In August 1966, “God Only Knows”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “I Want You” and “River Deep, Mountain High” were all singles in the Top Twenty. These are four exceptional songs emanating from genius artists. The sort of songs that don’t come along very often and to have four in the Top Twenty at once shows what an outstanding time this was for popular music. There were sixteen other songs in the Top Twenty. These include songs by Chris Farlowe, Chris Montez, Los Bravos, Dave Berry, Petula Clark, Georgie Fame, Gene Pitney and Alan Price. All of these eight songs were good but not exceptional. Good solid pop songs. Well produced. Well sung. Good melody. Catchy chorus. A hook to draw you in. About three minutes long. Pop music at its best. Popular music.
Plenty of artists have produced good pop songs but never had a Top Twenty hit. The success or failure of a single has always been down to a combination of marketing and luck. Of course, Brinsley Schwarz were no strangers to marketing ploys with their first album having been promoted by their record company flying British journalists to New York to see the group opening for Van Morrison. Visa problems for the group and vast alcohol consumption by the journalists led to a disastrous set of reviews in the music papers and the group vowed to “make it real” in the future. They refused to go on “Top Of The Pops” because they wouldn’t mime and they manipulated the producers on “The Old Grey Whistle Test” to letting them play live. The history of the group probably meant that they were never destined to become well known despite the awesome pop quality of their songs.
I’ve been talking to Andy about pop music. He and I have a lot of musical tastes in common which started in 1966 with a shared love of The Beatles. I’ve already written about that long Summer afternoon in 1969 beating him at table tennis listening to “Never Comes The Day” by The Moody Blues over and over. Every year for the past ten years we have been to see The Bootleg Beatles. It’s too tempting to dismiss a tribute band but I can’t recommend The Bootleg Beatles too highly. They are very very good. Their versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “I Am The Walrus” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are unbelievably good. I know it’s not authentic but that doesn’t spoil my enjoyment. I’m reminded of a friend of mine who recently told me that he is currently finding Premier League football a bit sterile when he watches it without the fake crowd noise. Authenticity is over rated. Discuss. Mine’s a pint.
As I said, I was talking to Andy about pop music and having read something that I wrote some time ago, we were discussing my predilection to dismiss music simply because it’s popular. Obviously I don’t dismiss all music that is popular otherwise I wouldn’t still be listening to The Beatles fifty years after they split up. However, I’ve written before that my instincts with current music is to dismiss it if it’s very popular. A big breakthrough was my late appreciation of “Folklore” by Taylor Swift. Andy likes the music of Adele and I’ve always dismissed it by describing it as overproduced torch songs catering to people don’t like music. I have too much respect for Andy to continue with this attitude and I am vowing to listen to Adele more over the next few weeks.
So there’s some great pop music which gets recognised and successful and there’s other great pop music which is totally ignored. An example of the latter is “The New Favourites Of Brinsley Schwarz” which contains ten magnificent pop songs which, with different circumstances could have made them bigger than 10cc.
There’s an apocryphal story that Nick Lowe, who wrote “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding” had no idea that Curtis Stigers’ version of this song was on the soundtrack album of “The Bodyguard” which sold seventeen million copies. He is supposed to have been astonished to open his mail one day to find a royalty cheque for over a million dollars.
“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding” starts the album and although Elvis Costello’s version is more widely known, this is better, with a jangly guitar introduction, rambunctious drumming from Billy Rankin, sensational harmonies and the cheeky cheery vocals of Nick Lowe. A great start. “Ever Since You’re Gone” is more reflective, quieter, slower. A sad song of melancholy and loss sweetened by Nick Lowe’s humourous lyrics. “Ever since you’re gone I’m losing out ‘cos I’m always in“. There’s swell of harmonies leading to the chorus which include a call and response line (“Please change your mind before I lose mine“) followed by a lovely saxophone solo. 10cc and Gerry Baker had hits in the Seventies with a very similar sound. “The Ugly Things” has Nick Lowe’s vocals very high in the mix and in many ways is a perfect pop song. There’s no novelty value like “Pictures Of Lily”, no experimental sounds like “Strawberry Fields Forever”, no weird vocals like “Sugar Sugar”. It’s perfectly constructed with a great simple guitar solo by Brinsley Schwarz. (It’s quite confusing to write accurately when the group and a member of the group share the same name. This guitar solo wasn’t played by the whole of the group – it was played by one man). They followed The Band’s mantra of feeling that the notes they left out were more important than the notes they played.
“I Got The Real Thing” was written by Nick Lowe and Ian Gomm. At one point, these two decided to make a songwriting partnership in the manner of John Lennon and Paul McCartney insofar as every song would be credited to Lowe-Gomm regardless of who actually wrote it. However, in the end they decided to only show Lowe-Gomm if it was a genuine collaboration. Ian Gomm regretted this decision when the million dollar cheque went straight to Nick Lowe. This song features excellent piano from Bob Andrews. “The Look That’s In Your Eye Tonight” finishes Side One and is a superbly played ballad. Nick Lowe’s versatile voice is as much at home with a slow ballad as a rocker. Many years later, Nick Lowe perfected this type of song on “The Impossible Bird”.
Brinsley Schwarz split a year after the release of this album. A couple of years later Nick Lowe, reflecting on this album claimed that they had put all the good songs on one side and all the weaker songs on the other side. This worried me at the time and worries me to this day. Which side does he think contains weak songs? I have no idea. All ten songs are wonderful. Side Two starts with a bang, a two minute rocker called “Now’s The Time” which is a great song, written by Alan Clark and Graham Nash of The Hollies. “Small Town, Big City” follows and is a hoot. Brinsley Schwarz plays a very soulful saxophone throughout the song as Nick Lowe sings a song about leaving, er, a small town to leave for, you guessed it, a big city. The best song on the album, in my opinion is “Trying To Live My Life Without You” which adopts a reggae style which they had used previously on their previous album with a song called “Why Do We Hurt the One We Love” which is equally sensational. “Trying To Live My Life Without You” was written by Larry Williams who also wrote “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”, “Bad Boy” and “Leave My Kitten Alone” which were all covered by The Beatles. The connection with the world’s most famous group doesn’t stop there as it’s interesting to note that Paul McCartney invited Brinsley Schwarz to open for the first two Wings tours. Ian Gomm claims that it was in a late night jam session after a gig that he convinced Paul McCartney to include Beatles’ songs in the Wings’ sets. Otis Clay made a well known version of the song in 1973.
“I Like You, I Don’t Love You” follows and is very much in the style of Geno Washington. How come Dexy’s Midnight Runners could copy Geno Washington’s style and have a huge hit whereas Brinsley Schwarz were completely ignored? This amazing album finishes with a really funny song called “Down In The Dive”. Sound effects give the impression that this studio recording is performed live in front of an audience. More great saxophone, more soulful vocals and some great lyrics. The Dive is clearly somewhere brilliant. It’s a place for “all the coolest cats in town” at which point all the cool cats sing “yeah“. The song ends with the song’s main riff repeated over and over as Nick Lowe gives instructions to his girlfriend to get ready for a wonderful night out at The Dive. He is going to pick her up at eight “and I don’t want you to be late“. I always loved this song, mainly because the grotty Union Bar at Worcester Teacher Training College was called The Dive. “It’s gonna really blow your mind, mister when you find, there’s three girls to every guy down in The Dive.” That was only true in my dreams.