Growing up I was a bit embarrassed to admit what the very first single was I had bought. I suspect this shame was down to reading the music press and learning that most people of my generation in the music business invariably claimed a worthy David Bowie, Beatles or Rolling Stones track as their very first purchase and comparing my very first single which was bought when I was ten years old just seemed lame in comparison.
The record which will forever be number one in my record collection - even though I have long since lost the actual single - is Sugar Baby Love by the Rubettes. I loved it so much I even asked my parents to buy me their debut album for the following Christmas and can still recall every single track on the album even though I stopped playing it when my teens kicked in.
For the past year or so BBC4 have been showing repeats of Top of the Pops and some of the later Rubettes hits have featured which pricked my interest in their music again and also reminded me that there was more to them than just their biggest hit.
The Rubettes were actually a group of studio musicians who were asked to record demo versions of songs written by Wayne Bickerton and Tony Waddington, who had previously written songs for acts such as northern soul trio the Flirtations and Petula Clark. One of the songs Bickerton and Waddington had written was Sugar Baby Love and the demo version was played to nostalgia rock n roll act Showaddywaddy who turned it down.
The session musicians on the other hand knew a hit when they heard it and the Rubettes were born - even though Paul da Vinci, the lead singer on Sugar Baby Love decided not to join and was replaced by Alan Williams who had played guitar on the recording and who lip synched the song on TV performances.
The group wore white suits with matching peaked caps - an image I have to say I loved in 1974 but can see now was actually a bit on the lame side.
The group never matched the global success of Sugar Baby Love but still managed to have nine top 40 UK hits in a three year period before slipping into obscurity. The success of that one single has however ensured they have been able to continue making a living on the nostalgia circuit. There are actually two acts which go under the name The Rubettes on the nostalgia circuit but for me the only one worth bothering with features Alan Williams, drummer John Richardson and bassist Mick Clarke with the other only featuring one original group member, Bill Hurd.
The Best of the Rubettes
This album is definitely a product of the 1970s and while you could argue it's totally overshadowed by the opening track which is obviously Sugar Baby Love it's worth listening to because every member of the Rubettes was a proficient musician in their own right and they also used vocal harmonies to great effect throughout their career with every member of the group producing vocals to their songs.
Sugar Baby Love still sounds brilliant almost 40 years on. I actually heard it on the radio recently and was struck by just how good a pop song it is even though what drew me to the song in the first place when I was a child - the falsetto vocals from Paul da Vinci - are perhaps the song's weakest link. What makes it so special is the backing vocals proclaiming "bop shoo waddy" throughout, and da Vinci's straight vocals which ooze sincerity and regret. It's been noted in the past that the song couldn't really fail, having three of the most popular words in pop music up until that point as its title, but the level of musicianship on the song must have helped too.
Drummer John Richardson's spoken part towards the end of the song works wonderfully too and as a child I used to love to watch him on Top of the Pops when he performed this song as he was a bit of a ham and played to the camera perfectly.
The follow up to Sugar Baby Love was a sound-a-like called Tonight, which included falsetto lead vocals and almost identical backing vocals. It's rather frustrating listening to this as it's just a cut price copy of something that was perfect to begin with and frankly even as a ten year old I wondered why they had bothered.
Had they stuck to this formula throughout I certainly wouldn't have been interested in any retrospective album several decades on but fortunately Bickerton and Waddington realised they could keep the fifties nostalgia sound going without continuously mining the seam of Sugar Baby Love.
Hits Juke Box Jive and I Can Do It are frenetic rock no roll based glam pop and both stand the test of time today, with Juke Box Jive still drawing me towards the dance floor in middle age just as it did when I went to primary school discos in the mid 1970s. "Foe-Dee-Oh-Dee" has a backing track reminiscent of so many of Mud's glam era hits but still has that 1950s American rock n roll vibe. It's the last of their hits to have an obviously nostalgic twist however.
By the time the group released Little Darling in late 1975 there was a noticeable switch away from their original sound and the song, which is a pretty lush romantic mid tempo ballad, is the final Bickerton/Waddington song they had a hit with.
By the time 1976 dawned the Rubettes were trying out their own compositions, with John Richardson and Alan Williams producing their final three hits. By this time the group had become a quartet with Mick Clarke and Tony Thorpe the other surviving members. Thorpe performed lead vocals on two of these hits, You're The Reason Why and Baby I Know. The former is a foot tapping guitar based pop song which sounds very much of the era. "Baby I Know is better and after Sugar Baby Love is my favourite Rubettes song due to a lovely country twang and some of the best harmony backing vocals I've ever heard. I love vocal harmonies and on this song the Rubettes produce vocals as good as anything bands such as the Hollies recorded.
Under One Roof was a minor hit for the band in 1976 and is a major step away from their previous songs. It was sung by John Richardson and after some of his more entertaining and relentlessly uplifting performances on previous songs it was a bit of a shock at the time for me to see him singing a song about homophobia. The song is a slow burner and tells the story of a gay man and how his father struggles to accept his son's homosexuality. Once again the vocal harmonies on the chorus are wonderful and the song stands as one of the first mainstream pop songs to tackle the issue.
The rest of the album features lesser known songs which are something of a mixed bag. Beggarman is a melancholy, beautifully arranged and performed ballad which shows a completely different side to the band. It has shades of Ruby Tuesday via a beautiful oboe and is probably the best of the album tracks featured. It stands in stark contrast to some of the Bickerton/Waddington tracks which are almost production line songs which keep the Sugar Baby Love sound in a more diluted form. I'm Just Dreaming and The Sha Na Na Na Song are pretty forgettable for this very reason.
The B-side to Sugar Baby Love - You Could Have Told Me is far better and doesn't sound anything like the hit single. It's an empassioned power ballad which is surprisingly good for a B-side. Lola is a little dull but is saved by the vocal harmonies, whereas Dancing in the Rain has disco hints which don't really work.
Tony Thorpe's guitar playing is well showcased on his own composition Movin' which is definitely worth hearing again. The song has a strong chorus punctuated once again by those wonderful harmonies. The album closes with Kid Runaway, a mellow and beautifully harmonised guitar ballad. Both these songs display just how good the Rubettes were as musicians and vocalists but sadly never received the airplay to enable a wider audience to hear it.
This album is a great way of seeing that the Rubettes weren't just a group of men in peak caps playing fifties inspired pop during the glam rock era. While there is no denying Sugar Baby Love is the finest track on this album there are some rather good tracks which show they weren't just a bunch of puppets doing as they were told.
While the direction they took in the late 70s was sharply at odds with the punk rock that would change the direction of British music for several years, it shows they were capable of crafting some rather good songs themselves, with some of the songs such as Beggarman and Kid Runaway in particular standing out as songs which deserved much more airplay than they ever got. The fact is that the later line-up of Williams, Clarke, Richardson and Thorpe were consummate musicians and performers, but of course that sort of band fell out of favour when the DIY ethos of punk came along.
I find that a terrible shame, just as I now realise that any shame I felt about Sugar Baby Love being my very first music purchase was ridiculous as the song is, quite simply, one of the best pure pop songs ever recorded. It's undoubtedly a shame that the Bickerton/Waddington partnership produced sound-a-like songs for them for longer than they should have done because they ended up pigeon-holed in a category which they outgrew musically but never commercially.