Tony Rivers: Move A Little Closer (1963-1970)

There are treasures to be found in this charming box set, writes Chris Browning. 

“…for fans of the Harmony Grass album, a true classic of British sunshine pop, the best thing about this Cherry Red compilation is hearing the sound of a band slowly realising a vision, blossoming and suddenly making music every bit as worthy of their heroes.”

Tony Rivers is something of an outlier in British pop music of the sixties and seventies. First as lead singer of the Castaways and then with Harmony Grass, his is a career full of near misses and brushes with actual fame. The one thing you’ll all have heard him sing is usually uncredited, and that’s the Mike D’Abo written theme for Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads.  For all the many attempts to get a hit – and, as a band who were managed by both Brian Epstein and Robert Stigwood at various times in their career, they got pretty close several times – they only succeeded once, the title song of this box set Move In A Little Closer. Essentially this box set records a career getting very close to success very many times, and never quite managing it. But more than that, it’s wonderfully the sound of a band slowly but surely finding their own style through love of another: The Beach Boys.

The first recordings here are mainly a bundle of beat group songs, but there’s a steady progress in the complexity of the harmonies through this. The Happy Song is the first proper evidence of this but by the time of I Love The Way You Walk those harmonies are coming increasingly to the foreground. I Love You is a Beatles pastiche, but again with ever more complex harmonies and by the time of (Don’t You Ever) Tell On Me it’s essentially their calling card. And then you get to Til You Get Home.

One of my favourite jokes in the Rutles is the throwaway gag about Les Garçons De La Plage, the French Beach Boys managed by Rutles’ manager Leggy Mountbatten. I do wonder whether Epstein managing Tony Rivers and the Castaways influenced that joke, because even without reading the sleeve notes (where Rivers gushes with wonder at seeing the Beach Boys play live, meeting them and even doing a temporary stand in for Mike Love in a dressing room singalong) Til You Get Home makes the influence of Brian Wilson obvious from the very first note. It’s a charming, if slightly clumsy, attempt to sing a British Little Honda but about scooters and what it lacks for sophistication it more than makes up for with naive enthusiasm and audible joy. It sounds like nothing less than people who have suddenly heard their future and are going after it with gusto.

If Til You Get Home wasn’t enough to convince you of Rivers’ new found love for Wilson and surf music, Come On And Love Me Too essentially starts with the same melody as Surf City by Jan and Dean (and co-written by Brian Wilson). The original turns up on the third disc, which is all lovely session performances and live performances and absolutely demonstrates how Rivers and his ever changing line up of musicians were also, essentially, closer to a cabaret group than a conventional rock band.

The rest of the first disc is a band searching valiantly for an identity and getting various levels of proximity towards that goal. They try a Beatles cover, which doesn’t really go anywhere special apart from the harmonies. And then we get a stream of ever increasingly complex Beach Boys covers. This culminates in a version of God Only Knows that unfortunately for Rivers and the Castaways ends up being released the same week as the original, thus making for yet another near miss.

But that doesn’t seem to  be the important thing here – because the smattering of Rivers originals and co-writes shows a musician gaining in confidence. Can’t Make It With You is a far more complex Wilson pastiche and Einer Kleiner Miser Musik sounds for all the world like that subgenre of pop psychedelia, recently compiled in another wonderful Cherry Red collection as Toytown Pop, but with Beach Boys vocals singing the whimsical lyrics. All this is essentially leading to Rivers’ first masterpiece, Summer Dreaming, which convincingly finally embodies this British Beach Boys sound he’s been hunting for. There’s no surprise that it reappears several times here. And it seems to absolutely clarify everything he’s been wanting his band to be. The song that ends this first disc, Pantomime, sounds like a completely different band from the charming early records in search for that perfect sound.

Which is absolutely perfect timing, because then we get to Harmony Grass. This is an album I have known and loved for years, a true classic of British sunshine pop. Unfortunately it arrived a little too late to become that colossal success it deserved to be, but it’s an absolute classic. And from the opening song – their hit at long, deserved last – of Move In A Little Bit Closer this is a band exuding confidence. It also starts a run of Rivers’ written songs that just builds in complexity: My Little Girl and What A Groovy Day are far beyond pastiches and, especially in the latter, approximate something of the sound of the baroque pop bands like the Zombies and the Left Banke, complete with tinkling harpsichords.

And then there’s I’ve Seen To Dream. Dear god, how do i even begin to express how great this song is? Flirting with psychedelia, it’s a genuinely Wilsonesque masterpiece of bucolic, haunting, autumnal beauty. The only problem with it is that later songs on the record like their fun version of Chattanooga Choo Choo and Tom Dooley (essentially this album’s equivalent of Sloop John B on Pet Sounds, in as much as your enjoyment of it is somewhat qualified by how jarring it sounds among everything else) sound slightly clunking in comparison.

There are still treasures to be found here – Mrs Ritchie is a great pop song with a nifty stolen bit from Love’s Alone Again Or, I Think of You has Rivers trying some bossa nova and finally we have What Do We Do When Love Dies which to these ears has something of the beauty of Roger Nichols’ Small Circle of Friends (something with really will mean something to sunshine pop obsessives and is, honestly, the highest of high praise). The rest of this disc is essentially riffs on the Harmony Grass album, highlights including more toytown pop in the form of Happiness is Toy Shaped and a beautifully melancholic Let My Tears Flow.

The presence of Cecilia is probably evidence about how well the follow up to the hit was going. It’s fun, and the harmonies are great – and there’s some truly fantastic attempts to approximate the musical arrangement of the original – but again feels like a band desperately hunting a hit again. Which sadly never came. But for fans of the original album, and the earlier Cherry Red release of it, the best thing about this compilation is hearing the sound of a band slowly realising a vision, blossoming and suddenly making music every bit as worthy of their heroes. That it was short lived is undeniably a shame, but it’s still a joy that somehow improves a classic to hear it in context.

Rivers seems to have ended the decade frustrated by his lack of progression with his bands, instead becoming a backing singer for Cliff Richards’ hits at the end of the seventies and early eighties. This has a nice synchronicity because, as the charming sleevenotes detail, Rivers went into pop music in the first place after singing a few Richards’ songs at Butlins in 1961. Considering how much of his career was spent almost becoming successful, Rivers is refreshingly not bitter about his career in the interview in the sleeve notes. He seems to look back at all his career’s ups and downs with great fondness which seems fitting for a musician who provided us with such beautiful, sunny pop music.

❉ Tony Rivers: “Move A Little Closer: The Complete Recordings 1963-1970” (Grapefruit CRSEG126T) 3CD Set was released 24 February 2023 by Cherry Red Group, RRP £20.99. 

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Chris Browning is a librarian but writes and draws comics and other strange things to keep himself out of trouble: he can be found on Twitter as @commonswings but be warned he does spend a lot of time posting photos of his cats.

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