IF EVER a group got off to a bad start, that group would be Brinsley Schwarz. While still unknown to the British press and public, in April 1970 they were the subject of the so-called ‘hype of the century’ – booked to support Van Morrison and Quicksilver Messenger Service for two nights at the Fillmore East, New York. A horde of UK music journalists were invited on an all-expenses-paid jolly to see the new band in the hope that lavish hospitality would ensure good reviews.
Of course it all went horribly wrong. The musicians had hoped to arrive a few days before the shows to give them plenty of time to acclimatise and rehearse, but visa problems held them up and they had to fly first to Canada and then by light plane to New York. They arrived only just in time to perform and had to use borrowed gear. The verdict from the tragically drunk British press pack was virtually unanimous – they were crap. An entertaining account of the whole affair by Pete Frame in the late lamented Zigzag magazine can be found here.
Rewind to the early 1960s, when Nick Lowe met Brinsley Schwarz at the independent Woodbridge School in Suffolk. They formed a group with a couple of fellow pupils and played gigs under the name Sounds 4+1. Having left Woodbridge, Lowe on bass and vocals and guitarist Schwarz were eventually joined by Bob Andrews on keyboards and Billy Rankin on drums, performing pop numbers as Kippington Lodge.
According to Wikipedia, they evolved into ‘a folk-rock band with psychedelic pretensions’. In 1969 they renamed the band after Schwarz and performed their new music under this name, whilst continuing to play pop as Kippington Lodge. ‘One of the band’s first managers, John Schofield, was at the time the lover of Hattie Jacques (who would occasionally make bacon sandwiches for the band members when they visited Schofield’s home).’
Following the disastrous hype experiment, masterminded by subsequent manager Dave Robinson, the group’s eponymous first album was released to disappointing reviews from hacks whose New York hangovers were still fresh in their minds.
I bought it cut-price some months later at my local record shop, the Electron in Nelson, Lancashire, having enjoyed the single Shining Brightly, which Robinson managed somehow to squeeze on to the telly. I had £1 to spend on a Saturday afternoon and it was a choice between the Brinsley Schwarz LP or going to see Curved Air that night at the Imperial Ballroom. I think I made the right decision. The album concludes with the ten-minute Ballad of a Has-Been Beauty Queen, which is very much of its time but includes an engaging guitar solo. What really struck me throughout, however, was the brilliant, soaring Hammond organ of Bob Andrews.
The same applied later in 1970 to the second LP, ruefully titled Despite It All in reference to the hype. Andrews excels on the second track, The Slow One and on the self-penned Piece of Home.
Album three, 1971’s Silver Pistol, is probably my favourite. Another guitarist, Ian Gomm, had joined the band to beef up the sound. I love the title track, despite Lowe’s impenetrable lyrics, and also the gentle Nightingale. On the label, the song Egypt was misprinted as Eygpt and I still mentally spell that country thus.
Big changes were afoot in Brinsleyville. Determined to gain credibility, the band worked hard at the heart of London’s burgeoning pub rock scene. In February 1972 they appeared at the Roundhouse with Man, Hawkwind and a nutcase called Magic Michael at a charity concert, Greasy Truckers Party. Highlights were released on a double album of that name, which sold for just £1.50, was limited to 20,000 copies and became a collector’s item. One of the tracks comprised a long silence – this was the early Seventies so of course there was a power cut. Of the five Brinsley tracks my favourites are Surrender to the Rhythm, with Andrews playing a blinder, and the lovely Jim Ford song I’m Ahead If I Can Quit While I’m Behind. In 2007 a triple CD of the entire concert was released, including nine more songs from the Brinsleys.
I was delighted when in the summer of ’72 Brinsley Schwarz featured on the bill of the Clitheroe Castle Pop Festival over the other side of Pendle Hill. I have already confessed my shame at heckling Bridget St John because I was so keen to see my then-favourite group. Despite owning Greasy Truckers, I was still a little taken aback at the transformation of the former psychedelic folkies into a fully fledged R and B ensemble. They even played Brown Sugar.
By now the Brinsleys had been grudgingly accepted by the music press and their fourth studio album Nervous on the Road was well received. Highlight for me is the slow song Don’t Lose Your Grip on Love. Also in 1972 they backed Frankie Miller on his debut album Once in a Blue Moon. The penultimate track Mail Box is a joy. Sorry about all the ads before the YouTube clips, by the way, but I prefer to include the record labels’ official versions when possible.
Album five, 1973’s Please Don’t Ever Change, is a perfunctory and pretty lacklustre effort in my view, and suffered poor sales. But number six, The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz (1974), was produced by Dave Edmunds and proved a return to form. The first track, What’s So Funny ’Bout Peace Love And Understanding?, was covered by Elvis Costello and many others including Curtis Stigers on the soundtrack of the hit movie The Bodyguard. It made a lot of money for Nick Lowe.
While the Brinsleys’ albums failed to set the world on fire, they were without a doubt one of the great live acts of the Seventies and all those who saw them will retain fond memories. They disbanded in 1975; Schwarz playing with Ducks Deluxe before becoming part of Graham Parker’s backing band The Rumour with Andrews, while Lowe would enjoy success as a solo artist and with the band Little Village. More of which in a future column.
Happy New Year to you all, even those who posted snotty comments last week.