The Electric Bluebirds Sleeve
The Bluebirds existed between 1979 and 1984.
Their story is told in Bobby’s own words with the sleeve
notes he wrote for the release of a “best of” CD in
When British musicians become established in “un group
de jour”, they often start to explore the roots of the
music they’re playing and invariably look to Folk, Reggae
, R’n’B and Country Music for inspiration. This happened
to me when the Fabulous Poodles reached their sell-by-date,
as the seventies turned into the eighties.
The Bluebirds (the Electric
bit came later) started as a Sunday night acoustic band
in a pub called The Duke on Creek Road in Deptford.
At that time Deptford enjoyed an almost legendary
status, especially the 1930’s council-run Crossfields
estate. Due to the ominous presence of a dual carriageway
running through the middle, the council had a policy
of only letting to young single people and couples without
children. This duly attracted students and artists of
all sorts to run -down Deptford. I was lucky - I lived
In those days we had many local bands: Dire
Straights, Squeeze, the Fab
Poo’s, The Realists and Mark Perry
& ATV. In fact the line-up for the Crossfields
Free Festival - back in ‘78 or ‘79 - was all of the
above and more, performing on a makeshift stage on a
perfect Sunday afternoon, with long extension leads
coming from Mark Knopfler’s ground
floor flat powering a makeshift PA - and the beverages
supplied by the Oxford Arms, another infamous local
The core of the Bluebirds for those Sundays in The
Duke was The Realists, a hard working, inappropriately-named
local band whom Stiff Records had evinced some interest
in, releasing a single “I’ve Got A Heart”, hoping it
would stick against the wall. Our line-up and repertoire
could definitely be called eclectic. I recall a trumpet,
Rowan on the clarinet, the occasional sax, Jim Bamber
- Uncle Bulgaria from the Wombles (we
were always hip) - scraping washboard as taught by Derek
Guyler, and Alan would sometimes bring a hammer
dulcimer and a glockenspeil along as well as the accordion.
A variety of guitarists would be there including - intermittently
- local heroes Mark Knopfler and Tom
McGuinness. The most “musicians” we ever had
performing in the corner of this very small pub, was
fourteen. The “divvy” of the £30 fee didn’t cover the
The songs and music we explored covered a wide range,
including T.V. themes - “The Pink Panther”,”Hernando’s
Hideaway” - Country, Blues, Rockabilly, Ry Cooder, Roy
Harper, Van Morrison, Rolling Stones, Fred Neil, Tim
Buckley, almost anything which someone knew the words
The audience often included other famous locals like
Glen Tilbrook (who was later to produce
a couple of tracks for the band), Albert Lee,
and the above mentioned guitarers. The place became
so packed (it just could have been the number of muso’s)
it was pointless having a break since we couldn’t get
to the bar, and the beers had to be passed forward.
The South East London Mercury when reviewing an evening
likened it to “...sharing a train compartment with the
cast of the Muppets”.
We broadened our horizons beyond S.E.8 and headed
for the wastes of N. London with a residency at the
Hare and Hounds in Upper Street (now a trendy Islington
theme pub). The line-up had settled down thus: Paul
Astles (guitar/lead vocals), Pete Butler
(bass/vocals), Alan Dunn (accordians/vocals),
Ralph Holden (lead guitar) - all from
The Realists - and myself, Bobby
Valentino (violin/vocals). Fellow Poodle Bryn
Burrows took over the drum stool from John
Conroy, another Realist when the latter left.
It was around this time we gained the Electric
prefix, discovered the Bluebird Records
label (and ignored it), discovered Cajun music, and
Robin McKidd discovered us and the future - he formed
the Balham Alligators.
The Electric Bluebirds have been blamed by many for
the beginning of the boom in interest in Cajun and Zydeco
music in the UK. Personally I blame Alan Dunn.
Alan was getting very involved with the accordion
(he was always a good keyboard operator) and he went
looking for recordings of different styles, discovering
Western Swing, Conjunto, Tex Mex, Cajun, Zydeco - and
the melodeon, where the notes change depending on whether
you push or pull the bellows (like sucking or blowing
on a harmonica), making melodies very rhythmic and the
bass is really crude, giving an “ummm wah” effect. He
introduced these sounds and styles to the band and we
realised this was what we had been playing all along,
with that usual British edge that comes from ignorance.
Alan spent a few afternoons playing me records and
teaching me tunes, and I gained an understanding of
the beauty and simplicity of Cajun music.
To follow the fashion of the era we decided to try
to record and release an independently produced EP.
Paul Lowe - a fan from the Duke, who worked for Phonogram
at the time - had the guts to finance it, and allow
me my first attempt at being a record producer. We recorded
it at Chalk Farm Studios with Vic Keary (he
probably did more producing than me). The sleeve was
designed by Bo (he not thank me for revealing his real
name - Colin Bodium) after a poster he'd done for us
which was a real hit: we used to sell them. Titled "Jukebox
Mix" the EP was released (correction escaped),
we managed to sell enough to pay back the recording
costs and pay the band about £20 each in royalties -
I recently saw it in a collector's record shop priced
at £25. The best two tracks are available on this CD
for no extra cost.
The hombre singing in Spanish on "Un
Mojado Sin Licencia" is Pete Butler -
which when heard on Charlie Gillet's Capital Radio show,
Ry Cooder was moved to ask "Are these guys really
from South East London?!!" Pete resigned in order
to join the Darts, and later moved to Brittany where
he now has two bands, one called the Movers and the
other called the Shakers. He was replaced by Richie
Robertson (another ex-Fabulous Poodle) whilst
Bryn left the traps to Keith Gotheridge
(aka Nosmo King, from the Darts). Ralph departed , and
for a while Ross McGeeny with his B-bender,
was lead guitar. But he was offered something better
(almost anything was, at the time) and we were thus
left with no lead guitar.
This helped give us an identity, and led to Alan and
myself doing all the solos, many of which developed
into duets, using the swirling "bagpipe" effect
that fiddle and accordion create when played in unison.
It was "carry on gigging" as we moved from
the Duke to the Royal Albert (now called the Paradise
Bar - another inappropriate name) and from the Hare
and Hounds to the Dublin Castle in Camden Town, where
we were part of a Steve Beggs-organised recording of
several of the acts who played there for the “Live in
London” LP which came out on Ace Records. It was recorded
in June ‘83 on a very hot and steamy Saturday night,
as I think you can hear. There was Vic Keary in the
corner wearing a pair of head phones, playing with his
valve equipment, sweating like a horse, and mixing it
all straight to stereo (steam recording?), exactly what
you hear on the CD. I hope you’ll agree the man is an
unsung genius. Radio Caroline was on air at the time
the record was released, and one morning I was awoken
- by my radio alarm - to the sound of myself singing
“Square Dancin’ Mama” - a most unsettling
experience at 11.30am.
Some great gigs occurred: opening for Los Lobos and
the Beat Farmers, both at the Mean Fiddler (a very appropriate
name); doing he same for Queen Ida
and the Louisiana Playboys at Dingwalls;
at the Albany Empire with the Searchers
and Dr John (who, after hearing our
set, asked us to be his backing band for that night
- but whilst he was teaching us his set the roadies
had cleared away all our equipment. There were numerous
benefits at the Albany one of which (after I’d played
them at Wembley Arena and the Fab Poos had opened for
them in the states) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
came to - and not a lot of people know that. They loved
the place; it reminded them of home, downtown Gainsville
Fl.. We also moved on to headline the above venues -
Tours included one with the Bluesband and the “cider
circuit”, a wonderful collection of gigs around the
Dorset/Somerset border, Glastonbury and Thomas Hardy
country, where the band was very popular. I remember
a fabulous party at Barrow Hill Cider Farm with huge
cauldrons of freshly killed lamb curry, gallons of mulled
cider and hundreds of aging hippies dancing till dawn.
I don’t remember the end of the gig but I do remember
the drummer was the great Paul Turner
from the Inmates (he also plays the drums on the “Live
in London” tracks.
The Balham Alligators became worryingly good and a
good natured rivalry developed, with the Alligators
threatening to print T-shirts with “Alligators eat Bluebirds”
on; we were going to retaliate with “Bluebirds Shit
on Alligators”. We played together at a Cajun festival,
along with R-Cajun, at the 100 Club which was recorded
by Demon Records, modesty forbids me from saying who
went down best.
We were becoming a “proper” hard-working band - i.e.
we didn’t have to sign on any more - where our social
life and work intertwined and all our girlfriends got
to know each other. Most of them had some musical talent
and, after weeks of rehearsing, they decided to do a
one-off performance at a big local party - held in the
best squat ever, in Penge. Needless to say they went
down a storm, possibly helped by having called themselves
- the Blue Tits.
Around this time Paul’s songwriting had become extremely
focused (women?) and he started writing specifically
for the band - to great effect, as you will hear. He
was concentrating on the simpler melodies, sentiments
and chord sequences of the “Americana” we were plundering,
and soon won a deserved publishing deal, which helped
to propel us towards a minor record deal.
Richie and I were poached by the Hank Wangford
Band and the EBs got their record deal with
Making Waves. They were mainly distributors of independent
labels, but were also interested in releasing their
own records and chose us as one of the lucky(?) ones.
This choice was aided by an old friend, George Goble,
who was acting as our manager - he is now a very successful
Will Birch, the drummer and songwriter
from the Kursal Flyers, was designated
as our producer, and for the very first time I appreciated
a producer getting a good performance from the band
and the individual musicians. I think he helped us make
what was very nearly a great record. My enduring memory
of it is the Elephant and Greenhouse studios in the
East End every afternoon, and me and Richie performing
in the Hank Wangford Band’s musical, C.H.A.P.S.
at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, in the evening.
The album, was remixed by Rod Argent
and Peter van Hook to varying levels
of success: we didn’t like the drum boxes and synthesisers
and I distinctly remember being asked to be impressed
that they had added eight tracks of DX7 (the fashionable
creator of synthetic sounds for that month) to one song
and countering in a slightly raised voice that the Electric
Bluebirds were actually a backlash against the smooth
AOR that they were trying to turn us into. As Paul said
at the time “they were marching to a different drum
machine”. None of their mixes are featured on this CD.
We nonetheless got some good radio play when the album
came out and it briefly looked as if everything might
turn out fine - but then the classic bombshell. Making
Waves went bust.
I think that being in a band is a little like a marriage.
For most of us the EBs was the second of our careers
and we had found each other on the rebound.
The learning process gained from the Bluebirds helped
Alan and myself become regular session musicians. Like
myself, he can be heard on various TV commercials and
sundry pop records, and he additionally works regularly
with Rolf Harris and Bob Geldof.
I had already done TOTP playing on hits by Haysi
Fantayzee (“Shiny Shiny”) and the BlueBELLS
(“Young at Heart”, the first time around). Richie and
I had become established in Hank’s band, touring, recording
and filming a TV series for Channel 4 (he was renamed
George Hamilton VI, and I had kept
my moniker from the Fab Poos). Paul was, and still is,
writing great songs, some of which we recorded at Rondor,
his publishers and he was beginning to get covers, including
Dr Feelgood’s “Don’t Wait Up” (co-written
with Will Birch), the last record on Stiff before bankruptcy
- that old story. I hope this CD helps bring his songs
to a wider audience - he’d like more covers please!
Keith became involved in theatre shows, appearing in
the West End in Yakety Yak (Leiber & Stoller
songs hung on a very small plot) with the McGann
brothers and the Buddy Holly Story. He was
also writing a book about Warner Bros cartoons - I don’t
know if it was ever released, sorry, published.
The Electric Bluebirds fell apart. I don’t think it
was necessarily a direct result of the record company
bankruptcy or other factors, but due to the fact that
a band that had started out doing it for fun and to
explore the music, tried doing it for real.
Most of us still live around Deptford and are still
involved in music.
Bobby Valentino (September 1996)
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