Two flat slabs of licorice that it’s best to keep as far from your stereo as possible.
Two coach loads of reality television contestants and viewers hurtling lemming-like over a cliff in a futile attempt to raise the average IQ of the western world.
The Len Bright Combo’s discography has been compared to a lot of things over the years, but as it prepares to double in weight next month, courtesy of Fire Records’ reissue of the trio’s entire recorded oeuvre, and the rascals themselves gird their loins for a reunion, on December 6 in London, it might be time for you to figure out just which side of the divide you stand on.
Were the Len Bright Combo the best band that the mid-80s UK had going for it?
Or are you still scratching your head, asking “who?”
The Len Bright Combo had everything going for them. A catchy name, a classic sound, a bassist who could lead the best singalongs around, and a bona fide superstar singer, the legendary Wreckless Eric. He went the whole wide world in 1977, and introduced “Hit And Miss Judy” to a nation one year later. He had a song covered by Cliff Richard, and he recorded the most demonic Devo cover ever, a mogadon metal retread of “Be Stiff,” before ducking out of the music business to raise a family and roadie for George Hamilton IV.
The Combo was not his comeback, however; that occurred a few months before, in March, 1985, when Eric – now working under his given surname of Goulden – joined with sundry members of Ian Dury’s old Blockheads to form the Captains Of Industry for one lost album on Go! Discs. By the time the British music paper Melody Maker caught up with Goulden, just weeks after the album’s release, however, his bandmates had already returned to Ian Dury’s camp.
Eric himself was now rehearsing with an entirely new group, and a brand new concept as well, linking with the former rhythm section from Billy Childish’s garage-band Thee Milkshakes, drummer Bruce Brand; and bassist Russ Wilkins, to ring dissolutely through a set comprised half Wreckless remnants, half crooked new songs and, as if to prove that the sum of the parts can sometimes be greater than the whole, half covers: Jonathan Richman’s “She Cracked,” and Larry Williams’ “Boney Maronie.”
“I’ve ruined enough of my songs,” Eric announced at the new group’s debut concert at South-east London’s Kennington Cricketers, on August 11. “It’s time I ruined someone else’s.”
The Combo were still using the Captains’ name as they took their first tentative steps onto the live circuit; the new name came to Eric during a conversation with a promoter who’d recently booked him to play, as the singer recalls.
“’What are you called?’ he demanded.
“’The Len Bright Combo,’” replied Eric.
There was a pause. “Not in my club, you’re not.”
There was no turning back.
Operating out of Chatham, 40 miles south east of London, the Combo’s goal was essentially to subvert the London-to-Manchester bias of the traditional British music scene. They did everything ass-backwards. Under normal circumstances, Eric’s name would have guaranteed him gigs at any club he chose – so he changed it to Frank Bright. (The rest of the band followed suit: Brand became Graham Bright, Wilkins Brian Bright.)
Contrariness ruled. While other bands aimed for prestigious shows at the Marquee and the like, the Combo went the other way entirely. Dingwalls was best known for late night showcases. The Combo played there at lunchtimes. A fan club was established, headed by the fictional Len Bright himself, with members (cruelly referred to as the Les Bright People) encouraged to mail in their own drawings and impressions of the band, which would then be photocopied and sent out to everyone else.
A major label showcase at that birthplace of punk, the 100 Club, was reduced to hysteria as the musicians punctuated every song with their reasons for not wanting to sign to a major label; and, when the Combo did enter the studio, it was a village hall in Upchurch (itself in the middle of nowhere), loaded with the oddest old gear they could find. “We wanted to record the album in mono,” Eric explains, “but in the end we couldn’t resist some stereo”… a fragment of organ that wanders from speaker to speaker during “Lureland.” “It sounds great on headphones. Probably,” Frank continues.
The Len Bright Combo Presents The Len Bright Combo, By The Len Bright Combo was released on the band’s own Empire label, in March, 1986, an immediately disconcerting title for an even more disconcerting album – one which could, Melody Maker gleefully proclaimed, “claim quite reasonably to be the worst recorded record since the Velvets first turned everything up full blast and played till the recording heads broke.” Indeed, sensitive ears swiftly learned to cherish the one moment of genuine clarity, Eric’s a cappella intro to the immortally titled “Young, Upwardly Mobile And Stupid,” for mere moments later, the band comes in with all the finesse of an elevator full of fat people plunging down the shaft.
In any other hands, “Lureland” would have been a gentle song of childhood memories. Here, it was peopled by sinister old men in flapping raincoats, and haunted by the same twisted nostalgia that oozes from the stale family get-togethers at Grandmother’s house that we’ve all had to suffer, and which were themselves vividly reanimated by “The Golden Hour Of Harry Secombe.”
Another track, “Someone Must’ve Nailed Us Together,” was culled as a single, and if Trevor Horn had produced it, it could have won the Eurovision Song Contest. Unfortunately, the Combo produced it themselves, so it sounded like it was taped inside a box – in both senses of the expression. Promo copies came with a free nail for obvious reasons. (The b-side, incidentally, was even darker, a seven minute live version of Bo Diddley’s “Mona,” recorded by a fan with a Walkman inside his jacket pocket.)
May 1986 saw the Combo play their first and only BBC Radio session, for the Andy Kershaw Show. Then, bolstered both by some astonishing (and astonished!) album reviews, and their own growing live draw, the trio wasted no time in recording their second album.
Originally to be titled Bright’n'Breezy, but eventually appearing (or not) as Combo Time, the album was ostensibly released in October, 1986, through the Ambassador label. Unfortunately, if you weren’t a Les Bright Person, you’d probably not have known about it. And even if you were, you probably wouldn’t have found a copy. Neither would you have known about the Combo’s Let’s Make A Box EP, which was scheduled for release in the new year, but never made it. (The lead track, “It’s A Sick Sick Sick Sick Sick Sick World” would later be rerecorded for Eric’s 1989 Le Beat Group Electrique album.) For the Combo was discombobulating.
Shortly before Christmas, 1986, drummer Graham quit to get married; he was replaced, fleetingly, by a roadie remembered only as Donald, but just weeks, and a handful of contractual obligations later, the Combo split. “And that’s it,” announced the final, tearful, fan club missive. “No reunions, unofficial get-togethers or comebacks.”
Well, not for a long time, anyway. The group would reunite as three-fifths of an ad hoc Pretty Things line-up, pieced together by Phil May and Dick Taylor in 1991; “Lureland” was rerecorded for 1993’s Donovan Of Trash album; that scintillating BBC session finally saw the light of day on Eric’s Almost A Jubilee collection of radio broadcasts; the two albums finally made it onto a two-for-one CD, through Eric’s own Southern Domestic label; and Eric has been known to perform the occasional Combo classic on his recent tours with his wife Amy Rigby.
And now – there’s a functioningly fascinating Facebook page, packed with souvenirs of the band’s original time together; there’s the promise of the reissues, which will certainly go to the top of every self-respecting “all I want for [fill in your own preferred designation for the upcoming holidays] is…” list. And there’s the reunion, which is already so close to selling out that, if you haven’t yet bought tickets for it, you’d better start tunneling now.
Yes, the Combo are back. Older, wiser, and probably a lot louder. But the last word should go to Eric, for he knows what else should be expected.
“I just hope someone says, ‘they haven’t lost it. If anything, they’re even worse than they used to be.”