Tag: Mike Hopkins

The Idle Race – Back To The Story

The Idle Race - Back To The StoryIn the post-Sgt. Pepper 1960s, many an up-and-coming British band longed to be the next Beatles, and with record labels hitching their wagons to the musical “British invasion” of America, there was certainly no shortage of success stories. Some bands, however, by choice or by fate, remained strictly local concerns – and such was the case with the Idle Race, a Birmingham group that rose from the ashes of a previous local band, Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders, after Sheridan left the band and a young guitarist named Jeff Lynne joined up. Even while the band was still actively recording and playing live, Idle Race won critical acclaim (including from the Beatles themselves, who invited the band to sit in on some sessions for the White Album)…and sold so few records that the band might’ve vanished into local history but for one of its members’ later success. Back To The Story is a 2-CD set that collects all three of the albums recorded by the Idle Race – two with Lynne in the driver’s seat (including his first credit as producer), and one recorded after his departure.

An utterly charming little slice of obscure ’60s psychedelia, The Birthday Party is the Idle Race’s debut effort, boasting intricate arrangements, some teriffic vocal harmonies, and even a studio string section, quite an unusual luxury for such a young group. The harmonies and the sense of whimsy running through both music and lyrics are clear evidence of a Beatles influence, though there are also touches that might remind keen-eared listeners of the Byrds here and there.

The Idle Race - The Birthday PartyBy modern standards, The Birthday Party is barely an EP, not even weighing in at half an hour, but the songs are layered enough to merit repeat listening. Where there’s lyrical whimsy, it’s almost too much at times, with “I Like My Toys” and “Sitting In My Tree” sticking out in that regard; depending on your mood, it’ll either be a little too saccharine, or endearingly childlike. It’s in numbers like “Follow Me Follow” and especially “The Lady Who Said She Could Fly” that the real potential of the group is exposed, and they’re a revelation – decent rock numbers with a nice string arrangement woven into and around the Idle Race’s basic rhythm section. The songs leave a huge impression – honestly, why they haven’t been covered is a total mystery to me – and they show that the group’s young lead vocalist (and self-appointed rookie producer) Jeff Lynne had some very clear ideas about what he’d do with a studio and a band at his disposal. Despite overtures (ha!) from his friend Roy Wood to join The Move, Lynne stubbornly stuck it out with the Idle Race for another album.

The Idle RaceThat album was the self-titled The Idle Race, and while Lynne’s songwriting and production are still front and center, somehow the second album doesn’t just reach out and grab me the same way that The Birthday Party does. In a few places, Lynne is reaching too far for the kind of Beatlesque affectations that many critics accuse him of being about for his whole career. If you thought Lynne was trying too hard to set up shop on the Fab Four’s turf during his ELO career, stay right away from The Idle Race here. There is one bona fide gorgeous Lynne classic on here in the form of “Follow Me Follow”, which just about makes the whole album worthwhile. “Come With Me”, “Sea Of Dreams” and “Going Home” are a nice triple-act right at the beginning of the album…but all this means is that The Idle Race has an extremely soft center. The second CD kicks off with a selection of non-album singles and B-sides, which are also a mixed bag; I thought I’d get a big kick out of hearing Lynne cover his buddy Roy Wood’s “(Here We Go ‘Round) The Lemon Tree”, originally performed by the Move (and with Roy Wood sitting in on this cover version), but while it’s a faithful enough rendition musically, the production touches are a bit much – this is Lynne at an age where he was getting a big charge out of being The Producer, and he was throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at the job, whether the song called for it or not. There’s a really good cover of “In The Summertime”, dating from the band’s brief post-Lynne era, but it differentiates itself so very little from the original that you might as well stick to Mungo Jerry.

The Idle Race - Time Is...In any case, Jeff Lynne did ultimately join the Move and, with Wood, later formed ELO; his Idle Race cohorts released a third album, Time Is…, which sounds absolutely nothing like Lynne-era Idle Race. Roger Spencer and the other members of the group steered things into a more mainstream psychedelic rock vein, and while there are some nice tunes to be found on the group’s swan song, you have to keep in mind that this is solid 1969/1970 material a year or two past its sell-by date. These songs slid right under the radar because music had moved on – Led Zeppelin was in full force, and even the Move was busting out mind-blowers like “Open Up Said The World At The Door”.

Thus ends the complete catalog of the Idle Race – enough to fill two CDs, with space left over for both sides of the final Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders single, and a few alternate versions. (Hey, albums were shorter back then.) The alternate takes of three songs – including the gorgeous “Follow Me Follow” – quickly reveal why the versions we’re used to are what made it onto the albums. “Follow” in particular is marred, in this recording, by a strange effect on the vocals during the chorus; at best, this bit of “producing” is just unbecoming considering the rest of the song’s beauty.

3 out of 4
A “complete recordings” box set is due later this year, rumored to span more than twice as many discs as this set, but between my own post-baby budget and my ambivalence about the material presented in this collection, I’m going to have to see some awfully good reviews and see some awfully tempting stuff on the tracklist before I blow my money on it. For most people, even diehard fans who “Follow Me Follow” Jeff Lynne wherever he goes, this complete presentation of the Idle Race’s commercially released material will do nicely.

Order this CD

    Disc one
    The Birthday Party

  1. The Skeleton and the Roundabout (2:21)
  2. Happy Birthday / The Birthday Party (3:23)
  3. I Like My Toys (2:10)
  4. The Morning Sunshine (1:46)
  5. Follow Me Follow (2:48)
  6. Sitting In My Tree (1:53)
  7. On With The Show (2:22)
  8. Lucky Man (2:37)
  9. (Don’t Put Your Boys In The Army) Mrs. Ward (2:13)
  10. Pie In The Sky (2:27)
  11. The Lady Who Said She Could Fly (2:19)
  12. End Of The Road (2:09)
  13. The Idle Race

  14. Come With Me (2:45)
  15. Sea Of Dreams (3:13)
  16. Going Home (3:44)
  17. Reminds Me Of You (2:54)
  18. Mr. Crow And Sir Norman (3:17)
  19. Please No More Sad Songs (3:21)
  20. Girl At The Window (3:44)
  21. Big Chief Woolly Bosher (5:15)
  22. Someone Knocking (2:56)
  23. A Better Life (The Weather Man Knows) (2:45)
  24. Hurry Up John (3:33)
  25. Bonus tracks

  26. Lucky Man (alternate take) (2:35)
  27. Follow Me Follow (alternate take) (1:56)
  28. Days Of Broken Arrows (alternate take) (3:39)
    Disc two
    Singles & B-sides

  1. (Here We Go ‘Round) The Lemon Tree (2:44)
  2. My Father’s Son (2:15)
  3. Impostors Of Life’s Magazine (2:21)
  4. Knocking Nails Into My House (2:27)
  5. Days Of The Broken Arrows (3:51)
  6. Worn Red Carpet (3:03)
  7. In The Summertime (2:58)
  8. Told You Twice (3:38)
  9. Neanderthal Man (3:56)
  10. Victim Of Circumstance (3:36)
  11. Time Is

  12. Dancing Flower (2:14)
  13. Sad O’ Sad (3:28)
  14. The Clock (3:23)
  15. I Will See You (3:11)
  16. By The Sun (6:42)
  17. Alcatraz (4:02)
  18. And The Rain (2:52)
  19. She Sang Hymns Out Of Tune (3:07)
  20. Bitter Green (3:45)
  21. We Want It All (4:13)
  22. Mike Sheridan & The Nightriders

  23. It’s Only the Dog (2:15)
  24. Your Friend (3:22)

Released by: EMI
Release date: 1996 (re-released in 2007 without Nightriders tracks)
Disc one total running time: 74:26
Disc two total running time: 73:23