29 November 2015

Champs Boys - Tubular Bells/ Fleur

Label: Philips
Year of Release: 1976

"Disco sucks!" roared the Rock purists in the seventies. And I'll tell you this, it very frequently didn't, and the fact that European disco cover versions of some of their most highly critically regarded artists were available was (and is) hilariously funny. Imagine the looks on those hateful, hairy little faces. We've already established that a disco version of "Days of Pearly Spencer" was made, but far beyond that you could enjoy disco versions of Pink Floyd classics too if you wanted. Marvellous stuff.

This dancefloor interpretation of "Tubular Bells" is oddly adventurous, taking the familiar chimes of the original and turning them into synth patterns undercut with the occasional brassy moog sound. Suddenly, Mike Oldfield's pension plan sounds much  more like the theme tune to a Saturday evening American crime drama series (complete, no doubt, with freeze frame shots of the main characters all pointing guns at the screen) than the eerie, disquieting piece of music it usually is. 

The B-side "Fleur" is an absolute must for lovers of all things Moogy too, being absolutely chock full of analogue synth sounds. 

This single only just qualifies for this blog, having peaked at number 41 in the British charts. These days, though, it seems like a complete and total obscurity and a little acknowledged chapter in the "Tubular Bells" story. 

Sorry for the pops and crackles on this record. 

25 November 2015

Reupload - The King's Singers and Greg Lake - Strawberry Fields Forever/ Disney Girls

Label: EMI
Year of Release: 1978

Sometimes I find myself wondering what on Earth I'm supposed to write about some of these records. Sometimes, instead of writing a big long description about the history of the act and what's on offer, I feel the urge to stick to the basics - so for this entry, all I'd really type is "This is the choral act The King's Singers covering the Beatles 'Strawberry Fields Forever' with The Beach Boys track 'Disney Girls' on the flip. Greg Lake produces". If I expanded on that, is there a danger I'd dampen the shock effect of the fact that the record even exists?

It most certainly does, however, and I'm probably as perplexed by it as you are. When the needle hit the grooves of this one on the first play, I must admit I was expecting a total dog's dinner of a record, another appalling Beatles cover to add to the long line of bastardised cash-in nonsense that's been released into the wild. In reality, it's neither as ridiculous as it sounds - and some of Lake's production frills actually help keep the proceedings mildly psychedelic - nor as unlikable as you'd expect. Also, as church choirs doing interpretations of modern classics has worked its way into the heart of popular culture in the early 21st Century, this probably sounds more run-of-the-mill now than it ever did in 1978. The King's Singers are obviously incredibly skilled at their craft and take the job in hand seriously, and the end production knows exactly where to draw the line in its interpretation, so there are no surprise fade-outs and fade-ins at the end, nor reverse effects. Overall, it's actually a pleasing record, like the long-forgotten sixties harmony act Tinkerbell's Fairydust taking a stab at the output of Mersey's finest sons. Oh, and the similarity of the intro to that of Bobak Jons Malone's "House of Many Windows" is, it's safe to say, coincidental.

Less excusable is the scratch and sniff sleeve containing a lady whose dignity is only covered with some strawberries. I'm sure such excesses played badly with the band's hardcore audience of Pebble Mill viewers and Christians, although who knows? The red vinyl EMI disc manages to make their disgusting seventies fawn and red label look halfway pleasing, mind.

The King's Singers were formed at King's College in Cambridge by six choral scholars in 1968, and are still active today and remain a successful live concern, performing 125 concerts a year. An adaptable approach to their set lists is one of the factors which has caused them to be a constant draw, including classical music as well as pop standards in their repertoire. After finding this one, my respect for them has actually increased tenfold.

(This blog entry was originally uploaded in October 2011. What I failed to mention at the time was that The King's Singers had also covered David Bowie's "Life On Mars" in an interesting fashion as well).

22 November 2015

Reparata - Your Life Is Gone/ Octopus's Garden

Label: D'art
Year of Release: 1976

I wrote quite a bit about Reparata, of Reparata and the Delrons fame, in this blog entry where I covered the utterly magnificent "Shoes", which existed like a mongrelised version of girl group pop, glam, and Roxy art-rock. It's one of the finest pop accomplishments of 1975, certainly, and only weird legal issues surrounding its release have prevented it from becoming far better known.

While "Shoes" flopped in 'real' terms, it created enough interest in Reparata's solo career for the small indie D'Art (or Dart, as they now seemed to be known) to reissue some stuff from their vaults in 1976. And what an odd reissue it is too, with it consisting of her Octopus's Garden/ Your Life Is Gone single from 1972 with the sides flipped.

Someone at the label clearly realised that their best shot at following up the art-pop of "Shoes" was the rather ace death disc styled number "Your Life Is Gone" which had previously been hidden under the jolly Beatles cover like a collection of writhing earthworms under a rock. While it's not an original idea by any means, the track takes the basic premise of "Leader of the Pack" and "Terry" and seriously ups the ante, adding car smash noises and ambulance sirens (and, for some reason, a sitar) to the mix. "Can't go on much longer!" wails Reparata. "Soon they'll have to put me away!", then the sound of crunching metal follows soon afterwards. As OTT as it sounds, the pleading melody is very faithfully and beautifully done. It's the kind of track retro revivalists such as The Pipettes might have turned their attention to ten years ago, had anyone involved in that project wanted to inject some black humour into the proceedings.

By 1972 death discs were considered a nostalgic relic, so there's definitely a sense of nudging and winking going on here, of pushing the template for effect. While it would be a difficult and seemingly insensitive listen for anyone who has recently lost a loved one in a car accident, at a distance from such issues it's a truly wonderful pastiche. Reparata has one of those smoky, gloomy, heartache-infused sixties voices which can handle this kind of melodrama without making it seem too ludicrous - it's a testament to her that she can actually walk hand in hand with the style of the track without once sounding insincere.

The B-side, and previous A-side, "Octopus's Garden", isn't as interesting but is a jolly enough cover of The Beatles track, riddled with sound effects and a music hall styled backing. It sounds like it should have been the flip all along, frankly.

18 November 2015

Pink Umbrellas - Raspberry Rainbow/ Oh No! The Insect Man

Label: Ready Steady Go!
Year of Release: 1983

We last explored the work of Paul Sampson back in August, examining his stint in Coventry ska band The Reluctant Stereotypes. Following the failure of that group to generate significant sales, he and fellow Stereotype Steve Edgson appeared to waste very little time in moving on to their next project, psychedelic pop revivalists Pink Umbrellas, joined by Rob Hill on drums and Barry Jones on bass.

Most readers won't need me to underline the fact that there was quite a significant revival of sixties ideas in the early to mid eighties, although most remained entrenched firmly underground. From the Paisley Underground in America to a lot of the early output of Creation Records, right on to XTC's fantastic recordings under the name The Dukes of Stratosphear, the reaction against clean, smooth, synthesiser dominated productions spread notably. If you wanted to, you could make a serious case for the movement never really disappearing and popping overground by '89, via The Stone Roses, The Charlatans, and Inspiral Carpets. Certainly, all three groups had a keen ear for those sounds, and John Leckie was largely chosen to produce The Stone Roses debut on the basis of his work with The Dukes. Beyond that, the twee, jangly elements did also seem to get hoovered up by many C86 bands such as The Pastels.

A big reason why so much eighties psychedelic revival material gets overlooked these days probably boils down to two simple problems - the slightly pristine production you often got, and the fact that borderline parody often seemed to be the order of the day. Doctor and The Medics may have played a huge part in the revival with their regular appearances at Alice In Wonderland club nights, but there was always a sense that they were having more fun playing with some clothes in the dressing-up box than they were writing brand new psychedelic classics.

So then, Pink Umbrella's "Raspberry Rainbow" is a likeable peculiarity, but definitely on the same side of the fence. Over and above a great many other efforts of the time, this is actually a fairly accurate take on the twee end of popsike, but one which nonetheless sounds incredibly tongue-in-cheek, almost Thamesmen era Spinal Tap in its stylings (though I must admit on first play that I thought it sounded like an obscure Blur out-take). The B-side "Oh No! The Insect Man" finishes the job with some silly sixties sci-fi leanings, sounding like the work of people who have watched rather too many late night black and white repeats on the television rather than taken any hallucinogenic drugs.

There's no question that the stylings of "Raspberry Rainbow" and its flip are affectionate rather than sneering, though, and it was respected enough at the time of its release to gain some Radio Two airplay, doubtless to an audience hungrier for new sixties-styled sounds than elsewhere. That wasn't enough to cause it to chart, and there were to be no follow-ups. An LP was apparently recorded but so far as I can tell never released, and all we're left with is this curio.

Paul Sampson went on to work with The Primitives and became a respected producer. A final twist in this particular tale is the fact that The Stone Roses apparently had him shortlisted to produce their debut, but their message of interest didn't reach him until John Leckie had been booked and it was all too late. Given the exemplary work Leckie did with XTC for The Dukes project I have to doubt Sampson's production on the Stone Roses debut would have been better, but who knows how things might have turned out…

15 November 2015

Day Costello - The Long And Winding Road/ Free (Unlimited Horizons)

Label: Spark
Year of Release: 1970

It's common enough to hear talk of how the sons and daughters of successful musicians are almost always eclipsed by their elders and betters. What's perhaps less frequently discussed is how often the offspring of relatively unsuccessful musicians (in chart terms, at least) produce far better and more lasting work. Amy Winehouse, daughter of Mitch Winehouse, is obviously a recent prime example of this, but there are many others. Children growing up surrounded by music will inevitably latch on to it and sometimes take it to more interesting places than their parents.

And obviously enough, Day Costello was an identity assumed by Ross McManus, father of "Elvis" Costello. He issued a trio of flop singles in the sixties on the HMV and Decca labels between 1964-67, and this oddity in 1970, which was never really supposed to see the light of day as a 45. Originally recorded for the purposes of a budget covers LP in Australia with vocals by Danny Street, Ross's services were called for at the eleventh hour when the label disliked Street's final performance.

When it became apparent that The Beatles weren't releasing "The Long and Winding Road" as a single in Australia, Fable Records decided he should try his luck in plugging the gap, in much the same manner as Ray Morgan did in the UK. The results were partly positive. The single was reviewed somewhat critically in some quarters due to the rather ponderous approximation of the Phil Spector arrangement - a criticism I would definitely echo - but it managed to pick up enough airplay to become a minor Aussie hit. A big plus in its favour is unquestionably Costello's vocals, which don't improve on the Beatles original (as if), but add a subtly different interpretation. Delicate, considered and with a lot of strong tremelo in them, he sounds like an ordinary man lost on some distant plain.

Why a UK release was required on Spark Records is something of a mystery, but presumably the label felt that they could potentially out-run Morgan's effort (I could confirm this theory if I could manage to find the Spark release date, but the data is unobtainable). It didn't happen, the single sank without trace, and copies are actually pretty scarce these days. My one is a bit roughed-up in places, but unfortunately it's the only copy I've chanced upon in my lifetime.

The flip side "Free (Unlimited Horizons)" is a defiant sounding number which begins sounding vaguely reminiscent of Pulp's "Sunrise" before revealing its true identity as a piece of middle-of-the-road optimistic pop. It's highly rated by some collectors, but I find it slightly too conservative and lightweight.

Costello, of course - or McManus, if you'd rather - continued to do session work, and after this point his most famed effort was probably the R Whites Lemonade television advert in the UK with son Elvis on drums and backing vocals, which somebody really should have put out as a single in some form. If it could be done for the Humphrey adverts, it could have been done for R Whites, for God's sake. But I'm sure you've all got worries and concerns and issues of your own…

Naturally, in a peculiar twist of fate Elvis Costello eventually worked with Paul McCartney as a co-songwriter throughout the eighties and nineties, bringing the circle neatly to a close.