BLACKJACK COLLABORATION BEER FOR CHORLTON BEER & CIDER FESTIVAL 2023
PRELUDE TO “PUB PIANO PALE”
A few years ago, in Manchester there happened a peculiar proliferation of so-called yacht rock permeating tap rooms, beer festivals and the like. I’m not sure where or why it started, perhaps it was always there, but one day it seemed everywhere you went there were Hall & Oates, Seals & Crofts and Michael McDonald mixed into setlists, soft rock limping out of tiny speakers behind fake plants in hard-furnished bars across town, often masked amongst more contemporary wordless navel jazz so you probably didn’t notice Sailing by Christopher Cross soundtracking your bao bun and schooner of saison until you did, perhaps just as it was fading away into the background again. There was some sort of groundswell, those prodigal musics hidden since the depths of early 90s Radio 1 shows re-emerging from exile, coming round years later in a strange room, feverishly begging to know who the prime minister is, dramatically appearing at their widow’s wedding reception. We’ve swum in these sorts of waters before – for example witnessing the well-documented resurrection of Journey’s now-ubiquitous Don’t Stop Believin’ – personally traced to a 2005 episode of Family Guy, where it was used as the butt of a karaoke joke – that song was everywhere for a few years, when hitherto it had been consigned to a hinterland of garage forecourt compilation CDs with titles like Time Life: Rock Stars The Rock Collection, Soft Metal – It Ain’t Heavy: 18 Hits from The Giants of Rock or Born To Be Wild: 18 Rock Classics. I know because I owned them, one had a combative-looking eagle posturing on the cover in a way that bullied you into imagining it riding a motorcycle bedecked in stars and stripes through a circle of fire while listening to Crime of The Heart by Asia. Here, Journey vied for attention amongst other rock behemoths such as Starship, Jefferson Starship and, of course, Toto.
I didn’t really come across Toto much growing up in Teesside in the 90s. It wasn’t likely to emanate from the stereo in the same way as the sort of ‘proper’ rock my folks liked listening to, the lean, muscular economy of 70s bands like Thin Lizzy was far likelier than overblown studio frippery. I was learning how to play the drums though, and a lot of my musical youth was spent traipsing about Teesside joining in with various extra-curricular orchestras and wind bands, giving concerts featuring pieces of music like Eye Level: The Theme From Van Der Valk, and other hits cribbed from TV programmes we’d never heard of, let alone seen. I guess it must have been amusingly surreal, even hallucinatory, watching oblivious 13 year-olds parp out bars of background music from Cagney & Lacey or The Sweeney, and it was in this context I first encountered Toto’s monolithic opus, Africa.
For starters, as everyone knows, Africa is a ridiculous work. I don’t even actively enjoy it that much, it’s more of a weird connection I made with the song in spite of myself. It does, however, have a synth hook that can be easily interpreted by a brass section, and a beat you can throw lots of underemployed teenage percussionists at, and so it was that I became very familiar with it. The incongruity of a bunch of teens giving due deference to this most polished of LA studio creations in the crumbling environs of newly post-industrial Teesside was either hilarious or the sort of poignant scene you might encounter during a TV film about a frustrated supply teacher trying to convince an angst-ridden trombonist to compete in the Junior Maths Olympiad. Africa took on a sort of rarified air – we only ever performed it sporadically, brought out of the garage as a treat, polished up for important occasions, wheeled out when there were enough drummers to give just the right amount of theatre; we were all made sure of the significance of the concert by its inclusion in the programme. Hence, I eventually taught myself to play a version on the keyboard in a fit of boredom one afternoon, enjoying getting under the bonnet and finding out how it worked as a piece of music. I filed it away in the back of my mind for years, safely undisturbed until one day the pub I was a regular at procured a piano. This pub was The Smithfield Tavern, on Swan Street in Manchester, newly taken over by my friends at Blackjack Brewery and correctly respecting its city boozer heritage, resplendent with darts, bar billiards, pies, good local beer and now that most democratic instrument.
There had been an explosive movement around then towards local independents opening their own gaffs – I’d worked at Blackjack’s Jack In The Box bar in Altrincham Market since it opened in 2014 and when they got The Smithfield I was straight in there… it was on the way home from my main job at Runaway Brewery for a start, and had the sort of heady atmosphere that can only really be found in places where the owners can’t believe they own somewhere, as if they were racing to have as good a time as possible until a proper grown-up came along to put a stop to all this nonsense, coming home early, ripping the needle off the record player and demanding to know who would replace the Advocaat. In the meantime, a crew of regulars emerged and often we’d finish the night several pints in sitting around the piano. I certainly wasn’t the only culprit, by the way, there were often folk sitting down to bash out a few tunes – the proximity to Band on The Wall also meant some of them were actually good too. Anyway, out came Africa from the recesses one night and, realising everyone knew it, every time I’d get on I’d play it (which was often enough to be mentioned in this Guardian article from 2016) – it became a sort of chintzily ironic, awkwardly totemic theme tune for that brief period of life, so much so that at our wedding the record Toto IV on which it appears was one of the gifts, signed by all the bar staff and other pub heads. It’s on the wall in our kitchen. Africa too had its strange renaissance, from being mostly a curate’s egg of a soft-rock album track to fully fledged mainstream shorthand for a type of glazed, overtly earnest big-shirted 80s nostalgia. By then our moment was gone, but the soft rock remained, reappraised, rehabilitated into bar playlists with knowing glances alongside Tame Impala and The War On Drugs.
PUB PIANO PALE
So, there’s the story of the name. The story of the beer in your glass is a bit simpler – Keenan from Blackjack popped back up to his native Cumbria to brew it at ours, and it’s designed to showcase modern British hop varieties alongside a hefty proportion of unmalted local grains from the Holker estate near the brewery. A hazy pale with Goldings, Bramling Cross, UK Chinook in the copper with Olicana, Jester and UK Chinook at the dry hop stage fermented on S33 yeast. Weighing in at 4.4%, it’s designed to be a good session beer – perhaps to be placed on top of the piano in The Smithfield while someone belts out the successor to Africa, whatever that is.