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Reissue CDs Weekly: Ducks Deluxe | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Ducks Deluxe

Reissue CDs Weekly: Ducks Deluxe

The pub rocker's albums resurface to raise questions about whether 1977 was the year of punk

Ducks Deluxe on signing with RCA Records in 1973. Left to right: Martin Belmont, Tim Roper, Sean Tyla, Nick Garvey

That this year is the 40th anniversary of 1977, the year punk rock went mainstream, shouldn’t obscure the pub rock foundations underpinning much of what was supposedly new. The Clash’s Joe Strummer had fronted pub circuit regulars The 101’ers. In 1976, the Sex Pistols regularly played West London pub The Nashville Rooms.

The Damned came together after Brian James and Rat Scabies scouted the audience at a Nashville Pistols/101’ers show for potential members of the band they intended forming. The Damned’s future label Stiff Records was run by pub rock movers and shakers. Their producer, Nick Lowe, had been in pub rock pioneers Brinsley Schwarz.

It wasn’t just overtly punky bands which broke through in 1977. Elvis Costello – another Stiff act – had a pub rock background. Ian Dury was the former frontman of Kilburn & The High Roads. One of that band’s guitarists made himself over for punk and formed a band called 48 Hours, which then changed its name to 999. High-octane Essex pub rockers Eddie & The Hot Rods soundtracked the summer of 1977 with “Do Anything You Wanna Do”. Nick Lowe was a ubiquitous presence as a producer and with his string of quirky seven-inchers.

Ducks Deluxe Coast to CoastThe AnthologyThe year also saw Graham Parker & The Rumour – managed by one of Stiff’s founders – chart with the Pink Parker EP. A new band called The Motors scraped into the Top 50 with their debut single “Dancing the Night Away”. Each band featured former members of pub rock stalwarts Ducks Deluxe. However 1977 is read, it was the year pub rock – characterised as such in 1973 – broke through.

The new three-CD Ducks Deluxe set Coast to Coast: The Anthology marries both their albums with bonus tracks to offer the chance to undertake some retrospective crystal ball gazing. Did their records suggest future directions for British music? Are there any hints of 1977’s pub rock breakthrough? Is the coming of punk detectable in their music?

Before getting to any answers, it’s worth noting what the band’s Martin Belmont told Melody Maker’s Chris Welch in late July 1973. “We’re not trying to impress anybody with musical intricacy,” he said. “We play music to give people a good time, and the atmosphere at gigs is just like the early ‘60s when The Yardbirds were coming up. It seems like we’re going back to those times.” While the pared-down ethos he spoke of echoed through into punk, Belmont was looking to the past rather than the future. The article was headlined I’ll drink to that - the great Pub Rock boom.

Melody Maker had been beaten to the classification punch by The Guardian whose Robin Denselow, on 17 March 1973, described “a new phenomenon: pub rock”. Ducks Deluxe were integral to the new no-frills scene. They formed in August 1972 under manager Dai Davies, who later held that role for The Stranglers. He also booked many of London’s pub venues. In 1972, just before Ducks Deluxe formed, Davies had spent a month in America working for David Bowie’s management company MainMan. Ducks Deluxe played their first live show at Kentish Town’s Tally Ho pub on – depending which account is read – 30 September or 2 October 1972. Brinsley Schwarz had started the ball rolling when they first played the pub on 19 January 1972. The formation of Ducks Deluxe helped foster the idea there was a scene.

Ducks Deluxe debut albumDucks Deluxe though were unstable and would have four line ups. Apart from drummer Tim Roper, none of the band were neophytes. Of their most notable members, Martin Belmont was previously Brinsley Schwarz’s roadie, Nick Garvey had been The Flamin’ Groovies road manager and Sean Tyla was a jobbing songwriter and journeyman musician who had been a roadie for pub rock precursors Help Yourself. The music business connections meant this was a band which, in turn, meant business.

Duly signing with Bowie’s label RCA – their manager’s recent past must have helped pave the way – Ducks Deluxe issued two albums: February 1974’s eponymous debut (pictured above left) and January 1975’s Taxi to the Terminal Zone. Promotion included a pre-RCA appearance in the BBC Play For Today Bloomin’ Youth, broadcast in June 1973, and, during June 1974, a tour as support to Bowie's chum and fellow RCA signee Lou Reed. Despite all this, Ducks Deluxe did not become a commercial success.

Heard now, their albums suggest why – Ducks Deluxe did not know what they should be on record. They had no unified musical persona. What must have gone down a storm live does not work on album.

The first album is the rougher, more immediate of the two. Opening cut “Coast to Coast” is a blast but following it with a cover of “Nervous Breakdown” suggests they lacked confidence in their own songs. Ending the album with a version of “It’s All Over Now” further stressed this ambivalence. That said, their own late Velvet Underground-esque “Fireball” is a winner. But other originals overtly in thrall to American archetypes (“Falling For That Woman ”, “West Texas Trucking Board”) are less convincing. The atmospheric “Daddy Put the Bomp” is fascinating – Wreckless Eric might have been nodding to it when he wrote “Whole Wide World”. Taken as a whole though, the scattershot Ducks Deluxe is patchy.

ducks deluxe taxi to the terminal zoneTaxi to the Terminal Zone is more polished, still stylistically varied and features a line-up bolstered by keyboard player Andy McMasters. He had joined in November 1973 after the first album had been completed. On Taxi…, “Teenage Head”, borrowed from bassist Garvey’s former employers The Flamin’ Groovies, is covered with gusto. Sean Tyla’s “Rio Grande” is stronger than the US-inclined material on the first album. The poppy “Love’s Melody” points to Motors’ songs like “Airport” and “Forget About You”. Taxi to the Terminal Zone did not sell well and, after line-up changes, the band played their last show in July 1975.

Coast to Coast is, pretty obviously, an inconsistent listen. When the songs are great, the band are too. It is not a user friendly release though. Full annotation is lacking, so it not possible to work out the A-sides of single-only B-sides. Alternate versions of Ducks Deluxe tracks are appended to the Taxi to the Terminal Zone disc when they would have made more sense supplementing Disc One’s debut album. While the studio, single-only version of “I Fought the Law” is included, the live version from 1975’s Jumpin’ EP is missing – perplexingly, the EP’s other three tracks are collected. Disc Three comprises inessential reunion material from 2009. Their contemporaneous BBC radio sessions or the recording of the 1975 farewell show would have been much better. Wholly irrelevant material by Sean Tyla recorded after the Ducks split is included. Key member Nick Garvey is not in the picture used for the cover. A real find though are three previously unissued, undated and surprisingly tentative pre-RCA demos, which appear to have been recorded for President Records (again, necessary annotation is lacking). While good to have all this Ducks Deluxe material in one place, overall, more thought should have been put into bringing Coast to Coast: The Anthology together.

As to the questions, although a punky energy courses through “Coast to Coast” it’s impossible to draw an unbroken line between Ducks Deluxe and 1977’s musical upheavals and the year's return of the pub rockers. Taken on their own and despite their scattershot musical approach, Ducks Deluxe at their best were a fine band. But heard cold in 2017, nothing suggests what was coming.


Nice piece. Further reading: No Sleep Till Canvey Island - The Great Pub Rock Revolution https://en-gb.facebook.com/PubRockBook/

Bought the Ducks Deluxe LP just after Graham Parker's initial success & still listen frequently. Unbelievably, I have never heard them on American radio.

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