Friday 29 April 2011

Johnny Kidd & The Pirates


Album Review of:
(EMI Gold 2281422, 2CD, July 2008)
(See For Miles CM120, January 1997)

Johnny Kidd (aka Frederick Heath) died auto-wrecked gig-wards on the A58 to Radcliffe, Lancs, near the junction of Ainsworth Hall Road, 9pm Saturday 7th October 1966. His Cortina GT, driven by Wilf Irshwood, husband of his Fan Club secretary, also carried Nick Simper, a Pirate who survived the head-on impact and went on to form Deep Purple. Seventeen-year-old Helen Read in the Mini approaching from the opposite direction was also killed… For Johnny Kidd it’s a near-cliché Rock ‘n’ Roll death climaxing a flamboyant buccaneering chart run that plundered all the way from his May 1959 debut with “Please Don’t Touch” (later re-charting for Motorhead With Girlschool) through to his unlikely make-over of the Italianate ‘La Paloma’ as “Always And Ever” c/w “Dr Feelgood” in April 1964. Although it was a career that managed nine Top 40 hits, while he lived, the vagaries of the record industry, complicated by Kidd’s erratic sales-pattern, never justified a full studio album, posterity has rectified that omission with a vengeance. The original vinyl EMI ‘Best Of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates’ (NUTM 12-0C05406613M) – a twenty-track compilation billed as ‘the ultimate collection’, came in 1978, followed by a deluge of vinyl and CD’s, re-combining existing material, and rescuing rare unreleased tracks and alternate takes from studio-vaults, plus radio sessions, all confirming the continued simmering interest in one of England’s most eccentric, most visual, and most authentic Rock pioneers.

The EMI album conveniently slices the story into two phases – the swash-buckling pre Beat Boom side one, with a three-piece Pirates crew of Alan Caddy (guitar), Clem Cattini (drums) and Brian Gregg (bass) ludicrously decked out in Pantomime ‘Treasure Island’ candy-hooped T-shirts to back-up Kidd’s Errol Flynn, garbed in white lace ruffles, tight leather pants, thigh-boots, and eye-patch. They played in front of a mock-up galleon, with Kidd wielding a cutlass. Yet their mix of hard Rock covers and original compositions provide a shot of Rhythm & Blues that applies electrodes to the tepid clean-cut mohair British Pop of its time. Born 23 November 1939 Johnny Kidd had taken the Skiffle route into Pop doubling guitar and banjo with Freddie Heath & The Nutters, before an appearance on BBC Light Programme’s ‘Saturday Club’ brought him to the attentions of HMV, leading to “Please Don’t Touch” c/w “Growl”, and a chart debut up to No.25. They were both original compositions. “Growl” explaining how ‘I tried barking like a hungry dog’ and ‘screeching like a dying hog’, but ‘I’m happy when you hear me growl… it’s as simple as that’. But whichever way you count it, Rock was still too new to have built up an extensive repertoire, which meant delving back into pre-Rock compositions which worked only occasionally – the old Music Hall standard “If You Were The Only Girl In The World” became the ‘A’-side of their second single, done unconvincingly twee with sing-along chorus, then “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”, the ‘B’-side of the fourth, also only a partial success. Romantic balladeer? – I don’t think so. With or without eye-patch Johnny Kidd was never going to be the clean-cut boy-next-door. There was always a slight edge of menace. Better was Kidd’s own solo composition “Feelin’” (‘B’-side of the second single), which re-plays the “Please Don’t Touch” guitar-run while relating how his girl makes his heart-strings twang. And the cover of Marv Johnson’s “You Got What It Takes” c/w “Longin’ Lips”, which took the group back up to No.25 in February 1960. But – if the eye-patch, passed down from Bowie to Adam Ant, Boy George to Pete Burns, is the theatrical legacy – then “Shakin’ All Over”, thrown together by Kidd with manager Guy Robinson in just six minutes at a club date the previous evening, is the classic aural statement. In the ‘Record Mirror’ chart it reached No.1, in ‘New Musical Express’, it got no higher than No.3, whatever – nothing in British Rock comes close to trapping its energy levels. Writer Bob Solly (in ‘Record Collector: 100 Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Records’) accurately points out ‘there are all kinds of musical exaggerations going on in “Shakin’ All Over”, pizzicato-like dampened guitar-string riffs, ascending and descending guitar runs, quavering high-register chords crashing out of the blue, piercing guitar solos that make you feel the piece might run away at double time, but it doesn’t, the bass and drums keeping the beat steady, like a predator in your dreams that will get you no matter how loud you scream. And over this thrilling background we have the deadpan but assertive voice of Johnny Kidd, measuring the tempo’.

For comparison, listen to other early British Rock – I mean, the very earliest stuff, and it’s obvious that the competitors just don’t ‘get’ it. It seems obvious now. Hell, every little Indie wannabe band playing your local pub gets it. Back then it was adapting to a foreign language, a freer, more sensual language. The Amer-English you only hear on US shellac 78rpm’s. Post-war British kids were still morally-uptight and repressed. And when it comes to Rocking ‘n’ Rolling, it don’t come easy. That’s why, when it came together as it should, the detonations could be seismic. Simply because it was so rare. Marty Wilde’s “Endless Sleep” might be a cover of the Jody Reynolds’ original, but he ‘got’ it. He invests the doom-laden gothic suicide-narrative with an authenticity that still chills. Cliff Richard’s mutant “Move It” got it right, accidentally. It was intended to be the ‘B’-side, so they didn’t bother to compensate the guitar-channel volume down. And created a classic. Johnny Kidd & The Pirates toured with Gene Vincent through February and March 1961, but they had ‘got’ it right from the start. With “Shakin’ All Over” – not even so much of a song, more a performance, not even the Who’s subsequent mega-amplified version… or the Guess Who’s metalised No.1 American cover, can touch the sheer compressed mono power of the original. In the old Tin Pan Alley sheet-music sense of a song, it doesn’t even work. It’s only when the stylus drops down into the groove on your gramophone turntable, or even better – rock the coin right into the slot on the chrome-gleaming jukebox, and just taste the volume. The quivering descending guitar figure – taken by session-player Joe Moretti (ex Vince Taylor’s Playboys), galvanises Kidd’s libidinously hyper-charged knee-trembling vocal – ‘shakes down the knee-bone, tremors in the thighbone’, into realms of raw Krakatoa intensity. Shivering, shaking, quivering and trembling became the Pirates’ default setting, as Kidd growls, rasps, whoops and shudders through his repertoire. The follow-up, “Restless” (c/w “Magic Of Love”) from September 1960, is another eruption of menacing tension, a perfect encapsulation of frustrated teenage sexual energy, a frenzied itch for satisfaction.

There was a career-lull, during which the music-world was changing around him, and he put out a few strong failed singles, such as a cover of Ray Sharpe’s American hit “Linda Lu”.

Phase two – from 1962 to 1964, replaced the original Pirates line-up, who’d mutinied and sailed off to form The Tornados, with Mick Green (ex Cuddly Duddley’s Redcaps, on simultaneous rhythm and lead Telecaster), Johnny Spencer (bass) and Frank Farley (drums). The first single with the revised line-up on board was “A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues” in November 1962, a powerful shot across the bows, promising much. Yet this Pirates operate on the smoother more group-orientated basis required by Gordon Mills’ more mainstream compositions – “I’ll Never Get Over You” (No.4 in July 1963) and “Hungry For Love” (No.20 in November), which nevertheless get Kidd back into visibility at the slight expense of the raucous Greaser edge. There were crashing guitar-chords and a lyric popular enough for Ken Dodd to weave a gag-routine around – ‘I’ll never get over you, so get out of bed and make the breakfast yourself’. The difference was that where the Pirates had been ahead of their time, now the world had caught up. Even the New Wave of Beat Boom groups help promote his credibility, Gerry & The Pacemakers exuberantly reviving “A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues”, and the Searchers adding their own version of “Hungry For Love”. While for Kidd himself, there was now only a run-off into further failed singles, including a strong revival of Marvin Rainwater’s “Whole Lotta Woman” oddly combined with Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, from October 1964. But he was always more than just a straggle of hit-miss singles, as the ten ‘rare’ ‘A’ and ‘B’-sides – backed up with the ten previously unreleased sides, on the ‘See For Miles’ ‘Johnny Kidd & The Pirates: Rarities’ compilation ably proves. And Kidd’s growl is still capable of lifting even mediocre material above their Pop limitations and investing them with considerable swaggering virility. At the time of his fatal accident Johnny Kidd was working with a third Pirates-incarnation, inherited from Buddy Britten’s Regents. And oddly enough, a reformed Pirates – with Mick Green returning to the fold (from a stint with Billy J Kramer’s Dakotas), enjoyed a mid-1970’s revival as part of the Pub R&B scene, and continued working sporadically until Mick Green’s death in January 2010.

Meanwhile, as ‘The Best Of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates’ (NUTM 12-0C05406613M) stimulated and renewed interest in what had gone before, it was followed by a thirty-two track French double-set titled with admirable precision ‘Johnny Kidd: The Rocker’ (EMI Columbia 2C154-06653/4). Then more – ‘The Complete Johnny Kidd & The Pirates: The EMI Years’ (EMI 0777 79994-823 CDKIDD11, fifty-nine tracks including alternate takes, September 1992), ‘The Johnny Kidd Memorial Album’ (Beat Goes On BGO580, November 2007), and even ‘The Lost BBC Sessions’ (Black Flag BLCD 519, 2005 – forty-one tracks including radio interview-clips with Brian Matthews, plus unreleased studio material). All confirming the legacy of one of England’s most eccentric, most visual, and most authentic Rock pioneers. Johnny Kidd was the closest Britain came to producing a Gene Vincent… he was the English Rocker who first lived – and died, the Rock ‘n’ Roll mythology.


Joel said...

Thanks for the tribute to this wonderful band.

Richard Oliver said...

I had the privilege of playing as support band at Farnborough town hall in Hampshire when Bob Potter Entertainments put the show on. It was about 1963 as I can recall his hit I'll Never Get Over You being played.
I must have been one of the lucky ones to have actually met him in real life, a true legend.