STILL STARRY-EYED: The Records

 

The Records

Boasting one of Britain’s greatest, if underappreciated, songwriting teams in John Wicks and Will Birch, they straddled the holy trinity of the “P”: pub-rock, punk, and power pop.

BY DAVE STEINFELD

Ed note: we originally published this story back in 2011, with contributor Steinfeld interviewing co-founding members John Wicks and Will Burch. At the time Wicks had moved to L.A. and was fronting a well-regarded latterday version of The Records. Then just recently we learned Wicks had been diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer and that a GoFundMe campaign had been mounted to help raise funds for his medical bills which, needless to say, will be enormous. We encourage anyone reading this to consider contributing HERE and meanwhile, enjoy Prof. Steinfeld’s trip down memory lane from our archives.—FM

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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. (Ed. note: Sadly, Brown passed away, in 2012, since this story was originally published.)

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.

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