Thursday, September 10, 2009

Barbi and the Kens

A very with-it friend of mine circulates an occasional email list with links to mp3s from bands he is hearing a lot. I will listen to anything once and, sadly, I usually do. One day the list included a cover of "Walk On By" by Richard X. When I listened to it I immediately noticed that the female coldly speaking the words sounded awfully similar to Deborah Evans - of course you all know she was one of the female singers in the Flying Lizards, right? I emailed him to ask if it was her (I didn't use to be the most proactive googler) and he said "No - couldn't be." Pleased, I sat expectantly at my computer. After about ten minutes, another email appeared. "Wow it is her. Weird. Wonder where he found her?"

Now, since I don't have the three or four days needed to properly cover the Flying Lizards, I'm instead going to go on and on mindlessly about a band (this word may be a bit of a stretch) that employed a similar approach but yielded much less output. In all likelihood this band was a studio project of Bobby Orlando, AKA Bobby O, who founded the thoughtfully named O Records. To say this guy had his hands in a lot of stuff is an understatement. My favorite achievement of his, other than this record, is his production of the original version of "West End Girls" by the Pet Shop Boys. Spectacular. But nothing of his can top the Barbi and the Kens record.

The cover is very nice. A very cold-looking woman in a very stylish-at-the-time sweater. I guess that's supposed to be Barbi? The back cover consists of a cast of names and credits that make little sense. This band had a drummer? OK - maybe on a couple songs. If their name is Barbi and the Kens why is there a guy named Klaus? Despite the long list of credited musicians, the record itself credits all the original songs to either "O" Music or Intersong Music. That plus a quick listen to this record will tell you all you need to know - Bobby O put together some stuff in his NYC apartment and got some girl to sing when he said to sing. And if anyone ever tells you how good this band was live I'd think twice about that loan they're about to ask for.

Everyone knows this band for the song "Just A Gigolo" - an original, not a cover. It was played on WLIR in New York throughout the early 80's and it showed up on some of those compilations of more obscure 80's songs. But there's four songs here so let's get to it. This is a weird example of a record where every song is better than the one before it. The two songs on the A-side, "Pay My Bills" and "Uptown Downtown Cruising" are decent, tight new wave songs. "Pay My Bills" is kind of lame though. "Uptown Downtown Cruising" is a better quirky new wave song that shows Bobby probably saw the B-52's a few times. Or at least heard "Rock Lobster". Also, both songs manage to sound alarmingly like the Flirts. Hmm - it says here on my Flirts records that Bobby Orlando wrote all their songs.

The B-side is where the money is on this record. "Just A Gigolo" leads off. Here's a link to someone's youtube link with the song. I know, that's a pretty low-rent way to get a song posted and I apologize if you thought this was some kind of upscale blog. Cool song and all. 80's hit. If you picked this record up expecting it to have an 80's hit and some filler (I'm raising my hand slowly...) you would be wrong. There is an essential new wave song on here and it's not the one on the compilations. "Not Your Steppin Stone" is indeed the Monkees cover. It's a good song to begin with but it is been drastically overhauled as if the instrumental half of the Flying Lizards had gotten an adrenaline shot while Deborah Evans went about her business as usual.

To be clear, ANY Barbi and the Kens record is a rare one but they were never worth a thing - no one cared. But, when the cool people elected to make synthesizers cool again, someone (not me) got smart and put an mp3 of this up on an ebay listing along with the words "minimal synth". $150 later it was its own mini-legend, with some people kicking themselves for not having picked up a few copies when they were free for the taking.

Here's a clip. Bobby O should really get the band back together.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

1+2 er... One Plus Two - Watercolor Haircut EP

As a young lad, I became aware of a band called REM. They had put out a record called "Murmur" and they were from somewhere called Athens. I was in 5th grade - what did I know? I read about them before I heard them. They were the champions of something called "College Radio" along with another band called the Replacements. As it turns out, there was a lot going on in a lot of places in 1983 and the South was one of them. One band that came out of this frenzy was One Plus Two.

One Plus Two (or 1 + 2 - even they couldn't seem to decide - see above) was from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Their self-released 7" EP, Watercolor Haircut, came out in the late summer or fall of 1984. They went on to produce a demo tape, a 12" EP and a full-length LP, both on Homestead Records, Gerald Cosloy's pre-Matador label. For the EP, the band consisted of Holden Richards (guitar), Maryclyde Bridgers (drums), Eric Peterson (bass) and Andy McMillan (vocals). After the Watercolor Haircut EP was recorded, Peterson left to join the dBs and McMillan started Snatches of Pink with Michael Rank. They were replaced by Susan Kent on guitar and Rob (not Rod) Stewart on bass. Of the 6 people involved, it seems like Holden Richards was the driving force in the band, mostly because all the songs are credited to him.

The record consists of 4 songs. All are great examples of the sound that defined this new genre of music. I haven't said the word "jangle" yet but it's going to be hard not to do it. "Look Away" has shades of REM, Let's Active and Guadalcanal Diary. "Much More" starts off in the same way as those bands but gets a little punchier in the chorus. Probably this was pretty good fun live. "Over You" is another good one. The production (by Eric Peterson the bassist and Wes Lachot, who now runs Overdub Lane Recording in Durham, North Carolina) is good, actually, but it makes me wonder what could have been if they had been thrown in the studio with more equipment and experience. The slightly muted sound is very much like REM's at the time. But there's some potential for some seriously shimmering guitar that didn't quite come out. The last song, "Pictures" is not bad, but for me it's a step below the other three. Not quite as developed maybe but still not bad. Truth be told, I love this record too much to say anything bad about it.

When I came across across a copy of the Watercolor Haircut EP it proved to be a great artifact of American College Radio. Not just because of the music either. The copy had been delivered by Holden to a magazine editor / reviewer / writer named Steve. Steve (unless Steve's no longer with us he's got no excuse for letting this out of his collection) was asked to listen to it, hopefully review it well and send a copy back to 1+2 so they could add it to their ever-expanding press kit. You're so interested by now that you're wondering what was in the press kit? Luckily, I have scanned in everything that was stuffed in with this record when I found it. I guess it proves that Steve got it a little bit later than some others.

At some point during their Homestead stint, IRS Records (naturally...) put them on the MTV show/commercial they had called The Cutting Edge. I don't know what happened but One Plus Two didn't make it like REM did. Or even Let's Active or Guadalcanal Diary. But for me, this record is a moment frozen in time. Googling "Watercolor Haircut" will get you back about 10 active, non-ebay, links. It's almost like this record didn't exist. But it certainly does.

Holden Richards is still active in music. He has a website here. It's late and the dog is wondering why I'm not tucking him into bed so you'll have to do the legwork on the rest of the band.

Someone was kind enough to rip the Homestead LP, Once In A Blue Moon.

Friday, September 4, 2009

As I Was Saying...

When I started writing this blog I didn't have some grand idea about what I was going to do with it. Without thinking too hard I guess the idea was to write about ignored music. I did a little bit of that. I also wrote a few things that served two purposes. First, I related a story with some oddballs acting oddly. Second, I managed to brag shamelessly about some items in my collection.

Did I mention these things are in my record collection? Have you seen this? Or this? I guess not. Good thing I showed you or you'd never get to see it...

As much as I'd love to go on and on with this stuff, I'd eventually run out. Not before finding some way to work this into conversation...

...and reminding you that Pete de Freitas wasn't in the band yet when they recorded this, their first single, so it's actually fully autographed. I'd also find a way to explain, slowly, for maximum effect, that I have something really, truly awesome. Like what? Oh like this...

You : "Wait a minute - everyone knows the uncompromising, critically worshiped and massively influential Mission of Burma made 5,000 copies of that record, half in the color sleeve and half in the black and white sleeve. Why makes you think I'm going to care?"

Me : "Oh, I'm sorry. I meant to show you the other side."

You : "Oh please - you've shown me so many autographs at this point I'm numb to them. Why couldn't he write in the middle of the big blank space? And this isn't too hard to get anyway - I saw Clint Conley autographing records for someone backstage in the Mission of Burma documentary film"

Me : "Funny you mention that - that was me and this is the record he was signing. But I really meant to show you the record itself..."

So now that you know about how this relationship would have gone, I think we can all see it's best to end it now. Seriously, does any more need to be said about a band like Mission of Burma or the Psychedelic Furs or REM? Starting tomorrow, since it's too late right now, I'll get back to the point and write about records that no one ever noticed. Well, almost no one. No more of this high-fiving myself about how cool I am for having something so cool that you could never be as cool as me...




because you didn't find something so, so, so cool

one day

around 15 years ago

in the dirty back room of a store in Nowhere, Connecticut

you didn't find anything as impossibly, unbelievably cool as this...

OK, sorry, I'll stop. Mostly. Maybe. First up is the Watercolor Haircut 7" EP by 1+2.

PS - that's cool as you think it is. A Joy Division test pressing with a handwritten note from their manager and an original sticker for the first album.

Stopping again. Good night.