„Down in the Bunker“: Preliminary artistic highlight with a lot of new things (which nevertheless fit the „old“), but only in Scandinavia becomes a sales hit (1978)

Image above: Replica of an advertisement of the record company for the album „Down In The Bunker“. (More about this ad in the text)

After „Tulane“ a lot changed – also the appearance of the band

With the chart placement of „Tulane“, the Steve Gibbons Band finally had a pound to grow with – one might think.

But when you look back today, the subjective perception of the band (and/or management) seems to have been different. Which is not surprising if you take a break from the artistic side and take a look at the commercial side. After all, the band (especially the bandleader) and the management, had to justify not only advance praise – but also the expenses for record production, PR and advance on future revenues.

And all this in a musical environment that hadn’t necessarily waited for a family man in his mid-thirties who wanted to combine rock ’n‘ roll tradition and the radio experiences of his childhood with his preferences for written and narrated stories, which were then presented in an excellently musically accompanied mono-drama.

These may have been some of the reasons why SGB, having hardly ever arrived on the middle lane of the successful motorway with „Tulane“, saw the changes accumulate.

New image and new producer

The most obvious of these changes was that apparently the whole band had booked group appointments at hairdressers, balbiers and men’s outfitters, and now appeared rejuvenated and more streamlined (but still with an „unbourgeois“ image, but also miles away from the punk that was hip at the time, which for reasons of age had never been achieved anyway).

Also acoustically a lot was changed. As with the musical aspect, the „brand core“ remained untouched. Not selling out or following any fashion trends were on the agenda, but fine tuning and reorientation within the terrain that one could and wanted to cover.

This was accompanied by a change of producer. Kenny Laguna left and with Tony Visconti  another American came. A quite prominent one with a lot of experience in the British rock scene. Among others he had worked with the Sparks, Thin Lizzy, The Boomtown Rats, The Stranglers and The Moody Blues. His best calling card, however, was his long collaboration with David Bowie, for whom he has worked repeatedly as producer and musician since the album Space Oddity (1969).

Bowie`s sound master for Brum Rock

The down-to-earth rocker Gibbons, who could be mistaken for a Southern musician, and the producer of David Bowie, who first built up an audience with music he himself called Plastic Soul, then, during his Berlin phase from 1977 to 1979 under the influence of German sound pioneers, shocked audiences with experimental rock and electronic music: How does that go together?

Once you have got an idea of the interconnections among the British music scene of the time, the combination Gibbons-Visconti is less surprising than it may seem today in retrospect. And also musically, looking back on the career of Steve Gibbons, who is becoming increasingly musically broad-minded and thus wants to free himself from the image of being the boss of a band that eats thumbtacks for breakfast, makes perfect sense.

Visconti: Co-musician and congenial obstetrician

The website German „Beatniks Music Corner“ brings the influence of Viconti somewhat lengthy, but to the point:

„Down In The Bunker“, excellently produced by Tony Visconti, was something like the musical highlight of Steve Gibbon’s work so far in 1979. The musician has never sounded so consistently melodically related and commercial. Very important was the fact that this album did not appeal to the taste of the masses, which was never Steve Gibbons ambition. He always wanted to be the honest Rock’n’Roll musician, which he masterfully achieved on this album.

It was mainly thanks to Tony Visconti that this production turned out so wonderfully opulent and warm, but without appearing exuberant or even overproduced. Visconti simply gave the songs a big additional shine by focusing on the polyphonic vocal arrangements that Steve Gibbons liked to arrange anyway, and by creating great vocal productions. Visconti also played an active role on the album, for example in the grandiose title track „Down In The Bunker“, where he contributed the Moog. The title track sounded almost like a number from the first Dire Straits

The title track ended up sounding almost like a number from the first Dire Straits LP, enriched with a great lap steel guitar, played by Dave Carroll plus Visconti’s rich arrangement.

On other songs Tony Visconti also contributed as an almost style-defining musician and producer, for example for the title „Down In The City Street“ he went out on the street with a recorder to record typical city sounds for authenticity, which were then added to the song. Or he gave the soft and very comfortably swaying country rock number „Big JC“ a silky soft depth with an electric double bass.

Besides Visconti, one of the most striking musicians on the record was saxophonist Nick Pentelow, who had previously played in Roy Wood’s band Wizzard. Not only did he contribute wonderful saxophone sounds, but in some songs he even acted as a sound-determining instrumentalist, for example in „Chelita“, the deeply sad story about a stranded girl who had reached the bottom of life: „Oh Chelita, don’t throw your life away, don’t let the devil take you, find a new way“. Finally, the bassman  Trevor Burton, who also played acoustic guitar, was also able to set beautiful accents. Burton also came from Wizzard, but was already part of Roy Wood’s first band The Move.

Among the strongest songs on the album were, besides the ones already mentioned, certainly the groovy opener „No Spitting On The Bus“, the following quasi-shuffle „Any Road Up“, the rock’n’roll song „Eddie Vortex“ and in this context certainly „When You Get Outside“. Especially when Gibbons made use of some typical style elements of the 50s, he sounded simply irresistible, like built-in „Shoop-Shoop“ choirs or a Twang guitar of the brand Duane Eddy. Finally, a surprise track was the number „Grace“, for which Tony Visconti not only played a vibrapiano, but also the world famous London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Katz was included. Trevor Burton played an excellent electric lead guitar in this piece. This song turned out to be the most opulent title of the whole record, but was – and this is certainly Tony Visconti’s merit – the only song in such an extensive arrangement dress, which made it shine all the more on the record.

Tony Visconti certainly implemented Steve Gibbon’s musical ideas in the most sophisticated way, „Down In The Bunker“ as a whole seems much more playful, much more varied and above all more professionally produced than Gibbons‘ other albums.

What came out of the collaboration with Visconti was, some say, the best Steve Gibbons album ever. (Since „Chasing tales“ in the 2000’s we wouldn’t sign that sentence!)

Reviews of the album

The Steve Gibbons Band: The better alternative to the Dire Straits?

The parallel to the Dire Straits has already been drawn above. It is said that there were even people who thought that the song „Down In The Bunker“ was from the Dire Straits.
In addition, excerpts from some reviews of re-issues of various LPs of the SGB on CD use this comparison:

Like Dire Straits, the guitars tend to be bendable and fluid, the vocals a little grimy and unpolished, the production edgy and bright.

I’d agree with the other reviewer that used Dire Straits as a comparison, although Steve Gibbons has a more rootsy edge, veering into Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley territory at times

While all of this is going on, ultra-tasty guitar leads fill the gaps between vocal lines, very much in the style of Dire Straits‘ „Sultans Of Swing“. It’s a great song, highly recommended especially for Mark Knopfler fans.

The album this was on had, what seemed at the time, a progressive song about racial mixing, like why not, and some other rock songs. And it had this obvious chart attempt, mixing Gibbons‘ rock heart with Dire Straits‘ lyricism. I find the music quite winning, as I do all of Dire Straits when that style is working.

What are the songs about?

The statements above say a lot about the music, so maybe a few words about the content of the songs on „Down in the Bunker“.

Brett Hartenbach for example wrote:

Musically and vocally, Down in the Bunker shows obvious American influences, but lyrically Gibbons‘ songs touch on questions of class, race, sexual orientation, and trends, with a decidedly British bent. Tracks like „No Spitting on the Bus“ and „Down in the City“ paint a picture of urban life in England, ranging from its most mundane to its very edge, while „Mary Ain’t Goin‘ Home“ is a thoughtful yet never heavy-handed look at race and love. Elsewhere, two of the record’s best tracks, the mythical „Big J.C.“ and the strange postwar golf amalgam of the title cut, suggest certain periods but also seem to defy a definite stamp of time, much like the record’s post-pub rock rock & roll. „Big J.C.“ hints at the Old West without necessarily committing, while „Down in the Bunker“ has a more ominous, futuristic, and militaristic feel that seems almost Orwellian at times. Compared with Down in the Bunker, Gibbons‘ first two major-label studio efforts seem like merely promising indicators of a career that don’t really prepare you for what’s to come.

Controversial: The song „Down in the Bunker“

We don’t want to hide the fact that not everyone thinks the album is great. The music is praised throughout, but the song „Down in the Bunker“ causes some difficulties.

It has to be said that the song allows different possibilities to allows to read out different stories – or to interpret them into the text.

Some people even think it has something to do with golf, because it’s also about handicaps and bunkers and balls you can lose. You can see it that way, but you don’t have to.

It’s probably more likely that it’s actually about war. Whether it is the first or the second world war, you can argue about that again. Why do you make such a warlike scenario the subject of a rock song? Those who were of conscript age in Europe at the end of the 1970s will probably understand this relatively well.

But then again there is the line that „the girl in the bunker was flashing her beautiful body“.

Peter on http://www.rockremnants.com comments as follows:

But the lyrics? The concept? OMG. What is this story? It seems to be based on the idea that WWII soldiers, during the war or just after, find a naked girl in the bunker, and then stuff happens, as long as one doesn’t lose… um, well, that’s it. Well, until they um… How far do they go? No one knows.

I’ll be the last to inhibit anyone’s fantasies, in private, but if you’re going to turn this loaded scenario into a hit song, Steve Gibbons, you should do better. Great tune, really bad lyrics, unless on the off chance your fantasy involves women disrupted by war (and naked) desiring soldiers to, um, satisfy their desires. That would be B-movie worthy, at least a little, even if exploitable. But in the context of Gibbons’ song, the women have no desires at all. That’s too bad.

It is the duty of the chronicler to report even critical voices.

Let’s leave it at that for now. Although we personally think that much more well-meaning interpretations of this song would also be possible. And if you listen to other Steve Gibbons songs, you will recognize an image of women in them that has little to do with „“women have no desires at all. That’s too bad.“.

Positive reviews

Overall, the positive criticisms outweighed the negative ones. And a lot of reviews read as if the album had finally achieved the long awaited commercial breakthrough. Some who reviewed the work positively, however, had doubts even then that it would have the deserved success with the public.

Hans-Will Andersen, for example, wrote in SOUNDS 8/1978 about an album where the songs would show „on closer listening the one or the other part already heard“. But all in all he thought that it was a record that „he really was taken by it„. And with the title song he listened to music that „immediately put him in a good mood„.
Nevertheless, he started his record review with the statement

„Unfortunately, the band is unknown to most rock lovers in our latitudes.“

and concludes with a appeal:

… give the guys a chance, after the fourth record at the latest you shouldn’t miss them anymore.

With this request, which somehow sounded as if the author himself did not fully believe in its realization, he set the tone for many other reviews that can be found on the Internet on the occasion of various re-publications:

Now he career of the singer and guitarist, who is now heading for his forties could finally have started! The conditions for this were pretty good, the band delivered eleven partly outrageously catchy songs with their third studio album DOWN IN THE BUNKER, released in 1978, excellently produced by the legendary Tony Visconti (T.Rex, David Bowie, Strawbs, Gentle Giant, Carmen, Thin Lizzy etc.).

Musically inspired by Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly’s classic „Not Fade Away“, the opener „No Spitting on the Bus“ not only told a funny everyday story, but was so catchy that you literally couldn’t get rid of it for days. The only question was: Why didn’t the record company release this number as a single?

Instead, the Rock’n’Roller „Eddy Vortex“, reminiscent of „Tulane“, was released but only reached number 56 in the English charts. And as the second single they chose the wrong song again, because the title track „Down in the Bunker“, which anticipates (or copies?) Dire Straits a bit, was great, but not typical radio friendly.

The group was part of the pub rock movement that was rampant on the island at the time, from which successful acts such as Dire Straits, Sniff’n’the Tears, Dr. Feelgood and Chris Spedding emerged around the same time. Their musical influences came from Rock’n’Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Folkrock, spiced with a knife point of Reggae. The slogan was: Always relaxed!

Idols were, among many others, above all songwriter Bob Dylan and the casual laidback legend J.J. Cale. Dylan’s handwriting was especially evident here in songs like „Big J.C.“ and the catchy tune „Chelita“, J.J. Cale peered over the shoulders in „Any Road Up“ and „Mary Ain’t Goin‘ Home“. „Any Road Up“ was used by Mark Knopfler as a template for many a later Dire Straits song. And the final title „Grace“ brought a nice album to a harmonic finale with slight East Asian influences.

If things had gone the right way back then, the Steve Gibbons Band would have had at least one top-twenty album in their quiver with DOWN IN THE BUNKER, and „No Spitting on the Bus“, released as a single, might have reached the top of the charts around the world. But it just wasn’t meant to be. Nevertheless you can still listen to the record today. (Dennis Stephens)

And also in Sweden (a country we will come back to in a moment) the record met with appreciative reviews, which also noticed positive changes in sound and outfit:

„Down in the Bunker“ is something completely different. At least with regard to … the production. As an established producer (David Bowie, T Rex, The Move, Thin Lizzy etc.) Tony Visconti does not try to disguise the personality of the music of the Steve Gibbons Band …

Even visually, on the record cover, you can see the band’s evolution from a long haired and more or less bearded band to a free and picturesque rather stylish band. … Visconti changed and refined the songs of Gibbons with very careful means, … with elegance being the main ingredient. With the help of some keyboards, steel guitars and saxophone the Gibbons band became a bit softer, but without losing the personality or the contact to the Rock’n’Roll roots. „

Record company beats the drum

The excellent first solo record of Steve Gibbons went down without a sound because the record company had hardly advertised it at that time. With „Down in the Bunker“ it was different.

In Great Britain, advertisements were placed in which a young soldier in a dark bunker in a comic-strip style black-and-white drawing, into which the flashes of light from explosions penetrate, anxiously asks his superior: „Hey Sarge, what’s going on?
„Relax Son, It’s Steve Gibbons Band making a new album“.

The PR campaign in the USA was also very martial. In August 1978, full-page ads appeared in the US magazine Billboard (other acts for which the record company made similar efforts in this issue were Joe Cocker, Glady Night and the Pips and the soundtrack for the film adaptation of Sgt. Pepper „All This and WW II“ with the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and many others):

Get „Down In The Bunker. The new Steve Gibbons Band Album is highly expolsive and certified bombproof“

is what it said on the upper half of the page above the black-and-white photograph of a multi-storey apartment building, in whose front garden a hole leads into the ground. And on the lower half of the page a text in three columns announces

Steve Gibbons has shaved his beard, reared back and blasted out his strongest album of rock and roll yet.

But don`t take our not-unbiadsd opinion. Listen to the overwhelming response coming from every place there are people with ears.

After that some praise follows. In one of them it says again with a martial subtone:

Here Steve shows a two-edged wrtiting and performing sword which is not to be taken lightly.

Then it is reported that songs like „No Spittng On The Bus“, „Chelita“ and „Down in the Bunker“ triggered „shock waves“ in various „heavyweight AOR stations“, i.e. radio stations that play mainly album-oriented rock, in different states.

And indeed, if you read the reviews of SGB’s re-released CDs on US-American websites, you will find several comments telling you that the songs from this album were regularly played on alternative radio stations.
Another ad in the USA, which closed with the slogan: „Down in the Bunker“ Uplifting Rock and Roll“, praised the album as follows:

Down In The Bunker“ is chock full of incisive wit, grooming tips, and good advice like „No Spitting On The Bus“.

And Steve Gibbons proper English men, polished by his years of fame as an English rock star, make songs like „Down In The Bunker“, „Eddie Vortex, „Chelita“ and „Any Road Up“ welcome in the finest homes and public places. And despite the „girl in the bunker, flashing her beautiful body“, the album is rated PG.

By the way: „Rated PG“ stands for „Parental Guidance Suggested“  This is the case if the content has the following components: „Mildly strong language, some violence, no substance abuse“.

Was it worth the effort?

Despite this advertising effort, the LP did not make it into the charts in either the UK or the USA.

In Great Britain, the song „Eddy Vortex“, which was released as a single, only made it into the Top 100 for four weeks between June 15th and June 3rd 1978, where it reached position 56 as the highest position. In the US charts neither the LP nor the single „No Spitting On The Bus“, which was released there, left a trace.

Some claim that this was also due to the selection of the singles that were released. Especially „Eddy Vortex“ was just a copy of a Chuck Berry song and therefore too close to „Tulane“ and not representative enough for the new SGB style. Which is probably true. Would „No Spittin`on The Bus“ have been the better choice?

It’s possible. It doesn’t speak against that either, that in the USA just this song was released as a single and couldn’t score.

In favour of releasing this song as a single in the USA, a certain rhythmic and superficial thematic affinity with „Magic Bus“ by The Who may have spoken for it. On closer inspection, the theme of the liberal bus driver, who leads a strict regime inside his vehicle, is not necessarily a topic that US-Americans can identify with (who likes to take the bus there?). Therefore the song would have had the better cards at home, as Gibbons was probably as close to the British soul with it as only the Kinks had otherwise managed in their best hours.

Top act in Sweden

The LP was more popular in Germany and Scandinavia than in his home country and the USA. And in Sweden it even broke records. There the album sold 100,000 copies. This corresponds to a sale of three million LPs in the USA at that time!

Will be continued.

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