21 July 2008
Second Hand Record Dip Part 12 - David McWilliams - This Side of Heaven
Who: David McWilliams
What: This Side of Heaven
Where: Reckless Records, Soho (RIP)
Label: Major Minor
Year of Release: 1968
Cost: One pound
The "reduced" box in the dusty corner of the musty old second hand record store is seldom an embarrassment of riches, it must be said. If the Second Hand Dips on this blog have focussed most frequently on novelty records, TV spin off singles and the flop follow ups of one hit wonders, it's purely because that's what you tend to find when you stick your mitts in the bargain tray. Once every so often, though, I can sing "Hallelujah" and dig up a real gem... and that's what happened a few years back with this David McWilliams single.
An absolute steal at one pound (it can and should retail for at least seven times that), it goes to prove that sometimes collectors don't know what's good for them. McWilliams will always be best known for his magnificent "Days of Pearly Spencer" single, a Brel-esque piece of pop about homelessness. It was played endlessly on the radio at its time of release, but actually (contrary to popular belief) wasn't a hit - it would have to wait until Marc Almond covered it in the nineties before it could be taken into the top ten, and by that time McWilliams received no royalties due to complex legalities surrounding his work - legalities which always seem to favour record companies rather than artists, for some strange reason.
If "Pearly Spencer" was without question his key song, he definitely has plenty of other material worth dipping into, and this is but one example. Both sides of this single are worth your time, the A side "This Side of Heaven" being an orchestrated piece of sixties pop which was probably a bit too subtle to register with the public. The B side "Mr Satisfied" is a rumbling piano driven piece of mean moodiness which always pleases my ears.
Perhaps too well-known to be a friend of the lovers of obscure curios, and too unknown to really be a famous name amongst the general public, David McWilliams' career has been ignored too much in the mainland UK for my liking, even if he is something of a hero in Northern Ireland. Whilst other rejected singer-songwriters of the era like Bill Fay and Vashti Bunyan have since been dug up for critical reappraisal, he hasn't had retrospectives on quite the same scale, even in the wake of his death in 2002. Unlike Fay or Bunyan, though, his work isn't particularly gentle and pastoral. Both sides of this disc show that it could fair zing along in a rush of ideas, his speedy baritone delivery of the lyrics at times recalling the somewhat cool energy of many beat poets. It's zestier and poppier than the work of most serious singer-songwriters, which means that - despite the frequently downbeat lyrical content - he was probably never going to be a poster boy for that particular set. For what it's worth, though, I rate "Pearly Spencer" as being up there with any 45 Scott Walker put out in the same period (despite Walker's superior vocal talents) and happen to think he wipes the floor with Fay.
As an aside, I would also like to say that Major Minor had the best label and sleeve design of the era too. Their records scream out at you from the racks (or dusty boxes, in this particular instance). Somebody should revive the imprint for a bit, just because I find it genuinely thrilling to look at, sad old soul that I am.
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