Reasons to be cheerful: playing music in the heart of Soho

James Brown

James Brown tells us how a radio station in the heart of Soho has taken him back to his old stomping ground

A slow tide...

There’s an old saying (which I just made up) that goes, “A slow tide can carry you back to the place you most want to be.” This is a mystical way of saying I’m back outside a street-corner pub in London’s Soho, having a laugh and a drink in the sun with some mates.

Between 1987 and 1998, this was pretty much all I did.

After almost a two-decade hiatus, the reason I’m back is because I’ve just finished my music show at Soho Radio, a community station based out of a coffee shop in the West End. I’ve been doing fortnightly and now weekly shows for the last two months, and it’s totally changed my week.

 

From Bond to Iggy....

My slot runs from 2pm to 4pm on Mondays, and unlike the main radio stations there’s no playlist! This means I can do and play whatever I wish.

What if I feel like playing a classic Bond soundtrack from John Barry next to a great disco track such as “Native New Yorker”? Well, I can and I will.

If I have a hankering to listen to the theme tune from House of Cards, I simply press play, sit back and enjoy it.

Presenting this show has opened up an enormous record warehouse in my mind and—just like when I was a teenager—I’m constantly thinking about music. I’m forever making notes of songs I love, going over snippets of sound that remind me of other songs and reading up on musicians. Even writing this now, I’m pondering the name of that great song I remembered last night as I drifted off to sleep.

 

...To Dumbo

Fast approaching 50, and having worked as a music journalist in my early twenties, I have a pretty good bank of songs to choose from between the mid-Sixties and late-Nineties. There’s nothing too current as yet—the show is brilliantly last century: Marc Bolan, The Jam, Kate Bush, Stone Roses, Aretha Franklin. The list is endless.

But there’s an art to getting the right mix of music, and the brief I’ve given myself is to play great songs that people really like. The best moment to date has been seeing people actually dancing in the shop while waiting to buy coffee.

I may play 20th-century tunes, but I make full use of 21st-century technology. Rather than lug my old records and CDs about, I do it all from Spotify—a £9-a-month online music archive. The only drawback is that I’m really screwed if there’s a technical glitch. For the first six shows, I used my girlfriend Lisa’s account.

At one point I was compiling a playlist at home, when Iggy Pop suddenly turned into the lullaby from Dumbo. I realised Lisa was using the same account on her laptop to get our baby to sleep. I quickly turned Iggy off; we wanted our son Billy to slip into a slumber, rather than 'Search and Destroy'. 

“Imagine if I did that when you’re on air,” Lisa remarked. Indeed. I’ve got mynown account now.

The best part of all is that listening to music, playing music and talking about music with studio guests is tremendously exhilarating. It banishes any dark corners of doubt, fear or depression that might be lurking inside.

 

Like a tide carrying you home

Which is how I’ve come to be comfortably enjoying a sparkling water while my mates have their first drink of the day in Soho.

It’s just after four in the afternoon, none of us are going anywhere in a hurry, and the longer we stand around enjoying ourselves, the more old friends drift by. The sort of people who, like me, ran away to London because they didn’t want a proper job, and appreciate the benefits of wandering round this old village in the heart of the capital.

Of course, a lot of the old neon spots have been cleaned up. Brands, upmarket boutiques and food chains are moving in, but Soho Radio is capturing the atmosphere of the old Soho. It’s a hub of activity, buzzing with musicians, music enthusiasts, food lovers, drink experts, club runners, tailors, rogues and vagabonds. Like I said, lots of people like me—all enjoying the direction of that “slow tide”.

Now, there’s a good reason to be cheerful.