30 December 2020

Arena - You Call This Love/ With Or Without You


Vanity pressed hooky eighties rock from who knows where

Label: Arena
Year of Release: 1986

There's a simplistic tendency to assume that between 1976-86, most DIY or vanity pressed singles were the work of awkward spiky types desperate for John Peel or early evening Radio One airplay. In reality, life continued much as it did before punk, and the majority of self-financed releases were from acts either wanting to sell records directly to the audiences they played to (social club and holiday camp performers, for example) or bands believing that having something immortalised in wax in local shops might get more attention than a bog-standard demo tape. Have I said this on the blog before? I've a feeling, readers, that I may have done. Forgive me. 

Anyway, in common with many of the DIY releases of the day, this one came and went without leaving a strong mark in the media. I have no idea who Arena were, where they came from, or what they went on to do next, but this record has steadily become a moderately sought-after curiosity.

Both sides reveal an accomplished group of performers and some surprisingly slick production given the self-financed nature of the release. None-more-mid-80s squeaky keyboards mix with powerful, boyish vocals, and some hair-metal styled guitar work. The group sound as if they're going for the sweet spot between mainstream pop and hard rock, in common with other bands of the era like Europe. There's a pop suss here that isn't quite powerful enough to have got the attention of record labels - "You Call This Love" sounds more like a convincing follow-up to a hit single rather than the big hit itself - but indicates that better things might have been ahead.

23 December 2020

Merry Christmas!


As ever, this blog will be taking a break for the Christmas period, but I'll be back with a new post before the year's up.

In the meantime, you really should spin back and listen to some of the Christmas singles which have appeared on here over the last few years, all of which are deeply unlikely to be played in your local shopping centre anytime soon (especially Derek Jameson's effort).

I hope you've enjoyed some of the records which have drifted my way over the last year. As I'm typing right now, there's a pile of 45s on my right-hand side waiting to be digitised for the New Year round of entries, and who knows, we might even make it through 2021 unscathed to hear even more audio curiosities.

Have a great Christmas, and enjoy your new global anthem:

22 December 2020

Paul Rich - Must Be Santa/ Virgin Mary

 Cut-price cover of the Mitch Miller favourite
Label: Embassy
Year of Release: 1960
I can't resist putting an Embassy single up for your attention before Christmas arrives. After all, which of us didn't receive a budget record for the festive season from a tight-arsed (or thrifty) relative? "It's just a little something for you to open on Christmas Day" as Auntie Vi used to say, not realising that the LP she'd brought you was not recorded by the latest hot hit makers, but by some balding session musicians working to the clock (cut to an image of Elton John beavering away in the studio corner). Think about it - what could be more Christmassy than a cheap Woolworths knock-off?
Still, it's not as if "Must Be Santa" was much of a hit in the UK anyway, and it's certainly not as if it really "belonged" to Tommy Steele, who took it to an under-achieving number 40 here. The track had originally been recorded in the USA by Mitch Miller and then interpreted by Steele later, meaning it was wide open for anyone's attempt by this point, low budget or otherwise. Embassy Records stalwart Paul Rich, who recorded more frequently for the budget Woolworths label than any other singer, gives it a much less cheeky and more rounded, better enunciated take than Steele, and there's a cosiness to it I can't help but enjoy. This feels like polite, 1960 Palladium entertainment and the song and arrangement suits my mood like a comfy pair of slippers.

It can't have been much of a cash generator for Woolies, though. For as much as the song was reasonably well liked in North America, it didn't really begin to pick up in popularity in the UK until Bob Dylan's crazed cover was released, which seems to have become the template for every pub band and artist who has tried it since. Even the wonderful Zooey Deschanel took Bob's stylings for this under her wing in 2016, but made the fatal error of including Hilary Clinton's name among the list of presidents at the point of recording. Ah well. Christmas is the perfect time for optimism, I suppose.

20 December 2020

The Ants - Christmas Star/ Wandering

 Joe Meek-esque festive 45 from Don Powell of Slade's future wife
Label: Parlophone  
Year of Release: 1963

Good God, I can only imagine Joe Meek's face when he first heard this Christmas instrumental. He wasn't a big lover of music business bigwigs ripping off his style at the best of times, but this single is practically a Meek parody. All the essential features are present and correct - the compression, galloping rhythm, buzz of distortion around the edges, and the ambitious yet faintly mend-and-make-do broom cupboard arrangements.

As soon as you spot that this is a Robert Stigwood production, it all begins to make sense. Stigwood had a passing association with Meek thanks to his management of John Leyton, and had actually worked alongside him as co-producer on Leyton's "Girl On The Floor Above". It doesn't take much of a leap of the imagination to assume that perhaps he paid close enough attention to his methods to know exactly what to do when it came to recording this single.

"Christmas Star" sounds like you'd expect a festive single from the The Tornados to sound, just far too late in the day to have any impact. By the end of 1963, slightly more than a year since their monstrous success with "Telstar",  the group were very much yesterday's news, putting out single after single to increasing public disinterest. Cashing in on their sound was never going to be a very bankable proposition by the time Merseybeat was exciting the nation, which makes me wonder why Stigwood bothered - if anyone was going to score big with a Meek-styled festive instrumental hit, it was probably Meek himself.

16 December 2020

Reupload - Petr & Pavel - Laska/ Wencelas Square

  Hopeful 1968 Christmas protest single from Czech defectors

Label: Page One
Year of Release: 1968

It's interesting how often the late sixties are regarded as a period of "love and peace" and frequently represented by film footage of hippies idling around in fields clutching flowers. The period was, in reality, anything but. Ignoring even the obvious spectre of the Vietnam War hovering over everything, the USSR was also mobilising itself to the detriment of many lives.

Concerned about the increasing liberalisation of Czechoslovakia, where censorship and "secret police" interventions into daily lives were about to be lifted, the Warsaw Pact - consisting of USSR and its Eastern European allies - invaded the country to assert control, killing 108 Czechs and Slovaks in the process, and wounding 500 more. It was a heavy-handed display of appalling brute force which sent a flashing warning message out to all other Communist bloc countries - express yourselves freely and pay the price.

Petr and Pavel are slightly elusive, mysterious characters now, but at the time the story went that they were Czech entertainers who escaped by "stowing away on a jet plane" out of the country to Britain where they remained as defectors. There's no easily obtainable information about how they managed this feat, or what they did in Czechoslovakia before (the country had a booming beat scene, as we've already explored on this blog) just some Page One orientated propaganda about their escape and subsequent signing to a British record label. It's all very shady to say the least.

Top pop songwriters Alan Blaikley and Ken Howard got their mitts on them, and wrote this single which got issued the same year just in time for the Christmas sales rush. "Laska" was the only effort of theirs to get a release here, and seriously ramps up its Eastern European feel for the British market, combining the strident folk rhythms and "heys!" with an actually quite touching lyrical message. Throughout, the pair sing about being cut adrift from their homeland, alone in a strange land, but begin to speak in Czech at one point. This segment translates roughly as "My dear friend, we must learn to live in the New World - memories are good and bad - and look forward to peace and love". It's pure novelty pop, of course, but a quick search online reveals many people who were deeply moved by the record during those uncertain times. It was a heart-warming early winter tonic to many, an emotional cocktail of both defiance and loneliness beneath the blaring production.

13 December 2020

The Dog That Bit People - Lovely Lady/ Merry-Go-Round


Short, snappy mellow prog from ex-Locomotive members
Label: Parlophone
Year of "Release": 1971
 The Dog That Bit People were another one of those here-today gone-tomorrow progressive bands which seemed to litter the early seventies almost as much as the roaches that probably festooned the ashtrays during their gigs. Formed by Michael Hincks and Bob Lamb from the rather more successful Locomotive after Norman Haines left that group, their only LP - the unimaginatively titled "Dog That Bit People" - is one of the scarcest of that era.

Stock copies for their only single "Lovely Lady" seem to be non-existent, and it's only ever turned up in its promotional form, which leads me to suspect it was only ever produced as bait for progressively minded radio DJs. Whatever the facts behind this, it's actually a breezy, summery affair with dashes of both Americana and McCartneyesque cheeriness amidst the mix. As long as you don't continually hear the phrase "lovely lady" being spoken in Jimmy Savile's sinister tones - he did, after all, love to say "Love-leh love-leh love-leh laaaay-deh!" - you're probably home dry with an appropriately flowery, bright and surprisingly straightforward 45 from an otherwise relatively elaborate bunch of proggers. This is one of the few singles I've come across which sits neatly on the crossroads of popsike and prog, and it's none the worse for it.

Besides having Hincks on vocals and bass and Lamb on drums, The Dog That Bit People also featured John Caswell on vocals and guitar and Keith Millar on vocals, guitar and keyboards. Caswell apparently went on to produce some solo material in the eighties on the MCA label and also played with the Steve Gibbons Band. Hincks and Lamb became backing musicians for Raymond Froggatt, and the whereabouts of Millar is - you guessed it - unclear. There's always one, isn't there?

9 December 2020

Magik Roundabout - Everlasting Day/ Instrumental

Kiwi dreamers on a baggy tip
Label: M&G/ Wau Mr Modo/ Polydor
Year of Release: 1991

Back in the early nineties, I was a member of a band (unsigned and unsuccessful) who - for reasons of stubbornness or just plain coincidence - had a tendency to champion other groups who were not really on the tip list of most of the established music magazines. "Dave, have you heard Taste Xperience's new one? It's fantastic! They're going to be huge!" they'd rave inaccurately while I unknotted my bass guitar lead.

Magik Roundabout were another favoured group on the jaunts up the A127 back from the rehearsal rooms to my parent's house, with this song being the preferred track played from a somewhat worn out TDK cassette. They were an odd group to jump on, but one who clearly had some music business support behind them. This, seemingly their debut single, was produced by the highly sought-after Youth and released via the Polydor subsidiary M&G, thereby ensuring that the group dodged the usual indie chart slog and were allowed access to top quality pluggers and marketing moguls.

While this might have seemed absurd from a UK perspective and given the impression that the group had emerged from nowhere, the lead singer Peter van der Fluit had previously been a member of the New Zealand post-punk group The Screaming MeeMees , a group so successful in their home country that their 1981 single "See Me Now" became the first Kiwi record to enter their native charts at number one.

Following the split of that group, Peter studied for a Masters in Music at the University of Auckland, then moved to London in the early nineties and formed this lot, who perhaps not entirely unexpectedly combined the dominant blissed out baggy sounds of the era with the kind of gentle, understated and cheery vocals and melody lines more typically found on the New Zealand music scene. If you're listening to "Everlasting Day" and find yourself wondering whether it sounds like Crowded House on an ecstasy tablet, rest assured that was my first thought as well.

6 December 2020

Rick and Sandy - Half As Much/ Cottonfields


Chipper Beatlesy sixties pop from hopeful duo
Label: Mercury
Year of Release: 1965
If you saw this relatively cheap 45 sitting in your local charity shop box, it would be tempting to pass by, assuming that it was just another folk duo or a pair of scrubbed and preppy light entertainment types. Let's face it, the early to mid sixties was filled with lots of flotsam and jetsam from both sources.

In reality, while this isn't exactly power-packed, it's nonetheless a nice bit of beat pop which punches beyond the duo's small collective weight. The A-side, a high tempo cover of "Half As Much" - originally popularised by Rosemary Clooney - ties the melody tightly to The Beatles "I Should Have Known Better" riff, and builds on it to create some bouyant, Merseybeat flavoured pop which might have charted in a good week or month. Rick and Sandy were clearly drinking from the same Everly Brothers fountain as the Fabs, and the end result is equal parts pleasure and pain; beneath the catchy melodies you can hear the boys keening for a very ungrateful lover.

The B-side is also interesting as an early beat cover of Leadbelly's "Cottonfields" which beat The Beach Boys (and others) to the punch. It sounds very much like a quickie cover on the flip, and indeed that's almost certainly what it was, but it's interesting to hear their take.

Hopes were high for this single, which was the duo's first, and a slot was arranged on "Ready Steady Go" to promote the disc, but it failed to sell well. Their follow-up records "I Lost My Girl", "I Remember Baby" and "Creation" received less publicity and subsequently were more ignored still. The final 45 "Creation" was penned and produced by the (then) rising music industry wunderkind Jonathan King, but this wasn't enough to reverse their fortunes and turned out to be their final release.

2 December 2020

Reupload - Romford Golden Sunshine Band - Alberto The Great/ Kalahari Bushman Shuffle


Uncharacteristically chirpy emotions and sounds from Romford way

Label: MGM
Year of Release: 1968

Ah, Romford. The Essex town that spoils us all, with the whiff of yeasty goodness from its brewery (way back when), the cheap polyester work shirts on sale at its market stalls, the tattered Union Jacks flapping proudly over various right-wing political party leafletting points... it's a place us Ilfordians, ourselves not living the high life, tend to look at when we want to feel a bit posh. 

A few days ago, someone remarked on Twitter that "The world is not like a pub car park in Romford" in an attempt to get someone to understand that violence is not always the answer to everything. A Romfordian user hit back: "Not comfortable with this level of Romford bashing. Fights tend to happen everywhere, and not just car parks." 

Still, I ought to be careful what I say - the great brassy force of this record makes it sound as if there's a lot of members in the Romford Golden Sunshine Band, and after this blog entry they might try to beat me up. While there may have been multiple musicians involved, the only members I'm able to verify with any certainty are lead man Dave Watson and co-writer Dennis Masterton. The drummer was apparently Bill Legend of T Rex fame, but I can't find a verifiable source for that fact.

"Alberto The Great" here is an incredibly merry instrumental, packed with equal doses of Herb Alpert styled shine and a tiny bit of soulfulness. It's a bit too chirpy to be a credible case for the dancefloor, but like some of the better easy listening instrumentals from this period, it has a careful and bouncy arrangement that's never boring.