erasing clouds

Book Review: Jimmy Ramsay's The Streets: tower blocks & top tens

reviewed by anna battista

“’You know, a lot of journalists are quite posh. What are the big papers called? Y’know, the ones that are physically big?’ Broadsheets. ‘Yeah, those journalists are a bit posh. They see me as this working class urchin, and I’m really not. I was quite well raised.” It is with the words of Mike Skinner aka The Streets that the first chapter of Jimmy Ramsay’s volume The Streets: tower blocks & top tens opens. Ramsay – author of more than twenty books on music, youth culture and celebrity - sets out to find the truth behind the stories spread by the press on Mike Skinner and the genesis of The Streets, one of the most exciting and acclaimed bands that emerged in the UK in the past five years.

Skinner was born in Birmingham at the end of the ‘70s, the youngest of four children born to relatively older parents, originally from London. As a teenager, Skinner’s passion for music was the driving force in his life: he recorded and mixed his first tapes in his bedroom, Run DMC being a source of inspiration for these first forays into music. “I used to record the intros from songs, from before they started rapping, onto another tape and then record them over and over again, so it kind of looped,” Skinner remembers, “And then I would rap over it and record that back into another tape recorder.” Influenced also by other US hip-hop acts such as Wu-Tang Clan, but also by garage, house and jungle, Skinner recorded his first single “Has it Come To This?” and a debut album, Original Pirate Material, both came out on Nick Worthington’s label Locked On.

The songs were injected with social commentary, and often told dark stories of violence and drugs from dark housing estates. The album was hailed as refreshing and secured Skinner the attention of glossy magazines and broadsheets editors. It was The Streets’ second release though, the concept album A Grand Don’t Come For Free – which was later on included in every ‘Best Album of 2004’ poll - that gave Skinner massive fame, in particular the single “Dry Your Eyes”, originally intended as a duet with Coldplay’s Chris Martin.

Ramsay analyses the album song by song, lyrics by lyrics, as if he were trying to discover Skinner’s secret recipe for a successful song. He finds out that good lyrics are crucial for The Streets’ tracks, so important that a renowned University College London literature professor wrote an essay dissecting Skinner’s lyrics and showing the musicians’ talent for words as having connections with important and famous authors such as Dostoevsky. A broadsheet compared The Streets’ compositional approach to Francis Bacon, while another critic stated Skinner was the new Chaucer: “English Literature fans may balk at this suggestion, but his tales are told in a colloquial way and do not spare the facts however grim they might be … This type of lyrical honesty has seen the Britain of Mike Skinner, the Britain in which a lot of us inhabit, be uncovered in a truly remarkable fashion. This is similar to the way Chaucer exposed the Britain of the medieval times, in the Canterbury Tales.”

Jimmy Ramsay’s prose is accessible and entertaining, even his hyperboles, when he describes The Streets’ music, sound genuine, the author is probably a real fan of Skinner’s releases rather than just a journalist writing a biography. The book also includes insights into the political background in which Skinner grew up, into the music forces behind pirate radios and garage and into the ‘chav’ culture. Dedicated to all those who, like Ramsay, think there is no end to The Streets’ talent.


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