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.