29 March 2014

The Heavyweights - Utterly Funky/ Shambala

Label: Speak
Year of Release: 1969

Back in the sixties, smaller British labels had a habit of releasing instrumental singles recorded by session musos.  The thinking must have been that while these records were highly unlikely to be large hits, they might be purchased by enough people to turn a reasonable profit.  Also, if they were dancefloor friendly or funky enough, they might even be picked up by the keener Friday or Saturday movers. 

The Heavyweights, rather than being a 'proper' group, appear to have been Spark's attempt to make a small bit of money from this game, and given how infrequently copies of this one turn up now, it seems they probably failed. That's a shame - the A-side is a neat instro track which sounds peculiarly like it could have been an eighties sit-com theme, while the B-side is somewhat strangely the funkier of the two, filled with heavy breaks and deep basslines. The incessant repetition and the backing vocals also give Julian Cope's "Sunspots" a run for its money.  That puffing flute riff dates the flip squarely in 1969, however, back when such things were considered momentarily to be future instruments of rock and roll. It also helps to give the impression that this is actually TellTale, the group from the children's TV series "Rainbow", having a bit of a party after a successful shoot.

In reality, The Heavyweights seem to have been a one-off studio arrangement with sixties songwriting cult psych legend Russ Alquist involved, along with ex-Ministry of Sound member Micky Keen. Once this track failed to chart, they wandered off to engage in other bits of work instead. 

23 March 2014

Brotherly Lovers - If You Need A Love Song/ Our Favourite Hill

Label: eskee
Year of Release: 1966

Brotherly Lovers are responsible for a garage track called "Was A Lie" which has been talked about enthusiastically online for awhile now. Rough and imperfect, it sounds as if was recorded for a few cents, and even they were probably fed into the electricity meter just to keep the session going.  Like so much of its ilk, though, it possesses a charm that some contemporary hits of the time lacked.

Far less has been written about its follow-up "If You Need A Love Song", despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that this seems to be the release where Brotherly Lovers had smoothed off some of the rough edges. Sounding less buzzsaw and agitated in approach and more akin to an aspiring folk-rock group, it showcases gentle vocal harmonies and a slightly melancholy but jingle-jangle melody. Still, though, there's a brittleness and punkish naiveté to the delivery which clearly indicates that this is still a low-budget affair, like a DIY eighties indie take on The Byrds as opposed to the polished Columbia Records deal.

Hailing from Queens in New York, Brotherly Lovers released "What A Lie" in 1966 and also acted as Lesley Gore's backing band for her West Coast tour at around the same time. Consisting of singer, guitarist and sometime actor George Grant, lead guitarist Mike Ginex, bassist Ray Stankes, and Richie Lexton on drums, the group toured with Gore for a large portion of the year and even appeared on an episode of "Shindig" with her, but none of it ultimately led to a significant increase in record sales.  They were also apparently among the many unlucky people who auditioned to become "The Monkees", meaning that in an alternative universe somewhere this group recorded "I'm A Believer".

George Grant later went on to become a producer and writer of TV and radio jingles - the whereabouts of the rest is less clear. If you know anything more, please leave a comment or drop me a line.

Meanwhile, the New York label Eskee was a very short-lived affair indeed, seemingly managing to conduct business for just under a year before giving up, but during its lifespan it did at least launch The Jelly Beans record "You Don't Mean Me No Good" into the world, which later became a much-loved Northern Soul spin.

19 March 2014

Reupload - Harry Enfield - Loadsamoney (Doin' Up The House)

Label: Phonogram
Year of Release: 1988

This single came out with a flurry of press hype at the time.  Harry Enfield's comedy career had just taken off in Britain, aided chiefly by his Loadsamoney character, a brash, arrogant, boastful plasterer whose primary hobby appeared to be bragging about his wage packet and mocking the poor.  It was, in fact, a pretty well observed satire of southern working class treachery.  All around London and the Home Counties during the eighties, young men and women on the make were heard to sneer at their less fortunate unemployed peers.  "I've done it, why can't they?" appeared to be the mantra of the times, even though the disparity of job availability between the south and the north of the country clearly helped matters none.

Sociological and political lessons aside, Enfield's character rapidly became popular with the very characters it was supposed to be mocking, and far from being wounded by Loadsamoney, they ended up shouting the slogan at people themselves.  It was at this point, probably at the peak of the character's popularity, that this record was conceived.   Produced by Beth Orton's future boyfriend and (perhaps more notably) studio mainstay of many a Madonna record, William Orbit, the press were quick to have high hopes.  "It's a comedy record that will actually be good!" many predicted, ignoring the fact that there have been plenty of good comedy records, it's just they either don't register with the mainstream (most of the Bonzo Dog Band's output) or if they do, they become over-exposed and the jokes wear thin and become irritating (Spitting Image's "The Chicken Song").

What did we get out of the collaboration, then?  Not a lot, if the truth be known.  Orbit contributes a basic repetitive riff he clearly found down the back of his keyboard, whilst Enfield does impersonations and shouts various things obnoxiously over the top for four minutes.  The closest thing on the entire single there is to a humorous line is "All this scratching's making me rich!" Even that isn't particularly great.

You've got to wonder what both parties make of the collaboration now - it certainly doesn't seem to get mentioned much by anybody anymore - and whether it was regarded as a giant mistake.  The popularity of the character ensured that the single became a hit, but although I'm usually reluctant to use the phrase "it's dated badly", the fact the central riff sounds incredibly like a Garageband loop now means that by 21st century standards, you're left to marvel at the fact that you could probably just as easily have created a similar track yourself within an hour.  

The B-side is a dialogue between Enfield and Paul Whitehouse as his "Lance" character, who would later re-emerge in his TV series.  This is interesting for comedy fans who can hear the beginnings of one of his characters emerging, but again, the jokes are few and far between.  Fortunately, Enfield would continue his comedy to the present day with much better ideas, and wouldn't bother a recording studio again.  William Orbit would be forgiven and would continue to have a fine career, the track didn't get played so frequently that it became too much of an irritant, and all was generally well with the world.

Now, if only I could find Mark Williams' "I Wanna Be Together" ecstasy comedown single... which does exist, by the way.  I saw a copy of it once in a secondhand store, but by the time I'd returned with enough money, the bloody thing had been bought…

(This blog entry was originally uploaded in August 2009. Since then, I've been informed that apparently Harry Enfield is still quite proud of this single, and a follow-up involving his Greek comedy character Stavros was planned but nixed by the record company. Small mercies, readers. And no, I still haven't found a copy of that bloody Mark Williams single.)

16 March 2014

Head West - Victoria/ Changes

Label: Pop Music
Year of Release: 1969

Head West are a reasonably known name in two occasionally intertwining circles of music lovers - Fleetwood Mac fans and lovers of psychedelic pop. The former are familiar with the band due to them being Bob Welch's outfit prior to joining the post-Peter Green, pre-"Rumours" line-up of Mac, the latter are usually aware of their inclusion on a "Circus Days" compilation album with the brooding and eerie "Some Day".

Don't let that track fool you, though. In reality, Head West were yet another very late sixties group to combine the harder edges of soul with driving rock riffs, and "Victoria" and "Changes" leave you in no doubt as to their true leanings.  This is sledgehammer stuff, "Victoria" beginning with pounding drum patterns before settling - if "settling" is the right word - into a more laid-back arrangement with angsty, hollered vocals. The flip "Changes" struts its stuff and has more of a groove to it and would be more likely to get spins with certain kinds of backwards-looking DJs (like me).

While all members of the group - including Robert Hunt on organ and Henry Moore on drums - were American in origin, they shipped themselves over to Paris in 1969 to begin a career on the French live circuit. The reasons behind this decision are undocumented, but Welch later described this as being an impoverished existence of sleeping on floors and living off beans and rice.  While it seems likely to me that Head West would have packed a massive punch live, it's perhaps easy to understand how they never won over the French public enough to chart an album or single or even enjoy better quality cuisine while they were there.  Good though it was, none of their work was truly outstanding in an already crowded sub-genre, and after one flop eponymous album in 1970 and three years of getting nowhere fast, the band split and returned to base. This proved to be a fortunate decision for Welch at least, as he very quickly scored a job with Fleetwood Mac on return, though his time with that group was turbulent. 

After his stint with Mick Fleetwood and his cohorts was done, he went on to have a hugely successful solo career in America, scoring a platinum album in 1977 with "French Kiss". Sadly, tragedy struck in 2012 after complications from spinal surgery left him in serious pain with no prospect of improvements to his health. This directly lead to his unfortunate suicide in June of that year. I would like to think that the sound of "Changes" here will help enlighten people to the fact that this was a musician whose scope was incredibly wide - he took in soul, funk, blues, rock and disco music throughout his chequered career, and that's something which genuinely can't be said of most of the musicians we've discussed on this blog so far. 

12 March 2014

Aurora Borealis - Aurora Borealis Parts 1 and 3

Label: Kalevala
Year of Release: 1997

I've been through the Kalevala story already in detail in this entry here, and that really gives you all the background you need. Ostensibly, these weren't records by 'real' groups as such, but disguised fantasy outfits created by Bill Drummond of the KLF to weave a peculiar narrative around the bewitching cultural niche of doomed, obscure bands and independent records (I can't see what the allure is myself. Whoever would waste a lot of time thinking about that, I wonder?)

Of all the releases that crept out on the bogus label, this for me was really the finest, and also the one where the mask slipped the most. Even in the press release, the fictional group were mentioned as being influenced by The KLF's "Chill Out" album, possibly one of the few instances in music history where an individual has listed his or her past work as the main influence on a record. The chirping crickets and Deep South Americana of "Chill Out" are here replaced by an icy, arctic kind of ambient soundtrack which in its own brief way is as wonderful as anything on that record.  And in truth, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac is  a clear influence on this too (as he was on the album).  With its pounding drums and plucked strings, this is "Albatross" beginning an uncomfortable flight over the tundra. 

Unless somebody - and that 'somebody' is probably only Drummond himself - knows better, this also counts as being the last piece of original material he released.  As an exit point, its hopeless obscurity (only 500 copies were ever issued) damns it to insignificance, and yet it's a far better resting point than "F--k The Millennium" ever was. If you want to push an analogy to breaking point, those pounding drums and icy blasts seem almost funereal and the noise of a natural end of something, whether that would be the concept of Kalevala - this is the last single 'they' issued - or the terminus of Drummond's recorded musical career. 

This record was never really intended to be heard by many ears and I suspect Drummond is frustrated at having his plans thwarted, but it's already done the rounds on the Internet several times over, and I have no desire to let it die. It's too good for that.

I've placed "Part 3" first in the Box below as "Part 1" is really just one long, Finnish spoken word introduction - and if anyone is capable of translating it, please do let me know - but if you want to listen in the order of part 1 and part 3 (part 2 is missing entirely), that's up to you.

9 March 2014

Various - Beat-Line Of Today

Label: Supraphon
Year of Release: 1971

More than most European Communist Bloc countries, Czechoslovakia tended to have a reasonably liberal approach to rock and soul music, and even a certain pride in its output. Numerous pop groups hit the country's live circuit relatively undisturbed provided, of course, they didn't upset the Government too much with their attitude or lyrical content of their songs.

Let's not kid ourselves that this was some kind of youth utopia, though. The Prague Museum of Communism - well worth a visit if ever you find yourself in that part of the world - had a section on rock music when I was last there, and went to great pains to point out the negative treatment the state dished out to The Plastic People of The Universe, a group using lyrics written by the "subversive" poet Egon Brondy who openly criticised contemporary capitalism and totalitarian socialism (was he born several decades too early to be appreciated on an international scale, I wonder?) Forced to disappear underground until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the band were frequently arrested and, in the case of at least one member, forced into exile. This was not a country in which wannabe Bob Dylans could easily exist, much less wannabe Lou Reeds or Frank Zappas.

"Beat-Line of Today" is a state-approved sampler of Czech music in the early seventies, and it does not feature The Plastic People of the Universe. Don't be so daft. Somewhat surprisingly, though, the opening band of the set are Blue Effect, an art-rock ensemble whose usual approach to music could be downright psychedelic at times, as you can hear in the "Electric Sound Show" compiled "Snakes". On this album they're not presented as a commercial proposition exactly, but they're certainly less manic and considerably toned down. "Little Girl" is a measured proggish piece with puffing flutes Tulling the room out like no-one's business, and "Deserted Alley" is a faintly eerie slow rocker which sounds as if it would have fitted in along with a lot of the doomy, Floydish post-psych pre-prog recordings of a few years before. Ultimately, though, it's hampered by a slightly rushed sounding production, as are many of the tracks on this album, and I'd advise people looking for evidence of how good Blue Effect could be to listen elsewhere as well.

Elsewhere on the compilation, away from any potential psychedelic wonders, middle-of-the-road pop gets a look in through Josef Pliva and Hana Ulrychová, Czech's "lady of soul" Marie Rottrová puts in a couple of powerful performances, and above all else my favourites of this set are The Olympics. They may be raw and rock and roll in the early sense of the word, but The Olympics are about the only artist on this compilation to really sound savage and uncaged - if the studio recording here is adequate evidence of their live prowess, I can fully imagine them leaving live venues in Prague dripping with sweat.

Ultimately though, the issue with most of these recordings is the ham-fisted, heavily separated stereo production (although if it was good enough for The Beatles…) and the rigid, metronomic lack of spontaneity that leaks through on some of the tracks. There's a lack of swing about quite a few of these cuts, and a sense that whoever was recording them - or whoever was watching over the person recording them - fundamentally misunderstood how rock and soul music should be handled. It's difficult not to talk about the limitations of this music without sounding as if I'm being xenophobic, but on the evidence available elsewhere through the efforts of The Matadors and Blue Effect at their finest, I'd say this compilation doesn't exactly act as proof that Czechoslovakian rock music in this period was mediocre so much as show that it could often sound that way when it was mishandled.

Minor pearls do exist amidst the mid-tempo melee, however, and this isn't a bad album to put in your mp3 list while iTunes is set to shuffle. On occasion, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

I've included samples of Blue Effect, Marie Rottrová and The Olympics in "The Box" below for you to test, and the whole album is available for download here.

A1. Blue Effect - Little Girl
A2. Blue Effect - Deserted Alley
A3. Josef Pilva - Magic Kiss
A4. Hana Ulrychová, Petr Ulrych and The Atlantis - The Times I Adore
A5. Hana Ulrychová and The Atlantis - Don't You Break It Again
A6. The Olympics - Dynamite
B1. Petr Spálený and The Apollobeat - Blame On Me
B2. Pavel Sedláček and The Expression - I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know
B3. Marie Rottrová and The Flamingo - The House That Jack Built
B4. Marie Rottrová and The Flamingo - Long And Lonely Night
B5. Michal Prokop and The Framus Five - My Days Are Numbered
B6. Michal Prokop and The Framus Five - Hold On I'm Comin'

6 March 2014

Bob Miller & The Millermen - The "Oliver" Twist/ That's It

Label: Parlophone
Year of Release: 1961

It's a well-known fact that back in 1960, a young tunesmith called Lionel Bart penned a musical based on Charles Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist". "Oliver!" was subsequently staged in London, then went to Broadway, became a film, and translated into millions of soundtrack LPs sold.  There's a much longer story to be told here about the success of the show, but excuse me if I don't waste the bulk of this entry on what is essentially just a subplot.  

Bart had a very strong hand in the "regular" music business too, penning hits such as "Living Doll", and it seems likely that in this case he was simply using the name of the production to feed some of the show's success back into his usual career.  Equally, it's possible that this single acted as a promotional device for the show in itself, and the punning nature of the title may have been too much for him to resist. Whatever his reasons, I feel quite confident in stating that what this isn't is a missing piece of interlude music from the production - all that rock and rolling would have had the 'squares' and Mums and Dads racing for the fire exits.

And it is a rock and roller, too. Filled with shouts, squeaky keyboards, and enough brass to keep Brasso in business for the rest of the year, it's similar enough in tempo and style to "Beatnik Fly" by Johnny and The Hurricanes to bring dancing priests on Craggy Island to mind far more than Dickensian characters. Like "Beatnik Fly", though, it's filled with gusto and warmth, energy, and - as is Bart's speciality - a melody the postman could whistle.  What it wasn't, however, was a hit. At this stage in Bart's career such a minor setback was probably brushed off.

As for Bob Miller and The Millermen, they released many singles and were frequently on youth orientated shows on television and radio at the time, sometimes in their own right, sometimes backing the stars of the day.  Despite the media exposure - leading to their live shows frequently being billed as "TV's Bob Miller and The Millermen"- a hit was never really forthcoming, and Lionel Bart's involvement obviously failed to change their fortunes.  

2 March 2014

Help - Run Away/ Keep In Touch

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1971

Consisting of members Chet McCracken on vocals and drums, Jack Merrill on vocals and guitar, Rob Rochan on vocals, bass and percussion, Help were a country rock outfit from California who fell through the cracks in the early seventies.

"Run Away" has become a much-referenced single online since those days, and it's easy to hear why. Released in 1971 it may have been, but there's a raw garage roughness to some of the guitar work, combined with some mean and lean "licks" - this is searing riffage without too much fat on the bones, and quite atypical of most of their debut album "Help" which overall tended to be rather more laid-back in tone. 

Help carried on for another LP, 1971's "Second Coming", by which point they'd defined a harder edge to their sound. It was to no avail, however, and the group split up after a mere two years of recording activity. Chet McCracken landed on his feet by becoming the drummer for the Doobie Brothers, and the whereabouts of the rest of the group is less clear.