1 July 2015

Merlin - Sweet Dream Woman/ No Full Moon

Label: MAM
Year of Release: 1972

Once every so often I stumble across a single by a band I know nothing about - and can find absolutely nothing about online or offline - which is nonetheless a curiosity purely due to its total obscurity. Sometimes this obscurity makes it valuable to label completists (a recent copy of a scarce Fontana single I own went for £160 on ebay purely due to the fact that there are so few copies left "in the wild", and despite the fact that the music in the grooves was at best merely 'above average') but more often than not its just like finding an old till receipt from 1975 down the back of a cupboard; interesting and slightly nostalgia inducing, but not anything to get the Antiques Roadshow crew having panic attacks. The "collectibility" of a thing is determined by many factors besides rarity, and you're more likely to be unlucky than striking it rich. 

And here we are. There were two Merlins doing the rounds during the seventies. One were a glam rock outfit with progressive leanings signed to the CBS label. The other were this mysterious lot, about whom all I can glean is that they once toured with Leapy Lee (who also produced this single).

"Sweet Dream Woman" is the kind of easy-going, laid-back, feel good, gum chewing, jew's harp twanging country rock which temporarily had a spurt of popularity in the early seventies, and which I must admit isn't really my bag, even at its absolute best. I wouldn't know a great single of this ilk from a dud. However, this is bound to find appreciation from someone fascinated by curios of that nature, and for that reason it's today's blog entry. Sometimes it's nice to share even if you don't have anything productive to say and the artist in question is operating in an area you don't feel as if you're an authority on. 

A slightly grittier version of "Sweet Dream Woman" was a success for Waylon Jennings in the USA during June 1972, and the "Taylor" in the songwriting credits is none other than Chip Taylor, previously responsible for "Wild Thing". He also recorded the track as part of the trio Gorgoni, Martin & Taylor earlier in 1971 but it met with less success in that guise. 

Apologies for the crackles near the start, but if you can find a better copy out there, feel free to share it! 

28 June 2015

Herbie's People - You Thrill Me To Pieces/ Sweet and Tender Romance

Label: CBS
Year of Release: 1965

Formed in Bilston as Danny Cannon and The Ramrods in 1959 then going through a couple of minor line-up changes before becoming Herbie's People, this lot were a highly versatile live act in the Midlands area. Consisting of Len Beddow on lead guitar and vocals, Alan Lacey on drums, Herbie on lead vocals, Mick Taylor on guitar and vocals and Peter Walton on bass, they moved on from raw Buddy Holly styled rock and roll to diversify their style enormously to take on harmony pop and electric organ dominated melodies.

The band were apparently a powerful live force and seemed like an obvious shoe-in for the charts so far as their management and (presumably) CBS were concerned, but were dogged by bad luck. At one point they planned to release "Semi Detached Suburban Mr James" as a single but were beaten to the punch by Manfred Mann, who scored a hit with it instead (though Herbie's People's version was granted a US release). 

"You Thrill Me To Pieces" was also unlucky not to have been a hit and seemed dangerously close to becoming one after a lot of radio and TV exposure. It apparently appeared in some chart company's Top Forties, but not in the official run-down, and as such is technically a flop so far as the powers that Beeb are concerned. It's light, frothy, twangy and harmonic, and listen hard enough and you can just about hear the huge raft of influences the band had accumulated. 

I far prefer the B-side "Sweet and Tender Romance", though, which is so enjoyed by all popsike aficionados that it's available to buy through all the usual mp3 outlets (though you can listen to it on YouTube here). There's an droning, organ driven wooziness to "Romance" and steady climbing melody which makes you think that the band must have found moving with the times to absorb psychedelic influences to be a total breeze. And you'd be right - when Pete Walton left the group in 1968 they changed the group name to Just William and recorded the much-compiled and really very pleasing "Cherrywood Green" for Spark. 

That was by no means the end for Herbie's People, though. They reformed countless times to gig again on the Midlands circuit, but finally decided to throw in the towel, apparently for good, in November 2011. As we all live in times where bands get back together for one final hurrah on multiple occasions, though, who can say for sure?

24 June 2015

Sarah Jane - Listen People/ The World Is Round

Label: Pye
Year of Release: 1966

The post-nineties music scene has been completely flooded with female stars after a long period of women in rock and pop - and certainly women in rock and pop writing their own material - being rather sidelined. That some of the largest selling records of the last fifteen years have been made by Adele, Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, and (*sharp intake of breath, wince*) Dido is a sign of the marketplace becoming a lot more even, not through any kind of concerted right-on media campaign, but entirely through consumer choice.

It's easy to forget that back in the sixties there was a similar push and rush of female artists, although back then a hell of a lot more of them failed to get more than one hit, and many more didn't chart at all. For every Sandie Shaw there was an Adrienne Poster, for every Lulu a Bobbie Miller. In fact, I'm going to mention Twinkle's late non-hit "Micky" at this juncture not because it's especially relevant to the record in hand (it isn't at all) but because its failure to chart is one of the sixties era's biggest injustices. It's my blog and I'll whine if I want to.

But moving on to the matter in hand - Sarah Jane's version of the Gouldman-penned "Listen People" is an understated proposition to say the least. In fact, it almost turns understated into a genre of its own. A delicate orchestra brushes strings in the background while Sarah Jane sings so softly it's as if the whole performance is being carried on a summer breeze. Even turning the volume up to ten probably wouldn't trouble the neighbours. It wouldn't be the last time such a style took hold, and nor was it the first - Marianne Faithfull also had similar subtle ways to begin with, and Vashti Bunyan would certainly usually favour the delicate arrangement over the strident. Unlike either of those artists, however, Sarah Jane would neither score immediate success nor achieve eventual acclaim, and this single seems to have been her only outing.

"Listen People" was also issued as a single by Herman's Hermits in the same year, where it managed to pick up a bit more of an audience (though not in the UK, where it never achieved A-side status). I'm afraid I consider it to be the inferior version, though I have no doubt it might have sounded much stronger coming through people's kitchen or factory radios.

As for who Sarah Jane is or was… I'm afraid I have absolutely no information. So if you know her, or indeed you are her, please step forward and make yourself known.

21 June 2015

Savwinkle and Turnerhopper - Your Mother Thinks I'm A Hoodlum/ Dirtyin' My Thing

Label: Pye
Year of Release: 1970

When a record has a title like "Your Mother Thinks I'm A Hoodlum" and is by a pair of artists known as Savwinkle and Turnerhopper, it's hard to walk past. If it's bad, it's bound to be ridiculously bad, and if it's good, chances are it's going to live up to its title in all manner of interesting ways.

And indeed, it doesn't really disappoint, especially as a social document. Lyrically it's themed on the topic of a man's significant other's mother disliking him due to his long hair. Throughout the track, reasons are listed as to why this is a ludicrous stance - after all, he pays his taxes, he doesn't drink heavily… in all respects, he's an upstanding member of society. And of course, by 1970 long hair on men was increasingly common in mainstream society and about to become the norm (though try telling that to my mother's elderly neighbours in the mid-nineties - perhaps there's room for another single in this world entitled "Your Elderly Slightly Bigoted Neighbours Think I'm A Hooligan"). This could have been a cross-over novelty single about the tipping point in men's hairstyles, a song for all the hairy fellows out there with respectable day jobs and unexciting social habits.  

Musically this is fairly stripped back and raw, rattling along like an acoustic freakbeat single or a particularly agitated Mungo Jerry session. Meanwhile, over on the flip, Messrs Savwinkle and Turnerhopper rant about the negative habits of all would-be critics out there on "Dirtyin' My Thing". This probably isn't the place to suggest that it's considerably weaker than the A-side, then…

The excellent Purepop blog covered this record many years ago and managed to identify the artists responsible. The duo were Steve Turner and Derek Savage of a Battersea, South London based act called The Saturday Band. They ceased playing live at the cusp of the sixties and opened up their own talent agency, but still harboured dreams of writing and performing themselves - step forward producer Ray Hammond who shared office space with them and arranged a one-off deal with Pye. It seems to have been their only recorded output before finally throwing in the towel, though I'd be delighted to be proved otherwise. 

18 June 2015

Emerging #5 - C Duncan, Kid Wave and The Sticklers

Welcome to our monthly catch-up of the most interesting new music out there. Summer is upon us, and as seems to generally be the tradition at this time of year, the online tannoys filled with new noise have gone slightly quiet. And certainly, anything great seems to be covered by mainstream sources within seconds, as we're about to find out this month. But no fear, let's press ahead anyway…

Glasgow's C Duncan has been a surprising new discovery for me personally. The son of two classical musicians, his work sounds grand, complex and mysterious without once tipping over the edge into pomposity or ludicrousness. Choral structures meet folk melodies and even elements of very late sixties psychedelia - think The Nice at their very best rather than their over-reaching worst, then multiply that goodness several times over again.

In particular, the track "Garden" feels like a refreshing return to intricate seventies art-pop with a dash of modern folk thrown in. Some critics have thrown in The Fleet Foxes as a comparison, but this is considerably more intelligent and captivating than the disappointing "Helplessness Blues".

The Guardian, The Quietus and The Line Of Best Fit have already leapt on the "Architect" album, so my little bit of acclaim here isn't really news - but if you haven't noticed those reviews yet, now's your chance to listen.

Anglo-Swedish outfit Kid Wave, on the other hand, have caused so many ripples in the mainstream media that even Shaun Keaveny has been playing them on the BBC6 music breakfast show - and squeezing any new music on to that show seems nothing short of miraculous these days.

Still, the single "Honey" deserves it. The aural fog of multiple effects pedals being triggered means that comparison with early nineties shoegazing seem inevitable, but the track also drips with the kind of pop suss that was seldom found in that movement. On the contrary, "Honey" teases and seduces with its chorus, trapping you with its sense of dreamy elation.

And while The Sticklers' "Mr Needlove" came out last year, this section of the blog wasn't running then, and they do have a new album in the pipeline… so I can be excused.

"Mr Needlove" is still available from all good online mp3 outlets of course, and showcases London's The Sticklers delivering folk rock which is surprisingly hard and angular. Snapping staccato vocals combine with an urgent sounding chorus, and there's more than enough quirk and energy here to push it into new and interesting territories. In fact, it's as New Wave and art school as this kind of thing tends to get, showing that the band are clearly capable of picking up the fiddle where Dexys Midnight Runners left off and taking it on new and exciting journeys.