“Hi Tension, That’s what
we are, superstar” Ah memories, of such a great record and the start of what people call Brit Funk movement. It
was 1978 and one of the earliest 12” singles by a British group and marketed as a ‘limited Edition’ by Island
Records. Soon they were exchanging hands for £50 and the eventual 7” went on to sell over a quarter of a million
copies. Next came the British Hustle, “Do the British Hustle, oh yeah”, but Hi Tension hadn’t set out to create
a movement, they weren’t looking for British sound, they simply wanted to make the kind of soul, funk and jazz
they loved that was coming out America. But this wasn’t American and the UK had a thriving music scene of its
own so with the British and Afro Caribbean sounds in the black community, the soca and reggae was naturally
going to mix with American influences heard in clubs, on the radio and in concert.
In the early 70s, friends at Alyestone and Willesden High schools in
Kensal Rise, North London were listening to music or hanging out playing football Gladstone Park and from this
community there were a group of young teenagers who wanted to jam. Loosely speaking there were two sets of
brothers David (keyboards) and Ken Joseph (keyboards/bass), Lloyd (drums) and Paul Phillips (guitar). Playing
with them briefly was Phil Fearon who had his own group 70% Proof and both played at each other’s school.
David Joseph recalls the time before the days of computers when black
teenagers who loved music either wanted to become DJs or musicians. David’s father had significant rehearsal
space at home, so that was the focal point for him, his brother, and those who wanted to be in band, and so Hott
Waxx was formed. But all was not well. First they found out another group took the name (and so learned a lesson
in the value of copyright), and Lloyd Phillips though he would be better doing his own thing, so left to form
Kandidate with Phil Fearon.
In 1975 David Joseph had a job working as an apprentice electrician for London
Underground. On one of his shifts he noticed a box with a warning notice “High Tension” and immediately thought
if would be a great name for a new group, better still if they dropped the ‘gh’ and made it “Hi
Tension”. Regenerated, rehearsals resumed and combining all their
influences created new songs through a process of jamming and developing grooves and lyrics that came from these
sessions. The group was now sets of brothers again, David Joseph (Keyboard/lead vocals), Kenneth Joseph
(bass/vocals); Paul Mclean (guitar/vocal), Patrick Mclean (saxophone); Paul Phillips (guitar/vocals) without
brother Lloyd; and David Reid (drums). They were taking on engagements and became regulars on Soho. As they
grew, they would check out all the visiting American acts passing through the UK; Earth Wind and Fire James
Brown, Brass Construction, Crown Heights Affairs, The Fatback Band, many more too.
One of David’s concerns at the time was the impact of their drummer and felt
in order survive as a band they needed someone whose playing had a stronger presence, but the group also valued
their existing player David Reid. Regular visits to see US acts inspired a solution as it was not uncommon for
bands to have two drummers, so they drafted in Paapa Mensah to complete their rhythm section.
Crossing paths with Hi Tension on London’s vibrant live music scene was Osibisa
and the group’s percussionist Kofi Ayivor took a keen interest and became their mentor. As the original demo to
the song “Hi Tension” took shape he marched them into Island Records to meet Chris Blackwell. They were signed
up and the song dramatically hit the streets driving the UK black music scene into frenzy. Totally unique in
flavour, it hit the spot with those who loved American music but had a raw energy that couldn’t be earmarked,
except we knew Hi Tension were British and so Brit Funk was born.
David recalls that the
recording of “British Hustle” didn’t quite capture the essence of how it was rehearsed and came across live.
Despite the record getting good reactions as a follow up single he says this was the start of frustrations. The
group wanted someone in England to come in and help produce the album, but while Island Records clearly
understood reggae they, according to David, knew nothing about black music and were not ready for it. The answer
to who they may have in the UK to produce their album was “Nobody”.
The eventual producer brought in to work alongside Kofi and Alex Sadkin from
Florida. David says he found the studio environment created by Sadkin too clinical for his liking and the
sessions zapped the energy from the songs while the time recordings took clocked up for too much money. In the
end the album did have a more polished sound, but if songs did sounded more American than their first two
singles it’s because ultimately the group’s biggest influences came from across the Atlantic, and a s David put
it, Hi Tension were striving to be a better band and were using their American heroes as a yardstick to improve.
Fans certainly didn’t
seem to object and this album has always been highly regarded and respected for its quality. The Calibre of “Autumn Love” and
“Peace On Earth” is so high that both could have sat comfortably on an Earth Wind and Fire Album, or the
instrumental “Power And Lightning” that could easily have come straight from the Brothers Johnson “Blam!!”
sessions. (The group’s horn section on the album included trumpeter and future Mercury Music Prize nominee Guy
Barker on his recording) A section of the album was recorded at
Island, but never released. David Joseph says Island didn’t understand the music and would only consider whether
it was danceable enough or not. Clearly they didn’t and so only a couple of singles came out, most notably
“There’s a Reason” which not long ago was another expensive collectors 12”, more so in fact than the original
pressing of “Hi Tension”. In the meantime Brit Funk was taking off, Light of the World coming in 1979 for their
debut “Swinging”, then there was Freeez, The UK Players and the full swing of the Brit Funk scene in the
Hi Tensions briefly moved to EMI but communications began to break down between
members and the liaison was not a success. David briefly returned to Island as a solo artist with “You Can’t
Hide Your Love”, written with the band in mind, but ultimately a solo venture as he’d done all the work, then in
1984 the group reformed for a couple of singles at Streetwave Records and some live dates.
RALPH TEE (Jazz