STRING DRIVEN THING
PHOTO: the seated line-up from left to right are as follows: Merv Adams (Chris Adams' son, lead singer with Sleepmode and occasional contributor to STD), Rob Adams (Guitar, backing vocals), Andy Allan (Bass), Chris Adams (Vocals, guitar), Dick Drake (Drums), Geordie Tucker (Guitar)
AN ENIGMA WRAPPED UP IN A CONUNDRUMFor those of you of a certain age (i.e. baby boomers), the name String Driven Thing probably rings some vague bell at the back of the mind. The name may be familiar, and if you grew up in Glasgow, the band's home town, in the early '70's, you may even recall the sleeves of their early albums prominently on display in the window of "Listen," Scotland's favourite record store. However, unless you were one of the band's fanatical, underground following, it's almost certain that the music passed you by.
By Les Oman
Three months ago, I was firmly in the camp that knew the name, had seen the sleeves and was aware that the Bay City Rollers had covered "It's a Game." That fact alone probably acted as a subliminal barrier to their music as fifteen-year old, male Glaswegians simply had no truck with the poor old Rollers!
Fast forward thirty odd years. 9:05 PM on a Saturday night. I am tidying up the studio after presenting my weekly radio show "The Acoustic Alternative" on the local radio station Argyll FM. On the West Coast of Scotland, when someone comes in and gives me a copy of a CD he thought may be of interest. It's called Moments of Truth by String Driven Thing. The vague bell starts ringing.
I'm not easily impressed these days. However the album blew me away. Acoustically-based, but with an understated sense of power, the songs jumped out of the speakers. The singer's voice had a rare authority, care-worn yet tender and the lyrics were constantly surprising. Thoughts on Kerouac revisited ("Hey, Jack"), Picasso ("Guernica") and the irony of Van Gogh's Sunflowers becoming corporate wallpaper ("Sunflowers") are interwoven in a tableau that includes vivid childhood memories of being "Afraid of the Dark", a nod towards the good Dr Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ("Casino") and an incredibly sad but beautiful elegy for lost love called "Creatures of Fate."
At this stage, I am still wondering if this was the String Driven Thing emerged from the mists of time or has someone else appropriated the name? Finally, it transpires that Chris Adams, bandleader, songwriter and lead vocalist with the original String Driven Thing is behind Moments of Truth, the band's first album of new material for more than thirty years.
Following an exchange of e-mails, Chris and his son Rob agree to travel to Argyll and play a few "unplugged" songs and chat about the history of String Driven Thing live on my radio show. As a result, I thought it wise to carry out some background research. A trawl of the internet gave me some insight into The Thing and its music, but it proves incredibly hard to obtain a proper handle on them. Descriptions vary from a sunny, folk-based trio singing in the clubs of Paisley, to doom-laden progsters frightening the life out of much of mainland Europe. None of this seemed to square with Moments of Truth and certainly not with The Bay City Rollers.
Taking the plunge, I acquire a copy of The Machine that Cried the band's second album for the famous Charisma label, which was initially deemed "too disturbing" to be released by the record company in its original format yet has been subsequently hailed as a masterpiece of its genre.
The inspiration for this album was Adams' near-death experience with a collapsed lung, juxtaposed with the unsympathetic attitude of his record label who wouldn't give him the necessary six-week recovery period as the band had to support Gabriel-era Genesis on the Foxtrot tour of North America. Thus, the first song on the album, "Heartfeeder" was inspired by Adams' recall of the surgeon sitting astride his chest and boring into his breast bone with a joiner's brace and bit while he was fully conscious in a dangerous emergency procedure designed to circumvent the six week recovery period. The frankly scary electric violin introduction is upstaged by Adams' singing of the first word - "Pain."
The Machine that Cried is underpinned by a deep sense of darkness, yet even in this environment, Chris Adams' chameleon tendencies show through. There are lovely, almost pastoral moments like "To See You" alongside out and out rockers such as "Nightclub" and "Two Timin' Rama" to leaven the atmosphere created by the more menacing songs such as "Heartfeeder" and "Sold Down the River."
On the night of the radio show, Chris and Rob perform a cracking set comprising a mixture of old and new material interspersed with chat. It soon becomes clear that Rob is very much a chip off the old block, performing some of his own songs and his band Sleepmode's original material to great effect. It transpires that it was the fledgling musical careers of his four sons that encouraged Chris to re-enter the fray. Apparently, hanging around at too many gigs and recording sessions brought back the old hunger to perform.
Chris takes us through the formation of String Driven Thing back in the late 1960's which featured himself on guitar and vocals his wife Pauline on vocals/percussion and his pal John Mannion on guitar/vocals. No doubt this line-up would be the one spotted in the clubs of Paisley. In 1968, they recorded a self-titled album of very strong, vaguely psychedelic folk-pop material for Concorde records which now sells for hundreds of dollars in its original vinyl format although most of it has now been repackaged on the CD The Early Years (Ozit Records). Naturally, it sounds absolutely nothing like The Machine that Cried but has some lovely songs and harmonies that still stand up well today including "Another Night in This Old City," which has been immortalised by author Ian Rankin in his acclaimed series of books about Rebus, the hard-bitten Edinburgh detective.
Chris then takes up the story of the band's signing to Charisma Records and their move to London in 1971 where they shared a label and stage with the likes of Genesis, Lindisfarne and Van der Graaf Generator. Indeed famously, Pauline Adams took Peter Gabriel's glamorous red evening dress ("Supper's Ready") through American airport security to avoid any embarrassing interrogation of the great man!
An integral part of the band's sound by now was the violin playing of Grahame Smith, a classically trained musician with a side-line in experimental film music, who eventually played with Van der Graaf Generator and is now back in the bosom of the classical world. The combination of Adams' highly original songs, he and Pauline's vocal delivery and Smith's incendiary violin encapsulated the classic String Driven Thing sound. "Circus," a single from their Charisma debut in 1972, (once again confusingly called String Driven Thing), even troubled the lower reaches of the UK singles charts and the future looked bright for the band. However, the aftermath of the lung incident and the rigours of the Foxtrot tour had taken their toll on both the Adams and they quit the band in 1974, returning to Scotland to raise a family. Although the band limped on for a couple of albums, they had no realistic prospect of recovering from the loss of the two mainstays of the band who were there from day one.
Aside from a stunning 1988 solo album called The Damage, which saw Chris Adams re-born in the world-weary guise of a troubled troubadour, and a couple of one-off reunion gigs which brought together Chris Adams and Grahame Smith (resulting in the unexpectedly wonderful $uicide – Live in Berlin back in 1994), String Driven Thing has been pretty much off the radar since the early seventies.
Fast forward three months, and I can't quite believe that I am introducing Chris Adams (guitar and vocals) and the new version of String Driven Thing, (lead guitarist and harmony vocalist Rob Adams, bassist Andy Allan and drummer Dick Drake) playing an intimate warm-up gig in a very small village hall at Carradale in the West Highlands of Scotland.
There are 150 people in the audience. I know most of them and have calculated that maybe twenty of these know about String Driven Thing. I am excited but nervous. Can they overcome the handicap of playing to a crowd who don't know their music? However, from the opening notes of "You let me Down," the traditional STD show starter from the first Charisma album, I suddenly realize that I have nothing to fear. Once again, Adams the chameleon has changed colour and instead of the expected semi-acoustic showcase for Moments of Truth, we have a hard rocking, muscular sound that re-invents classics from almost every era of the band's career. There is no violin, but it is not missed in this combination. The band is exciting, and Adams is a charismatic and talismanic front-man, looking every inch the part even on this tiny little stage.
Building on the high energy opener and eschewing most of the quieter moments that we might have expected on the way, the band unexpectedly rework the dynamics of "Hey Jack" and "Casino" cranking everything up to the max, until almost 90-minutes later they finish their main set with a ferocious "My Real Hero" before returning to encore with a barn-storming version of "Circus," which almost tore the roof off the hall.
In their heyday, String Driven Thing must have been a marketing nightmare- the classic enigma wrapped up in a conundrum. Over the past few months, I've become a huge fan of the band and Chris Adams' music but I am still unable to categorize it. I can only offer the following guidance.
If you are a fan of quality Americana, you should start with Chris's solo album The Damage followed by Moments of Truth when it is finally re-released. If you like quirky rock music, try the first Charisma album (released on CD as part of In the Studio '72 ) or $uicide –Live in Berlin. On the other hand, if you like a nice Californian Groove – imagine the Mamas and Papas coming from the West of Scotland – then The Early Years is the one to start with. As for The Machine that Cried, why not break out of your comfort zone and take a chance?
Information on the old recordings of String Driven Thing at www.stringdriventhing.com and news of the new incarnation at www.stringdriventhing.co.uk
For information on Rob Adams and Sleepmode: www.sleepmode.co.uk
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|