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An Exercise In Style: Acid Jazz

Name me three independent labels that have been around for more than a couple of years and I bet you they have a distinctive style. If you don’t have a mega bucks marketing budget you need a distinctive label sound and, ideally, look to survive. You want proof of my School of Spurious Science theory? Then look no further than East London’s Acid Jazz label which celebrates it’s 25th anniversary this year.

Of all the dance music styles of the late 1980’s, Acid Jazz was the likeable rogue. Acid House and Madchester stole the limelight, but Acid Jazz - named after a small indie label operating out of London - dug deeper and tore up dance floors by re-introducing the primeval power of Soul and Jazz. The James Taylor Quartet played tight arrangements of classic 60’s film tunes like ‘Alfie’ and ‘Blow Up’ (see the video at the end of this story!), Galliano would read Jazz poetry over solid grooves and Snowboy brought Latin percussion to the floor. More than just music, Acid Jazz was a lifestyle choice - Acid Jazz was doing Soul spins to Hammond organ driven stompers and hunting for polo neck jumpers and 60’s style leather jackets on an Amsterdam flea market.

In the 1990’s, the Acid Jazz sound went mainstream with chart acts like the Brand New Heavies, Corduroy and Jamiroquai. Then it went quiet around the small label from London’s East End. Far from having died, Acid Jazz has live on underground and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Label founder Eddie Piller believes that all fashions come and go in cycles and that Acid Jazz is on the up again.

“It’s the Mod scene that adopted Acid Jazz first when we originally launched in 1987,” says Piller. “Look at the strength of the Mod scene now, particularly here in the UK, it hasn’t been so big since the 80’s!” The first crossovers of Mod into the mainstream have already been spotted, like Tour De France winner Bradley Wiggins who recently guested on Piller’s own podcasts on all things mod, The Modcast.

Mods, short for Modernists, first appeared on the scene in England in the late 1950s, early 1960s. In a country only just emerging from post-WW2 rationing, people looking to set themselves apart from the grey masses set their sights onto the US for inspiration in matters of style. Button down shirts by New York shirtmakers Brooks Bros. (standard wear at Eastcoast ‘Ivy League’ colleges, later copied successfully by UK shirtmaker Ben Sherman) and short, fitted ‘bum freezer’ jackets were your ticket to another world. Jazz made by stylish chaps like Miles Davis et al. was their original music of choice, followed later by the emerging sounds of US Soul and Jamaican Blue Beat. Mod may have taken on different guises over the years, from suede heads to casuals, but it’s a scene that has never gone away.

Eddie Piller’s All-Time Style Icons

Steve Marriott of Mod band Small Faces Steve Marriott - The front man of hard living 60’s Mod band Small Faces wore the middle parting barnet like no other (the band also put Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood on the map)

Miles Davis, Jazz trumpeter and early Mod style icon Miles Davis - The trumpet player wore the Ivy League look with an edge in the mid 1950’s to early 60’s that made Brooks Bros. button down shirts and bum freezer jackets look mighty cool. Davis is arguably one of the roots of Modernism.

Paul Weller, ambassador of Mod Paul Weller - The Jam, The Style Council and now solo - Weller can wear pin stripe or Fred Perry and always looks the business.

Piller, a dyed-in-the-wool Mod who published the influential fanzine ‘Extraordinary Sensations’ before launching Acid Jazz, believes that the original musical themes that fuelled the Mod scene since the beginning - Soul, Jazz and Blues - are still going strong. “There’s only so many times you can watch the X-Factor and become emotionally involved,” opines Piller. Going underground provides much stronger emotional bonds to certain styles of music and its creators.

“The more I DJ, the more I like to play old Soul records from the golden period between 1966-75. It all goes in cycles. 3 years ago you could have 3,000 in a club and even my room would have 500 dancers in it. Now you are looking at much smaller numbers to start with. But then, some of the best nights you’ll have had would have been in places with less than 250 people.” And the buzz created by this group of 250 is bigger, because they are more committed to their scene.

The internet does not put more tools at the disposal of indies and their artists. In a way, it helped that bands had to go out, look real people in the eyes and win approval on their scene - Like virtually all of Acid Jazz’s signings. Affiliation to a particular scene would mean that people were more likely to check you out.”Today, everybody can make a record in their bedroom. But that’s not to say that you’ll have success. There is much more background noise you need to shout over. How many facebook pages do you know which have 12 likes and how many count their followers in their thousands?”

Back in the 1980’s, news about artists and music travelled on the xeroxed black and white pages of countless homemade magazines, the so-called Fanzines. Piller’s own Extraordinary Sensations sold 15,000 copies in its heyday. When you consider that there were about 150-200 similar fanzines around at the time, this is no small feat. Unique, quality content made Extraordinary Sensations a success. “We had people waiting for the next issue. They wanted to know what we would be covering next.” On social networks, your reach is much, much smaller and more random. Twitter estimates that every time you tweet only 25% of your followers will see this particular update.

Piller is concerned that there are less ways for underground acts to reach the mainstream. “There ’s always been manufactured Pop. What’s different now is that there are less outlets for alternative sounds. I’ve grown up with the likes of John Peel and Top Of The Pops, where you would see acts like The Jam and The Stranglers mixed in with the hits of the day. Now you basically only got Jools Holland and how many acts can you fit into a year of Jools’ shows? Maybe 30?”

All fashions come and go in cycles and Acid Jazz is ready to step back into the spotlight. Far from dwelling on its past success, the label is still developing new acts like Manchester’s Janice Graham Band. “It’s nice if fans ask for a re-press of a record we did 15 years ago,” says Piller and adds quickly “but that is not entirely what we’re about. There is too much good music out there now to limit yourself by only looking into the past.”

Acid Jazz will bring its 25th anniversary celebrations over to Dublin’s intimate Sugar Club venue on Friday, 16th November. Piller and guest DJs including original Soul Riot DJ Gerry Molumby promise to turn the Sugar Club into Mod heaven for the night. “I’ll play some of the records that inspired Acid Jazz and some of our most influential tunes,” reveals Piller. “You’ll also hear some Old Skool hip hop and Funk. I’ll try and make it a musical journey!”

A Blast From The 80’s: James Taylor Quartet ‘Blow Up’

For a more in-depth interview with Eddie Piller, see the recent feature in State magazine!

If you’d like to find out more about Mod culture, the music and the clothes, I suggest the following two books to you:

• Paolo Hewitt ‘The Soul Stylists – Six Decades of Modernism from Mods to Casuals’
• Robert Elms ‘The Way We Wore’