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Posts tagged ‘Chris Spedding’

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.

Chris Spedding at the 100 Club

Chris Spedding“The first time I played here, the stage was over there,” Chris Spedding said, pointing to his right. “Anyone else here old enough to remember that?” None of Saturday night’s audience at the 100 Club put their hands up, but you can bet there were one or two who qualified.

I certainly did. In fact the first time I saw Chris Spedding was at 100 Oxford Street — the address from which the club drew its name — on the evening of my first day working for the Melody Maker in London, in September 1969. He was a new addition to the Mike Westbrook band, a cool guitarist with floppy black hair surrounded by a crew of variously dishevelled free-jazzers. He was 24 then, and looked about 16. Now he’s 70 and looks 50.

Saturday night’s gig was arranged as a launch of Joyland, his thirteenth solo album, in which he appears with a bunch of guests. The cast list gives an idea of the range of Spedding’s activities over the years: the actor Ian McShane (narrating the title track), Arthur Brown, Bryan Ferry, Johnny Marr, Robert Gordon, Andy Fraser, Glen Matlock and others.

I can’t think of another musician whose career could have gone in so many directions. His early bands included Pete Brown’s Battered Ornaments, Ian Carr’s Nucleus, the Mike Gibbs Orchestra, the Jack Bruce Band and Sharks. Later he produced the Sex Pistols’ first demos, backed John Cale and Johnny Hallyday, and guested with the reformed Roxy Music. He was on Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and appeared on Top of the Pops as a Womble, in costume. His playing that night with Mike Westbrook 45 years ago suggested that he might have an important part to play in the evolution of jazz guitar, in parallel with Sonny Sharrock and Derek Bailey. But when he had a hit single, it was with “Motorbikin'”, as traditional a slice of rock ‘n’ roll as you could find.

Saturday’s gig contained only one song from Joyland: “Message for Stella”, on which he was joined by the album’s co-producer: Steve Parsons, the elfin character known as Mr Snips in the days when they co-led Sharks. Back in the summer of 1974 Snips and Spedding asked me to produce their third album, but the band was already starting to disintegrate and I didn’t have the skills to hold them together during a series of fretful nights at Olympic Studios in Barnes. It was good to see Steve for the first time since then, his huge reserves of energy and enthusiasm intact: a proper English lead singer, ’70s-style.

For the rest of the set we heard Spedding with Malcolm Bruce — son of the late Jack — on bass guitar and Chris Page on drums, both of whom are members of Sons of Cream. The stripped-down trio lineup allowed plenty of room for the leader to demonstrate his mastery of an interesting custom-built guitar which looked like a Les Paul made out of distressed carbon-fire mesh, put through an old Fender amp, with no effects pedals and no bullshit involved.

Spedding always seemed to me a modest man, devoid of the rampant ego that distinguishes most guitar heroes. He never shows off but there’s always something worth hearing, often half-hidden in the folds and creases of the songs: a little train riff dying away on the fade of “Hey Porter”, or the pretty passing chords he inserted in the chorus of an otherwise straight reading of “Summertime Blues”. The most striking of the cover versions was a radically syncopated version of “Rip It Up”, and elsewhere he put the lightest of spin on classic rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll guitar stylings. His performance of the anthemic “Motorbikin'” sent a couple of leathered-up Ace Café types in the front row into ecstasies.

The new album is a different thing altogether, a potpourri of pop styles and ambiances, from a great spaghetti western instrumental with Johnny Marr (“Heisenberg”) to a subtle Lana Del Rey-style noir ballad called “I’m Your Sin”, performed with a new female singer from Los Angeles called Lane. He gets Ferry to whisper-croon a spooky unreleased Erasers song called “Gun Shaft City”, and there’s a version of Crispian St Peters’ “The Pied Piper”, with Andy Mackay on oboe and saxophones, that brings out the song’s inherent creepiness. “Shock Treatment”, with Andy Fraser on bass, has a great Parsons lyric — “Shame, shame, such adolescent behaviour / Listenin’ to the B-52s sure ain’t gonna save yer” — and the closing “Boom Shakka Boom” is distinguished by a greasy-quiffed guitar-and-bass sound that defines a certain kind of unreconstructed rock ‘n’ roll.

Like Spedding’s entire career, the record slides all over the place without making a permanent landing anywhere, and is the more interesting for that. When the stage moves, he moves with it, while remaining himself. He was always something different, and he still is.