Immaculate Fools – Searching For Sparks
Released 4 December 2020
Career spanning compilation set from Kent-based pop/rock outfit Immaculate Fools, comprising of six full albums cut from 1985 to 1996 and a disc of unreleased live performances, including six songs from a show at the famous Paris Theatre, recorded by the BBC. LTW Ian Canty’s is a bit of a fool and he’s far from immaculate as you know…
When Immaculate Fools appeared in the middle of the 1980s, they seemed totally out of step with the zeitgeist, which is not always a bad thing in retrospect. Making their mark during the decade of new pop, the band represented something of a throwback. They played well arranged, clever songs performed with few frills or frippery, apart from a very mannered vocal style. Another positive of this dislocation with the norm was that this left them not quite so open to the dubious modernist techniques of 80s production.
The Kent based outfit were made up of two sets of siblings, Kevin and Paul Weatherill on vocals/guitars and bass respectively, plus drummer Peter Ross and brother Andy on guitar. Already no youngsters, Kevin made the quantum leap from bass to guitar and singing and writing his own material past his thirtieth birthday. Immaculate Fools quickly established themselves as a hot property and were snapped up by A&M in 1984. They were actually signed up by Derek Green, who famously got the Pistols on and off the label in a week in 1977.
First single was Nothing Means Nothing was a good introduction into Kevin’s clear but jaded worldview, with the line “everything is measured in money” succinctly summing up the “greed is good” decade. It wasn’t a hit, but received airplay and got them noticed by the music press. But the next single, the catchy band calling-card Immaculate Fools, pushed them closer to the Top 40 early in 1985. They also made their presence felt on UK television too, via a spot on The Tube. So all indications looked good for their debut album Hearts Of Fortune, which came soon after the second single.
A big favourite of a young Miles “Wonderstuff” Hunt who provides a liner note to this set, the Hearts Of Fortune LP followed the Immaculate Fools single into the lower reaches of the UK charts. It was a fair debut album that perhaps didn’t push the band further because of a lack of variety. The two previously released singles are standout tracks and the third extraction Save It was unlucky not to make a mark as a 7 inch. Searching For Sparks starts the record on the front foot, with a light funk feel to the guitar and mid-paced rocker What About Me is pretty good also. Final offering Waiting also rumbles along tunefully.
Kevin’s voice here occasionally reminded me of Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs and it has to be said that the vocal style utilised is at times a bit overly mannered and overstated, which takes something away from the songs themselves. Having said that, the band exude a good energy and stood out from the 80s crowd as something a bit different on this LP. Bonus tracks on this disc come from the singles, with b-side Little Tickets being wasted as the reverse of the first single, being one of their best efforts I feel.
Despite not quite making the breakthrough the band and record company hoped for, the good critical reception to the album and fair enthusiasm from the record buying public offered some optimism for the future. It would be another couple of years before the follow-up Dumb Poet emerged. Two years is a long time in the pop world and over that time things had moved on. For a band with a small fanbase but not much way in terms of general public interest, the foothold that Immaculate Fools made in 1985 had been gradually eroded by 1987.
For this second collection Dumb Poet Kevin Weatherhill seemed to have toned down his mannered vocals just a touch. A positive move as it makes the whole band’s work much more palatable and really pays dividends. Keyboards feature strongly too for the first time and when this record really hits its stride towards its middle, it really is quite invigorating and charming. Tragic Comedy, which was a minor hit when extracted as a single, is a good catchy 1980s pop number quite similar to Every Breath You Take in structure. But in truth better was to be found elsewhere on the LP.
So Much Here is probably its crowning glory, a fine slice of acoustically-led folk pop with a dash of modern psychedelia. Wish You Were Here, although it flopped as a 7 inch, is another good effort and and subtle keys are smartly used on a driving She Fools Everyone. Finishing with the ethereal and slow-burning Stay Away, Dumb Poet is probably the most consistent album of the six presented here. Again single sides dominate the bonuses, with percussive All Fall Down being the most immediately pleasing.
In the intervening years between Dumb Poet and third LP, the Ross brothers departed and were replaced guitarist Brian Betts and Paul Skidmore on drums. This Immaculate Fools line-up was swelled by further additions in keyboardist Ian Devlin and violinist Barry Wickens. Added to the turmoil, A&M also let them go, but they were then picked up by CBS. In 1990 they released their first collection for the label Another Man’s World.
It’s a personal taste thing for me but if a violin isn’t used with some restraint in pop/rock music, there is a tendency that it dominates the sound too much. Which is unfortunately the case in Another Man’s World. The overly liberal and intrusive usage of it does tend to take over and also blot out the band’s strengths unfortunately on this record. It’s always there at the front of the mix and this listener felt I seldom got a breather from the dreaded fiddle.
Still if you can look past that there are a few fair efforts on Another Man’s World, though nothing to match up with the previous LP in my eyes. There’s good touches of synth and tense guitar on Got Me By The Heart and the breezy Stop Now follows. Bad Seed is effectively unsettling, but elsewhere the violin takes pride of place and made this platter of limited interest to me. A punchy and infectious All In A Day was my favourite among the bonus tracks on this one.
Thankfully a more rock & roll approach is brought to bear on the opening salvos of fourth LP The Toy Shop. A much better sounding record to my ears, it is good to hear Immaculate Fools cut loose for once. Coming straight out of the traps in a mass of feedback and samples, the powerful Stand Down sets down a marker which is immediately followed up with a chunky Heaven Down Here.
There are nods to the folk direction that they would increasingly follow on the poppy Cotillas and Wonder Of Things. The LP does slightly run out of steam the longer it goes on, but even so it was a pleasing return to something more upbeat. The extra tracks here are an edit of Stand Down and single flipsides Thanks, But No Thanks and All In A Day. The latter, with again some nice keyboard work, is a sedately paced treat.
By the time of Woodhouse in 1995, Immaculate Fools sounded a million miles away from their beginnings. They had moved from CBS to Cooking Vinyl, an imprint that was mainly concerned with rootsy types of music. This gave a definite hint of the band’s direction at this point in time. In truth this is a pastoral folk record, pure and simple. The album is well constructed with some sharp lyrics and it is all carried out with conviction. But I’m afraid again it didn’t do much for me. Recordings in such a well-worn style as this have to do something out of the ordinary to make a mark. Woodhouse, though pretty enough, doesn’t offer anything special.
To be fair sunny accordion work floods Some Of Us pleasantly, even if the singing does verge on Brian Pern a bit. Pass The Jug has good emotion and Rudy is a nice gentle folk tune. On the whole Woodhouse meanders along nicely enough, but for me didn’t make a lasting impression.
A year later came Immaculate Fools final album in their original run, Kiss & Punch. Again changing tack, this record commences with the heavy electric blues of Little Bird Sing. A similar sound informs a lot of what’s on this album, including the title track and the more laid-back No I Don’t Think So. Killing Field is a nice folk pop tune and the strange and dramatic Hard Peace a bit of an epic. El Amanacer is a brief coda which finishes off Kiss & Punch with the feeling of a bright chill. This disc ends with three pretty good live cuts of Hearts And Fools, What About Me and Immaculate Fools, which works as something of a primer for the live section of this set which follows.
The live disc takes in two portions from the BBC from 1985 and 1984 respectively and a 10 song set seemingly recorded at Salamanca after the release of the Dumb Poet LP in 1988. The two songs from 1985 that start this part of the set are a jangly, cocksure Little Tickets and the very snappy and immediate take of Tumbling Down. Next come six tracks come from The Paris Theatre in 1984 and find the band around the time they signed with A&M on good form. A touching take of Save It and the purposeful Nothing Means Nothing are probably my picks from this 1984 gig, which sounds like to was well-received by those present.
We move on to 1988 with a set from Salamanca in Spain. Immaculate Fools itself here provides the opener as a fragment, but after that unsurprisingly most of the set comes from the Dumb Poet album. The title track get a nice, atmospheric outing and One Minute is fresh and bright. All Fall Down has a good rhythm to it and set closer Searching For Sparks is a lively take of one of their more powerful numbers.
Though credited as a live set, to begin with the band appear to get no audible reaction at all from an audience. There is a little hint of something I think I detected before a rousing Hearts And Fortune (which confusingly fades out, as does Little Tickets), but little else apart from the odd feedback squeak here and a hoot there to indicate there might be a crowd. The tape of this show was rescued from a drawer, having been long forgotten and the sound is on occasion a little bit in and out. In fact this could easily be a studio session to be honest, but your guess is as good as mine as the sleeve notes do not offer up any detailed information on this final part of this collection.
The band split after Kiss & Punch, with Kevin Weatherhill going on to a solo career. He reformed Immaculate Fools in 2016 with a new line-up, but the sleeve note includes comments from him that he is now back working with original founder member Andy Ross. One thing also to note it that there is a disclaimer added to the notes on this boxset that reads “where original masters were not available, we have used the best alternative source possible”. Make of that what you will…
Long-term fans will lap up this comprehensive boxset, but the less-committed may well find it a little too much at seven discs to digest. Perhaps just a taste is what is required to see if the sometimes challenging vocal style and shifts of emphasis are to one’s liking. For my part, I found Dumb Poet and The Toy Shop mainly enjoyable and the live disc quite fun. I felt that the other four LPs have a few of decent tunes, but also were pretty hard going at times too. A band with something different that got lost in the 1980s shuffle, Immaculate Fools struggled after making early headway. They showed considerable resilience though and knocked together a few good songs during a lengthy career and you get the whole shebang here.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here