IT’S ‘ABOUT TIME’
Album Review of:
by THE ATTACK
(2006, Bam Caruso RPM BC317)
‘We don’t know about the H-bomb
we don’t know about drugs
we don’t know what is going on…’
(“We Don’t Know”)
It’s one of those heavy conundrums that have teased the minds of thinkers across decades. One of the moral dilemmas that defy satisfactory resolution, despite thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Well… perhaps not quite that. But the question why some records sell their way into the upper reaches of the charts, while others – in every way better crafted, better played, more cleverly constructed, more hip and cutting-edge, fail. Attack were sulphate-propelled, witty and flirtatious. They were also capable of cutting slices of perfect Pop. But that defining hit to write them into Rock history consistently evaded them.
January 1967 opened with the drum-snap and brittle-sharp guitar of debut single “Try It”, a catchy piece of Mod-Pop predicated on a softer version of the Who/Small Faces model, claiming ‘by the way you look, I can tell that you want some action – action is my middle name’. A manifesto, an invitation to try what Attack had to offer. ‘Record Mirror’ introduced them to its readers as ‘the Attack are one of the new wave of beat groups who say they have something more to offer than the usual group format.’ And yes, it’s an attractive seven-inches of vinyl marked out by powerful vocals, Pop-art guitar, the swelling Mod-Soul underbelly of warm Hammond-organ, punctuated by sharp bass and tight drum figures. It nevertheless lacked the essential standout magic to give it sales-legs. Lyrically, the ‘B’-side – “We Don’t Know”, is even better, with Richard Shirman’s words chomping on the controversial issues of the day, but rather than taking a protest-stance, he disclaims it all. ‘We don’t know about marriage, we don’t know about sex, we don’t know what is going on, ‘cos we’re in a mess’. As the Kaiser Chiefs would much later point out, ‘it’s cool to know nothing’. A witty freak-beat reversal of all the contemporary rebel-poses, so that when it gets to the ‘bring it on down, all the way down’, and the ‘sock it to me one time’, ‘keep on keeping on’, ‘hold on to what you’ve got’ and ‘got to, got to, got to’ exhortations in the play-out fade there’s just a suspicious that it’s cheerfully tongue-in-cheek. Taking the vocabulary of Mod-Soul into newer post-Mod realms.
While ‘Record Mirror’ predicted that ‘the five-strong group looks as though they have quite a career in front of them, especially with confident Mr Shirman leading them’, what’s necessary is to achieve that breakthrough hit. The one that establishes the group-brand. And that presents an ethical dilemma. For there were a number of ways of jumping that barrier. The astute cover of the current American hit, grabbing media-space and immediacy before the original has a chance of registering. Matthew’s Southern Comfort scored a UK no.1 by opportunistically grabbing Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, effectively stopping the fiercer Crosby Stills And Nash American hit-version. But it didn’t lead Ian Matthews to any further chart action. And in fact, “Try It” had originally been done by Ohio Express and the Standells, whose bratty versions exemplify the sneering Punk-garage sound, although ‘New Musical Express’ concede that Attack ‘were every bit as authentic-sounding as the originals’ (23 January 1993). Another route was to ransack the latest Beatles LP for potential covers. Despite serious opposition from a group called Bedrock, Marmalade (with post-Attack Alan Whitehead) lifted “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” from the ‘White Album’ and took it all the way to no.1. Against the odds they were able to follow it with further hits, and even a modicum of musicianly credibility. Another passport into the chart is the Poppy confection of the novelty hit. Mugging a convenient fad or hopping a passing trend much as the Flowerpot Men had done all the way into brief celebrity with “Let’s Go To San Francisco”.
Manager Don Arden brought the group a demo of “Hi Ho Silver Lining” from its American composer, Scott English. Is “Hi Ho Silver Lining” a novelty hit? It has many of the distinguishing characteristics, which over-familiarity tends to disguise. It’s very much riddled with sixties crazy wackiness, the ‘open up your peach umbrella, while you’re watching TV’ could have come directly from a trendy sit-com. Not to mention ‘the hippie hat’. And who now connects the song-title with its TV-origins? Clayton Moore’s masked-avenger ‘The Lone Ranger’ with his trademark cry ‘Hi Ho Silver, away!’ Of course, Arden was absolutely correct. It was a sure-fire hit. Only not for Attack. The problem is that producer Mickie Most had also got his hands on a songwriter demo, cut it with the Jeff Beck Group, and both versions emerged near-simultaneously. Although Beck’s came a week later, he had the edge. He was already a ‘name’ from his stint following Eric Clapton into the Yardbirds. Attack take the song altogether lighter, with Richard’s exaggeratedly clear enunciation and vocal delivery, ‘although it’s obvi-yars’. But, let’s be honest, the litmus test between the two versions is that Attack’s polite instrumental break, a rising whine in the background with Gerry Henderson’s little honking clarinet giving it a jaunty New Vaudeville Band quality, can’t match the brief burn of the Jeff Beck guitar solo.
So Attack watch as the Jeff Beck group single enters the ‘Record Mirror’ chart at no.36 (13th April), rising through no.28, no.24, and no.17, to peak for three weeks at no.14 (from 11th May), before sliding down through no.19, and no.27 to exit at no.37 (15th June). And they watch as Jeff Beck bags the ‘Top Of The Pops’ tele-spot. There must be only one thing worse than sacrificing your self-respect to achieve the step-up career-elevation of a hit, and that’s to sacrifice your self-respect and still fail to make that vital chart-connection.
To add to the irony, Davy O’List’s savage haywire guitar-break on the flip makes up for the ‘A’-side’s passivity. Written and recorded within half-an-hour, “Any More Than I Do” claims ‘we want something uncomplicated, we want something clean and free, this I the way it’s got to be’. While its two opening lines take a last nod at their debt to the seminal Soul music they were rapidly accelerating away from – ‘standing in the shadows’ (Four Tops), ‘sitting in the park’ (Billy Stewart), carried on a frugging dance-beat.
Richard Shirman has the louché Jagger slouch and a corkscrew mind. To ‘Melody Maker’ writer Chris Welch, he was ‘a star with an ego to match, and the cheek to achieve miracles’. A rare combination of gifts. Born 26 April 1949 in London, Richard was the Attack founder-member who would also remain the only consistent part of the group throughout its many line-up changes. ‘I was inspired by the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds’ he told the folklinks.com website, ‘I saw both when I was fourteen, over the objections of my parents, and was hooked.’ By the time he was fifteen he was cutting his teeth fronting the Soul System, an unstable lineup of musicians all older than he was. In early 1966, its remnants were strengthened by the addition of new faces. Shirman encountered the tousle-haired innocence of seventeen-year-old guitarist ‘David John’ (an alias used by Davy O’List), they shared a taste for rare-groove R&B imports, so Davy joined and adds back-up vocals to “Try It”. At the time, Davy confided to ‘Melody Maker’ that ‘I’ve been playing guitar for two-and-a-half year and started as a Rock guitarist. My first idol was George Harrison and I copied his solo on “Roll Over Beethoven” note for note. I want to be able to play Blues without anybody going ‘ugh!’ (11 March 1967). Which seems a fairly modest ambition. Then bassist Gerry Henderson arrived. Until, in response to a small-ad placed in ‘Melody Maker’, there was bespectacled Bob Hodges on organ, the group’s token geek. And work-study trainee drummer Alan ‘Noddy’ Whitehead, who stays with Attack long enough to play on the debut single (he was then replaced by Barney ‘Rubble’ Barnfield).
Hammering out a repertoire of bluesy riffs, Don Covay’s “See Saw”, Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour” and Sam And Dave’s “You Don’t Know Like I Know” at the Marquee, Soul System came to the attention of entrepreneur Don Arden, who already managed the Small Faces, Ron Wood’s The Birds, and Creation. He signed them to Decca for first try-out sessions with top A&R-man Dick Rowe (with Rolling Stones, Small Faces, and Marmalade on his CV) at IPC Studios in Regent Street on 31st December 1966. It was around this time they changed their name to Attack, a short one-word name, like the Who, Creation or Action. ‘Now the Pop scene seems ready for us’ proclaimed Richard, ‘we shall take it by storm in six months.’ Some overconfidence perhaps? asks ‘Record Mirror’, while conceding their riveting presence, ‘their stage act is exciting and different, and involves quite a bit of audience participation (if you’re inclined that way).’ But shortly after their “Hi Ho Silver Lining” single was released, O’List quit Attack. In late February he was headhunted by Andrew Loog Oldham into join the Nice, initially a vehicle providing backup for Oldham’s newly-acquired soul singer PP Arnold. Meanwhile, Shirman, given to hanging out at the trendiest London clubs – ‘Tiles’ and ‘Blaises’ as well as the ‘Marquee’, had been keeping a watchful eye on a young guitarist he’d witnessed jamming with Jimmy Page. No mean feat. So John DuCann – future mainstay, and songwriter, later of Andromeda and Atomic Rooster, was lured into the group.
The third 45rpm, “Created By Clive” is a foppishly effete sub-Kinks-style number. When they appear in front of the BBC microphones on the Light Programme’s ‘Saturday Club’ (1st July 1967) presenter Brian Matthew enthusiastically introduces Attack as ‘this group with a difference’, and “Created By Clive” as ‘a sad story of a modern Miss’. And, yes – given the preeminence of “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion”, it’s the perfect soundbite for trendy Carnaby Street film-clips. ‘Your face is bony ‘cos you don’t eat, your hair’s too short and your clothes are chic’ conjures all the right fashion-fix Twiggy and Mary Quant images. If you think ‘somebody’s taught you how to walk’ is taking it a little too far, just check out Victoria Beckham or Naomi Campbell. And ‘now you dress for the magazines’ is carried effortlessly by Richard’s slightly camp vocals – he’s ‘got this fancy talk’, catching all the right fashion-dummy weirdo traits. Her ‘heart is plastic’ and her ‘mind’s gone weak’, all she needs is a ‘mirror and a powder-puff’, then stylist Clive can ‘put you in the window of Ellen’s Boutique’. Was there ever an ‘Ellen’s Boutique’? If there wasn’t, there should have been. And you should have seen it in a tracking-shot from the ‘Blow Up’ movie. Produced by their regular knob-twiddler Mark Wildey, the song was written by Johannesburg-born Hubert Pattison, who’d also penned “The Hand Don’t Fit The Glove” for Terry Reid And The Jaywalkers, “Don’t Let Her Go Away” for John Leyton, “Here Come The Bees” for the Barron Knights, and cut a single of his own with “My Home’s In My Pocket” (August 1969 for Fontana). And if an Attack single was ever to catch fire, surely this was the moment?
Wrong. Again their finest efforts were sabotaged by cruel circumstance. Or rather, by inept label politics. Again, there was another version of the same song, this time by a group called the Syn – formerly the Syndicats, with a line-up including Chris Squire and Pete Banks who would later figure in mega-selling Prog-Rockers Yes. They also needed a hit. But it wasn’t happening for them either. Although both groups, Syn and Attack, were operating beneath the sprawling canopy of the same Decca organisation, the Syn version was ‘A’-sided through the ‘progressive’ subsidiary Deram, leaving the two to fight it out. Which is the better version? It’s a toss-up. Both are pretty good. Where the Attack simply repeat the chorus-title ‘created by Clive, created by Clive’ with just a hint of xylophone, the Syn’s more close-harmony treatment amends the lyric to ‘created by Clive’s publicity drive’. Does that improve it? In the end, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Both were fairly well received by the music-press. The Pirate Radio stations were generally evenly divided in their allegiances, for every seasick DJ who gave high-rotation support to Syn there was another shoving Attack. The inevitable result was that sales were evenly divided, and neither got to nibble the chart.
The irony, again, is that the Attack’s ‘B’-side, Shirman’s “Colour Of My Mind”, is a fairly groovy Mod-psych tune which has since been strongly supported on psychedelic compilations, and – if the sides had been flipped, would have been quite capable of making it on its own. Winding-in with a distorted sitar sound, then guitar and organ braided into the texture of the sound, the surreal chain-of-thought hazy shading lyric inhales freely of the lysergic atmosphere with pseudo-profound ‘living is a habit, thrust upon mankind’. ‘My eyes are green and yellow’ he insists, ‘‘cos they’re the roving kind’, before fading into a pleasing cacophony.
This second high-profile failure could have been, and almost was, a major extinction event for Attack. Failure…? Well yes, in the sense that it did not crack the Top Ten, the Top Thirty, or even make it onto the lower rungs of the Top Fifty. Hence it didn’t reap the benefit of a ‘Top Of The Pops’ tie-in appearance to project them into the familiarity of every British front-room. But failure…? They were a name, even if only among the in-crowd. Up in Hull, far away from the hip action, I was well into the Attack. I read about them in the music press. I bought the records, and played them over and over again. Surely I could hardly have been exceptional in that? And such a level of familiarity hardly equates with failure. The Attack would remain a cult legend, as compilations of their back-catalogue were issued and reissued on LP and CD across decades.
So yes, it could have been a major extinction event for Attack, but instead it led to a frantic explosion of creativity. Over-caffeinated, fiercely energetic, led by a self-confessed ‘precocious little bugger telling them what to do’, there was a merry-go-round of line-up changes. Recently recruited bassist Kenny Harold and guitarist Geoff Richardson quit shortly after the disappointment of ‘Clive’, leaving John as lead guitarist. For Attack version-four Jim Avery – who later went on to the proto-Punk Third World War, was drafted in on bass, with Plug Davies – destined to join Welsh acid-rockers Man, still on drums. They came up with a projected next single – “Magic in the Air”, which Decca inexplicably turned down. Maybe they were losing confidence in their signing? Unwisely so as it turns out, because it could have been the one. It opens ear-catchingly with TV’s ‘Watch With Mother’ theme – an evocative cert for radio attention, before the effortlessly contagious nagging riff breaks in, in fits and starts, its harmonies shot with light, but deep, forming a cohesive whole. As he walks wide-eyed ‘the flowers turn their heads and bow as I pass by.’ What is causing this magical transfiguration – love, or chemicals? There’s a fade-out, then it fades back in again, almost painfully of the moment. Sixties Beat-Pop seldom came better. Whatever the Attack’s commercial omissions of the past, such sweet freakbeat more than compensates.
Yet this only led to further changes. Plug and Jim Avery left, replaced by Roger Deane (bass) and Keith Hodge (drums). The final single, released in early 1968, combines “Lady Orange Peel”, with its high ascending ‘Strange Brew’ ethereal refrain, heavy guitar solo, and tempo-change into the ‘come into my garden’ fast mid-section, with “Neville Thumbcatch”, a fruity Mod-pop tune with spoken narration, not dissimilar in places to the ‘atonal apples and amplified heat’ of Cream’s “Pressed Rat And Warthog”. Delivered tongue-in-cheek straight, it’s the cautionary tale of ‘a man of nature who forgot his birds and bees’, who spends so much time in his allotment, leaving his wife alone – ‘her only comfort was an alabaster gnome’, that she leaves him for George the milkman. She even takes their budgie called Mabel. Now Neville has no wife. But at least he has his window-box. As quirky as this précis suggests, with harpsichord-like keyboards and guitar-strum giving it something of an ‘Excerpt From A Teenage Opera’ quality, it inevitably flew under the chart radar.
And Decca’s deal with Attack expired, with a projected fifth 45rpm languished unreleased, “Freedom for You” c/w “Feel Like Flying” – with throbbing rhythm-track and stinging guitar break moving closer to the Move, and a flip driving full-on into tightly focused velvet dreams. Decca expressed an interest in retaining Attack as a Pop act. How about trying something lighter? Another novelty along the lines in ‘Clive’? But music was changing. Rock was being recalibrated. And Shirman and DuCann were more interested in furthering the heavier direction of their newer material. And now, freed of label and management interference, they did some of their best work. They’d already sweated out studio-time on an intended album project to be called ‘Roman Gods Of War’. But with both artwork and a clutch of tracks completed, in the confused circumstances of Attack’s uncertain status, the label fucked-up and recorded over the tapes even as the two parties, group and Decca were going through the process of divorce.
During the group’s final days, with DuCann becoming the dominant creative force, they produce the likes of the unreleased “Mr. Pinnodmy’s Dilemma” – pronounced ‘Pin-odd-me’, about a deaf-dumb-and-mute boy. Although he predates ‘Tommy’, this time there’s no pinball happy ending, ‘he felt just like a freak, when all the world is dead he would sit alone and cry’, with a guitar-break shaking the restraining walls of the very space-time continuum, and a neo-classical ‘ba-ba-baba’ chorus. Bad taste...? Maybe, but it’s a Who-powerful track. And the strongly percussive “Strange House” which shows the Attack foraging further into absurdist shots at acid-surrealism with ‘I was riding in the sky, and I saw this strange-looking land’. ‘Perhaps it’s just a funny dream’ he queries, ‘but to me it seemed so real’ as he sits in ‘a bed suspended in mid-air’ and the sinister flanging around ‘it was strange’ betrays a very English sense of mod-psych whimsy. ‘There wasn’t any chairs so I sat on the edge of a sink, I had tea in a clock and I ate a piece of green rock’ he insists, shoving the hallucinogenic weirdness-quotient over the brink. ‘I went up the stairs to the cellar, I went down the stairs to the attic’ until its inspired mélange of sounds fades like flickering stars pulsing in the impenetrable depths of some distant galaxy, or vice versa.
Yet, battered by the events that had happened to them, and the events that should have happened, but hadn’t, Attack finally admit defeat in late-1968, and go their own ways. By then, answering the regulation ‘Melody Maker’ classified ad, Alan Whitehead had joined Marmalade who successfully employed two of the tried-and-tested routes to making hits. In June 1968 their bland cover of the Grassroots US hit “Lovin’ Things” reached no.6, then they topped the charts in January 1969 with the Beatles’ cover “Ob La Di Ob La Da”. Meanwhile, Davy O’List’s career was also progressing alongside Keith Emerson in Nice – who scored a Top Thirty hit with “America” in July 1968. He subsequently went on into Roxy Music and Jet. And DuCann continued exploring a guitar-heavier direction with his subsequent group Andromeda – put together with the nucleus of Five Day Week Straw People musicians, from 1968 to 1970. And in truth, Andromeda deserve their own separate feature. Then he joined Atomic Rooster in the seventies.
While Richard Shirman, who’d been invited to sing with Andromeda, but declined, instead recorded a one-off Emidisc acetate of Jagger-Richard’s “Sympathy For The Devil”, which although he acquits himself well, seems like a fairly pointless exercise, but for the fact that the Stones’ original was only available on their ‘Beggars Banquet’ (1968) album. Perhaps there was a chance for a single’s cover? The ‘B’-side – Shirman’s own “Anything”, works even better, about living through time from childhood when ‘all that dying meant to me, was somewhere else to go’, into the future, when ‘there’ll be a man on the moon by 1975, will I read it in the news? Will I still be alive?’ As with his quote about the Attack taking ‘the Pop scene by storm in six months’, this prediction was also way out, Neil Armstrong alighted on the lunar Sea of Tranquility 20th July 1969. Not that it matters. The tracks would remain under wraps for a decade, and longer.
But what Attack had achieved would not be easily forgotten. As the archivist-collector’s obsession with all things sixties Mod and freak-beat grew, the Attack reputation came into the up-tick. Swinging London had become kitsch, and what could be more Swinging London than “Created By Clive”? There were ripples of vinyl bootlegs, compounded by the group’s inclusions on ‘Rubble’-style compilations. Then, among a raft of Attack CD’s, John DuCann’s 1990 association with Angel Air label’s John McCoy initiated a reissue programme, remastering and compiling the carefully-hoarded tapes of supposedly-lost final Attack sessions from John’s own collection. Both sides of Attack’s projected last single were salvaged, as well as seven group demos recorded around the same time. These were included as a bonus disc with a CD reissue of the rare 1968 album by Five Day Week Straw People. Opportunistically initiated by the budget Saga label, this was a spin-off studio-only outfit involving DuCann, and cut on a cheap Revox machine. The revival process also resulted in an Angel Air compilation of Attack’s post-Decca sides titled ‘Final Daze’, featuring more unreleased material. As well as the neat group career-summary that is ‘About Time’ (RPM, 2006), with sleeve-notes by Chris Welch, and track-by-track comments from Richard himself.
Richard inaugurated a new Attack in 1979, with Mickey Jones and Steve Waller (guitars), Al MacLean (bass) and Glen Le Fleur (drums). Then, two years after that, he founded another band Hershey and the Twelve Bars who released an album ironically titled ‘Greatest Hits Volume II’ (2000, A New Day Records, AND CD43). Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1991, he enjoyed the renewed musical activity, and the revival of interest in Attack. To him, the story of Attack ‘is not a unique tale, but it does demonstrate the real power of music. After all, but for the music you wouldn’t have read a word of this, would you?’ Although it might not be one of those heavy conundrums that have teased the minds of thinkers across decades, that defining hit had consistently evaded them, but Attack got written into Rock history anyway. Reviewing their 1993 ‘Magic In The Air’ compilation LP, ‘New Musical Express’ said ‘the Attack were one of Britain’s finest garage bands and this salute to their memory is a must’. No argument there… Try it, yeah…
‘THE DEFINITIVE MOD-POP
COLLECTION’: THE ATTACK MORE TO FOLLOW AS I'VE USED UP THE MAXIMUM SPACE ALLOWED IN A POST HERE.