The underlooked early presence of Arrival, the UK’s premier vocal front line, later becoming the core of Kokomo.
Release date: 21st January 2022
Label: Cherry Red Records
Premier vocal front line? That’s quite a claim, but one I stand by, unashamed, as you will be actually familiar with them, even if you don’t yet know it. With a frontline of, initially, four superb stand alone singers, a grittier fifth voice also available, it remains a source of some confusion that they never made a greater stamp than they did. Paddy McHugh and Frank Collins had been singing in and around Liverpool for some years, in Tamla covers group, the Excelles, initially with Frank’s twin sister, Maureen. When Maureen left, they enrolled Dyan Birch, becoming, eventually, a four piece, with Carrol Carter. However, to be a big fish in the Liverpool soul circles of the late 60’s wasn’t a viable option, necessitating a move to London. A chance contact with Tony Hall, an ex-Decca PR man captured his enthusiasm, and the band became signed up to his roster. Hooking up with that grittier additional voice, Tony O’Malley, on keyboards, and a rhythm section, and Arrival were born.
The first song past the post was Friends, written by then man of the moment, Terry Reid, released late in 1969 as their first single. Appearances on Top Of The Pops bolstered the sales into, just, the top ten, at number eight and they were off. I can actually recall the song from then, it imprinting on my twelve year old brain, making sure I kept out an ear for that sound again. The rest of what became their first eponymous album seemed to bypass me, as did a second single, I Will Survive, not that one, which attained a number sixteen. Listening now, I can sort of see the problem, the band challenged to produce an album of material on the back of the success of Friends. For however strong the vocal front line, which it clearly was, the songs were too similar in construction, so determined were the band to avoid any over reliance on cover versions. Highlights remain nonetheless; the opener, Live, benefitting from some driving hammond, which carries the momentum of the choral vocals, and the Birch sung Don’t Turn His Love Away, with a surprisingly modern heft of emotional weight. The covers, apart from Friends were Prove It, an Aretha Franklin deep cut, and venerable Doors staple, Light My Fire, the latter overwrought with additional instrumentation. More popular with critics than than the public, Decca passed on a second disc.
However, that was not the end of the band, even if it meant a change in management and the loss of Carrol and the rhythm section. With CBS at the helm, and a new set of musicians came a desire to do something a bit different. But the record company were demanding more of the same, which is what the also eponymous second album, Arrival, sounded like. Strong vocals, competent playing and songs just one or two hooks short of essential. Collins, having had to do most of the writing for the earlier record, had honed his writing to be that little bit tighter. Birch, having written a couple for the first and a co-write, contributed another one of each, with O’Malley also making his writing debut. The songs tend to be more overtly gospel derived than previously, Glory Be epitomising that trend. The sole cover, an old Patti Austin song, Family Tree, deserved to be a hit, a tour de force for the vocal onslaught, but somehow wasn’t. Had it slipped out, unannounced, without pack drill or promotion, one wonders whether it might have fared better, the cusp of the seventies expecting soul singers to look, well, more like soul singers. Elsewhere it just struggles to find any uniformity. Weary Sad, Weary Down sums it up, with just too many hints of other songs creeping in to take away the pleasure.
Tails between their legs, the residual four piece of Collins, McHugh, Birch and O’Malley were in retreat. A couple of further singles, including a version of Stevie Wonder’s He’s Misstra Know It All, limped out. It wasn’t, and isn’t bad, just sort of inessential. Arrival kept singing and kept playing, building up a residency at Kings’s Road club, the Pheasantry, jamming with the cream of London’s session men, the likes of ex-Grease Band alumni, Alan Spenner and Neil Hubbard, and sax man extraordinary Mel Collins. One week, as they arrived for their set, they noticed a sign announcing a new band: Kokomo. Thinking they had been ousted, it came as a surprise that their road manager had felt they needed a new name. And so, as Arrival left, so Kokomo came in, that tidal wave of vocals becoming just a little more widely known, and where I picked up the story.
This well put together package, from Cherry Red, includes both the two eponymous albums, each spread out with five extras apiece, to mop up the orphan singles and other tracks. (Jun appears here for the first time, it originally made as an advertising jingle for a Japanese clothing company.) More interestingly, and enticingly, is included a third disc of eleven BBC sessions, versions produced for TOTP and the like, which manage to be a little more vibrant than the studio versions, stripped back with the vocals seeming that much more vital. Light My Fire is the prime exemplar, here losing all the extraneous trills of flute, revealing, underneath, quite what a solid version it should and could have been. With a booklet that exhaustively outlines the genesis and revelations of the group, this adds up to an attractive package for fans and completists. With a better push behind them, with better production to buff up the songs, Arrival could have been huge, and should have been, a tale that seemed to then tell itself again with Kokomo. As singers, Birch and Collins continued to contribute as backing musicians, notably for Bryan Ferry, with Kokomo continuing, as an ad hoc arrangement to this day, even despite the 2020 death of Dyan Birch from chronic pulmonary disease.
Here is Friends, from TOTP…