RPM Records Ltd. Cherry Red Records Ltd.
Retro 956 issued in 2014
'The Exceptional Exception' was the name given to The Exception's only LP issued in 1969. While at the time, this title may not have fitted well as far as the casual listener was concerned, today's explorers of rare and exotic 1960s sounds will certainly be more receptive to the recordings contained within.
In the beginning, there were 'The Brumbeats' of whom drummer Alan "Bugsy" Eastwood and guitarist Roger Hill were part of the line-up. The group recorded for Decca Records in 1964 which included an album of Beatles covers under the name 'The Merseyboys'. Alan and Roger later teamed up in 'The Hooties' who with the addition of bass guitarist Dave Pegg, became 'The Exceptions' after signing to Eddie Kassner's President Records label.
The Exception was to have no less than seven innovative singles issued on the CBS and President Records labels respectively which in itself is an "exception" considering the "Three strikes and you're out" rule seemed to prevail at most record companies in those days. Unfortunately, none of the Exceptions' records impacted the charts although the band had plenty of 'live' work including a number of German tours where in that country they seemed to gather the most support.
No less than 26 tracks are included on this wonderfully produced CD comprising all the band's singles (A and B sides), their 1969 album, plus an additional five previously unreleased recordings issued here for the first time. The CD packaging is attractively designed by Andy Morten and packaged in its own jewel case. This also holds a 16 page book full of rare photos, recording details, and project co-ordinator John Reed's definitive story of the band including quotes from surviving members.
Thanks to sound engineers Simon Murphy and Mark Stratford, the re-mastered audio quality is excellent - especially on the album tracks. The first 14 recordings on this CD consist of the A and B sides of the band's seven singles issued between 1967 and 1969. Possibly the best known of these is their first titled 'The Eagle Flies On Friday' (issued at the time as 'The Exceptions').
This drums and vibes-driven track was inspired by an American expression relating to the eagle on their dollar bill with lyrics about an employee's weekend escape from his oppressive boss after getting his pay on Friday. Alan Eastwood's lead vocal is certainly very American influenced in this respect, although for this one, the song may have more in common with Eddie Cochrane's 'Summertime Blues'. In addition, Roger Hill contributes a cutting guitar solo while future Led Zeppelin star Robert Plant (who hitched a ride down to London with the band), plays tambourine!
For the rather more bluesy B-side 'Girl Trouble', Bugsy tells the age-old tale of a guy's frustration in dealing with the opposite sex. He sings; "Everything I do is all for you, I just can't get nowhere. It's gonna take a little man to take me to the graveyard and this one woman to put me there".
'Gaberdine Saturday Night Street Walker' follows as the A-side of The Exeption's second 45. Like the first, Bugsy's use of the vibes is again prominent as they harmonize with Roger's guitar. The song seems to tell the story of a sad character who walks the streets alone at night in his raincoat while thinking about his lost love. This contrasts with the rather upbeat feel of the music which seems a familiar feature regarding many of Alan Eastwood's compositions.
The B-side 'Sunday Night At The Prince Rupert' is a special surprise as it was composed not by Bugsy but Roger Hill and Dave Pegg. This fast-paced instrumental work-out was named after The Prince Rupert public house in Nechells Birmingham. You can just imagine them playing this one on-stage, complete with the Irish/Scottish jig fade-out towards the end as a tribute no doubt to the pub's regulars!
The band's first single for President Records (with new bass guitarist John Rowlands) is a bizzare song titled 'Rub It Down' that could easily be taken for a comedy/novelty number. The song is recorded in a highly-danceable ska/reggae arrangement complete with Bugsy's lead vocal imitation of a West Indian accent! While another Brum band Locomotive led by Norman Haines recorded successful ska impersonations such as 'Rudi's In Love', who knows what direction The Exception may have followed had Rub It Down been a hit!
The much more conventional (musically at least) B-side 'It's Snowing In The Desert' imagines the earth drastically altered by forces unknown. It reminds me of Jeff Lynne's Idle Race compositions where dark humour often dominates the lyrics to an otherwise up-beat song. The chorus goes; "It's snowing in the desert, there's a heatwave at the pole. Some smart Alec's been fooling around and he's turned the world upside down". Read into it what you will!
The Exception's 4th single issued just three months later in June 1968 is titled 'Helicopter'. "Up I go just like a helicopter, down I go then like a deep sea diver..." sings Bugsy in this song about the ups and downs of a relationship. There's a catchy vibes-based intro repeated a number of times in the arrangement, but apart from that, it's one of their weaker numbers musically. More interesting is the B-side titled 'Back Room' that pays tribute to 1950s rock 'n' roll with Bugsy's almost passable 'Elvis' lead vocal and the period-sounding 'do wop' group backing vocals.
New band members; bass guitarist Malcolm Garner and saxophonist/pianist Steve Yetson, were on board for The Exception's next A-side which is the Chicago style blues-driven 'Tailor Made Babe' featuring a great piano introduction. This one obviously suited the band's style and probably sounded great when performed live. There's a good guitar solo in there too. You'd have a tougher time dancing to the barely two-minute long B-side titled 'Turn Over The Soil' with it's blasts of harmonica and raunchy lead vocal.
A personal favorite of mine is 'Jack Rabbit', and not just because I like rabbits. There's a great piano/acoustic guitar intro to this under two minute long record. "I'm a jack rabbit running free and wild, if you want my love get on my back and ride". In contrast, the B-side 'Keep The Motor Running' is a pleasant mid-tempo acoustic guitar number complete with a tasteful saxophone solo. Bugsy's lyrics tell of longing to be back together with a distant girlfriend; "With every mile I hear my conscience cry, I'm sorry now I said goodbye, keep the motor running I'm coming back home to you". Sadly, this was the last 45 to be issued before the band split up.
'Pendulum' is the title of the final single by The Exception as issued late in 1969 several months after their demise. A rather dark song is this one both musically and lyrically and certainly not something you would expect to hear as an A-side. Apparently written about an individual tortured by thoughts of his life ticking away. Bugsy sings; "In my bed at night I reminisce, thinking of the chances that I missed. Could have had friends, or even found love... I'm not the young man I used to be!" - heavy stuff for sure.
A stand-out track but relegated to the B-side is 'Don't Torture Your Mind' which happens to be one of the few compositions by Roger Hill in this collection. Almost as dark in content as Pendulum, Roger Hill likely had the lead vocal on this one and sings; "Don't you torture your mind, save it for another time, the light may shine someday". Maybe a message to the soon-to-be departing Bugsy?
We now arrive at the album-only tracks as included on The Exception's LP issued in early 1969. Recorded by the final line-up of the band (if you don't count the drummer who replaced Bugsy on their last German tour). This album likely comes closer to representing the actual sound of the band as they would have been on stage, rather than what had been represented by their singles issued up to that time.
The previously mentioned Jack Rabbit opens this album, followed by track two which is a number titled 'Hong Kong Blues' and credited to Hoagie Carmichael who I suppose may have been a major influence on Alan Eastwood. The references to cocaine in the lyrics certainly indicate a possibility of chemically-induced forces at work in some of Bugsy's songwriting and indeed he even admitted being under the influence of alcohol while writing tracks for the album.
'Rock Bottom Cinder' follows next and is a great bluesy number having some well-placed saxophone that really drives it along. Bugsy's gritty vocal fits well on this one that must have been great to hear performed live. 'Woman Of The Green Lantern' takes on an oriental theme complete with some spoken Japanese and a gong! Apparently written about a prostitute; "...that woman has me caught in a web, sometimes I wish I were dead, only fools dare to tread down in the green lantern". Roger Hill contributes an effective wah wah guitar pedal effect throughout this recording.
As the title suggests 'Karen Train Blues' rocks along at a lively pace - another one that would have been great performed live. It reminds me very much of Stan Webb's Chicken Shack with some mean guitar breaks along with pounding drums and piano. 'Too Much In Love With A Bad Thing' follows next with its recurring lyrical theme of temptation leading to the dark side; "I should know by now you can't make truth out of lies" sings Bugsy. This is their strongest album track in my opinion and certainly the most dynamic. It builds slowly, stops, and begins again. Great feel on the drums too.
Easily the longest recording by The Exception at five minutes duration is the slow blues progression of 'Mrs. Cocaine' on which Bugsy renders his most emotional vocal on record. Similar in style to Steppenwolf's 'The Pusher' you can't help thinking that Bugsy's lyrics were written from experience with lines (no pun intended) like; "The first time I met her she was so gentle and kind, but now she's crippled my body and poisoned my mind".
The album's second from final track titled 'Bum's Puzzle' is a strange one to decipher. It may have been inspired by Bugsy's old neighbourhood where he grew up in Birmingham but apparently no longer exists. "Bum's puzzle is where I belong" he sings which is followed by some of Roger Hill's best guitar licks to appear on the LP. The album closes with the previously described 'Keep The Motor Running'.
The CD includes five previously-unreleased recordings by The Exception. 'When Your Luck Is Down' is a characteristic blues-pounding walkabout that would have fitted well in their stage show. 'When You Have A Good Gal' with its sparse instrumentation and heart-felt lyrics would not have seemed out of place on Bugsy's solo album. 'These Women Funny' is a driving rocker sounding more like a live recording than a studio production. The group vocal backing and rather vintage-sounding guitar gives it a real mid-1960s vibe.
'Bach Theme' is a jazzy instrumental workout featuring expertly-played saxophone and trumpet presumably by Steve Yetson. Blending along with Roger Hill's lead, it's not difficult to see why the latter would later choose a career as a jazz guitarist. The final unreleased recording (also an instrumental) titled 'Abdel Do Do' sounds like it was recorded live and mostly improvised (which it probably was). Again, saxophone features prominently with everyone getting a chance to take the lead and do their bit. There's a great climactic ending too which makes it a good choice for the last track on this CD.
While studying these recordings by The Exception, it becomes more clear to me that they were certainly no 'pop group' but a hard-working blues-based band in which their major strength was in live performance. I'm sure those lucky enough to have experienced them on-stage would agree. Had they continued, recognition may have eventually came their way but with the absence of a hit single taking them to the next level it was unfortunately not to be.
The track listing is as follows:
To see more information on the Exception CD 'The Eagle Flies On Friday - Complete Recordings 1967-1969' Retro 956 issued in 2014, visit the RPM/Cherry Red Records web site at www.rpmrecords.co.uk
Highly recommended and also available is 'Seeds... Alan James Eastwood' solo album by Alan "Bugsy" Eastwood issued in 1971 and now remastered on CD by Cherry Tree Records CRTREE015. For more information, visit the RPM/Cherry Tree Records web site at www.rpmrecords.co.ukCopyright © John R Woodhouse 2015