Reviews: Buzzcocks, Kursaal Flyers, Pub Rock, Be Bop Deluxe, Junior Byles, Phil Mathias

They call it Pub Rock!  Dave Thompson reviews a clutch of hot new reissues and compilations
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by Dave Thompson

1

Buzzcocks

Sell You Everything 1991-2014: Albums, Singles, Rarities, Unreleased

(Cherry Red Records)

When the Buzzcocks broke up following what, sad to say, were the worst three singles they’d ever made, it did feel as though that was it. What had been one of the sharpest, fun-est, poppiest and most successful of all the first generation punk bands was no more.

Of course, now we know better. Reuniting in 1991, the band not only outlived their original incarnation, they dedicated the best part of quarter of a century to renewing, if not always refreshing, their legacy across what is now gathered together as an eight CD box set that contains… everything.

From the 1991 Demo LP that announced their return; through Trade Test Transmissions (1993), All Set (1996), Modern (1999), Buzzcocks (2003), Flat Pack Philosophy (2006) and the self-released The Way (2004), adding on demos, home recordings and live tracks, plus a collection of rerecordings that take us back to their first ever EP, this has to be the last word on the Buzzcocks archive.

In terms of the actual music, little had changed - Pete Shelley could still be relied upon to write the quirky sharp pop, Steve Diggle remained a rocker at heart. The balance of the songwriting would change over time, however. For the earlier albums, Shelley continued to pen the lion’s share of the songs; by the time of Buzzcocks, and again on The Way, the division was almost equal.

It was a smart move. In many ways, the later albums in this box are the most even, with the two songwriters almost-but-not-quite invading the other’s territory. Few people, one imagines, would ever hold up one of these albums as a true rival to Another Music in Another Kitchen or Love Bites, the first two albums from 1977/78. But in terms of solidity and, to an extent, an aversion to either novelty or space-filling jams, they are certainly stronger.

Of course, all bets are off as we confront disc seven. Subtitled A Different Compilation, it is the sound of the Buzzcocks readdressing their past from a couple of decades on, learning the lessons that both hindsight and however many live renditions had taught them, and what the likes of “Noise Annoys” “Oh Shit,” “Whatever Happened To” and “Ever Fallen In Love” lose in terms of freshness, they gain as true rock classics.

At their best, the Buzzcocks were one of the national treasures of punk-and-thereafter. We will never see their like again, but at least we can hear the whole story.

2

Kursaal Flyers

Little Does She Know

(RPM)

There was a moment… longer than a moment, in fact… when the Kursaal Flyers were threatening to become one of the break-out bands of the mid-1970s.

Born in Southend, from whose biggest seafront attraction they took their name, the Kursaals started life with two albums on Jonathan King’s UK label, which swiftly painted them as worthy successors to the company’s last great find, 10cc. And, in Will Birch, they certainly had a songwriter who could match any of the more lauded young pensmiths who were simultaneously rising up through the pub rock ranks.

That was proven when the Kursaals scored a 1976 hit with the opening cut from their third album, “Little Does She Know”… and then…. Oh, there’s probably a thousand reasons why the Kursaals never went on to greater glories, but while the sudden interruption of punk rock is probably the most cliched one of all, it’s also true that the Kursaals weren’t the only somewhat theatrical, vaguely flamboyant, delightfully melodic and all-round intriguing band of that era to suddenly fall from favour once the safety pins started flying. They all did.

The Kursaals took the hint, bowing out with what remains one of the great live albums of the mid-late 1970s, and not making another sound until a 1988 reunion album that was so wryly titled, A Formed Tour de Force is Forced to Tour.

All five albums are included in this box, together with a booklet that tells the entire story with all its highs and lows. Bonus tracks round up non-album singles, live cuts and out-takes, while disc four wraps up with a 1975 radio session that truly captures the Kursaals at their peak. What a glorious box set this is.

3

various artists

Surrender to the Rhythm: The London Pub Rock Scene of the Seventies

(Grapefruit)

First things first. No way on earth do Status Quo, Mott the Hoople, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Byzantium, Fox, Think Lizzy, the Heavy Metal Kids, the Jam, the Pleasers, the Merton Parkas and, heaven help us, Squeeze belong on a pub rock compilation. Not unless going to the pub is the same as spending great swathes of your career playing in a pub, and we can probably take exception to Chis Rea, too.

But that aside, and putting away our copy of the last great pub rock anthology, from EMI in the 1990s, Surrender to the Rhythm is probably the last word we could ever want to hear on a genre that history seems to have crunched into a boozy after thought, but which in reality was the most fun you could have by saying “oh yes, I’m definitely over eighteen” in a deep voice on a Friday night.

All of the key acts are here, and three CDs, seventy-plus tracks, mean they more than outweigh those peculiar gatecrashers. The Feelgoods, the Kilburns, the Hot Rods, the Kursaals, Brett Marvin, Eggs Over Easy, Brinsley Schwarz, Roogalator and, a few tracks earlier, frontman Danny Adler’s Smooth Loser predecessors, and Supercharge… Spin Cycle’s own pick of the bunch, on the strength of so many nights spent in dark, smokey pubs while Albie and the gang mashed high octane funk with low-brow humor, and turned “Save Your Kisses For Me” into a memory to be cherished.

Great choice of songs, too. Ian Gomm’s brooding take on Chuck Berry’s “Come On,” Bees Make Honey playing “My Funny Valentine,” Ducks Deluxe’s “Heart on my Sleeve” and frontman, the late Sean Tyla, popping up later with his Gang.

We hear Graham Parker kick through a live “Back to Schooldays” and Dave Edmunds, who was a godfather of the whole scene without ever actually playing the circuit, offers up a couple of numbers. Cado Belle, fronted by the magnificent Maggie Riley, Chilli Willie and the Red Hot Peppers, Starry Eyed and Laughing, Ace….

Yes, things do get a little weird towards the end as the likes of Darts, Chris Rea, Sniff ’n’ the Tears and the Fabulous Poodles start snapping at the originators’ ankles. But the always excellent Philip Rambow kicks out “Young Lust” like a lover, and the Inmates’ “Dirty Water” threatens to launch a whole new Pub Rock movement just as the third disc ends.

A magnificent package, then, full of magnificent music. If you were there the first time, it’s a lot of what you yourself might have chosen. And if you weren’t, pick up a pint, light a ciggy, grab a space at the front, and please try not to sweat in my beer. All aboard!

4

Be Bop Deluxe

Axe Victim

(Esoteric)

The Be Bop back catalog rolls back to its beginnings with a beautifully remastered edition of their 1974 debut album, and what can there possibly be left to say about it?

It might not be Be Bop’s classic (that was probably Sunburst Finish), it might not even have their best cover (that, too, was Sunburst Finish). But it’s a close second in both departments and, besides, any group who choose to open their very first album with the words…

“You came to watch the band

“To see us play our part

“We hoped you’d lend an ear

“You hoped we’d dress like tarts….”

… well, what do you think? If that’s how you’re going to treat your glam rocking audience, you have to have something special to back it up with. And Be Bop did.

Seven bonus tracks are spread across the two disc package, alongside a new stereo mix of the album… which may or may not be a good thing; the original sounded so perfect (and has been remastered so well) that it’s hard to regard the remix as much more than a curio. Especially when the four disc version packs another eleven unreleased goodies onto disc three, then throws in a 5.1 mix, a sixty-eight page booklet and sundry posters and postcards too.

Whichever you go for, though, Axe Victim remains one of the most audacious and even alarming debut albums of its age, and a thrilling, chilling reminder that not all glam rock was actually glamorous. You look at this bunch in make-up and you’d probably cross the road.

5

Junior Byles

Beat Down Babylon

(Doctor Bird)

Junior Byles was one of the greatest vocalists ever to come out of Jamaica and, at his best - which this album is certainly a part of - he was responsible for some of its greatest music. Beat Down Babylon itself was produced by Lee Perry in 1972 and, aside from the killer title track, packs “A Place Called Africa,” “Demonstration (and Protest)” and “Festival Da-Da” into the grooves as well.

And that’s just the beginning. Two CDs file forty bonus tracks onto the album, tracing Byles throughout the first half of the 1970s via single after single after single. Some are familiar - “Curly Locks’ is another of those Byles songs that everyone should know. But great lumps of the track listing were never even released in the UK, and that includes joys like “Rasta No Pickpocket,” “Rub Up Fstival 71,” “Ungrateful Skank” and “Another Moses.”

Missing, of course, is “Fade Away,” recorded just outside this album’s 1975 cut-off point, and probably his other best known number. But with so many other songs, dubs, versions and hits to listen through, it’s not an omission you’ll spend much time bemoaning. Rather, you’ll be reading the liners and regretting that Byles did not spend even more time in the studio before mental health issues began dragging him down. For, on the evidence of this, there seriously was no-one who could touch him.

6

various

Roots Rock Reggae

(Doctor Bird)

A two CD reissue for what must be one of the most undeservedly lost reggae compilations of the late seventies roots era, spun out of Phil Mathias’s Big Phil label with the likes of Cornel Campbell, the In Crowd, Sugar Minott, Jah Stitch and Leroy Smart all present and correct.

Neither is that it. From there, the two CD package takes us on a guided tour of the rest of Mathias’s production output, focussing now on the 12-inch mixes that rarely came out in the UK, and sometimes didn’t see the light of day at all. And they’re good.

Bim Sherman is probably the best-known name here, with four tracks among the bonuses. But dig deeper and you’ll find Tony Tuff, Freddie McKay, Leroy Brown and Trinity. And still there’s room, for Fil Callender, the Blood Relatives, Jah Ruby and the Majestrians, none of whom are household names… but all of whom might be, if you play their contributions loud enough.

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