29 May 2016

Bullring - Birmingham Brass Band/ Lady of the Morning Sun

Label: CBS
Year of Release: 1970

This is something of a get-together for old friends of "Left and to the Back" we've written about already. Penned by Ken Lewis and John Carter, and performed by Herbie's People under an assumed name, it promises to be a top-notch popsike supergroup. Who could walk past?

In reality, "Birmingham Brass Band" actually features all the involved parties in full-on novelty mode, adopting exaggerated Brummie accents and taking a jaunty skip towards the brass band volunteers office. It's not at all unlikeable and has been touted by some fanzines and websites as being one of the best pieces of popsike around. Certainly, the chirpy toytown elements are all present and correct, but this is arguably closer to Brian and Michael than a Happy Days Toytown Newspaper Smile.

Given a favourable release date and a willing champion on Radio One, it's even possible to imagine this becoming a hit... but it never happened, and presumably everyone involved left The Bullring project at that. Most bizarrely, this even managed to pick up a US release on Jamie Records, though obviously it wasn't a hit there either (and what North Americans made of the Brummie accents on the record is unfortunately undocumented).

Herbie's People were hugely popular on the Midlands gig circuit and split up and reformed numerous times before finally - apparently! - throwing in the towel in 2011. 

25 May 2016

Brian Lee - The Liberal Song/ Jo Grimond - A Message From...

Label: YL (Young Liberals)
Year of Release: 1964

It's easy to look at the Liberal Democrats present eight seats in the House of Commons and laugh/ cry/ raise your eyebrows (delete according to your particular political stance) but their forerunners the Liberal Party suffered far greater tumbles in political society. They went from holding the reigns of political power regularly in the early part of the twentieth century to holding a mere six seats in the House for most of the fifties, thanks to the growing success of the Labour Party. The mid-sixties saw a very slight resurgence in their popularity as they found themselves "enjoying" nine seats again. Dig those heady heights, Daddio.

It's this slightly short-lived period of growing Liberal votes that this rather bizarre single stems from. Targeted at the Young Liberals in their ranks, it's a gentle beat disc with a tippy-tappy backing rhythm and a twangy guitar, espousing the virtues of being a Liberal. "The Socialists will try to nationalise us/ That's not a democratic thing to do!" warns Brian Lee in warm, fruity tones, presumably with one finger wagging. "It's time to hear the Liberal point of view" he adds. Throughout, he sounds slightly like Vic Reeves delivering "Empty Kennel", a song about a dog that tragically drowned in a swimming pool. This surely isn't the tone the Party was going for?

Like most political party attempts to get down with the kids, it's downright embarrassing. Vague in its messaging - the Liberals did actually have some unique policies at this point, so it's surprising some weren't brought to the forefront of the song - Catholic youth club campfire strum-a-long in its style, and rather too hesitant in its delivery, by the time it's over it's hard to understand what the Liberals were for or why you should vote or get involved with them, apart from the fact that they feel Tories are "full of hard luck stories" and Labour are dangerous Socialists. 

Still, never mind, because the then Liberal leader Jo Grimond was on the flip side to help us along with a rousing speech, if he can manage to clear his throat and avoid the words "um" and "er" for more than one minute, that is. Though it is, of course... *cough*... worth knowing that the Liberals have a... *cough*... um, er, unique worldview quite apart from the Conservatives and the, er, Labour chappies, and are... *cough*... the only main party to be against the Hydrogen Bomb. Good God, it's painful to listen to, and makes nine seats feel generous. 

The Liberal Party formed an alliance with the SDP (a short-lived but briefly very popular party of breakaway Labour moderates, who require explanations in parenthesis for the benefit of younger and overseas readers these days) in 1981, and attracted 25% of the national vote, and the parties eventually merged in 1989 to create the Liberal Democrats, effectively ending the old Liberal Party as you and I know it. Except, of course, it didn't really... some members refused to join the new unit, and a Classic Coke version of the old-fashioned Liberal Party limps on in some constituencies, presently having very few elected councillors in its ranks and no MPs. Its presence at the bottom of the BBC Elections board at election time seems increasingly baffling, and serious political miracles aside, the old dog is surely due to slip under the table to expire soon (I checked their website in the name of research, only to find that the news section hadn't been updated in almost a year). 

The vast majority of the Liberal Party's values remain within the Liberal Democrat party, though the Liberal Party is keen to emphasise that the Lib Dems have become "too right wing" in recent years. Perhaps because of this, their identity problems remain acute - to many local people at election time, the Lib Dems have become a quaint and ill-defined party once more, opportunistically selling themselves as the best placed party to replace either Labour or the Conservatives in whatever constituency they're in, and doing so with misleading bar charts. Surely a jaunty novelty single entitled "Only The Lib Dems Can Beat Them Here!" is on its way soon? 

22 May 2016

Reupload - Epic Splendor - It Could Be Wonderful/ She's High On Life

Label: Hot Biscuit Disc Company
Year of Release: 1968

American bands covering the work of British bands was fairly common practice back in the sixties, particularly if the Anglo-act in question had a number of catchy tracks which had yet to find favour across the pond - and indeed, such behaviour often worked in reverse too. This, however, surely takes the (hot) biscuit.  "It Could Be Wonderful" was an utterly ignored track by The Smoke, a band who had made it reasonably big in Continental Europe but meant very little in Britain. Recorded at the beginning of their stint with Island Records after being dropped by Columbia, it's a pleasant, dreamy, woozy and actually quite slow number which sold in very low quantities.

Googling the Internet seems to reveal that most forum-dwellers and bloggers out there prefer The Smoke's original, but for me it's this version that really rips into the song's potential. Turning the tempo up significantly, filling the arrangement out with horns, and pounding on the drums, The Epic Spleandor created a piece of fantastic Motown-derived mod pop, utilising the kinds of rhythms which end up contributing to something unbelievably danceable and difficult to ignore. Propelling itself along with such gusto that it's all over in just over two minutes, it's one of those records with such urgency and force of personality that you feel compelled to play it twice, maybe three times in a row. Whilst The Smoke's version focusses on a dreamy, disconnected feel, this one has a more euphoric, urgent rush about it - perhaps not quite derivative enough to pass as Northern Soul, but certainly a lot more compelling than a great many records released by inauthentic artists which did fit that particular rubric.

The Epic Spleandor were a New York based act formed from the ashes of Little Bits Of Sound. Their first release "A Little Rain Must Fall" was a regional hit on Hot Biscuit, the newly launched subsidiary of Capitol. "It Could Be Wonderful" was supposed to be capitalise on this initial interest, but failed utterly to click with the American public, and the band were promptly dropped by the label.  Records like this one, and the West Coast styled flip "She's High On Life", make you wonder what might have been had they been allowed to continue. This is one of my favourite US singles of the era, and I'd love to hear it a lot more often than I do (which at the moment is "never" outside of my house). It doesn't seem to sell for a great deal on ebay, either, so the question must surely be - am I alone in my love of this record, or does it have an untapped audience waiting for it?

18 May 2016

Symon & Pi - Love Is Happening To Me/ Got To See The Sunrise

Label: Parlophone
Year of Release: 1968

Yet another Mark Wirtz single on "Left and to the Back" to the add to the growing pile, though far from being a piece of popsike or intricate Beach Boys inspired balladry, this is instead sprightly sixties beat pop.

The A-side "Love Is Happening To Me" treads a fine line between being hook-ridden and faintly irritating, adopting a peculiar cod-calypso sound and chirpy brass. Had it been a turntable hit or chart hit at the time, it might have tried the patience of some after a couple of weeks. As a flop, however - and a bloody obscure one hardly anyone owns at that - it's actually quite enjoyable, its irrepressible jollity seeming like a welcome ray of light rather than a source of annoyance.

Wirtz tended to throw so much fairy dust over his studio productions that it's odd to hear something of his which sounds absolutely clean and direct. It's proof that his mind wasn't always on breaking new ground, and perhaps he hoped the relative simplicity of this one would result in a hit.

As for who Symon And Pi were... they appear to have been a performing male/ female duo from the period who had one other single out (a Spector inspired pop cover of "Sha La La La Lee") and nothing else. Do you know them? Have you seen them? Do call.

15 May 2016

Barron Knights - Mr Rubik

Label: Epic
Year of Release: 1981

The Barron Knights are that very rare deal - a successful British comedy group who actually broke through in the USA as well (albeit only briefly). Starting life in the sixties as a "straight" rock group, their first hit "Call Up The Groups", a parody of various British beat groups of the time, saw them taking their comedy elements much more seriously for future releases.

The Knights fell in and out of favour throughout the coming decades, making a fine living as a touring act (which they continue to do) but having mixed fortunes in the charts. "Mr. Rubik" came out on the back of a bit of a purple patch for them, with recent numbers such as "A Taste of Aggro" and "Never Mind The Presents" being big sellers, and their version of Supertramp's "The Logical Song" - retitled "The Topical Song" - managing to break through in the US.

The lyrics to "The Topical Song" were penned by the American poet Robert S White, and they pressed him into action again here in the hope that his observations on the fiendish puzzle of the Rubik's Cube would push them up the charts in both countries again. Sadly, it failed. "Mr. Rubik" is an oddity in their canon, being a piece of Buggles-ish synth-pop. It's not entirely unfunny, with some choice lyrical punchlines on the obsessive behaviour of many cube players at the time, but the public clearly preferred their parodies to their observational comedy material.

They never did manage another hit in the UK charts, although their "Buffalo Girls" parody "Buffalo Bill's Last Scratch" did manage to climb to number 49 in 1983. I'm sure they're not overly fussed. Most groups are lucky to manage to score hits in more than one decade, never mind multiple decades, and that applies doubly to comedy or novelty groups. Whatever your feelings on the Knights, there's no question that they kept up with modern musical styles and adapted their approach, and definitely had a keen ear for musical parody. Some of the jokes layered on top of the parodies have aged poorly or lost relevance, but the fact that classrooms in the eighties and the sixties were filled with small children talking about The Barron Knights on "Top Of The Pops" is an impressive achievement and possibly unparalleled. I can't imagine that Weird Al Yankovic has had the same mainstream impact since the eighties.

Sadly, their original lead singer Duke D'Mond passed away in 2009, but the rest of them are still out there somewhere, though only one original member (Pete Langford) continues to tour with the name.

Apologies for not uploading the flip side of the single, by the way - it really is quite badly scratched. By Buffalo Bill, I'll warrant.

14 May 2016

Northern Soul in Hackney - 20th May

Next Friday (20th May) I'll be Dj'ing with Dirty Water's John The Revelator at a Soul night in Hackney Wick, with a heavy (but not total) Northern Soul bias. It promises to be huge fun, and I'm already getting childishly excited about all the records I'm planning to bring along - bits and pieces of obscure and seldom spun works as well as all the ones you'd rightly expect to hear. It will be frantic and full-on, because nobody needs a frantic and full-on fun night out more than me at the moment. For that reason alone it has to work. 

If you're up for it, it's taking place at Grow in Hackney Wick at 98C Wallis Road, London E9 5LN. The Facebook invite is here. And you can even get food from the Ghanian inspired menu.

See you there. Let's all have a proper Friday night, shall we?

11 May 2016

Norman and the Invaders - Night Train To Surbiton/ The Likely Lads

Label: United Artists
Year of Release: 1965

Strange as it possibly seems from today's perspective, a lot of TV themes throughout the fifties to late sixties ended up getting released as singles, even without the existence of BBC Records and Tapes to take gambles on their commercial viability. Some theme tunes, such as that of "Doctor Who", were so striking that obviously the decision made sense. In other cases, it's hard to hear where the broader appeal lay. 

"Night Train To Surbiton" is, logically enough, the theme to a missing-believed-wiped six-part thriller drama from 1965 starring Peter Jones and Nicholas Parsons. Revolving around two businessmen getting themselves caught up in a murder mystery while spending a weekend away, the  series is remembered by some as being eerie and gripping, but... that's literally all the information I have (unless you want me to pull all the casting and crew information off IMDb, but you can do that for yourselves, surely?) The theme tune itself sounds more like something from a television Western than a crime drama, and shorn of all context it's hard to understand why. It's not completely impossible that it was a piece of music which was appropriated in a manner the composer (Norman Percival) hadn't originally intended. 

The B-side needs little introduction, but then again, maybe it does. This, after all, is not the theme from "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads", but the theme from "The Likely Lads", so you can curb your expectations and stop expecting a bleary-eyed, beery-bellied mournful singalong about the onset of middle age and the Newcastle slum clearances (and you YouTube video owners can stop calling the WHTTLL theme "The Theme From The Likely Lads" as well, BECAUSE TECHNICALLY IT'S NOT. Specifics are important, damnit!) That said, I'm not actually sure this is the original theme as such either - it seems like a cover version with a very heavy Mr Bloe styled harmonica section, like some sort of "Last of the Summer Wine" and "Likely Lads" mash-up. Somebody ring Channel 4 now, there's probably an appalling series in that idea, but one which would nonetheless be guaranteed bucketloads of media coverage.

8 May 2016

Iron Cross - Everybody Rock On/ All Of The Time

Label: Spark
Year of Release: 1974

We've encountered Iron Cross once already on this blog, in the form of their gruff, masculine cover of "A Little Bit O' Soul". This, then, is their "other" flop single, and when this proved equally unsuccessful they disappeared never to pester the record racks again.

A shame, actually, because from the limited evidence we have they actually sound like one of the more interesting Glam Rock bands of the era. Producing self-penned material that sounded convincing and sharp, the A-side here "Everybody Rock On" is perhaps the most straight ahead piece of tinsel, consisting of the usual foot-stomping chants. Nonetheless, it's well constructed and could have been a hit under the right circumstances.

It's the flip - which is commercially available, unfortunately, meaning I can't upload it in full here - which fascinates me most, though. "All Of The Time" is a piece of angst-ridden seventies rock with a yearning quality which is almost haunting. This isn't heavy-handed stuff, and shows a group capable of writing intricate songs which went far beyond the usual thudding glam cliches. Taking traces of early ELO as well as hard rock and glam, if this was left to rot on a flip side, you have to wonder what else they had up their sleeves.

The band apparently hailed from Staffordshire and consisted of Dave Hill (not that Dave Hill, obviously), Alan Saunders, John Isaacs, Alan Wallbanks, Graham Collier and Mark Lovatt. More than that, I do not know - get in touch if you have any further details.

4 May 2016

Kris Ife - Give and Take/ Sands Of Time

Label: Music Factory
Year of Release: 1968

Pop music history is littered with people who were relatively successful for about six months before losing relevance. Often their career's decline from mid-table chart finishers to niche fanbase performers is gentle - they might suffer the ignominy of the occasional "What Exactly Is Kate Nash Doing These Days?" styled article, but they're still able to maintain a gentle media presence.

Others just disappear from the gaze of the mainstream press without explanation. Kris Ife was one example - as a member of The Quiet Five in the mid-sixties, he managed a couple of well-received singles which just about charted, "When The Morning Sun Dries The Dew" and "Homeward Bound". When he jumped off that particular ship to forge a solo career, it would seem that record companies invested a great deal of faith in him building on those foundations - MGM financed three singles in total (including this one on their short-lived Music Factory subsidiary) and Parlophone two. United Artists gave him a third crack of the whip in the late seventies.

Despite the promise, as a solo performer he never really seemed to shift units, and by the mid-seventies his recorded output dried up. That's not to say that he didn't leave a very firm mark on music history in the process, mind - his version of "Hush" was popular in clubs and was the one that members of Deep Purple heard in a Manchester nightclub before deciding to record it themselves. Without him, maybe Kula Shaker would have been denied an extra top five hit... and far beyond "Hush", his Mark Wirtz produced single "Imagination" is one of the more unreasonably ignored bits of lost British psychedelia.

His version of Jimmy Cliff's "Give and Take" is also firm, driving and an arguable case for the "Borderline Northern Soul" files. It adds urgency to the track and a particularly forceful brass section, and the only thing stopping it from being a great record (as opposed to a good one) is the slightly over-considered production. To have been a proper barnstormer, I sense this one needs a bit more roughness - as it stands, it has a slight cabaret edge it could do with losing.

Kris carried on recording until his untimely death in November 2013, his last release being a CD of skiffle songs with The Beaver Street Hat Band.

1 May 2016

Reupload - Randy Sparks - Hazy Sunshine/ And I Love You

Label: MGM
Year of Release: 1971

Randy Sparks is a man whose career has been better appreciated in the USA than it has on European shores.  Back there, he had enormous success with his folk ensemble The New Christy Minstrels, a cheery bunch of rootsy individuals who epitomise the more commercial, rustic, family friendly, feel good nature of American folk alongside such other contenders as the Serendipity Singers (though in fairness, The New Christy Minstrels were somewhat more earnest).  Such was their commercial breakthrough in the early sixties that they have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Top that, Nick Drake.

Sparks' solo career is spoken about less, but in fact some of the early seventies moments are rather hippy-ish in their feel and not at all unlikable.  "Hazy Sunshine" in particular sums up the mood of flower power a fair few years too late, but is still a pleasant and tranquil listen.  "Nothing is black, nothing is white... If you don't believe in grey, go away" he demands, before informing the listener that new times are a-dawning.  I seem to say this at least once a month on this blog, but had he issued this single a few years before its actual release date he might have been in with a shot at the Billboard Charts, but the fact remains that such references were beginning to seem a bit passé by the early seventies.  As it stands, what we're left with is a pleasant piece of memorabilia which does make the summer seem like an altogether better place to relax in.

I would like to apologise for the pops and clicks present in the mp3s below, but erasing them only had the effect of deadening the acoustic production of the songs on both sides - and on reflection, I decided that an undoctored version of the rather scuffed up single I had was the better option.