❉ Exploring the extraordinary ’70s pop career of the voice of ‘First Dates’.
In the musical melting pot that was the early ‘70s, record labels were more than happy to take a punt on anyone who had something new and interesting to bring to the table, hence why actors/musicians like Murray Head or Peter Straker were given a musical platform.
Very much in this mould is actor/singer-songwriter Brian Protheroe, who was Salisbury-born but came to London in the mid ‘60s, where his first band FBI (Folk Blues Incorporated) shared the same bill at a folk club with Paul Simon in 1965.
Better known today as the voice of First Dates and First Dates Hotel, Brian is a well-established actor who’s graced both stage and screen since 1968 when he moved to Lincoln and made his debut in rep.
This immaculately-curated three disc set, compiled with the assistance of Brian, who also adds his recollections and memories to the sleeve notes, contain his three albums released on the Chrysalis label – Pinball (1974), Pick-Up (1975) and I/You (1976) – alongside B-sides and a couple of contemporary remixes of album tracks.
After playing a rock star in the play Death on Demand, Protheroe’s co-writer Willian Fairchild took a demo tape around a few labels, and Brian found himself on the Chrysalis label alongside acts like Leo Sayer and Jethro Tull.
Utilising the session musicians of the time as well as Protheroe’s own multi-instrumental skills, his debut single Pinball, with its semi-autobiographical lyrics, and building musical backdrop, reached 22 in the charts, and is an incredibly English piece of songwriting. His lyrical couplets mixing the mundane with the fantastical and is as great a slice of melancholic English song writing as anything Ray Davies or Richard Thompson ever managed.
This focus on the lyrics as well as the music is an obvious reflection of Protheroe’s acting, and with some superb arrangements and production by Del Newman, whose orchestral arrangements enhance many songs on here (just like they did on albums by Elton John and Cat Stewart) and help bring Protheroe’s warm vocals to the fore.
The experience he had working in musicals and writing scores for plays, helps make this debut a really varied and interesting album, there’s so much going on in the different arrangements of singles like Clog Dancer with its gentle rhythm and direct lyrics, or ballads like Lady Belladonna, whilst the two tracks Kinotata and Wrong Kinotata (taken from the Dadaist show Kinotata performed at Covent Garden)add a bit of levity to the album.
You also get the ‘40s pastiche Moon Over Malibu, and the Beatlesque Fly Now (Protheroe admitting in the sleeve notes how influenced he was by Lennon/McCartney growing up, including a nod to Hey Jude in Pinball).
There’s even an epic double header closer Interview/Also in the Limelight, with some wonderful harmony multi-layered vocals, lowkey instrumental work and the sparse but expansive production when the orchestra kicks in reminds me of finale Back Seat of My Car from Paul & Linda McCartney’s Ram, both songs sounding like they should be the grand finale in a musical.
Second album, Pick-Up, has more confidence and more experience, as you’d expect working again with Del Newman, whose working relationship with Protheroe made the album a lot tighter and gives the songs the space they need to grow.
Working with song writing partner Martin Duncan, the album opens in style with Enjoy It, with it’s complex tongue twisting lyrics that work within the musical arrangements as well.
The traditional showmanship is brough to the fore on The Good Brand Band Song, which has echoes of The Beatles and 10cc running through it, there’s a wonderful element of showmanship and English music hall or Pythonesque humour that is drip fed through Protheroe’s songwriting.
There is a real mix here, from the rocking Cherry Pie with some wonderful percussion and a nice mix of light and dark, and of course, the lyrics are sublime.
Oh Weeping Will has a calypso swing that shouldn’t really work, but really does with the orchestration and arrangements, and the fact that Protheroe doesn’t try to do a faux Jamaican accent (unlike so many others of this era) whilst Gertrude’s Garden Hospital is classic slice of English storytelling psych rock that would have hit the top ten had it been released at any point between 1967-69, and is a much lighter tongue in cheek romp than the Move’s equivalent Chery Blossom Clinic.
Meanwhile we get a proper mid ‘70s bluesy singer songwriter vibe on the soulful and mournful Running Through the City, with some reflective and emotive lyrics that evoke a certain space and time, with steel guitar from BJ Cole and some wonderful keyboard parts from John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick.
There’s some really funky guitar and more tongue twister lyrics in the rocking I Spy Lady, whilst the spirit of the Wild West is evoked on the hoedown-tastic Chase, Chase, Chase which pulls all the traditional Western tropes into place for a fun romp through a violin and mandolin (as played by Protheroe) driven piece of musical fun. It might be a light-hearted homage but it’s a note perfect tribute to the C&W genre filtered through the Anglicana lens.
The finale of the beautiful ballad Soft Song, with its lush instrumentation and beautiful lyrics, provide the calm before the storm of the finale, the epic 8+ minutes title track Pick-Up (taken from the performance Kinotata) and featuring acting colleagues like Anita Dobson, James Bolam and Peter Straker, it’s a mixture of live action musical, wide screen songwriting and can be compared to tracks like 10cc’s One Nuit a Paris (which allegedly influenced Bohemian Rhapsody) and, like the 10cc track, this mixes up a number of different pieces from musical hall, to 1940s jive & some genuine calypso with a fantastic vocal from Peter Straker, before bringing us back to the main story.
It then kicks back in with a police siren, and some dramatic keyboard playing, whilst the lyrics and musical instrumentation builds right up to a reprise of the main theme.
There’s lots of forums on the internet where angry middle aged men with beer bellies and living in their Mum’s spare rooms spend all day arguing with strangers on the internet about what is or isn’t progressive, this finale is what I would call progressive.
It’s an absolute belter of a track and features more ideas than some bands have in their entire career.
The bonus track on here is Back Away, original B-side of Running through the City and it has a fantastic rock vibe, and some great lyrics, again proving how great a songwriter Protheroe is.
His final Chrysalis album I/You, with it’s distinctive cover art, featured session musicians like Alan Parker, Simon Phillips and Michael Giles on drums, whilst label mates Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and Barriemore Barlow added flute and percussion to the adaptation of Shakespeare’s Under the Greenwood Tree.
Described in the liner notes by Protheroe as ‘A more solid, carefully planned album’ I/You is probably the pinnacle of the Chrysalis albums.
This being the third album Del Newman and Brian Protheroe worked on together, the music is even tauter, and the collaborators are chosen to add everything they can to each track.
Released in 1976 which was the apex of the 1970’s wilderness years, Glam and Prog were floundering, Disco was kicking the door down, whilst Punk was only just starting to flee the nest, albums like this would have fallen between the cracks, and that is a shame, as the songwriting here (and indeed throughout this set) is timeless.
The angular and spiky title track with its sharp lyrics and guitar work wouldn’t have felt out of space 3 years later during the New Wave period. You get the sublime rock of Evil Eye that turns into a pseudo-Bond film theme with its atmospheric coda, whilst the aforementioned Under the Greenwood Tree is a classic English folk rock track, mixing the contemporary arrangements with the timeless Shakespeare lyrics perfectly, and again had it been released five years earlier it would be acclaimed (and rightly so) as a folk rock classic. It also showcases the diversity of Protheroe’s songwriting ability, which dips and dives and is incredibly genre fluid throughout these three albums.
You get the contradiction in sound and style on the rather funky and dramatic Dancing on Black Ice, which with its epic piano pieces and powerful chords with it’s rather dramatic chorus is as far from the pastoral Greenwood tree as we can get, and it’s descending chords and lyrical twists mark this out as one of the stand out tracks on this album.
You get guest star Stephanie De Sykes playing the title role in Battling Annie (again blurring the line between these being songs and musical soundtracks) and I think that is deliberate as Protheroe is an actor and songwriter who, across these three albums like to jump across both genre and discipline, and that’s what makes these more than just albums.
I am not sure they could land in the ‘concept’ album arena, but they are far more than just your normal singer-songwriter fare.
From one of the shows Brian was in, comes an incendiary version of Lucille which seems to fit the aesthetic of I/You perfectly and doesn’t feel out of place at all compared with what’s gone before.
Whilst the whimsical music hall element is brought to the fore in the track Never Join the Fire Brigade (which wouldn’t seem out of place on the Idle race debut album)
The whole narrative driven attitude of these albums brings to mind the American dream stories that Jim Steinman and Meatloaf brought to life, however this is a very English narrative, and is full of story songs that have as much an emotional impact, but which tug at the English heartstrings, in a contemporary folk song attitude.
The observational lyricism that comes across in tracks like Hotel is a superb character driven songwriting, and the original finale of I/You, the subtly orchestrated The Face and I, again draws on Brian’s musical influences having a touch of the McCartneys’ about it, with it’s wistful lyrics and the powerful refrain that draws to mind George Harrison circa All Things Must Pass, it’s a masterpiece in the realms of orchestral ballads, and is an absolute beauty of a song.
The remixes that close disc three are Enjoy it, Back Away and Fly Now, Brian always felt Enjoy It needed a horn section, and this enhances the mix, as does the new horns on Back Away (a track Brian could never understand why it hadn’t made the album cut). The addition of the horns on these great tracks, gives them a deeper sound and makes what’s already quality tracks even better.
Brian has continued making music over the years, notably as part of the Albion Band when they became the house band for the National Theatre in the 1980s and continues to perform sporadically with Steeleye Span multi-instrumentalist Julian Littman.
However, these three albums, and additional tracks from a productive and experimental era in music history showcase a unique musical talent and because the music was never quite of its time, it hasn’t aged like some of its contemporaries.
This is a really great set if, like me, you want to delve into something a little bit off the beaten track and rewards multiple listening.
❉ ‘Brian Protheroe: The Albums 1974-1976’ (GLAMT176) is out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. 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.