29 September 2011

The Three Johns - Never and Always

Label: Abstract
Year of Release: 1987

Leeds outfit The Three Johns were created by Mekons member Jon Langford in 1981, and whilst their track record seems to have been forgotten by most people in the years since, for a long time they were dependable indie chart botherers, releasing one John Peel favourite and NME Single of the Week after the other. Loud, occasionally political ("We're not a socialist band. We're a group of socialists who are in a band. It's a fine distinction but an important one") and periodically ramshackle, there was no suggestion that the band were ever going to be a threat to the mainstream, although in one Record Mirror interview they joked that at least one member might have boyband looks.

It's still worth revisiting their work to realise what some of the fuss was all about, however. "Never And Always" in particular is so urgent, brutal and intense that it's a clear winner for my affections at least. Produced by Adrian Sherwood who is responsible for the clattering, ear-battering drum machine work here, it's a combination of squawking punk vocals, angular guitar riffs and industrial turmoil which, had it been released by Public Image Limited, probably would have been widely respected. Instead it had to make do with a couple of Chart Show plays on the television and a moderately high placing on the indie chart.

The band called it a day in 1990, leaving behind a bunch of material which, while not always perfect, still deserves more listens than it appears to get in the present day. You'll never hear this on 6Music - but that doesn't mean to say that you shouldn't. It still grabs you by the throat even now.

26 September 2011

Reupload - The Hush - Elephant Rider/ Grey

Label: Fontana
Year of Issue: 1968

There are some cheery music industry optimists out there who believe that every band will eventually get the success they deserve, and if they don't, they've clearly approached something from the wrong angle. "Talent will out," as Freddie Mercury used to camply trill to anyone who was listening (and lest we forget, he suffered a few disappointments of his own before Queen made it).

On the other, shadier side of the room, however, stand people like me who think that whilst there's a grain of truth to the belief that talent is always recognised in the end, there are also other factors to consider. There's record companies, of course. We should never, ever, underestimate the power of record companies to make the wrong decision at the wrong time. Ask Bob Geldof what he thought of his American record company's plan to send stuffed rodents to radio stations to promote the Boomtown Rats. As a stunt, it turned more stomachs than it ever turned any dials on to heavy rotation. Then again, record companies are frequently known for promoting the right people in the wrong way, or signing the right bands and releasing the wrong tracks. And that's the focus of this entry.

Here we have two sides that sound absolutely nothing like each other. "Elephant Rider" sounds as if it could be a failed Song for Europe entry with its childish chorus and cheery noises, whereas "Grey" is actually a harsh, heavy, very garagey piece of work, messy and stormy in all the best ways. "One day I'll die, leave things behind..." the lead vocalist announces at the beginning of the track, to the single, pounding metronomic beat of a snare drum. "But that's just one thing on my mind," he then snarls as some demonic, punky guitars come behind. The chorus just builds, a single whining note being struck again and again as the vocals peak into panicked ranting. It's a total garage punk classic, and whilst I can understand how Fontana got jittery about its commercial potential, to bury this away on a B-side is nothing short of criminal.

As for whether The Hush approved of their decision or not, I'm afraid I couldn't say. This was the only single they were ever able to release, so unless some dusty tapes turn up somewhere soon, we'll never know if they had more tracks like "Grey" to offer. Nobody has ever been able to successfully trace them either, despite their single regularly going for hundreds of pounds at auctions (the copy photographed above is a bootlegged facsimile copy I purchased at a more regular price). If any of them ever happen to read this entry, though, they should certainly get in touch...

(This blog entry was originally posted in May 2008, and get in touch they did! Firstly the drummer Mac Poole dropped me a line to say that they were an act he put together at Luxembourg Studios in London, and they were managed by Doug Perry, the same man who later went on to manage the snooker champion Alex Higgins.
Their keyboard player Peter "Twiggy" Wood later went on to join The Sutherland Brothers, whereas vocalist Chris Anslow now works on the cabaret circuit.
Another anonymous commenter also pointed out that the band clearly had a fan in Lou Barlow, who had very clearly sampled the riff from "Grey" to use for Sebadoh's single "The Flame".
Now, if only it was as easy to gather as much information as this for the numerous other entries about bands who have long since disappeared off the face of the Earth...)

22 September 2011

Sounds Incorporated - The Spartans/ Detroit

Label: Columbia
Year of Release: 1964

The demise of the instrumental rock and roll combo is something I've mourned on "Left and to the Back" a number of times. There's no conceivable reason why such groups should have fallen out of fashion by the mid-sixties beyond the fact that listeners seemed to want groups to have an obvious focal point, a notable communicator, a role that only a lead singer could easily provide. Beyond that, the advantages of instrumental rock were obvious - it's more universal than vocal forms with their language barriers from one nation to the next, and there's frequently a sense of atmosphere and drama in these recordings which in the hands of other artists could be ruined by naff or disagreeable lyrics. The images painted by The Shadows' "Wonderful Land", for example, are for me a lot more enjoyable than those dished up by The Stones "Under My Thumb", a good track dirtily smeared by sneering, sadistic lyrics (and yes, at this point I am conscious of the fact that I may sound like somebody's Dad circa 1966).

Unlike most of the artists on this blog, Sounds Incorporated did meet with some minor success in the sixties - this record, for example, got to number 30 - but hovered just outside the fringes of mainstream acceptance. They worked with Joe Meek and are notable for having used the Clavioline keyboard before The Tornados did with "Telstar". When you couple that with the fact that they worked with the huge stars of the day, backing the likes of Gene Vincent, Cilla Black and Little Richard (during his UK tour), and even The Beatles on the track "Good Morning Good Morning", their relative anonymity becomes more startling. If nothing else, they were clearly among the most sought after session musicians of the era in Britain.

Of all the Sounds Incorporated recordings, this is probably my favourite. On the A-side rests a pleasingly atmospheric instrumental which proved to be their biggest hit, but on the flip lies "Detroit", an absolute floor-shaker of a track which combines sax riffs with mean, grooving hammond organ workouts and a tight rhythm section. At four minutes long, it's certainly one of the most persuasive mod groovers of 1964, and only recently seems to have been notching up spins by retro club DJs. The two sides of this single show how diverse and skilled Sounds Incorporated really were, as capable of creating Meek-esque atmospheric tracks as they were Rhythm and Blues inspired groovers.

19 September 2011

Frankie Machine - The Cartesian Product (EP)

Label: Artists Against Success
Year of Release: 2000

Blame Babybird if you want, but at the tail end of the nineties and during the eye-blinking morning of the 21st Century, the music press developed something of a fascination with eccentric lo-fi or semi-acoustic dabblers. They'd always been around, of course, the origins being easily traced to people pressing their own folk records in the fifties and sixties - but seldom before or since had the practice been given so much scrutiny, with some hacks admiring the anarchic, independent spirit of the artists in question, whilst others (who probably also freelanced for "Loaded") dismissed them as no-hopers and losers.

Some of the output was indeed self-indulgent silliness which should have remained locked away on the home Portastudio, but other items from the era - like this - are beguiling. The Cartesian Product isn't really an EP as such, but two sides of ambient noise, effects and melodies creating a well-woven whole. If the vinyl had been released as a two track single you'd genuinely be none the wiser. Wonderfully, though, it seeps with gentle menace, suggesting a creeping violence more intriguing and disquieting than most hard rock records. "I only wish that people wouldn't trust me enough to allow me to raise their children" Frankie gently sings as if performing a lullaby, not long before being interrupted by some discordant sound effects. Simultaneously comfy and utterly wrong, the use of melodic subtlety here is both manipulative and pleasingly odd.

There's not really a massive amount of point in me offering the EP below as its available free on the Frankie Machine website - but I've done so anyway, just so you can hear the both sides strung together as a coherent whole. Unbelievably, the act is still going, and I'm pleased to report that a new album "Squeeze The Life Back In" was issued in July of this year.

The Film I Never Made
Rhumba for the Mainframe
Happy/ Sadistic
St. Agnes Day Epilogue

Commercial Zenith
Tragic Love, Easy Listening
No Love Boat
Every Sunday Morning

15 September 2011

The Bats - Listen To My Heart/ Stop Don't Do It/ Hard To Get Up In The Morning

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1967

"Northern Soul", like Catholicism, is one of the hardest concepts to define, forever snaking its way out of your grip just as soon as you believe you've got the whole affair firmly nailed. Rather as the Vatican appear to sit and reinterpret matters now and then, so too do the divine faithful at the Soul Weekenders up and down the country, leading to some rather rum records landing on official (and unofficial, disputed) discographies. Is Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction" a Northern Soul record, for example? Not by my estimation it isn't, but that doesn't seem to have prevented some people from taking that line in the seventies (I have a bootleg repressing of the disc on the "Sound of Soul" label).

Nestling neatly on the Decca compilation "Northern Soul Scene" is a single by this South African band, The Bats (they're not Irish as the liner notes state). It only fits the genre due to its pounding, jogging rhythms, chiming piano lines and finger pops, but whether we're arguing about its standing in the official list or not, it's still a damn fine track. Effervescent, insistent and absolutely loaded to the brim with hooks, it's hard to understand where the chorus starts and the verses begin - listening to this record would inspire movement in even the most dancefloor shy of humans. Sadly, I haven't been able to include a clip of it in full, but it's available to buy on iTunes if you're that way inclined, and also a kindly YouTube user has uploaded it there.

Truth be told, the B-side "Stop Don't Do It" is pretty good in a mod-pop way as well, and it remains a massive mystery why this record didn't chart in the UK. It's pure, absolute pop, being neither ahead of its time in its stylings nor awkward, and the start of a career should have been assured for the band. Sadly, it was not to be.

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1967

So sadly, then, by the tail end of 1967 the game was up, and "It's Hard To Get Up In The Morning" was their final single. This is an entirely different proposition and sounds rather like a slice of bouncy, McCartney inspired whimsy - sweet and pleasant enough, but hardly the barnstormer "Listen To My Heart" is, nor powerful enough to have stood a chance in the charts.

What became of The Bats when this failed to do the business isn't clear to me, but if anyone has any information, please come forward. They deserve masses of recognition for their one club classic at least.

12 September 2011

Fred Walking-Stick - Well I Ask YEW!

Label: Pye
Year of Release: 1961

There is a general belief that the Bonzo Dog Band were the first artists to parody the polite English absurdity of the old homegrown shellac sounds, and you can fully understand how that viewpoint has become the accepted one - there really wasn't anyone prior to the Bonzos who had any great commercial visibility taking on peculiar dance records like "I'm Gonna Bring A Watermelon To My Gal Tonight".

Here, however, is a very rare flop example of somebody not only doing a very neat parody of that era, but also beating the likes of Mike Flowers and Richard Cheese to the punch by a fair 35 years with an easy listening version of a rock and roll record. Eden Kane's "Well I Ask You" sounds rather ordinary and wet by modern standards, but at the time Kane's Elvis styled vocalising and swagger seemed rather daring and modern. What better way to deflate that unspeakable arrogance than with a polite English version, complete with lyrics referring to the lady's rejection as being "a beastly thing to do"? I can't think of one. "Naughty, naughty, naughty you", sings Fred with the minimum of emotion to the sound of a restrained and reedy brass section, and you can't help but think that whilst some of the humour within the grooves of this record has been lost by the present-day irrelevance of Eden Kane, the approach itself is actually the first vinyl instance of an ironic easy version of a rock song. There may be others - and I would be very interested to hear from somebody if there are - but the approach here proves that some jokes are older than you'd think.

The identity of Fred Walking-Stick is a complete mystery. Peter Sellers had apparently referred to Eden Kane as "Fred Walking-Stick" before this record came out, and this has led to some speculation that it may be him behind this record - but if so, that fact has bypassed numerous Sellers biographers, and above all else the disc fails to appear on his contractual home of Parlophone Records. It seems far more likely that Fred was a Sellers fan with a similar keen ear for the joy of musical parody. Had this record been a hit we might have heard more about the man behind the pseudonym. As an extremely obscure flop, however, it's likely to remain a riddle unless (or until) somebody comments to put me straight.

The B-side is a version of "Ain't She Sweet" by Brother Jim Walking-Stick, and no, I don't know who he is either.

8 September 2011

Epic Spleandor - It Could Be Wonderful/ She's High On Life

Label: The Hot Biscuit Disc Company
Year of Release: 1968

American bands covering the work of British bands was fairly common practice back in the sixties, particularly if the Anglo-act in question had a number of catchy tracks which had yet to find favour across the pond - and indeed, such behaviour often worked in reverse too. This, however, surely takes the (hot) biscuit. "It Could Be Wonderful" was an utterly ignored track by The Smoke, a band who had made it reasonably big in Continental Europe but meant very little in Britain. Recorded at the beginning of their stint with Island Records after being dropped by Columbia, it's a pleasant, dreamy, woozy and actually quite slow number which sold in very low quantities.

Googling the Internet seems to reveal that most forum-dwellers and bloggers out there prefer The Smoke's original, but for me it's this version that really rips into the song's potential. Turning the tempo up significantly, filling the arrangement out with horns, and pounding on the drums, The Epic Spleandor created a piece of fantastic Motown-derived mod pop, utilising the kinds of rhythms which end up contributing to something unbelievably danceable and difficult to ignore. Propelling itself along with such gusto that it's all over in just over two minutes, it's one of those records with such urgency and force of personality that you feel compelled to play it twice, maybe three times in a row. Whilst The Smoke's version focusses on a dreamy, disconnected feel, this one has a more euphoric, urgent rush about it - perhaps not quite derivative enough to pass as Northern Soul, but certainly a lot more compelling than a great many records released by inauthentic artists which did fit that particular rubric.

The Epic Spleandor were a New York based act formed from the ashes of Little Bits Of Sound. Their first release "A Little Rain Must Fall" was a regional hit on Hot Biscuit, the newly launched subsidiary of Capitol. "It Could Be Wonderful" was supposed to be capitalise on this initial interest, but failed utterly to click with the American public, and the band were promptly dropped by the label. Records like this one, and the West Coast styled flip "She's High On Life", make you wonder what might have been had they been allowed to continue. This is one of my favourite US singles of the era, and I'd love to hear it a lot more often than I do (which at the moment is "never" outside of my house). It doesn't seem to sell for a great deal on ebay, either, so the question must surely be - am I alone in my love of this record, or does it have an untapped audience waiting for it?

5 September 2011

Reupload - Idi Amin - Amazin' Man


Label: Transatlantic
Year of Release: 1975

Now, if there's one thing Laibach, Bob Geldof and I seem to agree on - and I'd be willing to wager if you put us all in a room together it would be the only thing we all agree on - it's the fact that a great many dictators behave uncannily like rock stars, who use the same art school imagery, symbolism and sweeping universal statements that some of history's biggest murderers have also indulged in. In fact, the one reason rock stars will never seem like anything more than slightly comedic figures is the fact that their use of arthole imagery for populist means, and their stadium rallies, and their fist-punching power gestures don't really amount to much more than a foot-stomping barn-storming session down at the Hammersmith Palais (and perhaps the odd sacked keyboard player here and there). Picture Bono with a machine gun in control of a Third World state, though, and suddenly the imagery seems slightly horrific. In fact, one reason why I've never been too convinced that Tony Blair was actually, genuinely Evil is that he looks so damned unconvincing with a guitar. If you'd given Idi Amin an instrument, he'd have looked like he was born with the thing. Tony Blair just looked slightly ashamed and apologetic.

Of course, this isn't genuinely Idi Amin on this single, even though when I first picked up the disc I actually thought for a split second it might be. It is in fact satirist John Bird pretending to be Idi Amin, but still sending the single out under the ruthless dictator's name anyway (Hey, what was he gonna do? Sue for defamation?) Bird cooks up a mean groove as the frontman to this single, explaining his philosophy to win the public over with the power of populist song, and getting up to all sorts of backing vocalist sacking mayhem on the way. It would spoil the joke if I revealed the outcome of the record at this point.

The B-side, on the other hand, is purely a spoken word side outlining Amin's problems with the ladies. Both form part of the "Broadcasts of Idi Amin" album that Bird put out, after his Private Eye columns and offshoots on the same topic proved so popular that Transatlantic Records clearly thought there was an entire album's worth to be appreciated by the public.

Why Bird or Private Eye or Transatlantic Records stopped there I'll never know. This is surely under-explored territory, and whole albums by Kim Jong-il, for example, would be worthy additions to anyone's collection. You could simply file the vinyl next to Phil Spector's Christmas albums and have done with it. In fact, a cover of "Amazin' Man" by somebody pretending to be Phil Spector would be immensely topical at the moment....

Update: Except it wouldn't any more, obviously. This entry was originally posted in April 2009 and to this day remains one of the most unusual records I've presented on here, and God knows it's had some competition. I'm still waiting for Bono's military coup, by the way.

1 September 2011

Gene Latter - Sweet Little Rock n Roller/ Auntie Annie's Place

Label: Vogue (France)
Year of Release: 1974

Ah... you wait all of your blogging life for an obscure Gene Latter single to turn up in a second hand record store, then two come along at once (this one was found in the rather brilliant "Record Museum" in Brussels, by the way). Although to be frank, the difference between this record and our last Latter upload "Sign on The Dotted Line" could barely be more extreme.

Latter appeared to have a scattershot approach towards musical genres throughout his entire career, doing sitar-tinged Rolling Stones cover versions, pounding Northern Soul tracks, and supremely ridiculous disco records (check out "John Travolta You Are A Superstar" for an example of just how far the boat of ludicrousness can be pushed out to sea). Perhaps it therefore shouldn't be a surprise to me that this single consists of two genres for the price of one, with a piece of pounding glam rock on the A-side and some second-hand popsike on the flip. "Sweet Little Rock N Roller" is a likable but inessential seventies thudder which seems to be drawing its inspiration from both Abba and Suzi Quatro without quite managing to scale the heights that either artist managed. Still, those influences were clearly enough to push this record towards some moderate sales on the continent, even if it was greeted with utter disinterest in the UK. A full version can be purchased over on iTunes if you're interested.

It's what's occurring on the flip-side which is a source of both surprise and bemusement to any seasoned "psych collectible" head, however, "Auntie Annie's Place" being a cover version of a track whose original version nestled on the "Circus Days" series of compilation albums. The original was released by a studio group called Kidrock and paired with the whimsical "Ice Cream Man" and released as a single specifically targeted towards the Infant and Junior School market in 1973. Whilst managing to become a minor hit in Spain thanks to the use of it on an ice cream commercial (as you'd expect) it did absolutely zip-all business in the UK, despite being a perfectly good piece of toytown pop in its own right. Fully grown (and probably predominantly middle-aged) "Circus Days" listeners were in fact listening to this for years without being informed that it was actually supposed to be appreciated by pre-pubescents.

The B-side "Auntie Annie's Place" was a stripped-back and sweet but unambitious piece of acoustic musing on the subject of going to visit one's favourite relative and her friendly dogs. Probably recorded in as few takes as time would allow, the understated nature of the work actually made it seem perhaps too subtle for kiddies, but as Marty Feldman once observed, artists can do whatever they want on the B-side... So in this case, why Latter has taken the song and given it a truly epic orchestral arrangement defies logic. The lyrics of child-like wonder remain, but are instead delivered with Latter giving them a full-throttle, high powered performance, in front of strings that would have shocked Suede circa "Dog Man Star". Such high production values are seldom found tucked away on flip-sides, which makes me wonder if at some point this was being mooted as the headline song.

It has to be said, the melodrama also suits the track, converting it from a piece of folksy acoustic musing into a Bowie-esque piece of musical theatre. "Auntie Annie's Place" - whatever that may be - now sounds like it lives in some glaring technicolour valley, whereas the original seemed to me as if might have been suggesting a run-down and barely converted straw barn. It turns the track into an incredibly unlikely but pretty damn marvellous observation on childhood nostalgia.