❉ Dana Gillespie and Petula Clark are among the immaculate obscurities compiled in RPM’s final release.
“The Northern Soul scene of the 1970s was quite unique in its veneration and recontextualisation of music less than a decade old. That allegiance to soul music from before the genre grew and splintered is adhered to in many of the 77 tracks here.”
It was something of a fluke. Maxine Nightingale held little regard for Right Back Where We Started From, a Motown-flavoured song offered to her by songwriters Pierre Tubbs and J. Vincent Edwards. “It’s pleasant as a pop song, but I’m not into pop” she told Rolling Stone after the single had become a worldwide hit, continuing “there must be something in it, but I just don’t understand what”. Nightingale’s bag was jazz and blues, but she’d created an evergreen pop classic. Right Back Where We Started From was a smash that reflected 70s Britain’s affection for the singles-oriented soul of the previous decade. For some time, UK Singles Chart had been graced by 60s soul reissues – notably the Tams’ Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me, a belated chart-topper in 1971 – but here was a new song and a new voice in that familiar idiom. Right Back Where We Started From – Female Pop & Soul In Seventies Britain is a new 3CD set from Cherry Red imprint RPM Records, and the title track serves as the starting point for a set light on contemporary soul trappings and heavy on revivalism.
The Northern Soul scene of the 1970s was quite unique in its veneration and recontextualisation of music less than a decade old. That allegiance to soul music from before the genre grew and splintered is adhered to in many of the 77 tracks here. In unabashed 60s tributes like the Notations’ Need Your Love and Patti and the Patettes’ girl group pastiche Summer Heartbreak, a mood only a few years out of reach is painstakingly recreated.
The classic Motown sound is summoned back in cuts like B. J. Arnau’s lovely I Want To Go Back There Again – Arnau’s spiky voice compares favourably to the reliably aloof Diana Ross vocals on the Supremes hits the record evokes. These tracks may have been issued in the 1970s, but this set is a must have for lovers of 1960s pop.
Record collection staples are taken on, too. Nowhere to Run is tackled admirably by Jonathan King protégé Tina Harvey amidst an unusual choir-like ambience, while Ruth Swann delivers a strong 1975 version of Tainted Love that – yes – rivals the Gloria Jones original. In his liner notes for this release, Ian Chapman points out that Swann sings “take my tears” rather than the original “take not give”, a gaffe repeated in Soft Cell’s era-defining hit six years later. Chapman suggests that Swann’s version, more readily available in the 1970s than the US-import original, may have been the version Marc Almond was first familiar with. It’s thought-provoking observations like this that betray the care and attention that has gone into Right Back Where We Started From. Streaming services may be convenient, but here is a reminder that the forgoing of liner notes is too great a loss.
These celebrations of the 1960s make inclusions like Tommi’s Let Your Love Fall Down, a R&B stomp with slinky synth in tow, seem almost anachronistic. While ostensibly a collection of “Female Pop and Soul in Seventies Britain”, plenty of tracks here edge into the fringes. All Cut Up on You, from Dana Gillespie’s 1973 album Weren’t Born a Man, is a sizzling glam rock jam. From 1978, Lesley Duncan’s The Magic’s Fine brings ABBA to mind. It’s a delightful slab of breezy FM pop, all disco shuffle and Pilot/Thin Lizzy harmonised twin guitars.
That’s What Friends Are For by Madeline Bell, from 1976, is another maverick inclusion. Bell had achieved success earlier in the decade with Blue Mink, but that group’s sound is in the rear-view mirror here as she preens over a Latin-infused groove. It’s an ice cool track, sophisticated and immaculate.
Among the more mellow cuts, the late Barry St. John contributes the dreamy My Man and Helen Shapiro’s rich tones are served well on the lively That’s the Reason I Love You. Most delicate are flower-pop cuts like Chrissy Roberts’ Something Good and Linda Cable’s It’s Gonna Happen To You.
There’s even a lightly psychedelic bopper from Petula Clark called Right On, a self-written plea for peaceful protest (“You don’t have to march down the street with a banner in your hand, no/you don’t have to tramp around with a rock and roll band, no”). Clark doesn’t exactly sound hip when she sings “you don’t have to smoke a weed or even grow your hair”, but the sentiment here isn’t so different to “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow”. It’s one of several tracks here with a background in ’60s counterculture; another plea for peace, Julie Sullivan’s Fly, Little White Dove, Fly, takes us closer to acid-tinged folk rock than soul.
Stars of film and television get in on the act, too. Adrienne Posta (To Sir With Love) lends her feline vocals to the Neil Sedaka/Phil Cody composition Express Yourself, anticipating Noosha Fox in the process. On the mid-tempo You Will Want Me, Linda Thorson (The Avengers’ Tara King) sounds a little uneasy – hers was only a brief flirtation with the record industry. Models Nina Carter and Jilly Johnson, however, sound fierce on a red-hot disco rendition of Whole Lotta Love recorded under the name Blonde on Blonde – not a Dylan tribute but an allusion to their girl-on-girl act.
From 1979, Flirts’ Give Him a Great Big Kiss returns us to the 1960s and it is enormous fun. They retain the giddiness of the Shangri-Las original but ramp it up. It’s truly a teenage rampage pitched somewhere between the rollicking revivalism of Darts and Racey and the up-to-date power pop of Blondie, Elvis Costello and the Boomtown Rats.
Right Back Where We Started From is the final release from RPM Records, the archival label founded by Mark Stratford in 1991. Over their 600+ releases, they issued lost masterpieces like Joe Meek & the Blue Men’s I Hear a New World and Mark Wirtz’s A Teenage Opera as well as classic compilations like Stavely Makepeace’s The Scrap Iron Rhythm Revue, Velvet Tinmine and Who Is Dr Who?. They compiled unsung cuts by household names like The Everly Brothers, Tom Jones and Gene Pitney. They also brought cobwebbed records like the Aerovons’ Resurrection, John Howard’s Kid in a Big World and – hell – that Peter Wyndgarde album to prominence.
In a press release, Mark Stratford explained “RPM has been a physical label when that was meaningful. When we started, we presented material others weren’t touching. I feel now that RPM had said all it had to say”. Perhaps there are only so many hidden treasures to be discovered but this is very sad news. RPM has truly been a lifeline for lovers of archival music, for cratediggers, for anyone who’s ever heard about something rare or unreleased, perhaps only shared between wealthy collectors, and wanted just to hear it! They leave behind a phenomenal legacy, and Right Back Where We Started From ends it on a high.
❉ ‘Right Back Where We Started From – a collection of Female fronted Pop & Soul In Seventies Britain’ (RETROSE1004) was released October 2020 from RPM/Cherry Red Records, RRP £17.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Huw Thomas is a musician and writer from Radnorshire, Wales. His special interests include Northern Irish band Cruella De Ville, Cardiacs, Back to the Egg and Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt. He tweets as @huwareyou.