Nine Below Zero

TrackSingle / EP / Album
Tore DownNine Below Zero EP
Is That You?A&M AMS 7531
Ridin' On The L&NLive At The Marquee
Pack Fair & SquareLive At The Marquee
Swing JobLive At The Marquee
One Way StreetDon't Point Your Finger
Treat Her RightDon't Point Your Finger
Three Times EnoughDon't Point Your Finger
You Can't Please All The People...Don't Point Your Finger
Eleven Plus ElevenThird Degree

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Nine Below Zero photo

Nine Below Zero (l to r): Brian Bethell (bass), Dennis Greaves (guitar/vocals), Mark Feltham (harmonica), Mickey Burkey (drums)

 

Contributor: Keith Shackleton

“Here she comes, around the bend. You can imagine sittin’ at Tulse ’ill, carn’t ya?”

I loved the post-Wilko period of Dr. Feelgood just as much as the original line up. But a couple of albums in to the Gypie Mayo era, slightly underwhelmed by Let It Roll and Case Of The Shakes, I felt I needed another vital shot of R&B, and trips to the surgery just weren’t giving me the invigorating blast of raw blues I needed. But then a cold wind blew up the Old Kent Road …

Half a lifetime on, I think I remember where I first heard Nine Below Zero. I’m pretty sure that their four track EP beamed through the airwaves, the unlikely source being Radio One daytime stalwart Paul Burnett’s Record of the Week slot, sometime in … 1979, maybe? Come on, help me out here, I killed off these brain cells with alcohol in the 90s and Google isn’t offering any confirmation.

Any road up, the EP doesn’t have the best recording or production, to be honest. The hole in my copy is ever so slightly off centre. But the blues contained in those grooves positively bristles with intent, there’s some buzzsaw guitar in the mix, a smattering of South London vocalese and clattering unsophisticated drums, but it races along at 100 miles an hour for the most part (a whip through Freddie King’s Tore Down a definite highlight) and … oh my god … the harmonica player.

Now I’d bought some harps by this time and I was pretty confident I could blow like Brilleaux, but I couldn’t, obviously still can’t, and never will be able to blow harmonica like Mark Feltham.

I needed to hear more and, in fairly short order, out popped a single, produced by Pete Wingfield, featuring a sterling version of Otis Rush’s Homework, by way of J. Geils, and on the B-side a charming little Dennis Greaves original called Is That You?. Mr. Feltham is front and centre once again with a tightly constructed harmonica solo of effortless control. By now new drummer Mickey Burkey and bassman Pete Clark had meshed together and seemed to have that vital ability, no matter how hectic the song was, to swing. Just how I like my rhythm section.

And then …

“I dunno if some of you know, ladeezangennlemen, we’re recordin’ an album ’ere tonight”

A foolish decision, ‘live album as debut’? Not in my book. Eagerly acquired in 1980, I wore Live At The Marquee flat *. The damn thing was hardly ever off my turntable. It’s almost see-through, I’ve played it so many times, and it has little patches of extra wear through shifting the stylus back to the beginning of three particular songs, time and again, chiefly to work out how Mark the Harp ‘did it’.

Right after a couple of speedy Motown covers to gee the audience up a bit, Greaves gives the word to Feltham and the train starts to really come down the track. The intro to Riding On The L&N draws a melody from a Bill Monroe bluegrass tune called Scotland, which was featured on the 1970 album Trip In The Country by Area Code 615 (most famous in Britain for Stone Fox Chase, the Old Grey Whistle Test theme). The rest of the track bears more than a passing resemblance to the John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers version (a visiting Paul Butterfield on harmonica) but youthful Sarf Lunnon exuberance revs it up more than a little and, hands clapping in the air, the audience go batshit crazy.

I really wanted to play this song. As the years went by, once or twice I even managed to play it how I wanted it played.

If there’s anything else this record taught me, it’s how to pace a set, pick a song to end it, and end an encore. Nine Below opt for a dash through Pack Fair & Square for the set closer, a faithful electrified rendition of Big Walter Price’s classic jump blues as per the J. Geils Band version on Full House, with some flashy Feltham variations on the theme. The encore? Well, I gave up on this one, didn’t ever play it how I wanted to and goddamit, I just can’t … nope. I have a mental block with it.

The rather lazily titled Swing Job melds together (once again) the J. Geils Band’s Whammer Jammer (tour de force, Rodney, tour de force!) and Charlie Musselwhite’s Harpin’ On A Riff presses the accelerator and before you know it everyone is back in the dressing room, congratulating each other on a job well done and sinking a few beers.

“We’re down ’ere tomorrer night also, so if it’s a bit too ’ot for you tonight, it’ll be even ’otter tomorrer.”

So what’s a band to do next? Having spent a few years treading the boards cranking out R&B, originally monikered Stan’s Blues Band, the product of Nine Below’s first studio shenanigans was Don’t Point Your Finger, produced by the legendary Glyn Johns, in lurid translucent green vinyl – dunno where it went, mind, some enterprising individual ran off on his toes wiv it, knoworrimean?

Chock full of great songs my band stole, sometimes ham-fistedly, sometimes quite impressively. Three covers only on this record (the rest Greaves originals, with assistance from Burkey) including a ripper version of Roy Head’s Treat Her Right, Feltham more than compensating for the lack of a horn section. The charging One Way Street, ripped off our way, had plenty of space in the middle for that quiet sensitive middle section for engaging with the audience. To this day, I don’t know why we played it in my most un-favourite key. Guitarists … go figure.

And I’ll also have the album closer You Can’t Please All The People All The Time, a real rabble-rouser. What comes across on this record, for better or worse, is an emerging modernist feel, which we will discuss in a brief while, but first … Three Times Enough. A shade over two minutes, the tightest playing imaginable, rip-snorting harp and guitar solos, a live tune of great fire and skill … but I’m not at all sure these days, now I’m all grown up, that unlikable lyrics are the best idea. This tune makes it, for the aforementioned good reasons only.

“You can’t please all the people … never mind, never mind, never mind. Take your time.”

The buzz had really kicked in with Nine Below now. They seemed to be everywhere. The Whistle Test, the South Bank Show, The Young Ones. Promo budgets got a bit bigger, the suits a tad sharper. Iconic 60s snapper David Bailey shot the cover of the third album which really helped to tag them in to the mod revival.

And I wasn’t at all sure I liked that. Of course, if you’re a band, and you’ve made it, and you find your audience, all well and good – if you’re young fellas you might not want to spend eternity cranking out speed-fuelled Muddy Waters covers, cos that only takes you so far, right? You can still be big fun on a night out, but you might just want to push back your own personal musical frontiers more than a bit. Third Degree had that glazed 80s production sheen I didn’t like and still don’t. Heavy on the Armani and skinny ties, it had the right look …

… but for me it didn’t have the feel. It all seemed a bit automatic, with a single exception. Eleven Plus Eleven is a right little raver. Go on, pull up the live version on our playlist, from The Granary in Bristol, in 1981. Fish’s arse tight, doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, just listen to the way Feltham leans into the solo and Greaves, who you know has heard Feltham blow like this hundreds of times, even Greaves exclaims “Yeah!”. As neat a slice of pop R‘n’B as you’re likely to hear. That’s what I wanted.

Was it because I was too young for mod the first time round and too old the second? I dunno, but they’d lost me. It happens of course, but so soon? Well, two albums I’ve played for nigh on forty years is two more than a lot of bands who came and went in the meantime, but some folks out there might still be wondering what all the fuss is about. Just a blues band, from London?

Well, not just that. An inspiration. The records have that essential quality; they put me right back there in the early 80s, in a time and place when I was developing as a player and a person. And that’s a pretty special thing.

“Nine Below Zero, thank you very much.”

 

 

Live At The Marquee footnote *
And by the way, what taste, what daring, to open the record with a snatch of Muddy Waters’ Nine Below Zero, from his magisterial 1971 album Live At Mr. Kelly’s. “Check out the old, now here’s the new.”

Harmonica history pointers from my good friend Wanderin’ Wilf, the good doctor of all things suck and blow. Visit him at Harp Surgery, the harmonica player’s web site.

 

Nine Below Zero official website

Nine Below Zero at Discogs

Nine Below Zero biography (iTunes)

Louder Than War interview Dennis Greaves (2016)

Nine Below Zero “13 Shades Of Blue” (2016 album promo)

Nine Below Zero 2017 tour and full band history

The Truth (1982 to 1989) – formed by Dennis Greaves and Mick Lister

Keith Shackleton is still suspicious of albums over 40 minutes long. Follow him on Twitter @RiverboatCapt and read more of his musings on music at his website.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Dr. Feelgood, Roy Head, Wilko Johnson, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters

TopperPost #663

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Oct 10, 2017

    Knew Mark Feltham through his later work with Rory Gallagher (there is a good interview with him about Rory here) but didn’t really know much about Nine Below Zero before this. This fine list, however, gives me the perfect place to start…

    • Keith Shackleton
      Oct 10, 2017

      He is a lovely chap, met him once at a duo gig with Robbie MacIntosh, mentioned here in this neat interview by my mate.

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