[4 January 2010]
Has it really been thirty years since New Wave and skinny-tie rock? When the initial onslaught of punk bands began to explode in the U.S. and U.K., it was primarily a flood of raucous singles and frenetic club gigs by bands that were too frightening on the surface for most established labels to take a plunge. But like most movements, all it takes is one player (Sire, in this case) to aggressively jump to get others to make a move out of necessity. Most major labels were initially wary of what they deemed an unmarketable and temporary phase in musical style, but by the end of the decade two-album deals were handed out with abandon. Of course, with few exceptions, the bands in question were far from the safety-pin crowd; good musicianship, vocals, and pop song structure being the requirements of this “new wave”.
Although they sound markedly different, the Fabulous Poodles and the Laughing Dogs share much beyond their canine nicknames. The Fab Poos hailed from the U.K. where their music drew heavily upon pub-rock and classic Brit rock. Famous for their whimsical stage antics and humorous songs, they were musically tight and lyrically clever to the point where comparisons to the Kinks were more than a coincidence. The Laughing Dogs, on the other hand, came up through the New York City scene, playing CBGB’s and Max’s alongside Blondie, the Ramones, and Patti Smith. Musically, however, they were much more smooth and polished with a classic power-pop sound that was a lot closer to the Rubinoos and the Producers than their punk contemporaries. Both bands had limited success in the U.S. charts and were gone after their second albums (for Epic and Columbia respectively) as were the Sinceros, the Photos, and dozens of others whose chum was similarly tossed into the same radio shark tank.
The Fabulous Poodles can be perfectly described as the intersection of pub rock and the Kinks. Besides Tony De Meur’s affected vocals, their music leveraged common updated blues-rock chord changes with a touch of impish glee. “Oh Cheryl” is packed with Kinks riffs, and “Work Shy” is not only borderline larceny, it also might be the best Kinks song Ray Davies never wrote. Their U.S. debut Mirror Stars is a compilation of two albums they released earlier in the ‘70s in the U.K. with tracks and sequencing well selected. “Chicago Boxcar” brought witty lyricist John Parsons into the fold (the song is about a haircut, not a train) and their wit and sound (few bands featured a fiddle player) helped them stand apart from the pack. While “Tit Photographer Blues” is a joke that doesn’t hold up (“Cherchez La Femme” nails a similar topic so much better), “B Movies” is sublime.
On their second album, the Fab Poos are leaning back to pub rock, sounding very much like Rockpile (perhaps why Nick Lowe would later nab fiddle player Bobby Valentino for his Cowboy Outfit album). Opening with a strong Everly Brothers cover (“Man With Money”) and the pulsating “Bionic Man”, Think Pink is more up-tempo but once again lyrically silly in spots, most notably on “Cossack Cowboy”. But “Anna Rexia” channels Dave Edmunds (or early Elvis) and “You Wouldn’t Listen” is a nod to Buddy Holly. Webb Wilder would love “Pink City Twist”, while “Vampire Rock” is either one of the coolest Halloween songs ever … or it predates Spinal Tap. Like Mirror Stars, a fun record.
Unlike the Fabulous Poodles, whose comical name was at least representative of their presence and musical pomposity, the Laughing Dogs probably did themselves a disservice by choosing such an odd moniker. Few suspected such a great pop band lurked underneath. No gimmicks, no flashy female singer, nothing for marketing wizards to grab hold of, just a group of experienced session musicians with strong three-and-four part harmony and a bagful of piano- and guitar-based pop chestnuts. Maybe they should have called themselves Toto.
The self-titled album features a few tracks that should be far better known; despite a couple being Billboard picks none reached iconic status. Why “Get ‘im Outa Town” and “Reason for Love” weren’t huge hits is beyond me, an energetic powerpop gem with a sing-along chorus and sharp guitar break. There’s a lot of Macca-meets-the Who moments here thanks to catchy and inventive arrangements (“No Lies”), and on “It’s Just the Truth” James Leonard sounds like Paul McCartney belting out an old Young Rascals song. Meet Their Makers, the follow-up album, is more polished and radio-friendly than the self-titled debut, and while more consistent it has fewer standout tracks in its dozen three minute pop nuggets. “Take My Chances” is a standout, and I defy a Jellyfish fan to listen to the ballad “Stand Up” and not smile. Also winning is a spirited cover of “Don’t Bring Me Down”.
Kudos to Collector’s Choice and American Beat for reissuing these gems; both bands deserved more fame than they received at the time. Fans will be very happy with the value while those taking the initial plunge will find that the music holds up very well. The packages are not ornate—album cover reproductions on the outer sleeve and simple track listings inside. But there’s no doubt that recapturing the twenty-plus tracks on each set is a tremendous value, and there are easily five songs apiece that justify the price of the album.