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Posts tagged ‘Brinsley Schwarz’

Rhythm and booze

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A funny old movement, pub rock. If, that is, it was a movement at all, which you would have some trouble deducing from the 71 tracks making up a diligently compiled three-CD anthology titled Surrender to the Rhythm. It’s a stylistic odyssey travelling all the way from the Darts’ ’50s rock and roll medley of “Daddy Cool” and “The Girl Can’t Help It” to the pop-funk of Supercharge’s “You Gotta Get Up and Dance” via most of the stops in between.

The subtitle is “The London pub rock scene of the Seventies”, and it certainly was a London phenomenon. The pubs I remember best in this connection are the Red Cow in Hammersmith, the Hope & Anchor in Islington and the Greyhound in the Fulham Palace Road. And, of course, the one in the picture, the Kensington in Russell Gardens, W14, just north of Olympia, which was where — at the prompting of my friend Charlie Gillett — I turned up one night in early 1973 to see a band called Bees Make Honey, whose repertoire veered from Louis Jordan to Chuck Berry.

Charlie’s Sunday-lunchtime Radio London show, Honky Tonk, was the parish magazine of pub rock. Before the Bees, he’d been listening to Eggs Over Easy, a mostly American band who proposed the shocking notion that there could be alternatives to progressive rock and the college/concert circuit: a relaxed, easy-going kind of music played in a relaxed, easy-going environment. The pubs fitted the music of people who still had Music from Big Pink in their ears and had more recently been listening to J. J. Cale, but also owned a copy of Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation.

As a transitional movement, there was no real consensus — least of all on trousers, that infallible barometer, which went from drainpipes to flares and back again — except a unanimity of belief in the necessity of sweeping away the dominance of an old guard attacked in Mick Farren’s famous 1977 NME essay. “The Titanic Sails at Dawn”. The bands coalescing around this scene in its early days included Roogalator, Brinsley Schwarz, Ducks DeLuxe, the Kursaal Flyers, Ace, Kokomo and Kilburn & the High Roads. As a back-to-basics movement, it set the scene for punk, with a crossover point defined by Dr Feelgood and Eddie & the Hot Rods.

There are some obvious choices here — the Brinsleys track that gives the collection its title, the Feelgoods’ “She Does It Right”, the Kilburns’ “Billy Bentley”, the 101ers’ “Keys to Your Heart”, Elvis Costello’s “Radio Sweetheart”, the Hot Rods’ “Writing on the Wall” — and others that I wouldn’t have associated with this idiom at all, such as Chris Rea’s “Fool”, the Jess Roden Band’s “You Can Keep Your Hat On” and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s “Sergeant Fury”. Occasionally there’s something that’s a delight to hear again: Sniff ‘n’ the Tears’s irresistible “Driver’s Seat”, Chris Spedding’s charming “Bedsit Girl”, Starry Eyed & Laughing’s jingle-jangle “Money Is No Friend of Mine” and Roogalator’s “Ride with the Roogalator”, featuring the roadhouse guitar of Danny Adler. Obvious omissions are anything by Kokomo or Dire Straits, or Ace’s “How Long”, surely pub rock’s finest three minutes (instead we get their “Rock and Roll Runaway”).

The biggest surprise to me was Cado Belle’s “Stone’s Throw from Nowhere”, which I’d never heard before: a coolly soulful recording with an elegant lead vocal by Maggie Reilly, in the idiom of Minnie Riperton or Randy Crawford, and the sort of guitar-playing, by Alan Darby, that you might have found on a Norman Whitfield production. Also on the soul side is Moon’s chunky “Don’t Wear It”, a reminder of the excellence of Noel McCalla, their lead singer. They were one of the bands who landed a major-label deal without finding commercial success.

For A&R people — and I was one at the time — the early pub rock bands were a bit of a conundrum. Their modesty of scale put them at odds with the prevailing ambition, which was to search for the next really big act. I was always uneasy about the lack of any sense of genuine innovation. I was being guided by a belief in linear evolution, and I was probably wrong. Andrew Lauder at United Artists was right to sign the Feelgoods, and Dave Robinson was right to use the scene as a platform for his Stiff Records artists. Sometimes it’s necessary to step back in order to prepare for the next leap forward, and that’s what pub rock was about.

* Surrender to the Rhythm is released on Grapefruit Records.

A night at Fillmore East, 1970

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You could fill Shea Stadium, never mind the Fillmore East, with all the people who claim they travelled from London to New York City by Boeing 707 and Cadillac motorcade to see Brinsley Schwarz on April 5, 1970. Fifty years later, it remains one of the most hilariously disreputable hypes in the history of popular music.

A bunch of chancers calling themselves Famepushers Ltd took an unknown group from Tunbridge Wells called Brinsley Schwarz (formerly known as Kippington Lodge), talked Bill Graham into giving them a support slot at the Fillmore East, and booked an Aer Lingus jet to carry 100-plus assorted media types — a mix of Fleet Street, music paper and underground press — and scenemakers (such as Jenny Fabian and Johnny Byrne, co-authors of the recently published roman-à-clef Groupie), to go and hear them.

Famously, everything went wrong. Scheduled to leave Heathrow at 10.30am and arrive at JFK at four in the afternoon, which would have given plenty of time to get to the gig, the 707 was three and a half hours late leaving London and made an emergency landing at Shannon, with no fluid in the Boeing’s braking system. I’ve never forgotten looking out of the window and seeing Irish fire engines and other emergency vehicles racing along the grass beside the runway as our pilot used every yard of tarmac and every pound of reverse thrust to bring us to a halt. Rectifying the problem took some time, and the flight didn’t touch down at its intended destination until 7pm. The band were due on stage at 8.

Somehow we were hustled through immigration without needing to show anything. We were taken by bus to the car park of the First National City Bank building on the periphery of the airport, where 25 black Cadillacs supplied by a company called Head Limousines were waiting in the dusk, along with their uniformed drivers and a police motorcycle escort, for a hectic dash that gave me my first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline on the way into the neon twilight of the city.

It was dark when the limos dropped us at the theatre’s entrance on 2nd Avenue, a block east of the Bowery. We rushed in and found some seats just as the Brinsleys took the stage. None of us — not Pete Frame from ZigZag, not Charlie Gillett from Record Mirror, not Geoffrey Cannon from the Guardian, not Jeremy Deedes of the Evening Standard, not Richard Neville from Oz, not Jonathon Green from Friends, not Keith Altham from the NME, not Mark Williams from IT, not Jonathan Demme, the London correspondent of Fusion, not the five winners of a Melody Maker competition and their partners, not my MM colleague Royston Eldridge and certainly not me — had prior knowledge of a note of their music. But, sadly, we were unanimous: their subdued country-rock was best described as nondescript. And, anxious as we all were not to be seen to have been seduced by the hype and the free trip, barely any of us had a kind word to say about them in print afterwards.

Some members of the trip, feeling the effects of the free booze and other stimulants taken on what had turned out to be a 15-hour journey, left immediately after the Brinsleys’ set to check in at the party’s designated midtown hotel — the Royal Manhattan on 8th Avenue — and find other ways of spending Saturday night in the Apple. Those of us who stayed were rewarded by an inspired performance from Van Morrison, featuring the band and mostly the songs from the recently released Moondance, and a pretty good one from Quicksilver Messenger Service, to whom Dino Valenti (the writer of “Get Together”) had recently been added as lead singer, delivering memorable versions of “What About Me” and “Fresh Air”. At which point we all headed off for a few hours’ sleep. All except Pete Frame, bless him, who stuck around for the midnight show and reported the next day that the Brinsleys’ second set was much more relaxed and enjoyable.

There was supposed to be a press conference with the band at the hotel the following morning. I remember people standing around drinking coffee, all vaguely embarrassed by what had transpired the night before. Charlie Gillett delivered the proofs of The Sound of the City, which he had been correcting on the flight over, to his US publisher and invited me to go downtown with him to the apartment of Robert Christgau, the self-styled dean of American rock critics, where we spent an hour or so. After that we went to Sam Goody’s, where I picked up two copies of the original US issue of The Velvet Underground and Nico, with unpeeled bananas, from a large pile in the cut-out section at just 99 cents apiece. And then we were taken to the airport for a comparatively uneventful overnight flight home, arriving in a rainy London at the end of an adventure destined to enter the annals of rock infamy. While the rest of us resumed our normal lives, it would take the Brinsleys a long time to recover from their sudden notoriety.

* The photograph shows (from left) keyboardist Bob Andrews, drummer Billy Rankin, singer/bassist Nick Lowe and guitarist Brinsley Schwarz. For an extensively researched look at the business background to the affair, I recommend the relevant chapters of Will Birch’s highly entertaining history of pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island (Virgin Books, 2000), and the same author’s Nick Lowe biography, Cruel to Be Kind (Constable, 2019). Part of Van Morrison’s set that night turned up on YouTube a few years ago; it has since vanished, alas.