The Steve Gibbons Band burned brightly if briefly before dipping below the radar of the public consciousness, and that’s a great shame. Happily, they are back here, captured in their prime and, at least on these discs, still Rollin’ On. You could do a lot worse than check this out.
Quite often box sets like this appear showcasing an artist who, despite a very worthy catalogue shot through with top quality material, is frustratingly known just for one song. This one is different. It’s an artist who, despite a very worthy catalogue shot through with top quality material, is frustratingly known just for two songs – in this case the big UK hit Tulane (a Chuck Berry cover), and the later, slightly lesser one, Eddy Vortex. Both of those tracks indicate a ’50s rock-and-roll / R & B hybrid which gives the impression that the band were roughly the equivalent of a UK version of The J Geils Band. This is an inaccurate comparison, though it does gain more weight in live performance than the studio recordings, and is further encouraged by Steve Gibbons’ own resemblance at the time to J Geils frontman Peter Wolf. Gibbons has also been described as The UK Bob Seger, which is closer, but still not really on the money. Because the five albums here (three studio and two live) indicate a band and a man (Gibbons writes all of the original material) with far more than one or two strings to their collective bow. Let’s start at the beginning and have a look.
The first disc here is the band’s 1976 debut Any Road Up, the cover of which (all moody ‘hands on belt buckles’ posing) is co-opted for the cover of this box set. The highly decorative logo certainly looks very different to anything which came after, and it immediately creates the impression of a band who might not be entirely sure what they want to be. That impression is reinforced by listening to the album, yet it must be stressed that this is not a bad thing. Indeed, the surprising amount of variety on offer here (to me at least, and I suspect anyone only familiar with the hits) makes it a very enjoyable listen. There are nods to the band’s ‘retro ’50s’ stylings with tracks such as Johnny Cool, but elsewhere there is a very entertaining country-rock influence to many of the songs here, and Sweetheart makes for an unexpectedly charming closer. Speed Kills (about the ‘substance’, not the velocity, and ironically mid-paced), opener Take Me Home and Standing On The Bridge are other highlights, but the unquestioned standout is the multi-faceted six-minute Rollin’, which deservedly became the band’s signature song in live performances. Alternately slow and devious, bluesy and rocking over its duration, it features some superb ensemble playing and is perfectly arranged. Indeed, it is a shame that Gibbons didn’t explore this type of songwriting more, as it is an overlooked and largely forgotten classic. The album is augmented by two bonus recordings from the time, which are excellent and could easily have been included on the original album – Back Street Cat is very much the driving rock you would expect from them, while Dick Malone is a marvellously atmospheric and entertaining song about a hard-boiled ‘noir’ type detective. Having these two in place of, say, Spark Of Love and the disco-influenced Natural Thing, would certainly make for a stronger album. Nevertheless, they are here now, so it’s a win all round…
The follow-up, confusingly titled Rollin’ On, followed in 1977, featuring a title track of the same name, making it almost surprising that the next album didn’t include a track called Still Rollin’ or some-such. The cover of this one featured an iconic shot of Gibbons on stage, all ‘Peter Wolf’ beard, buccaneer-look shirt and waistcoat and ‘Jim Morrison’ leather pants, and he certainly does exude effortless cool, to be sure. Once again, however, the contents don’t really fit the image, as the country influence is strongly evident on a good half of this one. This doesn’t harm it, however, with most of the fourteen tracks being strong (two, the acappella Right Side Of Heaven and the gimmicky closer Rounden, are under a minute apiece and don’t add much at all). Of the remaining twelve, only a couple are slightly disposable, while the best material is truly excellent. Mr Jones is a surreal tale of the protagonist taking on a well paid yet highly suspect job delivering a mysterious package, while the title track is a fiery rocker too good to live in the shadow of its similarly titled predecessor. Of course, the shadow cast over the album is the big hit that the band had with their cover of Chuck Berry’s little-known 1970 album track Tulane, and it must be said that it was a deserved success, with the band’s rollickingly irresistible delivery making it one of the better Berry covers out there. It does also shine a light on just what a sadly one-trick pony Berry could be when his well of inspiration was running dry, as the verses of the song are effectively Johnny B Goode in a false nose and glasses – it may make you a legend to have a hand in inventing rock and roll, but less so when you reinvent it for the umpteenth time (still, at least it’s several leagues above the hideous My Ding-A-Ling which he inflicted on the world around the same time – but we won’t go down that road). Notwithstanding the merits or otherwise of that element of the songwriting, the chorus is certainly good enough to make up for it, and the Gibbons Band transform it into a different league than the original through the sheer joy and exuberance of their performance. A great single in anyone’s book, it marks one of only two retro-rocking efforts on the album, with the other also being a cover – this time Jerry Reed’s Tupelo Mississippi Flash – which seems to indicate that perhaps Gibbons didn’t feel as if composing in that style came as naturally to him as performing in it. Two John Peel sessions are added to this disc, and they are significant. The first features a track which became a live favourite yet never made it onto a studio album, He Gave His Life To Rock And Roll, and another fun update to the Dick Malone saga in the shape of Dick Leaps In. Even better, the second session features a version of Rollin’ On (with the short Right Side Of Heaven as an intro) which is extended to double its original length with some fantastic instrumental work from the band, who are absolutely on fire. It’s a crying shame that the song didn’t get let off the leash for this treatment on the album itself, as it’s a wonderful performance.
On the heels of that live (or at least, live in session) performance, we move onto the third disc, which is the Gibbons Band’s only official live album at the time, Caught In The Act. The band were certainly a potent live force on their day, and so it should be no surprise that many people rate this as the quintessential Steve Gibbons Band album. No surprise, certainly – but not an assessment that I necessarily entirely concur with. There is some great playing and some dynamite performances here, without doubt – and yet, I feel that it could, and should, have been better. To get the great stuff out of the way first, the version of Rollin’ is magnificent, and possibly even better than the studio original. Similarly vastly improved is the cracking rendition of Light Up Your Face from Rollin’ On, which gains an irresistible power entirely lacking by comparison in its studio guise. He Gave His Life To Rock And Roll is also a great version, and Tulane is never performed badly. Where this falls down for me overall, though, is the selection of material. For a man who wrote almost all of the material on the band’s studio albums, it seems baffling that several cover versions appear here, at the expense of what would be excellent original music. Okay, Tulane has to appear, but a straight run-through of Day Tripper, especially seeing as by Gibbons’ own admission that one was recorded in the studio with added crowd noise, seems especially redundant. Also present are the borderline novelty rockabilly doo-wop of The Coasters’ Shopping For Clothes and Gene Vincent’s Git It, which, though arguably moderately entertaining, are simply a waste of recorded space when keeping tracks such as Rollin’ On or Take Me Home out of the picture. The album opens with an adequate if not exceptional version of Dylan’s Watching The River Flow, which again is odd since it used to appear at the end of the set, not the beginning. It’s a decent enough listen, but could have been genuinely great. A further four-song Peel session is appended, though three of the four tracks are duplicated on the live album itself.
When the next studio offering appeared, in the shape of 1978’s Down In The Bunker, the omens were not good. The cover image showed a grim-faced Gibbons in a suit, and shorn of his trademark beard and long-ish hair – and consequently most of his ‘cool’ factor. The band pictured on the rear cover just look glum. He simply doesn’t look like a ‘rock star’ any more – but then again, Bruce Springsteen looked a little similar on his own Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and that was a great album, so maybe this would follow suit. And you know what – it did, to the extent that is has a decent argument as the strongest album the band produced. The sound is streamlined somewhat, and more smoothly produced, but there is a pleasing variety of styles on offer again. Several songs on the record simply shouldn’t work at all, but by sheer force of great writing and playing somehow do. Case in point: the opening, Bo Diddley-Calypso hybrid of No Spitting On The Bus, written about, well, quite literally a sign on a bus prohibiting spitting. Now, that description sounds, certainly to me, like one of the least appealing trailers for a song I can ever remember, yet against all the odds it overcomes its questionable stylistic issues to become genuinely likeable and infectious. You will sing along to it. You will hate yourself for it, but it will happen. Several other songs here manage the same trick from less than promising beginnings, and Gibbons shows a songwriting mojo here (all originals again) which again highlights the odd decision to feature so many live cover songs. The band’s other hit is present here, the gloriously addictive ’50s style romp of Eddy Vortex (‘He was born in the Nifty Fifties / He’s got a psychedelic dad / He looks like Eddie Cochran / Eddy Vortex ain’t too bad’), which really should have graced the upper reaches of the chart which Tulane visited rather than the lesser showing that it achieved, as it is a brilliantly concise and memorable single. Other notable tracks abound here: the title track is a brilliantly surreal tale mixing golf, the military and hilarious innuendo in equal measures, while Any Road Up borrows its title and also some inspiration from the debut album. Mary Ain’t Goin’ Home, When You Get Outside and the closing Grace are all very strong contenders, while Big JC (referencing a certain J, Christ Esq) is quite simply the finest song Bob Dylan never wrote. Gibbons has gone on in recent years to work in an all-star band called The Dylan Project, and this shows why. His vocals have always been intriguingly fluid in style as the song demands it – sometimes strongly Dylan, sometimes more akin to Dave Cousins of The Strawbs, and at other times even catching the slightly strangled yelp of the late Bon Scott – and on more than one song here his Dylan styling is, clearly intentionally, absolutely spot on. There are eight bonus tracks added on here, and though the booklet is unclear about their origin, it does indicate that they were unreleased until 1998, so I assume them to have been recorded but unreleased at around the same time. Few are worthy of displacing the material on the album itself, though a couple such as Satisfying Moves and I Am Here make a strong case. All eight are at least enjoyable, and they are well worth their inclusion.
Finally here we have a BBC recording from their Sight And Sound simultaneous radio and TV broadcast show, featuring the band live at the Golders Green Hippodrome in November 1977, shortly before Down In The Bunker appeared Great versions of the title track (here still called Girl In The Bunker) and No Spitting On The Bus (even better in a live setting) are pleasingly included. All told, the album is probably superior to Caught In The Act; Mr Jones is a nice addition, while Tulane and Speed Kills are probably better performances here. Opening the show is One Of The Boys (also present on Caught In The Act), which Gibbons wrote for Roger Daltrey’s album of that name but never recorded in the studio himself, and it’s a very strong song and performance. Johnny Cool from the debut makes an appearance, Tupelo Mississippi Flash is given a splendid workout, and Rollin’ is as good as ever. Shopping For Clothes and Git It are both here once again, but are at least both a little better performed to these ears. Day Tripper finishes things off rather underwhelmingly, but at least it’s genuinely live this time, and certainly better for it.
This is a set which really could surprise someone knowing the name only from those hit singles, as there is so much more going on stylistically ‘under the hood’ so to speak. The Steve Gibbons Band burned brightly if briefly before dipping below the radar of the public consciousness, and that’s a great shame. Happily, they are back here, captured in their prime and, at least on these discs, still Rollin’ On. You could do a lot worse than check this out. But remember, as the great man warns us – ‘please don’t lose your balls down in the bunker’…