The Records’ The Records at 40

They are a band whose name is impossible to Google, but well worth the extra work once you discover them and their classic first LP also known as Shades In Bed

The Records The Records, Virgin 1979

The band name probably didn’t help.

While worrying whether it’s “Google-able” probably didn’t enter their minds in 1977, the two founding members of power pop greats, The Records, might’ve put a little more effort into their moniker. Then again, what describes a power pop band better than the records they love. And drummer Will Birch and singer John Wicks no doubt hoped they would make THE record with their new band. Maybe their crystalline riffs and Beach Boys-y harmonies would come up with the best records of the burgeoning power pop scene they evolved through.  

Such is the kind of sky-high ambitions of British pop bands. Living on a fairly small island, with a massive and informed music press, and with the top two of late 20th-century rock ’n’ roll, the Beatles and Rolling Stones, being their regional totems, they could aim higher than American bands. Especially bands from smaller American towns, so far removed from trends, record label offices, and the hopes anyone would ever care.

But it’s that kind of American small town sneaky freedom that is at the heart of some of the best power pop. Sure, maybe no one will give a damn that we’re writing perfect hooks, but the little girls at the VFW hall show understand. And as long as this gig pays for the gas from the high school parking lot to the local hangout spot, we’re gonna keep writing about it until we have to, like, be adults or whatever.

And it’s that sort of teenage, four-lane highway, top-down, summer fun attitude that is (was?) distinctly American, and gear-shifted perfectly into the brief “skinny tie” power pop trend of 1978-82. Kicked off by the mid-70s big three of Big Star, the Raspberries and Cheap Trick, power pop was a peppy arm of the New Wave, taking punk not necessarily as revolution, but as another topping on the ice cream sundae of youth, and running on the sugar high. With these acts, “The Beatles” was not a dirty word. And in fact, many who glommed onto the trend were leftover long-haired Rock dudes who never understood punk, but figured re-twisting ‘60s hooks and cutting their hair might gain them another few years on the regional bar circuit. Frankly, 60 percent of that “skinny tie” trend is full of dudes like that.

The UK was able to excise a number of those leftover wannabes via the exciting glam/pub movements; whereas in North America, big Rock stayed, well, big. Cheesy schmaltz like Journey and REO Speedwagon, and a few Canadians like Survivor and Loverboy, might’ve looked the part, but their sounds were stadium wank scrunched down to appease a younger crowd tiring of epic guitar solos. And that would confuse you while skimming the racks – holding two records in your hands, both bands had short hair and well-fitted, non-denim pants, probably neon-like lettering across the top…So which one’s cool? And the clerk won’t be any help, because he probably still likes Jethro Tull.

And that was one part of why the power pop trend and its best bands never took much chart hold in the States – a certain homogeneity in the marketing of a major label industry that was leery of punk’s low sales, aggressive stance, and trying to harness in these new acts.

And that’s also why it took years for crate-digging record freaks to sort out the good stuff, eventually solidifying power pop into the stock genre designation it is today. It was not in 1978, and if you couldn’t file something easily, that was a problem. There was no pulling your phone out and checking YouTube.

Admittedly, debates on “what power pop is,” and the thin line between Cheap Trick, Nick Guilder, Loverboy, Little Johnny Cougar, and the Knack remains thin enough to see the sneers coming at me for putting Loverboy and Cheap Trick in the same sentence. But as they say, you know it when you hear it. And you did not hear this sound coming from the British Isles in the late 1970s.

A loose pet theory is that the sort of peppy, teenage, driving in your car, eating ice cream, high school, late night stolen kisses – the whole iconography of power pop – plays into the highway life of America, and lingering yankee optimism. Compared to the still blatant WWII destruction around England, which resulted in the UK being much more fruitful with more political punk. Whatever the socio-political reasons or chance vagaries of the music biz, The Records went somewhat overlooked in the closet of skinny ties.

The Records Shades In Bed, Virgin 1979

Today, the band’s 1979 debut – originally titled Shades in Bed in the UK, — stands as one of the absolute pinnacles of late ‘70s power pop, thanks to the consistent songwriting (lots of power pop albums drop off bigtime after the first three songs), notch-above harmonies, and having a bit of a recording budget from Virgin Records (compared to the often indie label, cult power pop bands favored by the collector cognoscenti today). “Teenarama” and especially the astounding classic, “Starry Eyes,” gained some airplay around the world, and show up on every Top 25 Power Pop Songs lists, or should. And there it was, released in the pinnacle power pop year, 1979, singles getting play in the US. even. So, what happened?

The album title probably didn’t help.

American major record labels often being Puritan, condescending, or just dumb, renamed the debut album to simply The Records, mucking up name recognition further, erasing a mildly attention-grabbing title, though offering a decent stab at that era’s hot girl on the cover album art (that was nonetheless too dark). And again, that band name. I remember even zipping past the cut-out copies in the $1 bin when I started crate digging through the mid-80s before finally relenting in the early ‘90s sometime.

Past those arguable marketing snafus, who knows? If it’s any consolation to The Records, almost none of that trend’s bands got huge. If you want to include Blondie and the Knack, sure there were hits. Otherwise – and extremely confounding, since these bands were producing energized updates of the kind of music that sold six figures in the mid-60s – the pure pop gems that The Records and many more made were left to cult status. Synths held their ground through the “Disco Sucks” stupidity and right into New Wave; Britain had loads of heavy metal in their new wave; and if you squint with honest peepers, the sugary hooks of power pop got an ‘80s glam-up in the better U.S. hair metal bands. I’ll let Chuck Eddy tell you why there is no thin line between the Raspberries and Enuff Z’nuff.

But again, we’re here not to boo-hoo The Records’s 40th anniversary, but to praise it. Shades in Bed was reissued nicely in 2002, with extra tracks. And when you go through your local $5 bin, you will find this classic eventually, and you will smile. Grab it this time! You might notice that another thing that separated the majority of the power pop trend and The Records is not only their stellar songwriting ability, but a just slightly darker aura, maybe from London’s foggy nights and cramped flats, compared to colorful California sunsets and far-horizon U.S. interstates.

That’s just a guess, one that I put to drummer/founder Will Birch, among other queries, below.

 

 

 

Give us a basic history of how / where the band started, and how. And tell us a little about Kursaal Flyers…

The Kursaal Flyers started in Southend, Essex, late 1973, and in 1974 hit the London pub rock circuit. We quickly built a following, found a manager, and soon had a record deal. We made four albums and had a UK hit with “Little Does She Know,” in 1976. A year later John Wicks joined on guitar, but we disbanded at the end of 1977.

John had co-written a song called “Moral Fibre” with Kursaal Flyers singer, Paul Shuttleworth, and it was very good. I asked John if he wanted to write with me, and when we had about a dozen songs, we thought about forming a group. We advertised and found the very talented Phil Brown (bass) and Huw Gower (guitar). We rehearsed, cut some demos, and became The Records in the summer of 1978. We soon landed a spot on the Stiff Records “Be Stiff Tour” as backing group to Rachel Sweet.

We recorded the Birch/Wicks composition, “Starry Eyes,” on days off during the tour, then signed with Virgin, and by the time we visited New York, we had the 45 pressed up.

 

VIDEO: Kursaal Flyers “Little Does She Know” on Top of the Pops 1976

 

Where did you guys practice?

In hired rehearsal rooms – one in Clapton, East London, and another in a converted railway arch under Waterloo Station.

 

What was the neighborhood like where you all lived and practiced? And do you think it influenced the band’s sound or attitude?

Although John and I lived in Southend, Essex, we spent a lot of time in London. I think you are always influenced by your surroundings, and London was a happening place, musically, in the late 1970s. There was a vibrant live circuit, and record companies were falling over themselves to sign anything that looked good, moved fast, and had at least one killer song. We seemed to tick the boxes.

 

What were early Records shows like?

We started playing live before we were ready, and this was because as soon as I thought of the name The Records, I worried it would occur to another new group to call themselves that, so we wanted to get our name in the music paper ads as quickly as possible to lay claim to “The Records.” A bit like buying a domain name today. One of our first dates was in Bristol, and when I counted the first song in – 1-2-3-4! – each one of us started to play a completely different number.

 

Let’s hear a good story from the “Be Stiff” tour.

John and I had written a song for Rachel Sweet, “Pin A Medal On Mary.” Stiff was looking for a backing group for Rachel, and Stiff’s Dave Robinson called me one day. We told Dave, “We will do it if we can have our own spot in the show, four numbers, and Dave agreed. In the UK we travelled everywhere by train, which was a novelty, and quite comfortable. Then we got the word we would be going to New York, by plane obviously. Mickey Jupp, who was one of the Stiff headliners, said, “I’m not going.” He put up all sorts of excuses – “I’m terrified of flying” – and Dave Robinson said, “That’s okay, Mickey, you can go by boat.” So Mickey said, “But I’ll miss my girlfriend,” and Dave said, “That’s okay, we’ll pay for her to go as well.” Mickey replied, “But we won’t be home for Christmas,” and Dave said, “Well Stiff will have to drop you then, from a great height.”

I write about the Be Stiff Tour here.

We tightened up on that tour and developed a pretty good set when we went out as support to The Jam in the spring of 1979. But I was never completely confident about our live performances, although we seemed to go down well with audiences, especially in America.

 

What were some other regional bands you would play with on those early shows? 

Early on we variously opened for Elvis Costello, The Jam, Wilko Johnson, Rockpile. In the U.S.A. we appeared with The Cars and Joe Jackson, and in Europe, Robert Palmer. We met some of our musical heroes in America, and couldn’t believe it when The dBs opened for us in Amityville, and The Rubinoos in San Francisco.

 

Originally hanging with Stiff, and with your past and interest in the pub rock scene, it feels to me like The Records kind of jumped from the revived 1950s rock’n’roll of pub rock right over the punk period and into the energized power pop sound. But what did the punk movement mean to you, or did it mean anything?

Well, the London pub rock scene, although it included some roots rock groups, was in a way the breeding ground for punk – Ian Dury, Dr Feelgood – not necessarily musically, but from a pragmatic point of view, i.e. back to basics. I write about it in my book, No Sleep Till Canvey Island: The Great Pub Pock Revolution (Virgin, 2000).

I loved the punk rock scene, particularly The Damned, The Clash, Buzzcocks, Cortinas – even though it indirectly brought about the demise of the Kursaal Flyers.

 

Do you have a story of “seeing your first punk band,” and it “changed you,” etc.? Or were they just other bands around the scene?

Well, when punk rock broke in London, I was in my late 20s and perhaps a little beyond finding it life-changing, having seen the Beatles and the Stones in the previous decade. But I did find punk very exciting, and I loved the look. I went to loads of shows, but never saw the Sex Pistols play live.

 

VIDEO: Stiff Tour ’78 footage on the BBC

So how was the reception in the States?

We played New York in December, 1978 with the “Be Stiff Tour,” and we toured the USA in 1979 and 1980. The American audiences were more enthusiastic and less inhibited than the British. We got good press most of the time.

 

Allow me a little jingoism here — it seems to me, as time passes, and the term “power pop” has become fixed as a genre, that the “classic” power pop bands are mostly American (Big Star, Raspberries, Cheap Trick, Knack, Romantics, Shoes, dBs, Nerves / Plimsouls, The Beat, Marshall Crenshaw, and even the latterday lost / cult names (Shivvers, Speedies, Toms). The UK produced few of these kinds of bands — interesting, since obviously the Beatles are the main root of this sound. Why do you think the UK was not as active with that brief but fruitful “skinny tie” power pop era (1978-82)?

Yes, I suppose the British like to get their hands dirty and bang on about the war. American teenagers drive earlier, in fact hardly any teenagers had cars in Britain. It was motor scooters and motorbikes with mods and rockers beating the shit out of each other in the mid-60s.

But yes, there were very few power pop groups in the UK, I think because most musicians aspired to “Rock,” and wanted to walk in the footsteps of Led Zeppelin. Short tunes were probably considered a bit cissy.

I never liked the term “power pop” – even though I believe it was coined by Pete Townshend – because it implied that, previously, pop lacked power. It was an apology for being a bit melodic. But having a handle for your musical style – pop, punk, grindcore, drill, whatever – Is a good communication device. It’s a shorthand message to ward off non-believers.

 

Who were the bands that really grabbed you in that era? Were you hearing the new American power pop groups over there?

I saw all the American bands that came over to the UK around that time who were connected directly or loosely to the scene – Cheap Trick, Ramones, Flamin’ Groovies, Blondie, Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, to name but a few. I loved them all. And I bought all of the records, usually “on import,” from reading about them in Trouser Press, Crawdaddy, New York Rocker, etc. I was pretty obsessed.

 

Tell me about making the debut album, Shades in Bed.

Virgin A&R suggested Mutt Lange to produce. He was at the time halfway through finishing up AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, and he suggested he’d do four tracks and his engineer Tim Friese-Greene would produce the rest of the album. I knew Tim from some work he did on Kursaal Flyers recordings, and I was happy with the arrangement. I met with Mutt at his Kensington flat, mid-February, 1979, and he selected his four songs from our demos – ‘”Starry Eyes,” “Teenarama,” “Girls That Don’t Exist,” and “Rock and Roll Love Letter,”  the last of which was omitted from the album when it bombed as a 45. We recorded at Wessex Studio from early March, then we moved to Virgin’s newly-opened Town House Studio. Recording and mixing ran through to mid-April. It all went quite well. I don’t remember much drinking in the studio, maybe a little after hours. We were quite disciplined.

 

The album title, Shades in Bed — who came up with it? And do you think The Records were a little more serious than what is traditionally considered “power pop?”

I’m afraid Shades in Bed was one of mine. It was influenced by a rockabilly record by Dwight Pullen called “Sunglasses After Dark.” I don’t remember being serious or not serious. We knew what we liked, and we tried to make the best possible record. I was a bit shocked by some of the harmony-guitar lines, redolent of Boston – though I love “More Than A Feeling” by the way – but I guess some of the team had their eyes on American radio.

 

AUDIO: Dwight Pullen “Sunglasses in the Dark”

 

Why was the title (and I think artwork too) changed for the American release? I’m guessing some stupid American puritanism about the title, ugh!

Virgin had just signed a distribution deal with Atlantic for the U.S., and our debut album was to be the first product released under that pact; and ironically our second album, Crashes, about a year later, was the last, I believe. Atlantic had their own marketing ideas, and wanted a different sleeve and to call it The Records. We went along with it, flattered by the attention and happy to play the game. Two American chaps – a photographer and an art director – flew in to London carrying a giant neon sign: “The Records.” I think they stayed at the Hilton on Park Lane. We did the shot in the window of a jazz record shop in Covent Garden one evening. They hired a young female model to help dress the set. Then we went for dinner.

 

Do you have a good story about appearing on one of the British music TV shows?

As we didn’t have any actual hit records in the UK, we did very little television. I do remember early on, before we were signed by Virgin, we were on a teen magazine type show hosted by Janet Street-Porter. We also did “Hearts In Her Eyes,” with Jude on guitar, on “Runaround,” a kids’ show hosted by comedian Mike Read. There’s a video of that one on The Records’ Facebook page, as well as the lost video for “Rock And Roll Love Letter.”

 

AUDIO: “Starry Eyes”

 

The band name, The Records — how did you decide on that, and what do you think of it today? Today, I believe they would say, “it’s hard to Google.”

I thought of the name in the bath. We were going to be The Cuties, but Joe Strummer talked me out of it. Today I think The Records was a cool name, but as you say it’s not exactly Wu Tung Clan when it comes to web searchability. In the late 1990s, I tried to register the domain name therecords.com, but it was already taken. I bought it off some chap who wasn’t using it for a few hundred dollars. He was in South America, as I recall.

 

Do you have a story from the last few years of, like, walking into a club or restaurant and hearing a track from Shades in Bed?

I’m afraid that hasn’t happened, although I have heard “Starry Eyes” on U.S. radio once or twice recently, about 40 years after it was released. But going back to 1979, I cannot tell you how exciting it was to be in the back of a limo on Sunset Boulevard, early evening, looking up at a giant billboard for Cheap Trick, and hearing “Starry Eyes” come on the car radio. In stereo.

 

That’s amazing! Most bands don’t sit around listening to their own albums. But if you do hear your debut, or something from it, what do you feel about the album today?

I never play them, except when considering some reissue idea. What I feel about our first album is that the drumming lets down some of the tracks, yet I marvel at the hours John put in building the harmonies. The second album, Crashes, could have done with a bit more of that, although I love the vocal blend of John and Jude.

 

VIDEO: The Records with John Wicks “Hearts In Her Eyes”

 

Sadly, John Wicks passed away in 2018. Can you tell us about him? How/where you sat around writing those early songs; working in a band with him; how he was to hang out with; and did you keep in touch with him over the years?

Well, I’ve just written a note for an upcoming CD tribute to John so that is fresh in my mind. John and I were dissimilar, but we both loved the Beatles, Revolver being the go-to LP. In general terms, I wrote the lyrics and John wrote the melodies, although there was the occasional crossover. But we never challenged each other’s contribution, and it was always harmonious. We never socialized except occasionally during tour rest days. We were quite different, but I trusted John’s music, and he trusted my approach to running and promoting the band.

John emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-90s, but we kept in touch. He asked me if I minded him going out as “John Wicks and The Records,” and I didn’t. He helped to keep the group’s name alive and he networked like crazy, forming friendships with many music people in the U.S. We kept in touch by email and phone, and he told me all about his health problems in the latter years and how amazing the doctors were. The last time I saw him, in L.A. in 2016, he was battling cancer, but strangely cheerful.

 

I know there was a CD reissue of Shades in Bed with extra tracks around 2002. Are there any plans to reissue it again, with newly found demos, or vinyl-only, or something like that? 

The three CD reissues I put out, having licensed the tracks from Virgin/EMI, are now deleted. There is talk of a multi CD box set of the three albums, plus the live album which came out in Japan a while ago, B-sides, a few demos and outtakes, the usual. But there are possible complications relating to the precise ownership of the master recordings today, so it’s an ongoing discussion. At least John, or rather his estate and I, co-own all of the songs we wrote for The Records, the publishing copyrights of which reverted to us 10 years after the Virgin Records deal ended.

 

VIDEO: The Records’ 1979 TV appearance

 

 

Eric Davidson

Eric Davidson is a freelance writer from Queens; singer of New Bomb Turks; author of We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988–2001, and former Managing Editor of CMJ. Follow him @lanceforth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *