Kevin Coyne: Case History – reissue album review
Kevin Coyne – Case History (Turpentine Records)
This welcome reissue of Kevin Coyne’s first solo album is the latest Turpentine Records release of his work. Louder Than War’s Frank Bangay finds it still relevant today.
Here is Kevin Coyne’s first solo album. Recorded in 1972 after Siren had split up, and shortly after Nobody Dies In Dreamland; the home recordings that Turpentine Records released last year.
Like the two Siren albums Case History came out on John Peel’s Dandelion label. However shortly after its release Dandelion folded and Case History became very hard to find. I didn’t get to hear the record until the early 1980s, when it was issued as a box set complete with the two Siren albums. More or less a vinyl version of the Dandelion reissues that came out in 2007. The label that issued the records in the early 1980s was called Butt records. The records logo wasn’t a dandelion but an ashtray overflowing with dog ends. When I listened to Case History the songs came across with a powerful directness that stirred up something in me. The songs are as direct as any punk recording of that time.
Case History was recorded very quickly. Kevin has been quoted as saying that the songs were recorded in three or four hours. Kevin has also been quoted as saying that Case History is not just an album but a whole period of his life. Indeed this becomes very clear as the album unfolds. Dave Clauge and Nick Cudworth from Siren accompany Kevin on the first two tracks. The opening track God Bless the Bride is an upbeat number where Kevin asks God to bless everything from the bride and groom and the families they have left behind, to the hotel by the sea, and the little room with its pot dogs. Track two White Horse is a gentle song. I have never understood what the song is about, but the imagery is quite fascinating. Track three (Uggys Song) is where Case History really starts to let rip. We find Kevin on his own with his frantic acoustic guitar playing. The album will continue like this. I mentioned the following in my review of Nobody Dies In Dreamland, but Uggys Song is the story of a black tramp who was murdered by the police in 1971. The police called him uggy because they considered him to be ugly. Sadly homelessness has reached epic proportions in these times. With the recent shocking murders of two homeless people and Big Issue vendors in Birmingham the song has much relevance. The next song Need Somebody is about growing old and lonely. However Kevin also expresses the difficulty someone can have in reaching out to a friend. Then comes Evil Island Home. Kevin paints a disturbing picture of England as he saw it at the time. I remember seeing Kevin at Battersea Town Hall in early 1980s. Kevin was playing mostly solo. He did a great version of the song Fat Girl; he also did a powerful version of Evil Island Home. (This was before I found the Dandelion Box Set). The song had a lot of meaning in the early years of Thatcherism. The early 1970s seemed like better times. But there were still things that were swept under the carpet, as the songs on Case History show England could still be a troubled place. The chorus to Evil Island Home comes across with a sense of disorientation.
As Case History moves on we pass through the primal Araby then we come to My Message To The People. This is very much a statement of intent from Kevin. He sings “don’t tie me to your steeple, don’t put me in the stocks in your market square“. He then sings “watch me now because into the tangles I go“. Indeed as the seventies progressed he did go into the tangles, often dealing with taboo issues. While Kevin’s guitar playing is very basic, it could also be very powerful. The next track Mad Boy is a picture of someone who has been diagnosed as mentally ill. Someone who others feel needs to be controlled. Kevin sings “fetch the doctor, the doctors done his job. No more disagreeing with his mother”. The songs chorus of “mad boy, mad boy” is quite otherworldly. These were the days of the old Victorian institutions, when rock musicians like Peter Green and Vincent Craine (from Atomic Rooster) would spend time in these places. Kevin’s mates from Siren return for Case History’s last track. Titled “Sand All Yellow” Kevin sings in two voices. One is the voice of the patient, the other one is the voice of the doctor. “The next patient Nurse Faversham is someone we know rather well. I saw her outside in the garden, she was crying, she needs help”. When Kevin speaks as the doctor there is a sinister tone to his voice. There are also references in the song to Nova and Women’s Own. Two popular women’s magazines from that period of time.
The booklet to Case History has an interview with Clive Selwood, John Peels companion at Dandelion. He says that Case History was recorded at a small studio in the South West London suburb of Morden. In the past Kevin has said that the studio was in the nearby suburb of
Wimbledon. But then South Wimbledon station is the stop before Morden on the southbound branch of the Northern Line. So both places are very close to each other. One thing that I sometimes think about is as follows. If Siren had been signed to Blue Horizon, the label that they first approached. Would label boss Mike Vernon have let Kevin make an album like Case History, the way that John Peel and Clive Selwood did.
After Case History the CD continues with some bonus tracks. They start with Cheat Me. A single that Siren issued shortly before they split up. The song also appeared the following year on Marjory Razorblade. Then we get the singles B side Flowering Cherry. This is a delightful song that I felt would have made a good A side itself. Cherry trees flower during March and April. The period when we move out of the cold and dark into milder weather with lighter evenings. As Kevin anticipates the coming of summer, he also hopes that his love will grow. Then we get alternative versions of Evil Island Home, My Message To The People and Mad Boy. My Message To The People features a reference to a song called I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate. This song was written by Clarence Williams and Armand Piron in 1915. Over the years it has been recorded by a number of jazz musicians. In 1960 it was recorded by an American Rhythm and Blues group called the Olympics. During the 1960s and 70s it became a part of the American folk scene and was recorded by artists like Shel Silverstein and Dave Van Ronk. In 1964 Liverpool beat group the Remo Four recorded a version of the song. Their version was released as a single at the time. Anyway back to Kevin. We get a previously unreleased Siren song called Doctor Love; this is a rough and ready rocker. Then there is another version of Cheat Me from a radio session. There is a version of Flowering Cherry with a delightful trombone solo. The record then finishes the way it started with another version of God Bless The Bride. But it is a nice song so I don’t mind.
Thank you to Robert, Eugene and Helmi Coyne at Turpentine records for making this CD available. I look forward to whatever they bring us next. Inside the booklet alongside the previously mentioned interview with Clive Selwood there are a number of quotes from Kevin concerning Case History. There is also a great black and white photo of Kevin and Dave Clauge performing at the
Marquee Club in London’s west end. While this record was released a long time ago I feel the things Kevin is singing about still have relevance in these times. Most of the old Victorian psychiatric hospitals have gone now, to be replaced by modern psychiatric units. But it is still much the same. Our life struggles can still lead us to nervous breakdowns. Case History is the beginning of a long and prolific career by of one of Britain’s most gifted songwriters.
One little thought. The song “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”. Includes the line, “Now she shimmy’s like a jelly on a plate”. Did this inspire the line in a song called The Wobble from Kevin’s 2003 album Carnival. The line being “Now she wobbles like a jelly on a plate“. The Wobble is a dance for round people, Kevin was rather round in latter years. It is understandable that round people may chose to wobble like a jelly on a plate.
All words by Frank Bangay. More work by Frank on Louder Than War can be found here.