Formed in 1976 from the embers of Rocky Sharpe and The Razors, nine-piece, four-singer band Darts were significant in my musical make up: the first single I owned (jointly, with my brother) was their second single, Come Back My Love, the band’s first two albums, (owned jointly by the whole family!), were the first I remember going out to buy, (from Walsall Woolworths, if you are wondering), and even my first gig, aged 8, was…Darts. And they were huge at the end of the 1970s, scoring eight Top 40 singles, of which three reached Number 2 in 1978 alone.
The fifties revival was in full swing around that time, with bands like Showaddywaddy frequently troubling chart compilers, and of course, the Grease film coming along with its songs monopolising the Summer ’78 airwaves and charts. Darts kind of tapped into that market (though they of course pre-dated Grease), recording a lot of covers but also enjoying success with their own material, for which they perhaps didn’t get the credit they deserved at the time or indeed since.
The Albums 1977-81 rounds up their first three albums, with contemporaneous B-sides and non-album singles, along with a fourth disc covering the U.S.A.-only Darts Across America.
1977 debut Darts begins with the band’s first single, ‘Daddy Cool / The Girl Can’t Help It’, a medley of songs by fifties band The Rays and Little Richard respectively, which launched the band into the Top 10 and the nation’s consciousness, showcasing their doo-wop style and impressive musicians. ‘Come Back My Love’ remains a highlight, and is represented here in album and single versions. Bob Fish takes lead on this one, though charismatic bass singer Den Hegarty‘s contribution could never be underestimated, both visually and musically arresting as he was. Hegarty sounds positively unhinged later in ‘I’m Mad’, part of a closing medley. ‘Naff Off’, B-side of ‘Come Back My Love’ makes a welcome appearance, I loved that track back in 1978, partly because it was a fun almost-instrumental and partly because it was one of two tracks I had access to at the time.
The band really hit their stride on second album Everyone Plays Darts, which kicks off with another hit in the shape of ‘The Boy From New York City’, which still sounds mighty in 2019. Rita Ray sings lead on this one, and the track showcases her excellent voice which was also a big part of the band’s appeal. The jewel in Darts’ crown though, is Summer 1978 smash hit ‘It’s Raining’, written by the band’s other singer and founding member Griff Fender, but sung by Bob Fish. Only kept from pole postition by the ubiquitous ‘You’re The One That I Want’ by, well, you know who, ‘It’s Raining’ is a beautifully evocative song and remains one of my favourites of all time. The band just struck gold with every part perfect, the understated saxophone, the backing vocals building throughout and becoming just so touching.
Demonstrating their versatility, Den Hegarty delivers a hilariously creepy ‘My Friend’s Wife’ while pianist Hammy Howell (who sadly left us in 1999 aged just 44) shows his incredible talent with ‘Hammy’s Boogie’ a breakneck instrumental recorded live at Hammersmith Odeon – hilariously introduced by Rita Ray with the words “And now for something a little less manic”, Heaven only knows what preceded it that night! Non-album single ‘Don’t Let It Fade Away’, a curiously downbeat choice for a 45 which shares a little DNA with Bob Marley‘s ‘No Woman No Cry’ (I told you they were versatile) but a fine one nonetheless, is included in the bonus material as well as the single version of ‘It’s Raining’ and their attendant B-sides.
Between Everyone Plays Darts and third album, 1979’s Dart Attack, the smart Northern Soul stomp of ‘Get It’ returned the band to the Top 10 (again included in the bonus material) and with Roy Wood in the producer’s chair, a wonderfully lush album ensued, kicking off with their immaculately sunny version of Gene Chandler‘s ‘Duke Of Earl’, a song which seemed made for the band and Griff Fender’s voice. ‘Cuckoo’ has a Motown feel, while ‘One Off The Wrists’ is another Hammy masterclass and ‘Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love’ still sounds lovely, another Rita Ray lead vocal, which actually became the band’s first single to miss the Top 40, when it stalled at Number 43 in the Autumn of 1979. By this time, Den Hegarty had left the band to tend to his terminally ill father and been replaced by Kenny Andrews who kept the bass voice in the band but could never replace the likeable eccentric focal point of Hegarty. ‘Reet Petite’ was represented by a faithful cover, but again they missed out on Top 40 placing, the single becoming slightly lost in the Christmas rush that year.
Disc 4 of the set rounds up Darts Across America with some true collectors’ items as bonus tracks such as Japan-only single ‘Show Us Your Shoes’ and their version of ‘White Christmas’. There are also five tracks from the unreleased ‘Frantic Antics’ album, which are exclusive to this release. On the album itself, the band’s last Top 40 hit, a rockier-than-remembered ‘Let’s Hang On’ features alongside their synthed-up version of ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’.
It’s incredible to think that all those hits came within such a short window, just two and a half years from first to last, and also that the band could release all this material in that time at the same time as fulfilling a hectic touring schedule. The Albums 1977-81 serves as a fitting document of the work of this great band that so many took to their hearts.
Darts: The Albums 1977-1981 is released by Cherry Red Records on 21st June 2019.