Pub rock became a phenomenon in London in the early 1970s. An excellent document of the scene is the compilation Goodbye Nashville Hello Camden Town, which I wrote about for The Word, June 2007…
“Would You Ask A Man To Drink And Jive?” Or even: “Are You Ready For Rhythm & Booze?” Under such punsome headlines, the 1970s music papers hailed the newest new thing in London, and they called it pub rock. It was rock, and it was played in pubs. Who could possibly object? While it was never a screamingly fashionable genre, pub rock was benignly viewed as a Very Good Thing, and when punk rock happened, people gave pub rock the credit for blazing a trail of back-to-basics sweaty intensity .
Some of the major new wave stars, like Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and Ian Dury, had their roots in pub rock. The most dynamic pub rock act, Canvey Island’s Dr Feelgood, inspired everyone from The Ramones to Paul Weller. And the prince of all pub rockers, Nick Lowe of Brinsley Schwarz, would produce the glorious 45 that detonated English punk, namely The Damned’s New Rose. Any way you look at it, pub rock merits some sort of Rock Heritage Preservation Order. So why is it so seldom celebrated?
Pub rock had no single style, except a common fondness for rootsy Americana, from country twang to 12-bar blues to southern funk. It’s really defined by what it wasn’t – not pretty and arch, like glam rock; not obscure and technical, like prog-rock; nor insular and sensitive, like the era’s singer-songwriters. It was your basic, unpretentious, rowdily good night out. The scene was centred on a handful of London venues, most famously the Hope & Anchor in Islington. The drummer Will Birch, of Southend’s Kursaal Flyers, wrote a great history of it all, called No Sleep Till Canvey Island, in which he notes: “Even at its height, pub rock attracted a relatively small audience… One would often see familiar faces at key gigs, creating the impression that the core audience was the same 20 or 30 people, moving very quickly from pub to pub.”
It’s the Golden Age of Pub Rock, basically the 1970s, that dominates this extensive new compilation, Goodbye Nashville Hello Camden Town. The double CD takes its name from the opening song, by scene stalwarts Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers, and romps across another 47 tracks. In among them are some long-buried gems we ought to re-claim with joy, like Mick Farren’s punk-parodic I Want A Drink, or The Count Bishops’ moody western masterpiece Train Train. There is a generous selection of three cuts by Ian Dury’s Kilburn & The High Roads, including his eternally touching Crippled With Nerves and his epic Cockney odyssey Billy Bentley (Promenades Himself In London).
But some of the crucial figures are under-represented, to my mind, or simply missing altogether: of Nick Lowe’s stylish wit and melodicism, there is only the Brinsleys’ Country Girl, and just one apiece from Dr Feelgood and Eddie & The Hot Rods. Though the compilers can’t have access to everything, it’s a shame that Elvis Costello is nowhere to be heard, likewise Strummer’s 101ers, or Ducks Deluxe or Graham Parker. Absent as well is one of pub rock’s rare pop hits, How Long? by Ace. For any of these I’d gladly surrender Chas & Dave’s I Am A Rocker, to which the passing years have lent no allure at all.
To be fair, David Wells’ detailed sleevenotes do supply a wider narrative than the tracks can offer. He also makes the following bold assertion: “In terms of pub rock, received opinion is that, like some blowsy barmaid, it was pretty appealing after a few pints, but didn’t seem quite such an attractive option in the cold light of day. Absolute drivel.” But is it absolute drivel? I wonder if received opinion was at least partly correct: pub rock does have a certain “You had to be there” aspect to it. Those pub rock nights of the 1970s were often incandescently exciting, but disappointingly few acts made essential records. (There are several dull examples on this compilation.) It’s surely telling that the greatest LP that ever came out of pub rock was a live album – Dr Feelgood’s Stupidity.
What’s for sure is that, somewhere along the way, pub rock fell out of favour. By the 1980s, when all in pop was sleek, synthetic and glossy, “pub rock” signified something grubby, unambitious and tired. And in truth its great days were over. Its best and brightest had heard the landlord call for Last Orders, supped up their beer and collected their fags. Groups have never stopped playing rock music in pubs, obviously; but as a movement, pub rock rather faded from media notice in the bright new age of cocktail bars, MTV stars and style magazines. It survives today and hopefully it will never entirely die. But at my own London local, a former shrine of this pub rock, the baton has passed to tribute acts. Often, they’re paying tribute to the very acts, like Queen and Pink Floyd, that pub rock was designed to subvert.
Never mind. Goodbye Nashville Hello Camden Town performs a valuable service in commemorating a scene that’s too often remembered for what it led to – namely punk – and insufficiently celebrated in its own right. Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, who are two of British rock’s smartest operators, still speak up for the movement to anyone who cares to listen. More importantly, as the late Lee Brilleaux of Dr Feelgood would invariably say, whenever the talk took an unduly ponderous turn: “Bollocks to all that. Now, what are you havin’?”