Frank Bangay walks us through a 2 CD set reissue of prolific singer-songwriter and ‘anti-star’ Kevin Coyne’s excellent albums, originally released on John Peel’s specialty record label.
Here are the two official Siren records released by the Dandelion label back in the day, showing Kevin Coyne in his mid-twenties during the early stages of his professional music career. Of course before this he had worked as a bus conductor and then as an art therapist in the Whittington Psychiatric Hospital in Preston Lancashire, an experience that would inspire a lot of his work as did the struggles of his older brother Arthur.
Kevin teamed up with piano player Nick Cudsworth, a friend from Derby (Kevin’s hometown), and Dave Clauge, a guitarist and bass player who had been in the Bonzo Dog Band, and together they formed Siren. A few different drummers and guitarists passed through the band, including drummer Tad Meager and guitarists David Gibbons, Mick Gratton and John Chichester.
Siren sent a tape to disk jockey Mike Raven, who ran a very good blues show on Radio One at the time. Unfortunately he didn’t like the tape much, but sent it to John Peel with a note saying “not my scene”, and John Peel liked it a lot. The band had auditioned for Blue Horizon records, probably the leading British blues label in the late 60s. However it didn’t work out so Siren signed with John Peel’s Dandelion label.
Siren’s self-titled first album came out in 1969. In Clive Product’s excellent book Beautiful Extremes: Conversations with Kevin Coyne, Clive interviews John Peel who says that hearing Siren was like a breath of fresh air. In the late 1960s, tracks were getting longer and longer, and John Peel, growing up during the rock and roll years in the 1950s, welcomed the down to earth approach of Siren. He felt the same way in 1976 when he first heard The Ramones.
The album starts with the upbeat “Ze-Ze-Ze-Ze”, next are versions of two blues songs – “Get Right Church”, a blues spiritual by Mississippi Fred McDowell, then “Rock Me Baby”, a well known blues song by BB King.
The album then continues with some self-penned songs. There are rockers like “Gardener Man” and “Sixteen Women”, and ballads like “And I Wonder” and “First Time I Saw Your Face”. All most enjoyable, they show Siren’s love of the blues and rock and roll, which John Peel obviously connected with. In Clive Product’s book, Peel said that what is on this record is pretty much taken from the demos that Siren sent him.
“Wake Up My Children” and “The War Is Over” both relate to the ending of a war, possibly the Second World War. Perhaps these songs reflect some of the experiences of Kevin’s brother Arthur (as Arthur was born before the Second World War started). Of special interest is an acoustic song called “Asylum”, where Kevin sings about his experiences working at the Whittington Hospital. The song is also relevant to all of the old Victorian Asylums, with their greyness and their long dark corridors. Kevin sings this song from the point of view of a patient looking out at the so-called normal world. This record is a promising debut. It shows that Siren had something worthwhile to offer.
At the end of the disc are some bonus tracks, including a couple of Siren singles, the Blue Horizon demos, and songs from a radio session. There is also a song recorded live at Tat’s, whoever Tat was/is. There are two versions of “Bottle Up And Go”, a song that I have associated with Blind Boy Fuller, but many other people have recorded the song as well. “The Stride” shows Siren recreating 50s rock and roll, and is driven along by Nick Cudworth’s piano. Nick Cudworth also writes an article on Siren that appears inside the CD booklet.
Both Siren and Strange Locomotion have bonus discs of tracks that weren’t released at the time. Some of these recordings were released in the 1990s on albums like Rabbits, Let’s Do It, and The Club Rondo. The tracks here come from Rabbits and Let’s Do It. The disc starts of with a soulful version of “Blues Before Sunrise”, credited to blues singer Leroy Carr.
As the disc progresses we hear more of the band’s compositions. The acoustic song “In My Room” could have come from Beautiful Extremes (a compilation of great previously unreleased acoustic songs Kevin recorded between 1974 and 1977, I hope Beautiful Extremes makes it on to CD one day.) Another track “Money” features Kevin singing acapella, and closing track “John The Baptist” is as disturbing as some of the things that Kevin recorded during his solo career.
In 1971, Siren Released their second album Strange Locomotion. Kevin has said he prefers it to the first album. Indeed it does sound like a development on the first album, although it still had some fine moments. The cover of Strange Locomotion features a drawing of a fat man standing by a bicycle, which shows a little quirkiness.
The opening track “Relaxing With Bonnie Lou” is a good-natured rocker. Kevin sings about Bonnie Lou being fat and old but he loves her all the same. The next track “Some Dark Day” like the title suggests is a bit darker in it’s mood. Here Kevin questions some of society’s social norms. “I believe that school taught me to remember sticks and lashes. Though people tell me school was nice, all flags and toothy flashes”.
We are then back with another rocker called “Hot Potato”, followed by a lovely song called “Soon”, where Kevin anticipates the return of springtime. The next track “Gigolo” reminds me of a song called “Fun Flesh” from his 1982 album Politicz. However, the repetition of money, money, money, reminded me of “Your Holiness”, another track from that album.
“I’m All Aching” is a tender love song. Apart from “Sunday Morning Sunrise” Kevin wouldn’t return to gentle love songs until the late 1970s, on albums like the previously mentioned Beautiful Extremes, Dynamite Daze, and Millionaires and Teddy Bears. The title track “Strange Locomotion” is an nice upbeat number and a song that would continue to appear in Kevin’s set over the years. Another nice track is the bluesy “Lonesome Ride”.
The bonus tracks include a song called “Lillian” from the American version of Strange Locomotion, and another version of “Soon” from a radio session, as well as an alternate version of “The Stride”. Listening to these CDs made me realise how much Siren capture the spirit of 50s rock and roll, and also what a good piano player Nick Cudworth is. As well as the blues, I felt Siren had a folk influence in their music.
The second disc starts of with the up-tempo song “Marilyn”, we also get a version of “Whole Lot Of Shaking Going On”, a song made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis. There is a version of the blues number “Trouble In Mind”, and another version of “Blues Before Sunrise”. As the disc moves on we get an electric version of “John The Baptist” to compliment the earlier acoustic version.
Songs like “The Lunatic Laughs”, “Forked Lightning”, and “Wait Until Dark” again echo some of the things Kevin would do during his solo career. “Our Jack” from The Club Rondo is a delight to behold. It is the story of a “mental patient” caught up in the revolving door of psychiatry. The first half of the song is sung from the perspective of Jack’s mother, the second half sung by Jack looking at his situation. Jack finds it hard to fit in with the 9 to 5 routine, the daily grind, and is portrayed as being a bit too sensitive to fit in.
Inside the CD booklet there is an interview with Dave Clague. Dave says that there was another album called Rabbits planned, which would have included both songs and poetry. This would have been released between the first album and Strange Locomotion. Unfortunately that never happened. As I mentioned above, an album called Rabbits was released in the 1990s, but it didn’t contain any poetry.
The closing track on the second disc is a spoken word piece called “Rabbits”. It came out in the 90s alongside other poems on Let’s Do It. But was it meant to be one of the poems on the Rabbits album? Here Kevin portrays a world where rabbits are taking over, and we are all turning into rabbits.
These records show Kevin in the early stages of his professional musical career and the bonus discs offer some pleasant surprises, but these records also show what a good band Siren were. I will admit to liking some of the progressive rock at the time, and I still like some bands from that time, but mostly it is something I would start to get bored with and look to alternative forms of music. For example, I started to take an interest in reggae, and after hearing “Marjory Razorblade”, I got into Kevin Coyne in a big way. At a time of long solos and tricky time signatures, Siren offered a valuable alternative with their down to earth approach.
To buy these CDs visit Turpentine Records here.
The official Kevin Coyne website can be viewed here.
To read more about Kevin Coyne and his long and prolific career, visit Pascal Regisâs modest tribute to a great musician here.
All words Frank Bangay. Frank is a musician himself & you can hear some of his own recordings at his Myspace.