DI takes its role as edutainers seriously, and in that spirit we’re spotlighting great albums and choice cuts from 1970-1999 to edify our readers’ musical breadth of knowledge. Each week will focus on a single year and some of the sweetmeat it produced.
“Now all you London ladies, wonder where you’re at trying to make a country boy like me. I do declare that they think I’m a star, although I told them all I do is play guitar.”
If Brinsley Schwarz had been part of the great late 60s San Francisco rock flowering nearly everyone would know their name. But as it is, this exceedingly talented quartet spearheaded by a young Nick Lowe hailed from Tunbridge Wells, England, and perhaps might have lacked their lurking bittersweet character if they’d emerged in the California sunshine. Even so, Brinsley Schwarz – Lowe (bass, guitars, vocals, songwriting), Brinsley Schwarz (guitar, vocals), Bob Andrews (keyboards, vocals) and Bill Rankin (drums) – produced two albums in 1970 that match or better anything coming from Jefferson Starship, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger and the like during the same period.
Their self-titled debut gives some credence to the U.K. hype that Brinsley Schwarz were the isle’s answer to The Band, a concise pleasure filled offering with rich, CSN tight harmonies, songs that straddle 60s optimism and 70s ennui, and a musical & lyrical maturity well beyond their years. They emerge a touch jaded, already weary of groupies before they’ve rightly scored any on “Rock And Roll Women (And Super-Straightmen)” but balancing that vibe with inducements to “Shining Brightly.” The balance is a mixture of curious miniature jams, distinctly West Coast rock grooving (zero problem imagining them opening for the Grateful Dead at The Fillmore), and pleasurably wistful character studies that’s not too far off from where Steely Dan arrived on their 1974 debut, a well-tempered buzz of mayflies and has-been beauty queens that’s held up remarkably well over the decades.
Despite It All arrived a few months later in December and leans hard into a country-rock mood with the band more assured and polished than the debut – Brinsley Schwarz evolved quickly. Opener “Country Girl” is a near-perfect bit of AM gold that never found a home on American airwaves, and closer “Old Jarrow” could be a lost Randy Meisner gem from an early Eagles session. In between there’s the easy sway of “Funk Angel,” the Andrews’ penned “Piece of Home” and “Star Ship,” which declares, “You can stay on your starship, baby, but don’t be unkind to me” – a different time indeed. Perhaps loveliest of all is “Ebury Down,” which skips with melancholy dexterity foreshadowing Lowe’s intricately delicate solo work in the 2000s.
Lowe, as anyone paying even the slightest attention to rock in past four decades can tell you, went on to great work, including one of the finest debuts in rock history (his first solo full-length Jesus of Cool), one of rock’s greatest what-ifs (Rockpile), long running creative sparring with Elvis Costello (who covered the Brinsley Schwarz tune “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding?” to good effect), and much more. The others have drifted in and out of music after Brinsley Schwarz, which soldiered on with some degree of success, a primarily U.K. known quantity, through the mid-70s before calling it quits. While associated with the 70s Pub Rock scene, Brinsley Schwarz clearly had more Trans-Atlantic ambitions coming out of the gate, and while little known, their first two albums remain some of the most enjoyable, well-crafted artifacts of the period.
A few keepers from these early albums.