Sunday, September 7, 2014

SPAZ takes a walk down Twee Street with THE BLUEBELLS!



The first time I ever heard Scottish popsters The Bluebells was in 1983.  I was at a record shop perusing new releases when I stumbled across a 12" vinyl pressing of a single by them called "Cath."  At this point, I had never heard the band, but I was intrigued by the front and back cover.  I saw that it was on London Records and that the b-side, "All I Ever Said," was produced by the one and only Elvis Costello.  Well, being the Pop adventurer that I was, I decided to purchase the 12" without hearing it first.  When I got home and played it, I was more than pleased with my decision to buy it.  It was like a gift from the guitar pop gods.  With harmonica, slightly jangly guitars, and a few different hooks, "Cath" was an absolute gem. And "All I Ever Said" was just as fab. "Fall From Grace" was haunting and wonderful, too. It was so refreshing to hear a band that wore Beatles influences on their sleeves but mixed it with a folky flair and a knack for writing a cracking tune that wasn't catering to the Synthpop sound that dominated the charts.  It was as if they had been flown in straight from 1966 and were attempting to embrace 1983's recording technology while keeping the whole thing rather simple. At that point, I knew I had a new favorite band.

To make a long story longer, I found out "Cath" was their second single, so I bought the first ("Forevermore") and then continued buying anything the band released from that moment on.  While I was always hip to the singles, I felt their 1984 debut album Sisters, suffered the curse of 'record label interference.'  The album contained some of the previously released singles but the inclusion of the Culture Club-like "Learn To Love" and a few other songs made for an uneven album compared to what my expectations were.  But that is just me.  It did contain some of their finest tracks including "I'm Falling,", "Young At Heart," and a re-recording of "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" so it still has so much to enjoy on it.  The band's first post-Sisters single "All I Am (Is Loving You)" was outstanding.  However, it proved to be their final release.  The band split up and the members went onto other things and the Bluebells were history. In 1992, a CD entitled Second was released on Vinyl Japan Records. The album itself was not a new album but a collection of unreleased recordings (there is no info to suggest when and where the tracks come from, but there are some great moments that make it essential for Bluebells fans to own it). Surprisingly, the following year, "Young At Heart" was used on a TV commercial in the UK and the song was reissued and became their biggest hit to date, reaching #1 on the British charts nearly a decade after it's original release.  This sudden success did not inspire the band to go in and record new material and nothing escaped the vaults either.  Until now...

When I first saw that a collection of early recordings was being released, I was overjoyed.  But the album's title threw me off: Exile On Twee Street?  There was nothing in the Bluebells catalog that even hinted at being 'twee.' The Bluebells were big and robust, not shambolic and jangly! I knew that these recordings dated from 1980-82, but 'twee'? Never!

Now, after listening to the album quite a few times, it is safe to say that The Bluebells that I heard in '83 were definitely a mixture of great songs, great performances and a much bigger recording budget than these primitive, raw and often-times glorious  recordings presented here.  THIS was the sound of The Bluebells in their formative years.  The songs are melodic gems that showcase a band trying to find their sound and not letting low-budget recording equipment stop them from creating great pop music. Perhaps the album is geared more towards Bluebells fans than anything, but those into early Indie Pop/Rock, C86, Sarah Records and the like will find something to love here. 

Of the 20 tracks on the album, 10 are songs they eventually re-recorded during their London years (as A-sides, B-sides and album tracks) but most of those are almost unrecognizable from their later versions, including a fab version of "Learn To Love" that may not have the sonic quality of the album version but it has more heart and doesn't suffer from over-production.  "Small Town Martyr" is another one that is far superior at this stage.  Other songs like "Sugar Bridge," "Wishful Thinking," and "Red Guitars" sound great, although many of the lyrics and hooks are quite a bit different than the eventually released versions.  "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" is the closest any of these recordings come to sounding like the eventually released version, but that could be because this was scheduled to be released on Postcard Records as the band's true debut but the label folded before that could happen.  In fact, many of these songs could have eventually ended up on the label if it had lasted long enough to release the band's debut album. Speaking of Postcard Records, The Bluebells were a lot closer in spirit to the label's Aztec Camera than they were to Orange Juice, Josef K or The Jazzateers, but The Bluebells were unique in their pop craftmanship even at this early stage.

Of the 10 previously unreleased tracks, standouts include "Honest John," "Stand Up Cowboy," and "No One Ever Waves Goodbye." It is interesting to hear the band during this early period since main songwriter Robert 'Bobby Bluebell' Hodgens sang lead on most, basically since he wrote them.  Kenneth McCluskey handled harmonica, harmony vocals and a good amount of lead vocals although Hodgens is more dominant.  That situation turned around by the time the band signed with London and Ken seemed to be the more dominant vocal force.  

Anyone looking for another "Cath" or "Young At Heart" may be disappointed, but the songs here are just as good - they just aren't recorded as well.  These are demos and the sound quality may vary depending on the source, but the historical value is absolutely priceless. The liner notes offer more info on the band than I've been able to find on the net, so that in itself is a bonus. 

The Bluebells are still one of my favorite bands.

1 comment:

Indiggy said...

Nice write-up SPAZ. Lots of good insight in this one!