The Woodentops

TrackAlbum / Single
Move MeRough Trade RT 165
Well Well WellRough Trade RT 167
It Will ComeRough Trade RT 169
Good ThingRough Trade RT 177
Hear Me JamesGiant
Everyday LivingRough Trade RT 178
Love TrainLive Hypnobeat Live
You Make Me FeelWooden Foot Cops On The Highway
Why Why WhyGenerations: Three Decades Of Dance
ConversationsGranular Tales

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The Woodentops photo 1

The Woodentops (l to r): Frank de Freitas, Simon Mawby, Rolo McGinty, Benny Staples, Alice Thompson

 

Contributor: Ian du Feu

If someone makes a life-affirming, teenage rites of passage movie about the giddy excitement of discovering books, film, music and love whilst following Huddersfield Town in the mid-1980s, then the Woodentops’ music would make the ideal soundtrack. Combining a heady mix of propulsive percussion, fast rhythms, rockabilly guitar and infectious keyboards; backing breathy, clipped, urgent vocals, ensured that the Woodentops released some of the brightest indie folk bop.

If someone makes a documentary, if you will a ‘bopumentary’, about The Woodentops, then the group’s story can be traced back to the late 1970s. Rolo McGinty played bass in a few bands who managed to release independent singles, and had auditions with some bands that went on to become famous. These connections, with friends and people already working in the music business, would be important in the formation of the group. Immediately prior to the Woodentops, Rolo briefly played bass in two influential bands.

The Wild Swans were an integral part of the early 1980s Liverpool scene. Before splitting up they had recorded Radio 1 sessions and released a single, Revolutionary Spirit, on Pete de Freitas’ Zoo Records which reached No.10 in the 1982 Festive 50 chart.

In 1982 & into 1983 Rolo re-joined his old friend Pat Fish in the Jazz Butcher to play bass. Alice Thompson was in the group playing keyboards and they both appear on Southern Mark Smith, a song which lightly mocks people who inhabit a stereotype persona, and also has a hint of the musical style they would develop.

Later in 1983, with the Jazz Butcher on a temporary break, Rolo and Alice moved to south London and started to practice, build up some material and establish themselves as the Woodentops.

Initially the group was Rolo McGinty on guitar and vocals, Alice Thompson on keyboards, Simon Mawby on guitar, James Rawlings on bass and Paul Hookham on drums. Their early influences of Can, Kraftwerk, the Feelies and Suicide were mixed with rockabilly and strummed acoustic guitars, producing a kind of rhythmic beat music. The group played local gigs and rehearsed in a warehouse at Clapham Junction. This place was owned by the artist Panni Bharti; she became an important visual part of the group and would design the record artwork. Panni created a crafty ‘green man’ feel for the record sleeves, giving them an unusual but recognizable theme which complemented the music.

In 1984 they released their first single, Plenty, on Dave Balfe’s Food Records. The record was reviewed by Morrissey for the Melody Maker; he liked it and awarded it ‘single of the week’. This review started to shine the indie limelight on the Woodentops but would be equivocal, giving them publicity whilst casting them in the Smiths’ shadow. They joined the Smiths on tour and for a few gigs in 1984 you could see the Woodentops support the Smiths, buy a pint and still have change from £5.

The Woodentops Smiths poster

In September 1984 they recorded their first Peel session, supposedly after the Smiths couldn’t make the studio slot and The Woodentops stepped in at the last minute. Peel enjoyed the songs, and the version of Well Well Well is particularly good; full of nervous energy and less glossy than the later releases.

After a one record deal with Food Records, the group began to think about changing labels. Their manager worked at Rough Trade and they liked the set up. Rough Trade and the Woodentops were a good match, both being part of the indie mind set of the mid-1980s, which was broadly speaking left of centre, anti-consumerism, DIY and anti-Thatcher. A laudable position but it did pose the problem of how you maintain these principles in a capitalist environment? A dilemma with which Rough Trade would struggle; they were caught between being an idealist, independent company while trying to make money. One of their newer approaches to this problem was to sign bands and sell the publishing rights to Warner Bros, then license their music to American and European record companies. This policy led to the Woodentops touring worldwide quite quickly.

The Woodentops photo 2

By 1985 the move to Rough Trade was complete and Frank de Freitas (brother of Pete of the Bunnymen) had joined as the bass guitarist. The drumming in particular became very distinct, cymbals were dispensed with and the beat was relentless and tight, almost as though it was being played by a machine. In April there was a Janice Long session, and the Woodentops now featured regularly on evening Radio 1 shows and in the music press.

The Move Me single was their first record for Rough Trade, released as a 2 track 7″, 3 track 12″, and produced by Andy Partridge of XTC.

The song opens with a melodica’s repeated five note call, and is full of pop hooks held together by forceful drumming. This, coupled with rhythmic guitars and light keyboard, heralded the start of ‘hypno beat’ and so began the string of perfect singles released over the next eighteen months. The extra track on the 12″ single Steady Steady has shades of Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop both in the vocals and music. The lyric was amended on the spur of the moment in the studio and is a sad description of somebody with terminal cancer; the sentiments are still relevant over thirty years later.

Paul Hookham left to drum with the Redskins and was replaced by Benny Staples, who picked-up a strong rhythm with Rolo’s acoustic strumming on the August 1985 release Well Well Well. The single was again issued as a 2 track 7″ and 3 track 12″ and it was mixed by Godwin Logie. Normally associated with reggae production he managed to keep it tight while introducing a slightly woozy echo. The lyric’s repetition brings a sense of haste and the arrangement allows each instrument to shine briefly while creating little spaces. The rhythm is passed back and forth around the vocal, making the sound a whole lot greater than its constituent parts.

It Will Come had a stop-motion video produced by Panni to accompany the single, which was fun, in keeping with the group’s image and ahead of its time. The tune builds with smooth vocals and gentle keyboard chords before releasing into a staccato rhythm to emphasise the lyric. This is augmented with subtle key changes and harmonies giving the song a gospel feel. It was released in November 1985, possibly as an attempt at a Christmas hit record.

1986 continued to be hectic for the group with a lot of concerts and time in the studio. In March the third and final Peel session was recorded. The Good Thing single was released in May and the Giant album followed a month later. Good Thing is a light, sweet love song with a slightly slower tempo, where the reiteration of ‘now, now, now’ and ‘na, na, na’ in the vocal helps to draw attention to hushed snippets of conversation with a loved one. The sound of the words seem to be as important as the words’ meaning in many of the songs. Using the noun ‘thing’ as a compliment sometimes bothers me; perhaps this is an ambiguous ode to something rather than someone. The 2 track 7″ and extended 2 track 12″ didn’t become a top 30 hit as had been hoped, after their singles had all done well in the indie charts. There was a feeling that both Good Thing and Giant could have sold better if there had been more product in the shops. Rough Trade were later accused of not having the distribution capabilities of larger record companies and of concentrating a lot of promotion effort on the Smiths’ masterpiece The Queen Is Dead at the time. The relationship the Woodentops had with their record label is interesting; it gives an insight into the music industry in the mid-80s and shows how the group were supported, promoted and possibly why they ultimately faded away.

Panni produced the album artwork and changed the cover palette from the subdued browns, greens and blues of the singles to bold, fiery, dark red hues. The design was still folky and with a Magic Roundabout scenery feel. Giant is a stunning, accomplished debut album by anyone’s standards. All the album tracks are polished. I have chosen Hear Me James for this Top 10. The song’s incessant call and response vocals and cheeky guitar riff help to whip up a catchy musical storm.

In June there was another Janice Long session and later in the summer the positive anthem about seeking to be content with life, Everyday Living, was released as a 2 track 7″ single & extended 2 track 12″ with Why as the B-side.

Adrian Sherwood remixed both tracks, nudging them towards indie-dub territory. The group had been listening to his On-U stuff for a while and Rolo approached him with the intention of asking him to do some remixing. On their first meeting, Rolo contributed to Barmy Army’s Sharp As A Needle and Sherwood agreed to work on some Woodentops’ tunes. A good collaboration was established with Rolo becoming interested in the newly emerging dance music, and On-U Sound System later supported the Woodentops in concert. In the summer of 1986, the group played Glastonbury and also The Warehouse in Leeds. The latter gig was what I imagined Beatlemania might have been like; the small venue was packed and noisy, the Woodentops appeared very late, were ushered on by security, stormed through a fast, furious, well-rehearsed set and were then quickly whisked away.

Live Hypnobeat Live was released in early 1987 and spent some time in the indie charts. It managed to fill a ‘release gap’ whilst the group toured and worked on new material, but it is the only record they put out that year. The recording is taken from a Californian show in November 1986 which was to be broadcast on American radio. The version of Love Train is particularly good, joining a fine canon of train songs, it fairly rattles along. The backbone of simple, fast drumming allows the keyboard and guitar to bounce off each other and around Rolo’s voice. The album is a speedy, live version of songs from Giant and a few singles. Donny Osmond was present in the crowd at the show. He was on the same American record label as the Woodentops and seemed keen to be associated with the latest ‘pop sensation’ from the UK.

The Woodentops photo 3

Sadly everything changes, and at some point in 1987 Alice Thompson left the group. She would return to Scotland, eventually following a literary career, writing novels that blur the boundaries between the real and imagined worlds. Anne Stephenson, who had played with the Communards, took over on keyboards. There are some 1987 concerts on YouTube where Alice appears to be playing keyboards and Anne is playing violin, and other concerts where Anne is playing the keyboards on some songs and violin on others with no sign of Alice. None of the recorded material from this year has her listed in the credits. Some people get a misty eyed nostalgia for Syd-era Floyd or Brian-era Stones, personally I get quite emotional about Alice-era Woodentops. Rolo was still the group’s creative driving force, but I feel that Alice’s light touch may have been a special ingredient in the early Woodentops’ sound.

The group continued to tour and spent a lot of time working on their second studio album. Some interesting guest musicians were involved in the new recordings; Gary Lucas from the Magic Band, Bernie Worrell from Parliament contributed, and Lee Perry made a fleeting appearance. The Upsetter had mistakenly arrived at the studio they were using and ended up spending the day with Rolo, providing the album title and an unfinished track which was going to be too expensive to include on the album.

In the summer the Woodentops played Glastonbury again; Anne Stephenson’s violin playing is an integral part of the group on the recording and the overall sound had become funkier.

In January 1988 there was a Radio 1 session for the Simon Mayo show and later in the year the new album Wooden Foot Cops On The Highway was released. The album encompasses a wide range of musical styles all given the familiar Woodentops treatment. You Make Me Feel (b/w Stop That Car) was released as a single to help promote the album. It is a very gentle, sweet love song; among the best of their slower, hushed ballads. Wheels Turning is instantly appealing and was also released as single; it was popular on the west coast of America.

Why Why Why became a club hit in the summer of 1988. The original version of the song came from Live Hypnobeat Live and was being played by DJ Alfredo Fiorito in Ibiza; it was later remixed by Paul Oakenfold on Generations: Three Decades Of Dance. The song’s chorus of constant questioning the actions of government, accompanied by a very strong rhythm from the acoustic guitar and percussion was an ideal summer tune. It was also played by DJs Cox, Rampling & Weatherall as a set closer in the UK and Ibiza clubs, and became an early indie-dance favourite. The Woodentops and Rough Trade didn’t catch the song’s popularity at the time and a seemingly great opportunity for a hit record was missed.

And that really was the end of the first active phase of the Woodentops. They didn’t split up as such but just stopped working together. There seem to be a few reasons why the group ground to a halt after 1988, besides general exhaustion. Some accounts suggest that they weren’t allowed to use the name ‘The Woodentops’ for three years. Rough Trade definitely collapsed in 1991 which didn’t help matters. The group had allegedly been working on a double album in the early 1990s, which never saw the light of day. There were some white label techno crossover 12″ records released around this time. Conehead became a hit on the northern techno scene and Tainted World was popular on NYC radio. Rolo had possibly become more interested in dance music than the Woodentops, and the other members of the group started to do different things.

In 1991 the group played some gigs which were caught on film. There were European concerts in 1992 & the group’s sound had changed dramatically. Rolo also worked with Gary Lucas on the album Gods And Monsters and Simon Mawby played guitar with the House of Love around this time.

In the mid-1990s Rolo was releasing dance music under the name Pluto and also as Dogs Deluxe with Rob Miller. Throughout the noughties the Woodentops occasionally reformed to promote various compilation albums and to play some festivals.

In 2013, Rolo again reformed the group after the career retrospective compilation box set Before During After: Remasters Remixes & Rarities 1982-1992 received a great deal of interest. The guys spent some time together and an album of new material, Granular Tales, was released in 2014. The band’s line-up now included Aine O’Keeffe on keyboards. They also played some gigs together.

Conversations from Granular Tales showcases a familiar catchy Woodentops vibe but with a slightly slower pace to the music. Rolo’s voice has matured and is deeper in tone; the lyric is also deeper with a hint of melancholy and regret at the passing of time.

The Why Why Why Remixes on Wall of Sound was a nod back to 1988’s Ibiza indie-dance crossover hit, and was rather belatedly released in 2016. It’s an album of eight remixes of Why Why Why including a very catchy Lisbon Kid remix

There were some gigs arranged to promote this record and to celebrate the 30th year anniversary of the release of Giant. Rolo McGinty still works in the industry, making music for movies and adverts, DJing and doing production work.

 

The Woodentops photo 4

 

The Woodentops official website

The Woodentops Facebook

The Woodentops Soundcloud

The Woodentops at Discogs

Panni Bharti official website

Alice Thompson at Salt Publishing

Lee Perry with the Woodentops (Louder Than War)

The Woodentops biography (iTunes)

 

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Peter photo

Dedicated to my beautiful son Peter, always in my thoughts.

 

This is Ian’s seventh post for Toppermost (after Fats Waller, King Tubby, Dawn Penn, Melvins, The Orb, Nina Simone).

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other bands mentioned in this post:
Can, House of Love, Kraftwerk, Morrissey, Parliament, Smiths, XTC

TopperPost #746

1 Comment

  1. Swiss Adam
    Oct 21, 2018

    Great piece about a much loved band in these parts.

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