From Birmingham via the Isle of Man to Memphis (1991 to 1993)

Studio recording as technical demonstration

Is history repeating itself or not? Judge for yourself:

Moody Blues: Studio Band Job Leads to Chart Hit

In 1967 Moody Blues, also a band from Birmingham, were at a crossroads. The last hit was a long time ago and after Danny Lane’s departure a distinctive band member was missing. The band performed in the provinces and took a part-time job as  studio band for a record company.

The company booked the band for recordings to demonstrate the technical possibilities of it`s recording system „Deramic Sound Systems“. Moody Blues was to record Dvorak’s „New World Symphony“ with the London Festival Orchestra. The record company hoped that this pairing would demonstrate to customers just how dynamic and powerful their recording methods are.

The_Moody_Blues_923-9509
Moody Blues 1970 source: Wikipedia :From Nationaal Archief, The Hague, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), CC0

Record company hires band to demonstrate technical recording possibilities

It didn’t happen. Instead of the „New World Symphony“ in a mixture between orchestra and band, „Nights in White Satin“, a pop song with orchestral accompaniment, came on record.

The rest is pop history. And a record that would not have been possible without the desire of a company to show its technical recording capabilities with the help of a rock band.

Steve Gibbon’s Band 1991: Successful company party lays the roots for the next record

Two and a half decades later, in the early 1990s: The Steve Gibbons Band has long since passed its zenith. In a musical world in which down-to-earth rock was no longer popular, the band survived somehow due to it`s reputation as an excellent live band, its former fame and loyal fans who, despite all fashions, insisted on quality and hand-made music. Besides regular concerts they also play at company events. „Bread and butter“ gigs is what Steve once called on other occasions those gigs that help to pay the rent and the electricity bill and fill the fridge.

One of these gigs took place in 1991 at the company Linn Records. Linn manufactures high quality stereo systems. At that time, the company also sold records in the classical and jazz genres, which were also used in the shops to demonstrate the quality of their own products to lovers of these music genres.

This music was without a doubt of high quality music, but it was not suitable for the closing party for dealers and employees after a trade fair. That is why the Steve Gibbons Band was hired for such an event. Their performance was very well received. And made Linn’s management think about how to put the sound and excitement of that evening’s performance on record.

They also had in mind that a well-produced rock record, which could demonstrate the quality of their own equipment to rock fans, could also open up a new customer base for the company. Therefore it was decided to extend the range of self-produced records by a „trial balloon“ from the rock category, more precisely: with a new studio record of the Steve Gibbons Band.

Good things take time, old friends and new faces

It took „a little“ while to implement this plan. In July 1993 the band was in the studio for six days, which are said to have been very sunny. „The band“ were in that case:

  • Steve Gibbons (lead vocals, guitar, harmonica),
  • P. J. Wright (guitar, vocals),
  • Bob Wilson (guitar),
  • Brian Badhams (bass guitar, vocals) and
  • Brendan Day (drums)

At the mixing desk, no wonder, given the ambitions with which this work was brought to life, someone who had already worked with important names elsewhere was hired. We re talking about the Scotsman Calum Malcolm, who began his career in 1977 with The Headboys and later supervised works by The Blue Nile, Clannad, Nazareth, Mark Knopfler, Prefab Sprout, Runrig, Simple Minds and Wet Wet Wet, among others.

The CD (and last LP) „From Birmingham to Memphis“

More Birmingham than Memphis

In this line-up they recorded a mixture of original compositions by Steve Gibbons and cover versions.

As far as the cover versions are concerned, the mention of Memphis is a bit misleading.

The second largest city in the US state of Tennessee on the Mississippi is usually associated with „The Home of the Blues“, especially artists such as Memphis Minnie, or B.B. King, then Sam Phillips and his record company Sun Records, which some call the delivery room at the birth of Rock ’n‘ Roll, come to mind. Others think in connection with the city on the Mississippi River, of artists like Elvis, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Muddy Waters. If you’re more interested in the 1960s, Memphis Soul will definitely be something you connect with Memphis. Oh yes: Country and Gospel music is also famous there. (Actually quite a lot for a city that is not much bigger than for example Glasgow)

Sun_Records_Gedenktafel
Sun_Records_Memorial Plaque at Sun Studios. Source: Wikipedia, voperon Chrisi1964 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70735804

Anyone who has all this in mind will be led on the wrong track: The cover versions are from the „usual suspects“ in Steve Gibbons‘ circle. Two are by Chuck Berry („You Can’t Catch Me“ and „Jaguar an The Thunderbird“), one by Gene Vincdent („Boppin` The Blues“) and one – of course – by Bob Dylan.

The topic „Memphis“ is only themed in one original composition, the song „Memphis Flash“. Not surprisingly, this happens at the example of Elvis Presley.

Playing and „slowlistening“ instead of cheap effects

Because the individual musicians are given space to set accents, the cover versions here are consistently longer than the originals. So the spice of these songs is not in the brevity, but, n the contrary, it comes only through conscious enjoyment. „Black bread instead of sweetis“.

This album still has an A and a B side!

If you listen to the album in the vinyl edition, then you notice a dichotomy.

  • The first page contains, apart from dramaturgical breaks, rather rocky songs, three of which alone deal with the topic of driving a car or motorbike, without giving proper behaviour in traffic too much importance!
  • On the second page you will find mostly rather moderate original compositions.

Cars at the beginning

The first page opens with a cover version whose origin can be easily identified by most people who listen to classic rock ’n‘ roll: It’s „You Can’t Catch Me“, originally by Chuck Berry.

The version here is a bit slower than the original. This has the advantage that non-native speakers understand the lyrics better this is possible with the breathless mumbling of Chuck Berry. Nevertheless, there is no lack of speed frenzy. Especially when the guitars turn on the turbocharger, you are pressed firmly into the passenger seat!

The next song „It`ll Be Me“ also has some horsepower under the hood, but has nothing to do with road traffic. It is also a cover version, but not everyone can relate to it at first sight.

It was written by Jack Clement, country musician and recording manager at Chess Records, and originally recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee Lewis was also discovered by Clement when he was running the studio on behalf of Sam Phillips. („Tupelo Flash Mississippi“ with reversed signs, so to speak.) Later, the Brum rock colleagues of The Move also recorded this song.

Unlike Jerry Lewis‘ version, the song is not driven by a pounding piano, but rather boogied relatively leisurely by the Steve Gibbons Band. Therefore it also lacks the driving beat that characterizes the version of The Move.

However, this is not a flaw, as it is compensated by the energy of harmonica and solo guitar. Straight, but not exuberant, energetic but not impetuous. In other words: interpreted in an age-appropriate way.

Age-appropriate reinterpretations

The same can be said for „More Than I Can Say“. This was written after the death of Buddy Holly by his two former fellow musicians Sonny Curtis and Jerry Allison. It was then recorded by Bobby Vee, who was also considered by some to be the (albeit significantly gooier) successor to Buddy Holly.

With the Steve Gibbons Band the song turns into reggae with a slightly resigned undertone. Anyone who has passed the fiftieth birthday himself will admit that, for a love song with such a comprehensive statement, such an approach is more credible than imitating the naively optimistic earlier versions of the much younger colleagues at the time of recording.

No speed record is set by „Boppin` The Blues“, written by Carl Perkins, which nevertheless proceeds purposefully and solidly, and which, like many other songs on this album, convinces especially through sparkling guitar solos.

A breathless verse and a straightforward chorus is offered by the next Chuck Berry cover, which deals with an illegal car race between a cars of the brands „Jaguar and Thunderbird“. If you get involved in the song, it will go straight to your legs, hips and shoulders, especially when you hear it live.

1957_Ford_Thunderbird_(28911503716)_(cropped)
1957_Ford_Thunderbird.Source: Greg Gjerdingen from Willmar, USA – 1957 Ford Thunderbird, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86484611Gib eine Beschriftung ein

Only the last song on the first side of the LP is an original composition by Steve Gibbons.

 

However, the theme fits to the previous song. This time it is about the legendary TT 92 race on the Isle of Wight.

TT a potentially lethal excursion to one of the channel islands

TT stands for Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, a motorbike race on the British Channel Island Isle of Man, after which a model series from Audi, which however was only launched in 1998, is also named.

Rem_Fowler_after_his_TT-win
Rem Fowler after his TT victory in 1907. source: From unknown – http://www.vintagenorton.com/2011/10/fowler-fiasco-or-not-fowler-tt-norton.html, PD-alt-100, https://de.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7728005

But those who now expect a pleasant drive in holiday athmosphere are very much mistaken. The TT is considered the most dangerous motorcycle race in the world, as more than 250 racing drivers have died in it since 1911. It is accordingly controversial.

 

SteveHislopTT92CregNyBaa
Steve Hislop at the TT 1992. Source: Christof Berger – Own Plant, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=217481

Nevertheless, or perhaps more precisely: because of this, TT is a major event, both in terms of duration and number of spectators. Qualification races and competitions of different classes are held, so that the event lasts a week in total. During this time thousands of spectators come to the island, also because of the extensive supporting programme. This also includes rock concerts in the evening. (As chance would have it, the Steve Gibbons Band was also booked for performances there after the release of this song 🙂 ).

With its present rhythm, the Steve Gibbons song „TT 92“ puts Brendan Day on drums, whose beat is surrounded by short crisp guitar riffs, in the foreground. After that, vinyl listeners first have to get up and go to the turntable to turn the 31.5 cm disc made of hard PVC with its 33 1/3 revolutions per minute.

B-side, but mostly 1 A songs

If you turn the LP, you might get confused when you hear the next song, an original composition, because the title and theme of the this song remind you of another song of the band, namely the cover version „Memphis Tupelo Flash“. The song here is called „The Memphis – without Tupelo! – Flash“ and again about a young truck driver in Memphis coming to a recording studio to audition. This time, however, the owner of the studio is there in person and is actually interested in signing the young man.

But then the studio sessions don’t bring any usable results. Frustrated, one is already on the verge of breaking off the experiment. And then the guy suddenly sings a blues! After that, a gripping recording is quickly made and a contract signed. The rest is music history, some even say the birth of Rock`n`Roll.

After that follows (one almost wants to say: the inevitable) Bob Dylan cover: „Sweetheart Like You“. At first sight it is about the story „Man meets highclass woman in a pub where he wouldn’t expect such a lady“. On another level, however, the song also contains critical comments on the state of American society, which are still relevant today (They say that patriotism is the last refuge/To which a scoundrel clings/Steal a little and they throw you in jail/Steal a lot and they make you king.)

The next song, the original compositions „Bonnie“ is a relaxed song, which, if it weren’t for the guitar accents, would actually fit more to a dance tea of a past decade. Which is no criticism! After all, it has more substance than „Your Mother Should Know“, by the Beatles, which comes along similarly antique.

Is „Alright Now“ really alright? And in which version?

The following song is one of three that Steve Gibbons has recorded over the years in two different studio versions (the other two are „The Last Farwell“, which is performed on his first and also second solo album, each as a third song, and „Where Was I Last Night“, which can be heard in different versions on the bonus track to the re-release of the solo album „Stained Glass“ and on „Chasing Tales“ by the Steve Gibbons Band).

„Alright Now“, which he still likes to play at his concerts today, was already on „Short Stories“, his first solo LP from 197 and was also released as a single at that time.

IMG_3703
Advertisment for the single „Alright Now“ 1971.

What has changed, among other things, is that the song here comes across as less dancing and that the meandering solo is played by a distorted guitar, whereas in the first version an indefinable instrument, which produces dripping rather than flowing sounds with rough edges, was responsible for this.

What remains, however, is that the spirits are obviously divided on this song. A reviewer on the Internet was of the opinion that it would „bob along“. We, on the other hand, find that this song, with its permanent alternation between two chords, has something hypnotic about it,  in this reduced in this reduced version.

„Love Letters“: Oscar-nominated Hollywood song

Our assessment of the the next song „Love Letters“ depends on our mood of the day.

The song is again a typical Steve Gibbons discovery. The song was in an instrumental version in 1945 the leitmotif of a movie of the same name and was nominated for an Oscar for best film music. Later it was sung by artists as diverse as Tony Bennett, Nat King Colle and Elvis Presley. In 1987 Alison Moyet recorded her own version of it and released it as a single that made it to number 4 in the UK charts.

Some days the song is just kitsch for us, on others the sensitive guitar playing reconciles us – and sometimes we find it brilliantly beautiful. But since Bob Dylan started to mumble and dumple his way through the Great American Songbook under the praise of the international music press, we are much more conciliatory even on our critical days.

„The Waiting Game“, another Gibbons original follows, which somehow reminds us of „More Than I Can Say“, but without reggae. In the 1970s such a song would have been suitable for radio and dance floor.

The listeners of the original version of the album were bid farewell in 1993 with „Bird with No Song“, a British-folking song, in which the acoustic guitar and the harmonica are in the foreground. If you feel like it, you can search for bits of lyrics from songs by other artists in the text: „Now the rooster is crowin`and the blackbird is singin, Morning has broken, it`s time to spread your wings and go“ (You won`t find the wire the bird is sitting on, though. There is also no mention anywhere that the bird on the horizon would sing on his own expense). Concerning Bob Dylan, such combinations of foreign quotations are considered an art form. So why not here as well?

Conclusion

All in all a well-rounded album, but some things only become clear when listening closely. But that’s exactly why it was recorded. It is also suitable for other routes than the journey from Birmingham to Memphis, but especially for travels in your thought at home. Take a cup of tea and homemade cookies, make yourself comfortable on the sofa (even better: a beanbag, but hardly anybody else has one at home nowadays) and off you go!

The story continues with The Dylan Project.

 

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