The iJamming! Daily Download #2: Zeitgeist
In the early/peak days of Jamming! the fanzine, I regularly answered the door bell down in West Dulwich, and later in Crystal Palace, to find on the doorstep aspiring groups eager to drop off their newly pressed 7” singles and demos along with a plea for some publicity. One of the bands that rang the Fox Hill buzzer was Zeitgeist, newly moved up to London from Cornwall and in proud possession of a home-made cassette. They were likeable people, so I wrote about them. They had a particularly old-fashioned funk built into their angular post-punk stance and, especially amidst the many po-faced politicos of the era, were more than capable of getting your party started. The fact that they had two vocalists – Jaf and Zaz – certainly didn’t harm matters, and their breathless vocal interaction led to more than one comparison with The B-52’s. They were funny, too, something that wasn’t too common in indie music at the time, and they could just about play their instruments: though guitarist Corin Arnold was the group’s resident intellectual (and Zaz’s brother), bassist Gary and drummer Harry were like the Blues Brothers of the post-punk, their love of classic soul never getting in the way of a good punch-line.
A self-pressed single ‘Shake/Rake’ sparked enough interest to garner a singles deal with Human Records, who released the excellent ‘Touch’ before going belly-up. This was just around the time that Paul Weller offered to finance Jamming! Records, and following the relative success of our debut release, ‘When I Was Dead’ by Rudi, Zeitgeist seemed a logical second signing: a group with a modicum of indie clout, but not enough as to make demands on their label! We gave Zeitgeist a $500 studio budget and in November 1981, they duly handed us a 6-minute version of ‘Ball Of Confusion,’ the Temptations song that seemed especially relevant after a year of harsh Thatcherism marked by race riots up and down the county.
Come Christmas and we had what most labels would have called a “hit” on our hands. Thanks to the scarcity of new releases during the holiday season, a top-notch plugger working the record for something like the fun of it, the BBC’s then-relatively lax approach to something called a Playlist, and radio’s ongoing love for the warped cover version, ‘Ball Of Confusion’ found itself all over Radio 1. By the first week of the new year, the Zeitgeist single had made the jump from Kid Jensen to Mike Read and I was getting a crash course in the music industry. Records, I learned, did not sell by the bucketload simply because they were played on the radio. There was the small issue of getting them in the shops first. And for an indie label, that was not as easy as it seemed. There were mysterious matters like “promotional copies” and “in-store merchandising,” not to mention the importance of press, TV, live popularity and advertising. And then there was this mystery called publishing: apparently, a company called Jobete Music owned the rights to the song and received near enough a 5% royalty on every copy we pressed, which was paid to them through this previously unknown entity called the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society. I had never heard of it, though I quickly did the maths and realized just how much money there was to be made in writing a hit album.
Naturally, the airplay for ‘Ball Of Confusion’ dried up almost as soon as the major labels started releasing singles again in the new year of 1982 – which happened to be about the same moment the record shops got around to ordering copies and we actually started shifting “units.” The single raced up the Indie Charts, peaking at a respectable number 13, but never threatened the official Top 40. Undeterred, and certainly encouraged by the warm press reaction and BBC radio sessions, Zeitgeist recorded and released a second single for Jamming!, the magnificently funky ‘Stop!’, produced by Dale Griffin and Overend Watts and aided in no small way by the addition of full-time percussionist Henry. Another indie hit, it seemed to suggest that Zeitgeist could write songs as well as they could cover them. Then again, perhaps not. A few months later, I let them record and duly released a third single, ‘Over Again’, without running it by Paul Weller, who was busy breaking up The Jam. He hated it –to be honest, it sounded like a demo – and used his sudden lack of enthusiasm as an excuse to withdraw his funding for the label. A shame, as he had previously been among Zeitgeist’s biggest supporters.
Zeitgeist soon enough went their separate ways (three labels and you’re out?), an American Zeitgeist confused the history books, and ‘Ball of Confusion’ was later covered by Love and Rockets to more popular, if far less impressive effect. I frequently lost and occasionally regained contact with the various members over the subsequent years. Gary and Harry brought their soul disco to my 18th birthday party at Chislehurst Caves, a classic night out if ever there was one. Corin disappeared to Berlin and reinvented himself as a dance music producer and DJ: check him out at www.dangerous-drums.de.
Finally, in 2002, singer Jaf and myself found ourselves back in touch and in a Crystal Palace studio which I had booked to burn CD masters from the old Jamming! Records tapes. ‘Ball of Confusion’ sounded damn good as I knew it should: I’d already started playing my old 7” copy in New York clubs during that city’s rediscovery of the post-punk funk sound and found the song to be no less capable of getting a party started than ever it had been. Even better, the master tape contained the original 6-minute mix, which we had, in dub reggae fashion, split into 7” A and B-sides back in 1981, always hoping against hope that we might have the cash on hand to make a 12”. In other words, the master mix never saw light of day.
With this MP3 release, that error has now been corrected. Exactly 25 years since it made the leap to daytime airplay on Radio 1, click/right-click the link below and help yourself to ‘Ball of Confusion’ by Zeitgeist. All six minutes of it.
PS: Jaf can regularly be found in the iJamming! Pub, propping up the bar with his Man Utd scarf and dishing out put-downs with what we will kindly call his ‘Cornish Humor.’