â&#x20AC;¦ YOUR HEART OUT PRESENTS
THE ENORMITY OF SMALL THINGS
INTRODUCTION Maybe as the song says the Italians do have a word for it. I realise dilettante, for example, is all wrong because it’s got associations with superficiality and shallowness. I’m not fond of catholic or eclectic either. They don’t seem to capture the essence of having far ranging taste or interests, and almost imply a lack of discrimination. Anyway, there are all sorts of pros and cons to having broad taste. You can for instance end up envying the specialists who concentrate on a particular well defined area and have an in-depth knowledge of their subject. For, while with wide ranging passions you can find beauty in all sorts of odd and unexpected places it is difficult to stay focused and not get diverted off into unexpected wanderings. So, you end knowing a little about lots of things. And while this knowledge does allow for fresh perspectives on things that have happened historically, in music for example, and enables elements to be put back together in new ways that may challenge established views, one downside is being an expert in nothing specific One definite advantage of the far reaching interests is that issue of connectivity, and being able to identify linkages that span imagined boundaries. It is when these connections are made that questions arise about why these associations have been overlooked in authorised art histories. There are a few things here, but one is perhaps what a psychologist would make of the fact I hated jigsaws as a kid and could never do them, and maybe that has something to do with not being able to accept there is only one way to put pieces together to complete a picture. Another issue that emerges is about who puts histories together, and how they become accepted. What is the motivation of the chroniclers? What is it that allows certain accounts to be acknowledged as valid? Something else the Italians, or psychologists, may have a word for is this. This being something about first impressions being spot-on, or in other words trusting to instinct. I used to have this great teacher. He was an argumentative so-and-so, a hot-headed Marxist, a hippy hard-nut, the sort of person that would have sent the Thatcher regime into real apoplectic fury. I loved him. He used to confront racist skinheads by quoting Captain Beefheart at them. Anyway, he used to argue that the only people that should be allowed to vote were kids under the age of six. That is people whose minds have not been corrupted with ideas about what they should think. If you apply a similar logic to the arts, and music specifically, it is interesting to study what people have listened to instinctively before they were old enough to know anything about contexts and matters of taste. The theme that leads on from this is to do with who shapes these contexts and who are the taste makers? That is the role of peers, the media, and the people with influence. I am sure there have been many studies about influence, and how it is used. I am certain there has been a lot of research into how people get into positions of power, and what drives them. There can be little doubt that the world is in a bit of a mess right now because of people that have been in positions of influence and power. One question that needs to be addressed is about how these people have got away with what they have got away with for so long. Or, maybe to put it another way, how did idiots come to rule the roost? Who let them get to the top? How much damage have they done? This can apply to politicians, the business community, journalists, musicians, and so on. One of those horrible phrases used within the business community, and I’m sure elsewhere, is about ‘what does success look like for you?’ How dumb is that? It’s usually asked in such a way that anything which deviates from the established view of success is dismissed as immediately invalid. But what is success? Books of quotations will contain many definitions of success. There is for instance a definition Mark Twain wrote which went: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.”
CHAPTER ONE In November 1985 Dexys Midnight Runners came to town. November has always been an important month for Kevin Rowland and Dexys. And this was really important. Dexys Midnight Runners’ Coming To Town tour climaxed with three nights at London’s Dominion Theatre. I was privileged to be there for the final show on the 13th of November. It’s something that’s stayed with me ever since, and I’ve found myself thinking a lot about it for a number of reasons. I don’t want this to sound like one of those “I was there. You weren’t” accounts. It’s just that I was fortunate enough to be there that night, and I still think it was one of the greatest musical performances I’ve ever witnessed. There are also a lot of things linked to it. The Coming To Town tour, to give it some context, was to celebrate the release of Dexys Midnight Runners’ Don’t Stand Me Down. Almost 25 years on this remarkable record is rightly regarded as a classic work of art. This wasn’t always the case. The breathtaking beauty, the boldness of vision, the artistic adventuresomeness, the group’s image, and so on; all these things provoked confusion and were not generally appreciated at the time. People heard or read things about the record, in reviews or whatever, and thought they knew what it was like. They didn’t. They would later realise what they’d missed, but to an extent the damage was done, and an opportunity missed. All this is ancient history. You can’t change it. But it does provide a context for what would be the last Dexys show in London until 10 November 2003. Would siege mentality be putting it too strongly? Maybe. Maybe not. The audience as I recall was wildly partisan, predominantly, madly protective, willing Dexys to succeed, wanting to be touched by Kevin Rowland’s fervour. This is couched in quasi-religious language, but that is appropriate. So, yes, siege mentality. There was a lot of anger about the way Don’t Stand Me Down seemed to have been dismissed, and those who instinctively loved the record wanted a show of defiance, and wanted to be vindicated. I realise now this was astonishingly selfish. I wonder how I would have felt if I had poured my heart and soul into producing a work of art that had been met with a shake of the head and a raising of the eyebrows. I wonder about that last show, about the group already knowing it was the end. And there we were, the Dexys devotees, demanding, wanting to feel the inspiration.
There are recordings in circulation of those November 1985 shows which prove how great they were. But that only tells part of the story. What I remember most is a sense of anticipation, the not knowing what to expect. I liked that. Then the dramatic opening. The chimes of Big Ben. Kevin sitting by the river, singing Elvis’ Can’t Help Falling In Love quite beautifully. Then, wham! The lights are on, the curtains drawn back, and the group is into Let’s Get This Straight (From The Start) and what we would eventually know as Kevin Rowland’s Band or his 13th Time. Then they were tearing into Tell Me When My Light Turns Green, which roared and soared, and everyone knew. Yes!
I was with friends, but my seat was separate from them, a few rows back, which suited me as it meant I was alone with my thoughts and my reactions were undisturbed. And, during Tell Me When My Light Turns Green, there were these guys in the row behind me, and I was aware they suddenly went into this soul clapping routine, all perfectly co-ordinated, like that bit in Let’s Make This Precious, and at the end of the song they were giving each other high fives. I’m wondering about these guys, with their badges and t-shirts. Were they stuck forever in November 1981 at the Projected Passion Revue? Then by the time I’m done mulling this over Come On Eileen has been and gone, and Kevin is dedicating the next song “to those in love”. I would recognise it as the Fantastics’ Something Old Something New. The American vocal group The Fantastics had a UK hit with Something Old Something New in 1971. Taken in isolation it’s a great slice of pop/soul. A very nice UK production released on the Bell Records. Taken as part of something bigger it becomes rather more intriguing. There will be many people better qualified than me to write about soul music in Britain, but I am aware that it’s a subject that divides the cognoscenti. One one hand the old position held by mods and connoisseurs is that soul’s about black music made in the States. As pure and as simple as that. Yet there is another view that says if the music’s got that driving beat and the feeling then who cares where it’s from, which is why among the northern soul community and ‘60s record collectors sundry soul sounding records made in the UK have a certain cachet of cool. Personally, I am very much in the latter camp, and have no qualms about shuffling my feet to Helen Shapiro, Tammy St John and Samantha Jones. And there have been some wonderful collections of British soul over the years, and while they are a real mish-mash in terms of origin they do contain some classic sounds.
The Fantastics’ story is a great one. An experienced US vocal group comes to the UK to do some work, sticks around for whatever reason, like a number of their compatriots, makes a few records along the way for the UK market, works hard on the live soul market, and strikes it lucky momentarily. The Geno Washington story is not dissimilar. But this is a story we know from a different perspective as poignantly captured in Kevin Rowland’s own story. Then there’s the story of Herbie Goins and his Nightimers. And Jimmy James with his Vagabonds, though his is slightly different in that he came to the UK from Jamaica in the early ‘60s to try his luck on the live soul circuit. Better still he hooked up with arch mod Pete Meaden along the way, the group looking in early publicity shots like the Nation of Ulysses, earning a reputation as r’n’b purists, an ultimate mod outfit according to Meaden, putting out some great records like the New Religion LP with a title that’s totally Meaden.
Numerous other soul vocalists stopped off and set up shop in the UK in the ‘60s. PP Arnold, Madeline Bell, Rosetta Hightower, Doris Troy, Flirtations, JJ Jackson, Carl Douglas, and so on. Now while it’s one thing to question the authenticity of Kiki Dee or Billie Davis (though I’d argue for them until the end of time) it would be daft doubting the provenance of a Doris Troy track. Another act that came to the UK and had a degree of success was Johnny Johnson & the Bandwagon. As the ‘60s became the ‘70s they had a couple of hits with Sweet Inspiration and Blame It On The Pony Express, showing the way the UK market gently but resolutely guided soul acts towards the ultra-pop end of the spectrum. Perhaps purists cold cavil and carp in frustration, but I have a fatal fascination with bubblegum flavours. I guess the name Johnny Johnson & the Bandwagon is now most readily identified with the ferocious 1980 Dexys cover of Breakin’ Down The Walls of Heartache, a masterpiece that was originally written by the legendary team of Denny Rendell and Sandy Linzer, protégés of Bob Crewe at dynoVoice, one of the great sources of pop/soul sounds. Crewe, of course, is most readily identified with the Four Seasons, whose Rag Doll Kevin Rowland would cover to such devastating effect around the same time he wrote that beautiful essay for The Look on the skin/suedehead thing, where you can almost hear Kevin’s voice speaking and the music of that time playing in the background. “Listen now!”
CHAPTER TWO In November 2003 Kevin Rowland and Dexys Midnight Runners made a triumphant return to the London stage, at the Royal Festival Hall. The show started with a beautiful rendition of The Waltz, after which Kevin quipped something like: “The whole world’s changed. Why shouldn’t we?” A dozen or so years before, I was engaged on a sort of “official” oral history project about the group Felt. As part of this I interviewed Lawrence’s old school friend and Felt drummer/bassist Nick Gilbert. We met up one afternoon at the Royal Festival Hall for a coffee and a chat, and soon found out we were both nuts about Dexys. So we spent most of the time gossiping about Dexys. Nick had been talking about the groups he and Lawrence used to go and see in and around Birmingham. He said they used to go and see the Prefects quite a bit. Yeah. You’d expect that. You’d want to hear that. Then he said they used to go and see a lot of the early Dexys shows in pubs and clubs around Birmingham. And I’m like, wow! That was it. We were off. And Nick told some great stories. He recalled seeing Dexys on a bill with Joy Division. Best show he ever saw, and Lawrence missed it because he’d taken this girl to Great Yarmouth or somewhere for the day. Another time they’d gone to play at this Club 18-30 event at Caister, and lasted literally seconds onstage. British people of a certain age will understand the absurdity of booking Felt, circa 1982, for that one. I have this vague memory of being at a Creation Records showcase at the Boston Arms, up at Tufnell Park, and Felt were on the bill. Probably Primal Scream. Possibly the Weather Prophets. Perhaps the Jazz Butcher, or someone no one much cared about. And I recall I spent the whole time talking about Dexys and Don’t Stand Me Down. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me. I could be quite a bore on the subject of Don’t Stand Me Down. I was certainly intolerant at the time. I was increasingly intolerant of dead-end groups with terrible shoes and horrible haircuts. The trouble was this was a time when two things were happening in and around the UK’s underground music scene. One was the advent of compartmentalisation, where a lot of things were lumped together, herded up, and had a label slapped on them, so a lot of energy and time was wasted trying to escape from labels with the result that a lot of special talent was drowned or lost along the way. The other was the astonishing advance of self-aggrandisement, the need to make a name for yourself, no matter what was lost, no matter how little there was to offer. Conscience or qualms didn’t come into it. Naked ambition most definitely did. And yet this was further complicated by there being a boss, an editor, an owner, whatever, somehow involved in the process, approving, in cahoots, colluding. There will be those like me that think a lot of damage was done in this way. Lawrence, as part of Felt, spent a lot of time wondering about the process of success. He would often sing about it: “I was gonna be like royalty. I was gonna come to the throne. I was gonna be a personality. I was gonna be so well known. What went wrong? I don’t know.” Mark E Smith said Felt were too subtle for the masses. It’s a good point. Anyway at the end of 1985, into 1986, Felt were revitalised, having left Cherry Red and thrown in their lot with Creation. Somewhere around that time the fantastic, if spiteful and beautifully bitter, Ballad of the Band came out as a single. I see this song as part of a great self-referential tradition within pop. One Dexys definitely contributed to. And it would be an interesting exercise to draw up a chart of similarities and differences between Lawrence and Kevin Rowland, Felt and Dexys. Certainly both knew what they wanted, were very much their own people, and their minds did not work in quite the same way as everybody else’s.
Around the time I was working on that now long since abandoned Felt oral history project Lawrence was getting ready to unveil his new Denim creation. I had heard early recordings of Middle of the Road and The Osmonds, and was mesmerised. I was completely sold on the idea of using both The Glitter Band and Phuture as reference points. But it was that song, The Osmonds, that floored me. I thought the whole song was amazing, the way it so successfully captured the essence of growing up in the pre-punk ‘70s. This was not nostalgia. This was something deeper. It was something to do with coming to terms with the forces that shaped you. There is probably a word for that. The Osmonds was also a direct challenge to the accepted view of pop and cultural history. It was saying what about Lieutenant Pigeon, Paper Lace, Chicory Tip, David Essex? That these acts are as valid as anything by the “socalled heroes” we’re force fed. Thus Lawrence would position himself firmly in the middle of the road, in an affectionate tribute to his own hero Vic Godard. One of the things that made The Osmonds work as a piece of art was the subtle (as in stark contrast to the dreary David Peace nastiness) references to the darker side of the ‘70s, like the Black Panther; and in particular the Birmingham Pub Bombings which the Prefects had focused on in The Bristol Road Leads To Dachau, and which would feature fatally in the West Midlands of Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club. I have often wondered about any link between Denim’s The Osmonds and Coe’s novel of ‘70s life. Certainly Coe is on record as being a big fan of él Records, the final resting place for Felt. Anyway, Lawrence as one of the great free thinkers was right to challenge orthodox ideas of what is great art. It’s absurd how concepts set like concrete. The concrete needs to be smashed up from time to time. I’m still for the ‘70s. I still argue Jigsaw’s Sky High or Lynsey De Paul’s Sugar Me are as great as anything on Pet Sounds or Unknown Pleasures. Lawrence probably has a completely different view of how things fit together, and I would never presume to second guess what this would be. But we need people like him. Particularly ones with a gift for picking up on sounds and ideas that have been overlooked. Like, I remember Lawrence claiming to have been listening to Michel Polnareff when no one else was. Cristina may have a view on this. But I mention it because recently I stumbled across a clip on YouTube of Polnareff performing his Ame Caline, which is such a beautiful song. It became an instrumental hit in the late ‘60s for Raymond LeFevre as Soul Coaxing, which was later covered by Biddu. Anyway the melody from that song has been haunting me, and it’s only now I have made a connection to Dexys’ stately interpretation of Status Quo’s Marguerita Time, which was the song they started the encore with that night at the Dominion, before launching into Burn It Down and closing with a rendition of Kathleen Mavourneen. Just in case there were any raised eyebrows as the suggestion of similarities between Kevin Rowland and Lawrence, consider the time and trouble Dexys took with adverts and the way Felt’s reissue series was so carefully planned. Such attention to detail is so important. It’s like the way Lawrence would use a Denim logo on personal stationary that was an adaptation of the old Bell one.
CHAPTER THREE The Fantastics’ Something Old Something New was arranged for Bell by Gerry Shury. It would be one of the first opportunities Brixton-born backroom boffin Shury would get to work with the soul format he loved so much. And he got the balance just right between soul and the commercial, contemporary pop sound. He would go on to do the same magic trick with Johnny Johnson & the Bandwagon.
I really don’t know much about Gerry Shury. I first became of his name a few years back when I picked up a cheap copy of a Biddu compilation Cherry Red (almost inevitably) had put out. When I was a kid I loved some of the instrumental pop/disco records Biddu made, like Summer of ’42 and Rainforest, and over the years I’d retained a soft spot for many of the hits he’d had with other artists. The Biddu story is a great one too. Guy plays in a successful Indian beat group, hightails it to the west, makes his way to London, works in a burger bar, makes it in the music business, establishes a stable of stars that defies the odds, mixing adopted UK soul survivors (Jimmy James and Carl Douglas), whose pasts he was unaware of, with session singer Tina Charles whom I love dearly but she just does not conform to the pop stereotype though she was one of the great blue-eyed soul singers of her day. Just listen to her let rip on 5,000 Volts’ I’m On Fire. Biddu would under his own name also have considerable success right around the world with recordings in an ultra-poppy funky soul/disco vein, and then when his homeland started to pay attention he repeated his success there, with Pakistani singer Nazia Hassan performing Disco Deewane. Anyway the sleeve notes on this Biddu set referred to a partnership with the like-minded Gerry Shury, about whom Biddu said: “He was a quiet guy, a chubby gentleman with glasses who liked black music and we got on well; a lot of my success was due to his input.” I would start noticing Shury’s name in lots of places, and begin to realise he played a key part in pop history before his tragic, early death in 1978. Shury sightings include a credit or two on the Sharon Tandy compilation Big Beat put out, and the same with the New Seekers. Then as part of a songwriting partnership with Ron Roker there would be work with Barry Blue on Do You Wanna Dance (and in connection with Barry Blue, Roker also wrote with the great Lynsey De Paul, including the great Storm In A Teacup), and the Pearls for whom they wrote Guilty which would be covered in the US by soul trio First Choice much to their delight. Later their Devil’s Gun would be covered by CJ & Co., a Dennis Coffey related project.
Pickettywitch was a classic ultra-pop/soul outfit from the start of the ‘70s most readily associated with the UK bubblegum songwriting team of Macleod and Macaulay, of Foundations fame. After the group’s demise singer Polly Brown, who had a wonderful soulful singing style that has often been compared to Diana Ross’ and Dionne Warwick’s, would join up with the Shury/Roker team for the timeless Up In A Puff of Smoke and Special Delivery. They would then pair Polly up with young soul singer Tony Jackson as Sweet Dreams for a great, lost classic pop/soul set in the Marvin/Tammi vein. Then there was Biddu, and Shury’s role as musical maestro behind the hustler. Can there be anybody of my generation for whom Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting, Tina Charles’ I Love To Love, or the eco-protest of Jimmy James’ Now Is The Time doesn’t instantly evoke the mid-‘70s, generating broad smiles and dancing feet. Dig deeper though into the arrangements, listen to LP tracks and b-sides, look beyond the blatant commercialisation, the attempts to jump on board any sort of train, from blaxpoitation to Philly to Salsoul to Northern Soul, there are all sorts of neat touches, fancy flourishes, fantastic rhythm guitar work, spot-on drumming, and so on. I have no idea what Shury’s feelings about Biddu were, but I bet he enjoyed sneaking in those more, shall we say, adventurous aspects and experimental elements. And while this may not have got Shury or Biddu on the front of the New Musical Express Encyclopaedia of Rock they will have enjoyed the success, which was merited. Biddu was certainly a shrewd operator. His set-up was effective. And intriguing. Another back room boffin was Lee Vanderbilt, who as Ebony Keyes, having moved to London from Trinidad as a young man, made a few great UK soul sides in the ‘60s, such as If You Knew, which have become northern soul favourites. As well as introducing Tina Charles to Biddu, he would write a number of songs for the set-up, including Black Joy and Gonna Make You An Offer for Jimmy Helms, another London soul singer, and the immortal If You Think Funk’s Junk You’re Drunk for Jimmy James’ Dancing Till Dawn (now where have I heard that title before?) which is pure P-Funk, with the inevitable ultra-pop twist. Shury’s success behind the scenes will have enabled him to indulge in other activities, which are highly regarded by the soul community. He was involved, certainly, in recordings by Ultrafunk, which are classic instrumental excursions and seem to be real favourites of the soul community in the US where the records were released. I’ve seen speculation about the identity of Ultrafunk, with suggestions the Glitter Band was involved. That’s not an absurd idea. Just listen to their single, Makes You Blind, which is exceptionally funky. It is more likely though that Ultrafunk was an aggregation of session musicians, playing with Kenny or the Rollers by day and earning the freedom to get down by night. The same goes for the Armada Orchestra, and its Disco Armada LP, which was a UK project Shury was behind akin to MFSB, the Love Unlimited Orchestra, Soulful Strings or the Salsoul Orchestra. Both Ultrafunk and the Armada Orchestra recorded for the London-based Contempo label, which was started by John Abbey of Blues & Soul magazine. If you’ve bought the Shout/RPM reissue of Doris Duke’s 1975 LP, Woman, you may have noticed that Gerry Shury did the arrangements, that Ultrafunk supplied the rhythm, and the Armada Orchestra did its thing. And it is such a fantastic LP. I’d even stick my neck out and say it sounds as good as Doris’ Swamp Dogg sides. The opening seven-and-a-half minute version of Woman of the Ghetto is awesome, and throughout the rest of the LP Shury’s arrangements are spot-on. Yet, while the sleevenotes rightly focus on the singing and story of Doris Duke, Shury receives scant praise. Although in fairness on a slightly earlier Contempo reissue on Shout/RPM of Oscar Toney Jr’s Loving You Too Long mid-‘70s set, probably the best UK produced deep soul record, Shury does receive rather more of a write-up for his outstanding arrangements, though coming from a serious soul perspective the Biddu connection is neatly sidestepped.
CHAPTER FOUR “It’s the enormity of small things …” is a line from Samaritan, Richard Price’s 2003 novel, which refers to the devastating impact, maybe well intentioned, small gestures can have on people’s lives. Price is not a prolific writer, and he’s not someone I’d want to read everyday. But his books can, if read at the right time, hit like a heavyweight. You might see where this is heading. It is often the small detail in Kevin Rowland’s work that hits home. Like the one song off of Don’t Stand Me Down that the group did not perform live when they came to town was Reminisce Part Two. Perhaps understandably. It is, after all, such an intimate number. Even now I find it incredibly moving. It’s so simple, like a Raymond Carver or Barry Gifford short story. That thing about songs capturing times past. It’s so spot-on. Thinking back it strikes me that I would not have heard the Wedding Bell Blues when Don’t Stand Me Down came out. I’m not even sure I would have been aware of the Fifth Dimension. I certainly wouldn’t have been aware of Laura Nyro. One way or another, all that’s changed. I’ve totally bought into the whole thing. Jim Webb, Bones Howe, the Fifth Dimension’s exquisite harmonies, the intricate and ornate beautiful arrangements. But I’m very much in the camp that says the Fifth Dimension was at its best interpreting Laura Nyro’s songs. Time And Love, Sweet Blindness, Stoned Soul Picnic, Save The Country, and of course Wedding Bell Blues. It’s that odd thing, which is so perfect, about the strangeness and obliqueness of Laura’s songs, and yet the overwhelming beauty of the melodies and the whole feel made the songs so appealing for other performers to interpret. I was really slow off the mark where Laura was concerned. People kept telling me that I had to listen to Laura. That I’d love Laura. That she was perfect for me. And there’s something isn’t there when people keep telling you that soand-so is perfect for you that you almost become rebellious. Perversely so. My loss. They were right. Funnily enough, I think I first became aware of Laura’s music via a version of Stoned Soul Picnic by Johnny Johnson and the Bandwagon, which I loved straight away. It really caught my imagination. So gradually, I began to play catch up. Loved it all. Hated the hippies for being impervious to Laura’s soul revue at Monterey, and so on. Fell totally in love with Eli & the Thirteenth Confession. Loved the fact that Charlie Calello was involved. The Four Seasons/Bob Crewe connection and all that. And now I keep an active eye out for covers of Laura’s songs. Karen Wyman doing Save The Country. Melba Moore doing Captain St Lucifer. And so on. One of the greatest things I’ve read about Laura was written by the team of Mick Patrick and Malcolm Baumgart. Names that individually and collectively have appeared on so many sleevenotes, in many publications, on many websites, doing their bit to educate and illuminate, particularly about their chosen specialised subject ‘60s femme sounds. Without ever seeming to be motivated by anything else than a desire to share their particular passions, they have done so much to challenge existing concepts of what is high art or classic pop music. And concepts can be changed. When Lawrence and Felt covered the Beach Boys’ Be Still in the late ‘80s few people seemed to have any time for the songs of Dennis Wilson. Now …
People like Mick Patrick and Malcolm Baumgart can be quite intimidating in terms of knowledge. But then I’m not a collector, and I’m not a specialist, and anyway I suspect I know more about music and artists from other times, like Subway Sect or the Pale Fountains. But I am so grateful for the way I have had eyes and ears opened by the important archival work these guys have diligently undertaken. Back around when the ‘80s became the ‘90s there was an issue of the magazine certainly Mick Patrick was involved in, That Will Never Happen Again, dedicated to British femme pop from the ‘60s, and this was a revelation, challenging every conception in the book, and suggesting it was okay to think Billie Davis was better than Neil Young. Over the years there have been various series of records strengthening the case, like Here Come The Girls on Sequel, Where The Girls Are on Ace, and Dream Babes for RPM, which have provided valuable insights into lost corners of creativity, with so many wonderful connections it makes your head spin. Like the great Jean DuShon and her gorgeous rendition of the Martha Smith British beat classic As I Watch You Walk Away, written by Lionel Segal. Jean’s version, a 1966 Cadet release, appears on Where The Girls Are Volume 3, a fantastic round-up of Chess’ female singers and groups. And from a point of view that says a few Jan Bradley or JoAnn Garrett or Jackie Ross recordings are worth more than all those Neil Young works, or that Honey & The Bees’ sides are more valuable than Springsteen’s.
Volume 5 in the Where The Girls Are series delved into Columbia’s femme pop archives, and has the most amazing cover photo of the Glories. The collection closes with Laura and Labelle’s version of Spanish Harlem from the Gonna Take A Miracle set. And this is what Mick Patrick and Malcolm Baumgart wrote in the sleevenotes: “The Bronx Ophelia. Only New York, that greatest of melting pots, could have produced Laura Nyro. An elemental beauty of Jewish/Italian extraction, she was the distillation of a broad ranging set of influences and because of that, ultimately, unique. She was the Shirelles with lyrics by William Burroughs, the love child of Emily Dickinson and John Coltrane. She was George Gershwin cookin’ with the Miracles, a youngster who spent many teenage hours with her friends, doo wopping in the subway, ‘looking for an echo’.”
CHAPTER FIVE One of the things with Felt that must have rankled was the fact that they were, for a longtime, part of the Cherry Red Records set-up rather than part of a considerably cooler imprint. Maybe in retrospect that’s a little bit harsh, as Cherry Red also had the Marine Girls, Ben Watt, Monochrome Set, Reflections, Five Or Six, In Embrace, and the Nightingales (whose latest set Insult To Injury is fantastically ferocious). Cherry Red, nevertheless, has proven to be one of the more enduring outlets of the punk era. Like the Ace family, it has diversified and become predominantly an umbrella organisation for a number of salvage operations, like él, Rev-ola, Anagram, and so on. While there will be mixed feelings about the torrent of reissues Cherry Red is responsible for, its labels like RPM have certainly played a vital role in our reimagining and re-evaluating of pop’s past. RPM’s Dream Babes series of British femme pop from the ‘60s has been particularly significant in challenging conceptions of what constitutes classic pop. Similarly through the label’s archival work certain names have emerged as singularly important if unheralded in the way pop music has evolved. I love it when patterns emerge in this way, in an almost brass rubbing manner, and you gradually begin to realise a particular character’s contribution. Miki Dallon is a classic case in point. RPM over recent years has incrementally made the case for Dallon as one of the people whose hustle and bustle threads together so many important elements. Take as a start, Take A Heart by The Sorrows. One of the most wonderful works of art ever. And Dallon wrote it, as a tin pan alley chancer and composer, with roots in the British rock & roll boom via Vince Taylor and all that. Dallon would write a number of songs for The Sorrows, and for other pop acts, while signed to the Miliwick stable with Lionel Segal. Dallon would go on to be part of the set-up at Strike, an early smart British ‘60s independent label, like Immediate and Planet. Dallon himself would record some songs, rightly regarded as freakbeat classics, like I’ll Give You Love, while Strike’s output as a whole was impressively varied in a way the punk era independents’ were not. Beat, soul, femme pop, folk rock, freakbeat, psychedelia, odd pop and Roy Harper’s first steps. Not bad going. Another London-based independent in the late ‘60s, Beacon, run by Antiguan businessman and by all accounts a bit of a character Milton Samuel, with Dallon connections, grew out of the success of the Showstoppers’ Ain’t Nothing But A House Party, and again almost anything went in a wonderful, madly mixed-up way, whereby the bubblegum sounded almost avant garde and the positively progressive sounded like a potential Eurovision smash. RPM’s round-up of Beacon’s output, Let’s Copp A Groove, is billed as Lost UK Soul, which is a little opportunistic and fanciful, but it’s alright with me and the raw cuts are glorious whatever you want to call them. In the Beacon recordings there is, significantly, a strong West Indian influence, with ska and early reggae elements mixed up in the sounds. Joyce Bond, for example, was one of the early Jamaican artists on Island, and went on to make the fantastic progressive and storming soul/ska set, Wind of Change, and it’s worth buying the Beacon compilation just to get hold of the title track. Ah. That whole thing about soul and early reggae artists working and recording in the UK with the more open-minded heads led to some really interesting if not necessarily right sounding sets, often made even better by really restrictive budgets. I remember reading an interview with David Toop where he talks about contributing to early sessions at a studio in Chalk Farm.
The UK naturally had its own emerging reggae performers who would have played on the many raw as hell and all the better for it productions that were churned out by Pama, Trojan, and so on to cater for demand, with both the West Indian community and the young fans among the skin/suedeheads. One successful example being Greyhound, who had started out as the Rudies backing ex-pat Jamaican artists such as Rico and Laurel Aitken, going on to have hits of their own with the ultra-poppy Black And White, Moon River, and so on, but in a way typical of the times buried beneath the froth were all sorts of adventurous touches so that even the most saccharine of tracks wear well. Also featured on the Beacon compilation is Ram John Holder, who to UK audiences is best known as the much-loved character Porkpie from the TV sitcom Desmond’s. Much earlier, at the end of the ‘60s he made a remarkable record, Black London Blues, which is still astonishingly out of circulation as far as I know. While the electric blues was undergoing a renaissance at the end of the ‘60s, this was pretty much the preserve of the white middle classes romantically looking back. Ram John Holder instead updated the form to tell tales of London’s black community and the disenfranchised in general. The titles set the scene. Brixton Blues. Notting Hill Eviction Blues. Pub Crawling Blues. And so on. Then when he is singing about a Wimpy Bar on the Edgware Road, opening day and night, you almost sense Kevin Rowland and his girl sitting at an adjoining table, with Jimmy Ruffin on the radio.
One of Miki Dallon’s contributions to Beacon would be writing for Paula Parfitt, and her Love Is Wonderful is much loved by femme pop archivists and northern soul scholars alike. It’s a beautiful slice of uptempo pop, and all the more appealing for having a co-writing credit for one Andrew McMasters, and I know I’m not the only one wanting to make the automobile association, and the mental leap from Paula Parfitt’s Love Is Wonderful to the Motors’ Forget About You. There would be a beautiful logic to that, for that Motors song has the same universal chirpiness and strangeness that flows through all the best pop. Around the time the world would fall out of love with the 7” format I became a real addict, hunting through boxes and boxes of abandoned singles in dusty basements, then later giving them all away again, but for that short while I was particularly drawn to the odd pop of the early ‘70s and the more free thinking UK labels that would put out this strange stuff, like Bell, RAK, Jayboy, Dawn,
Anchor, President, Penny Farthing, Major Minor, Direction, Spark and Youngblood. I knew little about these labels. I certainly didn’t know Youngblood was another Miki Dallon dalliance, an operation that put out all sorts of weird sounds. Indeed Dallon’s early ‘70s activities get more intriguing the deeper you dig. Ex-Sorrows singer Don Fardon’s Indian Reservation. Python Lee Jackson’s In A Broken Dream. Dando Shaft. The latin funk of Chakachas. Salamander’s Ten Commandments. Spaghetti Head’s Funky Axe. Apollo 100’s Joy. Then there was Chris Harwood, who has gained a new generation of fans through Andy Votel’s Finders Keepers salvage operation, and her Nice To Meet Chris is an absolute must for lovers of Ruth Copeland, Fay Hallam, Julie Driscoll, Affinity and Linda Hoyle. Youngblood was also home to the early releases by Mac & Katie Kissoon, which were initially far more successful outside the UK. The siblings had moved to England from Trinidad with their family, and made their first steps in the music business in the ‘60s. The stunningly beautiful Katie’s recordings as Peanut are particularly revered, and considered highlights of the Dream Babes series, while her Marc Wirtz produced I’m Waiting For The Day is widely considered to be the greatest ever Beach Boys cover. Katie would much later be much in demand as a session singer, backing Van Morrison for example, and memorably appearing as one of the Sisters of Scarlet on Dexys’ Too Rye Aye.
The earlier Mac and Katie Kissoon lopsided soul sides for Youngblood, like Change it All, Love Me Baby and Song For Everybody have worn particularly well, and I am more than prepared to stand up and fight for the duo’s later more successful mid-‘70s hits like Sugar Candy Kisses, Don’t Do It Baby, and Like A Butterfly, which are as sweet as anything, but confectionary perfection created by the songwriting team of Wayne Bickerton and Tony Waddington, Merseybeat survivors, who were also the architects of the Rubettes (and let’s face it if you don’t like Sugar Baby Love or Jukebox Jive you don’t like pop music!) and had earlier been behind (our cover stars) the Flirtations’ Nothing But A Heartache, the most perfect slice of British produced dramatic soul music ever.
CHAPTER SIX With those Coming To Town performances by Dexys on my mind I was sort of interested in what the world was saying about those shows. So I did what you do nowadays, and used a search engine. I wanted to avoid the sites dedicated to Dexys, because such single-mindedness never seemed healthy. One of the more interesting resources I found were the diaries of keyboards player Mick Bolton, which were posted as part of an overview of his musical career. If you follow clues on the web you’ll come across a clip on YouTube of Mick performing an astonishingly beautiful solo rendition of The Waltz. No words. Just the music. Bolton refers to those times immediately after the Coming To Town dates, where things were up in the air. There would be some Dexys rehearsals and the recording of the Because Of You single and theme for the TV sit-com Brush Strokes, but not a lot was happening. One of the bookings he secured in March 1986 was a live session with Vic Godard for Gary Crowley’s Capital Radio show to promote the T.R.O.U.B.L.E set which was being belatedly released by Rough Trade. The LP itself (which still criminally has not been reissued) had been produced by Simon Booth of Weekend/Working Week, and was quite a complex affair with input from the cream of London’s jazz players. The session in contrast was a small combo affair, with quite a bluesy swinging sound. Also in the group was Paul Cook on drums and Dexys’ sax player Pol Coussee. They kicked off proceedings with Watching The Devil, almost an old standard, then continued the satanic theme with The Devil’s In League With You, in a version closer to the northern soul sound of when it was performed as part of the mythical Music Machine dates of March 1980. It is another of the tragedies of our times that the full 1980 northern soul Sect set was not recorded. Ironically 20 odd years later Vic would record a strongly ‘60s soul flavoured set, The Long-Term Side Effect, with former Dexys keyboards player Pete Saunders. Another song from that 1980 northern soul set, The Water Was Bad, would resurface in a rather different slowed-down form as part of the Heavenly sponsored recordings released on the revivified Postcard label in 1993. Heavenly around that same time would sponsor some Dexys recordings, when no one else was listening. The sound on the Gary Crowley live session was so perfect that it’s something of a crime that no one seized the opportunity to record a set of lost Godard works, or at the very least get the group out there playing live at a time when they just might have cleaned up. The session itself continued with a lovely extended workout on No Style, one of the highlights from 1982’s Songs For Sale LP, and then to close proceedings a reworking of the old standard All Of Me, with some very neat scat work from Vic. This cover of an old jazz classic came about when Mick Bolton was talking about performing pub gigs, and Vic asked if he knew anything they could do together, and voila. In a similar way Mick tells of how Dexys came to record The Way You Look Tonight. “Kevin never encouraged his musicians to jam together between takes, so it was with some trepidation that I realised that he had returned to the studio to find a few of us gathered at the piano fooling around with some old standards and pub songs. I was relieved when instead of chastising us Kevin asked: 'Do you know this one?' He picked up his guitar and started strumming the chords to The Way You Look Tonight. After playing it through he said: 'Come on, let's do it'. Now bear in mind that everything else was rehearsed over and over to get it right and then imagine what a shock it was to be told to just 'do it'. And we just did - on the first and only take, totally improvised and unrehearsed.”
CHAPTER SEVEN As a kid growing up in the ‘70s music was my first love, but there were also books, comics, TV, the cinema and, of course, football. As a keen West Ham fan one of my favourite players of that era was Pat Holland. Never a celebrity or a household name, Patsy Holland nevertheless was incredibly versatile. Throughout the ‘70s he must have played in just about every position for West Ham. As such, when squads were so small, he was a valuable asset. If you needed a job done, he’d do it. Maybe if he had been a specialist, he might have been a bigger success. Society seems more comfortable with specialists. That’s why you get the dilettante thing, the sneer, the accusations, the jack-ofall-trades and master-of-none thing. But I love all-rounders. The deeper you dig in music the more you find out about characters like Pierre Tubbs. A bit more than backroom boffins, but still peripheral figures as far as the history books are concerned. Tubbs was a producer, performer, composer, sleeve designer, record company executive. It’s pretty impressive though isn’t it? Like Miki Dallon, Tubbs was involved with the Strike set-up in the mid-‘60s, where very much in keeping with the label’s anything goes ethos his skills would sail across genres, from much loved femme pop with Jacki Bond and Samantha Juste, to his own Four Seasons, folk rock, freakbeat, soul, and psych pop styled recordings, as part of The Jeeps, Our Plastic Dream, The Silence, and so on. Many of his productions of the time were recorded in a garage studio Strike had built in his parents’ Surrey garden. And there is a great compilation available of some of these recordings, Pierre’s Plastic Dreams. Also on this set are the tracks Tubbs wrote and recorded with US soul heavyweight JJ Jackson. Come See Me would be recorded by the Pretty Things, while But It’s Alright would be covered by The Foundations. Jackson was another soul performer who temporarily made the UK his home. Among the records he made while over here in the late ‘60s was The Greatest Little Soul Band In The World which, with his trademark rasping vocals and everything, is as raw as hell, and interestingly features musicians such as Rico and Dick Morrissey, who are better known within the reggae and jazz communities.
In the mid-‘60s, so the story goes, Tubbs would discover California soul man Carl Douglas performing with his group in a Brixton club. Together they would go on to create a number of songs which are still much loved by fans of UK soul, such as Serving A Sentence of Life. It would be several years before Douglas wrote Kung Fu Fighting and found success with Biddu. Tubbs had taken Carl Douglas with him when he disappeared behind the scenes at United Artists for a number of years, though he still dabbled, such as working on Francoise Hardy’s English language folk rock 1970 set, and emerging later to write The Fool for Al Matthews, with an approving eye no doubt on the resurgence of interest in soul music as the ‘70s progressed via the all-nighters and northern soul scene. He would also write, with J Vincent Edwards, Right Back Where We Started From for young London soul singer Maxine Nightingale, which became a massive hit in the mid-‘70s. Even now many people would swear it’s an authentic ‘60s soul side, but along with the very similar Nosmo King & the Javells gems Goodbye Nothing To Say and Ain’t No Substitute For Love (and did I really read the guy who was Nosmo King became a Jewish stand-up comedian?), and the Biddu related Playthings’ Stop What You’re Doing was created to appeal specifically to the all-nighters’ market. So appropriately Right Back Where We Started From would be the title track of a Kent Records compilation that appeared around the same time as Dexys’ Don’t Stand Me Down. Kent Records at that time was incredibly important, and the work Ady Croasdell was doing as part of the Ace Records family was significantly changing the world, making old soul music accessible to a whole new audience by creating these aesthetically spot-on collections, negating the need to pay absurd sums for an old 7” original. It’s a generalisation, but a core part of the Kent market was young kids fascinated by the whole mod thing who were tracking things back to the source sounds, and for this audience the Kent compilations came just at the right time. And these LPs became totems, symbolic of a disgust with the depressingly mediocre contemporary pop sounds, which Dexys would rail against on It All Sounded The Same. Right Back Where We Started From (Kent 039) was unusual in that it was more about ‘dancers’ than soul per se. There was quite a strong British presence, with the title track, Herbie Goins’ Number One In Your Heart which was produced by Norman (Hurricane) Smith (and Linda Lewis used to sing with the group live), and Levi Jackson’s This Beautiful Day with the oh so perfect way he sings the word change. Some of the great names of American music are represented: Jerry Ragavoy, Teddy Randazzo, Marty Paich, and Bob Dylan’s beloved Johnny Rivers who put Jim Webb together with the Fifth Dimension at his Soul City label. The compilation also interestingly reprised a number of tracks that appeared a little earlier on the Capitol Soul Casino collection, like Nancy Wilson’s End Of Our Love, Thelma Houston’s Baby Mine, the World Column’s So Is The Sun, The Human Beinz and Nobody But Me. The Outsiders were on both sets too, but with different tracks in Lonely Man and Time Won’t Let Me, putting the case for the garage punk and soul interface. I think Cleveland’s Outsiders are one of the great ‘60s outfits, though their version of Since I Lost My Baby is not quite up there with The Action’s. It would be the presence of The Outsiders and The Human Beinz on both ‘60s soul and garage punk compilations, and the dawning realisation that Ed Cobb wrote for Gloria Jones and the Standells, that opened up all sorts of possibilities and made everything fit together in a way that didn’t fit comfortably with the official tidily compartmentalised versions of history, but which felt right because old soul and punk sounds formed such a key part of what was being listened to.
CHAPTER EIGHT I don’t know if anyone has come up with a word for an obsession with how things fit together and are linked, but this is one of my favourite sets of connections. One I never tire of, so please indulge me one more time. The punk/soul explosion really started with The Saints, whose sound gradually became much more Stax/Van Morrison inspired, with a brass section being used live. By the time Prehistoric Sounds was released the soul influence was explicit and effective. Saints bass player Kym Bradshaw had jumped ship some time before, and in the UK hooked up with new colleagues as the Small Hours, strangely similarly working in a charged soul/r ‘n’ b format, quickly finding a fervent following among the new mod audience in 1979. Almost incidentally the Small Hours’ drummer would be Iain Shedden of The Jolt, who had been a year too early for the mod resurgence despite the fantastic row of the Vic Coppersmith-Heaven and Chris Parry produced classic single I Can’t Wait. Oddly Shedden would later play with The Saints. Thanks to a Small Hours anthology issued in 2003 it’s now much more widely understood why those of the mod persuasion remained wildly protective of a group’s legacy that seemed to consist of one EP and a few live tracks on the Mods’ Mayday ’79 set. The compilation changed all that, highlighting Neil Thompson’s rasping soulful vocals, brother Armand’s choppy rhythm guitar, Carol Isaacs’ jazzy organ work, that driving beat, and an exceptionally strong set of songs, which was surprisingly cohesive given the different songwriting permutations within the group. Like Makin’ Time a little later on, the Small Hours eschewed the mod noise/freakbeat sound in favour of grrritty, grainy soul storm, which in its context was radical. There has been a lot of rubbish written about groups who at that time supposedly tore up the rule books with their synthesizers and soulful guises, turning their backs on rock ‘n’ roll, but still churning out straight Seeds and Velvets covers, and returning to the Can records they’d grown up on, while the Small Hours made no great proclamations, yet their abandoned second single was to have been a cover of Doris Duke’s Can’t Do Without You. And this was the end of the ‘70s. It would be another 25 years or so before Kent Records would salvage Doris Duke’s Swamp Dogg sessions. The Small Hours would also cover the JJ Jackson/Pierre Tubbs number But It’s Alright which The Foundations had recorded such a raw version of. And yet you still see the Foundations dismissed as a bubblegum outfit. It’s the same with The Equals, which is just so dumb and offensive. To put it mildly, I love The Foundations. Sure they drew heavily on The Four Tops, but why wouldn’t you? It didn’t hurt the Chairman of the Board. And The Foundations were significant in being a London group that mixed experienced West Indian jazz players, with young white soul enthusiasts, a great frontman in the Trinidad-born Clem Curtis, and a partnership with the talented songwriting team of Macaulay and MacLeod with whom they produced some confection perfection but could nevertheless be as punky and as progressive as anyone you could care to mention. It is easy to imagine the young Kevin Rowland or the Small Hours’ Thompson brothers dancing to The Foundations at youth club discos. But there is a serious side to the fact that acts like The Foundations are so undervalued, which is that some great stories remain untold. For instance, when the hits had dried up and The Foundations had taken to the road, among the personnel at various times were Bonjo I of On-U Sound’s African Headcharge/Noah House of Dread, John Springate of the Glitter Band, and Ivan Julian of the Voidoids. The connections implied there made the head spin.
In 1985 when Don’t Stand Me Down came out one of the few groups that had anything like the same passion and vision was the Jasmine Minks. At the time it may have been tricky to grasp this, as the media was way behind, and the group’s recorded output was a little uncoordinated to say the least, as befitting big Vic Godard fans. Throughout 1985 the Jasmines’ Jim Shepherd, in his songwriting and vocal delivery, had been developing much more of a soulful edge to the existing punk/garage sound, with brass being added to the line-up. Newer songs like Cry For A Man, Like You, You Take My Freedom had a real rasping r ‘n’ b edge, and appropriately the group had been listening to a lot of Dexys and a lot of old ‘60s soul. A compilation put out on Rev-ola in 2004 would restore some cohesion to the Jasmine Minks’ back catalogue. And in his sleevenotes Jim Shepherd would recall a Creation Records event at London’s Town & Country Club in the summer of 1988 where in true Complete Control fashion the Jasmines sneaked a whole load of their fans into the venue. One of the people who benefited from this would be Kevin Rowland. I can vouch for this. I would be there when Kevin came up to thank Jim. I liked that. It was a nice moment. I also shook hands with Kevin that afternoon, and said how much I liked his record, The Wanderer, which had just been released. I’m glad I said that. I still like The Wanderer a lot. It’s not a record I play every day, but there are different ways of liking things. When Don’t Stand Me Down came out I was just getting into Tim Buckley, Tim Rose and Tim Hardin. That sort of thing. And when you start listening to those guys somehow tepid rip-offs of Beefheart or the Buzzcocks by students with terrible shoes and horrible haircuts just don’t appeal. With Tim Buckley, Tim Rose, Tim Hardin there seems to be a prevailing consensus that they made certain classic records, and that there’s a cut-off point, and then diminishing returns. That’s just all too simple. Life is never that cut and dried. I prefer, say,
Tim Hardin’s Suite For Susan Moore to many of his earlier songs. I like Tim Rose’s later records a lot because there are moments when it all comes together, and those moments are worth waiting for. Take Tim Rose’s The Musician, with Tina Charles on backing vocals, or The Gambler, with Pierre Tubbs producing. I know the records’ faults, but I like them nevertheless. I like them in a different way to his debut, but people change, situations change, needs change, creative impetuses change. And back in 1985 the Jasmine Minks sang that consistency’s not a virtue. It’s the same with The Wanderer. I liked the fact that it had a bit of a Roy Orbison or Dion thing going on. And you have to like a record that has songs as beautiful and as moving as Young Man, Walk Away, I Am A Wanderer, and Remember Me. That has moments like the start of Walk Away where Kevin says: “That’s the way she walks ...” Or the line in Young Man where Kevin sings: “I wish someone said that to me”. That’s beautiful. It’s funny, though, because it would be many years later that I heard Dion sing Born To Be With You, and I remember thinking that’s perfect. Such a beautiful song. Dion and Phil Spector. When no one really cared. I always liked the idea of Kevin Rowland working with Deodato on The Wanderer. I don’t think I knew that much about Deodato at the time, though. I knew the huge hit he had with the funky reimagining of Also Sprach Zarathrustra when I was a kid in the ‘70s. I definitely had a copy of Beach Samba, where he’d done the beautiful arrangements for Astrud Gilberto, and first made waves in the US. I would have been aware of his Kool and the Gang connections, and the work he did on Ladies’ Night and Celebration which transformed the musical landscape. It would be many years later, when I really got interested in Brazilian music rather than just the idea of it, that I would really learn the extent of Deodato’s role in the development of music beyond the bossa revolution. Some of the pieces would come together via a series of reissues quite beautifully put together by Spanish label Ubatuque of the great man’s earlier Brazilian releases. Other pieces would be provided through a growing awareness of Creed Taylor’s CTI label and online resources like Loronix which have been invaluable. I became particularly attracted to the way American composers/arrangers like Henry Mancini and Marty Paich would be heroes to the bossa revolutionaries, and how in time artists like Deodato would go on to achieve a similar sort of shadowy and subversive impact on the musical landscape via their compositions and arrangements. You only have to look at some of the projects and people Deodato became involved with just because Creed Taylor was so impressed with what he did with Beach Samba. Walter Wanderley, Wes Montgomery, Jobim’s Stone Flower and Tide, Milton Nascimento’s Courage, Astrud Gilberto’s Now and her collaboration with Stanley Turrentine. All wonderful stuff. Not to mention the collaborations with Joao Donato. The fantastic A Bad Donato. The very funky A Bad Donato. The associations with Sinatra, Roberta Flack, and so on. And of course the big hit. The fusion workout on the theme of 2001: A Space Odyssey which really caught the public’s imagination. In the same way that Dexys’ Come On Eileen did. And success brings its own strange pressures and demands. But what is success? I remember in an interview Kevin Rowland being quite bullish about Don’t Stand Me Down. “Success? It was a success the moment we left the studio”. But ...
CHAPTER TEN I have never been back to the Dominion Theatre. And, as far as I can recall, I had only been there once before Dexys’ Coming To Town shows. That would have been just a few months before. A group I was close to, and cared very much about, Hurrah! were supporting label mates Prefab Sprout. I had mixed feelings about this. Hurrah! that summer were something special. They had a single out called Gloria, and some momentum was building, so this would be a good opportunity to pick up new converts. The trouble was that I hated Prefab Sprout. Really hated them. Wanted to give Paddy Macaroon a good larruping, because everything about his group was offensively smug. You’d see all these write-ups of them suggesting Macaroon was this great critical theorist, deconstructing pop music. Every other word in reviews would be arch or clever, and it drove me mad. There was a significant cluster of groups at that time I really despised. It started with The Smiths, who having quickly run out of things they needed to write about put pop music in a strait-jacket, continued with Lloyd Cole and (the postFactory) James, with Microdisney and the Woodentops. There was just something so lacking about these groups. No dynamics. No spark. No magic. Both Microdisney and the Woodentops were for a while part of the Rough Trade roster, when the label was still wrestling with notions of what success was, and I recall Seb Shelton was involved having moved on from the Dexys drum stool and having grown his hair out in this Geoff Travis type mop. And it drove me mad that all these groups were described as sophisticated and subversive, while the genuinely gifted and aesthetically impeccable Pale Fountains were struggling to get people to listen to From Across The Kitchen Table. I would be reminded of Prefab Sprout and their ilk years later when, around 2002, I began to notice young thrusting types aligning themselves with the Conservative Party because there was more chance of getting on and it was a rebellious act for a young person that only knew a Labour administration, and these young thrusting types were in turn being exploited by hardened Tories who had this long-running antipathy to any semblance of socialism and were desperate to reclaim power when the time was right for the privileged classes to do so in whatever acceptable guise. In the same way the Labour Party had long been infiltrated by careerists who were so far removed from the origins of the organisation and simply saw politics as a way of getting on. These plaster saints, one elderly peer said dismissively, where’s their Jerusalem? Take a blow torch to them, he added, and their ideals will crumble. Clever? There was nothing clever about Prefab Sprout. I can’t however reluctantly recall any of their songs, while I can unwillingly whistle all of Mel and Kim’s hits with Stock, Aitken and Waterman. I could sing you all of the Pale Fountains’ songs, but Prefab Sprout’s? Nope. So it hurt seeing Prefab Sprout playing to a packed and appreciative Dominion Theatre. I hated every moment. So why did I stay? Well, David Bowie was meant to be there, and I wanted to ask him about the Anthony Newley thing. I was always curious about that. At the start of 1978, writing in Zigzag, Danny Baker was rabid with praise for The Fall. I’m not even sure The Fall were getting rave reviews in Manchester at that point. This was before they had a record out, and Baker was arguing that seeing them unexpectedly (supporting Sham 69) was enough to restore his faith in punk. The Fall being the perfect antidote with their natural intelligence and individuality to a climate where increasingly too much was being made of ‘art’ and the increasing use of the word ‘clever’ was enough to make you run a mile.
Clever is such an odd, misused word. What is clever? A public school theorist stringing together lots of jargon in a sentence so that you get to a stage where you recognise individual words but have lost track of the overall meaning, or someone working within a recognised format such as crime writing coming up with a subtle twist that subverts things and adds something special and entertaining? Anyway I have no idea how known Danny Baker is outside of the UK or even London. He started out with Mark Perry, fellow Deptford Fun City kids, writing for Sniffin’ Glue, going to write for Zigzag where he played the class war card against the noble savages, and the New Musical Express where he played the populist disco card against post-punk orthodoxy. He went on to have a career in broadcasting, and has for a long time now worked for the BBC radio station in London where he has carved a niche as a bit of a trivia mastermind on music, films and football. At one time his theme tune was Candy Man, the Sammy Davis Jr version of the Anthony Newley song from the film of Willy Wonka, and in an interview with Time Out the London listings magazine in January 2005 he chose Newley as his favourite Londoner: “He went mad, of course, talking about himself in the third person, but that’s all good. I like that in my heroes. He wasn’t a humble sort, but he had plenty to cry about. I met him in the last couple of years of his life. He was on his beam-ends then. He was so down on himself, he figured no-one knew who he was any more, which was probably true. Yet I feel that if he’d survived another five years here was someone who had such a story to tell, and never had a chance to tell it.”
Baker points out that here was a guy born in absolute poverty in London who went on to write these musicals which were ambitious and revolutionary. Stop The World I Want To Get Off. The Roar of the Greasepaint ... The Smell of the Crowd. Musicals which were deemed to be too pretentious but became real hits. Particularly in America, where some of the coolest of performers covered the songs. Mark Murphy, Chris Connor, Tony Bennett doing Who Can I Turn To? Murphy again doing A Wonderful Day Like Today. Nina Simone, Jean DuShon and Pat Bowie doing Feeling Good. Herbie Mann doing all of The Roar of The Greasepaint. It begins to sound like one of those Kent Records mod jazz
collections, where history was subverted to evoke this enduring image of modernists dancing and lounging to these sophisticated jazz and blues numbers. Newley was this great Cockney character, who against all the odds became Las Vegas showbiz royalty, who developed his own uniquely stylised way of singing, and was a fantastic interpreter of songs, as shown impeccably on the 1964 In My Solitude set, “twelve sort of sad songs for suicidal lovers” as he put it, which puts him in the same league as Sinatra or Mr Bennett. There’s always something eerie about a great songwriter performing sets of other people’s songs, but this is a great record. There are a couple of songs on there from another East London born boy of Jewish parentage, Jule Styne, in Guess I’ll Have To Hang My Tears Out To Dry and The Party’s Over. Among the many songs Styne would have a hand in writing was Just In Time, which Vic Godard recorded for his great lost Songs For Sale set. Newley could be positively operatic in his delivery. A nice touch of the theatricals which no doubt appealed to Bowie. Opera literally means musical drama, of course. And when Dexys came to town there was plenty of drama, with the centrepiece of the shows being The Officer and The Gentleman interlude during The Occasional Flicker, with Kevin wanting to report an incident of a burning nature, which happened in the cities of London and Birmingham between 1971 and 1976. When asked about the purpose of this burning, Kevin replied: “There was no purpose”. When asked if he wanted to make a statement, Kevin agreed to do so, and boy did he make a statement. 18 years later when Dexys performed to a more than appreciative crowd at the Royal Festival Hall that sketch, The Officer and The Gentleman, would be reprised in a rather different form, bridging Until I Believe In My Soul and Tell Me When My Light Turns Green, and it still made for great theatre. Interestingly the whole thing with spoken word interludes and skits would become by that time an often used device on hip hop records. I am sure I can’t have been the only person on the planet who over the intervening years heard records like De La Soul Is Dead or The Goats’ Tricks Of The Shade and thought of Dexys. Anyway, I never did see David Bowie at that Dominion show. I like to think he thought better of it. So I never did get to ask him about the Anthony Newley thing. Funnily enough 20 odd years later I would interview Fay Hallam for another abandoned oral history project on the 1980s underground pop scene, and she would say that she wanted to get involved in music after hearing David Bowie on the radio singing She’s Got Medals. It’s the sort of comment casually made which makes you want to punch the air with joy. But back in the summer of 1985 when Prefab Sprout were playing to a packed Dominion Theatre I had fury in my soul, thinking it should be someone like Fay Hallam up there with Makin’ Time, or Michael Head with the Pale Fountains. But if you ever needed a metaphor for life ...
CODA What do you do when you come out of a concert? It’s odd isn’t it? Maybe someone asks you: “What did you think?” What do you say? What can you do? I have no idea what I said to friends when I came out of the Dominion Theatre that night. We would have crossed over Oxford Street, walked down the Charing Cross Road, towards the station to get the train home. I’m sure it was pretty cold. But I’m sorry, I can’t remember what I said. The other night on the TV there was a documentary about the first Motown revue to come to the UK. It was a surprisingly good programme. Normally, I hate TV documentaries about music. But this was well put together. Two things really struck me watching the show. One was the way those shows had such an impact on the people interviewed. Those performances had never left them. You could tell that was genuine. And the other thing, which I just couldn’t get over, was the small numbers of people that actually attended those shows around the UK. It seems so strange now because the whole Motown thing is so ingrained in our culture. And I got to thinking about something I’d read on Mick Bolton’s website about those very shows, and as this is all about connectivity and first impressions becoming lasting impressions it seems only appropriate to finish with his reminiscences: “On April 9th 1965 I attended a show at the ABC cinema in Wigan at which there were rows and rows of empty seats. I suppose it could have held 1500 or more but on that night there were no more than 100. It was the Tamla Motown Revue - the first time that Tamla acts had toured Britain and I'm happy to say that I was among the first to see them. A few months later the same line-up would have packed the place out. It was Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson And The Miracles, Martha And The Vandellas - all backed by the superb Earl Van Dyke Band. Georgie Fame was the guest artist. Despite the poor turnout they all sung and played their hearts out and I can still see in my mind’s eye the whole cast strung out across the stage at the end of the show singing the Smokey Robinson song Mickey's Monkey. As there were so few people there I was able to sit anywhere I chose, so I sat alone in about the tenth row right in the centre. The rest of the audience were all scattered behind me so it felt as though all these great acts were playing just for me.”
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