Perfect Sound Forever

Two Rock and Rollers Who Won't Change the World:
Pete Fowler/Andy Fairweather Low

Peter Fowler Andy Fairweather Low

by Robert Christgau

One of the reasons that Perfect Sound Forever started up in the first place was to highlight some great artists who'd never been given their due, in print or in the marketplace. Village Voice Senior Music Editor Robert Christgau has been championing artists like this for decades now. You'll find a number of them in his latest book, GROWN UP ALL WRONG- 75 GREAT ROCK AND POP ARTISTS FROM VAUDEVILLE TO TECHNO (Harvard University Press), including this article which was originally published in 1978. Some PSF favorites from this book include Pulnoc, Arto Lindsay, Loudon Wainwright III, Liliput and Richard Hell as well as some other artists you might be more familiar with named Bruce, Prince, Janet and Neil. All of them are covered with the kind of detail and attention (and humor) that all of us music nuts savor.

Fowler and Low are ideal subjects not just because of the quality of their work but also because, as Christgau put it so eloquently, 'nobody knows who these motherfuckers are!' Anyone interested and/or concerned about these two artists will be happy to learn that Low has been a member of Eric Clapton's band for most of the '90's (not too shabby) and Fowler has his own website about his work. Speical thanks to Charlie Gillett.

Pete Fowler's mother is a schoolteacher's daughter, his father a retired railway worker who likes Enoch Powell. They sent all of their children to university, no easy thing in England; one of their sons is a nuclear physicist. Pete is a graduate of the London School of Economics and a Marxist. Now thirty-three, he makes his keep teaching high school in the mountains between Leeds and Manchester, and lives with two women and four children whose relationships to him I never got straight. He also writes a little rock criticism and has composed some forty songs. The first was called "The Miners' Strike." It was inspired by his grandfather, a miner who was still requesting up-to-the-minute reports on the coal strike of 1974 from his deathbed.

"The Miners' Strike" was released in England in 1975 as the B side of a single on Oval. The A side, "One Heart, One Song"-- designed to be a hit, as A sides are--took six sessions to get right. "The Miners' Strike" was cut in an hour. The same renowned backup musicians--Gallagher & Lyle, Dave Mattacks, Pete Wingfield-- worked on both sides, with production by Charlie Gillett, rock historian and co-owner of Oval. "One Heart, One Song" has a wonderful piano hook by Wingfield and a gentle, melancholy melody imbued with extra grace by Fowler, who sings like an over-thirty Buddy Holly, with all that intensity, ambition, and adenoidal quaver mellowed out; although it has the general feel of a love lyric, its real subject is the persistence of faith, its "baby" not some girlfriend but Fowler's own child. It wasn't a hit and I like it a lot--but not as much as "The Miners' Strike," as heartening and well-conceived a political song as I can recall.

"Have the miners won their fight? Are they marchin' through the streets?/Are the govermnents fallin' down/Terrified by the anarchy?" are the questions Fowler's grandfather asks, but the lyric doesn't record Fowler's answers. Instead, it follows him on a visit to his friend Billy's house and into bed with Billy's wife. A breach of solidarity to be sure, yet when Billy discovers it upon his return from the night shift, his first words are almost the same as the old man's--he wants to knows how the strike is going! "And though by rights I should explode/And kick you out into the road/All I really want to know is/Are the boys in control?" Whenever Fowler asks a political question, his thoughtful singing style takes on a declamatory, inspirational edge. He fades out improvising phony slogans like "things are going our way" and "man the barricades" over the band's vamp. Wingfield provides another nice hook.

I think this is a virtually perfect cut; the words synthesize the undying hope and time-tested futility of the Marxian vision, while the music, deriving from the folk-tinged English country-rock originated by a more mortal Rod Stewart, locates the lyric in the bohemian political subculture it is a fable for. Admittedly, the subculture is a small one, especially in the US, where the youth radicalism of the sixties rose and faded away without the beginnings of a class analysis. But the dreams of liberation it's about made their mark even among those who were chary of them, and I've never played Fowler's seven-inch for any contemporary who wasn't moved by it. It seems a shame, doesn't it, that almost no one has ever heard this record, and that Fowler may never make another?

Ah well, those who don't much care for coal miners may be thinking, who wants to know about protest songs anyway, and although Fowler's isn't exactly protesting I accept that. But let me tell you about another singer-songwriter, equally adult but much less "political," who works in the same rock and roll tradition: Andy Fairweather Low. In the sixties, Low (Fairweather is a traditional middle name in his family) led the Amen Corner, a British pop-soul group that was like America's Box Tops, only bigger--they've been classed with the Osmonds, an overstatement that gives the idea--and also not as good. While the gravelly power of the Box Tops' Alex Chilton merited comparison with young Stevie Winwood, Low's voice was reedy and adenoidal--sort of like the one Alex Chilton (and Steve Winwood) uses today, actually. But Low began to write good songs well before Chilton did. At first, these appeared as Amen Corner B sides. Then, in 1970, at the end of the teenybopper grind, the group reconstituted under the name Fairweather and scored a hit with with Low's "Natural Sinner."

It was about then that Low became a refugee from the music business. Whilst topping charts and making girls scream, the Amen Corner somehow amassed fifteen thousand pounds in debt, even though its members only cleared expenses plus twenty to thirty-five pounds a week. RCA's Neon subsidiary gave the reformed Fairweather an advance that put them in the black, but the hits didn't keep on coming, and when Neon folded, Low declined to renegotiate with RCA, retreating instead to his native Wales, where he lived off savings and songwriting royalties. It was three years before he was heard from again, by way of a solo album called Spider Jiving on A&M. When asked why the delay, he told interviewers he'd been thinking very carefully about his next contract.

Low's three solo LPs are not what you'd call grabbers. The vocals crack and wobble, the beat is quiet, and the lyrics have a found, anonymous air. Perhaps boosted by Low's teen-idol history, they've done well enough in England, yielding both retail and turntable hits as well as good reviews. But in the US, Spider Jiving, La Booga Rooga, and Be Bop 'n Holla have disappeared with barely a trace. I warmly admired, mildly praised, and resolutely filed all three myself. And then my wife and I went on vacation, which for the past two summers has involved a cabin in a state park with a portable phonograph and some seventy-five "listening records" chosen in haphazard improvisation shortly before departure. Under these circumstances, with my normal store of thousands of albums cruelly reduced, I'm often driven to unexpected pleasures. In 1977, some semiconscious memory inspired me to take both Spider Jiving and Be Bop 'n Holla, and that was how Andy Fairweather Low entered my life.

Although time in the country tends to soften my tastes, it hardly attunes me to the high-gloss pastorale of city slickers like the Eagles and James Taylor or rusticated exurbanites like John Denver and Dan Fogelberg. I mention this because some believe Low works roughly the same genre. Spider Jiving was produced by country-rock maven Elliot Mazer with a passel of Nashville stalwarts, and the next two LPs went to Glyn Johns, in the booth for the first Eagles album, and featured ex-Eagle Bernie Leadon and a host of sympathetic session men--for La Booga Rooga, almost the same crew as Pete Fowler's. But that's just one set of facts, damning only if you swallow the orthodoxy that countrified studio music can never be forceful or even smart. It's also a fact that Mazer's most prominent associate, Neil Young, is not a high-gloss type, and that Glyn Johns made his name engineering Stones records. Anyway, the English version of countrified studio music has never been as glossy as the American. If its practitioners can be heard on many records so desultory they make Poco seem endearingly pop, well, don't blame session musicians for the megrims of frontpeople. Because when the frontpeople have something unpredictable to say, the way rock and roll is so often made in England gives them room to say it.

Whether moved by the propinquity of their own folk tradition or by some general attraction to the eccentric, English rock musicians seem comfortable with a kind of rough-hewn spontaneity usually left to folkies here. They know that it's rarely enough to be "tight," an all but universal term of approbation among rock pros--you have to be loose, too. That's what pub rock was about, and the Kinks and the Faces and most British blues; it is the key to unknown weirdos like Kevin Coyne and wealthy crackpots like the solo Pete Townshend. And it is why Andy Fairweather Low can rock more convincingly than he did as an r&b teen throb and still create a laid-back impression. The groove may be more earthbound, the beat a little pokier, the vocal excitement toned down an octave, but there's a quirky punch to this music--especially in the grit and surprising turns of Low's singing, which has gained strength without getting pushy about it--that makes for great rock and roll. This is pub rock without golden oldies or genre experiments-- without the explicit bows to history that were the signature and fatal flaw of a suicidally folky music. It's country-style music that's black as well as white. It's alive.

If you wanted to categorize you could call Low's records good- time, thus lumping him with Southside Johnny, Les McCann, Charlie Daniels, and for that matter Peter Frampton, once a rival teen throb with the Herd. But I counted it some kind of sign when my move toward Low last summer was accelerated by three separate over-thirtys--a fabric designer from south of Syracuse, a schoolteacher from the Michigan north woods, and a radical telephone worker from Manhattan--who interrupted conversation to ask who that was on the record player, an honor not accorded Television or Bonnie Raitt. "That's my kind of music," said the fabric designer, whose husband sang with Blondie when her hair was brown, and whose elder son is a drummer who admires Queen. "It's real rock and roll. You don't hear music like that any more."

I agree, I really do--although I also think I've never heard real rock and roll like it and I also think I've heard it all before, only not in rock and roll. That's because Low's version of good old eclecticism seems to weld (or maybe pin) together elements that originate for the most part in nonrock styles. So on "Spider Jiving," the cut that attracted my friend's attention, the guitar and bass that meet the Memphis Horns over an insistent but very unfunky four-four are both acoustic. On the next song, Charlie McCoy plays hornpipe harp over oompah drums. On another a pedal steel contributes a rock rhythm part and then echoes an r&b sax solo, all over a funk (not rock or r&b) beat. There's even a "Champagne Melody" that deserves the name. Of course it all sounds like rock and roll. What else could it be?

Whether it's good-time is another question. My idea of a good time these days is Elvin Bishop--Low is good-time plus, because he writes real lyrics even if they do sound found and anonymous. The secret is that they're supposed to; as with his music, their substance--their unassumingly obsessive speculation about man's fate--is bound up in their free use of verbatim borrowings from a shared language. Often, Low lights upon bon mots that have not quite turned into cliches--"dead to the bone," "ticket to ride," "too much of nothing." But in context even unmistakably hackneyed phrases like "no place to hide," "food for my head," "rhythm of life," "great pretender" have a way of regaining some of the acuteness they must have begun with to achieve cliche status. This effect is suggested by a play like "which way is down" or a line like "In God we trust but they make me sign my name." Low's inspired commonplaces are only heightened by their (deliberate?) lapses of syntax and falls from rhyme. He says he labors over them for months; his house in Cardiff is filled with little scraps of paper. "But mind you," he adds, anxious not to sound pretentious, "I write big."

Especially on the first two albums, the purport of Low's lyrics is as pessimistic as his music is cheerful. What depresses him often seems connected to the downs and ups of his decade in the music business, but because his metaphors are vernacular and his attack is allusive, his songs sound like the outcries of anyone who's ever felt outclassed, outcast, outranked, or outraged by the money boys. Low never whines or comes on as a misunderstood artist. His craft is so jaunty and his singing so heartfelt and humorous that even lines like "I don't need a reason not to rhyme" or "Insanity's keeping me company" are acts of affirmation. And then there's the music, which embodies the same strategy of victory through joy that blues singers have known for so long. One of his best songs provides an existential motto: "I can't stop dancing/Dancing in the dark."

With some difficulty--he rarely answers the phone--I met Low for an unhurried Indian lunch in London last fall, and wasn't surprised to find him as likable as Pete Fowler the night before. The middle son of a dustman, Low left school under the influence of the Rolling Stones at sixteen, he'll be thirty in August, has been married for about five years, and would like to have children but doesn't as yet. Although in general he was as affable and spirited as his music, his bemused pessimism came out in a quizzical cock of the head that was almost a tic, especially when we talked about the biz. The failure of Be Bop 'n Holla to produce a hit had left him in commercial limbo, and even though he lived comfortably on publishing income and session money, this bothered him. He felt ready to make a more uptempo and hard-edged album--too many of his singles, he observed, "use the plaintive voice." And he didn't know when or how he was going to get the chance.

Artists in this situation usually grouse about their record companies; Low's criticisms were comparatively mild. But he felt in a bind. Plans to produce (and finance) an LP by a Welch rock and roll pianist named Geraint Watkins on a rented eight-track had set him to thinking about doing his own, then hiring an independent promo man to push the single. A&M had nixed this because he owed them for past production costs and tour support; unless another label were to purchase his contract, thus starting the cycle of debt all over again, he'd just have to wait until A&M gave him the go-ahead or declined to put up its next scheduled advance. As it stood, Low didn't even think he'd care to take a flier on a US tour--not that A&M was offering one. "I don't want to borrow any more money, not when it becomes such a liability, and it is at the moment. They say they give it to you, but . . . I mean, gifts are gifts."

I've devoted lots of space to two artists most of you have never heard of, and I hope a few more hear them as a result. But it would be missing the point to expect some undiscovered genius or superstar. One thing I love about both Low and Fowler is their aesthetic modesty; their music is crafted with ambitious commitment, yet isn't designed to take over the world. Both are rather adult rock musicians, and while the audience for good adult rock and roll, as opposed to rockish schlock, may not be terribly large, it's hard to believe that no one can devise a better delivery system than the one that has served these two so poorly. Of course, fiction fans have been saying something similar about the novel for years.

In the meantime, my friend the radical telephone worker, a haunter of record stores, reports that the only Andy Fairweather Low he's seen since last summer was in a Sears in Chicago. Fortunately, A&M (unlike CBS, Atlantic, Island) is cautious about deletions. So all three records are in catalogue, and if you know a nice retailer he or she might (a) order one for you without (b) charging you list when it arrives. Spider Jiving is the toughest, Be Bop 'n Holla the sexiest, La Booga Rooga the one I've played constantly while writing. As for Pete Fowler, my pet fantasy is for Arlo Guthrie to cover "The Miner's Strike." But last I heard, Arlo didn't want to make records anymore. It was costing him too much money.

ED NOTE: Low would later release Mega-Shebang on Warner Brothers in 1980 and then a record as part of a group called the Local Boys (Moments of Madness on Island, 1983).

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