London in summer is a strangely hellish place. For every half-hearted plan to commandeer a park and spend a long languorous afternoon dipping fruity cider into whatever hummus is on offer at Nisa, there's a dangerously dehydrating trip aboard one of Thomas Heatherwick's mobile deathtraps; the lunchtime trip to the local lido that becomes an hour long queue for an iced tea sample outside Euston station; the quiet drinks after work that become brawls for space, a thousand-limbed assault on the senses. The promise of the city melts like so many Soleros on the hot pavement of the Old Kent Road.
That hellishness, that strangeness, that sense of near total instability in the face of hot weather, is tinged with a perverse sense of pleasure. In the same way that we enjoy traipsing back to the office soaked to the skin after a spring downfall, we actively want to be sweatier than our colleagues or friends. Such is British life.
There are genuine pleasures to be had, though; pleasures that aren't entirely predicated on a kind of sadomasochism. Those include the first crisp, cold pint of a Friday evening, eating salad out of tupperware as the sun dips from view over distant high rises, and the sticky fingers that follow a decent suck on an a tropical popsicle in the mid-afternoon heat. But the greatest joy of all, the finest thing this malformed and occasionally malodorous metropolis has to offer on the rare occasions when the clouds melt into the deep blue of eternity, is simpler than all those: it is the sound of UK Garage blasting out of passing cars.
When temperatures rise, windows fall. The city streets become a (super)natural intoxicant; petrol fumes mingle with cigarette smoke and aftersun, pavements hum and shimmer, flesh reddens and peels. And there, somewhere inside that sensorial club sandwich, is the roll and bump of garage, as indigenous to London as the Routemaster, Eros, or a Chelsea Pensioner waiting by Monument for an N21 home after a big night out at Fabric.
From Camberwell to Chiswick, South Kenton to Silver Street, Heron Quays to Hornchurch, for a few glorious weeks every year, London becomes DJ EZ's personal playground.
That the place vibrates to Todd Edwards, or MJ Cole, or Sweet Female Attitude shouldn't be any surprise—UK Garage is, after all, a sound that came to fruition in a few clubs dotted just south of the Thames' brown-toothed churn and swirl. So it follows that it just sounds right here, sounds at home here, sounds as much a part of the place's aural ambience as sirens and market-sellers.
There are other London-in-summer sounds, of course. Take a stroll through the winding streets after seven at night and it's like flicking through a near-infinite selection of radio stations. The heft and haze of dub competes with the lilt of drift of lover's rock; Brazilian ballads rub shoulders with Polish Punk; grime cuts through the air with acidic precision and fondly-remembered club anthems from the mid-90s flutter from the hatches of ice cream vans. This is a polyglottal city speaking in numerous musical tongues, multi-layered, multi-vocal, united, however briefly, by the need to capture these fleeting moments where winter feels like an impossibility and not an inevitability.
It's an acknowledged fact that all music sounds better played through a car stereo. Forget a pristine Richard Long soundsystem, or a carnival-ready Jamaican unit the size of a parade of elephants, if a record doesn't sound amazing blaring through a battered set of Blaupunkt speakers, it doesn't mean shit. Few feelings in life match that of circling a city at dusk, music filling every cubic millimeter of a Peugeot 106—it is in those moments that sound comes to life, that sound becomes life, that we are so submerged and subsumed by music's seemingly endless possibilities and pleasures that everything outside of you, the car, and the record in question dissipates into total and utter unimportance.
So it follows that music sounds amazing when it slips out of an unrolled window on the kind of day where paving slabs are sweating and the only salve to be sought comes in the form cans of KA Karibbean Kola. It sounds amazing because it lets the passer-by, or the passed-by as it were, slip in and out of alternate worlds, worlds that we only experience for a few seconds before they slide into gradual silence. The rumbling bassline that shakes traffic lights outside pubs in New Cross, the half-heard melody that crawls into a Mill Hill off-license, that clank and clatter of percussion that turns Homerton High Street into a club, this is what life in cities is all about.
UK Garage, with its immaculate blend of stiffness, subtlety, and sensuality, is the best thing you'd could ever hope to hear thundering from the stereos of a thousand passing cars. Long may our summers, however brief, be soundtracked by it.