Musical Youth


Written by Tim Burrows
02 Tuesday 02nd March 2010

What do Fleetwood Mac, Hot Chip, The XX, Four Tet and So Solid Crew have in common? They all went to the same south-west London school. Tim Burrows finds out what makes Elliott so special.

Approaching an inner-city comprehensive after the final bell has tolled on a Friday afternoon, you wouldn’t normally expect to encounter much pupil activity. By 4pm, shirts have been untucked and buses caught, as the kids head home for the weekend. But as I near the Elliott School in Putney, south-west London, which enjoys an enviable reputation for nurturing and producing talented musicians year after year, the area is filled with the sound of jazz guitar, funk bass and drums. This loose jam, which perfumes the air of the surrounding estates and terraces, comes from a music room where three students are rehearsing.

The Elliott School is a rare thing indeed. It is not exclusively music focused, nor does it boast the funds of a private school, but it has fostered a dazzling list of musical alumni, such as the producer Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, the musician Adem Ilhan, three members of Hot Chip (Joe Goddard, Alexis Taylor and Owen Clarke), indie darlings The xx, dubstep mystic Burial (aka Will Bevan), members of the Maccabees and So Solid Crew, Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green and Mercury-nominated violinist Emma Smith of the Basquiat Strings.  

A composition graduate and long-time music teacher, head of music Frank Marshall arrived at Elliott in the 1990s. “Much of the infrastructure was already in place when I arrived,” he says, “but I made a few changes. The pupils had a swing band but they all hated it and said if we carried it on they would refuse to do it. So I suggested setting up an orchestra. Within 18 months they were playing Haydn symphonies, because the talent was there.”

This is Marshall’s second stint at the school and during his time away The xx slipped through, suggesting that the Elliott effect is ingrained far beyond any individual teacher’s skill. Hebden, an Elliott pupil during the 1990 wasn’t taught by Marshall but does attest to the effectiveness of the school’s enthusiasm for artistic interests. “When I was at school, drum’n’bass happened. Our teachers would let us set up big soundsystems and have drum’n’bass parties during lunchtime breaks,” says Hebden. “There was a guy at school who owned his own system and built his own lights. We’d be in a drama room with machines and strobe lights for half an hour, dancing to Super Sharp Shooter or something blasting out at huge volume.”

In the mid-’90s, Hebden formed the post- rock group Fridge with Ilhan, who is currently in the duo Silver Columns, and Sam Jeffers. He suggests it was the exposure to older bands that was key to the emergence of so many quality acts from this one school. “When I started, there was a band there called Jackknife Baby, who were beginning to do shows beyond the school – playing local community halls and pubs and things like that. It meant that when I arrived I was given the message that you can form a band and do concerts and things at a very young age.” At Elliott, the influenced often become the influential. “By the time I was in the sixth form, Fridge were setting the same example,” says Hebden. “We signed to Output Records, Trevor Jackson’s label, as I was doing my A-levels. As soon as a few people start getting out there and doing something you think, OK, this is do-able.”

Around the same time, Hot Chip were taking their first steps and Herman Li, of arguably Elliott’s most underrated group, the power-metal band Dragonforce, was playing guitar every day. “We were really given lots of respect,” Hebden adds. “I didn’t study music GCSEs or A-level and was probably doing terribly in my music classes before then, but I still had total respect from the teachers if I wanted to pursue my ideas outside of the lesson. I’d play every lunchtime and every day after school. They still had equipment left over from Inner London Education Authority days – big, powerful amps from the late ’70s and electric guitars there for anybody to use at any time. Miss Collinson, who was the head of music then, would put a timetable up and let us work it out for ourselves.” The Elliott approach can be traced back to ’60s idealism. “It came out of people who were taught by the Hornsey School of Art,” says Marshall.

Hornsey, now part of Middlesex University, earned a reputation for producing free-thinkers, dissenters (it had its Paris 1968 moment when the students occupied the college in the same year), and some fine musicians – Ray Davies, The Raincoats and Stuart Goddard, aka Adam Ant, to name three. “A lot of the teachers up there are either influenced by their ideals  or were taught by people at Hornsey,” says Marshall. “Or they’re old enough to have been there themselves.”

Marshall points to the jazz improvisation each student is encouraged to do as a possible reason for Elliott’s impressive track record. “George Adie, who teaches jazz, has been here 35 years. With him, they improvise and learn their way through the jazz scales. The girls next door are doing their R’n’B singing because that’s what they want to do,” he says, gesturing to the wall, behind which three 14-year-olds are busily working on their singing in the next room.  “They’ll learn  their way through the jazz piano and trad harmony as well.”

No type of music is dismissed or sneered at: every student’s passion, whether it’s slick R’n’B or Dark Side-era Pink Floyd noodling, is encouraged. “There is a classic saying in teaching that goes: ‘If they don’t learn the way I teach, then I must teach the way they learn,’” says Marshall. “It is a simple way of looking at it, but it is effectively saying teachers should take a look at where their pupils’ interests lie, and adapt. Those girls hear R’n’B all the time – from TV shows like X Factor and so on – and they perform that kind of music in concerts here. But they are also singing close jazz harmonies, learning piano and composing minimalist pieces for GCSE, influenced by Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. So there’s complete breadth, as much exposure to as many different sorts of music as possible.”

He leafs around his desk and produces a folder. “That is the only photo I have got of Alexis,” he says, letting out a chuckle as he points at a picture of the Hot Chip singer in his awkward teen years, sitting at a piano in a T-shirt, performing at a Princess Diana Memorial Fund event in September 1997. It is the kind of embarrassing photo that could destroy a pop star’s cool factor within seconds. Yet it is a touching document, another reminder, preserved by Marshall, of the rewards reaped by the school’s passion for arts. “I can remember teaching Alexis Taylor at A-level,” he says. “He was into everything, took guitar lessons, studied jazz and Bach-style harmony. It is just what you do here. I won’t claim that you can hear Bach- style harmony in Hot Chip but he ended up making extremely original music, there’s no doubt about it.”

Hebden recently revisited Elliott, and was shocked at the lack of change. “It was a bit depressing,” he says. “They don’t have the money to maintain the building properly – some windows are broken and a lot of the fixtures are the same as when I was there. ”

Marshall, though, is more positive about the state of things. “I just walked you through £20,000-worth of recent investment,” he says. “When I came three years ago we had three different versions of [computer programme] Cubase working and the keyboards were not up to scratch. Now all computers run Cubase. We have new keyboards, new percussion: there has been a massive investment in the arts and in music at this school. The theatre has just been redecorated, and we are going to redo the lighting rig. I don’t think the arts are threatened at this school. If anything, the arts are being promoted.”

Places such as Elliott seem fragile. Its operating method is so rewarding to the creatively inclined, problems with the bureaucratic box-tickers seem almost inevitable. Last year, Ofsted put the school on “special measures” after two critical inspections and Marshall admits the staff have felt the strain. Yet, when asked who the next big band to come out of Elliott might be, he relays a story that suggests that, for him, the job will always be satisfying. “When I was here the first time round there was a year- nine kid who was a complete terror. I didn’t know what to do with him, but one day he came to me and said: ‘I want to learn guitar.’ I very nearly refused as he was so awful in my lessons, but something in me said I should help him. Within six months that had totally turned the kid round as  a person. His band is now signed and recording material,” he says, his voice quivering slightly. “You think, God, it could have gone the other way. I could’ve given the other answer to him. That’s why you do this job. It just touches you.”

Before I leave, Marshall shows me his goldfish, all named after members of The Beatles and Queen. “Paul McCartney is the last survivor of the Beatles – he is eight years old so has done very well. Weirdly, John was the first to go,” he says. “We bought Queen quite recently. Unfortunately all of them have died apart from Roger Taylor. And Freddie was the first to go there, too.” At Elliott, even the fish know their music history.
Four Tet – On The Floor! – Live at Warp Pure, Elysee, Montmartre, Paris

The XX – Headphone Highlights 
Hot Chip – Train Wreck Mix

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  • Guest: saveelliottschool
    Wed 09 - May - 2012, 01:40
    Save Elliott School GIG 18th May 2012