The Times – My Picture GalleryThe Times: My Picture Gallery (6 CD boxset) – album review

Cherry Red Records

6CD/DL

Out Now

Subtitled The Artpop! Recordings, this new 6CD set features the albums Ed Ball’s band The Times recorded between 1981 to 1986 for the Pastell, Whaam! and Artpop! labels prior to signing to Creation. Each disc comes with bonus tracks and the boxset’s booklet has a sleeve note written by Lois Wilson. Ian Canty views six self-portraits…

For me it is impossible not to think of Ed Ball as the 1980s equivalent of Ray Davies, while his colleague Dan Treacy figured as the post punk Syd Barrett. The pair had launched The Television Personalities back in 1977. They were inspired by the punk movement, but also not adverse to looking at its failings with a humourous and acidic eye too. As the years went by the TVPs gradually became established as independent sector mainstays. Whilst playing an important role in this band, Ed clearly needed to have an outlet for his own songs too. O Level and The Teenage Filmstars briefly offered that opportunity. But when the latter morphed into The Times in 1980, he had stumbled on what would eventually prove the most enduring of his many manifestations, with bassist John East and drummer Paul Damien joining Ed in the initial three-piece line up of the band.

1981 saw the debut single Red With Purple Flashes, a great and enticing opening gambit for any band. The title was taken from The Creation’s Eddie Phillips’ description of his outfit’s sound, but it also fits The Times’ methods to a tee. The sessions for a proposed debut album of The Teenage Filmstars went ahead alongside this activity, but when that name was put in cold storage (it would be used again in the 1990s on the Star and Rocket Charms LPs), those recordings instead became a project for The Times. This recording from late 1980 was subsequently not released until four years later under the name Go! With The Times by the Pastell label. Whilst it wasn’t their first collection released, it could possibly be regarded as their debut album.

The LP forms half of the first disc of My Picture Gallery and begins with a modish cover of Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It. Perhaps unavoidably given the personnel (Dan T plays on this record), there’s a similar mix of disarming naivety and raw emotion to The Television Personalities’ work. Their take of Your Generation is like a youth club Gen X, but the Theme From The Man From Uncle is neatly accomplished. Generally though, their own compositions are more entrancing.

As I reviewed Go! With The Times and This Is London here in 2018, I do not intend in going to go into too much detail about the contents of those albums. I will add though that on listening to the LP afresh, I was struck by how Pinstripes starts with a rumble akin to Orange Juice’s Blue Boy. But it soon establishes its own identity with a nicely soaring vocal refrain. Anyway, suffice to say that Go! With The Times, while clearly the work of a band still finding their feet, is full of energy. Ed Ball confidently took centre stage as an intriguing and original songsmith on a feisty collection.

To me it makes more sense to go into what wasn’t included on “vanilla” represses, though it must be said that this disc is pretty much a straight reissue of the 2007 Artpop! release through Cherry Red. Both sides of the debut single are present, with the top side being a bit rougher and fuzzier, which I have to say I prefer. Biff! Bang! Pow!, not as you might think The Creation song but an original effort, is beat-driven and highly droll into the bargain.

Then follows eight remixes of the album tracks that were carried out by Joe Foster in 1994. These versions aren’t radically different, quite subtle adjustments really. Perhaps there is a boost to the rhythm section’s sound and the guitar appears to have a touch more bite. No Hard Feelings is an improvement, as is the final song in this section, a more urgent Reflections In An Imperfect Mirror. This first disc ends with a zesty My Andy Warhol Poster, taken from session that produced The Teenage Filmstars’ single version of I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape and the very brief spoken word of Joe, Dan And Me…Before The Creation Context.

The official debut album by The Times Pop Goes Art came out in 1982 on the Whaam! label, but was quickly reissued through the band’s own Artpop! facility. The design work tied into the theme of the title by each sleeve featuring a different, hand-crafted cover painting. In addition to Ed, John and Paul, Dan Treacy again played guitar on this record and keyboards were introduced into the sound. Pop Goes Art represents a quantum leap from Go! With The Times, as here the band come over as a more confident, energetic and talented unit. They apply their craft perfectly to provide the stylish backdrops for Ed’s songs to sit triumphantly atop. The excellent and fiery freakbeat/psychedelia for the 1980s of Picture Gallery sets things in motion gloriously and Biff! Bang! Pow! is re-done powerfully. If It’s Time! overdoes the echo a bit, If Now Is The Answer is an infectiously-rhythmed mod pop jewel and A New Arrangement almost bowls one over with its charm.

I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape is probably the one song The Times will always be most associated with and although we get three versions on this disc, it is never a chore to hear. I would say that the single cut is probably the pick though. The instrumental title track is an ace, with Miss London being a delightful character study set to music. Very much the kind of thing that is an Ed Ball trademark. To end we have the clubbing rhythm of Easy As Pie and a lengthy and satisfying psych-out in This Is Tomorrow, which work together to offer up a fitting finale. In Lois Wilson’s sleeve note there is a quote from Ed Ball to the effect that he regarded every album as a debut. A wise way to go about things. Though it could be argued Go! With The Times was really the band’s first collection, Pop Goes Art really made a mark – a super record filled with great tunes and an unstoppable élan.

The bonuses appended to Pop Goes Art here do differ from the 2008 reissue, yielding some new items, though they all were present on the I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape collection in 2006. The 1982 single version of Theme From “Dangerman”, plus an alternative take are joined by the “Splash Of Colour” I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape and a 1981 version of Goodbye Piccadilly, later re-recorded for the This Is London LP. The dream-like Have You Seen The Beautiful People, an early incarnation of Goodnight Children Everywhere, is fine stuff – typically Ed nattily fuses the way-out 1960s sounds and scenes to the view of an outsider. Three Teenage Filmstars cuts are featured, with a lively The Sun Never Shines being my pick and a more compact This Is Tomorrow appears with an alternative ending. This disc is curtailed by another very short spoken word fragment that sounds like it was recorded down the phone.

For disc three of My Picture Gallery may I direct you again to the review of the This Is London that can be found here. The make-up of the band fluctuated – Dan Treacy went back to concentrating on the TVPs and Ray Kent came in on keys, maintaining the four-piece Times.

This is an excellent, one its kind album which I don’t hesitate to thoroughly recommend. Referring again to the sleeve notes it mentions that some consider it “a celebration of swinging London”, which couldn’t be further from the truth in my view. The story-line maps out a London where youngsters arrive with a headful of dreams, but one by one their aspirations are shattered and if that is their only misfortune, they have got off lightly. There is a deep vein of cynicism that is found here, but the excellent tunes and delivery bring bright light, giving a lively energy that prevents it being in any way gloomy and in the end render it instead an invigorating and special experience.

The POV is firmly from the outside looking in, echoing Pop Goes Art. But also taking it on a stage further by introducing the character of Frank Summit, a Liverpool lad intent on making his way in the world, starting with the capital city. Things don’t go as planned and set him on a path for Hello Europe and Enjoy, which are more formally concept sets. For example Whatever Happened To Thamesbeat doesn’t appear fit that seamlessly into the tale, but as it is full of knowing insight and sardonic comedy it doesn’t really matter.

Again this disc deviates from its noughties repress. After the LP we get both sides of the single with Joni Dee, the fetching Here Comes The Holidays and Three Cheers For Our Side, with the two sides using the same riff. Two versions of All Systems Go, with the Alternative Session Take being my favourite, crop up alongside This Is London’s title track from the same source. Big Painting and the other All Systems Go, plus an early, long version of Up Against It which has some subtle playing and lovely organ work, are all drawn from the I Helped Patrick McGoohan EP. The two live at the 100 Club tracks If Only and (There’s A) Cloud Over Liverpool that were present on the 2008 reissue are missing here, but instead appear on the Enjoy disc of this set.

Hello Europe was seen at the time in the music press as a mis-step, a marked move away from the agreeably 1960’s influenced sound of the previous albums, instead concentrating on funk with brass and electronics to the front. It arguably makes more sense today, as a sort of precursor to Ed’s dance/electro work in the latter years of the 1980s and 1990s. With Simon Smith of The Merton Parkas replacing Paul Damien on drums, the story of Frank Summit is fleshed out further on ten varied selections. Radiate, the LP’s sunny opening track, isn’t really that far from The Times of their previous records, apart from a big blast of horns. Then comes Blue Fire, which truly grasps the electrofunk nettle along with Victory Drums, where the synth drum sound dates the rhythm firmly in the 80s.

Everything Turns To Black And White works better as a catchy modern soul tune and sounds a little like the commercial funk/pop Scritti Politti and Orange Juice flirted with at around the same time. Boys Brigade swings along nicely with the rhythm driving it and the guitar is stripped right back and an accordion is evocatively pressed into service on the neat Where The Blue Begins, probably the best track on the whole record. Public Reaction Killed The Cat aims at Eno/Byrne-style sampling cut-ups, but for me it doesn’t work very well. It does serve the purpose of moving the story along though and the light piano/synth ballad Things We Learn is a marked improvement. The slap bass funk of Kulturshock only reinforces the idea for me that whilst Hello Europe must have sounded good on paper, it’s a pretty uneven collection to the ear.

The thumping beat of Power Is Forever, the first bonus item on this disc and flipside to the Boys Brigade single, thankfully eschews the funk and electronics and gets back to what made The Times great in the first place. Then we have three offerings from the Blue Period 12 inch, beginning with a soul/funk cover of Stop In The Name Of Love which is pretty underwhelming to be honest. Having said that Tears On A Rainy Sunday, which comes next, is really good and memorable. It has a lovely gliding feel to it, though the final Blue Period piece I’ll See You In My Dreams is a bit so-so. A spirited blast through the two sides of The Times’ debut single, caught in low fidelity but full of vim on live cuts from a 1985 trip to Germany, bring this disc to a fairly satisfying close.

For Up Against It, a musical score for Joe Orton’s rejected script for a Beatles film, The Times stepped away from the Frank Summit story and into something else entirely. According to the back cover notes on the original LP, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie and The Sex Pistols also expressed some level of interest in the script over the years. But the play remained unstaged until Ed, along with fellow psych/mod traveller Tony Conway of Mood Six, put it on at the Lost Youth Theatre London. It also had a brief run in the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington after appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe during 1986.

We begin with the cool organ swirl of the title track and though a lot of soundtrack albums don’t make sense without the visuals, Up Against It’s story makes its way stringly through Ed’s smart and wordy compositions. The Times dip into a number of different styles on this platter, including some of the parties previously interested in Orton’s original play. This is most apparent on Last Tango For One’s Eleanor Rigby spoof and Mutiny In The British Empire, which is built around Anarchy In The UK. A concise Garden In The Moonlight and Ladies Of The Cause are most clearly linked to the on stage action, but The Most Modern Woman In the World has a lovely lilt to it and has a great and very arch cameo from an unnamed female vocalist.

After the dub reggae instrumental of Escape! and the military march of She’s A Professional, the album works its way towards to a thrilling climax. The War uses samples in a piece that is musique concrète with a keyboard drone and must have added to the drama to the sense of chaos played out in the theatre, with The Wedding Song again going to The Beatles to pastiche All You Need Is Love and revisits the music themes of the LP to conclude. It’s a record that is great fun that occasionally shows its theatrical roots, but even isolated from the production it is easy to revel in.

The bonus efforts on disc five include the other three tracks from Boy About Town EP, where they were joined by Up Against It itself. Davy Jones (is On His Way) is an ace, with Bowie’s Newley period being adroitly echoed and DB’s own London Boys is covered later among the extras here. An acoustic Victim (Dedicated To Dirk Bogarde), penned by Tony Conway, is very moving and Song For Joe Orton hits just the right spot in bringing together images of the anarchic life of the doomed playwright. Dada Europe fits in as a sequel to Hello Europe and gives us a fair slice of the Frank Summit exposition in its lyric and if Oranges And Lemons goes right back to the band’s art pop origins, Dial L For Love is just a divine keyboard-led pop song.

The final disc of My Picture Gallery focusses on the conclusion of the Frank Summit story, Enjoy…. The action moves to America, after depicting the UK enmeshed in strife. Fingers are poised over nuclear weapons buttons as Frank returns to Blighty briefly from his European odyssey, before going onto meet his eventual fate in the US, where a president hits the ground after an assassination attempt. The LP beings with the two pronged art pop attack of Britannia Sleeps Tonight and Something Like The Truth. It is clear from the off that this was classic Times, taking their 1960s influences and gift for guitar pop heaven to shape something new, addictive and vital.

The snappy r&b of (Where To Go) When The Sun Goes Down is great and the album’s single Times TV is like classic Kinks reworked for the mid-80s. Housewives Law is memorable with an assertive beat and a real dash of funk in the bass. Along with The American Way they show The Times achieving what they were trying to do on Hello Europe with much more success, i.e. marrying the mod pop that was in their veins to more contemporary sounds. Winning Hearts And Minds has a snatch of the drone of Bowie’s Heroes and the title track is a slow-building thing of pure joy.

Times Radio gives the listener more of the plot through spoken word and closing item When The Talking Had To Stop is curiously hopeful and bright, with Oliver’s Army and All the Young Dudes quotes looming large. This record is a hugely gratifying conclusion to the Frank Summit story and also pretty much brought down the curtain on The Times’ first stage. Everything works here, they’re at the height of their powers. When the band returned later in the 1980s, the acid house boom was on the horizon. They soon followed that path, with their mod pop roots pretty much consigned to history. Ed Ball’s eye for detail in his writing remained as sharp as ever, but musically The Times became a very different beast altogether.

On this disc we have bonuses which include the remainder of the Times TV EP tracks. An explosive instrumental cut in The Polite Force and the more gentle piano mood music of El Aragua cut the mustard, with the lively dance chant of Pick It Up also mostly vocal-free. The aforementioned live at the 100 Club live numbers from 1987 turn up too. The whole set finishes with a 1988 cut-up house funk version of I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape, which perhaps signposted the band’s future.

Most of these albums have been released on a few occasions over the years, but it is good to have them all in one place. Pop Goes Art, Go! With The Times, This Is London and Enjoy are well worth the price of admission alone if you are not already familiar with them. Up Against It runs them close too and although Hello Europe doesn’t quite make that grade, it does form an interesting enough diversion and is an essential part of the Frank Summit trilogy. While there is nothing that rare to tempt the true obsessive, what My Picture Gallery does show the listener is the extraordinary and peerless creativity of Ed Ball and The Times during these five years. His work as a storyteller in music at the time is practically unparalleled and added to the musical skills and vitality of The Times themselves, what they offered was a truly unbeatable and unique proposition.

All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here

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