KEVIN COYNE- AN OVERVIEW
by Chris Plummer (May 1997)
In the mid-to-late 60's, Great Britain saw a revival of American Blues. It was paradoxical that an art-form so molded by the Negro's experience in American society should get its most recognition and exposure from white Europeans. Not only did many famous musicians come from that era (Eric Clapton, Mick Fleetwood, Jeff Beck, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, to name a few) but for that brief time, the American fathers of the genre got their due- performances in front of large and appreciative audiences, and swanky hotel rooms. It was during this huge revival that a young art student named Kevin Coyne put up a flyer at the Derby School For The Arts seeking to jam some blues.
Kevin Coyne was born in Derby in 1944. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest talents ever produced out of Europe. His voice cuts to your soul, while tingling your spine along the way. His deep, powerful cords give a voice to society's outcasts- the mentally ill (with whom he worked with for many years after dropping out of art school), the working class, battered women, the countless lonely, the deserted elderly. But, all the people he so champions in his songs are also a parallel to himself- a stoic loner cast into the arena of popular music.
The two albums from Siren (his first recorded band) are ostensibly clean Chicago-style blues played by young Brits. But, through the cracks, a deeper side comes out. Buried near the end of the first album's collection of jumping and grooving blues is a somber, mysterious solo song by Kevin. Titled "Asylum," the song is just Kevin and two acoustic guitar tracks. The song is no doubt influenced by Kevin's work with the insane. The song is a monologue of an insane man, talking to you, telling you of the cold dank place where he lives. A place where he is neglected and uncared for. Ending with the echoy moaning lines "And trees are talking, and the bushes, they got fleas."
Siren released a second album, Strange Locomotion. This contains another odd duck Coyne penned composition, 'Hold My Hand', a warbly, strangely tuned guitar and Kevin's telling of a relationship between a man in his mid twenties, and a much, much older woman, who is only into young guys, and dumps the guy for a 9 year old (!). Thanks to a largely unresponsive music audience, Kevin left Siren. It is also around this time that Jac Holzman, president of Elektra Records, the American distributor of Siren's records, called Kevin in the wake of Jim Morrison's death. Holzman asked for Kevin to replace Morrison. Kevin refused, and the Doors made a brief attempt to continue.
"One of my greatest fears is to walk into a room full of hit records," is what Kevin once said to as why he didn't seek a pop star's life. Instead of singing about the life of a rock and roll hedonist, Kevin penned songs that delved deep. A long string of legendary albums followed Siren, and still continues up until the day. Along the way, he had legendary Brit musicians back him up- keyboardist Zoot Money, guitarist Andy Summers (Police), and Brian Godding (Magma), just to name a few.
Coyne released his first LP in 1972, Case History, on John Peel's Dandelion label. With just a guitar, and a few of Siren's members here and there, Kevin stuns the listener with stories of love, anger, independence, and the psychiatric patients he had begun to work with after dropping out of art school. The album begins with a happy, joyous blues "God Bless The Bride," a song about a wedding and hopes for a happy life, and ends with the opus "Sand All Yellow," a tale between a nurse who only wants to provide comfort for a almost dead patient, and a surgeon (butcher) who only wants to cut and cut into the poor woman.
After Case History, Kevin was phoned by Richard Branson, the soon to be multimillionaire media mogul. Richard was then starting Virgin Records, and was seeking acts. Kevin was part of the first signings to the label that included Mike Oldfield and Gong.
Kevin's first L.P. for Virgin in 1973 was the double-set Marjory Razorblade Continuing with the same themes as Case History, but this time with a full-band, Kevin raged and raved on what is his most critically acclaimed L.P.'s The rich, ivory tower elderly get a ribbing in "Eastbourne Ladies" in stark contrast to society's forgetting of the elderly that built Britain "Old Soldier." Kevin's work with the crazy gets further treatment in the epic "House On The Hill." Plus, the L.P. contains this author's favorite song, "Marlene," a rousing ode to a amorous man constantly trying to get some action from a beautiful recluse hermitess..
Other albums followed- Blame It On The Night Matching Head And Feet, Heartburn and others that fell into the rock/folk formula. Kevin played constantly throughout Europe, and was quite a noted showman, putting his all into performances, and using outside forms such as drama and poetry to get his point across. The landmark of his this era of his career was In Living Black And White a live set that chronicled his career up to that point. The 1978 LP, Dynamite Daze (a song dedicated to Sid Vicious) closed the chapter of Kevin as the psychedelic blues man. Kevin broke up his band, and started to work with stipped-down studio line-ups, and opting to play solo live. The first LP showing the new stripped down approach was Millionaires And Teddybears (1979) Kevin now started to get into biting criticisms of the record industry in "Having A Party" A great song put to a mutant slow blues beat, as Kevin is a guest at pop's wild party, and being kicked out when Kevin himself, an honest man, doesn't fit in with the treachery that is necessary to be famous. (ED NOTE: Years later, the Mekons would cover this song for their F.U.N. '90 EP)
Then, came the marvelous Babble, (1980), an album done with Henry Cow/Slapp Happy's marvelous Dagmar Krause. Babble was a very controversial LP, and the stage-play of it was quite protested. The story is of The Moors Murderers, and Kevin's attempt to find the love they shared before their personal and public demise. Kevin took this stripped down approach to the extreme in Bursting Bubbles- his most artistic release. It is also his most difficult to listen to. Dark, murky production, bare arrangements with a howling, disturbed voice in the front. Kevin always seemed to be ahead of his time- his early work predated punk's fury, and this almost foresees the Goth. scene. (in the author's humble opinion).
Kevin's last LP for Virgin was the double-set, Sanity Stomp (1980). In light of his previous, introspective releases, Kevin has a full band on disc one- punk outsiders The Ruts. With a body of songs written in a weekend, Kevin and The Ruts play the mutant house-rockin' band. Disc two is quite different- Kevin, with guests Robert Wyatt, Brian Godding, and others improvise to Kevin's lyrics, recitations. It's almost like a lost Robert Wyatt solo LP.
Sadly, around this time, Kevin started to go through some problems. He suffered a nervous breakdown, and went through a divorce. However, Kevin kept putting out music, though his alcoholism started to get out of hand. Kevin left Virgin and signed with the nascent Cherry Red, who gave Kevin more artist control, and left him room to what he wanted without fear of commercial failure.
Kevin released Pointing The Finger (1981) and Politicz (1982) for Cherry Red - two great releases. Pointing The Finger featured Brian Godding on guitar. Kevin and company rock out to some angular jazz rock. Kevin still expored the same themes - treatment of the elderly ('Old Lady') a fallen England ('Pointing the Finger') and it gives light to what has been happening ('There She Goes'). Kevin shows he is not hiding anything. Politicz is quite bizarre- side one is all acoustic, Kevin on voice, backed up by a guitarist and keyboardist. Side two shows a different Kevin- Kevin sings/narrarates to electronic synth rock. Visions of OMD and Ultravox flash before your eyes!
After his two Cherry Red releases, Kevin's mental state worsened to the point that his marriage dissolved, and his dependence on alchohol continued, along with the pressure to keep his career going. After his divorce, Kevin left England, and relocated to Germany. He continued to release music steadily throught the 80's, backed up by The Paradise Band.
Through the support of his friends and fans, Kevin soon started to pick himself up by the boot straps. The 90's sees Kevin back in action, producing music and art work at a phenomenal rate! The Alcoholic has turned himself into the Workaholic! Today, Kevin has a busy European touring schedule (either with duo with another guitarist, or with his Paradise Band) And, his artwork has been getting quite high-profile showings. Also, old Siren band-mate Dave Clague has released a few CD's of Siren out-takes and rarities. Kevin's new album, Knocking On Your Brain, features help from Gary Lucas, guitarist extrodinaire whose credits include Captain Beefheart and Joan Osbourne. He has a few books under his belt now: The Party Dress, a collection of short stories and poems, Show Business, Kevin's musings on the music world, and The Secret Lives of Teddybears, a German children's book. If that is not enough, there are plans in the works for Kevin to come over to the U.S. for a short tour this Fall!!
If you're a fan of Kevin's work, also see:
- an interview with Kevin
- Chris' Kevin Coyne site
- A complete Coyne discography
- a recent Kevin Coyne biography
- the latest Coyne newsletter
- DJC Records (with Siren CD's)
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