Kevin Coyne: Nobody Dies In Dreamland(Turpentine Records)
Prolific songer-songwriter & self confessed “outsider” Kevin Coyne had a long career which ended upon his death in 2004. To quote Andy Kershaw he was “a national treasure who keeps getting better” and was one of the great British blues voices. Here Frank Bangay reviews the latest posthumous release by someone who truly was a great man.
These recordings were made in 1972, after Siren, the band Kevin was in, had split up. Also shortly before his first solo record Case History was recorded. The story behind this record is as follows. Someone gave Kevin a one track reel to reel tape recorder. In his rented flat in Clapham South London where he lived, he recorded these songs. His guitar and harmonica being the only musical accompaniment. It is a stark setting but there is warmth and humour too.
While Siren played down to earth rhythm and blues and rock and roll, every so often there were songs that hinted at the direction that Kevin would travel in during his solo career. For example the first Siren album contains a song called Asylums based on his experience working as an Art Therapist at the Whittington Hospital. Here he sings from the point of view of an inmate looking out at the so called ‘normal’ world. In the 1990s some unreleased Siren material appeared on CD & I felt that ‘Let’s Do It’ with its poetry and acoustic songs, and ‘The Club Rondo’, were close to some of what Kevin would do during his solo career.
Anyway back to Dreamland. Some of the songs would appear on Case History. The opening track Black Cloud appeared on his 1984 album âLegless In ManilaâÂ. Here the lyrics are slightly different. When Kevin sings about black forms appearing around his bed, it makes me think of the Blind Lemon Jefferson song ‘Black Snake Moan’. The second song Distant Desert features Kevin on slide guitar. Kevin very rarely played slide guitar, so it is interesting to hear him play it here. Kevin would go on to work with some gifted slide players like Gordon Smith. Included here also is ‘Witch’ from ‘Blame It On The Night’, here it is titled ‘Bitch’. Then there is a song called ‘One More Drink’ that would become an outtake from sessions for ‘Blame It On The Night’. Also here is ‘Marlene’, a song that appeared the following year on Marjory Razorblade. With its organ playing it rocked along and was the most commercial track on the album. I saw Kevin live in 1975, he had a full band with him. However at the beginning of the gig before the band came on, he did an acoustic version of Marlene. But that is the way Kevin liked to work. In the 1990s Kevin would turn Marlene into a little piece of music hall comedy. He would talk about Marlene as being someone he knew in Derby in 1958. The song would take on a similar theme to Jackie and Edna from Marjory Razorblade, and the Lancashire Song from Sugar Candy Taxi.
The songs that would appear on Case History are as follows. ‘My Evil Island Home’. ‘Need Somebody’ (here it is titled ‘Now That I’m Getting Old’), then there’s ‘Araby’, ‘Mad Boy’, and ‘Uggy’s Song’, here titled ‘Tramps Song’ (see above). This song is about a black tramp who was murdered by the police in 1971. On songs like this and ‘Mad Boy’ Kevin showed great compassion for the outsider. On songs like ‘Need Somebody’, and another song called ‘Hypnotise’, Kevin portrayed himself as the outsider. Kevin interspersed the words of a couple of his songs with blasts of harmonica. These songs, ‘Baby Man’ and ‘Mandarin Mirror’ echo the spirit of country blues harmonica players like Sonny Terry. Lyrically however they are very much Kevin Coyne. But then Kevin’s song writing was influenced by delta blues song writing. In fact Kevin created his own version of the blues, singing about the troubled England of those days. There is one cover on ‘Dreamland’. This is a version of ‘Georgia On My Mind’, a lovely song made popular by Ray Charles. It is also a song that Kevin used to sing on talent nights in local pubs. Here Kevin accompanies himself on guitar. It is different from how Ray Charles did it, but his delivery is still very soulful.
There are places on this CD where you can hear the tape machine being switched off and on, the guitar is sometimes very basic, these recordings are sometimes a bit disturbing, there are rough edges, though sometimes little childlike melodies appear. Kevin sometimes liked having rough edges on his music. The record is in the same spirit as old Delta Blues recordings. It is very effective indeed. Kevin was also inspired by music hall comedy. George Formby, Rob Wilton, and Frank Randal being examples. This adds something else to Kevin\’s music. ‘Mean Mole Catcher Man’ finds Kevin on the Northern Line – Kevin’s local tube station Clapham Common is on the Northern line. Clapham North and Clapham Common stations both have island platforms. The tracks run on either side. Having used these stations a lot in the past, I have often found those island platforms a bit scary. This song is raw blues. ‘I Love You Baby Baby’ features Kevin playing drums on his guitar. Towards the end of this CD the songs take on a nocturnal feel. First there is ‘Sleepwalking’, then ‘Night Man’. On ‘Night Man’ his guitar playing is very basic. The title track closes the album. This features Kevin playing harmonica while his son Eugene. then aged six, recites the lyric.
This CD features some colour photos of Kevin in his flat in Clapham. Also some sleeve notes from Eugene and Robert Ferguson, plus quotes from Kevin and from Al Clark. It helps to keep the spirit of Kevin Coyne alive. In his songs he sometimes sang about subjects that few other people did. ‘Uggys Song’ remains relevant, with the terrible plight of homelessness in our cities, and what often seems like an uncaring attitude put across by governments, towards this ever growing issue. Hopefully this album will reach a few new people. If you like the delta blues then this record is worth listening too. If you like Lo Fi music then I think you will like this. Like the Virgin Anthology box set from 2010, it is a testimony to the talents of a much missed national treasure.
To purchase a copy of ‘Nobody Dies In Dreamland’ go to Kevin’s website.
For more about Kevin Coyne and his long prolific career visit Pascal’s Kevin Coyne website.