On The Right Track: Demick and Armstrong’s Lost Country-Rock Classic Reissued By RPM
Rod Demick may be best-known as a top sideman, serving with such talent as Screaming Lord Sutch, Dr. John, The Strawbs and the David Essex Band. Herbie Armstrong has had a similarly long career, playing with Van Morrison and film composer Mark Isham, co-founding the band Fox, and even entering Britain’s Got Talent as a contestant. But Demick and Armstrong have shared a long association, dating back to their days in the clubs of Belfast where they played alongside Morrison and his early band, Them. Demick and Armstrong’s 1971 album Little Willie Ramble, recorded at London’s Trident Studios for Gordon Mills’ MAM label, made a splash in 1971. It was greeted by acclaim from BBC Radio One as well as the music press. But Demick and Armstrong were destined to take second place at MAM to Gilbert O’Sullivan, and their contract was bought out by A&M. Their lone album, Little Willie Ramble, disappeared without a trace, but now this unique blend of country, rock and pop has been reissued as a expanded edition by Cherry Red’s RPM Records label.
Little Willie Ramble is one of the major landmarks of the partnership between Rod Demick and Herbie Armstrong. Before teaming up for the LP, the duo issued three singles in the 1960s for Columbia as The Wheels. (These songs are available from Big Beat Records on Belfast Beat Maritime Blues!) According to Armstrong in John Reed’s detailed liner notes for this reissue, Van Morrison himself almost joined The Wheels as lead singer before Bert Berns spirited him away to America to sign with Bang Records! Demick and Armstrong pressed onward after the dissolution of The Wheels, placing compositions as songwriters with other artists, touring with the colorful Screaming Lord Sutch, and attempting fame on their own as The James Brothers. (Ironically, neither had the name of James!)
Hit the jump to explore Little Willie Ramble! We’ve also got a full track listing and order link for you!
Though Demick and Armstrong came up in the ranks with Morrison and Them, there’s not a lot of blues or outright rock on Little Willie Ramble. Instead, a warm, often acoustic feel permeates the entirely self-written album, which surveys many of the musical styles in play in 1971 Britain. The title song is raucous fun, while “Over the Valley” represents the duo’s unique interpretation of a country-and-western sound, albeit with a pronounced Irish flavor befitting their shared roots.
There’s shimmering balladry on display with a lovely paean to devotion, “You’re My Island” (“You’re my autumn, you’re my winter, you’re my summertime, you’re my spring”) and “Open Road” is also in this vein; the liner notes reveal that Demick and Armstrong would have been happy to place these songs with Tom Jones or Engelbert Humperdinck, two other stars in Gordon Mills’ stable! The production (by Ronnie Scott, not the tenor saxophonist) was, of course, much rawer than a Jones or Humperdinck production might have been, but there’s still a timeless air to these songs.
There’s light orchestration on the album, from mariachi horns to the prominent strings on the sweet ballad “Mornin.’” With its harmonies and lilting melody, this song of wistful heartbreak is a more intricately-arranged version of what many of Demick and Armstrong’s singer/songwriter contemporaries were creating at the time with just some guitars. The reflective “Waitin’ for the Train” is enhanced by female backing vocals (“I’m waitin’ for the train to carry me home/I’m waitin’ for the train to carry me back to my past…”) and “We’re on the Right Track” boasts the album’s biggest, most hook-laden chorus. This song actually preceded the release of the album and was released on the Decca label under the name Demick-Armstrong; its B-side “Dreaming” is also included here among the three non-LP single bonus tracks. Even gospel is touched upon with the fervor of “We Are Free.”
Demick and Armstrong parted ways after just one more album as a duo, but both remain in the music business today. Herbie spent several years touring with Van Morrison and even took Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately” to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent, recording a new album (Real, Real Gone) titled after a song which his old friend Morrison wrote and produced for him.
You can rediscover Little Willie Ramble courtesy RPM Records, and it’s available now! You’ll find an order link below!
Rod Demick and Herbie Armstrong, Little Willie Ramble (MAM AS1001, 1971 – reissued RPM RETRO908, 2012)
- Little Willie Ramble
- Over the Valley
- You’re My Island
- Waiting for the Train
- We Are Free
- I’ve Got Time
- We’re on the Right Track
- I Don’t Care
- Open Road
- That’s What Friends Are For
- If I Ever Get to You (MAM single 10, 1971)
- Girl (MAM single 10, 1971)
- Dreaming (Decca single F-13056-B, 1970)