Wednesday, 22 December 2010
38 Sisters - The Bluebells
Tracks : Everybody's Somebody's Fool / Young At Heart / I'm Falling / Will She Always Be Waiting / Cath / Red Guitars / Syracuse University / Learn To Love / The Patriot Game / South Atlantic Way
This was my 20th birthday / Christmas present from, appropriately enough, my sister.
It took a while for me to get interested in The Bluebells. I heard their first couple of singles in 1982-3 and just dismissed them as another group of fey Scottish guitar-janglers as beloved by Record Mirror's tiresome, blinkered reviewer, Sunie. It wasn't until the third single, the considerably beefier "Sugar Bridge" that I paid attention and the next one "I'm Falling" was one of my favourite singles of 1984.
Like many of their Scottish contemporaries The Bluebells were a shortlived, somewhat volatile outfit and their career was book-ended by legal controversies. They didn't breach the Top 40 until their fourth single by which time their bass player and one of the guitarists had quit so this album - the only one released in the group's lifetime - had to be completed with their successors. That gives the album a rather schizophrenic quality as the newcomers including future Smith Craig Gannon had a harder sound so you get the poppy singles all recorded by the old line up on Side One and more of a rock album on the second.
By the time the LP was released they were already falling in the shadow of The Smiths and the offhand reference to them in a rather embarassing inner sleeve essay from a Lord Jed of Bermondsey (if this is a joke at the Style Council's expense it doesn't work) and singer Ken McCluskey's passing resemblance to Morrissey didn't help.
The first decision the band had to make was how many of their five previously released singles to include. The two recent hits were a given and sophomore single "Cath" was also included. Wisely they excluded their vacuous debut "Forevermore" (whose chances were effectively sabotaged by a lawsuit from the Bluebell Dance Company of Paris and regrettably they had disowned "Sugar Bridge" after London brought in Alan Tarney to give it a modern pop sheen.
In place of "Forevermore" they chose to start with the extra track on its 12 inch version, "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" albeit re-recorded by the new line-up. It's not the Connie Francis song but a Robert Hodgens original with a vague lyric which might be personal or political. It starts off with a harrmonica riff repeated for good measure then you're straight into the chorus. Hodgens and Gannon reproduce the clipped guitar sound from breakthrough hit "I'm Falling" to decent effect but the song itself is too superficial to really impress.
Then we get "Young At Heart" the biggest ht in the group's lifetime and an even bigger hit when used in an advert in 1993. This sparked a temporary reunion of the long since dissolved group in order to perform the song on Top of the Pops, original bassist Lawrence Donegan being summoned from his desk at The Guardian to take part (ironically neither he nor his replacement Neal Baldwin appeared on the programme when the song was a hit the first time round). The song was originally a co-write between Hodgens and his then-girlfriend Siobahn Fahey of Bananarama (Hodgens is the pop star I most resemble so I delude myself I would have had a chance with her) and the latter group had a first crack at it. Their version is dismal so it's not surprising Hodgens wanted to re-do it with his own group. That however proved costly as the session violinist Bobby Valentino eventually decided, after the success of the reissue, that his contribution warranted more than the £75 session fee and won his case for a songwriting credit.
The 'Nanas' version had producer Barry Blue using all the studio technology they could muster to compensate for the weak vocals so The Bluebells went in the opposite direction and came up with an essentially "unplugged" version, acoustic guitar, brushed drums , double bass and xylophone. Valentino was fatefully brought in to fill out the sound with a string part. As a layman it's hard to knock the Court's decision ; Valentino is everywhere from that familiar chivvying hoedown riff to the poignant little solo in the middle eight. The song is about coming to appreciate your parents as you get older which doesn't fit well with the "just divorced" punchline to the advert.
"I'm Falling" follows next, by far their best song from the swelling string intro to Ken McCluskey's untethered emoting at the close. Apparently about trying to help someone with a heroin addiction , McCluskey's thick Glaswegian brogue doesn't help Anglo ears to hear the lyrics too clearly but the sentiment is clear enough and the crabbed guitar sound helps conjure up the dinginess of a smack den. Hodgens' chainsaw guitar solo before the last verse has real bite then he steps up to the mike for the "I should have known better then..." coda with his clearer diction allowing McCluskey to let rip with self-disgust. This is the one that people should remember.
From that point on the album is largely disappointing. The next track "Will She Always Be Waiting ? " illustrates their tendency to over-embellish an indifferent song. Elvis Costello 's production and Ray Russell's string arrangement drown the rather bland melody on a song where Hodgens seems to be trying to match up to Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame with his vague elemental metaphors -"sleeping on slivers in the cold wind of winter's chills". Seemingly about a girl hanging on for something better (possibly a millionaire like Dave Stewart ? ) it could conceivably be about Thatcher. Whatever it's not as good as the band clearly imagine.
Then comes "Cath", their second single re-released in the wake of this LP and crawling to number 38 second time around. Why they thought such a trite and irritating song was worthy of another shot is unknown. Actually, hearing it again there's some nifty guitar playing throughout including a great solo from original guitarist Russell Irvine ; it's the disconcert-the-keeper chant before the chorus and the naff "Cath-laugh-path" rhyming scheme that spoil it.
Side Two begins with the upbeat "Red Guitars" the first of three tracks recorded by the new line up. It's a socialist call-to-arms disguised as a Johnny B Goode guitar rebel song. Whatever the strength of the boys' political convictions you don't get any sense of passion from this optimistic sounding song with summery Duran Duran harmonies. Baldwin's supple bass and Gannon's fizzing guitar keep it interesting musically but the lack of any real chorus stops it from really grabbing the attention.
The mystifying "Syracuse University" follows , probably my favourite track on this side, perhaps because of some melodic similarities to "Sugar Bridge". The lyric seems to be concerned about violence and economic oppression but quite what a private research university in New York stands for in that context is unknowable to anyone save Hodgens. In any case it's hard to take him seriously when the middle eight descends into bathos with the line "and then they say 1 2 3 then they go 4 5 6" made worse by the emphasis in the music. On the plus side Gannon's playing is excellent really driving the track forward.
"Learn To Love" was recorded by the old line up with the help of a Hammond organist and wailing soul diva neither of whom are properly credited, She may possibly be the Gabhin Barr thanked on the sleeve. It's a Northern Soul pastiche in the vein of Style Council's Solid Bond In Your Heart and actually pinches the "oh so free and oh so wild" from the same group's Speak Like A Child. For all the attractive window-dressing it's not particularly tuneful and the lyrics are the same sort of cliche-ridden sloganeering spouted by any number of Weller wannabes like The Truth or The Redskins.
The next track is a bit of a curveball, their version of Dominic Behan's "The Patriot Game" which was originally part of the "Sugar Bridge" double pack single. It's a fine song whether or not you agree with the pro-IRA sentiment but my friend Sean took it off in disgust when he realised the Bluebells had followed The Clancy Brothers' example in excising the verses condoning murder of policemen and mentioning Irish politicians. The arrangement is fine and points the way to Ken and David McCluskey's future as a folk act but it's all a bit Celtic karaoke.
Despite the bowdler-ization of his song (for which he heavily criticised the Clancys) Brhan was happy enough to co-write the final track with Hodgens and Ken McCluskey (his only credit on the LP). "South Atlantic Way" essentially updates the previous song's lyric to address the Falklands War. The sentiments are admirable but not particularly original and the song begins to call to mind the woolly worthiness of Big Country at least until they start throwing the kitchen sink at it including some very incongruous Burundi drum patterns from David McCluskey. Finally the song drowns in a cacophony with equally out of place Bernard Sumner-style guitar thrashing.
The album got lukewarm reviews and didn't perform well in the charts reaching number 22 then quickly disappearing ; it isn't currently available on CD. The band put out one more freash single in early 1985 which didn't make the Top 40 and then called it a day until the 1993 resurrection. The McCluskey Brothers became a folk act while working as a lecturer (Ken) and a music therapist (David). Hodgens has stayed on the fringes of pop as a DJ and club promoter. Ultimately, as this album testifies, they didn't have enough good songs to compete for long but there were far worse groups in the eighties and they're worth going back to occasionally.