mon 02/08/2021

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Count Bishops - Speedball | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Count Bishops - Speedball

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Count Bishops - Speedball

How pub rockers' 1975 EP helped set the agenda for punk rock

Looking tough: The Count Bishops line up for the photo session for the sleeve of 'Speedball'Ace Records

A new band called the Sex Pistols played their fifth live show on 28 November 1975. The appearance at a ball at Kensington’s Queen Elizabeth College got them their first mention in the press. New Musical Express remarked “they are all about 12 years old. Or could be 19.”

The same day, The Count Bishops released their debut record, the four-track, seven-inch EP Speedball. It’s reissued on pink vinyl with new mastering which doesn’t seek to sound as clear as possible in a straight-from-the-tape way, but instead adds a punch lacking on an original pressing. It sounds authentically vintage, but sympathetically builds on how it previously sounded. Musically, The Rolling Stones are the touchstone. The Yardbirds, the R&B-model Kinks and Downliners Sect are in there too but the attack is akin to that of punk rock. The four tracks are “Route 66”, “Ain't Got You”, “Beautiful Delilah” and “Teenage Letter.” Despite the vintage material being covered, there is no way this early version of The Count Bishops could have passed for a Sixties band.

Count Bishops speedball_coverThe preceding August, they’d played the upstairs venue at Soho’s Ronnie Scott’s. In the audience was Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren, on the lookout for a singer for his charges. He’d recently returned from New York, where he’d been handling the affairs of the now-defunct New York Dolls. McLaren had bought singles for the jukebox of his King’s Road shop from another audience member.

This other audience member was Roger Armstrong, from the Rock On record stall. In December 1974, his friend and partner Ted Carroll had suggested starting an independent label. Initially, the idea was to reissue singles for which they knew there was a demand. A change of tack came after they came across the pre-Bishops band Chrome on the pub rock circuit. They wanted them for the new label but after trial recordings they split and provided members for The Count Bishops. Recording for what became the Speedball EP took place on 28 August 1975. It was the first release on Chiswick Records.

At that month's Upstairs at Ronnie’s show, McLaren was bugging Armstrong about his need for a singer. He liked Bishops’ frontman Mike Spenser, a transplanted New Yorker who'd arrived in London in February 1975. Armstrong wasn’t having it, as this was the band which had recorded for the new label. In the end, a chap called John Lydon became the Sex Pistols’ singer. The Count Bishops almost gave the Sex Pistols their frontman. Even so, after a listen to Speedball, it’s hard to imagine what a Spenser-fronted Sex Pistols would have sounded like.

Count Bishops speedball_a sideIt was a small world. The Bishops were managed by Larry DeBay, a Frenchman who had been in London since 1972. He co-ran Bizarre Records, an independent record distributor/mail order operation/wholesaler based in Praed Street near Paddington Station. Bizarre was crucial to the shift in Britain’s musical outlook which took place from 1975 to 1977: The Flamin’ Groovies’ Grease EP, The Stooges’ Metallic KO, The Velvet Underground’s White Heat EP and the first, independent releases by Roky Erickson, Pere Ubu, Patti Smith and Television – all came into the into the UK via Bizarre. Along the street from Bizarre was the Paddington Kitchen café. In its basement was a rehearsal room familiar to the Bishops. From late 1975, a bunch of New York Dolls fans were there attempting to find members for a band they called The London SS. That went nowhere, but by April/May 1976 the rehearsal outfit had spawned The Clash and The Damned.

Like the Pistols, The Damned’s trajectory taps into that of The Bishops. Chrome, the pre-Bishops band, had recorded demos at a studio run by Dave Robinson, upstairs from the Hope & Anchor pub. Robinson co-founded Stiff Records with Jake Riviera in 1976. Riviera had suggested Pathway Studios as a facility to record The Count Bishops (he'd used it for the band Clover). In 1976, Robinson and Riviera issued the first Damned single on Stiff – it was also recorded at Pathway.

The many intersections between The Count Bishops and what became British punk rock are complemented by the Speedball EP becoming the first release for Chiswick Records, a new label which predated the launch of Stiff Records. Yet, despite being plugged into what was to come The Count Bishops were pub rockers: traditionalists. Souped-up, but traditionalists.

Count Bishops speedball_b sideSpeedball sold 2095 copies in the first nine months after its release (before its deletion in September 1980, it sold 9175 copies overall). It was a different kind of record to the norm. Not only was it an EP on an independent label, it came in a picture sleeve – like a Sixties’ record or the French imports Larry DeBay was bringing into the country. Speedball set agendas.

It was also a different sort of pub rock to what had come before. Ducks Deluxe had been energetic live, but that hadn’t been captured on record. Dr Feelgood began the next wave of a live-wire pub rock and The Count Bishops slotted into that before Eddie and the Hot Rods issued any records. Joe Strummer’s 101’ers were – energy-wise – pointing forwards too. They also ended up on Chiswick (the label's second current band), but by the time their single was out Strummer had abandoned pub rock and joined The Clash.

At the point Chiswick issued Speedball, The Count Bishops were integral to much of what soon took flight: the burgeoning London punk scene, the independent label boom, the reorientation of rock to street level. The music would be enough and whenever it was recorded and issued, Speedball needs to be heard. But there is so much more.

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