The Drones – The Albums (Captain Oi!)

The Drones – The Albums (Captain Oi!)

Punk band The Drones are the latest to have their catalogue revisited, this time by imprint Captain Oi! This band was born out of Manchester in 1974 but honed their craft under the name Rockslide performing Glam-rock and releasing their one-and-only single ‘Jump Bump Boogaloo/Roller Coaster‘ in October 1975. It’s clear performing this style of music wasn’t to their liking as the following year they re-invented themselves as The Drones, a band whose tipple was Punk, a style rooted in the Garage Rock performed by the likes of US bands MC5 and The Stooges from the late 60s. With the Punk scene taking off in the UK, this young band, legend has it, did not relocate to London, as others around this time had done, but still could be found playing at The Roxy in Covent Garden supporting The Vibrators in January 1977, as the headline in February, in March as support to X-Ray Spex and Chelsea and later in the year as support to The Stranglers. So not only having nailed their colours to the mast in the early days of UK punk, they had played alongside some of the luminaries of the scene during this time.

By the time their debut album was released toward the end of 1977, the band was managed and produced by journalist Paul Morley (a name some may be more familiar with from his work in the 80s with the label ZTT and Frankie Goes To Hollywood). This album, Further Temptations, was a solid and well-produced affair by Simon Humphrey (The Jags, engineer on The Clash’s ‘Capital Radio’ and Culture Club’s Colour By Numbers). The first track ‘Persecution Complex’ spoke a lot of the angst displayed in music that came from the scene but also speaks for the teenage mindset of any day, “Paranoia in my head, but I just want to stay in bed…”. Sounds, the rock magazine of the day said of the band, “…another do-it-yourself job, this with four tracks recorded in just 10 hours on April 7. Awful playing and sound quality but the lyrics are powerful and direct” A little unfair I would say, just a product of the time and although this may have been remastered for this release, the sound quality and production are pretty good I would say, fast-paced and the lyrics are indeed direct. As the album continues into ‘Bone Idol’, a track whose purpose is clear, I do like the way the producer has used the pretty basic technique of using the fader to bring the music in from the right and quickly into both channels, displaying the band’s sense of urgency. Third track ‘Movement” sees their then vocalist Michael Howells, otherwise known as M.J. Drone, making his point, grunting into his microphone, beginning:  “I see you moving in a sullen way, we get the people who’ve got something to say… This is a new movement, this is a brand new day, we’ve got something to say…”. Although this song may feature some pretty stock guitar-leads, it is clear that this band had something deserving of what one critic had written about them, “Bonafide DIY three-chord wonders, The Drones were there at punk’s inception.” Where a further 10 tracks similarly spoke to the listener, as they start into the familiar “Be My Baby”. Yes, you heard correctly – The Ronettes tune from 1963, but somehow from this group of now unruly punks, it works. ‘Corgi Crap’ tells a similar story as Sex Pistols – ‘God Save The Queen’, they sang “…If it wasn’t for the Queen, we’d have a different state. Monarchy for you, monarchy for you, don’t want to be a blue blood…Monarchy, monarchy, you’re cashing in on everything…can you spare a penny for the Queen, never!…”, although contentious, republican in tone and possessing the anti-zeitgeist of the time, it failed to achieve the same impact as the Pistols anti-monarchy anthem, although the lyrics were certainly direct. I find the less angry tunes on this album more enjoyable, tracks like ‘The Change’ are structurally more in keeping with the band’s earlier experience within the glam scene and this may have produced a better album track, although for the live stage was perhaps a little less so. ‘Lookalikes’ spoke of every youth’s feeling of that certain age, “You just wanna be yourself, you don’t want to be like anyone else…” and like on many of these numbers, transcription becomes increasingly difficult, although the feeling is clear. The band has tried to express a difference in ‘The Underdog’, as sound production projects a feeling of confinement, with bass distortion cutting through from early on. A cleverly performed and produced number, that does add a different texture to the assembled, starting “Never underestimate the human race…”, and as has already been explained, again words become lost. ‘The Underdog’, does possess an all-round feeling of something slightly different. Although still very political, it is unlike other numbers gathered here and is a route I would like to have heard the band explore, although may have been a little too different for 1977. On one final note concerning this album, in 2002 Q magazine noted Further Temptations in their Top 100 Most Important Punk Albums of all time – no arguments there.

Disc 2 is Rarities and is always going to garner a lot of interest not only to fans but casual observers alike. Those hard to locate numbers finally finding a new home and here you will find 20 tracks! The first number is extremely interesting, as it comes from one early influence, that of The Stooges, written in 1973 and covered many times since. This number is a rough and ready recording in which M.J. Drone, sings “…I am the world’s forgotten boy, the one who searches to destroy…”, and although not written by the singer, his portrayal is believable and a genuine reworking of the original. Alternate versions of ‘Lookalikes’ and ‘Corgi Crap’ follow, which I have to say are far cleaner versions than those found on Further Temptations‘You’ll Lose’ a single from 1977, that wasn’t on their debut album is also included here, which in some ways demonstrates how the band had grown as musicians. The vocal and the instrumentation is far clearer than it was on the earlier recording, although in 2020, perhaps not the most punk of observations to make! This disc continues with a version of ‘Bone Idol’ recorded for the John Peel Session, a further recording of ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘The Change’, where again vocal and instrumentation is more clearly heard. A track that was set to feature as the B side on the single of their cover to ‘Be My Baby’ was ‘Clique’, is also featured. Initial pressings of this single-quoted the band as writers of the lead track which could have been a very expensive mistake and were quickly withdrawn. At the same time, the band’s label Valer Records had gone bust, so the release of this single never saw the light of day, and this track was lost, until now that is. Drone sings, “To be in a clique you’ve no real friends, there’s no respect from anyone, contradicting everything. Sooner or later, they mess your life up.”, as a lost track I consider this to be a very important document of their journey so far and that it has been lost for so long could be considered a crime. Both lyrically and musically this is a fine number and I am very pleased the world now has the opportunity to hear it. As well as a live version of their earlier album’s opening track ‘Persecution Complex’ being included, demos of 1978 and 79 tracks are featured. Further Temptations was the band’s only album release, until 1999 and along with a demo of the earlier mentioned ‘Clique’, demonstrating just what the band could’ve become had they continued from this earlier release and after having heard what they had been working on around this time, I can report the future that on this alternate timeline the future would’ve been bright. From ‘She’s Ok’, through ‘Clique’, to a cover of ‘Then I Kissed Her’, ‘Fooled’, which appears to be a reworking of the bands ‘Fooled Today’, these performances appear to show a band who have evolved from their early days as angry young men of punk. One mention should go to the track ‘Can’t See’, from the outset this number appears to be heavily influenced by The Who and put me in mind of a number from Tommy, not just from the title. This wasn’t just an average punk song and rubber-stamped my earlier remark that this band was set for great things, had their timeline continued unhindered following the release of their debut album.

Some 22 years after its predecessor Further Temptations, our story now continues in 1999 when the band released Sorted. From the opening number, it is clear that this was a band who were returning, re-energised, and with all the ammunition that recording on the cusp of the 21st century would allow, and in this, they demonstrated that they weren’t stuck in 1977. Opening with the title track ‘Sorted’ and just like Pulp’s ‘Sorted out for E’s and Wizz’, this number nails their flag to the mast as the vocal starts, “Report it and snort it, distort it, you’ve been sorted… Crashed out, you’ve been sorted… All he ever did was give her a kid…”, although I admit I may have lost something in my translation. Altogether a solid number, which bodes well for the rest of the album and as a remix of ‘Johnny Go Home’ is brought in, a number we had seen on their singles and rarities disc, it opens with the chanting “Johnny, Johnny go home, back where you come from…”, this might suggest someone unwelcome in their neighborhood, but however you choose to take this, the composition is yet another fine one and being honest, stands head and shoulders above the work found on their debut. It’s quite astounding just how much the band had grown, as songwriters and musicians, as in ‘Dirty Bastards’‘Nightman’ and ‘Psychotic Woman’, a number in which a meeting with what I would assume is a woman of loose virtue is encountered, following a night of heavy drinking, “…so much beer, so much tack, you will not get your money back. Psychotic woman when will you get a life…”. Sound and production wouldn’t recognise the band as they continue performing throughout the album. The mantle of executing an interpretation of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ comes next, in what becomes a rocked-up version, illustrating just how the band had broadened their output, by producing a song which surely every aspiring guitarist tries to replicate in varying forms of ability, but shows that this album so far is the gift which keeps on giving and we’re only at the mid-point. From a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm and timing, blended with harder edge rock guitar, ‘The Phone’ continues their output, and the album concludes with an extremely competent reworking of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ and although it might be considered that to finish on someone else’s song might be a cop out, in this case, the band has made this song their own, and is probably the best performance I have heard of this sacred number, since its original.

So to the final disc of this collection and it is a live recording of a concert performed at the Take Shelter club, Hachiouji., Tokyo. This cramped club is located in Japan’s metropolis of almost 9 million people, but once inside, you could be anywhere. When originally issued, this was an extremely limited pressing, with originally only 1000 vinyl copies produced, but as part of this limited box, if you missed it back in 1998 you get a second bite of the cherry. From the outset, M.J. Drone can be heard conversing with the audience, as he remarks “Are you ready? – audience reaction – Fucking hell, you speak English! Eh…” as the band launch into Lookalikes, from their debut, released almost 20 years previously. I’ve read a comment of this tour that “…it’s hard to get away from the feeling that they appear pretty much on a nostalgia trip”, although rather than being this, I would suggest that the tour was the inspiration behind the recordings that were to follow and the release of their comeback album Sorted. Their performance during this show appeared to have been very well received and I would suggest that for the benefit of their comeback, a show in the city of Tokyo was an ideal location. Their Japanese audience seemed to be lapping up the performance and likewise, the band appeared invigorated by this adulation. Vocally and musically the band’s performance was incredible, living up to the remark they originally garnered, that “the lyrics were powerful and direct, but this time the sound was incredible.” Tracks including ‘City Drones’, through a track for their “manager’s kid”‘Be My Baby’ if you needed to ask, reworked well enough to put The Bay City Rollers in the bus shelter! ‘You’ll Lose’, with Drone announcing… “Fight for your right to be different… your politicians are making you sick, the national front are talking a lot of shit, socialists take away your rights, tax you all to pay the parasites, subsidise the C.I.A….You’ve gotta fight for your right, to be, fight for your right to choose, gotta fight for your right to be someone you wanna, fight for your right, or you lose…”, a song full of vermin and the charged energy that led to its release in 1977. Only half-way through and I would go as far as to say that this set of songs is probably one of the best recorded live performances of any time, so clear is its presentation, that it comes across as a thoroughly incredible night. Ending this set on ‘Persecution Complex’ it seems ironic that Drone sings “…Paranoia in my head, I just wanna stay in bed…”, at late-o’clock I’m sure!

Sadly Howells, otherwise known as M.J. Drone died in January 2013, but the band as far as I can make out are still active, having reformed in 2015 with original members Steve ‘Wispa’ Cundall<, now the only remaining original member on bass and vocals. He has been joined by ex Slaughter and the Dogs drummer, Brian Grantham, and Al Crosby (Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds) on lead guitar. Now on their own Idle Records label, they released an EP, Will You Stand in Front of Bullets?, in August 2018 comprising a reworking of Hard On Me, from their debut Temptations of a White Collar Worker EP. This is an extremely entertaining box set, where I’m sure the listener will find their own path and particular favourite. So whoever you are, keep the faith and give this a try.

8/10

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