DIrty Habits

strawbs

Last week we looked at how two relatively obscure prog musicians tried to re-market themselves as punks with decidedly dodgy results.

This week we will look at how two relatively obscure prog musicians tried to re-market themselves as punks with decidedly dodgy results.

The story begins in 1973 when the Strawbs managed to achieve a genuine ‘hit’ with ‘Lay Down’.

The band, like so many 70’s stories had been together in one shape or another since the mid 60’s. Dave Cousins and Tony Hooper actually gave Sandy Denny her first break when they recorded an album with her in Copenhagen. Sensing a band going nowhere (the recordings didnt even surface until the Strawbs had hit the big time) Denny soon left and joined Fairport Convention not long after.

The rest of the band fumbled along in a folky sort of way to general disinterest until a new decade begin and they recruited some rock musicians into the band.Keyboard player Rick Wakeman needs no introduction, he’s very good at doing introductions himself usually recreating his intro to Cat Steven;s ‘Morning Has Broken’ over any available chord sequence. The other two new boys actually had a far greater influence on the fortunes of the band but rather than bombast they changed the band by stealth.

Richard Hudson (drums) and John Ford (bass) had previously been the rhythm section of Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera. A band that straddled the soft psychedelia genre somewhere between early Pink Floyd and the Tremeloes. Ford in particular was a great player and the pair of them added some much needed direction to the band. Cousins had a really disjunctive voice, a sort of a wobbly Peter Gabriel and wrote songs that were ethereal,mystical,aimless and overwrought, Hudson and Ford propelled everything along nicely and Wakeman played variations on ‘Morning Has Broken’ whenever Cousins stopped singing.

By the end of 1972 things had moved on a bit. Cousin’s old pal Hooper had had enough and Wakeman wanted the opportunity to play even more keyboards. They were replaced respectively by a proper rock guitarist Dave Lambert and Blue Weaver (who was on his way to a prime gig with the Bee Gees). So now we had the most rocking Strawbs ever and they announced this with their testosterone charged album ‘Bursting at the Seams’.

And so the first single ‘Lay Down’ had all the elements intact, wailing guitar,jangling guitar, pounding drums,churchly organ. I loved it although to this day I have little idea what it was actually about. It wasn’t quite folk it wasn’t quite prog and to some extent it diverted attention away from the fact that much of the rest of the album was the same ethereal aimless etc business as usual.

However, as previously mentioned Hudson and Ford were working behind the scenes and had started writing songs. Initially they seemed to be quite good at writing songs that sounded like Dave Cousins had penned them. Now all right minded people would be highly suspicious about any songs written by the bass player and drummer and quite rightly so but Hudson and Ford were no mere rhythm section but also talented multi instrumentalists (In Velvet Opera Hudson was actually credited with drums and sitar !) and their output was beginning to rival Cousin’s. And in their arsnel of songs was their very own neutron bomb.

Part Of The Union!

On every level POTU is not a great song. For starters it steals a lot from Woody Guthrie’s ‘Union Maid’. In the Strawbs hands a light and jolly celebration of union membership becomes a bit of a terraces chant. There’s then the question of whether the song was pro or anti union and as such it managed to offend everyone equally. These days of course being in a union is regarded pretty much in the same way as being a CAMERA member (although with less political power naturally). But in the mid 70’s the Unions really were a force to be reckoned with. This was apparently also the point in the 20th Century when social inequality was at its lowest so go figure.

Anyway, if there was something we liked more than social equality it was a catchy tune. POTU went to number 2 in the hit parade and was so popular that even my sister bought it so I could listen to it all the time at home (being a snob I far preferred the b side, a re working of the traditional ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’)

The Strawbs were now famous, more famous than they would ever be again. The price they paid for this was the song was not typical at all of their usual fodder. It wasn’t until recently that I realised the song is sung by John Ford and on Top Of The Pops Cousins, the man who formed the band, is reduced to being the rhythm guitarist.

Well, you could see it was an accident waiting to happen and the band literally burst at the seams by the end of the year. The rhythm section left, taking their song writing abilities with them and Weaver snuck off as well to find a dose of Saturday Night Fever. The Strawbs became a bit more proggy and as long as Dave Cousin’s can get on stage (he is quite prone to illness and accidents) there will be a version of them playing at a small theatre near you.

Hudson and Ford decided to capitalise on their reputation as writers of not very good hit singles by forming their own band called, wait for it, Hudson Ford. Hudson was now the guitar player. They had a couple of hits themselves, ‘Burn Baby Burn’ (again quite controversial as is was a chant during race riots in USA) and ‘Pick up the Pieces’ with its wonky slide guitar line. They were OK but you got the impression that they wrote songs because they were songwriters not because they had anything to say.

Anyway here is a clip of them playing live and a rather enjoyable period piece it is too. The sound of people playing their instruments properly and having a good time.

As punk made this sort of good time grooving extinct Hudson and Ford committed another musical crime. During the course of messing about in the studio they recorded ‘Nice Legs Shame About the Face’ With Ford playing guitar and singing and Ford hitting a flight case for drums, it sounded rough enough to fit in with the general punk vibe of the time and it was released under the name The Monks (not to be confused with the 60’s band who really are great). A story was devised that they really were monks who had recorded the song between vespers. It didn’t fool anyone for long, The Monks had all the elements that punk despised, age, a moustache, a beard and a bald head. Their song was also generally considered to be sexist nonsense, that’s only partially true, its the sort of tale that Leiber and Stoller could have written for the Coasters. The public didn’t care that much, in fact they preferred an amusing sing along to most of the genuine punk and so Hudson and Ford were on TOTP again. By this time they had a guy called Terry Cassidy to provide a small amount of much needed sex appeal.

As we all know TOTP would never buy credibility and away from Radio One the band were a bit of a laughing stock. The nadir of their career was appearing on Juke Box Jury which had been resurrected in a half arsed sort of way. Johnny Rotten was on the panel and the atmosphere was electric, he poured bile on the record and the hapless monks were then led out to meet the panel ‘pleased to meet me’ sneered Rotten.

Unsurprisingly they lost the ambition to continue as punks and instead along with Cassidy started dabbling in 1930’s style music in a band called high society. No one expected them to be genuine 1930’s musicians there was no pretence to keep up.

Except……..

In Britain punk was about credibility above and beyond everything else and there was no way the Monks would ever be credible. In Canada however it was a very different story, in a country populated entirely by nice reasonable people no one was going to get too upset about a prog/folk past. The only Monk’s album ‘Bad Habits’ was regarded as a British Punk record just like ‘The Clash’ or ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’. Those nice Canadian people didn’t have our credibility filters. As ‘Bad Habits’ is full of snappy songs played with pizazz that was good enough. Canada wanted more (we didn’t) and the follow up ‘Suspended Animation’ went gold.

To this day The Monks are revered in Canada for their contribution to music.

John Ford these days looks about 5 years older than he did in 1973 and still writes songs because that’s what he does, he’s a songwriter. Both he and Hudson went back to play with the Strawbs for a while, if he ever fancies singing ‘foldeoldo’ High Society are still ticking along in one form or another and if he every wants to be a star again Canada is waiting patiently for that third Monk’s Album.

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