(Post by Alan MacDonald from Menstrie, Stirlingshire – May 2022.)
The recent post of the Top Twenty hits from 1972 caught my eye. Especially as at # 5 was a song called “It Must Be Love” by Labi Siffre. But why this song, and why an evening with its composer, and where was the location?
Firstly the location; well in 1974 this Westerton boy found himself living and working in a hotel in St Helier on the beautiful island of Jersey in the Channel Islands. Formerly this boy had a somewhat secure, and sometimes inebriated, career exporting Scotch whisky from the centre of Glasgow, which had been swapped (in truth I had been made redundant) for a summer of sun, sea and other frolics on this 12 x 6 mile rock in the English Channel, off the coast of Brittany. The frolics were so enjoyable that as the hotel job ended with the fading sun, the thought of returning to the frolics (not) of Westerton faded also and my summer extended into autumn, and my labours transferred from the hotel to employment at a local sawmill.
One evening, as I washed down the sawdust from my day job, with a pint or two of Mary Ann, the local bitter, I spied in the evening paper an advert for: ‘An Evening With Labi Siffre.’ Now Jersey wasn’t blessed with real live acts from the mainland coming over (unless you count a 1974 concert from a tax-dodging band called Led Zeppelin), but what did they ever go on to achieve! So who was Labi Siffre and why did he cause excitement on the rock?
An emerging act in the UK, Labi Siffre released six albums between 1970 and 1975, and his best known composition at the time was “It Must Be Love.” He later went on to write and perform the classic ‘(Something Inside) So Strong’ which became one of the anthems for the release of Nelson Mandela from jail.
But here he was, at the time a one-hit wonder from the UK. I loved “It Must Be Love” and wanted to hear him perform it live.
Persuading some of my mates to accompany me to hear this one-hit wonder wasn’t the easiest of tasks. It was 1974 remember, and down at the jolly old discotheques where we had our frolics it was George McCrae who was “Rocking His Baby,” and the Hues Corporation who were “Rocking Their Boat,” that rocked most people’s boats at the time. Labi Siffre – eh, who he?! But persuade one mate to come along I did. It took a free ticket and more than a few pints of the afore-mentioned Mary Ann to get (bribe) him there, but off we went.
The venue was “The Deep” night club, one of St Helier’s finest at the time. The decor of the club was of being under the sea hence the name “The Deep”. Funny thing though, one had to climb UP a couple of flights of stairs to get into “The Deep.”
So UP the stairs we went and joined the sizeable crowd who had gathered inside. Seeing all these people made me feel I had made the right decision. My mate, he was less impressed and directed me to the bar where I filled him up with more Mary Ann.
First impression that night was the stage, which had been set up with just one microphone. Where was Labi’s band going to play we all thought? That question was answered shortly when, after a brief introduction by the promoter, Labi burst on to the stage acoustic guitar in hand. That’s right, he had no band!
Never mind, Labi was very charming (he was an ex public school boy after all) and welcomed all of us to his performance. He explained that he was in the middle of a tour to introduce his fans to a new set of songs he planned for his next album, and hoped we’d like them. And off he went, singing brightly, in tune, accompanying himself on the guitar. However, it wasn’t long before the crowd started to get restless. Many of them were genuine Labi fans, who had bought his albums and were here to get the real Labi. The, at the time, one-hit wonder Labi that is!
And it wasn’t long before a voice was heard from the crowd, in the interval between songs, asking Labi if he was going to play some of the old stuff.
“Er no,” said the bold Labi, explaining as he had said earlier that tonight would be his new songs. And off he went again, belting out a few more songs and trying to shorten the interval between them to avoid questions. But it didn’t work, and it wasn’t long before a plaintiff cry went up: “Haw Labi, gonnae gee us ‘It Must Be Love?’ That’s right, I wasn’t the only Jock in the room.
“Er no,” said a fast becoming exasperated Labi, “not tonight.” And with that he decided the interval had arrived and shot off stage right.
It did seem an age before he returned. Probably the promoter told him he wasn’t getting paid unless he did. But back he came and picked up where he left off, which was a stream of new songs, none of them resonating with me or the die-hard fans in the room. It wasn’t long before, you guessed it, the plaintiff cry from a Scottish maiden was heard again to exclaim: “Haw Labi! Gonnae gee us ‘It Must Be Love’ just a wee bit …aaw go on pal?”
At this Labi’s face turned from ex public school boy to demented rocker. He lowered his guitar, grabbed it by the frets as if to swing into the crowd and bop the fair Scottish maiden with it, thought better of it, took two steps back, composed himself, found his charming voice and proudly announced that we had been a lovely audience and that was it for tonight. Exit stage right.
Okay I made that last bit up. The circumstances are real, but what he really said that night can’t be printed, except to say it ended in ‘…off,’ and it wasn’t in his charming ex public schoolboy voice either. Suffice to say our Labi was not best pleased with his trip to Jersey, his trek UP to “The Deep,” and a young maiden from Scotland was definitely crossed off his Christmas card list. As for the rest of us; we’d seen the great man in person, he had a lovely voice, but ‘It Must Be Love’ it wasn’t. Ah well!
There was a ferry for the mainland leaving at 10.00pm that evening, Labi was on it.
N.B: It didn’t work for him that night in Jersey but Labi did go on to have a stellar career with his great anthem “(Something Inside) So Strong” becoming influential in the fight for civil rights in 1970s Britain. And the song we all wanted to hear that night “It Must Be Love” was covered by the band Madness. His music has been sampled extensively by US hip-hop artists such as Eminem and Jay-Z. He has published essays; the stage and television play Deathwrite and three volumes of poetry: Nigger, Blood on the Page, and Monument. At the age of 76 he is making a bit of a comeback and just recently was the subject of a BBC ‘Imagine’ programme with Alan Yentob, filmed largely at his home in Spain.
One thought on “it must be love – an evening with labi siffre.”
Nice read Alan.
I had a similar experience with Boz Scaggs in the 90’s. We went along expecting to hear his 70s hits but he had just released an album of blues covers and played it live in it’s entirety, we thought at least he’d save a few 70s gems like Lowdown for the encore but nope, more Sonny Boy Williamson!
The crowd weren’t best pleased…
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