Album Review

Surrender To The Rhythm – The London Pub Rock Scene of the 1970s: Album Review

Cherry Red Records have excelled themselves with this new 3CD compilation of the sounds which, collectively, comprised the London live music scene – the legendary London Pub Rock – of the mid 1970s. 

Release Date: 17th July 2020

Label: Cherry Red Records

Formats: 3CD digipak

The circumstances that spawned what would grow into a nationally recognised movement happened almost by chance.  American band, Eggs Over Easy, were in London to record an album in May 1971 and whilst there, they managed to secure a gig at Tally Ho pub in Kentish Town.  Legend has it that they were so well received that the doors of this previously ‘jazz only’ venue were flung open to other local and increasingly, nationally-known bands. 

Other large, mainly Victorian, pubs around North London quickly followed suit and a movement was born.  At the peak of the Pub Rock scene, quality live music was on show at venues such as The Hope and Anchor in Islington, The Kensington in Russell Gardens, The Nashville in West Kensington, The Dublin Castle in Camden Town and, further south, The Half Moons in Putney and Herne Hill.

This thriving scene offered opportunities for regular work with low expenses to many London-based bands, amongst them Ducks Deluxe and Bees Make Honey as well as veteran or established performers such as Brinsley Schwarz, Brewers Droop, Jo-Ann Kelly and Stray and to college circuit staples like Ace, Dr Feelgood and Fumble.  By 1975, a London pub was the place to go for night of guaranteed entertainment.

I’ve never believed that Pub Rock was a musical genre in its own right.  The mythology surrounding the movement has always suggested that the staple diet of the Pub Rock scene was ‘back to basics’ rock and roll, simple music for bopping along to which was a reaction to the growing flash and indulgent dexterity of prog, and which paved the way for the subsequent revolution that was Punk. 

In fact, as this collection testifies, Pub Rock encapsulated the widest possible selection of musical styles. The 12-bar rockers were present in abundance but on any night at any of the above venues it was possible to take in Beach Boys pop sounds, Reggae, Blue-Eyed Soul, Funk, Gospel, Country Rock or even the quirky Cockney doggerel of Kilburn and the High Roads.  Pub Rock was in reality, the music that arrived to fill the venues that had suddenly become available.

My own recollection of the period was that the audiences of the time were open to an eclectic choice of musical styles. Monday’s cross-legged Brain Salad Surgeon, Wednesday’s Cosmic Cowboy and Friday’s Rock and Roller were often the same person.  What the audiences wanted was readily available live music and the Pub Rock scene fulfilled this need to an abundance that had never previously been possible.

There are over four hours of music in this collection and the sheer variety of the sounds on offer is breathtaking.  I am also struck by the preponderance of talent that was around during the period covered by this collection.  A myth that has grown over the years is that Pub Rock’s reputation was as a live music format and many of the bands tried, and failed, to reproduce their live sound when it came round to the business of making albums. This myth is comprehensively dissolved by the quality of the music on offer in this collection.  The three discs are bursting with musicality, lush production and most importantly, enjoyment.

With 62 tracks for the listener to get stuck into, it’s a mammoth task to pick out the highlights, but I will have a go.  The inclusion of tracks by Thin Lizzy, Mott The Hoople, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Status Quo and Jess Roden, justified in the publicity pack by the statement that these bands had the same ‘spit ‘n’ sawdust’ mentality as the bands that played the scene is, in my view, somewhat superfluous. The songs are great, but the collection would not have suffered had they been excluded. Otherwise, the selection is generally an inspired one, with all aspects of this sprawling scene comprehensively covered.  The overall impression is of expertly executed songs, usually with tight, uncomplicated instrumentation, typically of around 3.5 minutes’ duration and no indulgent soloing.

CD1 gets off to a rocking start, giving a genuine indication of the treats to come, with Legend’s Cheque Book, a 60s-sounding 12-bar Rhythm and Blues number, which is followed by Eggs Over Easy’s (the band that started all this!) Funky But Clean, a wonderful piece of strutting funk.  Ex-Love Affair and Widowmaker man, Steve Ellis, contributes a piano/guitar-driven soulful rocker Have You Seen My Baby and from Brinsley Schwarz there is the tight, clean and excellent Surrender To The Rhythm, which of course, provided this collection with its title. 

Ducks Deluxe, once considered the band most likely to emerge from the Pub Rock scene as genuine superstars, are featured with Heart’s On My Sleeve, a song reminiscent of early Byrds and a contrast to the straight-ahead rock they were, perhaps more noted for. 

Reggae makes an appearance with Madman by GT Moore And The Reggae Guitars. Where Are You Tonight, a country ballad from Brewer’s Droop, includes a guitar solo which gives an indication of the future direction of the band’s guitarist, a young Mark Knopfler.  Other highlights from CD1 include We Get Along, a slice of tasteful, accomplished country rock from Chill Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, Money Is No Friend Of Mine from Starry Eyed And Laughing, which sounds more like Clarence White era Byrds that The Byrds did and, most especially, the phenomenal Billy Bentley (Promenades Himself In London) by the mighty Kilburn and the High Roads.  This cut, from the band’s Handsome album provides an early showcase for Ian Dury’s talent for quirky songwriting, and the instrumental backing is to die for.

Two thumps of a snare drum at the start of CD2 kick off She Does It Right from the phenomenal Dr Feelgood, the band that brought 70’s music back to Earth.  Wilco’s choppy guitar licks and Lee’s vocal growlings sound as fresh today as they did in 1975.  Masterful! 

Elvis Costello appears as singer in his pre-Attractions band, Flip City and their track, Imagination (Is A Powerful Deceiver) is an interesting insight to the work of a future legend.  Blues veteran, Jo-Ann Kelly chips in with Baby What You Want Me To Do, a tasteful honky-tonk blues with a lovely piano and string bass backing and The Kursaal Flyers countrified Yellow Socks from their Chocs Away album gives a taste of what was happening up at the Essex end of the Pub Rock scene. 

Elsewhere, Byzantium’s It Could Be Better is a tasty dollop of power pop and Writing On The Wall from Eddie And The Hot Rods is fast, furious, ‘ot and sweaty and, perhaps typifies best of all how Pub Rock has been remembered.

I’m not clear whether Cherry Red has intended to apply a theme to each of the discs in this collection, but it does appear that CD3 attempts to summarise where Pub Rock went next.  The disc includes tracks by ex-Pub Rockers who went on find some level of success outside the confines of the pub circuit (Chris Spedding, Gonzales, Cado Belle’s Maggie Reilly, Graham Parker and the Rumour, Darts etc) and performers who achieved success with that elusive Pub Rock ‘attitude’ without having necessarily been part of the original scene (The Jam, Chris Rea, Matchbox, Squeeze). 

Again, there are some cracking tracks on the disc, such as Chris Spedding’s Bedsit Girl, Elvis Costello’s Radio Sweetheart, Back To Schooldays, a live recording from Graham Parker and the Rumour and the Gospel Ain’t Nobody Own Nobody’s Soul from Clover. They’re all excellent songs, and they demonstrate what a fertile breeding ground the 1970s London Pub scene really was.

Surrender To The Rhythm is, to a great extent, a chronicle of my early 20s.  I was never fortunate enough to visit one of the pub venues when the scene was at its peak and I would study enviously the weekly ads in Melody Maker and try to picture what life would be like if I had such a range of accessible venues on my own doorstep. 

I did, however, get to see many of the bands that are featured in this collection and Dr Feelgood, Fumble, Supercharge, Byzantium, GT Moore and Chris Spedding at Bolton Institute of Technology, or Brinsley Schwarz and The Heavy Metal Kids at Manchester Hardrock. All are memories I cherish to this day.  Cherry Red has compiled an excellent memento of a truly innovative period in music. I heartily recommend that you give it a listen.

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