22 December 2015

Merry Christmas!

It's that time of year again when "Left and to the Back" breaks for Christmas - there's very little point in keeping the blog updated over the festive period, as barely anyone checks in, having better things to do with their time (or perhaps worse things, depending on your point of view) than read about old flop records somebody has found in a record or charity shop. And with that in mind... Merry Christmas Everyone!

Usually at this time of year I find myself wondering whether "Left and To The Back" will last another year. I wondered it at the tail end of 2008 when this whole ridiculous project began, and I'm sure I'll always scratch my head close to New Year's Eve and debate whether it's really possible that I can wring another year's worth of entries out of my ever-expanding record collection. And far apart from that, will I want to, or will I begin to get deeply bored or have other concerns in my life which end up taking greater priority? And will Spotify and iTunes finally have such a complete catalogue that blogs like this begin to look silly in their mission to present long unheard sounds?

It's impossible to answer. When "Left and To The Back" started, it was rough and ready. I still get a bit embarrassed when someone leaves a slightly sarky comment on one of the early entries picking me up on poor research or perhaps being offended at my slightly surlier writing style - but deleting the lot would feel dishonest, somehow.

Anyway, you could argue that the format only really sorted itself out when mp3 blogs began to be seen as somewhat passé by the world at large. It had a few brief media mentions here and there until 2012 - none of which I sought or used contacts to obtain, by the way, that assumes a degree of influence I just don't have (and you can sound the Sandi Thom klaxon all you want, but it does happen to be the truth in my case). Since then, it's been pretty much unpublicised and left to its own devices, yet the audience levels have steadily grown, and in fact November 2015 saw the second biggest number of unique hits in the blog's history, and the biggest number of returning visitors. If I do turn my back on this in 2016, it definitely won't be due to external disinterest, and I'd like to thank everyone who takes the time to visit this blog and read about a bunch of records nobody bought. Let's face it, it's hardly the format of anyone's dreams, it doesn't really smell of success, and I'm inclined to sympathise with the bafflement a friend of my wife's felt when she found out about this site's existence ("So... your husband writes about records nobody bought or liked, and people read it?")

But all this is veering dangerously close to self-celebratory waffle, which is another thing I find a bit cringeworthy. This blog is very niche and is never going to get the number of readers a well-written site focusing on new music will, but I'm glad enough of you enjoy it to make it feel like it's something slightly more than me talking to myself and a handful of other absurd people. Have a great Christmas, I hope Santa brings you a lot of under-appreciated musical gems, and see you for at least some of 2016, and hopefully all of it. 

20 December 2015

Neil Spence - Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus/ Little Boy Lost

Label: Go
Year of Release: 1966

What kind of a human being would I be if I let Christmas slide past without a festive related upload? I know you all want it, and my conscience couldn't let me leave this little ditty to one side.

Neil Spence was, at this point in his career, a popular Radio London DJ working the lunchtime slot under the name Dave Dennis. "Dennis" was effectively a persona, a fast-talking banter merchant whose rapid-fire approach caused him to have the highest rated show - an unusual situation for any station, who would normally expect their stars to be found on the breakfast show. When you consider that Dennis was up against Kenny Everett and Dave Cash in that slot, this makes his achievements even more impressive.

In reality, though, Neil Spence was far from being a transatlantic styled flashman and was, in fact, a graduate of the Central School of Speech and Drama and a man with a past in repertory theatre. The character Dave Dennis was honed from listening to endless recordings of American jocks on the Dallas station KLIF, and his own natural style was rather more precise and formal. Kenny Everett got him to drop by on his show to read out the lyrics to the popular hits of the day in his repertory style, and it's possibly (though note, not definitely) that which may have been the background inspiration for this rather odd little single.

"Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus" consists of Spence reading a poem inspired by the 1897 New York Sun editorial confirming the existence of Father Christmas, and places a sweet and mushy orchestral arrangement beneath it. If this was meant to be a joke, the meaning has been lost to the mists of time, so I suspect it's probably just something the staff at the tiny independent Go Records felt might be a hit. It wasn't, though it did climb to number 19 on Radio London's own chart (a fairly meaningless list which was compiled by the station's staff according to guesswork, favours and payola). While the approach may seem peculiar, it's worth noting that "The Sunscreen Song" in 1999 was simply a Chicago Tribune column set to music, so perhaps Spence was just ahead of his time.

I'm afraid to say that in my personal opinion, while this record is rare - and on an extremely collectible label - it's completely inessential. If I was being kind I would describe it as a "somewhat charming period piece", but it pipes up and fades out without really leaving much of an impression. It's a bizarre blip in the career of a man who was, it's safe to say, successful in broadcasting and the media otherwise.

After Radio London closed down in 1967, Spence worked for the BBC creating jingles, and continued his friendship with Kenny Everett who was also on Radio One at that time. From 1970 onwards he focussed more on his own business concerns, founding the major workplace radio station for United Biscuits and also worked as a broadcasting trainer, teaching numerous music radio DJs to successful careers, including Dale Winton, Jeremy Vine, James Whale and Adrian Love.

He passed away in 2007.

16 December 2015

Reupload - Ginger Ale - Scoobidad/ Sugar Suzy

Label: Injection
Year of Release: 1971

While it may be a push to describe this single as an obscurity - the A-side "Scoobidad" hit number four in Holland - the B-side has since acquired some well-deserved love as a bit of a psych-pop classic across the whole of Europe.

Ginger Ale were formerly known as Roek's Family before changing their name and subsequently dabbling with more intricate sounds. "Scoobidad" is a fairly harmless piece of seventies bubblegum, but "Sugar Suzy" is beautiful despite its rather unpromising, Archies-esque title. Filled to the brim with twanging, whining guitars and gentle, wistful vocals, it would neither be out of place on the second side of Pink Floyd's "Atom Heart Mother" nor indeed a compilation of West Coast classics. Dreamy, considered and tranquil, it's far too good to be buried away on a flipside, and had it been released at an earlier date and on the right side of a seven inch single (or tucked away on an album) it's not difficult to imagine it gaining more respect than it has done. As it stands, hopefully this will gain further popularity over the coming years.

Ginger Ale eventually went their separate ways, with drummer Richard De Bois moving on to a successful production career, and guitarist Steve Allet going on to join the psych-tastic band Ekseption.

13 December 2015

Edwina Biglet And The Miglets - Thing/ Vanessa's Luminous Dogcoat

Label: RCA
Year of Release: 1972

Nothing causes me to gravitate to a flop record more than a completely ridiculous group name, and if the song titles are off-the-wall as well, then my money is as good as yours (provided, of course, we're not talking excessive amounts. I'm not that stupid). Edwina Biglet and The Miglets is arguably as stupid a name as seventies glam rock ever spawned, and for that at least we have to salute the individuals involved.

More than that, though, "Thing" is is a chirpy Moog-infested track about... er... well, it's not really clear exactly what it's about, actually, and I doubt if you asked anyone involved they'd be able to tell you either. The intro promises an utter proto-techno noisefest, but it quickly calms down and establishes itself as something altogether more vacant and silly. The lyrics seem to involve various characters with different English accents bragging about a "thing" they own. It could be sexual innuendo at work, but the descriptions given defy logic and reason, as the "thing" is described with electronic squelches, buzzes and bleeps. It lights up, it's fun to play with, people think it should be banned, and your guess is as good as mine. 

More appealing to Moogheads out there is probably the B-side, "Vanessa's Luminous Dogcoat", an almost groovy jam which, had it been released by some obscure French artist would probably be commanding insane money on eBay now. As it stands, we're left with a record that neither charted - despite receiving modest amounts of airplay - nor really holds its head high in the collector's market, which given the double-sided oddness on offer seems a bit unjust. It won't be the best single you hear all year, but there's something irrepressibly charming about it. 

The complete details of who Edwina Biglet and The Miglets are isn't easy to find, but the lead singer Edwina dropped by on 45cat a number of years ago to reveal that her real name is Vanessa, and that the B-side was named after an actual jacket she knitted her greyhound. So at least we know something. If anyone has any additional information, please let me know. In a parallel universe somewhere, I'm sure this record was probably an extraordinarily irritating and huge hit. 

10 December 2015

Blue U - I've Been Lonely For So Long/ Melinda Marie

Label: York
Year of Release: 1972

Radio One Rock Jockey Tommy Vance was, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent and rather self-effacing chap who was to Rock (with a capital "r") and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal what John Peel was to indie bands. If you weren't one of the underweight floppy fringed kids in the corner of the student refectory listening to the latest Close Lobsters cassette on your Walkman and instead chose to perch your more significant arse among the fluffy bearded boys who always carried guitars everywhere with them, chances are Vance's evening rock show was an important part of your week.

Nonetheless, metallers are a notoriously ungrateful bunch - ask any non-metaller who has ever been booked to support a Heavy Metal band by mistake - who adore their beery hijinks. Apocrypha has it that at the Donington Monsters of Rock Festival back in the eighties, Vance asked the audience to all chant "Tommy Vance Friday Rock Show!" to supply him with an impressive sounding jingle. True to form, the ungrateful bastards instead all yelled in unison "Tommy Vance is a wanker!" and the recording was deemed unsuitable for broadcast.

God alone knows what they would have made of this single. The A-side was produced by Vance but seems rather Vance-free in terms of the performance - it's a fairly straight piece of soul-inspired pop which is sprightly but unlikely to get reassessed by a club DJ anytime soon.

The B-side, on the other hand, is Vance overload. Accompanied by ambient aircraft noises and pretty much nothing else, our man Tommy sings a simplistic song-poem about the mysterious Melinda Marie, who is leaving him on a plane eight miles high. His voice sounds sleepy, tranquil, faintly under the influence (though I doubt he actually was) and altogether lacking the usual gruff Man-in-Denim tones for which he would become famous. It was doubtless a studio afterthought, a quickie recording job to give the single a B-side, but it's a strangely fascinating piece of work, both due to the person involved and also a certain amount of prescience on its part. After all, spin forward to the eighties and Jane's acapella effort "It's A Fine Day" and you have a record cut from a rather similar cloth. Nobody has yet taken Vance's effort here and turned it into a dance track, but I suspect it's only a matter of time.

In any case, this was not Vance's last unusual appearance, or even last ambient appearance, on vinyl. One of his Radio One jingles featuring him growling "Rock radio - into the nineties and beyond!" was sampled on the KLF's classic LP "Chill Out" on the logically titled segment "Rock Radio Into The Nineties And Beyond", a key element in the final moments of that record.

Vance also apparently recorded and released records under various guises in the sixties and seventies, at one point confessing that there may be as many as "twelve" out there. The only ones that are clearly credited to him in some respect are "Melinda Marie" and the two sixties singles he released on Columbia, "You Must Be The One" and "Off The Hook".

His broadcasting career continued until his death from a stroke in 2005, and in later years his most repeated television appearance was on an episode of Chris Morris's "Brasseye" where he was convinced to contribute to a bogus crime rehabilitation video. To his credit, he was one of the few duped participants to speak highly of Morris after the broadcast and defend his right to ridicule the media and celebrities - and it did also cause British comedy fans of a certain age to use the phrase "foaming nut brown ale" rather too often when ordering drinks in pubs. You can tell he's having far too good a time reading out the words Morris has given him, meaning that if he wasn't in on the joke, he was at the very least faintly aware of how silly the situation was.

If anyone is able to "out" Vance's other vinyl appearances under pseudonyms, you'll be able to make a lot of collectors very happy.

7 December 2015

Lois Lane - Punky's Dilemma/ Lazy Summer Day

Label: Mercury
Year of Release: 1968

Lumme. At the moment, my TV is blaring out all kinds of quirky, merry, rinky-dink tunes for festive season adverts - usually cute cover versions of hits, sometimes accompanied with images of pretty young ladies wandering through busy streets with a smile on their lips and their eyes raised skywards. "Look at these quirky damsels!" the telly seems to be telling me. "If you bought a mobile phone package with us, you too could be walking through the city with ukulele music playing in your head on a constant loop". I'm probably not their target audience, in all honesty.

Anyway, while all this cutesy naffness abounds, it's worth realising that once upon a time, you could produce that kind of capital q Quirk music without falling back on a dull template. Lois Lane was originally one half of the Sleaford singing duo The Caravelles, who scored a huge hit in the UK and the USA with "You Don't Have To Be A Baby To Cry". They split in 1968 and went their separate ways, and this cover of Paul Simon's rather unusual "Punky's Dilemma" was one of the early fruits of that solo venture.

It throws everything at the wall - a dreamy "South California" melodic line, absurd studio interjections from slamming doors and apologetic individuals, and an adventurous Johnny Arthey arrangement. Lois's vocals are just on the right side of irritating, not overdoing the kookiness and staying on the right side of carefree and considered. It's a tough track to pull off. The references to jam preferences (she likes loganberry jam best, she tells the listeners) and English Muffins in toasters could very easily annoy the piss out of some human beings were they placed in the wrong hands, but she's able to underline the eccentricity of the track without making herself sound like an attention seeking hipster (possibly because, at the time of its release there was no such thing, at least not as we now understand the phrase).

Lois continued recording for some time after this single, issuing further efforts right up until 1977, including a lot of session work for Disney and budget sound-a-like covers records. Sadly, the success she saw with The Caravelles could not be repeated, and the releases eventually dried up. She was, however, apparently still producing vocal work for adverts until relatively more recently.

Both "Punky's Dilemma" and "Lazy Summer Day" are available over on iTunes, or otherwise you can hear both tunes from the YouTube videos below.

2 December 2015

Gary Street and the Fairways - Flipiddy Flop/ Hold Me Close

Label: Domain
Year of Release: 1968

The Irish Showband circuit produced numerous incredibly popular dance bands from the fifties through to the late seventies, groups who were stars in their home country but meant very little indeed, if anything, across the Irish Sea.

Gary Street and the Fairways formed off the back of the Agents Showband, adding Gary Street to their line-up as a vocalist following a long live stint in Germany. Returning back home to Ireland they immediately impressed with their new disciplined set and impressive new singer, and were quickly signed to King Records there. "Flipiddy Flop" was the first single, a band composition, and reached number ten in the Irish charts.

The tiny Domain label seem to have picked up the rights to the record in the UK, and it - er - flipiddy flopped into the British shops to a lot of general disinterest. Of more interest to me is The Equals cover on the flip, "Hold Me Closer", which has a bit more beef and swing to it. "Flipiddy Flop" is a wee bit too bubblegummy even for my sweet tooth.

The original line-up of The Fairways carried on for a couple of years after this, but no record they issued was ever as successful as this one, and they gave up before the 70s got properly underway. The name continued to be used by various other members until as late as 1983, however.

Possibly of greater interest than this record to "Left and to the Back" readers is the truly bizarre ska record they issued in 1969 entitled "Yoko Ono", which can be heard over on YouTube.  The band busy themselves by singing about trying to get to a plantation on which the famous artist and Beatle-wife appears to be waiting for them. I'll give it this much - it's better than "Ob La Di, Ob La Da".