Bobby Valentino

The Electric Bluebirds Sleeve Notes

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 1996, below:

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 Brockley!

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 hostelry.

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 refreshment expenses.

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 to.

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 - except Wembley.

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 solicitor.

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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