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No Sale

As World Cup fever was reaching a boil, Ian Parton, the musical player-coach of Brighton, England's Go! Team, was contacted by Nike about using one of his group's songs in a soccer-themed television spot. He admits that the concept was pretty benign -- just a montage of clips showing famous footballers such as Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney and Brazilian sensation Ronaldinho getting their kicks -- and the money being offered was generous. But he turned the company down, just as he'd previously rejected the likes of McDonald's, for what he sees as the simplest and most obvious of reasons. "If there was a band I liked and I saw them advertising something, I'd probably be disappointed, and I'd look at that song a bit differently," he says.

A couple of decades ago, this opinion was widely held. But in the years since Neil Young proudly declared, "This note's for you," artists have discovered that licensing tunes for use in major tube campaigns is the surest way short of payola to guarantee that a single becomes a smash. Ask Nelly Furtado, whose "Promiscuous" track vaulted to the top slot on Billboard's Hot 100 chart due largely to the exposure it received in ubiquitous ads for Verizon Wireless.

As a result, Parton's views make him seem hopelessly out-of-date in today's marketplace, as he understands full well. "I kind of assume that everyone sees it the same way I do, but most people probably don't," he says. "Anyone new, that's not how they'd go about it." Still, he isn't about to alter his position, whether it's anachronistic or not. "If you're making music, then to patch that music through whatever it is -- petrol or beer or something -- changes it in a way. And I want to keep it kind of pure."

Purity isn't the first characteristic that comes to mind regarding the Go! Team. After all, the combo's most recent album, last year's Thunder, Lightning, Strike, is an exuberantly bastardized amalgam of rock, rap, soul and soundtrack music that hardly serves as a monument to homogeneity. But deep down, the Go! Team's offerings are an undiluted reflection of Parton's main ambition -- to create a sound in which low art and high art can peacefully co-exist, and maybe even party together. "What I like best," he says, "is the combination of originality and catchiness. Experimental catchiness is kind of the holy grail for me."

With the exception of having a mother who was a member of a Welsh choir, Parton was exposed to a fairly standard array of music in his youth. The difference, then, is that he absorbed the sort of sounds that tend to bounce off the rest of us. He was so smitten by the theme song to Degrassi Junior High, the late-'80s entry in the long-running teen epic, that he tried to teach himself how to play it on the piano. In addition, he admired the themes to many American TV programs (he specifically cites Charlie's Angels and series associated with producer Glen A. Larson, the man behind Magnum P.I. , Knight Rider and Manimal), and recognizes the mark they've made on his current musical projects. "I always liked the action-packed stuff," he reveals, "and the kind of fanfare-y brass overlays they used."

At the same time, Parton says, he was drawn to a wide range of contemporary styles -- "things that were kind of upbeat and happy," as well as "darker, more heavyweight kind of music" -- and after he purchased a sampler and a four-track and began to make his own music, he consciously refrained from keeping these influences separated. "I've always loved old-school hip-hop, the Jackson 5, funk stuff, blaxploitation stuff, '60s girl groups," he points out. "But then I thought, 'What would happen if you combine that with more of what's traditionally thought of as an art-school approach, where you're distorting things and fucking up the production and things like that?' So I mixed things that don't normally mix, which some people might think sounds contrived or forced or whatever. But I do generally think that there's some kind of middle ground where the two things can meet."

A 2000 EP called Get It Together was Parton's first attempt to achieve this blend, and thanks to the patronage of the late DJ John Peel, he received so much attention that he decided to assemble a band to help him translate his madcap material in a live setting. Before long, rapper/singer Ninja, guitarist/banjoist Sam Dook, bassist Jamie Bell, drummer Chi "Ky" Fukami Taylor and multi-instrumentalist Silke Steidinger (replaced last year by Kaori Tsuchida) were part of the package. "There weren't any kind of Pop Idol auditions or anything like that," Parton says. "I found Ninja on an Internet site, but everyone else got in touch with me or were people I knew in Brighton. It came together in three weeks, and we had a gig, like, three weeks later, so it was a real cram job."

Parton's new Team-mates made significant contributions to Thunder, Lightning, Strike ditties such as giddy opener "Panther Dash" and "Feelgood by Numbers," which Parton describes as "a shameless reference to Charlie Brown-type music." According to him, "There's more live playing on there than people probably think." But loads of other sonics were culled from samples that he used without getting permission in advance. Hence, when Thunder struck the U.K. in 2004, "it was totally illegal," Parton concedes. "A hundred percent of it was uncleared."

In retrospect, Parton realizes that skipping the paperwork was sloppy -- but the Go! Team was signed at the time to a such a modest indie (Memphis Industries) that he figured he could avoid legal entanglements. "Unless you make any money, nobody's going to see you," he says. "So we just stuck it out there." Before long, though, Sony/BMG came calling, "and when major labels get interested, they won't really dabble in taking a chance with that kind of thing," he allows. "So it meant revisiting the whole album and 'fessing up and giving them a list of every sample that was on there, so that, in theory, they could go away and contact everyone."

This was no small chore. Parton estimates the sample total at "more than fifty. Sixty or seventy, probably." Because he employed snippets from a lot of obscure sources, Sony/BMG's minions couldn't even locate some of the folks on the roster, but they found plenty of others. Not all of them were cooperative. "Some people along the line said 'no,'" Parton notes. "And when that happens, you're in a position where you either have to change it or drop the song."

This edict "meant rewriting," Parton continues, "and there were a couple of places that really hurt, because I was so used to the original." The section of the vibrant "Junior Kickstart" where, as he puts it, "the brass kicks in," was a particularly painful example. But the real Hobson's choice involved "Ladyflash," a cut-and-paste R&B charmer that's arguably become the Go! Team's signature number. In order to use loops from several tunes, including the Holland/Dozier/Holland chestnut "Come See About Me," he had to surrender his stake in the song entirely. "I don't own a single bit of it," he says. "I either had to do it that way or change it and cringe every time I heard it, because it was shit. So I paid up."

He's taken these expensive lessons to heart. Right now, Parton is assembling tracks that will more than likely wind up on the next Go! Team CD and has already completed "Doing It Right," a new single slated for British release in September; he calls it "frighteningly poppy. I mean, when I wrote it, I was like, 'Fuck! Did I write that?'" But when it comes to sampling, he says, "I think I'll be a bit cleverer about how I do it. I'll change things subtly before I even call people."

And if the folks from Nike phone again? Parton will politely decline their offer. "I'm probably seeing it a bit too seriously," he acknowledges, chuckling. "In the grand scheme of things, it's not a massive deal, and if anybody heard I'd turned them down, they'd be like, 'What the fuck?' They'd think I was a proper idiot. But, you know, I think music should be kept special, and I don't think selling it for a commercial is a good way to do that."

Nelly Furtado couldn't agree less -- but Neil Young would be proud.


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