TRUE HEARTS – True Hearts

Originally formed as The Flirt in 1979 but quickly renaming themselves True Hearts, this Texan band released a largely overlooked EP on Counterfeit Records in 1980. Eleven songs were recorded with the intent of releasing a full-length LP, but that never actually came to fruition.  Over the next couple of years, True Hearts suffered personnel instability and subsequently disbanded in 1982, leaving most of their recordings unheard.

Over thirty years on from the recording of that shelved LP, the eleven songs recorded by True Hearts’ original line-up were compiled for a belated CD release.  The result is a disc which shows a band who, with a better start and a little sharpening up, could have been peers with Pezband, Off Broadway and 20/20.

With a winning combination of an accessible melody and simple chorus hook, ‘Not Tonight’ captures the band’s sound well from a musical perspective.   Throughout this opening number, guitarist Manuel Martinez puts in maximum effort and subsequently steals the show with his mix of new-wavish rhythm work and ringing lead parts (the first of which dominates the intro).  Similarly, there’s some great stuff occurring behind the drum kit, as Rick Holeman throws in a few interesting fills and some unexpected bell sounds.  In theory, these great elements should have made a killer track.  On the rather more unfortunate side of things, lead vocalist Terry Carolan has a voice that isn’t always the easiest to like.  His poppy croon wavers a little off key, something not helped by backing vocals which seem equally slapdash.  Much better, ‘I Need You All The Time’ is a harmony driven pop-rocker which is good as any the early eighties offered; with the addition of a few keyboards, True Hearts sound more assured, while chorus-wise this tune really hits the spot.  In terms of influence, a little Raspberries, a little Cheap Trick and a whole lotta Pezband makes a winning formula.  The piano driven ‘If I’m Late’ shows a quirkier side to the band with stabbing rhythms, a wandering bass part and some pompy vocals providing plenty of bounce.  Given the lack of guitars on this number, you’d think that Carolan would falter vocally, but he sounds very natural – complimenting the music well, even – leaving you to wonder what had gone so wrong on ‘Not Tonight’…

‘Girl In a Men’s Magazine’, on the other hand, is bad both musically and lyrically.  Its stark musical arrangement presents a piano waltz underpinned by synth sounds.  Lacking in any bass, drums or guitars, this leaves everything sounding really twee.  While Carolan’s vocal holds its own, his lyrics concerning a pin up (and the teenage wanting thereof) are just cringe inducing.  A fuller musical arrangement may have helped disguise the bad subject matter, but it still would have been pretty bad.  Luckily, since this track is barely a minute and a half in duration, by the time you’ve realised how awful it is, it’s very nearly over.  What follows is one of the album’s best.  ‘Trust Me Candy’ cashes in on a great harmony filled chorus, chiming chords worthy of The Knack and a relatively decent guitar solo.  There are a few rough edges here (a couple of dodgy notes in the solo and a slightly flat sounding drum), but that’s all part of its overall charm.  Connoisseurs of power pop from between 1977-1980 are sure to find an instant familiarity, but then, that’s no bad thing.

Rather more upbeat than most of True Hearts’ songs, ‘Sleep Tight’ melds classic power pop with a slightly trashier rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic, allowing guitarist Martinez to cut loose on a couple of raggedy solos while Carolan pushes his voice to the limit.  Had the band given this to Cheap Trick instead, it wouldn’t have sounded too out of place on their earlier records.  A double whammy of enjoyment, ‘Hold Me Close/Don’t Stop’ at first mixes reasonable harmonies with a few power chords, resulting in a solid outing on which Carolan sounds better than usual.  As good as this is, it’s the track’s second part (‘Don’t Stop’) that’s the clincher. Holeman attacks his hi-hat and snare with the kind of vigour not always evident on the rest of the disc, while the rest of the chaps also appear a little more aggressive.   Overall, there are no huge surprises, but here – as with ‘Sleep Tight’ – you’ll get a brief glimpse into how great True Hearts could be if/when they really tried.

Despite a few iffy vocals – and the fact that these recordings have moments where all four band members seem almost incapable of achieving musical greatness at the same time – there was obviously a reasonable amount of talent within True Hearts.   Based on these songs, they aren’t quite as enjoyable as some of the similar bands from the period (especially Pezband or Tommy Tutone), but given a better chance, who knows what they would have achieved?  What we are left with is a curio that captures an emerging talent which, for fans of late seventies power pop, is a fascinating look at what might have been.

October 2012

DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS – Searching For The Young Soul Rebels

At the end of the 1970s, as punk faded, there were various British bands keen to pay tribute to a musical past.  Each paying tribute to the 1960s in their own way, the 2-Tone label gave birth to a second wave of ska music, while The Jam, Dr Feelgood and various other bands paid homage to rhythm & blues and mod scenes.  Often gaining fewer accolades, Birmingham’s Dexys Midnight Runners were heavily influenced by soul – particularly of the horn-based variety, as championed by the legendary Stax label.  Their first album ‘Searching for the Young Soul Rebels’ captures the original line-up of the band in fabulous form; with plenty of ego and so much to prove.

The album is housed in a sleeve featuring a monochrome photograph of a young boy with his belongings on a Belfast street during the sectarian clearances of 1969.  This is not the only time the album pays homage to frontman Kevin Rowland’s Irish heritage: the choruses of the opening track ‘Burn It Down’ (released as a single earlier in a different version, titled ‘Dance Stance’) name-checks various Irish writers.  The track’s music may recall sixties soul, but the over-riding vibe is of something much angrier.  By the time Rowland orders “shut your fucking mouth till you know the truth” at the end of the second verse, it’s clear that this isn’t always going to be an easy ride.  The band, meanwhile, are very tight: while the horns of Big Jim Patterson, Steve Spooner and Geoff Blythe are often the dominant force, Pete Williams’s bass work is punchy and Andy Growcott’s mid-paced drum work does a great job in keeping everything together.    ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’ sticks to a similar musical blueprint, but is vocally rather more striking, with Rowland’s distinctive wail drifting into falsetto, while more than ably accompanied by Al Archer adding a second voice.  While it doesn’t have the instant punch of ‘Burn It Down’, the band sound confident – Growcott’s drum fills are far more interesting a trombone solo (courtesy of Patterson) is suitably busy.

Driven by Growcott’s drums, ‘Thankfully Not Living In Yorkshire It Doesn’t Apply’ is a breezy workout showcasing a band who’ve honed their skills to perfection.  With a tinkling organ very high in the mix on the right hand side and punchy bass, the band bristle their way through three minutes without stopping for breath.  While musically it’s a top offering, vocally it’s rather off-kilter, since Rowland tackles most of the number in falsetto.  When combined with his favoured affectations, this makes most of the lyrics inaudible.  However odd it may appear, his yelping during the chorus sections is somehow rather pleasing, albeit in a perverse way.  Written by Kevin Rowland with Geoffrey Blyth and Peter Saunders, ‘I’m Just Looking’ really captures the pain in those old James Brown soul ballads of the early 60s, Rowland ringing every note out of his love it/hate it voice, sounding close to breaking point in places.  While it’s a very vocal driven performance, Saunders’s organ drones add to the melancholy air and the horns more than pull their weight, really punching for emphasis wherever required.  A similar styled number ‘I Couldn’t Help It If I Tried’ features great performances from everyone involved, but doesn’t work quite as well.  Rowland hammers a few of his lines into submission in a manner which occasionally irritates on record, but it’s easy to imagine this could have proved very effective in a live setting.

With regard to the cover of the Chuck Woods number ‘Seven Days Too Long’, Rowland tries his utmost to give the performance a frantic edginess and in places, more than succeeds.  As you may expect, the musical delivery is faultless, with the band capturing the energy and spirit of Northern Soul. Their love for the music really shines through.  In comparison, ‘Geno’ (a number one hit and certainly the album’s best known number), appears a little slow.  Written in tribute to Geno Washington (a man whom Blythe had previously played as sideman), it’s slower pace is possibly better suited to Rowland’s vocal style.  Its striking horn motif is likely to wedge itself inside your head after listening, but the vocal arrangements are also spot on, with a call and response between Kevin and Al Archer during the choruses and some well-placed harmonies lurking elsewhere (Rowland almost drowns these out, mind).

Similarly, the album’s other hit, ‘There There My Dear’ makes fantastic use of a horn riff, although it has a much bouncier arrangement overall (one which nods towards Dexys’ future).  Lyrically, it’s fabulous: structured as an open letter to “Robin”, Rowland spouts anger and rallies against the bands who name-check philosophers and radical thinkers.  The lyric is fudged to extreme levels to make something technically un-lyrical fit the frame of an otherwise accessible soul/pop number, but the fact that Rowland even dared to make this work at all is testament to his often misunderstood genius.  The spite and bile here is on a par with ‘Burn It Down’, although the technical brilliance of the one-two punch between music and lyric makes it the better number.  The fact that Rowland is able to take such phrases such as as “keep quoting Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs, JG Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir, Kerouac, Kirkegaard, Michael Rennie” and “Perhaps I’d listen to your records but your logic’s far too lame and I’d only waste three valuable minutes of my life with your insincerity” and then make them work within the confines of a hit single should be applauded.  Here’s a thought: if bands with pretentions angered him so much back in 1980, one wonders how angry the Manic Street Preachers would make him in the 90s and beyond?  Once again, there’s plenty of musical gusto – so much, that perhaps ‘There There My Dear’ deserves to be as well known as ‘Geno’.  During ‘Keep It’ Rowland doesn’t quite achieve a pained soulful performance, but his style more than hits the mark here; his emotionally charged shriek counterbalanced in places by softer backing vocals.  There’s no chorus here to speak of; we are reliant on musical hooks for big thrills and with a horn sound befitting of Eddie Floyd, of Otis.  This is the sound of a band hitting a smooth groove – bringing the 60s into the 1980s as authentically as possible – and succeeding on almost every level.

Aside from the really great material, ‘Soul Rebels’ contains a couple of obvious fillers.  The instrumental number ‘The Teams That Meet In Caffs’ gives the horn section time to stretch out, although it’s general tone is rather melancholy; rather than a traditional Stax style workout, there’s something about it which, in places, has the air of a Bill Conti arrangement.  Below the horns, the organ work adds various florushes, while the whole thing is held together by the solid rhythm section.  During the number’s close, Steve Spooner breaks into an accomplished sax solo, which after a few jarring notes to wake the listener at the start adds a much needed sense of energy.   ‘Love Part 1 (Poem)’ borders on self-indulgence, as Rowland spits a short but angry poem over some jazz saxophone work.  As a standalone piece, there’s very little need for it here.

The album was a success, peaking at #6 in the UK chart, but the future for the band was decidedly wobbly.  Finding Rowland increasingly difficult to work with (among other things, he’d forbidden Dexys to give any kind of interviews to the press), most of the band quit.  Rowland gathered together a new bunch of musicians and with them, a new image – they donned hooded tops and boxing boots – Rowland himself appearing with slicked-down hair and a Terry-Thomas moustache.  This second line-up never managed to record a full album together, but during 1981, they released an excellent single (‘Plan B’), recorded a session for BBC Radio 1 and played critically acclaimed live shows. [This transitional year is documented on the archive release ‘The Projected Passion Revue’].

By the end of the year the band were augmented by a folk influenced trio The Emerald Express.  Their input steered Dexys away from the edgy soul influenced music of their past and further towards a hybrid of folk-pop and soul music.  This would herald a new era for the band – one which is undoubtedly their most fondly remembered…

Dexys Midnight Runners have never really had the credit they deserve for their music.  This is something which, possibly, has not been helped by Rowland’s inability to be content: constant changes in line-up, image and sound over the course of five years meant that the band never had time to settle into one identity.  The soul boys were traded in for rag-tag gypsies, which clearly didn’t always please Rowland either.  That line-up, while successful, only recorded one album and by the time Dexys returned with their third disc in 1985, the band and image was almost unrecognisable yet again.  While Kevin Rowland’s constant striving for perfection constantly pushed the band forward, it was ultimately their undoing.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dexys beyond a couple of hit singles and only associate them with being dungaree-wearing ragamuffins dancing outside corner shops, then you must check out ‘Searching For The Young Soul Rebels’.  If you like things with an angry stance and retro nature, you’ll almost certainly get pulled in by its vibrancy.

[In 2010, ‘Searching For The Young Soul Rebels’ was reissued as a deluxe 2CD set, featuring a bonus disc of period rarities and radio sessions]

December 2010/September 2011

VAN MORRISON – Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart

inarticulate speech

After his late 60s albums ‘Astral Weeks’ and ‘Moondance’ established Van Morrison as one of the greatest singer songwriters of the age, he entered the 1970s in very high regard and with great confidence. The rhythm and blues led ‘His Band and Street Choir’ kick started Morrison’s greatest decade, during which he released a string of superb albums – all strong in their own way and each one featuring a handful of genuinely classic tracks.

Like many of his peers, Morrison appeared to be out of step with the 1980s. He began the decade with the release of ‘Common One’, an understated collection of largely ambling and, at times, almost directionless songs. The largely forgettable ‘Beautiful Vision’ followed, although that’s very much worth checking out for the upbeat ‘Cleaning Windows’ featuring Mark Knopfler on guitar. In 1983, Van released the keyboard heavy ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’, an album considered by some to be the nadir of his career.

The main problem with ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’ is obvious right from the start, as ‘Higher Than The World’ begins with a wash of keyboards (somewhat akin to those that Simply Red would drench their albums in a few years later) leading to an easy-listening mulch, not far removed from Sade or something similar. Given an arrangement that would befit a restaurant, Morrison does his utmost to create interest, as his gruff voice moves from moody mumbling to lumbering loudness at the drop of a hat. By a couple of minutes in, there’s a feeling that he may be over compensating, as he warbles off key in his “enthusiasm”.

Initially, the synthetic eighties sound is quite suited to ‘Connswater’, the first of the album’s instrumental numbers, but soon it becomes obvious that the eighties production comes at the expense of one of the track’s key features. The tune has a distinctly Irish feel, with Davy Spillane making a guest appearance on Uileann pipes. The jig element of the number is very pleasing, but the bridge sections – featuring a pounding drum – are lacklustre, due to the drum being far too low in the mix. You guessed it – the dominant sound over that drum is a keyboard, not too dissimilar to the one featured during the previous track. The sax driven ‘Celtic Swing’ follows suit and, as you’d expect, has a jaunty quality. Production aside, there’s nothing overtly dislikeable about either of these instrumental numbers, but they feel rather like filler – and if you consider that amongst ‘Inarticulate Speech’s eleven tracks you’ll find four instrumentals, that’s a lot of padding. I can only assume with the inclusion of these instrumental numbers, Van was hoping somehow to create a successor to ‘Common One’.

‘Cry For Home’ is a mid-paced soul pop number which appears well written, but loses a lot in delivery. ‘River of Time’ – although far from essential Van – is much better, due to the drum kit having a little bit of oomph behind it and the bass work sounding more live. As you may expect, Van’s delivery on these songs lacks subtlety – drowning out most of the backing harmonies at various points – but quite often, it’s the force of nature that is his love-it-or-hate-it voice which carries this album’s songs, especially when the music is pedestrian. Considering the great session musos who stopped by to lend a hand on albums like ‘Tupelo Honey’, you have to wonder how Morrison got saddled with the bunch of people featured here who sound like they’d be better suited to performing library music for TV wildlife documentaries.

The album’s title track appears in two parts. The first part is an atmospheric instrumental with a piano at the fore. The piano work is simple and is counterbalanced by human voices used as instruments (a technique re-employed at the end of the album, but achieving a far weaker result). The end section of part one features a loud drum sound, which is very welcome, especially considering the subdued role the drums play on most of the songs. The second part brings in Morrison on vocals, but there’s not a great deal to get excited about as, over a gentle, waltzing arrangement he repeats the same three lines (“I’m a soul in wonder” and “I’m just wild about it, I can’t live without it”) between a repetitive refrain of “Inarticulate speech, inarticulate speech of the heart”. There’s a decent organ solo midway, but it’s so low in the mix, you’ll wonder why John Allair bothered playing it at all.

‘Rave On, John Donne’ begins with a spoken vocal, delivered by Van with a typical Belfast brusqueness. The music lulls as Mark Isham’s synth creates a blanket of sound and Chris Michie’s guitar overlays a simple chord structure with a ringing tone. Once again, the eighties production cannot be avoided, but here, it’s very well suited to the overall feel of the track. When Van’s lead vocal begins, it has all the effortless power of his mid-late seventies work. Similarly, the better known ‘Irish Heartbeat’ (covered by Billy Connolly as the theme to his ‘World Tour of Scotland’ travel programme) captures Van in a confident mood, his vocal steeped in a soulful power. His unmistakable tone gives the song an uneasy beauty, which loses none of its appeal despite a thin arrangement and even thinner sounding drum kit. ‘When The Street Only Knew Your Name’ is the album’s most upbeat moment. David Hayes lays down a fabulous funky bassline, although thanks to the eighties production techniques, it sounds unnaturally compressed and almost like a keyboard. Van’s delivery harks back to his early seventies work from ‘Band and Street Choir’ and as such, it’s one of the only times on this album where the band step outside of middling balladry and actually sound like they’re having fun. By the song’s end (as with ‘Rave On, John Donne’ and ‘Irish Heartbeat’), you’ll likely find yourself wondering how much better it certainly would have sounded had Morrison written and recorded it a decade earlier.

With a little more care, the instrumental ‘September Night’ should have been as good as ‘Connswater’. Its majestic keyboard chords could have provided the album with an atmospheric closing number, but that atmosphere is ruined by the use of a wordless vocal. I’m not against the idea of using the voice purely as an instrument – and the female vocals give the track an almost European cinematic quality – but once Morrison’s vocal begins, the atmosphere is quickly broken as he wanders into tuneless abandon.

While it’s easily understood why ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’ is so disliked, it’s more confusing as to why 1985’s ‘No Guru No Method No Teacher’ is so highly regarded. And what’s more, it’s absolutely bewildering as to why ‘Inarticulate Speech’ is so enjoyable despite it’s thousand faults. Maybe it’s because ‘Rave On, John Donne’, ‘Irish Heartbeat’ and ‘The Street Only Knew Your Name’ could have been classic Van. Sadly though, those good songs have had the life sucked out of them by too many unnatural sounding keyboards and an over-production which makes everything sound way too clinical. In addition, four instrumental numbers is far too many, when you consider that Morrison is best known for his status as a singer-songwriter. Somehow though, especially considering it’s extremely flawed, ‘Inarticulate Speech’ manages to stay more memorable than most of Morrison’s other works throughout the 1980s.

July 2010

STRAY CATS – Stray Cats

stray catsBack in 1980, aside from a few heavy metal bands, the charts were dominated by effeminate lads with foppish hair and make-up. Visage and Ultravox were riding high with their brands of new romantic electronics, Soft Cell were big news with their Soho synth-pop and seedy lyrics while Adam and the Ants were at the height of their popularity with fun pop songs and dressing-up-box, panto-style theatrics (hard to believe now, but they were very cool at the time). In short, thanks to a new generation of pop stars fixated with David Bowie’s ‘Low’, early Roxy Music and Kraftwerk, pop music had become very androgynous.

Step forward, three guys from Long Island, New York. Stray Cats were unlikely heroes. They championed a brand of no-nonsense fifties-style rock ‘n’ roll which was heavily influenced by Eddie Cochran. At a time when that style wasn’t so popular, they represented something altogether tougher and undeniably masculine. They first made waves at the end of 1980 with their first hit single ‘Runaway Boys’. When their self-titled debut LP (co-produced by Brian Setzer and Rockpile’s Dave Edmunds) appeared in record racks in 1981, it was almost totally out of step with the musical climate.

‘Runaway Boys’ opens the album, and it’s here that Stray Cats put most of their cards on the table. Energetic rockabilly rhythms, fantastic upright basses and a simple but thumping drum part ensure the track shows Stray Cats at their best – these key features play a major part in most of the album’s greatest moments. ‘Rock This Town’ is a perfect example of the band’s style – Brian Setzer’s guitar twang evokes the late fifties and is meticulously played, while Lee Rocker’s upright bass drives the track at a jumping pace, while once again Slim Jim Phantom hammers the drum with a musical heartbeat that’s hard to ignore. For ‘Stray Cat Strut’, things slow to a sleazy groove. This provides a closer look into Setzer’s retro guitar style. He really is in a class of his own, as a couple of great guitar breaks prove.

Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just the hits which are the big draw here. The rock ‘n’ roll twang of ‘Rumble In Brighton’ is suitably menacing; the standard rock ‘n’ roll vibe of ‘Fishnet Stockings’ provides upbeat fun and a cover of Warren Smith’s ‘Ubangi Stomp’(a song written in the mid-fifties, which shows absolutely no understanding of other cultures) makes excellent use of the drums, pounding out a basic rhythm. It’s a little heavy-handed in places but works well – provided, that is, you can put up with its potentially racist tone. ‘Storm The Embassy’ is a political song about the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis. It’s the only time ‘Stray Cats’ obviously deviates from its classic rock ‘n’ roll style. Slim Jim’s drum sound loses its reverb and Lee Rocker’s bass is warmer. In fact, the whole thing sounds like something more modern, even though it retains a little rock ‘n’ roll spirit. Its political lyric also feels a little out of place up against the other, more fun material.

A cover of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Jeanie, Jeanie Jeanie’ is tackled at full-pace and has been updated for a demanding post-punk audience by making the lyrics edgier with a liberal use of the f-word, but despite that, it’s a fairly faithful rendition of the song. ‘Crawl Up and Die’ slows things down a little once again and sounds like something based around the ‘Peter Gunn’ theme and is suitably sneering. As you’d expect, ‘Wild Saxaphone’ [sic] is a fast workout featuring brass. With the addition of saxophone to Stray Cats’ trademark rock ‘n’ roll, the end result sounds a little more complex than some of the other material. For a wild saxophone, the brass section isn’t quite punchy enough on this number, coming across as “slightly quirky” as opposed to “wild”, but it’s a minor complaint.

‘Stray Cats’ is a cracking debut album (which interestingly never got a US release, despite the band hailing from New York). It may have a couple of moments which are questionable lyrically, but musically it hits the mark nearly every time. The synth-pop music of the early eighties may come in and out of fashion, but it’s full of dated sounds. Stray Cats (the band) sounded timeless back then and they sound the same now and ‘Stray Cats’ (the album) is a great snapshot of their talent.

Watch their 1981 appearance on the German Rockpalast show:
Got Sweet Love On My Mind
Double Talkin Baby
Rumble In Brighton
My One Desire
Ubangi Stomp
Drink That Bottle Down
Storm The Embassy
Stray Cat Strut
Fishnet Stockings
Important Words
Rock This Town
Runaway Boys
Somethin’ Else
Gonna Ball

Watch various other clips from 1981:
The video for ‘Runaway Boys’ here.
‘Stray Cat Strut’ live on US TV here.
‘Runaway Boys’ live on US TV here.
Various clips from Japanese TV here.

March 2010

UB40 – Signing Off

signing offIn most people’s minds, UB40 represent the most easy listening aspect of reggae music. Often derided for being lightweight, they were once a band with a serious edge and strong political bias. It’s sometimes hard to believe they would have once been contemporaries of The Clash and Steel Pulse, but back in the early 80s, they were eight men from Birmingham delivering a serious message. In September 1980, UB40 released their debut album, ‘Signing Off’, a hard-hitting mix of politics and classic style reggae, faultlessly produced by Bob Lamb with Ray ‘Pablo’ Falconer.

Its intense political stance is present from the opening track, ‘Tyler’ (arguably one of the angriest songs the band has written), concerning the mistrial of Gary Tyler, a young black youth sentenced to life in prison – a sentence given after an appeal was made against his original death sentence. Most of UB40’s tougher elements are present in this song: Earl Falconer’s bass line is uncompromising and upfront, Brian Travers’ sax carries weight without losing any soulfulness, Ali Campbell’s vocal performance brings a great amount of passion and Robin Campbell’s rhythm guitar parts are suitably spiky. During the song’s mid section, Jim Brown lays down a marching drum rhythm, while Norman Hassan joins on percussion (in this case, I’m sure it involves milk bottles) while Earl and Robin’s bass and guitar parts incorporate dub reggae elements. If Astro, their second vocalist and sometime trumpet wielding Rastafarian, had a lead part here, all of UB40’s best strengths would have been on show. All in all, ‘Tyler’ is a very impressive opening number.

Also home to equally powerful political messages, ‘Burden of Shame’ is another bitterly angry piece concerning Britain being supportive of colonizing and ‘Little By Little’ carries a heavy handed message of rich versus poor – which was almost certainly a swipe at the then new Tory government helping fill the bellies and pockets of the rich. During this track, Jim Brown’s drum part provides a high point with excellent use of hi-hat and a groove which compliments Earl Falconer’s bass very well. (Interestingly, despite being a reasonable drummer, Brown chose to use drum machines and programming in the studio from 1984 onward, a technique he would favour through the rest of that decade and beyond).

Perhaps the album’s best known track, ‘Food For Thought’ provides a good example of where UB40 stood musically in the early part of their career. Ali Campbell’s vocals are natural sounding and distinctive, but it’s the combination of solid bass playing from Earl Falconer and a memorable sax arrangement by Brian Travers which give it lasting appeal. Once again, it’s a piece with another hard-hitting message; in this case, concerning suffering caused by famine. ‘King’ (released as a double A-side with ‘Food For Thought’) features a heavyweight message about racial equality; musically the piece’s main musical refrain comes from Brian Travers on the sax, but most of its sharper-edged moments come from Mickey Virtue’s staccato keyboard work.

The album’s intense politics are balanced out by some lighter material. During a cover of Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’, UB40 reggae chops give the song a new bouce to which it is well suited and Ali’s vocal is one of his best here. ’12 Bar’ has a light and summery feel – influenced by the late sixties reggae and ska released on the Trojan record label – during which Astro lends some vocal assistance, though his delivery is almost incomprehensible.

There are also three instrumentals featured: ‘25%’ hits upon a slow groove by Jim Brown and Earl Falconer but it’s most memorable feature, once again, is the sax playing a simple but effective tune. Likewise, ‘Adella’ focuses on Travers’s sax, but it’s a little gentler than the other instrumentals. The sax has a bit more of an easy listening tone, but if you can listen beyond that, you’ll spot Virtue’s echoing keyboard rhythms adding depth and Falconer’s bass work has a great flow. Lastly, the title cut provides a decent mix of Norman Hassan’s percussion and an almost dub style bass line by Falconer. It’s a fantastic end piece for the album and once you’ve included a unobtrusive keyboard solo by Mickey Virtue, a sax solo by Travers and a guitar solo by Robin Campbell – with an unexpected jazz tone – it becomes a great showcase for each of the musicians.

Original pressings of the LP came with a bonus 12” single (the three songs from which are included on all CD pressings as bonus tracks). One of the tracks, ‘Reefer Madness’, is a fun but otherwise forgettable instrumental. However, the other two tracks are indispensable. A cover of Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ is given a well-structured reggae makeover, while ‘Madam Medusa’ (another original UB40 composition) combines scathing anti-Thatcher lyrics with elements of dub music and features fantastic vocal performances from both Ali and Astro.

A 2010 re-issue of ‘Signing Off’ contains a bonus CD featuring the three tracks from the original bonus 12”, plus 12” versions of ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’, ‘My Way of Thinking’ and ‘Dream A Lie’, all of which were featured on the 1985 compilation ‘The UB40 File’. Also included are the 12” version of ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ plus previously unavailable BBC sessions recorded for John Peel and Kid Jensen. A bonus DVD features each of the 1980 promotional clips for the singles releases, plus a ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance and the complete ‘Rock Goes To College’ set (both recorded for the BBC and available for the first time as part of a sell-through release).

UB40 followed ‘Signing Off’ the following year with ‘Present Arms’, an album which gained them increased popularity through the angry hit ‘One In Ten’. In many ways, it’s a better album than ‘Signing Off’ since it has a tighter structure – the well-crafted songs aren’t padded out by instrumental numbers (a companion release ‘Present Arms In Dub’ was also issued in 1981, which featured excellent dub reconstructions of the album, which further highlighted UB40 as being a really tight musical unit). For those wishing to check out the band at their most edgy, ‘Present Arms’ is also an essential purchase.

It’s become easy to sneer at UB40. Four years into their career, they took the easy route and recorded an album featuring cover versions of (mostly) old reggae hits. This would make them even more popular, and from that point on, their albums became more commercial. While their albums released during the remainder of the 1980s would occasionally feature songs with social and political messages, there was an increasing focus on feel-good pop-reggae with hummable tunes. Despite these later faults, it needs to be remembered that ‘Signing Off’ is a fantastic debut album, even though couple of the instrumental numbers feel rather like filler material. It is, perhaps, one of the most important debut releases by a British band.

[A 2008 release, ‘Live at The Venue’, recorded a few months before the release of ‘Signing Off’, is also essential listening for fans of UB40’s earliest work]

——————–

UPDATE: A message from UB40 drummer Jim Brown written in November 2010 to Real Gone, explaining the change in drum sound:

OK. Let’s put this one to rest. I know I get some stick for using machines, but it’s a bit like shooting the messenger.

The reason I used machines in the second half of the eighties and onwards was simple. That’s where the music went. Reggae didn’t stop in the seventies. It continued to develop. As studio sequencing developed it was adopted very quickly by Jamaican producers. From the eighties onwards almost everything made in JA was made that way. Classic reggae tunes like John Holt’s Roumers of war, most of the output of crooners like Berris Hammond and all of Stevie and Cleevey’s output [which dominated reggae for years and gave birth to dancehall].

We didn’t stop listening to reggae when we started the band. And we weren’t a nostalgia band just sticking to one era. I was just doing what my heroes were doing. Never felt like cheating because I had to reproduce the sound live, and I’m not a machine. So, in a way, I was making my own life harder having to reproduce a machine style. Every other reggae record used machines, so why shouldn’t we? We were following the development of the music, just like we did in the seventies.”

March 2010/October 2010