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Posts tagged ‘Kokomo’

Dyan Birch 1949-2020

Dyan Birch was something special. Her presence on a stage drew the eye and the ear. And now she’s gone, leaving the memory of a soulful essence that was hers alone, however big or small the stage.

She was a teenager working in Brian Epstein’s NEMS record shop in Liverpool when she met the people who shared her love of soul music and with whom she would form the group Arrival: her fellow singers Frank Collins, Paddie McHugh and Carroll Carter. In 1969 they went to London, where they were signed by the Gunnell agency, who put them together with a keyboard player and singer called Tony O’Malley. They were managed by the savvy hipster Tony Hall, and they had chart hits with “Friends”, a Terry Reid song, and “I Will Survive”, written by Collins and arranged by Paul Buckmaster.

I met them en route to the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, in a helicopter chartered by Hall. They played on the Friday bill, which also included Taste, Tony Joe White, Chicago, Family, Procol Harum and the Voices of East Harlem. Curiously, although the festival was being filmed, no footage of their set survives.

Five years later Arrival were no more. Dyan, Frank, Paddie and Tony had been joined by the guitarists Neil Hubbard and Jim Mullen, the saxophonist Mel Collins, the bassist Alan Spenner, the drummer Terry Stannard and the percussionist Jody Linscott. Now they were known as Kokomo, and they became fixtures in London pubs and clubs from the Hope & Anchor in Islington to the Half Moon in Putney and Dingwalls in Camden. Their management was in the hands of Steve O’Rourke, who signed them to CBS.

Sadly, the reaction to their records never lived up to the promise of their live appearances. Here’s a beauty from Rise and Shine, their second album: “Without Me”, written by Dyan, Tony and Frank and produced by Brad Shapiro. Many, including me, believed them to be the best of all the British club and pub bands of the 1970s.

They were much in demand by other artists; you could hear the whole band, half-submerged among a couple of dozen musicians on Bob Dylan’s “Romance in Durango”, from Desire, and on Bryan Ferry’s In Your Mind. Here they are, minus only Hubbard, backing the singer and guitarist Bryn Haworth in 1975, on a track from his second Island album, Sunny Side of the Street; it’s always been a favourite of mine for the way it highlights the special vocal blend that Dyan, Frank and Paddie conjured with so little apparent effort.

Dyan was never a diva, but always a member of the band. There were serious health problems later in her life, affecting her ability to take a full part in the very welcome Kokomo reunions; the last time I saw her, at Richmond Athletic Club four or five years ago, she couldn’t complete the set, greatly to her distress. She always seemed like a lovely person. “Spread your wings,” she and the others sang with Bryn Haworth, “and fly right out of here.” And now she has.

* The photograph of Dyan Birch on stage with Kokomo at the 100 Club in 2014 was taken by Neil Holmes and is used by his kind permission.

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.

Sweet home Kokomo

Kokomo stage 2A Kokomo reunion would always have been high on the wants list of anyone who saw them in their 1970s heyday, when they were consistently the hottest live experience London’s small venues had to offer. This summer it turned into reality, and last night their short tour reached the Half Moon in Putney: just the sort of intimate, informal joint they once rocked, and which they can still sell out with ease.

It wasn’t quite the original line-up. Mel Collins is in the US with King Crimson, Jody Linscott is in Japan, Terry Stannard is long retired, Alan Spenner is no longer with us and, sadly, Dyan Birch was unwell. But Nigel Hitchcock, Frank Tontoh, Glen LeFleur and Jennifer Maidman took the places of Collins, Stannard, Linscott and Spenner on tenor saxophone, drums, congas and bass guitar respectively, while Helena-May Harrison, from the evening’s support band, Man May’d, stepped into the space left by the missing singer at a couple of hours’ notice to bring a fine voice and an irresistible vivacity to the show.

As with any classic vehicle, there were a few creaks and glitches along the way before the oil had fully circulated around the mechanism, but the storming two-hour set would have satisfied anyone’s expectations. The band warmed up with “Tee Time”, an old favourite instrumental, before the singers arrived for “Third Time Around”. Tony O’Malley took over Birch’s lead part on “Yes We Can”, Paddie McHugh stopped the show with “Angel” just as he used to do, and Frank Collins conducted the soul choir on “With Everything I Feel in Me”. Neil Hubbard and Jim Mullen supplied contrasting guitar solos of the highest quality, while Hitchcock did the Don Wilkerson/Fathead Newman thing to great effect. Maidman and Tontoh meshed beautifully on “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” and “I Can Understand It”. The audience needed no urging to join in on a celebratory new song called “Back at the Bag”.

They encored with a rolling “Sweet Home Kokomo” and a bit of crisp audience participation on “The Ghetto”. Two hours didn’t seem nearly enough for all the catching up they and we have to do.

* Left to right in the photograph: Tony O’Malley, Neil Hubbard, Helena-May Harrison, Paddie McHugh, Frank Collins, Jim Mullen and Nigel Hitchcock. At the gigs they’re selling a CD put together from a two-track tape recorded at the Venue in 1981: it’s a lovely souvenir and is downloadable at cdbaby.com.

 

Thumbin’ a riff

Jim MullenI could have kicked myself, on arrival at Ronnie Scott’s to see Allen Toussaint a few nights ago,  for misreading the bill and not realising that the evening included an early set featuring a trio led by Jim Mullen, the great Scottish guitarist who was part of the soul band Kokomo and then co-led a fusion band for many years with the late saxophonist Dick Morrissey. The group at Ronnie’s was completed by another guitarist, Nigel Price, and the bassist Mick Hutton. I got there in time to hear only the last couple of choruses of a ballad and a complete “Yardbird Suite”, which closed the set, but that was enough time to appreciate the quality of their interplay, and in particular the appealing contrast between the approaches of Mullen, who has always played with his thumb, and Price, who uses a pick. It was, I suppose, the closest you can get in the 21st century to hearing Wes Montgomery (thumb) jamming with Grant Green (pick).

I was even more annoyed with myself because just a couple of days earlier I’d invested in the new album by the Jim Mullen Organ Trio. It’s called Catch My Drift, it’s released on the Diving Duck label, and it features Mike Gorman on Hammond B3 and Matt Skelton on drums. They play standards (“Deep in a Dream”, “Lonely Town”), the Ellington/Strayhorn “Day Dream”, a couple of Tom Jobim tunes (“Samba de Aviao” and “Esquecendo Voce”), Toots Thielemans’ “For My Lady”, Donald Fagen’s “Maxine”, Chick Corea’s “High Wire”, Georgie Fame’s “Declaration of Love”, and Earth, Wind and Fire’s “You Can’t Hide Love”. Again there’s a Wes Montgomery comparison: the format and the mood are strong reminiscent of the excellent trio with which Montgomery recorded for Riverside in 1959, with the organist Melvin Rhyne and the drummer Paul Parker.

Catch My Drift is not a record that’s going to redraw the boundaries of jazz, but in every other way it’s a beauty. Mullen’s own playing is wonderfully mellow, its air of relaxation almost obscuring its more profound qualities of melodic inventiveness and absolute rhythmic security, while Gorman locates an interesting space between the discreet, economical approach of the aforementioned Rhyne and the more adventurous style of Larry Young. Skelton provides unfailing swing and thoughtful shading; the solo with which he ends “Maxine”, improvising against the organ’s comping, is extremely stimulating, as is his light-fingered workout with the brushes on “Day Dream”.

Mullen, who is now 68, really deserves a lot more credit and attention than he has been given since the end of the Morrissey-Mullen band 25 years ago. The next time I get a chance to hear him in person, I’ll be sure to arrive on time.

(The other good news is that Mullen will be taking part in this year’s Kokomo reunion, along with his fellow guitarist Neil Hubbard, singers Dyan Birch, Paddy McHugh and Frank Collins, Tony O’Malley on keyboards and vocals, Mel Collins on tenor saxophone and Jody Linscott on congas, plus Jennifer Maidman on bass guitar and Ash Soan on drums. They’re playing half a dozen dates in August, including the 100 Club, the Half Moon in Putney and the Richmond Athletic Club.)

* The photograph of Jim Mullen is from the cover of Catch My Drift, and is uncredited.

The groove abides

Tony O'MalleyOf all the British bands I went out to hear during my time as an A&R man in the mid-1970s, the one I really ached to sign was Kokomo, a 10-piece soul outfit who played the clubs at the time when pub rock was about to give way to punk rock. Unhappily for me, they had already fallen into the clutches of Steve O’Rourke, Pink Floyd’s manager, who secured them the sort of deal with CBS, a major label, that must have looked like a guarantee of fame and fortune. My souvenir of the nights I heard them play is a cassette tape that includes a live recording of their sublime version of Bobby Womack’s “I Can Understand It”, a great song to which they always did justice.

The tape captures them in their full glory: Tony O’Malley playing keyboards and singing lead, Dyan Birch, Frank Collins and Paddy McHugh singing back-up, Mel Collins on saxophones, Jim Mullen and Neil Hubbard on guitars, Alan Spenner on bass, Terry Stannard on drums and Jody Linscott on congas. So it was with a sense of anticipation that I went to see three of them — O’Malley, Collins and Hubbard — at the 606 Club in a Chelsea basement the other night. I don’t believe in making requests because I think that musicians should be allowed to play exactly what they most feel like playing, but I had my fingers crossed that, almost 40 years later, Womack’s song would still be in the repertoire.

The first reassurance was that, reunited on this occasion under O’Malley’s leadership, the three of them retain all the qualities that made them outstanding almost 40 years ago. The brilliant Collins does the Texas tenor thing, when the circumstances are appropriate, so convincingly that you wouldn’t be surprised if his passport gave his place of birth as Fort Worth rather than the Isle of Man. Hubbard brings the understated soulfulness of Cornell Dupree to any band he’s in. And O’Malley’s lovely warm-hearted Ray Charles growl makes him one of the great blue-eyed soul singers. With Jennifer Maidman on bass guitar and Brad Webb on drums, they blew up a storm.

And, to my joy, they did “I Can’t Understand It”, giving it full value. If you want a taste of it, here and here are clips of a Kokomo reunion at the Sheen Club in Barnes five years ago, Parts 1 & 2 of that very song. And here is a version with a slightly different band at the 606 a year later. You don’t quite get the impact of the way they sounded amid the steaming ambience of the Hope & Anchor on a hot night in 1974, but you get the idea. And, as I was shown on Friday night, the groove abides.

* The photograph of Tony O’Malley, Brad Webb, Jennifer Maidment and Neil Hubbard was taken by Graham Webb, to whom many thanks.