Reviews

Roger Ruskin SpearRoger Ruskin Spear
Album: Electric Shocks/Unusual
Label: Esoteric
Tracks: 13+11
Website: http://www.esotericrecordings.com

When the Bonzos split up in 1970, the vagaries of record company contracts meant that none of the band members was a free agent, and so their label Liberty Records spent some time attempting to claim further product from the individuals. By 1971, the label had been subsumed by United Artists, who released saxophonist Roger's pair of solo albums, Electric Shocks and Unusual, in 1972 and 1973 respectively. Prior to those, however, in 1971, an EP (Rebel Trouser) was recorded, and its four tracks are appended to the CD reissue of Electric Shocks (as indeed they were with the album's earlier CD reissue on DJC). Rebel Trouser paraded Roger's well-laundered obsession with said garment, and included Trouser Press (suitably "re-pressed" from Bonzos days, if you get my drift!), and a hilarious sendup of the Englebert Humperdinck standard Release Me. Although using just "people who were around", a surprising cohesion was achieved with the sessions, and the result was a likeable curio worth exhuming.

The definitively oddball - nay, utterly MAD! - Electric Shocks was a more extended showcase for Roger's inventiveness, his glorious eccentricity, his unorthodox sense of humour, his strange tastes and obsessions. Here he turned the spotlight on his principal predilections - for novelty records of a bygone era and old-style rock'n'roll - through a series of affectionate re-creations of the spirit of both (sometimes simultaneously!), on which he explored his own unique take. Roger was keen to explore the possibilities of studio multitracking, and he clearly relished the experience of incorporating layers of vocals and creative interpolation of sound-effects tracks into the music in a way that was clearly inspired by the Goons and Monty Python. At its best, the album was brilliant - as in Doctor Rock, I'm A Fly, the totally surreal scenario of All By Yourself In The Moonlight, the manic robotics of the cover of Living Doll and the "ersatz-Spike-Jones" approach of Make Yourself A Happiness Pie - but rather too often a great initial idea or one-liner was unduly prolonged, albeit entirely disarmingly (now that's a Pythonesque tendency!) and several tracks end up outstaying their welcome to a greater or lesser extent. Patrick Moore, for example, which incorporates some deliciously knowing musical jokes before running out of steam, ditto Mattress Man (guest appearance by the Flamin' Groovies!) and The Liberty Laughing Record. And I've never been able to make much sense of Blue Baboon… Whatever, Electric Shocks still has lots to commend it, including some fine session work from Andy (Thunderclap) Newman, B.J. Cole, Graham Preskett, Dave Clague and Chris Welch - and even a guitar solo from Yes' Pete Banks. The album proves a fun and (ahem) involving aural experience; there's a lot going on in the mix, and your concentration is amply rewarded.

Followup Unusual (I can't replicate the idiosyncratic inverted typography here) employs a broadly comparable pattern of activity and sports a similar mix of musical preoccupations, pernickety reinterpretations, snide commentaries and perverted covers, but arguably more fully and consciously realised by Roger and his musical cronies, who include Thunderclap Newman and vocal group "The Maggie Stredder Singers" (aka The Ladybirds). The covers contingent includes a trio of impeccably rendered pieces culled from vaudeville (doubtless via obscure scratchy 78s and boasting wonderfully wordy titles like When Yuba Plays The Rumba On A Tuba Down In Cuba (they sure don't make 'em like that any more!); delightfully arranged, these stick economically to the basics and stay just the right side of the line of pastiche. The "perverted" contingent kicks off with a delirious handclap-ridden trot through Pinball Wizard, and continues with a somewhat silly rendition of Heartbreak Hotel which probably just tips over into self-parody. Then there's a clutch of delicious self-penned numbers, including the cheesy ear-worm Morecambe And Wise and the perhaps inevitable riposte to Roll Over Beethoven: Shove Off Shostakovich, which almost casually plays out to a jangly little percussion coda (this is I suspect is a sneaky jibe at the iconoclastic knockout percussion interlude in Shostakovich's opera The Nose!). Like Electric Shocks, Unusual has been expertly remastered, but unlike its predecessor this marks its first appearance on CD, providing an ideal opportunity for re-evaluation.

David Kidman

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