31 January 2016

Smiffy - See You Later (Little Baby Love)/ How Can You Be A Millionaire

Label: Antic
Year of Release: 1974

As much as I believe that the mid to late sixties era is absolutely blessed with obscure pop music riches, and it's far easier to strike gold when digging around in that period than most others, the early glam rock era is also surprisingly fertile. While it may be an acquired taste, it's not difficult to find flop pieces of tinsel covered rock and roll which are insanely uplifting.

And here's one. Way back at the start of January, you may remember we explored the work of a synth-pop artist called Alpha Beta, fronted by the mysterious Pete Smith. A reader kindly pointed me in the direction of this single which was also his handiwork, and I was slightly surprised to find out that far from having a short career based in Numan styled observations on space aliens, he'd also had a brief glam rock past.

"See You Later (Little Baby Love)" is a honking Wizzard-esque piece of work filled to the brim with Spector styled arrangement, and a totally joyous bounce. It's not been compiled on to any of the existing compilations focused on Glam Rock obscurities, and that's slightly surprising because it's far superior to many of the tracks that have found a place - indeed, it seems unlucky not to have been at least a minor hit at the time. Had Wizzard themselves put this out, it would almost certainly have registered.

None of this really leaves me much the wiser as to who Pete Smith actually was and what else (if anything) he did, but he managed to straddle two entirely different styles across two 45s issued in the seventies, so I get the impression he could have turned his hand to a great deal of other work as a songwriter if he had wanted.

27 January 2016

Julie and Gordon - Gordon's Not A Moron (?)/ I'm So Happy To Know You

Label: Pogo 
Year of Release: 1978

When Jilted John's "Jilted John" stormed the UK Top Ten in 1978, it took on a life of its own. It was a fantastic and incredibly silly piece of work, taking the adolescent angst love songs of the permanently "friendzoned" Buzzcocks and giving them a suburban shopping parade spin. "I was so upset that I cried all the way to the chip shop" is now often quoted as one of the finest and funniest lines in rock music.

While Graham Fellows' career in music stalled (until much later on) and the subsequent "True Love Stories" LP failed to sell well, the Julie/ Gordon/ John love triangle clearly acted as an inspiration for others. As a result, an "answer" record was put out by Julie and Gordon and, er... it's a curiosity to say the least. Taking a similar style and tone to the original, Julie explains that Gordon only found out about Jilted John's song after finding it by accident on a pub jukebox, and was thoroughly bemused and hurt. To make matters more interesting, both Julie and Gordon have strong London accents rather than Manchester accents, despite the origins of the original track. I suppose the vast majority of record-buyers were none the wiser.

Fellows had absolutely no creative involvement with this record, which seems to be a parody of something which was clearly already a parody in the first place. Far more interesting, and with far more inspired quips and one-liners, is the B-side "I'm So Happy To Know You" where Gordon is asked by Julie to "do your Johnny Revolting". They seem like quite a sweet couple, really, if a bit dense.

Despite the fact that this failed to chart, there was a follow-up single following the further adventures of the couple entitled "J-J-Julie (Yippee Yula)", but that seems to have been the lot - and, on the audio evidence of that, quite right too.

Graham Fellows, meanwhile, eventually created the brilliant comedy character John Shuttleworth who continues to inspire to this day, and is occasionally heard to quip onstage: "That Jilted John - you don't hear much about him anymore, do you?"

24 January 2016

O.B.X. - Sailplane/ Breakdown and Cry

Label: Cara
Year of Release: 1981

Of all the synth-pop obscurities that were spat out during the early eighties, this turned up on arguably the most unlikely label, and perhaps from a rather unexpected source for most. Cara Records were a tiny indie who, for the most part, acted as a home for Irish folkies De Danann. Peter Bardens, on the other hand - to all intents and purposes, OBX - was previously a keyboard player for cult prog rockers Camel, most famous for their "Snow Goose" concept album.

Unbeknownst to many people now, however, Bardens was fascinated enough with synth-pop to release an entire album of it entitled "Heart to Heart" in 1979. Experimentation with synthesisers and pop was by no means solely a fascination for young people weened on Kraftwerk and Eno. 1981 also saw ex-Hatfield and the North member Dave Stewart release the huge synth hit cover version of "It's My Party", and it's frequently forgotten that once The Buggles ceased their activities, Trevor Horn gatecrashed Yes to become their new lead vocalist. The new technology was obviously deeply appealing to people who had previously tampered with the boundaries of what was possible in rock music, or had a deep affinity with Prog. It's been said before by many better writers than me, but the connection between New Pop in the 80s and Prog in the 70s is stronger than often supposed (Those over-long extended 12 inch versions of just about every hit perhaps also mirroring some of Prog's more bloated album tracks).

"Sailplane" is actually an extremely strong release - dark, minimal and moody, with soft, detached sounding vocals, this feels like it's being beamed in from a contented but wintery dreamworld. The chiming keyboard patterns towards the end add to the icy impression, and like the best of the oft-underrated OMD, there's a slyness to the spacey arrangement here. What sounds on first listen very simplistic and hollow gradually reveals delicate flourishes towards the end of its run-time. Like the best of its genre, though, it knows exactly where to draw the line. 

Needless to say, this wasn't a hit. Even if it had achieved airplay (which, to the best of my knowledge, it didn't) I doubt Cara would have had the marketing chops to really push it high in the charts. Whatever plans Peter Bardens had for the OBX name, they appeared to stop at this one single, and it melted away into obscurity.

Sadly, he passed away in January 2002, and while most of his solo and group material has been reissued in the years since, this one remains obscure and increasingly collectible. My copy is really scuffed and while I've tried my hardest to clean it up below, it's such a minimal piece of work that inevitable some of the crackle and hiss is still going to push through. There's a much clearer sounding version on YouTube you should really listen to.

20 January 2016

The Decision - In The Shade Of Your Love/ Constable Jones

Label: MCA
Year of Release: 1968

Very much a record of two halves, this one. The A-side, "In The Shade Of Your Love", is a carefully produced piece of summery psychedelic pop with puffing trumpetry, humming organs and a hazy atmosphere. In terms of British (as opposed to Californian) psychedelia it's one of the few singles to successfully soundtrack the scorching city humidity of an Albion summer, and deserves a lot more appreciation than it's received.

Unfortunately for us, the damn thing is commercially available on all the usual online outlets, so you'll have to make do with this YouTube clip to sample its delights.

The flip "Constable Jones", on the other hand, is unavailable and is so popsike it hurts. By the late sixties many songwriters found themselves very much inspired by Beatles and Kinks tracks penned about specific everyday individuals leading faintly desperate and rather ordinary lives. This lead to a slurry of similar flop tunes from the lesser-heard psychedelic pop acts of the day, from The Epics Arnold Layne-inspired "Henry Long" and Pandamonium's faded club star in "Chocolate Buster Dan" through to The Cuppa T's oft referenced (by Tim Worthington at least) "Miss Pinkerton". Many of these tracks lacked the subtlety and sensitivity of the tunes they were trying to ape and instead upped the cheesy quirk factor to ten. And these kinds of recordings, my friends, are also probably the epitome of the sub-genre of popsike - childlike, bouncy, chirpy ditties about small-town life which could easily have been rehoused in an early 1970s children's TV show without many people noticing or complaining.

"Constable Jones", it's safe to say, is an amusing sketch of a beleaguered policeman on the beat rather than a fully fleshed out portrait or even caricature. The details of the poor PC's under appreciated efforts are charmingly recalled, though, and the off-the-cuff additions about his eating habits ("It's your favourite - chips and kip-pers!") are unnecessary but if you're not smiling by that point, you genuinely have no heart.

The Decision only seemed to put out this one single before disappearing. "In The Shade Of Your Love" was unlucky not to have been a hit, so it's regrettable they weren't given further opportunities.

17 January 2016

Inside Moves - The Man With The Child In His Eyes/ I Wish

Label: The Brothers Organisation
Year of Release: 1992

I blame Candy Flip. For a brief period in the early nineties, following the soaraway success of their indie-dance cover of The Beatles "Strawberry Fields Forever", swinging dance cover versions of established classic tunes became a relatively common proposition. Some were enchanting, most were just awful, and some neither offended nor delighted, but were definitely odd talking points.

This cover of Kate Bush's "The Man With The Child In His Eyes" by Inside Moves - a group who didn't appear to go on to record any other work - is an unexpected find. It's true to say that "Cloudbusting" was sampled heavily by Utah Saints for "Something Good", so Bush had already had one excursion on to the dancefloor, but this is actually a straight, soulful reinterpretation of her work. It slips and slides down its own smooth and tranquil Ibiza path with its puffing flutes, exquisitely delivered vocals and triad piano lines. It's clearly primed for chill-out compilations, and it does actually work incredibly well within that genre - but seems to have largely slipped out unnoticed at the time, and certainly isn't played at all now.

I have no information on who Inside Moves were, but if their movements were typical of many of the dance producers and performers of this period, they probably naffed off somewhere else to work on another project under another name once this had flopped.

13 January 2016

Reupload - Fresh Air - It Takes Too Long/ Here Comes Summer

Label: Philips
Year of Release: 1972

And just in case you thought that absolutely all the top drawer sixties influenced pop had been compiled somewhere by someone, here's yet another discarded piece of vinyl which is utterly under-valued on the collector's market.

In fairness, "It Takes Too Long" isn't quite the obscurity that you might first suspect. It's had a fairly high profile internet airing already on the seventies obsessed "Purepop" blog, and a quick google reveals quite a bit of cyber-chatter about it elsewhere too.  It appears on the surface to be something of a loved record amongst aficionados of the obscure (including me) but nobody can ever get past the first paragraph without mentioning George Harrison, for the pure and simple reason that the A-side is a shameless imitation of everyone's favourite lentil curry eating Fab.  Coming across slightly like Chris Bell copping a few riffs from "My Sweet Lord", it's what might have been produced in the soundlabs at Creation Records had Teenage Fanclub spent their time ripping off The Beatles rather than Oasis.  This is absolutely no bad thing, but it's not difficult to see why the public rejected this record in 1972, a mere two years after Harrison issued the single this appears to be aping.  It's a case of too much nineties post-modernism far too soon.  That's a shame in a way, because "It Takes Too Long" has some gorgeous whining guitar fretwork, close vocal harmonies which would elate even the most cynical soul, and a slow, steady build which means the simplicity of the melody itself never grows tiresome.  It's a gentle, charming piece of pop which wears its influences very closely on its sleeve, but seems more affectionate, warm and considered than cheeky.

The B-side "Here Comes Summer" does plough its own furrow more successfully, being a close harmony piece of acoustic season pondering, but is unfortunately a lot less interesting as a result, being a breezy, tranquil affair without much of a chorus.

Fresh Air are something of an enigma as well, given that no particular source can agree definitively on whether this lot are the same band who released the Rubble-compiled "Running Wild" in 1969.  Given the complete difference in style, vocals, and record labels, and the length of the gaps between each single released, I'd be tempted to nix any suggestions that the performers are the same.  Bam Caruso suggested in their liner notes that the band name Fresh Air might have been owned by a music business svengali placing their tunes with whichever session musicians would take them, but in that case the songwriting and production credits do not align in a convincing way (although I have no access to the label information for the third release under that name, "Bye Bye Jane").  If anyone knows the truth about this band, or indeed any band at all operating under this moniker, I'm sure a lot of collectors would be relieved if you could pass on the information.

In the meantime, just enjoy a record which sounds as if it might have been a summer smash in another dimension.

[This blog entry was originally uploaded in June 2011. Since then, I managed to locate another Fresh Air single, "In The Sun", which definitely involves the same individuals as this release. We're still no closer to unveiling the identity of the band, though.]

10 January 2016

Trevor Burton - Fight For My Country/ Janie Slow Down

Label: Wizard
Year of Release: 1971/72

After Trevor Burton left The Move, he had huge plans for his future. Not for him the usual course of putting an advert in Melody Maker for musicians and waiting for the results - on the contrary, he wanted to tap into the much in-vogue (at the time) practice of forming a supergroup of respected and talented musicians.

The ridiculously named Balls were born, consisting of Brummie wunderkinds like Steve Gibbons of The Uglys, Richard Tandy (later of ELO), and Denny Laine from The Moody Blues. In truth, the formation of the group was muddy, complicated and fraught with difficulties and intense arguments. A revolving doors policy appeared to be in operation, and describing the personnel coherently here would be a task and a half. If you're really interested, the excellent Brum Beat website has patched together a very patient and detailed overview of their history here.

During the chaos of rehearsals and recording, it would seem that only one usable piece of work emerged, and that was this single, which consisted of Burton, Steve Gibbons and Denny Laine. Originally released under the group's name Balls in January 1971, it failed to sell, and was subsequently reissued as an edited version in 1972 under Trevor Burton's name. That also flopped, and the track was then reissued again on Birds Nest Records in 1975 under the name B L and G (with the track retitled as "Live In The Mountains"), where it also did precisely nothing. After that point, clearly everyone involved simply gave up.

I suspect the single's sales chances were harmed by the fact that it only appeared an entire year after Balls ceased to exist, but it's not hard to hear why many people felt the track had enormous potential. Strident, cocksure, anthemic and unusual, the buzzing analogue synths spin throughout the track like helicopter rotary blades while Burton and the boys build a naive but relatable anti-military message over the top. "Why don't we all go and live in the mountains?" Burton roars, and far from being the usual pile of old hoary supergroup mush, this actually sounds like psychedelic Brum beat crossed with early electronica and glam - a squidgy, messy soup of ideas taking place on the cusp of two decades which shouldn't really work, but does so brilliantly. I'd be willing to bet that at least one member of the Super Furry Animals likes this one...

After Balls petered out, Steve Gibbons went off to form The Steve Gibbons Band, and Denny Laine enjoyed colossal success with Paul McCartney in Wings, co-authoring "Mull of Kintyre" in the process. To my ears, both sides of this record are preferable to that bagpipe festooned anthem, but your feelings may differ.

6 January 2016

Giggles - Reaching Out/ Street Dancer

Label: EMI
Year of Release: 1977

When writing about music, there's a temptation to apply strict chapter headings to certain eras and movements, but things are seldom that simple. As late as 1979 Racey were tearing up the charts with the none-more-RAK offering "Some Girls", producing a sound that owed a bigger debt to Mud than The Clash. While that offering is a particularly peculiar anomaly, the late seventies were riddled with rock offerings that could have easily been issued three or four years ahead of their debut.

"Reaching Out" by Giggles in one such effort. Chugging along and pouting defiantly, putting on a Jagger sneer for anyone who dares approach, it's tinseltown rock and roll with a bit of attitude. Occupying the uncomfortable middle ground between The Faces and Hello, it has a definite swagger lacking in many of the singles of the time. 

My wife has voiced her uneasiness with the lyrical content, stating that the track belongs among the grand canon of what she calls "Sex Pest Rock and Roll". While the lyrics definitely do seem to state "Reaching out and touching you - ooh, touch touch! Ooooh, touch touch!" I'm confident that the band are talking about touring and bringing their sounds to fresh, new audiences, and all the excitement and enriching experiences such endeavours can bring. However, if you want to imagine a rocker running around interfering with ladies in a nightclub while this song plays, that's entirely your own choice. Since Benny Hill died, we've all had to use our imaginations, after all.

Giggles produced a number of singles in the seventies before morphing into the rather more New Wave act The Giants, who signed to RCA. Given their relatively long career, they should be easy to trace online - but they really aren't. It's impossible to find line-up details anywhere, with even the trusty old tome "Tapestry of Delights" turning up nothing. If you know more, please do pass on the information.

3 January 2016

Alpha Beta - Space Invaders/ Innocent

Label: Magnet
Year of Release: 1979

The earliest days of proper arcade games - and by "proper" I mean modern ones that didn't involve shooting ducks with water pistols or trying to win stuffed toys with rigged mechanical grabbing devices - inspired rabid enthusiasm from most people under the age of 30. Space Invaders was the Grandaddy of an entire art form, and while it would be wrong to state that it invented the modern gaming industry as we know it (Pong and Breakout were both forerunners) it nonetheless captured the imagination of the general public far more than anything before. Breakout was a very abstract game which was hugely enjoyable in its day, but lacked any kind of scenario to capture the player's imagination. Space Invaders, on the other hand, tapped into the twisted dreams of the most paranoid believer in space aliens and made a Hollywood blockbuster story come to life on a video screen. It invented the sense that the player was part of a peculiar future world much larger than the game itself, blasting away at spacecraft in some apocalyptic scenario.

That's probably a good reason why at least two records called "Space Invaders" were made in the seventies, Player 1's electro-disco offering and Alpha Beta's rather more subdued, spacey synth-pop affair. Not only did the phenomenon come with its own story attached, making it lyrically adaptable, it also came with a metronomic and menacing electronic soundtrack which obviously made the idea very adaptable to a post-Kraftwerk pop landscape.

Alpha Beta's effort may seem like a faintly silly cash-in by present-day standards, but there's actually an ambient moodiness surrounding the entire thing that's immediately compelling. A novelty record in the purest sense would hammer home lots of silly melodic catchphrases and knowing in-jokes - Alpha Beta simply take the concept of the video game, transplant it into a vague, misty storyline, and give it plenty of space to breathe. Unlike a lot of early synth-pop, "Space Invaders" is neither overly arty or irritatingly bouncy - rather, it slowly oozes its way into the listener's head, sounding dreamlike in the process.

Despite the market for all things Space Invaders at the point of its release, it wasn't a big seller, and interestingly Player 1's effort didn't really have much traction away from the dancefloor either. That didn't stop other musicians and session folk from trying their hand at arcade game cash-ins, though. By the time Pac Man arrived on the scene, a plethora of tunes emerged, and Buckner and Garcia were daft enough to release an entire LP of songs about arcade games - but perhaps that's another story for another day.

I'm assuming that the Pete L Smith credited on this record is Alpha Beta, by the way, and that it wasn't a proper group as such. However, I have no idea what else he did, or where he came from. If anyone has any further information, please let me know.