A Broad Abroad: Catch Dandelion Records in full bloom

by Jo-Ann Greene

Although British disc jockey John Peel’s Dandelion label flowered for little more than four years at the beginning of the 1970s, the artists that it nurtured are, like those he promoted on his long-running radio show, often regarded as the crème de la crème of British rock. Certainly he had an eye for genius. Kevin Coyne, Medicine Head, Stackwaddy, Bridget St. John and Tractor number among Dandelion’s greatest hits, and a box set released a few years ago by the Cherry Red label remains one of the most precious collections of recent times.

Now Ozit (www.tractor-ozit.com) has compiled a companion DVD, John Peel’s Dandelion Records — six hours of music and interviews that tells the story of what Peel himself described as “the half-witted, idealistic notion behind Dandelion records.” A labor of love littered with rare stills, footage, and interviews with both musicians and Peel associates (principally wife Sheila and cofounder Clive Selwood), as well as, of course, music, it also includes excerpts from the Dandelion tribute concert staged earlier this decade, among them an excellent reprise of “Strange Locomotion” by Coyne and Siren.

John Peel’s Dandelion Records is not perfect. With a larger budget and more access to the period live footage that surely exists of most of the Dandelion acts, it could have told its story with even greater aplomb. But compared to the vast majority of rockumentaries that litter the shelves these days, that you watch once and then discard because who cares what the third session man on the left has to say about a review written three years before he joined the band, John Peel’s Dandelion Records is sharp and to the point and doesn’t even point the camera at somebody unless they were actually in the heart of the action. So, no self-aggrandizing “veteran journalists,” no self-appointed information gurus, no talking-head idiots at all. Just good strong storytelling, straight from the horse’s mouth. We’re only a couple of months in, so I’m taking a chance here but  DVD of the year!

From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, Rubella Ballet was one of the bands that most people associated with the anarcho-punk movement (they met at a Crass gig, and drummer Sid Ation was ex-Flux of Pink Indians). But then you caught them live, a blurred flurry of brightly colored costuming and shrieking fluorescent madness, and you suddenly realized that here was the missing link between ’70s Glam and futuristic noise, and the role model for everything that Sigue Sigue Sputnik pretended to be.

Anarchy In The UV (Overground Records, www.overgroundrecords.co.uk) compiles this remarkable band’s debut album, At Last It’s Play Time, together with a clutch of singles cut between 1982 and 1985, plus two unreleased tracks. It’s not always an easy listen, and there are definitely parts that have dated badly. But it’s one of the most invigorating albums of its age, and, for that alone, it should be celebrated.

More punk unfurls in a crop of new releases from the Anagram label (www.cherryred.co.uk). We begin with a two-CD anthology of The Boys, sensibly titled The Boys Punk Rock Anthology. Chasing the band from the wild thrash of their debut single “I Don’t Care,” through to the dark early ’80s when the group fell apart, it reminds us just what an amazing pop unit they were, no matter how fast their guitars may have sounded. The closest thing Britain ever came to its own Ramones, but seldom content to remain in those quarters for long, The Boys’ catalog has been reissued a lot in recent years. But it’s still difficult to resist picking it up again.

Two Stiff Little Fingers live albums, too, have resurfaced: Live and Loud/Fly the Flags is a two-CD set capturing the punk heroes live in 1987 and 1991, and, of course, there’s some duplication between the shows. But the excitement level never flags, as Belfast’s finest prove that their decision to reform, just a few years after they originally split, was one of the wisest moves any band made in the 1980s. Oh, and Jam fans? Listen for Bruce Foxton playing bass on disc two.

And one more before we move on — Captain Oi’s long-anticipated reissue of The SkidsThe Absolute Game, the Scots band’s epiphany, pumped up to more than double its original length by the inclusion of two period singles and the entire Strength Through Joy experimental album that accompanied the first 20,000 vinyl copies of the main attraction. It’s a dynamic set — not, perhaps, so commercial as the earlier albums and the run of hit singles that made The Skids’ name in the first place, but its confidence and self-assurance are unbreakable.

Back to the early ’70s we go, beginning with Angel Air’s (www.angelair.co.uk) resuscitation of the John Dummer’s Blues Band’s final, unreleased album from 1973 — the prosaically named Lost 1973 Album. Recorded as the follow-up to the band’s Vertigo label releases, it’s a solid blues-rock set, notable not only for the involvement of Dave Kelly, Colin Earl (ex-Mungo Jerry) and Pick Withers (later of Dire Straits), but also as the last-ever sessions Graham Bond appeared on before his death in 1974. Despite this pedigree, the album was rejected by the band’s label and has hung around on the shelf ever since. It deserved better.

The Esoteric label’s (www.cherryred.co.uk) ongoing examination of the Jack Bruce vault continues with the reissue of the two LPs he made with Mountain men Corky Laing and Leslie West, Whatever Turns You On (1973), Live ’n’ Kickin’ (1974), and 1980’s I’ve Always Wanted To Do This, by Jack Bruce and Friends. No bonus tracks, unfortunately, but the remastering is strong, the liner notes are worthy, and, though these are scarcely crucial Bruce, all three have their mighty moments — not least of all the “Play With Fire” that opens the West, Bruce & Laing live album.

Other recent Esoteric joys include the National Head Band’s Albert One, a fabulous slice of early 1970s prog, and the first shot in the label’s next major undertaking, raking through the Hawkwind back catalog. Sometime vocalist Robert Calvert’s Freq was originally released in 1984 and reappears now on Esoteric’s Atomhenge subsidiary, a disquieting combination of electronic vignettes and conversation recorded on the front lines of the national Miners’ Strike that was then dividing British political life. Two bonus tracks recapture an earlier 45, and, while the album is definitely an oddity, it bodes well for what we should expect later in this series.

Here’s a beauty. Country Side is the latest release by Liverpool singer-songwriter Mike Badger (Generator Records — contact generatormail@btinternet.com), a compilation of cuts from the string of fine albums Badger has released over the past two decades — but not just any old compilation. Country Side concentrates, indeed, on Badger’s country side, songs he has written and performed that, to quote the liner notes, wouldn’t have disgraced a Gram Parsons album, or maybe a Johnny Burnette 45. It’s a beautiful album by one of Britain’s most quietly unsung heroes.

Equally fascinating is another anthology, collecting the works of the late multi-instrumentalist Phil Cordell. Hearts On Fire Anthology (Angel Air) is a 22-track gathering of all Cordell’s best-known numbers, recorded both under his own name, and a variety of pseudonyms throughout the 1970s — Springwater’s aching “I Will Return,” Riverhead’s “I Can’t Let Maggie Go,” Dan the Banjo Man’s eponymous debut and The Beachcombers’ “Surfin’ Soul.” All are testament to the sheer ingenuity that was Cordell’s hallmark, multi-layered guitars and vocals pushing the studio to its sonic extremes and then continuing on from there; if you like Dave Edmunds’ ’70s work, you’ll love Cordell’s. Also included are a clutch of studio demos that glisten with equal class and style to render this a fitting tribute to a true musical genius.

Finally, another legend who just happens to be one of the finest blues singers Britain ever produced. Maggie Bell has seen a lot of action on the reissues rack over the last few years, and The Best Of arrives to help out anybody who isn’t sure where to start. Two discs are divided between a solid 12-song collection of album cuts, tracing her from her first post-Stone The Crows solo sets through Midnight Flyer and onto the British Blues Quintet; and a DVD capturing a full, and full-blooded, Bell performance live at the Montreaux festival in July 1981. A fascinating interview with the chanteuse wraps things up.

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