‘CLOSE ENOUGH FOR SEEING…’
DIESEL PARK WEST’S SHAKESPEARE ALABAMAALBUM RECONSIDERED
Breaking out of provincial obscurity into the metropolitan glitz of a UK music business based mainly in London was always going to be a difficult trick for a mature Leicester rock band to pull off as the decades turned from ‘80s to 90s.
The pop music landscape over ’89-90 was dominated by towering middle-of-the-road mega-sellers like Madonna, Phil Collins and Whitney Houston, whilst the cuddly, vacuous, antipodean soap-opera couple, Kylie & Jason were all over the charts, both of them going on to establish durable careers – Donovan in musical theatre, Minogue becoming Madonna’s biggest female rival. The most remarkable – and banal – story on the singles chart was an unlikely and faceless studio sampling set-up from Rotherham, of all places – and one which made Leicester look like Las Vegas – none other than Jive Bunny & The Master Mixers that mashed up old Rock & Roll and Glam tracks into medleys. They were successful almost everywhere, but nowhere as much as Britain where they became only the third act to reach #1 with their first three singles*1. And then there was a proto-‘boy band’ called New Kids On The Block…
This, then was the competition chart-wise when The Filberts – named after the road that housed the stadium of Leicester City F. C. – emerged rechristened as Diesel Park West on the independent label Food Records with whom they’d signed in ’87 along with another gang of Leicester hopefuls, the Garage Punk outfit, Crazyhead. There’s a lack of clarity surrounding the new name Diesel Park West – apart from it being the work of Food and having some sort of vaguely fashionable ring about it – not that Leicester is situated in the west, being in the East Midlands.
Notwithstanding the commercial big-hitters mentioned above and the proponents of synth-driven pop too numerous to dwell on here, British guitar groups were still doing OK during the much-maligned ‘80s. Some of them, like U2 and Simple Minds were doing a whole lot better than OK, whilst The Smiths came and went and such as The Cure and The Waterboys were carving out substantial and long-lasting success. Indie Rock and its sub-genre Shoegaze were solidly guitar-based and bands like Scotland’s Del Amitri and The Bangles, an American girl band were also doing well, but the real new kids on the block at this time – thecoolkids – were a bunch from Manchester whose eponymous debut album appeared in the spring of ’89 as Shakespeare Alabamahad arrived that January.
Other ‘Madchester’ acts like The Happy Mondays, The Charlatans, James and The Inspiral Carpets (famously road managed by one Noel Gallagher) all had longer and more fruitful chart careers than The Stone Roses, but it is the latter’s first offering (of what turned out to be only a two album career) which has gathered the most critical kudos over the decades that followed (along with over 4m sales). All of those bands had singles or albums that made the UK Top 5.
Shakespeare Alabamareached #55.
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The Filberts had formed way back in 1980, sometimes going out as The Psychedelic Filberts. John Butler*2, their singer, rhythm guitarist and leader had some serious, if incidental, form. In the ‘70s, he’d replaced Steve Ellis in a rock band called Widowmaker which toured the UK, the US and Germany. To step in for the underrated Ellis*3, you had to be able toreally sing, which is why Butler got that call. Then he and an old school-friend, drummer Dave ‘Moth’ Smith, teamed up in a forgotten band called The Flicks who, nonetheless, made an album in ’79 which, memorably – and almost incredibly – had been recorded at John Lennon’s vacant Tittenhurst Park (the ‘Imagine’ house) where they were allowed to live for several months (Lennon still residing in New York at the time until he was murdered the following year). The Flicks supported Frankie Miller, a then respected rock ‘n’ soul singer on a tour, but their album Go For The Effectwent missing without trace.
Bruised but undaunted, the newly assembled Filberts had built enough of a profile by ‘83 to support Del Shannon on another UK tour, having recruited Geoff Beavan on bass and Rick Willson, who was not only a brilliant guitarist (and like Butler, a left-hander), but came with his own four-track studio which he’d put together just outside Leicester. By the time this line-up had released Shakespeare Alabama on indie label, Food Records, there was sufficient buzz around it for Butler for to be invited to Olympic Studios to sit in on a Stones session where he met not only Mick ‘n’ Keef, but also Peter Cook who was ligging by (Cook being to alternative comedy what The Beatles and Stones were to rock music).
When it came to having incidental form, by the way, drummer Moth had played with Mod band, Legay – a legend in their own Leicester – and with Gypsy, the more acoustic, C, S & N inclined act they had morphed into as the ‘60s drew to a close.
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Shakespeare Alabamawas produced by Chris Kimsey – he it was who’d squired Butler to Olympic where he was working on the Stones’ Steel Wheelsalbum (he’d been behind the desk for the likes of ELP, Yes, INXS, Peter Frampton and Duran Duran to name but a few). He wasn’t the only big name producer to work with the Diesels – Bob Clearmountain and Laurie Latham were others – but it’s generally agreed that he did a particularly good job on the Leicester band’s debut.
‘When The Hoodoo Comes’ and ‘Jackie’s Still Sad’ had come out as singles in ’87-8 and flopped as the album took a while to come together, but it was met with good reviews when finally released and the future looked bright. Crucially, however, the band were not getting airplay on BBC daytime radio. More singles were pulled from the album – ‘All The Myths On Sunday’, ‘Like Princes Do’ and a reissued ‘When The Hoodoo Comes’ – all of them falling well short of the watershed UK Top 40.
The album still tends to be thought of as their best (if not by the band) so why didn’t this powerful programme of melodic guitar-rock led by Butler’s soaring baritone prove more popular? Something to do with image, maybe? Well, the record came wrapped in a psychedelic cover dominated by a familiar image of the titular Bard – familiar, that is, apart from having two pairs of eyes – against a background of a partial map of Alabama with the cities of Mobile and Selma pinpointed. No good looking for Shakespeare there, because there’s no such place in the state – presumably the title was born of the same abstract geography as the renaming of the band. But hey – what’s in a name, right? Pop and rock music is full of weird album titles and band names. Given time – if not commercial success – the nomenclature can start to fit around the people and records like well-tailored gloves.
The flowing font of the title looks suitably C17th whilst the band’s name is in lower-case Colibri, fashionably lacking initial capitals. Personally, I always thought the image of Shakespeare oversized, perhaps distractingly so. The inner sleeve had the lyrics superimposed on an image of a somewhat pointless ornamental saddle on one side and a b/w portrait of the musicians in suede and leather jackets looking mean, moody and rather magnificent. Did they look their age – which is to say, early 30s? About that, I’d say – bearing in mind that early 30s is always going to look like a late entry into the pop and rock world – maybe especially so in ’89, when those Stone Roses in their baggy-boy threads seemed so much younger (even though theywere then all in their mid-20s).
Did Food get behind the Diesels promotionally? There was plenty of dosh sloshing around apparently, but perhaps when those singles stalled beyond the Top 40, the company’s focus switched first to another of their new signings, a Wiltshire outfit going under the name of Jesus Jones who, before 1990 was out, had a UK #1, US #25 album, a Top 10 single, and a brace of US Top 5 singles. Oh, and the debut single by a London band called Blur appeared on Food that October. Suffice to say that the DPW album released in 2000 was called Thought For Food.
Apart from Flipped (1990),a compilation of sorts which tied up the loose ends of some early songs and cover-versions, Diesel Park West released neither another single or album until ’92 – and that hiatus may well have proved if not fatal, then certainly debilitating, because although by then, the Jesus Jones heyday was passing, Blur, most of whom were in their early-20s, had broken into the UK Top 10 albums and singles charts.
When the second DPW album, Decencyappeared, with a very similar cover design*4 – only this time with Butler’s visage looming as large as Shakespeare’s had – its lead single, the great ‘Fall To Love’ seemed destined to break through, but stalled at #48. The album climbed no higher than #57 with another single and an EP doing no better. Thus ended the band’s tenuous association with the pop charts, forever Nearly Men rather than Bright Young Things, let alone new kids on the block.
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And so to the actual ten songs that constitute Shakespeare Alabama. Given that they all shared similar ‘60s influences, the Diesels never sounded much like their arty / cockernee label mates Blur and even less like the itchy, percussive dance-rock of Jesus Jones and The Stone Roses. Apart from the production sound which, of course, utilised far more than the mainly four-track technology of the time, the Diesels’ debut might almost have been released in the ‘60s.
The opener, ‘Like Princes Do’ starts with a crash of drums, throbbing bass, glittering guitars and Butler’s crystal-clear voice commanding a lyric which he later described in the sleeve-notes to ’97 compilation, Left Hand Band, as being ‘dedicated to the era of Thatcherite greed seen from those who suddenly realise that they might be up for some too.’ It did always sound to me like a confident mission statement of attaining imminent rock stardom: ‘We’re gonna live on the hill / Feast ‘til we’ve had our fill…No more shufflin’ in the shadows / We don’t care about you, you and you!’ I’ve stood in audiences which were yawping along to it, punching the air and playing air-guitar, but I’m not sure too many of those present were getting a political message; more likely they were engaged in the symbiotic power that passes back and forth between band and crowd when they hear a great rock song with words and music that fill them with a strength beyond their clear understanding. Then, after a short, sharp Asiatic guitar solo and another chorus, it all hurtles to an orgasmic climax, Butler triumphantly crying ‘Ha! Ha!’ as the drums tumble to a full-stop.
How to follow such a barn-storming curtain-raiser? Whilst the air-guitarists and air-drummers are recovering from their spasticated exertions, ‘All The Myths On Sunday’ does the job, easing in at mid-tempo on a gorgeous swell of Beatlesque and Byrdsian guitars circa ’65-6. A rare co-write with Willson, Butler has called it ‘The pivotal Diesels song’ and frequently introduced it on stage as ‘A Rick Willson song.’ According to Left Hand Band, the lyric ‘illuminates hypocrisy and small-time social climbing’. Maybe – it never really struck me as illuminatingmuch beyond a general cynicism about the UK’s sensationalistic Sunday tabloid papers, the gullibility of the public and manipulative politicians in general. But that’s OK: good records don’t necessarily need straightforward lyrical messages.
‘Bell Of Hope’, however, is like Butler’s voice, as clear as a bell (but for an odd reference to shoes on a table which, superstitiously is supposed to bode ill…). A jangling ballad about fresh new beginnings, the ‘you’ it addresses could be the narrator himself, a significant other – or others – as in us, the audience, his listeners.
A delicate little Oriental guitar figure – the quietest spell on the record – trickles into ‘Out Of Nowhere’, an impressive song about a girl ‘spinning, turning on her toes’ who may be ‘of this earth’ or of ‘the air’. Whether the girl from out of nowhere is alive or ghostly or a ballerina on the music-box that may be suggested by the intro isn’t important. The ‘In another world’ chorus has Butler soaring and circling above the rich texture of the instruments – and the audience are up there with him.
Approaching urgently in a layered intro including strings and increasingly powered by Moth’s huge drums, ‘The Waking Hour’, a cold light of day song, finds the narrator brooding over how he ‘must have broken her up with [his] talk last night’. Another strong chorus, reinforced with effective backing vocals (so often a feature of DPW songs) concludes the first side of the vinyl version. All thriller, no filler – didn’t this just sound like a million-seller? It still does.
In case you were wondering in the new year of 1989 when it made its entrance, the second side immediately set about consolidating that impression. A vast, echoing, almost warped three-note guitar riff sounds like a warning foghorn as ‘When The Hoodoo Comes’ charging in. A voice from a Dylanesque ‘watchtower’ tells us to ‘run for protection’ because this nightmarish nemesis will ‘make no exception at all’. Apparently that’s top ‘60s sessioneer, Nicky Hopkins augmenting the coda – although it might be any pianist – but everything works in what is a touchstone of the DPW repertoire.
‘Opportunity Crazy’ might sound a little slight in this company and with a less ambiguous lyric might have cut through more clearly. Perhaps less about a vague character called ‘Sanchez’ – a ‘heat seeker’ who ‘couldn’t get through’ and more development of whoever it is ‘down in the deep end’ fearing an uneventful life ahead, might have added focus. Melodically however, it remains a dazzling pop song which hooks you into its titular chorus.
I always thought that ‘Here I Stand’ might be a hard song to top and also felt it should have been sequenced more significantly at the end of the album*5. I’ve stood in too many DPW crowds – mainly male, it has to be said, many of them around that ‘certain age’ of the players – all singing this word-for-word, not to be convinced that it conveys a feeling that is at once universal and transcendent. It begins with another of their stand-out intro’s: an electric guitar offering a hint of the melody over a strummed acoustic, before Butler arrestingly announces that he’s ‘got a burning heart’ and ‘a memory of losing’ that has brought him to where he now stands ‘right or wrong’. Along the way, the martial beat takes him past people who, it is implied, let him down, carried by a chorus on which he’s double-tracked in a higher register over the harmony with Willson to where he’s ‘up against the window, close enough for seeing’. The arrogant sneer (assumed or otherwise*6) that accompanied the ambition of ‘Like Princes Do’ is replaced here with a nobility of purpose. According to the Left Hand Bandnotes, it has something to do with a ‘post-Live Aid trauma’, though quite what I can’t discern.
‘Wonder what she used to dream about before waking up alongside Aristotle’, Butler muses in those notes, writing about ‘Jackie’s Still Sad’. I’ve never quite got my head around this one. Musically, it has an epic sound which earns its place among its fellows on the album; lyrically however, it’s a conundrum. There’s Jackie, of course – Kennedy, we must presume; there’s at least one ‘I’ who was ‘mean and cruel’, who is ‘the everyman’ and who’s ‘alone outside the gate’; and a ‘you’ who ‘it’s a shame about’. Go figure. If it was just about a man and some other woman called Jackie, it might have made more sense.
Considering its significant place on the programme, ‘A House Divided’ seems to me to be by some way – and despite the spicy backwards guitar solo which closes proceedings – the least strong track here (there are no weak tracks, but melodically this doesn’t quite cut it to my ears). Co-written with someone credited only as ‘Seymour’, there are too many words and, in the final analysis, they don’t unfortunately communicate much more than the title does. It wouldn’t matter so much had it been sequenced in the body of the record, but there you go.
Then again, as debut albums go, Shakespeare Alabamaremains an exceptional one*7.
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In 1992, after the somewhat belated Decencyalbum came out, I visited my girlfriend Lisa (later to become my wife) in Cambridge where she was at college. We went to see the Diesels at a new venue called The Junction, a much larger place than the (now defunct) Charlotte and other Leicester pub gigs where we’d seen them before. Disappointingly, we found ourselves among an audience of about thirty in a space designed for several hundreds. Nevertheless, on to the stage they trooped, Butler hitting the mike with the spine-chilling ‘Apache’ holler from the title-track and away they went. During the next hour they played selections from those first two albums including that #1 that never was, ‘Fall To Love’, complete with Willson’s guitar coda quoting Neil Young. As well as that, there was ‘Clutching At Love’, a heart-rendingly beautiful break-up ballad, which also confounded my earlier impression that they might struggle to equal ‘Here I Stand’. And, of course, there was their totemic set-staple, Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr. Soul’.
They’d played like there were thousands rather than tens of us watching. Then, within minutes of them leaving the stage, hundreds of teens and twenties flooded into the arena for a disco…At that point, I think I realised that this band were probably never going to be as big as their music.
There was no ‘second album syndrome’ going on withDecency– it seemed to me to be in pretty much the same league as Shakespeare Alabama, although the band thought Laurie Latham’s production recorded in London and Brussels at a cost of £300,000 to be overblown – Butler once told me he preferred the demo’s they’d done at the little Leicester studio for ‘about £500 plus chips and beer money’. What might be called The DPW Sound was however, by now established and would remain fairly constantly in place over subsequent albums despite line-up changes and label-hopping. Butler’s highly distinctive voice and the extraordinary interplay between his and Willson’s guitars ensured the sonic continuity – although, surprisingly, the latter does not appear on the latest release, Let it Melt (2019). In an interview, Butler has said that Willson’s style is ‘too conservative’ for the more raw approach of the new album which makes me wonder what Rick might think when he reads that…
That DPW Sound – classic guitar rock with ambitious songs which avoid arty tricksiness – is often described as ‘anthemic’, a term which may lead to comparisons with U2. Don’t let Butler hear you opine as much though, because he loathes the term and apparently cannot abide the ’dreadful’ U2. However, when asked what his favourite Diesels song is, he goes for an old b-side, ‘Above These Things’*8, a quintessential example with a soaring chorus and, to my ears, the epitome of anthemic – which, in a parallel universe, has tens of thousands of swaying fans with arms aloft in a stadium where DPW are topping the bill.
Rarely short on self-belief, Butler has always felt the pointedly-titled third album Diesel Park West vs. The Corporate Waltz (1993) – released on EMI, which had swallowed up Food – to probably be their best and the one which could and should have broken through in a big way. But it didn’t happen and still hasn’t, a dozen or so albums on (including several solo efforts). Fame, riches and that ‘bubble reputation’ (as the bloke on the debut album cover described it) do not necessarily add up to a successful career artistically, though – and I reckon Butler hits the nail on the head when he says it’s been a kind of ‘warped vocation’.
The Diesels have had their moments in Europe playing some big gigs and appearing on TV.
They’ve always worn their ‘60s hearts on their sleeves – indeed the last time they grazed the chart back in ’92 it was with editions of an EP led by The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’, and Stephen Stills’ ‘Love The One You’re With’, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Do You Believe In Magic?’, Moby Grape’s ‘Bitter Wind’, The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and the Stones’ ‘Tumbling Dice’*9.
Being in the right place at the right timeis quite a trick to pull off; the talent required is almost incidental – but the element of good fortune is pretty much a prerequisite. They say that class will out and, whilst there’s more than a grain of truth in that, we should recall that they also say that shit rises to the top. How else to account, on the one hand, for the extraordinary series of coincidences and lucky breaks from which The Beatles benefited after years of striving and obscurity and, on the other hand, the calculated manufacture behind the jaw-dropping success of Westlife, probably the most mediocre pop group ever. Only The Beatles have had more UK #1 singles than the product called Westlife as sold by Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh…
Call it destiny or fate, but two of the greatest and most influential bands of all time -Love and The Velvet Underground – could barely scrape together a minor hit single or album between them. DPW’s chances of chart success and the attendant fame and fortune receded and disappeared just as the stage seemed set for them, just as the ‘60s-fuelled phenomenon of Britpop was waiting in the wings, their old, younger label mates, Blur to one side, Oasis to the other. They coulda bin contenders…
I like to think that if Dylan had not become a superstar, then he would still, nearly sixty years later, be playing his songs (and covers) around the clubs. The Diesels keep on keeping on because they want to, maybe because they have to – it’s what they do – and they do it damned well. That and their quality control merit a place among Leicester’s most significant musicians (see below*10) They often play the Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ – and they never let us down, no matter how many or how few of us remain.
*1 – Jive Bunny’s predecessors were Gerry & The Pacemakers and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
*2 – John Butler now identifies as Jon C. Butler to avoid being confused with the Australian rock band The John Butler Trio who are very successful in their homeland and frequently play the UK.
*3– Steve Ellis was the lead singer in the post-Mod band, Love Affair which had half a dozen hits at the end of the ‘60s. Unfairly derided at the time for not being ‘real musicians’ – Ellis was the only one of them featured on the chart-topping and evergreen ‘Everlasting Love’ – they were actually quite a hot little live band.
*4 – The graphic design studio behind those early DPW covers was Stylorouge. They were a very successful operation who worked on album covers with many big names (including Blur) and were also responsible for the iconic Trainspotting (1996)film poster.
*5 – On the 2005 remastered reissue of the album as it appears on Spotify, ‘Here I Stand’ appears as the penultimate track. Maybe next time round it will get to close the programme.
*6 – Nothing wrong with a bit of arrogance and sneering in rock music – where, after all, would we be without Bob Dylan and John Lydon, for instance?
*7 – The remastered and expanded version of Shakespeare Alabamafeatures an early version of ‘Hoodoo’ and a different mix of ‘Myths’. There are also ‘The Girl With The Name’ (which appeared onFlipped) sounding suitably buffed-up and slightly more scintillating – and five previously unreleased songs which presumably missed the cut: ‘Don’t Be Scared Of The Night’, ’What About Us?’, ‘Poison From The Inkwell’, ‘Wanderlust’ and ‘Last Bus To Madison’. All of them are distinctively DPW and Butlerian. ‘The Girl’ must have pushed hard for a place and ‘Inkwell’ might have lent a spikier edge to the finished article.
*8 – ‘Above These Things’ can also be found on the compilation Flipped.
*9 – The ‘God Only Knows’ EP also oddly included a version of ‘Info Freako’ by Food label mates Jesus Jones – apparently because Butler wanted to show them how much better it would sound by the Diesels.
*10 – Britain’s Got Talentwinner Sam Bailey; 1950s vocal group, The Dallas Boys; Brian Davison (drummer of The Nice); John Deacon (Queen bassist); rock ‘n’ prog band Family; influential folk guitarist Davey Graham; the king of schmaltz, Englebert Humperdink; the heirs to Oasis and – with the aforementioned Hump – Leicester’s most commercially successful act ever, Kasabian; Tony Kaye (original keyboardist with Yes); Jon Lord – keys with Deep Purple and later a respected classical composer; Hip-Hop singer Mark Morrison; Phil Oakey of The Human League; the highly successful singles act, rock ‘n’ roll revival outfit, Showaddy (who once counted Rick Willson’s brother Danny among their number); Anto Thistlethwaite – multi-instrumentalist with The Waterboys and The Saw Doctors; Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers and Bruce Wooley of The Buggles.
Written by: I.G. Roberts