31 October 2021

Illusive Dream - The Electric Garden/ Back Again

Epic soft orchestral psychedelia from a somewhat illusive - sorry, elusive - act

Label: RCA
Year of Release: 1969

A lot of soft harmony popsike or progressive orchestral tracks have been unjustly ignored by collectors and listeners. At the time they were never really hip or underground sounds, despite the highly respected Jimmy Webb originally setting the ball rolling in a wobblier direction, and in subsequent years they've never slotted neatly alongside the phased electric output of the non-music school graduates on compilations. 

Nonetheless, this is an example of how rambling, engaging and unpredictable a lot of the orchestrated stuff could be. The A-side of this disc is five-and-a-half minutes of winding, meandering, dream-like pop with a euphoric chorus about an "Electric Garden", whatever that may be. Rather than racing to the chorus, it stretches, sprawls and twitches contentedly, shifting groovy, delirious sixties pop melodies into a slightly more formal context. The group share close vocal harmonies adeptly and in a manner which could have pleased the variety circuit while singing lyrics which would have been utterly incomprehensible to that same audience. 

Sometimes if your music falls between two stools it ultimately fails to impress any audience sufficiently, and I'd hazard a guess that's what happened here. Too buttoned up for the hippy crowd, and too way-out for the easier side of the street, "The Electric Garden" has been somewhat ignored in subsequent years but really deserves your ears.

The B-side "Back Again" is more straightforward and snappy but isn't mere filler, combining deft harmony pop with Sergeant Pepper styled fanfares. 

27 October 2021

Reupload - The Legends - Sometimes I Can't Help It/ Jefferson Strongbox


Dan Hartman's garage rock years. Yeah, you heard.

Label: Heart 
Year of Release: 1970

I'm sure almost everyone reading this will be aware of Dan Hartman. He's the author of hundreds of songs, some of which have since become a lingering presence on oldies radio - "I Can Dream About You", "Relight My Fire", "Instant Replay" and "Free Ride" are among his most known and appreciated, but there's a cornucopia of songs beneath that surface. He enjoyed a fruitful stint as a writer and performer in the Edgar Winter Band, and acted as a producer for Muddy Waters among others.

If you associate Hartman with his most well-known disco singles, his rock output comes as something of a shock. But he was nothing if not versatile as a songwriter and performer, as "Sometimes I Can't Help It" proves here. The Legends were his brother Dave Hartman's band, and he sneaked into their ranks at the age of thirteen. They issued a number of records on small, independent labels before signing to Epic in 1972, including this self-released square shaped flexidisc - which I assume was either sold cheaply at gigs or given away as a promotional item.

"Sometimes I Can't Help It" has a growl and a roar to it not unlike Steppenwolf at their most raucous, and The Legends here sit neatly on the border of sixties garage and seventies rock. It's a brilliant listen and shows that even at this point, Dan Hartman had developed some serious songwriting chops.  The Legends would turn out not to be the stars the Hartman brothers hoped they would become, but within a couple of years Dan would join forces with Edgar Winter and taste actual success. By 1978, the unlikely allure of the disco beat would set in, and his career would take another twist with the success of "Instant Replay".

24 October 2021

Darby - Rocking With Snoopy/ Find Mr Zebedee

Kiddie glam-pop backed with baffling popsike about a retiring school caretaker

Label: Bus Stop
Year of Release: 1976

Once every so often I learn of the existence of a 45 and decide I must own it despite its probable naffness. It's not so much that I expect the single to defy all my expectations, more that I simply have to hear what the artist has done with the absurd concept; so when I found out that someone had put out a flop glam pop single called "Rocking With Snoopy", my credit card came out almost immediately. A bargain at any price, I reckoned.

In my head, "Rocking With Snoopy" was a Wombles clone with a thudding bass drum, handclaps, lots of "yeahs" and probably some rip-off of a Peanuts theme high in its melody, staying just enough on the right side of parody to avoid the copyright police. What it actually is, somewhat disappointingly, is a Bay City Rollers styled candyfloss melody married to facile lyrics. "Come along and be a snoopy groupie!" the group demand, which sounds a bit wrong. Mind you, they also sing "Snoopy high high/ snoopy low low/ snoopy dance fast/ snoopy dance slow" so I don't think we're supposed to be thinking about this too hard. 

As is often the case with these vinyl oddments, it's the B-side that's really thrown me for six. "Find Mr Zebedee" was actually the final flop single for one hit wonders Edison Lighthouse, and this is either an immaculate imitation or exactly the same recording - and I'm 99.9% certain it's the latter. The song focuses on the final day of a retiring school caretaker, placing him quite literally on a podium to receive an award. "How can we paint a janitor in colours of a saint?" the group sing, only to go on to do exactly that. 

"Find Mr Zebedee", for all its utter silliness, is actually a delightful bit of harmony popsike which, had it been a Bowie composition from his Deram years, we'd probably still be talking about. As it was the final record of a faded seventies group with an ever-shifting membership, though, it's been somewhat ignored since, which means hardly anybody has ever heard Mr Zebedee's audible but subdued expression of thanks on this record. Seldom has a combination of English jubilance and awkwardness been captured so well on record - you can visualise Mr Zebedee having to be coaxed out of the toilet where he was hiding to avoid making an unnecessary spectacle of himself.

20 October 2021

Screen Idols - Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart/ Runaway

Ex-Spiders From Mars and Rats From Hull types get a hold of Pitney

Label: Parlophone
Year of Release: 1980

After David Bowie "broke up the band" in 1973, The Spiders From Mars didn't all just drift away to new projects. It's often forgotten that a Mick Ronson-less version of the outfit emerged on Pye Records in 1975, with Trevor Bolder and Mick Woodmansey recruiting Mike Garson, Dave Black and Pete McDonald to their ranks. It's tempting to regard this version of the group as a cash-in on the famous name rather than a bona-fide continuation, and it has to be said that the debut 45 "White Man Black Man" bears about as much relation to the Ziggy Stardust sound as Gilbert O'Sullivan does to Roxy Music. It's seventies pop, not glam rock, and not even a very credible brand name could push it over the commercial line. 

One flop LP later and the group drifted off in their different directions. Drummer Woodmansey got together with his his ex-Rats bandmates Ched Cheeseman and Geoff Appleby and ex-Lone Star member Tony Smith to form this outfit with singer Michelle Nieddu. Screen Idols were occasionally badged as New Wave, but this was probably wishful thinking on the part of their PR officer whether he meant punk-tinged pop or the New Wave of British Heavy Metal - the reality is that they played powerful pop rock tracks with a slightly modern edge, Nieddu's vocals rasping forcefully over the top of the group's hard, confident sound. 

For whatever reason, they couldn't seem to settle with one label. Their debut single "Blind Man" came out on Cobra in 1979 (along with their LP "Premiere"), followed by "Routine" on Superstition in 1980 and then finally this effort on Parlophone, which had a cover of the Cook and Greenaway classic "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart" as its A-side. Much has been written about the track in the past, acknowledging the fact that while the dependable and family-friendly performer Gene Pitney popularised it, the lyrics appeared to be acknowledging psychedelia. Could "Something has invaded my life/ painting my sleep with a colour so bright" have been a nod to the folks who had turned on and tuned in from one of the songwriters who would eventually write the British Gas jingle? It's unlikely, but the fact that it could be just as easily interpreted as a ballad to mind expansion is an interesting coincidence.

The Screen Idols, of course, resist the temptation to convince 1980 audiences that this was far out and leave the mellotron and the theremin well and truly locked in the recording studio cupboard. Their take on the track is instead a thumping anthem which takes it in a new and unexpected direction. It's doubtful you'll prefer it to Pitney's take or indeed the version Pitney and Marc Almond would end up taking to number one (also on Parlophone, interestingly) in 1989, but it points towards fresh possibilities for the track.

17 October 2021

Freestyle - Ski Spree/ Devil's Dyke


If you like analogue synths and skiing, look no further kids

Label: Sonet
Year of Release: 1975

Some musicians and songwriters make scoring a contract look so easy; they're the kind of flashy devils who turn up at an office with a demo tape in their hands, then promptly get offered an opportunity which seems to set an unstoppable chain of events in motion.

In this case, Stuart Willis was touting an instrumental demo on Denmark Street and happened to find himself in the offices of Noon Music, whose boss suggested to him that one of the tracks sounded like it would fit a Winter Sports theme. "Ski Spree" was born, and was placed with the mysterious group Freestyle. Once released, Noon Music pushed it to the National Ski Federation of Great Britain which led to it being featured in the opening and closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in 1976. 

None of this impressed the public enough to turn it into a hit, which is a bit of a shame - it's the kind of frantic moog-ridden dancefloor number which did pick up some attention in the mid-seventies, and it's certainly powerful enough to stand out. By today's standards, however, I'd argue the synth aspects are a bit too squeaky, like someone is brutally taking hammers to an electronic robot cat. 

I much prefer the flip side "Devil's Dyke" which is a full-blown jazz disco meltdown, featuring puffing flutes, squelching keyboards, fidgety basslines and busy arrangements, all of which work together without sounding too fussy or sophisticated. It's one of those jazz-funk tracks which doesn't over-egg the "jazz" aspect and causes feet to involuntarily twitch in even the laziest of couch potatoes. 

13 October 2021

Reupload - Sandra Bryant - Girl With Money/ Golden Hours

Bouncy, brassy pop from Dagenham girl

Label: Major Minor
Year of Release: 1967

One of many, many records that slipped out on Major Minor almost unnoticed in the sixties, "Girl With Money" is a brassy, bouncy and sassy record which has all the hallmarks of a mid-sixties beat pop (rather than 1967) production. Sandra Bryant's voice lets rip all across this and she pushes herself to the bluesy max, but it's possible that by this point the public's tastes were moving on to more progressive fare. It's a pity, as it's a strong piece of work which under other circumstances might have offered enough zest to succeed. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Sandra Bryant behind this disc is not the actress who appeared in "On The Buses", but a vocalist from Dagenham. She managed one other single on Major Minor, "Out To Get You", before disappearing from view. The label must have hoped that some of Sandie Shaw's local fairydust would land on Sandra's shoulders, but it clearly wasn't to be.

10 October 2021

Richard Kerr - Hard Lovin'/ Auntie's Insurance Policy

Suggestive "dancer" on the A-side backed with satirical popsike

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1966

Richard Kerr's name may not immediately trip off the tongues of most readers, but he's actually a successful songwriter with numerous hits to his name. Besides writing "Mandy" for Barry Manilow (or "Brandy" for Scott English, however you want to look at it) and "Looks Like We Made It", he also penned "Somewhere In The Night" for Helen Reddy. Of more interest to me is the utterly fabulous "My World" by Cupid's Inspiration and "Nice Time" by Kenny Everett, both of which slipped out of his pen as well.

Both prior to and during his songwriting success, however, Kerr had a solo career with his first records emerging on Decca in 1966. His debut "Concrete Jungle" was an interesting piece of angsty pop poking a stick at the anonymity of office nine to five life. This effort emerged at the absolute tail end of the year  and drops the social realism for straight ahead raunch. "Hard Lovin' is what I need," sings Kerr. "I need some sordid pleasure/ to brighten up my days of leisure". It's hardly subtle, and I'd be staggered if it got any daytime airplay at the time, but the pounding, slapping rhythm (ooh, don't) behind Kerr's cheery delivery does make for a track which might have been appreciated out in the smoky, sweaty basements and dancefloors of the land. It combines the swinging oompah rhythms so popular throughout the mid-sixties with raunch, stomp and a little sprinkling of soul. 

The flipside is interesting too, being a deceptively jolly slice of satire about sucking up to monied family members. It's a borderline case for the popsike files but ultimately probably has a tiny bit too much vinegar in its grooves.  

Following the failure of this single, Kerr jumped to Decca's progressive subsidiary Deram for the next single "Happy Birthday Blues", before seemingly bouncing from label to label over the next two decades, from RCA to Warner Brothers to Epic to A&M. All were presumably acting on the assumption that he was a proven hit writer who was bound to end up writing a smash for himself at some point, but none of the records released under his own name - including five LPs - sold to significant audiences. 

6 October 2021

AD 2,000 - Rhythm and Chips/ Don't Play The Disco

Analogue synth instro on tiny Nottingham indie label

Label: Eagle
Year of Release: 1980

Another puzzler to add our long logbook of vinyl mysteries, I'm afraid. This is a peculiar double A side which features a buzzing, burbling analogue synth instrumental on one side - which is obviously the aspect which caused me to part with my pocket change - and a despondent crying-in-the-late-night-taxi-home slow rock ballad on the other, which is probably fine if that's your kind of thing. (The "Late night FM radio sad taxi journey home" sound is an entire sub-genre in itself, in my opinion, albeit one that's unlikely to ever become as popular as Yacht Rock). 

More perplexingly, though, neither side sounds very eighties. The twittering analogue synths on "Rhythm and Chips" sound like a product of the previous decade, while "Don't Play Me No Disco" belongs to that unnamed genre of records which could have fitted in neatly alongside Sad Cafe's "Every Day Hurts" on a K-Tel compilation for men having a moment. 

My best guess is that both these sides were recorded a couple of years earlier before finally getting picked up by the Nottingham indie label Eagle in 1980, by which point they were slightly out of step with the public mood. That didn't stop the single getting another issue in 1982, though, when the label's name was changed to Ash to presumably avoid confusion with a larger Eagle under operation at the same time. Once again, though, public interest in the track seemed low.

3 October 2021

Rod Hull and Emu - Bristol Rovers All The Way/ I'd Do Anything

Man and bird cheer Bristol Rovers into the Second Division

Label: Columbia
Year of Release: 1974

In the last few months, I've let an Old English Sheepdog/ Poodle crossbreed dog into my life (or a "Sheepadoodle" if you want to take the quick and easy way of describing the mutt). Even as puppies, these dogs are a weighty great ball of furry energy, an easily distracted twenty kilos of hyperactivity and teeth. On many occasions, I've found myself running after her screeching "No! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! STOP IT!" having been delighted by her doe-eyed fluffiness only one minute before.

I sometimes wonder if at some point in his life Rod Hull got himself into a similar situation and it was partly the inspiration for Emu. The camp delight followed by the frenzied panic seems only too familiar to me, and may be familiar to any other pet owners who haven't quite got to the point where their beasts have been entirely tamed into predictable behaviour.

Emu, of course, was the King Terror of them all, most famously attacking Michael Parkinson but also getting his beak into Johnny Carson, Richard Pryor, Snoop DoggJohn Stapleton and Nick Owen (at the same time) and just about anyone else who strayed into his shadow. Critics of the act have pointed out that it was essentially the same playground gag over and over again, but that's actually both incorrect as well as harsh - as a children's entertainer in the seventies, it wasn't Emu's surprise attacks that amused me but Rod Hull's low-budget parodies of television on "Emu's Broadcasting Company", many of which continue to make me smile today. And even if he did become best known for his chat show misdeeds, what performances they were. Very few puppeteers have ever managed to make a creature seem as brutally, magnificently and anarchically alive as Emu. Each peck and rumble felt frighteningly real, with Hull's body seemingly thrown around helplessly by a wild and frantic bird he was struggling to restrain. Try doing it that convincingly yourself  - though of course, you'd need to find an Emu puppet first.

That's exactly what Hull did initially at the very start of his British showbiz career. He found Emu in a prop cupboard in Australia and took him back home with him, and to cut a long and much-repeated story short, a star was very quickly born. 

The bird's recording history, on the other hand, is less successful or opaque. Rolf Harris produced an Emu single in 1972 which claimed to be "Emu singing" but if you slowed the record down it was pretty clear that it was actually Rolf speeding his own voice up, the dirty spiv. Given that Emu was an entirely mute creation in the UK, it's not easy to see why this single was necessary, or why anyone thought something so squeaky and cutesy could easily be associated with the bird. While some copies of it came with a sketch of Rod Hull on the sleeve, so far as I'm concerned it is Not Canon and we should all cock a snook at it.

This, then, was the pair's proper recording debut in 1974 and... well, I have to be honest, words fail me for this one as well. The track consists of Rod Hull singing football supporting lyrics to the tune of "She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain" with the Bristol Rovers team. It wasn't a song commonly (if ever) sung by supporters of the club, and beyond the fact that Hull was a supporter, it's not clear how it came into being - they had just reached the second division of football (or the Championship League in today's footballing language) but hardly had enough supporters nationally to give them a profit-making single. Despite this, EMI obviously picked up the tab, everyone got their recording studio time, and this track was quickly recorded, released then promptly forgotten by almost everyone except ardent Bristol Rovers fans.