The Contempo Story 1973-1977: The Original Home of Soul
Of all the contemporary soul labels that operated in the UK through the sixties and seventies, few played such a great role in the music’s local development as Contempo.
Helmed by John Abbey of the long-running Blues & Soul magazine, and a consultant for both Island’s Action soul subsidiary and Polydor’s Mojo set-up, Contempo launched in 1973 with a single brief. To make (as opposed to licensing) music on a par with the great American set-ups of the age – Gamble & Huff at Philly International and HDH at Invictus.
And so they did, as this three CD box demonstrates
It draws in the main from the label’s singles output – sensibly, of course, because few soul albums could ever kept the dance floor’s attention for their full span. And, because Contempo did look to the past occasionally, it throws a few licensed oldies into the brew as well – “Harlem Shuffle” (Bob and Earl), “Make Me Yours” (Bettye Swann) and, best of all, Tami Lynn’s “I’m Gonna Run Away From You” – one of the signature hits of the early seventies, regardless of its 1965 copyright.
The heart of Story, however, are those artists who were either born or reborn under Contempo auspices – among them, Major Lance, whose hit career had faded years before, but who burned up the Torch in Stoke in September 1972, and preserved it on the label’s first LP release.
Major Lance’s Greatest Hits Recorded Live at the Torch remains an essential document of the Northern Soul scene before it emerged onto the mainstream a couple of years later; and, though just one track appears here (“Ain’t No Soul”), the excitement is palpable regardless.
Richie Pitts, Oscar Toney Jr., Freddie Mack’s Extravaganza in Sounds, JJ Barnes, African Music Machine… the first disc, covering Contempo’s maiden eighteen months of peerless releases, races by like the best nightclub in the world, and the second (1974-1975) comes close. Ultrafunk might have had a fairly dreadful name, but “Sting Your Jaws (part one)” leaves you desperate to hear part two; and though the Armada Orchestra was little more than the Anglo answer to MFSB, they were no less spellbinding, either.
Only the third disc shows the cracks that would see soul in general and Contempo in particular fade across 1976-1977; the demon disco was coming, and the label was no more resistant to its charms than more or less everyone else. In fact, a new US distribution deal with the very disco-fied TK Records effectively marked the end of Contempo.
By then, though, Contempo itself was already immortal, a label whose catalog remains home to some of the most striking British soul of the age, and some of the most precious memories, too.
One Life To Lead
(Doctor Bird/Cherry Red)
Just a little too late for our recent reggae round-up, Doctor Bird flies us back to the early 1970s for what might be the last word in Phyllis Dillon collections, a straightforward retelling of the titular album, plus fifteen bonus tracks that trace her entire career, from 1966 to 1972.
Largely unsung in modern times, but a firm favorite throughout this particular span, Dillon is most often associated with producer Duke Reid, for whom she cut her entire catalog.
“Don’t Stay Away” and “It’s Rocking Time” from the dawn of that spell; a definitive rendering of the old chestbeater “Perfidia” (still to be occasionally heard on Sirius’s reggae channel); “I Wear His Ring,” “Boys and Girls Reggae” – it’s difficult to find a single track here that somebody does not describe as her best known performance, while the Dillon voice throughout is nothing short of magnificent.
She wipes floors with other versions of “Love The One You’re With”; the Wailers’ “Nice Time” finally lives up to its title; and even the over-wrought mundanity of George Harrison’s “Something” defies its over-played destiny to become a ballad of untethered beauty. She has way too much fun with “Cherry Oh Baby,” and we could go on like this forever.
Dillon retired from the music scene in 1972, when she moved to New York to raise her family, and the reissue scene has never offered her the due she deserves. This collection rights that wrong.
Upon which the Residents’ ongoing reissue campaign pauses to introduce, it says here, “a new concept.” A worldwide family of fans invited to cover their favorite Residents songs, the consequences of which are then mashed and mixed and muddled across a disc’s worth of utter dislocation. Two, in fact, if you include the band’s own contributions to the madness, and a seven track Stars on 45-style recounting of … what, the liners do not say. For there are no liners.
Disc one, I Am A Resident, is more or less business as occasionally usual, and pursues our favorite eyeballs across such delights as “Lingering Illusions,” “Freaky Wave,” “Commercial Bells Toll” and “Hello Duck Stab.”
Disc two, however… well, it probably depends upon how much you’ve ever wanted to hear people you’ve never heard of attempting to cover the uncoverable, before the uncoverable itself strikes back. It’s a tribute album, but one that treats the tributes as the raw material for an entire new opus – one that feels so familiar that you know all the words, but which refuses to conform to the memory.
There are definitely some moments of sublime accomplishment here, and some where the Residents themselves sound tame, compared to the vistas that their music inspires. And in that respect, it’s more akin to something This Mortal Coil might have done, than an anonymous conglomerate of high art weirdies.
But you could also say that, with so many albums already extant, and so much more material to be exhumed from the archive, it’s better to play the “real thing” than wonder how much of this was wrought by the contributing artists, and how much by the Residents themselves. And then you’ll have something else to ponder. Does any of that even matter?
Try a Little Sunshine – The British Psychedelic Sounds of 1969
Across the past few years, the Cherry Red family’s series of clamshelled anthologies, each focussing on a distinct era or genre within the British pop experience, has built into one of the most coherent reference libraries the music has ever seen.
No more rummaging through a teetering pile of Guava Fruit Gyrations volumes one through seventy-six in search of “Liar” by Fleur de Lys; no more wondering was it Pebbles or Nuggets or Gravel or what where you first heard Fernando’s “The Walrus and Carpenter.” Just pick up the relevant box, pull out the relevant disc and, on the subject of those two songs, both are included here. Hurrah.
The subtitle tells it all, while the music reminds us that psychedelia was not necessarily at the forefront of everyone’s attention at the time.
Status Quo make no attempt whatsoever to forge picturesque matchstick men out of “The Price Of Love”… not when they can dip it into some blues-soaked riffola; Ewan Stephens’ cover of “Mindless Child of Motherhood” would feel like a Dave Davies rocker, even if you didn’t know it was one; and the Deviants’ “Death of A Dream Machine” is, like the rest of their output, psych by association only. The genre has not yet been built that can truly hold the Deviants.
But those are not criticisms, any more than you would dismiss a punk compilation because there’s a few songs towards the end that don’t tear your head off and gob in the hole. Or a glam one that features a band wearing Birkenstocks. Far more often that not, it is chronology that defines a genre, not the rigid or otherwise adherence to formula, and if you agree that ’69 was the tail end of psych, then you’ll know how much music reflected its passing.
But, as is also so often the case, that’s where the genuine unsung pleasures lie, be it Strawberry Jam or Gentle Influence, Tuesday’s Children or Bobak, Jons, Malone; or, tucked away at the end of disc three, the Cape Kennedy Construction Company’s atomic “Armageddon” – somber organ, burbled vocals, propulsive missiles and pain-wracked vocals. Apparently it was recorded to cash in on the moon landing that summer, although quite how that fits in with a chorus that mourns “they blow us up, they burn us down” is anyone’s guess.
As usual, a few “established” names leap in amongst the obscurities – the Spencer Davis Group, the Move, Procol Harum, Barclay James Harvest; and, digging deeper, Lemmy with Sam Gopal, Dave Pegg and the Uglies, future Blockhead Davey Payne with his Medium Wave; comedian Billy Connolly with the Humblebums. Dave Davies’ “Creeping Jean” offers another nod to the Kinks, and there’s plenty more where they all came from.
In other words, if you’ve been delighted by the other boxes, this one will thrill you just the same, and there’s no better history of the music to be found.
Long Shot/Battle of the Giants
(Doctor Bird/Cherry Red)
Think of the Pioneers and what is the first thing to come to mind?
“What a weeping and a wailing….”
The real meaning of “Long Shot Kick De Bucket,” the song for which the Pioneers have always been best regarded, assumed any number of guises in the years before the truth became well known… Long Shot was a much-fancied racehorse that passed away during a major race, losing a fortune for all who had placed wagers on him.
But there were a lot of other theories floating around, which means listeners of a certain generation are sure to raise a juvenile smirk whenever the song comes on the radio.
So, it’s their best known hit, but by no means their peak. Two albums, released across 1969-1970, and augmented here by a handful of stray 45s and b-sides, power the group through three or four years worth of top notch moonstomping, almost all of it self-composed, and all locked down by the sheer effervescence of the trio’s delivery.
“Belly Gut,” “Trouble Dey a Bush,” “Poor Rameses” (another racetrack lament), “Pee Pee Cluck Cluck”… if you ever owned the original 45s, you’d stack them one atop the other, and entire parties could pass to the sound of the Pioneers. And the story doesn’t end here, either. This entire disc was recorded by the group with producer Leslie Kong; he died in 1972, at which point the Pioneers hooked up with Jimmy Cliff, and scored their biggest hit yet, “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah.”
Maybe that will top another compilation, investigating the band’s later years… we can hope so. In the meantime, this twofer offers more than enough to get on with.