Every music snob has one and cherishes it. That one particular album that they found and nobody else ever did. You learn quickly that it’s not always the hardest thing finding that great album but if it’s truly great, everyone else finds out eventually and unless you’re prepared to go to desperate lengths to prove that you’re no mere bandwaggoner, you let them have it and move on.
I have a few such albums but only one of them which I have never stopped listening to at least weekly since I first bought it aged 16. In the following 17 years, I have only met one person who has even heard of the band and he’s as obsessed as me (actually, a little more, since his knowledge of the band members’ subsequent solo work puts me a little to shame but I think our actual obsession with the original work is equal. Although I like to think I know the words better).
This is the album…
In 1992, I saw the video for their second single ‘Gradually Learning’ on The Chart Show – which in those dark pre-myspace/download days was how indie rockers found out about new music. It struck an immediate chord in me. I didn’t know how to feel about that as it was clearly country music – a genre still as maligned and awkward in this country as it always has been, what with it’s uncomfortable associations to middle-aged linedancers shuffling two-steps, rocking back on their heels and giving a big single clap to the strains of Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achey Breaky Heart.
Somehow this song transcended any notion of genre for me. It was just a well written song and the band seemed to not slot into any country music cliches, the lead singer resolutely sang with his own North London inflection and, despite the video being set in Texas and the guitarist ‘Hack’ Hackett riding a horse throughout it, they seemed to be more mucking about than trying to brand themselves authentic country. Indeed the bass player, Dave Goulding, almost stubbornly wears cricket whites to the final frame.
I wouldn’t say it was the greatest song I’d ever heard, but at that age I was completely rabid for music and anything that clicked with me was hunted and assimilated into the collection (these days with spotify and peer-to-peer it’s a lot easier and cheaper to take a punt on something, back then it was genuine pocket money Russsian roulette). I headed straight into town and bought the cd Single of Gradually Learning.
I went home and played it obsessively for about a week. On it, I found a far more satisfying longer version of the title track, at least 2 minutes longer, mainly taken up with the lead singer/songwriter Alan Tyler reassuringly repeating the maxim ‘Being late is better than never’ but the song took on a new dynamic, there was space in it, the urgency of a 3 minute pop song lazily drifting into a sunday afternoon jam between old friends in the back garden of some North London pub on a summer afternoon.
I imagine this cd single is where The Rockingbirds and I could have parted company – I bought many great singles throughout my teenage and enjoyed the title track but was left cold by b-sides and subsequent flabby album releases. But there was a B-side on this one which, for me, surpassed the title track. Or at least hinted at further greatness. Love Has Gone And Made a Mess Of Me is a fast, rollicking romp which takes the bittersweet storytelling element of country music and infuses it with the brilliant misogyny (not that misogyny is brilliant) of The Faces’ Stay With Me, wraps it up with a punky bow and kicks it into the guts of the listener.
‘I think her name was Sam/she had a drink in every hand/and her red eyes fixed upon me through the glaze/And I thought from the start/ that wildest horses couldn’t tear us apart/till I heard their hooves come thundering through the haze’
The track opens with a talky bit over the opening riffs, lead singer Alan ‘D’you know what the worst thing that ever happened to me?’ ‘No, What?’ ‘tell us!’ ‘Well, it’s that the same thing happened to me this week as what happened to me last week’ ‘oh’ ‘same old story’ ‘I know’. It reminded me of the more off-kilter Dexys Midnight Runners tracks which seemed to be Kevin Rowland just spraffing on (the bands shared a production team – Winstanley and Langer, so I wonder if this had anything to do with it) I don’t even know why I liked it so much, but I was sold.
I asked my only music-nerd friend if he had heard of the band, he promptly pulled out their debut 1991 12″ Good Day For You, Good Day For Me, proclaiming it ‘alright’, I took it home and knew from the opening sped-up riff – that made you think your record player was still switched to 45rpm – that I was never going to be giving him this record back.
That year, they played at the Oxford Polytechnic Student Union, myself and two friends convinced some students to sign us in and we got wankered on double martinis as the support band did their thing. The room wasn’t even half-full for The Rockingbirds but it was still the greatest thing I had ever seen. Alan seemed to fluctuate between awkward nervous energy and ballsy power-poses, Sean – the tambourine player (this is 92, remember, bands were allowed a Bez) was the sexy blast of energy next to him, all tight jeans and flowing indie locks. Drummer Dave, held it all down, stoic-faced. Your eyes were often drawn to bass player Dave, infectious smile, like he knew something you didn’t, bouncing around behind the others. Hack Hackett, legs rooted to the spot, jabbing his guitar at the audience with each whiney note and Patrick sat calmly and oldly (he must have been at least 40 – SO old to this teenager) behind his steel guitar lacing the whole thing with heart and soul. I was blown away. When they introduced their single Jonathan Jonathan, I screamed out ‘That’s ME! I’M JONATHAN!’ and Alan laughed and dedicated the song to me. I’d never had a song sung ‘for’ me. I clambered up drunkenly onto the stage and they tolerated my presence for longer than was polite. After the gig, I stumbled backstage and they all laughed and cheered, plyed me with temporary tatoos, posters and a signed photo and sent me on my way.
Their eponymous album came out later that year and amazed me, already a devoted fan. Some albums are just a bunch of songs, a few great, a few rotten and some filler. Not this one. Every track was killer. Killer. From the laid back life-explanation of ‘Restless’ (I’m just restless/not feckless) to the steamrolling Time Drives The Truck, the beautifully pensive un-fairytale of joining the real world ‘In Tall Buildings’ to the yearning frustration of ‘Standing at the Doorstep of Love’. Every song was different, striking and singalongable to.
Nobody bought it. Except me, initially on cassette for walkman purposes, then on vinyl, then four seperate times on cd (lost, drunkenly given away, lost). NME seemed to cover them a bit for a few months but that soon ended. I never saw them play again. In 1995 they finally released a follow-up but to my utter depression it really wasn’t very good. I listened to it a LOT desperately waiting for it to sink in or ‘click’ but it just wasn’t all that good. There were a couple of ok tracks but nothing special. Then they vanished.
I can’t quite resolve the idea that 17 years has passed. A few years ago, Alan released a solo album that I bought online from his website and didn’t really like. Last year, they did a one-off reunion as part of a celebration night of the label they were signed to – Heavenly. I found out too late and, despite trying as hard as I could, failed to get a ticket by hook or by crook.
My fellow Rockingbirds Obsessee, Quen, booked Alan’s new band ‘The Sons Of Littlefield’ (featuring the steel guitar player from Elton John’s Tiny Dancer) to play in Oxford and they were excellent. He threw a few Rockingbirds numbers in there and to hear them played live again was magical (although he had now affected an American twang in his singing voice and re-arranged them slightly). I approached Alan after the gig, bought a CD off him and thanked him for the songs which had meant so much to me from my teens to today. He was friendly and gracious and then asked for the £10 for the CD that I had already given him. Friendly and gracious became polite but suspicious and had I not already given him my last tenner, I would gladly have paid again but we parted under a resigned air of ‘whatever’.
A couple of months ago, they announced a Rockingbirds reunion tour. Last night, I saw them play in a shady backstreet venue in Tufnell Park. I seem to go to a lot of reunions, mainly for bands I missed first time around – Kiss, New York Dolls, Cheap Trick (did they ever actually split?). I kind of want to say I approached this one with trepidation but I didn’t, I was fucking excited from the moment I booked the ticket. The crowd was a srange one – lots of people like me, stood alone (perhaps also unable to convince anyone to join them to see a reunion of a band nobody had heard of) with huge grins on their faces, singing along to every single word of the set. I think I was one of the youngest there, at 33, and one of the few not rocking sideburns and a cowboy shirt. There were famous but forgotten faces peppered about the room. I saw James Dean Bradfield of The Manic Street Preachers enthusiastically slip into the room just before the band hit the stage.
And hit the stage they did. Hard. Unlike the usual sad thing of seeing a band older and craggier try to recapture the golden moment of their youth, we were faced with a stage full of roadworn but comfortable musicians who had actually grown into the songs they had written precociously young. The awkwardness of twenty somethings in the Madchester era performing country songs had vanished. Country singers SHOULD be middle aged and craggy. Everything fit perfectly and the band seemed to have a coherency and vitality that had previously eluded them. Sean – tight jeans and indie locks replaced by middle aged spread and receding salt-and-pepper hair showed that he was no mere cool hanger-on, his harmonies eclipsing his stage presence finally. Alan – tubbier and rougher clearly more comfortable fronting a bunch of grizzled old-timers than the NME’s potential cool list nominees gave it his all. Patrick, once old, now ancient sat like the wizard he is, bringing the steel magic. Hack and Drummer Dave, craggier but unchanged held the whole thing down perfectly. I’d heard that bassist Dave Goulding was lost to the mists of acrimony and time so the replacement (how many reunions are the actual full original line-up?) was Alan’s guy from his new band. Who was very good. But the moment of magic was when Dave appeared (crazy curls now hugging the sides rather than the top of a shiny bald head) from the audience, grabbed a bass and powered them through ‘Good Day For You’. I almost cried.
So, what was last night? A reunion of a band who never even came close to making it? Maybe. But it was unique as there was no past glory to recature or live up to as such. So maybe it was 6 musicians, old friends, getting back together to play songs they wrote years ago. Without that past to live up to or burden of expectation, what sets them apart from any other group of middle aged men playing country music in the upstairs hall of some pub? Nothing (apart from the amazing quality of their songs) so I truly hope they choose to stay together this time. They don’t need to be chasing deals or releasing stuff (although they did record a new single for this tour), I just truly hope they settle into being a great bar band who people stumble across and go ‘that’s AMAZING’, have the best evening of their year and maybe buy a CD to take home and desperately try to impress on others. Because that’s how The Rockingbirds work best, as the greatest non-famous band you ever saw.
In support of this tour, Heavenly have re-released their eponymous 12-track debut album with a free second 13-track CD of B-sides and rarities. It’s £8 on Amazon. You should buy it.