We have sung the praises of Will Birch’s fantastic new biography, Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe with a mini pod (tinyurl.com/zubprewill) and a maxi interview podcast (tinyurl.com/zubcruel) and even posted a Spotify playlist of all the available songs mentioned in the book (tinyurl.com/spotifycruel). Cruel to Be Kind whet my appetite to read more of Will Birch’s insightful and entertaining writing from his perspective as both a first-hand observer and a participant. A winter cold gave me a great opportunity to download and read Birch’s “prequel” to the Nick book, a history of the rise and fall of England’s Pub Rock scene. The book, now out of print, is available as a Kindle download from the author. So download I did.
My awareness of Pub Rock was long-running but pretty vague. In college, I eagerly snapped up a cut out copy of 1970’s eponymous Brinsley Schwarz album with the striking-borderline-garrish Barney Bubbles gatefold cover. I listened maybe once or twice, but was more interested in the more contemporary Lowe, digging particularly on Pure Pop/Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust. Those are pretty perfect records, so that’s tough competition. The album-oriented rock station of my high school days, WROQ-Charlotte, played enough Pub Rock (or at least talked about it) that the names of the major players, Dr. Feelgood and Chilli Willi rang a bell even if the music didn’t. So what is this Pub Rock thing and why should I care?
Well, as it turns out, Pub Rock is my musical parent, in a core, genuine way I never fully understood. This book may be YOUR musical Maury Povich moment: is Pub Rock YOUR musical father?
The DNA test shows: Pub Rock was about appreciating songcraft, no matter the source. Covering songs across genres because they are well-written, fun, goofy, or because they speak to you or because you have an interesting take was close to a bedrock tenet of the bands aligned with Pub Rock. Eggs Over Easy, an American group doing a long residency at a club in London lived by this example and the audience, among them nascent Pub Rockers, found this exhilarating. A principle was born. This was something we truly believed in The Beef People, playing songs we loved from contemporaries (e.g. Method Actors’ ‘Rang-A-Tang,’ a zillion Pylon tunes) or for ironic commentary (the skeevy ‘Naughty, Naughty’ by creepy uncle rocker John Parr, Hank Jr.’s ‘All My Rowdy Friends (Are Coming Over Tonight).’
The DNA test shows like minded bands attended each other’s shows and had a healthy competition. This sounds like a thriving local scene similar to what we all shared in Greenville in the mid-80’s. A few small clubs served as home base for the bands.
My most exciting discovery in the book is the detailed, fly-on-the-wall story of the birth of Stiff Records. Pub Rock begat Stiff Records and spurred the punk, DIY, and new wave evolutions that rapidly emerged. The Stiff Big Bang was set off by the admixture of entrepreneur-provocateur Jake Rivera and graphic savant Barney Bubbles with the bravado and can-do of Nick Lowe (whose musical contributions as an artist, songwriter, and in-house producer were essential to Stiff’s success). The final catalyst David Robinson, who kept the Stiff name when Riviera split with Elvis and Nick in the early 80s, remains a bit of an enigma in the story--essential yet a bit of a cypher in the flamboyant Stiff world. And Stiff Records was the ground zero, the epicenter for much I readily identify as my musical bedrock. Pub Rock was the bedrock upon which that, in fact, rests.
So as you read along, you see that there really is not a break between Pub Rock and “New Wave.” The iconoclasm, dedication to songcraft, and can-do attitude of Pub Rock WAS the bone structure of New Wave/Post Punk and related sounds. While first-wave Punk revelled in a big FU to musicianship (or at least pretended to), mastery was not an embarrassment in Pub Rock, and yet there was room for playfulness.
Will Birch writes of the scene with an insider’s detailed knowledge (he was a member of Pub Rock band Kursaal Flyers during much of the genre’s heyday) but enough circumspection to be a reliable guide to the scene. You only have to recall his lyrics to 'Starry Eyes,' the paradigmatic power pop single to know that he can make words do his bidding. The book is well written, insightful, and eye--opening. Is Pub Rock in your musical DNA? Get the No Sleep Till Canvey Island home test and see.
Kursaal Flyers’ Forthcoming Box Set: https://www.cherryred.co.uk/product/kursaal-flyers-little-does-she-know-the-complete-recordings-4cd-capacity-wallet/