The 70s were an incredibly fertile time for music. The decade began with the earlier purveyors of hard rock and metal – Deep Purple, Black Sabbath et al – and ended in a similar fashion with bands like Iron Maiden and Saxon spearheading what had been dubbed the New Wave of Heavy Metal. Somewhere between the two metal-oriented goalposts, funk begat disco and progressive rock roamed the landscape like a giant self-indulgent behemoth; punk inspired a generation to create DIY sounds and the likes of ELO, David Essex, 10cc and Pilot were at the forefront of pop perfection. David Bowie and Marc Bolan bought androgyny into the mainstream and Roxy Music looked and sounded like they’d been dropped to earth by aliens. Looking back – maybe with some rose-tinted glasses – the 1970s seemed to be a time when new musical ground was being broken month after month.
People didn’t always want new things, though, and in among the ground breakers and taste makers, there were artists who looked to the past for inspiration. Square pegs in round holes, acts like Showaddywaddy and Mud embraced the 50s, taking a retro sound a core sound for their work and, best of all, in 1977 – just after the birth of punk – there came Darts, a garishly dressed, very enthusiastic doo wop gang from Brighton whom made regular appearances on Top of The Pops and scored a top ten hit with their debut LP. Between 1977 and 1979, you couldn’t avoid them. They were insanely popular, and yet the musical history books barely consider them worth mentioning. Decades on, their studio albums might not quite translate as well as witnessing them on your telly box, but the best bits of those recordings represent a lovingly crafted tribute to classic rock ‘n’ roll and doo wop styles.
In 2019, Cherry Red Records’ subsidiary 7Ts Records made sure the band were given more respect than those history books would ever give with this four disc reissue…and whilst Darts’ debut is still their defining work, a revisitation of the next three albums suggests there was a more gold to be mined before the 80s relegated Griff Fender and his gang to a status of “unloved”.
The band’s 1977 debut is arguably the album that’s aged the best, as well as getting across Darts’ abilities for close harmony singing. There’s a near perfect rendition of ‘Come Back My Love’ (a mid 50s hit for The Wrens) and an equally loving take on ‘Sh-Boom’ (a 1954 hit for both The Chords and The Crew Cuts) both of which set out firm intentions and with the latter being a great showcase for Den Hegarty’s lower registers. The massive hit single medley of ‘Daddy Cool / The Girl Can’t Help It’ brilliantly captures the energy and talent within the assembled band beyond the four vocalists. The sheer drive of these three minutes stands as a near perfect testament to the era’s love of a musical past.
Even a lesser known track like the self-penned ‘Shotgun’ – a slightly too smooth take on 50s rock ‘n’ roll with a perfect jazz vocal interlude – holds up well against the well-loved covers, showing how the many layers within the music have been created with a genuine care. This benefits from some great rolling piano and superb sax throughout and while it’s surely just bread and butter stuff for the musicians, they play it as if they were putting their stamp on a future classic. The only time this debut falters is on Hegarty’s showcase, a medley of ‘Mad’, ‘Riot In Cell Block #9’, ‘Trouble’ and a couple of other oldies. You’d find it hard to argue against his enthusiasm, but between a gruff voice and a few too many theatrics, it’s like he’s trying a bit too hard to impress. To be fair, though, this is something that probably worked better in front of an audience. In old TV footage, you can witness the tall, live wire of a man rolling around on his back and occasionally hitting himself in the head… It probably all seemed like a good idea at the time. Nevertheless, the debut is, in the main, a great example of Darts’ throwback talents…and with so many doo wop and rock ‘n’ roll staples wedged into exactly half an hour, it’s a wonder they managed a half-decent follow up at all…
EVERYONE PLAYS DARTS (1978)
Arguably offering much more of the same, the following year’s ‘Everyone Plays Darts’ includes another selection of retro covers, led by a spirited cover of ‘The Boy From New York City’ which, understandably provides a great workout for the meticulously arranged harmonies as well as featuring one of Rita Ray’s best recorded performances. A soulful pop tune, the Griff Fender penned ‘It’s Raining’ is relately sedate homage to a pop style of yesteryear (and probably responsible for their most remembered Top of The Pops appearance that year) and the album’s true highlight ‘Make It Up’ fuses the expected close harmony vocals with a speedy rockabilly rhythm, allowing for enthusiastic piano and sax solos along the way. ‘Everyone Plays Darts’ is worth hearing for this alone. Likewise, a spot on doo wop tune ‘Who’s That Knocking’ demonstrates three part harmonies in a superior way. Another of ‘Everyone…’s best tracks, this could easily stand alongside the best tracks from the debut.
Filling time along the way, but often feeling like more than filler, a live track ‘Hammy’s Boogie’ showcases the talents of pianist Hammy Howell in a way that would make Jools Holland proud; ‘My True Story’ is on hand for a softer voyage into doo-wop territory (as per the debut’s ‘Come Back My Love’) and features a smooth lead vocal which sounds totally at ease against a wall of back-ups. Also representing more than reasonable fare, ‘Late Last Night’ is a bouncing, harmony drenched number that really shows off the range of voices with lead spots by Hegarty, Fender and Bob Fish in turn and ‘Late For Work’ is a Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett-tastic tune, big on comedic vocals and end of the pier charm.
Beyond that, it’s very much affected by “second album syndrome”. The production values aren’t as sharp – everything feels a little bass heavy, sometimes detracting somewhat from that 50s feel. Also, for all the good, there are two genuine misfires – ‘Honey Love’ is calypso tinged badness and the mildly diverting ‘My Friend’s Wife’ relies too much on Hegarty’s growlier side. Despite this, it’s an album that brings a fair amount of fun.
DART ATTACK (1979)
By the summer of 1979, having survived the wave of punk and stared square into the face of the emerging ska revival, Darts were still riding high. Even after the departure of founding member Den Hegarty during 1978, they were committed to bringing their love of sounds from a pre-Beatle era to anyone who’d listen. Their third album is best remembered for a hit cover of ‘Duke of Earl’ (a UK top 20 hit in August), but it also includes a few other gems.
‘Runaround’ has a cleaner sound than most of the material on their first two albums, but isn’t shy in showcasing complex three part harmonies, some ‘Blue Moon’ inspired doo wop interjections and a fab piano part from Hammy. The occasional use of electronic drums is very…of its time, but it doesn’t ever spoil the track as a whole. Hammy is equally busy on his own instrumental piece, the cheekily titled ‘One Off The Wrists’ and for lovers of rock ‘n’ roll spirit tinged with a little big band jazz (years before The Brian Setzer Orchestra and Joe Jackson made such things cool), ‘Don’t Say Yes’ features a classic horn and vocal combo. Covers of ‘Cool Jerk’ and ‘Reet Petite’ add a little more weight to the Darts’ legacy of 50s revivals and the performances of each are respectful, even if neither quite hits the high benchmark set by the debut. A definite highlight, though, comes from ‘This Is The Night’, very much an inspiration for why Darts came to be in the first place. This short a cappella number demonstrates their gift for close harmonies in the manner of many of their musical heroes.
A case of “could’ve been great, but is merely okay”, the clinical production sound is very much at odds with the well crafted early 60s pop of ‘Cuckoo’. A tune big on saxophones and carrying a Brill Building sense of melody, it deserved more than it gets here and the same goes for the Dion-esque ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love’, a number where Ray gets more time in the spotlight. Hints of the soon to be dominant 80s pop sound creep in once more, but lovers of bands like Racey will still find some enjoyment.
By this point, aside from a shinier production hinting at a new decade and new ideas just over the horizon, things seem decidedly formulaic. There are a couple of lesser tracks and the final mix might not have held up so well, but upon original release, ‘Dart Attack’ presented another finely tuned dive into a past that their audience still wanted. Decades on, it’s much easier to hear the album’s faults, but still offers a few key tracks.
DARTS ACROSS AMERICA (1981)
The turn of the decade brought a turn in Darts’ fortunes. Britain in 1981 was obsessed with a whole new breed of musicians and a much shinier sound than the 70s had ever presented. Darts’ planned forth album ‘Frantic Antics’ was scrapped. Still, for Griff, Rita and Bob too, there was always America – the true home of doo wop – and their fourth album, ‘Darts Across America’, captured the band sticking rigidly to their guns. Only available as an import from the US for many years, it’s sort of odd that it was bypassed by the UK at the time, especially since a cover of ‘Let’s Hang On’ had reached #11 on the singles chart in the late spring… Perhaps the biggest instigator with regards to the albums domestic misfortunes lay with the theory that a lot of people were seeking retro thrills of a different kind…and Stray Cats were more than happy to oblige. It includes some genuinely terrible material, but it’s best moments have a much better sound than most of ‘Dart Attack’.
It’s actually worth having on the basis of just three or four tracks. The version of The Cadillacs’ 1955 song ‘Mr. Speedo’ is an easy match for anything on the debut LP. The drums rattle at speed throughout; the doo wop vocals are spot on and Horatio’s sax work often seems to tip the hat to Boots Randolph. As a snapshot of what Darts did well in their prime, this is up there with their best. Similarly, their treatment of ‘Think’ is great fun. Originally recorded by the 5 Royals and covered by James Brown, Darts put their own slant on a great track. Slowed down and taken from its r ‘n’ b origins and placed more within Darts’ preferred doo wop moods, it’s home to a superb vocal and brilliant horn work. Joining these, ‘Hit ‘n’ Run’ (written by Rita Ray with Horatio – aka Nigel Trubridge) is a near perfect homage to those classic Motown singles like ‘Heatwave’, ‘Nowhere To Run’ and ‘Where Did Our Love Go’. Sure, it could be argued that when all those classics are available at the push of a button this will always take second place, but it’s done with so much love, you’d actually think it was a cover of a Holland/Dozier/Holland deep cut. …And besides, for Ray, these couple of minutes capture a career best, vocally speaking. Also worth hearing, ‘False Alarm’ isn’t shy in pushing a heavy doo wop agenda; Darts’ abilities with this style hadn’t really weakened since ’77 and this track – along with the aforementioned ‘Mr. Speedo’ actually suggests that with a little more planning, ‘Darts Across America’ could have been the best Darts LP since ‘Darts’.
Unfortunately, ‘Darts Across America’ is blighted by a horrid discofied version of ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ – the least said about which the better – and the aforementioned recording of ‘Lets Hang On’. It should’ve been a reasonable cover, but seldom sounds better than royalty free supermarket music. Let’s be honest, though, you’d be hard pressed to beat Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons on this one, wouldn’t you, so why even bother? Sadly, between these two numbers, a lot of goodwill is lost.
‘Darts Across America’ is certainly patchy, but on the plus side, the version included in the ‘1977-81’ box set includes an album’s worth of bonus tracks, so you could probably curate a half decent album from the twenty one tracks included on disc four. That probably wouldn’t include ‘White Christmas’ (too seasonal) or ‘Touch Me’ (a sub standard Supremes workout that’s actually quite catchy but just doesn’t suit the really bright Clive Langer/Alan Winstanley style production). It should definitely include the jaunty, near a cappella ‘Green For Go’, though, since it’s another tune showing more love for The Marcels and other doo wop champs. Also working out for the best, ‘Tight Lines’ shows off the band’s instrumental chops on a drum and sax oriented tune draws heavily from various early 60s sources.
In 2019 and with the Edsel box set long out of print, Cherry Red fill a gap in the market with ‘Darts: The Albums 1977-81’. Another of their clam shell box sets, it manages to round up all four original LPs with a slew of bonus b-sides and left overs. Short of including a DVD of the (mimed) TV performances, it does a decent job of bringing together all of the essentials (and a few things you wish had stayed in the vaults) while keeping to a budget price. The music isn’t fashionable…but it never really was. At best it’s all good-natured fun; at worst, a little repetitive and occasionally misjudged, but it takes a hard heart to hate Darts. Even if you never considered them more than a mere novelty, you couldn’t really hate them, and for those old enough to remember when they were a radio staple this collection will surely be a welcome reminder of their take on a musical past – now firmly in a musical past of its own.