28 October 2020

Baskin & Copperfield - I Never See The Sun/ Stranger On The Ground


Eventual members of The Rubettes with convincing tilt at the charts

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1970

The Rubettes have perhaps steadily become one of the less referenced seventies glam rock acts, with only their deathless number one "Sugar Baby Love" being given much airplay time. Their other hits "Tonight", "Juke Box Jive", "I Can Do It" and "Baby I Know" barely get a sniff of attention these days, though the group name is still keenly used for endless glam revival tours.

Prior to the group's inception, members John Richardson and Alan Williams had a contract with Decca as a duo. Their first release was a slightly cynical cover of Lennon and McCartney's "Long and Winding Road" which failed to chart, but second single "I Never See The Sun" seemed to make a possible change in their fortunes. Despite the fact that the single wasn't close to poking the Top 40, the BBC saw fit to give them a slot on "Top of the Pops" - not unusual behaviour for the programme at the time - and the record attracted some airplay too.

This would ordinarily have been enough to create a flurry of attention, but sadly the record never sold convincingly. That's a shame, as it's clearly the kind of anthem the 1970 charts generally welcomed with open arms, complete with weary clarion calls, a scarf-waving chorus and delicate, boyish vocals. Four years prior to this, The Walker Brothers would have happily recorded this one.

25 October 2020

Slade Brothers - What A Crazy Life/ For A Rainy Day

The Canuck duo with their final stab at UK chart success

Label: Pye
Year of Release: 1966

We've already talked about The Slade Brothers' unusual beginnings in British showbiz the last time we met them in November 2018. While I've occasionally wondered about the veracity of the claim that their career was kickstarted after a chance meeting with Joan Collins' father on a Liverpool-bound ship, I suppose stranger things have happened; the unexpected chart success of the "One Pound Fish" market crier for one thing.

While Pye must surely have been tempted to give up on the pair before the point of this final release, "What A Crazy Life" actually seems to evidence one enthusiastic last try at pushing them over the line. It's actually a strong composition from the bankable Cook and Greenaway songwriting team, and earned them airplay on Radio Luxembourg and releases around the world. Its production is also considerably less threadbare than some of their earlier singles, with a flowery and stomping Johnny Harris orchestral arrangement beneath the boys. 

For me, though, the beauty is on the flipside which has been even more ignored over the years. "For A Rainy Day" is penned by the duo and it shows they were able to write complex, intriguing songs which were head and shoulders above a lot of the pop pack. With swelling organs, pinging harpsichords, and subtle, shifting moods throughout, it actually resembles the likes of The Mamas and Papas at their finest, transporting a West Coast mood to a drizzly British shore. It's astonishing this one seemingly hasn't been compiled somewhere yet - it's a prime candidate for a "Tea, Battenburgs and Baroque" styled LP (Don't go looking for that compilation, by the way - it doesn't exist). It's also one of the most appropriately Autumnal songs I could find for a current blog entry.

21 October 2020

Reupload - Paul Curtis - Video 2000


Futuristic synth blast aiming to promote flop video recording unit

Label: Philips
Year of Release: 1979, at a guess?

"Video 2000! What were all that about then, eh?" are words which Peter Kay has almost certainly never, ever started any stand-up routine with. In the video recorder revolution, Video 2000 was the Oric Atmos to VHS's ZX Spectrum and Betamax's Commodore 64, or perhaps the Liberal Democrats to VHS's Tory and Betamax's Labour, or... oh, I don't know, why don't you think of some rubbish and poorly fitting analogies for yourselves?

The simple fact is that I have never, ever met in my life anyone who owned a Video 2000 machine. I knew of their existence, but everyone owned either VHS or Beta machines, and rued the day they chose Beta when that format eventually bit the dust (my family, to their eternal regret, were relatively late Betamax adopters). Video 2000 machines may as well have been ghostly myths in my neck of the woods in Essex - I don't think I even saw a player for sale in the local Dixons or Currys. Apparently they were superior to the VHS and Betamax formats in almost all ways, from sound to picture quality to tape durability, but this cut little ice with the buying public, and the format was junked in 1986 to precious few tears.

Still, this synthetic promotional single from the late seventies gives you some idea of the kind of excitement Philips wanted to generate around Video 2000. The sleeve appears to show the player arriving in a blur from outer space, like some kind of alien tech us privileged humanoids had managed to acquire from the ashes of Roswell. The single backs this image up with dramatic whooshing noises, hyperactive slapped basslines, and the kind of synthesiser melody favoured by the Channel 4 Testcard in 1982 and the opening credits of short-lived science fiction series (probably with the face of each actor freeze-framed as their name appears on screen). But above all else, it sounded like the FUTURE. Or at least, it did at that time.

18 October 2020

The Igloos - Wolf/ Octopus


Cuddly Toys keyboard player tampers with Syd Barrett single

Label: Fresh
Year of Release: 1980

While one of the missions of punk rock appeared to be to wipe the slate clean and dismiss all your previous rock idols, plenty of artists were given a free pass. The Who, for example, were so appreciated by The Sex Pistols that Pete Townshend actually had to demand that they move on (his aggravation seemingly caused by the glaring inconsistencies behind their stance rather than any desire not to be saddled with the burden of their love and appreciation). Syd Barrett, on the other hand, was clearly appreciated by many punks as an eccentric who walked away from rock stardom, even if this is a heavily over-simplified take on his life. The Damned wanted him to produce their first LP, and apparently Malcom McLaren also wanted him to work with The Pistols.

The Cuddly Toys were a glam inspired New Wave band from London who had evolved from the glam punk outfit Raped (*wince, sharp intake of breath*) who put out the "Pretty Paedophiles" EP (what a bunch of proto-Super Hans characters they were). The change of name to something twee and considerably less controversial didn't really change their fortunes significantly, however; they hovered around the edges of the scene never quite making any significant inroads, though as is often the case, found an appreciative cult audience in Japan.

The Igloos were really just a side-project of the group's keyboard player Billy Surgeoner, and were seemingly never created with any long-term prospects in mind. The A-side "Wolf" is a considerably more poptastic take on the track of the same name from the Cuddly Toys' debut "Guillotine Theatre" LP, with a squeaky clean but addictive hook, and the jerky, quirky stylings which were fashionable at the time. 

The flipside is, of course, a cover of Syd Barrett's "Octopus" and while it doesn't trump the original, it certainly sands it down and polishes it into an interesting enough new jewel. It's clear that Surgeoner heard the unusual time signatures and immediately suspected that the song could be fashioned into something much more contemporary sounding, and he pulls the task off very well indeed. Drum machines hiss mechanically and synths hum, and the song is translated into the kind of thing you'd hear seeping out of a strange futuristic self-playing organ at a fair. It won't replace the original on your playlist but it's one of the more interesting interpretations I've heard. You get the impression Syd might have nodded his head appreciatively at it. 

14 October 2020

This Final Frame - The Diary/ Discontent


Brassy Scouse post-punk with an appropriately filmic edge

Label: Scratch
Year of Release: 1982

The almighty box set "Revolutionary Spirit" was released a few years back, which across five CDs lovingly detailed the comings and goings of the Liverpudlian post-punk scene. It found space for the great (Teardrop Explodes, Echo & The Bunnymen, OMD), the good (Wild Swans, Icicle Works, It's Immaterial) and the perplexing (The Chuddy Nuddies, Those Naughty Lumps) but somehow managed to overlook This Final Frame entirely.

The group, consisting of Paul Skillen on vocals, Peter McAsey on bass, Jim Short on trumpet, Eamonn Sale on keyboards on vocals and Carl Henry on drums, had a somewhat restless career, leaping from label to label in search of the elusive breakthrough moment. This, their debut 45, came out on the RCA subsidiary Scratch Records - home also to the divisive comedian Jim Davidson, who provided them with their only charting record in "Too Risky" - and was largely ignored, resulting in all their future releases either being handled by independent or European labels. It's a daring first outing to say the least. While all the components (such as the airy wash of synthesisers, those Teardrop trumpets and the heavy, bending basslines) were compatible with the sound of 1982, the song itself is total post-punk despondency, an atmosphere rather than a catchy pop tune. While the track was enthusiastically picked up by local radio, the rest of the country proved immune to its charms.

The flipside "Discontent" ups the ante further and shows the group flying their discordant freak flag up the longest pole they could fathom. Tribal drums pound, backing vocalists let out war cries, trumpets screech, and the singer hollers "DISCONTENT!" repeatedly. You wouldn't open your door to them if they came calling at 3am, put it that way.

11 October 2020

Steve 'n' Bonnie - Eyes of Tomorrow/ Stay Away From My Dreams


Bright and dramatic entry to the 1972 Radio tele Luxembourg Grand Prix

Label: Youngblood
Year of Release: 1972

When we talk about song contests, naturally Eurovision is the first and probably only one that springs to mind these days. Way back when, though, other European and global contests did receive a certain amount of media attention, and the short-lived Radio Tele Luxembourg Grand Prix international song contest was a prime opportunity for songwriters and groups alike bursting to get attention on the global stage.

The husband and wife team of Steve (Hamilton) 'n' Bonnie (Lowe) (no relation whatsoever to Shakin' Stevens and Bonnie Tyler, obviously, though confusingly enough they did also release a single together in the eighties) were one of three UK entries to the contest, and the music mogul Miki Dallon could be heard bragging to Billboard magazine that he expected the Hamilton-penned entry to be judged on its "production value and not on its commercial value". 

Despite this somewhat backhanded compliment, it does have to be said that "Eyes of Tomorrow" packs a lot into its three-and-a-half minutes. The slow orchestral build at the start is a red herring - the track quickly picks up and begins to seep with action-packed cinematic drama. Bonnie's voice leaps impressively up and down the scale, Steve takes his vocals with gusto, and the punchy arrangement pulses around them. A close equivalent would be Robbi Curtice's "Soul of a Man" as featured on this blog some time ago, but Steve and Bonnie's cabaret background stops their track from being quite so hip and knowing. It's still immediately attention grabbing and powerful, though.

In contest terms, it failed to get into the magic top three and the UK only held down the top two places, with "Manana" by Bay City Rollers emerging victorious (so much for entries not being judged on their commercial value) and "Days To Remember" by Yellowstone and Voice in second place. 

7 October 2020

Modern Man - War Drums/ Tell Us Lies


Ultravox associates with strident, pounding New Wave track

Label: MAM
Year of Release: 1981

You'll remember (possibly) that back in 2018 we covered a group called The Messengers. Consisting of Colin King and Danny Mitchell, they were close associates of Ultravox, supporting them on tour and having their recordings produced by Midge Ure.

Prior to that group's activities, King and Mitchell were members of Modern Man, who were discovered by Ure playing at a venue on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. He offered to produce their LP "Concrete Scheme" which should by rights have made the group hot property, but any possibility of exposure was stifled by them signing to MAM. The label had been a strong player in the seventies thanks to its endless parade of Gilbert O'Sullivan smashes, but by 1981 was gasping for air and being distributed by the chaotic PRT. None of the singles they issued - either this, "All The Little Idiots", "Body Music" or "Things Could Be Better" - charted, and the group quickly shattered under the pressure. 

"War Drums" was their final 45, and shows a confident, strident group who avoid a lot of the weaker, more pretentious elements of the dominant early eighties synth pop sound and instead wallop a track out which sounds like early Spandau Ballet if they'd all been given amphetamines and forced to join the army. The group are caught standing at the crossroads of the fading New Wave sound and the promise of the new electronic future, and it's an interesting few minutes.

4 October 2020

Lunar Funk - Mr. Penguin (Parts One and Two)

"Rumour has it that this record is completely electrical, and there are, in fact, no musicians involved..."

Label: Bell
Year of Release: 1972

"My name... is Mr. Penguin - you do your thang/ and I'll do my thang/ ha ha ha ha ha ha..."

I stumbled upon this record purely by chance in the soul and disco section of a second hand record store, and bought it on the strength of the band's name and the song title alone. "This," I thought, "is either going to be abysmal or great. And whichever it is, I bet I can at least write about it".

And guess what? "Mr. Penguin" is fantastic and truly absurd, though a lot of funk purists have been rather critical of this in some places online. Driven by fantastic jazzy electric organ riffs and a persuasive funk-disco beat, it tops the whole thing off with absurd, almost threatening spoken interruptions from the chap who identifies himself as "Mr. Penguin". He's deadpan, his laughter is somewhat hollow, and he couldn't give a fig what we think of him. It's the kind of record you'd place firm money was in Prince's collection somewhere at Paisley Park; it seems utterly at home with the man's love of funky riffs and also borderline psychedelic absurdity. So too can I imagine this finding favour with sixties mod types and Acid Jazz heads far more than it's likely to please the discerning, "serious" funk crowd. 

The track was also apparently put together in something of a hurry by the musicians Leroy Emmanuel, Mose Davis, Demo Cates and Andrew Gibson. Complaining to their employers that they had no money coming in for Christmas 1972, they were rushed into the studio to cut a couple of tracks which all concerned hoped would reverse the situation. One of the tracks, "Crawl Y'All", was issued under the band name Bad Smoke on Chess Records, then there was this little number for Bell, a single the label were apparently desperate to own and coughed up handsomely for. It became something of a dancefloor hit in the aftermath and was heavily played at a couple of regional American stations, and Radio Luxembourg in Europe, but it's become largely forgotten since.