In February 2010, one of the finest bands of the previous couple of years broke up rather suddenly. Driven by an equal love of Brian Setzer, Elvis Costello and old Phil Spector discs, the 78s were set to bring rock ‘n’ roll music back to the people. The timing was right – after all, other bands like Baddies and the over-rated Vincent Vincent and the Villains were starting to make waves with sometimes similar types of retro cool. The band had even secured a deal with major label Nettwerk, who’d taken a gamble by making Tom Allalone & The 78’s their first UK signings. Sadly, the record company then showed less than no interest and give ‘Major Sins Pt 1’ no promotion whatsoever at its time of release.
Released in May 2009, their album showed a great deal of potential. Taking those aforementioned influences and trademark check shirts, the band deliver the album’s thirteen songs (many thinly veiled with references to their hometown and surrounding areas) with gusto – sure, there are slow numbers, but even those are brimming with self-confidence.
The album’s lead single ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ is a full throttle rock ‘n’ roll belter. A tale of being wronged by women, this track is largely driven by Richard Clarke’s twangy guitar riff and a shouty chorus. Similarly, ‘Gravesend Boys’ is chock-full of r ‘n’ r bluster and is another moment where the no-nonsense Stray Cats influence is at its most obvious. Combined with sexually charged lyrics regarding an unnamed local lass, it’s probably the track on the album I’m most likely to skip; it doesn’t make it bad – it was always an excellent live number – it’s more a case of ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ doing this kind of thing better. For simple, high energy rock ‘n’ roll, ‘The Jitterbug’ – an ode to sex on the dancefloor – is the album’s winner. Si Fawcett’s bass work is confident, Matt Evans’s drumming is suitably aggressive and the guitar riff is cutting. If you want to cut loose and listen to something that’ll make you want to jump up and down, look no further.
Despite the rock ‘n’ roll influences at the heart of the band’s core sound, it’s on a few of the album’s more complex tracks where the 78s really shine. ‘Casillero Del Diablo’ brings a Latin quality (not to mention a really memorable guitar part) and an excellent use of horns. Lyrically, it features some of Tom’s best work as he describes that nighclub where everyone seems to go, but nobody really should, since “the dance floor is a black hole” and the DJ swigs “petrol from an old hip flask”. Opting for a slightly more indie-rock feel and probably the track that’s most accessible to the widest audience (though always retaining their retro cool), ‘I’m Just The DJ’ explores the lonely world of the lonely man who spins the tunes while everyone around him has a good time. He provides the entertainment (in Tom’s world, this is provided while listening to ‘Gloomy Sunday’ on the earphones), but ultimately goes home alone. The album’s second single ‘Crashland’ is a fantastic soul inspired number with energetic use of brass. Trading in fifties rock for a sixties soul vibe is inspired and the band sounds equally comfortable here. The arrangement is faultless (this sounds like hype, but I honestly think it’s that good) and it features one of Tom’s greatest vocals. In short, it should have been a hit.
‘Wounded’ is another story of loneliness; this time it’s loneliness caused by a painful break-up. Musically, it’s one of the album’s simpler numbers, showing a big Chris Isaak style influence. Once again, it’s Tom’s knack with lyrics which makes it stand up. Lyrically, ‘Dogshit Street’ is Tom’s greatest achievement. Set to a gentle musical arrangement which makes great use of piano and slide guitar, this tells the heartbreaking tale of a girl subjected to a terrible upbringing, who in turn gives her kids a similar life (“Roach butts and roaches lie at your kids feet/You won’t change/ “You race home from Dover with goods you hand over to kids/A small girl that is sober is hard to win over”). When I first heard it, there was something in its frankness and downbeat nature which reminded me of Eels; musically, too, there’s a smidgeon of Mark Oliver Everett in there, though that’s most likely due to the piano and bells.
‘Sign On You Lazy Diamond’ provides another musical and lyrical high point. Its chorus is one of the album’s most memorable, while the story within regards a pushy mother and her insistence our protagonist should sign on and look for real work instead of looking at music for a career. But, as he says, “someday I’m gonna be somebody and prove that woman wrong”. The track is structured around a superb walking bassline from Si Fawcett and sharp rhythm guitar parts. It’s as good as anything you’ll ever hear in this style. ‘This Teenage Crush’ is an epic number with a strong Phil Spector vibe which evokes the sound of those classic girl bands and fifties doo wop. The rhythm section is used sparingly; the dramatic build up is provided by well arranged strings and an increased volume from the vocals and guitars until eventually the strings all but take over in this wall of sound.
Since the album lacked promotion, it seemed to be only the band’s die-hard followers and those who saw Tom and co supporting The Stereophonics or Imelda May (a tour the band got kicked off of for being too good) who took notice to any great level. Their future should have been so much brighter – and listening to the demos for the unfinished second album, the 78s sounded more confident in their approach than ever.
There’s something altogether familiar about the sole Tom Allalone & The 78s LP, ’the music has a timeless quality, largely due to their classic influences, but more than that, Tom’s lyrical ability and the band’s tendency to throw different influences into the mix makes great listening. Track down a copy of this album – you won’t regret it. Since it wasn’t a great hit at the time, it may eventually become a cult classic.