A new box set shines a light a most underappreciated English band
Kursaal Flyers came into being during the brief moment in the mid-70s between art rock excess and punk rock’s laxative.
They emerged from the Thames pub rock scene that birthed contemporaries such as Dr. Feelgood, Eddie & the Hot Rods, The Stranglers and Ducks Deluxe (who would soon back Graham Parker as the Rumor). Today the Kursaal Flyers’ entire oeuvre gets the box set treatment assembling five albums with odds and sods into a four-disc set.
Most pub rockers gravitated to the blues-based sound of sixties icons the Animals, Rolling Stones, and others like Joe Strummer’s 101ers gravitated toward Eddie Cochran and rockabilly, while Kursall were more country influenced, and landed a plum gig supporting the Flying Burrito Brothers on their European tour shortly after forming.
Their closest stylistic competitor, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, split in 1975 after two albums. Singer/multi-instrumentalist Phil Litman moved to San Francisco took up with The Residents and became Snakefinger. Drummer Pete Thomas joined the Attractions helped spread word of the Kursaal Flyers after seeing their first show, telling Stiff Records’ Jake Riviera who told Paul Conroy, who became their manager.
AUDIO: Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers “Desert Island Woman”
It’s the unusual blend of influences that make Kursaal Flyers’ music stand out. Not only do their bring country elements to bear (pedal steel, banjo) but later explored power pop music that evokes Badfinger and the Raspberries, with big hooks and sing-song melodies.
This particular blend of influences would presage American ‘new wave.’ Indeed the Flyers echo the styles that surfaced a half-dozen years later in Los Angeles’ post-punk scene, when a blend of high-energy/punky pop acts emerged (The Go-Go’s, The Bangles, The Plimsouls, The Knack) and rockabilly/country-inflected bands (The Blasters, Lone Justice, X, Rank & File) came to the fore. As such there’s often an odd familiarity to the music, like you’ve discovered a missing link –not just the opening keyboard figure of “Luxury Lane,” which is the spitting image of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”
The Flyers cut their teeth in the pubs and that perhaps deserves some of the credit for their rather eclectic approach. When you’re just trying to get people out of their seat, you don’t necessarily worry about how easily marketed your sound might be. Still, the band came together quickly and within a year of forming had the aforementioned tour support gig, a John Peel session and a record deal. In 1975 they’d release two albums and do a tour documentary for the BBC.
VIDEO: Kursaal Flyers 1976 BBC documentary
The debut disc, Chocs Away, leans heavy on those country influences but starts with their most inventive, distinctive tracks, which aren’t particularly country. This frisson helps make the albums so interesting to listen to start to finish.
The slinky in-the-pocket bass hook driving “Pocket Money” is counterpointed nicely with female backing vocals, giving it a hopped-up R&B rock vibe similar to something the early New York Dolls might have tried. “Kung Fu” features a martial arts-flavored organ line, before slipping into a dub-inflected bounce that showcases their facility with catchy nugget-sized hooks.
Those two tracks (sandwiched around the traditional, Bill Haley-inspired rock of “Hit Records”) lead into the title track, a bustling bluegrass instrumental (!!), and the album highlight, the country-folk tale of a flagging race car driver’s fortunes, “Speedway,” fueled by mournful pedal steel. He’s lost his girl and with it his will: “We were going to marry, but one of us had to pass / And that’s another reason I’m not out there on that track.” The first album closes with a ripping cover over forgotten U.K. pub rock icon Mickey Jupp’s “Cross Country,” which spins off into an entertaining psych-tinged guitar blowout by the end.
The follow-up, The Great Artiste, goes the opposite direction, leaning into country before diversifying across the second half. The languorous pedal steel country opener, “The Ugly Guys,” is one of their best, turning the record charts into a metaphor for love. It imagines the girls “who line the streets outside the hall just to buy a seat to see their idols sing a song / while outside the ugly guys played on and on and on.” The titular track is a clever bluegrass meditation on the distance between our public and private personas in the guise of the mysterious Artiste.
But the country quickly gives way to more adventure. The lovelorn, aching keyboard-driven “Cruisin For Love” is new wave before it happened, reminiscent of Romeo Void, with a seductive synth line over insistent jangling guitars low in the mix like a nearby brook. The insanely catchy “Back to the Book” kicks off with machine gun drums but moves like Buck Owens as it traces an out-of-luck lover’s travails until it turns into The Crying Game.
Two more tracks jump out, “Pain and Misery” and “Hypochondriac” whose slinky rhythms, punchy guitar-driven rock hooks signal the band growing fascination with what would become power pop and new wave.
The second disc features their third album, 1976’s Golden Mile, which left behind the country for an eclectic mix of styles that ultimately flopped and led to the band’s breakup after the release of 1977’s Five Live Kursaals (disc three).
VIDEO: Kursaal Flyers perform “Little Does She Know” on Top of the Pops 1976
It opens with their hit send-up of fifties lovelorn songs where the singer sorta speaks into the camera, and driven by its humorously convoluted refrain: “Little does she know that I know that she knows that I know she’s two-timing me,” complete with an overwrought string section.
Golden Mile is an enjoyable ride with hardly a bump and plenty of unusual sights, making any avowed highlights more preference than dogma. From the call/response backing vocals to the odd ‘70s funk-inflected break, “Modern Lovers” is a treat. “Radio Romance” is strangely alluring despite its resemblance to seventies soft rock at times (which for these ears echoes the lyrical matter a complaint about liking the radio, “but it don’t like me”), and “When the Band’s on the Stand” sounds like the James Gang in Dire Straits, in the best way.
The third disc features the live album which serves as a reminder of how they got there in the first place: they’re a tight, energetic band with an array of songs that don’t sound all alike and they know how to perform. It’s the only place you can hear “TV Dinners,” another of their emotionally quirky, sonically punchy power pop numbers that never saw album release.
The disc’s filled out with several (previously released) unreleased tracks including “Television Generation” which cadges the guitar open from “God Save the Queen” and “Girls That Don’t Exist.” They were recorded in a session for a fourth studio album before the band broke up. When that happened drummer Will Birch and guitarist John Wicks took the latter song with them to The Records, a power pop act nearly as revered in England as Big Star is here.
The band reformed a decade later for a few shows and wound up recording a new album. Though largely forgotten, A Former Tour De Force Is Forced To Tour (which comprises the fourth disc), is a fine album full of really clever songs that suggest They Might Be Giants in their cockeyed spirit.
These include the surprisingly evocative “If You Would Only Talk To Me (Like You Talk To the Dog),” the story of a good girl turned bad (“Pre-Madonna”), the country-rock rave “My Sugar Turns to Alcohol,” and the wildly amusing, “Monster In Law,” which proves they missed their calling as the U.K. answer to Warren Zevon. “It was no fun, it was so frightening,” sings frontman Paul Shuttlesworth. “Each time she spoke it was thunder and lightning.”
Like a middle child, Kursaal Flyers got lost a bit between the dreck they inherited and the new to come. By the time the new wave they helped to inspired had taken hold, they were already on to the next thing. To their credit, The Records’ 1979 debut Shades in Bed was a success (thanks to the hit “Starry Eyes”) and helped to further propagate the power pop style they’d helped to codify. While it’s something of an oddity, it is interesting to note how much Kursaal’s twin interests in country and power pop would come to define the Los Angeles scene in the years after punk. Like dandelion seeds, stylistic vibes get into the air and can travel seemingly endless miles.
VIDEO: Kursaal Flyers’ Little Does She Know: The Complete Recordings, Cherry Red Records