BRINSLEY SCHWARZ

It all started one Sunday about four months ago. Hugh Nolan, then Blackhill's unhustling publicist, had very half-heartedly implored me to get down to the Country Club to witness their amazing new band Formerly Fat Harry. Regardless of days of rest, the films on the telly, church, my exhausted body, etc, I complied. As it happened I never got to see Fat Harry because I was so tired that I had to clear off back home, but I did see (in an hour of relative clarity) the support group, which was Brinsley Schwarz. Maybe it was their debut - I'd never seen them before ... in fact, I'd never heard of them before. I can't honestly say that their music was very memorable (their version of the Band's 'Chest Fever' was the only song I remember), and one of the few conclusions I drew from the performance was that though musically strong, there was too much volume and too little separation between instruments.

In a nutshell, they were OK; it was a classic case of "Go away and polish it up boys, you've got the germ of a good band there ... come back in a year". Steve Broughton agreed, (Yes folks, the Broughtons are very hep and with it, and frequent all the groovy in clubs, and an opportunity for me to drop a name is too rare to miss). Andrew Lauder from Liberty was there as well, and he was much more enthusiastic about them.

Time passed. Apart from an Implosion, I saw no further adverts for them, though I heard snatches of talk about an acetate being touted round the record companies.

Then POW! - this cat from Famepushers Ltd (who I'd also never heard of) phones me up and says would I Iike to go to New York and see them play at the Fillmore.... free, gratis, and for nothing? Jesus Christ, of course I would. Bloody right.

But then I had a sit down and thought about the whole business. Famepushers were chartering a plane and filling it with journalists, film crews, DJs, and the winners of a highly publicised Melody Maker competition. There were mumbles about 'The hype of the century' and how the whole thing was a cunning plot to lever a huge advance out of record companies eager to outbid each other to secure 1970's biggest group. A full page ad was seen in Friends: 'Brinsley Schwarz, Fillmore East, April 14th', and name dropping started to appear in the pop press Iike the Face's snippet in Record Mirror 'Brinsley Schwarz... and remember you read it here'. I got to thinking about how to win friends and influence people, and I got to thinking that any writer with an ounce of integrity is going to denounce the whole shebang as a giant, blatant con. And I envisaged the bumlick articles too. And so on. But I knew all the same that I was far too selfish to turn down a free trip to New York.

And having written this far, 10 days before I'm due to leave, I start to get worried.

  1. If I dig the group and gush with superlatives will anybody believe that I haven't been sucked into the vat of bought publicity?
  2. Is the whole thing an immoral hype or is it a perfectly hospitable offer... like it or lump it?
  3. If I think that they're the worst load of crap since the Chicken Shack, will I have the courage to say so, and then will I be condemned for miserable ingratitude, or for being intentionally nasty for the sake of opposing the views of the straight press?
  4. Would I care what anybody thought about what I thought anyway?

Easter Sunday rolls round and just as I'm finishing my eighth egg, Andrew Lauder phones up to say that Liberty have just signed Brinsley Schwarz for the world excluding Canada and USA. He exhorts their management who decided to choose Liberty because Andrew had expressed a genuine interest before the hype started. They've agreed on a 12 thousand advance which is apparently somewhat lower than that offered by various other companies, the record has been completed already, and the sleeves printed too. The album is just great he reckons, and we usually see eye to eye.

So there you go. I couldn't be in a more confused pre-trip state if I tried. Rumours of our being 3 hours late taking off were confirmed and sandwiches were instantly rushed out to appease groaning pressmen, who then commenced to sit around in the lounge taking part in what looked like a sort of air conditioned indoor picnic. Everyone was on about the extravagance and expense of the expedition, and you investigated the sandwiches half expecting to see "with the compliments of Brinsley Schwarz" written on the cheese.

Anyway, we eventually got off the ground in an Aer Lingus 707 called St. Laurence O'Toole, and the pilot - Captain Ahab or someone - goofed about, nearly got into a collision with another plane over Shannon, and by the time we'd landed there, the brakes had been buggered up some way or another. But someone must have told them that a plane load of hippies was coming in because they had this big supermarket at the airport waiting for us, full of plastic Jesi, musical box madonnas, painted gnomes, glow in the dark statuettes of Val Doonican, and the other rubbishy trappings that the wellington boot clad peat bog workers must spend their bread on. No wonder they all come over here.

We got off again, a motley crew of freaks, including some of the older pop press who got it together by throwing balls of paper at each other. They must have been writing for kids so long that they'd all become Lathers (see Jefferson Airplane). But everything had been thrown out of time by various Aer Lingus cock-ups. We had been scheduled to load ourselves into 20 Cadillac Fleetwoods in the early afternoon sunshine and fly through the New York streets in this big fuzz-led motorcade. The idea was to stun people.... their heads would swivel and they'd shout 'Hey look at that' before getting on with their shopping for hominy grits or whatever, and meanwhile, the whole thing could be filmed in living technicolour to relay round the expectant world.

But of course, we didn't get out of Kennedy Airport until around 7 pm, when it was dark and the city's populace had already settled in front of the TV. So no-one saw the spectacle, and we had to shoot straight to the Fillmore because we were too late for the press conferences and other planned delights. Danny, driving our car, was young and jittery and jumped red lights galore to keep up with the rest, and we buzzed across the 59th Street Bridge (Feelin' Groovy of course) to the wonderous sounds of station WABC, hosted by a creep called Bob Scott who told an enthralled audience about some Salt Lake City kids who blew themselves apart when they attacked a live mortar shell with a crowbar. In between such news items and antisweat commercials he played the odd record but usually talked over the first half of it.

The pavement (sidewalk?) outside the Fillmore was full of people who either wanted spare tickets, spare change or to sell you some grass, and the Fillmore itself which is just like a cinema (a bit like the old Middle Earth Royalty) was policed by green football shirted ushers. I got to my seat just in time to see an old Brylcreem boy ease out of the wings . "Good evening and please welcome Brinsley Schwarz" he said in terse uninterested monotones.

And out they came, to wild unabandoned applause.... well - there was a bit of clapping anyway.... and lunged into their set. Brinsley Schwarz himself on guitar, Nick Lowe (bass), Bill Rankin (drums) and Bob Andrews (organ). They started ragged and ended up less ragged, having burned their way through 'Life is dead', 'Indian Woman' and various other respectably performed but unmemorable numbers.

I was sitting there making ridiculous notes in the dark - like "organist sings like Steve Stills" "sound getting tighter" and stuff like that, but there really just wasn't anything to make notes about. The drummer had a bit of style (and a Captain America shirt) and the organist seemed to be having a good time. Between each number they collapsed in giggling fits - more than a wee bit stoned I suspect.

Their set complete, the straights of our party shot off to the hotel without bothering to see Van Morrison or Quicksilver, the others on the bill. I wondered what they thought about Brinsley Schwarz, as I tried to think of something good to say about them. But quite honestly they are, at the moment, a very ordinary, very mediocre group, and I'm sure that they must realise this themselves. I asked various New Yorkers what they thought, hoping I'd find one who'd have a good word, but none did. But it wasn't really an anti-climax to the trip, because I don't think that anyone expected a climax.

It must have been a bloody ordeal for them, knowing that their career and 30,000 depended on their performance, so I sneaked back to the theatre for the second show. (This I accomplished by a fiendish and devious bit of trickery). Lo and behold the band was more relaxed, tighter, and at the end of their set there were even cries for more. It wasn't your actual standing ovation scene, but there was a bit more than the total lack of enthusiasm when they left the stage after their first show.

Van Morrison's 'orchestra' (as he calls it) takes the stage and starts playing the intro to "Mystic Eyes", an old Them number, and the man himself appears, looking most unlike his photographs. His hair is slicked down (really plastered down) with a big parting and looks very straight except that it's long at the sides and back.

(I was sitting next to one of the Melody Maker winners, and he thought that Morrison looked like Benny Hill with a wig, God, enough to give Simon Stable a very nasty heart tremor). His lower half is clad in ultramarine velvet - and he has a frilly seer-sucker shirt (fashion note for groovers).

He sings a verse of 'Mystic Eyes', blows a few shaky harp notes and then goes into 'Astral Weeks', belting the life out of a Guild jumbo. Man alive! .., very strange. His band is crummy - a good keyboard man, a nice drummer, but a very rudimentary guitarist, an ordinary bassist, and two mediocre sax/percussionists/flautists.... but it is strangely virtually the same personnel that played on 'Moondance'. In the two sets I saw, Morrison sang 'Crazy Love', 'Caravan', 'Moondance', 'These dreams of you', 'Brown Eyed Girl' (jazzed up so that it lost its guts), 'Stoned Me', 'into the mystic', Come running' ("this is our latest single, we hope you like it") and a very dramatic 'Cypress Avenue'. But on every song, something was wrong - the timing, the arrangement, and more often than not his singing was way out of tune. How he records his albums I don't know, because they are full of subtle voice inflections and perfect pitching.

Throughout the performances his face remained sour; it was as if he was trying to win a bet by not smiling for 10 years, and he did a bit of half hearted microphone stand manipulating, but he just seemed like the proverbial spare prick at a wedding, just so ill at ease. Another idol bites the dust.

Quicksilver Messenger Service were just beautiful. With Nicky Hopkins, sitting almost in the wings, playing superbly throughout, especially on "Edward the mad shirt grinder", and Dino Valente, who joined recently, doing most of the singing and strumming a fat guitar, moving like an Eddie Cochran or a Gene Vincent.

I won't go on at length bearing in mind that there is a Quicksilver article elsewhere in this issue, but let me say that they completely lived up to my expectations, as they ran through a lot of new material and a few familiar songs: "Have another hit of sweet California sunshine", "I'll never escape from the chains", "So far from my home", "Mona", "I'm a poor boy", "I want to tell you the truth now". Really fine - how I wish that someone would bring them over here.

Got to admit that I was disappointed by the Fillmore audience which was staid, slow and relatively unappreciative, but the acoustics and resident light show were both superb and on English equivalent would be nice.

With what free time we had before the return flight, we were allowed to roam around New York. I had hoped to do a Bernard Chanticleer (like in "You're a big boy now") and investigate all the shops (with John Sebastian harp music buzzing around my head), but most of them were shut on Sunday, including most of the decent record shops, which was a drag. So anyway, we did the tourist bit and mooched around Greenwich Village shouting 'lids, tabs, acid etc', I stood on the corner of Bleeker and McDougalI just like Fred Neil on his Elektra album, walked along Positively 4th St., bought some mint flavoured cigarette papers which made your lips and teeth a lurid apple green, saw dejected birds sitting on tenement steps near St. Marks Place (just like in the films about it), investigated the porn (technicolour clitorises shone out of every bookshop window), and generally had a good time.

People going down to the ground, buildings going up to the sky; New York is a strange place and 24 hours is no time at all. Superficially it seemed like your actual melting pot, but you could feel the tension of the city and everyone looked miserable - probably because they were breathing noxious fumes the whole time. All the streets were wide canyons, dominated by madarse drivers; about every fourth car is a taxi and every single one is dented somewhere - they're all matt yellow, so that when they have a prang they can just nip out and spray some paint on the scars.

And the cops have guns, the full realisation which didn't hit me until I saw it for myself. But I managed to get in a flying visit to Peter Stampfel and Antonia, our New York writers, and that was a gas.

But back to Brinsley .... what amuses me, or rather perturbs me, about the whole spectacle is the fact that most of the journalists who went seem to have totally disregarded (or maybe just blandly accepted) the fact that this is the most immoral hype in the history of pop. If someone from Famepushers had seen Brinsley Schwarz playing in a club somewhere and said "Wow ... this is amazing music ... what a total knockout ... we must sign these cats up and try and spread the word ... I have great faith in their ability to shake the world etc" ... then conceivably it wouldn't quite have been so bad. But it didn't happen that way at all. Famepushers advertised for a group and had dozens of replies, from which they selected Brinsley. It was like an experiment. As if they'd said "right let's find an unknown group and see if we can catapult them to world class by bread alone".

Now I went in for that Melody Maker competition. I crossed out all the qualities like stage presence, originality, musical ability, clothes and whatever, and I wrote "Of no importance" beside them. Then as an answer to the question "What will make a group outstanding in 1970?"

I put "Having loads of bread and an enormous hype machine behind them so that they get maximum media coverage". I didn't win but I think I should have done, because Brinsley Schwarz had precious little of any of the qualities they mentioned in that list. In fact, about 3 hours after I got back from New York I went out again and saw a band who probably make about 30 a night, and on every count they were better; yet Brinsley Schwarz have apparently been booked for an Albert Hall show, they've managed to get hold of unprecedented advances, and all the straight journalists on the trip wrote exactly what was required of them.

Now Famepushers are no doubt going to be more than a little pissed off by this, and I can imagine all kinds of words like "ungrateful" etc being used, but quite honestly in their hearts, they must know that they are perpetrating a ridiculous hype, and I can't see how any journalist with any integrity can say that the band was great, or even good. They were just totally mediocre, (To appease MU rules, Brinsley Schwarz were apparently exchanged for Love. If that's true, I've got some other exchange ideas - what about Status Quo for Grateful Dead, Orange Bicycle for Jefferson Airplane, Malcolm Roberts for John Sebastian, Pickety Witch for Quicksilver?)

One small thing that I found, shall I say, a little incongruous was the absence of a reporter from IT. IT's music section is good and comprehensive, but yet no one from there had been invited (presumably). On the other hand, there were 3 writers from Friends, which is owned by Fame pushers Ltd. Richard Neville of Oz was there however, and so was Paul Whitehead from Time Out, and I look forward to reading what they have to say about it all.

Looking back, this whole article seems a bit on the facetious side, but one has to regard it as a joke. If you can just buy instant plastic stardom, then God help us all. As for Brinsley Schwarz, they're only a pawn in the game (and when a millionairess pays for a trip like that, it is a game); they're nice enough blokes, and they have the potential to become a very good band, but I can't imagine that their audience (or the audience they are hoping for) are going to be very receptive to this kind of gimmickry.... after all, it's not a very far cry from the Monkees.

However, at the time of going to press, I hear good reports about their album from people that I usually agree with. I haven't heard it myself, but I certainly hope it is good.

To sum up, although I've just done it, I think it's too early to pass any judgement on Brinsley Schwarz, but I'm going to follow their progress with great interest.

Pete (Frame)

ZigZag 12, May 1970

[Thanks to Keith Hunter for doing the original scan & OCR, and giving permission for me to add the article to my site. Keith's site has articles from many issues of Dark Star, Strange Things Are Happening, and Zigzag.]


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Last updated: 18-Jul-2005