Ron Keefe - Latin Quarter Experience

Way back in the eighties I co-wrote a few of the Latin Quarter songs with Steve Skaith and Mike Jones, including ‘Radio Africa’. The Latin Quarter project was a very important part of my life and, in my view, a quite unique attempt to set radical and powerful lyrics to mainstream popular music.

I first met Steve Skaith through our local Labour Party. We had both joined about the same time along with a wave of disparate socialists with the hope that the left wing shift of the Labour Party might be the start of a real fight back against Thatcherism. No, seriously, we really did believe that back then.

If I remember correctly, Steve was part of a song writing partnership working for Chappels Music. I had been involved in a number of music projects over the years including an experimental music/ performance band called the Event Group which performed regularly at Richard Strange's innovative Cabaret Futura during the early eighties.

Steve mentioned that as well as his work for Chappels he was also working on some rather more radical stuff with lyrics from an old friend of his from Big Flame called Mike Jones. Steve let me hear some of the portastudio demos he had already done which immediately excited my interest. I was particularly impressed with a song about Northern Ireland called ‘Roaring Silent’, which to my knowledge has never seen the light of day. Steve showed me a whole batch of lyrics from Mike that he was working on and we began to talk over some of the possibilities. Every so often we would meet up and he'd play me what he had been working on and I'd suggest some arrangement ideas or provide some backing vocals.

One day Steve showed me some lyrics for a song called ‘Radio Africa’ which Mike had sent him. We both thought the lyrics were fantastic but Steve said he was having some difficulty trying to find the right music. I asked if I could have a go at the music and Steve agreed. About a week later we met up again and I played him the now familiar riff and an acoustic guitar version of the verse and chorus. I asked Steve what he thought and he declared it was a definite hit! I was still having some difficulty with the middle eight which Steve easily solved and we proceeded to put down a demo on the portastudio. Steve sung the lead vocals and played guitar, I played the bass line, sung the backing vocals and I think a flute solo (this later became a synth flute in the studio because I couldn't make the recording session).

Another song we worked on together at this time was ‘Eddie’ which was to become the B-side of the original ‘Radio Africa’ single. Originally this was set to a fairly straightforward guitar arrangement but I persuaded Steve that we could make the lyrics far more urgent by using a rhythmic synth line and no percussion. This was to prove a real pain to play and almost impossible to perform live later as the rhythms are very irregular and change between the verses.

Steve put together a demo of some of this material for his friend Marcus who was keen to get some record company interest. This was very quickly forthcoming but I believe that Marcus had given the impression to the record companies that this was a performing band rather than Steve and me with a portastudio. So it was a matter of urgency that Steve put together a band who could play this material. I had no real interest in playing in a band so my active involvement with the project decreased although I co-wrote a further song called ‘Snow Blind’ which surfaced on a later Latin Quarter album and I also provided the bass flute on the extended version of ‘Nomzamo’. There are also some Mike Jones lyrics which Latin Quarter never used but which I set to music myself - including a fantastic lyric about the strength of faith called "Back to the Well" - but these demos have just gathered dust over the years.

‘Back to the Well’ is set as a kind of hymn with versions for both solo voice and four part choir. This was suggested by the nature of the lyrics which concern our ability to find strength to renew our beliefs even when it seems all hope is gone. ‘Natural Balance’ is, as far as I know, unique in that it features a vocal by Mike himself. The first part of the song is a kind of Dadaist poem which Mike recites. His voice is overlaid several times with the poem starting at different points, this texture sets up a kind of rhythm of its own before the song proper comes in. ‘Copra Trading’ is a more straightforward pop song but with the peculiarity that the chorus is in a different time signature from the verse. I think there may be a couple of others called, I think, ‘The Easy Certainty of Bikers’ and ‘What of Punk’ but I never really finished these.

I have always been an enthusiastic fan and I was appalled that the best (in my opinion) Latin Quarter album – ‘Swimming Against the Stream’ - was pulled before it was ever given a chance. I consider Mike Jones to be one of the best lyricists working in popular music and it is a great shame that he has hung up his biro. I'm delighted that Steve is still making music and can't wait to hear his new stuff.