Anyone who truly loves ‘60s Soul understands the thrill of flipping over a single and finding a lesser-known gem on the B-side. Whether it was Atlantic, Stax, Tamla Motown, or a Northern Soul rarity, there was something special about making that discovery, then spreading the word about a number that stopped you in your tracks.
The golden age of vinyl, despite a recent revival, is long behind us, and in my case I only started buying singles from that era in the ‘80s. But now and again a 45 takes me right back. And the latest to drop on to the writewyattuk dansette is by an, erm, Modern outfit with true ‘60s soul acumen – The Sha La La’s.
We’re not talking Hitsville USA, Detroit, MI; Soulsville USA, Memphis, TN; or even Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, AL; but in this case something straight outta Big Noise, Rochford, Essex, UK; coupling masterful floor-filler ‘Before I Let You Down Again’ with inspirational flip-side ‘Hold On’.
Similarly, The Sha La La’s front-man, Darron Robinson, hails not from Barnwell, SC; Clarksdale, MS; or Dawson, GA; but can be found in Fleet, Hampshire. That said, a little happenstance recently drew his band to Southend. Perhaps the call of Britain’s own Missisippi delta – through an appreciation of early Dr Feelgood – proved too strong.
It was fellow South-East outfit The Jam that initially woke Darron up to the best of ‘60s music, his band’s DNA incorporating more than a little love for everyone from The Kinks and Small Faces through to Arthur Conley, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.
And for me their latest 45 offers listeners an old school Northern Soul and Stax masterclass, as visitors to the band’s single release party at the Hand in Hand in Brixton, SW2, recently found out first-hand.
Yeah, I know, a bit late to tell you about that now, but if you missed out – and I was a 450-mile round-trip away – there’s the Hope and Anchor, Islington, on June 9th, the Music Mania Festival in Brighton on July 6th, and a date on Darron’s doorstep at Fleet Festival on July 14th. I gather they’re also heading to Blackpool in December, a little closer to me, for the Beat Generation’s Mod Christmas Ball. But don’t feel you have to wait that long.
As discussed before on this website, The Sha La La’s and myself go back a fair while, to when Darron (vocals, guitar) and John Piccirillo (drums) were in A Month of Sundays with my Captains Log fanzine co-conspirator Malcolm Smith. They even pitched up at my Guildford secondary school at a supposed ‘folk evening’ in October ’82, 12 days before my 15th birthday. I can’t recall a right lot about that, but between May ‘86 and February ’89 I saw them at least 17 more times around London and the South East, including dates at Hammersmith Clarendon, Harlesden Mean Fiddler, Kentish Town Hype, and Fulham Greyhound.
If that sounds excessive, this wasn’t about blind loyalty. I always felt the band were on the cusp of fame. I probably would have distanced myself a little when that arrived, but felt they were really going somewhere. It never quite happened though, and a name and personnel change followed. As Sweet Life, with the addition of bass player Billy Adam, I saw them four more times, first with a better turnout than The Beatles managed at Aldershot Palace in the summer of 1990, co-headlining with similarly-inspirational Jim Jiminee spin-off The Deep Season.
By the time I departed for my world travels, their big break still hadn’t happened, but they realigned and I saw them next in the summer of ’93 at a little pub in Ash Vale as Fools like Us. Perhaps the size of that latter venue tells its own story. By then, Blur had truly broken, concluding Modern Life is Rubbish. As Britpop ascended, it appeared that another band that had carried the torch had been left by the wayside. When their ship finally came in, Darron and co. were waiting at the railway station. I was gutted for them that they never truly made it, but in a sense it’s all part of what The Sha La La’s, the band that followed, are today. Besides, Darron’s never been one to be brow-beaten for too long. Cliché alert, but he brushed himself down and just got on with it a few years down the line.
But before we get to that, I take him right back to my first real memory of A Month of Sundays, in May ’86 at Fetcham’s Riverside Club, just outside Leatherhead in Surrey’s sweet suburbia.
“That’s where we got our publishing contract. A guy recommended us to this publisher, who also signed The Blow Monkeys. We were the support band. He was the type, if you know what I mean, with the ‘80s haircut and that. He walked in and stood at the back, and you could tell it was him. He stayed for about … not even three songs, and I thought, ‘Oh, bugger!’ But about a week later I got a call saying. ‘I saw you at the Riverside and I’d like to sign you’. That’s where it all started. I told him I saw him leave early, and he said, ‘That’s all I needed to see.’”
Or perhaps I slopped beer down him, heading back from the bar. I remember seeing A Month of Sundays more at the Chertsey Galleon though, on the west side of the bridge.
“That’s right. On the opposite side there was The Cricketers, which we played as well. It was a crazy time. They liked us down there, and we used to cause a bit of mayhem, with all that youthful energy. I’d get told off for my language … I still do!”
One that always sticks in my mind was at the King’s Head, Ash, next to a police station. The pub and cop-shop have long gone now. There weren’t that many punters in, and they were more interested in a chat with their mates than hearing some mouthy socialist talking between songs. There were only about half a dozen of us there to see you. I thought we were going to get our heads kicked in. You were rather surly, I seem to recall.
“Nothing changes, Malc.”
Fast forward a bit and – 25 years ago – that July ‘93 date at The George, Ash Vale, as Fools Like Us. Not as if I readily recall the difference between that line-up and the previous one.
“Neither can I, Malc. It’s all a bit of a blur. I don’t listen to the old stuff, but recently found a four-track demo. I’ve gone back ‘old school’ after working digitally. I’ve got so many cassettes, you wouldn’t believe it. But I’ve only got to hear three seconds and instantly can tell you everything about it.”
Among the many demo recordings that came my way, I remember a Sweet Life track called Cry that I thought was great, but over-produced. I always got the impression they never truly got the real you in the studio. It wasn’t half as powerful as the song I heard played live.
“You’re absolutely right. Being that young and always very conscientious, I took on advice from all these people that were older than me in the business. I felt they must know more than me, this little gobshite from Camberley.
“Only material can teach you that, give you that strength to follow on that vision you have in your head. You can ruin anything, even the greatest song ever written. Can you imagine Imagine done by George Michael? I trusted those people, but the only way you can learn is to go through all that, and realise you were actually right. And you eventually get to a point where you know how to tell people what to do without winding them up!”
Will there be an analogue reimagining of all those past songs at some point? There’s at least a box-set of lost recordings there.
“You’re probably right. Occasionally I do go back to old lyrics. It’s always in a folder at the back of my mind, thinking ‘There’s a good line, but the song’s rubbish.’
“Unfortunately, we suffered – like everyone else around then – in that we started to make music around the mid- to late-‘80s when digital technology was coming in. Everyone went mental for CDs. Even then, I could hear the difference, this fizz I didn’t like that didn’t suit the music I was listening to, which was more organic.”
That takes us nicely on to today, because I have to say this latest Sha La La’s single is the best yet.
“Ah, thanks, mate.”
But first, let’s fill in a few gaps since my initial Introducing the Sha La La’s piece in January 2013 and subsequent Feelin’ Real album review that October. At first, Darron and co-founder John Piccirillo were solely joined by Lou Lucano (guitar, vocals), as heard on their first four-track EP for Royale Records, but John Lee (keyboards) was on board in time for the debut LP.
Things were on the up, and in 2015 we had the ‘Your Blind Soul’ EP, its assured title-track featuring plenty of Small Faces/Weller-esque urgency, while fellow stand-outs ‘Always There’ and ‘Do Whatcha Wanna’ showed how the band had retained high ground, Signor Piccirillo absolutely flying from the rear. Then, the following year there was another corker, ‘Soul of the Nation’, a guitar-fuelled, piano-driven, foot-stompin’, hand-clappin’ statement of intent, drenched in horns, Hammond, and bags of attitude. Was this the track that would finally announce their late arrival at the top table?
As it turned out, no, and soon everything changed, the band reborn as the Sonic Keys, as introduced by 2016 Soul Mule Records single ‘Ain’t It Time’, suggesting a departure into early ‘70s Mayfield and Gaye territory, built around a solid-loop groove, more Blaxploitation than Stax rotation. Yet before we knew it, The Sha La La’s were back, this time with Lou replaced by Vere Osborne. So, go on then, Darron – explain yourself.
“I’ve explained to people that the Sonic Keys had a bit of a moment, shall we say. When The Sha La La’s put out ‘Your Blind Soul’, I thought that was going to do it. And after ‘Soul of the Nation’, which I thought was brilliant, did really well, I was disappointed with the reaction.
“We were doing some really good gigs, like those at Guildford G Live and The Cavern, Liverpool, then it went a bit flat. We were also having problems with the personnel of the band, so I stopped the Sha La La’s, got in another couple of people. It was a bit cathartic, that whole process.
“It’s a fault of mine – my wife says I’ve got honesty issues! – but I stripped everything out of The Sha La La’s at that moment and focused on that. Some of it was pretty good, some of it a waste of time, but I had to do it. At the time I was writing a lot of loop-based grooves. Ultimately, it was a good thing, as it led me to start song-writing again.
“I love singing, playing, gigs, and recording, but the thing I love most is the writing. Keith Richards said, ‘A painter’s got a canvas. The writer’s got reams of empty paper. A musician has silence.’ I absolutely love that … although some people would prefer the silence, I’m sure! I love that challenge, that something that’s just in your head. The skill is getting it out of your head into other people’s heads.”
The new single is such a breath of fresh air. It’s kind of 1967 and 2018 at the same time. Built on a similar riff to The Style Council’s ‘Council Meetin’, but horn-led, the rasping quality of Darron’s vocal on ‘Before I Let You Down Again’ gives it classic soul 45 appeal, and I was hooked from the moment that brass blasted in. Think benchmark Dexy’s, with that nod to all that came before. I could hear Maxine Brown tackling this with the same conviction. Then on the other side there’s ‘Hold On’. I understand why it’s on the flip, as the track features – albeit in a radically-different version – on the album. But what a B-side. The album version is more gospel-like, and I love it, but this time it’s built on JP’s powerhouse drumming and Vere’s roaming bass, and while I could hear Sam and Dave duelling on there, there’s clearly a Stax vibe first and foremost, as that giveaway Otis Redding-like ‘Fa-fa-fa-fa!’ intro suggests.
The brass is something else, not least that last section that inspires you to kick out with that, ‘I don’t know about you, I need something to hold on to!’ line. So tell me about that horn section. They can’t be easy to come by these days.
“Both that and the A-side came out of a song on the album called ‘Sorrow’. You always have one song when you’re writing an album that you nurture that little bit more, and I’m always on the look-out for what I call charm. That was the case with ‘Sorrow’. I was convinced it was going to be the best song.”
Well, that track certainly holds Northern Soul power.
“Absolutely. I don’t want to make it sound like I work on songs. They come to you. But it’s that ‘one per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration’ thing, and with ‘Sorrow’ I saw the reaction after the album came out, particularly after gigs, people saying about that song, as proof that I was right.
“With horn parts, I can write them, even if I can’t play them. Fortunately, at the studio where we did everything we’ve recorded in the last year or so in Southend, we found what we wanted.”
That’s the afore-mentioned Big Noise Recording Studios, with Simon ‘Sting Ray’ Davies at the controls. How did that all come about?
“I bought the Hot Funky & Sweaty compilation album (Acid Jazz, 2005) about 10 years ago, with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and Lefties’ Soul Connection on there, and a band called The Organites that I assumed were Black Americans …. probably all dead. I thought it must have been recorded in 1964. It was so good. But then I stumbled across something on the internet a couple of years ago, with that band playing a gig in Camden. I thought, ‘That can’t be right!’
“Then I spotted it was recorded in Southend, so did a bit more digging and ended up phoning the studio. We were talking about Northern Soul, Stax and Motown, and just before we finished I asked about The Organites, and the guy said, ‘Yeah, that’s me. It was all done in this studio.’”
It’s not so obvious on this last album as your first, but it seems apt that you’ve ended up recording not so far from Canvey Island. There’s still an air of Dr Feelgood spirit on this record.
“Definitely, yeah. And I was working with ‘Sting Ray’, or just me with an engineer, and it was all done straight to tape. That was all part of that sound. He also plays trombone, and through working with him we had the chance to work on this next single, using those melodies I could write, explaining them to him so he could score them properly, then source a brilliant trumpet player and a fantastic sax player.
“After all these years you get fewer surprises, but when you hear a part you’ve written become that, and when you can stand just four feet in front of them recording it … it almost brought a tear to my eyes.”
That took us on to The Rumour Brass section and three-quarter version, The Irish Horns, as featured on The Clash’s classic London Calling album, plus of course that early, phenomenal Dexy’s sound. I’ve always been a sucker for a great horn section … even Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan in The Commitments. And there’s a great sound on these tracks.
“It’s brilliant, and what I love about it is, you can’t just say brass, it had to be that sound. Certain parts are in unison, others in harmony, sometimes they’re chordal, but when we were putting the parts down on paper was when it started sounding like Arthur Conley, like ‘Let’s Go Steady’, the B-side of ‘Sweet Soul Music’, which is beautiful.”
Well, there’s another great example. And how I loved those days when you’d flip over a single and find a couple of minutes of solid gold you felt no one else knew about but somehow ended up there. And that’s what you’ve done with ‘Hold On’.
“Yeah, and that was the plan! Because the version on the album, which I love, with all the hand-claps, has more of a gospel feel.”
The very word I used in my notes.
“Well, yeah, and for an atheist like me, that’s not bad! It’s about the spirit, and you can feel that. Even when we played Paris at the end of the summer, we had the audience clapping along for the Reverend Robinson!”
I guess that’s something the many incarnations of your bands over the years had in common. If you’ve got a unique selling point it involves creating songs of hope and inspiration, with an over-riding aspiration to improve your lot, in the tradition of Curtis Mayfield or Al Green.
“Yeah, and I’m glad you say that. I’ve had a few people saying that. When John (Lee), our keyboard player, joined, his Mum told him, after listening to the album, ‘That singer must have had a hard life’!
“If there’s a theme running through everything I write, it’s about that hope and that optimism. I’m not going to just sing, ‘Come on everybody, let’s dance.’ It’s more, ‘This is a load of shit, but we will win!’
“‘Hold On’ has that. It came out of Brexit and Trump; the UK referendum and the US election, talking to my kids. I don’t tell them how to think. They’re clued up, but what I got from talking to them and their friends was this, ‘What’s the point?’ negativity – ‘They lie and they win’. But I was saying, ‘You’ve got to hold on. We will get through it.’
“When I was their age, we had apartheid. I know things aren’t perfect now in South Africa, but it’s difficult to look back and see a system there that even Hitler couldn’t achieve. But good eventually wins. Not only that, but, ‘You’re not going to drag me down to your level of hatred and intolerance – we’re going to fa-fa-fa-fa-fa, all the way through!’”
Well said, Reverend Robinson. And now I’ll take us on from ‘Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa’ to ‘Sha-La-La-La-Lee (yeah)’, name-checking the Small Faces in honour of the band’s Hammond organist and Wurlitzer pianist, John Lee, who augments Darron and JP’s contributions so well.
“He’s brilliant. I love him to bits. When he plays the Wurlitzer, he’s so … only occasionally do you see a musician who becomes ‘as one’ with their instrument. He’s an absolute star.’
Then there’s Vere Osborne on bass, who joined when The Sha La La’s returned in early 2017.
“He’s another one who’s really enthusiastic and keen, and we’re making a really good din. When you strip away any kind of soul music, back to the brass, the singers and strings, what you’ve effectively got is bass, drums, guitar and Hammond organ. That’s the groove, which is the Small Faces really. Those instrumentals they did, like ‘Grow Your Own’, and all the rest of that. They were Booker T and the MG’s, but they were from Stepney!”
There’s definitely an MG’s feel on a few songs on the album, although I feel they’ve nailed that sound all the more on the new single. And returning to ‘Hold on’, I can see Otis or James Brown performing that live, Vere and JP’s underlying bass and drum throbbing and pounding as the guest front-man makes a theatrical meal of leaving the stage, stretching it out for anything up to 10 minutes, coming off then sneaking back on, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Is Darron up to recreating that vision?
“Maybe we should hire a cape!”
Do you use that for a show-closer? You ought to.
“We don’t, but in the second half of last year we did it as it is on the album. Yet all along I knew at some point we would kick in with this more Stax-like version. Now we’ll be playing that version live – the first half gospel, then in that middle section you’re talking about, you’re into 10 minutes of that maybe!”
Now we’ve cleared up the personnel changes, how about the label switch? The first singles were with Royale, then there was Soul Mule. Was Detour just a better fit for you?
“That was an odd one. I hadn’t expected that. All I wanted to do was get writing again. Then Royale contacted me, told me they were setting up this record company and could we put an EP out. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ We put out a four-track CD which went on to sell 500 copies, which was like, ‘What the fuck!’
“It was only then that Detour Records – also a record shop – contacted us, asking for copies. We told them they’d all gone, so I think they decided they wanted a bit of that, asking if we wanted to do an album. That’s really how the whole thing started. And that’s what I need – I’m writing all the time but always need that reason.”
The previous single, during your Sonic Keys stage, ‘Ain’t It Time’, had a deeper ‘70s soul feel. I liked it, but can’t help thinking that this current sound is where you’re really at.
“I think you’re right. To me, it’s always been about soul music that has that urgency. It’s almost punk. It’s as good as a smack in the mouth!”
As not so many have discover the second album yet, I’ll offer a track-by-track introduction of that 37-minbute wonder here, with a little help from the man who wrote the songs.
Title track ‘(Gotta Find) A Better Way’ leads the way perfectly, the curious punter enticed away from the bar as the band set out their stall, leaning in, head-first, the Hammond already to the fore, setting us up nicely for ‘Loser’s Song’, JP’s drumming and those hand-claps ensuring we stay out on the floor, the band offering echoes of Café Bleu era Style Council, a mighty influence on Darron around the time I first met him. And while it’s not a single, it’s clearly a neatly-crafted song.
“I was pleased with that, ‘cos it’s quite ‘chordy’, if you know what I mean. A bit like The Style Council, with all those major sevenths. I really liked the title too. I wanted to confuse people as to whose song it was. Is the loser the guy writing the song? Is it a song only losers write? Or is he saying, I’m glad that relationship’s over? ‘Cos every time I hear it, I think of you.’”
I guess the more ambiguous a song can be, the wider cross-section it appeals to. Meanwhile, track three, the slow-building Let Love Shout, seems to have a little of Jr. Walker and the All Stars ‘Cleo‘s Mood’ as its bluesy foundation, with Steve Cropper-like guitar touches.
“Definitely, and when I brought that, I knew straight away that was going to be guitar and Wurlitzer piano rather than a band thing. I sat in front of John on keyboards and told him, ‘Think of Wilko Johnson playing The Staple Singers’. It’s got that spikiness of the guitar and constant groove, although it’s another that could maybe benefit being re-recorded.’
Now he mentions it, I’m getting The Staple Singers too. I could see Mavis tackle this, or maybe even Duffy, and John Lee’s keyboard touches suggests early Doors era Ray Manzarek.
We mentioned the wondrous ‘Sorrow’, with that classic Northern Soul feel, that feel accentuated by those bell-like vibes from ‘Sting Ray’ Davies. A floor-filler for sure, seemingly straight off an obscure Kent compilation. And then there’s side one closer, ‘Leave the Hurting Behind (Move On)’, again a track I might have heard at a 100 Club all-nighter back in the mid-‘80s, complete with understated guitar licks and Vere’s bass throb.
Side two starting point ‘Crossfire’ is an out-and-out instrumental, full of funky bass and looped percussive touches. Give the drummer some, eh. Come to think of it, there’s more than a tilt of the titfer to the might of James Brown’s Famous Flames for this gripped listener.
“Yeah, and do you know what? It’s actually quite complex.”
I suppose so, but surely The Famous Flames had to be, with their bandmaster.
“Yeah, and you have to be very good musicians to play simple. Funnily enough, I wrote that on Boxing Day last year. I get bored – I’m not very good at doing nothing! I went to my little room, came out with that riff, and didn’t stop playing. I record everything I do, and as you hear it, that’s as long as it took me to write it.”
How about ‘Loving Tree’? Darron’s bands have always had this ability to take you to another level, and here we have a track first aired in more experimental form during the Sonic Keys era, that this time around has been reworked into perhaps the album’s most commercial moment … in a good way. There’s a great hook, and shades of something I couldn’t quite place, until I wondered if it might be a slowed-down version of ‘It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over’, arguably Lenny Kravitz’s finest single.
“Oh, OK … yeah.”
I can tell he’s not convinced if that’s a good thing.
“Well, he did kind of have that whole retro thing going on, I suppose. He could have done well to head down to the Muscle Shoals recording studio to add a little grit though. As Aretha called it, ‘Greazy’.
That got us on to that legendary Alabama studio and Aretha nailing ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’ there.
“It doesn’t get any better than that opening piano riff from Spooner Oldham. I got the impression that they were kicking that song around for a few hours and couldn’t make it work, then he kicked in with that riff. It has absolutely everything going for it. I’ve got hairs rising on the back of my neck just talking about it.”
Then we have another reinterpreted Sonic Keys track, ‘Love Get Ready’. I’m not sure if we were ever off the floor, but this has us back out there again. What’s more, it leaves a mighty Impression, you could say, with an inspirational Curtis Mayfield vibe going on.
“Definitely. Very simple, keeping that groove going, and with lyrics full of optimism and hope, against that whole climate of fear and intolerance. It takes a lot of strength to love. It’s a weakness to hate and to want to hurt people. It’s about showing tolerance and understanding.”
We’ve talked a bit about ‘Hold On’, particularly the reworked version on the new single, and this take is somewhat pared back and yet oozing with an inspirational gospel feel. I believe. In fact, after discovering the Stax-like remake, I think I appreciate it all the more.
“I wrote four or five songs that I didn’t complete, and I tell my youngest son, a budding songwriter, that most songs you throw away. Then I stumbled across those chords and that opening phrase, and thought, ‘Do it gospel! Do it the way you would if you only had a few minutes in the studio. And going back to The Style Council and the Café Bleu album, I remember being really impressed by the piano version of ‘My Ever Changing Moods’, as opposed to the full-on single version.”
And now The Sha La La’s have taken that similar approach of reinvention, both tracks definitely standing up to close inspection. But where to go from that higher ground? Well, that leads us neatly on to a nicely-honed finale.
When I saw the title, ‘Yer Revolution’, I wonder if there was a nod to John Lennon – kind of part ‘Yer Blues’ and part ‘Revolution’. But it’s more like Sly and the Family Stone or ‘Me and Baby Brother’ era War, right?
“Yeah, with that Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament-like solid groove all the way through.”
I can see this as a show closer too, at least before the inevitable encore. It’s almost a military tattoo, seeing us away. And there’s a real album feel across these 10 tracks.
“Well, the first album was more a collection of songs, already written and then recorded, picking the best 10, whereas this was about writing specifically for an album. And it was really exciting seeing the track-listing take place, working out what would end side one, and ‘Yer Revolution’ was clearly to be the last number, although ’Hold On’ was the last song I wrote.”
So there you have my verdict, and a few insights from Darron. But don’t just settle for that. Do yourself a favour – catch The Sha La La’s live, kneel at the altar of the Reverend Robinson and experience first-hand his ministry of sound. Come and join the congregation.
For more details about The Sha La La’s and how to go about tracking down new single ‘Before I Let You Down again’ b/w ‘Hold On’ – available in all formats, including limited edition 7” vinyl – and both albums, head to the band’s Facebook page. You can also keep in touch via Twitter.