30 January 2012

Hot Butter - Getting Off/ Getting On

Label: Dynamo
Year of Release: 1975

We've covered Hot Butter on this blog before, of course, and I've already passionately emphasised my love of the much under-rated "Popcorn", the early synthesiser track even Crazy Frog couldn't completely destroy. Stan Free was the man behind the band name, and in terms of innovations with new technology, his name is hardly up there with the likes of Kraftwerk or Giorgio Moroder - but still, his hit was one of the first widely popular electronic tracks, and with all the verve and gusto it had behind it, that's not surprising.

By 1975 the novelty of Hot Butter's moogy squeaks and squelches had worn off, which probably goes a long way to explaining how this equally brilliant single came into being. "Getting Off" is essentially a funk reworking of their earlier 1973 track "Space Walk". Whereas before the band clearly had interstellar ambitions for the track, "Getting Off" sounds more urban, bringing to mind images of housing projects, men swaggering proudly across streets with "Walk"/ "Don't Walk" crossing lights, and, er... cardboard boxes placed strategically in the middle of industrial estates for no apparent reason. It's a piece of funk which is very much of its era and does indeed underline all the usual cliches, but it swoops so gracefully and has so many pounding, exciting breakbeats (listen to the drummer yelling halfway through the track) that you'd have to have feet of lead to not be interested.

This wasn't a hit, but interest in the track has if anything increased over the years. Mark Radcliffe regularly used the song as a sound bed on his evening show on Radio One, and it continues to pick up club play in a lot of places. I suspect that will continue for some time to come.

26 January 2012

Johnny Pearson - The Rat Catchers/ Weavers Green

Label: Columbia
Year of Release: 1966

Spy series "The Rat Catchers" was a firm favourite on British television in 1966 and 1967, produced by the Rediffusion television company and broadcasting a total of 25 episodes. A huge part of the reason the series seems to be very rarely referenced now is due to the fact that the episodes were wiped by over-zealous television executives in the seventies, meaning the series has since been allowed to slip into an undignified obscurity. A brief clip recently materialised on YouTube and apparently there is a full recovered episode out there, but that seems to be our lot.

Johnny Pearson's dramatic theme tune - all thundering piano lines, dramatic strings and hushed segements - was perhaps a contributory factor to the programme's success in itself, and was popular enough with the public for EMI to release it as a single. Whilst it failed to chart, it picked up enough admirers in the seventies to be considered worthy of spins at some Northern Soul nights. Once again, if you can hear what exactly is Northern Soul about this track you have a better pair of ears than me, but one would guess that the pounding piano lines filled the vast, cavernous rooms of many of the Casinos easily.

Resting on the flip side is the theme to another largely forgotten series "Weavers Green", a countryside soap opera produced by Anglia Television. Axed after a mere 49 shows, it remains a British soap forever to be mentioned in the same breath as "Triangle" or "Eldorado" as something which didn't last the distance, although rumours persist that Anglia's lack of clout as a television company at this time had more to do with its failings than the quality of the show itself. The theme tune itself is pleasant and chipper, but ultimately inessential.

Johnny Pearson enjoyed a long career in music prior to his death in March 2011, leading the Top of the Pops orchestra for sixteen years and producing endless soundtracks for programmes (including the theme from "3-2-1") and adverts. One of his pieces of library music, "Autumn Reverie", was even adapted by The Carpenters to become the song "Heather", Richard Carpenter having been obsessed by the track after hearing it on a television advert. Tracks of Pearson's turn up with enormous regularity in the "Library Music" section of most second hand record stores, and I wouldn't be terribly surprised if he puts in another appearance on this blog at some point.

23 January 2012

Embassy Big 4 - Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere/ Mr Tambourine Man

Label: Embassy
Year of Release: 1965

We've been here before, and regular readers will know the drill, but for the benefit of those of you who have just tuned into this blog... Embassy were a tireless label in the early sixties, churning out endless discs of session musicians covering the hits of the day. Their platters would then end up in the budget rack of Woolworths waiting to be purchased by punters who felt that their approximations of hit singles were affordable alternatives to the real thing. So infamous were their offerings that John Lennon even jokingly referenced the label as a possible home for The Beatles when their chances of getting signed seemed slim.

Like the "Top of the Pops" albums that followed them, Embassy recordings were a decidedly mixed bag, ranging from faithful interpretations to wayward messes. This "Big Four" EP is particularly absurd in that it contains two ballads and two counter-cultural anthems, so Gene Pitney's "Looking Thru The Eyes of Love" shares Side One with "Anywhere, Anyhow, Anywhere" by The Who, and Side Two pairs "Mr Tambourine Man" with Lulu's top ten ballad "Leave A Little Love". If ever you needed proof that such things as youth splinter groups and demographics hadn't been fully defined by 1965, here it is staring at you in the face.

"Left and to the Back" readers are likely to be more interested in "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" by The Who and "Mr Tambourine Man", and their interest will probably be inflated further still when they realise that neither version is particularly faithful. "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" is, in particular, a really interesting approximation due to the fact that Embassy studio band The Jaybirds clearly don't know what to do with The Who's sound. The drumming sounds primitive and punkish rather than copying Keith Moon's ambitious style, the lead vocals yelping, desperate and close to the style of Jim Sohns of The Shadows Of Knight (though don't get excited - I'm not suggesting it is him) and the feedback-heavy break of the original is replaced with something a bit more synthetic and measured. It sounds more like a bunch of teenagers in a garage trying to copy The Who, and whilst I doubt that's actually the case, it's a peculiar old listen to say the least. It doesn't top The Who's original, but something about the hollow, primal simplicity of it almost reminds me of The White Stripes, which is no bad thing at all.

Meanwhile, The Typhoons - a session band previously known to handle The Beatles material on Embassy, although I don't know if the personnel remained the same throughout all their recordings - battle with "Mr Tambourine Man". It's a fey, gentle take which sounds influenced more by English folk than the American folk rock scene that spawned The Byrds, sounding sleepy and contended rather than urgent, preaching and elated. Readers won't be in a hurry to replace The Byrds version on their iPods with this one, but once again the different approach is at least an interesting interpretation.

As for Terry Brandon's take on "Looking Through The Eyes of Love" and Sally Hyde's version of "Leave A Little Love" - I hate to be dismissive, but neither track really captured my imagination in the first place, so my opinions on these reinterpretations are unlikely to be balanced or fair. They're here for anyone who feels curious enough to hear them, though.

And I hate to say it, chaps, but sorry for the surface noise on some of these recordings. It's difficult to find Embassy records in Excellent condition, and what we've got is the best I can obtain at the moment.

1. Terry Brandon: Looking Thru The Eyes of Love
2. The Jaybirds: Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere
3. The Typhoons: Mr Tambourine Man
4. Sally Hyde: Leave A Little Love

19 January 2012

Reupload - No Way Sis - I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing

Label: EMI
Year of Release: 1996

Suffice to say that this wasn't really very high on my list of potential blog uploads, and has been sitting waiting in those mythical mp3 wings for some time already... but when the news that Noel Gallagher was quitting Oasis broke, I couldn't resist a rare dip into relative topicality. (NOTE: This was topical at the time I originally wrote this entry, OK?)

Before we focus on this single, I may as well say that I feel (at best) indifferent to Oasis' split. Yes, I was a fan once, and still rate "Whatever" as being one of the more exciting Christmas releases ever - I can remember playing it non-stop all evening when I first got hold of a copy, thrilled by its energy and optimism. By the time of "Be Here Now", however, the plot appeared to have been lost, nobody either within the band or outside of it appeared to have the knack of using a nice sharp pair of editing scissors on their material, and eventually they became reduced to the level of an occasionally good singles band whose albums were immensely patchy. It wasn't supposed to happen that way, but anyone who wishes to argue with my perspective is wasting their time - I've heard it all before (both the arguments and the less-than-supersonic albums) and nowhere sums up the failings of "Be Here Now" better than the Sweeping the Nation blogsite here, which gives a blow-by-blow assessment of the album's content. Nope, save your comments. Honestly. If you're hearing something I'm not, I'm thrilled for you, but no amount of superlatives are likely to make me change my mind at this late stage. Few British bands have had more written about them in the last fifteen years than Oasis, after all, and I've had plenty of time to change my mind.

Back in December 1996, however, I would happily argue the band's merits to anyone wishing to dismiss them as "plagiarists" or "thugs", and it was back then this bizarre little single was issued by none other than their tribute band. This wasn't the first occasion a tribute band has sneaked into the charts, the Abba tribute act Bjorn Again managing much the same thing with the "Erasure-ish" EP in the early nineties - but suffice to say, it's not exactly a common occurrence. ABCD, Alike Cooper and The Bootleg Beatles have yet to gain entries in the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles.

The story behind the track is perhaps more unlikely still. The Coca Cola Company allegedly refused to allow Oasis to use the line "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" in their "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing"-apeing "Shakermaker" single. The fear at the corporation's head office was that the Mancs would cause the public to associate the soft drink with cocaine, which would never do. Cocaine hadn't been part of the recipe for some time, after all. When No Way Sis decided to cover the track directly, however, the corporation decided to give the whole arrangement the green light. Presumably as Oasis' tribute act, the cocaine which they may or may not have been alluding to would simply be pretend cocaine, and therefore would not ruin the brand's image. This, at least, is the only explanation that's ever made remote sense to me.

To give credit to No Way Sis, this single nails their sound particularly well, parodying some of the Oasis riffs and cliches which were already becoming familiar and apparent, and it's not half-bad - but it really wasn't good enough to be a Christmas number one as some had rather optimistically hoped. In the end, it had to settle for a number 27 position before waving goodbye to the charts in early 1997, and EMI rather ungraciously tore up the band's contract to record an album not long after (although why anybody thought there was a need for an Oasis tribute band to record an entire long-player is a moot point, and one which probably doesn't need much more emphasis).

Whilst having your own tribute act on Top of the Pops might seem like a major achievement for any band, 1996 was really the last window of opportunity anyone would have to cash in on Oasis' success. Unlike The Beatles, who saw endless cover versions and novelty singles parodying or covering them charting throughout the sixties, the mania surrounding Oasis wouldn't weather the disappointment of "Be Here Now" in '97. No Way Sis' release, then, was the last nod to the phenomenon of the Gallagher brothers, following Mike Flowers' effort the previous year, and festive follies around their catalogue would not make annual chart appearances. A shame, as I wouldn't have minded hearing The Bootleg Beatles taking on "She's Electric" in 1997, but you can't have everything you asked for on your Christmas wishlist, can you?

(This blog entry was originally uploaded in August 2009 as a One Hit Wonder. Oasis remain dormant and locked in legal battles with one another, so one would have thought now would be an opportune moment for No Way Sis to reform - but no news yet. Perhaps they're waiting a few years for nostalgia and public demand to increase, and hoping that Oasis themselves won't capitalise on it. Don't ask me, I can't get inside the heads of tribute bands.)

Full tracklisting:

1. I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing
2. The Quick Sand Song
3. Good Times
4. I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing (Instrumental)

17 January 2012

More Vintage DJ-ism on 28 January

Jon The Revelator and I will be back DJ'ing at the Boogaloo Bar on Saturday 28 January for their "Can't Buy Me Love" vintage jumble sale. Not only is this an opportunity to bag a vintage bargain in the manner of most of these affairs, but it's also a chance to hear us DJ'ing material live you won't often hear elsewhere, and to soak up the atmosphere of a bar recently awarded ninth best pub in Britain in "The Guardian" (And "The Guardian", lest we forget, also made this blog one of their picks of the week once, so it's a peculiar kind of double critical blessing for the thirsty and tasteful woolly liberal punter).

Here's where it is: 312 Archway Road, Highgate, London N6 5AT

And it runs from 12:30 - 5:30pm. Please drop by. I know you will.

An aside: contrary to what you can see in the photo I've chosen to illustrate this entry, the largest part of the market will be indoors where I will also be - so don't worry about the January chill. Although the outdoors part of the market is always good as well. Some very nice cup cakes were up for sale there last time.

16 January 2012

Dora Hall - It's All Over

Label: Premore
Year of Release: 1965

At this present stage in history, you could argue that home-made entertainment probably outweighs "proper" funded entertainment by a small margin. You can click on YouTube and watch endless videos of members of the public trying to be funny, singing mediocre cover versions on their acoustic guitars and Comet purchased electronic keyboards, pointing their cameras at their dogs attempting to dance the cha-cha, or their superstar babies puking, burping or crying about finger nibbling savagery (which mystifyingly some broody/ maternal people have decided to watch millions of times over). If it's a popular video, chances are you'll also be forced to watch an advert beforehand, thereby diverting cash into the coffers of the amateur film-makers in question.

Pre-Internet, before Hampton the Hampster was even a small, hairless pink suckling thing, matters were rather different, and avenues for exposure naturally rather limited. There were very few short-cuts to fame available, and you simply had to slog your way around the unforgiving gig circuit in the hope the hard work would slowly pay off. Or... alternatively, you could marry a multi-millionaire at the head of an enormous business empire and ask him to promote your work. It's the stuff of lottery-win dreams, but this is actually what Dora Hall did. Leo Hulseman, founder of the Solo Cup plastic drink cup dispenser and picnic accessory company, turned his attention to the plastic known as vinyl and decided to give his wife's entertainment career a bit of a boost. That Dora was already middle-aged by the time the opportunity arose presented no obstacle to his master plan, and in fact he would continue in his loyal duty towards her even during her twilight years as a grandmother in her seventies.

If you're American, then, it's completely possible that you will not only have stumbled across Dora Hall vinyl in a junk store, but watched a syndicated television special of her singing with Frank Sinatra Junior amongst other guest stars. So relentless was Leo's pushing of Hall's career that he gave her records away free with plastic drinking receptacles, both long-playing and seven-inch, funded television programmes with her in the starring role, and generally considered no expenditure too much for his other half and star in waiting. What the Executive Board members of Solo Cup made of all this is anyone's guess, especially as the constant manufacture of free records must have put a sizable hit in the company's profits.

There appear to be two popular views on Hall's output. The first is that the woman was dire, couldn't sing or perform very well, and wasted her life pursuing a ridiculous fantasy. The second is that actually some of her output is pretty good with superb production values and some of the best session musicians available (The Wrecking Crew were known to be involved with some Dora Hall sessions). I freely confess I haven't heard enough of Hall's material to sensibly comment on her output overall, but I have heard the supposedly good tracks, and they are indeed of a far higher quality than the scoffers and sneerers would lead you to believe.

12 January 2012

The Bintangs - Travelling in the USA/ Hound Is On The Run

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1970

The Bintangs are a rock band from The Netherlands who have enjoyed a faithful cult following in their home country across many decades, but have (so far!) failed to create a greater impression in other European nations. With an ever-evolving line-up which makes the band seem like the Dutch version of The Fall in terms of personnel changes (look here for the full details) their bluesy, gravelly sound actually saw them sneak into the mainstream charts in their home country during their peak. This single remains probably their most successful recording.

"Travelling in the USA" is a swaggering boogie taking in a (presumably fictional) roadtrip across the States, whereas the flip side "Hound Is On The Run" is a longer, moodier, more brooding recording. Both owe an obvious debt to Rhythm and Blues, but are approached in a distinctly Nederbeat fashion.

Unless my facts are utterly wrong, The Bintangs are still a going concern in the Netherlands, and despite having split in 1985, reformed in 1989 to continue performing and recording.

Apologies for the pops and clicks during "Hound Is On The Run" in particular - this record wasn't in perfect condition and was a tricky one to clean up.

9 January 2012

The Hitmen - I Still Remember It

Label: Urgent/ CBS
Year of Release: 1980

Whether you appreciate the fact or not, Depeche Mode are one of the most unique and wonderful pop bands to emerge from Britain in the last thirty years. Such a statement often seems unusually bold to somebody from their homeland - I've had to put up with scoffs of derision for a long time now, usually from people who have only bothered to listen to a few early singles - but it makes absolute sense if you say it to most people in Germany, Russia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and even America. To the average member of the British public, there appears to be a sense that the band started out as a squeaky pop band then spent the rest of their careers over-reacting against that. This seems both illogical and a shame if you consider the fact that Radiohead were just angst-rock lite when their careers opened with "Pablo Honey", and nobody holds that against them now. Nobody scoffs "Ha ha! They wrote a song about not being able to cop off with girls!" when a friend comes home from the record store with a copy of "The King of Limbs". Some bands, it seems, are forgiven their early image and output.

That said, I'm not one of those Depeche fans who is utterly oblivious or blind to the band's shortcomings, and there have been a few slips along the way and some very public mistakes - and some which are rather more buried. Alan Wilder joined the band in 1982 following Vince Clarke's departure, and the main fact given about his past career at the time was that he had been "a member of the group The Hitmen". "Who the hell were they?" was probably the response on most people's lips, and certainly mine. Despite having a contract with CBS, The Hitmen had made precious little impression on the record buying public, and merely sounded like an act with a rather unimaginative name to most. Had this been the age of the Internet, some of us might have investigated more closely on YouTube and file sharing websites, but life was not as simple as that back in those dark days.

Wilder would go on to play a pivotal role in Depeche Mode's development, crafting and arranging Martin Gore's songs to create something more substantial than the slightly shiny, brittle, metronomic synthpop which had characterised the band's sound beforehand (some of the more experimental moments on "A Broken Frame" aside). Many fans believe that the bolder, almost symphonic sweeps found on albums like "Black Celebration" and "Music for the Masses" owe a great deal to him. If, however, he had any similar ambitions in The Hitmen, it's not obvious from their output. Of their previous single "Ouija", a music critic was (somewhat prophetically) moved to comment: "The winning thing about the Depeche Mode single (and their last, and Soft Cell's) is its simple enthusiasm, its complete lack of cynicism. The Hitmen are so calculating - even down to the clever, clever name - it's unbearable; the only remotely comforting thing about all this is that they haven't a dog's chance of ever getting a hit." Slightly harsh, perhaps, but still not terribly far off the mark. The follow-up "I Still Remember It" would, despite its hopeful title, fail to grab the attention of many. It's unobjectionable and sounds passable, but there's a clear lack of identity apparent and nothing to set the band apart from the numerous other pub rock bands gigging at the time. It's refreshing and punchy, but is a bit too simplistic and clean to leave a lasting impression or create a desire to hit the "play" button one more time.

Despite Wilder's involvement, The Hitmen's material remains unissued on CD, and there appear to be no plans in the pipeline to rectify this. This is an odd way to treat the material of a pivotal member of a globally successful act, but hopefully the below tracks will assuage people's curiosity.

5 January 2012

The Household - 21st Summer/ Winter's Coming On

Label: United Artists
Year of Release: 1968

Another one of those records dealers everywhere are prone to telling fibs about. Oft labelled as a "psychedelic rarity", this actually sits more in folk/ sunshine pop territory, straddling the divide between the Mamas and the Papas and rather more rootsy music.

"21st Summer" is a cute, rustic little tune which has been enjoyed by a few sixties aficionados over the years, but doesn't sound like a hit single at all, which would go a long way towards explaining why it wasn't one. The B-side "Winter's Coming On", on the other hand, is a lot busier and sprightlier and also more appropriate to the present time of year (unless you're reading this in the Southern hemisphere). It has the same combination of pleasingly tight vocal harmonies and kick and bounce of a lot of the best folk-rock of the period, and deserves a bit more attention than it's actually had.

As for The Household, they're something of an enigma - there's very little information available about them, although apparently they were one of the first acts United Artists picked for their new release schedule as a fully fledged "proper" label in Britain (rather than a subsidiary) so clearly somebody in the organisation had high hopes for them. Does anyone out there have any background information?

2 January 2012

Footsie - Condition Red/ Cabbage Patch

Label: Tangsong
Year of Release: 1975

I've explained before that the Northern Soul scene in the seventies became an incredibly broad church with some niteries (not least the Wigan Casino) adopting songs which were closer in style to uptempo mod-styled sixties floor-fillers than soul as such. In the same manner that the great hunt for the next buried "psychedelic" record has led us to describe some very bubblegum discs as being "popsike", the desperation for new nuggets in a heavily mined genre led to similar behaviour with old soul music in the seventies. The numerous snide YouTube comments under videos of tracks describing themselves as "Northern Soul" these days points towards the fact that a great many punters were disgruntled by this activity (and remain so) but it didn't seem to hurt ticket sales for the nights at the time.

So then, here we have a slice of supposed Northern Soul. I say "supposed" because it was clearly recorded in 1975, and seems to have been engineered for the dancefloors of the time in the same manner that artists like Wigan's Chosen Few and Wigan's Ovation were. It's a strange little record consisting of a very squeaky electric organ playing a jolly melody over the top of some mid-tempo pounding, and as such these days it sounds closer to a jokey Misty's Big Adventure out-take (such as this one) than Dobie Gray. The fluffy English Shepherd dog sitting amongst some flowers on the record label also seems peculiarly out of place, matching the tweeness of the record near perfectly, but having very little to do with a talcum powder covered dancefloor. Perhaps more oddly still, it's actually merely a cover of another peculiar Northern Soul favoured track by The Baltimore and Ohio Marching Band. You wouldn't have thought a record like this one would easily exist, much less a cover version of such a beast.

Apparently this did enjoy a number of spins in the clubs at the time, and copies of it are surprisingly easy to come by these days, which would suggest that it did sell reasonably well (as indeed many Northern discs did, selling steadily over the course of many months rather than storming the charts). What seems peculiar now obviously passed as a semi-credible disc at the time, and I must admit that I do enjoy the jauntiness of this record - but I've a sneaking suspicion that if I tried to spin it at a club night now, I'd be accused of taking the piss. But maybe, just maybe...

As ever, if anyone knows the story behind the band Footsie (who I suspect were just some session folk) and the odd label Tangsong, please do drop me a line.