27 November 2010

The Impossible Dreamers - This House Built On Sand

Impossible Dreamers - This House Built On Sand

Label: Arcadia
Year of Release: 1984

At the risk of boring you all - because I'm sure I've said it before - the mainstream media notion of what British eighties indie-pop actually was has become very one-dimensional.  If we believe the carefully edited version of events, at the tail end of the decade "baggy" or "Madchester" sounds dominated, and prior to that the popular notion is that the mid-eighties were filled with twee C86 jangle-pop or, in the early part of the decade, post-punk.

Truth be told, the eighties indie scene was filled with a cornucopia of critically acclaimed sounds, from bone-shaking discordant rock to intelligent Cohen-inspired solo performers to anarcho-punks to... stuff like this.  Material which sounds inspired by an imagined, sophisticated coffee house culture which never really occurred effectively in Britain at any time.  It's slick, carefully constructed, knowing and definitely listenable, taking its cues from The Style Council, The Dream Academy and Sade as much as it does the low budget racketeers of the surrounding underground circuit.

Exeter's Impossible Dreamers enjoyed a lot of positive press in the weekly music papers in Britain - including one NME Single of the Week - and had one song ("August Avenue") which was produced by Johnny Marr.  Both factors would ordinarily be enough to make sure a band remained permanently fixed in cult indie databases up and down the land, but it's difficult not to conclude that the mainstream edge the Dreamers kept to their work caused them to be ultimately become less well remembered.  Still, unlike many a "Left and to the Back" contender, they do have a website of sorts here outlining a lot of information about the group's discography and history.

24 November 2010

Herbie & The Royalists - Soul of the Matter

Herbie & The Royalists - Soul of the Matter

Label: Saga
Year of Release: 1968

"In the last eight months Herbie & The Royalists have acquired a tremendous following in London and the provinces.  Fans delight not only in their music but also incurable sense of humour.
The effervescent HERBIE captivates his audiences, expounding energy and vitality, "above and beyond the call of duty".
The Royalists themselves are excellent musicians whose music is exciting, original and varied.
"Baby I Love You" is fast and lively, featuring exciting guitar work by IAN MILLER (lead guitar), "Dirty Old Town" is slow, sentimental and nostalgic, depicting HERBIE's home town in Barbados.
A number with a heavy beat and interesting harmony backing from BRIAN COOPER (drums), STEVE FIELD (bass) and IAN is "A Day in the Life of Julie", but perhaps the most sensational number on the album is the dramatic "Lost Voyage", a powerful and original instrumental.
The only other instrumental on the LP is "Royal Suite", based on Handel's "Entrance of the Queen of Sheba".  Arrangement on this was by organist DENIS LASCELLES.  The number displays a perfect blend of classical and popular music.
Alien to HERBIE's happy personality are the sentiments of "My Life Has Just Blown a Fuse", the cry of a lost and angry young man in a powerful hard-hitting number.  The album closes romantically on "It's All Because Of You".  And it's all because of Herbie & The Royalists that you will enjoy this album - because they get right to the SOUL OF THE MATTER."

Hmm, yes.  "Mulligan and O'Hare" styled sleevenotes aside, this album often crops up in passing conversation as being one of the few relatively untapped mines of sixties goodness, so please let me begin this blog entry on a critical note - it's largely very average indeed, and when it troughs, by God does it trough.  Disclaimers aside, however, there is at least one track on here I'm incredibly surprised has never found its way on to a British psychedelic compilation.

To understand the potential failings of the album, you need to consider the fact that Saga Records specialised in quickly bashed out budget albums designed for the cash-strapped patron of Woolworths and the record department of Boots the Chemist.  From the sleeve design to the recording and pressing of the vinyl, very little expense was spared.  Bands were given contracts to sign which entitled them to a one-off payment and no royalties at all on sales.  The recording itself would take place in cheaply assembled studios in unlikely places, with several items in the Saga back-catalogue (most notably the Magic Mixtures album) having been recorded in an Infant School Hall at night.  The session would generally last only slightly longer than a straight run-through of the band's material would take, so there were few (if any) retakes allowed, and the production seemed non-existent.  It takes an exceptional band performing under top flight circumstances to pull the necessary on-the-one genius out of the bag, and Saga weren't dealing with bands at the top end of their profession, just hungry musicians desperate to get some product in the shops and their name known.

Given these mitigating factors, it is possible to see "Soul of the Matter" in a much more flattering light.  Herbie admittedly isn't the best singer the Royalists could have hoped for, and his voice probably is more suited to frustrated howlers such as "My Life Has Just Blown a Fuse" rather than romantic ditties.  However, there are a few tracks here which arguably would have made the miniscule asking price of the album worth anyone's while.  Besides "Fuse", there's the decidedly unsoulful psychedelic trip of "Lost Voyage", which starts off in a subdued, metronomic fashion only to burst into kaleidoscopic colour and life two minutes in, filled with a blistering, soaring guitar break up there with the finest instrumental Pink Floyd pieces of the same period.  "Royal Suite" too is as good a take on classically influenced pop as any I've heard, and it leaves me wondering what Herbie and his gang would have been capable of with more production time and a better studio.  As this appears to have been their only recorded output, we'll probably never know.

It's not clear to me what happened to the band after this release, but Saga have gone from strength to strength and now own a radio station, as well as specialising in holidays, private finance and insurance. As such, they're probably a lot more bankable than EMI at present... Perhaps Herbie & The Royalists work in one of their offices.

For people who want to skip downloading the whole album and just listen to "Lost Voyage", I have provided a stand-alone mp3 below.


Side One
1. Baby I Love You
2. Dirty Old Town
3. Please Forgive
4. A Day in the Life Of Julie
5. Forever Yours
6. Flowers All Surrounding
7. Lost Voyage

Side Two
1. Royal Suite
2. Try to Find Me
3. Too Blind To See
4. I'll Never Stop
5. My Life Has Just Blown a Fuse
6. I'm Breathing Heavy
7. It's All Because of You

Download it Here

20 November 2010

Windmill - I Can Fly/ Such Sweet Sorrow

Windmill - I Can Fly

Label: MCA
Year of Release: 1970

Almost exactly one year ago on this blog, we pondered the failure of the enthusiastically backed Windmill to break through in the late sixties and early seventies.  Here, after all, were a band with the Blaikley/ Howard songwriting team behind them and MCA at the wheel.  I concluded that the problem was mainly that the band's sound was too damn dated by the time of their media unveiling, and the unearthing of a mint copy of this single hasn't done anything to change my mind.

"I Can Fly" really is just a burst of bouyant popsike occurring at least three years too late, having originally been released by The Herd back then.  The deep vocals about "ghosts and phantoms", the puffing flutes, and the celebratory away-with-the-fairies chorus all gels together to create something distinctly paisley patterned.  Whilst I wouldn't want to give more ammo to the continual myth that psych-pop just didn't chart in the early seventies - Hawkwind's "Silver Machine" alone proves that wasn't the case - it isn't unfair to note that it stood much less of a chance of breaking through with the fashion obsessed public.  This is a shame, as "I Can Fly" is an irrepressibly jaunty piece of work.

The rest of the Windmill story is summarised over at my previous entry, and if I ever do find a copy of "Wilbur's Thing" I can afford, rest assured you lot will be among the first to find out.

17 November 2010

Second Hand Record Dip Part 65 - Mojams feat. Debbie Currie - You Can Do Magic

Mojams featuring Debbie Currie - you can do magic

Who: Mojams feat. Debbie Currie (actually, Sinitta)
What: You Can Do Magic
Label: Gotham
When: 1997
Where: Music and Video Exchange, Camden High Street
Cost: 50p

Whilst truth is indeed frequently stranger than fiction in the music industry, sometimes when things seem too absurd to be true, it's because they are.  This single is a supremely odd confirmation of that fact, a scam so subtle in its execution that to this day, you can still see references to it on national newspaper websites as being a bona-fide piece of work.

Debbie Currie, the daughter of "outspoken" Conservative MP Edwina Currie, was attempting a career as a journalist when the team behind the investigative programme the "Cook Report" approached her with an intriguing offer.  The deal was that she would pretend to front a single produced by Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, and they would hire a gang of "hypers" to artificially push its position up the charts.  The aim was to ultimately expose the British charts as being open to abuse despite the BPI's continual assurances that hype was now easily spotted, and a thing of the distant past.

In reality, Sinitta sang the vocals, and all Currie really appears to have done is displayed her stomach on the sleeve (above) and posed for a few publicity shots.  The gossip columns of newspapers also ran a few short pieces about "sexy" Debbie Currie's new pop band which gave the project an air of authenticity, which was eventually blown on prime-time television.

I suspect that the "Cook Report" team would have liked to have seen the single chart within the Top 40, but in reality - despite the production team behind it, and despite the publicity - the single stiffed at number 81.  The end programme appeared to gamely claim that they'd exposed the fact that chart rigging still existed, but it's hard not to conclude that an average pop single produced by Stock and Aitken would have been expected to chart within the lower reaches of the Top 100 at the very least.  Music industry mogul Clive Selwood also dismisses the show's scoop in his biography "All of the Moves But None of the Licks", stating that the single should probably have charted higher on its own merits, and questions should have been asked of the distributors.  All it proved, he concluded, is that people can easily be tricked out of money for non-existent services, which is admittedly fraud, but not exactly headline news.

Perhaps it's due to the failings of the documentary to make a concrete point that to this day, journalists still cite Debbie Currie's "failed pop career" as evidence of the fact that she's "Edwina Currie's rebellious, wild child daughter".  This is an utterly incorrect version of events, and Debbie has gone on record as saying that she would never have seriously considered a career in music, and that her friends assumed that she was having "some sort of breakdown" at the time whilst she kept the pretence up.

As for "You Can Do Magic" itself, it's a passable little single, perfectly pleasant in a quickly recorded Saint Etienne B-side kind of way.  In a quiet week in January it might actually have performed moderately well in its own right, and it's certainly a strange tune to pick to prove a chart hype point.  Perhaps if something noticeably below par had been used, the researchers and producers behind the show might have worried that the authorities would have smelt a rat.

Interestingly, there's also an information service advertised on the sleeve, asking us to write to "Mojams, Freepost 1276, PO BOX 4100, London, SE1 0YW".  One wonders what anybody who scribbled a note to that address got in return - a signed picture of Roger Cook angrily pointing, perhaps.

13 November 2010

One Hit Wonders #16 - The Second City Sound - Tchaikovsky One

Second City Sound Tchaikovsky One

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1965

Sometimes obscure-sounding vintage-looking records leap out at you from the record racks, and you snap them up cheaply on the off-chance it's some killer little flop which has remained ignored by the wider public.  You get home, you put it on the turntable, conclude that it's quite an interesting little number and that you might be on to something.  Then you check ChartStats, and realise that it's just a minor hit single you've never heard before.

Still, this blog has a "One Hit Wonder" section now, and Brum instrumentalists The Second City Sound certainly fit that particular category.  "Tchaikovsky One" is much what you'd suspect it to be from the title, being a beat driven take on classical music, something I've always found nigh on impossible to listen to without hearing Peter Sellers' character Tommy Iron in my head saying "We'll cover anything that's out of copyright, like".  As wrong as it could potentially be, though, there's a Meek-like care about the record which seems immediately delightful, and the band shared Meek's love for technology.  Keyboard player Ken Freeman wanted to have a Mellotron on the track, but finding himself strapped for cash had to use a Clavioline instead, which gives the track a slightly eerie, dreamy air.

The B-side "Shadows" doesn't appear to be a tribute to the band of the same name, but rather a sinister, edgy piece of instrumental work with occasional bursts into pounding piano boogie.  I actually prefer it to the A-side.

As for The Second City Sound, no further hits were forthcoming after this reached number 22, but at least one of their number went on to have an influence on the music industry. Ken Freeman might not have been able to afford that ultra-desirable Mellotron, but he went on to build and market synths of his own, creating the Freeman String Symphonizer.  He also worked with Mike Oldfield and Jon Anderson, and perhaps most notably of all Jeff Wayne on the "War of the Worlds" album.  It's difficult to hear quite where his career was going to go on the basis of this little single, but for all its chocolate box arrangements, this probably sounded like a startlingly modern piece of work in 1965.  If Joe Meek didn't start hurling objects around his Holloway Road flat after hearing it, then I'm a Dutchman.

10 November 2010

Techno Twins - Falling In Love Again & Karel Fialka - Armband

Techno Twins - Falling In Love Again

Label: PRT
Year of Release: 1981

On the surface, there's no real connection between Karel Fialka and The Techno Twins, who I've lumped together for the benefit of this entry - to the best of my knowledge, they've never been on the same live bill, they probably don't attend each other's dinner parties, and it's entirely possible that they'd be insulted by the mere suggestion they had anything in common.

In my own lazy way, then, the main reason I've lumped them together is that for me, they represent a forgotten aspect of eighties electronic pop.  The Human League, Soft Cell, and even OMD had a tenderness to their work which breathed human life into the electronic squall.  The most timeless work of that period wasn't recently revived by many a Brit school contender and A&R department for no reason (although it's probably going off the boil again as we speak).  Whilst there was a suspicion in some quarters around the late eighties that the earliest synthetic music would quickly become irrelevant, sounding like a decadent pop experiment from another era with no possible connection to the real 21st Century world, it's as strong as ever.  In the same way that Joe Meek's earliest experiments with sound still resonate with a fragile hope, so does the work of most of the more mainstream eighties contenders.

Except... if you dig deep enough in the second hand store racks, oddities crop up all the time which seem to have no connection at all to the present.  They invariably sound like relics, as far from "Open Your Heart" or "Tainted Love" is it's possible to get.  They may as well have not even have been part of the same scene.  The Techno Twins, for example, look strangely out of sorts in the picture above - almost like a fancy dress store approximation of Futurism or New Romanticism, the kind of blurred, misty photo you'd find on a party store package containing some novelty wigs.  Their cover of "Falling in Love Again" is actually sweet enough, but what dates it is the way it uses electronics robotically and rigidly.  It jitters and judders all over the place, sounding custom made for novelty robotic mime artists Tik and Tok.  Instead of integrating the electronics smoothly into the melody and thinking about how the synthesisers might in the very near future be a crucial part of the pop story, it's led by the novelty of them.  The Techno Twins have been credited with inventing the word "techno", but the way they used the instrumentation seemed bound by a "Tomorrow's World" past filled with awkward, jerky machinery.   There is no humanity to be found here at all.

To me, this sounds fascinating purely because I can't think of a single artist making pop music remotely like this now.  Bands like Stereolab may have looked backwards to a Moogy Wonderland past, but nobody at the moment seems to be mimicking the early eighties artists who had watched "Metropolis" rather too keenly.

Karel Fialka - Armband

Label: Blueprint
Year of Release: 1979

And on to Karel Fialka, a man who would later hit the charts with "Hey Matthew", a song which some people have since claimed is a brilliant and perceptive pop song which juxtaposes the way children and adults watch the telly and view the world.  I still find it bloody irritating myself.

Still, way before that he too sounded as if he existed in a futuristic dystopia, making singles like "Armband" which sounds simultaneously emotionally distant and also full of dread.  Dramatic drums pound away from the very beginning, electronic seagulls screech away, and Karel has a good old rant about inflatable life-saving wear (which I think is almost certainly supposed to be a metaphor for the safety cushion of relationships).  It has the same jerkiness and awkwardness as The Techno Twins record, and none of the gentle observations his later work would have.  These days, it actually sounds faintly absurd, which is curious - he actually got on "Top of the Pops" with another single from this era ("The Eyes Have It") which achieved an enormous volume of airplay.

Flip side "Metal Urbane", on the other hand, focusses on the fact that we are all being watched by metal men.  Poor Karel didn't realise that intelligent humanoid robots of the future might be made of silicon.

Beyond the aural evidence, it's worth noting that both these singles have another thing in common - they were flops marketed by the ailing Pye Records company (or Prelude Records and Tapes, to give the organisation its eighties name).  Evidence would not suggest, however, that they had an entire roster filled with artists of this ilk.

6 November 2010

One Hit Wonders #15 - Joy Sarney - Naughty Naughty Naughty

Joy Sarney - Naughty Naughty Naughty

Label: Alaska
Year of Release: 1977

So it's like this - John Schroeder's Alaska label spent most of the seventies releasing what could only be considered to be commercially viable (although often gimmicky) material.  Discs with the disco in mind were put out, as were populist ballads, and even football songs.  The public remained unmoved.

Perhaps this record should therefore be taken as proof that winning formulas come in unlikely packages, for this is the only single on the label to succeed in getting one of their artists on "Top of the Pops" - and lo and behold, it's a ballad to Mr Punch out of Punch and Judy sung by sultry ex-session singer-turned-housewife Joy Sarney.  Alaska went to the trouble of actually hiring a professional Punch and Judy man for the session, gave Joy a bunch of extremely peculiar lyrics about her love for the hooked-nose one ("He's been in trouble with the law for Grevious Bodily Harm... I'm his puppet, but he won't pull my strings") mashed the lot together with the kind of bouncy lightweight rhythm frequently reserved for Paul Nicholas singles, and watched as to their delight they enjoyed their only hit.  If you created a computer randomiser to pick up subject matter and style for a record, you'd probably come up with something which seemed less absurd.

It doesn't seem as if anyone else involved with the making of the single thought it would break through.  The then-rookie engineer (and these days well-paid producer) Chris Tsangardies has gone on record as saying "The bloody thing was atrocious... it will haunt me, but it was a break".  Reportedly, Joy herself is good humoured about the record, and is under no illusions about its status in the grand scheme of things.  On top of that, only recently the BBC included it in a list of clips of the worst "Top of the Pops" appearances of all time, largely by dint of the unusual nature of the record rather than as a comment on Joy's performance.

After "Naughty Naughty Naughty" peaked at number 26, it would seem that an attempt was made at pulling Joy back into the music industry full-time, as a follow up "Angling for A Kiss" was released later that year.  However, it failed to chart, and that seems to have been the end of that.  In the meantime, online conversations rage about whether Joy Sarney actually hails from Liverpool or Southend.  I spent my teenage years growing up in Southend, but on the basis of evidence I've been presented with, I'd say it's probably safe to conclude that she lived and worked in both places at one point or another.  Let's not fight about who can rightfully place her on their local walk of fame, eh readers?  We can share the credit.

Please don't ask me who the credited "Friends Of Joy" are on the B-side singing the cod-country track "Letters of Love", either.  I'm sure it was probably an afterthought on the part of everyone concerned.

3 November 2010

The Frugal Sound - Norwegian Wood

Label: Pye
Year of Release: 1966

It wasn't completely unheard of for English folk artists to cover The Beatles - The Overlanders did just that with "Michelle" and took it all the way to the top spot in the British charts.  In fact, by the time the sixties were up, The Beatles had been covered by all and sundry from soul singers to reggae artists to easy listening superstars, so the existence of some gentle acoustic pondering of their finer moments from musicians of a more traditional style should be no real surprise.

"Norwegian Wood" always did have enough of a vaguely mysterious, pastoral feel to it to be a relatively easy fit for any self-respecting folkie, and so it proves - this version is gentle, whimsical and decidedly Autumnal sounding single (enough for it to end up on the "Autumn Almanac" compilation put out by Sanctuary Records a few years ago).  It doesn't tear the original to pieces, but the vocals are less nasal and slightly warmer, the close harmonies sounding well suited to the song.  It's a record to play whilst lounging around the fireside with a glass of something intoxicating, or perhaps whilst sitting around the three bar fire if you're really stuck.  

The flip "Cruel To Be Kind" gives a better impression of what The Frugal Sound could create when away from the Lennon-McCartney songbook, being a heartfelt ballad with a female vocal lead from Rosalind Rankin which knows exactly where to draw the line.