Monday, April 06, 2009

Decca Originals

Scene and Heard

Decca-dent surplus of groovy retro sounds

You can call try pigeon-holing the music with various insufficient tags - Freakbeat, Merseybeat, Psychbeat, R&B, Garage, Mod, UK Beat, '60s British Invasion among them - which I suppose is better than corn-holing the music ...but whatever you call or do to it, the folks behind this "On the Scene" series have pegged it Decca Originals (even though these are all released on the Deram subsidiary of Decca, which is under Polygram, which is - whatever!) Each installment in this Decca records archival series celebrates the early years of the label's involvement in some '60s British music "scene," of which the Enoch Pratt Free Library recently received five volumes: The Beat Scene, Mod Scene, R&B Scene, Rock and Roll Scene, and the so-called Freakbeat Scene (God I hate that name!).

What's in a name, anyway (besides confusion, that is)? Regardless, I'm just here to tell you that this series is GREAT! I love this era, the days of singles, of vinyl, of cover sleeves and Brill Building hype, Anglo-style, and the kind of bands you see covered today only in mags like Mike Stax's Ugly Things or Shindig!. It was Decca's heyday as well, for as the '60s wore on, Decca's fortunes would decline (first in 1966 when they lost a key source of American records after Atlantic switched distribution rights to Polydor, then in the '70s when they lost the Rolling Stones, though they would enjoy some success with their Deram "progressive" subsidiary via acts like Caravan and Curved Air; Decca would further decline when they totally missed out on the whole '70s Punk/New Wave scene, only managing to sign one major act, Adam and the Ants). And though all these CDs are imports, they're all pretty affordable, going for under $11 a pop on Amazon (no doubt why the budget-strained library was able to get them.)

*** The Beat Scene ***

So far I'm only had a chance to ingest the 25-track Beat Scene, so let's start there, shall we?

The Beat Scene (1963-1966)
Various Artists
Polygram, UK (2005)

25 tracks covering the years 1963-1966:

01 - the poets - i love her still
02 - the game - gonna get me someone
03 - thee - each & every day
04 - the mighty avengers - (walking thru' the) sleepy city
05 - shel naylor - it's gonna happen soon
06 - joe cocker - i'll cry instead
07 - beat boys - third time lucky
08 - the mark four - hurt me if you will
09 - sandra barry & the boys - really gonna shake
10 - lulu & the luvvers - surprise surprise
11 - the mojos - everything's alright
12 - the beat chics - now i know
13 - pete best four - i'm gonna knock on yo
14 - the warriors - don't make me blue
15 - the marauders - that's what i want
16 - the brooks - once in a while
17 - rick & sandy - lost my girl
18 - unit 4+2 - i was only playing games
19 - tierneys fugitives - did you want to r
20 - the mockingbirds - one by one
21 - the rockin' berries - itty bitty piece
22 - the knack - who'll be the next in line
23 - brian poole & the tremeloes - keep on
24 - the hi numbers - heart of stone
25 - the andrew oldham orchestra - da doo run run

I listened to this disc over and over Saturday in the course of driving to Washington, DC and being stuck in the inevitable gridlock of two accidents (coming and going) on I-95 (God knows what I would done without this relaxing musical diversion from my normal road rage)...Anyway, The Beat Scene entry seemed like a good place to start in the Decca Original series, for as the liner notes describe it...
Rock music as we now know it was born in the British Isles and its name was Beat Music. During the early 1960s, the face of popular music was changed forever. Before the Beat Boom, it centered on individual singers, from American rock 'n' roll (Elvis, Jerry Lee, Fats, Chuck, Bo, etc.) to more benign schmultz pop (Fabian, Paul Anka, et al) to pale British equivalents-cum-entertainers (Cliff, Tommy Steele, Joe Brown). Groups were principally vocal (Platters, Coasters, Drifters) or instrumental (the Ventures in the US; the Shadows over here). And most artists didn't write their own material. Indeed, the music industry was still rooted in the Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building tradition of demarkation, whereby the performer was the puppet and the hand up its behind was collectively held by separate producers, songwriters, and record company moguls. That started to change when the Beat music arrived. And the real revolution lay in the presentation: usually a four-piece band with two guitarists (rhythm and lead), bass and drums, perhaps with keyboards, which is still the default forrock bands today. Suddenly, the musicians weren't indistinct, bespectacled figures, lurking back towards the back ofthe stage as the limelight was hugged by some bequiffed crooner. Now there were three/four/five matching moptops bashing hell out of their instruments and screaming into their microphones like their lives depended on it.

Of course, Decca remains infamous for failing to sign the most famous British Beat band of the time: The Beatles; but they did sign the guys destined to be the "We're Number 2 but we try harder" Avis to the Liverpool lads' Hertz, The Rolling Stones, and by 1964 were signing up dozens of bands in a frantic post-Beatlemania game of catchup, including another band from Merseyside in The Mojos ("Everything's Alright"), The Applejacks ("Tell Me When"), The Poets (Now We're Thru"), Unit 4 + 2 ("Concrete and Clay"), Lulu ("Shout"), The Zombies, The Nashville Teens, The Mighty Avengers, and Birmingham's finest, The Moody Blues. Heck, Decca even signed Beatle cast-off Pete Best (whose Pete Best Four is represented here)!

So it makes sense that while a young Joe Cocker covers Beatle John's "I'll Cry Instead" (sounding not a lick like the phlegmatically gritty Cocker of later years) there are a greater number of tunes penned by Jagger-Richards than Lennon-McCartney on offer here, which shouldn't have surprised me, given that the Stones were the rising stars of the label. As if to answer my surprise, one of the Jagger-Richards tunes on The Beat Scene is none other than "Surprise, Surprise," wailed here by Lulu and the Luvvers (surprisingly it's the B-side of her 1965 single "Satisfied" and features session guitar courtesy of a young Jimmy Page).

Legend holds that Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham famously locked the Glimmer Twins in a room and wouldn't let them out until they came up with an original composition, and the soft-core Gitmo renditioning seemed to work as Jagger and Richards proceed to churn out a number of songs - not just for Stones records but for other artists to cover. In 1965 alone they gave away three A-sides to their fellow Decca labelmates. The last of these was a gift to the pride of Rugby town (its near Coventry in the Midlands), The Mighty Avengers, who walked through "(Walking Thru' the) Sleepy City" ten years before the song would finally turn up on a Stones album (1975's Metamorphosis).

The song was actually the third Jagger-Richards tune spooned to the lads by svengali manager Oldham - "So Much In Love" (#46 UK, 1964) and "When Blue Turns To Grey" being the others - with both produced by ALO and featuring session mercenaries (and future Led Zeppers) John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page. According to Mighty Avengers guitarist Tony Campbell, "Our last effort with Loog Oldham was a track called 'Walking Through the Sleepy City,' which was when he had pinched Phil Spector`s 'wall of sound' head. We recorded it in one take with at least forty session musos and everything but the kitchen sink on it."

Behind Locked Doors: Composers Jagger and Richards

Truth be told, "Sleepy City" is a pretty dumb song, basically an attempt to rhyme "city" with "pretty," but the Avengers give it their all in that valiant upbeat "kitchen sink" effort. And while a few Jagger-Richards ditty-donations became hits, most famously "As Tears Go By" (Marianne Faithful) and "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday" (a Top 10 hit for Gene Pitney in 1964 - and not to be confused with power poppers 20/20's "That Girl Was Yesterday), most were not. (The boys were much too selfish/shrewd to let that happen!) I thought I spied a third Stones song on this compilation when I came across something called "Heart of Stone," but it's another song entirely.

And speaking of obfuscation, there's even a band calling itself The Knack (no doubt taking their name from Richard Lester's 1965 film The Knack...and How To Get It) who do a pretty faithful version of The Kinks' "Who'll Be the Next In Line" and a band-of-confusion called The Hi-Numbers who are not to be confused with the pre-Who High Numbers and who perform a "Heart of Stone" not to be confused with the one by the Rolling Stones!

*** BEAT SCENE Essentials ***

OK, everything here is pretty interesting (with the exception of the Rockin' Berries' grating, herky-jerky "Itty Bitty Piece" that can't seem to makle its mind up whether it wants to be a variation on the Dave Clark Five's "Bits and Pieces" or Brian Hyland's "Itsy Bitsy Yellow Pola Dot Bikini"), but for my money (what am I talking about, I checked it out from the library for free!), these are the essentials you'll wanna add to your iTunes library.

"Suprise, Suprise"
(M. Jagger-K. Richards)

Pleasantly Surprised Surprised by Lulu

The best song on offer, this Motown-style rave-up is a time capsule-worthy nugget capturing the Ready Steady Go! spirit of 1965 Swingin' London, even though it's sung by a Girl from the North Country, Glaswegian Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie, Scotland's answer to Aretha Franklin. She had her first hit with the Luvvers (nee Gleneagles and sometimes spelled "Luvers") as a 15-year-old in 1964 with a UK #7 cover of the Isley Brothers' "Shout" and though her teenage pipes already sounded like a middle-aged woman with a heavy smoking habit, they only improved with age (I still like 1967's "To Sir With Love" the best). "You've been telling lies, I can see it in your eyes," sings Lulu, continuing, "You, you scandalize - I can see it in your eyes." Love the primal scream right before the guitar solo break! Star power, pure and simple. One for the ages.

"I'll Cry Instead"

It's hard to mess up a Beatles song and Joe doesn't. It helps that he sounds like a grittier John Lennon and that the arrangement is faithful to the original. Listening to this made me appreciate how great the Fab Four truly were and how good Cocker's voice was before it turned all Tom Waitsian and he became a John Belushi parody of himself. This was Cocker's first single on Decca and, like a lot of records recorded there, featured Jimmy Page on guitar ("...paging Mr. Page"!). Despite extensive promotion from Decca lauding his youth and working class roots, the record was a flop and his recording contract with Decca expired at the end of 1964. Cocker's pre-Decca career is pretty interesting, at least as far as names go. He started out in 1961 under the stage name "Vance Arnold," which like "Elvis Costello" was a combo platter sobriquet: "Vance" was taken from Elvis' Jailhouse Rock character Vince Everett (which Cocker misconstrued as "Vance") while "Arnold" was inspired by country singer Eddy Arnold - of all people! Vance Arnold's band was The Avengers, a fact not lost on a quartet from Rugby who henceforth changed their name to The Mighty Avengers.

"Everything's Alright"

OK, maybe they weren't The Beatles, but they were from Liverpool and they did play the Star Club circuit in Hamburg (like countless Scouser combos) as well...and they did have a Top 10 hit with "Everything's Alright" (UK #9, 1964). According to Wikipedia, the distinctive skin-pounding on "Everything's Alright" was by session drummer legend Aynsley Dunbar, who later reprised his licks on David Bowie's cover version on Pin Ups.

A pretty cool British music mag probably takes its name from these guys who represent a Liverpool group that didn't escape Decca's notice.

"Now I Know"

Speaking of the Hamburg circuit, The Beat Chics were there too. Wild organ riffing and frantic Girl Group singing propels this infectious dance number that you just can't resist tapping your toes to.

"Really Gonna Shake"
March 1964

Sandra Barry & The Boys scopitone

Hi-larious dance ditty with some surprising Mod credentials to its legacy. According to Ready Steady Girls!, Sandra Alford got her start in British radio and film before launching herself into the world of pop music under several aliases, such as Sandra Barry, and countless labels. She cut her first record in 1957 before trying again in 1963 as "Mandy Mason" on the Parlophone label. By 1964 she had switched to Decca, where she recorded this fun rave-up as Sandra Barry & The Boys (sometimes referred to as Sandra Barry & Her Boyfriends) in which she protests "No, no, I don't wanna shake!" until the middle eight when she finally relents and sings "Alright then I'll shake it!" And boy does she! Ready Steady Girls! continues the story:
In 1965 she joined the Pye record label, where she was to issue three singles. The first contained The end of the line and the excellent We were lovers (when the party began), a cover of the Exciters’ US release.

When it failed to sell, she came back with a feisty – but equally unsuccessful – remake of Lloyd Price’s 1960 release Question. (The B-side was the cheerful You can take it from me, composed by Tony Hatch, the man behind dozens of songs by Petula Clark and his wife-to-be Jackie Trent.)

For live appearances she was backed by the Jet Blacks, which included future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.

Her final single for Pye was 1966’s Stop! Thief, backed with I won’t try to change your mind. Both sides were written by Tony Macauley and John Macleod, who later worked with British girl group the Paper Dolls, amongst others.

After touring Germany in the early 1970s, she reappeared on the London pub circuit in 1973 as Alice Spring, lead singer of the group Slack Alice.

Oh, and the Mod connection? Sandra's backing Boys later became cult Mod group The Action, whose blue-eyed Northern Soul-style singer Reggie King compared favorably with the Small Faces' Stevie Marriott.

According to the website Sunset Strip:

The Action hailed from Kentish Town in London. Formed in 1963, they were originally a quartet known as The Boys, and were a back-up band for singer Sandra Barry. Under this guise, they released two 45's, one with Barry and one as The Boys - both unsuccessful - before changing their name in 1965. At that time Reggie King was the lead guitarist. Following the change of the groups' name came a change in personnel when Watson joined as lead guitarist, allowing King to concentrate on his vocal duties. (Watson would be replaced by Martin Stone in 1966).

In 1965, they were spotted and signed by the Beatles' producer, George Martin and the group built up a strong following among the mods in the clubs. In live performance they were good enough to be serious rivals to The Who and The Small Faces. But despite having this in their favour, the recordings they issued, although strong enough, mysteriously failed to reach the charts.

They were the most soul-oriented of the mod groups, favouring guitar-driven covers of Motown tunes and standard R&B dance numbers of the day such as "Land Of 1,000 Dances".

Under Martin's guidance, emphasis was placed on Reggie King's blue-eyed soul voice and the group's harmonies. Their later original material shows an increased sophistication in both songwriting and production. The Action's sound was something akin to a more soul-oriented version of the Small Faces.

"I'm Gonna Knock On Your Door"

What's wrong with this picture?

Brian Epstein felt bad following Pete Best's dismissal from the Beatles and tried to build another group around the ousted drummer, but Best opted to form the Pete Best Four (nee Pete Best & The All-Stars) - the other three were Tony Waddington (lead guitar), Wayne Bickerton (bass) and Tommy McGurk (guitar) - and sign with the very label that had initially rejected his former bandmates. Ironically, "I'm Gonna Knock On Your Door" - whose Merseybeat structure sounds just like the Fab Four only with really dumb lyrics ("I'm gonna hoot and howl like a lovesick cow"?) - was produced by none other than Mike Smith, the man who had recorded the Beatles Decca audition just the year before. After the failure of the single Decca dropped them. Bested again! Which is too bad, because this is a really catchy tune. If Pete had brought the music to the Beatles and let John add some better words, I'm sure this would have been a hit.

UNIT 4+2
"I Was Only Playing Games"

Like a boy with toys and trains/I was only playing games.

One-hit wonders Unit 4 + 2 enjoyed renewed interest in the late '90s when their "Concrete and Clay" (UK #1, 1965) turned up on the Rushmore (1998)soundtrack, and that's a good thing. Unfortunately, this 1967 single by the Hertfordshire boys didn't chart, despite its sophisticated song structure and production. Hmmmm, back in 1965 Unit 4 + 2 had a song called "You've Got To Be Cruel To Be Kind," which is similar in title to Nick Lowe's highest charting single, though the Jesus of Cool's song is credited to Ian Gomm and he. Anybody know anything about the connection, if any? I wonder if Lowe intended it as a left-handed homage.

"One By One"
July 1966

The second best song on this collection and the only one with a real message (about celebrating diversity instead of racial intolerance - pretty heady stuff for 1966). I never heard of these guys before, but apparently the Mockingbirds were formed by Graham Gouldman - the man behind hits like The Yardbirds' "For Your Love," "Heart Full of Soul," and "Evil Hearted You"; the Hollies' "Bus Stop" and "Look Through Any Window"; and Herman and the Hermits' "No Milk Today" and "Listen People" - in late 1964 with a lineup comprised of bassist Bernard Basso, guitarist Steve Jacobsen, and drummer Kevin Godley (later to be Gouldman's bandmate in 10cc).

Graham the Man

According to All Music Guide, when Gouldman put the group together:
The stage was set for perhaps Britain's greatest should have but didn't band of the mid-'60s. Throughout that period, after all, Gouldman was writing some of the most successful and individual hits of the entire decade -- but not one of them brought the Mockingbirds success.

Their bad luck commenced immediately. Signing to Columbia, the Mockingbirds announced their debut single would be "For Your Love," a song Gouldman wrote in the changing room of the men's clothing shop where he worked. Columbia, however, had other ideas; they rejected it in favor of another Gouldman original, taped on the same day, "That's How It's Gonna Stay." It bombed, even as the rejected song resurfaced on the same label, courtesy of the Yardbirds, after Gouldman hand-delivered it to the band in their dressing room at a London gig.

A second Mockingbirds single, "I Can Feel We're Parting," went nowhere, even as the Yardbirds soared high with further Gouldman compositions "Heartful of Soul" and "Evil Hearted You." The Hollies scored with his "Look Through Any Window," but a Mockingbirds single for Andrew Loog Oldham's Immediate label, "You Stole My Love," sank without trace.

The group became the regular warm-up band for BBC television's Top of the Pops, which was then being filmed in Manchester, and Gouldman himself spent more time on the U.K. chart during 1965-1966 than anyone outside of the Beatles/Rolling Stones. Jeff Beck, Cher, the Shindigs, and Herman's Hermits all recorded, or were preparing to record, Gouldman compositions, with Peter Noone recalling, "Graham wrote "No Milk Today," "Listen People," "East West," "Ooh She's Done It Again"; he was just a phenomenal songsmith. I mean, everything he played to me, I loved. And it's the construction. We turned down Carole King songs and Neil Diamond songs, but we never ever turned down a Graham Gouldman song."

He was mystified by the Mockingbirds' lack of success, and Gouldman himself admits that he was baffled. Signing to Decca, two further singles, "One By One" and "How to Find a Lover," went nowhere, and Gouldman reflected, "I was writing songs for everybody and anybody, but everything the Mockingbirds recorded was a failure and everything I gave away was a hit. Gradually I realized that the Mockingbirds weren't going to make it, that there was some vital chemistry lacking."

He broke up the band in mid 1966 and prepared to launch a solo career -- he also joined the Mindbenders for a short time before linking with that band's Eric Stewart as owners of the Strawberry Studios setup. Drummer Godley, meanwhile, teamed with fellow ex-Sabre Lol Crème in the duo Frabjoy and the Runcible Spoon, before they, too, became part of the Strawberry setup. In 1972, the four then combined as 10cc.

"Who'll Be the Next in Line?"

Different Knack entirely...these lads were originally called The Londoners until they saw Richard Lester's film The Knack...and How To Get It. I love the Kinks, so a straight-forward cover of any song from their Golden Era is gonna please me just fine, and this does. But there's no substitute for the real thing. Here's what I learned about these guys from the Rev-ola web site:
The Knack are best remembered today as the band Paul Gurvitz was in before he formed hard rock trio Gun of "Race With The Devil" fame. However, their music is much more deserving than that simple footnote. They were originally known as The Londoners, a moniker they adopted whilst paying their beat group dues in the clubs of Germany in the early 60s. Upon returning to the UK in 1965 and changing their name to the rather hipper The Knack (after the recently released Richard Lester film), they recorded half a dozen singles for Decca and Piccadilly including the mod R&B ravers "She Ain't No Good", "Time Time Time" and "Stop!". Their final single, "(Man From The) Marriage Guidance And Advice Bureau", featured a more mature acoustic sound, which nodded towards both The Kinks and the impending psychedelic explosion.

They split in 1967 but not before cutting the superb pop-psych tune "Light On The Wall" which remained unreleased until it was included on a volume of the psych compilation series Incredible Sound Show Stories under the name Happy Vegetable. Gun debuted by performing a version of the same song at a BBC session just weeks later.

Oh, and I'd be remiss without giving Honorable Mentions to the purdy harmonies of the Everly Brothers-sounding Rick and Sandy (Richard Paul Tykitt and Alexander William Robertson) on "Lost My Gal" and the Our-"Heart of Stone"-Beats-the-Stones'-"Heart of Soul" Hi-Numbers who were a bunch of unknowns with a weird-sounding singer but great riffs. The latter's tune (the single was backed by the Motown cover "Dancing In the Street") would fit nicely on any Nuggets garage rock compilation.

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Blogger Unknown said...

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3:25 PM  

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