THE IDLE RACE – The Birthday Party

Long before joining Roy Wood and Bev Bevan in The Move, a young hopeful named Jeff Lynne became a member of a Midlands beat group named The Nightriders. Soon after Lynne’s arrival, The Nightriders mutated into The Idle Race, a move reflecting a gradual shift from 60s beat group sounds to the burgeoning psychedelic scene. Despite releasing two albums and a handful of singles, The Idle Race failed to make much of a commercial impact in the 60s, but due to Jeff’s later megastar status as the leader of Electric Light Orchestra and part time Wilbury, their work has built a cult following.

Their debut album, 1968’s ‘The Birthday Party’ is a fine piece of 60s ephemera. It’s opening track, ‘The Skeleton & The Roundabout’ screams sixties psyche like very little else. Loaded with a music hall rumpty tumpty rhythm played at full pelt, Lynne and company go about their merry way with a cheeky, theatrical lyric and vocal delivery to match, while the keyboard heavy music is augmented with great string stabs – pre-figuring Jeff’s next decade – and stereo splits go haywire between the speakers, shifting between the left and right channels with abandon. A mispronouncing of “skellington” stokes up the fun and everything rattles along in a soft drugs inspired frenzy until the band sound almost dizzy. ‘The Birthday’ slows things down for a cello-heavy, Beatle-ish piece of whimsy that not only sounds like The Move, but also includes a few harmony vocals that hint at Lynne’s own future greatness with ELO. With the addition of harpsichords, a really complex bassline and some unexpected wailing, it resembles solid but off-kilter pop. The fact that an album with such a strong opening failed to make any real impact upon release isn’t so much a reflection of its quality, but rather more a reflection of how much other musical competition it found itself against in ’68.

Moving through the Kinks-ish ‘I Like My Toys’ and the softer McCartney derived ‘Morning Sunshine’, the album shows how Jeff Lynne continued to soak up great music and recycle the best bits to his own ends. While the influences might come through like a sledgehammer, it’s still very obvious that Lynne was a fine musical craftsman from a young age. This is something that definitely shows through the sophisticated orchestral balladry of ‘Follow Me Follow’ which also carries more than a hint of the croonier music the younger musician loved in his pre-Beatles wireless days. With the Neil Innes sounding ‘Sitting In My Tree’ rounding out side one of the LP, the first half of ‘The Birthday Party’ does a delicate balancing act between pop wonderment and frivolous 60s novelties, but almost every moment brings listening joy.

Into the album’s second side. the quality stays very high with ‘On With The Show’ demonstrating an even better sense of melody within the band. Greg Masters anchors another rumpty-tumpty rhythm with the kind of bassline that would make McCartney smile, while Lynne’s piano work sits atop hard, chiming guitars with an almost cheeky naivety. Here, perhaps more than anywhere during these all too brief twenty eight minutes, Lynne makes no attempt at disguising his love for The Fab Four – and specifically tunes like ‘Penny Lane’ – while an excessive use of phased effects. The jaunty ‘Lucky Man’ is a tale of woe and misfortune that pitches a man’s many daily accidents against a quirky little tune that sounds like the work of a poor-man’s Ray Davies covering George Formby – something of an irritant if you’re not in the mood – but between some great effects, a million overdubs and the kind of stereo split that might make you feel like you’ve got an inner ear issue, its busy qualities are something of a musical wonder.

With accordions and a very rigid rhythm, vocal effects and a general love of a whimsical music hall sound applied to a serious subject matter, ‘Don’t Put Your Boys In The Army, Mrs. Ward’ is another track that is best avoided if you’re not in the mood for English quirks, but its worth noting that – whether intentional or not – Lynne very much appears to be looking to Roy Wood and The Move for his core influences, so it’s no real surprise that he’d be part of that band within the next eighteen months. Handing the reins over to guitarist Dave Pritchard for ‘Pie In The Sky’, everything reverts back to the beat group sounds of The Nightriders, making this track feel as if it doesn’t quite belong. In terms of style, though, it’s great. The way the older Merseybeat sound has been tempered by few keyboards that sound like they’ve been borrowed from a children’s programme ensures that there’s still a vague psych connection. The way Eddy Offord’s production lifts the lead guitar to almost deafening volumes is very much in keeping with this album’s fascination with studio trickery. The final pairing of ‘The Lady Who Said She Could Fly’ and ‘End of The Road’ bring a mix of heavily orchestrated balladry – the former can now be heard as a clear forerunner to ELO circa ‘On The Third Day – and the McCartney drenched pop of the latter almost sounds a year out of date by the time of recording, but between a few multi-tracked guitars, a bells and whistles approach to production and a generally sunny outlook, it just about stands up as a nice piece of 60s pop decades on.

In short, ‘The Birthday Party’ is a (mostly) superb LP. If you have any interest in Jeff Lynne’s formative years, you’ll already own a decent CD copy, of course, and you’ll know how good it is. Although isn’t quite as mature in terms of song writing, this is an album that deserves the kind of reappraisal afforded to The Zombies’ ‘Odessey & Oracle’. …And if you do already own ‘The Birthday Party’ (and/or the extensive Parlophone anthology ‘Back To The Story’), you’ll probably still want to add the 2020 Grapefruit Records 2CD edition to your collection, simply for the fact that it presents the first digital/CD release of the rare mono mix of the album.

Sometimes any differences between the widely heard stereo versions of late 60s albums and their under-purchased mono equivalents are slight. Occasionally, one will come along that features such a drastically different variation on the “norm” that it becomes essential. Such is the case with The Beatles’ White Album with its different ending to ‘Helter Skelter’ and dozens of other differences, and Buffalo Springfield’s debut which even included a different track listing. This Idle Race album doesn’t take quite such an extreme stance, but the mono version is very much worth having if you already consider yourself a fan of the original stereo disc.

Most of the mono version differs from the stereo in lots of small ways throughout, but it has a few things that differ enough to jump out from that very first listen. Specifically, the classic ‘Skeleton & The Roundabout’ has extra backing vocals, ‘I Like My Toys’ pushes Greg’s bass much higher in the mix and ‘Don’t Put Your Boys In The Army’ sounds like it has a much bigger punch all round. Best of all, shorn of all of its late 60s haze, ‘Lucky Man’ sounds like an even stronger pop song, something to rival at least half of The Kinks’ ‘Village Green Preservation Society’. Since you mightn’t be as distracted by the studio trickery, it provides two and a half minutes where you can focus more on the playing in hand and. between Lynne’s stabbed piano and a few ringing guitars, it reinforces any idea that this has album been criminally overlooked. Be warned, though – the various overdubs on the mono version are incredibly loud; an explosion mid way could have the potential to damage speakers!

In addition to the two different album mixes, there are a handful of alternate mixes and an “electronically processed for stereo” version of ‘Sitting In My Tree’. All of these have been previously available on the 2007 compilation ‘Back To The Story’ but are a welcome addition here, as it means that the Grapefruit Records edition of ‘The Birthday Party’ leaves nothing behind. In terms of sleeve notes and packaging, it feels like a perfect companion to the label’s brilliant psych and freakbeat related box sets covering music from 1966-69. For Jeff Lynne devotees, this is a must-have and for lovers of 60s psych-pop who’ve somehow missed The Idle Race, it’ll be a fantastic listen…guaranteed.

February 2020