In 1991, Cornershop performed for the first time when they took to the stage at O’Jays in Leicester and, although frontman Tjinder Singh tells me that they formally started in 1992, 2021 still marks 30-years since that special moment. Together, as a group, Cornershop began a journey that has seen them develop into a revered cult British band, one that has spent most of their career operating under the radar but has built a solid repertoire of work that has stood the test of the time.
After ‘Brimful of Asha’ received the Fatboy Slim treatment back in 1997, making the song an unstoppable hit that, for a time, outgrew the band themselves, it later came to light that Cornershop had been provided with a mainstream platform sturdy enough to hold the weight of a vital message that came with their work. However, that song doesn’t define the entirety of their career. Their ninth studio album, England Is A Garden, released in 2020, was met with jubilation and stood up against anything else that they’ve released over the entirety of the band’s time in the limelight. The group has been a handful of different incarnations over this time, but Tjinder Singh and guitarist Ben Ayres have remained immovable objects in the Cornershop line-up. The band wouldn’t work without the pair both having a hand each on the wheel.
The first notable event in the history of Cornershop came in late 1992, following their first-ever gig in Southern England in Harlow. From the moment they walked off stage, after what was a rather forgettable show, they were signed by WIIJA Records, a moment that laid out the somewhat surprising path to professional music. “It was quite a memorable show but not for the right reasons,” Tjinder recalls while speaking on the phone from his home in North London. “It was actually quite a roughshod gig because we told the sound person what we wanted, then we were introduced by our manager who pissed off the sound person who then put different effects on everything when we’d asked for no effects. In the end, the stage was trashed, and we went off thinking it was a pretty bad gig for us. But then slowly, the audience started talking to us, and they all really enjoyed it.
“We were actually very down in the dumps,” Singh recalls. “Then we were told that Gary from WIIJA was downstairs in the bar and wanting to buy us a drink. And we said, ‘Well, okay, that’s the consolation drink’. We packed our stuff away, went downstairs. Gary was totally into what he’d heard, and that’s when things changed for us as a group. All of a sudden, we were on a label. A lot of stress was taken off my shoulders, and we worked very hard as a group because I was unemployed and didn’t want to go back to unemployment.”
Tjinder and the rest of the group moved down to London, with a hunger in their collective stomach to not let this opportunity pass. They had a dogged determination, and Tjinder even worked in the office at the label whilst Ayres held down a job at the record pressing plant at Beggars Banquet, who went on to own WIIJA, with Singh noting: “So essentially Ben was working for us,” in what is arguable the clearest indication of their commitment to the Cornershop cause.
“It was the riot grrrl scene, and it was always vibrant in the office,” Singh blissfully remembers. “There were always new things coming up for people (on WIIJA). There was always something every day; it was always quite exciting. I imagine it was the same sort of thing that it was with punk groups at their time. It was very new, very political, and there was a lot of agenda to everything that was going on.”
Being around the riot grrrl movement and sitting alongside label mates like Huggy Bear and Blood Sausage made for perfect bedfellows for Cornershop and Singh, who proudly states: “My life is based on politics. I was born in Enoch Powell’s politics, and I’m a product of that.”
The Cornershop frontman was born in the constituency that the vitriolic Powell represented from 1950 until 1974 in Wolverhampton. Growing up in a place that continuously elected a hateful, openly racist figure who is portraying your ethnicity as the primary societal problem, will shape you as a person. Powell delivered his infamously disgusting ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech in 1968 in the same year Tjinder was born. Politics was something Singh didn’t have the privilege to shy away from, and he’s made sure to fight the good fight throughout his career.
“I think if you do politics, you’re putting yourself quite negatively in front of people as opposed to hiding behind a boy-girl scenario,” Singh says. “But I think there’s always the ability to do that. In the ’90s, people did that a lot, not just with riot grrrl, but also with different scenes and also the mixing of scenes. There was a lot of vibrant different things going on, which weren’t just lyrics that were political, but also just different things like independent music becoming more dance-based, and then clubs becoming more technology-based.”
Politics has been an unavoidable part of Singh’s life, and he’s a firm believer in its importance within music. “If there was more politics in the mix, then we wouldn’t have allowed the government to have got away with Brexit,” he passionately states. “We wouldn’t have allowed the people who are running this music industry to have allowed other people to kill the industry elsewhere.”
Brexit is an ideal that Singh is vehemently against, and he has personally felt the repercussions of the reintroduction over the last few years of a similar kind of discourse to the one that Powell used back in 1968. “People have shouted at me in cars, which I didn’t have since Wolverhampton,” Singh shared about his personal experience of a post-Brexit Britain. “Generally, there’s more tension in the air, even in the place that I’m in Stoke Newington, which is rather laid back, and everyone gets on with each other.
“I think it’s more than the temperature is more acute. My wife is French, and she said she has certainly had people take a second listen to her accent. I said to her, ‘well, at least you can just stop talking’, then people won’t trouble you. Whereas people tend to trouble you with the colour of your skin. The tension is there, and there are little signs that things are getting worse.”
Cornershop have always practised what they preach and maintained a position firmly on the right side of history. In 1992, before the masses knew their name, Singh and his bandmates took aim at Morrissey after the former Smiths singer leaned into racist imagery during his set at Finsbury Park. In 2021, society is all-too-aware of Morrissey’s vitriolic world view. It was a different story back then, and Cornershop’s symbolic act of burning Morrissey posters outside his label was the first time that anybody had dared to challenge his actions in a public sphere.
“No one was saying anything or anything concrete, I mean, what we did was put together a lot of very different aspects of the behaviour and what he had done,” Tjinder explains. “Whether that was the different lyrics in different songs, his use of draping himself in the English flag, his use of the Richard Allen skinhead imagery and his non-commitments to anything of that nature that was put to him. Whereas he was happy to talk about vegetarianism, veganism, and we felt race and racism was as brutal as that.”
Singh couldn’t bring himself to stand in silence. Although Cornershop only had a small platform, they felt compelled to use it to raise an issue close to their hearts, and time has proved their fears about Morrissey correct. “It was a lot of things that we put together on the scope of someone that was listened to and revered enough for people to follow him,” the singer added.
“Asians, in particular, were getting attacked and killed at that time, especially in the East End. Therefore we felt that something had to be done and had to be said. That was then. Nowadays, you don’t have to look too far, and you can just look at his fucking badge,” Singh said, concerning Morrissey’s decision to wear the far-right associated ‘For Britain‘ badge in 2019.
That sort of move was a risky one so early on in their career, but Cornershop have never been careerists. The band are firm believers in doing things right, whether it will be detrimental to their prospects or not. This resiliency is why their stock has only grown as the decades have passed. Their first album in five years arrived in 2020 with England Is My Garden, a delectable reminder of why Cornershop are even more important now than they were in the ’90s.
“That last album seems to put a line through all the albums and connected them all together,” Singh explained, with a renewed vigour in his voice. “People have got into this last album, and then they’re looking for what they missed, and they did miss a lot. That’s how we figure that, as a band, people have missed us. I mean, we are not a day goes by, and that’s one of the most underrated, but we do feel that things have been missed in terms of what we’ve done.”
Of course, a lot has changed since Cornershop’s debut three decades ago. Given the age of music, in a world that allows new material to be at the edge of your fingertips, Cornershop’s most recent record has allowed the fans who loved ‘Brimful Of Asha’ back in 1997 to step back foot into their world.
After 30 years, more and more people are catching up on the albums that have passed them by over the years. England Is A Garden has arrived as the perfect position to reignite a love of Cornershop. Not just the music, not just the message, but to reward the bravery, the courage and the severe honesty that one of the most underappreciated jewels in British music’s history deserves.
Check out the premiere of their brand-new visuals for ‘One Uncareful Lady Owner’ below.