The Sound of Bristol vs Belgium

 Nobody is likely to forget the contribution Bristol has made to the world of music (thank you Portishead, Massive Attack, and the Cup of Tea label, to name but a few). The story of the bass-heavy and territorial-sounding music that spawned the enthusiasm for the “Bristol sound” moniker is not unlike what happened here at home, and yet that same enthusiasm is yet to be unearthed in Belgium. Turns out that other cities with a rich legacy of beats are much better are archiving than us. Bart Sibiel once again makes the case for national pride. 

Ask any Belgian with a fondness for bass-heavy music to pinpoint Bristol on a map and there’s a good chance the result won’t be anywhere near the southwest of England. Yet the influence this city has had is far bigger than they realise. Some will remember that there used to be something called the “Bristol Sound” in the ’90s, with Massive Attack and Portishead as its most prominent exponents, but that’s about it. Before and after this heyday, there’s a rich musical history that has its roots in (post)punk and which branches into the dubstep and bass music produced there today.

This story of a thriving and creative DIY generation that picked up on the spirit of punk rather than the actual music, laying the foundation for a blossoming period of dance music with a very specific and territorial sound and all that came after it – it’s not unlike what happened here in Belgium. Each with its own peculiarities, of course. The big difference is that they’re archiving this history far more avidly and rigorously than we are.

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Bristol is, like Brussels, one of those cities still blessed with far more second hand record shops than you’d expect. In all of them you’ll find an exclusive section for albums with “Bristol Archive Records” printed on the sleeve. A simple and effective name for a record label – it covers their mission perfectly and sparks the interest of collectors with a healthy dose of curiosity. The imprint specialises in the city’s music from the post-punk days on, starting roughly after 1977, with a strong emphasis on reggae. This isn’t really all that outlandish; groups sought inspiration in the sounds coming from Jamaica after they discovered punk wasn’t the musical revolution they hoped for, turning out to be yet another incarnation of rock ‘n roll. PIL and The Clash are the most obvious examples of this crossover. Couple this with Bristol’s strong historic Caribbean connection and their back catalogue makes perfect sense.

For centuries Bristol has had a sizeable black community, thanks to its infamous history as an important slave-trade centre and trading port, yet most of its current Caribbean population moved here in the ’50s, having been invited by the government as a solution to the post-war shortage of workers. Most of them settled in the St-Pauls area of the city. The ‘blues’ parties held by local sound systems in this neighbourhood inspired many young post-punkers like the Pop Group’s Mark Stewart in their search for something new. His band was one of the few local groups to make it beyond local stardom and occasional appearances on the John Peel show, in spite of the talent that was present as Bristol Archive Records proves.

This changed with the arrival of hiphop in the early ’80s an addition to an already diverse musical potpourri. Slowly but surely The Wild Bunch collective – who counted among its members Massive Attack’s 3D, Daddy G, Mushroom, super producer and Soul II Soul member Nellee Hooper and DJ Nature / Milo – laid the foundation for what was to become the Bristol sound. Their sound system started in the reggae tradition but evolved into something that was just as much rooted in what Kool Herc did in the Bronx a decade before them; playing in clubs, at private parties and at the local carnival in St-Pauls before they all went their own way reinventing the sound of UK club music in the ’90s.

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This soul-meets-hiphop-meets-reggae with a strong DIY spirit became the sound of Bristol and launched the careers of many trip hop bands and artists like Portishead, Tricky and Up, Bustle & Out, or kick-started labels like Cup Of Tea Records. With Bristol Archive Records you can dig a little deeper into this period. On one of their most interesting recent releases, Smith & Mighty’s “The Three Stripe Collection 1985 – 1990”, they document the oeuvre of this seminal band, often forgotten by all but the aficionados, that is one of the major influences for this sound and everything that came after it. Like Massive Attack, they started reworking Bacharach classics in the late 1980s (The Wild Bunch’s only release is a version of ‘The Look Of Love’) into bumping bass-monsters but they never reached the same superstar status. Instead they did influence many jungle, drum ‘n bass and dubstep producers – forming the missing link between what happened before 1990 – and other Bristol bass-music heavyweights like Roni Size, Krust, Pinch, Peverelist, Joker and Julio Bashmore.

The entire catalogue of this record label offers up pieces of the greater puzzle that is the Bristol music scene. Slowly building an extensive archive through well-documented releases, not taking too many shortcuts. It’s as historically important as it is musically interesting. With a site that offers even more info and knowledge. Making sure nobody forgets the contribution this city made and continues to make to the world of music. It makes us long for a similar initiative in Belgium. Because where they looked to reggae and hiphop after punk, we embraced the world of affordable electronic instruments and went on through minimal wave to live our own heyday with new beat and the Belgian techno/rave sound.

Where Onderstroom, Walhalla and even Minimal Wave have re-released seminal and/or cassette-only albums or compilations, none did it as rigorously as the Bristol example, nor did they go beyond the mid-’80s. It’s slightly baffling there hasn’t been a decent new beat nor Belgian rave compilation either. The Sound Of Belgium’s Facebook account does unearth tracks and youtube video’s with an amiable frequency but taking it a up a level and actually releasing the music would surely satisfy many music-hungry souls. Not only the ones who lived it and feel nostalgic about it, but also most of all the young ‘uns who love to know more about our past. Now that we’re proud again of our national football team, it’s time to take some pride out of and get inspired by our musical past.