August 13, 2020

…music to dance to, think to, laugh to and sing to. Which is pretty much the Kursaal Flyers mission statement in a nutshell.

Okay then. All UK readers of a certain age who just received an unassailable earworm merely by reading the title of this set, raise your hands. All of you, huh? No surprise there, as there can be few better examples of a band being recognised in the public consciousness by one hit and one hit alone than the Kursaal Flyers with Little Does She Know in 1976 – at least, not among bands with several albums already behind them. There’s City Boy with 5705, in a similar vein, and maybe even Hawkwind with Silver Machine at a push, but at least people would have heard of them. The Kursaals arrived fully formed onto Top Of The Pops, with a stage set made up of washing machines, and then disappeared from everyone’s lives again like a dream you had while taking a Sunday afternoon nap. It was as unexpected as it was short lived, but it’s also a great shame, as the Kursaal Flers produced some great music. And it’s all here. All of the music, that is – the great, the not so great and the bits in between. So, let’s take a look in the box…

Named after a dancehall in the town, the Kursaal Flyers emerged from Southend in the mid-1970s, as contemporaries of their local neighbours Dr Feelgood (the cover shot of this set closely resembles the debut Feelgood album Down By The Jetty, as a clear fond homage), though while the Feelgoods opted for the high intensity R&B/rock treatment powered by the manic Wilko Johnson, with the Kursaals you got something altogether more parochial and unremittingly ‘English’. Many people forget (or never knew) that Graeme Douglas, who went onto bigger things with Eddie And The Hot Rods (penning another ‘one hit’ with Do Anything You Wanna Do) began his recording career with the Kursaals, appearing on the first three albums. With a pop sensibility accompanied by a Carry On / Ealing Comedy sense of humour they were never less than engaging, even when their recordings occasionally did them a disservice. Such is the case on their debut, Chocs Away, which the band today agree was a poor reflection of their fine stage show, and really didn’t represent them as it should have. This assessment is correct as, despite the presence of one or two future Kursaal Klassiks, as we should not term them, like Pocket Money, there is an over-reliance on a forced country-rock air. They could play country-influenced music brilliantly, somehow making even that most ‘Americana’ of music fit into their ‘Southend Pier’ oeuvre seamlessly, but it’s too hesitant here. Great cover, however, with the rear having the five band members’ heads in a mock-up of the much-lamented Five Boys chocolate advertising! It’s nice to have, but you don’t need it. The following The Great Artiste was much better, with great sardonically humorous tracks like Ugly Guys, Hypochondriac and Drinking Alone almost like a Southend Frank Zappa in feel. The musical mix starts to distill their blend of rock, pop, ’60s pastiche and country-rock, but is still just short of the finished article. Great cover again, and fully reproduced here, with the boys this time as wartime flying aces on the back.

Everything came together in 1976 when, frustrated by their inability to nail their particular magic blend on vinyl, the band enlisted famed producer, musician and Womble Mike Batt to produce their third record Golden Mile. This time there was no misrepresentation, weak-kneed country or sense of something missing. Instead what resulted was a stone-cold classic quirky pop-rock album to rival 10cc or Elvis Costello, to pluck a couple of similar names from the ether. Great song follows great song here, with One Arm Bandit, Drinking Socially, Two Left Feet, Street Of The Music and the single-which-should-have-been, the irresistible Third Finger Left Hand (not that one!). It’s a dazzlingly clever album from front to back, but it would be lying not to single out that hit single specifically – at track one, side one, Little Does She Know was the game-changer, and deservedly so. Telling the story, in perfectly crafted Phil Spector ‘big ’60s song’ format, of a guy seeing his wife with her lover in the launderette, it is lyrically brilliant, Through a series of very funny verses (‘When she finished her laundry / she was all in a quandary’), we learn how she sees him observing her, and makes a run for it (‘Her escape was so urgent / she forgot her detergent’), not noticing that he has in turn seen her noticing him. Thus giving us the huge earworm chorus which actually makes sense, with ‘Little does she know, that I know that she knows, that I know she’s cheating on me’. It’s a brilliantly crafted single, and the launderette stage on the TV was unforgettable.

The band were on a roll now – creatively if not commercially – and followed this up with a live album entitled Five Live Kursaals, which is also here. In a less than predictable move, almost half of the tracklisting is made up of unreleased songs and covers, but it works exceptionally well. Recorded with Barry Martin replacing the recently departed Graeme Douglas, straight away it becomes obvious how much the stage is the true natural environment of the band, and many of the tracks (including a stellar Pocket Money, eclipsing the original) are immediately and obviously in their definitive form. Sadly, the band broke up under the prevailing musical climate of the punk explosion, and the decision by vocalist Paul Shuttleworth to go solo, but that wasn’t quite the end it seemed to be, as the band reformed a decade later (with Douglas) for 1988’s brilliantly titled A Former Tour-de-Force Is Forced To Tour. Anyone expecting a feeble imitation of past glories would be totally mistaken, however, as the resulting album closely rivals Golden Mile for the band’s best record. With a tougher, punchy sound, the instant choruses and clever wordplay are as strong as ever with tracks like My Sugar Turns To Alcohol, the title track, Man In Mohair, Pre-Madonna and, best of all, the immortal If You Would Only Talk To Me (Like You Talk To The Dog). It’s music to dance to, think to, laugh to and sing to. Which is pretty much the Kursaal Flyers mission statement in a nutshell.

With a 24-page booklet containing the history according to drummer/lyricist Will Birch, and packed with archive photos, plus a treasure trove of high quality bonus tracks spread over the four discs, this is an excellent set celebrating a genuine lost treasure of English pop-rock. Warts-and-all it may be, but once again, that’s all part of the charm in a way. When a band does a UK tour under the banner of ‘Carry On Kursaals’, you know you’re not in for Leonard Cohen or the Smiths, let’s put it that way! Now, how did that hit song go again…