13 April 2014

The Beat Merchants - So Fine





















Label: Tower
Year of Release: 1965

Here's a peculiar case of a very widely available obscurity, a working example of the longstanding rule of DJs everywhere - "Always check the B-side". In 1965 Tower Records released Freddie and The Dreamers chirpy tune "You Were Made For Me" in the USA. With North America's fondness for British eccentrics at the time and Freddie's irrepressible barmy charm and the song's whistle-worthy melody, it was sure to sell by the absolute bucketload. One small problem, though - in a peculiar contractual arrangement, Tower had only bought four tracks by the band, and wanted to hold back as much of their other goodness for the singles market as possible. The B-side was therefore something of a blank slate.

Still, not to worry. Tower simply dug through the British beat archives at EMI until they stumbled on "So Fine", a UK flop for the Beat Merchants. Including the tag line "Introducing the Beat Merchants" on the label of the flip to give the impression that they were paving the way for some more future British stars in the USA, not only was a worthy obscurity made easily available to collectors at a much later date, it also netted the group a cool £1,000 in royalties (which sounds laughable now, but was a big haul for a broke band back in the early sixties).

Despite all the promise of the "introducing" tagline, however, Tower never did issue another Beat Merchants single Stateside, which is a shame. Consisting of guitarist Ralph Worman, bassist Chris Boyle, rhythm guitarist Gavin Daneski and Les Rogers on drums, and based in Horsham in the UK and well-known and loved on the south coast club circuit, The Beat Merchants were solid purveyors of pounding R&B. Beginning their lives as The Hustlers and focussing mainly on an instrumental repertoire, their lives changed when they performed a local gig slot supporting The Rolling Stones. Blown away by the group's raw sound, things were never the same afterwards, and they changed their name to The Merchants and also altered their direction to blues orientated beat.

Within a surprisingly short space of time, record companies began to get interested in the band, perhaps sensing that they may be the next Stones. Decca and Columbia were both chomping at the bit, and mailed them contracts at exactly the same time - against the group's wishes, Columbia ended up being their home, where they issued two singles before parting company. "Pretty Face" is chaotic, ramshackle, high-tempo blues in the best sense of the phrase and probably their finest released work. The follow-up "So Fine" is rather more controlled and subdued, and apparently wasn't much loved by the band at the time. Don't let that put you off, though. It's still got a swagger and a stomp to it which makes it a pleasure to listen to.

Suffice to say, none of this really amounted to anything much, although it probably made The Beat Merchants the wealthiest obscure sixties group in Britain for a brief period. Not long after these disappointments the group returned to regular day jobs in Horsham and that was that - but "Pretty Face" and "So Fine" are well enough remembered to still generate a lot of discussion online to this day. I also can't help but wonder whether they would have achieved greater volumes of success akin to The Yardbirds had Columbia stuck by them for a bit longer.

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