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Sunday, 1 October 2017

Vinyl diary, part 2: The Birthday Party

For a nerdish young music-obsessed Glaswegian in the late 70s and early 80s, the 'Lost Chord’ record shop had an almost mythical status. It was located in the bohemian West End, the part of town where poets, intellectuals, posh kids and people who played in bands hung out. If -like me- you lived on the dull south side, getting there required not only dedication, but an ability to decipher bus timetables which openly mocked the restrictive notions of linear time. Once inside that little shop, I’d spend hours fingering through rows of obscure or rare vinyl: rare imports, Japanese picture discs, bands I’d only read about in reviews and bizarre compilations of bands I’d never heard of; ‘Lost Chord’ had everything that the tragic obsessive might dream of. 

On one such visit, armed with all I had saved up from my shelf-packing job in a supermarket, I almost fainted when a flick-through one of the sections revealed a copy of ‘The Birthday Party’ by The Idle Race, an album I had been dreaming about for months. Having become a massive ELO fan, I was working my acquisitive way backwards through Jeff Lynne’s recorded catalogue. A previous visit to the shop had unearthed an American compilation of songs by The Move and, these being the days before the internet, I knew of Lynne’s first band, The Idle Race, only in mythical terms; their albums might have existed somewhere in the same way that Bigfoot might have existed somewhere.

I can't remember what I paid for it, but if the bored assistant with the long hair (they always had long hair) had asked for one of my kidneys, I would probably have considered it a bit of a bargain. But when I got the album home, it was not -to paraphrase PG Wodehouse- that I was underwhelmed by it, but I wasn’t exactly whelmed either. The issue was not so much that the songs were unlike either ELO or The Move, because there were times when you could clearly trace the musical lineage. It was more that they committed the sin of excessive frivolity. When you’re young and serious and you pay attention to what is said by the high priests of taste in the music press, there is perhaps nothing more heinous than music lacking in that quality beloved of immature males: heaviosity. And The Idle Race clearly lacked heaviosity. According to the New Wave Taliban, jolly-sounding tunes were OK, but only if (for example in the case of Talking Heads or XTC) there was perceived to be an ironic or subversive edge to the sound. The way that XTC, for instance, sang ‘Bap-ba-oo’ on ‘Radios in Motion’ with tongues firmly in cheek, was nothing like the way that, say, David Essex might have sang ‘Bap-ba-oo’. 

It bugged me somewhat that ‘The Birthday Party’ featured sound effects and vaudeville clips, as if it was some kind of novelty record. And as for the lyrics … who the hell writes songs about a man working as a skeleton on the ghost train, or a man in his thirties playing with children’s toys? Or how about a song about someone sitting in a tree? Consider, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, these lyrics as exhibit A:  

I often sit alone up in a tree
Waving to the ones that wave at me
I think well just how stupid can they be
Waving to a man up in a tree?

What they don't know is I am counting them
I even count the ladies and the men
I put the numbers in my little book
And only me can ever have a look

What the hell was Jeff on about? Having been introduced to his work through the wondrously lush and tuneful album ‘A New World Record’, I struggled to connect this weird Jeff Lynne – that young bloke on the cover without a beard- with the one I knew and loved, the master orchestrator and symphonic tunemeister, the bearded musical genius behind ELO. 

But had I listened without prejudice, I would have noticed that some of the motifs that would make him famous years later were evident here in nascent form; lush strings, layered harmonies, beautiful melodies and deft chord changes. It took me a while to get over myself and appreciate that the songs were just fine; in fact, some of them were much better than fine. Despite the gimmickry and the music-hall jokes, it was obvious that even this beardless and callow young Jeff knew where the melody monkey lived.

There is a muscularity and vigour in the playing and production (courtesy of Eddie Offord and Gerald Chevin) which prevents even the most whimsical material from sounding effete. As you might expect, there is a strong Beatles influence, but there are also one or two nods to The Kinks (particularly on ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘Mrs. Ward’). ‘The lady who said she could fly’ is beautiful and melancholic, while ‘Morning Sunshine’ is a lovely psychedelic pop ballad which would anticipate some of Lynne’s future triumphs. ‘End of the Road’ is so unremittingly jolly and English that it sounds almost parodic; in fact, it is simply a song that comes from the age before irony, from the days before pop music became aware of itself. The great thing about material like this is that it is exactly what it appears to be.

Although they were well thought of by the music press in the late 60s, The Idle Race failed to make a significant commercial breakthrough, a factor which would surely have influenced Lynne’s decision to join The Move in 1970. Although this album is of its time, there are moments when ‘The Birthday Party’ manages to transcend the gloriously sunny and naïve era from which it emerged; as ever with Jeff Lynne’s music, it’s all about the tunes.

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