Saturday, 25 February 2017

CHILLI WILLI AND THE RED HOT PEPPERS - REAL SHARP (Proper Records 2 x CD).

From the early 70s Camden freak scene wing of Pub Rock, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers had a short career that closely mirrors that of Pub Rock legends Brinsley Schwarz………………both bands played unfashionable, unpretentious Country Rock in a Britian dominated by Prog and post psychedelic heavy Rock, retreating to the pubs to find an audience, both hardworking and hardgigging racking up the miles and the amount of shows played and both bands having a direct connection to the formation of Stiff Records. However, while the Brinsley’s now have cult status as a massively influential band, the Chilli’s have been near forgotten and are a mere footnote in the history of 70s British music. Originally a duo of guitarist Martin Stone and multi-instrumentalist Phil “Snakefinger” Lithman, who both had an impressive Psychedelic Rock pedigree……………….Stone had been a member of 60s Freakbeat/Psych Pop band The Action who morphed into the acid fried, couldda been contenders, Mighty Baby while Lithman had relocated to San Francisco in the early 70s and became part of The Residents inner-circle, later becoming a more permanent member following the demise of the Chilli’s………The band expanded to a five piece for live work bringing on board Paul “Diceman” Bailey (banjo, sax, guitar), Paul “Bassman” Riley (….errr….bass) and forthcoming Attractions drummer Pete Thomas. What they may of lacked in the Brinsley’s ear for a tune and the songwriting smarts of Ian Gomm/Nick Lowe, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers made up for it in spades with sheer musical ability and could comfortably go toe to toe with the best American Cosmic Country bands of the era. By 1975 it was all over…….following the Naughty Rhythms package tour which made stars of Dr. Feelgood and also included one of the finest British Funk/Soul bands of the 70s, Kokomo, the Chilli’s split and in the 40 years since slowly faded into obscurity. It’s about time that this great band are brought to a wider audience………….Proper Records have put together Real Sharp, a beautifully packaged anthology on 2 CDs which has included most of the Chilli’s recordings that they made in their short three year lifespan. Both their studio albums, Kings Of The Robot Rhythm and Bongos Over Balham, have been remastered by Paul Riley and are included with demos, live tracks and aborted studio sessions with Mike Nesmith at the controls along with a booklet with full liner notes and the artwork the legendary inkmeister Barney Bubbles provided for posters, merch and album covers.

Released in 1972 by the tiny Revelation label, Kings Of The Robot Rhythm is a predominantly an acoustic album recorded by Stone and Lithman aided and abetted by Nick Lowe, Billy Rankin and Bob Andrews from Brinsley Schwarz on a few of the tracks. Totally out of sync with the rest of the London rock scene at the time it’s a album recorded by a couple of stoner freaks who really dig Cosmic Country Music. Sourced directly from the original master tapes for the very first time it has an authentic lo-fi vibe of the best immaculately stoned late 60s Country Rock. Heavily influenced by rootsy Americana and the gentle vibes of the West Coast it’s a throwback to the stoner hippie Country Rock of bands like Mad River and Gram Parsons/The Byrds/Grateful Dead’s traditional Bluegrass ‘n’ Blues explorations relocated in Camden Town mixing reworked traditional songs with original material. Sparse and evocative, Kings Of The Robot Rhythm features mesmerizing guitar interplay between Stone and Lithman, tracks such as ‘Astrella From The Astral Planet’ and ‘The Ballad Of Chilli Willi’ are straight outta S.F. circa 69 while elsewhere they take a affectionate dig at the Country Rock cliches with ‘Drunken Sunken Red Neck Blues’ and ‘Nashville Rag’. The strongest song on the album is the stripped back original version of ‘I’ll Be Home’, a live favourite that appears again in a much fuller form as one of the out-takes from the fractious Mike Nesmith sessions for Bongos Over Balham. The rest of CD1 is taken up with demos recorded by the expanded line up of Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers at the Chalk Farm Studio with many tracks appearing on Bongos Over Balham……….raw and vibrant these tracks are the sound of a band insanely tight from relentless gigging. With a taught, groovy sound not unlike the fantastic 1968/69 line up of The Byrds featuring Clarence White on guitar, the Chilli’s play Country music with Psychedelic flourishes on outstanding tunes such as ‘Friday Song’, ‘Goodbye Nashville (Hello Camden Town)’, ‘Truck Drivin’ Girl’. Two real killer tracks from these sessions are the Quicksilver Messenger Service gone Country ‘Desert Island Girl’ and the bluesy Van Morrison-esque ‘Jungle Song’. The band had also expanded their musical palette and included Trad. Jazz, Doo-Wop and Blues influence on songs such as the classic cover of ‘Choo Choo Ch’Boogie’ and a Chilli’s original ‘I Wanna Love Her So Bad’. These songs were eventually released by Proper records in the mid 90s on the I’ll Be Home album with collected up all the previously unreleased Chilli’s material which is also on this anthology.

CD2 opens with Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers “difficult” second album, the wonderfully titled Bongos Over Balham, that was released by Mooncrest Records in 1974. After starting the album sessions with Mike Nesmith, the album was finally completed by producer Ron Nevison who had previously engineered albums for Led Zeppelin, Bad Company and Thin Lizzy and was in no doubt under instruction from the suits at the label to “make ‘em sound like Brinsley Schwarz”. Full of great songs, mainly from the Chalk Farm Studio sessions, but with the rough edges that made the the tracks so thrilling in the demo recordings smoothed off.........it’s a solid, workmanlike record but ultimately  a little disappointing and was a poor seller. On reflection, this was the same for all of the Pub Rock bands who built their reputation on their live performances……………..non of the bands who put records out saw much success as it was difficult to replicate the live dynamics on album (only Dr. Feelgood ever managed this…….with the live album Stupidity). It was live where the Chilli’s were at their best………….In 1974, Zig Zag editor Andy Childs wrote "The number of English bands who are currently performing and perfecting the many eclectic styles of American music can be counted on the thumb of one hand... they are Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers. To see them live is an experience. Their music melts your heart, invites you to dance and sing along, and when it’s all over, you feel a rush of energy and exhilaration pulsing through your blood…like you don’t quite believe what you’ve heard or seen, so come back and shout for more and you come back and see them again and again." The remaining tracks on the disc are mostly live recordings, some from The Amazing Zig Zag Concert at the Roundhouse in 1974 that celebrated the fifth anniversary of the magazine and a great dirty blooze workout of “Walkin Blues”, featuring Will Stallibrass on harmonica, taken from a Capital Radio session. For fans of late 60s/early 70s tripped out Country Rock such as the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons and The Fallen Angels, The Dead, Mad River and the other freaks that went looking for the roots of Cosmic Americana..........and of course Brinsley Schwarz.............. 

It was short, but it was sweet and Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers stuck around long enough to record enough quality tracks to fill two CDs with great music. After the band's breakup, Thomas became the drummer for Elvis Costello's backing band, The Attractions; Riley played with Graham Parker; Bailey formed Bontemps Roulez and Stone played with the Pink Fairies before concentrating on his book business, sadly losing his battle with cancer last year while Lithman moved back to San Francisco where he began to work with his former associates, The Residents, under the name Snakefinger before passing away in 1987 aged only 38. Dedicated to the memory of Martin Stone, Phil Lithman and the late great Barney Bubbles, Real Sharp is out NOW on 2 x CD from all good record shops, on line and directly from Proper Records…………………and still only for the price of a pint and a packet of fags.

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