❉ One of the great lost albums of the late ’60s, marking the debut of Jeff Lynne as a songwriter of note.
“The Birthday Party as an album never grows old and is a very idiosyncratic and intelligent album that casts a long shadow over popular music from the ‘60s to today”
Well, here’s an absolute treat for fans of Brumbeat, psychedelia and well-crafted pop songs, legendary Birmingham band The Idle Race’s debut album is released here for the first time on CD (in its own accord – I’ll explain that bit later) and this beautifully packaged double disc set (replicating the gatefold from the original) sees the release of the mono version for the first time on CD. Also included in this package as bonus tracks are the non-album singles & associated b-sides released in 1967, and I’ll come onto these later.
The Birmingham music scene in the early to mid ‘60s was incredibly incestuous, and when Roy Wood, guitarist and vocalist with Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders, left to join embryonic Brumbeat supergroup the Move (so named because all members had ‘moved’ to join this new group), the Nightriders found a new guitarist, lost Mike Sheridan and replacement guitarist Johnny Mann quit, they found themselves advertising for a replacement in the Birmingham Evening Mail.
Eighteen year old guitarist Jeff Lynne from Shard End was the successful applicant, and their EMI deal having lapsed, the band found themselves putting Jeff Lynne front and centre as neither rhythm guitarist Dave Pritchard or bassist Greg Masters wanted to be front man and it wasn’t feasible for drummer Ollie Spencer.
The scene in 1966 was rapidly evolving from R n’ B and local covers to the new psych scene (thanks in part to the Move’s success) and the band’s name evolved from The Nightriders to the more pastoral Idyll Race before settling on The Idle Race, partly because Jeff didn’t want the 9-5 (as told in the ELO song Long Black Road). The booklet candidly quotes Jeff as saying “My Mum would come bounding up the stairs, ‘ Come on you lazy bugger, get out, get to work!’ This time she came up, I was holding the sheets down going ‘ Nope, listen, Mum I’ve never got to get up, ever again. I’m a professional musician now ‘ That was the greatest feeling because I was so fed up with (bang,bang,bang) ‘Get up you lazy git!’”
With a rousing live performance and a burgeoning reputation, the Idle Race signed to Liberty Records, and (again, showing how close the bands in Brum are) were offered the Move song (Here We Go Round) The Lemon Tree as a single. With the Dave Pritchard song My Father’s Son ready for the B-side, the single was scheduled to be released in September 1967. However, as would plague the band’s career, bad luck had it that the Move recorded their version and put it out on the B-side of Flowers in the Rain.
Released in October 1968 and produced and engineered by innovative producer Gerald Chevin and newcomer Edddie Offord, whose tape cutting and splicing wizadry would go onto define early ‘70s prog rock due to his ground-breaking work with Yes and ELP, The Birthday Party was housed in a gatefold sleeve with an invitation to The Birthday Party on the cover and a host of the great and good of the day attending said party on the gatefold.
This cannily included all the Radio 1 DJs and people like The Beatles and influences like Roy Wood and Buddy Holly, in a more formal & black and white version of the Sgt Pepper scene, more reminiscent of a refectory than a party. Minor quibble: Should they have removed the Jimmy Saville & Jonathon King pictures on the re-issue? I guess this kind of pop culture revisionism is probably worth a separate debate as to where we draw the line on cultural revision, which isn’t here, but is always worth considering, particularly when you consider Kate Bush erased Rolf Harris from her albums post-remastering.
Anyway, as the 1996 Idle race anthology was titled, Back to the Story… Let’s talk about the debut, having lived with The Birthday Party since buying it as a skint student in 1996 and playing it from my stereo in halls (far too loud of course, at that age you have to play your music so everyone can hear it, because how else do you define your personality!) and several friends commented it had a great sound to it, and it was very Kinks-ish!
I’d never spotted that to be honest, and see it more it a long tradition of British rock of the ‘60s that was influenced by what came before – skiffle, music hall, vaudeville… (The music hall element is something Jeff Lynne would revisit with Roy Wood on the Move songs The Duke of Edinburgh’s Lettuce and My Marge) and so what you get on Birthday Party is a cast of loners, misfits and the underbelly of society.
Eleven songs were written by Jeff Lynne, one by Dave Pritchard, and the band having to credit the composers of Happy Birthday for the intro to Birthday Party, and Jeff’s songwriting brings in so many different influences and styles that it’s hard to know where to begin.
First of all, if you’re looking for proto-ELO there’s not much on show here, other than the orchestrated wistfulness and beauty of The Lady Who Said She Could Fly (which namechecks the Beatles, who Jeff later produced for Anthology) or the ballad of Follow Me, Follow with its simple yet effective, almost nursery rhyme sound.
In fact, a lot of these songs are of that style, but rather than the darker side that Syd Barrett was exploring in Pink Floyd, these were more character studies from the fairground operative in the jaunty opener Skeleton and the Roundabout, the child-man in I Like My Toys or the warning about conscription, Don’t Put Your Boys In The Army Mrs Ward, all of which show Lynne’s knack for a catchy tune and a sympathetic lyric, a knack that has never left him: If you look at Mr Radio from the debut ELO album or indeed smash hit The Diary of Horace Wimp, they can be traced back to this debut album. Whilst the Idle Race are no mean musicians in their own right, as Dave Pritchard says in the notes, “I didn’t stop contributing songs, it’s just as a songwriter (Jeff) was a good deal more prolific.”
The singles included here on disc one include their meatier version of Lemon Tree, and is arguably better than the Move’s version, whilst the debut single Imposters of Life’s Magazine was highlighted by Mojo back in the early 90’s as one of the top 50 British Psych singles. With some really interesting guitar work from Lynne, truly mind-bending lyrics and Offord-inspired effects, it is the sound of ’67 distilled into less than four minutes’ worth of music, and showed the dichotomy of Brum bands like the Idle race and The Move that they sounded so different on single to album, and different again live with a far more aggressive sound.
Another single, Days of Broken Arrows (again really hyped, but never a hit) is great catchy Lynne rocker of the ilk that spawned Do Ya’ or Hold on Tight, and is included here in two versions, one of which swaps the intro for the middle eight.
There is a huge difference here between the stereo and mono mix, which is available on CD for the first time, with an extra verse in the opener Skeleton and the Roundabout for a start, and different instrumental passages in a number of songs, and it sheds new light on an album I have known for a very long time.
Despite the lack of success of this album, being a Radio 1 favourite and raved about by all the right people at the right time, for some reason The Idle Race never quite got a commercial foothold. Jeff was determined to make the Idle Race succeed, and after the commercial failure of their second, self-titled, album, Roy came knocking again and Jeff joined the Move on the proviso their new project, an Electric Light Orchestra was started (ironically Jeff joining the Move spawned their two greatest albums and a fantastic run of singles) whilst the Idle Race released one more album, the progressive folk of Time Was, before (as Birmingham bands do) morphing into the Steve Gibbons Band with former Move bassist Trevor Burton on guitar.
The Birthday Party as an album never grows old and is a very idiosyncratic and intelligent album that casts a long shadow over popular music from the ‘60s to today (and the band’s name was even name checked in the Travelling Wilburys’ song Cool Dry Place), marked the debut of Jeff Lynne as a songwriter and producer of note, and is one of the great lost albums of the late ’60s.
This reissue is long awaited (as it’s not been available on its own since the limited edition Gold vinyl edition from Record Store Day 2015) and I hope very much that its sequel gets the same treatment.
❉ The Idle Race: ‘Birthday Party’ (2CD) is released March 20, 2020, via Grapefruit/Cherry Red Records. £11.99. Click here to pre-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.