Thursday, 28 October 2021

The Shoebox Files #6: Billy Fury


‘Things Are Changing’ by Billy Fury is a highlight of the seventh mix in the series of Shoebox Selections. It’s so good, with a lovely off-kilter Northern Soul feel, punchy horns, and the great man himself in fantastic moody form, especially where his voice drops down and he warns: “You’ll be lonely and you’ll cry”. This, here, however, is more a celebration of the decidedly dodgy compilation I first heard the track on. For, let’s face it, we all have a few desperately wrong cash-in collections we are ridiculously fond of despite what logic tells us.

This particular one, … At His Best, is a Billy Fury double-CD from the start of the new millennium, which I remember buying locally for 50p ages ago in a now long-gone Salvation Army charity shop called The Booth. You used to be able to get some great stuff in there from time to time. Anyway, the first CD in the set was pretty much what you would expect, albeit the reworked late-1970s K-Tel variations, which reminds me of an elderly couple I heard arguing in the Cancer Research one day. The chap was saying that you see loads of different Matt Monro compilations but they all have the same tracks on. His wife told him to stop moaning, to which he replied: “It would just be nice to hear some of the other things he did rather than the same ones all the time”. She walked off saying: “Yeah, but they’re the ones people like. You just want to be different all the time”. The poor chap was left muttering to himself, shaking his head in despair. Life, eh?

He was talking about Matt though he could have been talking about Billy. But life is full of surprises, and the second CD of that Billy … At His Best set certainly took me unawares. There were no clues, no explanatory notes, no context setting, just a whole load of disorientating tracks mostly from the singer’s fascinatingly lean years in the dogdays of the 1960s, drawing heavily on his Parlophone singles, post-fickle fatal fame. The track that tickled us at home was Billy’s own song ‘Phone Box’ (a Vic Coppersmith-Heaven production!) which is hilarious in a surreal nursery rhyme way with its absurdly catchy “the monkey’s in the jam jar” refrain. I mean, what’s that all about? Is it rhyming slang or Edward Lear nonsense? Or simply of its time? It’s glorious nevertheless. And there are many more wonders on that unprepossessing CD from the singer’s wilderness years.

To put it mildly, Billy’s back catalogue seems to be in a right old state, far messier than The Fall’s even. Over the years, intermittently, I have had great fun piecing together the provenance of that CD’s contents, which has been an occasional obsession. And it seems that, amid all the scrappy posthumous cash-ins, that second CD has forebears. The same track listing was issued earlier as a Magnum Force budget CD release called aptly Rough Diamonds and Pure Gems. This in turn collects tracks from two LPs released after Billy’s death in 1983, Loving You and Sticks ’n’ Stones.

These collections each contain illogical but often wonderful selections, including a number of superb recordings that didn’t come out in Billy’s lifetime. They really are a mess, though, in terms of the songwriting credits, which doesn’t really help. So, for example, the fantastic ‘Day by Day’ is credited to Stephen Schwartz on this CD, but it’s not that one from Godspell. It’s got great Latin percussion, and a real Gospel meets boogaloo feel to it. It’s quite incredible, and could easily have been a Jazzman 7”. It should be a dancefloor favourite, but I have no idea if it is. I still don’t know who wrote it, but I have a feeling I should.

As for the gloriously soulful ‘Things Are Changing’ (and Billy always seemed more instinctively in touch with the sound of young Black America than his r’n’r contemporaries in the UK), it is credited to Singleton on this CD, but as it was a Parlophone b-side in 1967 it’s easy enough now to ascertain that it was composed by the team of Waller & Sheeley.  And that is Gordon Waller as in Peter & Gordon and Sheeley as in Sharon Sheeley of ‘Somethin’ Else’ by Eddie Cochran fame. Eddie and Sharon were very much in love, and that’s them in that glorious immortal photo, the one of a blonde Sharon sitting on the park bench with a gorgeous big semi-acoustic guitar as Eddie leans over and shows her the chords.

There are all sorts of connections between Sharon and Billy via Eddie Cochran. When Sharon joined Eddie towards the end of that fateful English tour in 1960, Billy Fury was part of the same package, and was apparently in awe of Eddie and seriously smitten with Sharon. Well, why wouldn’t you be? After that dreadful car crash in which Eddie died, Sharon spent a long time in hospital with a devoted Billy being incredibly kind and supportive, both then and later. These things matter in life, don’t they? And, my goodness, how all that must have affected Billy deeply.

As part of her rehabilitation back in the States Sharon started writing songs with the godlike and then very young Jackie DeShannon, and theirs was a pioneering partnership in the emerging pop context. There is a fantastic Ace CD of ‘The Songs of Jackie DeShannon 1961-1967’ which features many compositions by Jackie and Sharon, and includes a striking 1963 photo of them both, with Sharon looking particularly cool in a striped top. That CD is named after ‘Break-A-Way’, the song they wrote and which Irma Thomas recorded so wonderfully, and which much later Tracey Ullman had a big hit with. There are so many gems included in this collection.

In an age where you have streaming at one end of a spectrum and overpriced vinyl releases at the other there is something so wonderful about the continuing presence in our lives of CDs released by the Ace organisation (including our beloved Kent label) with their informative liner notes written by experts like Mick Patrick and Tony Rounce, people who are heroes here. There’s another Ace CD, You Won’t Forget Me, the first in a series of collections of Jackie DeShannon’s Liberty singles. This features several of the songs she wrote with Sharon Sheeley, some of which are excellent, like the title track and the irresistible ‘The Prince’ which is a great example of how Jackie had that grrr in her voice, a bit of an edge, an unusual rawness for the time she and Sharon were writing together, what Nik Cohn called the Highschool era. Indeed, Jackie is a good barometer for where the action was in the 1960s, from rock ’n’ roll to soul, from folk to Bacharach & David, from folk rock to the dawning of the Laurel Canyon age.

If you read the booklets accompanying these Ace CDs Jackie refers to the sheer quantity of songs she and Sharon wrote and the high quality of the demos made for these, featuring several musicians and singers who would become revered names, like Glen Campbell, David Gates, Leon Russell, and Hal Blaine. Some of these demos of Jackie and Sharon’s songs feature on an odd CD called In Search of the American Dream, which was released by Magnum Force (again), and what little information there is raises more questions than it answers. It’s billed as ‘Unreleased Masters from the Early 1960s’ but certainly features tracks by Sharon and songwriting partners from later in the decade.

The interesting thing is, and this may well be pure coincidence, that with featured vocalists like P.J. Proby (whom Sharon named) and Mac Davis, and with a focus on moody, dramatic ballads, it is tempting to imagine that if Eddie Cochran had lived, he would have recorded these songs. They would certainly suit him. They would certainly have suited Billy Fury too, though the only Sharon Sheeley and Jackie DeShannon song I know he recorded was ‘I Must Be Dreaming’. There may be others. That CD of Sharon Sheeley songs would later be reissued in a slightly expanded form by RPM. They presumably did a far better job of presentation and annotation. They certainly did with the wonderful swathe of Jackie DeShannon CDs they released early in the new millennium. I wish there were RPM or Ace editions of the later 1960s Billy Fury recordings. Maybe there are. It’s difficult to keep up, sometimes.

There is, at least, a Peaksoft CD of Billy Fury’s complete Parlophone singles, which I find fascinating. It is so easy to lose track of time in the sense that Billy was only six months older than John Lennon, but he almost seems to be from a different era, having been a star so young. On this CD you get a sense of an artist being pulled in several different directions at once, unsure where to turn, who to be.  There was a natural propensity for change, an ability for adapting. I was going to mention paisley pop but remembered him in a Ready Steady Go! clip from 1964 with a fantastic paisley button-down shirt, so he was ahead of his time there.

While with Parlophone, Billy’s adventurous stuff was offset by a pragmatic, perhaps even desperate, pressure (presumably from management or record company sources) to be commercially successful again. I certainly won’t pretend all the recordings from that era are fantastic: they’re not, by any stretch of the imagination. But there is some really great stuff and some genuinely surprising stuff, like the cover of David Bowie’s ‘Little Boy Blue’ and three tracks from the Carole King / The City Now That Everything’s Been Said set. Now how cool is that?

There must have been also a desire not to alienate Billy’s old audience, and another feature of the Parlophone-years was a certain forlorn harking back to the golden age of rock ’n’ roll, which actually was an ever-present feature of the 1960s if you read the excellent Norman Jopling book. So, Billy ended the decade recording a number of Buddy Holly and Elvis classics, plus a cracking cover of Tommy Roe’s ‘Sheila’ which has an opening which is pure-Orange Juice c.1980.

One particular highlight of the Parlophone years is the born-again roots rocker ‘All the Way to the USA’ which is pure proto-1970s Status Quo pop: time to put your thumbs in your belt and drop that shoulder.  The sound of a pre-teen youth club disco, with not a guitar solo in sight, thank Christ: glorious stuff. The song itself was composed by Jimmy Campbell, and is one of several written by him that Billy recorded. Another of his Parlophone singles was Jimmy’s ‘I Call for My Rose’, which is quite beautiful.

Among the ‘lost’ recordings on this beloved messy CD are a few more Jimmy Campbell songs which Billy sang, though the credits give no indication of this. There is a beautiful sequence where the singer’s own ‘I Love You’, gentle psychedelia which could almost be another lost demo from The Action in their final days, is bookended by Jimmy’s ‘In My Room’ and ‘Lyanna’, forming a trio of recordings as good as anyone has ever done, and yet these were never heard until Billy was long gone. What a world!

Both ‘In My Room’ and ‘Lyanna’ are so incredibly sad and moving, and Billy’s performance seems to add layers of strangeness, despair and pain. I don’t know. I could be biased because I heard Billy’s versions first, and for me they fit Billy, with his reclusive tendencies, his innate shyness, his modesty, his gentleness, his persistent ill-health, his latter-day bad luck. So, oddly, this funny old CD was also my ‘way in’ to the world of Jimmy Campbell, an incredibly talented singer and songwriter who nevertheless initially made me think of George Formby at times. Jimmy, for me, was an acquired taste, but so often acquired tastes prove to have more durability than instant passions.

There is a clip of Jimmy performing on a BBC TV show, Disco 2, promoting his Half Baked LP, which I find so incredibly affecting and addictive, with just Jimmy sitting there with his guitar, lost in his own world, performing ‘In My Room’, ‘Closing Down The Shop’, and ‘Forever Grateful’, seemingly so self-deprecating, slightly sardonic, secretly amused. Of late I have been listening to Half Baked and Jimmy Campbell’s Album (and I adore that record’s cover) such a lot, partly thanks to rediscovering this Billy Fury set. Jimmy wrote such incredibly vivid first-person narratives, which could be short stories, or even monologues, bringing us back to the tradition of Music Hall, vaudeville and variety, rather like Ray Davies in that sense, though The Kinks’ songs were more often observational third-person tales.

Sure, there may have been practical reasons why Billy Fury recorded Jimmy Campbell songs. They both were from Liverpool, and they shared a manager, but you’d like to think it goes far deeper than that, and that Billy felt some emotional and creative connection. It is also tempting to imagine a record made up entirely of Billy singing Jimmy’s songs. Would there be enough? Probably, yes, if you include alternative versions. I don’t know, really. On this shoddy but precious CD there is also the gloriously frazzled ‘Going Back to Germany’, and on another Peaksoft release (The Lost Album) there’s Billy singing a few more Campbell compositions, including the superb ‘That’s Right, That’s Me’ (which seems to invent Shaun Ryder’s Happy Mondays persona) and ‘Green-Eyed American Actress’. It’s easy to talk about Jimmy Campbell’s misfortune, but the crazy thing is there wasn’t really a new Billy Fury LP after 1963 and yet there are so many great recordings he made after that time. Now that’s misfortune.

Speaking of which, among the gems on Billy’s Lost Album is ‘Reach Out for Your Loving Touch’, a lovely beat ballad (with a bizarre hint of ‘Femme Fatale’ to these cloth ears), which is a Macaulay and Paul composition, so presumably that’s Tony Macaulay and Don Paul. Is this the Don Paul who produced Jimmy Campbell’s Half Baked? And also produced Julie Covington’s lovely The Beautiful Changes around the same time?  With that gorgeous arrangement by Nick Harrison on Julie’s ‘The Magic Wasn’t There’. Yeah? So, in which case, is it safe to assume that’s the same Nick who did the arrangements on some of the Half Baked tracks, like ‘In My Room’? I mean, these things matter, don’t they? These connections count. To some of us, at least. And, it’s always fun joining the dots, working things out for yourself, which is something you have to do when the information is not there, like on this treasured mess of a CD which I keep on about.

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