Fumble: Not Fade Away – album review

FUMBLE

Not Fade Away

Grapefruit

4CD/DL

Released 27 November 2020

The Complete Recordings 1964 – 1982 of rock & roll revival outfit Fumble, plus bonus recordings members of the band made in the 1960s as r&b/freakbeaters The Iveys…Ian Canty slicks back what remains of his hair and gets ready to Let It Rock…

In the new, post-Beatles 1970s, the sound of original rock & roll suddenly started to make inroads. The jaded atmosphere of the early years of the decade felt like “the morning after” and embracing the fresh, simple thrill of the rock’s birth was an excellent way to rid oneself from all the negative connotations of the hippie era. Also, there were still plenty of the original adherents to the teddy boy style that had kept the faith. Many had brought up their children to provide fresh blood for their ranks. Films like American Graffiti and The Lords Of Flatbush zeroed in on the original teen dream, of the greasers and their rock & roll kicks. All this helped to give outsiders a taste for the styles and sounds of that high time in the mid-50s.

At the same time as this was taking off, one Malcolm McLaren was just starting to occupy the back of a shop at 430 Kings Road London. At first he sold old 45s from the back of the shop, all from the classic rock & roll era. Tiring of fading hippie dreams, he decided instead to cater for the needs of the discerning rock & roller. Taking over the entire shop space, he and his partner Vivienne Westwood began tailoring high quality drape jackets and brothel creepers. The Let It Rock shop, as it was named, became a haunt for many a teddy boy hardliner.

In addition to this retro activity, the latest musical trend glam rock sought to update the simple highs of original rock for a futuristic space age. Of the newer bands, Mud and Showaddywaddy came a bit later and leant heavily on nostalgia for the 1950s, while at the same time crossing over into glam’s sense of the ridiculous. More authentic outfits like Shakin’ Stevens And The Sunsets and Crazy Cavan ‘n’ the Rhythm Rockers whipped up a storm for the teds and Chuck Berry and even Bill Haley were still big live draws. Fumble seemed to occupy an area somewhere in between the two, not really dressing the part or straying towards the tougher rockabilly sounds, but instead convincingly reworking 1950s pop and rock tunes.

The Fumble story begins with two childhood friends from Weston-super-Mare, Des Henly and Mario Ferrari. They became besotted with the exciting new teen music coming from America in the late 1950s and learnt instruments in order to try their luck in a rock & roll band. In 1962, the pair, along with John Watson on drums and Mario’s brother Remo, formed The Iveys. This band should not be confused with the one of the same name that went on to be Badfinger. They sometimes amended their name to The Four Iveys, perhaps to avoid confusion with that other act. They put out a self-released EP in 1964, followed by a single on Columbia released only in Sweden (where the band had some success) two years later.

Those cuts make up the first 8 tracks on this collection, along with another couple of numbers taped for Swedish TV. The four EP numbers sound very homemade and rough. Handclaps dominating over the music on a version of Little Egypt and Midnight Special has a quite weedy, spindly guitar sound. Generally percussion fares better, with a prominent tambourine motoring along on the r&b number Chicago Calling. Final EP track Corrina is something that would be revisited later in the Fumble days. This one works better than the up-tempo numbers and you can hear the Iveys’ developing talents in harmony vocals quite clearly.

Then comes two offerings from Swedish TV in Ferrari and Henly’s Bad Tough Luck Girl and The Isleys’ Shout. The sound is much better here and the former is pretty good beat/r&b and the cover an ultra-fast reading. Finally by The Iveys we have the Columbia single When Love Meant So Much To You/You’re Gonna Lose, a pair of band originals. Both sides are great punky freakbeat, with the unusual b-side You’re Gonna Lose just edging it for me.

In 1967 The Iveys broke up, so Des and Mario formed a new outfit The Baloons with keyboardist Sean Mayes and drummer Barry Pike. Though The Baloons had reasonable success as a live act, they didn’t impress the A&R departments from record labels enough to get signed up, though they did set down two session for Radio One.

When Mario was laid up with a broken leg in 1971 due to a skiing accident, it gave him time to reflect on The Baloons’ lack of progress. Thus he came up with a new direction and name. Fumble, as the renamed outfit would be known, would take inspiration and a large part of their songbook directly from those happy 1950s rock & roll times. They quickly built up a good live reputation and were snapped up by EMI’s off-shoot Sovereign. The band set about recording their live set for their first LP, released in the late summer of 1972.

The self-titled debut album came in a sleeve by Hipgnosis that was so painstakingly stuffed with 50s references that it could have easily been posed by McLaren and Westwood for a Let It Rock display. The latter part of disc one is that Fumble debut album and associated singles. Obviously very different in tone from The Iveys, what we have here are respectable, very authentic covers of old pop chestnuts and rarer rockers. It doesn’t sound earthshattering at this distance, but one has to consider that in the 1972 of prog rock the Fumble album must have at least seemed like it came from another world.

A gusty version of One Night and convincing take of Oh Carol are highlights, but everything is conducted with a genuine love for the tunes and no little ability. The more obscure picks work better – they simply don’t have Little Richard’s blazing mania to make The Girl Can’t Help It compete with the original (who could?), but having said that they do a good job of Chuck Berry’s Let It Rock. They also hit the right note on Nut Rocker, Kim Fowley’s loopy instrumental, and overall Fumble the album provides a good measure of unpretentious fun, something that was in short supply during the early 1970s.

For me though Fumble really start to get interesting when they began to include their own material among the single sides which finish off disc one. They’re not too far away from the Flamin’ Groovies on the energetic and cool Get Up and Million Seller is a neat Jonathan Richman/Buddy Holly cross. The section of the set ends up with a jokey send up of the “death disc” in Ebony Eyes, which was featured in slightly more solemn form on the LP proper.

Though not showing in the charts Fumble were making friends in the right places, with David Bowie among them. Much taken with the LP sleeve design and their verve and authentic approach, he invited the band to support him on UK and US dates. Bryan Ferry was mooted to produce the band, something that never happened in the end, but it all played into a higher profile which resulted in them being signed by RCA in time for their next LP.

On second LP, Poetry In Lotion, there was a change in tack, with it containing a mix of original and covers. By this time the Fumble ranks had been swelled with the recruitment of guitarist Dave Christopher and they also included additional instrumentation too. Their song Marilyn is a real epic, with strings playing a part in a piece of thoroughly modern (at the time) orchestrated pop nugget.

They hadn’t completely abandoned the 50s songs that made their name though, with a deconstructed version of Not Fade Away, also released as a single, hitting the spot. There is more than a tinge of country rock to Fumble here, on Here We Go Again for example, plus a more contemporary pop sound, like on the anthemic Free The Kids. All of which made for a more satisfying collection for me than the previous set.

Unfortunately the album and its singles made no impression on the UK pop public. RCA swiftly canned Fumble and the latter half of the 1970s were at times trying for the band. Even as the end of the decade neared and bands like Darts started scoring big hits using a similar formula to the Fumble five years before, they struggled to make any headway, despite still going down well live. One bright spot was regular work as the house band for successful stage show Elvis – The Musical and for the TV revival of Jack Good’s Oh Boy.

But as for their own recordings, only four singles were issued by the band from 1974 to 1978. Carol Please Come Home, which appeared in April 1977, is a good Phil Spector pastiche and Rock ‘n’ Roll School, also written by producer Mike Hurst, is a lively enough number. Dave Christopher was replaced by Dave Bennett and then Kevin Adderley, but by spring of 1977 they were back to the original four piece. The final songs on disc two come from a session taped in late 1976, with a feisty couple of cover takes of The Animals’ We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place.

Still unable to garner any record company interest in 1979, they self-released Rumble With Fumble, a cheaply produced “official bootleg” LP. The band run through a collection of standards plus their own Get Up, drawn from a series of performances supporting Fats Domino. There’s a bit too much crowd noise and echo on the vocals – very much bootleg audio, but the album does manage to give the listener a fair indication of Fumble’s live power.

A jazz intro to Arthur Crudup’s That’s Alright Mama demonstrated how playful Fumble could be with the old classics and a tough Say Mama is a real powerhouse. They even revisit Corrina Corrina from their Iveys’ days and Nut Rocker takes the roof off – you can tell they were in their element here. The remaining cuts on this disc are from the Elvis – The Musical and Oh Boy! shows. Tupelo Mississippi Flash is a humourous exposition piece from the Elvis show and All Around The World is coolly despatched.

By 1982 you could have forgiven Fumble for calling it a day, but they got one last shot via German EMI/Electrola with fourth and final album, It’s Only A Rock ‘n’ Roll Game. I personally wished they had gone for broke here and only recorded their own songs. But instead they fell back on their staple recipe of covers and originals. By this time saxophonist Paul McGreavy had joined the band, bringing them up to a five piece again.

The original songs shine here. All four original members contributed towards the writing of the rock solid r&b of opening track Feel Like Rocking Tonight and They Call It Rock ‘n’ Roll is another fine modern pop number. Perhaps the very best is Not A Kid Anymore, a truly touching ballad which shows keen insight into the growing pains of family life, without any of the mawkishness that could entail in lesser hands. There’s lively takes of Who Put The Bomp and the horns-led Greenback Dollar, but if Fumble had just a little more faith in themselves and their songwriting they may have gone much further. By 1982 though, their time had passed and the album sank without making a mark and that was that.

Even so, It’s Only A Rock ‘n’ Roll Game is a very good collection, with a decent variety and no small measure of skill. After non-LP b-side Tell The Truth, Honey, the set ends on a high with a good BBC session from 1979, where the band motor through then-current single Mama Don’t You Hit That Boy, Tupelo Mississippi Flash, Your Mama Don’t Dance and Chuck’s No Money Down, plus an interview which touches on their Oh Boy!/Elvis adventures.

In a lot of ways Fumble were a frustrating outfit. Though they obviously made their name as a retro 1950s nostalgia act with their first LP, in the end it did them a disservice. Their own songs scattered among the other albums and singles were easily of a good enough quality to launch themselves as something a bit more than a live jukebox. They found themselves in a bind in that after that debut they were fixed in the public eye as a rock & roll covers group, a tribute band in modern parlance. This inevitably meant from there on it would be an uphill struggle to move away from this and into creating something of their own.

Added to that, they didn’t really help matters by still recording a large amount of covers over the years. These tried and tested songs were crowd pleasers live no doubt, but would anyone want to play them at home/buy them rather than the originals? In my view they would have been far better off moving away from the versioning after the first LP, because Fumble penned some sterling material that is well worth hearing. The originals of Poetry In Lotion and It’s Only A Rock ‘n’ Roll Game put together on one album would have made for a cracking pop collection. As it was, Fumble fell between two stools. Don’t let that put you off Not Fade Away though, if you like pop seasoned with 50s rock & roll thrills, there is plenty here to please.

~

All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here

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