Sunday 15 August 2010

Billie Davis: 'Nobody's Home To Go Home To'

An astonishing number of British girl singers emerged between the end of 1963 and mid 1964: Dusty, Sandie, Cilla, Lulu, Marianne, all - in their varied ways - totems of late 20th British social history. For every Dusty there were a dozen Glo Macaris and Lorraine Silvers, teenagers shunted into Pye studio B for two hours one morning in 1965. A couple of singles usually emerged, a bunch of promises, then came marriage, kids, and a chest in the attic with a few photos and some scratched discs with a bright pink label, curios from a misspent youth that was over before it began.

Billie Davis bucked the trend by scoring a middling hit with her first single - a cover of the Exciters' Tell Him in 1963 - and then convincing labels to keep releasing singles right up to the turn of the seventies. None were hits, but you could see how she wangled the deals. For a start she was button-cute, saucer-eyed and sexy. Secondly, her voice sounded like nobody else on the block; it could cut through medium wave fog with precision, hitting the same unlikely frequency as Diana Ross.

Ballads were where Billie ruled. Ian Chapman one described her as having a "broken doll" voice - not mopey, or simpering, but small and tough and hugely affecting, very real. Never did she sound more broken and beaten than on Nobody's Home To Go Home To. Decca thought so little of it they misspelt the title on the label, then put it on the b-side of the middling I Can Remember, but from the opening line - "watching some movie repeat and repeat" - you know you're catching something special. There's real bitterness ("Yesterday's coffee is losing its taste now that you've left me, sugar") below the surface of strings and swimming pool bass, and the lyric deals with the lack of direction at the end of an affair, the dulled senses, the useless anger: "The nights are a bore and the days such a waste."

Nobody's Home To Go Home To was written by Carole Bayer and Toni Wine. They had previously scored with a string of Mindbenders singles beginning with their biggest ever song, Groovy Kind Of Love in 1966. A no.2 hit in the US and UK it was sung by boys but clearly written by girls; lines like "can't control the quivering inside" were taking pop away from the sock hop and soda shop. It was as implicitly about female sexuality as Goffin and King's more celebrated Natural Woman two years later; Toni was just 17, still in high school, and Carole was a 22-year old teacher when they wrote Groovy Kind Of Love The original version - good but lacking the weird echoed backing vocals and martial rhythm that tips the Mindbenders' version into proto-psychedelic - was by Patti Labelle, who certainly knew a thing or two about the liberated woman.

The Mindbenders had been little more than Wayne Fontana's backing group before this. He had simply walked off stage midway through a gig in early '66, frustrated that a string of singles failed to score after Game Of Love had been a huge hit (US no.1, UK no.2) in '65. Guitarist Eric Stewart was sanguine: "All we lost was our tambourine player. Wayne had been threatening to leave the band for some time and (drummer) Ric Rothwell had reached the end of patience with his groaning an moaning. Ric was urging him to take his ego trip and piss off." He did, and Stewart became singer with the now three-piece. They can't have dreamed that without their front man, the only really recognisable band member, they would score an even bigger hit. Unsurprisingly, the Mindbenders kept Carole and Toni on board, and they wrote the A-sides of their next three singles.

Can't Live With You Can't Live Without You was the Wine/Bayer Mindbenders follow up and it's a very different state of affairs: "When you're closer to me you just seem to be not all there" is the flip of Groovy Kind Of Love's "When you're in my arms nothing seems to matter", a relationship hollowed out. Where's the respect? "Couldn't you try just a little bit harder to love me?" implores Eric Stewart, desperate, almost losing his calm restraint over a baroque deep-well mix of minor-key guitar chimes, doomed organ, and swirling upfront tambourine. "COULDN'T you try just a LITTLE bit harder?"

Nobody's Home To Go Home To is the sad pile of nothing left when the disrespectful lover disappears. Their two lives have been linked, it seems inextricably, and the crisis of identity that that comes as she sits alone is heard at the end of each chorus in a hanging note, suspended above nothing, until the key changes back and the bass and drums put a consoling around Billie and her cold cup of coffee: "Who will I be? I can't be me without you."

Things weren't always so blue for Billie Davis. If she wanted to use them, she had claws. She needed them after the media trashed her career in 1964. That was the year she was involved in a notorious car crash with Jet Harris, formerly the blonde bass hero of the Shadows. Harris was married, in theory anyway - his wife had been carrying on with Cliff Richard while Jet was still in the band, standing behind his wife's lover on stage every night, trying to keep his cool. Not surprisingly, it messed with his mind. Hell, they were still teenagers. Jet drank progressively, Bruce Welch demanded that he had to go.

Jet pulled through slowly, first by making records on his own (1962's Main Title Theme from The Man With The Golden Arm has one of the deepest, most powerful guitar sounds of the era) then a brace with another ex-Shadow, drummer Tony Meehan, (Diamonds was a no.1 in early '63, followed by Scarlett O'Hara which reached no.2), and then by hanging out with perky new star Billie Davis. In September 1963, a few days after the third Harris/Meehan single Applejack was released Jet and Billie were were in the back seat of a chauffeur driven limousine near returning home to London from one of her shows in Evesham, Worcestershire. They hit a Midland Red bus, which was written off after the crash. Billie suffered a broken jaw; Jet was unconscious after his forehead had smashed into an ashtray on the back of the driver's seat. He needed 34 stitches - Decca needed him on the road and on TV to promote Applejack. He was in no physical or mental state to do this. After one more solo single, Big Bad Bass in '64, he retired, unable to even pick up a guitar without getting the fear for years afterwards.

Billie's career meandered, though she continued to cut quality singles, several a year right up to 1970. After the car crash and the bad press, Decca dropped her like a hot potato, broken jaw or not. She signed to Columbia where she recorded the mod dancefloor favourite Whatcha Gonna Do, moved to Piccadilly in '65 and released the cat-scratching Hands Off and the lip-licking teaser No Other Baby, as well as the definitive version of Burt Bacharach's Last One To Be Loved. Decca signed her again in '67 and Billie must have thought she had a hit in the bag when she was first out of the blocks with Chip Taylor's Angel Of The Morning.

PP Arnold stole her thunder with a hurried cover in the UK and Merrilee Rush did likewise in the US; neither had the fragility and ambiguity that makes Billie's version so strong. But chart positions aren't everything, not quite. Jet and Billie are close friends again, forty-odd years after their careers and lives were shattered by a Midland Red bus. Toni Wine appeared at the 2005 launch for Rhino's Girl Group box set, One Kiss Leads To Another, and reduced everyone present to jelly with a solo piano performance of Groovy Kind Of Love. Eric Stewart did pretty well with 10CC, and Universal rescued Nobody's Home To Go Home To from obscurity when they re-issued it on their essential compilation, The Girl Scene. I love a happy ending.

The Teardrop Explodes: 'Window Shopping For A New Crown Of Thorns'

I could describe this blog as a tribute to a lost era. I could even describe it as a tribute to a lost art form. For most singers and pop groups, the b-side was a technological aberration, a minor annoyance; vinyl singles were two-sided, and you were only selling the A-side. For some, though, it was a chance to stretch away from commercial constraints and, if you felt warmly towards your fans rather than the casual buyer who may never even listen to it, you'd use the b-side for your most idiosyncratic and intriguing music.

Julian Cope was an early heavy hero of mine. One of the main reasons for this was his unfettered enthusiasm. I remember, in 1980, an interview with Spandau Ballet in which they said they had never really listened to rock or pop. I couldn't twig what they meant - was Mahler or Stravinsky the main influence on Chant No.1? No, they meant they were soul snobs; they didn't want to share. Julian Cope wanted to share. He'd talk about Arthur Lee, Tim Buckley, The Left Banke, none of whom I had heard of. I saved up for Forever Changes, Goodbye & Hello, and several more doors opened up. Cope did more than talk about Scott Walker, he issued a whole compilation of the man's work on Liverpool's Zoo label. This was unprecedented. Nobody - apart from the almost as effusive Marc Almond - rated Scott Walker in 1981, his solo records were buried deep. Cope's compilation was called Fire Escape In The Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker, a description few would argue with now, but back in 1981 it was considered a joke - dopy Copey was blowing his cool again. The record came in a beautiful plain grey sleeve with simple green text. It was an act of extraordinary generosity.

Cope has since claimed he never really liked Scott Walker that much, which seems like standard issue, double bluff, pop star cool. It's disappointing, as a raft of Teardrop Explodes recordings betray Scott's influence. One - the eggshell-fragile, haunted suburbia of Tiny Children - even became an A-side in the summer of 1982. The majority were released as flips on a brief but glorious run of singles from 1980 to '82. Window Shopping For A New Crown Of Thorns is the kind of song title Cope would have thought up, bug-eyed with enthusiasm, around Dave Balfe's freezing bedsit at 3am, then stitch a song onto it later. It's a very early eighties Liverpool title - Ian McCullough or Pete Wylie would probably have dreamt it up if Cope hadn't. Recorded during the sessions for second album Wilder, it became the b-side of Colours Fly Away.

Not surprisingly, the title is never sung. It opens with an asthmatic instrument playing minor chords - a harmonium, in tribute to Nico's Marble Index. Cope joins in with the melody, singing high, choirboy-like, very clean and pure, only the words are indistinct - you strain to hear them and make out "cross the bridge we sigh, watching clouds go by". Then a flash of muffled brass leads into the 'chorus', a jumble of spoken words reminiscent of the Velvet Underground's Murder Mystery over slightly more ominous harmonium chords and distant purple tympani, the hint of a storm. But before it breaks you're into the second verse, with a gorgeously sad counter-melody on muted vibes over an even vaguer lyric. The storm builds, the song grows more dream-like, ever more distant, harder to hold. It stops dead as verse and chorus merge over rumbling drums and piano, with Cope appearing to read extracts from his diary. He has since said that the song is built on "desperation, artistic doubt and loss". Poor sod. But it's our gain. Released in October 1981, Window Shopping For A New Crown Of Thorns is a beautiful exercise in northern English autumnal mysticism: what's beyond the stone door?

It wasn't by any means the only great Teardrop Explodes B-side. On Treason (Use Me), Passionate Friend (Christ vs Warhol), and When I Dream (Kilimanjaro) there were equally atmospheric adventures in hi-fi: each was a rich counterpoint to the radio-friendly top side.

When the Teardrop Explodes split, Julian Cope got more into puns (Jehovahkill, Peggy Suicide) and straight-ahead pop (World Shut Your Mouth), and switched from the soundscapes that populated his early singles: along the way he lost the knack of the perfect b-side. They went out with a bang, though, a five track EP containing all that existed of their third, abandoned album - effectively it was the staccato, buffed-brass, radio-friendly You Disappear From View and four underworldly b-sides. Unsurprisingly, it was very good indeed.

So the Teardrop Explodes were masters of the b-side, which is why they appear in pole position on this blog. That, and Pete Paphides gave me the idea to start it during a long Teardrops-and-red-wine evening a few weeks ago. Classic b-sides were a way of sneaking experimental pop into maybe tens of thousands of households. They were a hidden secret, waiting patiently to be discovered. Like tiny off-kilter sound bombs scattered across the country, across the world. Like Rain by The Beatles. There's the hint of something beyond, quite intangible, that would rarely find its way onto an A-side, nor would it do as Side 2, Track 3. Maybe it's melancholy. Sometimes it's masochism. Julian Cope, murmuring in the thickets of Window Shopping's chorus, gets close to the nub of it: "Show me more. In 4/4 time, show me more".