It's been said about so many of rock's giants that they were “ahead of their time” that the expression has ceased to mean much. So how about a great band that was behind their time? That would be Shocking Blue.
It was 1969 when the best version of this Dutch act gelled, and while most of the bands the Blue emulated were by then turning away from groovy and towards heavy—prog rock, early metal and pre-punk taking over the scene—Shocking Blue still sounded like they might have come out of London or San Francisco, circa ‘66/‘67.
Jefferson Airplane is be the band that Shocking Blue mostly invites comparisons to, and it was the Airplane that veteran Dutch rocker Robbie van Leeuwen had in mind when he decided he wanted a female vocalist for his group. But while van Leeuwen may have started out emulating the Jefferson Airplane, his band quickly and permanently outclassed their predecessors. Where the Airplane's lyrics were usually cliché-addled and verging on ridiculous, van Leeuwen offered fresh and innocent boy/girl tales and existential laments; while JA’s music often had that messy, jazzy, “let me do a solo” element weighing it down, Shocking Blue stuck to stripped-down, energy-packed Beat Club grooves; and Mariska Veres was simply a better singer than Grace Slick, more genuinely soulful, more naturally melodious.
Veres was actually not Shocking Blue’s original singer. When guitarist van Leeuwen dropped out of local hitmakers the Motions to form his own band in ‘67, he did so with another Dutch scenester, Fred de Wilde, at the mic. The all-boy Blue recorded one album and some singles (a few of these minor hits in Holland, most notably the decidedly West Coast-influenced “Lucy Brown is Back in Town”). But before things could go too far for this version of the act, and just when van Leeuwen was thinking that he wanted a chick to sing his songs, de Wilde was called off to do military service. Robbie wasted no time in finding Veres, who looked like a model and sang like a soul sister. De Wilde managed to get out of his military duty after just a few months, but by that time the new Blue had already scored hits with “Send Me a Postcard” and “Long and Lonesome Road.” Fred had to understand.
With musical acts things tend to either never quite happen or to happen very quickly, but they rarely happen as fast as they did for the new Shocking Blue. Before the end of their first year together, they had a number one hit in the U.S. “Venus,” their third single and the one and only song everybody remembers them for now, topped the American charts in December of ‘69.
But it's one of the great injustices of rock history that Shocking Blue should be thought of (by the few who even recognize their name) as a one-hit wonder. “Venus” is only one of several classic tracks on the Blue's At Home LP, a collection that should be near the top of critics' All-Time-Best polls, instead of remaining in the basement of super-obscurity where it currently exists. “California Here I Come” and the already-mentioned “Long and Lonesome Road” are just as catchy, just as cool, just as memorable as “Venus,” as is a song called “Love Buzz,” which Nirvana eventually covered (not too well, but they get points for having the cool to pay the tribute) on Bleach. There’s also a raga-rock instrumental, a couple more upbeat tunes just barely lagging behind “Venus” and the others, and “Boll Weevil,” the R&B-fueled album opener, which sounds like the Dead with more real spirit.
The next two Shocking Blue albums, while not as strong or consistent as At Home, were still as good as anything being put out in the first years of the ‘70s, and both contained standout tracks. Scorpio’s Dance has “Sally was a Good Old Girl,” a rockin’ version of a C&W standard, plus “Little Cooling Planet” and “Seven is a Number in Magic,” two more swanky, riff-heavy grooves that sound like California ‘67. Next was 3rd Album, which has an overall folksy feel that was new for the band. “I Saw Your Face,” the lead vocal taken by van Leeuwen, is like the Mamas & the Papas with a banjo, and “Serenade” is one of SB’s many slow-tempo'd, melancholic tracks, it being one of their prettiest ballads. But the two strongest songs on this album are both rockers: the ‘60s dance party-sounding “Bird of Paradise,” and the autobiographical anthem “Shocking You,” on which the Blue seemed to be heading to Glamsville.
Throughout these years the band, while touring over great distances at break-neck speed, also found time to record a few non-album singles, and one of these, “Never Marry a Railroad Man,” may be their best song altogether. A number one in Holland and a gold record in Germany and Japan, this mid-tempo track, with its staccato guitar riff and stays-in-your-head vocal melody, somehow didn't make any noise in America, where the best the Blue had done since “Venus” was hit the lower reaches of the Top 100, or England, where they were, amazingly, never terribly popular.
Records kept coming. A live-in-Japan set appeared shortly after 3rd Album, and in the year 1972 Shocking Blue released three long-players: Inkpot, Attila and Dream on Dreamer. Sadly, the quality-level was diminishing slightly with each new LP; but with van Leeuwen continuing to write all the original material, there was still the occasional stellar track, and nothing as embarrassing as, say, Jefferson Starship (that would come later, after Robbie left). While the albums contained too much filler to be considered even minor classics, they all had excellent singles, the best of these “Inkpot,” “Rock in the Sea,” and “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.”
Things fell apart starting in ‘73. First, the band suffered their first flop single—“Let Me Carry Your Bag” went nowhere at home or abroad, and didn't deserve to. Van Leeuwen was tired from five years of worldwide touring, non-stop recording, and songwriting responsibility, and his fatigue showed on this weak record. Things were not going well with their label Pink Elephant, and soon enough they lost a member, original bassist Klassje Van Der Wal. The band's creator, mastermind and sole songwriter to that point, Robbie van Leeuwen, gave it up shortly after that.
This should have been the end of Shocking Blue, but people need to have things to do, and in doing them often threaten to permanently tarnish something that was once precious. The absence of van Leeuwen's pen was all too apparent on the ‘74 Shocking Blue singles “This America” and “Gonna Sing My Song” and the album Good Times. While the new players were competent musicians, and while Veres' voice sounded strong as ever, the riffs weren't quite there and the lyrics were atrocious (particularly in the case of “This America,” a song on which Veres foolishly sings the praises of the country that had only recently pulled out of Vietnam).
Mercifully, the band went on hiatus after those singles failed to bust the charts. But this was still not to be the last of Shocking Blue. In 1986, the same year that Bananarama trivialized them (although thickening van Leeuwen's royalty checks) with their hit version of “Venus,” a new—and newly-schlocky—SB came out with “The Jury and the Judge,” on which they went back and proved that, yes, they actually could be as tacky and dinosaur-sounding as the Starship. This piece of soulless, formulaic glitz could've easily been the B-side of “We Built This City.”
And that ain't all. There was another single, equally bad, in ‘94, and word is that a band called Shocking Blue, with fronted by Mariska Veres, is still haunting European concert halls. Van Leeuwen is quoted as saying that this new SB “sounds good for sure,” but one has to wonder what time has done to the ears of this once classic songwriter and unsung hero of rock; Robbie hasn't played his guitar for quite some time, apparently having become more interested in the art world than that of contemporary pop music.
Recommended Listening: Singles A’s & B’s, the 2-CD collection of Shocking Blue's 45's, front and back, ‘67-‘94, contains some of SB’s best songs, and can serve as an excellent introduction to all those who think “Venus” was the only thing the band ever did. But true enthusiasts should use this only as a starting point, and go to the same label (Repertoire of Germany) that put this out for their reissues of the first three SB albums with Mariska Veres. Those totally hooked can then go on and get the three ‘72 albums, also carried by Repertoire.
Suddenly Single: When ’60s Undergrounders Made Peace with the Top 40
by Gene Sculatti
A couple of Scrams ago (#21), we looked at the ’60s phenomenon of middle-of-the-road acts trying to hip up their images by recording pop-rock material. A lesser examined but related event, it turns out, was taking place at roughly the same time, at the other end of the telescope.
It’d be hard to name a more tumultuous pop-music time frame than 1965-to-1967. Monthly, it seemed, new avenues of expression were being bulldozed across the landscape: Brit invaders, folk-rock, blues-rock, goodtime music, new Dylans, sunshine pop, acid-rock. Until late ’67-’68, when the West Coast psychedelic movement, with its establishing of the LP as the coin of the realm and the advent of “underground” FM radio, toppled the age-old hegemony of hit singles, concessions to the old machine had to be made. A band needed a 45, as a sort of aesthetic business-card and introduction to the public. This requirement led to some fascinating records, on which the new boundary-stretching artists got a chance to show their creativity in a way that still fit the commercial strictures of the day.
The earliest example of this is probably the Yardbirds. An initial handful of straight blues covers failed as singles, and the decision to cut the cool but clearly un-Chess-like “For Your Love” (no slide guitar, plenty of harpsichord) precipitated a huge rift within the band. The group’s first hit came from the pen of pop scribe Graham Gouldman (who provided Top-40 fodder to the Hollies and Hermits, later founded 10 cc and even made bubblegum records), which led directly to the departure of Muddier-than-thou guitarist Eric Clapton. GG next gave the ’birds the even poppier “Heart Full of Soul,” while Manfred Mann drummer/vibist Mike Hugg contributed the socio-spiritual “(Mister) You’re a Better Man Than I.”
It would be a while before Clapton could shred freely and fill the Fillmores with 20-minute “Spoonfuls.” While Cream’s ’66 debut album sported instrumental adventurousness and some truly unusual songwriting, it was preceded by the atypical “Wrapping Paper.” Jack Bruce’s sporty piano sortie sounds like a pleasant Sopwith Camel outtake or an entry by one of a dozen Lovin’ Spoonful sound-alikes.
Other free-formers complied with the rules of the game too. The Grateful Dead’s first album boasted a couple of extended cuts, but the bet hedge was Side 1 Track 1, the single “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion).” The jubilant, two-minute cut features a tight, ringing Garcia solo, frequent choruses and old-time movie-serial organ on its intro and fade. The single’s flip, "Cream Puff War," which I recall the band introducing as one of their first original compositions (from the Fillmore stage in 1966), is a breakneck rocker that mashes a Dyl-lite vocal with the spirit and sound of the Animals’ “I’m Crying.” (Sadly, the disc was a stiff, as was the band’s second Warners seven-inch, a three-minute edit of their “Dark Star” opus.)
Seattle’s Daily Flash were also improvisers (a bootleg CD offers their 13-minute version of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”), but their debut single pairs a feedback-packed blues adaptation (“Jack of Diamonds”) with a familiar cover (“Queen Jane Approximately”). L.A.’s eclectic Kaleidoscope eschewed the often lengthy excursions of their live sets for a pair of 45’s that aimed for radio-friendliness. “Please” b/w “If the Night” was a double deck of exceptional folk-rock (a later release coupled “Please” with “Elevator Man,” which rather recalls the Stones’ “Off the Hook”), and “Why Try” was a conventional pop tune, albeit with Middle Eastern accents. Its B-side nodded to the camp predilection of the day—“Little Orphan Nannie.”
Blues bands, like their cousin psychedelicians, were obliged to pop up too. The (Barry) Goldberg- (Steve) Miller Blues Band cranked out the buzzing garage rocker “The Mother Song” in 1965 (Billy Sherrill, who recorded the Remains, produced) and appeared on Hullabaloo to promote it. Goldberg’s subsequent Barry Goldberg Blues Band issued the noisy, attitudinal Dylan homage “Blowing My Mind.” Even more interesting are the Blues Project singles. Early on, these relied on the dominant ’65-’66 folk-rock trend. The A-sides of the first two issues were written by Donovan (“Catch the Wind”) and Eric Andersen. The BP’s rendition of the latter’s crypto-Zimmy “Violets of Dawn” was one of several recorded in 1966 (others were done by the Robbs, Daily Flash and the Mitchell Trio).
Far more innovative was the Project’s next pair, both composed by keyboarder Al Kooper. The former Royal Teen, Dylan accompanist and material source for various girl groups, Gary Lewis and Gene Pitney first delivered the smoldering “Where’s There’s Smoke There’s Fire” (a collaboration with writing partners Irwin Levine and Bob Brass; the duo later penned Dawn’s first hit, “Candida”). The Tokens (of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) add vocal heft to the track, and it’s a gem, but sadly a flopped 45. The same fate befell the rockin’ “No Time Like the Right Time,” cut in December ’66. This one’s got it all: an insistent melody, Kooper’s Queens soul-patrol vocal and a mid-song instrumental breakdown (featuring AK on the spacey Ondioline keyboard), all of it perfectly in synch with the flavor of pre-Pepper psyche. The band’s post-Kooper “Gentle Dreams” b/w “Lost in the Shuffle” couples a quirkily arranged A-side (its fussy arrangement almost suggests the BS&T of “Spinning Wheel”) with an undistinguished Curtis Mayfield-derived blues.
The period, of course, subsequently saw real smashes originate from the new rock community; records like “White Rabbit,” “Light My Fire” and “Piece of My Heart” would have been unthinkable visitors to the Hot 100 in 1965 or even ’66. Eventually, the ascent of psychedelia and album-rock meant that hit singles were unnecessary, impossibly unhip and maybe even counterrevolutionary. Rather like the Byzantine contortions that govern the maintenance of indie-rock cred today, when you think about it.
All of the tracks discussed are available on CD; the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band’s Hullabaloo appearance is available on DVD.
When I lived in Portland a few years ago, I got in the habit of tuning in the local "Mature Adult Contemporary" station, Sunny 910. The geriatric AM frequency spun "original hits of the '40s, '50s and '60s," and, though their slogan didn't mention it, the '70s too. Mixed in among the easy-listening powerhouses (Sinatra, Como, Mathis) and the stinkers (Reddy, Lightfoot, Newton-John), were a few swell acts that were new to me (Brubeck, Denny, Getz).
Once every few months this one particularly amazing song that I'd never heard elsewhere would come on, usually in the middle of the night. I was instantly grabbed by its spine-tingling, ethereal female vocals, singing an infectious, broken-hearted melody about lost love, along with this cryptic chorus:
Like smoke from a cigarette
Dreams that you soon forget
It's fading away
And it's 1900 yesterday
What's that all about? After I caught the tune for maybe just the third time in a year, I typed "1900 Yesterday" into a search engine and, sure enough, discovered it to be the title of the song, performed by an outfit called Liz Damon's Orient Express. The group's debut single, written by some guy named John Cameron, peaked at #33 on the Billboard charts in February 1971 I found a copy of the single in December 1998 and played it over and over across the following year. While its B-side, "You're Falling in Love," wasn't worth a second listen, the A-side haunted me, fueling my pre-millennium tension (which I'm embarrassed to admit, but the media's Y2K doomsday hype did have me a little spooked). Still, I couldn't resist repeated listenings, wondering if, way back when, Liz Damon and company were onto something.
Namely, was "1900 Yesterday" some kind of premonition about digital clocks unable to recognize 01/01/00 at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve? Would computers really roll back a full century, causing global blackouts, planes dropping from the sky, the accidental launch of nuclear warheads and scores of other catastrophes? More than Prince's "1999" or that Jennifer Lopez video or any of the other stupid millennium-themed tunes by Sting or Will Smith, I'll forever associate the turn of the century with this weird song.
Of course, the new century arrived, the world didn't end, and things for the most part were fine. And I set out to find more music by the Orient Express. However, it became quickly apparent that the sublime "1900" isn't representative of group's overall sound, which isn't even half as breathtaking.
They had a late-'60s/ early-'70s boy-girl pop-vocal vibe, calling to mind Spanky & Our Gang. The combo's pleasant, breezy tunes were often punctuated with a lively horns and a bit of the period's light exotica, à la the Sandpipers or Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66. Though the band hailed from Hawaii, their music was more suited for a cocktail lounge than a luau. A xylophone added a vaguely tropical air to some cuts, but there were no discernable ukuleles or slack-key guitars.
Still, based of the strength of their smashing debut single, a brief overview of the rest of their recorded output is in order. Here 'tis:
· At the Garden Bar, Hilton Hawaiian Village LP (Makaha Records, 1970)
The Orient Express began its performing career with a year-and-a-half-long gig as the house band of the Garden Bar, a lounge at Waikiki's Hilton Hawaiian Village (the beachfront high-rise hotel with the big rainbow painted on its side).
Despite the debut album's title, which suggests a live disc, ATGB was laid down at Annex Studio in Los Angeles and Commercial Recording in Honolulu. Makaha Records released it, but White Whale soon picked it up and reissued it simply as Liz Damon's Orient Express. They released the opening track, "1900," as its lead single.
The group recorded no original material and instead covered contemporary hits and standards with their own unique arrangements, in this case the Beatles' "Something" and "Let It Be," the Carpenters' "Close to You" and Ray Stevens' unfunny "Everything is Beautiful." Other than "1900," the best moment in the band's catalogue is the arching chorus of the follow-up single, "But for Love."
The gatefold sleeve opens to reveal cutouts of the nine group members' heads, and high praise by the entertainment editor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The back cover features a long shot of the Orient Express in action at the Garden Bar, all in matching costumes. Liz Damon is front and center, flanked by her backup singers/ dancers: to her left is her sister Edda Damon, and on her right is Sydette Sakauye. Behind them is a six-man band; judging from their appearances, the name "Orient Express" apparently referred to their Asian roots.
· Try a Little Tenderness LP (Delilah Records, 1970)
Their second album includes the title track, Laura Nyro's "Time and Love" and a take on "Love Story." Anthem Records reissued the disc as Volume II and released two singles: the Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune "Loneliness Remembers" b/w "The Quiet Sound," and Paul Williams' "All In All" b/w Bacharach-David's "Walking Backwards Down The Road."
Anthem's release also had different cover art, replacing the cool line drawings of Liz with an extreme close-up of a pair of airbrushed eyes (presumably hers). The cardboard cover itself had a slightly corrugated texture.
Sometime after the release of Tenderness, Sydette Sakauye left the band to pursue a solo career. Meri Pherson, who would later design and sew the group's outfits, replaced her.
· Me Japanese Boy (I Love You) LP (Delilah Records, 1973)
The peppy title track of their third album, which was credited to "Liz Damon with the Orient Express," was written by Bacharach-David. Bobby Goldsboro took the song to #74 in August 1964, and the Pizzicato Five covered it on a 1998 release. LDOE's version hit #1 in Hawaii; though it was more popular on a local level than "1900," it failed to chart nationally.
Four of the record's other ten cuts were penned by the loathsome Neil Sedaka, including the follow-up single, "I'm a Song (Sing Me)." They also covered Stevie Wonder's hit from the previous year, "You Are the Sunshine of My Life."
Heaven in My Heart LP (Domi Doncy Records, 1978)
Liz herself wrote the title track of their fourth album, which also included the traditional Hawaiian song "More Better Go Easy" and Nat "King" Cole's "Unforgettable." The rest of the record pretty much consists of international standards like "Canadian Sunset," "Danny Boy," "Chanson d'Amour" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave."
Interestingly, the back cover credits the "producer" as an international travel company, Cartan Tours, whose chairman wrote the liner notes. With a group taking the name of a famous railroad and performing songs about faraway lands, Cartan apparently thought the record would inspire listeners to book overseas vacations. This is the band's most solid long-player.
· WARNING: This Album Could be HAZARDOUS to Your Ego! LP (Domi Doncy Records, 1979)
"I asked Edda to record some of her favorite stories and little jokes," Liz wrote in the liner notes to this, her sister's debut comedy album. Edda obviously did. Apparently the band cutup, Edda's side project includes bits called "The Job Interview," "The Chicken," "The Airplane," "First Man on the Sun" and "Kanimotoshita's Department Store." I haven't heard this one, so I can't say whether it's actually funny.
· At the Lion's Den Lounge, Reno MGM video (bootleg, 1983)
The entirety of this unedited tape is shot in a single, continuous 45-minute take, panning across the stage and zooming in and out on the Orient Express in full-tilt performance. The front line of Liz, Edda and Meri dance with synchronized, Jazzercise-style moves. Liz, with her enormous fake eyelashes, wears a sparkling orange blouse with matching slacks, while Edda and Meri wear black versions of the same. They all wear high heels.
The four-man backup band had only one Asian guy, the guitarist, down from the original six Asians with which they started out. With the bass player, drummer and keyboard player all haoles, they might've changed their name to Liz Damon's Coast Starlight.
This live show, which includes lots of banter with the receptive audience, is much more rocking than any of their recorded material (from which they didn't draw a single song). The set opens with a cover of Toto's "I'll Supply the Love," followed by Paul Simon's gospel-influenced "Gone at Last" and a medley of Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance To the Music" and Martha Reeves' "Dancing in the Street." Edda, who cracks jokes about men who don't put down the toilet seat, does some silly number about drinking too much tequila, and the drummer sings Lionel Ritchie's lame hit "You Are." After concluding with another medley of songs which I didn't recognize, Liz introduced the individual band members, then announced they'd be back for late shows at 9:45 and 12:15.
Also on the video are a couple interview segments from local Reno news broadcasts. In the first one, Edda the jokester looks like Joan Jett, wearing sunglasses, a torn sweatshirt, leather pants and a spiked wristband (at least I think she was goofing around). The second segment shows live footage of the group performing Dolly Parton's "9 to 5," with the singers wearing gold lamé outfits and headbands like John Travolta in Stayin' Alive.
The Orient Express also took their lounge act to Las Vegas-where they played a Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon-as well as Lake Tahoe, Atlantic City, Puerto Rico, Canada and Japan.
After the group disbanded in the mid-'80s, Edda moved to New Jersey, married, had a couple of kids and currently works as drama coach for children. Meanwhile, Liz lives in Las Vegas with her husband and teenage son. She works at the Westward Ho as casino host and entertainment director, and still sings at private parties and conventions and coffee shops in the area. She plans to return to Hawaii someday.
All of the Orient Express' recordings are long out-of-print, except for "1900 Yesterday," which is available on a few compilation CDs. Following hits by the Turtles, Lyme & Cybelle and Nino & April, the song closes out the 21-track label anthology Happy Together: The Very Best of White Whale Records (Varèse Sarabande, 1999). Otherwise, the marginal Top-40 hit has long since fallen through the cracks, and the group never charted again. Still, while Liz Damon's Orient Express goes down in music history as just another one-hit wonder, what a wonderful hit it was.
Mahalo to Shelley Hinatsu for her valuable assistance.
Wanna read more? It's all in Scram #14.