Smith & Mighty — Retrospective

I’ve been meaning to write a ‘how to buy’ piece on the early Bristol sound for a little while now, but quite a few of the key early releases remain unavailable for the casual buyer. This career retrospective fills at least one gap, including as it does Fresh Four’s 1989 cover of the Rose Royce song “Wishing On A Star”.

Rob Smith and Ray Mighty helped establish the production template at the heart of the Bristol sound, pulling the melange of influences (hip-hop, dub, lovers’ rock, rare groove, soul, punk, Two-Tone ska) into something distinct and coherent. Their version of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1” was at the heart of “Stranger Than Love”, released in 1987 by Mark Stewart, a long-time member of the Bristol scene (and associate of Adrian Sherwood’sOn-U Sound project). Along with The Wild Bunch’s “The Look Of Love” (1986), “Stranger Than Love” is considered by many the prototypical trip-hop record.

Smith & Mighty’s 1988 versions of the Bacharach/David torch songs “Walk On By” and “Anyone (Who Had A Heart)” built on “The Look Of Love”: crisp mid-80s hip-hop drum programming rivets down a wide-open arrangement that displays the dub influence; floating above is a dreamy, slightly distanced vocal track, taking full advantage of Bacharach’s airy and drifting intervals. Tim Simenon, of Bomb The Bass, was doing the same thing at the same time with “Say A Little Prayer.”

Smith & Mighty produced Massive Attack’s first single — a cover of Chaka Khan’s “Any Love” — and Fresh Four’s “Wishing On A Star”, which epitomized the formula and introduced (to ears outside Bristol) the signature muted, low-key rapping. The consequent commercial success brought a major-label record deal — with disastrous results. A series of protracted disagreements with London Records meant that Carlton’s 1991 LP The Call Is Strong was the only Smith & Mighty production released for years. In 1995 their contract expired and — with Peter D Rose — they issued Bass Is Maternal on their own More Rockers label. By that time Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky, among others, had taken the Bristol sound to an international audience.

Most of Fresh Four went on to become key figures in the Bristol drum & bass scene — as, indeed, did Smith & Mighty. But the Fresh Four LP retains its reputation as the great unreleased Bristol sound album (rivaled until this year by Earthling’s Humandust). In all likelihood it doesn’t exist in any kind of completed form — but I bet there are some great masters locked up somewhere.

This is a career-spanning retrospective issued by the German !K7 label, with whom they have released two albums since 2000. Most of the material here is, inevitably, post-1995 drum & bass; most of that is from the !K7 releases. There is one track from Carlton’s The Call Is Strong, the Fresh Four single, and versions of the two central Bacharach covers (both of which are also on their highly-listenable DJ-Kicks mix).

When the BBC finally get their act together (or I’m on the p2p networks at the right time), I will finally be able to hear Smith & Mighty’s apparently epic 1996 Essential Mix.

Smith & Mighty, Retrospective

(!K7, 2004)

Smith & Mighty, DJ-Kicks

(!K7, 1998)