The United Kingdom has long been an ardent supporter and consumer of African-American music. Dating back to the electrifying earliest performances of blues artists like Big Bill Broonzy during the early 1950s – an influence on Eric Clapton and John Lennon – right through to the dawn of Chicago house and onwards. In fan clubs, like the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society, started by soul writer Dave Godin, to the numerous fan magazines that have documented dance music culture from Blues & Soul to Mixmag, there has been an extended obsession with black music culture.
This lineage continued into the house era, our generation’s defining dance genre, and one with which British producers were swift to adopt. This record is a prime example of this. Although Mother Tongue was a one-off project, its history is rooted in this long-standing culture stretching back decades. The main man behind Mother Tongue was a drummer and record producer named Richie Stevens. Stevens was steeped in music and the industry, thanks to his father, John Stevens, also a professional drummer. Stevens senior played in numerous jazz ensembles during the 1960s and onwards, including performing with Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and was a session player with John Martyn (among numerous others) during Martyn’s finest period (it’s John’s drumming you can hear on ‘Big Muff’).
His son, Richie, was playing professionally while still a teenager for the Dennis Bovell Dub Band and has subsequently backed everyone from Tina Turner and Simply Red to Hugh Masekela and George Clinton. He is also a long-term collaborator with Boy George. But the story of Mother Tongue begins with a band called Well Red. This group, effectively a studio creation by Richie and his then manager Martin Poole, recruited vocalist Lorenzo Hall, a fixture on the London reggae scene and sold the concept to Virgin Records. Well Red yielded two albums – Motion and Respect Due – but never really got the crossover success their songs perhaps deserved. “Virgin were very supportive of us,” recalls Poole, today. “They gave us a lot of money. They pumped money into it, and it never quite paid off, but we did okay. We recouped and got to make a second album with George Clinton. It was a good move, recording with him. It did us a lot of good here and in America. We did pretty well in the US. We were very well-supported over there.”
This same team, working in a tiny studio near Richie’s house in Wood Green, north London, called The Watershed, produced ‘Message Is Love’. It features the vocals of Syn-Dee (Sindy Finn) and Lovebase (Louise Porter), who co-wrote the track with Richie and Alan Lane, another Stevens collaborator, and Ian ‘Spy’ Austin, who’d previously played in the same reggae band, The Instigators, as Lorenzo Hall from Well Red. “Remember it well,” says Martin Poole. “We were just writing it there and then in the studio. It was me, Richie, Spy, and I think Syn-Dee was there as well. When I got home later, Richie played it to me over the phone and I said, ‘That just sounds brilliant,’ from how we'd started it off, you know?” Thanks to their experience in the studio with Well Red, they managed to produce a song that has the timeless feel of all good music.
Mother Tongue was the opening track on a compilation called On The Loose Volume 1 on their own Furious Fish Records. Every track on the album, despite having different artist credits, was done by Stevens and Poole, often using a rotating cast of characters that had also appeared on ‘Message Of Love’. Although it did not sell especially well at the time, it’s become a collector’s item over the years. This is the first time Mother Tongue has appeared as a 12-inch single, a long overdue (but very welcome) happening.