1 June 2016

London Welsh Male Voice Choir - Sloop John B/ Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay

Label: Philips
Year of Release: 1973

That this single exists perhaps shouldn't be that surprising. Of all the sixties groups - Beatles aside - The Beach Boys probably picked up the most admiration from "proper" non-pop and rock musicians, finding their work reinterpreted faithfully by Easy Listening orchestras and performers of all kinds (even The King's Singers). Their arrangements were intricate and packed with so much detail that they survived the jump in genres without losing too much in translation - and so much has been written about Brian Wilson's spectacular arranging skills that it barely seems worth highlighting them again. It feels a little like emphasising the songwriting prowess of Lennon and McCartney - "They were quite good, weren't they?"

Still, you wouldn't necessarily expect a Welsh Male Voice Choir to have any interest in The Beach Boys. And this version seems inspired by Wilson's arrangement of the traditional seafaring tune, but adds seventies keyboard work and a slight bit of swing. The boys in the choir do a fine job of harmonising and adding emotional punch in the right places, and it's a unique listen - but obviously for my money, nothing captures the heart so much as The Beach Boys yearning original, which genuinely sounds like a pleading lament from a soul lost at sea. Not for no reason did it sit so well on an album along with tracks like "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times"; most of the LP sounded like a distress call, a cry for the lifeboat to be deployed. The London Welsh Male Voice Choir put a different spin on things and sound rather more like a bunch of tough men who have been whipped into exhaustion by their seafaring plight - and to be honest, that's the kind of interpretation you'd expect them to put on it, really, and the only possible choice to make, but it somehow doesn't capture the imagination as much as the Wilson version.

The B-side "(Sittin' on) The Dock Of the Bay" is perhaps more bizarre and unexpected, bringing to mind a troupe of Welsh ex-miners stood on the docks in Cardiff bay idly following a series of redundancies. "Watching the ships roll in/ then I watch them roll away again" sounds despairing in their hands, as indeed it possibly should be - the lyrics never were full of fizz and optimism in the first place, despite Otis's nonchalant whistling. 

Somewhat amazingly, both sides were partly produced by Rod Edwards and Roger Hand, aka Edwards Hand, who released some well-regarded George Martin produced LPs of their own. Prior to their work as Edwards Hand they also produced some great popsike sounds as part of Piccadilly Line, of which my favourite is possibly "I Know She Believes".

As for the London Welsh Male Voice Choir, they're based in the London Welsh Centre, where I coincidentally recently spent some time at a Christmas office function. Londoners can go there to learn Welsh, watch Welsh drama productions, or the Young Welsh Singer Of The Year competition, and various public discussions. Perhaps more surprisingly, 1973 was a stellar pop-tactic year for them, as they also featured as guest vocalists on Roxy Music's British number one LP "Stranded".

Equally bizarrely, I was once part of a lock-in in a pub in Neath (mid-Glamorgan) where a group of the regular drinkers began singing "Sloop John B" in a Male Voice Choir style, acapella. To this day it remains one of my most unexpected pub treats, and unfortunately this record can't really match up to the warmth and spontaneity of that performance.

29 May 2016

Bullring - Birmingham Brass Band/ Lady of the Morning Sun

Label: CBS
Year of Release: 1970

This is something of a get-together for old friends of "Left and to the Back" we've written about already. Penned by Ken Lewis and John Carter, and performed by Herbie's People under an assumed name, it promises to be a top-notch popsike supergroup. Who could walk past?

In reality, "Birmingham Brass Band" actually features all the involved parties in full-on novelty mode, adopting exaggerated Brummie accents and taking a jaunty skip towards the brass band volunteers office. It's not at all unlikeable and has been touted by some fanzines and websites as being one of the best pieces of popsike around. Certainly, the chirpy toytown elements are all present and correct, but this is arguably closer to Brian and Michael than a Happy Days Toytown Newspaper Smile.

Given a favourable release date and a willing champion on Radio One, it's even possible to imagine this becoming a hit... but it never happened, and presumably everyone involved left The Bullring project at that. Most bizarrely, this even managed to pick up a US release on Jamie Records, though obviously it wasn't a hit there either (and what North Americans made of the Brummie accents on the record is unfortunately undocumented).

Herbie's People were hugely popular on the Midlands gig circuit and split up and reformed numerous times before finally - apparently! - throwing in the towel in 2011. 

25 May 2016

Brian Lee - The Liberal Song/ Jo Grimond - A Message From...

Label: YL (Young Liberals)
Year of Release: 1964

It's easy to look at the Liberal Democrats present eight seats in the House of Commons and laugh/ cry/ raise your eyebrows (delete according to your particular political stance) but their forerunners the Liberal Party suffered far greater tumbles in political society. They went from holding the reigns of political power regularly in the early part of the twentieth century to holding a mere six seats in the House for most of the fifties, thanks to the growing success of the Labour Party. The mid-sixties saw a very slight resurgence in their popularity as they found themselves "enjoying" nine seats again. Dig those heady heights, Daddio.

It's this slightly short-lived period of growing Liberal votes that this rather bizarre single stems from. Targeted at the Young Liberals in their ranks, it's a gentle beat disc with a tippy-tappy backing rhythm and a twangy guitar, espousing the virtues of being a Liberal. "The Socialists will try to nationalise us/ That's not a democratic thing to do!" warns Brian Lee in warm, fruity tones, presumably with one finger wagging. "It's time to hear the Liberal point of view" he adds. Throughout, he sounds slightly like Vic Reeves delivering "Empty Kennel", a song about a dog that tragically drowned in a swimming pool. This surely isn't the tone the Party was going for?

Like most political party attempts to get down with the kids, it's downright embarrassing. Vague in its messaging - the Liberals did actually have some unique policies at this point, so it's surprising some weren't brought to the forefront of the song - Catholic youth club campfire strum-a-long in its style, and rather too hesitant in its delivery, by the time it's over it's hard to understand what the Liberals were for or why you should vote or get involved with them, apart from the fact that they feel Tories are "full of hard luck stories" and Labour are dangerous Socialists. 

Still, never mind, because the then Liberal leader Jo Grimond was on the flip side to help us along with a rousing speech, if he can manage to clear his throat and avoid the words "um" and "er" for more than one minute, that is. Though it is, of course... *cough*... worth knowing that the Liberals have a... *cough*... um, er, unique worldview quite apart from the Conservatives and the, er, Labour chappies, and are... *cough*... the only main party to be against the Hydrogen Bomb. Good God, it's painful to listen to, and makes nine seats feel generous. 

The Liberal Party formed an alliance with the SDP (a short-lived but briefly very popular party of breakaway Labour moderates, who require explanations in parenthesis for the benefit of younger and overseas readers these days) in 1981, and attracted 25% of the national vote, and the parties eventually merged in 1989 to create the Liberal Democrats, effectively ending the old Liberal Party as you and I know it. Except, of course, it didn't really... some members refused to join the new unit, and a Classic Coke version of the old-fashioned Liberal Party limps on in some constituencies, presently having very few elected councillors in its ranks and no MPs. Its presence at the bottom of the BBC Elections board at election time seems increasingly baffling, and serious political miracles aside, the old dog is surely due to slip under the table to expire soon (I checked their website in the name of research, only to find that the news section hadn't been updated in almost a year). 

The vast majority of the Liberal Party's values remain within the Liberal Democrat party, though the Liberal Party is keen to emphasise that the Lib Dems have become "too right wing" in recent years. Perhaps because of this, their identity problems remain acute - to many local people at election time, the Lib Dems have become a quaint and ill-defined party once more, opportunistically selling themselves as the best placed party to replace either Labour or the Conservatives in whatever constituency they're in, and doing so with misleading bar charts. Surely a jaunty novelty single entitled "Only The Lib Dems Can Beat Them Here!" is on its way soon? 

22 May 2016

Reupload - Epic Splendor - It Could Be Wonderful/ She's High On Life

Label: Hot Biscuit Disc Company
Year of Release: 1968

American bands covering the work of British bands was fairly common practice back in the sixties, particularly if the Anglo-act in question had a number of catchy tracks which had yet to find favour across the pond - and indeed, such behaviour often worked in reverse too. This, however, surely takes the (hot) biscuit.  "It Could Be Wonderful" was an utterly ignored track by The Smoke, a band who had made it reasonably big in Continental Europe but meant very little in Britain. Recorded at the beginning of their stint with Island Records after being dropped by Columbia, it's a pleasant, dreamy, woozy and actually quite slow number which sold in very low quantities.

Googling the Internet seems to reveal that most forum-dwellers and bloggers out there prefer The Smoke's original, but for me it's this version that really rips into the song's potential. Turning the tempo up significantly, filling the arrangement out with horns, and pounding on the drums, The Epic Spleandor created a piece of fantastic Motown-derived mod pop, utilising the kinds of rhythms which end up contributing to something unbelievably danceable and difficult to ignore. Propelling itself along with such gusto that it's all over in just over two minutes, it's one of those records with such urgency and force of personality that you feel compelled to play it twice, maybe three times in a row. Whilst The Smoke's version focusses on a dreamy, disconnected feel, this one has a more euphoric, urgent rush about it - perhaps not quite derivative enough to pass as Northern Soul, but certainly a lot more compelling than a great many records released by inauthentic artists which did fit that particular rubric.

The Epic Spleandor were a New York based act formed from the ashes of Little Bits Of Sound. Their first release "A Little Rain Must Fall" was a regional hit on Hot Biscuit, the newly launched subsidiary of Capitol. "It Could Be Wonderful" was supposed to be capitalise on this initial interest, but failed utterly to click with the American public, and the band were promptly dropped by the label.  Records like this one, and the West Coast styled flip "She's High On Life", make you wonder what might have been had they been allowed to continue. This is one of my favourite US singles of the era, and I'd love to hear it a lot more often than I do (which at the moment is "never" outside of my house). It doesn't seem to sell for a great deal on ebay, either, so the question must surely be - am I alone in my love of this record, or does it have an untapped audience waiting for it?

18 May 2016

Symon & Pi - Love Is Happening To Me/ Got To See The Sunrise

Label: Parlophone
Year of Release: 1968

Yet another Mark Wirtz single on "Left and to the Back" to the add to the growing pile, though far from being a piece of popsike or intricate Beach Boys inspired balladry, this is instead sprightly sixties beat pop.

The A-side "Love Is Happening To Me" treads a fine line between being hook-ridden and faintly irritating, adopting a peculiar cod-calypso sound and chirpy brass. Had it been a turntable hit or chart hit at the time, it might have tried the patience of some after a couple of weeks. As a flop, however - and a bloody obscure one hardly anyone owns at that - it's actually quite enjoyable, its irrepressible jollity seeming like a welcome ray of light rather than a source of annoyance.

Wirtz tended to throw so much fairy dust over his studio productions that it's odd to hear something of his which sounds absolutely clean and direct. It's proof that his mind wasn't always on breaking new ground, and perhaps he hoped the relative simplicity of this one would result in a hit.

As for who Symon And Pi were... they appear to have been a performing male/ female duo from the period who had one other single out (a Spector inspired pop cover of "Sha La La La Lee") and nothing else. Do you know them? Have you seen them? Do call.