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Reviews: Radio Stars, Spirit, 1991, Blossom Toes, Howard Jones, Joe Gibbs, Mod (and more!), Ian Matthews

Dave Thompson digs into more archive boxes, reissues and comps.
1

Radio Stars

Broadcasting to the Nation

(Easy Action - 1 CD)

When chief songwriter Martin Gordon left Radio Stars in 1979, a lot of people expected the band to fold. Instead, vocalist Andy Ellison resolved to carry on. Forty years later, we finally get to hear the results… amd they

Re terrific.

Hitherto, Gordon was the band’s songwriter; now Ellison took over and, if that was a surprise, it shouldn’t have been. Behind the scenes, apparently, Ellison had long been a prolific and proficient writer in his own right, despite having seen just one of his own songs, “Is It Really Necessary,” deemed necessary for either of Radio Stars’ past albums. Now his time had come and, within months of Gordon’s departure, Ellison had almost an album’s worth of new songs ready and waiting to face the public.


Ten songs here are studio demos; eight more are live performances, including the otherwise unrecorded “Understood,” Marc Bolan’s “Horrible Breath” (aka “You Scare Me To Death,” which appears among the studio cuts), and four crowd-pleasing oldies.

It’s the studio material that will grip you, though, beginning with the welcoming “Back In Your Town,” and then straight into “Accidents,” a tribute to Ellison’s habit of seriously damaging himself, and others, with his onstage activities: “There is blood in the stalls…negligence is what you sense, but I’ll have you know it was an accident.”

Of almost equal worth are “Blame It on the Young,” about the older generation’s insistence on so doing, the mock reggae “Wall of Death,” and “Big Things,” the title track for the new line-up’s projected first album, and the song with which the band opened their session for Kid Jensen’s Radio One programme.

All captured perfectly the direction in which Radio Stars were now moving, a hard rocking mood that, with ex-Sparks guitarist Trevor White playing rhythm on his bass, bore more than a passing resemblance to vintage Thin Lizzy.

They were also a far more honest effort than if the band had tried to continue writing Martin Gordon-type songs, a fact which audiences were not slow to appreciate, and applaud. Sadly, however, it was not to last - as he wrote in “Out to Lunch,” Ellison found that “just when you think you’ve got it made, they come and take it all away.” With the dawning of the summer of 1979, came the demise of Radio Stars, and the shelving of the album. Forty-three years on, we can hear what we missed.

2

Various artists

C91

(Cherry Red - 3 CDs)

Cherry Red’s year-by-year survey of UK independents continues with a surprisingly headstrong dip into the sounds and sensations of 1991 - a span that it’s very easy to look back upon and think “nothing’s happening.”

But you’d be wrong. True, the rave scene of such recent renown had been subpoena’d by the majors; true, too, that the Britpop boom was still a surprise party waiting to be thrown; and America was still bracing itself for grunge to break out at year’s end. But “nothing’s happening”? Hmmm.

Catherine Wheel flexing their muscles, with “Black Metallic” a compulsive slab of doom-prog. Lush, Slowdive, Chapterhouse and Levitation championing what the media termed shoegaze. (And the fact that it sounded like a continuation of what the Cocteau Twins had once been doing just made it all the more intriguing.)

Daisy Chainsaw, who open this collection, Dodgy, the Manics, the Sultans of Ping and Kingmaker were championing a return to playful punky-rocky roots. And then there were the bands that just did what they did, and were difficult to pin into any kind of bracket - Bang Bang Machine, Th’ Faith Healers, the Boo Radleys, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Flowered Up, Saint Etienne, and that’s the mood that carries through the three discs, a sense of rock’n’roll sniffing around for a new direction, but in the absence thereof, just doing what it felt like.

There’s something really healthy about that. Fast forward through a few years, to the peak of Britpop, and a box like this could easily be filled with close to sixty second generation blurry pulpy suede sleepers, all rabbiting on about seventies TV, discontinued candy bars and how the boy down the road looks like Charlotte Rampling. Roll back a couple, and heaven knows you’ll be miserable then.

Stick here, though, and the future is open to anything, and if you listen carefully, you can hear it tapping on the shutters. Listen very carefully, and you’ll find yourself wishing you’d paid more attention at the time.

3

Spirit

Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus deluxe edition

(Esoteric - 2 CDs)

Spirit’s fourth album is, depending upon whether you judge success by the critics or the charts, both their most legendary album and their first flop. Famously, it climbed no higher than #63, their worst performance yet, and while it would eventually go gold, there was always a sense of disappointment clinging to the record.

Unless, of course, you were among the growing horde who, almost since the day of release, have been championing Dr Sardonicus as sole writer Randy California’s finest hour, a blend of the psychedelia for which Spirit were renowned, and the rootsier moods that were prevalent elsewhere at the time… and one of the few records that actually made a success of such a melange.

“Nature’s Way” is firmly established today among Spirit’s unimpeachable classics; “Animal Zoo” effectively blueprints American AOR for the next few years (you just know the early Doobie Brothers were listening carefully); “Love Has Found a Way” has lots of fun with special effects; “Street Worm” is a “remember 68” riotous rocker; “Morning Will Come” is a Blood Sweat & Tearful honk. And so on.

And that’s just for starters. The album itself is followed by more or less another album’s worth of alternate versions, embracing everything from mono mixes and backing tracks, to the first ever live performance of “Nature’s Way.” A second disc serves up a previously unreleased live show, from the Fillmore West in May 1970 (plus one track from Boston the previous fall). It sounds great, and more than one performance leaves its studio counterpart in the gutter. And taken as a while, Dr Sardonicus is worth every panegyric that has ever come its way.

4

Howard Jones

The 12” Album + 12”ers Vol 2

(Cherry Red - 2 CDs)

Ah, do you remember when 12-inch singles were actually extended versions of the song you were buying, as opposed to a few ego-tripping remixers’ opportunity to stamp their own idea of fun across someone else’s record?

The 1980s got a lot of things wrong, but the 12-inch single was something that it not only perfected, it created some of the finest musical memories you could hope for.

And Howard Jones was among those who led the way.

The two albums packaged here are effectively, and sensibly, a round up of the hits. In keeping with its mid-80s vinyl counterpart, the 12” Album features the rerecorded “New Song” and an unreleased “International Mix” of “Like To Get To Know You Well,” alongside the extended “What is Love” and “Pearl In The Shell,” meaning four of his first five 45s are accounted for.

The Japan-only Volume 2 adds “Life in One Day,” “Look Mama,” “Hide and Seek” and “Things Can Only Get Better.” That only the latter stands out as a truly memorable hit is immaterial. Jones’s sound was unique, even at the peak of the synthipop boom, and this is him, in turn, at his best.

5

Blossom Toes

If Only for a Moment

(Esoteric - 3 CDs)

Blossom Toes’ second album was always a bit of a disappointment, as the band continued their superlative debut album’s investigation of more “progressive” notions, while not necessarily knowing exactly what to do with the ones they found.

Which is not to say it’s a loser; the “Postcard” single that preceded its release (included as one of four bonus tracks to the LP) simply screams psychedelia at you, all the more so for being little more than a recitation of the contents of, indeed, a postcard. And there are plenty of moments to match that elsewhere.

But the album’s opening “Peace Loving Man,” is a ponderous stomp, even when it reaches its admittedly catchy chorus; “Kiss of Confusion” follows suit, despite a Bee Gees-esque vibe to the verses; and, by the time we’re halfway through the album, “Billy Boo the Gunman” opens as though your copy of “Honky Tonk Woman” has got stuck on the first clash of cowbell, and the riff isn’t much to write home about, either.

But the seven minute “Love Bomb” is glorious; and the lengthy, lilting “Indian Summer” is one of the band’s strongest compositions ever. “Just Above My Hobby Horse’s Head” is fun, too.

A bonus disc of out-takes, demos and rarities doesn’t add much to the album itself, although there’s a lovely early version of “Postcard,” and its interesting to follow the evolution of “Peace Loving Man” across a couple of first takes. It’s good, too, to hear another version of the unreleased Blossom Toes single, “New Day” - the proposed 45 take closes disc one in all its hopeful, chorale glory.

That leaves one final disc, taken from a couple of festival dates in Belgium in 1969, although a combination of dodgy sound quality and the band’s penchant for jamming does not render it a candidate for too much repeat listening. But Blossom Toes more than deserve the deluxe reissue treatment, and - after being all but overlooked for so many years - we can only say “the more the merrier.”

6

Various artists

Joe Gibbs Presents Freedom to the People

(Doctor Bird - 2 CDs)

Now, this is what we want. A jam packed (54 tracks) collection of primal Joe Gibbs productions, almost half of them previously unreleased, but all of them dating from that 1971-1972 period when neither he nor the acts he recorded could put a foot wrong.

As one of the pioneers of the new “reggae” sound that was sweeping all before it on the local, Jamaican, scene, the Joe Gibbs All Stars are the predominant sound here; backing musicians on most of his records, and purveyors of so many cracking b-side versions.

But it’s the featured vocalists who lead the way, names and talents the caliber of Judy Mowatt, Dennis Alcapone, Max Romeo, the Heptones, Junior Byles, Errol Dunkley, U Roy and Leroy Smart, and a slew of lesser known but no less worthy others - Bunny Flip with the so wonderfully well-toasted “Maingy Dog”… one of four similarly themed pieces that give Winston Scotland and another Gibbs combo, the Love Generation, the chance to shine as well.

Mr X’s “White Liver Mabel” is as much fun as its title insists it should be,; likewise another Winston Scotland number, “Screw Face Set Your Peace.” DJ Prince Student turns in a powerful “Rivers of Babylon,” while Ken Parker’s “The Dynamic Ken Parker” pre-empts all those Stars on 45 singles that were all the rage in years to come.

And how great is it to hear Cat Campbell’s “By the River Brown Sugar” again?

As always with Doctor Bird, the booklet is jam packed with info, and the whys and whats of the Gibbs archive. Further exhumations from this period are a must.

7

Various artists

I Love to See You Strut

(Strawberry - 3 CDs)

There’s something about the original 1960s Mod era that is endlessly fascinating and, in musical terms, endlessly rewarding. Part of it, of course, is the fact that beyond the handful of bands that get rounded up as the usual suspects by almost every compilation (the Who,. The Birds, the Action, the Small Faces and the young Rod Stewart), it’s probably the most open-ended genre there is.

Manfred Mann? Why not. Chris Farlowe? Okay. The Spencer Davis Group? Yeah. The Pretty Things, the Animals, the Graham Bond Organisation, Zoot Money, Brian Auger… from R&B and the first flashes of jazz fusion, through the blues and beyond, Mod is as much of a chameleon as David Bowie is often said to be … and you can drop his mid-60s output into the brew as well.

Then, of course, there’s all those bands for whom name recognition is confined to collectors and scholars alone, but who can be said to have plomked at least one potential classic into the scooter-riding, parka-wearing, pill-popping pot pouri that is history’s definition of Mod.

Which brings us to I Love to See You Strut, which will indeed leave you strutting proudly around your own private dance floor, lost in a time frame that blurs the classic Mod edges even further, but barely puts a musical foot wrong. Hardcore purists may sneer occasionally, but the box set’s subtitle sweeps their objections away, for we are also promised “60s… R&B, Brit Soul and Freakbeat Nuggets” alongside the Mod, and it will be a close-minded so-and-so who can truly define the outer limits of those categories, too.

In fact, why even worry about whether or not a record fits into a box? It fits into this one, and that’s all that matters. Rather, relax into no less than 85 slabs of pristine rockin’ sixties Brit Beat, by all of the above and then lots more. The Herd, the Koobas, the Yardbirds, John’s Children, Elmer Gantry, Carl Douglas, The Trendbender Band - one of several previously unreleased nuggets exhumed for this collection.

There are also a few alternate versions, French EP cuts, single mixes and even a Canadian mono version (for the Moody Blues’ “I’ll Go Crazy”), all raising the rarity ante a little higher, and a night with this collection will introduce you to more dynamite oddities than you could shake a sta-prest trouser leg at. So what are you waiting for? Get strutting!

8

Ian Matthews

I Can’t Fade Away: The Rockburgh Years 1978-1984

(Lemon - 6 CDs)

Former Fairport, previously of Plainsong, ex-Southern Comfort, a folk rock icon long before his 1976 album Go For Broke seemed to thrust him into the mainstream, Ian Matthews was one of the better songwriters to be laboring in homeland obscurity while lapping up the plaudits in America.

Singles “Shake It” and “Gimme an Inch Girl” both pushed him forward; the album Stealin’ Home seemed to be in everyone’s collection despite distribution problems holding it back; and if you forward through this collection to 1979’s Live in Brussels recording, it’s clear that Matthews could.. should… have been enormous. And he would have been if his brand of intelligent AOR had not been tucked away on a tiny Canadian label, the Rockburgh of this box’s title.

Half a dozen CDs round up all four of his Rockburgh era studio albums (Siamese Friends, Spot of Interference and Shook complete the output), while two live discs capture further delights across the aforementioned Brussels show, and Stealin’ Home Live 1978-79.

The real meat however, lies among the 47 bonus tracks that are spread across the discs, and truly dig into the vaults. Stealin’ Home is appended with demos, out-takes and a full BBC concert from 1978; Siamese Friends matches further broadcast material with forgotten out-takes; and on we go through demos, even more live material (France 1980, Millan 1984), a session by his early 1980s band Hi Fi, and more.

It’s a glorious collection, consistent no matter what the source of a particular recording, and loading up some surprising covers too - Cliff Richard’s “On The Beach,” the Beatles’ “No Reply,” John Martyn’s “The Man in the Station,” Richard Thompson’s “Civilisation.” And the accompanying booklet details everything.

It is too easy, when contemplating Matthews’ career, to focus on the immediate post-Fairport early years, and overlook his work from the mid-1970s on. This package should refocus a lot of eyes.