7 February 2016

Robbi Curtice - The Soul Of A Man/ When Diana Paints The Picture

Label: Sidewalk
Year of Release: 1968

Now here is an absolute stormer, and one I'd been trying to find at a reasonable price for years on end. As occasionally happens, I took a punt on a very battered looking copy at a highly reduced price, and contrary to my expectations, it plays perfectly OK.

"The Soul of a Man" begins with a thudding, thundering bass line, Mod inspired crashing drums, then finally Robbi's victorious roar of "Right in the palm of your hand is the soul of a man". James Bond inspired brass patterns join the foray, and the track bashes and crashes around, ricocheting off the walls. One of those rare examples of a great record that seems to be all chorus and virtually no verses at all, it does a lot with very little, a veritable firework display of a two minute single.

The flip can't be ignored either. "When Diana Paints The Picture" is gentle, considered popsike with another high quality and effective arrangement. That both sides were coated with such fairy dust shouldn't be too surprising when you considered Vic Smith's close involvement. Vic later went on to become produce Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, producer of choice for The Jam and, perhaps less famously, Peter Wyngarde on his "When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head" album.

Robbi Curtice was Wiltshire based songwriter Robert Murphy in real life, who had recently scored a Denmark Street publishing deal with Mills Music. "When Diana Paints The Picture" was co-written with Curtice's regular working partner Tom Payne and was being held in reserve by the company for Cilla Black for a possible future single, which obviously never emerged (and with all due respect to the deceased superstar, it's hard to imagine her version topping this one anyway). "The Soul Of A Man", on the other hand, was entirely a Ralph Murphy and Vic Smith composition, and recorded pronto after Curtice "learned the song in minutes after learning it on the back of an Embassy cigarette packet". Allegedly all concerned were disappointed with the final production of the track, and it only saw the light of day in the USA where it was almost entirely ignored, bar rumoured consumer interest in Sacramento.

Curtice's songwriting career continues, and in 2007 he saw a song of his ("Gospel Lane") emerge on the soundtrack for the Serge Bozon film "La France".

3 February 2016

Reupload - Johnny Johnson & His Bandwagon - Mr. Tambourine Man/ Soul Sahara

Label: Bell
Year of Release: 1971

Johnny Johnson and His Bandwagon, rather like Geno Washington, were an American soul act who had far greater success in the UK. "Breaking Down The Walls of Heartache" was a number four hit in 1968 - even though, given its subsequent influence and club plays, it feels as if it should have climbed even higher than that - and whilst the original line-up of The Bandwagon failed to last into the seventies, Johnson was keen to continue to capitalise on his success outside of the States.

A whole variety of other singles were issued, including the top ten hits "Sweet Inspiration" and "(Blame It) On The Pony Express", shortly before this one was issued to public indifference. Your eyes aren't deceiving you - it is indeed a soulful rendition of the Dylan/ Byrds classic, complete with sweat, intensity and a great big brassy horn section. On first listen, it sounds frankly unnatural and absurd. So much is done to deviate from the original tune and arrangement during the introductory seconds in particular that it's hard to even hear what it has in common with Dylan's song, and it's only when a chipper version of the chorus kicks in that you're able to connect the dots. By the second listen, however, it's a pure joy to listen to, a cover version attempted in the spirit of all the best ones, using the original track as a springboard for different arrangements rather than a score to idly copy from. Some may scream "Sacrilege!", but it's actually no more or less of a deviation from Dylan's first recording than The Byrds attempted.

The fun doesn't stop there, either. The B-side "Soul Sahara" is a thing of wonder, with Johnson whooping and hollering his way through a funky backbeat and horn section as he forcefully takes us through a history of that thing we call soul, with all its accompanying sub-genres. That neither side seems to get played very often in clubs (unlike the group's hits) is a missed opportunity in my book - "Soul Sahara" has such a furious insistence that it's impossible to stay still while it's playing, whereas "Tambourine Man" is a wonderful talking point.

And all this gets me wondering - has there ever been a song which has attracted a more varied array of covers than "Mr Tambourine Man"?

31 January 2016

Smiffy - See You Later (Little Baby Love)/ How Can You Be A Millionaire

Label: Antic
Year of Release: 1974

As much as I believe that the mid to late sixties era is absolutely blessed with obscure pop music riches, and it's far easier to strike gold when digging around in that period than most others, the early glam rock era is also surprisingly fertile. While it may be an acquired taste, it's not difficult to find flop pieces of tinsel covered rock and roll which are insanely uplifting.

And here's one. Way back at the start of January, you may remember we explored the work of a synth-pop artist called Alpha Beta, fronted by the mysterious Pete Smith. A reader kindly pointed me in the direction of this single which was also his handiwork, and I was slightly surprised to find out that far from having a short career based in Numan styled observations on space aliens, he'd also had a brief glam rock past.

"See You Later (Little Baby Love)" is a honking Wizzard-esque piece of work filled to the brim with Spector styled arrangement, and a totally joyous bounce. It's not been compiled on to any of the existing compilations focused on Glam Rock obscurities, and that's slightly surprising because it's far superior to many of the tracks that have found a place - indeed, it seems unlucky not to have been at least a minor hit at the time. Had Wizzard themselves put this out, it would almost certainly have registered.

None of this really leaves me much the wiser as to who Pete Smith actually was and what else (if anything) he did, but he managed to straddle two entirely different styles across two 45s issued in the seventies, so I get the impression he could have turned his hand to a great deal of other work as a songwriter if he had wanted.

27 January 2016

Julie and Gordon - Gordon's Not A Moron (?)/ I'm So Happy To Know You

Label: Pogo 
Year of Release: 1978

When Jilted John's "Jilted John" stormed the UK Top Ten in 1978, it took on a life of its own. It was a fantastic and incredibly silly piece of work, taking the adolescent angst love songs of the permanently "friendzoned" Buzzcocks and giving them a suburban shopping parade spin. "I was so upset that I cried all the way to the chip shop" is now often quoted as one of the finest and funniest lines in rock music.

While Graham Fellows' career in music stalled (until much later on) and the subsequent "True Love Stories" LP failed to sell well, the Julie/ Gordon/ John love triangle clearly acted as an inspiration for others. As a result, an "answer" record was put out by Julie and Gordon and, er... it's a curiosity to say the least. Taking a similar style and tone to the original, Julie explains that Gordon only found out about Jilted John's song after finding it by accident on a pub jukebox, and was thoroughly bemused and hurt. To make matters more interesting, both Julie and Gordon have strong London accents rather than Manchester accents, despite the origins of the original track. I suppose the vast majority of record-buyers were none the wiser.

Fellows had absolutely no creative involvement with this record, which seems to be a parody of something which was clearly already a parody in the first place. Far more interesting, and with far more inspired quips and one-liners, is the B-side "I'm So Happy To Know You" where Gordon is asked by Julie to "do your Johnny Revolting". They seem like quite a sweet couple, really, if a bit dense.

Despite the fact that this failed to chart, there was a follow-up single following the further adventures of the couple entitled "J-J-Julie (Yippee Yula)", but that seems to have been the lot - and, on the audio evidence of that, quite right too.

Graham Fellows, meanwhile, eventually created the brilliant comedy character John Shuttleworth who continues to inspire to this day, and is occasionally heard to quip onstage: "That Jilted John - you don't hear much about him anymore, do you?"

24 January 2016

O.B.X. - Sailplane/ Breakdown and Cry

Label: Cara
Year of Release: 1981

Of all the synth-pop obscurities that were spat out during the early eighties, this turned up on arguably the most unlikely label, and perhaps from a rather unexpected source for most. Cara Records were a tiny indie who, for the most part, acted as a home for Irish folkies De Danann. Peter Bardens, on the other hand - to all intents and purposes, OBX - was previously a keyboard player for cult prog rockers Camel, most famous for their "Snow Goose" concept album.

Unbeknownst to many people now, however, Bardens was fascinated enough with synth-pop to release an entire album of it entitled "Heart to Heart" in 1979. Experimentation with synthesisers and pop was by no means solely a fascination for young people weened on Kraftwerk and Eno. 1981 also saw ex-Hatfield and the North member Dave Stewart release the huge synth hit cover version of "It's My Party", and it's frequently forgotten that once The Buggles ceased their activities, Trevor Horn gatecrashed Yes to become their new lead vocalist. The new technology was obviously deeply appealing to people who had previously tampered with the boundaries of what was possible in rock music, or had a deep affinity with Prog. It's been said before by many better writers than me, but the connection between New Pop in the 80s and Prog in the 70s is stronger than often supposed (Those over-long extended 12 inch versions of just about every hit perhaps also mirroring some of Prog's more bloated album tracks).

"Sailplane" is actually an extremely strong release - dark, minimal and moody, with soft, detached sounding vocals, this feels like it's being beamed in from a contented but wintery dreamworld. The chiming keyboard patterns towards the end add to the icy impression, and like the best of the oft-underrated OMD, there's a slyness to the spacey arrangement here. What sounds on first listen very simplistic and hollow gradually reveals delicate flourishes towards the end of its run-time. Like the best of its genre, though, it knows exactly where to draw the line. 

Needless to say, this wasn't a hit. Even if it had achieved airplay (which, to the best of my knowledge, it didn't) I doubt Cara would have had the marketing chops to really push it high in the charts. Whatever plans Peter Bardens had for the OBX name, they appeared to stop at this one single, and it melted away into obscurity.

Sadly, he passed away in January 2002, and while most of his solo and group material has been reissued in the years since, this one remains obscure and increasingly collectible. My copy is really scuffed and while I've tried my hardest to clean it up below, it's such a minimal piece of work that inevitable some of the crackle and hiss is still going to push through. There's a much clearer sounding version on YouTube you should really listen to.