Saturday, June 20, 2009

A First Class Beach Boys Impersonation

In a recent Retro Universe post, so recent in fact that it immediately precedes this post, I explored the early career work of writer/singer and producer John Carter, leading up to and including his studio based project Kincade.

After Carter wrapped up his involvement with Kincade (that’s the group, not the singer who adopted the name), he turned his considerable creative energy to putting together another studio based outfit, a conduit via which he could continue reaching the public with his song writing. In partnership with his wife Gill Shakespeare, Carter had penned a sunny side up pop song, that he felt had all the potential to echo the best of what the Beach Boys had produced a decade earlier. Carter turned to vocalist Tony Burrows, who he had worked with, initially via Burrows’ involvement as a replacement for Carter in the Ivy League, and then with the 1967 studio effort, The Flower Pot Men. In the interim Carter had remained prolifically productive, but Burrows too had gone on to be involved with a myriad of different pop projects.

In the early 60s, Burrows had been a member of The Kestrels, a vocal harmony group who toured with The Beatles during 1963, and also featured the future song writing team of Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook. Greenaway and Cook later had involvement with the likes of the Fortunes, Joe Dolan, Blue Mink, and the Hollies, and recorded as David and Jonathan - it’s all just one rich pop tapestry isn’t it. Post The Flower Pot Men, Burrows remained in demand as the voice for several studio based projects. Among his most notable vocal credits were, The Pipkins’ ‘Gimme Dat Ding’ (US#9/UK#6/OZ#61 - 1970 - which united him with ex-Kestrel Roger Greenaway), White Plains’ ‘My Baby Loves Lovin’ (US#13/UK#9/OZ#20 - 1970), ‘United We Stand’ from Brotherhood Of Man (US#13/UK#10/OZ#8 - 1970), and the British chart topper ‘Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)’, credited to Edison Lighthouse (US#5/OZ#2 - 1970). Doubtless, Burrows would have spent little time outside of the recording studio during 1970, and I can’t think of any other singer or musician that would have had involvement with four separate groups, all of whom scored an international top ten hit - in the same calendar year! It seems a travesty that Burrows didn’t receive credit at the time for being the voice behind all of those hits. Such was the prolific presence of Burrows in British pop at that time, that in one single edition of the famed Top of the Pops television show, Burrows appeared as front man for three separate acts, though like Carter, he had made a conscious decision to no longer be a touring musician.

There was a degree of backlash from certain sections of the music press over Burrows’ involvement in so many ‘groups’, and for a time he found it difficult to maintain a profile on the music scene. His attempts at establishing an up front solo career were thwarted somewhat by his previous association with the studio based projects, with his songs often being excluded (unfairly) from radio playlists. In lieu of gaining recognition as a solo act, Burrows retreated to the studio once more, contributing backing vocals for the likes of Elton John (on his ‘Madman Across The Water’ album), Rod Stewart, and Cliff Richard. He bided his time in the background until one day in the early English summer of ‘74, he received a call from old mate John Carter. Singer Chas Mills was also invited to contribute vocals for the track ‘Beach Baby’, Carter’s attempt at a Beach Boys’ pastiche. The Beach Boys were themselves enjoying a bit of a revival in popularity, and the ever astute Carter sensed an opportunity to tap into the public’s desire for the now nostalgic California sound of the mid 60s. Jonathan King’s U.K. Records backed the project, and in June of ‘74, the studio group First Class made their chart debut in Britain with ‘Beach Baby’. The production had all the hallmarks of a Brian Wilson helmed record, boasting complex vocal arrangements, densely layered harmonies, and lyrics that longed for the simple beach life. By July, the sun drenched U.S. had succumbed to the song’s sand and surf spell, and even a winter laden Australia followed soon after. ‘Beach Baby’ not only captured the sound of the Beach Boys, but matched the chart performance of some of their biggest hits. By August of ‘74, it had peaked at #4 in the U.S., #13 in Britain, and #11 in Australia.

As had been the case with other studio based projects that had boasted the services of Carter and Burrows, First Class necessitated the cobbling together of an actual working group, for the purposes of touring and promotion. Singer Del John was recruited, alongside Robin Shaw (bass), Spencer James (guitar), Clive Barrett (keyboards), and Eddie Richards (drums). The quintet hit the road to take First Class to the public, and they were even pictured on the cover for First Class’ self-titled debut album, though none sang so much as a note or strummed a chord on any of the album tracks. Whilst the ‘shop front’ group went about their business, Carter, Burrows and Mills continued to record in studio, but the follow up single, ‘Bobby Dazzler’, proved more of dud than dazzler. In fact the only further foray for First Class into the charts, came via a reworking of two previous Carter penned hits. The First Class version of ‘Dreams Are Ten A Penny’ chalked up some loose change at #83 in the U.S., whilst the old Ivy League song ‘Funny How Love Can Be’ peaked at US#74, during mid ‘75. A second album was released under the First Class banner, with 1976’s ‘The First Class SST’, but the group’s moment in the sun had passed with ‘Beach Baby’. John Carter, Tony Burrows, and Chas Mills came to an agreement to exit First Class thereafter. It’s a definite paradox that so many supposed ‘one hit wonders’ should have shared the same creative engine room of John Carter (and Tony Burrows for that matter), but then things aren’t always what they appear to be.

Following the First Class flirtation with fame, Chas Mills retired from the music business and opened up a restaurant in North London. Tony Burrows retreated once more to in studio anonymity as a session singer, for both recording artists and on commercials, but his during the late 90s he finally received some of the accolades so richly deserved for his earlier work. A compilation CD was released on Rhino Records, featuring many of the hits he had provided vocals for, and he toured the U.S. to support the release. In the decade since, Burrows has continued to tour on occasion, in between ongoing studio work. John Carter continued to write and record music, occasionally releasing his songs under other pseudonyms, but he didn’t return to the charts. Most of his studio work in subsequent years was focussed on writing and recording jingles for commercials - a potentially very lucrative pursuit. More recently, Carter has turned to managing and re-issuing much of his back catalogue music, via his own Sunny Records label.

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