UNCOMMERCIALITY - Volumes One, Two and Three
aka The Chocolate Box Series
THE CHOCOLATE BOX TRILOGY: OBSCURICAL REVOLATIONS
by Richard Russell
Anyone with reasonably long-standing associations with music will know
the feeling when a reasonably good pub artist gives you his tape, a demo
at least five years old from a local studio tin-can beat-up tumble-down
mixing desk done by an engineer with tinnitis of the ears.
You get it home, hoping for that reasonably rendolent version of ‘Fire
and Rain’ he does live, but the first couple of minutes reveal his
skills don’t stretch to e.q., compression or even intonation in a dead
room. You tell yourself he’s reasonable enough in the flesh, and the
tape goes to the bottom of the pile to join those copies of Graceland
and Sheer Heart Attack you’re in denial about ever buying.
It isn’t that pub bands are unskilled, or that Robbie and REM were child
prodigy sound engineers; it’s just that the likes of us rarely get to
play with the ever-evolving ‘high-end’ black boxes that make the
difference between Wish You Were Here and any other bit of dead-pan
dead-boring dead-headed Southern English blues adagio. Somehow, having a
sales strategy based on a tatty demo, and a demo still on cassette, as
if every household still had razor-blades and Sellotape, marks out the
delineated class strata people like John Major talked such putrid shit
Indeed, that the music cassette ever seriously
commanded a price of more than £10 for forty minutes of Wham seems like
an industrio-economic fairy-tale until you recall the wonderments of
Roger Dean pictures and Delia Smith books at £20 a pop. To think an
entire mass fetishism sprang up around the Sony Walkman, at one time
priced 120 quid plus, only goes to put perspective on our ongoing
problem with designer plimsoles and sweatshirts that say fuck to your
I had this in mind when given Billy Jenkins’ Uncommerciality chocolate
box set, on three surprisingly reliable cassette tapes. I wasn’t at all
sure what I was getting, even from a perfection junky like Billy. I
thought maybe it was out-takes, or rehearsal checks, or perhaps some
through-the-desk live recordings from the Uncommerciality period. What I
got was every bit vintage Jenkins to such a degree that I find myself
wondering again why his fame and wealth hardly stretch to his own
doughnuts. These recordings run the gamut of his jazz collaborations;
three distinct chronological phases of a music they never quite got
their heads round in Hackney, where they think jazz is a Quincy Jones
cover featuring an irritatingly over-melismatic
And while the shops now sell nothing but this week’s bubble-gum and
last week’s gun-toting no-rhythm-no-blues pubescents, music such as this
languishes in mail-order limbo for want of an itsy bitsy million dollar
distribution deal. I tell myself it’s nothing personal, just a
parasitic capitalist culture-farm in terminal decline.
Then there’s the poetic petard: anything called ‘Uncommerciality’ has
to sink without trace or it disproves its own ideology. Still it irks
somewhat to see all the recycled T. Rex and Elvis in the fiver give-away
bins, when there’s all those living, doughnut-eating artists who never
get as far as a fiver give-away bin. This only goes to the crux of the
economic morality of the Chocolate Box set. Commerciality kills art
every bit as certain as European VD killed the ethnic population of
And a few hobos putting out home-grown CDs from their ghetto
reservations doesn’t mean any more than an independent cobbler in the
age of Nike or a French polisher in the era of Ikea. Art survives in its
dusty corner of the attic, but only for the tiny minority of any
generation that is curious about the past. The majority are still conned
that Will Young is quite good, that what they want for Christmas is yet
more Cliff Richard. The old soldiers wage their solitary campaigns: at
the time of writing Robert Wyatt has a new album out, but don’t ask me
where you can buy it.
The VOTP Chocolate Box set uses three distinct bands in three
contrasting periods: 1986, 1988, and 1991 in that order. Volume One
(also released on vinyl) highlights Iain Ballamy’s sax and Dai
Pritchard’s busy reeds. They work in a primarily straight ahead style,
with ample room for semi-egoistic noodling: Pritchard is especially
noodlesome on his bass clarinet. It’s Billy’s guitar, though,
unabashedly stealing the show at every corner.
Somehow he can sound hysterical and assured at the same time, as
double-time riffs pour caustic Polyfilla around the ever mutating
rhythm, taking solos like solos were about to be declared illegal. Here
is Jenkins-jazz with Jenkins at the forefront, showing how to go beyond
the muted licks of a Charlie Christian, ‘wallpaper’ Wes Montgomery and
Jazz guitar never fully recovered from Jimi Hendrix, and so tends to
pretend he never happened. Of course for Billy, he’s swimming upstream
at a more fundamental level: while for years players around him paid
their mortgages doing dinner-dances and dancing-dinners, where order of
the day is muzak anonymity and a dreary slice of latin, Billy went on
attempting to relate his music to the living, sweating, shagging and
shitting society he’s forced to live in.
Here on this tape is evidence of the heights he could reach, from the
joyous, effusive ‘Spastics Dancing’ to the suitably sobering ‘Bhopal’.
Volume Two uses a bigger group, including ‘doubling’ Dai Pritchard and
Chris Batchelor on trumpets, Ashley Slater’s low brass and a gaggle of
primary school kids. The mood from the outset is more angular and
The solos are more to the fore, with at times mere pert punctuation from
the ensemble. While Volume One has tight numbers under tight direction,
this is altogether more mock-chaotic, frantic in its dizzy mannerisms.
Jenkins uses the piano to link his art of witty juvenilism to the jazz
palette of Hancock and Miles Davis.
This is jazz saying something to a generation so used to music that
doesn’t say anything. If there are any jazz fans at all under the age of
sixteen it’s Billy Jenkins’ fault. But where Hancock and Davis were
precious and po-faced about their mysterious arts, Billy takes it into
the real world of car crashes and the scandalous price of sweets.
The metamorphosis from clever original heads to multifarious collective
improvising moves to completion in Volume Three, recorded in ‘91.
In goes an electric fiddle and occasional acoustic strings, but it is
the mood that’s changed the most, towards self-conciously iconoclastic
rants like ‘Expensive Equipment’ in an atmosphere less celebratory and
more aggressive. This is probably the most complex of the three, with
deliberate use of blocks of sound and atonal effects.
The soloists work against each other, rather more like heated
conversation than carefully plotted antiphony, while the rhythm is dark
and funkesque. At times the model seems to be free jazz, but
collectively thought through and not just six blokes playing and
ignoring each other as ‘free’ jazz often implies.
Each track has a real edge, while retaining the jazz vocabulary in mock
form, at times in free counterpint, other times as a Bonzo Dog show-band
While successive critics praise Billy for his humour and what they
perceive as pastiche, the single most abiding quality in Billy’s music
is actually his anger, his rage against our tepid and tedious modernity
in all its moulded plastic forms.
The Uncommerciality set carves a path from jazz impressionism, in its
real sense, to a world-weary and dissolute improvisatory identity almost
divorced from jazz, even sick of the word.
This may be the natural path for Billy, nowadays fascinated by the
varieties inherent in a simple blues sequence. That just leaves jazz,
drowning in a mixture of mediocrity, indifference, and the occasional
death by ‘Ain’t No Sunshine.’
Perhaps we’ll get a whole new movement of non-jazz musicians, who starve
but keep their ambitions, locked tight in a box with a Grade 8
certificate and an underused passport. Perhaps improvised music itself
will disappear amid a tidal wave of Logic boxes and auto-tuners, never
more to breathe life into a sweaty moment.
Jazz will probably find its way in a new world where people are wise to
slick packaging and bored with soulless soul singers. After all, it has
had forty years as a marginalised music, ever since its less
intellectual offspring, blues-based rock and roll, captured all the
adolescent disposable income.
Rock music is now marginalised: after the early 90s boom of Nirvana,
Faith No More, Pearl Jam, the dance craze took no prisoners, and all
that remains are tongue-in-cheek glam rockers the Darkness, a bravely
reconstructed but essentially ignored Jane’s Addiction, and Ozzy’s
little girl doing Meatloaf ballads while daddy cranks up the royalties
from his hospital bed.
Apparently the doctors say he’s brain-dead; and the rest of him should
be back to normal shortly. Jazz knows how to survive on the scraps. Stan
Tracey only goes out on the rare occasions the venue has a decent
piano. Don Rendell has never compromised his full-throttle neo-bop
persuasions, but most of his fans were fans thirty years ago.
The generation of the eighties, Courtney Pine et al, have followed the
Americans they so slavishly adore and embraced pop music, rap, and the
so inaptly named r’n’b. Jazz has become a disembodied essence, the aural
equivalent of coriander or nutmeg, sprinkled on a main dish like Sting
or Robbie Williams.
Perhaps the Chocolate Box set belongs to an earlier age of experiment
and discovery. Billy is a bit like the bloke who conquers a mountain
with a pick-axe and a compass, while a whole bunch of talentless
tourists go up in the corporate cable-car.
The fact remains that his unique approach to ‘jazz’ guitar and the
enduring relevance of his jazz compositions mean he can gaze at the
dismal view below with a certain self-sufficient pride, while the
tourists just piss and eat ice-cream. There are still some great jazz
musicians out there, but the choice ever narrows between barely paying
the rent doing Sinatra horn-section tedium, or taking the clever option
of a day-job.
Still, whenever I get to witness a player who knows his chops upside
down, I can see that certain thrill going through an audience that they
just never get anywhere else.
Advanced capitalist culture can tell you what to buy, read or even
think; but a living art, particularly one which reacts so directly with
the core of emotions within our very sense of self, cannot be stamped
out, sanitised, or even starved while its practitioners continue to
Billy Jenkins’ jazz years successfully related a virtuosic art
directly to common proletarian society, giving a large bunch of fine
musicians tickets for the ride. Nowadays he communicates in a different
way, by singing and playing the blues, but his ideology hasn’t changed.
Dominant cultures change all the time: that’s how they con each
successive generation. Billy has never been part of that hideous
flesh-eating system, but his message still gets out. The Uncommerciality
chocolate box set never caught the ear of the masses; but it reached a
© Richard Russell 2003