LARRY WALLIS & THE BRAINS – Leather Forever 2023

Larry Wallis was one of rock’s nearly men. He was a member of UFO for about three weeks in 1972. He adopted the guitarist’s role in the Pink Fairies later in the decade, by which time, the band were arguably past their best. He recorded a riff-based single, ‘Police Car’ for Stiff Records in 1977 that failed to chart. Even in terms of other Stiff product from the time, it’s not always the most celebrated.

His biggest brush with genuine fame came in 1975 when he was invited by ex-Hawkwind bassist Lemmy to join a new band. The fledgeling Motorhead (featuring Lemmy on bass and vocals, Wallis on guitar and vocals, and Lucas Fox on drums) recorded an album for United Artists that got rejected. On these recordings, Motorhead aren’t quite the hell for leather speed machine they’d soon become. Many of the tracks sound like a hard edged pub rock band with amps turned to eleven. It’s clear that Wallis was a fine guitarist with plenty of volume, but not the right man for the job. Lemmy obviously realised this, and after the recordings were shelved, he replaced Wallis and Fox with superior musicians – Fast Eddie Clarke and Philthy Animal Taylor – and a legendary band was born. Whilst those recordings are more celebrated today, this was another case of Wallis not quite hitting the big time. [Those 1975 recordings were eventually released by United Artists as the ‘On Parole’ album in 1979 to cash in on the Motorhead’s success with 1978’s ‘Overkill’ LP and associated singles. They’ve been reissued countless times in various configurations since. No matter how many times ‘On Parole’ is repackaged, it won’t get any better.]

Larry’s lack of massive success hasn’t stopped his work gaining a fan base, or Cleopatra Records keenly reissuing bits of his solo catalogue. In 2017, their Purple Pyramid subsidiary issued two compilations of singles, leftovers and offcuts, and following a 2023 remix of ‘Police Car’, they issued this two track release celebrating ‘Leather Forever’, a track originally slated to be that track’s follow up single in 1977. The original recording eventually saw the light of day in 1984 on a French issued 7”, and decades on, sounds like a collision between UK Subs at their most melodic and a sharp edged Tom Robinson band. The ringing guitars that dominate throughout are occasionally reminiscent of Larry’s work on ‘On Parole’, but his gruff vocal quickly outshines any of the music with its rough and ready style. An instrumental break highlights a pleasing post-punk tone – suggesting that Wallis might have been ahead of his time – but the track, for all of its good intentions, sags at the chorus. Something with such a strong riff and solo deserved more than a shouted refrain where the title never latches onto anything. Heard retrospectively, it’s sort of clear why Stiff would’ve been fairly non-plussed about ‘Leather Forever’. Coming from an era that gave the world the Damned debut and Wire’s ‘Pink Flag’, it sounds…decidedly sluggish.

Sluggish isn’t a word that can be applied to the reworked track in the hands of psychobilly band The Brains. They’ve taken Wallis’s original vocal and guitar and placed them on a new rhythm track. The drums, given a medium sized kick, energise the riff in the way it deserved to be heard the first time out, but it’s the bass that supplies most of the interest. The forgettable bassline from the original ’77 recording has been replaced by a rattling upright bass, as befitting most of the horror punk/psychobilly’s best recordings. This instantly gives ‘Leather Forever’ a much-needed injection in the tempo department. The Brains don’t seem to care that it doesn’t quite align with a slow-ish pub rock vocal, or that such energetic drive sounds a little weird under a repetitious two word chorus. Nor do they care that Wallis’s closing guitar solo now sounds as if it were patched in from an old demo, much in the same way that Jeff Lynne bought John Lennon back from the dead on ‘Free As A Bird’. The bass part is brilliant, it has to be said. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make ‘Leather Forever’ any better a song, and let’s face it, if it’s insane psychobilly bass riffs you crave, why not just stick on a Brains LP and have it done properly?

On the flip comes a 2023 remix of the track by Die Krupps man Jurgen Engler. If you’re expecting to hear Larry’s voice spliced and placed over industrial loops here, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, Engler has taken the Steven Wilson route; his remix merely brightens the original track. Larry’s guitars come with a slightly sharper edge when placed further forward in the mix, and everything now sounds much less like a polished demo. Fans of the song – and there will be some – will likely welcome the chance to hear it sounding a little more professional, but there’s nothing regarding the 2023 mix that’s revelatory. It certainly won’t win over any doubters.

In the past, some people have accused Cleopatra Records for recycling tat on a cheap licence. Those negative remarks haven’t always been justified…but in this case, they sort of are. It’s interesting to hear The Brains adding a full blooded rockabilly bassline to the track – even though it’s debatable as to whether it works – but this release isn’t far above recycling of a substandard product for a quick buck. Sticking it in artwork that’s vaguely inspired by Motorhead reinforces a sense of desperation, and…a Die Krupps remix? Had this been 1995, that might pull in a couple of curious punters, but – even with Jurgen keeping the band’s name alive after so long – it’s hardly a major selling point in 2023. Without any disrespect meant to the now departed Wallis, he deserved better than this. Dig out the original ‘Police Car’ single, or spin ‘On Parole’ instead. As laboured as those recordings are, they’re still a far more suitable way to remember him.

February/March 2023