Single of the week

Watching The Detectives (Elvis Costello & The Attractions)

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Elvis Costello first hit the UK chart towards the end of 1977 with the voyeuristic Watching The Detectives, but he’d been singing for a few years before that. If you are of a certain age, you may well have heard him on television in 1973 but unlikely to have recognised him.

His father Ronald ‘Ross’ McManus was born in Liverpool in 1927 and was a song writer and trumpeter with the Joe Loss orchestra which he joined in 1955. He wrote a song called Patsy Girl in 1964 which was credited to Ross McManus and the Joe Loss Blue Beats. It was released on HMV but failed to trouble the record buyers of the day. He released two further singles one being a cover of Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You backed with a rather unusual version of If I Were a Rich Man. He also released one single in 1970 under the pseudonym Day Costello and was a cover of The Long and Winding Road.

His son, Declan, was born in 1954 and looked likely he was going to follow in his father’s footsteps. In 1973 commercial television stations screened an advert depicting a man in stripy pyjamas creeping downstairs to surreptitiously get a glass of lemonade from the fridge. The music it used was called The Secret Lemonade Drinker which was written and sung by Ross and featured a 19-year-old Elvis getting his break as a backing singer.

“I’ve been writing songs since I was 14,” remembered Elvis, “Although if I went back now and looked at them I’d find them pretty embarrassing. By the time I was 22 I’d had several false starts at getting bands together some of them are well documented and some were so fleeting that no-one knows about them.” To earn money Elvis had been working as a computer operator housed next door to a lipstick factory. Eventually things happened and I was the first artist signed to the new Stiff label in 1976. “Nick Lowe was the first artist on the label, but he wasn’t actually signed,” Elvis remembered, “and despite that I was the 11th release with the song Less Than Zero. I had stacks of material and then Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson (the bosses at Stiff) asked me to turn pro. I said ‘Only if I can earn as much money doing this as I do in my job as I have responsibilities’. I had a family and so they agreed to pay me the same.” His next single the following year was Alison whose chorus was based on the Detroit Spinners hit Ghetto Child. He has never revealed who it was about, in fact in the sleeve notes to his Girls Girls Girls compilation album, he wrote, ‘Much could be undone by saying more.’ Later the same year he released Red Shoes which did nothing, but finally Stiff’s 20th release, Watching the Detectives, gave him his first hit.

The track was credited solely to Elvis Costello although the B sides, Blame It On Caine and Mystery Dance were both credited to Elvis Costello & The Attractions, a name that a staff member at Stiff came up with even though they are not the same Attractions who backed him later. That line up was a group called the Clovers and featured keyboard player Steve Nieve (who did later become at Attraction!), Andrew Bodnar on bass and Steve Goulding on drums. The latter two were both in Graham Parker’s Rumour. The more classic line up of the Attractions saw the unrelated Bruce and Pete Thomas replacing Bodnar and Goulding on bass and drums respectively.

Watching The Detectives, which was produced by Nick Lowe, is a dark song about a lover who would rather watch television, but what inspired it? Elvis explained, “I was in my flat in the suburbs of London before I was a professional musician, and I’d been up for 36 hours and I was actually listening to the Clash’s first album. When I first put it on, I thought it was just terrible. Then I played it again and I liked it better. By the end, I stayed up all night listening to it on headphones, and I thought it was great. Then I wrote Watching the Detectives.” Rolling Stone magazine described the song as ‘a clever but furious burst of cynicism, but also an indisputably classic’.

The parent album, My Aim Is True, was made over the course of four six and a hour sessions with Elvis recording his parts in a room the size of a telephone booth and cost £1000. The single reached number 15 in the UK chart and was the first of, so far, 36 hit singles. In 2006 Elvis appeared on Later With Jools Holland and performed Watching the Detectives with a big band arrangement, which he admitted was “A desecration to people who love the tenseness of the original recording and the musical allusions in the original arrangements, relate very much to the realisation of this song as an orchestral piece using the film music feeling and the swing rhythms of 50s detective shows.”

The song has been covered a couple of times to good effect by Duran Duran in 1995 on their Thank You album and by Toto in 2002 on their Through the Looking Glass album.

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Cry Boy Cry (Blue Zoo)

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In the early eighties, a new genre of music hit scene in a big way. It was called new romantic and was emphasized by bright colour outfits, make up, neckwear and crazy hairstyles. Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran were the mainstays, but there were others who weren’t quite as successful.

One such group was Modern Jazz who formed in 1980 and featured the line up on Andy O (Overall) on vocals, Tim Parry on guitar, Mike Ansell on bass and Mike Sparrow on drums.

In early 1981 the band signed to Magnet records and went into Mickie Most’s RAK studios to record their first single with Mickie’s son Calvin. The track was called In My Sleep (I Shoot Sheep) which failed to gain airplay for two reasons, one is that Dave Lee Travis refused to play it because he believed the sentiment of the song was doing a disservice to sheep and secondly because some presenters who may have had a long liquid record company lunch might have had trouble pronouncing it! The band did send a letter to DLT which he read out on air and explained that the song was nothing more than a dream sequence, and that resulted in some airplay. Incidentally Calvin became Calvin Hayes and was a member of Johnny Hates Jazz.

Within a few months they changed their name to Blue Zoo, Andy explained why, “The word zoo conjures up a nice atmosphere. It means the environment outside and the band observing from the inside of it. We don’t see ourselves as animals trapped in a cage or anything like that.” Why blue? “It’s my emotional frame of mind most of the time.”

They began recording at Alaska studios in Waterloo which was damp and dank but it was the owner of these studios, Pat Collier, original bass player for punk band The Vibrators, who produced the bands next single, Ivory Towers. Their first TV appearance was a live performance on the Oxford Road Show in Manchester where they performed, Love Moves in Strangeways, The Attic and what was to be their third single I’m your Man. This was their debut UK hit which, despite being championed by Peter Powell, stalled at number 55.

Tim Friese Green was a producer who had first worked with the rock band Praying Mantis and Irish rockers Stiff Little Fingers. He then struck lucky when he produced the UK number one The Lion Sleeps Tonight for Tight Fit.

He began working with Blue Zoo and collaborated at Battery studios in Willesden which resulted in the recording of two tracks, the provocative John’s Lost and the catchy Cry Boy Cry which was a re-working of a song previously named Turn and Face The Wall. It reached number 13 in the UK and a respectable number six in Israel which led to a short tour taking in a run of shows at the Coliseum in central Tel Aviv. They even had a future star in the audience on the first night when actress Brooke Shields turned up.

Andy was a Bowie fan and Cry Boy Cry was inspired by him from his Ziggy Stardust period, he even has Bowie tattooed on his arm. They had one further UK hit called (I Just Can’t) Forgive and Forget which reached a lowly number 60 in May 1983.

Interests within the band were divided but they decided to record on more track and went into the studio with producers Colin Campsie and George McFarlane and came up with the wonderfully entitled Somewhere in The World There’s A Cowboy Smiling, it got very limited exposure, in fact one solitary appearance on Crackerjack and so the band decided to split. Andy was tied into his contract with Magnet and was groomed as a solo artist without success and was finally released from his contract in 1985.

Years later Andy discovered an interest in wild mushrooms. He said recently, “I started the Fungi To Be With Mushroom Club’ back in 1996 recognising that I wasn’t the only one interested in wild mushrooms and the need to re-connect people with their natural environment.” He launched a business under the same name and began supplying the vegetable to various London restaurants. Tim Parry went into production and worked with Yazz and De La Soul, Sparrow worked with Neneh Cherry and Ansell moved into the property market. In 2010, Blue Zoo played their first concert in 28 years at the Ginglik in Shepherd’s Bush Green. Only Parry is missing from the current line up, he’s been replaced by ex-Spear Of Destiny guitarist Neil Pyzer and they’ve added Graham Noone on Keyboards and they are currently recording new tracks soon to be released later this year on iTunes.

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Excerpt From A Teenage Opera (Keith West)

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Four songs reached number two in the 1960s that don’t mention the title of the song within the lyrics, the first was The Seekers’ Morningtown Ride in 1967, then Alternate Title by the Monkees the following year and the last was Ain’t Got No-I Got Life by Nina Simone in 1969. The other is the subject of today’s Single of the Week which, despite often being referred to as Grocer Jack, is actually called Excerpt From A Teenage Opera.

Although sung by Keith West, it was the brainchild of the German-born EMI staff producer Mark Wirtz. The song is rarely heard on radio these days except for the odd bland Gold station but when it is heard it stands up today, just like it did 45 years ago. In the year of flower-power the song arrived just in time to be part of the soundtrack of the summer of love and it brought a certain innocence enhanced by the sound of a children’s choir.

When it arrived, it heralded the arrived of what many thought would be the grand Teenage Opera which many eagerly awaited. Two further singles followed but the full opera did not. It was much like the British equivalent of the Beach Boys’ Smile. It became a holy grail as fans tried for years to find out what happened to it and where to track it down.

Wirtz arrived in the UK in 1962. He had grown up with comedy and wanted to be a comedian. He explained, “Germany was hardly the humour capital of the world, so I picked up a guitar and learnt piano standing up and then I moved to England and planned on becoming a rock idol who came to the attention of movie producers who’d sign up me. I would let them know I was funny and they would put me in a comedy and the rest was history.” Hmmm, not quite! He had based himself in Surrey and formed a rock’n’roll covers band called the Beatcrackers. He wrote one tune which he included in his set, it was a instrumental called Bubble Pop. A rep from EMI was at a gig one night and was so impressed that he was signed to the label as Mark Rogers and The Marksmen as a replacement for Russ Conway. He became fascinated with the business and soon formed his own production company and began leasing tracks to other record labels.

“In January 1967, I had a dream. Not a daydream, or a fantasy, but a real dream in my sleep,” explained Wirtz. “Actually, it was more like a dreamlette- about an ageing door-to-door grocer named Jack in a small, turn of the century village, who was as mocked by the children as he was taken for granted by the town folk. When Jack unexpectedly died, the town folk reacted with anger about the inconvenience of now having to be self reliant about their staple provision, while the children were heartbroken, in truth having loved and appreciated Jack all the while. That was it, simple as that. Little did I know, that this innocent dream would turn into The Teenage Opera, which soon twisted my fate into a real life opera far more dramatic and plot filled than the musical one could ever have been. Its life altering impact and consequences not only resonate and haunt me to this day, but the saga is a still ongoing one – 30 years later. ”

To trace the true moment of birth of the Teenage Opera, we go back to January 1966, when Mark, in a small studio on London’s Bond Street, tried something new. “I experimented with a musical vision by independently producing my composition A Touch Of velvet – A Sting Of Brass under the moniker Mood Mosaic. My vision was as simple as it was ambitious, and evolved as a theme which formed the core of my music work throughout my career.”

In 1965 a group called Four + One had signed to EMI’s subsidiary label Parlophone and released one single, a cover of Irma Thomas’ Time Is on My Side. Their lead singer, maracas and harmonica player was Keith West. After one single they changed their name to The In Crowd and released a cover of Otis Redding’s That’s How Strong My Love Is which just scraped into the UK chart. The follow up, a cover of the Byrds’ Eight Miles High failed to chart. In 1967 they changed their name again to Tomorrow after a suggestion by Junior, their bass player, who made the comment New music, tomorrow’s music.

“Mark approached me to write some lyrics for this backing track he had,” remembered West. “It was a bit odd with lots of mandolins, and orchestra but no choir, it wasn’t my type of music but it flowed nicely and it reminded me of Pet Sounds. He went out for a while and left me writing, when he returned a couple of hours later he thought I’d done a good job but told me he wanted the name Grocer Jack to feature in it. When we’d finished we decided to bring Steve Howe in to play guitar but we speeded it up to sound like a mandolin, session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan was brought in too but this time on banjo, session drummer Clem Cattini on drums and the Ivy League on backing vocals.”

“The clavioline intro was laid down then strings were added and finally the brass was layered on top. As the track grew and grew it became obvious that a vocalist had to be found,” West continued,” They took me into the studio late one night and I noticed there were some session singers. Being naive I thought I was there to arrange it, but I ended up singing the demo. There was talk of Cliff Richard being brought in but they all said that my vocal suited the song so I was asked if it was ok and thought no more about it.” The finishing touches were added with the children’s choir from Hammersmith Corona stage school led by a girl called Charmaine. “I was unable to hide the expense of the children’s fee within the official paperwork,” remembered Wirtz, “So I paid for the kids’ performance out of my own pocket. Best money I ever spent!

When it was finished, Wirtz remembered Kim Fowley’s buzzword, ‘teenager’ and Grocer Jack quickly became Excerpt From A Teenage Opera. Why? Wirtz explained, “The reason was, that if the single was a hit then people would want an LP of the whole opera. Before all that, though we had to admit to the bosses at EMI that we’d abused the company’s time, which I did and then played them the track. They were horrified and silence followed. All of a sudden the dam of silence was broken with condemning phrases like ‘Absurd record’, ‘Four minutes long?’, ‘Have you gone mad’ and ‘you think anyone is going to buy a rock record with children on it?’ The committee’s final verdict was to shelve the project. That would have been the end of it if it hadn’t been for John Peel on Radio Caroline. I took it to John in the studio and he played it on his headphones. Before it had reached the end, John opened the microphone and with a big grin on his face told the listeners, ‘I’ve got a marvellous surprise for you’ and put the needle back to the start.” The phones lit up and, to cut a long story short, EMI were forced to rush release the track. It entered the chart and climbed to number two behind Engelbert Humperdinck’s The Last Waltz.

The follow up single, Sam, only just managed a top 40 placing but as West says, after that the rest of the Teenage Opera material wasn’t really up to standard so I passed.” Wirtz went to on to be a producer at Page One and Chapter 1 records before moving to Los Angeles in 1971.

In 1997, thirty years after its conception, Wirtz decided to finish the project. “I finally decided to exorcise the haunting which had cursed me for three decades. I spent nine months day and night working, composing and recording the complete Teenage Opera. I created a fully dramatic story and script – a romantic fantasy revolving around H.G Wells’ abduction into the future by a villainous time master. It now exists as a double CD called Tempo but is unlikely to see the light of day.” At least for Mark, but not for his fans, the Teenage opera will be laid to rest forever, but the spirit of it will live on forever.

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Magic (Pilot)

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Abba were the first group to take their name from the initials of the members of the band, the second were Pilot and it was lead singer and bass player David Paton’s wife who was the inspiration behind their two biggest hits.

Pilot were formed in Edinburgh in 1973 by former (early) Bay City Roller’s member David Paton and Billy Lyall. Later that year they enrolled Stuart tosh and Iain Bairnson and after recording several demo’s they were signed to a management deal and in due course a recording contract with EMI by Nick and Tim Heath who were band leader Ted Heath’s sons.

David and Billy left the Roller’s before they were really famous which seemed an odd move, David explained why, “Yes, well I always call that my apprenticeship years. There were plenty musicians around Edinburgh who had a stint in the Rollers. But after about a year with them, which was a very enjoyable time, because the manager, Tam Paton, who was no relation of mine, has us gigging six nights a week and when we had an occasional night off we went out for a meal and I think his idea was to keep us away from girls so we didn’t get involved and thus making us more desirable to the fan base. But I left because they were about to sign to Bell records and I thought to myself I would do without success than to be a successful Bay City Roller, that was just me because I wanted to achieve things musically and I don’t think the Rollers were taken that seriously and I was becoming very serious about my music and I thought I’d take a chance and it paid off.”

The name Pilot was taken from the three surnames, Paton, Lyall and Tosh and it was their manager’s girlfriend who suggested Pilot.  Their first hit came at the end of 1974 and reached number 11 in the UK and a respectable number five in the USA. The song was called Magic and Paton tells how it came about, “Like a lot of songs I wrote back then, I always had a tape recorder on top of my piano and when any idea came into my head i would just slap it down and I had that chorus, which was a four-bar chorus, technically, it was just an idea and one morning I had to get up really early and my wife said to me ‘I’ve never been awake to see a day break’ and I thought there’s a line for a song that will go with that little chorus and the rest of it just fell into place.” Originally the song had a different intro. “I first recorded that intro just a piano and voice,” remembered Paton, “And then we realised that this just isn’t dynamic enough and we have to go back in the studio and put a nice new dynamic intro to it and that’s what we did.” One person who was clearly inspired by that redone intro was Carlos Santana as you will hear if you listen to the intro of his 2000 top three hit Smooth.

Their next single was Just A Smile which failed to make any impact. Next came January, which, again, was inspired by a book that Paton’s wife was reading about a girl called January and although that was part of the inspiration for it, the rest came from the success of Magic. Paton explained, “In January, the verse is totally unrelated to the chorus, the verse is more talking about the success of Magic and how it’s opened up the world to me and that’s what I’m singing about.”Pilot appeared on Top Of The Pops many times and got to meet many stars of the day, one story that Paton particularly remembered was when they met Queen. “yes, EMI paired us with Queen as we were both relatively new signings and I remembered after on show, I went over to talk to Freddie (Mercury) and Freddie said ‘Why have you come over to talk to me’ and I said, Why not? and Freddie said, ‘When I have a number one, I’ll talk to no-one!”

Call Me Round was their next single which only reached number 34 and this was followed by the re-issue of Just a smile which only managed three places higher. There were albums too Second Flight (1975), Morin Heights (1976) and after Bairnson and Lyall had left and not replaced the duo recorded their third album Two’s A Crowd in 1977.

Pilot split in later in 1977 with Bairnson, Paton and Tosh all joining the Alan Parsons Project and Tosh also working with 10cc. Paton and Bairnson did session stuff for EMI including working with Pink Floyd and most notably Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights in which Bairnson plays the guitar solo. Paton also worked with Elton John and featured on his album Reg Strikes Back in 1988.

Lyall died in 1989 of an AIDS-related illness but Paton and Bairnson reformed Pilot in 2002 and re-recorded their Two’s A Crowd album but re-titled Blue Yonder. After that all three went to live in Spain. Paton returned in 2005 and still tours as David Paton’s Pilot, whilst the other two remained in Spain. In 2012 Paton has just released a new album called Under The Sun which was inspired by a recent health scare. It includes a re-recorded version of Magic sounding mightily close to the original. Paton explains how, “I recorded that backing track originally for the BBC who had a charity day in the 80s but they didn’t want to use the original because there’s a string section on there and everybody would have to be paid so they asked me to re-record and I was using a drummer at the time who put down the track and I decided, after all these years, to dig it out and use it and it still sounds terrific.”

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Jig-A-Jig (East Of Eden)

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During the 1950s & 60s, tons of instrumental tracks made the UK chart, but by the early 70s, they were few and far between, in fact the only instrumental number one of the 70s came in 1973 with Simon Park spending four weeks at the top with Eye Level. This was also the last truly instrumental chart topper. Fortunately in the following three decades quality lyric-less songs made the chart and one such was the violin-led Jig-A-Jig by prog rock band East Of Eden.

If you only know the one track by East Of Eden, then you probably wouldn’t have guessed they were a prog rock band. They formed in Bristol in 1967, originally as Pictures of Dorian Gray, by Dave Arbus who played violin, flute, saxophone and trumpet. He enlisted the services of alto sax player Ron Caines, guitarist Geoff Nicholson, bass player Mike Price and drummer Stuart Rossiter but over the next three years there were to be various personnel changes. The last to leave was Nicholson who was replaced by Davey ‘Crabsticks’ Trotter on Mellotron which added a new angle to their trademark sound.

Their debut album, Mercator Projected was released in 1969 but failed to attract buyers. Their second album, Snafu had more of a jazz feel as it featured Charles Mingus and John Coltrane influenced tracks. The first single from it was Jig-A-Jig which was the encore number in their set, an ironic throwaway twist to the rest of their show. Dave Arbus recalled how it came about, “”At the end of a show one night I launched into some jigs and the band followed me. It was quite spontaneous, the audience went wild. It became our finale. We probably invented Celtic rock by accident,” he explained in Mojo magazine in 2010. “We’d been listening to a lot of Frank Zappa & the Mothers Of Invention and that told us that we could do anything we wanted.”

Although a big encore number it failed to chart. The follow-up was Ramadhan which also failed to chart but did reach number two in France in 1970. On the strength of this, their record company, Deram, decided to re-release Jig-A-Jig which second time round did make an impression across Europe.

“The song drew a new audience for the band,” Arbus continued. “A lot of people came to shows and didn’t realise what kind of band we were and we weren’t clear who our audience were any longer. We were serious about what we wanted to do, but the record company wanted a follow-up. We were at a loss what to do. We were an albums group, I think it destroyed us.”

A further two albums followed, East Of Eden and New Leaf both in 1971. The next four albums Another Eden (1975), Here We Go Again (1976), It’s The Climate (1976) and Silver Park (1978) were all Europe-only releases. The band split in 1978. The three core members Arbus, Caines and Nicholson reunited in 1996 and have concentrated on playing mainly jazz based instrumental material. “Looking back at it, I’m still very fond of Jig-A-Jig but I wish we had more help in presenting ourselves as we were,” Arbus remembered.

Dave Arbus has one other big claim to fame and as a close friend of the Who’s Keith Moon he was invited to play the violin on the much loved Baba O’Reilly. In 1978 he formed another group called Fiddler’s Dram with singer Cathy LeSurf, Alan Prosser, Chris Taylor and Ian Telfer but left before they had their one and only UK hit Daytrip To Bangor in 1979.

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