Unofficial Latin Quarter Biography
The following is a fans' biography written with lots of guesswork and heresay. Any mistakes, opinions or criticisms are purely mine and not anyone connected with Latin Quarter.
Latin Quarter were formed in August 1983, initially consisting of Mike Jones (Lyrics), Steve Skaith (Vocals, Guitar) and Richard Wright (Guitar). This line-up has formed the backbone of Latin Quarter ever since. Mike Jones and Steve Skaith, both members of Big Flame a political organisation concerned with social justice, actually starting writing and home-recording two years prior to the formation of the band. It was said of Phil Ochs that the basis to his songwriting was that "A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over" and this truth was one of the driving forces for Mike Jones and Steve Skaith.
The addition, in December 1983, of Yona Dunsford (Vocals, Keyboard) and Carol Douet (Vocals) was to greatly influence the sound of Latin Quarter's early albums. By the time the "Radio Africa" was released in September 1984, on Ignition, the band had expanded still further with the recruitment of Greg Harewood (bass), Steve Jeffries (keyboard) and Rikki Stevens (drums).
Rockin' Horse Records saw the potential of Latin Quarter and signed them. Their faith was fully justified with the release of their critically acclaimed debut album "Modern Times" in September 1985. Musically "Modern Times" was very diverse - rock, reggae, dance and ballads. Just as the musical style was diverse so were the songs topics, side one covered McCarthyism, football violence, imperialism in Africa, racism and the social ills of the USA. With striking artwork from James Swinson "Modern Times" remains a classic album.
Within seconds of the first song starting, the title track "Modern Times", your attention is grabbed by a man pleading, before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, that he should be heard instead of vilified. The song then recounts the story of the anti-communism witch hunts of the 1950s in America known as McCarthyism. On the face of it not the most inspiring stories to sing about but Steve Skaith and Mike Jones collaboration was built on, and indeed excelled at, producing memorable and uplifting songs from events such as these. In its own right the song "Modern Times" is outstanding but it is just one of several classics on the album including "America for Beginners", "Radio Africa", "No Rope As Long As Time" and the "New Millionaires."
Unfortunately "Modern Times" was never heard by a large selection of the UK record buying public because of the nature of daytime radio broadcasting in the UK. A good case in point was the haunting "America for Beginners", it received outstanding reviews on Radio 1's record review by the presenter and all the musicians on the show but received no daytime airplay essential for chart success. The song was also covered by the English singer Toyah on her 1985 album Minx. So although "Modern Times" sold well in Europe and went top twenty in several countries including Germany it didn't achieve the same success in the UK.
For their second album, "Mick and Caroline", released in 1987 on Arista, Martin Lascalles replaced Steve Jeffries on keyboards and Darren Abraham replaced Richard Stevens on drums. Lyrically "Mick and Caroline" is even stronger than "Modern Times" and is every bit as diverse, subjects covered included Billie Holiday, religions acceptance of wars, Nicaragua and coal mining. Musically though the album is far less diverse and as a result suffers in comparison with "Modern Times." That said the album does contain some of their best songs: "Remember", "Burn Again", "Love Has Gone" and "The Men Below".
Rockin' Horse Records released six songs off "Modern Times", some more than once, however Arista chose to release just two songs off "Mick and Caroline" and one of them wasn't even given a CD single release. It appeared from the outside that Arista didn't know quite how market Latin Quarter. Without the commercial success to justify an eight member band three members; Martin Lascalles, Darren Abraham, and Carol Douet left the group.
Now signed to RCA, Latin Quarter released "Swimming Against the Stream" in 1989, an album brimming with memorable melodies and lyrics, whilst the vocals are perhaps the best they ever recorded. No better examples are "Race Me Down", "Something Isn't Happening" and the title track where Steve Skaith and Yona Dunsford combine in wonderful harmony. Music critic John Aizlewood, in his review of the album in a national magazine, summed up the album by simply describing it as "Inspired". Another review in a national magazine said "It's haunting stuff." Despite "Dominion" also being familar to millions, as the theme tune to the Channel 4 TV programme "Animal Traffic", RCA opted not to market "Swimming Against the Stream." It appears RCA were concerned that the weekly music papers hadn't reviewed the album, in truth, as with their previous record company, RCA simply didn't know how to market Latin Quarter.
Given RCA's failure to support "Swimming Against the Stream" it was hardly surprising they parted company. They quickly signed to RCA Germany, too quickly in fact as various problems meant they didn't record a new album but instead released the compilation album "Nothing Like Velvet" in 1990. The album is a curious collection of demos, live tracks, new tracks, non-album tracks, remixes and old favourites. Highlights include the title track, a re-recording of the "Truth About John", and the popular B-side "Pyramid Label", all three songs recalling the sound of "Modern Times", whilst another highlight is "February 1990" a lament to the Sandinista's defeat in the 1990 Nicaraguan election. The sleeve notes to "Nothing Like Velvet" suggested that was the last we were to hear of Latin Quarter and given their problems finding a sympathetic record company who could blame them for calling it a day?
However, within a year their most famous song "Radio Africa" had been reworked with the help of Zimbabwe's Bhundu Boys. The rework could never hope to match the original version but it does have its merits. Of more interest to Latin Quarter fans is the B-side "Older" which was to reappear six years later on the album "Bringing Rosa Home". A short tour of Germany followed in 1992 in support of the human rights group Amnesty International. By this stage the band was back to its original three members having lost both Yona and Greg.
To the surprise of fans Latin Quarter were back in 1993 with a new album "Long Pig" (released in the UK in 1995) on the German record label Cloud Nine Records. Yona Dunsford was back to add her vocals to several songs. Musically the album is their most adventurous since "Modern Times", it starts by recalling the sound of "Swimming Against The Stream," whilst the Bhundu Boys collaborated tracks "Bitter to the South" and "Church on Fire" add a touch of Africa to the album and if that wasn't enough the gospel rouser "Like a Miracle" adds another variation in style for good measure. Lyrically "Long Pig" is every bit as inspired as "Swimming", songs such as "Phil Ochs", "More Than a Trace" and "The Hoopoe" represent some of Mike Jones's best lyrics. Given the problems since recording "Swimming" it's remarkable how upbeat "Long Pig" sounds, obviously Steve Skaith and Richard Wright were enjoying the freedom of producing the album themselves.
Once again they effectively disappeared from the music scene until the release of the appropriately named single "Surprised" in 1997, the first song off the new album "Bringing Rosa Home" on the German record label SPV. The album is less immediate than its predecessor but quickly grows in statue with repeated plays. The quality of the songwriting was recognised by music critics throughout Europe. It's by far their most personal album to date as Mike Jones explained in his interview with Consumable, but never far from the surface is a remainder of the injustices of society. With Mike Jones enthusiasm for writing on the wane, Steve Skaith contributed the lyrics to four of the albums twelve songs, but so close is the bond between them that at times you're hard pressed to guess who wrote which song. Lyrically "Surprised" and "The Spearcarrier" are the album highlights and further demonstrates Mikes Jones and Steve Skaith's versatility as songwriters.
The two other singles released off the album, "Angel" and "Branded", are the most commercial records Latin Quarter have release since "Radio Africa". Richard Wright's production work is also outstanding. The absense of Yona Dunsford was unfortunate as her vocals harmonies always worked wonderfully with Steve Skaith's and together they brought a richness to the Latin Quarter sound. That minor quibble aside the backing musicians used on this album have a whelf of experience as the resultant album testifies.
The same year also saw the release of the second Latin Quarter compilation album "Radio Africa". As with "Nothing Like Velvet" the album covers the period 1985 to 1990 but will have a much wider appeal. As with any compilation album there are several notable omissions especially from "Mick and Caroline" and "Swimming Against The Stream", but this is not a best of album but more of an introduction to Latin Quarter and in that respect the album works very well. For people only familiar with "Radio Africa" and "America for Beginners" the album is an essential purchase as these songs are included along with many other classics like "Cora" and "Race Me Down". The inclusion of several B-sides such as "The Colour Scheme", "Ed Murrow" and "Sandinista" demonstrates the quality and depth of Latin Quarter's material because none of these songs are out of place amongst the more familiar songs. If the album encourages people to seek out Latin Quarter's back catalogue then the totally inadequate booklet can almost be forgiven. The album concludes with "Swimming Against The Stream", whose title seams to sums up the Latin Quarter entire story.