Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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PLAN B: From A to B

Plan B (Photo: Ben Parks)
Plan B (Photo: Ben Parks) Plan B (Photo: Ben Parks) Plan B (Photo: Ben Parks) Plan B (Photo: Ben Parks)

Described as âtaking the sound of Motown, Stax and obscure Northern soul filtered through the grit of contemporary East Londonâ, âThe Defamation Of Strickland Banksâ - the sophomore album from Forest Gate-raised singer/rapper/actor Plan B - has already spawned two UK Top 10 hits; the raucous uptempo rock/soul of âStay Too Longâ, plus the lilting falsetto shuffle of current smash âShe Saidâ - whose finger-clicking blend of crooning vocals and streetwise rap has even been dubbed in some quarters âSmokey Robinson miraculously meets Eminemâ!

Lyrically, meanwhile, its songs interestingly tell the fictitious tale of one Strickland Banks - a sharp-suited British soul singer who finds fame with bitter-sweet love songs like the albumâs sexy opener âLove Goes Downâ and driving âWritingâs On The Wallâ, but then loses everything when he ends up in prison for a crime he didnât commit. All of which results in a fascinating and cinematic concept album, whose soulful melodies and accessible hooks - mostly sung in sweet, aching falsetto - unquestionably finds an ever-unpredictable Plan B at his storytelling, genre-twisting best.

⦠Cue for the man born 26 years ago as Benjamin Paul Ballance-Drew to meet up with âBlues & Soulââs Pete Lewis over a mid-afternoon pint in a grimily-old-school East End boozer! First topic on the agenda naturally being how the idea behind Benâs new concept LP first came about.

âWell, âThe Defamation Of Strickland Banksâ basically came about just from a love of soul music, a love of WRITING soul music, and a desire to incorporate soul music into the profile that Iâd already kinda built-up as an artistâ, begins a down-to-earth, warm-mannered Ben: âYou know, obviously - in order to make it âa Plan B recordâ - it had to be story-based and it had to have that Plan B dark undertone in terms of the subject-matter. So I just figured that, if I wrote a soul album that had a bit of grit and a bit of depth to it, then it shouldnât really matter that Iâve changed my style a bit musically from the first album (2006âs hardcore-rap-flavoured âWho Needs Actions When You Got Wordsâ). You know, I am capable of singing and writing that soulful style of music. So I just followed my instincts, followed my heart - and basically just enjoyed every MINUTE of it!â

âI mean, the reason I decided to call myself âPlan Bâ in the first place was because originally I was a soul singer and then I changed my style to hip hopâ, he continues in earthy East London tones: âBut then, the whole time I was carrying on publicly as a hip hop artist, behind the scenes I never actually stopped writing soul songs. The only thing was that Iâd write them and theyâd always just sit on a shelf, or sit as a recording-on-a-phone, or just disappear - and Iâd FORGET about them! But then, when me and the band started going on tour and doing sound-checks before gigs, I started playing them the new soul songs Iâd been writing. And one of the songs that kinda stood out - that the band seemed to really enjoy playing - was âLove Goes Downâ. So we just thought it was such a shame that we couldnât play that live to people, simply because it was different to how the music sounded on my FIRST album⦠But, you know, with me nothingâs impossible - and where thereâs a will thereâs a way! And that way was to create this character that I can play called Strickland Banks, and have all the soul songs that Iâve written be sung from HIM rather than from ME!â

With Ben having described his creation as âmy alter-ego, the same age as me, looking like me and coming from the East End - but a bit more on the sensitive sideâ, can he expand on the thinking behind the Strickland Banks storyline? âWell, the storyline is about a celebrity whoâs a little bit up his own arse and who thinks heâs untouchableâ, he explains: âBut then he gets wrongly accused and convicted of a crime that he hasnât committed. So he gets sent to jail - and then the real kinda crux of the album at that point revolves around an innocent man trying to survive in jail. You know, I just felt that that was something really interesting to talk about. Because you do get a lot of people - men AND women - who get accused of crimes they havenât done and who, through corruption, get sent down. And to me that must be one of the worst things in the WORLD! You know, to be locked in prison when you shouldnât BE there, to me is no different from, say, having terminal cancer or fuckinâ AIDS.â

With the songs on âThe Defamation Of Strickland Banksâ openly harking back to soul musicâs âGolden Ageâ of the Sixties/early-Seventies, what did Ben set out to achieve musically? âI just thought that, if I was gonna do a soul album, I wanted it to be âclassicâ - with âclassicâ meaning stuff that stands the test of TIMEâ, he asserts: âYou know, I wanted to make a soul record that wouldnât go out of date - and I feel like Iâve DONE that. Because to me all that stuff like Al Green, Smokey Robinson and Ray Charles is the best music ever MADE. Which is why theyâre making films about those guys NOW! I mean, no matter what age you are, no matter what musical background youâre from - I donât think anyone can criticise that era. Because itâs such genuinely good MUSIC! You know, itâs from the SOUL - and I guess thatâs why they CALL it that!â

Meanwhile, visually Ben has duplicated the albumâs switchblade-sharp soul sound, recreating it onstage by performing in-character alongside a sharp-suited band and backing singers. A show which - after debuting recently with a sold-out performance at the West Endâs Cafe de Paris - goes out on tour across the UK this month before, in the coming months, moving on to the summer festival circuit: âWell, this guy Strickland Banks is obsessed with the Sixties and dresses like heâs a Motown starâ, he explains: âSo I just feel uncomfortable - even in rehearsals - singing and performing those songs in a hoodie and jeans! You know, it just doesnât FEEL right - and I feel really self-conscious, because I just think its looks outta place!â

âWhereas, as soon as I put that suit on, Iâm STRICKLAND BANKS - and itâs a lot easier for me to kinda move and shake ABOUT!â, he enthuses: âAlso, I gotta say, I actually LOOK so much better in a suit than I do in my normal get-up, and it really seems to do wonders with the LADIES! So yeah, Iâm having a lotta fun with this whole thing!â

Born in Forest Gate, East London in October 1983 to an architect mother and punk-rock-musician father (who left when Ben was just six), Ben first taught himself to play guitar at 14 before - influenced by classic Motown plus contemporary acts like Boyz 11 Men - going on to write his own R&B love songs. Meanwhile, receiving little or no response to his attempts at being a white teenage soul singer, at 18 - inspired by the success of Eminem - he began rapping and singing in his own accent about the world heâd grown up in while accompanying himself on guitar.

With his songs either reflecting his own personal experiences (âMama Loves A Crackheadâ) or being written about characters heâd invented (âKidzâ), next step along the way was the independent release of his raw, incendiary debut LP âWho Needs Actions When You Got Wordsâ. A critically-acclaimed album which - hitting the UK Top 30 - broke new ground for British hip hop in 2006; the harsh reality of its lyrics being hailed by some critics as âa loud, proud, obscenity-riddled scream of anger and pride from the estates of East Londonâ!

Nevertheless, today it seems that the Forest Gate kid who shocked the public back in 2006 with lines like âIâll stab you in the eye, yo; With a fucking biro; The same fucking biro; You used to sign your giro; You fucking winoâ has now grown up: âYeah, Iâve calmed down a hell of a lotâ, admits an ever-forthcoming Mr. Drew: âIâve realised what my issues are. You know, I took anger management for a year because I kept on getting arrested. And, while some people still think Iâm this angry little estate kid who wants to get peopleâs attention by saying really nasty, horrible things, Iâm actually NOT that - and I want people to KNOW Iâm not that!â

âI mean, the background behind that first album was basically me feeling like I was being ignored and forgotten by society - and the fact I knew there was a lot of OTHER kids that felt like thatâ, he adds openly: âAnd, although the behaviour of a lot of the kids on the street disgusted me and I fuckinâ hated it, I still felt like I understood what MADE them like that. So I wanted to write a record that showed them I was just as angry as them - that I felt just as alone and forgotten-about as they did - but at the same time telling them they didnât have to act in that way. I wanted to let them know that there are positive things in life, and that you can get through life without selling drugs and stabbing people. But, while the first record represented that, now my environment has CHANGED. You know, Iâm not just about politics, Iâm also a MUSICIAN. And, in that light, I do have these desires inside of me to kinda explore different types of music. So thatâs what this NEW album is about. Itâs about me feeling that hunger to do different kinda things.â

Meanwhile, Benâs strong visual presence in the videos for his first album ultimately also led to some prestigious acting roles. With him playing a bad-boy from the estates in Noel Clarkeâs film âAdulthoodâ in 2008, then another hoodie thug opposite Michael Caine in 2009âs British thriller âHarry Brownâ. A film which also gave him his first UK Top 10 hit in the shape of âEnd Creditsâ - a collaboration with UK drum & bass duo Chase & Status, which was recorded for said movieâs soundtrack.. So how does he fit in his film career alongside his music?

âTo me theyâre the same thing. And thatâs what Iâm trying to get around peopleâs heads right nowâ, he retorts without hesitation: âThereâs no difference between me acting in a film and writing a film for the blind, which to me is what my MUSIC is - stories from start to finish, with every song representing a scene in that particular film. You know, in one you see me visually DOING something, while in the other you hear me DESCRIBING something to you. So - while they may be separate in other peopleâs eyes - for me theyâre definitely one and the same.â

Indeed, the two successful ongoing careers are set to interlink ever more with Benâs upcoming plans for 2010: âWell, my immediate ambition for this campaign is to try and shoot a short featurette film around the Strickland Bands saga, using the same director weâve used for the videos. So that we can squash all the videos together into that one short film to make a Michael Jackson âMoonwalkerâ-esque-type music filmâ, he reveals, as our conversation (and drinks!) approaches its end: âThen Iâve also got a hip hop album based on Strickland Banks coming, called âThe Ballad Of Bellmarshâ. Which is like the deleted scenes that were too kinda grimy and gritty to go on the âDefamation Of Strickland Banksâ album. And the whole sound of that will be very reminiscent of my first album - dark kinda hip hop beats. So, while âThe Defamation Of Strickland Banksâ represents his story through his eyes and told through his mouth and in his language, âThe Ballad Of Bellmarshâ will be the Strickland Banks story as told by Plan B!â

âThen, in addition to those two things, thereâll also be my first full-length film, which Iâm titling âIll Mannersââ, he adds: âWhich is a hip hop, music-based feature film which has six short stories that all kinda mix together to make one BIG story - and each mini-story will be represented by a different hip hop track. Itâll all be narrated by me, and itâll actually be the reverse of âThe Defamation Of Strickland Banksâ - in that with âIll Mannersâ the film will come out first and the soundtrack will come afterwards. And again the soundtrack will be a film for the blind, in that youâll be able to listen to it and itâll tell you the story of the film⦠So yeah, those are the three projects that Iâm working on for this year. Which means itâll very hard for me to take any straight-up acting jobs on. Because those three projects alone will be keeping me more than busy!â

Plan Bâs UK tour runs from April 8 to 16; taking in dates at Bristol, Oxford, Birmingham, Brighton, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and London

Plan Bâs single âShe Saidâ is out now. His album âThe Defamation Of Strickland Banksâ follows April 12, both through 679/Atlantic

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