August 28, 2020

You couldn’t hide behind a lengthy guitar solo or a cape if you were on stage at The Hope And Anchor in 1975. You had to play good songs and play them well.

Pub Rock. That’s a term which I’m sure we’ve all heard bandied about on many occasions, but it’s one which is far more difficult to actually pin down. In the mid-’70s, bands were described as ‘pub rock’, and somehow you just instinctively knew whether they were, though with the benefit, or disadvantage, of hindsight, the ‘pub rock scene’ is a very tricky thing to define. Obviously, it wasn’t just ‘small bands who played gigs in pubs’, because that covered a multitude of contenders – as the excellent booklet contained in this three-disc set says, Genesis played a large array of pubs in the capital in 1972, but clearly Supper’s Ready isn’t a ‘pub rock’ track!

Marquee gig listing, 1976

No, the answer is something in between the two stools of musical style and venue, both of which contribute but miss the heart of the matter. Essentially, ‘pub rock’ in its purest form was a sort of pre-punk back-to-basics reaction against the big shows and perceived pretentiousness of the bands of the time. People think of the new wave movement in 1976 as being Year Zero for that particular revolution, but a host of bands were doing the same thing five years earlier, with the difference that this was no three-chord, ‘talent optional’ movement. No, the bands represented here, along with many more, rehearsed themselves seriously and could really play. They took a pride in it, because if there was a central ethos it was on good songs, memorable songs, delivered without fancy lights or big stages in an exciting and entertaining way. It was about extracting the core of the music from the extravagant gift-wrapping, and that meant it had to be good. You couldn’t hide behind a lengthy guitar solo or a cape if you were on stage at The Hope And Anchor in 1975. You had to play good songs and play them well.

Writing On The Wall, included here

Indeed, one thing which this very comprehensive roundup (chronological, from 1971 to 1979) goes to prove is that there wasn’t any single defining musical genre or style to the movement. Yes, of course there were high-energy R&B/pre-punk bands like Dr Feelgood or Eddie And The Hot Rods, but that’s only one facet. There is country influence here, from the likes of Chilli Will & The Red Hot Peppers, Eggs Over Easy and Clover, there’s the heavy rock of Stray and National Flag, retro-rock and boogie from Roogalator, Dave Edmunds, Matchbox and Jona Lewie, funky rock from Moon, Gonzalez and Cado Belle and, not least, some classic, undiscovered unashamed pop-rock, from the unheralded likes of Fumble! If it emerged from the pub scene with the right sort of attitude and love of a good song, it was ‘pub rock’.

Kilburn & The High Roads, 1974 (Ian Dury second left)

Lots of the best remembered and most revered names from the movement are here. Brinsley Schwartz, Kilburn And The High Roads, Eggs Over Easy, Bees Make Honey, Sean Tyla & His Gang, The Gorillas and Ducks Deluxe are pub rock touchstones. There are names who emerged out of pub rock bands to become big in their own right, such as Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Squeeze and Graham Parker. As the booklet notes admit, licensing scuppered a few of the bigger names (Dire Straits were a classic pub rock band made good, as was Frankie Miller and, to a lesser extent, Kokomo, but they couldn’t be included). Other big names on the scene never actually made it to vinyl, just concentrating on the live circuit, thus ruling themselves out. To compensate for this, some bigger names who were felt to embody the spirit of the movement without being part of it have been included, and while this works well with Na Na Na by Status Quo, and Sergeant Fury by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, it is harder to make a case for Mott The Hoople, Thin Lizzy or Chris Rea. Nevertheless, over three discs and 71 tracks, that’s a minor gripe.

The Pirates: a pub-rock rebirth

Some of the real fun here is unravelling (with the help of the comprehensive notes on each song) the complex ‘family jungle’ of musicians leaving one band for another, or bands where the big names paid their dues. It’s a joy to hear Ian Dury with Kilburn & The High Roads, as it is Elvis Costello with Flip City and Joe Strummer with The 101-ers. There are quite a few examples also of artists who went on to have brief chart success, sometimes remaining half-remembered when the name is mentioned. The Heavy Metal Kids (She’s No Angel) and Darts (Daddy Cool) being two obvious ones, but how about Why Did You Do It by Stretch? Or Come On by Ian Gomm? Remember Ace with their big hit How Long? Well here’s a chance to hear something by them which isn’t that song! Similarly there are lesser known tracks by Fox, Streetband (yep, the guys who did the novelty hit Toast), Eddie And The Hot Rods with their very first single and the excellent Bedsit Girl by Chris Spedding.

Producing a comprehensive and definitive compilation covering a genre as nebulous and fluid as Pub Rock is an incredibly difficulty task to take on. This isn’t the perfect example of that task, but it’s almost certainly the best and biggest one we’ve seen thus far in the four decades plus since. As a primer of what Pub Rock represented and its appeal, you can do no better than this. Firstly, because the 48-page booklet is the best ‘compact guide’ to the subject I’ve ever seen, but also because this is, for the most part, music which has transcended its origins and stood the test of time. A lot of people appreciate a good tune which is professionally and excitingly played, and this goes to show that, even in the days of dinosaur rock bands bestriding the globe, they always did.