31 October 2018

The Unknowns - Tighter/ Young Enough To Cry

Members of Paul Revere and The Raiders in a contractually necessary 'mystery' guise

Label: Marlin
Year of Release: 1967

When bands emerged in the sixties with names like "The Guess Who" or "The You Know Who Group", the management and label responsible were usually hoping radio programmers and the general public would be suckered by the idea that it was The Beatles or The Stones in disguise. Usually, the story was blander and simpler, and behind those vague monikers lay hungry musicians or producers desperate for a hit. 

On very rare occasions, though, there would be famous people behind the record, and lo and behold, here we have a bona-fide example of that. The Unknowns consist of Mark Lindsay and Keith Allison of Paul Revere and The Raiders collaborating with friend and non-top 40 recording artist Steve Alaimo. The individuals all met while Alaimo was musical director on the television series "Where The Action Is", and began to scheme about the possibility of putting some of The Raiders' lesser known LP tracks across to a wider audience. 

The slightly blandly named The Unknowns were the resulting mystery band, with the individuals in question lying low in order to avoid being caught breaking their respective recording contracts. This had the obvious disadvantage of causing the group to be unable to promote their own releases. The first, "Melody for an Unknown Girl", got to number 74 in the Billboard charts despite this, but the second single "Tighter" seemed to totally fail to capture anyone's attention.

28 October 2018

The Blizzard King - Break On Through/ Strangers In The Night/ In The Ghetto

Bill Drummond and Zodiac Mindwarp take on Morrison, Sinatra and the King of Rock and Roll.

Label: Kalevala
Year of Release: 1997

We've already talked in some depth about Bill Drummond's odd Kalevala label project, and we have now included all but one of the singles released (I'm still holding out for a reasonably priced copy of "Gimpo" by Gimpo). Like most of Drummond's post-KLF projects, it's been an odd, interesting, uneven, but occasionally very rewarding ride. These singles mark the last time he really dabbled with recorded music - the "17" project dealing entirely with one-off live performances - and while they generally indulge his whims rather than point to any directions the KLF might have gone in, Bill's whims are often more entertaining than most artist's considered works.

This record was always, on paper, one of most absurd-sounding of the batch. In Zodiac Mindwarp and Bill Drummond's novel/ road diary/ mesh of truths, half-truths and downright violent fantasy "Bad Wisdom", we learned about a Lebanese Elvis impersonator they had discovered in Finland who looked and sounded uncannily like the King himself. They also wrote about weird sounds they heard being piped through the radio in their car, including strange Finnish language covers of Bruce Springsteen tracks and songs by The Doors.

This is actually quite explicable - anyone who follows the Foreign Cover Versions Twitter feed will know that Finnish language covers of major American and British hits are two a penny, and some are surprisingly well produced given the probable size of the market they're catering for. Caught unawares, however, Drummond began to get obsessed with these sounds and wonder if he was in some parallel universe where everyone, Springteen, John Lydon, Elvis himself, somehow had Finnish heritage.

I visited Finland myself last year, and I can confirm that somehow the country does do funny things to your head, even if you're not Bill Drummond. Everything looks superficially Scandi at first, but the Finns had closer ties to the USSR than most Western European countries, creating a weird hybrid of cultures and a sense of being neither one place or the other. The Finns also possess a particularly dark, unusual sense of humour. While there, I was nearly tipped over the edge by a drawing of a giant demonic rabbit in the window of a barber's shop, which looked closer to my imaginary idea of the Echo spirit Bill Drummond envisaged years ago than anything I'd seen before. There were other odd things too - a man in a penguin suit dancing to out-of-tune cathedral bells, two Maneki-Nekos infinitely stabbing each other to a death that never came in a knife shop window, a rusty trombone in the window of a High Street bank, the creeping sense that if I stayed long enough I'd be told the purpose of why I came and what I was to do with my life next... all of which evaporated and felt embarrassingly nonsensical as soon as I touched down in the UK again. But perhaps that's just me.

Putting personal feelings and experiences aside for one moment, this single tries to reproduce the Finnish flavoured Elvis and Doors sounds Bill and Zed heard. Staying true enough to the original arrangements to feel familiar but just skewed enough to make you feel unsettled, it does a good job of summing up their experiences and acting as the book's "soundtrack", but possibly isn't something the average listener would return to much (unlike some of the other Kalevala releases this blog has documented).

24 October 2018

Reupload - The Monitors - Nobody Told Me

Fantastic and much-neglected early 80s Australian synth-pop

Label: Festival
Year of Release: 1981

The Monitors were fleeting sparks in the steelworks of Australian pop, and - so far as I can tell - didn't really manage to have any impact outside their home country. Formed as a studio ensemble in 1980 by session musicians Mark Moffatt and Terry McCarthy, they're most mentioned these days for their connections with the twin sister actresses Gayle and Gillian Blakeney who eventually joined the TV soap "Neighbours".

The concept was quite simple, and quite cynical if we're being critical. Neither Moffatt or McCarthy were particularly photo or telegenic, and the workaround for this in the band's videos and TV appearances was to involve the young sisters in a variety of ways. While they didn't sing on any of the records, the very young Blakeneys donned Kiss makeup and leapt around a lot for the debut single "Singin' In The 80s", which reached Number 16 on the Australian charts. Such was their visual impact at the time that some people began to believe that The Monitors were the Blakeneys group, rather than them simply being employed as a visual element.

They featured in a rather more subtle way in the video for the follow-up single "Nobody Told Me", which was less successful, peaking at a modest number 32. Unfair, since if you ask me "Nobody Told Me" is a far superior single, sounding incredibly of its time with the pulsing and squeaking synths and melodramatic vocals, but having such a killer hook in the fanfare of a chorus that it's irresistible. The nagging female backing vocals (performed by Kim Durant and mimed by the Blakeneys) are also enormously effective, and it's glorious pop music - Moroder tinged, melancholic and horribly addictive.

21 October 2018

UK Bonds - Anything You Do Is Alright/ The Last Thing I Ever Do

Two sharp slices of 60s Brummie mod-pop

Label: Polydor
Year of Release: 1966

OK, it's very unusual for me to put a record quite this battered-looking up on to "Left and to the Back", but in my defence, it is knackered in a fairly unique way. With an horrendous looking label and the pops and crackles intensifying towards the final moments of the audio, the most severe damage appears to have taken place towards the centre - almost as if somebody had stored it directly next to a four inch circular sander.

Suffice to say, it plays far better than you'd expect, and is a scarce enough record for me to deem it worthy of inclusion here. With tinkling piano lines, crashing Townshend-esque chords, a steady backbeat and icy cool vocals, "Everything You Do Is Alright" is straight ahead mod-pop for switched on kids. The track was also later attempted by Northern Soul favourites Chapter Five on CBS, though copies of that single seem equally tricky to come by.

The flip "The Last Thing I Ever Do" has been compiled on sixties rarities compilations before, but for my tastes isn't as satisfying - the vocals feel a bit less confident and the backing too plodding and pedestrian by comparison. 

17 October 2018

Bill - Car Boot Sale/ John Parr

Oddly despairing Steve Wright sponsored novelty single on the pointlessness of car boot consumerism

Label: Mercury
Year of Release: 1993

"Listen to Steve Wright In The Afternoon. Viewed from a certain angle the man is a genius. Find that angle and view. He is the most popular DJ in the country. He has been the heartbeat of the British psyche since 1985. You don't even have to like him to be awed by him. This... is not an attempt at obvious irony, it is for real."
Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty - "The Manual - How to Have a Number One the Easy Way"

Over the years, the above paragraph from the KLF's guide to making number one hits has troubled me. Once they've mentioned Steve Wright in relation to their summer smash "Doctorin' The Tardis", some parallels become very clear - Wrighty even used comedy dalek voices on his show, though noticeably after Drummond and Cauty used them first (and after Victor Lewis Smith, for that matter).

One person who has suggested that Steve Wright might actually be more of a subversive than you'd expect is Richard Easter, his radio sidekick for many years, who was responsible for a vast number of the comedy characters and musical sketches which littered his Radio One show. Easter's work-rate was actually phenomenal. Whereas most comedy writers will tend to focus their efforts on material for a couple of radio or television series a year, he rapidly contributed a lot of work to Wright's radio show five days a week, continually bearing the broad Radio One audience in mind. As such, it's not surprising that characters like Dr. Fish Filliter or Arnie Terminator's angry consumer complaints aren't necessarily award-winning or groundbreaking material, but all were short, sharp, absurd, almost always utterly silly and occasionally unexpectedly close to the (fish) bone. As comedic contributions to a mainstream radio show go, they were far more successful than most attempts at the time, and helped to keep Wright's ratings buoyant and people like me listening.

Easter was also a keen writer of catchy novelty ditties, which saw him score a bona-fide major hit through Epic Records with Arnee and the Terminators "I'll Be Back" (penned in two hours and apparently never intended for commercial release, though it seems to have inadvertently invented the sound of Scooter). Doubtless other major labels were keen to capture the lightning success of that unlikely hit, and Mercury obviously felt his satirical melodic musings on the tedium of car boot sales - repeated at extremely regular intervals throughout Steve Wright's show - would be the next top ten smash in line.

14 October 2018

Worth - Let's Go Back To Yesterday/ Let Me Be

Sweeping orchestral pop from Norm Bellis under a group name

Label: CBS
Year of Release: 1971

Following The Love Affair's success in 1967 with the (actually incredibly good) "Everlasting Love", record labels seemed to sense that there was clearly a cash cow to be milked. Stuff psychedelia, prog rock, funk, reggae and all that jazz. Platinum discs seemed more likely to fall at your feet if you just picked a catchy pop song, put an epic, sweeping, pounding orchestra behind a powerful vocalist, and gave the project a group name. 

This wasn't a foolproof hit-making method, though, and quite a number of singles fell completely short of the Top 40. Long-standing act Worth - not a group, so far as I can ascertain, but the work of pop scene and Apple Music stalwart Norm Bellis - had five attempts to bite the chart cherry between 1970-73, and failed on each occasion, although his fourth flipside "Hey Mister Lonely" apparently picked up some attention outside the UK.

10 October 2018

Reupload - Starlings - Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)/ Typhoons - Little Red Rooster

Powerful and surprisingly brilliant cover of the girl-group classic on the budget Woolies label

Label: Embassy
Year of Release: 1964

We've encountered the Embassy label on "Left and to the Back" before, of course. (YesWe have). It was the label John Lennon referred to in a moment of despondency, jokingly commenting that even they had rejected The Beatles. Pressing up cheap sound-a-like discs for the cash-strapped or just plain unfussy, they were responsible for some truly awful howlers in their time. Just listen to this appalling caterwauling take on "Wimoweh" if you don't believe me, or this underpowered take on The Beatles themselves. 

Occasionally, though, Embassy did turn up trumps, and it's to the credit of the session musicians they hired when things did go to plan. Frequently thrown in at the deep end, given next-to-no time to learn the songs and even less time than that to record them (usually a few takes at most) when these discs sound good, they sound good under the most pressured and unlikely of circumstances. 

So then, if you were pop-picking in Woolworths in 1964, this record would actually have been a rather good buy. The version of "Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)" is a staggeringly effective take on the girl group classic. Joan Baxter handles the lead vocals and positively nails the yearning qualities of the song - so much so that this actually becomes a perfectly strong alternative version rather than just a cheap substitute for the real thing. This isn't some kind of dilute-to-taste ageing session muso's take on teenage heartbreak, there's genuine power and a certain innocence behind the performance, piercing right through everything else. 

7 October 2018

The Pickwicks - Apple Blossom Time/ I Don't Want To Tell You Again

Debut Beat Pop effort from eccentrically garbed Coventry bunch

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1964

We've already covered The Pickwicks once on "Left and to the Back" when we took a look at their uptempo, searing garagey efforts "Little By Little" and their cover of Ray Davies' "I Took My Baby Home". 

Their debut release "Apple Blossom Time" was somewhat more conventional by comparison, being a more controlled and less frisky beat offering. It's an odd track for a sixties band to be covering, being penned in the twenties then performed by all manner of pre-rock and roll stars including The Andrews Sisters, Vera Lynn, Nat King Cole and Artie Shaw.  Its romantic imagery and sweet-natured lyrics seem rather tame and decidedly un-teen, but the group do inject it with a certain oomph and even add some squeaky keyboards which make it feel as if it indirectly invented Lipps Inc's "Funky Town". 

3 October 2018

The Endevers - Sunny And Me/ I Really Hope You Do

Bouyant, optimistic, orchestrated pop song from the 60s beat merchants

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1969

The irritatingly named Endevers have had their meatier, beatier moments slipped on to a couple of sixties rarity compilations lately, with their debut single "Taking Care of Myself" popping up on "Beatfreak" and "She's My Girl" being the opening track on volume 4 of "New Rubble". This, their final single, has yet to be given another outing.

That's possibly because unlike the two stormers that preceded it, "Sunny and Me" is a fluffy piece of sunshine pop, filled to the brim with feelgood arrangements and hopeful lyrics. It's actually a version of a Farrell and Romeo penned track which originally landed (equally unsuccessfully) in the laps of country poppers Douglas Good and Ginny Plenty the year before, and the arrangement doesn't take any radical steps away from that flop record. The vocals here are much more confident and punchy, though, and so for my money it's the better version.