Canvey Island pop-pub-punks in their prime.
Release date: 13th October 2022
Label: Captain Oi! (Cherry Red)
Is there ever a more exciting sound than the sound of snotty-nosed and snotty-minded youth, equipped with electricity and a rudimentary talent? From the 50’s onward, and probably before, it seems there has never been much of a shortage of such; rowdy roustabouts intent on making a racket and having fun, it never quite going out of style. Yes, suppressed on occasions, only then to break back through, embracing a different movement, different clothes and haircuts but, hell, all essentially the same. Eddie and the Hot Rods were a prime example and, seizing their brief moment, they ran, with some of the most joyous songs you could ever hear, wrong on so many levels, yet so very, very right.
The early to mid 70’s were a funny old time, with, at one end of the scale, popular music getting ever more grandiose and self-important. As a response, the grassroots fought back with a resistance, pubs and clubs supporting an unsophisticated mash-up of rock and roll, rhythm and blues and country, with whatever else the cat might drag in, the point and purpose being short songs, catchy tunes and lifelike lyrics, all designed for dancing and good nights out. Pub-rock, and it was wonderful. Hot on the heels came the even messier birth of punk, which, to a degree, stole the thunder from the, often, slightly older and hairer denizens of pub-rock. Whilst many of those affected quietly held their ground and bided their time, ahead of re-inventing themselves in the threads of New Wave, Barrie Masters and crew just gritted their teeth and kept on plugging in and playing on. Seeming* just a little too old and incorrectly dressed for punk, hell, if it sounded like punk, and it did, that was good enough for them, with the charts agreeing soundly with that sentiment, if only up to a point. They were playing their fast r’n’b long before punk, so whose fault was it that the punks adopted that same velocity, playing the same way, if a little less well? Certainly not theirs, with this collection underpinning quite what a body of work they built up, many you will remember and many you will wish you had. This 2 disc box captures all their singles, pre, per and post punk, the energy and intent never diminishing one iota.(*Seeming, indeed; Masters, the face of the band, was younger than Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer and all of the Stranglers.)
Walloping out the traps with Writing On The Wall, sounding like the Pretty Things on speed, this prototype thrash is a frenzy of a surprisingly solid rhythm section, overpinned by searing harmonica and even a decent meat and potatoes guitar solo. plus the, is it the first glorious clatter of the falling downstairs in a wooden overcoat drum roll, so later ubiquitous across the punk piste. Masters’ vocal has all the spunky gravitas needed to convey the message, the rest delivered by the surety that his shirt, if not off, is certainly unbuttoned, sweat flying off his forehead, lank hair a’flapping. Cruisin’ (In the Lincoln), the flip, changes the script not a jot, apart from surprisingly melodic bass, and perpetuates the nonsense that Canvey Island was awash with big old vintage American cars. Of course it was, yeah, right! Another stonking harp solo, too, from, who else but Lew Lewis, who later made a name for himself and his own band. How could this not even bruise the charts?
Next out finds the somewhat anthemic Teenage Depression, bowdlerised for the single version, removing some of the lines more likely to bring about a ban, and, with the media, now including them in with their punkier uniformed brethren, taking the band to heart. 45 years on and counting, I can see why, it being a prime example of teenage angst in a little over two minutes, even if the lyrics, in hindsight, are a little bit Alberto Y Los Trios… Barrie Masters was 20 at the time, which isn’t actually too unreasonable in the scheme of things. Shake is cut from similar cloth with a slight rockabilly vibe to it, a cut and paste of many standard lyrical memes, along with a few new to me: “shake it like a bowl of soup,” anyone?
1977 saw Graeme Douglas, the ex-Kursaal Flyers guitarist, joining, his added choogle giving a greater streamlining to the sound of I Might Be Lying, a competent rocker looking, perhaps, more back than forward. Less so the b side, Ignore Them, later re-recorded for inclusion on their classic second album, Life On The Line, which in this prototype version gives the promise later delivered. With chart positions stalling, time for another live EP. this time recorded at the Rainbow, itself a sign of their bigger ticket, it reprises 4 tracks from the debut LP, along with the J.Geils Band’s Hard Rockin’ Man. It is the highlight of somewhat by-numbers boogie selection, the band sounding even a little on autopilot on their own material, even if Masters is still turned up to 11 on his. On The Run is the highlight, with echoes of Hawkwind about the progressively bonkers breakdown. I am just realising, more than midway through the first disc, that there has yet to be any remotely slower song.
Do Anything You Wanna Do is, of course, one of the iconic singles of all time, peak pop perfection. High water mark of the band and, some would say, of the whole punk movement, despite their visual image detachment from most of those more comfortable with that label. Hearing it again reminds me how it should be compulsory listening to those slowly sinking into the sterility and stability of senescence. Jings, but it’s a brilliant construction. Go, Steve Nicol! (And only number 9, too, unbelievably!) As for Schoolgirl Love, it’s reverse, well, different days, different themes. Actually, words aside, it isn’t as bad as it sounds, and could pass for a Sweet b-side. This disc closes with a bit of an oddity, a Hot Rods single, both sides, but without Eddie/Masters, it being a little project cooked up when Rob Tyner of the MC5 hooked up with the band, as he made a publicity trip to drum up custom for his own band’s recordings. With neither the presence of Dave Higgs, the two songs allow Tyner to show he is no Masters, the two songs both sounding like Kiss outtakes.
The second disc covers what, unfairly, might be the beginning of the journey back down the greasy pole. Opening with the band still in their prime, and, understandably, milking it for all their worth. So we get the US pressing of Do What You Wanna Do as the first single in this set, shorn of the final verse and chorus for radio friendliness. No flip side, oddly, allowing Quit This Town up next, their twin peak of critical acclaim, if only managing a lowly 36. Had most fans bought the album? Fuller on even than its predecessor, the lyrics are almost gleefully inane. And recognisably pertinent to the mindset of anyone living in the sticks, looking longingly at the metropolis. Trying something new, they play with sound effects and dubby tropes for the “laughbagindub” of Distortion May Be Expected, a near instrumental that sounds like Ennio Morricone out his gourd on peyote, and isn’t bad in a not that good either way, but is certainly memorable. A third single from the same-entitled album follows, both a weaker track, Gray’s energetic bass apart, and confirmatory their demographic likely had bought the album. To goad them into shelling out, the reverse includes a live Do What You Wanna, perfectly competent, What’s Really Goin’ On, also live, which becomes strangely redolent, at speed, of the Who, clearly no bad thing, and Why Can’t It Be, which offers a similar comparison.
1979 saw the band part company with manager and producer, Ed Hollis, who, with Dave Higgs, had written much of their material. Media Messiahs was the first fruit of the post-Hollis band, and, even if the line-up remained the same, a touch of auto-pilot seems to be creeping in, the Who references now even keener, a song that could easily have graced A Quick One. The falsetto doo doo doo bvs may offer a hint to the pedigree of new producer, Paul Kerr, being previously the man at the desk for the Motors’ Airport. Horror Through Straightness is far more interesting, a gothic instumental slow burn, with some genuine frissons of a forbidding doom, that begs a late vocal cameo from Hugh Cornwell or JJ Burnel. The Power And The Glory, not that one, came from their last record for Island, Thriller, no, not that one, either, and steam is being run out of, however enthusiastically the fivesome tackle it. Which feeling is even lacking from its flip, Highlands One Hopefuls Two.
With EMI now picking up the tab, At Night, a Graeme Douglas composition of some spikiness, which contains a slightly West Coast vibe, power pop if you will, tries for a slight do you like our new direction, with a cover, You Better Run on the other side. A US hit for the Young Rascals a decade plus before, the tune never develops, and it takes Looking Around, also on the flip, to lift the mood. A jagged rocker, in their older vein, it has some considerable panache, and Douglas’s guitar is on fire. Which, given both he and Gray were about to leave, the song being by Gray with Masters, seems a shame. Sticking with Higgs on sole guitar, Tony ‘TC’ Cranney came in on bass. They also had the coup of attracting Al Kooper in to produce. Wide Eyed Kids c/w Leave Us Alone was the outcome, with, I guess, the producer providing the keyboards for the former, a Johnny B. Goode facsimile of sorts, a shorter version than on the accompanying album, Fish’n’Chips. A decent enough song, actually, as is Leave Us Alone, if the charts were becoming a memory. A cover of Taj Mahal’s Farther On Down The Road managed a 1981 release, ahead of EMI now dumping the band, despite it being a sensitive interpretation, with just the merest hint of bluebeat in the rendition, Masters’ vocal showing a rare restraint, a cross between Eric Burdon and Bryan Ferry, that could have offered a way forward. With Fish’n’Chips Part 2 on the reverse, they show again an agreeable flair for 1960’s style instrumentals, with a chanted doggerel chorus best forgotten.
The final single in this time period is actually one of the best. To be fair, the band had broken up, late 1981, the members going their various ways, until Masters and Nicol again got the itch. Getting the nod from Waterfront Records, based in Sydney, of all places, they hooked up with old Canvey Island mucker, Will Birch, at the desk. A return more to the style of their debut, raw and ripcord tight r’n’b, Fought For You, c/w Hey Tonight (CCR), and, had they been able to have kept any sense of stability, it could have had legs. Bar a(nother) later live EP, not included, it didn’t.If the end of this selection, of course, it wasn’t the end of the band, and, anyway, old bands aren’t allowed to die or disappear, gracefully anyway, and so didn’t. A revolving door of musicians helped Masters scrape the further odd glowing ember from the ashes, with five albums to come. This even includes one still waiting in the wings, the death of Masters, in 2020, being insufficient to stop the momentum set up all those years ago. And I doubt they will ever stop playing Do What You Wanna Do, any more than the current Dr Feelgood can ever get off stage without Roxette. But, fair play and all that, you know what I wanna do is remember the glory of their prime, and, gulp, mine. Cherry Red, as ever, come up trumps and deliver the goods, in an attractive box with informative notes.
Cue, drums, Mr Nicol, and no shirt tonight, Barrie?
Back in the day, from Top of the Pops: