Overlooked and Unappreciated: Five Artists You Need To HearFeb 29th, 2016 | By Jim Laugelli | Category: Essays, Give Me Five
Remarkable artists often wallow in obscurity for any number of reasons. Uncovering such artists is one of the great joys of writing about music. In this piece I want to bring to your attention five artists/bands that deserve greater recognition. To most of you, I’m certain these artists are unknown, and though some of you may recognize a name or two I would venture a guess that you haven’t listened to them it quite some time. A common thread running through all five of these artists is that they are all British and made their initial recordings in the early to mid-1970s. Each one of them possesses a certain English eccentricity that may have contributed to their weak chart success in the U.S. Some of them continue to record today, while some no longer do so, and a few, sadly, have passed away. All of them have recorded extraordinary albums and deserve greater recognition. Even today I’m somewhat surprised they haven’t been rediscovered by more folks.
In 1975 singer/songwriter John Howard released an album of impeccably polished pop songs that fit perfectly with a number of then currently popular recordings. Drawing influence from Elton John, Kid In A Big World was released and then largely forgotten, as it failed to connect with the public. Much of Howard’s subject matter often dealt with the bleaker aspects of life, and this is perhaps what doomed the record. Initial single “Goodbye Suzie” is about a girl’s suicide that is quickly forgotten by a town that simply continues to go about its daily business. In fact, BBC Radio1 felt it too depressing to play. And yet, the song is an incredibly catchy tune. Piano-driven, full of lush arrangements, fantastic, albeit bleak, storytelling and wonderfully captivating melodies propel the song. In fact, the entire album is filled with such exquisite music and sharp observational stories that it confounds me that it failed to reach more people.
Howard partially recorded a follow up before interference from CBS to try to make it more commercial led to it being shelved. Demos of that recording were finally released in 2004 by the RPM label under the title Technicolour Biography, and that was soon followed by another collection of demos called Can You Hear Me OK? Each of these recordings is outstanding in its own right. Howard has since continued to record and release albums, most recently as John Howard & The Night Mail. He is an absolutely exceptional songwriter. If you are a fan of singer/songwriters like Elton John, Harry Nilsson, Todd Rundgren, et al., I strongly urge you to seek out his work. I would start with Kid In A Big World and go from there. I’m certain you won’t be disappointed.
Artist: John Howard
Album: Kid In A Big World
Format listened to: MP3
For something more on the folk side of things consider Alan Hull. Hull was a member of Lindisfarne, another criminally overlooked band, and released his debut solo album in 1973. Hull is not necessarily an unknown artist, at least in Britain where his debut album, Pipedream, peaked at No. 29, but one hardly ever hears his name mentioned these days when so many lost gems are being rediscovered. There is much to admire in a lot of Hull’s work and a great deal of it is evident on his debut. Pipedream demonstrates his smart blend of acoustic singer-songwriter tunes with more rocking elements. On opening track “Breakfast,” Hull begins as though it will be a straight-ahead acoustic folk son, but then jumps into a more driving number — only to switch it back up again.
His melodic sensibilities are on full display with the graceful and almost lullaby like “Money Game.” And when he wants to rock out in a style not so different from say T-Rex, he can, as he so aptly does on “Justanothersadsong.” Hull’s humor is another welcome ingredient in many of his tunes. Consider the song “A Country’s Gentlemen’s Wife” with its Dylanesque delivery coupled with droll lyrics that bring to my mind Monty Python. Unfortunately Alan Hull passed away in 1995, and though there has been the occasional reissue of his albums he remains largely forgotten, or in the case of the United States, completely unknown. To acquaint yourself with this noteworthy artist I suggest starting with Pipedream and moving from there to his second and third releases, Squire and Phantom.
Artist: Alan Hull
Label: EMI Music Distribution
Format listened to: MP3
If British music hall and psychedelic pop is more to your liking, you owe it to yourself to discover the whimsical world of Stackridge. While not exactly unknown in their home country of Britain, mentioning the band in the United States would generally elicit blank stares. And that is truly unfortunate, for Stackridge is a wonderfully rich act full of charm and whimsy and deserving of a much higher profile in the United States. Between 1971 and 1976 Stackridge released several very good albums, but the one I’m most fond of is the George Martin-produced The Man In The Bowler Hat. The album is an engaging collection of songs filled with exceptional arrangements and beautiful harmonies. There is certainly a Beatles stamp on the album but the strength of some of the harmonies brings to mind the Beach Boys as well. Sometimes you can hear both influences within a single song as on the fabulous “Dangerous Bacon.” Elsewhere the addictive music hall tradition of “Pinafore Days” is an absolute delight while “The Last Plimsoll” is marvelously infectious. The band called it quits in 1977 but was reactivated in 1998 by a couple of former members and have since continued on and off with other former members joining in before officially taking their final bow last year. After The Man In The Bowler Hat, I’d recommend moving on to Friendliness and then just continue to explore their catalog.
Album: The Man With The Bowler Hat
Format listened to: MP3
It’s a bit surprising that an artist as prolific as Kevin Coyne remains virtually unknown in the United States and is probably only slightly less unfamiliar in his homeland of Britain these days. A truly original and passionate musician, painter, writer and poet Coyne, much like the characters and people he wrote about, maintained an outsider status throughout his career. Strongly influenced by the blues while creating his own inimitable style of avant-folk, Coyne was a consummate artist determined to follow his own path. Beginning with his debut release, Case History in 1971, Coyne sets out to give voice to the disenfranchised, particularly those suffering with mental illness. Coyne had been employed as a social therapist and drug counsellor for several years, working with the mentally ill before embarking on a music career. The experience affected him profoundly and impacted the lyrical content of many of his songs. There is something strikingly haunting about the songs on Case History. Musically, most of the songs feature Coyne alone on guitar and his plaintive voice that draws you in and holds you with an unexpected power. The followup album Marjory Razorblade, 1973, is an absolute masterpiece. From the observational accounts of seaside elderly ladies in “Eastbourne Ladies,” to the fabulously catchy pleas of “Marlene,” or the pervasive sadness that permeates “House On The Hill,” and the a cappella delivered poetry of the title track, every song on this album will leave a lasting impression. It seems criminal to me that Kevin Coyne is not more widely acknowledged for his brilliance. In 2004, Coyne passed away from pulmonary fibrosis. His vast catalog is well worth exploring and I would urge you to start with Marjory Razorblade and Case History.
Artist: Kevin Coyne
Album: Marjory Razorblade
Format listened to: MP3
Confusion surrounding the band’s name surely hasn’t helped provide Fairfield Parlour with a higher recognition factor. They started out in 1967 under the name Kaleidoscope and released their debut album titled Tangerine Dream. That album was followed in 1969 with Faintly Blowing. By the end of the decade they switched management and changed their name to Fairfield Parlour so as not to be confused with the U.S. band of the same name. From Home To Home, the band’s third album (their first under the new name), was released in 1970. Though they were beginning to gain a bit of airplay, the album did not garner any hits. Failure to find a label to release their subsequent album White Faced Lady led to that album being shelved and the band calling it quits in 1972. To add to the confusion, White Faced Lady was eventually released in 1991 under the name Kaleidoscope. Okay, did you get that? A British band records under the same name as a band from the U.S.; their debut album also happens to be the same name of a German electronic band; they change their name to the unfortunate name of Fairfield Parlour, and when a second album recorded under that name gets shelved it is eventually released 20 years later under the band’s first name — the one that is the same as a U.S. band. No wonder so few people ever heard of them. Now what about the music. Tangerine Dream is very much of its time. There is a strong Pipers At The Gates Of Dawn influence around it with its dreamy gentle colors swirling about. It’s a delectable collection of psychedelic nuggets and well worth seeking out. Their strongest release for me, though, is their first under the Fairfield Parlour name. From Home To Home retains some of the psychedelic charms of Tangerine Dream but adds a great deal more sophistication to it. They stretch out more musically, bordering on progressive at times. The songs are much stronger as well. Beautiful harmonies add to the baroque folk quality. Consider the lovely ballad “By Your Bedside.” It’s a song that wouldn’t be out of place on Love’s Forever Changes album. From Home To Home is an exceptional album that should’ve drawn much more attention than it did. Any fan of psychedelic folk pop owes it to themselves to hear this album.
Artist: Fairfield Parlour
Album: From Home To Home
Format listened to: MP3
Well there you have it, five artists that you likely never heard of but owe it to yourself to hear now. It’s always a curious thing to wonder why some artists suffer neglect in spite their extraordinary talents. I realize, of course, that differing opinions on what is appealing and what is not makes it impossible to assume universal agreement. What strikes me about these artists is that, while their music is strong and challenging, they all have recorded incredibly catchy songs that, by the standards of their day, should’ve been hits. With so many reissues of older music and the ease with which one can search and uncover a lost gem, I’m surprised that these, and many other artists, remain marginalized. Then again, while the Internet has certainly made it easier to seek out new and old music, the sheer number of artists and recordings that exist at one’s fingertips can also become an enormous rabbit hole from which you often emerge even more confused and lost than when you started. I hope I have been of some help along your musical journey to discover something new/old.