The Henry Road

Nottingham’s musical family tree

Titus cursed his name and walked through the night when Nottingham turned blue and Satan rode the back of every soul in town. Fool Hardy Practitioners. Fornicating, Hectoring, Parasites. Leaning in on all angles with a shape-shifting sheen that bleached the periphery. Groaning under the weight of city living, Market Square gave way. The vacuous void barely masked the bow-stance hollering of cropped, crimped and pimped. Bodies, tumbling and fumbling for a sense of perspective. Thigh slaps shoulder, cracks a scream and smacks a head. This is the city centre. This is Nottingham.

The latest media report on Nottingham’s social failings seemed rather harsh. So I took my eyes from the table, jumped out of bed and considered the cultural landscape. The lines on the city’s face were under attack from botox-wielding developers and style partisans. Guardian-guzzling townies heckled anything with ears, in a non-committal way. And the man was still there, outside Marks & Spencer pedalling his gloriously ramshackle, dethroned-Elvis blues. Titus said nothing about the music.

Chain-stored memories can echo from centre to centre. But music isn’t always so malleable. Cities have built proud reputations on the strength of indigenous, sonic output. But when it comes to framing Nottingham’s musical heritage in black and white, journalists often leave just the words, Black Lace. A southerner by birth, I’ve little first-hand experience to draw on. However, I have stared into the starry eyes of habitual Notts dwellers as they recount the heady days of northern soul, The Garage and espresso-free pub runs to catch the army of metal-clad warriors that roamed these here parts. And I’ve seen bands such as Bent, The Tindersticks and Six by Seven raise the highbrows of the often-fickle music press.

And it’s still going on. Dancing in the shadows of City Living’s agreeable mood music, Nottingham-based musicians conjure a strange brew. I asked Plug if I could draw a family tree charting the City’s current sound-wave aviators. They said that I could and even agreed to print it. The tree is incomplete. It’s lacking texture and the names of many of Nottingham’s sound slingers. Plug will do its best to tackle the first issue, running features on local bands and musicians. The second point is down to you. Names submitted before the next deadline will be added to the tree. And so on. No longer will a Black Lace lexicon constrict journalists. First up, it’s The Henry Road.

The suburbs of Nottingham can be confusing places. The mottled, brown and grey brickwork of one street blends seamlessly with the lines of pre and post-war constructions that stretch out for five miles in any direction. No direction home? Or every direction home? Disorientation. However, if you want to lose the familiarity of home and get gloriously lost, seek The Henry Road. The band may have studied West Coast building techniques, fried their foundations in a quart of Beefheart and employed the progressive structures of early Genesis and Soft Machine. But the resulting landscape bears little resemblance to anything on the current musical horizon. It’s sound that you can see. But what does it sound like?

On their 2002 debut ep, Horse Clock Leg, the band gave us a clue. The Henry Road play wagon pop. But what does it mean? “Wagon pop has backfired a little bit because it comes across as a little too irreverent,” explains Ben Lord, the band’s skin merchant. “During the first few years people wanted to know what we sounded like so we invented wagon pop, anything to get away from fusion. Fusion is a good description for molecules. But for music? Fuck off!”

Until 2003 the irreverence was not really a problem. The waspish punk for modern lovers that characterised the band’s debut ep still buzzed in the background of follow-up, And Arm. But the scope of the new ep was much broader, taking in music-hall vistas, BBC educational broadcasts and electro-pop sensibilities that hovered somewhere between ’79 and ’81. The Henry Road were clearly having a lot of fun. On the night of And Arm’s release, Philip Collin, player of keys and vocal chords, peeled off shirts in-between numbers to reveal a massive, painted pigeon on his chest. What did it mean? It didn’t really matter, this was Wagon Pop and the audience was cosy enough to understand.

And then, in late summer 2003, The Henry Road released the Loggy Log ep. Suddenly a lot of people wanted to know where the band were coming from. The ep charts the tale of Loggy Log, from Loggy land, as he and his friends try to save his one love from the random allure of Crap Arrow. Rolling Stone USA got very excited and commented: “The Loggy Log ep…will fire up the synapses of anyone who found side two of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake a mite too lucid. Mad, original and really rather brilliant.” Closer to home, LOGO Magazine likened the release to, “Richman doing Cousteau doing Ringo Starr.” And the ep reminded Losing Today of, “Neil Innes having a spell of the Spike Milligans.”

Amid the maze of adjectives and reference points used by reviewers, the phrase, “this is a band that doesn’t take itself too seriously,” kept cropping up. Words that seemed very pertinent as I chatted with Tim, Phil, Chris and Ben; to try and pin down clear directions to The Henry Road. In-between stories of why steel is lighter than air and periodic-table pies, the band were finding out more about me, than I was of them. Worryingly short of material I opted for the simple, “how are you finding music in Nottingham?” The Road almost opened up.

The conversation quickly turned to a general feeling that independence is on the wane in Nottingham. Summing up a tale about the decline of Bunkers Hill, Chris Henson – bass hoon – stated, “The individual things are getting pushed out of the city centre to make way for the homogeneous things.” Commenting more directly on the music being made in Nottingham, the band’s guitarist and vocalist, Tim Hawkins said: “The things that are good in Nottingham are generally left of field, they’re on their own, not part of a scene. So you can’t just stick them in with someone else.”

Perhaps the reason why Nottingham bands are not regularly signed? “We’ve already established that not many A&R come to Nottingham…,” begins Phil. “You’re talking out of your hat when you say they don’t come here,” interrupts Tim, “because you don’t know. They don’t announce themselves and go ‘hi, we’re A&R just come to watch a gig’.” Ben suggests a solution, ” I think that A&R people should wear massive, really good helmets because we don’t know if they’re here. Helmets would probably sort that out.”

Are the directions any clearer? Perhaps not. But that’s not surprising for a band that appears refreshingly free of reasons and intent. “We never sat down to discuss the sound we wanted,” finished Ben. “But on Loggy Log there were times when we thought, that sounds like the intro to Tull and then we’d try and pastiche the sound. Or someone will say, it needs more wagon. And sometimes Tim will say, I don’t want to wagon that and we know what each other means without having to describe it.”

I’ve tried to describe it and I’m still not sure that I know what I mean. The Henry Road? Wagon Pop? It’s astounding technical ability. It’s free from the restraints of rock and pop’s more travelled channels. It’s sharp. It’s witty. It’s something that swallows my head and cocoons my imagination under the lengthening shadows of Tim Burton and Kevin Ayers as they splash in the wine-drenched tales of their own making. Argh! Hear and see for yourself. Loggy Log 2 is due shortly with an album to follow in the New Year. All of the band’s ep’s are available to download at: http://www.thehenryroad.co.uk.

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