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.