Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Darts Hit A Bullseye On The Charts

It’s only a few posts back that I covered the career of rock ‘n’ roll revivalist Shakin’ Stevens, and wrote about the swag of artists to emerge on the British scene during the late 70s/early 80s, that took inspiration from 50s era popular music and fashion alike. Among the names cited, and written about on this very blog, was the group Rocky Sharpe and the Replays (see June 08 post), who shared a common heritage with several members of the British doo-wop revival act, Darts.

In the early to mid 70s, Rocky Sharpe and the Razors had established themselves as a popular live act in and around the Brighton area. By 1976, a major split had occurred in the groups ranks, with Rocky Sharpe (AKA Robert Podsiadly), going on to form a new backing group, The Replays, featuring Helen Highwater, Johnny Stud, and Eric Rondo. Ex-‘Razor’ Den Hegarty (bass vocals) set about putting together a new group of singers/musicians, in similar vein to the Rocky Sharpe project, and taking some cues from like rock ‘n’ roll/doo-wop revival acts, such as Showaddywaddy, Sha Na Na, and even Mud. Ex-‘Razors’ Griff Fender (vocals), Rita Ray (vocals), and Horatio Hornblower (sax), all joined Hegarty in his new enterprise, and the quartet were joined by three ex members of the John Dummer’s Blues Band (who had recorded four albums together) - Thump Thompson (bass guitar), George Currie (guitar) and John Dummer (drums). Rounding out the nine member line-up were Hammy Howell (piano), and ex-Mickey Jupp singer, Bob Fish.

The newly established Darts, undertook a hectic schedule of shows at regional club, pub, and university venues, and within a year had built up a loyal, and large following. They played a mix of rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop standards, combined with an increasing number of original numbers (often penned by Hegarty), in the same stylistic vein. These musicians were all seasoned pros, and it showed in the quality of their musicianship, and performance, augmented by tightly choreographed stage arrangements. But as proficient, and popular as any artist is, they more often than not need that one big break to launch to the next level. Darts’ break came in the form of an appearance on Charlie Gillett’s ‘Honky Tonk Demos’ show on BBC Radio London. Following their knock out performance in October of ‘76, Gillett, with music agents Bob and Natasha England, undertook to secure Darts a recording deal. The group were attached to Magnet Records soon after, and during 1977 set about recording their first single/album, alongside acclaimed writer/producer Tommy Boyce, who had penned/produced a slew of hits for the likes of Chubby Checker, Jay & The Americans, and of course the Monkees.

With Boyce (and Richard Hartley) at the production reins, Darts set about recording fresh and vibrant versions of carefully selected hits from the 50s and early 60s era. As Jon Pannaman so rightly highlights, in his first rate bio for the group Darts (see link to website at end of post), all of this was undertaken in the face of the raging storm of punk that was sweeping the British music scene. With anarchy, rage, and rampant youthful exuberance, the flavour of the day, Darts presented themselves as a group of immaculately attired, and flawlessly professional musicians, offering up impeccably arranged versions of songs, that in style and substance, were positioned as far along the musical spectrum from punk as possible. But therein lay part of the reason for the group’s appeal, as surely the public could only endure so much angst ridden, tone deaf screaming, and ear-splitting guitar thrashing. And unlike most of the angry, and all too serious, young men (and women) on the punk scene, here were a group of musicians presenting a positive vibe, with a dash of playful humour, designed with one purpose in mind - to entertain.

In November ‘77, Darts threw their first single at the British public, with the medley ‘Daddy Cool/The Girl Can’t Help It’. ‘Daddy Cool’ had originally been a hit for The Rays (US#3) in 1957, whilst Little Richard was the genius behind the original version of ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ (US#49/UK#9), also from 1957. Darts’ rendition hit the U.K. charts within a few weeks of release, and peaked at #6 early in 1978, an auspicious beginning to say the least. They followed it up with ‘Come Back My Love’, originally recorded by New York doo-wop vocal group The Wrens, back in 1955. The song delivered Darts with the first of their British #2 hit singles, during 1978. Both singles featured on Darts’ self titled debut album, recorded at Olympic Studios, Barnes, during August of ‘77. ‘Darts’ (UK#9) was released in time for Christmas ’77, and boasted eleven tracks in all, most of which were cover versions of 50s era hits, but Griff Fender (real name Ian Collier) contributed a couple of original compositions.

Once more, Darts narrowly missed hitting a chart bullseye with their next single, ‘The Boy From New York City’. The song had originally been a hit (US#8) in 1965 for New Jersey vocal quintet The Ad Libs. Interestingly, a lot of the doo-wop style material Darts chose to cover, hadn’t made much of an impact on the British charts in its original form, though doo-wop in general hadn’t infiltrated the U.K. scene to any great degree. But Darts were helping to redress the balance, as their slick rendition of ‘The Boy From New York City’, which featured pristine vocal harmonies, rocketed to #2 on the British charts in mid ‘78, and became Darts only foray into the Australian charts (OZ#34).

The group’s next hit, ‘It’s Raining’, was the first to be an original composition (penned by vocalist Griff Fender). The single also became the third release in a row by Darts to peak at #2 on the British charts, giving the group the dubious honour of being the only British act to score three consecutive #2 hits, without ever hitting the #1 target. John Fogerty (see earlier post) and his Creedence Clearwater Revival knew all about the dreaded ‘#2 syndrome’. C.C.R. managed to score five US#2 hits within an eighteen month period during 1969/70, without ever reaching the summit (though C.C.R. had released a few lower charting singles in between that sequence of #2 hits). Still, the fact that Darts’ three UK#2’s racked up combined sales of over 1.25 million, wasn’t exactly a negative. Both ‘The Boy From New York City’, and ‘It’s Raining’, featured on Darts’ sophomore album, ‘Everyone Plays Darts’ (UK#12), once again produced by Hartley and Boyce, the cover of which featured the band stuck to, appropriately enough, a pinball machine!

Following the release of ‘Everyone Plays Darts’, Darts’ founding member, and bass vocalist Den Hegarty, departed the group to help care for his terminally ill father. Hegarty scored a minor hit in March of ‘79 with the single ‘Voodoo Voodoo’ (UK#73), and went on to pursue a successful career in radio and television, prior to becoming a university lecturer. Hegarty was replaced by American born vocalist Kenny Andrews. As accomplished a singer as Kenny Andrews was, those familiar with Darts as a live act particularly, noted that the group lost the edge on their dynamism and flare. Pianist Hammy Howell also left the group during this period, replaced by Mike Deacon. But the change in personnel didn’t have any impact on Darts’ aim at the charts during 1979. Around the time that the compilation set ‘Amazing Darts’ was sitting at #8 on the British album charts, the single ‘Don’t Let It Fade Away’, penned by guitarist George Currie, climbed steadily to #18 in early ‘79. Another original song, ‘Get It’ (written by Nigel Trubridge AKA Darts’ sax player Horatio Hornblower), struck a blow at #10 in Britain.

Darts’ final foray inside the British top ten, came via a cover of the 1962 US#1 for Gene Chandler, ‘Duke Of Earl’. Former Move and Wizzard front man Roy Wood helmed production on the track, which became Darts’ sixth top ten hit, when it struck #6 in August of ‘79. The year was rounded out by the minor hits ‘Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love’ (UK#43), a cover of Jackie Wilson’s ‘Reet Petite’ (UK#51), and the Darts’ third studio album ‘Dart Attack’ (UK#38) - see I’m not the only one who delights in clever (or arguably lame) puns. 1980 saw a limited release of new material from Darts’, in part due to an increasing level of polarisation between the group and their record label Magnet. The group scored their last major hit mid year, with a cover of the 1965 US/UK top five hit ‘Let’s Hang On!’, originally by the Four Seasons. Darts took their version to #11 on the British charts, but could only hit the charts twice more, with the minor hits ‘Peaches’ (UK#66), and ‘White Christmas/ Sh-Boom (Life Could Be A Dream)’ (UK#48), the latter double-A side being a combination of the Irving Berlin classic, and a 1954 hit from the Crew Cuts. ‘Sh-Boom (Life Could Be A Dream)’ was actually a track lifted from Darts’ debut 1977 album. Having been derailed by their dispute with Magnet, and with the explosion of the post-punk/new wave/new romantic scenes, Darts’ would never be able to recapture their momentum of the late 70s.

The group decided to focus on breaking into the American market, and spent much of 1980/81 touring the U.S. They recorded the album ‘Across America’, and the single ‘Sad And Lonely’ (a U.S. only release), but failed to make any headway Stateside, in terms of record sales. By the end of 1980, Darts had experienced a major shake up in their ranks, with the departures of John Dummer, George Currie, and Bob Fish. Nosmo King, Stan Alexander, and ex-Mud guitarist Rob Davis all joined the line-up (Alexander and Davis later replaced by Pikey Butler and Duncan Kerr respectively). By 1983, Darts turned their collective talents to musical theatre, with the West End production ‘Yakety Yak’, a musical based around the songs of Leiber and Stoller, and the group released an EP of music from the show. 1983 also saw Darts break free of their links to Magnet, and the group set up their own ‘Choicecuts’ label. Darts released a string of singles over the next couple of years, including ‘The Mystery Of Ragoula’, ‘Can’t Teach A Fool’ and ‘Blow Away’, all of which reflected the group’s attempt to capture a more contemporary pop sound, but none of which resurrected Darts’ commercial appeal. By 1985, Darts were in their last throws, and made their final television appearance during 1985 on ‘Saturday Live’, hosted by comedian Lenny Henry, who took the place of Kenny Andrews on bass vocal duties for the performance.

Soon after, Darts’ alumnus Griff Fender and Rita Ray went on to manage the British a cappella group The Mint Juleps, who scored a couple of minor chart hits, and Ray went on to become a fulltime DJ. In the late 80s, singer Bob Fish played with ex-Wings’ drummer Geoff Britton for a time, before going on to form Darts II, which he stayed with until the mid 90s, before forming a low key duo called Electric Fish. Bassist Thumps Thomson (AKA Iain Thomson) became a much published author; pianist Hammy Howell continued to play music until his death in 1999; drummer John Dummer combined a career in playing and music management, prior to making a quid from antiques; guitarist George Currie has focussed on the teaching side of music in subsequent years; and Horatio Hornblower (AKA Nigel Trubridge) played with the band Hitlist for a time, before combining his playing duties with promotion and administrative roles in music.

In December ‘05, the Warner Platinum label issued a long overdue compilation of Darts’ best material, under the title ‘The Platinum Collection’, and this was followed in ‘06 by a double CD release of the group’s first two albums, with bonus material. Many of the original era members of Darts reunited in recent years, for promotional appearances and some special one-off gigs.

To read more about Darts, I highly recommend the following excellent fansite:

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