The Dentists

TrackAlbum / EP / Single
Pocket Of SilverPowdered Lobster Fiasco
Strawberries Are Growing...Spruck Records SP 003
Flowers Around MeSome People Are On The Pitch...
Just Like Oliver ReedWrithing On The Shagpile EP
Rivals For The Hand Of IsabelHeads And How To Read Them
Have It Your Own WayHeads And How To Read Them
Leave Me AlivePowdered Lobster Fiasco
GasBehind The Door I Keep The Universe
The WaiterBehind The Door I Keep The Universe
GradualDeep Six

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The Dentists photo

The Dentists (l to r): Ian Smith (drums), Mark Matthews (bass), Mick Murphy (lead vocals), Bob Collins (guitar)

 

Contributor: John Hartley

1984 to 1996: a period characterised by evolution, progression, being forever on the fringes, critical acclaim not ever quite matched commercially, getting caught in the no man’s land between humour, quirkiness and sincerity with the ensuing appearance of being misunderstood, writing songs about love, loss and other whimsical themes, apparently influenced by bands such as The Beatles, The Wedding Present, Half Man Half Biscuit, getting good ideas and trying to improve on them, sometimes catching the limelight and punching above the designated weight, always not quite fashionable or in the right place. I suppose on reflection it might have been like that for The Dentists, too.

Hailing from the fertile indie hotbed of the Medway Towns in Kent, The Dentists had been ploughing their own individual furrow for a good six or seven years before I chanced upon them. I failed to register their name amongst other lower league indie bands (BOB, The Brilliant Corners, The Man From Del Monte, The Chesterfields to name but a few) whose names featured in latter-paged NME adverts for gigs at the Half Moon in Putney, Newport TJs, The Boardwalk in Manchester or Northampton Roadmenders. I neglected to spot their sporadic releases in the indie charts, or their occasional appearances on compilation albums. In the end it took one of several idle browses through the “The Guinness Who’s Who Of Indie And New Wave” when I should have been writing essays on the democratic processes of local government for The Dentists to finally register. Maybe this had something to do with my own failure to register with any dentist during my late teens and early twenties, emotionally scarred by the repeated inability of a previous tooth technician to inject oral anaesthetic without several unsuccessful attempts at controlling their trembling hand. Fortunately, The Dentists’ music would –and still does – prove inversely pleasurable to experiences at the mercy of geriatrics with drills.

The “Who’s Who” would later be republished twice, the second time as the “Virgin Encyclopedia Of Indie And New Wave”. The entry for The Dentists describes “critical acclaim” followed by press attention “minimal, leaving the band to go quietly about their business” and “the lower divisions they have inhabited”. The earlier “Who’s Who” meanwhile namechecked such bands as McCarthy and The Wedding Present as influences on The Dentists’ sound. In perpetual search for new music this was sufficient to tempt me into further exploration. This came in the shape of a few fruitless visits to second hand record shops before, as luck would have it, I chanced upon a promotional cassette for an album entitled Powdered Lobster Fiasco and it is with this collection of songs that we begin.

Peppered with excerpts from a radio competition hosted by the band wherein they tried with very limited success to offer free tickets to a gig in return to a correct answer to the question “In which year did England win the football World Cup”?, Powdered Lobster Fiasco is a collection of new and old songs recorded as a being in itself. Pocket Of Silver opens proceedings as a fine statement of intent. A bold guitar riff from Bob Collins tight with the backing from bassist Mark Matthews and drummer Rob Griggs (following in the dental drumsticks of previous holders Alun Jones and Ian Smith) opens proceedings at a promising pace before the distinctive vocal tones of Michael Murphy chime in, declaring himself “caught without any worthwhile words to say”. The album continues in a similar vein, unpretentiously produced, musically confident yet lyrically fragile, all underpinned by a dry, subtle humour.

The Dentists were never shy of a bit of whimsy and early song titles such as Tony Bastable v John Noakes or Where’s My Chicken, You Bastard do little to convince otherwise. However, dig a little deeper and a strong vein of wry, frustrated and self-deprecating lyric is not hard to find. Perhaps the strongest example of this deep/shallow juxtaposition can be found in the band’s debut single Strawberries Are Growing In My Garden (And It’s Wintertime) in which sheer desperation is only made worse by incredulity at the random ways of nature. “There’s nothing to do,” opens Murphy, “nothing to show for my life. I look to the sky, look to you and the earth and say ‘Strawberries are growing in my garden and it’s wintertime’”. This is probably the song by The Dentists with which people are most familiar, and perhaps rightly so. If the songwriters behind The Monkees had had the foresight to write a song that an early-mid 1980s band might write to capture the sound of the early-mid 1960s, then surely this would be it.

The song deserved to be massive; history shows that it wasn’t. Neither too was the debut album Some People Are On The Pitch They Think It’s All Over It Is Now, which followed hot on its heels. Here you will find more of the same, but in the best way possible: urgent guitar playing, a variety of mood, funny song titles, the odd bit of sound collage thrown in for good measure, and all with a lyrical flow that belies the suggestion once made by the band that they made the words up just before they recorded the songs. Flowers Around Me again sounds reminiscent of two decades previous, reverberated simple guitar lines, practical production and close harmonies, all underpinning lines such as “little boy playing games in the road/I can play games in my head” and “in the cloudy evenings that lie ahead I’ve been singing in the dark/no-one listens to a word that I say…”

Subsequent humorously-titled EPs followed the debut album, including You And Your Bloody Oranges, Down And Out In Paris And Chatham and, from which the next song in this Toppermost is taken, Writhing On The Shagpile. Following on from the title track is another example of The Dentists’ ability to write perfect sub-three minute guitar pop songs: Just Like Oliver Reed likens the narrator to the beverage-imbibing actor as he finds himself “pissed again … miles from home” wondering “how many miles to go, how many I don’t know” whilst wondering if the voices he hears were actually the voices he’d wanted to hear.

There followed a period of frustration for the band, as they tried on more than one occasion to record the follow-up to their debut album only to be thwarted by record label issues. When it finally arrived, Heads And How To Read Them did not disappoint, continuing the trend for well-crafted guitar pop for which they were known, albeit not as widely as perhaps they should have been known. Whilst some tracks appeared to hark back to former glories (Daffodil Scare being a prime culprit, to these ears trying too hard to be another Strawberries…) others showed a clear development. In particular Rivals For The Hand Of Isabel, which clocks in at a whopping five minutes ten seconds, captures a marvellously melancholic tale of unrequited love, with dreamily meandering guitars sympathetically punctured by a staccato bass line. Album closer Have It Your Own Way meanwhile brings proceedings to a close in defiant manner, a song which musically would not have been out of place on the debut album released four years previously, but with a more assured and well-produced sound.

So where next? This was quite possibly the question on the lips of every Dentist over the next few years, as releases came and went across as many as five different small independent labels in a two year period before third album ‘proper’ was released. Three of these releases were 7″ singles showcasing different tracks from that album prior to its release, all including a different poem written and read by John Hegley. Leave Me Alive is typical of the album’s content, perhaps dealing metaphorically with the band’s career “even if I suddenly die there’s a place for me up in heaven/open the gates/eternity waits/a cloud for me in the sky and a prayer for me when I die” if not the more obvious sentiments.

But there was still more to come from our heroes from Kent. Seemingly out of nowhere the band signed to a major label and in 1994, four years after their rather cobbled together second album, EasteWest Records America brought the world possibly The Dentists’ finest hour: Behind The Door I Keep The Universe. Here was an album that took all the qualities we’d become accustomed to – quirkiness, pop, energy, humour, melancholy, charm – bundled them together and gave them a good polish. The band even got to film a promo video, for the track Gas, a bouncy four minutes of well-crafted guitar pop that was, unfortunately for them but fortunately for lovers of simplicity, out of keeping with the grunge-infused offerings peppering the music media at the time. Consequently, it was roundly and unfairly ignored. My own personal favourite on the album, being a sucker for a slowie, is closing track The Waiter, with its gently soaring and reversed guitar lines and hushed vocals.

the-dentists-deep-six

Behind The Door… was released in 1994, and before 1995 was out a fourth album had been released, again on EastWest. Deep Six would transpire to be the final collection of songs to be brought into the world by The Dentists (although an archive-trawling compilation If All The Flies Were One Fly would be released in 2010). It would prove an enigmatic album, seeming on the one hand to be rushed and tired, yet on the other capturing some excellent and infectious songwriting. A mysteriously-named Harrison Vortex, reviewing the album on Amazon, describes Deep Six as “the best album we made”, continuing “we did debate leaving off a few tracks but we were having so much fun in the studio”. This can be heard, to an extent, although my own personal pick would be Gradual for its revolving guitar lines and its sadly reflective outro – again potentially metaphorically alluding to the band’s career – “and I wonder do I really belong here … any more?”.

Indeed, that outro could possibly be The Dentists’ ultimate epitaph. Their initial musical style belonged far more in the mid 1960s than it did contemporaneously. They rarely found a stable home to nurture and parent their style and craft, and when The Dentists did find such a home in the latter stages of their career the fashionable music of the time was anathema to them. However, in my heart, and that of many an indie enthusiast, The Dentists certainly belonged then and still do so now.

 

 

Alun Jones (1966-2013)

 

The Dentists – a documentation of the life and times of a fine pop group from the Medway Towns (with discography & gigography)

The Dentists biography (Wikipedia)

The Dentists at Discogs

Hangover Lounge video interview with Bob Collins on The Dentists reunion 2010

Bob Collins & the Full Nelson – Telescopic Victory Kiss (2015)

Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway by Stephen H. Morris

The Medway Scene

After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song John Hartley has turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. This is his 20th toppermost. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
BOB, Brilliant Corners, Half Man Half Biscuit, McCarthy, Wedding Present

TopperPost #656

1 Comment

  1. Wally
    Sep 17, 2017

    That’s a wonderful post John and the Dentists are hugely underrated and have released so much great music it still baffles the mind how they have been overlooked for so long. I’m still discovering the trail of music they left behind as well as all the other musical projects they have been involved with, a few of the most recent being The Treasures of Mexico on Shelflife Records and the Bob Collins album on Jigsaw and that’s only scraping the surface. Long live the Dentists & all who sailed with them.

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