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In the American deep south during the 1930s, two black men are hung for allegedly raping a white woman. Their case becomes a symbol for justice-miscarrying and the pair goes down in history as the "Alabama 2."
Over half a century later in South London, the son of a Welsh Mormon preacher meets the offspring of a Glaswegian trade unionist at an underground acid house party and they embark upon the mischievous mingling of Hank Williams, gospel and acid house. Expanding in the mid 1990s into a Brixton-based collective, they call themselves "Alabama 3" and go down in late 20th Century history as one of the most joyous, righteous, provocative and inspirationally delinquent bands Britain has ever spawned.
Whoever it was they met that sulphurous night at the cultural crossroads, they've been working hard on behalf of Alabama 3. The likelihood of a crew of miscreant, theo-pharmacological, neo-situationist, holy music junkies floating high in the anemic river of mass entertainment, was never realistically that great. Yet, come the new millennium, and the band, now calling itself A3, is lodged firmly in both subculture and mainstream. There they are, as you might expect, quoted in songform at the start of Scottish council estate-verité author, Irvine Welsh's "Filth."
Alabama 3 was the oddest musical outfit to arise from late-'90s London. They were also the most original. The band's origins are shrouded in urban myth -- the band like to claim that the three core members met in rehab, while their Southern accents have many believing they are from the U.S. state of Alabama, although it appears vocalists Rob Spragg and Jake Black met at a London rave when Spragg heard Black singing Hank Williams' "Lost Highway." Bonding, they set out about creating an agenda of Americana, electronica, leftist politics, and laughter. Joined by DJ Piers Marsh, the trio issued two 12" dance singles that combined their interest in gospel and country music, yet these went over the heads of the London dance scene. In Italy, where Spragg and Black began singing Howlin' Wolf songs over Marsh mixes, the idea of the band began to take shape and back in Brixton, South London, they recruited a crew of musicians to shape their vision. This, combined with brilliantly theatrical live shows, meant the band attracted a huge South London following long before they had a record deal
Signed to One Little Indian, their 1997 debut, Exile on Coldharbour Lane, was a groundbreaking work that effortlessly fused gospel, country, blues, and house music. Dubbed "chemical country," Alabama 3 broke down the barriers between line dancers and ravers. The band's penchant for absurdity was displayed in Spragg and Black's insistence on singing, rapping, and preaching in deep Southern accents alongside samples of cult leader Jim Jones preaching Maoist philosophy and the renaming of all members -- Spragg became Larry Love; Black became The Very Reverend D. Wayne Love. Yet the songs were strong and imaginative and their observations on contemporary U.K. culture were spot-on: country and blues were used to look at the excesses of dance culture -- all with a pumping 808 beat behind them. The band was picked up on by U.K. roots DJs Charlie Gillet and Andy Kershaw, but the U.K. music press, in the height of its infatuation with Britpop, ignored the group or derided them as a novelty. Fortunately, U.S. audiences displayed a greater degree of irony and cult TV series The Sopranos employed the band's "Woke Up This Morning" as it's theme music.
More to follow...