DCSIMG

The bands that time forgot

BACK in the decade that taste forgot, boys and girls dressed to kill fashion sense stone dead, fell unforgivably in love with the mullet, and for the most part acted like the cool liberation that was the 1960s never happened. The 1970s may not rank alongside humanity’s greatest crimes, but they’re not far behind.

This was an era in which pop stars were a vision to behold: dressed in spangled, glittering costumes and teetering atop platform boots, hair carefully feather-cut and back-combed. And that was just the women; the men were truly spectacular: princely peacocks sporting eye-shadow, lipstick, funny-shaped guitars and bad teeth. It was a truly horrible spectacle, but their saving grace, if they had one, was this: they sang songs so irritatingly catchy they made a chewing gum jingle sound like a Mahler symphony.

The Seventies spawned a rash of hit-makers who scampered quickly across rock’s gnarly face leaving scarcely a footprint. You’ve probably forgotten their names, so I’ll remind you. Middle Of The Road, who had a bubblegum sound - who could forget ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep?’ - sufficiently infectious to start a plague. Post-Bay City Rollers acts such as Slik and Pilot - these bands had aspirations beyond the teenybop audience, not that it stopped them dressing like the Oompa Loompas at Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Somewhere else altogether were Sailor, who dressed like, well, erm, sailors, and sang derivations of jolly shanties. Po-faced in the corner were aspirant serious artists like the Racing Cars, who had a hit with ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’, inspired by one of the most depressing movies ever made. And not to be outdone, the acting fraternity struck back with stabs at serious singer-songwriting from Brian Protheroe and Murray Head.

All, following their initial success, might justifiably have nurtured hopes of upwardly mobile, long-term careers. Alas, their downfall was looming. In 1977, a gobby upstart - punk - came swearing and spitting on to the scene. Those who failed to get out of the way were trampled underfoot. Suddenly, an entire scene of overdressed, cheesy, preening popsters seemed utterly, iredeemably, naff.

Glasgow band Middle Of The Road became decidedly less chirpy as the lack of demand meant their appearance fees become comparatively cheap cheap, and the fizz went out of Sailor’s ‘Glass Of Champagne’ as the band ground to a halt in 1978. The members of Pilot opted for lucrative session work rather than cope with the vagiaries of fickle pop-stardom, while Midge Ure cleverly reinvented himself as first a punk, then a rocker, followed by a new romantic, and buried the memory of Slik ‘Forever And Ever’.

Protheroe and Head returned to stage and screen while the Racing Cars were forced into the pits, with singer Monty earning a living as a backing vocalist with The Beach Boys, Tina Turner and Bryan Adams. The band did reform two years ago but, sadly, nobody seemed to notice.

Middle Of The Road with Sally Carr and two other original members still record, even if it is essentially reworkings of their three big hits, and enjoy a healthy following in Europe.

Bands like Sneeky Pete in Glasgow and Dan’s Band in Edinburgh suddenly found their days of packing clubs and pubs were behind them. And in Aberdeen, Pallas were no longer gallus.

So this week, when an apparently obscure Scottish group - the members of which are now all in their 50s - started court action against the latest chisel-cheek-boned boy band to toy with young girls’ hearts, it appears to be yet another chapter in this wonderfully tragi-comic story.

Especially when the cause of the upset is the appropriation of their name, ‘Blue’, under which they enjoyed a fleeting solitary chart success 25 years ago. Using the same moniker, the fresh-faced kids have recently notched up two number one singles.

The story is a sad indictment of the values now perhaps inevitably prevailing in the entertainment business. The new Blue - Duncan James, Antony Costa, Lee Ryan and Simon Webbe - went through the tough auditioning process now statutory if you want to be the principle marketing tool for other, invariably older, peoples’ songs.

With an average age of 21, their future is arguably in front of them, although statistics suggest it will not be in the pop business. Those querying that assumption are referred to anyone from Take That not called Robbie Williams and all of Boyzone except Ronan Keating. And for future reference, all of 5ive and Westlife - in all probability including the two that can actually sing.

Hugh Nicholson was only 21 when he joined Marmalade, a Scots band whose career had gone stellar with a chart topping Beatles cover called ‘Obla-Di-Obla-Da’, and had just repeated the feat with a song called ‘Reflections Of My Life’, written by the man he replaced, William ‘Junior’ Campbell. Even at that tender age, he had already served a pop apprenticeship with legendary Scots band The Poets, revered as Scotland’s premier beat group of the Sixties.

Three of Nicholson’s own compositions helped maintain the group’s chart profile, before he decided to quit after just 18 months. He did so to form Blue with Ian McMillan - another musician boasting a ‘Poetic’ background - believing that his musical vision could be better realised outwith Marmalade.

Signing to Robert Stigwood’s RSO label failed to bring that vision any more clearly into focus, but things finally clicked when they moved to Elton John’s fledgling Rocket Records. Blue’s instinctive knack for a simple melodic hook was there for all to hear in ‘Gonna Capture Your Heart’, which became both a turntable and an actual hit. Which is to say that radio could not stop playing it, and the public bought it as well - if not in knee-trembling numbers, sufficiently to suggest a rewarding and satisfying relationship was on the cards.

Blue had all the elements in place. Firstly, there was a tenuous Beatles connection through McMillan’s role in Trash Can, a.k.a. White Trash, who recorded for the Fab Four’s label, Apple. Secondly, there was a collection of self-penned material, perfectly pitched for a pop age where the harmonies of The Eagles and others were proving to be the ingredients for global success.

Blue were victims of the seismic shift that hit the British music industry in the mid-Seventies, which changed the way the pop industry worked forever. It was not just punk rock and the attendant philosophy that anyone could be a pop star, regardless of ability to actually play anything, but the simultaneous blossoming of independent labels and the economic sub-culture they created and from which they levered reasonable profits.

Hugh Nicholson’s brother Matt was looking after Blue’s affairs with Elton John’s manager, John Reid, and he recalls: "I said to John, if we don’t get this band out of the country with all this happening, they are going to split up."

Reid concurred, and Blue relocated to Los Angeles, where their musical credentials were endorsed by being invited to open for The Band at the legendary Roxy. Greater things failed to materialise, although the group remained on the American west coast until 1983, by which time punk had eaten itself but had also spawned music trends even more fad-obsessed and transitory.

They were not the only ones to have the ground disappear from beneath their feet. Fellow Scots Cafe Jacques had acquired a healthy following with their hybrid of white soul and new wave, and Epic Records offered them a recording contract in 1976.

Bruce Findlay, then running his own retail chain and later in a management role with Simple Minds and The Silencers, was sufficiently impressed to get involved with the band at that level. "With hindsight, it is obvious that the timing was all wrong," he says. "We signed to the label just weeks before their sister label, CBS, signed The Clash. No more need be said."

Two years earlier, having Phil Collins making a guest appearance on your record might have been the cherry on the cake for a band putting a first hesitant foot on the ladder to pop success. In 1977 it was like nailing a banana skin to every rung.

Cafe Jacques’s soul influences probably owed as much to the Average White Band as to the Motown and Stax labels, because the Perth/Kilmarnock combo had proved a Scottish outfit could play R ‘n’ B with the best of them, and be internationally successful in the process. The AWB topped both singles and album charts in the US, an extraordinary achievement which, for once in the field of creative endeavour, did not pass unnoticed at home.

Wrestling with the complexities of funk and soul rhythms on a bass guitar no longer seemed fruitless, and Scotland was awash with musicians craving similar levels of accomplishment. The second wave of this sophisticated soul and funk movement was Cado Belle, formed by keyboard player Stuart McKillop, but propelled to the brink of a major breakthrough by the voice of Maggie Reilly and the guitar-playing of Alan Darby.

One album and a 12-inch EP confirmed this potential, when they were blown away by the prevailing musical winds of 1977.

Phil Beer, a longstanding associate of the progressive rock icon Mike Oldfield, recalls the effect of the resulting fall-out. "Cado Belle were a smooth and sophisticated white soul band just breaking through when the punk thing happened, and they were sunk virtually overnight by the musical revolution of 1977. Stuart became a sought-after keyboard technician and came on the Mike Oldfield tour."

The connection held good for Maggie Reilly, who sang on Oldfield’s hit single, ‘Moonlight Shadow’, and with McKillop she still makes records which sell more than respectable quantities in Europe.

Talk of a musical revolution creates the impression that the real musicians of the era were rudely shoved to one side by snotty-nosed ingrates who could barely master three chords, but the truth is that punk actually had little commercial impact.

In fact, the best seller of 1977 was the tooth-rottingly sacharine ‘Don’t Give Up On Us Baby’ by David Soul, propelled to such a position thanks to his popularity as Hutch in the TV cop show.

It was rivaled only by Julie Covington womanfully refusing to cry for Argentina, Elvis Presley’s posthumous ‘Way Down’, and one of former Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth’s favourites in his younger days, Emerson Lake and Palmer’s ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’.

What punk and the independent labels did was to alter the structure of musicians’ career development, ironically blasting the first holes in the industry’s quality control ozone layer, and creating the climate for the manipulative marketing of the disposable acts which dominate the business today.

It sought to propagate the ethos that anyone could make music and release it themselves, but unfortunately the people who ultimately embraced the DIY philosophy were the management and record company executives.

Without the budgets to sign and develop ‘real’ groups, who wanted to spend money on irksome details such as instruments and amplifiers, it was time to go full circle and return to the entertainment business methods of the late-Fifties. Except now, rather than off the streets, talent would be plucked from stage schools, assembled into the most marketable combinations, and found the right songs to sing.

The stars are then put on a weekly wage and locked into a packed work schedule, with the real earners being the management, record companies, and composers. It is as though Tin Pan Alley has been scrubbed up and resurfaced to become the Pop Talent Cul De Sac.

What did not change was the ability of genuinely talented musicians and composers to continue to make a living, sacrificing the recognition they may still yearn for in exchange for immunity from the unforgiving glare of publicity.

"With what can you really equate success?" ponders Matt Nicholson, still managing his brother’s affairs with a mixture of admiration, informed wisdom and considered analysis.

"Is it money, fame and celebrity? Well, Hugh had all that with Marmalade 30 years ago, and chose to turn his back on it to pursue what he really wanted to do."

Following the recent embarrassing judgement passed on Liberty, the ensemble of Pop Stars losers astutely picked up by Richard Branson’s V2 label, which resulted in the group being forced to change their name to Liberty X, the original Blue camp could be forgiven for being quietly confident as they pursue their case in the courts.

"Despite writing to them when it first was brought to our attention, they chose to ignore it, which is all the more galling when you think that the band played at their [EMI’s] sales conference when we first signed to Elton John and Rocket, as he had a distribution deal with them at that time."

What goes around may well come around, with the smart money on a face and hassle-saving out of court settlement, but talking to Matt Nicholson, he convincingly conveys that it is the principle and not hitting the new Blue in their pockets that counts.

That principle is simple: since forming a band called Blue, the members have never stopped working, and have both the following and the recording studio in leafy Richmond to prove it. The appearance of a high-profile pop act using the same name has made it impossible for them to release their own records without confusing the public.

No teen sensations have yet fixed on the name Pilot, perhaps put off by that band’s more prominent profile in pop history. They enjoyed two sizeable hits with ‘Magic’ and ‘January’, before the musical tide became too strong to swim against.

More musically accomplished than the average chart fodder, Pilot members, and front man David Paton in particular, were in demand as session players even before the band broke up. If Paton missed the adulation, he has hidden it in a successful subsequent career which has seen him work with Elton John, Kate Bush, Jimmy Page, and The Alan Parsons Project. He also recently toured with Fish and the Donnie Munro Band.

Twenty five years after Pilot called it a day, Paton, who still lives in Edinburgh and has a studio in his garage, has reunited with guitarist Ian Bairnson to record a new album, The Blue Yonder. It is available from davidpaton.com, dispensing with the need for third parties - 5,000 copies have already been shipped to Japan.

And where are the other lost heroes of the 1970s? Alan Gorrie of the Average White Band lives in Connecticut, where he continues to monitor the progress of St Johnstone FC. He still tours with fellow founder member Onnie McIntyre from Kilmarnock.

Chris Thomson of Cafe Jacques lives in Edinburgh and still plays the occasional gig. Alan Darby of Cado Belle gets steady session guitar work, including at the Queen’s Gold Jubilee concert.

Blue’s Hugh Nicholson wrote Gary Numan’s ‘Radio Heart’ and other songs in the 1980s. Former Europe singer Joey Tempest has just recorded his solo album, due to for release this year.

Kenny Hyslop, drummer with Slik, went on to play with funk rockers Set The Tone and Simple Minds, as did Cafe Jacques drummer Mike Ogiltree.

So there has, indeed, been life after the decade that taste forgot. Over at recordlabel.co.uk, Blue are about to unleash a ‘best of’ collection called Blue 20. "All the tracks have been picked by fans, and we have had contributions from as far afield as Brazil and Japan," says Matt Nicholson.

 
 
 

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