Monday, April 05, 2004


We think we know David Essex. We have him pinned down as a slightly less naff ‘70s equivalent of Robbie Williams, all self-deprecating cheeky chappie grins with an actorly luvvie overlay. But we need to think again, because the six albums he made for CBS between 1973-77 have now been reissued in three two-albums-per-CD editions – respectively paired as his first and fourth (Rock On and the for-hardcore-fans-only live On Tour album), second and fifth (David Essex and Out On The Street) and third and sixth (All The Fun Of The Fair and Gold & Ivory) albums, presumably for commercial reasons; one album with hits on it and another with no hits on it. However, we can safely say that on the basis of these five studio albums, David Essex’s music of the ‘70s really was fucking weird.

Take, for instance, his 1973 breakthrough smash “Rock On.” Rarely has such a nostalgic record sounded so futuristic, and yet somehow lost (“Where do we go from here?/Which is the way that’s clear?,” those “ups” and “downs” which bounce. muttering, between channels) And credit is sorely overdue to Essex’s visionary producer Jeff Wayne, who with his dub spaces and raised-eyebrow strings, is the missing link between Norman Whitfield and Lee Perry, taking the logistics of proto-dub to even more minimalist spaces than Mike Leander managed with Gary Glitter.

Rock On, the album, similarly journeyed to some very strange universes. Laden throughout with backward drums, absurd vocal phasing and guitar barrages, a song like “We All Insane” could pass as an outtake from Eno’s “Here Come The Warm Jets.” And Massive Attack fans may be startled to discover the origin of their “I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me” refrain in Essex’s extraordinarily vicious clenched teeth epic “Streetfight.” Initially straightforward ballads like “Ocean Girl” are diverted by weird orchestral manoeuvres – those Oriental strings again, anticipating both Chic and Soul II Soul. And that’s without even mentioning the stoned music-hall jaunt of “Lamplight,” the least likely of these tracks to be picked as a follow-up single, and yet, in the still relatively open atmosphere of 1973, still comfortably making the top ten.

1974’s self-titled second album was even more bizarre. True, there was the cheerful satire of “Gonna Make You A Star,” with its inadvertent nods to Don Everly’s “Warmin’ Up The Band,” but there was also “Stardust,” far more suicidal than Ziggy, from its opening Cat Power ghost piano chords and never-closer heartbeat to its climactic drowning gongs (fact: to mirror musically the closing “Rock and roll king is DOWN” refrain, percussionist Ray Cooper brought a small bath into the studio, filled it up with water, struck his gong and then lowered it into the bath to produce that “falling star” effect) and the mindbending proto-industrial urban nightmare of “Windows” which almost outdoes Nine Inch Nails in its brutality, culminating in a cacophony of police sirens and a child’s voice screaming “Mummy!” Meanwhile, “Good Ol’ Rock And Roll” pounds along like an outtake from the first Roxy album, guitarist Chris Spedding and saxophonist Alan Wakeman in a splendidly barbed, bad-tempered mood.

All The Fun Of The Fair (1975) has Essex on its cover standing at the fairground entrance, Romany shirtsleeves rolled up, looking vaguely like Too-Rye-Ay-era Kevin Rowland, grinning maniacally on the cover, as if he’s about to slit your throat. The album’s concept was to evoke the darker realities behind the fairground’s superficial brightness. Indeed, on the title track Essex snarls his welcome and the list of dubious attractions (it’s like “Let Me Entertain You” done by Nick Cave), and musically it builds up to the point of catharsis where the band, led by Spedding’s guitar and Mike Garson’s piano, sounding as if they thought they were on a John Cale session, explodes into an all-out atonal freeform pile-up as Essex screams, proto-Lydon, “Let’s take a rrrrrrIDE!”). The noise segues directly into the jolly grannies’ favourite “Hold Me Close,” and this segue remains one of the most startling in all of pop; it will certainly make you view the cheeky-chappie chart-topper in a radically different light, especially as it segues out again into the dark thrashing of “Circles.” The ballad “If I Could” (also a single) is a slightly more optimistic first cousin of Cale’s “I Keep A Close Watch” but as tremulous and uncertain as Bedingfield’s “If You’re Not The One.” The fanciful dream of domesticity and happiness (“When I come home from work/I’ll change me shirt”) is wiped out by the closing, massive synth chord which sounds like an icepick stabbing his hope to death. And then the clearly Whitfield-inspired “Rolling Stone” with Essex and backing singers The Real Thing both fighting to stay sane – “A long way from HOOOOOOOOMMMMMEEEE,” they howl in the chorus like mortally wounded coyotes, another strange mirror of the tottering, collapsing female backing vocals (“DIEEEEEEEEE!”) on Cale’s version of “Heartbreak Hotel.” And this, incredibly, was a top five single.

But Out On The Street (1976) is Essex’s stomach-clenching, gasp-inducing masterpiece; 47 minutes of nervous breakdown set to music – almost the Sister Lovers of glam – from the slow death of the ten-minute title track (“PIMPS and PONCES!”) via the terrifying faux-glee of “Just Wanna Dance” (listen to that extended fadeout, with Essex desperately trying to stay afloat – “I wanna dance! Like Barry White! Do the Hokey Cokey!” – and the curiously carnal, Steve Harley-ish non-hit single “Ooh Love” (“Pink gin? Cheers!”) through to the exacerbating seven-minute death disco of “City Lights,” with its bassline which, shall we say, anticipates “Guns Of Brixton,” and a sax riff which gives us a preview of Wayne’s “Eve Of The War.” Essex sounds hoarse and near-psychotic throughout. This is the album which Robbie Williams is yet to make.

After that, Essex tried his hand at self-production in 1977’s back to basics Gold & Ivory. Although musically far more conservative, the element of doubt is still present in songs like “Good Morning (Darling)” – perhaps the most chilling song Essex has ever written, depicting the troubled state of an unloved wife composing goodbye letters to her husband in her mind, but who on every occasion (that small “OK” at 3:48 which turns the entire premise of the song around) decides against escaping and sentences herself to living death. Richard Hewson’s subtle string arrangement echoes the dilemmas tearing her head apart. The album also includes the remarkable requiem “Britannia,” in its own way as punk as anything else in 1977 (“Complacency shat in your eye”).

Think you know David Essex? I would recommend that you explore this extraordinary body of work – rather than an East End Donny Osmond, he was pop’s answer to Peter Hammill and Kevin Coyne. Listen to Hammill’s The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage, then follow it up with, say, Out On The Street, and think again.

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