Saturday 27 April 2013

Shakin' STEVENS: Shaky

(#255: 7 November 1981, 1 week)

Track listing: Mona Lisa/You Drive Me Crazy/I’m Knockin’/It’s Raining/Don’t She Look Good/Green Door/Don’t Bug Me Baby/Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles/I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter/This Time/Baby You’re A Child/Don’t Turn Your Back/Let Me Show You How/I’m Lookin’

Nearly six years after Max Boyce gathered up the Welsh working class vote, here we are again, but this time it is much more problematic. I have to admit that I do feel rather deflated coming out of Dare, and its promises for the future, only to find myself back in “The Fifties” or even earlier – “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” dates from 1935. Say what you will about this record or this artist, though; the demographic was almost entirely conservative (with a small “c”) blue collar working class, looking to roll back the carpets and push back the sofas of a weekend evening, open the drinks cabinet and get a party started, even if only to remember what they once were.

It ought to be remembered that Shakin’ Stevens still had a good degree of credibility when his cover of “This Ole House” went to number one in March 1981; most people saw it as due reward for a dozen or more years of hard, sweaty gigging. Similarly, his backing band of this period was far from rubbish, including as it did fellow Cardiff players like the late Mickey Gee on guitar and Geraint Watkins on keyboards as well as stalwarts like BJ Cole and bassist/producer/Shaky reinventor/updater/sometime Radio 1 DJ Stuart Colman (the saxophonist Sid Phillips was not the celebrated British dance band leader, who died in 1973).

So, to put it very simply, Shaky, as a record, knocks Showaddywaddy out of the ballpark; the music is lighter, more febrile, and Stevens and his players appear to be having a much better time making it; the feeling throughout is very much of a live performance – were there any overdubs? – with plenty of encouraging whooping and hollering from the singer himself. If all you wanted in 1981 was a straight down the line, good time party rock ‘n’ roll record, then Shaky certainly fit the bill.

It didn’t really matter that by the autumn of 1981 Stevens, who had in part risen to such great success on the back of the rockabilly revival, was not remotely hip, or that by November 1981 rock ‘n’ roll had ventured as far as Prayers On Fire or Damaged. Nobody I knew of my age liked him particularly, or bought his records. He just didn’t register on my radar. And yet he was phenomenally and persistently popular; statistically he is the most successful performer on the UK singles chart of the entire eighties, and probably the only artist to have Top 40 hits every year of that decade, without qualifications – Phil Collins appears every year between 1980-9, either as a soloist or one-third of Genesis; Cliff Richard had Top 40 hits as a solo artist every year except 1986, when he had two top three hits in collaboration with other performers; Paul Weller also turns up in each year, as a member of either the Jam or the Style Council (and honourable mention should be made of the Cure, who managed to get Top 50 hits every year of the eighties, even if, in 1981 and 1988, these did not penetrate as far as the Top 40). In overall 1981 singles popularity he was probably second only to CBS labelmates Adam and the Ants.

Why such popularity? Because Stevens supplied a security blanket for people living in fear of the future, of Mrs Thatcher and perhaps also of themselves. Listening to Shaky, one admires the technical skill of the players, the sharpness of the production and Stevens’ evident commitment to the music – but there is no thrill, no otherness, no Jerry Lee threats, no Vincent strangeness. There is certainly little in the way of Elvis, even the never-more-popular middle-stage Elvis Stevens played on stage in the year of punk; it rocks but doesn’t particularly roll.

And yet it is not accurate to assume that Shakin’ Stevens is free of menace. Remember that, in the late sixties, he and his band, the Sunsets (which at one point included Mickey Gee in their line-up), were making their reputation as a gigging band, playing, amongst other things, benefits for the Young Communist League, in the shadow of the Prague Spring. And looking at the cover and inner inset of Shaky does not set me at rest. On the cover, he is spotlit, on a staircase, grasping blindly at a banister, pointing his right forefinger away from the camera and towards the right, wearing a one-button pink drape jacket and black shirt and jeans; he is not quite smiling and his eyes exude a deep threat (he was now thirty-three). On the back year he is glaring from a chair, ready to pounce, with eyeshadow and mascara, bearing a curious half-grin; he looks almost like the uncle of that other troubled 1981 Welsh pop star, Steve Strange. Inside, we see a monochrome picture of him perched on the bonnet of a fancy car (number plate: AUR 32S) in front of a fancy country mansion (or perhaps it’s in Chiswick, just up the road from Eden Studios, where Shaky was recorded). He looks like Bryan Ferry, except that Ferry would never be seen dead in denim jacket and jeans, and also would never essay such a scowl; Stevens’ eyes never smile, suggest that they are capable of darker, worse things.

“Mona Lisa” is done á la Conway Twitty’s version, reinstating the verse Nat “King” Cole left out. “Mmmm…” Stevens drools after the first chorus. “You Drive Me Crazy,” custom written for Stevens by Ronnie Harwood, once of Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, and kept off number one only by “Stand And Deliver,” features some good guitar work from Gee – towards fadeout he alternately tickles and growls – and some nice pop touches (the echo-chamber snare doubling Stevens’ “train on a track”). “I’m Knockin’,” one of five Stevens originals, suggests that he might be going for the Antmusic vote with a percussion-dominant background and a vocal which, not for the last time on this record, is reminiscent of Robert Plant (“I’m not saying this for su-hu-hu-hurrr-re”) with a terrifying cackle at fadeout; indeed, given the subsequent example of the Honeydrippers, one wonders whether a Zeppelin with a surviving Bonham might not have done something similar as a one-off roots revival record.

“It’s Raining” is Allen Toussaint and Stevens handles it very well with some outstanding piano by Watkins, but as a single it’s hard to see how it justified sharing chart space with “O Superman” and “Open Your Heart,” although there are moments – “I can hardly catch my bre-EATH” – when Stevens’ voice echoes that of the later Lennon. “Don’t She Look Good” continues to remind us that Stevens, by and large, didn’t go for obvious covers; this rocker was composed by Joey Spampinato, bassist of NRBQ. He handles “Green Door,” that mixed metaphor of a fifties song, with the right combination of camp and self-awareness, inserting several different varieties of laugh into his performance. “Don’t Bug Me Baby” is polite franticity (“You squirm like a lizard when you hold me tight”), though does imply some indirect awareness of the 1981 of Computer World (“I don’t wanna bug in my lovin’ machine!”).

Side two begins with a very decent Don Gibson reading (“Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles”) and Stevens has great fun with “Sit Right Down,” slowing it down to barrelhouse/Longhair tempo with handclaps (there are clap-along moments throughout the album, a subtler variant on CBS labelmates Star Sound) and superb soloing and comping from Gee. But note Stevens’ final, whispered “yeah” beneath Gee’s vanishing cloud of guitar flourish at song’s end.

“This Time” by Memphis R&B veteran Chips Moman, is handled with great aplomb, Stevens not at all put off by the bizarre flamenco Spanish guitar runs which open and conclude the song. The rest of the album is given over to Stevens originals, all modestly inventive variants on basic rock ‘n’ roll templates; though both “Don’t Turn Your Back” and especially “Let Me Show You How” make me think of Plant again (the lyric to the latter is absolute get-your-freak-on level Zeppelin) with Stevens having a shark of a time, if not quite a whale, talking to musicians, cueing musicians in, etc. The closing “I’m Lookin’” is “That’s All Right Mama” cranked up to 170 epileptic rpm, frantic, clucking and conclusive.

If you didn’t care to think about it more, you’d probably be happy enough with the record, although it should be noted that, even though it went platinum, it did not appear on CD until 2009, and then only as part of Stevens’ The Epic Masters box set. There may be reasons for this; there is one song I have held back – “Baby You’re A Child,” and it is with some dismay that enterprising listeners are thrown right back into the worst memes of pre-eighties rock and pop. It is a regrettable song in the way that “Young Girl,” “Hot Legs” and “Does Your Mother Know” are regrettable. It is cast more or less in the mould of Presley’s “Teddy Bear” – until it slows down to a raucous “The Stripper” tempo and Stevens yells, lasciviously, “So throw away your teddy!” and then the face of the listener freezes into rictus. If anything, it sounds, as much of the rest of Shaky sounds, old fashioned; old, exhausted ways of doing things which even in 1981 should have been more fiercely questioned. Who was buying this stuff in 1981? Perhaps it was the parents, aunts and uncles of the people whose idea of rock ‘n’ roll was more in the line of another of that autumn’s releases, namely For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) by AC/DC, a record next to which Shaky amiably curls up and dies. Perhaps it is best simply to move on as there really is nothing to see here.

Next: “What do you mean, the all-time biggest-selling album in the UK approaching?”