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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Birds: The Collectors' Guide To Rare British Birds


THE BIRDS: THE COLLECTORS' GUIDE TO RARE BRITISH BIRDS (1964-1967; 1999)

1) You're On My Mind; 2) You Don't Love Me; 3) Leaving Here; 4) Next In Line; 5) No Good Without You Baby; 6) How Can It Be?; 7) You're On My Mind [original demo]; 8) You Don't Love Me [original demo]; 9) Say Those Magic Words; 10) Daddy Daddy; 11) Run Run Run; 12) Good Times; 13) Say Those Magic Words [alternate ver­sion]; 14) Daddy Daddy [alternate version]; 15) La Poupée Qui Fait Non; 16) Run Run Run [alternate version]; 17) Daddy Daddy [backing track]; 18) Granny Rides Again.

When the Deram label put out this lovingly assembled package in 1999 (charmingly ungramma­tically subtitled «contents all their singles, the first demos, unreleased recordings, alternate ver­sions & backing tracks»), they also found it necessary to add «Featuring Ronnie Wood's first re­cordings» on the album sleeve — because, they must have reasoned, who on Earth could have fallen for it except for Stones fans?

But in a way, such advertising could have been an easy turn-off just as it could be a turn-on. Not all Stones fans are Ronnie Wood fans — the veterans tend to write him off as a vastly infe­rior figure to both Brian Jones and Mick Taylor (not entirely without reason), and even those who are totally unfamiliar with Stones history know for sure that Ronnie Wood (a) does not write songs (not for the Stones, at least), (b) cannot sing to save his life, and (c) with each passing year, spends more and more time jumping around the stage rather than playing his guitar, that is, when he is not in rehab or courting Ms. Katya Ivanova.

Yet it used to be different. In 1964, when The Birds formed in the Yiewsley borough of West London, determined to bring even more muscle to the British Invasion and reap themselves some well-deserved fame / dough / pussy, Ronnie Wood was a handsome, intelligent, and motivated 17-year old prodigy who knew well enough how to play guitar, how to write competent songs, and how to be clever enough so as not to open his mouth and let a more competent singer (Tony Munroe) do the job for him. Whether he was the de-facto leader of the band remains uncertain, but whatever original material they did record was written almost exclusively by himself, so at the very least he was the band's Pete Townshend — and, considering the band's Mod-influenced (although they never pledged explicit allegiance to the Mod culture) looks and sounds, the analo­gy seems even more appropriate.

One thing that evaded The Birds was pure luck. They stayed together for more than two years — from late 1964 to early 1967, the juiciest years of 'em all — but over that period, only got the chance to release a tiny handful of singles (four in all), due to poor management, lack of promo­tion and a rather unfortunate run-in with the American Byrds. Most people are naturally lazy to check whether «Byrds» is really a misprint for «Birds», so, naturally, anybody wandering into a local store in late 1965 and asking for the Birds would be handled a freshly imported copy of ʽMr. Tambou­rine Manʼ. Take a lesson from that, kids — next band you form, be sure to name it «The Three-Legged Gonzo Plum Tree Musketeers» or something.

Anyway, those four singles, two A-sides of which eventually made it onto Nuggets, are com­pletely on the level. The Birds were okay with covering other people, such as Bo Diddley (ʽYou Don't Love Meʼ), but their very first song, ʽYou're On My Mindʼ, was an interesting and even mildly innovative Wood original, a fierce garage-blues-rocker with several time signature and tempo changes, a wild vocal from Tony, and some ear-piercing soloing from Ronnie. The sea­soned listener will obviously discern a strong Clapton-era Yardbirds influence, but where the Birds lacked in technique, they more than made up in raw energy and crunch.

The second single was a cover of the Motown hit ʽLeaving Hereʼ, very popular in London at the time (The High Numbers, soon to be The Who, did it too, and the Birds were often on the same bill with them) — and, although not an original, it took the Birds as high as they ever got. Brutal, heavy riffage here, interspersed with shrill, hysterical solos — instrumentally, the Stones and the Animals had kid­die-level power compared with this, as the Birds went with more explicit bravery in the «caveman sound» direction, even if at the expense of subtlety and understatement. Then, in a gesture that was also quite typical at the time, the B-side, ʽNext In Lineʼ, was a Wood original written in the same style and key as ʽLeaving Hereʼ, an imitation rather than a direct rip-off, but almost as good (unfortunately, with a harmonica solo instead of a guitar-based one).

Later singles, the ones that did make it onto Nuggets, actually went a little easier on the blues-rock and added a pop sensibility. Written by outside songwriters, ʽNo Good Without You Babyʼ still compensates for its catchiness with guitar crunch and an ear-splitting crescendo at the end, but ʽSay Those Magic Wordsʼ, recorded in 1966, is already pure «power-pop», with a Doppler-effect-treated lead guitar part (psychedelia on the rise) and, overall, «happier» vocals from Tony — which only reflects the general evolution path of so many «wild» R&B outfits of the time, without any negative assessment: all of these are fine songs in their own different rights. The «sleeper» surprise might be Wood's B-side to ʽNo Goodʼ — the four-minute long ʽDaddy Daddyʼ, with even more experimentation with song structure and tempo changes, falling from upbeat pop to slow-crawling dirge and ending with a feedback-drenched noise section: hilarious and spooky at the same time, a perfect reflection of the contradictory spirit of the time.

Problem is, four singles ain't enough to make for a proper LP, let alone a CD-length one, so the archivists at Deram did a remarkable job, indeed, of gathering together everything that could be gathered to occupy more space. Alas, only one track is of significant interest — Ronnie's ʽGranny Rides Againʼ, recorded in the band's twilight days of 1967, a rather stereotypical marching-band-style Brit-pop nugget à la Kinks / Small Faces with an uplifting brass arrangement. The rest ran­ges from the competent, but unnecessary (a cover of The Who's ʽRun, Run, Runʼ which The Who naturally did better on their own) to the silly and unnecessary (ʽGood Timesʼ, a boring attempt at sentimental folk-pop for which they had no proper qualifications) to the just unnecessary (most of the demo versions that do not even have any historical importance — so they started out with a faster recording of ʽYou're On My Mindʼ than what they ended up with... so who cares?).

But we will not hold it against them — after all, it was hardly the band's fault that they never got a chance to prove themselves properly, and even if filler is filler, nobody is forced to sit through anything these days. The officially released handful of material is solid mid-Sixties garage / pop-rock stuff — about twenty-five minutes' worth of it — and yes, «Ronnie Wood's first recordings» are quite on the regular Ronnie Wood level: the guy was hardly ever «amazing» in the jaw-drop­ping sense of the word, but he was always sensible, sensitive, and fun. With the added weight of the liner notes, the colorful photos and packaging, I do acknowledge that this here Guide is in­deed a nice collectors' item — thumbs up without any questions.

Check "The Collector's Guide To Rare British Birds" (CD) on Amazon

9 comments:

  1. Second rate compared to the other early British noisemakers The Animals, The Kinks and The Who. Leaving Here gets a nice aggressive performance, but yeah, already 1965.

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  2. Ronnie Wood's real era of significance came as a sideman in the Jeff Beck group, and then to Rod Stewart in both the Faces and Rod's solo career. As for his contributions to the Stones, he's been a decent enough pal to Keith in the post-70's "era of lowered expectations".

    As a Bohemian Artiste, he's no Brian Jones, and he's sure no Mick Taylor as a lead player. A likable second rater who got very, very lucky.

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    1. I have always suspected that Ronnie Wood was asked by Richards and Jagger exactly because he is second rate. That might imply that Brian Jones was more important for the Stones than sometimes assumes.
      But I'm not a fan and never have bothered to research this hypothesis.

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    2. I agree totally. A lot of the early guitar work that many assumed was Keith was actually being played by Brian. In my opinion Keith's guitar skills peaked at somewhere around the time of the Rolling Stones Now! album and have deteriorated ever since (especially after Let It Bleed) due to drugs, debauchery and a lack of interest in doing anything more difficult than bashing around in open G tuning in a heroin induced stupor.

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    3. I remember that when they were auditioning for a new guitar player in 1974 (including such hopefuls as Wayne Perkins, Harvey Mandel and Jeff Beck), Steve Marriott was a strong contender, and Keith's personal choice. According to Pam, Steve's wife:

      "Steve told me, 'I was good and stood at the back for a while but then Keith would hit this lick and I just couldn't keep my mouth shut.' Keith wanted him in but there was no way that once Steve opened his mouth Mick would have him in the band. He knew Steve would never stay in the background. They were the one band in the world that Steve would have loved to have been in. He just wanted to work with Keith."

      So yeah, I can see how Ronnie Wood was the perfect choice to keep the peace: quiet and unassuming.

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  3. Some more Birds trivia, appropriate for this most trivial of also-rans. They appeared in a classic B movie, "The Deadly Bees", which later received the full MST3K (Mystery Science Theater 3000) treatment. They performed "What Do I Need You For?", eliciting such classic lines from the MST3K crew as, "That's not the Byrds!" and "Eight Miles Wrong!"

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  4. According to some sources, the lead singer seemed to be Ali MacKenzie. Anyone?

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  5. Still can't beat The Sonics - the true noisy innovators.

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  6. "(charmingly ungramma­tically subtitled «contents all their singles, the first demos, unreleased recordings, alternate ver­sions & backing tracks»)"

    It's actually "Contents: All their singles..."

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