The London Soundscape: Pirate Flava

It would be impossible to conduct a thorough exploration of London’s sonic heritage without acknowledging the seismic role played by Pirate Radio in shaping the sounds of the city. While the powers that be may not care to admit it, a sizable number of the most intriguing musical trends and subgenres of the past half century – rap, garage, grime – have germinated and flourished thanks to these shadowy illegitimate bandwidths, much of it here in the capital, yet still far enough away from the attentions of more formal, mainstream broadcasters to prevent them becoming diluted. It’s also a fact that many of today’s biggest selling stars of stage and screen cut their teeth ‘spitting bars’ over a jury-rigged transmitter from the roof of a London towerblock. And if the work of grime legend turned pop star Tinchy Stryder has taught us nothing else, it’s that it is genuinely possible to enjoy a career trajectory that starts off trading playfully verbose rhymes on pirate radio and finishes trading banter with beloved end-of-the-pier children’s entertainers The Chuckle Brothers. How about that for cognitive dissonance?!

Another question: ‘What would be a radio be if it tuned itself?’ A query both posed and answered by DJ Wrongspeed in his weekly radio programme ‘Pirate Flava’ back in the early years of the twenty-first century. Broadcast on the (legal) community/arts radio station Resonance 104.4FM between 2002-3 (roughly the same time as Tinchy’s earliest forays onto the airwaves), the show was a weekly 15 minute collage of illicit and lo-fi broadcasts put together by randomly sweeping across the city’s airwaves, looking to ‘[draw] together some of the characters and musics which make up London’s chaotic radio space’. In the days before social media, online streaming and DAB broadcasting, this was how the city talked to itself and how it listened. Is there a more thrilling way to discover the hidden history of the capital than taking a trip both back in time and across the radio dial?

Truth be told, in this example we’re travelling even further back: the mentioning of artists with evocative names such as Bug Khan and the Plastic Jam and the slightly more prosaic DJ Kid Andy dates these particular recordings between 1991 and 1993; making them roughly contemporaneous with this short but fascinating BBC Arena documentary on the Hackney-based pirate Weekend Rush. For this writer, observing from afar as a teenager, the programme’s opening minute alone made London look like the most thrilling place on Earth. This was the time when the sound of jungle was poised to leave its birthplace among these Hackney tower blocks and sweep the nation’s pop charts – a period that, as the late writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher once observed, ‘sounded like the future rushing in’.

You can find other more contemporary recordings from 2002-3 elsewhere on the Wrongspeed Soundcloud Page, but be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted! The language and opinions on offer in these unregulated hinterlands of the London airwaves can be pretty abrasive and on occasion even downright offensive. And yet at the same time all life is here and there’s a strange unruly magic at work amidst the chaos: duelling rappers, quarrelling cabbies, domestic phone-ins, political debate, community disputes, homemade adverts for club nights and hair salons, phoning home to Mum, defending the honour of the family dog and an incident involving a pot noodle are just a few of the more intriguing moments on offer; all delivered in a multitude of languages, accents and dialects, colloquialisms and slang. Thanks to the efforts of Wrongspeed and a generation of others committing these broadcasts to cassette, we have these perfectly preserved time-capsules of an era that already feels a lot further away than a mere couple of decades. And yet a surprising number of London’s pirates live on to this day, shunning the technological developments that should have rendered them obsolete and continuing to engage the authorities in ever-more elaborate games of cat-and-mouse. Even more surprisingly, others have ‘gone legit’ and gained community radio licenses, websites, youth training schemes and online archives. Jungle, garage and grime remain cultural mainstays to this day and, perhaps most shocking of all, sales of the ‘Bombay Bad Boy’ remain robust. Perhaps 2002 isn’t so far away after all…

Those of you still hungry (no pun intended) will find a comprehensive list of London-based pirate stations old and new on The Pirate Archive homepage. A less formal but equally remarkable private archive along with a fascinating oral history comes courtesy of one Michael Finch, owner of perhaps the largest collection of recorded pirate broadcasts in the UK and the subject of Rollo Jackson’s charming 2011 documentary Tape Crackers. The DVD is well worth tracking down, here’s the trailer to whet your appetite in the meantime:

Advertisements

Under Ground London Soundscape – UOSH In Action!

The new soundscape created by staff and volunteers from the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project has been going down a storm in the exhibition space here at the London Metropolitan Archives in Farringdon. ‘Going down’ also happens to be the subject of the exhibition itself: Under Ground London is a fascinating and extensive exploration of the hidden histories submerged beneath the surface of the Capital – from lost rivers and sewers to tunnels, bunkers, shelters, remains and ruins. You can listen to a short extract from the soundscape below, and for maximum effectiveness we would encourage you to enjoy the following clip below ground, perhaps while travelling on the tube, provided the wifi holds out?

Designed for use at low-level and accompanied by projections of vintage films from the LMA collection, the soundtrack consists of electronic tones and textures combined with modern field recordings by London tour guide and UOSH project volunteer Andrea Vail. The brief was to produce ‘…an abstract sound portrait of some of London’s hidden spaces’ and the response so far has been most gratifying. The team wanted to create ‘an experience evocative of the sounds every Londoner will recognise: distant trains in tunnels, the squealing of wheels, the rush hour claustrophobia and the occasional sudden moments of unexpected calm and solitude. The creation of a modern soundtrack also acts as a slight juxtaposition to the more historical nature of the films on display, bringing the past into the present…’

Entry is free and this fascinating exhibition runs at the London Met Archives until the end of October 2019. Well worth a visit if you’re passing – and you might even catch a glimpse of the UOSH team, hard at work in our endeavours to catalogue and digitise the 5,000 ‘at risk’ sound recordings we’ve been tasked with preserving. But one minor note of caution, not all of the exhibition is suitable for those of a squeamish disposition!

The Sounds of Billingsgate Past

For over 50 years, field and sound recordists have captured different soundscapes to help develop our knowledge of local history – enabling researchers to identify change around language, technology and the environment. One such soundscape is the market place, and in particular the cries and general noise of this traditionally busy and crowded centre for local trade.

The end of an era

Included among the City of London Corporation archives are the sounds and voices of Billingsgate Fish Market. Formally established under Act of Parliament in 1699, it wasn’t until the mid to late Victorian period that work began on the design of a more purpose-built structure, first by City Architect James B. Bunning, and then later by Sir Horace Jones, who enlarged it twofold to incorporate Billingsgate Stairs and Wharf, and Darkhouse Lane. Opened in 1877, the fish market remained in this building before its relocated to the West India Docks in 1982.

© London Met Archives Exterior view of Billingsgate Fish Market, 1973Image: Exterior view of Billingsgate Fish Market, 1973 (COLLAGE 36135)

In January 1982, before the market moved, Capital Radio conducted a series of interviews with traders and porters. In the introduction, our host reflects on what will be lost once the building is vacated including the friendliness – and language – of the porters, as well as the powerful smell.  So, who best to reminisce about its history than those who worked and bought produce from the market?

Memories of Old Billingsgate

One interviewee comments, for example, on how the younger traders lack the fish handling skills of his generation:

 “… you get hold of a Salmon, you put your hand around the back of the Salmon, lift it and the same with a Hake, you put your fingers in the eyes, slide your hand along the body, lift it. You see them now, they get hold of fish, they just throw it and chuck it away …”

While another discusses the different buyers, from the West End to Walworth Road:

“… they’d have the fish on the stands by 5 in the morning when the market opened, it was bloody noisy then what with the clatter of the hooves and the wheels of the vans rumbling over the cobbles. After the West End buyers had bought the fancy fish for all the hotels, the costers from Kennington and Walworth came round and they bought loads of haddock which they smoked themselves at home overnight. They bought the fish for tuppence and sold it smoked on the street for about six pence or eight pence”

© London Met Archives Interior view of Billingsgate Fish Market, 1973
Image: Exterior view of Billingsgate Fish Market, 1973 (COLLAGE 36140)

Market Sounds

Recording at Billingsgate Fish Market, it is not only the interviews themselves that provide insight to its history, but also the transient sounds and colloquial voices heard in the background. For instance, traders heard selling different types of fish, traffic echoing through the market from trucks or vans transporting goods, and the ‘chat’ used to sell produce:

“… what about the mackerel?”

“You’re not trying are you really?”

“Sir, here you are mackerel!”

“Where you going handsome?”

Although we have printed collections of market cries within our wider archives, sound recordings like these help us understand more about the pace and rhythm of the words spoken – a shame really that the process of ‘how to record sound’ wasn’t discovered until the 19th century!

*These recordings were digitised and catalogued as part of The British Library ‘Unlocking our Sound Heritage’ project – https://bit.ly/2Az6XkN, for which LMA is a regional hub.*

Unlocking the Huntley Archives

How saved sound heritage helped me discover the radical lives of Eric and Jessica Huntley

Kirsty and Eric

Eric and Jessica Huntley came to the UK from Guyana in the late 50s, part of the Windrush generation. They were pioneering political activists, involved in many grassroots campaigns for racial and social justice, both nationally and internationally. They are highly respected in the African-Caribbean community and beyond for their work in giving a voice to black people in the UK.

I’ve only recently discovered the legacy of Eric and Jessica through my placement at the London Metropolitan Archives, where the Huntley archives are stored. It was the LMA’s first major deposit from the African-Caribbean community, and it reveals the story of the changing cultural landscape in Britain since the 1950s.

Within the collection is a series of interviews that the Huntleys did with Professor Harry Goulbourne in 1992, recently digitised through a British Library-led project that the LMA are part of, called ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’. The project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and, over a period of five years, will preserve almost half a million rare sound recordings that are at risk of being lost, on formats that are physically degrading and gradually becoming obsolete. Through this, I’ve been able to access audio heritage that has helped me understand the importance of Jessica and Eric’s story.

Here’s one of my favourite clips that I’ve discovered from the interviews, which is of Jessica describing her first job in a shirt factory back in Guyana:

I love this story because its shows Jessica’s early revolutionary spirit in calling out injustice, even before she moved to the UK. Once they did, she and Eric went on to campaign about everything from housing discrimination to National Front attacks, and even helped organise the ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ march in 1981, which was the largest protest march of black Britons to take place in the UK. They maintained an international involvement in politics, continuing to demonstrate against government injustices in Guyana, the South African apartheid regime, and the incarceration of Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was on death row in Pennsylvania, USA.

Though not officially part of the Black Power movement, the Huntleys were influenced by its key figures. Here’s Jessica reflecting on Malcolm X’s visit to the UK in the 1960s:

A key part of the Huntley’s activism was through their publishing company and bookshop, Bogle-L’Ouverture, which they set up in 1968, originally in their front room. It was named in honour of two freedom fighters – Toussaint L’Ouverture and Paul Bogle – who were both figure heads in black resistance against the slave trade. It was one of the first black publishing houses in the UK, at a time when books by black authors were rare in mainstream bookshops. This was an important action to stop the voice of black history from being silenced. Once established, the bookshop became a venue for workshops, readings and lectures, and an important community hub. Some notable writers they printed were Linton Kwesi Johnson, the only black poet published by Penguin Modern Classics, and Sir Walter Rodney, after whom the bookshop was renamed following his assassination in 1980.

Eric and Jessica saw the importance of preserving history for community and education. They kept many records of British racism and black activism, and believed in the power of the written word to document the contribution of African-Caribbean people, as Jessica explains:

This belief in preserving heritage and passing down history led to the Huntleys depositing their archives with the LMA. They are managed by a charity called FHALMA (Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA), who work to bring the material to life and expose it to wider audiences and new generations. One way they do this is by hosting an annual Huntley Conference at the LMA. This year’s conference marked 50 years of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. Attendees had the chance to record an audio memory of Jessica, who passed away in 2013, which will later be added to the sound archive. I had the opportunity to volunteer at the conference, helping record these memories – including this one from Eric himself, below. Having listened to so many of his archived interviews, it felt like a huge privilege to be recording one myself.

In June, the LMA and FHALMA are collaborating with arts and diversity organisation Culture& to host ‘The Memory Archives’, an event commemorating Windrush Day. The programme will use sound material, including that of the Huntley Archives, as a reminiscence tool for people living with dementia – particularly those from the African-Caribbean community. ‘The Memory Archives’ will take place at the London Metropolitan Archives on Saturday 22nd June – save the date and we hope to see you there!

Kirsty Kerr is an Archives and Digital Media Trainee at Culture& and a volunteer on the LMA’s ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage at London Metropolitan Archives

Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA

Culture&

 

 

From The Archive: ‘Potter’s Pigeon Problem’

 

Our exploration of the Inner London Education Authority’s archive as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project continues apace this week with a rather feisty little offering inspired by the city’s Caribbean diaspora. Mango Spice is a collection of songs recorded for distribution to London schools in the early 1980s as a double cassette and song-book, complete with liner notes, musical scores and amusing illustrations by Maggie Ling. There are over forty of them to choose from, but the current favourite in the UOSH office is this performance of the traditional Jamaican number ‘Good Morning Missa Potter’, sung here by Chris Cameron, Vallin Miller and a spirited chorus of ILEA schoolchildren. It’s something of an ear-worm and you’ll surely find yourself singing along in no time, even if the lyrics might initially seem a little impenetrable to those of us unfamiliar with Creole-based dialects. It goes:

Good Morning, Missa Pottter,
good morning to yu, sah.
Come to lodge a complaint to yu now, sah,
Plant a piece a red peas a red Sally land,
Mary Jane an pigeon come eat it out, sah.
Come out a me yahd, me neva call yu yah,
Come out a me yahd, me neva call yu yah,
For yu house rent money no done pay fah,
Yu house rent money no done pay fah.

You’ll be humming it for the rest of the day, trust me. A potted translation (pun intended) of the above can be found in the pages of the Mango Spice book, along with the clarification that this is being sung by a landlady to her tenant (despite being helmed here by two chaps and some children) as she gives voice to her grievances vis-a-vis his recent conduct. Don’t let the melodious nature of the tune or the cordial tone of the opening lines fool you; she is in a quite steaming rage and clearly on the verge of ‘shaking him warmly by the throat’, as your Dad might put it. The charges she brings against Potter are two-fold: on the one hand, he hasn’t paid his rent, which is never a smart move if you’re hoping to avoid a song-based altercation with whoever owns the roof that keeps the rain off. But even worse, this redoubtable woman whose palm Potter is contractually obliged to be crossing claims that his daughter Mary Jane and some pigeon accomplices have dug up and eaten all the kidney beans she planted in the vegetable patch, rendering hours of back-breaking labour null and void in one greedy feathered swoop. In other words, she’s certainly not belting out Mr. Potter’s Greatest Hits…

As an aside, it must be said that all this does make for a far more entertaining method of tackling tenancy disputes than the curt official letter or aggrieved voicemail that such transgressions more traditionally incur. Thinking back over my own years spent renting in the capital, besides a handful of delayed monthly payments I’ve also been found guilty on occasion of playing loud jungle music in the kitchen, using the butter knife to spread something other than butter and that time I accidentally flooded out my ground floor neighbours (those poncey, futuristic taps might look very fancy, but anything over a trickle and the water misses the bathtub completely). The closest anyone got to breaking into song during these conflicts was the downstairs occupant at the moment when her ceiling fell in, but while the sudden burst of anguished soprano could almost certainly have been heard as far as the Caribbean, her actual complaint pursued the usual formal channels. Yawn.

Anyway, back to Mr. Potter: what has this most hapless of tenants to offer in his defence? Very little, it would seem – perhaps wisely, because hell hath no fury like a wronged proprietress with an axe to grind and the power of song. Though who knows, maybe this traditional ballad did once contain other lyrics, now lost to history? Perhaps even whole other stanzas existed, in which Mr. Potter haughtily returned the serenade, assuring his accuser in a rich basso profundo that Mary Jane had actually been in her bedroom miming showtunes into a hairbrush at the time of the alleged incident, and then going on to enquire as to whether the landlady had any children herself and if so had she ever actually managed to convince one to eat anything remotely as healthy as a kidney bean; even when washed, cooked and served as a side-dish, let alone pulled cold and hard from the bare earth? Pausing to regain his composure after this outburst, Potter might then have sworn that the direct debit had definitely gone from his account as usual, definitely, unless the pigeons had somehow stolen that as well. And finally, casting an aggrieved eye upon these feathered felons, he might have rounded things off by proposing an admirable solution to all of their problems: the sudden abundance of well-sated and newly-plump game-birds waddling sluggishly around the yard in a contented, post-bean-feast stupor. Everybody wins – dinner is served, Potter is exonerated and we now have enough material for two weeks at the Palladium: Red Sally, The Musical!

Sadly, until these extra verses are discovered (or until Tim Rice finally accepts the reverse charges), we will have to assume that the tenant simply declined to counter the accusations and dined instead on a large helping of humble pie. While one must of course never automatically assume a man’s guilt just because of his silence, it is true that the vehemence with which the landlady holds Mr. Potter responsible does suggest some kind of lapse on his part. The most likely scenario is that he was the owner of the birds and that his negligence that had caused them to stray towards the forbidden delights of the vegetable patch; another is that Mr. Potter was in fact supposed to be actively guarding the bean patch himself in his capacity as a scarecrow. Either way, guilty as charged.

But it’s rarely ever as cut and dry as all that, is it? Is there really anybody with experience of renting in London or anywhere else who couldn’t trade a few horror stories regarding their accommodation tribulations over the years? How many stories have ever ended with the landlady/lord or letting agent as the noble hero? Not Red Sally, The Musical, that’s for sure! And so, in solidarity with all of the Potters (and some of the pigeons) of this world, I would like to hereby propose a riposte in the form of ‘My Landlady’, a calypso classic by Trinidadian icon and former resident of the capital, Lord Kitchener.

This song is one of many treats from London Is The Place For Me, that much-loved compilation of Trinidadian Calypso songs from 1950-56 that beautifully capture the joys and sorrows experienced by these first members of the Windrush generation. Indeed, ‘Kitch’ himself was on board that very ship and famously sang the album’s title cut accapella for the waiting Pathé news cameras upon arrival at Tilbury docks:

Full of characteristic warmth and wit, these recordings are an integral part of London’s rich sonic history, and tell tales that still ring true six decades later – Kitchener’s amusing misadventures on the Underground, for example, never fails to raise a smile. And while the nine million people who call London their home these days should hardly be in need of it, recordings such as this and Mango Spice are a perfect reminder of just how rich a cultural stew is forever bubbling away in this city of ours. Just as well it’s a metaphorical stew, because we’re all out of beans…

Sound Conservation: Baking Cassettes

During our work on the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, the team will potentially encounter a range of conservation issues during the digitisation process. For example, how to prepare degrading formats for digital transfer.

Cassettes and reel to reel tapes (particularly the latter) can build up moisture over time, which damages and erodes the material, impairs the sound quality and makes for a poor transfer. This build-up of moisture cannot always be spotted on visual inspection, but playing the tape may give you some audio clues: these can include muffled or ‘watery’ sound, excessive wow and flutter etc. Basically if the audio sounds ‘wobbly’ or muffled, baking may be the solution.

Another problem that frequently occurs is ‘sticky shed syndrome’, where the binder holding the oxide in place on the tape surface begins to break down. In severe cases this oxide can literally powder off on your fingers and create an audible ‘squealing’ sound which can be heard both in the studio and on the recording. This last one in particular is more common with reels, but cassettes can be affected too. Either way, a spell in the oven will be necessary.

Tape baking

In the above example we see a cassette placed on one the trays inside the oven. There are three trays for the baking of multiple tapes. Place the offending items in the oven and cover with the lid. The controls are very simple – set the timer for 8 hours and the temperature for 50 degrees.

Baking tape 2

The tape must be allowed to heat up and cool down naturally, so once the baking process has started, resist the temptation to throw in a couple of extras that you might have missed!

Once the tape has been left to return to normal temperature (ideally on the following day – the sooner the better), the theory goes that you’ll have a brief period of a few days to attempt another digitisation before the tape returns to its former state. The theory also goes that you have ONE CHANCE ONLY to digitise the tape once baking has been completed. It’s generally a good idea to adhere to these guidelines, but also to bear in mind that each tape is unique and can act in different ways. The baking may have completely remedied the problem – and it often does – but isn’t always the miraculous cure you might hope for. There are other tape restoration methods you can try, but that’s for another time.

Unlocking our Sound Heritage is a Heritage Lottery Funded project led by the British Library, for which London Metropolitan Archives is one of ten regional hubs. Discover more via our website.

From The Archive: ‘The Strangest Song Ever Written?’

Time for another journey unearthing more lost and forgotten recordings for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. This week we’re very excited to be digging through the tape archive of the Inner London Education Authority.

A progressive institution running from 1965 to 1990, the ILEA audio collection includes educational tapes for study and debate in class, short dramatic works, impressive school concert recordings and even a seven-part series for Capital Radio in which a team of plucky youngsters take the great and good of 1977 to task on the issues of the day. More on all those things, hopefully, in due course. But for today our business is with ‘It’s a Gift: A taped project for pupils’ brought to your ears by one Alan Vincent. An unassuming cassette wrapped in a yellow cover featuring a simple line drawing of a hand, upraised in the traditional gesture of benefaction – either that or it means ‘give me a biscuit’. 

Over jaunty piano, our narrator, presumably Alan himself, sets the scene: a group of schoolfriends discover that their teacher Mr. Sharp will soon be celebrating his birthday. A popular educator, they decide that this would be an admirable time to get him a present, particularly as they will shortly be moving on to secondary school. But what kind of present should it be? The opening scene eavesdrops on our group using this very question to kick off the first in a series of spirited debates. If listening to a group of 10-year-olds take an absolute age to reach any kind of decision is your idea of time well spent, then brace yourself as we’re about to hit the mother-lode. 

So, a gift. An initial proposal to get him a notebook is met with a swift rebuttal, which is probably a good thing as this would hardly have made for an interesting story. It’s an unpopular choice for two reasons: one girl sadly reminisces of how she had presented him with a notebook in the past ‘and he gave it to another person to write something down in the book’. None of her classmates seem to feel the need to point out that ‘writing things down’ is pretty much the reason that notebooks were invented, but the objection is allowed to stand. The second, more pertinent observation is that Mr. Sharp is already in possession of ‘millions’ of notebooks, the thought of which suddenly makes that particular story really quite interesting again.

But let’s put any questions raised by the subject of Mr. Sharp’s stationary surplus to one side and dream a little bigger, shall we? The suggestion of an LP of brass music is also met with disdain by the majority, for while they all agree that ‘Mr. Sharp loves brass’, it was a fact that he probably had ‘most’ of the brass records already. MOST of them, kids?! That’s a lot of brass! What exactly is going on round at Mr. Sharp’s house? And can’t you think of anything to give your teacher that he isn’t currently stockpiling? 

But the suggestion of music does at least provide a jolt of inspiration for Andy, the loudest member of the group and therefore its de facto leader. The perfect present for Mr. Sharp, one that nobody else would EVER think of and that would sit most amicably alongside his mountainous horde of moleskins and marching bands would surely be ‘A PIECE OF MUSIC FROM OUR OWN MINDS!’ 

You need to hear it in the context of the recording, of course, but to our ears this declaration of Andy’s does possess an unusually weighted, perhaps even slightly sinister resonance. Perhaps you’ll agree that the phrase ‘a piece of music from our own minds’ sounds not a little incongruous coming from the mouth of a 10 year old – as opposed to something more conventional like ‘why don’t we play him a song’, ‘let’s just sing something’, or ‘I can’t be bothered, what’s on the telly?’. And our concerns turn out to be well-placed, for we’re about to witness a group of primary-aged children celebrating the birthday of their teacher by composing THE STRANGEST SONG EVER WRITTEN

Via the magic of no-editing-at-all, we’re granted lengthy access to the creative process. The next debate concerns just what style of music they should be going for and you’ll be pleased to hear that this discussion carries on for quite a while too. Jazz is a good suggestion and one can readily imagine these children going full-blown Ornate Coleman and serenading their teacher with a momentous psychedelic birthday wig-out. The more formal members of the group would prefer a march, however, but what kind of march would it be (is there more than one)? Perhaps a Waltz would be better? Some Oompah? A sonnet? Light opera? Death Metal? Hurry up, kids!

But the real difficulty proves to be the lyrics – although you’ll be relieved to hear that despite this being the ’80s nobody starts rapping. It’s eventually (and I do mean eventually) agreed that they’ll each have a crack at writing some lines on the subject of Mr. Sharp and then take a vote as to whose are the best. And that’s when things get REALLY strange. Here, by way of an example, is Andy’s first attempt at a rhyming couplet: 

’Mr. Sharp is very kind / when you’re making up music he creeps up behind’

…Rapidly followed by this effort from one of the girls, which appears to have taken some inspiration from the dadaist manifesto: 

‘Russian scoring like a rabbit / Of Mr. Sharp is there in the corridor / he makes you jump and bump each other / he makes up waltzes for the band / he makes you laugh and giggle / but he makes you very giddy.’

I know what you’re thinking – how can they hope to record this song over the deafening clamour of the alarm bells that are now ringing? What exactly is going on with Mr. Sharp? What’s with all the jumping and bumping? What exactly is ‘Russian scoring’? What could be making these children so giddy? Why is Mr. Sharp creeping up behind them? Where is the nearest responsible adult? 

But we’re not finished yet, because things get properly twisted when the moment arrives for them to unveil the final version of the song. With Andy on lead vocals and the others hammering out an effusive see-sawing melody on recorder, glockenspiel, drums and piano, a mere thirty-seven seconds are all this young team require to give several hundred years of western musical tradition and all sense of conventional logic the most almighty smack in the chops. It goes: 

‘Mr. Sharp is very nice /
But don’t meet him on a Thursday night / 
as it is his killing night! 
Everybody loves him so / 
but I think he is the best
But he never takes me out / 
he is always mucking about.’

‘Well, what did you think?’ pipes up our narrator as soon as the children have downed tools, the chirpiness of his tone suggesting he wasn’t listening too closely and may have missed the line about Mr. Sharp’s weekly ‘Killing Night’. Where on Earth to begin, Alan?! Whitney Houston once sang ‘I believe ‘the children are our future’ and after listening to this performance one must surely agree: like the future, these children are at best confusing and at worst a cause for the gravest of concern. 

Our narrator doesn’t see it that way, however – ‘I’m sure their teacher had never had such a splendid gift!’ he enthuses, before going on to encourage you, the listening audience to ‘imagine you are that group of children’ and to ‘make up some music of your own to give as a present to someone you like’. 

At this point the trail goes cold – we have no further information in the archive that could help in identifying the progeny of tape or any of its participants, so it’s highly likely we’ll never know what Mr. Sharp thought of his strange present or the exact nature of the diabolical horrors he was responsible for all those Thursdays ago. So once again we’re reaching out – not without a little trepidation – to see if anyone can shed some light onto this strange little story.

Did you attend a London Primary School in the early 1980s? Did you know Mr. Sharp? What DID he think of the song? More to the point, what did the social services think of it? Did he match the character portrait sketched out here – that of a man creeping stealthily amongst mountains of notebooks, each one containing increasingly lurid scrawled manifestos, while a scratched-up recording of a New Orleans funeral band tolls ominously in the background? Did he ever take YOU out? Did you live to tell the tale?

And for the rest of you, which person living or dead would YOU most like to write a confusing song about? Perhaps you and some friends could get together and produce a piece of music from your own minds about the UOSH project? Why not send it in? We guarantee it will be archived ‘appropriately’!