Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers 24/01/15
Rock n’ roll is a very loosely used term; but ‘real’ rock n roll, especially by the original purveyors, is melting away. All the sweet green icing, flowing down. The guys who were there in the fifties and are still capable of banging it out in such a way that you’d pay best part of thirty quid a ticket with a smile on your face are but few and far between now. And so it was, perhaps, no great surprise when rockabilly legend Ray Campi, now aged about 80, missed the gig due to flu. Rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie–woogie flu, perhaps. You would have thought at that age he’d be on the ‘at risk’ register somewhere and would have had a wee jab. Apparently not. Which is a shame – a slap bass player with some fine tracks to his name and in my opinion one of the greatest rockabilly sides of all time in “Teenage Boogie” – and who was famously signed to Radar Records at the time when they had Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe under contract – so no mug, then – as no doubt he would have been well worth seeing upfront of show closers, Crazy Cavan and The Rhythm Rockers.
However, every cloud has a silver bit, some say, and in this instance and at very short notice Matchbox stepped into the breach.
Which some at this event – the umpteenth Rockers Reunion, between two and three thousand folks in a very big and utterly soulless leisure centre on the outskirts of Reading with trade stands galore, a bar which could only just cope but damn fine acoustics and a very nice stage – seemed to feel was a bit of a mixed blessing. ‘Proper’ rock n roll, a bit like Northern Soul, Ska, Heavy Metal, pick your poison, has one curse you would not wish uttered in your direction – ‘too commercial’. Matchbox, you see, had the temerity once upon an early eighties time to have a string of hit singles and albums for the screamingly ‘poppy’ Magnet Records, along with the likes of Bad Manners, Darts, Guys and Dolls and in the first instance, the recently departed Alvin Stardust. They were Top of The Pops regulars, trotting out to cheery welcomes from the likes of Jimmy Saville onto the nation’s telly of a Thursday night, a welcome, some would argue, diversification on the Great British Singles Chart. And because of that, some, rather unkindly in my view, see them as a sort of poor man’s Showaddywaddy.
And this sort of thing isn’t necessarily held in particularly high regard by the folks who are seriously into whatever they’re into. Me? I say well done lads; taking a series of rock n roll songs and classics and sort of giving them a sort of ‘popabilly’ respray, and having a chart run which many out and out pop acts would and should envy.
And out they came, right on time and with pretty much the original culprits including diminutive lead singer Graham Fenton (It really did cry out for ‘And The Fentones’, didn’t it?), a man with more than a bit of the Gene Vincents about him, guitar hero Steve Bloomfield, bass man Fred Poke and on guitar two, Gordon Scott and drummer Jimmy Redhead.
The reception was polite and a bit reserved to start with but as they worked through juke – box hits like “Buzz Buzz A Diddle It”, dedicated to original artist Freddie Cannon (‘triple heart bypass but he’ll be back soon, folks’) “When You Ask About Love” and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” the largely good-natured crowd started to warm to them. And that Mr Fenton is quite a showman, working the room with good humour and infectious enthusiasm – and very cleverly introducing some of the more mawkish hits – and yes, I would include “Rainbow” in that – by dedicating it to his mum and telling a tale of Sweet Gene himself or variations on that theme. And you can’t throw things at a guy who just said that, can you, really?
Also, you could see with his frequent references to working with Gene Vincent’s band, The Blue Caps, and meeting members of Buddy Holly’s entourage when they crossed the pond by invitation to a major celebration of the great man’s work – you could sense that what he was succeeding in doing was reminding the audience of his band’s credibility amongst people at the heart of rock n’ roll’s heritage and legend, which was seriously underlined when they performed a very tidy version of Ray Campi’s “Rockin’ At The Ritz”, duly dedicated to the absent Man Himself. Either that or the overrated savoury cracker biscuit. One or the other.
And by playing more of the good stuff extremely well. Off went Graham Fenton to find his gloves to do his Gene Vincent set and this gave top rockabilly picker Steve Bloomfield the chance to showcase a stonking version of what I believe to be one of the five most genuine-sounding rock n roll tunes recorded by a Brit; his turbocharged rockabilly dance anthem “Hurricane” is held in massive regard and rightly so on the strength of this clicketty-clacking echofest which just reeks of the fifties, US style, in Midwest small towns. Which ain’t bad to say it was recorded for Charly records, owned at the time, I believe, by a Dutchman and released in the UK about a quarter of a century later. Return of The Man Who Went To Get His Gloves and we are treated to an excellent “Be Bop A Lula” amongst others. This guy does sound spookily like Gene Vincent and the crowd, who loved “Hurricane”, are certainly getting into it now. Showcase Gordon Scott, who treats us to a blistering “Marie Marie” which blasts along propelled by the most solid of rock solid rhythm sections. By now we’ve got folks dancing on stage, a very happy looking audience and a pleased / relieved looking Matchbox who overrun their timeslot by about half an hour – and why do that if you aren’t having a Good Time – finishing with a flourish on a big hit, the anthemic “Rockabilly Rebel”, before a very well deserved encore of a medley which either very naughtily or with the foreknowledge of the headliners included a smidgeon of “Old Black Joe”, traditionally encore fodder for Crazy Cavan and Co., and another juke-box classic of the time, “Midnight Dynamos”. All boxes ticked at that; prejudices conquered, great musicianship and showmanship, great reaction from the crowd, intelligently paced set with lots of high points; all in all, very entertaining stuff. Strike one to the Matchbox.
Which of course didn’t exactly make life easy for the main event, Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers. A band with a string of hit records to their name have just gone on, played a bit of a tour de force, ‘borrowed’ one of ‘your’ songs, and overrun by half an hour.
One of the reasons CC&TRR are so engaging is you’re never quite sure which of the Crazy Cavans will turn up. The band members are not averse to an occasional pre-entertainment refreshment and on occasion some have commented that this is noticeable. On occasion they are riotously ramshackle and are a party on legs. They seem to mix and match the repertoire almost on a whim and sometimes, Cavan will chatter amiably with the audience about the songs or whatever takes his fancy at the time. Other times, flick-knife delivery – as sharp as. I’ve seen them a few times now and whereas I’m in no doubt these lads know how to party they are also 100% committed to doing what they do as well as anybody on the planet and on a good day maybe even better. And of course the fact that for a band with a total age of about 6000 years, they look in great nick –and you can’t do that if you don’t look after yourself a bit and work very hard indeed, at providing what the punter is paying for.
Audience can get as wasted as they like. That’s different.
However. Not sure if it was the realisation the lads who had just come off – and only just come off given the overrun – had put a shift in, or if best part of 3,000 people in a biggish venue on a Saturday night focuses the mind marvellously, or if the recent series of dates in Las Vegas, where these lads are feted as the absolute Real Deal by anybody who is anybody in American rock n’ roll, but these lads were not messing about. This audience was Having It.
Cavan Grogan is a large, rangy and somehow menacing presence on stage. Manic axe man Lyndon Needs is a sort of scrawny, angular ball of energy, if you can have an angular ball, and if you do seek medical advice, and tonight the rest of the Rhythm rockers are original bass player Graham Price, original drummer Mike Coffey, and rhythm guitar Terry Whalley.
These lads are straight out of hardlife Wales. They fought, kicked, scratched and bit their way to being the kings of “Teddy Boy, Flick Knife, Rock n’ Roll” by recording some albums at home, signing ill-advised deals to certain record companies who, some say, did them No Favours and working, working, working. Playing better, writing songs and touring. Always touring. In Europe and particularly Scandinavia, they were hailed as the best; it is great to see that even the Americans have had a ‘carrying coals to Newcastle’ moment and they’re getting increasing recognition across the pond.
And all this without a single, conventional hit record. Like The Clash, you could never quite have seen them on Top Of the Pops; they look like they’d have eaten some of the keen teens dancing disinterestedly in their designer knitwear.
Bursting onto the scene in 1975 with an album called “Crazy Rhythm” after five years of hard slog – which spawned show-stoppers like the rubbery, greasy “She’s The One To Blame”, the band went for an unusual opener in “Both Wheels Left the Ground”, a wild, wind-in-your-hair blast of a song all about caning your moped something silly. Not unlike Graham Fenton, Cavan had decided, it seemed, to remind all and sundry of his band’s credentials by starting with a biker anthem. Absolutely no need for all that ‘here’s one for all you rockers out there’ nonsense and consequently there was none.
With very little by way of inter-song chit-chat, a very focussed and forceful-sounding Cavan growled and roared his way through a whole slew of ‘ones that got away’ like “Hard Rock Café” and “My Little Sister’s Got A Motorbike” along with more recent toons like “Groovy at the Movie”. And all the time Lyndon Needs screaming and yelping through the set and playing up a veritable storm. You’ll believe a bloke was born welded to a battered Telecaster. He is probably the finest living rock n roll guitarist in the world. And all this during a series of good-natured but undoubtedly distracting stage invasions.
And they just didn’t let up. They have some more gentle, ambling rockabilly in their repertoire, but they had clearly made the decision – these people are rockers. Let ‘em have it.
It was more than a bit like standing outside in a storm-force gale, or standing at the top of a helter-skelter and just giving yourself up to it. Amongst a welter of others they blasted through “Rockabilly Rules OK” and “Boppin and Shakin” and by way of encore we did indeed get a reprise of “Old Black Joe” along with “Teddy Boy Flick-Knife Rock n Roll”.
Despite the main men being sixty-odd now, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers, as a live band, are absolutely on fire at the moment, experienced and capable enough to play to suit the crowd in front of them whilst promising guaranteed delivery on the realest of real rock n roll. If ever you feel like you’re starting to drift a bit loose of the spirit, style and intent which is at the heart of great rock n roll, the queue starts behind me.
But do it soon. Before someone leaves the cake out in the rain.
Steve wanted to give Matchbox four stars and Crazy Cavan five, but our technology can’t quite cope with that so five stars it is.