30 August 2014

Eastside Kids - Subway Train/ Sunday Stranger

Label: Philips
Year of Release: 1965

It's always faintly frustrating when I locate a single I really like, but the artist(s) behind it seem so elusive that I'm unable to offer you good people any kind of background whatsoever. In this case, this bunch of Eastside [one word] Kids seem to have no relation to the other Los Angeles based East Side [two words] Kids who arrived later in the sixties and issued several singles, although there seems to be some dispute online about that fact.

Billy Carl co-authored the A-side "Subway Train" and there's evidence to suggest that this is Billy Carlucci who eventually served in the 1910 Fruitgum Company. It seems probable that he was a member of this very short-lived outfit too. As for the rest? No idea. No data. If you know, please pass your knowledge on. 

Whatever, what we have here is two thrilling instrumental sides, with the W.E. Strange penned flip "Sunday Stranger" having by far the best sound to my ears. The combination of ripping guitar riffs, organ grooves and pounding drum patterns makes it an absolute shoe-in for any mod or garage night, and it's a delight. My feet haven't stopped twitching yet. One of those records I picked up at a very reasonable price indeed, and I'm delighted for having done so.

28 August 2014

Sam Apple Pie - Call Me Boss/ Old Tom

Label: DJM
Year of Release: 1972

Walthamstow… so much to answer for. Actually, scrub that, Walthamstow in East London doesn't really have its name up in big rock and roll lights, instead tending to humbly get along with its business without too much fuss. It may be where Ian Dury went to art college, the place where the semi-legendary punk label (and shop) Small Wonder records was based, the home of Grime, and where (of course!) East 17 hailed from, but despite these facts to most people it will always be a dormant outpost of London. Though not, of course, if the Estate Agents who are irritatingly remarketing the area as Awesomestow have anything to do with it.

Blues rockers Sam Apple Pie are another band we can add to the area's hall of fame. Despite achieving only very modest success in their time, they were present at the first Glastonbury Festival line-up in 1970 and were mainstays of the pub and student union circuit for most of the decade. Their eponymously titled debut album was issued in 1969 on Decca Records and is available to buy all over the place, but it's their 1973 follow-up "East 17" (no, I'm not making this up) on DJM which is harder to come by. With the line-up consisting of Sam Sampson, Bob Rennie, Andy Johnson, Denny Barnes and Lee Baxter Hayes at this point, "Call Me Boss" was the sole 45 from this period, and emphasises a flair for deeply catchy hooks which wasn't always apparent across their albums. Part rough hillbilly magic, another part sprightly pop, it perhaps could have registered with more people in those peculiar days when Mungo Jerry were top flight hit makers and merry rawness of this ilk stood half a chance of success. It was, however, not to be. 

Sam Apple Pie are an outfit who seem to attract the statement "You really had to see them live to understand how great they were!" across the Internet, which is very unfortunate for somebody like me who was born too late to appreciate them in that context. The vinyl is really all we have, and it's still pretty smart - just not worthy of excessive superlatives. Those with memories of their live shows may well be able to invest much more enthusiasm into their work than me, though. 

The band finally ceased their activities for good in 1980, and member Andy Johnson regrettably passed away in 2010. 

24 August 2014

Geebros - Made In Hong Kong/ One Word Song

Label: Beacon
Year of Release: 1970

I've said before that the Netherlands can be a great country to visit if you want to delve deep into a number of record store boxes containing 7" singles.  So many Dutch records were moderate sellers over there yet remain practically unknown elsewhere that you're bound to come home with at least one half-decent disc to pleasantly surprise your friends with.

In this case, though, a Nederbeat act appeared to get this single licensed through the British independent label Beacon. It's a rum choice to say the least, as even in their own country Geebros were not really hit makers - the faintly irritating "Henry The Horse" got to number 24 in the Dutch charts, but so far as I can see, that really seems to have been their lot despite numerous cracks at success.

"Made In Hong Kong" is, fortunately, a bit more of a groover than "Henry" and chugs along determinedly, another one of those very early seventies singles which nodded towards the approaching glam rock storm. The flip "One Word Song" is more sought-after by lovers of psychedelic pop, being the kind of peculiar, Sergeant Pepper inspired music hall tweeness the British tend to think only they can do. The megaphone channeled vocals and downright peculiar lyrics are an unusual cocktail - "The two lesbians dance oh-oh/ it's a silent romance" they inform us, apropos of nothing, at one point. Best not to read too much into it all, I think.

Geebros were, as their name suggests, all brothers. André, Ben and Henk Groote also recorded under the name Goldstar Brothers and The G Brothers before eventually settling on the Geebros moniker. They eventually changed their name yet again - probably solely to confuse people writing mp3 blogs in the future - to Crying Wood and issued the single "Blue Eyed Witch" which, like a great deal of their output, has since become highly collectible. 

21 August 2014

Cockpit (Featuring FR David) - Fifi/ Father Machine

Label: Butterfly
Year of Release: 1971

If you're a British person reading this blog entry, it's reasonably safe to assume that you know FR David for one thing and one thing only - the colossal global 1983 megahit "Words". A slightly fey, flowery and despairing ballad about one man's mammoth struggle to write a slightly fey, flowery and despairing ballad, its strangely meta subject matter clearly struck a chord with 8 million record buyers on Earth. "Well, I'm just a music man," shrugged David by way of explanation, "my words are coming out wrong". It was hard not to feel sorry for this gentle fellow, like some sort of parallel universe Elton John who was not only humble rather than arrogant, but had also failed to meet his Bernie Taupin.

Way, way before "Words", however, the Tunisian-born David (born Robert Fitoussi) had a long career in France with several records which are surprisingly overlooked by sixties pop aficionados. He began his career in 1965 as a member of the garage band Les Trefles who changed their name to Les Boots after one EP. Success was not forthcoming, so he split to go solo and issued, among other singles, the somewhat startling minor French hit "Symphonie". A berserk, hyperactive approximation of orchestral psychedelia, "Symphonie" is a single I've longed to own for years, but despite its hit status copies are irritatingly difficult to track down, and nor do mp3s of it seem to be readily available. Someone, somewhere needs to sort this out.

Seemingly restless, FR David shortly formed the rock group The David Explosion, who were known as Cockpit in some territories for reasons I can't fully fathom out. "Fifi/ Father Machine" was their first single, and it still has the spirit of the sixties coursing through its veins. The A-side sounds like his own garage days revisited with a three-chord roughness spearing its way through the middle of the track, whereas the B-side is faintly psychedelic in a solo McCartney way and slightly bizarre. His vocals encased in a tune riddled with mellotron noises, David exhorts "Father Machine" to allow humanity and emotions to return to a cold, logic-infested planet once more - it's not hard to form a clear line in your mind from this to "Words", but unlike his best-known work, "Father Machine" wobbles just on the right side of oddness. Hell, the Super Furry Animals have released worse slabs of sci-fi psychedelia than this one (you can imagine Gruff singing this, I swear).

I've often argued that a record company somewhere really should issue a compilation of "surprising psychedelia" from unexpected sources, and FR David would obviously be damn high on the list, and deservedly so. His career had ups and downs sales-wise from this point on, but he remained - and presumably remains - a respected figure in France whatever his fortunes.

Meanwhile, I have to confess that whatever appeal "Words" may have is likely to always be lost on me. It soundtracked my life in a dominant way twice - once in the Spring of 1983 when it finally became a hit in Britain, and my parents moved into a run-down house in Essex they were renovating. Living in an old, draughty house with its strange creaks and bangs in the night, it took forever to acclimatise to both my living situation and the local school, where the children gave me an equally frosty reception. "Words" seemed to be constantly in the background on the radio, ever-dependant. Then in 2005 I moved into a horrible, vermin infested flat next to a derelict bingo hall in East London. The apartment was directly above a Spanish Cafe which regularly played the same tape of eighties Euro-hits at an intense volume, day in, day out. "Words" was on there too, and the cockroaches on the wall tended to waggle their antenna in time to its swaying rhythm. None of this is FR David's fault, but it does mean the odds of me ever giving it a fair reappraisal are next-to-nil. The music videos I have in my head for that single are also even worse than the official one.

16 August 2014

Soul on Delivery - Hustle (Dance Of The Day)

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1975

You know, this isn't necessarily the kind of blog where I'd expect much support for this statement, but there was a period in the mid-seventies in the UK (post-glam, pre-punk) which would have been utterly dead if not for the dancefloor. Northern Soul continued to keep its grip on parts of the nation, and far besides that funk began to really take hold too, and then… disco. Yes disco, my friends. Some of the slickest, richest grooves ever, many still loved to this day.

One huge atmospheric disco hit of 1975 was "The Hustle" by Van McCoy, all puffing flutes, cooing vocals and deep-voiced exhortations to "Do it!" Oo-er. It wasn't Chic and it wasn't James Brown, but it was pretty damn good, and for what was essentially an instrumental, it caught the public's imagination rather strongly. "Hustle (Dance Of The Day)" appears to be something of a cash-in, but is actually a lot rougher and groovier - squeaking electric organs bump up against insistent basslines and abandoned alley car-chase funk. It's a treat.

The man behind it is Mike Vernon, a man with a long history in music behind him by this point, having created the British blues label Blue Horizon which launched Fleetwood Mac. Besides that, he produced David Bowie's early work, Dr Feelgood, Level 42 and Focus in his career. His seventies disco work was better served by the great Olympic Runners, but this is a nice addition to the discography.

13 August 2014

Reupload - The Spectrum - Headin' For A Heatwave/ I Wanna Be With You

Label: RCA
Year of Release: 1967

I've freely admitted before that I'm no big fan of The Spectrum, but I realise that they're a highly sought after act by some fans of all things popsike, so I'm including this single on the blog for the benefit of the curious.

However, because I have no great love of their work, and there's nothing particularly absurd or unusual about it either, it's rather tricky for me to wax lyrical about the contents of this disc. Suffice to say that this is a very smooth, slick blend of sixties pop which did manage to pick up a lot of airplay on the pirate stations at the time. Soulful vocals and pounding orchestral arrangements dominate, along with some agreeable electric organ work (on the flip) and close harmonies. This makes them seem like they must have been a very professional act - but there's a certain lack of energy, adventure or excitement which prevents both sides from completely winning me over. Nonetheless though, their fans will probably be happy to listen to these tracks as MP3s. Curiously, the B-side "I Wanna Be With You" is definitely the best offering, sounding like the work of a finger-poppin' mod band you might have heard playing in dive bars around the time.

RCA released shedloads of Spectrum 45s throughout the decade which frequently pop up in second hand record stores in quantities which make me suspect that some of their singles may have bubbled just outside the charts. Sadly though, that's just a hunch, and I can't tell you for definite how close they were to the big time. They made it in Spain, however, where "Heatwave" was a massive smash. So there you go.

(I originally wrote this blog entry back in October 2008 when the site was in its infancy, and it really shows - it's such a noncommittal blurb that I have to wonder why I even bothered. A blank page would have been better.

To make up for it, here are some proper FACTS. The Spectrum contained Keith Forsey and his brother Colin on drums and bass guitar, the former of whom went on to write "Flashdance - What A Feelin'" and "(Don't You) Forget About Me". He was also sticksman on Donna Summer's legendary "I Feel Love" and additionally appeared on a variety of other Moroder recordings.

A rumour has been circulating amongst popsike collectors for years that The Spectrum were formed as a deliberately manufactured band, a la The Monkees. While details of their full line-up - apart from the involvement of the Forsey brothers - are sketchy, there is nothing to confirm this as being true. What is certain is that RCA encouraged them to form an association with Gerry Anderson and dress in Thunderbirds styled uniforms for certain photo-shoots. You can't help but think that such a promotional gambit would have alienated more people than it attracted…

Since I originally wrote this entry, The Spectrum have also grown on me a lot more. I still don't think you should trouble yourselves parting with £80 for their album, but at their best they've produced some interesting sounding and quite moody psych-pop. For a more positive evaluation, head over to the Vinyl Antiquity blog where you'll read some seriously over-excited descriptions of their work.)

10 August 2014

Chris Sievey - Camouflage

Label: EMI
Year of Release: 1983

I suspect that there will be non-British readers of this blog for whom the name Chris Sievey rings very few bells, the significance of it being utterly lost. But then again, maybe not - maybe times are changing. Since the release of the film "Frank" this year, which was partly based on Sievey's Frank Sidebottom persona, more people around the world are beginning to question who he was and what drove him on through numerous years of near-breakthrough success and utter failure.

Sievey's bullheadedness and resilience became apparent very early on. In 1971, at the age of sixteen, he and his brother hitch-hiked from their home city of Manchester to the Apple headquarters in London  and refused to leave their offices, demanding to meet one of the Beatles so they could play them their music. Staff were unable to help, but the Head of A&R Tony King allowed them some time in Apple's studio to record a demo, but clearly wasn't interested in making a signing upon hearing the results. For the next few years the rest of the music industry remained similarly oblivious to Sievey's charms, and he self-released numerous cassettes and slabs of solo vinyl to the public's general indifference.

His solo efforts gradually morphed into the band project The Freshies in 1974 (who, according to Sievey, a very young Johnny Marr tried to join) who slowly began to attract attention, hitting their peak after being signed by MCA in 1981 and almost having a hit with "I'm In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-Out Desk". Follow-up efforts such as "I Can't Get Bouncing Babies By The Teardrop Explodes", however, were greeted less keenly, and MCA lost interest, as eventually did the rest of the band, leaving Sievey to release solo material again.

While even his greatest fan would probably have to admit that Sievey was sometimes much too keen on gimmickry and whimsy to connect strongly with the general public, "Camouflage" is one of those eighties hits that should have been but never was. Bulging with hooks, anthemic riffs, a Springsteen-esque chorus and a keyboard line peculiarly reminiscent of Carly Simon's "Coming Around Again", its a lean and marvellous pop record which should have been on the radio dozens of times a day. In the event, "Camouflage" got a slot on Channel 4's "The Tube", some minimal radio exposure, and little in the way of sales. If he seemed to give up on a straight pop career after this, I for one can't blame him - "Camouflage" is the sound of someone throwing every last great idea they have at the wall and smoothing everything over to commercial neatness and perfection.

Always searching for a novel marketing angle, Sievey included free computer programs on the B-side, including one original game he'd written called "Flying Train", and a computer video for the track "Camouflage" itself. While this might have seemed like a quirky one-off idea, it did actually inspire his next career move, which was to properly issue a computer game called "The Biz" which was a flawed but horribly addictive band management simulation for the ZX Spectrum. Nestling on the same tape that the computer program could be found was audio of a comedy character called Frank Sidebottom. Computer games magazine reviewers remarked that this character was "hilarious", and a brand new phase in Sievey's career was born for which he specially donned a large papier-mâché head.

Sidebottom is very difficult to explain to people who are unfamiliar with his work, being a cumbersome, eternally boyish, over-enthusiastic whirlwind of a character with more energy than talent. People who worked with him at the time have said that the alter-ego may even have been a safe haven for the chaotic Sievey, but what is certain is that it gave him more headlines, television appearances and exposure than singles like "Camouflage" had ever managed, and so - career breaks notwithstanding - he stuck with the character until the end of his career in 2010 when he died of cancer.

Whatever you think of his work, there's utterly no question that Sievey made the world a much more interesting place. Self-releasing singles before punk broke, creating multi-media computer games before such a thing became common practice, releasing singles with gimmicky catchphrases for titles - his approach to the media circus was frequently ahead of its time, and its impossible not to conclude that with a bit more fortune and focus he might have managed a short spell of genuine, run-of-the-mill success. But that would have meant that the comedy of the equally over-enthusiastic budding pop star Frank Sidebottom would never have been born.

Sometimes when obituaries are published for media figures, someone spouts the cliche "We will never see his/her like again". It seems trite, a half-hearted sentiment faxed from one star's agent to a journalist's dusty corner of an office in London. But in Sievey's case, it's an entirely genuine observation. There's almost nothing else to say - nobody will ever come along and have a remotely comparable career in the media again, and everyone should spend some time online digging around his work and interviews. This blog entry would have been finished weeks ago if I hadn't been so distracted by the monstrous online Sievey trail, not least the rather marvellous computer game "The Biz" which left me hooked for almost an entire Saturday.

7 August 2014

Good Ship Lollipop - Maxwell's Silver Hammer/ How Does It Feel

Label: Ember
Year of Release: 1969

Here's a riddle for you all - which Beatles album tracks haven't been released as singles by other singers or groups based anywhere in the world? "Revolution #9" would, I suppose, be the first obvious answer to this question, closely followed by "Her Majesty" and some of the other song cycle tracks off "Abbey Road" (but by no means all of them). After that, I wouldn't be willing to place too many bets. Wherever there's a Beatles song which hasn't been issued as a single already, there's always been somebody out there trying to generate a hit with it for their own group or label.

"Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is probably one of the more bizarre choices I've come across. "Abbey Road" is an astonishing album which showcases, possibly more than any other Beatles LP, how untouchable Paul McCartney's songwriting skills could often be. Taking McCartney's talents for granted has sadly become something of a familiar stance in recent years, but one listen to the roller coaster ride that is the song cycle on Side Two should be proof enough that the use of the word "genius" is not, in this case, inappropriate. Despite this, there is one definite weak spot on the record, and it's this thudding, clanging novelty march about a fictional mass murderer. Passably amusing for the first listen and then progressively more and more irritating thereafter, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is the kind of track skip buttons were invented for, doing very little but stink the place out with its violent whimsy. Whole debates have been had about why the hell this, of all the "Abbey Road" tracks, was granted such an early slot on the album.

Still, The Good Ship Lollipop - who I assume were a studio group - produce an accurate facsimile of it here, and one which is likely to be of interest to people curious about Beatles cover versions. A certain chirpiness and polite jollity is added to the fantasies about caving skulls in, and does, to my ears, add a few new twists to the track.

The B-side is interesting too, being a cover version of the sixties rarity "How Does It Feel" by The Perishers. It fails to match the mod majesty of the original track, but is definitely a slightly rawer and rougher interpretation.

2 August 2014

Sunfighter - Drag Race Queen/ Riding On Your Star

Label: EMI
Year of Release: 1976

Sunfighter came so close to making something of themselves, yet ultimately fell short of the mark for reasons which have perplexed some amateur pop historians since. They had a major record label deal with EMI, a well-respected of-the-moment rock producer in Roy Thomas Baker, and even an opening slot on "Top of the Pops" to promote themselves with.

It's not even as if this, their debut single, didn't sound as if it stood a chance. Filled with powerful rock vocals, snaking, subtle little hooks and detours and a slightly suggestive title, it must have horrified everyone involved when it didn't even chart. But while 1976 was a very sleepy year for popular music (as anyone who sat through BBC4's "Top of the Pops" re-runs for that period will know) change was still afoot, and it's quite possible that the slightly glam image and sound of Sunfighter was widely dismissed by many as passé. By '76 even the big names behind the movement were starting to struggle, and not even Sunfighter's stylistic similarities to Queen - who weathered the storm gracefully - saved them.

But what next for the group? Well, members Rob Boughton, John Hardman, Jeb Milne and Ricky Peebles did switch style to disco by '78, issuing the rather more boogie orientated "City Nights". It did well in various nightclubs but still wasn't a hit, and EMI finally lost patience and dropped them.

John Hardman has since become a successful session musician and recording studio owner, and is perhaps better known these days for being Sarah Harding's (of Girls Aloud fame) father. So, were Sunfighter ever as good as the best Girls Aloud records? No, frankly. But still, he deserves a bit more than occasional mentions in the tabloid press for his daughter's success - he was on "Top of the Pops" once himself, you know.