Sunday 22 July 2012

The SHADOWS: 20 Golden Greats

(#181: 19 February 1977, 6 weeks)

Track listing: Apache/Man Of Mystery/The Frightened City/Guitar Tango/Kon-Tiki/Foot Tapper/Genie With The Light Brown Lamp/The Warlord/A Place In The Sun/Atlantis/Wonderful Land/FBI/The Savage/Geronimo/Shindig/Stingray/Theme For Young Lovers/The Rise And Fall Of Flingel Bunt/Maroc 7/Dance On

Author’s Note: This piece is to some extent adapted from a previous piece I wrote about the Shadows in July 2004, but it is by no means the same piece, nor does it come to the same conclusion; the reader should allow for the lapse in time and the author’s changing views if they wish to read the original; see the link to The Clothed Maja on my list of links should you desire to do so, but I’d much rather you read this one.

More music that needs no words. As much as I admire Paul Morley’s 2003 book Words And Music, I do wish that his views weren’t so firmly set, or hadn’t been so firmly formed, in 1976 and Manchester. In the book he says: “…a group called the Shadows should have been better and stranger than the group called the Shadows actually were.” Actually the Shadows were one of the strangest groups there ever has been, but then my definition of strangeness has been defined and tempered by parameters which take the business of British politeness into deep account, much as my tastes in music and views of the world gradually change and develop the more I learn about both. In a sixth sense, the Shadows lived out their entire career in a series of shadows – the shadows of a richer and brighter post-war America, the suffocating shadow of ration(alis)ed post-war Britain, the blinding shadow of pre-war British showbiz under which the Shadows were forced to dwell. They couldn’t just drift through the Soho drains which the late Gordon Burn irrigated so intensely in his novel The North Of England Home Service, mainly because they were legally compelled to change their name from the Drifters. It might have been a more appropriate name for them – refugees drifting back from the apocalypse of World War II, trying to find their own home or build a new one – but then we tend to forget that it was the forgotten Shadow, Jet Harris, who suggested that the group be called the Shadows. The tall, blonde, enigmatic six-string bass player who was also to be the group’s second victim; for the group was driven by two vaguely pissed off Geordies (one of whom, Bruce Welch, was actually born in Bognor Regis), pissed off at not being Americans. How else to explain the impossible exoticism of a name like Hank Marvin (as opposed to the distinctly unglamorous name of Brian Rankine with which he was blessed at the wartime font) – the extra “B” was added at the same time as the Shadows walk was invented, but had anyone worked out that the B in Hank B Marvin stood for Brian, they would all have down the Evacuees’ walk from the theatre. Or “B” as second-class, second-rate. “B” for British. Perhaps it’s little wonder that he declined the OBE offered to him, for he has lived in Australia for some considerable time, and presumably finds life there far more congenital and accommodating. Or perhaps the Shadows were just pissed off at being roped in to be the grinning backing group for a conveniently clean and polite one-man British pop tapestry-to-be.

How badly did the Shadows want to be Americans? When taking the UK/US non-relationship in terms of ‘50s pop into consideration, there are two different histories to consider. Firstly, the British pop market of the ‘50s was compelled, for reasons partly economic (that post-war, post-Beveridge balance sheet again) and partly political (the intransigence of the Musicians’ Union towards American musicians, which probably devalued British pop for the best part of a decade, and largely due to maintaining agendas rather than looking out for their members), to pretend to be self-sufficient. In practice this meant keeping a gimlet eye on the Billboard Hot 100 and cherry-picking songs for lost, pallid Britboys to cover. Thus America got Dion and the Belmonts and we got Marty Wilde (no offence to Mr Wilde, who subsequently became a surprisingly significant figure in the development of British pop over several decades); Sam Cooke over there, Craig Douglas over here. Only with artists too big to ignore – Elvis and what else they had – could ‘50s Britpop explicitly acknowledge that the question of American input had to be answered. True, Lonnie Donegan was enthusiastically popularising the likes of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, but you’d have been hard pressed to find any of their records in provincial Britain. If you weren’t fortunate enough to be living in London, then the next best way of doing this was to live next to a busy merchant port, with exotic and dangerous records (and, occasionally, exotic and dangerous musicians, MU stipulations notwithstanding) straight off the Merchant Navy boats – in other words, somewhere like Liverpool or Glasgow (and that in itself begs the question: when the time came, why did Merseybeat happen and not Clydebeat? Probably because, throughout the greater part of the ‘60s, folk and jazz carried much greater currency in Glasgow than pop – ask Billy Connolly or Bobby Wellins for confirmation). People like Duane Eddy and Les Paul did score mainstream hits, but if you could tell the difference between Glenn Burton and Scotty Moore and Link Wray then you were probably a musician already (The Kids weren’t too bothered about who played guitar on Ricky Nelson or Elvis records). It was your job to find out and know these things. Or you had to be sufficiently obsessed to want to find them out. So it was with Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch, going nowhere in South Shields and then coming straight down on the train to the 2 I’s and reinventing themselves as they felt was necessary, teaming up with a couple of London ace faces, Jet Harris and Tony Meehan.

But when it came to the Shadows’ music, it wasn’t an easy case of Let’s Do American Music; more the socially-conditioned perennial British attitude of trying to copy Other music, not getting it quite right and thereby inventing something new by accident (see subsequently Dexy’s Midnight Runners, A Certain Ratio, etc.). What is immediately striking about listening to “Apache” is the bifurcation between wanting to do a Duane Eddy/Ventures-style slow-burning instrumental rocker and the reality of not being able to discard English politesse, of instinctively recalling the dance band comping of people like Ivor Mairants (and, lest us not forget, Basil Kirchin) – the need to show consideration for fellow residents or neighbours (speaker muffs in the garage!), the unshakeable work ethic, the need to show consideration for and not overshadow the singer or band you are accompanying – and hence the quietest rock music there has been this side of the Chills (“Pink Frost” would have been right up the Shadows’ street in terms of emotional intensity in inverse proportion to actual volume). In other words, they want to break out – again note that savage Meehan triple snare thrash at 1:44 – but keep everything pent up; in, as it really was, the shadows. The pop group with an absent centre. The single went to number one less than a month after release.

And yet “Apache” was perhaps the most American the Shadows ever sounded; the dustblown Chris Isaak prairie echoes come in great part from here. Everything else on this compilation sounds incontrovertibly British, but comparison with their mentor Bert Weedon here is helpful; listen to his “Apache” (and his work in general) and you hear, unmistakably, the work of adults. Whereas the Shadows’ sound – and, specifically, Marvin’s guitar – is fuzzier, less technically precise, more aware of space (there are lots of Abbey Road echoes in their work) and, finally, more rocking, because they were half Weedon’s age and closer to the kernel of the development of British rock. Moreover, where Weedon gives plenty of space in his records to other voices – saxophone, keyboards, drums – the Shadows are essentially about Hank; his lead guitar functions as, effectively, the group’s lead singer. The other three are there to support his musings, but equally you couldn’t picture them functioning separately; what is important is that they work as an integrated group.

And that image – the spectacles straight from Buddy Holly, but as a sociological tool they were invaluable. Holly proved that you could be a geek and still (a) get the girls and (b) rock, but now here was Hank, our own British geek for uncertain young boys to idolise and emulate (the missing link, in a lot of divergent ways, between Buddy Holly and Arto Lindsay – though the Shadows never managed to break big in the States, their shadow shines all through DNA; in fact DNA bring to mind what Hank might really have wanted the Shadows to sound like, if he’d had a free hand).

The Shadows’ music would have been unmanageable without all their carefully suppressed aggression. Observe Hank’s sudden, jagged outburst which seemingly comes out of nowhere in the middle break of the Edgar Wallace Mysteries (filmed in the unglamorous surroundings of Merton Park Studios) TV theme “Man Of Mystery” before quickly retreating to the shades (he could so easily be Page or Clapton, both of whom listened to the Shadows and learned); or the faux-boldness of “FBI” (which could easily have been titled “Don’t Try It”) whose middle eight in particular predicates the work of Status Quo. On stage, however – and this is another aspect we latecomers miss – they were reportedly proto-punk. Listen to their Live At The ABC Kingston set, issued on CD in 2000 (if you can find it; petition for a reissue), for an inkling of how they played In Real Life; for 1960 it is in its own way as startling a live document as the contemporaneous Mingus At Antibes.

But the work collected here is testimony enough to why, in the last edition of Guinness’ British Hit Singles & Albums book, the Shadows are referred to as “Britain’s most influential and imitated act before The Beatles” (and never mind the music; how many hopeful teenagers paraded before their bedroom mirror trying to copy Marvin’s lines and do the Shadows Walk – a routine borrowed from American R&B act the Treniers – at the same time?). The third volume in EMI’s 20 Golden Greats series is not easy to find on CD, having been superseded in 2000 by a 2CD upgrade entitled 50 Golden Greats, which should not be mistaken for the same record; all twenty tracks reappear there, but in strict chronological order, and crucially “Wonderful Land” only appears in its original band-only form, without Norrie Paramor’s orchestra, which proves a fatal flaw. Back, then, to the LP original, with its mauve-on-monochrome inner sleeve advertising “SOME OTHER GREAT SHADOWS SOUNDS” and proceeding to promote several underperforming items in the Shads’ back catalogue; their 1965 #4 album The Sound Of The Shadows, 1974’s Rockin’ With Curly Leads which sees them bravely having a go at things like “Pinball Wizard” and “Good Vibrations,” 1975’s Specs Appeal, featuring their Eurovision runner-up entry “Let Me Be The One,” a live album recorded at the Paris Olympia, and two very useful compilation round-ups; 1969’s Somethin’ Else!! (that the album is bookended by tracks entitled “Lonesome Fella” and “Tomorrow’s Cancelled” should give you an idea of its general mood) and the fine Rarities which collects some of their work for the Thunderbirds films, cult items like “Scotch On The Socks” (with its deadly ironic “baby” asides) and “Sunday For Seven Days,” and their elongated 1969 elegy “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue” among other items of interest.

Throughout 1961 the Marvin/Welch/Harris/Meehan line-up continued to produce superb, inventive music. Listen to the antiphonal relationships within the quartet – particularly between Marvin’s lead and Harris’ bass – on the paranoid “The Frightened City” and wonder whether you aren’t hearing an early Echo and the Bunnymen (go to the first two tracks on Heaven Up Here and see for yourself). “Kon-Tiki,” memorably described by Bob Stanley as the sound of the “Tilbury surf,” explores the same musical relationships in a positive light and sets the mood for their series of optimistic New Britain anthems (and perhaps this explains why the Beach Boys didn’t really prosper in Britain until the Shadows began to fade a little; for a country largely immune to surfing – and unable to surf – their music fulfilled the same, sunny outlook); though note how the hammering, climactic ending anticipates the Who’s “Substitute.” Likewise, Meehan – later described by Marvin as “a prototype Keith Moon” – has his moment on “The Savage” where, towards the end, his kit breaks into intricate, hard patterns which more or less lay the groundwork for drum n’ bass. Even here, though, it is a wistful kind of savagery.

Inevitably, it couldn’t last. Meehan got his cards in 1961 when he turned up late for a gig once too often, and Harris walked out not long afterwards; they were replaced by Marty Wilde’s old rhythm section of Brian “Licquorice” Locking and Brian Bennett (Bennett drums with the Shadows to this day; Locking subsequently left and was replaced by the late John Rostill to form what was probably the Shadows’ most efficient and solid manifestation). Some say that an element of danger was forever lost from the Shadows at that point, and their records immediately became more benign; the daft optimism of “Kon-Tiki” for instance (recorded with Locking and Bennett), and more problematically their 1962 eight-week chart-topper “Wonderful Land.”

If the Shadows’ records were now ostensibly brighter, they were also noticeably more elegiac. No doubt intended as a kind of British equivalent of the Duane Eddy/Lee Hazlewood smash “Because They’re Young,” Paramor’s orchestral overdubs made “Wonderful Land” the Shadows’ most successful record, but only in part; the rest of it was down to British hope. Although Bruce Welch in particular was sceptical about adding anything to the basic Shadows sonic template, the track carries an indelible sadness (and note, in the wordless chorus, the first appearance of voices on this record) since it is not only a song of hope for a 1962 Britain that deserved a better future than the one it got – see also “Telstar” and “I Remember You” – but it is also a regretful acknowledgement that the future which the song promises might never actually come to pass. The lament which Marvin plays in the song’s middle eight becomes even more poignant, the strings and French horn never more unreachable. The song is like a hymn to Britain, and was an immense influence on, among many would-be guitarists, Mike Oldfield (who later covered the song).

Perhaps the Shadows were aware that time was already starting to overtake them. The aforementioned “Telstar,” number one everywhere in the autumn of 1962, seemed to come from a place that the Shadows were unable to reach; unquestionably futuristic, slightly threatening but ultimately one of the saddest pop records ever made, Meek knowing that he was probably already living on injury time. Meanwhile, the big American instrumental hit of late ’62 was Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” where Dale’s lightning rod of a guitar seems to smirk a gigantic fuck-you to any notions of politesse.

In contrast, the Shadows’ then-hit “Guitar Tango” sounded like Geraldo trying to keep up with the New Thing; this is where Paramor’s arrangements start to compensate for the song, rather than add to its flavours, although admirers of “Oh Well” (Marvin’s close-miked semi-acoustic) and Forever Changes (the trumpets) may find profitable study material here. In even starker contrast, “Diamonds,” the first hit from Harris and Meehan as a self-sufficient act (although written by Jerry Lordan, the author of “Apache” and “Wonderful Land”) seemed like an aural approximation of the balls the other Shadows were too scared to show, although the career of this potentially revolutionary group was cut short due to personal mishaps outside this tale’s scope.

And then there were the Beatles. And then there was their fucking boss with his eagerness to please everybody and his films which required the Shadows to frolic about with Richard O’Sullivan and Melvyn Hayes and his fucking panto seasons – as mild-mannered Brian Bennett once remarked to Bob Stanley in MOJO magazine: “Getting thrown through a mangle by Arthur Askey every afternoon wasn’t what I had in mind when I started drumming.” Add to this most grotesque of nightmares a basic wage of £50 per week which remained basic for most of the group’s existence.

In 1963, “Dance On!” and “Foot Tapper” (the latter improbably commissioned but never used by Jacques Tati) indicated some kind of vague toughening-up in response to the nascent Merseybeat. On “Dance On!,” the closing track on 20 Golden Greats (don’t worry; everything’s all right), Marvin’s generous leg-up guitar figures still portray good humour (the track, if anything, sounds like a prototype backing track for the Hollies, and I’m sure Tony Hicks and Graham Nash took careful note). “Foot Tapper,” still used as the theme to Radio 2’s Sounds Of The Sixties, also works well as a feature for Bennett’s drums. But “Atlantis,” also written by Lordan, and a #2 hit in the summer of 1963, plays like “Wonderful Land” gone wrong, as though the Promised Land had been flooded out of existence; Marvin’s Morse code guitar is high and terse, and the group circle rather morosely around the song’s key centre, trying to break away but always ending up back in the same place. Still, here as before, there is a tentative reaching out in Marvin’s playing that very closely echoes what ardent Winnipeg fan Neil Young was about to do; at this point he is in a Shadows-style group called The Squires, along with the young Randy Bachman (although in general the Shadows influence with Bachman tends to come out more with Bachman-Turner Overdrive than it did with the Guess Who).

However, “Shindig,” from that autumn, tries to keep the heads-up atmosphere of “Dance On!” but has to struggle to maintain it; Lena thinks the song is less about a “shindig” than travelling to one. And Paramor drowns “Geronimo” with trumpets, choirs and strings both arco and pizzicato, doing little other than smoothing over a below par tune (significantly, it became the first Shadows single to miss the UK Top Ten).

Through 1964 they really had little choice but to try and toughen up. Welch’s “Theme For Young Lovers” has a curious Scottish tone to its balladry (and a melody line highly reminiscent of Slade’s later “My Oh My”) but didn’t do quite as well as “Geronimo.” “The Rise And Fall Of Flingel Bunt,” evolving out of a group jam, was a sufficiently strong and forceful performance to put them back in the Top Five; the piano and rhythm predicating “Groovin’ With Mr Bloe,” the air somewhat funky – there are strains of Motown and, thanks to the piano, even deeper strains of Stax; Marvin’s commendably aggressive lead line sounding very close to Steve Cropper. However, it wasn’t enough; the excellent “Rhythm And Greens” failed even to make the Top 20, though “Genie With The Light Brown Lamp” did a little better and is a key performance here; you can hear the Shadows doing their best to move onto the next stage – more than once, they hit on a drone and tenuously hang onto it, and there is a suggestion of feedback at the fadeout. Topping the chart at the same time, however, was “I Feel Fine” with its opening two seconds of unapologetic feedback; it was hard to escape the feeling that the Shadows’ disciples had not only caught up with them, but were signalling to overtake.

Thereafter they hung on as best they could. As 20 Golden Greats concentrates on their instrumental work alone, there is no room for their now occasional forays into singing (“Mary-Anne,” “Don’t Make My Baby Blue”; they did begin life as an Everlys-style vocal/instrumental group) and that is perhaps just as well; by opening their mouths the (men of) mystery vanished and they revealed themselves as just another reasonable, harmless harmony pop group scarcely distinguishable from the Rockin’ Berries or the Four Pennies.

Marvin was now intent on sounding as little like “Hank Marvin” as possible. Thus 1965’s “Stingray” is deliberately jarring, his low guitar tones fed through a fuzzbox (“like a wasp stuck in a jamjar” he later reflected), although the track is not devoid of merit; there is the hint of what sounds like a sitar in the aural middleground, and the group’s general strategy of attack is not that dissimilar from Deep Purple. Similarly, “The War Lord” is a rather menacing prototype of medieval prog-rock, with judicious use of Picardy thirds in its light-footed waltz and an approach that leads directly to the work of Jethro Tull and King Crimson. 1966’s “A Place In The Sun” has a tempo and rhythm section approach which could easily lend itself to “Maggie May” but also an anguished lead guitar which, again, very strongly recalls Neil Young.

The last track to feature here – their only hit of 1967, and also their last hit of any kind for nearly eight years – is “Maroc 7,” the theme to a hugely forgettable Swinging London cops-‘n’-robbers caper of a film featuring the incompatible likes of Gene Barry, Cyd Charisse, Denholm Elliott and Leslie Phillips in its cast. Here the Shadows are barely hanging on to being “The Shadows”; Marvin is scarcely recognisable (again, sounding closer to sitar than guitar), and it is down to an angry Bennett to take the track out with a torrential drum rampage.

Their last single, the aforementioned “Slaughter On 10th Avenue,” lasted over five minutes, came out in early 1969 and was heard by few and bought by fewer, but I should mention it here since I won’t have another opportunity in this tale to do so. The group must have looked at the number one success of “Albatross” – a record unimaginable without the precedent of the Shadows, and probably unchartable had the Shadows released it - with no small degree of regret and frustration. Or indeed at the continued success of their Stateside equivalents, the Ventures, who in 1969 enjoyed the biggest-selling single of their career with the theme tune to “Hawaii Five-O.” Almost in terms of a last-ditch attempt to summon up past ghosts, Hank displays every guitar style he can think of during “Slaughter” – fuzzbox again, delicate acoustic picking, wah-wah pedal – before finally walking into the sunset with his original tremolo arm from “Apache.” The echo which will refuse to die. In the year of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner,” it must have seemed dreadfully out of place, and in a foray of unpleasant engagements in Northern working men’s clubs, rendered inaudible by drunk catcalls for “Apache,” the band agreed they’d had enough, and split.

The history for the next decade was unfocused but valiant; a group calling themselves Marvin, Welch and Farrar made a brave attempt to become the UK’s CSNY, and then Eurovision prompted a reunion. With 20 Golden Greats, the effect was somewhat similar to The Jolson Story; the sorrowful nostalgia raised by the record brought the group themselves back into the spotlight and helped power their unexpected late seventies/early eighties second wind; this is not the last we’ll see of them.

But what to make of the Shadows as a whole, based on these twenty tracks? Lena describes them as a “trans-specific land bridge” through which every subsequent band of note had to walk before they could gain access to the future. The influence of early workouts like “The Savage” on the likes of the Beatles cannot be understated; one of their early attempts to write their own songs was a Paul and George instrumental entitled “Cry For A Shadow,” and it is indisputable that they and every other budding British band of the period would have had to learn to reproduce these songs. As far as their association with Cliff is concerned, I like to think of their concerts and followings as a pretty straightforward boy/girl split; girls screaming at Cliff, boys trudging up to Hank and Bruce and asking about tunings and pedals.

However, although their music is surprisingly soothing, given the times in which it was made – and their use of space can properly be described as hugely influential – I suspect that the group’s concomitant obligations to be backing band and/or foils to another performer also did for their long-term credibility; in an environment of Kinks, Who and Yardbirds, the Shadows must have come across as terminally square, and I don’t think that is remotely their fault – again and again, even here, you can hear them making more than manful efforts to escape their aesthetic straitjackets. Still, why so big in 1977, TV advertising and nostalgia notwithstanding? Perhaps the secret lies in Jefferey Edwards’ cover drawing; three “shadow” guitars casting their shades across a bedroom. The moral? That anyone with three guitars in their bedroom could make music like this, although the music itself undemonstrably proves that, in actuality, very few could (the Shadows’ work pulls off the trick of sounding simple in theory but being devilishly complicated in practice). Still, what the Shadows undeniably proved was that, with three guitars and a drum kit, you could, with a lot of effort, application and love, make pretty much whatever music you wanted to. Oh, and the tall, saturnine figure of John Rostill would not have been at all out of place in Joy Division.