STILL STARRY-EYED The Records’ John Wicks & Will Birch

One of Britain’s
greatest, if underappreciated, songwriting teams, they straddled the holy
trinity of the “P”: pub-rock, punk, and power pop.

 

BY DAVE STEINFELD

 

They may not have been the
most popular band to emerge from the New Wave era, but to those that know them,
The Records have a body of work that stands up with that of any of their
contemporaries. The band grew out of the ashes of the Kursaal Flyers, an
English pub rock combo that included drummer Will Birch and, later, singer-guitarist
John Wicks. When the Kursaals broke up, Birch – who was also a lyricist —
approached the guitarist to see if their songwriting talents complimented each
other. They did. Rounded out by bassist-singer Phil Brown and various lead
guitarists, The Records released three albums of top-notch pop during the late
‘70s and early ‘80s. To these ears, the songwriting team of John Wicks and Will
Birch [pictured above, L-R, with Brown in
the middle
] was right up there
with Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze.

 

The Records unveiled their
self-titled US debut in the fall of 1979. (In England, the album was released a
bit earlier as Shades in Bed with a
different running order and cover.) The
Records
charted just shy of the U.S. Top 40 – literally, at number 41 on
the album chart. But that still made it a minor hit and the single “Starry
Eyes,” which boasted chiming guitars and clever lyrics, got quite a bit of
airplay. In fact, the entire first half of the album was flawless. It kicked
off with “All Messed Up and Ready to Go,” possibly the song to listen to before you go out on a Friday night. That was
followed by the album’s second single, “Teenarama,” a witty song about dating
younger girls; the midtempo rocker “Girls That Don’t Exist,” which was sung by
Brown; “Starry Eyes”; and the ethereal ballad “Up All Night.” The second half
of The Records, while still
worthwhile, wasn’t quite up there with the first and was weighed down somewhat
by guitarist Huw Gower’s strange contribution, “The Phone.”

 

The Records returned
in late 1980 with their sophomore set, Crashes.
This album wasn’t quite as big a hit as their debut, and it may not have rocked
as hard, but it was still an excellent effort. With young American Jude Cole
replacing Gower on guitar and adding vocals to some songs, Crashes including such pop gems as the wonderfully titled “Spent a
Week With You Last Night,” the lovely “Hearts in Her Eyes” (a hit for The
Searchers) and “I Don’t Remember Your Name,” which boasted a melody straight
out of “Paperback Writer” and one of Birch’s wittiest lyrics (“There we were in
the middle of a room at a hotel somewhere in the West End/A man that I’d not
met before introduced me to my best friend”).

 

In 1982, The Records
released what would prove to be their swan song, Music on Both Sides. This third album saw another lineup change as
Dave Whelan replaced Cole on lead guitar. More significantly, former Autographs
singer Chris Gent became the band’s frontman. Strangely, neither Wicks nor
Brown contributes lead vocals to any songs on the disc. Though Music is a decent album, it’s not in the
same league with the band’s debut or with Crashes.
The Records called it quits not long after its release – according to Birch,
after “a grueling, two-date tour.”

 

In the years since
their breakup, the individual members of The Records have gone in different
directions. As it turns out, Jude Cole became the most successful member of the
band, with a string of moderately popular solo hits. More recently, he has managed
and produced various artists including Lifehouse.

 

As for the original
trio, John Wicks relocated to Los Angeles a number of years ago, where he has
performed with a different version of The Records and more recently, with Paul
Collins of seminal power pop bands The Nerves and The Beat. In 2007, Wicks
released a fine collection of songs called Rotate.  While the ballad “Whenever You’re Near” now
sounds a bit dated, most of Rotate is
worthwhile and some of it is downright excellent.  Standouts include the Syd Barrett tribute
“That Girl is Emily,” “Different Shades of Green” and “The Lost Years,” which
is possibly the catchiest song about depression ever recorded. More recently,
Wicks has released a DVD called Lessons
Learned
and is also re-recording some tunes from The Records’ catalog. In
addition to Wicks, the current lineup of The Records includes lead guitarist
Dennis Taylor, bassist Pat Mitchell and drummer Tommy Montes.

 

Will Birch and Phil
Brown, on the other hand, have remained in the greater London area. Over the
years, Birch has continued mainly in songwriting and production, working with
Desmond Dekker, The Long Ryders and members of Rockpile and Dr. Feelgood, among
others. He also moved into music journalism, penning memorable pieces for Mojo and penning an exhaustive book
about pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey
Island
, which arrived in 2000, and Ian
Dury: The Definitive Biography,
which was just published last year by the
UK-based company Sidgwick & Jackson. Birch also oversees On The Beach
Records, which has reissued all three of The Records’ studio albums on CD.

 

The following is
culled from two separate interviews I did – one with John Wicks and one with
Will Birch. Talking to both was a pleasure.

 

***

 

BLURT: Tell me a bit about the scene that The Records
emerged from. What was the music scene in London like during the mid to late
’70s?

 WILL: It’s been
well-documented. You had the big progressive bands such as Genesis and ELP
selling albums, and glam rockers such as Slade and Sweet selling 45s. My own
band, The Kursaal Flyers, scored a pop hit with “Little Does She Know” and we
appeared on Top of the Pops, the big
weekly TV show watched by all the family. They are currently showing re-runs of
Top of the Pops from 1976 on BBC-TV
and there are some excruciatingly bad haircuts.

        When The Sex Pistols came along, bingo!
The music establishment was completely thrown and it was hilarious watching
them either not getting it or patronizing the Pistols because of their
‘energy’. Dr Feelgood were in my opinion the catalyst and London was alive with
music venues. The UK music press was cover to cover excitement. Stiff Records
emerged, Costello, [Ian] Dury, The Damned. All of the rules were being broken
on a daily basis. It was a most exciting time, as I’m sure it was in New York
too. The effect can still be felt around the world.

 

JOHN:
I have to confess that I was somewhat puzzled and confused during this
transitional time period. In 1975, having left a cover band that I’d been a
member of for four years,  I recall
reading the music papers and seeing ads for the likes of Plummet Airlines,
AC/DC and The Sex Pistols, all playing shows in the London pubs on different
nights of [the] week. The Sex Pistols were obviously a punk band, although the
former were not.  I actually went to see
AC/DC play at the Red Cow in Hammersmith and loved them — which only served to
confuse me even more!  It was then that
the proverbial penny dropped, so to speak. 
I suddenly remembered answering an ad back in 1971 placed in a then-well-known
British music paper and subsequently having a phone conversation with a guy who
worked in a seriously cutting-edge clothing store by the name of Let It Rock,
located in West London.  This guy [had
been] trying to put together a new band, which he intended to manage, and we
were discussing the possibility of my being a part of this band.  He had the vision and concept all worked out
in his mind, going on to explain in vivid detail the requirements: ‘Short spiky
hair, tight, straight-legged, ripped jeans, safety pins…’ — etc., etc.  At that point I interrupted him, exclaiming
that there was no way in hell I was willing to have my locks shorn and can my
flares!  That ‘guy’ was none other than
Malcolm McLaren and by 1975 his vision was fast becoming a tangible
reality! 

        Never one to be left behind, in 1977 I
got with the program: cut my hair, canned the flares and joined The Kursaal
Flyers, who at that point had rechristened themselves The Kursaals, at the same
time morphing from a laid back country-rock band, into a pretty good imitation
of a high energy punk-rock band!  Have to
admit that I found it to be a very exciting period.

        Since this New Wave movement had opened
the floodgates,  it spawned a slew of
bands that were little more  than
style-over-substance, having missed the point and misinterpreted Malcolm
McLaren’s statement about a band that couldn’t play being even better than a
band that could play!  That strategy
worked just fine and dandy for his purposes of exposing certain aspects of the
music business for the shallow industry it was, via his Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle — but not so well for the legions of
‘wannabes’ who jumped on the bandwagon hoping for instant success — many of
whom ultimately disbanded.

 

Will, what did John bring to The Records and how did
his songwriting talents compliment your own? John, reverse question. 

 WILL: John brought
the melodies and the vocal harmonies to The Records. We were and possibly still
are quite opposite types as people, but I don’t over-analyze it. We
complemented each other in as much as I would mostly write the words and John
would mostly write the tunes. The end result was usually good. We trusted each
other in our respective areas of expertise and I think John especially trusted
me when it came to the look of the group and general direction. Plus we were
both hungry for success and worked very hard at it

 

JOHN:   Prior to meeting Will, I’d always composed
melodies, penned lyrics, worked out structures, 
arrangements, harmonies — in other words, written complete songs
myself.  The melodies, chords and such
[would] usually be the first part of the equation.  The one thing that often slowed down the
whole songwriting process, was — and still is — pondering the lyrics.  It was clear to me that Will had a way with
words, so I figured that collaborating with him would very likely speed up the
process, which proved to be the case. 
Whilst he was busy writing lyrics to melodies I’d composed, I was free
to keep coming up with new tunes, which I still do to this day.  We worked equally well together or apart.
Sometimes he’d hand me a set of lyrics and I would compose the melody — as was
the case with “Starry Eyes” — or vice-versa. So it was a very complimentary
and efficient process. 

 

What did Phil Brown, the third member of
the Records trifecta, bring to the band?

JOHN:  He brought a great deal to the band, having
an instinct for coming up with very inventive bass lines.  We might make a few suggestions, but he’d
take it from there and run with it.  He
was also extremely good at coming up with really cool guitar riffs, such as the
one that kicks off “Girl” and serves as a kind of backbone of the song, if you
will. And of course, it helped that he was the heartthrob of the band, having
once been described by a female music journalist as a “lanky teenage
dream.”

 

WILL:  Phil
Brown was the cheerful, diplomatic guy who would hold it all together with a
good vibe. If we had an argument, or something didn’t go quite well, he’d be the
glue that held the band together.

 

 

 

 

John, I understand you’re currently
re-recording some of the old Records tunes. 
What’s the objective there and which songs have you chosen to tackle?

JOHN:
Yes indeed! I’ve wanted to re- record “Starry Eyes” — and many other old
Records’ songs for that matter — for the longest time.  Two objectives: the first being my desire to
improve on the originals, both sonically speaking and also performance-wise.  Second objective regards owning the masters
and is purely financial in nature — relating to possible song-placement in
movies, TV, commercials [and so on]. 

        When we recorded the original version
of “Starry Eyes” back in 1978, it was really just a demo and we had no idea at
that point in time that [it] would end up being released as a single.  Although it has lots of energy, I was unhappy
with it sonically speaking. Accordingly, it’s always been my desire to record a
new version — a version that maintains the excitement and energy of the
original, but with superior sound quality. 
Thanks to a great team of wonderful and dedicated people, I’m pleased to
report that I’ve managed to achieve that goal. We also have a new version of
“Teenarama,” which is being mixed as [we speak]. Ideally, I would love to
re-record the entire Records’ catalog from back in the day, however in reality
it isn’t a practical proposition.

 

Will, now that your book on Ian Dury has been out for
over a year, tell me a bit about how you’ve been promoting it and the general
reaction to it. Also, any plans to release it Stateside?

 WILL: I’ve been doing
some readings and signing sessions at bookstores and local libraries around the
UK and promoting the Ian Dury biography on Facebook, Twitter etc, which seems
to be an author’s obligation these days. Reviews have been great and sales, I
am told, are respectable. As far as the USA is concerned, my publishing deal
excludes the USA. We were hopeful of it being picked up by a specialist imprint
such as Ad Capo but so far there has only been limited interest. Ian was a pop
star in Europe and almost a national hero in the UK, but he doesn’t mean too
much in America, except to real enthusiasts.

 

John, can you tell me a little about
your recent Lessons Learned DVD?

JOHN:
Well, with regard to Lessons Learned — credit must go to my assistant, Rich Rossi, who is doing a truly fantastic
job on my behalf, helping me in my quest to get as much content “out there,” so
to speak as possible.  The DVD —
released on Kool Kat Records in March 2011 — features a live recording of an
acoustic show I played with my guitarist Dennis Taylor [last summer] at the
legendary McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, opening for Matthew
Sweet.  It’s a nine-song, unplugged kind
of thing showcasing some new material, some older songs and a couple of cool
cover tunes. 

 

Will, tell me about one of your most enjoyable
experiences as a producer.

 WILL:  Working with the Long Ryders in 1985 was
memorable. I was a huge fan of their Native
Sons
album. [Ed. Note: read our
recent review of the Long Ryders here.
] It was like the Burrito Brothers on speed and it featured a Gene Clark
cameo performance. To be offered the task of producing their debut for Island
Records was too good to refuse. After a week or so doing some song preparation
in LA, [recording engineer] Neill King and I took them to Chipping Norton
Studios in the Oxfordshire countryside. They settled in, we got a drum sound
and spent an enjoyable few weeks getting the songs on tape. The 45 “Looking For
Lewis And Clark” received some airplay [but] the album itself got a lukewarm
reception in the music press. I think it was Time Out magazine that described
it as “the most under-produced album ever to appear on a major record label!”
The reviewer had obviously never heard Brinsley Schwarz! Anyway, a great bunch
of guys to work with and I’m still in touch with most of them.

 

John, one of my favorite songs on Rotate is “That Girl is
Emily.”  Can you tell me about the
inspiration for that one?

JOHN:
Thanks!  Of my new songs, it’s actually
one of my favorites also.  The
inspiration for this one came way back in 1988 whilst I was still residing in
the UK.  I read an article in one of the
Sunday newspapers about Syd Barrett, who was the driving force behind Pink
Floyd during their early years, having written their first two hits, “Arnold
Layne” and “See Emily Play.”  According
to the article, since his heyday, he’d pretty much descended into madness [and]
had become a reclusive hermit, holed up at his mother’s semi-detached house in
Cambridge, England.  The article went on
to say that in one of his last coherent interviews he’d talked about the
inspiration for “See Emily Play.”  He
claimed that ‘he’d been sleeping in the woods after a gig they’d played
somewhere, when a girl appeared before him, going on to exclaim, “That girl is
Emily.”  And — voila!  I had my title!

        I recall waking up during the early
hours one morning with the song pretty much unfolding in my head.  I jumped out of bed, grabbed my guitar and
the whole thing — melody, chords, lyrics, structure — just kind of
manifested.  How I wish they were all
that easy! 

 

Another one I really like on Rotate is “The Lost
Years.”  Curious to know how that
one came about as well.

JOHN:  “The Lost Years” was inspired by the
emotional and mental breakdown I suffered during the mid ’80’s. [This] lasted
through the end of that decade, and into the early ’90’s. My road to recovery
began around 1991 or thereabouts, and by the time I got to America, I had
healed enough to be able to reflect on that extremely dark period of my
life. 

Accordingly,
the lyrics and the melody just kind of poured out of me.  Whilst I really love this song, it stirs up
some intensely painful memories. So I find it a tough one to perform.

 

Tell me about the
inspiration for “Starry Eyes.”

WILL: I use the word loosely, but we had a manager.
[And] we didn’t feel he was as committed as we were. We were in this fight with
CBS whereby I was still signed [from the Kursaal Flyers days] and they wanted to
hang onto me but they wouldn’t offer us a deal. Months were going by and I was
getting more and more impatient to get records out and do stuff, and having a
lot of arguments with CBS. I felt that [our manager] should have gone in there
and basically said, “Shit or get off the can” and he didn’t. And at [the point
when it] reached fever pitch — where we’d done some demos and they were still
hemming and hawing — he went on holiday. He said, “Right, I’m off to south of
France for two weeks, see you when I get back.”

        Well, when he got back, we’d
dumped him. Looking back now, I can see that it was unreasonable of us. But at
the time, we thought he didn’t have the same commitment as us. So that song was
written about him and that experience.

 

 What is your favorite album by The Beatles?

 JOHN: This is a tricky
one to answer! I feel that it sort of depends on one’s mood at any given
time.  But if push comes to shove, and I
had to pick one, then I would probably go with Revolver.

 

WILL: Revolver – but lately A Hard
Day’s Night
has been challenging it.

 

Will Birch on Facebook

 

John Wicks/Records official website

 

 

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