White Town: Women in Technology

Sometime around 1978, Jyoti Mishra saw Pennies From Heaven, a BBC miniseries that interspersed period drama with actors lip-syncing old songs. In the second-to-last episode, a schoolteacher has resolved to return to sex work when her adulterous lover, a sheet music salesman played by Bob Hoskins, breaks out in a bleak lament. Titled “My Woman,” the song was originally by Bing Crosby, but the show’s version, recorded in 1932 by London crooner Al Bowlly, stands out for a funereal, three-note opening trumpet phrase. You might even know it: BUM, bum ba-bum, bum ba-bum, bum ba-bum.

Born in 1966 in Rourkela, India, Mishra emigrated with his middle-class family to the UK when he was 3, eventually settling in Derby, in central England. He endured bullying, racist and otherwise. “I was the annoying know-it-all kid at school, a title I held alongside fattest lad,” Mishra has said. He started playing keyboards when he was 12, and, as he tells it, quit school at 16 “specifically to go on the dole and play in a band.” During the 1980s, he began to identify as a revolutionary Marxist.

After attending a “life-changing” Pixies concert, Mishra formed White Town as a conventional guitar band in 1989, citing standard indie-rock influences of the time: the Wedding Present, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and My Bloody Valentine. At their third gig, White Town opened for Primal Scream. “The name White Town was a reference to growing up as an Asian person in Britain,” Mishra told Sound on Sound. “That’s not been depressing, but there certainly was a sense of alienation.” A government program for the unemployed, the now-defunct Enterprise Allowance Scheme, helped Mishra start his own label, Satya Records.

The funding enabled him to release White Town’s first single, 1990’s “White Town,” in a run of 1,000 7″ vinyl copies. “There are some things in life that have to be done regardless of success or failure,” reads a typewritten note tucked within the sleeve. The A-side casts a handy lens on Mishra’s nascent sensibility. He sings in a hushed voice that evokes quintessential Sarah Records indie-pop groups like the Field Mice, joined by cello throbs like Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” and propulsive streaks of MBV-style noise-rock. But the lyrics address a lover who, it’s implied, has left him under racist pressure from her parents. “If it’s not worth fighting for,” Mishra sighs, “it’s worth nothing at all.”

White Town were still deeply underground, but they caught the ear of Geoff Merritt, owner of Urbana, Illinois-based indie label Parasol, which put out several of the group’s subsequent records. The other band members drifted away, and Mishra recorded White Town’s full-length debut, 1994’s Socialism, Sexism & Sexuality, by himself on an eight-track. Fascinating if flawed, the album tends toward run-of-the-mill jangle, and though some of the songs are among Mishra’s catchiest, as a whole the 67-minute outing is uneven and overlong. But he also experiments with gender ambiguity on the buoyant “My Baby Will Love Me,” and rails against racists and fascists. In verbose sleeve notes, Mishra name-checks radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, while backing away from Marxism or any other orthodoxy. He sums himself up as “amateur philosopher, semi-pro songwriter, and career pervert.”

By 1994, Mishra was studying at the University of Derby. He has claimed that he’d long since given up “completely” on any youthful dreams of a major-label deal. But around this time, he acquired a sampler and began working with loops. “I was influenced by hip‑hop, Cabaret Voltaire, and musique concrete, and thought that the creative use of sound in avant‑garde was brilliant,” he has said. “It was a little bit like the Marcel Duchamp school of ‘readymade’ art: You find an object in real life, and you make it your own by putting it in a different place and context.”

Mishra’s most significant spin on the readymade concept was his treatment of “My Woman,” the 1932 jazz record he’d heard as a child on Pennies From Heaven. He spotted the CD soundtrack in the 1990s. “If I could remember the riff from all those years ago, I figured it must be catchy,” Mishra has said. He built an answer song around a sample of that nagging horn fanfare, drawing inspiration lyrically as well as musically: “The original song was so anti-woman that I wanted to twist it another way.”

The result, “Your Woman,” overflows with lofty ideas. The lyrics are coy about the narrator’s gender and sexuality; they also incorporate Mishra’s disillusionment with certain leftists he viewed as hypocrites. Off-kilter beats crunch like early hip-hop, and guitars stab toward Chic’s disco-funk, while bouncy keyboards bring to mind both vintage synth-pop like Bronski Beat or Yaz and the acid-house hangover of White Town’s fellow postmodernists Saint Etienne. (Mishra has mused that the song’s juxtapositions appealed to his “intertextualist” mindset.) But “Your Woman” also has a scruffy, underdog charm. Mishra made the record at home, taking up only five tracks on his trusty eight-track mixer, with gear he estimated as worth “about a grand.” His whispery vocals, often more like Paddington in a library after marmalade, are fey and even sultry, but they’re cloaked in distortion that could be from Jay Gatsby’s Victrola or a telephone booth down the block.

“With ‘Your Woman,’ I tried to mix ideology and autobiography and put elements of pop songs from the ’30s alongside those of the ’80s to come up with something meaningful for the ’90s,” Mishra has said. “But people listening to the radio don’t have to get all that, of course. They can just dance around to it. And if you couldn’t get people to do that, they wouldn’t listen to anything you had to say anyway.”

In 1996, Parasol released “Your Woman” on the four-song CD single Abort, Retry, Fail?_, named after the error message Mishra’s computer kept giving him the weekend he tried to mix the tracks; ​the dreaded MS-DOS prompt “sort of characterizes what’s been going on for me the last few years,” he wrote in the sleeve notes. He was 30. Then one night, in Mishra’s telling, he was DJing in Derby when he noticed that people on the dancefloor “really, really liked” the new single, so he sent copies to five big labels and five radio DJs. On October 28, 1996, BBC Radio 1’s Mark Radcliffe started playing “Your Woman.” And kept on playing it. Suddenly Mishra was at the center of a label bidding war, and a few days before Christmas 1996 he signed with Chrysalis/EMI affiliate Brilliant!. More than a hard drive had been reset.

When “Your Woman” hit No. 1 in January 1997, becoming only the fourth “debut” single to do so since the UK singles chart began in 1952, delirium ensued. Major labels traditionally held a vise grip on the means of music’s production, distribution, and marketing. Now here was this chart-topper out of nowhere who refused to go on Top of the Pops or appear in his own music video. To the fevered British press, “Your Woman” proved that advances in technology had democratized recording to the point that aspiring artists no longer had to play in dingy clubs or suck up to label A&Rs. Mishra was “merely the first of the No. 1 bedroom superstars.”

The frenzy cooled a bit as “Your Woman” spread internationally, but the song’s popularity continued. U.S. modern rock radio was in its “faux-ternative” phase, a post-grunge interregnum where pop acts could pass for alternative before the forthcoming chokehold of nu-metal. Another unknown outfit, Primitive Radio Gods, had notched a sample-based hit the previous year. Beck’s genre-mashing Odelay was the incumbent critics’ darling. Prince’s decade-old “If I Was Your Girlfriend” still faintly rippled in the zeitgeist. With the original Star Wars films enjoying a theatrical re-release in 1997, some fans surely gravitated to the unmistakable similarities between the “My Woman” horn riff and John Williams’ Darth Vader theme. In a puritanical country where the Supreme Court was still six years away from striking down anti-sodomy laws, tabloids questioned the obscure White Town singer’s sexuality.

But maybe, as Entertainment Weekly put it in a track review lauding “Your Woman” as worthy of comparison to the Spice Girls (high praise, then and now!), the song was simply “powerful pop.” As a teenage Arizona transplant, I distinctly remember a letter from a friend back in my Northern California hometown hipping me to “that ‘I could never be a woman’ song.”

Women in Technology, which came out in February—only about two months after Mishra signed with Chrysalis—was no match for the “Your Woman” phenomenon. But it’s an eccentric, endearing album in its own right. An overjoyed and perhaps over-confident Mishra…

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