Saturday 29 October 2016

Bobby Vee - Prince of Teen Angst

Bobby Vee (Robert Velline), who died on 24 October at the age of 73, was unfairly roped in with the numerous teen-appeal vocalists of the late 1950s / early 1960s, who were hammered by music critics for being lightweights with weak voices and even weaker recording material. Examples would have been Bobby Rydell (‘Wild One’, 1960), Frankie Avalon (‘Venus’, 1959), and Fabian (‘Tiger’, 1959).

Whilst Vee was visually and vocally not dissimilar to Rydell and the others, his choice of songs was always superior, and his hit recordings, produced by the legendary  ‘Snuff’ Garrett (1938-2015), sounded bigger and better than those of the competition.

Bobby Vee was the perfect vehicle for the classic songs that emanated from New York’s Brill Building and similar hothouses of competitive song-making. Hit records aside, Vee’s place in rock’n’roll folklore was assured, when on 3 February 1959, he and his group (‘The Shadows’) deputised for the newly-deceased Buddy Holly, in Moorhead, Minnesota, on that fateful day.

Just as intriguing is the fact that Bob Dylan, going by the name of Elston Gunn, briefly played piano with Vee’s group. It is said that it was Dylan who persuaded Velline to abbreviate his stage name to ‘Vee’.

At the heart of the better songs that Bobby Vee recorded were the lyrics of Gerry Goffin, either with Carole King, or Jack Keller, providing the seductive melodies. The famous breakthrough hit was ‘Take Good Care Of My Baby’ (Goffin/King, 1961), in which the singer addresses his adversary and accepts that he has lost his love to another, but remains gracious, perhaps secure in the knowledge that ‘she’ will eventually come back.

And if you should discover, that you don’t really love her,
Just send my baby back home to me

In ‘Run To Him’ (Goffin/Keller, 1962), again Vee remained quietly confident that his personal charms would send his ‘baby’ running back to him.

 If you think his lips can kiss you
Better than my lips can kiss you, run to him…


If somebody else can make you
Happier than I can make you, run to him,
My tears will dry (!)

Vee’s songs, or to be precise, Goffin’s lyrics, continually throw down the gauntlet at the feet of the errant lover. Perhaps there is a smugness underpinning Goffin's (in)security.

‘Sharing You’ (Goffin/King, 1962) continues the premise, but this time Vee accepts his fate. The song's middle eight contains the pinnacle of Goffin’s lyrical misery:

There are two of us to kiss you,
Two of us to miss you,
And two of us to wish there were two of you…

‘Two of you’! As if all the greater world’s romantic conflicts of interest could be solved by cloning the target of two persons’ affections. If only.

‘A Forever Kind Of Love’ (Goffin/Keller, 1962) was another winner, although not a chart hit in the USA. In this song, Vee makes a commitment.

It seems my reputation has met you before me,
People say I treat love like a game
Well once that was so true, but now that I’ve found you,
I know that I will never be the same...

Yes, I’ve kissed girls just for the thrill of kissing them…

In addition to these remarkable songs was the notable ‘The Night Has A Thousand Eyes’ (Weisman/Wayne/Garrett, 1962). Was this pop music’s earliest case of unintentional surrealism and blatant paranoia?

You say that you're at home when you phone me
And how much you really care
Though you keep telling me that you're lonely
I'll know if someone is there…
Cos the night, has a thousand eyes

This necessarily brief summary of Bobby Vee’s greatest moments cannot be concluded without a nod to ‘More Than I Can Say’ (Curtis/Allison, 1960), written by two of Buddy Holly’s closest workmates and featuring, on record, the distinctive double-tracked lead vocal, a trademark of Holly’s producer, Norman Petty.

Bobby Vee’s records sold by the million to the teen market at which they were aimed. 

Today, the words of the songs that he sung just might strike a chord with the terminally young at heart. Colour me there.

And rest in peace, Bobby Vee.

Friday 14 October 2016

Teenarama - 'injections in the knee'

Teenarama, is what you’re giving me,
Teenarama, injections in the knee…

This was the rather desperate couplet I wrote for The Records’ song Teenarama a long time ago. A few years back I received an email from one Pat Broderick (USA I think) asking if ‘injections in the knee’ was a euphemism for something he didn’t understand. I replied that it was just a throwaway line that rhymed, but ‘I guess the knee, like the elbow, is not a sensitive part of the body, therefore you wouldn’t really feel it.’

How wrong I was.

Yesterday, several decades after writing said couplet, I did in fact receive an injection in the (left) knee to hopefully address the ‘meniscal tear exacerbating osteoarthritis’ that was revealed by an MRI scan. Too many years operating that kick drum, I told myself. But ouch!

Knee 13 October

24 hours later and I’m swanning round the gaff like a young man, devoid of the pain I have endured for a year or so, that reached its most intense trudging up and down the steep streets of San Francisco a few months back. But it’s early days – there is no guarantee the pain won’t return and I’m urged by my knee specialist to exercise. And I have friends with far worse health conditions, to whom I send best wishes.

Anyway - by an amazing coincidence – ‘you couldn’t make it up’ - just last night as I was retiring with my new knee, I received a message at my Facebook Will_Birch ‘fan page’ from one Michael Newman (Topeka, Kansas), who couldn’t possibly know the intricacies of my joint pain resolution. Michael asked:

‘Will, can you demystify the line ‘injections in the knee’ for me? I’m guessing you’ve been asked this before.’

Indeed I have, and I replied to another recent enquiry explaining that the lyric to Teenarama (having reflected on the matter) was written from the perspective of an older man – well, pushing 30 at the time - becoming entangled with a younger girl, say around 20, whose sweetly callow, teenage ways were a source of fascination. And that an ‘injection in the knee’ was something more associated with older folk, but I could have been fudging that a bit.

For your amusement only I reproduce the lyrics here, they’re not too deep:

I wanted a holiday, you sure had a lot to say every night
I thought that a younger girl, could show me the world, I was right
Coca-cola, is all you ever drink, the way you smile, the way you wink…

Teenarama is what you’re giving me
Teenarama injections in the knee
Teenarama, and all that melodrama
Gimmie, gimmie, gimmie, gimme, teenarama

I wanted a change of style, to be with a juvenile for a week
I rented an apartment, then you went and lost the key
Sugar candy is all you ever eat, you’re so skinny, you’re so sweet…


Blind date, school gate,
You wait, he’s late,
Daddy’s car, coffee bar,
First bra, too far…

Guitar solo

Coca-cola, is all you ever drink, the way you smile, the way you wink…


© Will Birch/John Wicks (Off The Peg Songs/Admin. Universal Music Publishing USA)          

And congratulations to Bob Dylan for winning the Nobel prize in literature.

Saturday 10 September 2016

Don’t Ask Me How I Know by Bobby Pinson

Bobby Pinson

There’s not a man or woman alive who has heard every record ever made, and even less who have heard every great record. And it’s infuriating to think of the discs that have passed you by – wrong time, wrong place. These are, of course, the obscurities; you can be forgiven for missing out on a hit during the golden era, and there will always be numerous non-hits you’ve never heard.

I think of the relative obscurities I love and remember the friends who turned me on to them, and it was completely by chance that I discovered Bobby Pinson’s 2005 recording ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’ in a Nashville hotel room with CMT in heavy rotation mode. I could have been in the shower when it played, but thankfully I was not.

Don't ride your bike off a ramp that's more than three bricks high,
 Don't take that candy from the store if you ain't got the dime,
Don't pick a fight with the little guy that doesn't talk that much
Don't pick up a cherry bomb thinkin’ its a dud… ‘

It’s a father-to-son life lesson, every line imbued with wisdom, truth and emotion… and whatever you do boy, ‘Don't sneak out of a two story house using bed sheets for a rope.’

Then, the killer title hook – ‘Don't ask me how I know’, followed by a Southern Rock-style sing-along chorus with more advice:

‘Sell your truck while its still runnin’,
Save the Jesus off the dash,
Say a prayer when you feel like cussin’,
Save your money - pay with cash…’

And the denouement, the ultimate word of advice, ‘Don't drink the water in Mexico….  don't ask me how I know.’

The lyrics to ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’ are reproduced above without permission, in the mild hope that they will bring some attention to this forgotten country classic, composed by Bobby Pinson, Bart Butler, and Brett Jones. The record (it says here) made #16 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and #88 on the pop Hot Hundred, not bad.

Bobby Pinson has of course since had a solid music career in Nashville, which I’m ashamed to say I have not kept pace with, but his 2005 classic ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’ is a desert island disc for sure. Here it is:

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Kursaal Flyers make bid for pop stardom

Sheet music

It was 40 years ago today. We were holed up in the now-demolished Queen’s Hotel, Westcliff-on-Sea, writing and learning songs for our third album. The hotel was still in business as a pub, ‘restaurant’, and dance hall, but the three upper storeys, that once offered 4-star accommodation for visitors to the town, were mothballed and patrolled by ‘security guards’. In a nightmare not far removed from The Shining, Alsatian dogs roamed the corridors and shat wherever they fancied. The canine excrement was rarely cleaned up, and we had to step over it each morning when we turned up for work during that long hot summer.

Queen's Hotel, Westcliff-on-Sea

Recording contract-wise, we had been dropped by Jonathan King’s UK Records after two poorly-selling albums. We were about to work with producer Mike Batt and ‘CBS were gonna pay a great big advance’. Kursaals guitarist Graeme Douglas and myself had written some songs, and Paul and Vic and Richie were also becoming productive. We had an item called ‘Little Does She Know’, which started life as a waltz time country song, music composed by Graeme. I had written the lyric and both Paul and Graeme added further musical ideas, including changing the time signature and transforming it into a 'Spectoresque' production with a 'Be My Baby' beat. By the time Batt got his hands on it at Wessex Studios, it became a grandiose production with orchestral sound effects.

Punk rock, as in the Pistols and the Damned, was still in development, yet little did we know the upset punk would cause; as a working group we made our living on the club and college circuit, but it wouldn’t be long before promoters and social secretaries were fancying a flutter on Rat Scabies and his custard pies rather than the more conventional entertainment approach that the Kursaals and similar bands offered. That August, ‘Clash’ would open for us at London’s Roundhouse, and the signs were obvious, to me at least. I loved the punk onslaught and have never stooped to using the word ‘energy’ in describing those groups.

Here are 'the Kursaals' on TV:

Come autumn 1976, we were signed to CBS and touring the UK and Europe in support of our ‘Golden Mile’ LP. ‘Little Does She Know’ was released as a 45 and it slowly scaled the hit parade, aided by our appearances on Top of the Pops. Though not all of us would admit it, we had generally longed to become ‘pop stars’, and for a fleeting moment we were. We are ‘one hit wonders’, as those who score a solitary fluke hit are often known. It was a briefly fabulous time and strangely feels like yesterday.

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Wednesday 13 April 2016

Deathbed Confessions… a 2013 interview with Wilko Johnson, Part 2

Please forgive the lurid headline. When we spoke in April 2013, Wilko was expecting to die from terminal cancer within six months, yet he was philosophical and good-humoured about his predicament. Miraculously, he underwent life-saving surgery in 2014. 

You can read Part 1 of the interview here

The topics in Part 2 include Mickey Jupp, Lee Brilleaux, and Wilko’s departure from Dr Feelgood in 1977.

Q What do you think it was about the Southend area that gave rise to a good number of musicians making an impression?

Wilko: I’ve heard a lot of people theorise about Southend as a hotbed of talent, and say that seaside towns are very good for ‘IT’. The atmosphere of Southend as the seaside town of the East End is very fertile ground for rock’n’roll, but I think it was just lucky that there happened to be two great bands, the Paramounts and the Orioles. Then there was about a 10-year gap, but it was still high in my mind when Dr Feelgood started. I had this lingering respect for Mickey Jupp.

Q I remember you saying around 1974, ‘When Dr Feelgood make it I’m gonna come to Southend and grab Jupp by the scruff of the neck and make him a star.’ Do you remember that?

Wilko: Yeah, I always felt that the world ought to know about Jupp. It seemed a shame that he was a local obscurity. I thought it was necessary that he got to the kind of audience he deserved. I never really knew him personally, and I was always a bit intimidated by him. You’d see him working in the music shop and he’s just a geezer. No Oscar Wilde, but when he picked up a guitar it was spine tingling.

Q Isn’t image equally as important as the music, in terms of broadcasting yourself?

Wilko: That could well be. Confronted by Mickey Jupp I’m just taken by his voice, and his music, and that’s sufficient for me, but how it’s presented or put across, I don’t know. I don’t really know him, but you’re probably right. He’s not a sparkling wit, but he is the man who wrote ‘My Typewriter’! When I saw him working in the music shop it used to amaze me how mundane he seemed, with all the usual shopkeeper’s stock jokes, like, ‘What can I do you for?’ Then you hear some of his brilliant lyrics…

Q When did you first feel that you fancied a bit of success?

Wilko: Even when I was a schoolboy, I really loved playing in local bands, but I never ever thought that maybe I could live off it, or achieve success. I was just happy playing down The Studio, or The Cricketers. When I went to university I stopped. I put my mind to other things and got less snobbish about music. We’d all be sitting around listening to Country Joe and The Fish or whatever, and my guitar was under the bed for about four years. Until I bumped into Lee that day in the street, and his band needed a guitar player. I thought, yeah, why not? I’d just got a job as a schoolteacher, but I don’t think I saw either of them as my future. I was teaching by day and playing down The Railway in Pitsea by night.

Q What happened next?

Wilko: Chris [Fenwick, manager] got us gigs in Holland. We played in these youth houses they have, the first time we played in front of a young audience, rather than playing background music for drinkers down The Railway. It was all right. I remember on the ferry on the way back I was talking to Lee, and I said, ‘Why don’t we try and go for it?’ Lee was reluctant. I said, ‘Bloody hell man, you’re 19, you want to be a solicitor’s clerk?’ Almost immediately after that we started playing down The Esplanade, for an audience that wanted to hear music. Then when we went up to London there was an explosion of interest in us and it was absolutely convincing.

Q What was Lee’s reluctance?

Wilko: I just don’t know. When I first encountered Lee and we put that band together, I always looked on him as a star. It came naturally to him. I wouldn’t have set out to do it by myself. I just thought with a guy like that we could make something of this. I was painting pictures at the time. It was my only aspiration, but that got blown away by the rock’n’roll.

Q Having Lee standing next to you on stage, such a natural, was it a kind of lucky break?

Wilko: Fucking hell, yeah! People go on about, ‘Who was the front man of the Feelgoods, or was it a double act?’ Actually ‘no’ - Lee was the bloody front man. I used to take all my cues from him. In all the pictures of Lee and I on stage, I’m looking at him, like in that famous picture on the Stupidity sleeve. I’m looking at him, but he’s looking out. That was the feeling I used to have when we played, that I was the lieutenant and he was the boss. I would never have gone in for it if it hadn’t been for Lee. I just knew he was a star.

Photograph: Ebet Roberts, 1977

Q When you started jumping up in the air, was that when Lee started doing the press-ups?

Wilko: Yeah! Dr Feelgood was one of those things that had that magic. We’d do things and get a reaction so we’d do it again. We never discussed it or rehearsed it.

Q You always kept a straight face, but you must have been pissing yourself with laughter inside…

Wilko: Oh, you mean the scowls and the glares. It was a game. You’re playing cops and robbers and you’re really feeling ‘this is a machine gun’. But actually it’s a guitar. Come on. You know it’s a guitar, and the audience knows, but it would be silly to have a soppy grin on your face when you’re firing a machine gun!

Q That was what was different about the Feelgoods, mean and moody. One or two other bands later adopted it - The Jam, for example. Never smile. Wasn’t there only ever one candid photo of you smiling? And it got into the NME by mistake?

Wilko: Yes! [laughs] That was the way you felt. That was what people wanted to see and it was part of the connection between the audience and the band.

Q Don’t you think the Feelgoods were the perfect band? Figure could jump-start the van, Sparko could re-wire the joint, and you and Lee did the decorating…  like fours legs of a table?

Wilko: Yes. It made me laugh in the late 60s and 70s when they would put these super-groups together and they were all so hopeless. I’ve never really been managed, and some of the musicians I’ve had were just people who drifted into view. Now I’ve got the most amazing band. Norman is an attraction in his own right, and Dylan has been brill. But then you get cancer and it’s finished [said Wilko, speaking in 2013]. It feels great to be alive, but I regret I can’t have a bit more time doing that.

Q Have you found that people have reacted to your situation in different ways?

Wilko: There have been all sorts of reactions. In Japan, I played with local musicians, although some of them are stars over there. It was while I was in Japan that the news broke that I was ill. In Tokyo the street was full of fans, they had to put screens up to control the overspill from the venue. I came back with a carrier bag full of letters people had handed me, all expressing this personal affection that I didn’t realise existed. I’m popular over there, and a bit of an influential guitarist, but these letters were very moving. I was doing ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ and there were tears everywhere.

Q What are the things you’ve achieved with your music that you are most proud of?

Wilko: Erm… I don’t know… well, it’s got to be Dr Feelgood hasn’t it? I just luckily found myself part of this great thing. It’s been a lingering influence. There are teenage bands doing ‘IT’, now. There’s a band in Glasgow, 15 and 16-year-olds, doing my songs and doing them good. That’s great.

Q What about the Solid Senders, and the album with the sticker ‘Sales Point Wilko’

Wilko: I did everything wrong. Everything started going wrong for me when Feelgoods broke up. The way it broke up… it was partly my fault. With the wisdom of hindsight, that would never have happened. If I’d had a little bit of the sus I’ve got now.

Q You became isolated. Was that to do with their drinking culture?

Wilko: That was quite a big part of it actually. We’d be on the road and I would be up in my room doing whatever, and they would be down at the bar, getting lushed out. And I’d be thinking, ‘What’s happening? Who are they talking about?’

Q Paranoid?

Wilko: No!

Q So they really were out to get you?

Wilko: There were occasions when Lee would be in the next hotel room and the walls were not soundproof. In Germany I think, Lee was drunk and they were all in there, and Lee was giving me a drubbing. Cursing me. I overheard it.

Q Hadn’t there been a bond between Lee and Sparko and Chris that went back to the jug band days? And you came in, as an outsider, and it bonded well and for several years worked brilliantly. But maybe the bond between them was stronger than the bond between you and them?

Wilko: Could well be. But there were all sorts of things about that. When they got me into the band, and remember I am five years older, they first encountered me as – wow – someone to look up to. Lee had quite a bit of admiration for me. What he probably didn’t know was that I had this tremendous admiration for him. I saw him as the star. And the thing is you never tell each other that do you? You don’t say, ‘Hey man, I really admire you!’ If maybe the pair of us had realised the respect we had for each other, it might not have happened. Yes, I did become isolated, cos I was the songwriter, and I had all that bloody worry.

Q Did you really find it hard to write the material, say for the ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ album?

Wilko: Lee and I went to Atlanta, to the CBS convention to meet [producer] Bert de Coteaux, cos the Americans wanted that to be their album really. Lee and I were forced to be together for a number of days, and we were getting on all right. Then after that Lee would start coming round my house in the afternoon, and we’d both be sitting there, and we both knew that we were just trying to be friends. I really appreciated him doing that, and I started writing the songs shortly before we went to Rockfield to record that album. In fact, I was still writing some of them while we were there. I was actually writing when they all burst in on me on that final evening and started tearing me to bits. I remember I was feeling really optimistic, thinking ‘it’s all happening’, really pleased with the way it was going, but I now know that while I was sitting there feeling enthusiastic, their knives were already out.

Q Do you think you might have been a bit up yourself at certain points in that period, a bit of a prima donna?

Wilko: I was difficult. Like I say, I’ve never looked back on it and tried to blame anything or anybody, but a lot of the reason I was difficult was because I was isolated and unhappy. The communications had broken down. In fact, during that final ruck, Lee started complaining about me, and he said, ‘It’s just these fucking… silences!’ [laughs loudly] What could I do? I’m sitting there feeling so lonely. And they’re getting uptight, thinking, ‘He’s doing it again, being heavy.’ Really I was just unhappy.

Q They may have seen it as – they were there, four of them including Chris, and this gulf has come about, and they are automatically thinking that the gulf is between them and you. But the gulf might have been between you and the world. The focus is turned on the band but what if you flip it round the other way?

Wilko: You could be right, and I do know that I would have handled things a lot differently if I could be there again now. But then my reaction was to retreat into myself, and throw wobblers just to try and defend myself. From what, I don’t know. I didn’t understand about compromising or anything then, which I understand a little bit better now.

Q What about ‘Lucky Seven’, credited solely to Lew Lewis. I was told recently that all Lew had was the words, and that Sparko produced Lew’s words and Bert de Coteaux sat down at the piano and started riffing on it….

Wilko: Well, I don’t know because I wasn’t there, was I? I ain’t even playing the guitar on that track – that’s how bad it had become – but Lew had written this song, on the back of a fag packet I believe, and he wanted to come down to Rockfield but they wouldn’t let him. I didn’t see Lew at the time. I had nothing to do with him. I didn’t like ‘Lucky Seven’, and that was part of the argument, but it wasn’t what the argument was about

Wilko continued to tell me the story of his departure from Dr Feelgood - nearly 40 years ago - and the precise moment that he knew it was all over. Wilko’s autobiography is about to be published.

 ‘Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life’ by Wilko Johnson is published by Little, Brown on 26 May 2016

Further reading:
'Lee Brilleaux: Rock'n'Roll Gentleman' by Zoe Howe is published by Polygon