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Feb 14

WHITE TOWN – “Your Woman”

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#757, 25th January 1997

yrwoman In 1997, talking about music on the Internet means USENET, a Gormenghast of diverging and reconnecting fora whose goblin tribes gleefully rampage through each other’s chosen lairs: a thread will start on alt.music.prodigy, then careen into alt.music.spice-girls via alt.music.misc, while Discordians and trolls plot to spread it still further. Still, there are hierarchies in this cheerful froth of just-unleashed opinion – top level domains rarely bump uglies. Rec.music.misc keeps a snooty distance from the alt.music rabble, and despite sharing a suffix, alt.music.alternative and uk.music.alternative only occasionally meet. The former talks about Mercury Rev, Pavement, and Spiritualized, but seems increasingly fond of chart pop, a tendency I do my best to foster once it becomes my late-night home. The latter has divergent interests: I glance at it now and then but the closest it gets to the fields I know is Stereolab. Urusei Yatsura, Long Fin Killie, The Yummy Fur, some bunch of Scots named after a kids’ TV show… these are what uk.music.alternative goes for. It is almost my kind of place: I keep it as a subscribed group on my newsreader but let the messages pile up unwanted.

UKMA was one answer to a difficult question: what happens to British independent music after Britpop? The music press were struggling with it. Britpop had finally given NME bands, Select Bands, Evening Session bands some proper stardom, but this meant the waves coming through were groups who wanted to be rock stars, and sounded like it too. As American alternative music had discovered a few years before, success can be toxic.

A reaction against Britpop was natural – raggedy, difficult, geeky bands with proud local followings and an ambivalence about fame on any terms but theirs. The fame question was not completely moot: the music press, trying to reconnect with an audience it had dumped for Britpop, would occasionally announce that Tiger, or someone, were the Next Big Thing. One affable and confused centre-spread later and they’d be banished again.

But, as it turned out, there was something to all this desperate panning for gold. Independent music had useful friends at Radio 1, and at the start of a year, with a restless audience hot for novelty, who knows what might happen? One-hit wonders have to come from somewhere – why not from down in the indie grassroots?

What I would never have expected is that a novelty hit – and for all that it’s a sly and marvellous pop song, “Your Woman” is a novelty hit – would have come not from a band liked by uk.music.alternative, but from ukma itself. Jyoti Mishra, AKA White Town, AKA a prominent ukma regular.

Being a novelty hit doesn’t mean being a joke, or a prank. Unlike some one-offs which seem to mock the chart they’re on, once “Your Woman” became a hit it sounded naturally like one. There was even a fairly recent precedent. From across an Our Price counter, the soundscape of White Town’s hit – breathy, slightly enervated vocals; haunted, static-wreathed samples of old-world tunes – wasn’t too far off Scouse second-wave Britpoppers Space. Except where Tommy from Space capered around his songs acting the goat, Mishra burrows into the heart of “Your Woman” and destabilises its apparent jauntiness. His lyrics are built to make a basic question – who is singing what to whom? – deliberately obtuse. The contempt in his voice – and its angry momentum – is rather less mistakable. The situation is hard to read: the hurt easy. Another comparison point – bubbling up from the programming of “Your Woman” – is Soft Cell: rough technology rubbing up against unhealthy, captivating venom.

The see-sawing Al Bowlly sample that animates “Your Woman” is at once its biggest earworm – the reason we get to cover it at all – and something that never quite fits itself to the rest of the song. Instead it frames Mishra’s singing, and the wrath of his narrator, as something quaint themselves – it feels like the whole record is coming from some forgotten side-past of pop, where Noel Coward wrote songs about doomed Marxist love affairs.

“Forgotten side-past” is a good, sad epitaph for much of USENET itself, long fallen into disrepair, maintained somewhere on Google’s vast servers as a hard-to-navigate footnote. I think of “Your Woman” as the first “Internet” number one, when in fact it’s nothing of the kind. The direct audience-building tactics that can give someone like Alex Day a Top 10 hit via YouTube were years off. “Your Woman” built its audience the same way one-offs had for decades – patronage by a Radio 1 DJ who made it a cause (in this case the Mark and Lard team, just before their stint on the Breakfast Show, which will soundtrack much of this strangest of chart years). Jyoti Mishra’s residency on uk.music.alternative was, essentially, coincidence, however much my own bedroom-bound memories of 1997 protest otherwise, and however much this record matches those memories. But it matters on some level all the same – as he himself said, in one of the very rare interviews this site has run, “for that brief period, the spirit of ukma was at number one”.

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Comments

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  1. 61
    Andrew Farrell on 5 Feb 2014 #

    I should, in fairness, stick an “In my experience” before #58, and note that what I’m describing has annoyed me several times about different online spaces, but that projecting it onto one which brings Enitharmon joy is really very rude of me – sorry!

  2. 62
    anto on 5 Feb 2014 #

    #42 – Completely agree about the 10-midnight show, one of the best things that was ever on Radio 1.

    #43 – It was that very nineties thing – third or fourth single off an album in and out of the top 40 as though it were a corner shop. Definitely a pointless answer.

  3. 63
    Tom on 5 Feb 2014 #

    Mark And Lard’s Breakfast Show run is (of course) one of the things covered in Simon Garfield’s The Nation’s Favourite, essential reading for all Popularites I’d say. They come across as decent men handed a nightmare brief – replacing the man who’d defined the Bannister-era breakfast show. I loved them as presenters, never cared for their taste, which should have made them better suited for the breakfast slot than the evening one, but it wasn’t to be. That said, 1997 is a very odd, transitional year.

  4. 64
    Kat but logged out innit on 5 Feb 2014 #

    As I’ve mentioned on previous posts, I only listened to Radio 1 for the Top 40, so I missed all the John Peels and Mark & Lards. I guess I didn’t mind adverts so much as a teenager? Anyway, I was already familiar with this when it got to #1, so either “Your Woman” must have got airplay on Capital FM (!) or Xfm had finally beefed up its transmitter enough to reach Zone 6 by this point (didn’t it finally get its permanent license in 1997?). Firm favourite, obv. Though I would have called the EP “Insert Workbench 3.1 Disk”.

  5. 65
    TriffidFarm on 5 Feb 2014 #

    The EP/single marketing did affect the song for me. By 1996, CDs had framed my listening to be ‘by the album’, and evenings were broken into planned, fifty minutes chunks – singles were just too much work. So White Town’s EP hat meant that it felt like having 20 minutes rather than 3 – but even that was a fib: I wanted to listen to this song, and the rest was filler that stopped me having to go back to the CD player for a while.

  6. 66
    punctum on 5 Feb 2014 #

    “Potter announced he would start the series in a bleak suburban bedroom with a man bursting into early morning song. He would be miming to a fuzzy 78 and the record was by a woman. He told me the song and I said there were good versions of men singing it. NO, he said, I want the audience to be as disoriented as possible.”(Kenith Trodd, from his notes for the 1990 CD reissue of the Pennies From Heaven soundtrack)

    “Something in Italy/Is keeping us all alive.”
    (Scritti Politti, “Skank Bloc Bologna”)

    Some records cannot escape their association with time and place. Thus when I think of White Town I think of a white town, or a white countryside within a town; specifically, walking through Christ Church Meadow in Oxford on the first Friday morning of 1997. It was not a sunny day, but the frost had frozen everywhere and its sheet of whiteness had made the world luminous. The place was deserted; the student population still absent, just about recovering from their hangovers. You could have skated under Magdalen Bridge if it had taken your fancy. But the luminosity was glorious; a haven of a barely buried incipient spring, a world private and untouchable. When I emerged into St Clements I did not quite feel of this earth.

    The record inescapable on the radio at the time was “Your Woman”; an indie single seemingly from nowhere (or, as it turned out, Derby) received, grasped and played in the first instance by the early afternoon DJ on Radio 1. It then rapidly spread to become potentially the next “O Superman,” a seemingly unchartable leftfield record which had suddenly, but with surprising naturalness, become popular. When first we heard it we assumed that it was the new single by Space, the Liverpudlian post-Britpop group whose useful hits (“Neighbourhood,” “Female Of The Species,” “The Ballad Of Tom Jones” etc.) were the real antecedents to the Kaiser Chiefs and Hard-Fis of their day; but there was something else, something unscheduled, going on. And what would Space be doing sampling Al Bowlly?

    Of course it was the Al Bowlly sample which captured us. It is a sped-up sample of the opening trumpet and reed figures to the recording of the song “Your Woman” with Lew Stone and his Monseigneur Band, cut in Chelsea nine days before my mother was born (29 November 1932) and eventually used in Pennies From Heaven, that epic, seedy meditation on the fatal distance between the warm lies of popular song and the cold truth of everyday life. The arrangement is downbeat and grim, over which Bowlly enters with a gargantuan gust of a world-weary sigh to lament his love for his woman who cheats on him, makes fun of him, lies to him…but still he loves her. If that subject matter sounds familiar, then consider Stevie Wonder’s “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” from 27 years later, and then go forward a further 21 years to the version of that latter song recorded by Green Gartside with the B.E.F. for their Music Of Quality And Distinction Vol 2 project; he transplants the naked passion of Stevie’s confusion and transposes it into the upright, polite but secretly sneaky heart of Bowlly.

    Jyoti Mishra, the man behind White Town, more or less squares the circle with “Your Woman.” It is the missing link between thirties danceband emotional ambiguity and New Pop stylistic reshuffling; it is no accident that Mishra’s vocal is sonically very close to Trevor Horn, not to mention the Dave Edmunds of “I Hear You Knocking” – as with the latter, “Your Woman” sounds like the first broadcast following a terrible apocalypse, a tentative resurfacing of an old spirit…

    …or the start of something genuinely new. It is impossible for me not to have a profound degree of affection towards “Your Woman,” not just because it is the next in the unfolding series of visionary number ones by British-based Asian artists, but also because the premature online DIY music man and pre-emptive blogger Mishra, past whom I once inched in the old Sister Ray record shop in Berwick Street, was the first one of “us” to make it – apart from some guitar overdubs by his mate Rob Fleay, it is more or less the first number one of the internet age, a production unimaginable even two years previously (although Mishra had already been putting out his music in varying forms for six years by then) – and it opened the floodgates for everyone else, effectively, even (or especially) those of us who sought to write; ask Robin Carmody, for instance, about the importance of White Town to and for him.

    It is a superbly perambulating post-New Pop record, Mishra provocatively singing the song from the point of view of the female who doesn’t know why “he” doesn’t know why he loves her; caught out with another, he is systematically derided (“So much for all your highbrow Marxist ways”) but in a manner much more regretful than bitter, such that she questions her own initial attraction to him (“Now I think I finally understand/Is it in your genes? I don’t know/But we’ll soon find out – that’s for sure”). The emotional upshot, and the chorus itself, are purposely ambiguous emotionally: “Well I guess what you say is true/I could never be the right kind of girl for you/I could never be your woman.” The sadness, the burden, epitomised by the closing, funereal 16 rpm “My Woman” sample, drags the song down to an exceptionally morose end.

    But the record itself is the beginning of a new time; I can imagine John Leyton in a parallel 1961 being given the song by Meek to sing, and even if Meek had survived into the Portastudio/ProTools age he may not have sounded much different and certainly no less visionary. His work done, Mishra released a major label album, Women In Technology, a smart and supple Brit equivalent of the Magnetic Fields filtered through the lyrical thrust of the Au Pairs which sold disappointingly, and then retreated into his world of strictly indie, and eventually online-only, musings of and on music where he has remained to this day. Though musically far more conservative than “O Superman,” philosophically it is, in its sublime Peak District way, as radical even as it glances back and acknowledges the original British pop music (and also the most important singer in the history British pop music – why Bowlly? Because, put very simply, he never sounded as though he needed to try in order to express and convey emotion; you can tell from the very breaths which he takes between lines that he’s thinking ahead, anticipating the listener’s reaction, setting us up for the climax, or the comedown, or the euphoria. He has an authority which never masquerades underneath the cloak of bombast. He is spotless, even when the song demands that he be ecstatic or destroyed); it stands as nobly alone as “Telstar” and “God Save The Queen” did before it, and all of us with an interest, vested or otherwise, in promulgating the cause of music on the World Wide Web, owe him. And for that Friday morning in frosty Oxford. And for what the internet and music eventually did for me, but that’s another story. 11

  7. 67
    Ed on 5 Feb 2014 #

    @63 “A very odd, transitional year”

    It is often said about Punk that the souped-up trad rock of the Pistols and the Damned opened up a space for a lot more interesting music to come through.

    Britpop – and especially Oasis – seem to have had a similar effect. It’s hard to imagine White Town getting to number one without the mood of “youth style revolution now!” that Britpop engendered.

  8. 68
    punctum on 5 Feb 2014 #

    Self-correction: the Stevie Wonder song was 37 years after “Your Woman,” not 27. And I meant “the most important singer in the history OF British pop music.”

  9. 69
    Rory on 5 Feb 2014 #

    #46: Usenet basically invented Internet culture before there was even an Internet. It was invented in 1979, and used a different set of protocols than the networks that joined together to become the Internet in 1982. But Usenet is where terms like “FAQ” and “spam” originated, and the discussions there were basically the precursor to every web discussion we see today.

    One feature of Usenet was that posting a message to a news group pushed it out to all the news servers carrying that group, and ultimately to all the users downloading the latest messages of that group, which on home dial-up could involve a lot of time and expense. Quite a different model from the web, where users decide what links we will follow and roughly how much data we retrieve.

    So when a moderator suggested in December 1992, after I had emailed him my annotated list for a survey of favourite albums of the year, that I post it to rec.arts.music itself, it seemed only polite to respond: “I don’t usually post things on the net as it’ll end up costing someone a lot of money, and seems a bit frivolous when it’s just my personal opinion (although surveys and general info etc such as yours are a different matter). But I’ll have a think about it and perhaps give it a try.”

    Such diffidence! The web would change all that. But it explains why my archive of personal Usenet postings is so much thinner than my memories of it all.

  10. 70
    23 Daves on 5 Feb 2014 #

    Has anyone mentioned “Video Killed The Radio Star” yet? The vocal stylings on this reminded me of a nerdier version of Trevor Horn on that record the first time I heard it, and it’s an impression I never really lost. And I agree with previous posters who suggest that there are elements of “West End Girls” in here as well.

    I’ve always liked this record, but I think my over-keenness at the time stemmed from the fact that it seemed like a peculiar single to get to number one, that it was an example of one of the outsiders winning. I could list a swathe of other bedroom acts who have produced much more interesting or impressive work than this, even if they only sold a fraction of the amount Your Woman did – as a song in its own right, its brilliantly constructed and hugely catchy, but it didn’t stay on my stereo for long and the praise it received seemed somewhat overboard. Simon Mayo raved on air that Myoti was going to be “a huge STAR!” which seems astonishing in retrospect.

    You can, however, chalk me up as being one of the few people who bought and enjoyed the follow-up single “Undressed”, which I thought was a lovely synth-pop ballad. The album, on the other hand, was a let-down. Hey ho.

  11. 71
    Andrew Farrell on 5 Feb 2014 #

    #70 I think they’re both signifying similar things – a voice mediated, off the radio or in Your Woman’s case peeling off the gramophone of the 30s sample. I only saw the video for the first time today, but would have been surprised if Myoti had been seen to be singing ‘live’ (rather than from a TV).

  12. 72
    @weejay on 5 Feb 2014 #

    White Town’s “Your Woman”, UKMA, Al Bowlly and Mark & Lard’s graveyard shift (in the comments) – http://t.co/ytU2iYU1uR

  13. 73
    leveret on 5 Feb 2014 #

    Mark and Lard were also early champions of another bedroom music-maker briefly turned Top 5 chart star, Stephen Jones a.k.a. Baby Bird.

    At the time, following BB’s success a few months earlier, it seemed like the boom times of the mid-90s UK music scene had opened up the way for some fairly esoteric acts to mount stealth attacks on the charts. Mark & Lard were representatives of this slightly oddball world where the alternative had infiltrated its way firmly into the mainstream, helping White Town to this very welcome and surprising Number One. A (9) for me, although others have already summed up its appeal better than I could.

    Fast forward a couple of years, however, and it seemed as though the likes of Travis and Coldplay were trying to mainstream-ise the world of (nominally) indie music rather than the other way round, and the most startling hit songs were coming from the new glitchy R&B styles rather than British blokes hiding out in their bedrooms.

  14. 74
    flahr on 5 Feb 2014 #

    #33 OK Computer was one of the first albums I ever bought (in broadly similar circumstances, though earlier – I had seen it cropping up time and again in lists of good albums so it seemed like a good place to start) – thus part of my affection for it is because it was sort of the first time I had heard pop at all, so obviously it made a big impression on me. “Your Woman” and “No Surprises” seem two sides of the same coin musically if not lyrically to me, both based around these very tight (and, now I come to think of it, reasonably similar – though I am tone-deaf so this might not be the case) melodic loops. The only Granddaddy I have heard is “A.M. 180” because it was the theme tune to something.

    Good spots on the “Video Killed the Radio Star” thing – it’s very much the similarity there that points up the technology aspect of this, voices coming through the radio.

    I thought that Bunnyful had been an August hit – apparently not.

    Re “My Woman” again, Tom Lehrer, from the preamble to “She’s My Girl” : “But as far as I know there has never been a popular song from the analogous male point of view, that is to say, of a man who finds himself in love with, or in this case married to, a girl who has nothing whatsoever to recommend her.” An unusual lapse of knowledge from the man there.

  15. 75
    Jo C. on 5 Feb 2014 #

    This record was so important to 19-year-old me that for once I’m breaking my Popular silence! I was a very indie teen (I bought stuff on Slampt too!) and was completely blown away by the fact that a song sung by a soft-voiced man calling himself a woman and playing a cheap-sounding keyboard with funny beep noises could be played on Viking FM in Hull. When this got to number one and Mark & Lard were given the Radio 1 breakfast show, I thought that the world of pop music had changed forever! It hadn’t, but that’s OK.

  16. 76
    Steve Williams on 5 Feb 2014 #

    #26 Brilliantly, Channel Five used Theme From A Mid-Afternoon Game Show on trailers for Whittle, their mid-afternoon game show, so well done to their promotions department.

  17. 77
    AMZ1981 on 5 Feb 2014 #

    Pedants note – a commenter on Forever Love noted that Gary Barlow was the first act whose first chart week was at number one but whose second wasn’t. Obviously Barlow had prior chart success as a member of Take That and the next act along to do it were Dunblane who a) weren’t an act in the conventional sense and b) featured Mark Knopler. Therefore White Town was the first act to do this who was completely new to the chart, however their second week was at number two. We’ve got some way to go before this gets bettered.

  18. 78
    Alan not logged in on 5 Feb 2014 #

    For all your Mark&Lard/Graveyard Shift/PalaceOGlitteringDelights nostalgia http://www.youtube.com/user/GlitteringDelights/
    I don’t remember this, their version of French Disko on the joanna:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qD3dvu0p-C0

  19. 79
    Another Pete on 5 Feb 2014 #

    #76 I knew someone that appeared on Whittle. I found it laughable that if you got a question wrong you had to cover your face with a paper plate style mask, bear in mind you were barely recognisable beforehand given how poor the signal for Channel 5 was back then.

  20. 80
    Query on 5 Feb 2014 #

    I understand the affection for this record for its cultural significance – triumph of the bedroom act, USENET makes it big, the internet goes mainstream, etc., etc., – but musically-speaking I’m simply not understanding the 10s being liberally handed out here. I admit it’s catchy, and that Bowlly sample is quite the earworm, but the reedy, detached vocals and the repetition are grating (I find). In comparison, “Video Killed the Radio Star” – which others have rightly cited as a sort of precursor – seems a veritable symphony. It’s an 8 at best, for me.

  21. 81
    hardtogethits on 5 Feb 2014 #

    #77. And pedants may also note this begat another record: The least successful follow up to a record which entered the UK singles chart at no.1.

    FWIW I am going to nail my colours to the mast. 10.

  22. 82
    Garry on 5 Feb 2014 #

    #51 I remember the Dr Who group we’ll but rarely visited. I was annoyed enough at the fanwank continuity the books to jump into the arguments online. But I remember the great DW Space ship race thread as the very enjoyable silliness which attracted me to USENET in the first place. Which shop from who was fastest. Every obscure painted cereal packet with fins were remembered and judged.

    As for White Town – I just heard it and it is a “oh THIS track” moment. I never knew the name of song or band. It was everywhere in Oz. But like several years before when Urge Overkill etc hitched up briefly to a Pulp Fiction noir feel which all get jumbled in my mind, there was a second track in 1997 with a very similar sound to this track. I can’t remember what it was. This track for me doesn’t exist without the other song.

  23. 83
    Jeremy on 5 Feb 2014 #

    You can search 1981-1991 usenet at http://www.dejadejadeja.com/ which is an attempt at a usenet search engine to compete with Google Groups. The goal is full body-text and header searches. Noting that most usenet search engines only have binary searches (eg, filenames, not message text content). There’s a tiny bit of oddness (like dates saying 1970), but these can be fixed and don’t detract from the fun of it.

    I’m hoping to add years 2003-2013. Unfortunately, only Google has years 1992-2003.

    The 2003-2013 period is literally 1.2TB so it’ll take some time to index it all. In the meantime, enjoy 1981-1991!

  24. 84
    23 Daves on 5 Feb 2014 #

    Apologies, I just noticed that Punctum got in there with the Trevor Horn comparison way before I did.

    Punctum has also made me want to dig out “Women In Technology” again, but sadly I lost my copy many moons ago. I’ll check to see if it’s on Spotify at the weekend, though it might have fallen through the cracks.

  25. 85
    Tom on 5 Feb 2014 #

    #83 thanks Jeremy – looks like a really useful resource. I know I’ve lost a few hours at the Google archive looking at how (eg) Watchmen was received on the comics newsgroups when it came out.

  26. 86
    Mark M on 6 Feb 2014 #

    Looking for something else entirely, I found I had a copy of this (cellophane-bagged CD), which I guess I must’ve been sent by a PR at the time. Will give the other tracks a listen – if I did check them out back then, don’t remember it.

  27. 87
    James BC on 6 Feb 2014 #

    The sample grabs attention but I think the secret of the song’s success lies in the groove. It has a great groove, which people seem to be overlooking.

  28. 88
    Tommy Mack on 6 Feb 2014 #

    I remember hearing this and that he had sent a demo into Radio 1 and got a #1 hit. I immediately sang and played a mediocre, sub-Oasis indie ballad I had written into a tape-recorder and sent it into Radio 1. I didn’t get to #1.

  29. 89
    punctum on 6 Feb 2014 #

    #87: This isn’t the old Record Mirror disco page. What do you want – BPMs with every entry?

  30. 90
    Mark G on 6 Feb 2014 #

    Actually, I do remember Jyoti saying about that ‘groove’, that it was purposefully ‘wobbly’ to create that ‘ear-catch’ that makes the brain try to make sense of it.

    So, yes.

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