29 January 2015

Out On Blue Six - Party Mood/ Johnny/ Mogadon Sunday

Label: Hungry Rooms
Year of Release: 1981

While - in the UK at least - the late seventies is commonly regarded as being the birth of the 'proper' punk indie label and DIY pressed singles, and the mid-eighties is regarded as the explosion of the indie-pop sound, you'd be a fool not to look at what went on in between those two poles. The post-punk period is awash with unexpected indie riches, as the lovingly compiled "Indie Scene" series of compilation CDs sought to prove, and actually arguably surpasses the twee end of the spectrum in terms of sonic innovation. Where indie-pop sweetly jangled, post-punk indie often kicked like a mule. 

Take Out On Blue Six, for example. Consisting of Mike Daly on drums, Carl Marsh on guitar, Kate Sekules on vocals, Geoff Woolley on keyboards and Nigel Holland on bass and vocals, this was their sole single, a three track self-produced effort. The blurry sleeve and brilliantly minimalist plasticrap label give no clues about the contents, but waiting in the grooves of the A-side is one of the most aggressive pieces of jagged funk you're likely to hear. "Party Mood" furiously throws around discords and barking terrier vocals to a rhythm that's immediately infectious, and the whole concoction is utterly impossible to forget. They also sound as if they'd be unforgettable live, although whether Hawkwind fans would agree is another matter - once when they were unfortunate enough to support that act, a hail of beer cans rained down over them throughout their set. Kate Sekules apparently dealt with the problem by finishing with a song whose lyrics largely consisted of "Dirty smelly greasy apes". 

Besides this single, Out On Blue Six recorded two sessions for John Peel (one in 1980, the other in 1981) and apparently little else. You would have hoped that a more organised indie label could have found space for them on its roster, but it would seem that nobody bit, and this is their sole physical product.

Kate Sekules eventually became a writer and a professional boxer, a role perhaps well suited to someone who had to deal with petulant Hawkwind fans. Her book "The Boxer's Heart" chronicles her life and career. She was also once travel editor of "Food and Wine" magazine, but presently runs a vintage clothing business in New York.

The whereabouts of the rest of the group is not known, but I would be really interested to know if they recorded anything else which simply never got released. I wouldn't mind lending an ear to those John Peel sessions as well if anyone has them digitised.

Meanwhile, any similarities between the band's name and either Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley's Radio One show or the title of a defunct blog by Tim Worthington are surely coincidental.

25 January 2015

Art Nouveau - See You Ma/ Lightning Tree

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1974

Ballads dripping with syrupy strings dominated the mid-seventies, feeling like luxurious attempts for variety show slots on television or the lighter moments of radio. Many were successful, continuing the thirst the British public continued to have for gentle pop - Engelbert Humperdinck beating The Beatles to number one in 1967 was no one-off fluke - but still more fell utterly by the wayside and this solitary release by Art Nouveau falls into the latter category.

Where this differs greatly is the subject matter, being a vaguely disconcerting ballad about one 25 year old man's smothering mother who takes care of his every domestic need. It's creepy enough to be interesting. "You are spoiling me mar-maarr" politely enunciates the vocalist at the beginning over gentle piano lines, before going on to speculate about how a man who throws his clothes all over the floor for his mother to collect could ever end up married. Cheer up, mush, there are plenty of slovenly women in the world too. Like Pink Floyd's "Mother" set to a gentle string arrangement, it's a queer fish in the waters of MOR pop. The songwriting credit goes to a Meehan, and I'm wondering whether Tony Meehan of The Shadows could be responsible - but I've no evidence. 

Likely to be of greater interest to your average "Left and to the Back" reader is the flip, a spirited and sprightly cover of the "Follyfoot" theme, "Lightning Tree". 

Art Nouveau are something of a mystery, having no recorded history. This would appear to have been their only single, and it's impossible to deduce whether they were a group consisting solely of session personnel or a gigging club/ cabaret act. After this track failed, they were clearly given no further opportunities to professionally record.

22 January 2015

High Broom - Dancing In The Moonlight/ Percy's On The Run

Label: Island
Year of Release: 1970

If at first you don't succeed, try again… and again… 

"Dancing In The Moonlight" really is a song which took years, arguably decades, to reach its full "classic" potential. A minor cult hit for the American band Boffalongo, whose member Sherman Kelly penned it, it slept soundly for another couple of years until Sherman's brother Wells, who drummed for King Harvest, introduced it to the band in 1970. Smelling a top tune immediately, they covered it and watched happily as it climbed to Number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Before King Harvest got their mitts on it, though, the remnants of the Tonbridge, Kent based group Jason Crest recorded it for British release. Consisting originally of Terry Clarke on lead vocals, Terry Dobson on lead guitar, Derek Smallcombe on rhythm guitar, Ron Fowler on bass, and Roger Siggery on drums, they had a long and chequered history. Formed in 1964 as The Spurlyweeves, changing their name to the Good Time Brigade in 1967, then finally Jason Crest upon earning a contract with Philips, the cult popsike legends had cut many fantastic sides by the end of the sixties, not least the semi-legendary, psychedelic doomy screamer "Black Mass" - once heard, never forgotten. Sales had not been on their side, however, and after five years of loyal but presumably skint service the lead singer Terry Clarke quit in 1969. Shortly prior to this, bassist Ron Fowler had left to be replaced by John Selley.

Rather than giving up entirely, the group quickly recruited Brian Prebble from the Riot Squad, and drafted in Brian Bennett from Leviathan to add an additional guitar to the mix. Philips gave them the heave-ho, the new moniker High Broom was adopted, and a contract to produce one LP for Island Records was signed. However, aside from this version of "Dancing In The Moonlight" and its flip, nothing else emerged from the agreement. Stylistically it is impressive to hear how the band had managed to jump from their slightly woozy, small-town back-street alley popsike into a harder, rougher country rock sound. This sounds so damn North American that you'd never guess any member of Jason Crest had anything to do with it, and it possibly could have been a hit under the right circumstances. The flip "Percy's On The Run" also rocks out, being about as psychedelic as a bottle of sour mash bourbon.

Presumably the under-whelming performance of this single lead to Island executives wondering whether they'd actually signed a lame duck, and nothing more was heard from the act. A pity, because Jason Crest at their best were a proposition to be reckoned with - but having undergone such an extreme series of line-up changes, it's arguable that what we're listening to here is effectively an entirely different act, and one which may never have scaled the same creative heights.

As for "Dancing In The Moonlight", it's deathless. Toploader's chirpy cover of it stormed the British charts in 1999, and it wound up as a prominent feature to the soundtrack of Chris Morris's satire on home-grown Islamic terrorism, "Four Lions". Whether you're celebrating the fact that you're about to bomb the London Marathon, or just partying in general, it's become an uptempo summer fun record for all ages. Whether that's what Sherman Kelly ever envisaged is besides the point, but I'm sure the royalties must keep him relatively content - and what is fascinating (to me, if no-one else) is the way each cover version of it seemed to add extra elements to the previous attempt, gradually shunting the track away from its rugged beginnings into a lighter, more frivolous sound.

18 January 2015

Susan Fassbender & Kay Russell

So I'm in this small but fashionable club in Central London, a late-night watering hole with an expensive bar. It's teeming with young men, some wearing sagging trousers, who are either ludicrously blitzed on cocaine or so obnoxious and arrogant they don't even need to touch the stuff (it's hard to decide what conclusion about their behaviour is worse). There's not enough dancing, but plenty of glares, sharp elbows and shoulder barges. It's like a cramped, darkened pen filled with angry Stags locking horns, testing out the strength of the competition.

A beefy, blonde-haired wide-boy tumbles down the stairs by the entrance near where I'm standing waving his arms and shouting "EVERYBODY OUT OF THE FUCKING WAY!" As he passes me, he sneers and says "I was only fucking joking! It's a joke! Jesus, maaaan!" then rolls his eyes, staggering off to the venue's soundtrack of chart-based EDM and the aggressive, commercial end of Hip-Hop. It's the kind of place where you'd guess Dapper Laughs is considered a "legend" by 75% of the clientele.

So, you could say I was there against my will. Not my kind of place. I'm too old, not enough of a thrusting young banker, estate agent or salesperson, and too badly in need of a carefree good time and not a slightly threatening environment full of Alpha A male poseurs. But then something funny happens. I hear a slightly Orange Juice styled guitar line. A familiar thudding bassline throbs out of the PA. Then a squeaky synth frill. Then the opening lines "Sometimes I get so low/ there's only one place I can think of to go…" The DJs dance along in the booth to this one-hit wonder relic from 1980, and there are no protests - people carry on having their own peculiar version of a good time, and the record fills the venue, offering light relief by actually being a good track (as well as the irony of the fact that this club is about as far flung from my idea of "The Twilight Cafe" as it can get).

I realise it's the third time I've witnessed "Twilight Cafe" getting revived in an unexpected setting in a year. Once was in another much more welcoming club where retro 60s and 70s tunes were more the order of the day, the other when I witnessed legendary Scottish pop band Bis revive the track. From a DJ'ing perspective, it's a ripe pick (I own it myself, and have indeed played it out myself). You can find copies in second-hand shops for 50p. It's seldom heard on the radio these days, but familiar enough to people who know their pop music to get a few feet straight on the dancefloor, and strong enough that the brilliant and simple persuasive beat can coax the floating voters too. A win/win situation. DJs are vain enough that they enjoy getting a chance to do something both populist and slightly unexpected
 at the same time, and if they can do it and get change from a pound coin, then they are truly blessed. (entry continues below) 

The sudden reappearance of the track got me thinking about Susan Fassbender and who she was, and what she did next. I'd seen a clip of her on TOTP2 on BBC2 some years before, smiling prettily behind long flowing hair and glasses, looking pleased as punch to be on the show. Steve Wright, BBC Radio 2's well known hunk, offered little information but mocked her in his intro, stating that she looked like a doctor's receptionist.

I realised I'd better dig around online. And the truth is, there's not much out there, a few scraps of interviews and YouTube clips aside. It would seem that Fassbender, born as Susan Whincup in Bradford, was something of a minor prodigy, being an accomplished musician on the piano, clarinet and timpani by the age of thirteen. She eventually met Kay Russell who became her songwriting partner, and they wrote furiously together, getting signed to the small indie Criminal Records for their efforts in the process.

"Twilight Cafe" was written in response to the label's demands to have something that sounded more like a hit, and punched far above its weight, a rare case of the artist out-scoring the record company's abilities. The track took on such a strong life of its own that Criminal signed it over to another party, CBS, who provided it with a safer journey into the Top 40.

In a fairer world, Fassbender and Russell would have been set up for at least the next few years. "Twilight Cafe" would have been the top ten hit it deserved to be and not the number 21 mini-hit it became, and further hits would have flowed forth. But things went dumper-bound very quickly. The slightly reggae-tinged follow up "Stay" failed to even enter the top 75 despite some media publicity, perhaps partly due to the decision to credit the track to the garbled sounding Fassbender Russell. Chirpy in a slightly too plasticky, poptastic way, it lacked the cool and poise of "Twilight Cafe" and perhaps also partly suffered as a result of that.

Third single "Merry Go Round" was released under the Susan Fassbender name again, and is a greater success artistically speaking, managing to pull off the hat-trick of being poppy, mournful and pretty damn good, focussing its lyrics on unemployment and anonymity.  The sound again veers towards the alternative pop music dominant during the period, with a keyboard riff that wouldn't have sounded completely out of place on a Teardrop Explodes single. Despite that, its failure was the final straw for CBS, who sent the two women packing without honouring a release of their album. They failed to get signed elsewhere, eventually drifted apart to become wives and mothers, and the game was very clearly up. It's hard to stay involved with writing and performing music even when you have some spare hours in the day - parenthood often eliminates those possibilities entirely.

Then around five years ago, Kay Russell unexpectedly re-emerged with the news that she was going to put some the pair's demos out for general release on iTunes. Following a lot of the usual tedious legal to-ing and fro-ing with the music industry, the album of demos emerged in 2012, and in places really underlines some other slices of goodness we were denied. In particular, "Eliliath" - the track below  -manages to yet again pull off the trick of being hauntingly catchy, focussing on the delusions of either a mentally ill person or a genuine psychic seeing a world others "cannot see". "You call me stupid or psychotic or both" spits Fassbender, "drug me up… until I feel I'm dead". Delicate glockenspiel lines dance under airy synths and an insistent chorus. It's poppy, celebratory and yet doomed sounding at the same time, in love and hate with its subject matter.  (entry continues beneath YouTube clip).

Tragically, Fassbender committed suicide in 1991. There is no information available on what happened, and to all previous online enquiries a daughter of hers has confirmed her death but asked not to be engaged in any further conversations on the topic. This should be respected. It doesn't seem as if we'll ever know about what else she wrote, recorded or did privately until a time when someone close to her feels ready to communicate something - and that may very well never happen.

What we do have, however, is what's out there, and what Kay Russell - whose own contributions are at least half of the story - has very generously released to the world. While Fassbender usually got the sleeve credit, it would appear that they were a songwriting duo in the classic sense of the phrase, able to create wonders together that they struggled to produce to the same effect while apart. "It was a bit weird and strange," Russell once remarked, "we seemed to be able to write in ANY style, when we were writing together".

As ever, it's tempting to speculate on what went wrong with their careers. Possibly the enthusiastic ordinariness of Russell and Fassbender seemed at odds with both the studied post-punk cool of the times and the glossy sheen of new pop. The pair do look slightly more seventies than eighties in some YouTube clips, and while that might not have mattered too much initially while they existed on the cusp of the two decades, the image might have eventually grated on the cooler kids in their darkened nightclubs. Behind the hard hitting eighties production there's also a tint of the classic seventies singer-songwriter craft, which is no crime at all, but may have seemed slightly too knowing, introspective and intricate for the decadent pop scene that dominated at the time.

I'm guessing wildly, of course. It's all I can do. Whatever the reasons, what we have is all we've got, and it's better than you'd think, and deserves a lot more written about it than anyone has so far bothered to do. Consider this my little attempt to nudge a few more people in the right direction. 

15 January 2015

Reupload - Yellow Dog - Little Gods/ Fat Johnny

Label: Virgin
Year of Release: 1978

Of all the songwriters I've bothered to feature on L&TTB, Kenny Young is probably one of the most criminally under-referenced despite his success rate.  Most readers will be only too aware of his back catalogue when the names of his tracks are tripped off the tongue - among his successes are the evergreen classic "Under the Boardwalk", and besides that there's "Captain of Your Ship", "Ai No Corrida", and the rather ignored (by the standards of most top ten hits) "Just One More Night" by Yellow Dog.  Lovers of popsike will also know him as the man responsible for Blue Yoghurt's "Lydia", or perhaps San Francisco Earthquake's "Fairy Tales Can Come True" which I featured on "Pictures of Marshmallow Men".  He's surely due some sort of career round-up compilation, but nobody seems to be particularly embracing that idea with any enthusiasm.

If we're talking about longevity which crosses several decades, what's noticeable about most sixties songwriters and session men is that diversity of approach was often their only means of survival.  Whilst the bands of that era may have huffed and puffed and refused to dilute their "sound, man", songwriters relying on hits to pay the mortgage (and without a troupe of fans to keep them clothed) mixed and matched styles to suit the times.  So it proved with Kenny Young, who by the late seventies was incredibly quick off the bat with a distinctly New Wave sound for his project Yellow Dog, ostensibly a studio-bound concoction of session men with him on lead vocals.

Nobody was fooled, of course - do you really think those beards would have been accepted by the punks of the time? - but one hit was enjoyed by the makeshift band before diminishing returns set in.  Follow-up single "Wait Until Midnight" only got to number 54, and "Little Gods" failed to chart at all.  That's a pity, since for my money this is the most interesting record of the lot, perhaps capturing the jerky quirkiness of New Wave rather too well for its own good, sounding marginally more like an early XTC B-side or an unheard track by The Vapors than a potential smash hit.  Many music industry types and bands were quick to write off the punk movement as a pathetic fad, but I can sense a certain degree of affection for the New Wave genre seeping out of these grooves, and if forced to do a blind guess, you'd never realise a seasoned Brill Building songwriter was behind it.

You can read an interview with Kenny Young here, which really hammers home the sheer quantity of recordings he's been behind.  That said, I'd quite like to forget I ever heard the B-side to this particular single "Fat Johnny", which is yet another aggravating example of a songwriter filling up the flip by attempting to be some sort of parodying stand-up comedian.  Save the jokes and the humour for the ladies at the bar, please.

And yes, the record really does glow in the dark, too.  Once when my bedside lamp was broken, I placed it near the door in my bedroom so I could find the exit easily in the dark if I wanted to go to the toilet at some unexpected hour.  It worked, I tell you, and perhaps even prevented a drunken urine-stained pyjama type incident.