to be about anything other than ...


On the other hand...

When no one is looking, even if during the day I have vented official spleen at how just too much loving attention is directed toward the effing Beatles and their ceaseless sodding songs, I might spend a few illicit hours roaming – in a state of blissed-out shock – various never-ending websites checking on the rumours, myths, lies, exaggerations, conjecture, assumptions, deductions, guesses, allegations, impressions, clues, mistakes, and general historical hysteria surrounding the writing, recording, sources and naturally the meaning or not of their songs. Each song now has enough written about it to produce its own particular Dickens-sized volume of trivia, technical data, analysis and theory. Most of it reads like fragmented fiction, helping contribute to the possibility that one day the history of the Beatles will be an entirely invented story, an amazing, enchanting fable symbolising certain jumbled-up 20th century strengths and weaknesses, even though the images, music, geography and specific creative achievements were largely based in reality. Maybe in the future the Beatles will be positioned, by the few theorists left standing practising an antique and largely discredited craft, as one of the major early signs of how traditional solid world reality was about to be replaced by increasingly ingenious and seductive forms of magnetic distraction.

Meanwhile, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), in E Major, 3/4 time, second track side one of Rubber Soul, released 3 December 1965. If I had 60 seconds on some kind of quiz show on television that gave you 60 seconds to explain as much as you can about a Beatles song then I think my sentence would look a little like:

Original title Knowing She Would a one night stand title changed for radio recorded first day of the Rubber Soul sessions 12 October 1965 but remade a week later that version used on album George Harrison sitar because of Ravi Shankar bought one at a shop called Indian craft a few months after some Yardbirds sitar on Heart Full of Soul possibly not played by group member though but perhaps it was Jeff Beck so this groundbreaking Harrisson encouraged to play by Roger McGuinn and David Crosby Shankar allegedly thought the sitar playing was "really bad" folk rock born-ish static repetition hypnotic a Lennon song wrote it on holiday in St. Moritz with Cynthia and the Martins used to serenade George with new songs bit of McCartney the bit about Lennon lighting a fire because the girl would not sleep with him the kind of thing Paul said John would do if a girl would not sleep with him burn down a house some say the girl in the song was a lesbian Lennon lead vocal a new kind of sly dramatic vocal Paul backing lyric about affairs Lennon was having whilst with Cynthia hiding that behind oblique lyrical murk story telling songs nicked a bit from Dylan who responded maybe a bit narked or not who knows with 4th Time Around a little nip at Lennon who knows some say Norwegian Wood cos of pine furniture or fake wood used in minimalist digs or Ringo's dad was Norwegian or Lennon had an affair with German wife of photographer who took Meet The Beatles cover who said she was Norwegian because was better post war than saying you were German or the girl in song is the journalist Lennon told "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus" or Norwegian Wood was a nickname for marijuana dreamt up in Buckingham Palace toilets while collecting MBE's there is now a Norwegian rock festival called Norwegian Wood only Beatles song to ever use the word "anywhere" Neil Young nodded to it in Cinnamon Girl Zappa used to it for a satirical song it has been covered by Acker Bilk, Buddy Rich, Sergio Mendes, U2, Waylon Jennings, Alanis Morissette, the Fiery Furnaces, Jan and Dean, P.M. Dawn, Rick Wakeman, Herbie Hancock, Judy Collins, Jose Feliciano, and my favourite along with a Patricia Barber version on her live Blue Note album A Fortnight in France ...


Cornershop recorded the song for their livid, loved-up, lively, agitated and third album, When I Was Born For The Seventh Time, released in 1997, which featured their one really big hit, Brimful of Asha. (The hit version was a generously cock-eyed Norman Cook High Street remix of a subtler, stranger original, but at least it meant that one of those Cornerhouse songs that are amongst the greatest pop songs ever written in a line that moves from the Zombies, Roy Wood, T-Rex, Brian Eno, Sparks, XTC and Buzzcocks actually was a hit instead of an absurdly ignored cult gem.) If I was on a quiz show that demanded you come up inside 10 seconds with the most underrated and/or unfairly neglected and/or misunderstood and/or award starved group of the last 20 years, I think Cornershop would leap into my mind as enough of an answer. If I had 10 seconds to then explain why, I would contest the rules, but attempt to cram into the time available cogent description of the movement the group has made from punkish satirical chaotic art brats reminding me of deviant punk groups like the Prefects, Subway Sect and the Mekons to supremely insightful subversive psycho-collagists imagining a psychedelically intelligent pop music as a way of criss-crossing time, space, genres, histories, dreams and rhythms. It might have taken them two decades to make their five albums, but on the other hand few modern avant-beat groups make it as far while varying their sound and thinking of new and newer things to say. Their new album Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast still shows facetious, fascinating intelligence at work in and around the recording studio as the group work out just where they belong by imagining a 1970s soundscape that could only exist round about now, sort of Steppenwolf if they'd known about Outkast and Squarepusher, the Faces on the other side of M.I.A. Cornerhouse spin their languid, angry yarns at the blurring but focussed edges of all great, experimental post-punk/hip hop/electronica thinking, rub in a sensibility that appreciates why all the best pop music is actually a kind of novelty music, and tell a certain surreally accurate history about the post-Beatles collision between political and social history and the consolations, addictions and pleasures of pop culture. If I was on a quiz show that required you inside 30 seconds to explain why the existence of the Beatles has actually deeply altered and ultimately damaged the potential currents of pop history, and created a less provocative, less delightful present, then I would point to the fact that in the late 1990s it was Oasis and not Cornershop that became the adored international superstars. (Cornershop got pulled into the Britpop field, because there was definitely something pop about them and, through a glass darkly, something deeply, oddly British, but they were about as Britpop as Beck or the Beastie Boys. Mainly because they were – as if this was really the spirit of the Beatles working its way forward and winding its way around new times, new sounds and new peculiarities – so exotic and unexpected. This was in the end why they didn't really break through, because they weren't a square, humourless reminder of the Beatles as cosy souvenir of the 1960s but an abstract, witty up-dating of the abstract, quick witted originality of the Beatles.) I talk to mainman Tjinder Singh and long-time sidekick Ben Ayres before they perform their muted, wistful take on Norwegian Wood, treating the song as a distressed, mysterious lullaby, locating and sighing all over the incensed vulnerability. We're in a scruffy rehearsal space tucked inside a dilapidated mews in Stoke Newington, a few north London miles over, across and under from the posher, mythier Abbey Road. Is this where they usually rehearse? They grudgingly admit that they tend not to rehearse. Perhaps this is a clue to why the group has never quite made it into the middle of the entertainment road, where such twisted pop often sounds best, because it doesn't immediately belong.

The room has on its wall photographs of the Who with Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Eric Morecambe, Sean Connery as James Bond, Keith Richards, and one of John and Paul. Tjinder is clearly in control of Cornershop, but has the slightly defeated demeanour of a man once destined to be a glorious pop star who never quite met his moment.

I ask Tjinder what he thought of George's tentative, striving sitar, and its possible rock musician lack of classical Indian authenticity. It doesn't bother him at all, he says. He just loved the sound, and the way the other sounds conspired to produce a sound that represented the Beatles' way of doing things, based on a spirit of finding something new by trying things out, which caused others to think, I'll try that. I ask him what his thoughts are on the meaning of Norwegian Wood, which after all is filled with tantalising gaps and a fair amount of teasing vagueness, as Lennon discovers the deflecting advantages of cryptically projecting his imagination. He wasn't aware that there was much doubt that the song is about a one night stand that didn't quite work out. You can tell that Tjinder doesn't waste his time scouring slightly dubious web sites that wonder forever just why Paul wanted to add that line about setting something on fire.

His way of find the meaning of a song – or avoiding the meaning of a song, and thus holding on to the secrets, and the mystery - is to sing it. In Punjabi, which is one way of obscuring, or absolutely cherishing, the words that John, with a little help from his friend, used.

So he does.


Paul Morley

The GuardianTramp

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