Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts – The Sonet Anthology
Released 28th February 2020
This boxset of the country blues outfit also includes band member Jona Lewie’s pre-Stiff Records recordings and their pseudonymous 1972 hit Seaside Shuffle (as Terry Dactyl & The Dinosaurs). LTW’s Ian Canty hears a band out of step, out of time, but with plenty of raw blues hammer.
I have to be honest and admit that the thing that captured my interest in this set initially was the involvement of Jona Lewie. Though most people only listen to the erstwhile John Lewis (he obviously didn’t set much store on his given name arf arf) in the run up to Yuletide, in my opinion he is a true musical hero, sparsely recorded but hugely valuable. His 1978 album On The Other Hand There’s A Fist is an absolute gem. Released at exactly the same time as platters by Lene Lovich, Wreckless Eric and Rachel Sweet to tie into the “Bunch Of Stiffs Tour”, this wheeze meant the record was pretty much lost in the rush, but this was a fantastic showcase for Lewie’s highly individual talents.
Despite this setback he battled on and had deserved hit singles in You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties – yes, that song. 1982 LP Heart Skips Beat seems to be out of print, but was again full of JL’s charm, putting aside his own misgivings about the sound. So I was pleased that the sixth disc on this new set was chiefly made up of Gatecrasher (AKA Alias Jona Lewie), which gathered up most of his pre-Stiff Records times as a solo artist, and the Terry Dactyl & The Dinosaurs novelty material. The remainder of this disc is made up of other single sides he put out in the same timeframe, which we will look at later.
But having said that, there is much more to the Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts than just as a jumping off point to Jona’s subsequent musical adventures. Indeed, he only played a small-ish role in their history, having departed the band in the aftermath of the success of Seaside Shuffle, the Terry Dactyl hit single. That was well before the fateful night when they topped the bill at the London Poly, where some spirited youngsters called the Sex Pistols played before another support act Shabby Tiger.
It is perhaps a bit of a stretch to say that Brett Marvin stood apart from the rest of music in 1969 in the same way the Pistols did in late 1975, but not completely untrue. The main members of the band came together two years earlier, when the various founders happened across each other at the local East Grinstead blues club. Peter Gibson was playing in a folk duo at the time and saw the unnamed trio of Graham Hine, Keith Trussell (aka Keith Trouble, toting a strange musical instrument called a zobstick) and Ian Anderson play there (Anderson left early on and was replaced by John Randall and his trusty washboard). Along with another impressed onlooker Jim Pitts, he joined the three in the first version of Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts that came together in 1968.
During the course of a long and successful stint in residency at the Studio 51 club in central London, Groundhogs leader Tony McPhee offered the band a spot on a compilation album he was putting together called I Asked For Water…She Gave Me Gasoline. This was important because another artist featured on that record was one John Lewis, playing solo boogie piano after the Corsairs, his beat/r&b group, split. Soon Lewis/Lewie had joined the Thunderbolts and the first album line up of the band was now in place.
Brett Marvin & The Thundbolts peddled a very homemade, earthy version of the blues with an unusual instrumental line up. The group were as alien to the progressive rock that held sway as they could be. To compound the rift with the ultra-seriousness that seemed to be taking over pop music at the time, the band infused their live show with a fierce theatrical bent, using props, eccentric gambits (like filling the stage with paper bags for some unknown reason) and costumes. This got them noticed and they were signed to Sonet Records, the UK arm of the Swedish company, in the final months of the 1960s.
Though the wackiness of the stage show didn’t quite come over on their self-titled debut album (the cockney daftness of Hairy aside), a talent for ramshackle raucousness did. As alluded to above, not many people were doing this kind of thing at the time so it didn’t result in success for the Thunderbolts, sadly. However, what they did serve up was a boon to blues fans who didn’t really want a side-serving of heavy rock added to their sounds.
This first LP is a decent display of how to do dirty, authentic-sounding blues when hailing from Crawley, and for the most part with the odd bum note left in. They had the Pub Rock back to basics vibe before it was even thought of and a bit of the “anything goes” feel of both 60s freak-out and post punk at its most threadbare. Things threaten to collapse now and again, but the band’s manic energy just about sees them through. At times this album is a little one-paced, but overall their “seat of the pants” attitude wins me over.
Dust Ma Boom gets things off to a flying start. The band run through their party pieces that include that stick and swanee whistle, but they always keep the blues jam moving. The lengthy and fuzzy stomp of Shave ‘Em Dry is full of slide guitar-enhanced vigour and drive, which makes it a highlight. It’s no surprise that it was also released in a trimmed down version as a single (which is a bonus track on this disc). Jona’s Calcutta Got Beggar nudges some more rock elements to the mixture and the full-on thrash of Drop Down Mama verges on a punky skiffle sound. Despite a few shortcomings, Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts the album is an enjoyable enough record and a fair introduction to the band.
Second album 12 Inches Of… (ahem) found the Thunderbolts tightening up their formula a bit. They move slightly more towards the mainstream on this record, but still keep their frenzied blues attack primed. Take Your Money is a classy country blues holler and I’m Coming shows that the band had the ability to reposition their sound to take in more pop elements. Love In Jest is another pearl from Jona and Pete Gibson’s lovely Thoughts Of You, showing there was more than one budding songsmith in the band.
Little Red Caboose is a natural single. The original Henry Thomas song, which dated from way back in 1927, is a masterclass in restrained blues power and it is followed by the tough guitar lurch of Come On In My Kitchen. The band bid farewell on the LP with Goin’ Back, which slides into a rough singalong of Goodnight Irene. This second disc of the collection has one bonus track, a recut of the album’s I’m Coming retitled as Coming Back, issued at the time as the flipside to Thoughts Of You’s single release.
Around the time of 12 Inches Of…. Jona Lewie purchased an accordion on the spur of the moment whilst shopping in Brighton. This seemingly innocuous event would lead to a chart hit and, ultimately, to him leaving the Thunderbolts. Seaside Shuffle, a catchy hoe-down that was a showcase for his new instrument, wasn’t the rough and ready kind of thing the band was known for, but had real potential. Agreeing to release the track under the alias Terry Dactyl And The Dinosaurs, the single went right up to number 2 in the UK charts after some inter-label wrangling. The band were in demand in this new guise and as a result Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts were put on hiatus. After the hit and the less successful follow ups, Lewie opted to leave the band after having that taste of success.
This also led to the Thunderbolts being reactivated. They drafted in David Taffy Davies as Jona’s replacement, with bass player Tony Proto joining too. Pete Gibson, who had taken some time out, returned to the fold. All of which meant the band were in rude health for third album Ten Legged Friend. For the first time the band penned the vast majority of the material here, on the whole eschewing the sort of blues standards they reworked on the first two LPs. Graham Hine’s Wrong Man is great blues pop and his Bank Holiday is also fine and riffy. Drinking Song is pleasantly in the Faces/Slim Chance mode and Keith Trussell’s moody and atmospheric You Got Me On The Hook really hits the spot.
Ten Legged Friend continues the move from the raw blues of the first album to something more palatable for rock audiences, something that is also borne out by the bonus tracks appended to the LP here. Thunderbolt Rag, an album track rejigged for single release, has a measure of Seaside Shuffle’s appeal and Blow Me Down is a catchy bit of hard rock, even some near-glam drumbeats in places. The zobstick (actually a cane sort of thing with beer bottle tops attached to it) gets its own workout on Caribbean Zob Rock and final offering If You Need Somebody To Call is a good piece of street level rock & roll, if a far distance away from the Thunderbolts’ beginnings.
The fourth disc here is a compilation of live and studio tracks the band set down between 1970 and 1989 that remained unreleased until 1999. It’s very much for the completist, although the live takes are certainly feisty and give the listener an idea of their power in a concert setting. It is always nice to hear Brian Matthew’s dulcet tones and the two BBC-taped tracks Goin’ Back and Too Many Hot Dogs cut the mustard.
After a long time of just playing the odd gig here and there, Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts recorded Boogie Street in 1993, their comeback album. Like all comebacks it was a pale shadow of their early glory, which is what I would have been writing if it wasn’t rather lovely and probably my favourite album of the whole set. Time elapsing seemed to have a good effect on the band, mellowing them in a good way. It’s an accomplished recording that still maintains the energy of old, but now with added subtlety and the confidence to apply more depth to their work.
I enjoyed the whole thing but the slow, slow reading of Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster (the Rolling Stones’ version was a childhood favourite of mine) is excellent and Hurry Up Train successfully updates their old sound for the 90s, a treasure. There’s even some nice electronic touches on the two headed monster that is Free Again! They end the album proper with a right rave-up in Big City Beat (Remix) and the bonus tracks include a great pop blues nugget Miss You.
The final disc is, as mentioned above, an engaging round up of Jona’s solo activities before Stiff signed him. Here you can see the shoots of his new wave-era career in development as there are clear connections to the self-effacement and quirkiness which would stand him in good stead later. The Terry Dactyl stuff is most good-time accordion shuffles like the hit single, but She Left I Died shows the early dawning of a keen eye for detail and idiosyncratic viewpoint.
The centrepiece here is the near 10 minutes anthem Hallelujah Europe (Parts 1 and 2). It is no surprise Jona re-recorded this later as it is a beautiful piece of music and the refrain “with Eiffel Towers and towers of Pisa” is instantly entrancing, though the bit about not needing a visa may soon become redundant. But it’s great songwriting, and Lewie at his best ranks right up there with virtually anyone else. 1977 single b-side Cherry Ring shows a real Velvets influence in the guitars and Rocking Yobs is typically nuanced and self-parodying. There’s lots to love here and the Jona fan who only knows the Stiff material will have a whale of a time with this disc.
One thing that can’t really be argued is that Brett Marvin & the Thunderbolts offered an alternative to what was going on around them in the early 70s. There’s a whole heap of hardcore blues for anyone to devour on here, plus some delightfully skilful and diverting songs by Jona Lewie, Pete Gibson, Keith Trussell and Graham Hine. The comeback album Boogie Street puts them in a select group of acts that have made convincing returns, 12 Inches Of… captures them at their early height and the Jona Lewie disc is wonderful. An excellent set, not for everyone perhaps, but the Thunderbolts always brought energy, talent and a true sense of fun to their efforts, efforts which are admirably portrayed on The Sonet Anthology.
Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts website is here
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here