published: 6 /
In 'Vinyl Stories' Dave Goodwin speak to Fun Loving Criminals offshoot duo Uncle Frank about their favourite vinyl records
As I made my way around the vast corridors of Quad Recording Studios in Leicester, I was struck by the sheer professionalism on display here. Floor upon floor was packed with former offices and old rooms that used to house the ins and outs of a textile factory. I meandered around until I came to the door to the studio I wanted, which had been described to me by the girl downstairs on reception. It was adorned with pictures and old promo photos of the hip-hop, groove-making band Fun Lovin' Criminals, which might give the identity away of this month's 'Vinyl Stories'. I knocked on the door and the music inside stopped. The door opened and I discovered I had just interrupted the recording of the next album from master music makers Frank Benbini and Naim, also known as Uncle Frank...
"We've known each other since the early nineties," said Frank. "We were about the same age when we were growing up. We were brought up in the same town and both were from broken families, so in that way we are very similar. When you want to make a name for yourself at school everyone tries to pick on you and you think to yourself, 'I've got to get out of here', you know? We've been down the road and back several times and we are still here. I don't feel it's like revenge that were starting to get things right, but it's a good feeling doing something that you set out to do. We've been the underdogs all the time. We've always been broke. Put it this way, we haven't had any favours but when it comes to music it's different."
They hooked up just after they left school. Frank grew up listening to hip-hop and when he was a teenager he was a beat boy, so he was a breaker and part of a crew. He specialised in body-popping and locking, and his tastes came from the birth of hip hop and the talents of folk like Run DMC and Public Enemy. Naim, however, took a serious interest in Prince, after Frank got him into Prince's 'Around the World in a Day' which was the 1985 follow-up album to 'Purple Rain'.
He said, "Even now, when I listen to the album, it is baffling as the sounds and songs are so strange. For a pop record that had big hits on it, there's been nothing like it since. Back then I used to get caught humming the tracks because they were so infectious. We sit in our studio listening to it and thinking how on earth did he make those noises."
Apart from Prince, Naim absolutely adored Queen and had everything they ever released, and also was a fan of Bob Geldof who inspired him to get into music in the first place.
Whilst progressing on to hip hop, Frank was actually brought up on a heavy dose of Queen, Led Zeppelin and Chicago because of his dad's influence. But his mother got him listening to black music like Aswad and rock stuff such as Peter Frampton and Elkie Brooks. Frank's mum and dad were actually from Leicester, but their his grandparents were from Scotland, Ireland and Italy.
Frank and Naim's tastes are very similar in terms of Queen and rock music.
Frank remembered, "I loved the 'Flash Gordon' film and the soundtrack to it. My dad was the big Queen fan, and he had all the albums. As he and my mum were separated, I used to go and stay at my dad's at weekends. With 'Flash Gordon' , I didn't even have time for hellos when I got in because I just rushed in and went, 'Have you got it, Dad? Have you been up town and got it?' And he said 'Got what?' And I said, 'Oh, Dad. Don't! You said you were going to go and get the 'Flash Gordon' album.' Then he said, 'Yeah, yeah. I've got it,' and we rushed to get it on to the record player, but he had hidden it, and we went looking for it in the kitchen and he said whether we were hot or cold the closer or further away we got to or from it. So, anyway, he said, 'Go and look under the sink in the kitchen.' So, off I went and I couldn't see it, so I shouted back, 'Nope, I can't see it. It's not here,' and he shouted back, 'Yeah, it is at the bottom,' and I looked and he'd gone and bought a box of Flash floor cleaner! I remember going back in all pissed off and saying, 'Yeah, you think that'a really funny?' and being really fucking miserable and mardy. Then about twenty minutes later he said, 'Go and look in the record player.' It had a glass case lid on it, and I looked through it and there it was! It had a bright red and yellow circle on it, and I stepped back and said 'No way!' and immediately put the record on."
Around 1984/1985, Frank remembers stopping at his mum's in Mykonos, and he remembers sitting in an Irish Bar and a girl came on the TV. "At least I thought it was a girl!" he says. "And it was the most amazing music I had ever heard." The "girl" he was listening to was actually Prince, and he was listening to the track 'When Doves Cry' from 'Purple Rain'. On hearing that track it changed Frank's life for good. Frank had been playing drums since he was three and smashed his first drum kit up with the enthusiasm he had for it in about three weeks, so he joined the Boys Brigade and played the snare drum in the marching band which is when he bought his first vinyl album.
"I hate to say it but the first album I ever bought, because I wanted to learn to play the drums to it was the 'Grease' soundtrack and the track I played so much was 'Born to Hand Jive'. In the outro to that is a drum solo as it fades, and it was that part of it that I learned play on my drums."
It wasn't until he was about sixteen that he started to play the sort of thing that sent him on his way like Sheila E did on 'Sign of the Times'. The first single Frank bought was the theme to 'Monkey Magic', but the records that actually got a young Benbini really into music were albums on the Electro label . He explains, "There was a bunch of records on the Electro label, and one of the producers on those albums was none other than Dr Dre. Those albums got me into hip hop and eventually into buying things like Public Enemy. I was also heavily by now into Prince's 'Sign of the Times' and 'Lovesexy'. When I bought both of those albums, I couldn't get them off the record player. They blew me away those two albums because they were both well trippy for a lad of that age."
When Frank finally left home and got his first flat, he and bought a copy of Pearl Jam's 'Vs'. "I walked into the store and remember seeing the album cover which had a weird sheep or a dog's head or something on it. I got back to my flat and put it on, and the first track sounded like they're falling down the stairs!" he said, breaking in the beat of the album's first track...
Naim also remembers a massive influence on the same levels as Frank. "For me the biggest influence was Freddie Mercury because I found out he was half Persian like me. Queen was Freddie's vision." But he also adored Prince as did Frank. To Naim he was otherworldly and an absolute superstar. "When he went into his no name stage it was pure genius. He gave away half a million records for free, and two days later he put his tour on sale which sold out twenty eight venues just because he gave his album away. Warner Brothers only owned him as the title Prince, so when he changed his name to a squiggle he got out of that situation. He had loads of music he wanted to bring out but they wouldn't let him. Genius!"
As a youngster Naim once had twelve pounds in HMV vouchers, and at the time albums were £5.99. The two albums he bought with the vouchers became the first albums he ever bought. "It was 1987 and I bought U2's 'The Joshua Tree' and Whitesnake's self-titled LP. The production on 'The Joshua Tree' was phenomenal. That year it went from the complexity of Prince to the simplicity of U2. If you listen to Adam Clayton's bassline,it's simple but fantastic."
All Naim's friends at the time were into Iron Maiden, Metallica and Motorhead, but he was massively into the Cure at that time. "I used to have a cassette player," he reflects and used to record albums on to tape and to let them play and play just to piss my brother off. I had the 'Head on the Door' album and 'Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me'. If you listen to a Cure album, you can understand why people thought it was quite depressive stuff but Robert Smith was actually quite a happy fellow. They are another band that sounded otherworldly. He's not the greatest singer in the world, but it just works."
If Frank Benbini had one album to take on to a desert island which had a record player on it, it would be 'The Best of Chet Baker, while Naim would take a copy of Prince's 'Sign of the Times'.
Frank ended this month's 'Vinyl Stories' with a statement that just sums up why we started this column in the first place. On being asked if he missed vinyl after the appearance of CDs, he said, "There's something quite beautiful about vinyl. You get that bigger artwork and a much better sound as well. There is no alternative."