Friday, 8 October 2021

The Shoebox Files #5: The Zombies


This is about The Zombies’ ‘Leave Me Be’, and about how memories won’t leave us be. The song itself appears towards the end of the fifth mix in the The Shoebox Selections series, bookended by The Sea and Cake’s ‘The Ravine’ and Jimmy Holiday’s ‘Would You Like to Love Me’, which is about as good as it can get. It is a quite impossibly beautiful sequence, and if anyone ever asks what I achieved in life or what good I did in the darkest days of 2021, then it would be more than reasonable to point to this holy trinity of softness, yearning and melodic bliss.

Do I need to spell out how exceptional a song ‘Leave Me Be’ is? It speaks for itself, surely? What has bothered me is why I had the CD this appears on stowed away in a shoebox at the back of a cupboard. I don’t know. I suspect it’s because it is one of an absurd 17 bonus tracks on a Repertoire digipak CD reissue of The Zombies’ first American LP, and as such it has always seemed wrong. There is something about context informing how we hear things, and there is a big thing about how we first consume something feeling like the right way forever more.

I first heard ‘Leave Me Be’ as the third track on a compilation of The Zombies’ Decca singles, which came out in 1976 as part of a series called Rock Roots. It is an absolutely incredible collection, from ‘She’s Not There’ through to the gorgeous cover of Little Anthony & the Imperials’ ‘Goin’ Out of My Head’. The sleevenotes are by Jonh Ingham who was writing for Sounds at the time, and he mentions how The Zombies left Decca to record Odessey & Oracle, “one of the finest statements to emerge from the late sixties”. This was the first reference I would have seen to this treasure, which I bought many years later, on another Repertoire CD, with only 16 bonus tracks this time.

Jonh, and this was also when he was documenting the early punk scene, talks of The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone having one of the “most subliminal, haunting voices”. I guess I first fell in love with his singing as a kid, back when one of the familiar Radio 2 staples was Colin’s gorgeous hit, ‘Say You Don’t Mind’. Many years later that was the reason I bought a CD of his 1971 solo set One Year which is one of the truly great LPs for me, and I think Chris Gunning’s arrangements are exquisite, particularly on the adventurous interpretation of ‘Misty Roses’, very definitely comparable with Nick Drake and Robert Kirby, or Claus Ogerman with Sinatra and Jobim. The wistful softness of Colin’s singing on that Zombies collection certainly connected when hearing Love and the Pale Fountains a little later.

I feel pretty sure I bought The Zombies’ Rock Roots in the branch of OK Records along Bexleyheath Broadway. That long-gone shop has been on my mind because of the absurdity of Jonny Trunk selling a t-shirt with the OK Records logo on, though he admits he knows nothing about the store. If it is our OK Records then the shirt should be orange which is what their plastic bags memorably were. In the interests of fairness, I should add that apparently there were also branches in nearby Welling and Dartford, but I do not recall ever going to either, and have no recollection they were even there.

My local OK was, well, okay. The cool place was Cloud 9, which was more or less directly opposite, and which I have written about before. That was the place I had an emotional link with. OK, for me, was just another shop. I can’t remember the staff or anything much about the window displays. I can recall going in there regularly in my teens, after school when I popped out for a bit of shopping, so I guess we’re speaking 1978-ish through to 1982 when I would have gone in there.  The chief attraction for me was its discount section, made up of what I now realise was old stock from elsewhere, surplus stock a few years old, vinyl and cassettes, remaindered or cut-out or whatever.

I developed the habit of taking a chance on a title in OK for one or two pounds, often filling in gaps in my musical knowledge. So, the sort of thing I bought there, dead cheap, ones which I recall, were the first Dr Buzzard’s Original ‘Savannah’ Band LP, and a Billie Holiday compilation, which had ‘Until the Real Thing Comes Along’ on which I loved, and I was delighted when a little later Tracey Thorn picked it for her NME ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer’ thing, and wondered if she had bought the same cheap collection. Here, I should add, you can sense the influence of Ian Penman writing about Torch Songs in the summer of 1980. What else? Oh, things I still have, like James Brown’s Soul Classics Vol. III, and War’s Greatest Hits. Haircut 100 were always talking about War in their early interviews, if I remember rightly.  

Another OK purchase, early on, was a Small Faces’ Rock Roots LP. Each title in the series featured an old Decca record player prominently on the front, and I would have played The Zombies and Small Faces sets on something similar, though mine was a Ferguson model, a Christmas present one year from my mum, the best gift ever. God, I played that Zombies LP so much, though I suspect I played the accompanying Small Faces title even more. This was also a collection of their Decca singles, and, as with The Zombies, this is what I, ahem, immediately think of when someone mentions the Small Faces. There wasn’t a lot else easily accessible for the young mod without means in 1979.

The Small Faces’ liner notes were written by Rosalind Russell, and I have a sneakin’ suspicion I read somewhere that the Purple Hearts got their name from her opening paragraph, which was about the original mod era. I could be making that up. Rosalind, at that time, wrote for Record Mirror, and she has the dubious honour of being the first music writer that I ‘followed’, as in looking out for her byline on a feature or her name on the reviews. I read Record Mirror a lot as a kid, and I guess from the summer of 1976 through to early 1978 it formed the perfect bridge from Look-In in my pre-teens to the more mature world of Sounds and the NME but never Melody Maker, except when they had a free Orange Juice flexi or Marine Girls on the cover.

Record Mirror was strange, really, back then, in the sense that it covered the pop spectrum. I like the fact that one week they would have Alessi on the front cover, and The Clash the next. Until very recently I didn’t realise that scans of the paper are available online. Over the years certain things have stuck in the mind about what I read back then, but I have always been terrified of having those memories shattered. Sometimes I have strongly suspected I made certain things up. Other times I have been almost alarmed at the way some curious piece of trivia has haunted me.

Let me give an example: I was a huge XTC fan when I was in my early teens, and I can recall Andy Partridge having a Top 10 of his favourites printed in Record Mirror about the time White Music came out in early 1978. For some reason I found it intoxicating because I didn’t have a clue who a number of choices even were, with the exception of The Ramones, and Can who I knew only through the hit ‘I Want More’. I have always had at the back of my mind that it was Andy I first saw mention Sergio Mendes, and rather worryingly it turns out I was right. Among his other choices were Judee Sill, U Roy, and Tony Williams’ Lifetime. And, trust me, most musicians’ ‘star choices’ were as dull as dishwater, although credit to Nick Lowe who chose Tobi Legend’s ‘Time Will Pass You By’ as his number one.

Another Rosalind Russell feature that stuck in my impressionable mind was a piece on ‘superfans’, which ran in the 4 March 1978 (my 14th birthday) edition, which had XTC on the cover. Part of the piece was about a group of kids who followed The Jam around. These were the Southend and Stratford Mods, and there was a great photo of them, as well as quotes from Grant Fleming, 17, who had just got a 50p mod three-button suit from a jumble sale. So, apart from Rosalind being light years ahead of Fred Vermorel, here was a mention of the mod revival a good year before it really took off. I am sure I am not alone in being smitten. I desperately wanted to be a mod too, even if I didn’t have a clue what it was all about then. So, yeah, that really stuck in the mind.

And, here is a nice postscript: early in the new millennium, when I was writing for the Tangents site regularly, I enthused about a new Small Hours anthology, and got a lovely response from their old bass player Kym Bradshaw, who had also been in The Saints. Interestingly, his email address was in the name of Rosalind Russell, which tickled me no end. I was tempted to reply and ask whether this was the same Rosalind who I loved when she was writing for Record Mirror, but guessed it was probably just a coincidence. It wasn’t: the Rock’s Back Pages profile for Rosalind mentions she’s married to Kym, so there you go.

Small Hours were a great band, actually. They very definitely provided the highlights of the Mods Mayday ’79 live album, and their three songs were reason enough to buy it (and yes I think it was in OK Records, which was unusual in itself for a new release), along with the gorgeous cover photo of Robert S. Lee on his Vespa. Not on the original compilation, but on an expanded CD edition, is Small Hours’ cover of Doris Duke’s ‘Can’t Do Without You’, which was also going to be a single, but characteristically they contrived not to release it. I mean, how cool can you get? You’ve got all these groups bumbling around covering the Velvets or Stooges, but Small Hours say: “Well, actually a bit of Doris Duke is more us really”. It works brilliantly, too, with singer Almond Hand sounding suitably Bobby Paris-like.

And, appropriately, Bobby’s immortal ‘I Walked Away’ is on Capitol Soul Casino, one of the great early Northern Soul compilations, which I remember getting in OK for a couple of quid. What else? Oh, lots of old soul and disco collections, which seemed to fit in with the new breed of eclecticism espoused by Orange Juice and Postcard Records who changed everything at the end of the summer of 1980. I remember getting a couple of Philadelphia Int. Records’ Phillybusters LPs in OK, thinking that fitted neatly with Postcard, the OJs, the O’Jays, and all that.

Then also dovetailing neatly with the Postcard or Orange Juice disco populism strand were the (still treasured) It’s All Platinum and All Platinum Gold compilations I got in OK for next-to-nothing. I guess part of the appeal was as a kid loving things like The Rimshots, The Moments (Laura Nyro knew!), the godlike Sylvia (Robinson), and The Whatnauts, who were all present on these collections. But it was some of the less familiar tracks that really got me, like Linda Jones’ astonishing ‘Your Precious Love’, which was a big John Peel favourite, Chuck Jackson’s ‘Love Lights’ (where I first heard the great man), Retta Young’s ‘(Sending Out An) S.O.S.’, Larry Saunders’ ‘On The Real Side’, Brother To Brother’s ‘In The Bottle’, and Calender’s incredible ‘Hypertension’ which I have a strong suspicion Edwyn Collins, appropriately enough, included in his ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer’ for the NME in 1981-ish. I could be wrong. All I remember is that there was this, or something similar All Platinum-related, plus a George McCrae song which was not ‘Rock Your Baby’, and Jack Kerouac’s The Town and The City. I am surely not clever enough to have made all that up?

Talking of having memories verified, while also on the theme of a punk and disco interface and that Postcard and mod revival ethos of “can’t dismiss what’s gone before, there’s foundations for us to explore”, then this is for the idiots who still write about punk in 1977 being at the opposite end of the spectrum to disco apart from Moroder/Space. You know what I’m talking about. All those books, all the documentaries. Well, in July 1977, when The Jam released ‘All Around The World’, it was raved about by the singles reviewer in Record Mirror, one Geoff Travis. I mean, there may be many people called Geoff Travis who were into cool music in 1977. I only know of one, but I have no idea if it is this one. It is where I first came across the name Geoff Travis. Why it should have stuck in my mind I have no idea, but whenever anyone mentioned Rough Trade I always wondered if Geoff did reviews for Record Mirror in 1977. I was too embarrassed to ever mention it or ask anyone, wondering if my memory was playing tricks.

It stuck in my mind because of that rave review of ‘All Around The World’, a record which changed my life. I first learned about it through this review, and the photo and Geoff’s words seized my imagination. Shortly afterwards I heard it on Noel Edmonds’ Radio 1 Breakfast Show, saw the group on Top of the Pops and, best of all, on the first of Marc Bolan’s TV shows. Oh boy, I read that singles review page over and over and over ’til I memorised it: “Paul Weller’s guitar explosion in the middle is like a quick journey to the centre of the earth”. It was Geoff’s single of the week and he insisted it would be a number one.

Another thing that stuck in the mind was Geoff’s enthusiasm for both punk and disco. So, in addition to The Jam, he froths about The Sylvers, Emotions, Isleys (“Ernie’s guitar streaking like a seagull into the sunset”), Silver Convention and Johnnie Taylor. He had kind words for Showaddywaddy’s take on Marv Johnson’s ‘You’ve Got What It Takes’ (a big favourite here at the time, I am not ashamed to say). He also raved about Snatch’s ‘Stanley’ / ‘I.R.T.’ Bomp import (“this pair are going to be stars”) and ‘This Perfect Day’ by The Saints who would in a few weeks also be on Top of the Pops, upstaging the Pistols, with Kym Bradshaw on bass and the studied boredom of the Harrington-clad Ed Kuepper. Geoff wrote about ‘This Perfect Day’ that “as the world’s most committed new wave soul fanatic I can only say it’s a shame this won’t ever get played in a US disco.” That all kind of destroys a whole host of enduring narratives, doesn’t it, whoever this Geoff Travis was?  Maybe, just occasionally, it’s a good thing that memories don’t leave us be.

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