Essex was in a musical slump at the time of this album.
Only six years earlier he had been in the #1 spot in the UK, had been a film star and had been courting America.
But six years is a long time in pop music.
His previous album hadn't done well ("Hot Love" from 1980 reached #75 in the UK charts), his last three singles had failed to chart and the one before ("Hot Love" in 1980 had gone to #57), and his film career had stagnated after Silver Dream Racer (1979), which was a commercial and critical failure (though the single from the film had done well, going to #3 in the UK in early 1980).
It was time to take stock and change.
The times were a changing.
And Essex had enough musical personality to make change easy.
Punk and new wave had changed the face of popular music especially in the UK were the pond is incredibly small. The new romantic movement was on the rise and synths had taken over. At the same time there was a back to the basics rock 'n' roll revival going on. Bands like the (imported) Stray Cats as well as locals like Shaking Stevens, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, and The Polecats were popular and Essex 70s contemporaries Queen had scored a #1 US and #2UK with the rockabilly-inspired single "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" in late 1979.
Perhaps it made sense to do something retro and Essex leant that way anyway. His 70s records were just rock and roll songs updated for the glam era. He wasn't a rocker generally but a popper and balladeer but he was clearly enamoured with the 50s and 60s sounds as themes.
With this in mind he got Al Kooper to produce and recruited mainly American rock musicians including pianist John Douglas "Rabbit" Bundrick (formerly of Mallard and who had worked with The Who, Free and Crawler), Englishman bassist Herbie Flowers (ex Blue Mink, T. Rex and Sky and a sessionman for Elton John, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Harry Nilsson, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and others), guitarist Jeffrey Allen "Skunk" Baxter (ex Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers and a session man for Rick Nelson and others), Steven Lee Lukather guitarist from Toto.
If he wanted a roots record Al Kooper was a good choice as he had his hand in all sorts of American roots music … ex Blues Project and Blood Sweat and Tears. He was there playing session for Bob Dylan when he plugged in and went electric and had played on hundreds of records, including ones by the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Alice Cooper, Cream, B. B. King, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Who,
But, if you thought David Essex was ever going to do anything straight you are wrong. Even at his height as a teen idol he was unpredictably quirky and seemed to find an audience that liked his music rather than have his music manufactured and marketed to a target audience.
More power to him but that makes record companies nervous.
Essex took a rock 'n' roll band and producer but didn't miss what has been happening around him and produced an album that is all over the shop but engaging.
What ultimately holds it together is that very early rock meets synth sound familiar at the start of New Wave. There are loud rock guitars (much like in Jeff Wayne's "War of the Worlds" which Essex had appeared on), tinkling synths (before they had become smooth … they are played more like pianos), and some fairly organic thumping percussion. It's a sound specific to the late 70s and early 80s and usually associated with "old" established bands who were trying to contemporize their sound. A lot of it can come of sounding duff (as some of it does here) but when you have someone as oddball and quirky as Essex then it comes of as, uhmmm, oddball, quirky, duff and charmingly engaging.
The trouble, now as it was then, is there is no audience for this. The New Wave-ish cover art won't fool anyone. The music is too rock for the synth new wave crowd and two synth and slick for the rock crowd. The only group that may get something for it are those who like quirky auterists like Jonathan Richman (who he doesn't sound like at all) or Lou Reed (who has some musical though not vocal similarities) who like to do whatever they want on their albums.
And neither of them either was selling in the early 80s
This album became Essex's first album not to chart and the three singles chosen ("Be-Bop-A-Lula", "Sunshine Girl" ,"The Magician), also, all failed to chart.
Essex would come back in 1982 with a #2 single, "A Winter's Tale", and there would be other highlights but his time a s a force in music were over.
And, this album, faded from his canon into relative obscurity.
That, of course, means there are "new" sounds waiting to be (re) discovered.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Totally Secure – Very much, even lyrically, like some of the numbers Ray Davies was writing for The Kinks around this time … lots of old school electric guitar trying to sound new (here, courtesy of Steve Lukather). On the first listen I thought it was little silly but I played it a couple of times and it grew on me … and I do like The Kinks from this era.
- Sunday Papers – Lot's of electric guitar (Lukather again) and backing vocals from a young boy who is meant to be David as a "young lad". The song has flashbacks …
- The Magician – A mid tempo pop tune which has a touch of disco but is engaging.
- The Politician – This is an Al Kooper Blues Project type tune. A chugging train blues updated with political lyrical references. Harmonica is by Paul Jones (I'm assuming it's Paul Jones from Manfred Mann but I don't know for sure)
- Sunshine Girl – (Riopelle-Roberds-Macleod) – A 20# 1967 hit in the US for the writers who were the folk sunshine pop trio The Parade. Herman's Hermits covered it in 1968 (#101US and #8UK). A great tune and very catchy but very 60s.
- Be Bop A Lula – (Vincent-Davies) – a hit for Gene Vincent in 1956 (#7US, #16UK), Vincent's popularity in the US declined in the 60s though in England and Europe he had a sizeable following. A young (semi) greaser like Essex would have loved him. Here he has taken the classic and made a synth dance floor song out of it. He is ahead of the curve here amongst the music makers. The good thing is he hasn't lost the soul of the song in synth-ing it up. There is a nice "Thankyou Gene" at the end. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Be-Bop-A-Lula
- Life Support System – a touch of the David Bowie here.
- Showgirls – A silly slow burn sexy sax number which has the benefit of a beat with the title repeated over an over, much like some of of the slow beat songs did in the 70s.
- Silly Little Baby Running – This song has African-Caribbean influences and sounds like it came off a West End show. You know you are in trouble when a "marimba synthesiser" is a credited instrument. The ensemble is conducted by Dominic Frontiere who is an American composer, arranger known for composing the theme and much of the music for the television series The Outer Limits as well as The Rat Patrol, The Flying Nun, The Invaders, The Fugitive and Twelve O'Clock High.
- Pick Up The Future – almost Essex "unplugged" though it's Essex with synthesiser only. Interestingly, the synth is played like a church organ (almost) and with the optimistic though slightly melancholy lyric the song works.
It's hard not to like this album if only because you know someone has put thought and talent into it. … I'm keeping it.
Put it on at the dance club and have it clear the dance floor. Offer a bonus prize of free alcohol for those who can guess the artist … the clubs alcohol is safe.
Be Bop A Lula
Pick Up The Future
- Backing vocalist James Earl "Jim" Gilstrap is best known for singing co-lead to the theme from the TV series Good Times.
- Backing vocalists Ron Hicklin and Gene Morford (who as part of the Ron Hicklin Singers) are most famously known as the real singers behind the background vocals on The Partridge Family recordings.
RIP: David Bowie