THE ALAN BOWN:
Cult Mod singles, Cult Brit-Psych albums,
The Alan Bown had everything
… except a hit record
First they were the brass-heavy Mod-cult Alan Bown Set, then they caught the psychedelic wave as The Alan Bown! until eventually they were just Alan Bown, evolving from cool jazzy blues through blue-eyed soul and R&B to end up a progressive rock combo. Yet, although the chart visibility of their finest records was minimal, they’re respected for developing and launching the careers of numerous musicians from the mighty Robert Palmer and Jess Roden, to Supertramp and King Crimson via Mel Collins, John Helliwell and Dougie Thomson.
Then the Young Man With The Horn up-gears to join The John Barry Seven in September 1963 – this is after the JB7’s peak as an ingredient of Adam Faith’s chart-topping Pop-formula, and after hits in their own right with their cover of the Ventures “Walk Don’t Run”, TVs ‘Juke Box Jury’ theme “Hit And Miss”, then the Barry-penned “James Bond Theme”. By November 1964 Bown was part of the line-up playing back-up for Brenda Lee, on the French and German legs of her European tour. Marty Wilde was part of the same show, and they back him too. With Barry himself spending more time composing, Bown soon escalates to become leader of the touring band, and seizes the opportunity of cutting his first record with them – the Mod-danceable horns-punching “Twenty-Four Hours Ago” c/w “Seven Faces” (1964, Columbia DB 7414), with vocals by Mike O’Neil, and a slinky Hammond-led instrumental flip. Annoyingly, it’s right then that John Barry imposes three months notice that he’s breaking the band up in 1965, in order to free up more time for his film commitments.
Alan himself was always the Man With The Golden Trumpet, never front-man vocalist. Like, say, Manfred Mann or Dave Clark, he preferred to influence the group’s direction indirectly. ‘A bright-shirted trumpeter who loves waiting like he loves toothache and kissing his mother goodbye, wanders onto the stage and plays three notes, unaware that it’s now quiet and all eyes are on him…’ according to sleeve-notes. In January 1966 Dave Green was replaced by John ‘John Anthony’ Helliwell, then – a month later, Jess Roden comes in as joint vocalist (from Kidderminster’s Shakedown Sound), allowing Jeff Bannister to concentrate more on keyboards. Together they guest on ‘Ready Steady Go!’ (July), while headlining at Soho’s ‘Marquee’ where Alan had once paid to see top-line bands. On a rainy Sunday bill (31 July) they play ‘The Sixth National Jazz & Blues Festival’ – the first at its Windsor site, alongside The Action, Georgie Fame, Bluesology and one of Cream’s first-ever live sets – with an all-day ticket priced at a modest ten shillings!
Their heavy clubbing tour-schedule was boosted into overdrive by the first intimations of just how strong they could be on record, with their tight cover of Edwin Starr’s “Headline News”. Like a street-corner newsvendor announcing to the world’s media about the new Baby he’s found, and – ‘oh what a change in me’, Roden’s raw pleading ‘Extra! Extra!’ is set against high falsetto ‘Read all about it’ call-and-response backing. Roden’s wailing voice can also be heard on the Who’s “Magic Bus”, so it’s not impossible that Pete Townshend picked up and adapted the ‘Extra Extra, Read All About It, Pinball Wizard In A Miracle Cure’ line for ‘Tommy’ from this record.
Although I was living in the north-eastern Humberside wastes of Hull I pick up on the Alan Bown Set name from ‘Record Mirror’ club-listings, record reviews and panel-ads, and – of course, the records are on unmissably high rotation at Mod clubs like ‘The Gondola’ and ‘The Kon-Tiki’. The venues are sweaty and loud. The buzz is electric. Mod is an elitist subculture in which chart placings are seen as commercial sell-out, and purism rules. Some Mods just want to dance, and be seen dancing, all that matters is the beat. For other more trainspottery members of the in-crowd, the original is still the greatest. For them, as with Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band, when it comes to hipness, we know the American singles always retain the legitimising sheen of authenticity. But those Motown or Stax artist are elsewhere, Alan Bown is here and now…
Building on the strengths of “Headline News”, there’s “Emergency 999” – written by folkie Paul Korda but structured around a similarly compulsive groove, with the kind of slightly off-kilter klaxon-horn riff later to be replicated by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. His girl has left him, stop that thief, she stole his heart. ‘Hear my song, move along…’
Again, its club popularity fails to yield chart returns, although later it gets rediscovered by Northern Soul devotees as a lost anthem. Meanwhile, the Bown Set are recorded live ‘invitation-only’ with Jimmy James & The Vagabonds, and released as a joint album together as ‘London Swings: Live At The Marquee Club’. I guess half an album is better than none, and the seven tracks captured on side two – including “Headline News” and “Emergency 999” catches something of the live excitement they generate onstage. ‘Dedicated to those who couldn’t get in, and those who are hooked enough to want to hear it all again’, it’s the only extended recorded evidence left by this phase of the Set’s evolution.
In November 1966 guitarist Pete Burgess is replaced by Tony Catchpole in time for “Gonna Fix You Good (Everytime You’re Bad)” c/w “I Really, Really Care” – although again, it’s a cover, this time of a Little Anthony & The Imperials original, it’s the third of a trilogy of classic club singles that define that era of intense Mod cultdom. Smoother, with keyboard play-in, and an even more forcefully percussive flip, it’s very near the last of the ‘set’. But first they get to contribute to the soundtrack of ‘Jeu De Massacre’ (aka ‘The Killing Game’) a French spy-spoof film scored by Jacques Loussier. Impressively, their kiss-kiss-bang-bang track comes with horn-driven tempo-changes from frantic gunshot ‘you’re dead’ vocal-effects, down to slow interludes.
While they’re recording sessions for the BBCs ‘Rhythm and Blues’ programme in 1966 and ‘Saturday Club’ in 1967, Pete Stringfellow promotes the Set at his ‘King Mojo’ club, recalling that ‘in Sheffield we had never seen anything like the Alan Bown Set… Alan’s trumpet was bent at the end, and when I first saw this I thought he had stood on it and broken it’… not so, ‘it was one of the things that helps us remember how talented the band was during this period’ (the introduction to the book ‘The Alan Bown Set Before And Beyond’). They were already fluent musicians, technically accomplished and jazz-literate.
The expiry of the band’s contract with Pye in 1967, offers the opportunity to reform the band as ‘The Alan Bown!’ a more psychedelic concoction for Verve Records. Dropping the ‘set’ and adding the exclamation mark is to denote a career punctuation, because the vibe is shifting, moving away from slavishly replicating cult American R&B, and more about the credibility of originating new material. Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band had metamorphosed into Dantalion’s Chariot. Simon Dupree’s Big Sound were in the Top Ten with “Kites”. ‘We were still mimicking the Americans yet things coming across from the States were moving in different direction – Pop music was growing up’ as Jess explained it.
And there’s already a shifting pool of writers within the group, who finally get to release their first full-length album ‘Outward Bown’ in 1967. A charming artefact of Brit-psych, both sides start with strong singles – “Toyland” opening with school playground sounds and “Storybook” opening with manic echoplexed laughter, which both capture the gently innovative whimsy and lyrical nursery-rhyme escapism that’s close enough to suggest a hallucinogenic input, yet vague enough to escape censor. Although there’s none of the unsettling darkness of a Syd Barrett, or the hard Freak-beat edge of Creation, the twelve tracks present stronger songs than many of their high-charting contemporaries.
They’re tight and cleanly-produced – ‘things down there aren’t quite so square in Toyland’, decorated with strummed acoustic guitar, woodwind and pizzicato strings, while retaining muted horns on tracks such as “Sally Green” and the more high-energy “Penny For Your Thoughts” which builds to a staccato climax. The slow bass lead-in to the “Storybook” break would later be replicated by 10cc for their “I’m Not In Love”. The only two non-originals on the album are a complex tempo-change cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” – the stage version of which reportedly ‘directly inspired the Jimi Hendrix arrangement of the song’, and a summery ba-ba-ba close-harmony arrangement of Dion DiMucci’s “My Girl Of The Month”. Promoted by appearances on John Peel’s ‘Top Gear’, it was a well-regarded underground LP at the time, which remains highly collectable vinyl now.
It also marks the start of a second run of perfect little singles, the third of which – “We Can Help You” rises all the way to no.26 in the UK chart – but only in the ‘New Musical Express’, so no use looking for it in your ‘Guinness Book Of Hit Singles’. Rejigged from a track on the original Nirvana’s ‘The Story Of Simon Simopath’ (1967) album, with the lyrical addition of an anthemic ‘Happiness Society’ chorus enhanced by baroque twiddly string breaks, it enters at no.29, 24 August 1968, to peak the following week in a chart oddly headed by Tom Jones’ “Help Yourself”, with trumpet-playing Herb Alpert at no.3 with “This Guy’s In Love With You”. It earns them a ‘Top Of The Pops’ slot (8 August), but a strike at the pressing plant determines they’re unable to capitalise on the exposure.
In 1969 they label-switch again, to Deram Records yielding a minor hit with “Still as Stone”, swirling a ‘test-tube of life’ fronted by effervescing-strong guitar and Jess Roden’s most roaring vocal. ‘The Alan Bown! are without a doubt one of the most exciting live acts ever to raise screams from a delirious audience’ enthuses the press-ad, and ‘this is about as alive as a record can get without actually leaping off the record-player!’ It was backed up by lucrative radio dates. As the BBC was subject to restricted needle time – requiring ‘live’ performances between the records, the Bown were among a select roster of bands who record cover sessions for the BBC, appearing on the ‘Jimmy Young Show’, ‘The David Symonds Show’ and others. They could be seen on Alan Freeman’s fast-moving TV ‘All Systems Freeman’, as well as spots on the Simon Dee and Eamonn Andrews chat-shows.
There’s a continuing confusion concerning their next album ‘The Alan Bown!’. Roden told journalist Chris Charlesworth ‘I just couldn’t get into what Alan was doing. I was writing my own songs all the time and getting too involved in that.’ So ‘I left Alan Bown because I wanted to do something of my own’ (‘Melody Maker’, August 1970). So snappily-dressed Robert Palmer is hastily drafted in from the Scarborough-based Mandrakes. With tracks initially recorded before Roden left, Palmer’s voice is promptly over-dubbed (save those tracks Roden had co-composed), in time for the album's UK release. But not before the Roden vocals had escaped, to be issued as the American LP. Hence, two overlapping versions continue to coexist. Nevertheless, the ambition is seldom in doubt. “The Prisoner” is a ten-minute segmented narrative track fading in like the primal detonation of the cosmos, moving through a soft ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ sequence into screeching vocals, choral passages and rocking guitar, until the narrative ends with the Prisoner’s release into freedom. The new line-up is boosted by an appearance on BBC TVs ‘Disco Two’ (an early version of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’).
1970 brought fresh changes, the seven-piece band jump labels yet again, this time to Island. And Palmer quits just as they’re recording the album ‘Listen’. Recalling Jess Roden’s treatment, Fred Deller points out with some satisfaction that ‘later Palmer was to suffer the same indignity when tracks HE recorded with Bown were scrapped and replaced by those made by his vocal successor’ (‘NME’ 20 February 1988). And yes, new singer Gordon Neville re-records the vocal tracks before the album’s eventually release. Then the spin-off single “Pyramid” is released just before bassist Andy Brown replaces long-term member Stan Haldane, and Mel Collins is drafted in on sax. ‘The introduction reminds me a little of ‘Wheels Of Fire’’, enthuses ‘Melody Maker’, ‘but the feeling is the old brass bite of Bown and co, and MAYBE their hit – at last.’ For the album, there’s a punchier more prominent horn presence, contemporary with the complex Blood Sweat & Tears or Chicago arrangements, the steaming largely-instrumental “Make Up Your Mind” opens and continues with torrid free blowing throughout, while “Crash Landing” slots easily into new smooth jazz-literate proggy improvisations, with meticulous horn section fills around the keyboards and long meandering soloing passages.
They’d come a long way, influenced by fashion-shifts, but always retaining a smart distinction. And there would be one final album, ‘Stretching Out’ (1971), promoted by a re-appeared on ‘Disco Two’. As the title suggests – ‘stretching out in a new direction’, it’s a looser more jazz-rock approach, with more slick soloing. Not a new development, obviously those elements have always been there, but given free reign in a more progressive context. Both the title track and “The Messenger” extend to a full eight-minutes, tightly arranged with duelling brass and Bown’s most prominent horn solo ever, recalling Ian Carr’s work with Nucleus. While “Find A Melody” is built around a noodling jazz-riff worthy of – say, Steely Dan. “Build Me A Stage” has a similarly appealing wistfulness, ‘build me a stage and I’ll sing for you…’ adding ‘if you want me to.’ There’s a sense of summing-up, of end-statement here. ‘Build it right here and I’ll play for you’ adding ‘the best I can do.’ Well – they’d done all that.
But it was a period of rapid line-up changes. Jeff Bannister – who’d been there since the JB7, left, but was not replaced, then Dougie Thomson replaces Andy Brown and Derek Griffiths – formerly with The Artwoods, replaces Catchpole. This line-up remained more-or-less stable until February 1972, when Bown presses reset, and forms a new band with Dave Lawson (keyboards) Tony Dangerfield (bass) Frank White (guitar), replaced by Pete Goodall – formerly with Thunderclap Newman, Nick Payn (tenor sax/ flute) and Alan Coulter (drums). It was to be the last hurrah, after a major tour, Bown finally disbands the group in July 1972.
Yet the musical strengths and potential were evident in future developments. Alan himself – playing flugelhorn or Miles-like on his Super Olds trumpet with Gardinelli mouthpiece, joins Jonesy, with Fred Deller reviewing the five-piece’s third album – ‘Growing’ (February 1974, Dawn) with ‘Alan Bown has at last found the right niche.’ Yet an unobtrusive line hidden away in ‘NME’ in July 1974 notes that he’d graduated from performer to become CBS A&R manager. A position that nevertheless affords him the opportunity of producing a 1977 LP for Gold, formed by ex-Jonesy keyboard-player Jimmy Kaleth and drummer Richard ‘Plug’ Thomas.
Melvyn ‘Mel’ Collins become sax-of-choice for King Crimson (from ‘Lizard’, 1970), Camel and numerous other bands. He even plays the sax solo on the Rolling Stone “Miss You”. John Helliwell and Dougie Thomson join Supertramp in time for their breakthrough ‘Crime Of The Century’ (1974) album. Gordon Neville later joins Elton John's band, and works with Rick Wakeman. Vic Sweeney works with Kevin Coyne. Pete Goodall works with Percy Sledge, Viola Wills, Carl Douglas and many more. Nick Payn plays in Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings.
While the two vocalists both make significant marks. Trailered by a track on the ‘Bumpers’ low-price double-album sampler, Jess Roden with Jeff Bannister form highly-rated country-rockers Bronco, reuniting Jess with ex-Shakedown Sound members, before Jeff moved on to A Band Called O. After recording two albums for Island records (‘Country Home’, 1970 mixed by Paul Samwell-Smith, and ‘Ace Of Sunlight’, 1971), Bronco get derailed by a serious US West Coast autowreck, after which Jess joined ex-Doors Robby Krieger and John Densmore for the Butts Band, then records a fine New Orleans album with Allen Toussaint. Never playing to his obvious strengths, through subsequent ventures he remains a respected vocalist with a strong fan-base, while never quite on the scale of Robert Palmer. Palmer joins Dada alongside Elkie Brooks, shortly before they evolve into Vinegar Joe, which became a springboard to his own transatlantic solo success.
Alan Bown died 16 December 2014, in Slough, by which time the various incarnations of the bands bearing his name were reaching new audiences through a series of fine CD reissues.
THE ALAN BOWN
September 1965 – “Can’t Let Her Go” c/w “I’m the One" (Pye 7N 15934), the more punchy ‘B’-side is a Curtis Mayfield song
April 1966 – “Baby Don’t Push Me” c/w “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” (Pye 7N 17084), Roden’s hoarse driving vocals more in keeping with their Club set, the ‘B’-side seems to reference Junior Walker’s ‘Shotgun’
July 1966 – “Headline News” c/w “Mister Pleasure” (Pye 7N 17148), cover of Edwin Starr produced under Tony Hatch’s Pye house-producer Tony Reeves (later of Colosseum), ‘my name is Mr Pleasure, I’m looking for leisure…’
October 1966 – “Emergency 999” c/w “Settle Down” (Pye 7N 17192), ‘B’-side by Bown and Bannister
March 1967 – “Gonna Fix You Good (Everytime You’re Bad)” c/w “I Really, Really Care” (Pye 7N 17256), ‘A’-side a cover of Little Anthony & The Imperials single by Pike-Randazzo, ironically re-issued in 1972 by UA to catch its Northern Soul underground revival, flip by Bannister-Bown
1967 – “Jeu De Massacre” (Disques Vogue EPL 8537), French four-track soundtrack EP by Jacques Loussier, with Alan Bown Set’s “Killing Game”
1967 – “Sunny” c/w “Down In The Valley” (Pye GP 3239) Greece-only single cover of Bobby Hebb flipped with Solomon Burke, also “The Boomerang” c/w “It’s Growing” (Pye GP 3240), with Don Covay cover flipped with Sam & Dave cover
October 1967 - “Toyland” c/w “Technicolour Dream” (MGM 1355), ‘A’-side by Roden-Catchpole, flip by Bown-Bannister. Produced by Mike Hurst. Opens and closes with school-playground sounds, ‘let’s go down and blow our minds’
March 1968 - “Story Book” c/w “Little Lesley” (MGM 1387), ‘A’-side by Bown-Bannister, flipped with Rhoden (Roden)-Catchpole. Produced by Mike Hurst. Opens with manic laughter effect, ‘there’s magic in each page’
July 1968 – “We Can Help You” c/w “Magic Handkerchief” (Music Factory CUB1), a Patrick Campbell-Lyons-Alex Spyropoulos song from Nirvana’s ‘Story Of Simon Simopath’ album, flip by Bannister-Bown-Catchpole-Rhoden (Roden) about his Mother’s solution. Mike Hurst production. Reaches no.26 in ‘New Musical Express’ chart 31 August
June 1969 - “Still As Stone” c/w “Wrong Idea” (Deram DM 259), ‘A’-side by Roden-Catchpole, flipped with Bown-Bannister-Roden-Catchpole. ‘Mike Hurst has really captured all their excitement and explosive atmosphere on their new single’
October 1969 - “Gypsy Girl” c/w “All I Can” (Deram DM 278), Robert Palmer vocals, Mike Hurst production. ‘A’-side by Bown-Bannister, flip by Catchpole. A pleasant sing-along tune ‘gypsy girl she came into my life, gypsy girl I wanted her to be my wife…’
December 1970 - “Pyramid” c/w “Crash Landing” (Island WIP 6091), ‘good vocals and a nice sequence’ says Melody Maker
1970 – “Loosen Up” c/w “Wanted Man” (Island Série Parade 6014.043) France-only single
June 1975 – “Moanin’” c/w “Time To Change” (CBS 3366) Alan Bown solo single
October 1975 - “Rockford Files” c/w “I Don’t Know” (CBS 3721) Alan Bown solo single
Autumn 1966 - ‘LONDON SWINGS: LIVE AT THE MARQUEE CLUB’ (Pye NPL 18156, reissued in 1993 by Sequel NEB CD 652, and 1994 by Castle CD) side one by Jimmy James And The Vagabonds, side two by the Alan Bown Set: ‘It’s Growing’, ‘Emergency 999’, ‘I Need You’, ‘Sunny’, ‘Headline News’, ‘Down In The Valley’, ‘The Boomerang’
September 1967 - ‘OUTWARD BOWN’ (Music Factory MF 12000), Produced by Mike Hurst. Side one: ‘Toyland’, ‘Magic Handkerchief’, ‘Little Lesley’, ‘All Along The Watchtower’ (Dylan), ‘Sally Green’, ‘Penny For Your Thoughts’. Side two: ‘Story Book’, ‘Technicolour Dream’, ‘Love Is A Beautiful Thing’, ‘Violin Shop’, ‘You’re Not In My Class’, ‘My Girl In The Month Of May’ (Dion) reissued February 2012 by Grapefruit with both mono and stereo editions of the LP plus bonus tracks ‘Toyland’ and ‘Story Book’ single edits, ‘We Can Help You’ and ‘Little Lesley’
1969 - ‘THE ALAN BOWN’ (Decca SML/DML 1049), Mike Hurst production, Robert Palmer vocals. Side one: ‘My Friend’ (only non-original, a Steve Miller ‘Sailor’ track by Boz Scaggs), ‘Strange Little Friend’ (Bown-Bannister), ‘Elope’ (Roden-Catchpole), ‘Perfect Day’ (Bown-Bannister), ‘All I Can’ (Catchpole), ‘Friends In St Louis’ (Bown-Bannister). Side two: ‘The Prisoner’ (group), ‘Kick Me Out’ (Anthony-Catchpole), ‘Tarnished’ (Bown-Bannister), ‘Memorial’ (Bown-Bannister)
1969 - ‘THE ALAN BOWN’ (US Deram DES18032) The US edition of ‘The Alan Bown’ featuring ‘Jeremy’ Jess Roden vocals, except for ‘All I Can’ which has Tony and Vic, also sections of ‘The Prisoner’ with Jeff and Tony vocals. ‘Friends In St Louis’ is omitted while ‘My Friend’, ‘Tarnished’ and ‘Memorial’ are replaced with ‘Still As Stone’, ‘Children Of The Night’ and ‘Gypsy Girl’. Reissued in 2010 as Esoteric CD ECLEC2190, reintegrating tracks from both versions, plus bonus track ‘Wrong Idea’
1970 - ‘LISTEN’ (Island ILPS 9131), produced by Mel Collins. Side one: ‘Wanted Man’, ‘Crash Landing’, ‘Loosen Up’, ‘Pyramid’, ‘Forever’. Side two: ‘Curfew’, ‘Make Us All Believe’, ‘Make Up Your Mind’, ‘Get Myself Straight’, all tracks written within the group by Bown, Bannister, Palmer and Catchpole in various combinations, reissued in April 2010 as Esoteric CD
August 1971 – ‘STRETCHING OUT’ (Island ILPS 9163), Hipgnosis cover-art, with ‘The Messenger’, ‘Find A Melody’, ‘Up Above My Hobby Horse’s Head’, ‘Turning Point’ (a 9-min blow with John Anthony’s tenor sax), ‘Build Me A Stage’ (‘pretty song with country overtones, and nice piano from Jeff Bannister’), ‘Stretching Out’ (‘Alan tries his hand at free trumpet in the title track, but while he has a certain facility, loses out on tone and control’). Chris Welch writes ‘from all their years of playing, they have obtained much relaxed professionalism’ ‘Melody Maker’. Reissued in April 2010 by Esoteric CD with bonus track ‘Thru The Night’, previously only on Island Records 1971 sampler ‘El Pea’
January 1985 - ‘KICK ME OUT’ (See for Miles SEECD 393), the Robert Palmer version of ‘The Alan Bown’, reissued in July 1987 as ‘ROBERT PALMER: THE EARLY YEARS’ (C-Five C5 501), with ‘My Friend’, ‘Strange Friend’, ‘Elope’, ‘Perfect Day’, ‘All I Can Do’, ‘Friends In St Louis’, ‘Still As Stone’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Kick Me Out’, ‘Children Of The Night’, ‘Gypsy Girl’, ‘Wrong Idea’
2002 - ‘EMERGENCY 999’ (Sequel NEMCD483) collects all the material featuring Jess Roden, with ‘Can’t Let Her Go’, ‘I’m The One’, ‘Baby Don’t Push Me’, ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’, ‘Headline News’, ‘Mr Pleasure’, ‘Emergency 999’, ‘Settle Down’, ‘Gonna Fix You Good’, ‘I Really Really Care’, ‘Jue De Massacre (The Killing Game)’, ‘Love Me’ (previously unissued), ‘Mr Job’ (previously unissued), ‘Gonna Fix You Good’ (demo version), ‘It’s Growing’ (live), ‘Emergency 999’ (live), ‘I Need You’ (live), ‘Sunny’ (live), ‘Headline News’ (live), ‘Down In The Valley’ (live), ‘The Boomerang’ (live)
‘THE ALAN BOWN SET BEFORE AND BEYOND’ by Jeff Bannister and Alan Bown (2007, Banland Publishing, 240pp, ISBN-10: 0955151325, ISBN-13: 978-0955151323)