30 June 2019

Repload - Sarah Jane - Listen People/ The World Is Round

Hushed, delicate and haunting take on the Graham Gouldman track

Label: Pye
Year of Release: 1966

The post-nineties music scene has been completely flooded with female stars after a long period of women in rock and pop - and certainly female singer-songwriters - being rather sidelined. That some of the largest selling records of the last fifteen years have been made by Adele, Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, and (*sharp intake of breath, wince*) Dido is a sign of the marketplace becoming a lot more even, not through any kind of concerted right-on media campaign, but entirely through consumer choice.

It's easy to forget that back in the sixties there was a similar push and rush of female artists, although back then a hell of a lot more of them failed to get more than one hit, and many more didn't chart at all. For every Sandie Shaw there was an Adrienne Poster, for every Lulu a Bobbie Miller. In fact, I'm going to mention Twinkle's late non-hit "Micky" at this juncture not because it's especially relevant to the record in hand (it isn't at all) but because its failure to chart is one of the era's biggest injustices. It's my blog and I'll whine if I want to.

But moving on to the matter in hand - Sarah Jane's version of the Gouldman-penned "Listen People" is an understated proposition to say the least. In fact, it almost turns understated into a genre of its own. A delicate orchestra brushes strings in the background while Sarah Jane sings so softly it's as if the whole performance is being carried on a summer breeze. Even turning the volume up to ten probably wouldn't trouble the neighbours. It wouldn't be the last time such a style took hold, and nor was it the first - Marianne Faithfull also had similar subtle ways to begin with, and Vashti Bunyan would certainly usually favour the delicate arrangement over the strident. Unlike either of those artists, however, Sarah Jane would neither score immediate success nor achieve eventual acclaim, and this single seems to have been her only outing.

26 June 2019

The Castells - Two Lovers/ Jerusalem

Dreamy psychedelia or gentle, easy pop? Or both? You decide.

Label: Masquerade
Year of Release: 1967

This one comes firmly recommended from a number of sources online, with the words "dreamy" and "psychedelia" often being used in close proximity to each other in people's descriptions. As I'm a sucker for the kind of swirling, mid-summer haziness of many of 1967's releases, I decided to take a gamble on this one while it was still cheap. 

And guess what? I'm not really sure it is especially psychedelic, but I'll leave you to judge for yourselves on that point. What it certainly does is take the melody from Adagio in G Minor, plonk it on a shimmering church organ, place the most delicate brushes of rhythms behind it, and push a cooing female vocal about romantic reminiscence to the forefront. If this makes matters sound rather saccharine, that's probably unfair - the song has a very melancholic, nostalgic air and focuses on memories of youthful love rather than the giddy rush of the present. No sooner has it made its point than it fades, dream-like, into the dawn. There's no doubt it's exceptionally well arranged and performed, and a solid recording all round, but claims of "lost psych classic!" or even "lost sixties smash" seem to be exaggerated.

Nestling on the flip is a somewhat muted version of the old Last Night Of The Proms classic, William Blake's "Jerusalem". There's a touch of the Ronnie Hazelhursts about the arrangement here, and I doubt it will be replacing Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty's version at the end of "It's Grim Up North" as top contemporary cover anytime soon. 

23 June 2019

Susan Fassbender - Merry-Go-Round/ Reasons

Slightly neurotic but hooky new wave pop from the under-rated Fassbender

Label: CBS
Year of Release: 1981

"Left and to the Back" has keenly supported Susan Fassbender's work before now. Her debut single and hit "Twilight Cafe" is probably the most persuasive and brilliantly penned one hit wonder of the eighties, and deserved to chart a lot higher than its final number 21 placing.

CBS only took Susan Fassbender on when it was clear that "Twilight Cafe" was going to be too in-demand for her original label Criminal to cope with, and there's a sense that they weren't entirely behind her work after that point, seeing her as an adopted stray rather than one of their A&R Department's own special discoveries. Her second single, the perky "Stay", made very little impression, and "Merry-Go-Round" ended up as her final release. After this, there was no LP, and no additional 45s.

This was a ridiculous move on their part. The demos that were recorded by her and Kay Russell have since been released, and point towards an assured pair of songwriters with plenty of other tricks up their sleeves. Given the fact that numerous one hit, three-chord wonder punk acts were being kept on the books of various labels in the hope of further success, Fassbender's ejection from the premises of CBS felt very premature.

"Merry-Go-Round" is actually a solid single which was unlucky not to have charted, and in a more established act's hands probably would have done. Sugary but faintly neurotic, it has Teardrops styled keyboard lines and a confident if rather bubblegum chorus.

20 June 2019

Clive Sands - A Very Lonely Man/ You Made Me What I Am

Peter Sarstedt's brother with some breezy but introspective pop

Label: CBS
Year of Release: 1969

We've featured Clive Sands on this blog before with his frankly brilliant version of "Witchi Tai To", though this single is a bird of a very different feather. Where "Witchi Tai To" was a piece of summery psychedelic fantasia, all woozy chanting and haunting organ lines in a heat haze, "A Very Lonely Man" is breezy pop. The sort of pop that turned up more frequently in the early seventies, in fact - you can imagine Edison Lighthouse covering this one.

The flip "You Made Me What I Am" has a much more bluesy feel and will probably appeal much more to "Left and to the Back" readers, coming across like a Stones track being given a pop makeover. In fact, it was the work of Clive Sands' own pen.

Somewhat sadly, this release didn't transform Robin Sarstedt's luck, and was as much of a flop as his previous three releases on Simon Napier Bell's SnB label. After this, CBS clearly opted not to release any more of his recordings, and he shifted over to RCA to release a couple of other flops under the name Clive Sarstedt. By 1976 he was back on Decca under the name Robin Sarstedt with the top three single "My Resistance Is Low", and his previous struggles were quickly forgotten.

16 June 2019

Reupload - Trademark - The Days of Pearly Spencer/ Baby, You Make It Real

A super-feelgood disco version of "Days of Pearly Spencer"? Well, why not.

Label: RSO
Year of Release: 1978

"Days of Pearly Spencer" is possibly the most iconic sixties single never to have been a hit in the UK. Largely but not entirely thanks to Marc Almond's hit nineties cover version, it's since been rediscovered afresh and given the respect it deserves. Propelled by the same intense melodrama as Scott Walker's bleakest best and focusing its lyrical attention on some kind of doomed, poverty stricken post-apocalyptic scenario ("Iron trees smother the air/ but withering they stand and stare/ through eyes that neither know nor care/ where the grass has gone") it's the kind of record that probably could only have been written around that time. 

Like a lot of doom-laden pop, however, what it does do is tread a very fine line between genius and adolescent preposterousness, which is probably why I nearly hit the floor laughing the first time this version leaked out of my stereo speakers. For this, for reasons known only to its creators, is a pumped-up, adrenalised seventies disco version of "Pearly Spencer". My first thought was that this was such a mismatch of ideas that it was tongue-in-cheek in its intentions, but it seems doubtful. Someone clearly heard the original and noticed, somewhere buried in its grooves, the soundtrack to a pumping Saturday night. 

Many liberties are taken with the original arrangement here. The chorus is altered so that the phrase "Pearly Spencer! Pearly Spencer!" is repeated by enthusiastic backing singers, akin to denizens of a doomed city sounding the melodic signal for a Batman or Mighty Mouse styled super-hero. The gothic melodrama is thus reduced to sketchy cartoonish action, film noir translated into an explosion of Zaps and Kapows. 

12 June 2019

Slimy & The Gibbons - The Banana Song/ RSM One Day

The "British Lenny Bruce" on a strangely Goodies styled tip

Label: Evolution
Year of Release: 1970

While he's seldom discussed these days, John Paul Jones, aka John Paul Joans, aka John Davidge, was a peculiar outlier in the British comedy scene who pointed possible ways forward. While most working men's clubs booked acts who were either fast-popping gag machines or specialists in blue material, Jones strode about the stage defiantly talking about banning the bomb and sexual deviancy - seriously way-out fare for the early seventies.

We've already dissected both his career and its tragic end in enormous detail here,  as well as mentioning his peculiar recording career which turned out several strange releases. This is another one, under another bloody pseudonym, and is probably the most off-brand effort of all. It's possible to hear some psychedelic hippy-dippy whackiness in these grooves, but ultimately it's a childish piece of cartoonish oom-pah quirk about the joys of bananas. Novelty psychedelic pop? Possibly, but if so, it landed at least three years too late. 

The flipside is a baffling army tune which seems as if it must have a satirical point, but none becomes immediately apparent. 

9 June 2019

T.N.T. - Big Trouble

The rock/dance crossover starts here? Certainly, the flipside is manic stuff indeed. TAME THOSE DRUMS!

Label: Jam
Year of Release: 1972

A worthy two-sider here. On the A-side it's yet another piece of gruff, mean, funky rock of the sort you could imagine being favoured by fictional Yorkie lorry drivers. Snarling and clip-clopping its way alongside slick percussion, "Shaft" inspired strings and parping horns, it clearly means serious business. "Take out some life insurance!" growls the singer at one point, which, of course, is often good advice anyway. 

The flip, on the other hand, while acting as "Part Two", is a manic, bongo driven frenzy which sounds not unlike the kind of minimal anarchy which got collectors hot under the collar for Angelo and Eighteen's single "Midnight Flight" not so long ago. Unlike that record, though, this one decides that there couldn't possibly be any such thing as too many beats per minute, and for those who like their dancefloor action ridiculously frenzied, it's a real treat. 

5 June 2019

Lord Fred & The Littermen - 500 Tons Of Paper/ Lonely Theme

Pseudonymous novelty record about litterbugs

Label: Ember
Year of Release: 1967

I've got a certain amount of affection in my heart for Ember Records, while not necessarily being a wild fan of all their output. Plucky independent labels weren't just uncommon in the sixties, they were also often doomed to failure - so Ember's moderate successes are heartwarming and reassure me that even in the most unsympathetic business environment, the cottage industry can find a way to succeed.

Between the minor hits (and Glen Campbell's big ones) lay quite a few oddments and flops, though, many of which have since been compiled on to rarities CDs. This one, for example, has remained untouched and mysteriously unclaimed. It's not clear who Lord Fred and The Littermen were, though the contents are pure music hall jaunt and the lyrics seem to point towards a "Keep Britain Tidy" campaign. (I've some sympathy with the theme, in fact - somebody needs to drive around the streets of Ilford playing this through a deafening loud hailer until people stop trashing the area). 

The flipside seems to be the work of Mike Sammes Singers, so perhaps he was involved with the A-side too. Whatever, this is another example of a novelty single that didn't quite strike home, proving once again that trying to score a hit based on little more than a cheery, vaguely comedic lyrical theme and a catchy tune is a huge risk.

2 June 2019

Reupload - Nicky James - Reaching For The Sun/ No Life At All

Birmingham scene stalwart and future Moody Blues collaborator on an epic, Reg Guest produced journey

Label: Philips
Year of Release: 1969

After the first 30 seconds of playing this one, I really thought I'd found a surefire winner here, a record that makes you want to go on Google and check you're not going mad or remembering 60s rock history incorrectly - because initially, it seems unthinkable this wouldn't have been compiled or talked about somewhere else already.

"Reaching For The Sun" is unbelievably confident sounding at first, charging through your stereo speakers like Roy Orbison and Scott Walker riding together on stallions. Reg Guest - who also arranged a great deal of Walker's work - is partly to thank for exercising as much thundery drama from the track as possible, and typically for Guest, managing to find a way of expressing an epic idea without falling back on the worst easy listening cliches. Rather, "Reaching For The Sun" has the kind of clanging bells and rolling drums of a contemporary late sixties track like The Herd's "From The Underworld", and measures up to the best of his other arrangements from this period.

Ultimately though, "Reaching For The Sun" is one of those tracks that promises something awe-inspiring and then slides back into mere goodness. The epic roll of the first minute isn't really followed up with a convincing peak of a chorus, and you're left to wonder what could have been achieved with a few careful rewrites. But even as it stands, it's an unjustly obscure piece of work - not even listed on the artist's Wikipedia page, for shame - which deserves a bit more respect.

Nicky James had a long and varied career from the early sixties onwards, never managing to become much more than a Birmingham scene hero in the process. Born in Tipton, but shifting to Birmingham as a young man, he was initially a member of Denny Laine and the Diplomats before recording solo work for Pye, and was also briefly in The Jamesons with John Walker of the Walker Brothers. Famed locally for his extremely powerful vocals, he issued a brace of singles throughout the sixties, following his acclaimed 1963 Pye single "My Colour Is Blue" with issues on both Columbia and Philips, but none were hits. His B-side "Silver Butterfly" was compiled on to volume 17 of the Rubble series of compilation albums, but beyond that his output has been largely untouched since.