Circling round the sun 

The return of Galliano 

“It’s hard to tell if it was an idea, or did it just happen…? There’s always a spark, but there must have been some inkling? or coincidence? …or some such that had made the two ends of a piece of string ready to tie again.” With these reflective words, Rob Gallagher announced the return of Galliano with a gig at Bristol’s Thekla in June 2023.

Often miscast as torchbearers of the Acid Jazz scene of the early ‘90s, Galliano were in fact always far more multifaceted and complex. Both of their time and ahead of it, they created a prescient collage of poetry, astral jazz, cosmic funk, conscious soul, dub reggae and dance floor rhythms. “They were the first group to really make the connection between club and jazz culture – the opening line to a space that would later include groups from The Comet is Coming to Ezra Collective,” says longtime supporter Gilles Peterson. 

Three decades on, Galliano are back with a new LP Halfway Somewhere released on Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings label. While age brings its inevitable distractions and distance from the cutting edge of youth, Gallagher’s genius in gathering fragments of club culture, documenting his urban environment, and addressing broader global concerns is as sharp as ever. 

Born out of London’s underground clubs and warehouse parties of the mid to late eighties, with the debut single on the Acid Jazz label in 1988, Galliano came from a culture that spanned music, dance, fashion, art, design, and the written word. “Back then it was all totally DIY with all these different elements, but it all fitted in. Everything was percolating and Galliano was our little angle on that percolation,” says Gallagher in the front room of his Stoke Newington home, surrounded by his collage artwork and poetry books.

When they arrived as the first act on Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud in 1990 with ‘Welcome to the Story’ (produced by Chris Bangs who invented the term Acid Jazz) dressed in Gabicci sweaters, beads and skullcaps they captured a scene built on re-invention. “We were all playing around with what we could get our hands on whether that was a seventies book on Jamaican style or old Last Poets and Watts Prophets records,” says Gallagher.

For their first album since Live at The Liquid Room (Tokyo) in 1997, Rob Gallagher and his partner, vocalist Valerie Etienne, are joined by Galliano stalwarts Ernie McKone (‘The Great Ernesto’) on bass, Crispin (‘Pump’) Taylor on drums, and Ski Oakenfull on keys (with guests including percussionist Crispin ‘Spry’ Robinson, saxophonist Jason Yarde and vocalist Bémbé Ségué). “They were really instrumental in pushing this new incarnation of Galliano,” says Valerie Etienne “Like us they have had 30 years’ experience of working with different people. And now we can all bring that to Galliano.”

Back in 1991 Galliano’s debut album In Pursuit of the 13th Note brought their own London slant on the records they were hearing at clubs like Dingwalls, with Gallagher and fellow vocalist Constantine Weir dropping lyrics as sharp as their attire. “It was just being within our imagination and letting that spill into whatever was going on. Everything was just popping off from all this mad energy around us,” says Gallagher. 

Always trawling wide for their inspirations, Galliano followed their debut album with the culture clashing A Joyful Noise Unto the Creator produced by Mick Talbot of The Style Council and engineered by Gallagher’s long term associate Demus (Dilip Harris). “The first album had really just been us going into the studio with none of us knowing what was going to happen but now there was structure to it,” says Gallagher. 

A heavy touring schedule that saw them become the biggest live act of the Acid Jazz era (even supporting U2 on their European tour) and the arrival of the experienced session singer Valerie Etienne in the studio brought the discipline and form to counter the freeform creativity. “I had come from session singing with big name acts so was very experienced both on the stage and in the studio,” says Etienne. “So I was able to teach them what I knew to enable the group to start stretching themselves and pushing in new directions.” 

Bookmarked by Nyabinghi Grounation drums, the 1992 album journeyed from their classic take on Leon Thomas’s ‘Prince of Peace’ to the scene capturing Jazz! and the Dr John meets Last Poets down Ridley Road Market of ‘Skunk Funk’ remixed to its blunted conclusion by Andrew Weatherall. 

Supported by an unforgettable performance on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage with Rob, Valerie, and The Vibe Controller (AKA Michael Snaith) rousing the huge crowd in the summer sun, their 1994 follow up The Plot Thickens was Galliano’s response to a planet in stress. With songs written in opposition to the ‘Twyford Down’ motorway extension and totemic conscious soul folk tunes like ‘What Colour Our Love’ and ‘Cold Wind’ it foresaw the ecological concerns of today. Always closely aligned with remix culture, they followed the album with Thicker Plot that included the first ever remix by Philly hip hop group The Roots. 

Written amongst the eclecticism of London’s club scene of the mid ‘90s where nights at The Blue Note and That’s How It Is triggered new ideas, their Talkin’ Loud follow up was entitled simply 4. Moving from the mutant disco of ‘Thunderhead’ to the drum & bass of ‘Freefall’ it was a record for the feet as well as the head.  It saw them sampled by Roni Size and remixed by Peshay. 

Three decades on, Gallagher contemplates what dance culture actually represents in these troubled times. “The whole thing intrigues me more than ever,” he says. “Back when we started in the ‘80s nobody actually really drilled down and asked the question: What is it we are trying to do together in these dark spaces?” 

On the debut single off their new album ‘Circles Going Round The Sun’ Gallagher meditates on what gathering together in clubs means. “The first time you dance you break boundaries between matter and spirit, self and other, individual and group” he intones on a record that references New York dance culture founding father David Mancuso next to Scottish poet and author George Mackay Brown. 

The glue that connects Gallagher to the dancefloor is his long-standing partnership with Gilles Peterson whether touring with him under his Earl Zinger and General Rubbish monikers or providing jingles for his Worldwide FM radio show. So it makes complete sense that Galliano’s new album is released on Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings next to era defining albums like Yussef Dayes Black Classical Music and Kokoroko’s Could We Be More. 

In many ways Halfway Somewhere comes from a similar approach to when they first started. “It was about sampling, and using what were then, specific records as reference points from a specific set of clubs ” says Gallagher. Picking out a copy of Mary Ruefle’s book of poetry Erasure he explains how it inspired both the aesthetic of the album and the artwork. “Her cut and paste approach is about finding new meanings from things that already exist,” he says. 

Where the old Galliano recycled records they heard in the clubs and warehouses of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, today they are responding to the many corners of the global jazz scene – from Total Refreshment Centre in London to International Anthem in Chicago. “There’s a lot to learn from the new lot. Galliano had a specific voice so what I’m trying to do is relocate back to that while taking in what is around us now,” says Gallagher. To emphasise this on Halfway Somewhere he has penned new lyrics to Jazz! (originally on A Joyful Noise) that give props to new school instigators like Jamie Branch and Tom Skinner.  

Since Galliano was put on hold, Gallagher has worked on a myriad of other projects under a range of aliases. He has brought his sharp, witty lyricism to club culture with his Earl Zinger moniker for his Red Egyptian Records label (which saw his version of Blur’s ‘Song 2’ licensed by Regal on the recommendation of Damon Albarn), explored the mysticism of East London as Two Banks of Four with Valerie and engineer Dilip ‘Demus’ Harris, created ambient spoken word mixes as General Rubbish (his current MC moniker when touring with Gilles Peterson), and written odes to the marshlands of Suffolk with his WG Sebald referencing folk meets dub venture, William Adamson.

A genre bounding maverick who reconstructs the cultural fragments he finds around him; Gallagher deserves to be mentioned alongside other pioneering artists who emerged from the DIY explosion of the late 1980s – from Andrew Weatherall to Mark Leckey. 

In his collaging of words and music that capture the small moments of a life within a scene that is ever evolving he is something of a unique chronicler of his time. “I always felt that Rob was the hidden connection between Ian Dury’s ’Do It Yourself’, James Murphy’s ‘Losing My Edge’, and The Streets ‘Has It Come To This’,” says Gilles Peterson. “Just listen to Earl Zinger’s ode to the record shop ‘Saturday Morning Rush’.” 

Under another moniker ThE DiAboLIcaL LibERTieS, Gallagher reflected on his life under the bass bins with the Alex Patchwork produced album ‘Dancefloors of England’. It was also the title of a book of poems written while Gallagher’s mind runs wild on the dancefloor. “I have always zoned out while in clubs, and shooting off into flights of fancy,” he says. 

One of those poems on ‘Dancefloors of England’ was ‘Euston Warehouse’ now versioned as a hauntingly beautiful interlude on Halfway Somewhere. Other ambient found sound interludes include ‘Kingsland Road’, ’Limebike Getaway’ and ‘Tottenham’ showing Gallagher’s penchant for seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. “The mundane deserves its place amongst all the serious stuff,” he says. “I think that is a real Galliano thing that’s always been there.” 

Never shy with its references while having that unmistakable Galliano stamp, Halfway Somewhere includes versions of Roy Ayers The ‘Black 5’ (under the name ‘Dancin’ Your Own Time’) and Eddie Chacon’s ‘Pleasure, Joy and Happiness’, a sonic offering of positivity that closes the LP. “What a lovely way to end the new album and we’ve just heard that Eddie Chacon loves it,” says Etienne.

More than forty years since they came together in a collective burst of DIY energy, Galliano are still only Halfway Somewhere. But listening to the album they are obviously having fun getting there. “I think the stars have to be aligned when you redo things,” says Gallagher. “Coming at it from this door is very different to the door we came into back then. But once it’s existing it is something. But I’m still not sure what that something is.” 

Halfway, Somewhere is dedicated to Sean Rollins aka DJ Brownswood. 

Written by Andy Thomas