28 November 2021

Strange Fruit - Night Time/ Fun Bags


Jazz fusion types with instrumental funky shenanigans

Label: President
Year of Release: 1982

President was one of the first successful independent labels in the UK, scoring very quickly with The Equals in the sixties and seldom looking back throughout the rest of that decade. By the eighties, though, success was becoming much more elusive for the label, and there's a towering pile of (frequently limited run) flops of varying genres and styles to pick through.

Most are utterly unrewarding, it has to be said, but this one turned out to be a bit of a pearl. Strange Fruit were a group formed by Geoff Castle of jazz-rockers Nucleus and Paz and Rick Morcombe in the late seventies who specialised in jazz fusion. One LP emerged on President in 1981 (the unimaginatively and optimistically titled "Debut") which contained side A here, which is a busy, pounding slice of none-more-eighties instro-funk. The hyperactive bass line provides a solid foundation for the swinging brass, and the whole thing manages to be fun despite its fussiness and undoubted resemblance to an early evening drama theme.

Perhaps the fact it sounds like it's from a soundtrack shouldn't be surprising, because both Castle and Morecombe had form in this area, producing the KPM library music LP "Pulse Of The City" in 1978, containing tracks such as "Action Event", "Street Hussle", "Funky Cat" and "City Lights". In places, that LP offers more of the same, but with a distinctly less ambitious or punchy production. Any library music aficionados who enjoy that surely won't be disappointed with this single.

24 November 2021

Reupload - Sasha Caro - Grade 3 Section 2/ Little Maid's Song


Cat Stevens produced singer-songwriter with top quality psych 45

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1967

Sasha Caro was one of those interesting characters who was everywhere but nowhere on the sixties London scene. He was born in Rangoon in 1940, but his family fled to England when Burma was invaded by the Japanese, remaining on these shores thereafter. A love of music quickly sucked him into both the business and creative side of the "industry", and he took some promising steps at commercial songwriting. Originally beginning his career under the name Rick Minas, he co-wrote the non-hits "Lease On Love" by the Graham Bond Organisation and "I Won't See You Tonight" by Hamilton and The Movement, besides setting up the cheap recording studio RayRik with his business partner Bruce Rae. He also had a deeply obscure solo folk 45 out on Polydor in 1965 entitled "Well I Want No Part Of It". 

Very few of their other songs managed to gain a release, though several appeared on an episode of "Dangerman" in the sixties as part of the episode "Not So Jolly Roger", which took place on a pirate radio station. All the "top sounds" the DJs spun throughout the episode were actually just recordings of Rick Minas's work, though none of these gained a commercial release after the episode aired. 

Somehow, Cat Stevens managed to discover Rick through his songwriting demos, and took him under his wing to attempt to launch him as a star in his own right. His name was changed to Sasha Caro, and the two resulting Stevens-produced Decca 45s are damn good - it's astonishing that they didn't find a place on "Rubble" or one of the other many compilations that swept up the best of the Decca and Deram labels psychedelic output. On the sprightly and intricate folk-pop styled "Grade 3 Section 2" Rick's voice is on fine form, swooping beautifully all over the song. The track manages to be rustic sounding without losing any catchy pop appeal, and while it does share a similar sound to Cat Stevens' own work, it's nonetheless a fine single. 

Sadly, I can't include the flip side "Little Maid's Song" below as it was recently compiled on the "Piccadilly Sunshine" series, and therefore remains commercially available. However, you can listen to it on YouTube if you want. 

21 November 2021

Winy - My Son John/ Step By Step


Popsike (or bubblegum, depending on your point of view) from Swiss pop star

Label: Major Minor
Year of Release: 1970

Sometimes the fact an artist isn't from an English speaking nation is a dead giveaway. Take this record, for example - nobody in the Anglosphere would have given themselves the stage name "Winy". It's far too close to "Wino" or "Whiney", neither of which are compliments or the kind of upfront artistic statement anyone would usually wish to make.

I'm assuming Winy is a much more flattering nickname in Switzerland, because it's that nation Erwin "Winy" Klarer comes from. He began his recording career in the Swiss beat group The Angels in 1966, sticking with them for two singles on CBS ("The Creeper" and "Esther's Dance") before embarking on a solo career in 1968.

His first solo effort was a cover of The Beatles' "Birthday" under the name "Winy's Team and The Selection" before this one emerged in 1969 in his native Switzerland, then eventually the following year in the UK. In Europe, the sides were flipped and "Step By Step" was the A-side - Major Minor opted to prioritise the continental B-side "My Son John" over here, which does make some sense. It feels more modern for 1970, less beaty and ever so slightly closer to psychedelic pop, although purists would probably dismiss it as bubblegum.

Me? I think it's a good slice of period pop penned by quality songwriters Flett and Fletcher, who also wrote The Hollies "I Can't Tell The Bottom From The Top", Clout's "Save Me", and numerous tracks for Cliff Richard. It was also released by The Onyx in 1968 who failed to take it anywhere, so perhaps its failure shouldn't have been a total surprise. 

17 November 2021

Maddy Prior - Stookie/ Incidental Music From Stookie


Steeleye Span member takes on theme tune for edgy children's drama

Label: Making Waves
Year of Release: 1985

Children's television often had an unexpected grit and edge in the seventies and eighties, from "Grange Hill" with its highly accurate portrayal of the average British comprehensive as a jungle, to the weird Celtic legend creepiness of "The Owl Service". Both those series are now the stuff of legend, and have a reputation as being unrepeatable as pre-watershed, post-school fare (note: I'm not actually sure whether this is or isn't the case, but feel free to have a debate in your own mind about it). 

"Stookie", however (named after the Glaswegian slang for a headbutt) seems to have fallen out of many people's memory banks despite its edginess, possibly because it only managed one series in 1985. Featuring David McKay playing the sauntering, leathered up, spiked collar wearing main character, it chronicled the complex moral dilemmas posed by a teenager's life on a rough Glasgow estate, run-ins with the police and criminals included. 

If this all sounds like a tad too bleak for afternoon weekday television and not at all the kind of thing we should have been serving up to junior Gen X'ers at the time - and I'm quite sure someone wrote in to complain precisely along those lines - "Stookie" himself was, despite his budget Billy Idol appearances, a measured sort who generally played fair in the longer run, even if you probably wouldn't have wanted to get on the wrong side of one of his football pitch tackles.

The logical choice for a theme tune singer for such a series would have been someone familiar with sharp, edgy riffs and spiky noises, perhaps one of the many Scottish underground groups doing the rounds at the time. Instead, folkie Maddy Prior got the job, an eccentric bit of hiring which could have been close to a disaster. Weirdly though, it makes complete sense, and almost certainly sounds less off-putting than The Jesus and Mary Chain squealing out of the telly at 4pm would have done.

14 November 2021

Asterix - Everybody/ If I Could Fly


Sharp, throttling German rock tracks 

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1970

OK, let's kick off with the basic facts: Asterix were a briefly lived German act who popped out one "eponymous" album in 1970. Simple, eh? Except, of course, there's a long shaggy dog story around both this group's origins and their continuation, and Asterix are a seldom noted transitional step between a respected beat act and their more progressive incarnation.

Guitarist Peter Hesslein, organist Peter Hecht, bassist Deiter Horns and drummer Joachim Reitenbach were all originally members of the group The German Bonds. After that band split in 1970, the members apparently took up Graphic Design study at art college in order to have sensible, dependable careers outside of rock music; however, a chance meeting with British vocalist John Lawton, a recent emigrant to Germany, ruined all that and seemed to have sprung them back into life again under a new name.

The LP recorded by the new outfit under the Asterix name has a clear, clean and sharp sound, and while it's frequently labelled as progressive or krautrock, in reality it's typical cusp-of-the-seventies fare, owing a greater debt to the more commercial end of hard rock at that point. While fanciers of long, wigged out, jazzy experiments will be deeply disappointed by their work, appreciators of sharp pop rock tunes and even the early rumblings of glam might be enticed by them, and this - their only single - is a good showcase.

The A-side "Everybody" is a simplistic, repetitive anthem which rips along brilliantly; you can imagine the group being a quality live proposition. The B-side "If I Could Fly", on the other hand, points towards a reliance on studied pop-rock songwriting over roaring bombast.

11 November 2021

Reupload - Richard Stilgoe & Valerie Singleton - Suffering From Inflation/ Statutory Right of Entry


Farcical number about the legal home access rights of public servants

Label: BBC
Year of Release: 1975

Richard Stilgoe is one of those strange popular figures in British life who is famous despite never selling millions of records or having his own adult TV series.  Rather, his best known output was confined to regular brief appearances on television shows such as "Nationwide", "That's Life" and "Pebble Mill at One", usually singing light-hearted satirical ditties about the frustrations of the day. His gentle mocking of society began to seem dated by the early nineties, prompting the comedian David Baddiel to mock him with the character Richard Stillnotdead who sang the song "Why Do People Leave The Cap Of The Toothpaste Off?" on "The Mary Whitehouse Experience". Nonetheless, from that day to this, he has a loyal audience and fans, some of them rather unlikely figures such as members of cult indie bands or modern day poets and spoken word artists.

Stilgoe's media presence was arguably at its peak in the mid-seventies, when his bearded and somewhat casual Jeremy Corbyn-esque appearance cropped up constantly on early evening television. One of his prime achievements at this point - his "Bohemian Rhapsody" moment, if you will - was a song called "Statutory Right of Entry", which involved a cascade of multitracked Stilgoe vocals harmonising about a rather unlikely problem.

A "Nationwide" researcher had found out that numerous people in public jobs had a legal right to enter people's homes on demand. These included people working for the gas and electricity boards, and various other less likely characters besides. You would suspect that this wouldn't prove a problem for most home owners, but Stilgoe's ditty turns the situation into an epic and somewhat unlikely farce, with the home-owner finding himself avalanched by public professionals cluttering up his property across the working week. The song gains comedy value tenfold if you can see the accompanying video clip, where an army of officious Stilgoes authoritatively dance and prance around.

Despite the laughs and larks on offer, it's hard to understand quite what either "Nationwide" or Stilgoe were worried about. If I had a broken gas meter or faulty wiring in my house, I wouldn't treat a public official appearing on the scene unprompted with any stress or anxiety. To be honest, I'd just be stunned by their efficiency. It also seems somewhat unlikely that they would set up camp in my home all week, unlike the builders I paid a small fortune to (badly) repair and renew my bathroom. Still, it's an incredibly memorable piece of melodic farce as a result of stretching the problem to breaking point, which is probably why people still remember it to this day.

7 November 2021

Mark Ansley - 909/ Venus


Dramatic, chaotic cop car rocker

Label: Mother
Year of Release: 1970

Mark Ansley had certainly been around the block a bit by the time this, his only solo single, was released. Initially a member of legendary Midlands groups The Nightriders (who also featured Jeff Lynne) and Liverpudlians The Escorts, he eventually moved on to a solo career gigging up and down the country, as well as holding a residency at the Top Rank in Darlington.

"909" marked Ansley's arrival on wax, though, some years after his early beat adventures. His career had become akin to that of a middle-of-the-road entertainer by the late sixties, so it would be easy to walk past this single in the racks assuming that it contained little more than a supper club rendition of a Denmark Street melody. That would be a horrible mistake to make, though, as it's actually a deeply chaotic rocker focusing on the business of policemen in patrol cars ("defending the people from the wages of siiiiin!" he declares passionately) laced with buzzing, squealing guitar licks and gospel backing vocals.  This is bit parts Hendrix and "Shaft", sprawling and skidding delightfully melodically while Ansley professionally steadies the wild undercurrents with his assured vocals. It's a delight.

On the flipside you'll find his cover of "Venus" which doesn't usurp the original but does bring a harsher, electric organ dominated garage rock groove to the party. 

3 November 2021

Anji Cakebread - Dear Computer/ Simple Song

Very early synthpop about dating a computer - who knew the plot for Electric Dreams came so early?

Label: Magnet
Year of Release: 1978

When he'd finished listening to Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" for the first time, Brian Eno raced over to David Bowie and told him he had heard "the sound of the future!" Despite Bowie's chortling, he was correct - that unlikely marriage of electronics and soulful vocals would forever influence the sounds of clubland from that day to this. Not everyone out there was as sharp as Eno, though, and at the time synths were still seen as a bit gimmicky by many people who dared not put them to use in fresh pop contexts.

This means that if you're buying a synthpop record pre-1980, it will often consist of a science fiction vocal narrative married to a mystical electronic sound. Rather than being treated as musical instruments in their own right, synths were often used to convey a futuristic message by one-off novelty artists who never really returned to the same noise again.

This 45 is a prime example of that phenomenon. "Dear Computer" features the mysterious Anji Cakebread telling us a tale of romance not through a computer dating website, but actually with a computer. Both her and the computer intone their experiences throughout the record and it's another one for the bulging "rather silly" files on "Left and to the Back", but nonetheless isn't without charm.

It's also possibly more forward-thinking than even Eno managed to be. Artificial Intelligence is now sophisticated enough to talk to the lonely in a relatively convincing way. We're possibly only a few years away from a slender minority of people falling in love with an AI character on a mainframe. In fact, only last year during a particularly boring period of lockdown I spoke to an AI app and was slightly surprised to find how flirtatious and "forward" it was - sadly, the limitations of the technology and its almost senile repetition of questions and phrases ultimately prevented me from being at risk of having a silicon affair. Lucky me (and it).