Alabama 3: Gangster Trippin’

From Brixton jail to fragrant Hell’s Angels bunfight: a weekend with Alabama 3 is one worth “tooling up” for. So hide your shiv in a cake and join the insalubrious, Sopranos-endorsed, techno-bluesmen for an orgy of, well, orgies, debt, heroin and Arthur Rimbaud. “We’re total hypocrites,” they assure Phil Sutcliffe.

PEERING OVER his rock’n’roll shades, Rob Spragg, aka Larry Love, scans the oddest audience, the strangest venue, even his richly varied experience has placed before him.

Brixton prison. The chapel. A life-size Jesus on the cross above the altar to his left. Twenty assorted murderers, armed robbers and other mayhem merchants to his right. Between these extremes a younger group of remand prisoners and, separately, several prison officers, the padre (asleep), and the psychiatrist — who draws the afternoon’s only whoop of acknowledgement because, while middle-aged and stout, she is uniquely female. But Spragg’s not thinking of her when he announces, “Here’s one for the ladies”. The risqué reference to the exigencies of all-male jails gets no reaction. Nor is there a shred of awareness that ‘Woke Up This Morning’ was inspired by Judith Ward, a British woman convicted of murdering her abusive husband, then pardoned on appeal years later. In fact, it’s plain that no-one has ever heard the song before, although it’s Alabama 3’s claim to fame, the theme tune to The Sopranos. Channel 4 viewers just aren’t maximum security types.

However, the inmates’ attention is soon commanded by a mighty grind of guitars and electro oomph, big bass, techno-country-gospel-acid-house-blues, Spragg’s snarly growl and the rancid rap-preachifying of his sidekick The Very Reverend Dr D Wayne Love, alias Jake Black. Then there’s the hookline: “You woke up this morning/Got yourself a gun”. A row of lads in the remand seats, lesser offenders or maybe not guilty, punch the air and holler. They don’t stand up, they’re not allowed. Opposite, the lifers and long-termers sit quietly. A few fingers tap, that’s all.

“DYB,” says Spragg later. “Did you see that graffiti? Do Your Bird. If lifers get too excited about life outside they’d be in their cells thinking about the good time they’re missing. It was sad seeing that.”

When the show’s over the lifers shuffle out in lines, row by row. The remand boys have to stay in their places, but they call out to the band who promise tapes and guitar strings through the music teacher who stuck with the idea of the gig for the 18 months it took to get approval.

The way out: fleeting glimpses into a two-deck cell block, an exercise yard with bars all round and a roof of girders and barbed wire. The outer door slams shut behind us. Nervous laughs escape. Alabama 3 have all lived around Brixton for years and sort of love it. But that was too much Brixton.

Someone mentions that the “trusty” who made the sandwiches said he was in for poisoning his wife.

THEY TRUDGE UPthe hill to the nearest pub, and the eight band members, their friends and roadies, annex a couple of tables for a hair of the dog. They were up late the night before with Paddy Hill of the wrongly jailed Birmingham 6. Hill can be heard talking about prison on a track from their new album, La Peste, and Alabama 3 support his Miscarriage Of Justice Organisation (MOJO).

This is an inelegant crew: none under 30, hairstyles running from baldy/shaven to keyboardist Orlando “The Spirit” Harrison’s Warhol frightwig. Yet, just a few months ago, they played ‘Woke Up This Morning’ to 25 million Americans on Jay Leno’s Tonight TV show, accompanied by a full gospel choir. The Sopranos soundtrack album sold 800,000. A new track, ‘Too Sick To Pray’, featured in the recent Nicolas Cage movie Gone In Sixty Seconds. Country star Billie Jo Spears is covering ‘U Don’t Dans 2 Tekno’ from their 1997 debut Exile On Coldharbour Lane.

Another weird turn in Rob Spragg’s peculiar life, a thing jaggedly sculpted from religion, Welshness, education, drugs, socialism, sin and a fondness for the blues and country music. It began in Treharris in the next valley over from Manic Street Preachers’ Blackwood. His mother and his miner father were Mormons, fervent Satan-fearing converts. Young Spragg toed the line: preached in the pulpit and on doorsteps, kept a “wank diary” to record his adolescent trespasses. But this holy progress was terminally interrupted by discovery of the Sex Pistols and magic mushrooms.

At 18, he left home and took a law degree, then moved on to London, squats, Robert Johnson, raves, Hank Williams, left-wing politics and “one too many orgies”. He recorded the odd Mississippi-techno single and ran a sound system which led to the early incarnation of Alabama 3 with Black and programmer Piers “The Mountain Of Love” Marsh in anarcho-party time Italy around 1993.

“I would recommend religious fundamentalism to any young aspiring musician,” he gravels. “But when I left the arms of the Lord, I fell into the sixth circle of hell.” This involved heroin, but he’s off it now.

Somehow, this maelstrom of experience cohered to a musical passion. He used samples to revive the old blues and country men he loved, and derived the band name from 1930s victims of Southern white “justice”, the Alabama Two. Loopily, he and Jake Black decided the band should do interviews talking in cartoon Deep Southern accents — then target the American market.

“That was the idea: appropriate their music and sell it back to them,” Spragg laughs.

Some industry people liked their effrontery and deals spun out from their UK signing with independent One Little Indian’s subsidiary Elemental. Virgin took them for Europe, Geffen for America.

“Cool Britannia” scorned them. In the States folks took a shine to them. Even after they owned up to not really hailing from Mellow Tree, Alabama. Even after another band called Alabama forced them to change their moniker in America to A3, so that all the interviewers asked, “Why did you name yourselves after a sheet of paper then?” And things really started looking up when The Sopranos’ creator David Chase drove down the freeway, heard ‘Woke Up This Morning’ on the radio and knew he had a signature tune (just a month after Geffen had dropped them, Spragg gloats; they’re with Columbia in America now). Now they sing of “a hit of socialism in the mainline” but make money for a confluence of multinationals…

“Yes, we’re total hypocrites,” grins Spragg. “I am making a career out of my assumed posture of nonconformity while sucking Satan’s cock like the rest.”

Appropriate, then, that their second album is called La Peste, after existentialist hero Albert Camus s novel. “The plague, it means,” Spragg muses. “I’m very into viruses. HIV, hepatitis C, computer viruses. They should be part of any artists culture. I like to think our albums celebrate the sickness, but La Peste is an album of optimism. Staring mortality in the face, you’ve got to do that.”

TWO DAYS ON.”The plague isn’t la peste in French, that’s le fleau,” says Jake Black, except that “isn’t” comes out “iznae”, as he speaks spiral-tongued Glaswegian. His quizzical expression is pure Stan Laurel, but he is not averse to correcting Spragg.

“Camus’s play on words is that la peste is also slang for police — so we’re being really pretentious,” he confirms. “There is a plague in pop music, though; you’d think people had been annihilated by this virus of conservatism, fuckin’ Union Jacks emblazoned on their guitars. Infringements on everyone’s aesthetic criteria they are, a plague of… annoying things.”

He quaffs red wine from a plastic cup in Alabama 3’s backstage trailer – a sort of shed on wheels — at the Bulldog Bash, UK Hell’s Angels’ annual knees-up near Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s a fragrant affair with its hog roasts, all-in wrestling and “original topless car wash” (bare-breasted young women sponge down fully-clad blokes and have their picture taken mid-nuzzle, all for a fiver).

This might have interested Black, who has a sideline in writing “shite” for Mayfair magazine, but instead he turns to Rimbaud, the French poet he quotes on La Peste‘s final track ‘Sinking’ (itself a dub version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner”). “Rimbaud’s my forte,” he modestly boasts. “I’ve published translations in France, mate.”

Like Spragg, Black comes of evangelical stock. His father was a devout member of Glasgow’s Trotskyite Communist Party. The boy Black enjoyed the Young Communists’ summer camps and joined the poetry club. Later, Patti Smith and the miners’ strike’s grim aftermath deflected him from activism and on to the path of art, drugs and Rob Spragg, who spotted him strumming an acoustic and singing Hank Williams’s ‘Lost Highway’ at an acid house party. “He comes running over and says, Oh you like Hank Williams? I’m like, Oh aye, who’s this Cheesy Quaver?”

Black’s credo, honed during the subsequent Italian sojourn when there really were only three people in Alabama 3, is that “it should elicit really coarse emotional responses. That’s what we want – global roughness”.

BACKSTAGE AGAINafter a set well-received by attendant greasers (one wears a Viking helmet, another is Altamont legend Sonny Barger). Desultory talk ranges from the bullish — “They’re one of the last rock’n’roll bands, very Stonesy,” avers Seggs, former Rut, La Peste co-producer, guest on bass — to the nostalgic — “It’s more professional now, we used to have all sorts of props and arty people on stage with us,” reminisces Orlando Harrison.

Q tells Black the word is that this carefree bunch are currently £987,000 in debt to One Little Indian.

“Rob told you that? Actually, it’s £1,987,000.”

Really?

“No, but I like a bit of disparity in press reports. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. What are they going to do if it all goes wrong? Take it out of my Giro?”

© Phil SutcliffeQ, November 2000

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