31 May 2020

Reupload - Starbreaker - The Sound Of Summer/ Arizona Lost and Gone

John Carter summons the summer with a brilliant pop clarion call

Label: Air
Year of Release: 1977

John Carter should need no introduction to most of you, and yet "should" is probably the operative word there. While I've no doubt that many "Left and to the Back" readers are aware of his songwriting efforts for projects and bands as varied as The Flowerpot Men, First Class, Manfred Mann, The Music Explosion and The Ivy League, not to mention the efforts released under his own name such as the truly mind-boggling piece of psychedelic pop "Laughing Man", plenty of others won't be.

For the benefit of the people who have yet to delve into his back catalogue, Carter was a songwriter who undoubtedly heard Brian Wilson's efforts from across the pond and immediately decided that this was the future of sophisticated popsmithery as the world knew it. Therefore, a huge rump of his output from The Ivy League in the sixties through to First Class in the seventies dedicated itself to sunny and yet frequently despondent or introspective pop songwriting. The Ivy League's superb "My World Fell Down", later covered by US group Sagittarius to greater recognition, is a fine example of his experiments with an Anglicised approximation of the California sound.  When First Class's "Beach Baby" was issued in the seventies in the USA, it climbed into the Top 5 and most North Americans blithely assumed that it was the work of a Californian group. Unbeknownst to them, Carter had merely penned the track from his East Sheen house with his wife Gillian Shakespeare and given it to a studio group.

27 May 2020

The Shouts - She Was My Baby/ That's The Way It's Gonna Be

Raucous early mod-pop in the house, on tiny 60s independent label. 

Label: React
Year of Release: 1964

I'm sure there's a fascinating story behind the tiny little React label, which managed only two releases (this and Tony Washington's "Crying Man", written about on the blog here). Without being able to find the details anywhere, I'd willingly bet money on it being a project begun by a young go-getter in the biz determined to strike out on their own, in the same manner as Joe Meek with Triumph - but its legacy would suggest it ran out of money or enthusiasm (or both) really sharply. Put simply, the majors dominated the early to mid sixties ruthlessly and independent labels were shoved off record store racks everywhere in favour of whatever the "big boys" wanted to push to the public.

The fact they were out-resourced is no indication of overall quality, though. "She Was My Baby" is a great little stomper which has a raunchiness and rawness a lot of their beat rivals lacked. This a party-stormer which wouldn't have been out of place on a regional American label, and really should have been a hit. The group consisted of Tim Bates on lead guitar and vocals, John Reece on bass and vocals, Jem Field on sax and vocals, Eric Baker on keyboards and Victor Clark on drums, came from Liverpool (citation needed -ed) and backed Gene Vincent on tour, backing him on the UK LP "Shakin' Up A Storm". 

They were even dropped on to the bottom of the bill of the "Big Beat Tour" of 1964 alongside The Honeycombs, The Puppets, The Beat Merchants, Daryl Quist,  Gene Vincent, The Applejacks, Lulu and Millie, but didn't get a page in the accompanying programme, meaning we're frustratingly lacking any clarity on the group's history. 

24 May 2020

The Pattersons - I Can Fly/ An Cailin Deas

Pretty, bewitching and wonderful popsike from unlikely Irish folk source

Label: CBS
Year of Release: 1970

It's probably surprising to nobody, but songs about flying were everywhere during the generally accepted(*) 1967-1970 peak of popsike, from George Harrison's attempt for The Beatles, to Windmill's "I Can Fly", to the Portebello Explosion's "We Can Fly", and on the list goes... as we well know, when reaching for the rhyming dictionary "fly" is very close to "high" indeed, and that was a sensation groups were keen to communicate at that time.

This single from Irish folkies The Pattersons has no relation to Windmill's single, though, and is actually a genuinely beautiful, intricate creation, brimming over with subtle wah-wah guitars, saxophones, strings and close harmonies across a blissful three minutes. Lyrically, it's disappointing and doesn't stray far from fairly standard Hallmark greetings card waffle about "peace on earth" and tranquility, but the song itself weaves its spell magnificently, sounding more like the work of the Mamas and the Papas at their finest. It's sumptuous, readers, and I'm really shocked its sat under the radar for so long - weren't we supposed to have picked this particular barrel dry long ago?

The Pattersons were a family group (initially Billy, Christine, Dorothy and Ronnie, until Christine bailed in 1969) from Letterkenny in County Donegal, who were big news in Ireland at that time having their own TV series in 1969, and even appeared on the "Morecambe and Wise" show in the UK. While their records sold well in Ireland, with their first single "I Don't Want To Be A Memory" climbing to number two in the Eire charts, their efforts are less commonly chanced upon in the UK - their label CBS released most of them there, but the British public weren't keen purchasers of most of their output.

20 May 2020

Sunny Daze - Gone Fishin'/ That Summer Feeling

Idle summer rinky-dink tootling from probable hairies

Label: Polydor
Year of Release: 1972

From its late sixties to early seventies output, the UK branch of Polydor is a fascinating label for the crate-digger. During that period it licensed a lot of product from independent production companies, meaning the catalogue is overflowing with odd one-off 45s filled with novelty pop, freakbeat and Soho club basement soul. Some of it is also frighteningly scarce these days, if frequently available for reasonable prices when it does show up.

Here's another obscure oddment to add to the list. "Gone Fishin'" had a long life prior to this recording, perhaps being most appreciated in its guise as a Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong duet. Oh, how we'd all love to live in Bing's world, where David Bowie is a neighbour and drops by for a Christmas chat and sing-song, and he's forever popping round Louis' house for a cup of coffee but Louis is always out with his rod. But I digress...

What we have here is a slightly more subdued, less showbiz cover of the song which brings a lazy hippy folkiness to the original concept. The arrangements are closer to a Kevin Ayers LP than Hollywood, and it's as tranquil as a quiet day on Wanstead Flats. The rinky-dink arrangement palls a little towards the end, but on the whole it's a charming bit of hippy trad-influenced pop.

17 May 2020

Reupload - The Creation - Creation/ Shock Horror

Nineties comeback single from legendary sixties group, on the legendary label named after them

Label: Creation
Year of Release: 1994

The Creation are usually one of the first groups on the lips of any connoisseur of sixties music if they're asked the question: "Which truly great British sixties bands fell by the wayside at the time?" 

In truth, they weren't total obscurities. They managed one very minor hit with "Painter Man", and another very near-hit with the big and beastly "Making Time". The former, somewhat absurdly, was later covered by Boney M, while the latter has become ubiquitous even in indie club land in the last twenty years - I was at an indie night in Ottawa ten years ago and heard the DJ play it to a huge dance floor response, and then again at a wedding elsewhere. It may have failed to crack the Top 40 in the UK, but it's since become regarded as a monstrous piece of mod pop as worthy of attention as anything The Who also produced at the time. The Germans were more accommodating in the sixties and found them a home in their charts; the British, for whatever reason, failed to see sense. 

The Creation's stock began to rise during the first wave of the sixties revival in the eighties, and only continued to gain momentum as the nineties set in. If evidence of this is needed, the fantastically chaotic and psychedelic "How Does It Feel To Feel" was covered by Ride and issued as an A side by them. Ride's parent label Creation was named after the band, and 1994 obviously seemed like the perfect date for the original line-up to get back together and produce new material, and get them on to the legendary label in question. They were placed in the studio with the label's legendary producer Joe Foster to produce a single also entitled "Creation", presumably with the idea that this three-way match between label, band and song title would be an interesting press story in itself.

13 May 2020

The Hobo Radio Company - Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh What A Drag/ It's Always Rubbish On The B Side

Laurie Anderson being parodied by an ex-Coronation Street actor - it could only happen in 1981

Label: Red Bus
Year of Release: 1981

It's 1981, I'm eight years old, and I'm listening to the chart run-down on my parent's cheap transistor radio in the dining room. The top ten so far has brought me climbers from Shakin' Stevens, who has become a familiar feature by now, Elvis Costello, who really isn't my bag but is a familiar sound to my very young ears, The Jam, who I loved, and Altered Images who I recognise as one of my cousin's favourite bands. 

This familiar, cosy, comfortable tea-time territory was then promptly shattered by Laurie Anderson's "O Superman", climbing sixteen places to the number two spot and clearly challenging Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin for next week's number one position (if I only I'd known that ex-members of Hatfield and the North being at number one was odd enough in itself). What I heard at that point wasn't recognisable as music to me, and felt both unnatural and slightly frightening. "Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!" droned a continuous keyboard note as if it was all some kind of joke at my expense, while Anderson delivered what sounded like a desperate prayer down a busted vocoder.

"Mum, why is this number two?" I demanded.
"Because enough people bought it," she explained. (We'd had these conversations before. "Why is Lena Martell number one when she isn't any good, Mum?", "Why aren't ELO number one when they've clearly made the best record?" and "Are The Jam allowed to just go straight in at number one?" are all questions she's been asked and weathered with patience, explaining to me each and every time that the charts reflected sales, and if more people bought any given record in any particular week, then it would chart at number one, irrespective of other factors such as where it was in the charts the week before and, most especially, whether I liked it or not).
"But Mum, who would want to listen to this? It's just the same note over and over!"
"Well, enough people obviously did like it," she replied.
"Did people buy it thinking it was the Superman theme tune or something? Do you think it's gone to number two by mistake? Will it go down the charts again next week if everyone takes their copies back to Woolworths?" 
I was getting angrier and angrier and needed reassurance that this injustice would be put right.

It wasn't just children who were perplexed and annoyed by the record, though. Adults were too. My Dad couldn't understand why anybody could be bothered with it, and DJs seemingly couldn't introduce it without mentioning how much it "divided opinion" in advance. In the years since my first hearing, I've grown to admire it but I'm actually still faintly afraid of the record; saying I "enjoy it" would be like claiming that I'm not still chilled to the bone by Anderson's murmurings of "Here come the planes", said in a threatening or foreboding rather than welcoming way, and of the tweeting birds amidst the electronic looping. Something in the single seems to be pointing with dread towards humankind's unhealthy relationship with mechanisation, and when planes finally smashed into the Twin Towers in 2001, "O Superman" was recalled by some listeners as a piece of prophecy. Well, they were American planes with American engines, after all.

In 1981, though, a lot of listeners reacted in a very hostile fashion to the single's unnatural place in the top three. Late night radio DJs such as John Peel had brought it to the attention of an enthusiastic niche audience who then bought it en masse, but most children, pensioners and Mums and Dads were just plain furious or confused. There had never been a major hit like this before, and there wouldn't be again.

In any other year, a record mocking or parodying Laurie Anderson really wouldn't have got further than the demo tape stage. Record companies would not have afforded the creators a contract. The weirdness of 1981 managed to afford ex-Coronation Street actor Chris Stanford - who had previously recorded a parody of Telly Savalas' version of "If" - the chance to get together with other musicians to take the song down a peg or two. 

10 May 2020

Threshold - Friday On My Mind/ Tomorrow's Sorrow

Strange, pulsing, doomy take on the The Easybeats classic

Label: Sol-doon
Year of Release: 1976

Rarely do I find myself writing about Portsmouth groups on this blog. Despite having spent most of the nineties living there and continually looking for excuses to feature Portsea Island combos, there are two insurmountable obstacles standing in my way - firstly, very few bands have ever got further than the demo tape stage, so didn't get to "immortalise their sound in wax" (I do have a few Pompey demos in an old shoebox somewhere, but no cassette tape player to convert them with). Secondly, the ones that did get around to releasing records were often somewhat pedestrian.

Let's all sing "Hallelujah" and telephone our Mums, then, because this one-off 45 from Pompey is actually both strange and worthy of inclusion here. The Easybeats' original version of "Friday On My Mind" is, of course, ideal source material, being a wondrous track in itself. The fact it peaked at number 6 on the UK charts is further proof that the British record buying public are not to be trusted; that slow, ticking desperate build up to the raging, ecstatic chorus is endlessly relatable. You can picture the big city lights and sounds and the rush of nightlife almost as soon as it kicks in, the song stretching itself to near snapping point on the line "I've got to get to night". Never has anyone articulated the end of the working week so brilliantly, not in the field of rock 45s anyway. Number 6? Number one for six weeks would have been a fairer finish point. 

This makes Threshold's approach to the track so unorthodox and strange. The ticking rhythms of the original are replaced with a doomy, almost post-punk pulsing rhythm (though punk was in its infancy in 1976 when this was released, and post-punk most certainly hadn't been thought of). The vocals sound aggrieved and despondent rather than ecstatic. The emotional emphasis seems to have been moved from the thrills of Friday to the other less positive lines instead - lines about "working for the rich man". These are some pissed-off, moody, heavy dudes channeling their grievances through someone else's pop song. The droning organ in the background seems to owe a debt to a mid-sixties garage sound, and the whole thing seeps with gothic atmospheres. You might disagree with me on its effectiveness, but there's no doubting it's a unique take.

6 May 2020

Young and Renshaw - High Flyin' Bird/ Driftwood

Future Sad Cafe star in early southern rock styled duo

Label: Bell
Year of Release: 1971

The sheer number of early seventies UK flops with a distinct southern USA twang to their sound suggests a lot of musicians and record labels backed the wrong horse. While it may have seemed as if that harmonica honking, swampy bluesy southern rock sound would be irresistible to the British and would sweep the charts quicker than you could say "Lynyrd Skynyrd", it wasn't such big news here. 

"High Flyin' Bird" is yet another piece of confident, stomping rock from a pair of British musicians who had already received quite a bit of airplay (but no sales) from their previous 45 "Way Up There". It has a shedload of attitude and lyrics which clearly ponder vast open plains and mountainous ranges, which is rather deceptive - neither (Paul) Young or (Frank) Renshaw would have had much experience of these things; coming from Manchester, it didn't really apply. That doesn't stop them from selling the idea with gusto, though, with the help of Mr Cook and Mr Greenaway in the producer's hot seat(s).

The pair released a further single ("Gonna See Delaney Again") and an album ("This Is Young and Renshaw") but packed it in shortly afterwards when neither sold well. For Chris Morris lookalike Paul Young, it ended up becoming a bit of a career footnote, as he shaved off his moustache and ended up fronting Sad Cafe, scoring a brace of hits in the UK in the process. Sadly, he passed away in 2000, leaving perhaps one of the biggest rock ballads of the seventies to remember him by - someone, somewhere is probably listening to "Every Day Hurts" on a commercial oldies station or on a late night taxi journey as we speak. His service in the supergroup Mike and The Mechanics has also left its own indelible ink stain on rock history. 

3 May 2020

Reupload - The Hinge - The Village Postman/ You'd Better Go Home

Popsike about rural posties - it was only a matter of time

Label: RCA
Year of Release: 1968

One more from the bottomless pit of popsike records about ordinary people in small towns or villages toiling away doing their day jobs. Grocer Jack in "Teenage Opera" might have started the ball rolling, but there are tons of others too - The Decision introduced us to "Constable Jones", Cyan to the sweetshop owner Toby, Bulldog Breed to the street corner newspaper salesman, Dr Marigold's Prescription to the nightwatchman... on and on the list goes.

"The Village Postman", far from being a tribute to The Singing Postman aka Allan Smethurst, is a jolly ditty about the trials, tribulations and light-hearted moments of being a hard-working postie close to retirement. "He has to work in all the weathers", the band inform us, in case we'd overlooked that aspect of the role. It bounces and chimes along nicely, the simplicity of the arrangement suiting the lyrical theme well.

The Hinge were a duo consisting of Gerry Levene and Chris Sedgewick. Levene was for some considerable time a legend on the Birmingham gig circuit, being frontman of hard-gigging beat group Gerry Levene and The Avengers - a band who once had Roy Wood in its ranks, before he departed to more fully realise his own ambitions. The Hinge came long after Levene's period with The Avengers drew to a close, and involved a significantly different sound for him, but sadly not one which paid greater commercial dividends.