Rocky rides again
Rocky DeValera are celebrating 30 years with a gig in The Thomas House Dublin this Friday. Entry is a mere €15 and includes a copy of the forthcoming Best of compilation CD. Tickets are pretty much gone at this stage but you might just be in luck if you get your skates on.
Ferdia Mac Anna asked me to do a ‘fan’ note for a collection of tracks by his 1980s band, Rocky De Valera and The Rhythm Kings. Then the cd packaging changed and there wasn’t going to be room for my note. What with it’s release on March 1st, he has given me permission to share it.
With the Rhythm Kings it was all about the music. All around them, in their brief 1980s tenure, it was all getting a bit plastic. Big production videos, U.S. poodle-hair rock and U.K. new romanticism were clogging up the charts. Rocky and the boys (and the occasional girl) rampaged through the pot hole strewn roads of Ireland lashing out barrages of something more organic, good time rock ‘n roll.
As an antidote to the then prevailing political turmoil and the on going awfulness in Northern Ireland they were a great night out. Live recordings in this collection tell of a rock solid sound, tight guitar interplay, a solid beat and frenetic harmonica and saxophone honking, all wrapped around a in your face vocal from Rocky De Valera. Photos show a wild eyed bunch – faces rolling with sweat, hair sticking up all over the place, untucked shirts sticking to malnourished torsos etc. It would all end in tears, a mix of personality clashes and managerial ineptitude.
This collection celebrates what they left behind. The studio tracks are the better for their digital resuscitation, emerging from the murk of the cheap vinyl that ill served them at the time. Studio efforts that suffered a bit too much from the polish that was the norm at the time are refreshed. The radio and ‘live’ recordings show an act that shone when not under the pressure of the recording environment. Rocky’s expressiveness in his vocals can be heard in all their depth. Sure there are the American intonations which purists may deride as evidence of lack of faith in his own voice. Given that they date from a time, before cd re-issues and downloads, it is all the more admirable for the fact that it gave people a chance to hear the music it was modeled on and just could not be heard.
The songs were the usual tales of boy/girl relationship foibles. Rocky/Ferdia’s Dublin accent does come through time and again, giving the songs a resonance that is all the more engaging. In ‘Drinking To Forget’ ‘thousands’ becomes ‘tousands’, ‘Little Things’ glories in the lines ‘ Your boyfriends coming ’round/ To break my head’ , just like the gritty realism of ‘ She left cigarette butts floating in the sink’ in ‘Call It Love’. ‘Going Steady ‘ and ‘John Wayne ‘ were the high profile tracks at the time. Both survive well, the sheer fun the band seem to be having shining through.
Cover versions were a regular feature, John Lee Hooker’s Want Ad Blues was on the b-side of Going Steady and was a early example of the band not going for the obvious songs. ‘Ain’t Got No Home’ is a fine example of Rocky/Ferdia’s ability to pick out an obscure song that would eventually resonate with others. In 1981 it may have been known for the the Buddy Holly cover. Years later the Clarence Frogman Henry original would light up scenes in the films ‘Lost Boys’ ( 1987)and ‘Casino’ (1995). ‘Let ‘er Roll’ is still obscure but it’s inclusion here is a welcome portal into the world of Sid King and the Five Strings. Lieber & Stollers ‘Drip Drop’ (the lads knew it from the Dion and the Belmont’s version)is an example of the band’s collective ability to spot what suited whom best, Richie’s vocal having just the right sound to convey the song’s simplicity. The original song ‘Aint No Saint’ is a curious amalgam of influences. The alternate take included here is a slightly slower, groovier performance than what was released on the ‘Kings one album in 1982. It shares a music and rhythm with T Rex’s Jeepster. Marc Bolan , however, admitted that he nicked that riff from the Howlin’ Wolf song “You’ll Be Mine”. Which influence dominated with Rocky ‘n the boys? A bit of both, most likely.
Elements of the range of material used are in tandem with the band at the centre of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments (1987). Roddy’s first publisher recognised that, getting Ferdia/Rocky to read the manuscript to verify its musical credentials. It passed the test!
The more they played the better they got. I Call it Love and Drinking To Forget are from sessions for the unreleased second album. They can but hint at the potency of the live act that had slogged around the festivals and halls, as exemplified here by the live take of Hey Hey Holly and Let ‘er Roll. The digital extra with this album, Batman, shows how good they were. ‘Done in one take because it’s so fast’ according to Rocky it’s incendiary and one of Rocky’s funniest lyrics, particularly the line about ‘making it with the invisible man’.
It has been great to re-discover these recordings. As a schoolboy at the time I could but dream of seeing the lads in concert. I did get the singles, playing them to bits. Looking back it seems that the fact that they were not conforming with pop trends of the time synched in nicely with my expanding music interests. The appearance in 1981 of a country album by Elvis Costello (Almost Blue) and a jazz one by Joe Jackson (Jumpin’ Jive) had introduced me to vast amounts of new musical genres. Rocky ‘n co.’s similar disregard for convention fit in perfectly.
‘Drinking To Forget – The Best of The Rhythm Kings’ may sound like, to some of the more jaundiced survivors of that period, more of an instruction than an album title. More fool them – its good time music – turn it up and enjoy!