In September 2007 a Brighton mystery was finally solved. While rumours had long been rife, few were sure if the shadowy musical project known as The Brighton Port Authority really existed. Proof of their recorded output was only confirmed when a cardboard box of dusty reel-to-reel tapes was found during the development of a Brighton dockside warehouse. The find was brought to the attention of East Sussex music lecturer Dr Randolph Seal who immediately hoped these were the famed lost BPA tapes. One listen told him that they were.
“I’ve spent the last ten years trying to track down this elusive outfit,” he explains, “and I knew the BPA studio was supposedly down at the docks but even insiders have proven shaky on the details. To me this find is akin to locating Sly Stone’s long lost Panther Funk sessions with the MC5 - it’s a goldmine.”
The Brighton Port Authority were an outfit who built a huge word-of-mouth reputation on England’s south coast from the early 1970s onwards before petering out in the mid-‘90s. From what can be easily pieced together, they were a loose-limbed jamming unit, originally known as the Brighton Phonographic Association. At its core were local musicians Norman Cook and Simon Thornton who gathered various singers and session men around them, built the rather ramshackle BPA studio, and would occasionally hold multi-day warehouse parties from which their semi-legendary reputation stems.
Dr Seal had long known that Brighton-based producer Simon Thornton had affiliations with the BPA and tracked him down. Thornton then approached the development firm and bought the reel-to-reel analogue tapes for £700. He started going through them and was so surprised at the quality of what he found that he digitally remastered the best material in full stereophonic sound. Simon had been in the BPA from its beginning but left briefly after a 1977 studio drug bust. He was back in the fold by the mid-1980s although since the tapes are unmarked, it’s unclear when each one dates from.
Norman Cook, meanwhile, was certainly the driving force behind the BPA but when confronted on the subject he usually becomes extremely cagey.
“This is just a load of bollocks,” he notoriously once replied when asked about it by Sir Melvyn Bragg who was researching a potential South Bank Show Special. However, approached more recently by a local newspaper he took a very different tack, stating, “There was so much potential then. From what little I can remember it was such an interesting time. Simon played me some of the tapes and I’m amazed at the quality.”
“The BPA was a great lost era for Norman and numerous other musicians,” explains Dr Seal, “They were experimenting with all kinds of concepts. Iggy Pop was over in the mid-‘70s, he was really out there. The BPA were having some kind of warehouse party, testing synthesizers, shooting fireworks across the bay, Iggy just had to get involved. He recorded a version of The Monochrome Set’s debut single ‘He’s Frank’ four years before The Monochrome Set wrote it. It was an incredible time.”
The BPA’s modus operandi appears to have been to convene for sessions at times pre-agreed according to astrological principles laid out by their guru Baba Ganoush, sadly now deceased. On auspicious dates they would gather and jam. Some of these sessions, listened to in the cold light of 2008, are classic, notably a song called ‘Local Town’ sung by Jamie T some time in the late ‘70s. Lots of other artists crossed paths with the BPA, although many now deny ever having had met them. The vocal on a catchy number called ‘Toe Jam’ is patently David Byrne, despite his reticence on the subject, and at some point during The BPA’s ‘mauve spell’, when Cook and Thornton both insisted they could only record on equipment painted mauve, Martha Wainwright stopped by and laid down the vocals for a dubbed out track called ‘Spade’.
Most of the material on the tapes dates from some time in the ‘70s but there’s the odd thing that has been recorded since. X-Press 2’s Ashley Beedle is one of the few who acknowledges his presence at BPA sessions, the results being the rock-steady ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Blow’ which, he says “speaks for itself”. When questioned further he simply gives a wry, wistful smile and ventures, “Good days, but that’s all I can remember.”
The names of many players in the long-running BPA saga have been lost to history but local cornet player and roadie Charlie Stains was occasionally asked to the studio.
“You never knew what to expect from one day to the next,” recalls Arthur, “I remember they went through a stage when Simon insisted that television sets, if tuned off channel, were receptors for alien messages. I went into the studio one day and he had about twenty TVs, screens all snowed up, speakers blaring white noise, and he was playing funk guitar over it with his eyes closed. I asked if he wanted a nice cup of tea but I don’t think he heard me.” Stains pauses for a moment then adds, “I shouldn’t really be telling you this. In the early ‘80s Norman swore us all to omerta – silence - in a secret ceremony that reminded me of those mafia movies. Now that the tapes are out there, though, it can’t do any harm, can it…”
When told that the best songs from the tapes are to be released under the title ‘We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat’ Stains laughs heartily. “That was what they all used to say,” he recalls, “When things were getting too much, as they so often did in those days, they’d all swear they were going to head out to sea to escape it all. ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat,’ that was what they’d shout. I can hear them now, the daft ha’porths.”
While it’s rumoured that some BPA minor players drifted off and set up a yoga retreat in northern Portugal, the project’s core duo simply lost interest gradually over the years. A combination of lackadaisical attitudes and overwrought hedonism meant that the studio eventually fell into disuse. The tapes were left languishing in a box for decades and might easily have simply been thrown out but for the foresight of the canny on-site chartered surveyor who originally contacted Dr Seal.
“It would have been a tragedy if this material had been lost,” says Seal, “It’s been called Norman Cook’s ‘Smile’ and it’s certainly been hidden from public eye about as long as Brian Wilson’s masterpiece. The BPA are a very different kettle of fish, though, and I can’t wait to hear these songs played at a modern disco. I want to see what the young people think.”
He will very shortly have his chance and, given the stone cold grooves of songs such as ‘Dirty Sheets’ and ‘Jumps The Fence’ it seems likely that people, both young and old, will finally be able to wrap their ears around a long lost treasure.
Thomas H Green