Saturday, May 18, 2024

Glam Warfare – The Chaos of The Rubettes

The Rubettes – The Singles 1974-1977 (Cherry Red Records)

As of mid-2023, The Rubettes have had a total of 32 band members, putting them on a par with the funk conveyer belt, Funkadelic. To make sense of their lineage would be an article in itself and would be a miserable experience for all involved, not least the reader. Currently, two versions of the band exist, neither featuring Paul Da Vinci, whose dog-whistle falsetto dominates their only UK number one single, ‘Sugar Baby Love’. He didn’t even join the band until 2000, 26 years after the single was released. As I say, the HR department of The Rubettes earned every penny of their salary. Pete Frame has resisted calls for him to plot their family tree on the grounds that it defiles the rights of both humans and trees.

There is more than just an in-built loathing of The Rubettes for each other – the music they made was…sinister. The overwhelming craving for nostalgia in the band’s lyrics and their sound is extraordinary. Nearly every song sinks to its knees, begging for a return to yesteryear – in ‘Juke Box Jive’, it could easily be that they’re mourning for the loss of their family, burnt to a crisp in a house fire – but no, the fist-shaking, tear-drenched plea is simply for a return to 1955. 1955 – just 19 years prior. Look at this clip here – absolute antics:

Did those men really create that anthem? The drummer, John Richardson, is taking it all jolly seriously, no slouching on his watch. Singer, Alan Williams, striking poses like an action figure being stretched to its limits by an enthusiastic child. Whilst the lead vocals on the track are indeed his, it’s difficult to reconcile them coming from his head. Bill Hurd – now, ironically, one of the major litigators bringing suits against any number of the fleet of ex-members, struggles to find anything to do on his keyboard, clapping providing a meaningful activity instead. And then there’s Mick Clarke and Tony Thorpe – bassist and guitarist, forming geometric shapes with their axes, weapons to fight off the threat of the future and to help them live forever at the school disco. The galloping B-side, ‘When You’re Falling in Love’, sees them still at school and falling in love with rock n roll playing in the background.

The costume of choice – white suits and flat caps – gave a suggestion that they might be glam in disguise, but if they were, they were too shy to commit to it fully. They were ok with glitter but only if it fell at the end of the school prom – not that there were proms in Britain but in their minds, that’s exactly what the old school discos had been – glamorous, coming-of-age events with a band on stage and first love sparking across the dancefloor. Every British school dance for the last 30 years had been a mess of orange squash, giggling girls, lads pissing about and some chump throwing up after drinking the dregs of something from his mum and dad’s drinking cabinet. Were these the times everyone was pleading to be transported back to?

In fact, they were. The British obsession with nostalgia and insistence that everything was better before had really hit its stride in the 70s, the first time that people could look back at the television or their record collections and ‘prove’ they were right. Doo-wop evoked images of smiling youths; polite acquaintanceships, and a harmonious future for all. There was no need for rebels – just put a song on the jukebox and life would carry you to your happy ending without you ever needing to think about taxes or bills.

The blame isn’t all on the band – the suits behind the band, Wayne Bickerton and Tony Waddington wrote many of their early tracks and were canny operators. If at first they didn’t succeed, they would batter their idea to within an inch of its life until there was cash rolling in. ‘Sugar Baby Love’ was written for Showaddywaddy to perform as the UK’s Eurovision entry – their rejection only led the pair to release the demo made by the session musicians – musicians whom they would then name The Rubettes. Their obsession with doo-wop and old-time rock n roll was crowbarred into the glam scene and it worked at first as the songs were great – if somewhat cribbed straight from older tracks. The almost morbid nostalgia was a breath of stale air for record buyers who had overdosed on dangerous boot-wearing trends, double entendres and rallying cries to have fun.

‘I Can Do It’ was released in February 1974, the harmonies now more of the upbeat Beach Boys kind and a more riffy guitar but they’re still blathering on about soda pop and “looking back when things were good”. It did well and was featured in the film, Side by Side’ the following year, which also starred Mud and Kenny. The film was terrible and few came out from the experience unscathed (Barry Humphries was an exception). In typical Bickerton/Waddington fashion, they rejigged the track three years later, ‘We Can Do It’ becoming Liverpool FC’s FA Cup anthem. The one they lost to Manchester United. Tellingly, the B-side to ‘I Can Do It’ was written by Willams and Richardson and shows a far more grown-up Rubettes using their harmonies on a gently affecting country-rock number.

The band were already onto their third album in 1975 but it was clear that there were more than one or two signs that the ruse wasn’t going to last in its current form. ‘Foe-Dee-Oh-Dee’ was yet more froth but at least there was an element of fun. The white suits remained but they were now given colour-coded lapels, like Cluedo characters. Which one’s your favourite? Tony was black. Of course he was. The single peaked at number 15 and only hung around the charts for four weeks, with the likes of Bay City Rollers and T-Rex delivering what the kids really wanted. The pleasant but unremarkable ‘Little Darling’ followed, creeping to number 30. The Rubettes sacked Waddington and Bickerton and Hurd jumped ship (for the time being). Disc one ends with 3 tracks recorded by Alan and John under the moniker…Alan & John. They’re dreadful.

Our hero, Tony, was lead singer on the single released on the band’s triumphant-ish return, ‘You’re the Reason Why’. It’s the sound of The Rubettes with the cloying nostalgia removed, and it’s really nice…but just really nice. The harmonies still remain, even with the band down to a quartet, but there’s nothing here to capture the public’s imagination. For all their early hits perverseness, they did at least stop you in your tracks. Their image now was very clear – airline pilot/race car driver/Old West Farmer/I’ve bought the wrong size. Chaos but oddly endearing. You really feel they’ve been dealt a rotten hand, put together by committee and forced to play songs they didn’t write – when they finally get to have a go on the controls by themselves, their contemporary songs sound even more at odds with the rest of the charts than ever.

‘Under One Roof’, a song about suburban homophobia is a brave choice as a single but was fundamentally a strum-along country song that only lacks the denouement that the hero of the tale is actually a sheepdog. Richardson has taken the lead on vocals this time –  a power battle clearly taking place behind the scenes. It’s strange to see a band go through their musical differences so obviously in public – there can never be enough praise heaped upon session musicians, but to force them to perform as though they’re old schoolmates with a joke always at hand about the good old days when they were starting out almost feels like a banned Channel 4 experiment.

Elsewhere, Bill Hurd had returned to the evil Waddington And Bickerton, and lo’, the results of his debut solo single sounded like The Beach Boys singing the Goffin and King coffee table directory of affecting melodies. Bill wrote the B-side, ‘Everybody Knows’ which sounds like 10cc. The Rubettes were still reinventing themselves, seemingly mid-costume change. ‘Allez-Oop’ is nonsense of the highest order, released purely to capitalise on mainland Europe’s obsession with anything which was musically abhorrent. The sounds of an audience cheering on the track are, as someone once said, “unwise, but not illegal”.

The last hoorah of the glory days of The Rubettes was the single, ‘Baby I Know’ released in 1976. Tony’s now gone full-on country balladeer, clad like Roy Orbison washed at too high a temperature whilst the rest of the band still look like they’re waiting to be hailed as the new Monkees. It got to number 10 in the UK charts, a remarkable feat as punk trickled through the country like rat urine. The game was up. Tony left when he found out that ‘You’re the Reason Why’ had harmonies stapled on, at odds with his desire to move as far away from their old style as possible. By 1980 they had dissolved, Tony never to return with his biggest post-Rubes contribution to society being The Firm – not the Jimmy Page one, the one that released ‘Arthur Daley, E’s Alright’ and ‘Star Trekkin”. Richardson joined the Hare Krishnas and renamed himself Jayadev and formed Jayadev’s Mantra Crew. Both he, Clarke and Williams have returned to The Rubettes on and off ever since.

Daz Lawrence

You can enjoy the fleeting greatness of the Rubettes by purchasing the new retrospective collection here

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