Brinsley Schwarz

TrackAlbum
Brand New You, Brand New MeNervous On The Road
Country GirlDespite It All
Don't Want Me Round YouErnie Graham
Happy Doing What We're DoingNervous On The Road
Home In My HandNervous On The Road
Hooked On LovePlease Don't Ever Change
Ju Ju ManSilver Pistol
Silver PistolSilver Pistol
The Slow OneDespite It All
Surrender To The RhythmThe Greasy Truckers Party

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Contributor: Rob Millis

Most recognise the name Brinsley Schwarz for one of two reasons – either as “that band Nick Lowe was in” or, even now, the unfortunate souls launched under-prepared at a hyped Fillmore East showcase gig in Spring 1970, following embroilment in that now-legendary “Famepushers” debacle: two shysters wanting to build a pleasure resort, funded by profits from a film about a bridge tournament, starring Omar Sharif who had a penchant for the game, to be part-funded by Sharif and partly by successfully launching a rock band, made possible by blagging a support slot from Bill Graham and a novel PR campaign consisting of chartering a plane to fly a load of journalists and music press competition winners to see the gig, itself to be filmed as a documentary. Sounds like a winner, eh? It wasn’t. Christ, it wasn’t.

Which is a shame, because Brinsley Schwarz were rather good in a melodic, American-influenced way. Named after their guitarist, the band also featured Nick Lowe (bass/guitar/vocals; main writer), Bob Andrews (organ/piano/bass/vocals) and Billy Rankin (drums) and had grown out of second-division Parlophone pop act, Kippington Lodge.

Not ones for the typically bluesy, riffy British rock of the times, Brinsley Schwarz (we’ll say the Brinsleys going forward) were fans of American music such as CSNY, early Clover and especially The Band. The convoluted management launch did get them a record deal with United Artists and their eponymous debut LP (with lovely textured cover depicting an American Indian on horseback) opened with Hymn To Me, a slow, airy number with pseudo-CSN harmonies and layered guitars. The faster song, Shining Brightly, would later be remixed and tried as a single.

After the launch backfired, the band (who’d nearly split) grew distrustful of hype and gloss; licking their wounds, they served up Despite It All in late 1970. Much improved over their debut, with less reliance on instrumental passages; it was more cohesive. Opener Country Girl set the tone, a spritely tune akin to the Byrds’ reading of Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere. Both The Slow One and Funk Angel showed the influence of Van Morrison, the headliner on their Fillmore launch. Following their own rough performance, the Brinsleys watched dumbstruck as the Moondance-era band gave a crash course in well-drilled quality.

(Note: A 1970 performance on German TV’s Beat Club saw the Brinsleys airing Ebury Down from Despite It All along with a rockier song called Indian Woman which is not an album cut – it is in fact unavailable elsewhere and dates from the interim period between the Fillmore gigs and the second LP).

Pleased with progress of their new album and wishing to do it justice live, the band (during recording of Despite It All) auditioned for a fifth member and chose Ian Gomm; a West London guitarist fond of Motown and The Beatles and a second songwriter to boot. He does not appear on the LP, as work was apace and it was too late to rearrange songs to include him, however Gomm was in place before the LP hit the shops.

The launch still loomed hard over the still crestfallen band and Lowe, in particular, had let himself go and hit the acid hard. During 1971 they turned this around. Lowe cleaned himself up; manager (and future Stiff Records founder) Dave Robinson had ditched Famepushers and rented a large house in leafy Metroland where they could live communally and frugally, and work up new material.

The Band had long been favourites of the Brinsleys and this would influence the recording method and material on Silver Pistol, their third LP. Like that great eponymous LP by The Band, the traditional recording studio was eschewed in favour of a “club house” environment with recording gear bought in. The Brinsleys recorded at home and the simple (if a little under-produced; but that’s what they were after) sounds of their honest songs came through. The title track itself became a concert favourite, as did the mellow Egypt (named after the pyramid-shaped Glastonbury 1971 stage, which they’d played) and the piano-led Unknown Number. The band had become fans of songwriter Jim Ford whose Ju Ju Man was covered to great effect. Silver Pistol was released in early 1972.

Ernie Graham (friend/charge of Robinson and late of Irish 60s act Eire Apparent) had the Brinsleys and fellow Down Home act Help Yourself back him on his self-titled 1971 LP for Liberty/UA records. Don’t Want Me Round You from this release is in my 10 cuts as the band never sounded so American. (Later in 1973, they would similarly back fiery Scot Frankie Miller on his debut platter, Once In A Blue Moon).

The Brinsleys were key players in the early-mid 70s “pub rock” movement in the UK. They did not invent it; they’d become friends with visiting American band Eggs Over Easy, in limbo while a management/recording deal dragged on and all but fizzled out, who to pay their beer/lodgings trawled around for gigs in North London. Robinson had the Brinsleys onto this in no time at all, and the rest (with a cast of Ace, Ian Dury and many, many more) is history. Ducks Deluxe guitarist Martin Belmont (later in Graham Parker and The Rumour with Schwarz and Andrews) had been a Brinsleys roadie; one Declan McManus had been an extremely loyal and gregarious fan!

Yet none of this pub rock or self-produced hype-free music was making the band much money. The Brinsleys therefore set out to make a less laid-back record, to the chagrin of Robinson who still favoured the “keep it real” ethos. Dave Edmunds tried his hand at upping the commercial potential of the mixes via his trademark 50s tape-echo sounds, but Robinson nixed this and Nervous On The Road came out sounding like a slightly posher Silver Pistol. But the songs were fantastic: Lowe’s Hammond-led soulful Surrender To the Rhythm (given a rollicking outing on BBCs The Old Grey Whistle Test – see above) and gorgeous ballad Don’t Lose Your Grip On Love, Gomm’s It’s Been So Long and the Lowe/Andrews co-effort Happy Doing What We’re Doing (a lovely cousin of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Jug Band Music) all have a confidence way beyond previous efforts. One can only speculate what those Edmunds’ mixes could have achieved, but with a Whistle Test appearance as well, I know what I think (they parted company with Robinson the following year).

Alongside Man and Hawkwind, the Brinsleys played at The Greasy Truckers Party (immortalized on the UA double LP; the CD reissue has the full set) and appeared at that ubiquitous rain and mud bath Bickershaw 1972, just before the Grateful Dead, but in the following year went on tour with Wings as the support act. It is said that overhearing Ian Gomm informally cranking out a few Fabs hits one night prompted McCartney to ask whether doing the oldies he’d shied away from would be giving the public what they wanted. That he has since delighted millions upon millions by doing so could well be down to a chat on that Wings tour!

Please Don’t Ever Change was released in 1973. It was patchy, and although neither Silver Pistol nor Nervous On The Road had been big hitters, they were better received by critics. It did, however, yield Hooked On Love, a lovely song by Gomm who must have puffed his chest out when Glen Campbell covered it! Lowe’s rock and roller Play That Fast Thing One More Time was infectious, carried along by Andrews’ piano octaves. A 1973 cover of Ernie K. Doe’s I’ve Cried My Last Tear is a 7” single well worth a listen; a tradition of working up similar R&B covers once and never doing them again was a live tradition of the Brinsleys; Allen Toussaint/Lee Dorsey songs were a particular favourite source.

Rubbing shoulders with the greats didn’t stop with Wings or the Dead; in 1974 their heroes The Band came over and ended up on the Brinsleys doorstep wanting to use their rehearsal space. That’s the kind of afternoon indoors at home you want!

The Brinsleys recorded a handful of singles under different names around this time and finally got their Dave Edmunds-produced LP in 1974, in the shape of The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz, but despite Lowe pulling out some serious commercial chops in his now well-known (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding? (later to be his nest egg) and the Beatlesque The Ugly Things it was too late in the day. The band tried a further album with producer Steve Verroca (generally called It’s All Over Now on various unofficial releases of it) but shelved it and split in 1975. A shame, as the album included the original version of Cruel To Be Kind (by Lowe/Gomm and a later hit for the former) and Lowe’s fantastic We Can Mess Around With Anything But Love. Not that I’ve heard it, obviously …

Nick Lowe needs no further comment, post-Brinsleys. Ian Gomm went solo and scored a minor hit with Hold On. Rankin went on to work with Big Jim Sullivan and is allegedly a fly fisherman par excellence. Schwarz himself first joined Ducks Deluxe (themselves splitting; it was a farewell tour) and thence took Martin Belmont into a reunion with Andrews. After finding a rhythm section and trying some ideas they met songwriter Graham Parker and were off: a tale for another day and another ten choices to go with it. Possibly another author, too, but we’ll see…

Postscript: I deliberately tried to avoid lengthy talk of the hype and circumstances of the launch of Brinsley Schwarz because it is a bit of an old chestnut and even now does the legacy of a fine band no favours. I cannot recommend Will Birch’s book “No Sleep Till Canvey Island” highly enough for those who want to read more on this matter, which is terribly fascinating and reveals the Brinsleys’ Fillmore incident to be but a small part – as well as just for being a great book on an important part of British rock music history.

Brinsley Schwarz biography (iTunes)

As Rob points out, the Brinsleys were key players in the UK pub rock movement and we’d like your TopperLists for any of the other bands including Bees Make Honey, Ducks Deluxe, Nine Below Zero, Kilburn and the High Roads and, of course, your friends and mine, Dr. Feelgood …

TopperPost #63

1 Comment

  1. Steve Verroca
    Dec 2, 2013

    I’m the fellow who produced Brinsley Schwarz and Link Wray. Mr Rob Millis in his article talks about the mysterious album I produced with the Brinsleys, never released and never to be found, which included the original Cruel to be kind, We can mess around with anything but love and 10 more titles. It was an incredible album and it is an incredible story just like a mystery and I believe I can now shed light on it and what really happened to the LP. If possible would you please pass this comment on to Mr. Millis along with my email address. Thank you. Steve Verroca.

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