14 December 2014

Petr & Pavel - Laska/ Wenceslas Square

Label: Page One
Year of Release: 1968

It's interesting how often the late sixties are regarded as a period of "love and peace" and frequently represented by film footage of hippies idling around in fields clutching flowers. The period was, in reality, anything but. Ignoring even the obvious spectre of the Vietnam War hovering over everything, the USSR was also mobilising itself to the detriment of many lives.

Concerned about the increasing liberalisation of Czechoslovakia, where censorship and "secret police" interventions into daily lives were about to be lifted, the Warsaw Pact - consisting of USSR and its Eastern European allies - invaded the country to assert control, killing 108 Czechs and Slovaks in the process, and wounding 500 more. It was a heavy-handed display of appalling brute force which sent a flashing warning message out to all other Communist bloc countries - express yourselves freely and pay the price.

Petr and Pavel are slightly elusive, mysterious characters now, but at the time the story went that they were Czech entertainers who escaped by "stowing away on a jet plane" out of the country to Britain where they remained as defectors. There's no easily obtainable information about how they managed this feat, or what they did in Czechoslovakia before (the country had a booming beat scene, as we've already explored on this blog) just some Page One orientated propaganda about their escape and subsequent signing to a British record label. It's all very shady to say the least.

Top pop songwriters Alan Blaikley and Ken Howard got their mitts on them, and wrote this single which got issued the same year just in time for the Christmas sales rush. "Laska" was the only effort of theirs to get a release here, and seriously ramps up its Eastern European feel for the British market, combining the strident folk rhythms and "heys!" with an actually quite touching lyrical message. Throughout, the pair sing about being cut adrift from their homeland, alone in a strange land, but begin to speak in Czech at one point. This segment translates roughly as "My dear friend, we must learn to live in the New World - memories are good and bad - and look forward to peace and love". It's pure novelty pop, of course, but a quick search online reveals many people who were deeply moved by the record during those uncertain times. It was a heart-warming early winter tonic to many, an emotional cocktail of both defiance and loneliness beneath the blaring production.

Whatever anyone thought, Petr and Pavel clearly didn't release anything else here, and faded from view not long afterwards. I'd appreciate further information, and I certainly hope that everything worked out well for them in the end despite their lack of a hit single. This was, however, a festive release of which I can just about approve - it's both sentimental and hearty, and if I ever find out that the story about Petr and Pavel stowing away on a jet together is a record company lie… well, Larry Page had better watch out, that's all.

11 December 2014

Cut-Outs - D.I.Y/ We Don't Want To Hurt Ourselves/ Nearly Right

Label: EMI
Year of Release: 1979

Noel Edmonds - so much to answer for. From his cuddly patience with unpredictable children on Saturday morning TV to his frequently quite barbed japes at the expense of celebrities, Radio One DJ and TV host Edmonds straddled himself across seventies and eighties British popular culture like an immovable Blob(by). He was responsible for breaking many a hit on his widely listened to breakfast show, but it's safe to say that art-punk, DIY and new wave never really figured in his list of interests, even if he did get John Peel to host some segments on BBC TV's "Late Late Breakfast Show" (none of which had anything to do with music, before you ask).

This, then, is a truly peculiar story. One week on the Edmonds hosted "Swap Shop", it would seem that the programme found itself short of a band and in need of a replacement at very short notice. Upon realising that the assistant designer Grenville Horner had his own New Wave group Cut-Outs, a member of the crew asked him if he and his friends would mind stepping into the spotlight to fill the unexpected gap… and so it came to pass that the unsigned and almost entirely unheard of group went live on Saturday morning TV and gained themselves an interview with the jocular Noel afterwards. EMI spotted them performing "D.I.Y.", quickly booked them into the studio to get the track produced by John Leckie sharpish, and the rest is long-forgotten history. A punky anomaly on Edmonds' otherwise smooth and safe watch, and a rare, real-life example of the old Hollywood stand-by plot of "Hold on! The assistant kid can fill in for us!"

"D.I.Y." is actually slightly quirkier and more angular than you'd expect an employee of "Swap Shop" to come up with. "Brown Sauce" this isn't - rather, it's like Colin Newman out of Wire fronting a satirical approximation of Devo-styled pop, all sharp, panicked vocal delivery and staccato guitar parts. It certainly wasn't commercial enough to be a hit despite their television exposure and EMI's clout, and while the label offered them a tour supporting The Tourists to build their profile and take them to the next level, the members rejected the proposal all having day jobs to focus on.

We could deem them foolish for not grasping the opportunity, but as Grenville has subsequently gone on to work as a production designer on numerous major film productions, it would perhaps be foolish of us. The lead singer Graham Crowley is now Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art, while the whereabouts of the guitarist John Feathers are less clear.

For leaving us this little gem in between BBC production duties and canteen breaks, however, we should salute Cut-Outs. They may never have made another record, but their one release emerged under such odd and non-punk underground circumstances that it's almost tailor-made for this blog.

Thanks to regular reader Arthur Nibble for bringing this track to my attention and causing me to seek it out. And obviously, if anyone, anywhere has video footage of their performance and the subsequent Edmonds interview, I for one would love to see it.

7 December 2014

The Van Dykes - Rock-A-Bye-Girl/ I'll Be Bye

Label: Green-Sea
Year of Release: 1965

Sometimes bands are inconsiderate with their choice of names. No less than five different American groups have called themselves The Van Dykes. There's the prolific Texan soul group The Van Dykes, The Brooklyn based outfit, the New Jersey Van Dykes and the Baltimore Van Dykes, all active in the sixties with their work occasionally overlapping the same timeframes. Proof positive that in the USA, regionally successful groups could share their names with other far-flung combos without it leading to legal challenges or car park fisticuffs.

The Van Dykes we're concerned with here - I'm 99.9% positive - are the Connecticut Doo-wop group, who were allegedly highly influenced by the Four Seasons. Consisting of Frank Ruggiero, Joe Tiberia, founding member Art DeNicholas and Tom Juliano, they were incredibly popular in their area and cut a number of singles for Green Sea Records (some of which were later reissued by Co-op in 1967). 

Personally, I'm not a huge fan of the Four Seasons, a few of their stronger moments aside. However, "Rock-A-Bye-Girl" is a lovely moment. Filled with great vocal harmonies on top of a simple backing, it's a throwback to more innocent times where bands could sing about being lovestruck teenagers and make it sound wholly, absolutely believable. There are slight shades of early Beach Boys seeping through the mix as well, which I'm inevitably going to be a sucker for. One spin of this and you'll feel as if you've already known it all your life. "I'll Be Bye" on the flip is a bit more of a rocker.

Sadly, in 1967 the lead singer Frank Ruggiero died in a boating accident, putting paid to the group's chances of national success. Whether the Co-op Records reissues came about as a result of this tragedy or were simply reissued due to continuing local demand, I can't quite ascertain - but they seem to be more commonly stumbled upon than the Green-Sea original issues these days.

It's always sad to have to finish a blog entry with the death of one of the principle members, but online YouTube support for The Van Dykes does at least prove that demand for his group's work continues.

3 December 2014

Sue Wilkinson - Posers/ Hollywood Sheik

Label: Cheapskate
Year of Release: 1980

The early eighties spewed up some strange one hit wonders, but few were more unexpected than model and actress Sue Wilkinson's "You've Got Be A Hustler If You Want To Get On" (originally titled "You've Got To Be A Scrubber If You Want To Get On" before someone at the record label got cold feet). The softly sung - barely sung, actually - yet acidic, bitter lyrics combined with a minimal pop backing created a peculiar novelty record, one which could also have conceivably been recorded as a "naughty" music hall 78 in the twenties and still sounds as if it could be a YouTube viral today. Like most successful novelty pop, it feels as if it belongs to no particular era stylistically and exists in its own wobbly world. 

I've never been too sure quite what "Hustler" was supposed to be proving, though. Was it a despairing record written about women failing to get ahead unless they sold themselves sexually, or a record which shruggingly accepted the fact and only just stopped short of celebrating it? And is the fact that she says these are the "only women making it" not slightly clumsy? (True, there weren't that many women in positions of power in 1980, but the ones who were didn't necessarily achieve their aims by bed-hopping. Thatcher was the Prime Minister in Britain at this point, after all… and no, don't even go there). The characters in "Hustler" are recognisable, but the acerbic, sweeping nature of it does leave me feeling slightly awkward. That's possibly the idea, though. 

So when you've managed that strange, minimal novelty top thirty hit - with Don Powell out of Slade on "boing" noises, fact fans - where to next? Well, clearly you try the same trick again. "Posers" is lyrically less snappy than "Hustler", instead taking digs at vain people, both men and women ("Got an up-lifted backside/ Then siliconed her flat-side/ you can bite her apple/ but you'll never, never reach the core"). Otherwise, it's business as usual in a slightly weirder, melodically more meandering way. This is almost New Wave, in fact, but without the lyrical obliqueness. 

Is it any good? Not especially. There are no sharp, memorable one-liners here, and the targets would have been tired even for 1980. It has all the hallmarks of a desperate attempt to re-ignite a spent firework, a common phenomenon in one hit wonderland, and I'd be surprised if Sue Wilkinson herself didn't realise that she wasn't going to achieve a long career delivering bitter ditties about the superficial nature of humankind to under-arranged backings. She managed two more singles on Cheapskate before drifting out of view. 

Regrettably, it would seem that she died of cancer in 2005, so we may never find out what her expectations or motivations were. Just for providing everyone with a truly baffling, out-there moment on "Top of the Pops", however, I can only respectfully bow my head. 

29 November 2014

Wishful Thinking - Peanuts/ Cherry Cherry

Label: London
Year of Release: 1967

I knew that my recent trip to Japan would turn up at least one unexpected 7" vinyl oddity, and here it is - a Japanese Wishful Thinking single. They're a band I had no idea had any kind of following in Japan - after all, they largely had to content themselves with the pickings from the fringes of the music industry here in the UK in the sixties - but here's physical proof that somebody cared enough to put this one out over there.

Wishful Thinking have featured on this blog twice before, but just to recap, they consisted of Roy Daniels (vocals), Terry New (lead guitar), Roger Charles (bass) and Brian Allen (drums). Of those members, only Roy and Roger are still alive, but are known to occasionally gig in Germany in order to capitalise on their cult following over there.

This single, meanwhile, is a bit of a pearl. Their version of Neil Diamond's "Cherry Cherry" is a sprightly and peachy, sounding as if it would have been at home blasting out of the airwaves via Radio London at the height of summertime. It's delivered with such energy and verve that it really deserved to be a huge hit.

The other side, a cover of the Four Seasons "Peanuts", is a bit bloody irritating, but then I never was a huge fan of Valli and his boys (a few golden moments in their catalogue aside). Still, it provides good entertainment if you're minded to occasionally screech "Peeea-NUTS!" at the top of your voice in the manner of Matt Lucas off "Shooting Stars".

Wishful Thinking would later have a global hit with "Hiroshima", which was entirely focussed on the fate of that Japanese city. I am unfortunately unaware of the Japanese public's response to that particular record.