Monday, February 18, 2008


“Goodbye Nashville”/
Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers

Last May I devoted an entire month to the British invasion; surely Pub Rock deserves at least a week of its own. I’ve been listening to a lot of this mid-70s British music lately; I love its stripped-down, cheeky, infectiously fun vibe. I figure any scene that gave rise to Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Graham Parker, and Joe Strummer has got to be worth listening to, right?

For several reasons (check out Will Birch’s fascinating book No Sleep Till Canvey Island for the whole history--order it here), the first pub rockers were country rock wannabes, overlaying their Cockney vowels with exaggerated Arkansas twangs and throwing in all the banjos, mandolins, and Crosby Stills and Nash-ish harmonies they could find. (Hey, if those Canadians in The Band could do it, why not a bunch of Brits?) At the same time, given the venues they were playing, they had to speed up those plodding country rock tempos, to keep things hopping at the bar.

Take this 1974 tune by Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers, one of the first mainstays of the pub rock pubs: the whole point of the song is that they’re transplanting country music to North London soil. It reels off a travelogue of American cities – Boston, L.A., Memphis, San Diego (love the sliding yelp on this one), San Francisco, Birmingham, San Jose--and throws in exotic mentions of steel guitars and dobros, before mournfully announcing, "But now I'm going back again / My fortune ain't been found / It's goodbye, Nashville / Hello, Camden Town."

“People seem to think that I’m insane / They don’t know the way it goes / Playing in that game,” lead singer Phil Lithman wails, holding up Camden as a sort of desperate last alternative. Lithman, it’s true, did try out San Francisco for a while in the late 60s; I don’t know why he moved back to London, but there sure is a shadow of disappointment here. They rattle off those place names, hurtling headlong for the drawn-out harmonies of the refrain. Of course, the singalong part of the song, that’s the most important. Cheers, mate.

When I say the sound was stripped down, that doesn’t mean these guys couldn’t play their instruments; the picking on this track is incredibly deft. It isn’t slickly produced, though; it has a real front-porch freshness, clean and straightforward. That one-take vitality was a hallmark of this pre-New Wave phenomenon. The band split up after their 1974 album Bongos Over Balham, but as rock pedigrees go, Chilli Willi’s is impeccable: drummer Pete Thomas ended up as one of Elvis Costello’s Attractions, Paul “Bassman” Riley hooked up with Graham Parker’s Rumour, Paul Bailey formed Bontemps Roulez, Martin Stone was in the Pink Fairies, and Lithman moved back to San Francisco and a band called the Residents.

So here’s the thing that mystifies me: I never liked Crosby, Stills & Nash, so why do I dig this knock-off of their sound? It must be the complete unpretentiousness of Chilli Willi. CSN always looked so earnest, so impressed with the magical blending of their beautiful voices – not so these upstart Brits. They’re just glad no one’s thrown them off the stage yet, and they'll keep hollering and hooting until last call. It’s all about the spirit of the thing--and that, they’ve got down pat.

Goodbye Nashville sample

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