Fabulous Poodles – Mirror Stars: The Complete Pye Recordings 1976-1980
Released 29th June 2018
Compilation including everything the Pub Rock/New Wave band Fabulous Poodles recorded for the Pye Records imprint, along with demos and a 1979 live recording from New York’s Bottom Line club….Ian Canty ruminates on their doggy doings…..
Though pre-dating Punk and having an almost identical instrumental line-up to the Doctors Of Madness (violinist, guitar, bass, drums), the Fabulous Poodles were worlds apart. For a start, songwriter John Parsons co-penned a lot of their material, but was a “silent partner” not playing or singing on recordings. Kind of like Gordon Ogilvie used to be with SLF. The folks that did show up on recordings were Bobby Valentino on the fiddle, bass player Richie C. Robertson, Bryn Burrows behind the traps with singer/ guitarist Tony de Meur rounding off the quartet and the sound they came up with much more of a pared down, roots Rock approach, with the violin adding Country and Folk touches.
The Fabulous ones came together in the middle of the 70s and were one of many that initially operated in the circuit opened up by the Pub Rock boom, without quite fitting in. Seeing the changes that Punk brought in, they moved into the future. Honing their skills, they specialised in a slyly humourous songs and comic stagecraft which was not quite as far along the comedy Rock spectrum as the Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias, but perhaps a little more in that direction than, say, Squeeze. Judging on the early recordings found here, the Poodles were also a little in the thrall of Graham Parker and the Rumour, being both angsty and soulful (which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing) when not aiming for the funny bone. Their music and “wacky” name appealed to John Peel among others and he granted them 4 sessions in two years, with their October 1976 session being their introduction to a wider audience than the London area gig circuit.
Before this activity there was a single in 1975 as the Poodles called Chicago Boxcar on Private Stock Records (home of the first Blondie album). Then they became Fabulous and signed to Pye Records two years later. Pye were one of the big boys in the 60s, but by this time they were firmly set in a downward spiral, with their last really big hits being by 1976 Eurovision winners Brotherhood Of Man. The record company still had a bit of clout on the back of that though, and Who bassist John Entwistle was drafted in to produce the first FP album, even playing on three tracks (Mr Mike, Cherchez La Femme and Doctor).
Despite this move that would give them the attention of the more rabid Who fans and some column inches in the music press, the self-titled debut album didn’t register much with the record buying public. They were still working things out, but Disc 1 is not a bad compendium of their early work and the bonus tracks are interesting and give pointers to their future. Here the Poodles skirted the area between Pub Rock and New Wave, never really leaving the former behind, whilst not yet fully embracing the more modern accoutrements of the latter.
The strongest songs that the band had at their disposal at this point in time come one after another on the album, a few songs in. Workshy is an eminently catchy piece of pre-Punk Rock & Roll, lodging itself in my memory in no time. Bike Blood is similarly memorable and so good they re-recorded it for Think Pink two years later. Cherchez La Femme and Mr Mike hit the spot too, with the later spoofing Doo Wop before gathering a real head of steam. Sometimes they seem to be too self-consciously reaching for a punchline, like on Rum Baba Boogie (though they didn’t use the old Two Ronnies gag “and what to wear if you’ve got them”) and Pinball Pin Up. Overall it isn’t a bad record, though there is a slight lack of punch which may have resulted in it not connecting with the listeners as it might have.
As for the bonus tracks on this disc, the “Punk” version of the old My Fair Lady musical ditty On The Street Where You Live is fun and also pretty convincing, the slick MOR vocal styling set nicely against a furious and noisy backing. We get 1976 recordings of Work Shy and a folky, reasonably amusing cover of the Gary Glitter song I Love You Love. Also present are a 1978 remake of their first single Chicago Boxcar and future near-hit Mirror Star is previewed. This section is rounded off by three early takes of songs that would feature on the next LP, B Movies, Suicide Bridge and Toytown People. Each show a band progressing away from their beginnings into a style more of their own.
The Poodles really came into their own on the second album, 1978’s Unsuitable, where they really found their own identity. This LP includes the song that came close to breaking them into American charts, Mirror Star. Though the story-line of a Rock & Roll dreamer finally coming good wasn’t original, they built the song up with great panache and craft. In the sleeve note band leader Tony de Meur AKA Ronnie Golden (the man who, among other comedy appearances, might be best remembered for portraying Buddy Holly hanging from the ceiling in The Young Ones) says that there are a few things on here that make him wince. I would have thought that the lyrics to Convent Girls (an otherwise snappy bit of New Wave) and also Tit Photographers Blues probably were the ones he was thinking about. But it is true, as he also notes, to also consider they were the work of a youngster in his early 20s.
We shouldn’t forget that in addition to these slight aberrations he and the Poodles could come up with something as bewitching as the marvellous B Movies – wonderfully sepia-toned nostalgia. The snappy Reggae of Toytown People is neat too, with clever, sarky words that match Costello sneer for sneer and Third Rate Romance is a keenly observed, country-tinged observation of a love gone wrong. Suicide Bridge (which was also recut on Think Pink) ends things on a much darker note, proving that the Fabs could cut it with serious numbers too. This, for me, is their best and most consistent record.
This disc also contains the single cut of Workshy and a pretty hot six song session from 1979. In fact it is a wonder how the intense and sharp Poison Pen and Reggae-tinged Talking Trash didn’t make the next album, especially considering that two previously released album tracks were redone on it – both these new songs were more than tough enough to do the business in 1979. They also successfully repeated the “Punk” trick of On The Street Where You Live on Pink Christmas, which could have been a mad yuletide hit in 79 if given the chance.
The final album by the Fabulous Poodles was sunk before it even had a chance, mainly thanks to one of the more bizarre marketing ideas of the era and indeed of all time. Some bright spark at Pye decided that what the band really needed was an album housed in a sleeve four times the size of a normal 12″. That was sure to push them onto success, packaging that didn’t fit in any of the racks at a record shop and even if you did find the LP somewhere, would be tricky to store in your home. I remember the LP being the subject of a competition in Smash Hits at the time, but this was not an automatic guarantee of success and the LP sank without trace, even though it leads off with the old Everly Brothers/Mod Pop favourite Man With Money, which even got the approval of Don E.
Even so, this LP had a fine single in Bionic Man, full of the smart wordplay that was now a Poodles trade mark. The re-treading of two old numbers (as mentioned above) didn’t seem a good move especially when they had at least a couple of good tracks waiting in the wings (the bonuses on disc 2), but they still had a few new tricks to show us. Cossack Cowboy is in the throwaway pun mode, but the gritty guitars power it on nicely and You Wouldn’t Listen is the kind of sweet New Wave Pop that could have sat comfortably next to Nick Lowe’s Cruel To Be Kind in the UK charts of 1979. Less impressive is the questionable Anna Rexia and the mad semi-instrumental with daft chants Pink City Twist, which appears to be an attempt at a Rock Lobster-style wig out. It is fun if a little disposable, but it does segue nicely into Vampire Rock, a purposely over-wrought faux-Horror Rocker.
The bonuses on this final disc include a single take of Bionic Man, an early version of final single Stompin’ On The Cat and a more or less straight reading of Chuck Berry’s Don’t Lie To Me. As if to prove these Poodles didn’t have much luck, there is a live selection from a gig in 1979 at New York’s Bottom Line club, where the host of the radio show broadcasting the set notes that their equipment was stolen in Boston just prior to their first appearance in the Big Apple. That could have thrown lesser men but it is hardly noticeable here, they do a short but sweet version of the Kinks’ You Really Got Me and give good workouts to misty-eyed loved song Oh Cheryl and, of course, Workshy. Fittingly, the last track here is forces’ sweetheart Vera Lynn’s old chestnut We’ll Meet Again, done in a suitably daft acapella style due to their equipment troubles.
A Rockabilly single, entitled Stompin’ With The Cat (the change of wording with a mind to placating possible problems with the RSPCA), was released in the album’s wake, but didn’t manage to cling on the coattails of Matchbox or Rocky Sharpe And The Replays and after its failure the band split for good. Tony de Meur still performs live as part of the band Ronnie And The Rex and I saw him a couple of years back alongside wonderful comedy veteran Barry Cryer – still keeping the comic Rock flag flying. For his part Bobby Valentino co-wrote and played on the Bluebells’ Young And Heart and clocked up a lengthy list of session credits down the years.
This new compilation was sorely needed, as the Poodles have practically been forgotten. Which is a shame, because at their best they provided some gems of finely observed, bittersweet New Wave. Their image as a comedy outfit did them a disservice, allowing people to write them off without truly listening to them. Yes, I will concede, there are times that the words do show their age, but they are outnumbered by great creations like Workshy, Poison Pen, Bionic Man and most of all B Movies. The Poodles were Fabulous on enough occasion to warrant you checking them out, even at this late stage in the game.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here