29 January 2020

Levity Lancers - Oh Play That Thing/ Too Late

Highly Bonzos-esque piece of likeable daftness with darker flipside

Label: Mercury
Year of Release: 1969

The mainstream reputation of the Bonzo Dog Band in the UK - if indeed they have much of a "mainstream" reputation these days - is probably that they were a bunch of funster one-hit wonders. More knowledgable music and comedy lovers might point to their work in "Do Not Adjust Your Set" and how it helped to launch the Python team, and also the gentle subversion and genuinely great songwriting on their LPs. 

Depressingly few would probably rank them as counter-cultural satirists these days, but nonetheless that's almost certainly where they often sat. Behind the slapstick, the gurning and the gentle farces on display in their work lay some pretty savage wrecking of societal norms, as well as the gleeful dismantling of the fragile webs most pop songs and pop careers are spun with. When I first heard a bootleg recording of "The Craig Torso Show" in a second hand record shop in the nineties, I was blown away by how playful and skewering it was simultaneously, giving UK pirate radio - the template for all pop radio that followed - a playful poke in the ribs while also giving it a fair warning. "Look," it seemed to say, "We can boil down the basic essence of one of your ridiculous shows in under four minutes. This isn't something you should be able to build a career on." "The Pink Half Of The Drainpipe" too is clearly Stanshall railing against suburban normality and who people expected him to be and who he wanted the freedom to be. (Others have also pointed out that Stanshall's on-the-street vox pops predated other satirists use of the gullible public by many years, but we're in danger of digressing out of control now and need to talk about this record...)

The point I was coming to, dear readers, is that while the Bonzos influenced other groups such as (most famously) the New Vaudeville Band, all of those bands tended to grasp at the cosy, the nostalgic and the faintly daffy elements of their output rather than the tough stuff to emulate. Most, of course, contented themselves with quick careers on the pub, student union and cabaret circuit before naffing off to the next session job once demand died down. 

I don't think I'm being unfair when I suggest that Levity Lancers were probably a very short-lived proposition who came and went very quickly. So far as I can tell, this was their only single, but despite the fact that it cosies up to the 78rpm era with pie-eyed nostalgia, it manages to be sweet and relatable too; toytown, psychedelic era observational lyricisms come through here. The A-side "Oh Play That Thing" is about the adventures of a woman and her brass instrument which is both silly and enjoyable, while the B-side "Too Late" owes a debt to Ray Davies, highlighting broken-down bungalows and lives spent in old age, loneliness, waste and dull routine. If Dukes of Stratosphear/ XTC had taken on the Bonzos, this might have been the end result (key reference points here for that band might be "Bungalow" or "Dying") Jollity, merry melodies and casual observations seem to be masking something much sadder and more regrettable.

26 January 2020

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

Tommy Vance forsakes the foaming nut brown ale for some special tablets

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, 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.

23 January 2020

Oak Tree - The Sun, It Always Shone/ My Baby Don't Cry

Epic 70s pop on President

Label: President
Year of Release: 1971

President has had a long and unusual history. Starting as one of the first big independent labels in 1966 and continuing to the present day, it had very early success with The Equals. From that point, it took on all manner of styles, groups and genres, from soul to psychedelia and reggae, and even had a late flush of cult hipster success with Robots In Disguise in the noughties.

Its release schedules throw up all manner of one-off artists and flops, making it a fascinating company for collectors, and Oak Tree were one of many. The A-side here is a huge, epic tune which brings to mind Father Dick Byrne singing his heart out on a Song For Ireland. Most listeners will probably get more joy out of the B-side, which is a Gene Pitney-esque, swinging ballad with a certain rawness in its bones. Once again, this is one to flip the sides for. 

19 January 2020

Vigrass & Osborne - Men Of Learning/ Forever Autumn

A Lego advert with some lyrics put to it, or "War of the Worlds"?

Label: Uni
Year of Release: 1972

As someone who hasn't necessarily been a keen student of all things Jeff Wayne, it took blogger (and ex-Green and ex-London Assembly politician) Darren Johnson to bring this one to my attention. 

Vigrass & Osborne were a slightly folky harmony pop duo who came under Jeff Wayne's charge for one LP in 1972. Gary Osborne had previously been a member of the UK (rather than US) Chocolate Watch Band who issued two singles on Decca in 1967, one of them being the highly sought-after "Requiem". Paul Vigrass, on the other hand, had served time as a solo artist on RCA as well as briefly delivering lead vocals for a post-Tony Burrows line-up of Edison Lighthouse.

Their debut album "Queues" was a collaborative effort with Wayne, with him providing the music and the duo providing lyrics for all the tracks. Despite being a contemplative and highly melodic album, it didn't achieve a lot of attention at the time, and despite occasional reissues around the world appears to have drifted off-catalogue once again.

That's surprising when you consider that one of the key tracks from Jeff Wayne's "War of the Worlds" project was already hiding away both on the LP, and on the B-side to the second single from it. "Forever Autumn" is, in this guise, slightly choppier and breezier than the eventual Justin Hayward version, clipping along like a song whisked through a gale, which was surely the intention. Droning synths and fluttering flutes rush past the song's post-romance angst, and for me, it's actually a more effective and evocative version, appropriately summing up the turmoil and confusion of a relationship's end. There again, it was the first version, and therefore had every right to be better.

15 January 2020

Fuzz Face - Mighty Quinn/ Voices From The Sky

"Groovy" sitar and organ instro version of the Dylan/ Manfred classic

Label: Page One
Year of Release: 1968

Anything I write about the progression of "Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)" from a "Great White Wonder" Dylan bootleg track to a major hit for Manfed Mann is probably going to be a bit of a waste of energy - everyone knows the story, after all. Dylan's songbook was continually plundered throughout the late sixties (and indeed beyond) by bands desperate for both cred and hits, and the adventures of Quinn the Eskimo were possibly the poppiest of options on offer, as well as handily buried on an unofficial release.

While Manfred Mann had shot to number one with their version of the track by February 1968, Fuzz Face here - who I'm 99.9% confident were some sort of American studio group - were latecomers to the party, issuing their version in April of that year. In fairness, it puts a slightly different spin on things, loading an instrumental version of the track with guitar effects, sitars, organs and decidedly "groovy" backing rhythms, making it prime fodder for anyone's house party. You can dance to this with much greater ease than the Mann's rather stompier take. 

Commercially, though, there wasn't much room in the charts for two versions of the same song at roughly the same time, and this sank on both sides of the pond. A shame, but it wasn't at all unusual for instrumental versions of pop hits to do this, however innovative or otherwise faintly psychedelic they were.

12 January 2020

Reupload - Trevor Burton - Fight For My Country/ Janie Slow Down

Utterly marvellous anthemic electro-psych glam from ex-Move man

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...

8 January 2020

Variation - Snowbird/ Nebula

Phil Cordell's attempt to repeat his Springwater success

Label: Warner Bros
Year of Release: 1973

One of the big surprise hits of 1971 was Springwater's "I Will Return", a guitar instrumental released when the charts weren't exactly chock full of them. The days of the music press having a "Best Instrumental Group" category in their reader's polls had long passed, and the idea of a group having a lead guitarist out front, not singing but Hank Marvinning to his heart's content, was passé to say the least. Springwater, however, bucked the trend and reached the top five in November of that year after a slow trudge up the charts.

Springwater were somewhat different to the usual format in that all the instruments on their recordings were played by one man, Phil Cordell. It proved to be a complete one-off success, though, and other singles released by "them" - including a somewhat unexpected cover of "Jerusalem" - flopped. Given that, it's a slight surprise to find this was also written, recorded and released by Phil Cordell in 1972, only under the name Variation. Issued in January 1973 mere moments after the Springwater name had been abandoned, it doesn't really offer any progression on the formula and is really just more of the same; quite haunting, very strongly performed and subtle, but unlikely to change his fortunes. The public were clearly not interested in more of the same. 

The flipside here is more interesting, being a church organ led piece of minimalism which sounds almost post-rock in its ambitions - slow, atmospheric and lingering like a low, druggy mist. It's possible that if Cordell had written more material of this ilk and sprawled it across an LP, he may have an underground hit of sorts.

5 January 2020

The Silvers - Where Has Love Gone/ She's My Woman

Obscure Johnny Hawkins produced baroque pop trio, lost to time

Label: CBS
Year of Release: 1968

The Silvers were one of the more luckless but persistent pop groups of the mid to late sixties, issuing three 45s which sold so poorly that copies are pure bitches to find (if you'll pardon the language this early on in 2020). Their 1966 Polydor debut "What A Way To Start The Day" (b/w "Blue Blue Eyes") is barely ever seen in record racks, and their follow-up on the same label, "The Trouble" (b/w "Almost In Love") managed to chart inside Radio London's payola-driven Top 40 in 1967, but turns up for sale just as infrequently.

Less obscure, but still not exactly cramming the record racks of Music and Video Exchange, is their final single - this time on CBS - "Where Has Love Gone". If it's anything to go by, it suggests that their earlier records might be worth checking out. The A-side is carefully arranged solemn, wintery baroque pop which gets prettier and more entrancing with each play. The group's vocal harmonies are fantastic and do much to complement Hawkins' careful orchestral arrangements. By January 1968 it might have seemed slightly dated and probably not sufficiently catchy or upbeat for radio, which is a pity. 

The flip is uncharacteristically popsike in its stylings too, beginning with what sounds like the master tape being reactivated after an unexpected power cut, before getting all groovy on our asses. It's careful and a little bit buttoned-up, but it nonetheless shows the group could let their hair down when required.

2 January 2020

The Sound Barrier - She Always Comes Back To Me/ Groovin' Slow

Mediocre mod-pop backed with killer popsike cut

Label: Beacon
Year of Release: 1968

A constant problem I have with flop sixties singles is how frequently their flipsides out-perform their official A-side. On occasion, it's not necessarily that the more buried work is lost hit material, but rather that it's of a higher quality and leaves me hungry for more by the group, and hoping there's a lost album out there somewhere. In other cases, I find myself thinking "Seriously? You left this to rot on the backside of this slice of stale Denmark Street leftovers?"

The Sound Barrier's only single is a definite case for the latter phenomenon. The almost never-heard "She Always Comes Back To Me" isn't necessarily a bad tune, but is hampered by a somewhat uncertain, limp performance by the group. In the hands of Geno Washington or a Motown recording artist, it might have cut it, but here the vocals strain to be soulful without success, and the backing is too loose for its own good. What this track needed was intensity and conviction, and what it gets is a fairweather approach. I doubt the woman in question actually came back, and they sound more deluded about the chances of her returning than anything else ("Maybe that's the point" - a voice).

Lurking on the B-side, however, is the Small Faces and Traffic aping "Groovin' Slow" and this is a complete delight, sounding far more powerful and demanding on vinyl than on any bootleg or semi-official psychedelic compilation it's appeared on over the last twenty years. Pitched somewhere between "Lazy Sunday" and "Hole In My Shoe", it's a red blooded cockney walkabout through city life which, had it been released at the height of Britpop, would probably have been welcomed as a knowing nod and pastiche to the mid-sixties era. "Take-a-good-look-out-your-window-at-the-sidewalk-see-the-people-rushing-byyyyyyy" the vocalist bleats at breakneck speed in the first few seconds, and the hippified, contemplative chorus eventually cuts in after several more frantic lines, acting as a slightly psychedelic break between the speedy verses. 

The track fades on what sounds like a faintly piss-taking parody of "Hole In My Shoe" - the group sound as if they might be tittering to themselves at one point - and while I suspect tongues were firmly in cheek, it's marvellous pop which is clearly up to its gills in the summer of love era.