This week, we're looking at two recent albums collections from Cherry Red's 7T's label from singer-songwriter Brian Protheroe and the band Pilot.
Brian Protheroe's The Albums 1974-76 collects the three albums the English actor-singer (First Dates, the West End's Lord of the Rings) released on Chrysalis Records plus a smattering of bonus tracks. In 1973, Protheroe was touring in a production of playwright William Fairchild's Death on Demand - described in The Oxford Magazine as "not so much a whodunnit as an almostdunnit or a dunnit by accident" - and writing songs on the side. Fairchild shopped a demo tape of songs he and Protheroe had co-written to various labels before Chrysalis expressed interest. Once signed to the home of Leo Sayer and Jethro Tull, Protheroe tapped Del Newman to produce. Newman, well-known for his arrangements for Elton John, Cat Stevens, Scott Walker, and Rod Stewart (among countless others), had met Protheroe when both were working on a staging of Guys and Dolls. He, along with engineer Richard Dodd, proved a sympathetic collaborator for Protheroe's quirky brand of unpredictable, well-crafted pop. (Think: a more esoteric Rupert Holmes.)
Protheroe's albums reflected an all-encompassing approach to music, taking in various styles and idioms and eschewing convention to bring his whimsical stories to life. Ironically, none of the songs co-written with Fairchild made the cut for his debut, Pinball. Instead, Protheroe collaborated on the LP (and its two follow-ups) with lyricist and theatre director Martin Duncan. The melancholy title track was inspired by Protheroe's break-up with his then-girlfriend. Consisting of musically-identical verses and lacking a chorus, it wasn't standard commercial fare. Its languid, strung-out air was furthered by Tony Coe's lazily wending saxophone while the pronounced stereo imaging gave the layered vocals the feel of voices in one's head.
"Pinball" isn't the only song on the album to incorporate unusual instrumentation and song forms, from the mini-suite "Interview/Also in the Limelight" with its bossa nova sections, spoken-word interludes, ad dramatic fanfares to the shifting, theatrical "Goodbye Surprise" with an intricate vocal arrangement and effective use of brass. Protheroe didn't settle into one mood for long, happily bouncing between dreamily tropical (the tongue-in-cheek "Moon Over Malibu"), funky ("Monkey"), and balladry (the musically and lyrically clever "Changing My Tune").
The artist reveals in Michael Heatley's liner notes that he isn't too thrilled with the freakout at the end of "Mickey Dollar Dreams" ("Wish we hadn't attempted a messy version of the end of The Beatles' 'A Day in the Life'..."), and he harbors reservations about Chrysalis' choice of "Fly Now" as the second single. But its easy melodicism would have invited the Paul McCartney/Gilbert O'Sullivan comparisons that the label was seeking; it still holds up today. One bonus track has been appended to the album: the pretty outtake "Play."
Brian leaned even more heavily into O'Sullivan-esque pop eccentricity and tongue-twisting wordplay with 1975's sophomore album Pick-Up. As they had on its predecessor, producer Newman, bassist Brian Odgers, and drummer Barry Morgan all joined him. The opening "Enjoy It" sets the tone, as the breezy song is smooth...until it isn't! The quirky "The Good Brand Band Song" throws everything but the kitchen sink into the production, including sound effects, kazoos, Jew's harp, buckets, cans, and vacuum cleaner (!). But that's just the tip of the iceberg on Pick-Up, a truly original album. If the offbeat "Scobo Queen" sounds like a track from an unwritten musical, rest assured the musical was written. "Scobo" was one of the songs from Protheroe and Duncan's show Lotte's Electrik Opera Film which was staged in both Watford and London. The arch "Gertrude's Garden Hospital" and bluegrass-flecked "Chase Chase Chase" as well as a handful of tunes from Pinball were also featured in the production.
Protheroe welcomed keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick and pedal steel guitarist B.J. Cole for the droll "Running Through the City," released as the lead single. It's melodically one of the most accessible tracks on the LP, though those purchasing the 45 might have been surprised to find the rest of Pick-Up wasn't quite so straightforward. The accurately-titled "Soft Song," with a string chart by Richard Hewson rather than Del Newman, is another highlight in this vein, however. The lengthy, closing title track was taken from another stage show, a Dada-inspired piece called Kinotata which was performed in Covent Garden. (The short "Kinotata" interludes on Pinball were also from this show.) Its loopy nature is exemplified by its various melodies and ever-altering styles from faux opera and "Day-o"-esque reggae to Andrews Sisters-style harmonies. It featured cameos by Protheroe's pals Peter Straker, Anita Dobson, and James Bolam. The catchy non-LP single "Back Away" has been included on this disc.
By the time of 1976's I/You, fans would have been accustomed to the artist's multi-part, stylistically shifting, and altogether dramatic songs (such as the title track, "Battling Annie," or "Evil Eye"). But could they have predicted a co-write with William Shakespeare? Written for a production of As You Like It, Protheroe offered a new musical setting of the Bard with the pastoral "Under the Greenwood Tree." For its studio recording, Chrysalis labelmates Ian Anderson and Barriemore Barlow of Jethro Tull added flute and percussion, respectively, to the delicate, airy track. This happy madness continued with the offbeat and slightly maniacal "Dancing on Black Ice," cited by the artist in the notes as his favorite of the album's tracks; it features Martin Duncan's wordplay at its wildest. The jaunty "Never Join the Fire Brigade" offered zany musical advice sung in exaggerated accents - was he answering The Move's "Fire Brigade" of years earlier? The cover of Little Richard's "Lucille" might be the strangest track on any of Protheroe's LPs simply for its straightforward dose of rock-and-roll. It turns out "Lucille" was the encore for Leave Him to Heaven, the oldies jukebox musical in which Protheroe was then starring in the West End. When it was left off the Chrysalis cast recording (as it wasn't part of the show proper), Protheroe brought the pit band into the studio and recreated it for posterity.
Three modern remixes conclude this collection, two of which add brass overdubs to the original recordings for a bigger but still period-appropriate sound. While all three LPs on The Albums 1974-76 had been previously released on CD, this marks their first wide availability. (It's too bad that the 1976 London Cast Recording of Leave Him to Heaven wasn't included for completeness' sake.) The 16-page booklet has Heatley's notes featuring numerous quotes from Protheroe. James Bragg has remastered the set from this still-active artist and performer. These unusual, engaging albums deserve a spot in the library of any fan of eccentric pop-rock.
Brian Protheroe's The Albums 1974-76 is available at the links below.
CD 1: Pinball (Chrysalis LP CHR 1065, 1974)
- Clog Dancer
- Money Love
- Moon Over Malibu
- Mickey Dollar Dreams
- Goodbye Surprise
- Changing My Tune
- Lady Belladonna
- Fly Now
- Interview/Also in the Limelight
- Wrong Kinotata
- Play (Bonus Track) (previously released on Citysong, Basta 30-9144-2, 2005)
CD 2: Pick-Up (Chrysalis LP CHR 1090, 1975)
- Enjoy It
- The Good Brand Band Song
- Scobo Queen
- Cherry Pie
- Oh Weeping Will
- Gertrude's Garden Hospital
- Running Through the City
- I Spy Lady
- Chase hase Chase
- Soft Song
- The Pick-Up
- Back Away (Bonus Track) (Chrysalis single CHS 2077, 1975)
CD 3: I/You (Chrysalis LP 1108, 1976)
- Every Roman Knows
- Evil Eye
- Under the Greenwood True
- Dancing on Black Ice
- Battling Annie
- Never Join the Fire Brigade
- The Face and I
- Back Away (2019 Remix)
- Enjoy It (2019 Remix)
- Fly Now (2020 Remix)