❉ This fantastic boxed set shines a light on a band easily dismissed as a one hit wonder.
Best known for their Mike Batt-produced top 20 hit, Little Does She Know, the Kursaal Flyers formed in 1974 in Southend, Essex, and shot to fame in that strange hinterland of the ‘70s between the final flourish of Glam & the rise of Punk. Sitting firmly into the pub rock scene, a close connection with fellow Essex band Dr Feelgood helped as their name spread (it’s no mistake this box set’s cover echoes that of Feelgood’s classic Down By The Jetty) and they ended up being managed by Paul Conroy and ultimately signing a deal with UK Records, a label which counted Genesis and 10cc amongst its discoveries.
Spread over four discs, this expansive box includes their first two UK Records albums on one disc (complete with the sleeves faithfully reproduced), their two CBS albums, and the reformation album from 1988 – their last so far. Complete with bonus tracks, unreleased recordings from their aborted third CBS album sessions, and a radio session from 1975, this is everything and more you could expect from the Kursaal Flyers.
Named after one of Southend’s major tourist attractions, the band built up an outstanding reputation on the nascent pre-punk pub rock scene that also spawned Brinsley Schwarz, Graham Parker and the Rumour and the aforementioned Dr Feelgood to name a few, who took the retro rock polished style of glam and took it back to it’s rock and roll roots. Losing the make-up and polished sounds, this was taking it right back, with a mix of traditional blues and rock, a dash of American and all filtered through the English rock tradition of turning it up loud and seeing what happens.
Promoted by a European tour supporting the Flying Burrito Brothers, the band’s debut Chocs Away (released in 1975) showcases the band’s initially rough ‘n ready sound. In the sleeve notes, drummer/lyricist Will Birch candidly admits that “we were woefully inexperienced studio musicians”, and the label insisted on overdubbing female vocals to try to rescue them. “Our early recordings were basically demos, none of the songs achieved their full potential because of shortcomings in our recording proficiency”, Graeme Douglas (guitar/piano/vocals) confirms in the sleeve notes.
However both Chocs Away (with it’s distinctive Barney Bubbles artwork) and the follow up The Great Artiste (also 1975, and a co-production with the band) have plenty of charm and energy, and the energy and ambition overcomes the studio and technical limitations.
Brimming with confidence, rock and swagger, their self-penned numbers all stand up today, with the opening salvo of the slightly seedy, bluesy Pocket Money, and the rather smart lyrical work that fits behind the groove of Hit Records, although the track Kung Fu (and its stereotyped tropes) has dated (and not in a good way) whilst The Great Artiste opens with the self-referential, tongue in cheek track Ugly Guys, about the record industry and musicians who don’t necessarily fit the poster boy category.
Meanwhile, the energy and sentiment behind Palais de Danse is basically the Kinks’ Come Dancing seven years earlier – if Ray Davies hadn’t heard this song, then he obviously tapped into a similar sentiment – whilst tracks like Drinking Alone encapsulate the old school blues energy the band brought to their recordings.
They did a tour called Carry on Kursaals, part of which was filmed for a BBC documentary (sadly that doesn’t make it into this box) and as a last throw of the dice for UK Records Mike Batt was brought in to remix the American rock style Cruisin’ For Love as a single release, but it didn’t make the charts.
However ,the Mike Batt connection led them to a deal with CBS who released their next two albums, 1976’s Golden Mile and 1977’s Five Live Kursaals (recorded live at the Marquee). With Batt on production duty for Golden Mile, this was the pinnacle of the Kursaals’ recorded output in the 1970s.
Leading with the OTT belter that is Little Does She Know (when Batt asked how they’d like this produced, vocalist Paul Shuttleworth drew a picture of a kitchen sink!) and that’s what they got, full-on orchestration, bullets mixing with the drum rolls, and a completely bonkers 1950s rock and roll homage set in a laundrette. It even got the band on Top of the Pops.
This absolute cracker of a song is the lead off to a belter of an album. Those three years hawking their craft around the country, as well as the two albums for UK Records, gave them the confidence to go all-in with Batt, and Mike Batt (as is his wont) was more than happy to indulge the band. The sleeve notes comment that Graeme mentioned recording with Batt was like recording in someone’s sitting room. The following day they turned up at the studio to find Batt had hired a three-piece suite, side tables, standard lamps and a Persian rug, which remained in situ during the sessions!
The album yielded some classic tracks, like Two Left Feet, the contemporary Modern Lovers, the soulful Street of the Music with its female harmony vocals, the American ‘50s racing track Detroit Tin and the bluesy Third Finger Left Hand, with its clever lyrics about being teased by a married lady.
The musical virtuosity of the band is showcased perfectly by Batt’s production, and like so much of his work, he knows how to get the best out of the musicians; the fine blend of Americana, rock and roll and English rock is blended to perfection here, and Paul Shuttleworth’s vocals do the material real justice, whilst the steel guitar work of Vic Collins, Richie Bull’s bass and Graeme Douglas’ guitar, married to Will Birch’s drums, makes a band firing on all cylinders and putting everything they honed on the live circuit to good use in the studio.
Following the success of Golden Mile, the record label hired out the Marquee, and the new line-up (with Barry Martin replacing Graeme Douglas on guitar) recorded their incendiary live set for the benefit of an invited audience.
Reminiscent of The Move’s Something Else album, this takes their finest studio tracks (Original Model, Pocket Money, TV Dinners, Little Does She Know) mixed with a fine blend of covers that fit their set perfectly: An astonishing version of Friday On My Mind, a blistering cover of Anna (Go To Him) and the Mike Berry track On My Mind.
Stripped away from the studio sheen, this shows the band in their natural environment, and boy, doesn’t it work so well. The sheer raw energy and power of the band is on display and this is as raw and raucous live album as you’d get from any band, and it was a brave move from CBS to release this as their fourth album.
However, in hindsight it was a great move to get this recorded from CBS as it’s a snapshot in time and captures the band at the peak of their powers, and in a setting that gets the best out of them at the time.
With the aborted tracks from their third album, including the well-observed single Television Generation and Girls That Don’t Exist (produced by Muff Winwood) these tracks show the evolution of the band’s sound, and, like so many bands of this era sadly the punk revolution blew them away and stalled their development and evolution.
Luckily in 1985 a Best Of appeared on the Edsel label, and in 1987 the line-up of Paul Shuttleworth (vocals), Graeme Douglas (guitar & vocals), Will Birch (drums), Vic Collins (pedal steel guitar & vocals) and Dave Hatfield (Bass and vocals) reconvened in Dave Hatfield’s studio to record the 1988 album A Former Tour De Force Is Forced To Tour (which has to be up there in the top ten album titles of all time) and the band got back on the road, performing at festivals like Fairport’s Cropredy Festival in 1990 and the Cambridge Folk Festival.
The album itself is another absolute cracker of an album, stepping away from the pup rock ethos, or the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach of the CBS era, it sees the band wearing their influences on their sleeve without pandering to any demographic.
With the lovely sound of Vic’s pedal steel guitar all over the place, and a more mature approach to songwriting, in the sleeve notes the band suggest this is their best album, and I am inclined to agree with them.
Tracks like the lyrically brilliant Pre-Madonna, the fantastic title track with its’ wonderful play on words and tongue-in-cheek tracks like Old Men Need Some Lovin’ Too and the single Monster-in-Law, this is a band comfortable with each other, their own legacy and having real fun making an album, and this shines through the music on this album.
With an additional selection of early ‘70s radio sessions which show the raw energy of the band, this fantastic boxed set shines a light on a band easily dismissed as a one hit wonder, yet they have the musical chops to be far more than that.
This set rectifies that misconception, and let’s face it, if you have Mike Batt or Muff Winwood in your corner you’re no mediocre act. It’s such a shame that the energy and power of the Kursaals live never quite translated to record until either Five Live Kursaals or A Former Tour De Force Is Forced To Tour.
This box, with its lovely card repro mini-sleeves and detailed booklet, should go a long way to drawing the attention to what a great and energetic band The Kursaal Flyers were.
❉ The Kursaal Flyers – ‘Little Does She Know: The Complete Recordings’ (RPM Records RPMBX551) is out now from RPM/Cherry Red Records, RRP £14.99. Click HERE to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.