Sometime around 1978, Jyoti Mishra saw Pennies From Heaven, a BBC miniseries that interspersed period drama with actors lip-syncing old songs. In the second-to-last episode, a schoolteacher has resolved to return to sex work when her adulterous lover, a sheet music salesman played by Bob Hoskins, breaks out in a bleak lament. Titled “My Woman,” the song was originally by Bing Crosby, but the show’s version, recorded in 1932 by London crooner Al Bowlly, stands out for a funereal, three-note opening trumpet phrase. You might even know it: BUM, bum ba-bum, bum ba-bum, bum ba-bum.
Born in 1966 in Rourkela, India, Mishra emigrated with his middle-class family to the UK when he was 3, eventually settling in Derby, in central England. He endured bullying, racist and otherwise. “I was the annoying know-it-all kid at school, a title I held alongside fattest lad,” Mishra has said. He started playing keyboards when he was 12, and, as he tells it, quit school at 16 “specifically to go on the dole and play in a band.” During the 1980s, he began to identify as a revolutionary Marxist.
After attending a “life-changing” Pixies concert, Mishra formed White Town as a conventional guitar band in 1989, citing standard indie-rock influences of the time: the Wedding Present, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and My Bloody Valentine. At their third gig, White Town opened for Primal Scream. “The name White Town was a reference to growing up as an Asian person in Britain,” Mishra told Sound on Sound. “That’s not been depressing, but there certainly was a sense of alienation.” A government program for the unemployed, the now-defunct Enterprise Allowance Scheme, helped Mishra start his own label, Satya Records.
The funding enabled him to release White Town’s first single, 1990’s “White Town,” in a run of 1,000 7″ vinyl copies. “There are some things in life that have to be done regardless of success or failure,” reads a typewritten note tucked within the sleeve. The A-side casts a handy lens on Mishra’s nascent sensibility. He sings in a hushed voice that evokes quintessential Sarah Records indie-pop groups like the Field Mice, joined by cello throbs like Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” and propulsive streaks of MBV-style noise-rock. But the lyrics address a lover who, it’s implied, has left him under racist pressure from her parents. “If it’s not worth fighting for,” Mishra sighs, “it’s worth nothing at all.”
White Town were still deeply underground, but they caught the ear of Geoff Merritt, owner of Urbana, Illinois-based indie label Parasol, which put out several of the group’…….