Cornershop photo by Marie Remy

“SONG FOR EWE” is the feature where artists & music people beloved by VELVET SHEEP choose an obscure song they’ve been listening to that day. Today’s guest is a founder member of a band who hold a special place in my heart and in the genesis of Velvet Sheep fanzine. While in the sixth form at school, I’d started heading up into town from the ‘burbs of Gravesend to seek out the 7″‘s I’d eyed when scouring the pages of the music inkies, and Wiiija Records seemed at the heart of a new punk movement – a punk I could call my own (having only been a baby circa “Never Mind The Bollocks”). Huggy Bear’s “Rubbing The Impossible To Burst” and Cornershop’s “In The Days of Ford Cortina” (not the curry coloured one unfortunately) were quickly purchased along with a load of xeroxed zines i’d picked up in Rough Trade Covent Garden, and inspired I wanted to be a part of this new exciting DIY culture, I started a fanzine to report on it, and pass around to my school mates. This soon became called Velvet Sheep, and having seen Cornershop play a blistering set in support of Blur on their “Modern Life Is Rubbish” tour, I was hooked. I was also enthralled by an epically proportioned mantric “6am Jullandar Shere” in the intensely sweaty summer environs of the Kings Cross Water Rats.

Having got in with the awesome PR guys at Real Time, I was able to get in and meet the band’s main guys Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres in a street off Soho for a face to face interview (also circa “Woman’s Gotta Have It”) which ended up in Velvet Sheep #18. Not too long after I ended up in my first proper job working as a researcher on MTV Europe’s Alternative Nation show, and with the sympathetic ear of my presenter/mentor Toby Amies and producer/boss Katelijne De Backer we were able to (not fight) but persuade the powers that be at MTV to pay for Cornershop to come in for a live session, on the eve of what was their mainstream breakthrough “When I Was Born For The Seventh Time” – for which I’m eternally grateful to get a credit on. I’ve been a staunch fan ever since, and Cornershop has truly been a band to grow up with.

Ever-changing, always different yet infinitely themselves – be it from the wonky hip hop of “Butter The Soul” and the joyful side-step as Clinton, to the big guitar exuberance of “Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast” via the blissful bhangra infusion of “Cornershop & The Double ‘O’ Groove Of” with Bubbley Kaur. And now here we are at an epic new chapter, which has the portentous title “England Is A Garden”. It’s truly an album of our time, albeit an uncertain time. Musically it sounds as beautifully appointed as a Capability Brown garden complete with folly, stone bridge and a ha-ha wall – pastoral, reflective sometimes even joyfully hippy-ish and yet lyrically the unfortunate ha-ha-ing is reserved for an England whose reality is Boris’ garden bridge – built on a lie or indeed not built at all. Back on “England’s Dreaming” we were implored that we finally have to fight. And the time is now, the polemic hasn’t changed even if the sound and rhythms have. “England Is A Garden” is an album whose laid back vibes are perfect to fight the anxiety of self-isolating lockdown, but as the edifying vibes wash over you there’s nothing emollient about the enduring invective spirit of Cornershop. It’s an honour to welcome back to the VS bosom after all these years, the always engaging force for good that is Ben Ayres!

Before Ben’s ace song choice, check out what is already one of the best songs of the year, check out the drums at the beginning! Bombastic feel-good brilliance.

“England Is A Garden” is redolent of T-Rex, “Rocks” by Rolling Stones, “Rocks Off” by Primal Scream, “Everything Changes” by Love, old reggae classic as covered by Blondie “Girlie Girlie”, Woodstock vibes, Deep Purple, The Archies and 1910 Fruitgum Company. And yet it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard.

The singles are instant hits and soon to be hardy perennials (“St. Marie Under Canon” and ode to Sabbath and the heavy metal of Tjinder Singh’s Midlands upbringing “No Rock: Save In Roll”), while tunes like “Slingshot” originally commissioned for a Hindi Movie or glam swagger of “Highly Amplified” and “I’m A Wooden Soldier” are super-infused growers.

“Everywhere That Wog Army Roam” is a real highlight too, a return to the head-on use of reclaiming the acronym for “Western Oriental Gentleman” that became a racist epithet (see also song “Wog” from 1995’s “Woman’s Gotta Have It”) – on one hand a happy sounding anthem like the aforementioned Sophie George lovers rock reggae, on another a paen to the hazards of racial profiling which seemed bad when Cornershop first arrived, but which have got pervasively worse having bubbled to the surface with the societal breakdown at the heart of the divisive Brexit watershed. The most hummable provocative refrain since “Rape Me” by Nirvana features Singh proclaim “Everywhere that wog army roam/Policemen follow them.” in a 2020 mix between NWA & Junior Murvin.

Flutes cross sabres with sitars, tabla and 4-4 drums, occasionally stopping for a meditative rest at the style over the half broken stone wall, to take in birdsong and “Tomorrow Never Knows” backwards looping in the instrumental title tune before a hymn to the non-garden green that runs everything – even driving cynical decisions on who to buy life-saving equipment from – “The Cash Money”.

“One Uncareful Lady Owner” – (of a lonely heart?) is a nod to a want ad, and a return to the open road that began with the throttling punk of “Kawasaki (More Heat Than Chapati)” some 27 years ago, while album closer “The Holy Name” is an existential crisis wrapped up in a soothing blanket. How do we keep England as a garden? Once again Cornershop have more questions than answers, but this is more cliff hanger than cliff edge. Because as we know there will always be a light at the end of the tunnel (however long it is) there will always be a Cornershop ready to bring the Roy Ayers sunshine, Bolan boogie and the bristling lyrical barbs to these green and occasionally pleasant lands.

I’ve clearly blathered on plenty enough, lest to say that “England Is A Garden” is already a contender for my album of the year. But what is Ben from Cornershop’s song of the moment? Without further ado, here’s Ben Ayres’ “song for ewe” – and as you’d expect from someone with such discerning taste and musical intuition – it’s a firecracker.

“‘Without Love’ by Ronnie Taylor (7” vinyl on Nassau Records, 1967)

I first heard this played by my friend Richie, and it hit me straight away what an incredible, unusual and powerful track it is. It reminded me a little of ‘Warm And Tender Love’ by Percy Sledge which I’ve always loved.

I love how the organ drives it along and the vocal is right up in your face….(a bit like on The Cryin’ Shame’s ‘Please Stay’….it demands attention….. the almost corny lyrics, ‘Romeo & Juliet’, ‘Napoleon & Josephine’ somehow feel right in this context and make total sense and the sentiment that ‘nobody has found anything better than love’ is epic isn’t it?! You can tell that Ronnie means every word from the heart, it’s a stunning delivery. And the bit at the end when the horns seem to take off and whine away in different directions is sublime, I’ve never heard anything like it.

It’s a simple song too, I love simple songs. A total masterpiece.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Q8sq9Q3tHI

MANY THANKS TO BEN, AND TO LUCY CLARKE-BOLTON & SIMON KEELER AT FORTE MUSIC DISTRIBUTION.

Please buy the album from Cornershop’s own Ample Play Records here (many have come with a thank you note from Tjinder Singh just to prove that these guys are not only topical but topiary neat, and also mega nice guys)

https://www.ampleplay.co.uk/product/pre-order-the-new-cornershop-album-out-march-2020/

In the meantime I’ll leave you with another ready made classic – the video to first single “No Rock: Save In Roll”…