Despite the recently fashionable status of the Bethnal Green area in east London, this has to date failed to lead to a revival of interest in the 1970s band who named themselves after the hood. Bethnal were formed in Bethnal Green in 1972, and sounded like a cut-price Who minus the vocal skill of Roger Daltrey and the songwriting talent of Pete Townshend. I saw Bethnal at The Marquee in Wardour Street on Thursday 24 August 1978 and had a good night out. Bethnal had plenty of energy but beyond their deployment of a violin, there was nothing very memorable about them. They simply weren’t as good as the other bands I saw at The Marquee that month: The Vibrators on Monday 14 August 1978 and Ultravox! (when John Foxx was still the vocalist) on Tuesday 22 August 1978. I caught plenty of other bands that August too, at venues all around London… Bethnal were simply another night out on the town.
At some point after that Marquee gig, I pulled Bethnal’s first album Dangerous Times out of a bargain bin. It’s bog standard seventies Brit rock. The opener Out In The Street (not the tune of the same name from the first Who album) sounds like a second-rate Pete Townshend song covered by a boogie band, but it’s still enjoyable. The best tracks are covers of We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place and Barba O’Reilly, but while acceptable they’re not as good as the originals… And other tracks like Who We Gonna Blame are seriously let down by the vocals. Bethnal’s second and final album Crash Landing was not at all to my taste, since it veers much more in the direction of stadium rock and prog, so even when I came across bargain bin copies of this swansong recording, I left them lying where I found them.
One reason for mentioning Bethnal is because I’ve been enjoying John Eden’s series of blogs at Uncarved about uncool gigs he attended as a teenager. The ninth and most recent in the series is about him going to see The Mission in 1987. Eden appears to have ticket stubs and other memorabilia to jog his memory, whereas I’m relying on internet research to date the gigs I went to 30 and more years ago. I’m a bit older than Eden and I seem to have been more hardcore about my gig going from an earlier age. I liked a lot of seventies new wave and punk acts and among my early live experiences can list The Stranglers, The Damned and The Clash. I hate to admit it but the first band I ever saw was The Jam, and that was sometime before they had a record contract. For me, more interesting than these ‘name’ acts are those who never made it. One of the best bands in this latter category is Burlesque, a jazz rock combo with new wave trimmings, who like Bethnal managed to release a brace of albums that have yet to be reissued on CD.
According to the Billy Jenkins Webzine Burlesque were: “Selected as the ‘Band Most Likely To Succeed’ in both the tabloid Sun and Melody Maker at the end of ’76, it took a flying visit from America by music business legend Clive Davis to sign the band to Arista Records.” I don’t like the construction of that sentence, but I presume an article hosted on a former Burlesque band member’s website will be factually accurate. All I can say is he and his band-mates in Burlesque cracked me up with songs like Steel Appeal (about being sexually turned on by people in wheelchairs). Better yet, Burlesque saxophonist Ian Trimmer wore a tatty army jacket with ‘Bird Lives’ sprayed punk-style across the back; even at the age of 15 I knew that ‘Bird’ was jazz legend Charlie Parker. Making things even more surreal, the one time I saw Burlesque Paul Weller of The Jam was in the sparse audience. That said, Weller was obviously present to check out support act The Pleasers, who were Merseybeat revivalists replete with collarless Beatles’ jackets. The Pleasers even had their own one band musical movement – Thamesbeat!
I caught Burlesque and The Pleasers at some college (can’t recall which one) at some point in 1977, and it is curious to recall some of the acts I saw in the late-seventies that no one I know talks about any more. For instance, I subjected myself to Nina Hagen at The Lyceum, but I’m not sure if this was in 1978 or a bit later. I guess people still rave about Hagen in Germany, but she hasn’t been of much interest to UK based hipsters for the past 30 years. She made her initial international impact with a German language cover of the new wavish Tubes’ song White Punks On Dope, done with re-written lyrics as TV-Glotzer. In the early/mid-eighties Hagen made tunes like New York with disco legend Giorgio Moroder acting as producer, and for me that collaboration is the most notable thing about her.
I don’t like Hagen’s voice, so I’ve no idea why I went to see her circa 1978 – I can only assume there was some other act on the bill that I wanted to catch. I can’t remember where I saw Hagen’s one-time boyfriend, the Dutch rocker Herman Brood, but it may have been on a multi-act bill with his consort of that era. Brood is Holland’s most famous rock ‘n’ roll junkie, but I haven’t heard mention of him in London for years, despite his 2001 jump from the roof of the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel leading to saturation media coverage of his suicide and subsequent funeral in The Netherlands.
Back in the late-seventies I used to see a lot of bands and my tastes were very varied. I would catch Sham 69 one night and Wire the next; groove to The Vapors on Saturday then freak-out with Gloria Mundi or The Virgin Prunes on Sunday… I even saw Motorhead, but I much preferred The Pirates! Having started out as Johnny Kidd’s backing band, The Pirates had been around since the late-fifties. On record they weren’t bad, although I didn’t really bother with their vinyl, I just liked them live… and in 1978 you’d have been just as likely to find me at a Pirates or Wilko Johnson gig as at a punky-reggae party. I was also going to see British reggae bands like Steel Pulse, Aswad, Misty In Roots and Matumbi. Since I much preferred small clubs to concert halls, I didn’t bother with visiting Jamaican acts although I liked their sounds. The Lyceum Ballroom in The Strand was the biggest place I went to with any regularity. I only ever went to The Hammersmith Odeon once, to see Lou Reed in 1979, and I considered the experience shitty.
Out of the stew of music I caught live 30 and more years ago, it is curious to see what’s disappeared. Amazingly, bands like The Pleasers made it onto CD in the late-nineties, whereas as far as I know the output of Burlesque and Bethnal has never been reissued on that format…
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!