24 September 2023

Nancy Whiskey - Freight Train/The Game


Plaintive re-recording of huge fifties skiffle hit

Label: CBS
Year of Release: 1967

"Freight Train" was one of the few huge hits on the independent Oriole label in the fifties, hitting number five in 1957. It was also a bit of an anomaly in skiffle terms - its singer Nancy Whiskey was a Scottish folk singer on the Topic Records label rather than some kid bashing on a pot lid in a cafe in the West One area. Her collaboration with the Chas McDevitt skiffle group to produce a record was not necessarily a natural fit, and was one she needed to be persuaded to undertake; with a rootsy, authentic folk pedigree and a recording contract of her own, she was somewhat doubtful of the change of direction. In fact, by all accounts she didn't even like skiffle that much. 

She would stay with McDevitt's group for four more singles, including the minor hit "Green Back Dollar", before returning to her solo career. Oriole persisted with their hitmaker and a few other 45s did pop out with her name attached, with most returning to the folk idiom she appeared more comfortable with. When it became clear that her mainstream appeal had been lost, the label let her go and she re-emerged on Fontana for "Bowling Green" in 1965 and then seemed to revisit her glory days for this CBS release in 1967, a whole ten years after the song's original release.

This version tones down the steamy, woody rattle of the original version and replaces it with a simple yearning, strings and all. Perhaps CBS perceived that a radical reworking of "Freight Train" on its tenth anniversary would attract the public's interest, or perhaps this is the way Whiskey had always wanted it to sound - but whatever the truth, it was roundly ignored by a public who weren't really nostalgic for skiffle in 1967. While it was true to say that some old Teds wandered the streets bigging up the idea of a rock and roll revival, nobody was dreaming wistfully of those threadbare days when spoons and brooms could be used as musical instruments by ration-starved youths. 

Her self-penned flipside here is interesting, though, showing a writer and performer capable of producing complex and very contemporary material. "The Game" isn't a million miles away from one of Scott Walker's "Scott 3" era efforts - brief, stupendously arranged, mysterious and leaving you feeling slightly uneasy by the time it leaves it your life for the first time. 

Sadly, this was her last single and her only other recording would be the self released "A Double Whiskey" LP in 1976, which seems to have been put together to sell at live shows. Shane McGowan saw fit to pay tribute (kind of) in 1994 with the track "Nancy Whiskey", albeit in a heavily metaphorical fashion. 

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1 comment:

Graham said...

'The Game' is a fascinating piece it feels like a lost 'James Bond' theme tune.