The Drones – The Albums 1977 to 1999The Drones: The Albums 1977 to 1999 – album review

Captain Oi!

4CD/DL

Released 20 November 2020

Boxset containing The Drones’ 1977 debut album Further Temptations, their 1999 comeback Sorted, live LP Take Shelter and a rarities disc mopping up various single, demo and EP cuts…Ian Canty thinks that he’s the bee’s knees…

Manchester band The Drones were one of a select few that possessed a pre-punk history which did not interfere with their acceptance in the new world of 1977. Two years before, the Howells brothers, singer Mike “M.J.” and drummer Pete “Peter Purrfect”, plus bass player Steve “Wispa” Cundall and guitarist Vic Long, made up the band Rockslide. They even got as far as issuing a single Jump Bump Boogaloo on Reward Records in the autumn of 1975.

Gary Callender, who took on the moniker Gus Gangrene (nicknames were big in The Drones’ Camp), joined the outfit and Vic Long soon dropped out afterwards. This change of personnel brought with it a change of name, to the more dynamic and punky sounding Drones, decided on after the band attended the second of two Sex Pistols’ shows at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester. They left the Rockslide title, with its connotations of the early 1970s, behind and decided to move into the future with the rapidly blooming local punk milieu of 1976.

Those Pistols’ gigs of course were vital in helping Manchester gestate a punk scene that rivalled London. The Drones made an impression at the local venues with an energetic live show and even went down south for gigs at London’s punk stronghold The Roxy. They cut the extended play Temptations Of A White Collar Worker for their close friend and roadie Dave Bentley’s own O.H.M…S. label in the summer of 1977.

Lookalikes in particular skilfully captured that desperate search for a personal identity away from the stifling conformity of Britain. This was an anxiety that occupied part of punk’s mindset, the desire to be different, to put the past to one side where it belonged. This song was also made the track-list of the noted Streets compilation album, which was issued at the end of the year. The EP is included in its entirety on the Rarities disc here and from the picture sleeve inwards, this record deservedly takes its place as one of the great early punk slabs of vinyl.

Temptations… was an instant success, selling 14,000 copies and led to The Drones’ signing to local independent Valer in time for the follow-up single Just Want Be Myself/Bone Idol. Their Stooges influence shows through on Bone Idol, which draws on Loose from Fun House in its vigourous riffing, but this was still a compelling musical outburst which captured the mood of the times perfectly.

The band’s sole John Peel session was broadcast in the same week that their first LP arrived. Further Temptations, the band’s debut album, emerged at the tail end of 1977. This is really not a “classic” 1977 punk platter like Never Mind The Bollocks, Damned, Damned, Damned or The Clash. But it does work more as a document of the times, as far as bottling the lightning of the spread of provincial punk a long way from the Kings Road goes. Further Temptations is much more DIY rather than haute couture and a lot more fun for it. Some re-recordings of the various single tracks like Lookalikes and Bone Idol are meaty sounding and well performed, if perhaps not preferable to the original cuts. You have to bear in mind, I suppose, the fact that fans late on the scene who may have missed out on the single and EP runs would have wanted to hear those songs as part of the LP.

At times their pre-punk hard rock experience does show through, like on the 12 bar boogie of Lift Off The Bans and the bust mid-pace of The Change, but overall their musicianship just adds up to more power. Persecution Complex was probably their best number after the singles and impresses as an album opener and The Underdog’s hints at a post punk direction that the band were not able to follow up. Big bass frequencies open it up and the semi-spoken vocal is more imaginative than one might give The Drones credit for.

The second side of the vinyl album for me is the stronger. With a redone Lookalikes (that wasn’t as good as on the EP but it is still a belter), the chunky sneer of No More Time and the tense and exciting City Drones all being the aces in the pack. Further Temptations is a satisfying punk record, the only downside being that it felt like the end of something rather than the beginning and so it proved.

After the album was released The Drones toured to support it, but gradually as the media turned against punk, they found it difficult to make any real progress. Be My Baby/Lift Off The Bans, both from the LP, were mooted for release as a single, but after a few hundred were pressed it was pulled. Nothing much was heard from them bar Peter Howells playing with J.J. Burnell’s band in 1979, having come into contact with each other when The Drones supported The Stranglers two years previously. Finally a new Drones single, Can’t See/Fooled arrived in 1980 on Fabulous Records. By this time the Howells brothers had replaced Gus and Wispa with John Ellis of The Vibrators and bass player Riki Legair.

This single forms part of the Rarities section, which makes up disc three of The Albums 1977 – 1999. It makes sense to look at disc three at this point, as all the recordings span from 1977 to 1980. Starting out is a cover of Iggy & The Stooges’ Search & Destroy. This appears to be the same recording as featured on Overground’s Expectations – Tapes From The Attic Drones compilation from 1997 (from which much of the Rarities disc is drawn). There it was tagged as being recorded back in November 1975, but here it is dated as coming from the band’s first demo tape in early 1977. Sounds a bit more realistic and this okay cover is followed by the Temptations EP and Just Want Be Myself/Bone Idol single, before we get the band’s John Peel session.

This is the complete Peel show recordings, the punchy and powerful street rock sound of Clique not being available before. Otherwise this is made up of three tunes from the album, with the usual unadorned production job that in its simplicity worked wonders for punk bands. The version of Movement is probably the pick, being a nicely tense Stooges update. This suite of songs is followed by Persecution Complex, taken from Short Circuit Live At The Electric Circus, which documented the last couple of nights of that legendary Manchester venue.

Three sets of two track demos follow. The first pair from June 1978, She’s Ok and another version of Clique, are far more keyboard-based, with the former having a large dollop of Stranglers influence. Three months later they cut Johnny Go Home (later redone of the Sorted album), a pub rock/new wave piano thing and a terrible version of The Crystals’ Then I Kissed Him (Her), with a truly toe-curling intro. Finally we get the May 1979 twosome Fooled and You Never Notice. The former starts brightly, before changing tack into a breezy pop/rock tune and the riffy You Never Notice is much in the same vein.

While the recordings sound ok, the songs aren’t particularly strong on any of these sets of demos. Something that didn’t exactly point to a rosy future. The Can’t See/Fooled Today single is actually a neat and catchy power pop record, but failed to make an impact. It was the last throw of the dice for The Drones this time round and not a bad way to go out on for them or this disc.

All went quiet after 1980, until The Drones were convinced to reform by Dave Bentley for the nostalgia fest that was the first Holidays In The Sun in 1996. M.J., who had spent time overseas since the band originally split up, Pete and Gus called in Pete “Geordie” Johnson to fulfil the bass role and they actually played twice during the festival. Playing live obviously relit the spark and they issued the Sorted/Johnny Go Home single in 1997, which was followed by the band’s second LP Sorted two years later, over two decades on from their first.

Housed in a very similar sleeve to Further Temptations, Sorted was a mixture of a couple of questionable covers, a song from their original incarnation that never saw the light of day back then, plus new compositions. The three originals were joined by Mark Standley of V2, who was now performing bass duties. It would have been hard, if not impossible, to recapture the snapshot of the time that Further Temptations was. There was no way the album was going to be anywhere near as charged with power and excitement of that debut LP. Though this is a record that ultimately fails to make too much of an impression, it is not a total disaster and a few of the better offerings included point away from just celebrating 1977 all over again.

Psychotic Woman and Dirty Bastards are sound-wise the closest to the original incarnation, but are let down by some duff lyrics. One has to wonder what they were thinking of covering American Pie, but their I Heard It Through The Grapevine is quite good, just a shame the Slits beat them with the definitive punk take 20 years beforehand. Better are I’ll Get Back To You, which benefits from some nice soul organ work plus a more relaxed feel and their tribute to Jon the Postman isn’t bad either. The title track is a bit of a glam punk stomper, but overall Sorted doesn’t offer enough to merit repeated plays.

The final disc here is the Take Shelter live album, recorded in 1998 at Tokyo’s Club Shelter in Japan. The sound is pretty good and the band seem up for it. Though with Sorted the only new track it’s hard to get away from the feeling that they appear pretty much on a nostalgia trip here. Having said that The Drones are full of energy and terse Northern humour marks their brief stage announcements between songs. They speed into Lookalikes a little too fast, but other than that this is a fair live showing that acts as a good souvenir if you saw the band around this time. Take Shelter showed that The Drones still had a bit of fire in their bellies twenty years on, if not offering a realistic alternative to their 1977 recordings. It’s ok, but pretty inessential.

As the 21st century dawned, Drones activity wound down again. I recall they were originally due for the Holidays In the Sun festival 2000 but didn’t play in the end, which was a little disappointing. Sadly both the Howells brothers have passed away in recent years, M.J. in 2013 and Pete in 2019. Wispa currently fronts a version of The Drones these days, in which he is the only original member.

I suppose the question is do The Drones warrant a 4CD set? They were a decent band who made a couple of exciting 7 inchers and a fairly good album in the late 1970s. But to be honest aside from those records, there isn’t much in their canon you would term vital. I do credit them for trying to record new material and not resting on their laurels on their 1990s reformation, even if Sorted doesn’t quite cut the mustard. The live album is a spirited showing and as a one-stop shop/introduction from scratch, this set does work well. The Drones made some good noises when punk was kicking off in the UK and they deserve some respect for that. In amongst some less than essential later recordings, The Albums 1977 to 1999 has them at their early, fiery best,

The Drones are on Facebook here

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All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here

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