“Trying to find a venue in London’s West End, it’s a nightmare. Gentrification, it’s everywhere.” Clive Franklin sighs with frustration. He’s trying to find a suitably louche and seedy Soho nightspot in which to shoot a video for his band, The Ponces. “Seems like there is nowhere left, not that we can afford anyway.”
As if the abiding themes of his band’s debut album needed any further reinforcement. For Songs For Hope About Despair comprises love letters to the barely legal dive bars of an almost bygone London, the group’s adoration for such places matched by anger at their gradual erosion by gentrification and corporate greed.
Paeans to lost clubs like Down At The Black Gardenia conjure up “memories buried under Dean Street, entangled in the Cross Rail hell”. That preoccupation is offset by a thrilling multicultural and genre-splicing sound that takes in rumba, conga and Middle Eastern chord structures under its dirty, jazz-blues umbrella.
Then on top is sprinkled Franklin’s distinctly British-accented vocal delivery, as if a raffish English spiv has been ushered up on stage by the house band in a 50s US youth movie.
“I found Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley,” he remembers, “and I thought, there must be more stuff like this out there. Then one day I bought a Sun records compilation that had previously gone unreleased.” Further digging revealed all manner of neglected musical jewels, and Franklin got involved in the 80s rockabilly scene in London – “I call it hep cat music,” he says – and he has been promoting club nights and DJing, what he calls “mad, dirty, sleazy music from people you don’t hear much about”, ever since.
For all the thematic focus of the lyrics, the music on Songs For Hope About Despair is as groovy and gritty and eclectic as Franklin’s own musical tastes. An extended version of current single Slaughter Of Soho is an urgent big band jive, featuring a drowsy film noir piano and trumpet introduction. Exclamation! is an expletive-strewn hot shoe shuffle that sticks two fingers up at polite society, London Is Dead laments the demise of the town to a soundtrack of pneumatic drills and a despondent bar room piano. ‘Don’t you dare blame immigration,’ Franklin growls.
It’s all aided by the versatile piano of Dave Kraft and members as disparate as the scarlet-clad guitarist Queen Soraya, former Morrissey bandmate Gaz Day (bass) and guest guitarist, 13-year-old Denvir Jet Ibrahim. “He taught himself from the age of four,” Franklin says. So how do we sum it all up? Well, the title of the band’s current B-side, Beautiful Songs That Tell You Terrible Things, is paraphrasing a quote by Tom Waits to describe his own circus sideshow sound. We’ll drink to that till daylight and beyond.
Songs For Hope About Despair is out now on Sub-Ver-Siv Records.