Tuesday, May 22, 2007

“Concrete and Clay” / Unit 4 + 2


Ever heard of this band? Possibly not, but you might recognize the track – it hit Number One in the UK for one week in 1965 (and a respectable #28 in the US). If not an underground hit, this was at least an offshore hit, championed by the pirate radio stations that proliferated in those days, defying the BBC’s stranglehold. For kids thirsty for new musical product in 1965, pirate radio added the thrill of the forbidden. Rescuing a dynamite single from obscurity was where pirate radio excelled.

Though Unit 4 + 2 never became a big name, their connections sprawl everywhere. Originally a quartet called Unit Four, they became Unit Four + 2 when two more guys joined the group. (Duh.) After their first two singles bombed, for this record they hired two ringers – guitarist Russ Ballard and drummer Bob Henrit, former bandmates of 4+2 founder Brian Parker (from Adam Faith’s back-up band The Roulettes) and also of 4+2 guitarist Buster Meikle (from The Daybreakers). Ballard and Henrit were the Zeligs of British rock; they were later in Argent, with Zombies organist Rod Argent, and Henrit was also in the mid-80s Kinks, alongside bassist Jim Rodford (another Zelig – he has at various times also been in the Animals and in the revived Zombies with Rod Argent, his cousin.) It makes England seem like a tiny village, where everybody knows everybody else.

Maybe Unit 4 + 2 wasn’t the great rock band of the 1960s – but on this one track, they got things gloriously right. It begins with just a cowbell and triangle, alternating in syncopated rhythm, like footsteps ringing along a pavement. That syncopation, a twitchy sort of bossa nova, is the key to the whole song. A deftly plucked guitar jumps in, skittering up and down the scale with Spanish-style fingering -- Russ Ballard’s contribution to this song is a HUGE part of its appeal, as is Bob Henrit’s; the percussion is essential to that charged-up Latin rhythm. Four measures and I’m dancing already.

The vocals have the syncopation bug, too, as the verse alternates between the lead singer and the back-ups, his sweet legato tenor punctuated by their punchy baritones: “You to me / Are sweet as roses in the morning / You to me / Are soft as summer rain at dawn / In love we share / That something rare.” How sappy that love poem imagery would sound, if it weren’t for that catchy beat.

The chorus is standard folk music stuff, with swelling Seekers-like harmonies and the usual imagery (urban v. nature, close-up v. panorama, the transient v. the eternal): “The sidewalk in the street / The concrete and the clay beneath my feet / Begins to crumble / But love will never die / Because we’ll see the mountains tumble / Before we say goodbye.” Then it morphs into a tender Bobby Vinton vein -- “My love and I will be / in love eternally” -- with the back-ups’ swooning ooohs. But that chunky rhythm saves it, yoking together all these different musical modes, infusing them with that happy, irresistible beat.

Maybe this was the problem with Unit 4 + 2 – they couldn’t settle on one sound. Their two first albums mixed traditional folk songs and R&B covers and boppy beat numbers; they're a completely different band on each track. Their follow-up single, “You’ve Never Been In Love Like This Before,” barely charted in the U.S.; the mountains are still standing, but Unit 4 + 2 vanished into the mists of time. They’ve left this footprint, though, and it’s a gem.

Concrete and Clay sample


G12 said...

They did a fine version of Dylan's You Ain't Going nowhere, which was better than The Byrds version, for my money.

Holly A Hughes said...

Hmmm...I've only heard it in sound-clip form, but their cover sounds awfully draggy to me. But then, that's one of my favorite Dylan performances -- to me it's essential to have the bluegrass arrangement and his Grampa Geezer voice.

What I'm wondering is -- has anybody heard their single "You've Got To Be Cruel To Be Kind"? I can't find a clip anywhere. I tremble in fear that Nick Lowe stole it...