By Neil Peacock
The Blue Ox Babes should’ve been one of the most important bands of 80s. But the fact is they were shafted. Royally.
While there were contributing factors to the group succumbing to obscurity, the fact that Kevin Rowland appropriated their folk-gypsy sound, and even headhunted their fiddle player for Dexy’s Midnight Runners, was undoubtedly a tipping point.
He’d later apologise, but it was too little, too late.
Back in 1982, Dexy’s were everywhere with the single, Come on Eileen, dominating the No.1 chart spot in the UK and elsewhere; there was no dance floor or radio station that was immune from its rousing tunefulness. The album, Too-Rye-Ay, was just as successful and nothing can detract from the brilliant singles from it, which is one of the best of the era. But it’s universally believed that the Babes took a king-hit, something the liner notes for the CD release of their sole album claims in unguarded terms: “Ironically, the ensuing success of Rowland’s Celtic Soul concept made it more difficult for Archer to secure a recording contract, with the Blue Ox Babes being dismissed by many as Dexy’s sound-alikes.”
The Archer in that paragraph is Kevin Archer a former member of the original version of Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the frontman for the Babes.
Archer’s involvement in Dexy’s in the early days was as important as Rowland’s. The duo had formed the short-lived punk outfit The Killjoys in 1977. And in the summer of 1978 the pair formed Dexy’s Midnight Runners with Archer the main guitarist and backing vocalist, with Rowland up front. Archer – who was known as Al Archer at this point – lasted until 1981 when there was a clearout of band members including Mick Talbot, who went on to form The Bureau, and later had rampant success with The Style Council.
Archer’s parting gift to Rowland was to help put together a new band for the Plan B single. It appears at this stage Archer had designs of forming a group which in his words would “be based on traditional American folk music”.
The Babes around 81-82 comprised a few people but the core was Archer (guitar/ vocals), his girlfriend Yasmin Saleh (vocals), Ian Pettit (drums), Andy Leek (piano, mouth organ), and Nick Bache (guitar) with Helen Bevington (later O’Hara) playing violin on the 1981 demos while Corrin and Carl (surnames unknown) also played on demo tracks.
The loss of the multi-talented Andy Leek, disillusioned after the Dexy’s success, hit the band, and Archer did not feel it appropriate to take up a deal with Stiff Records, fearing they would be dubbed Dexy’s imitators, when in fact the opposite was true. The Babes disbanded.
But in 1985 Archer plucked up the courage to put the Babes together again, and began gigging and recording. Again this line-up was ever-changing with some Dexy’s refugees finding their way into the line-up but the main line-up was Archer, Saleh, Pettit, Pete Wain (keyboard), Steve Shaw (violin), and Nick Smith (sax).
The band’s first single was There’s No Deceiving You, a fine pop song; the combination of the lyrics ‘Run, run away to the country’ and Shaw’s violin envisages a memorable summer hoedown in the park. The 12” also included an excellent cover of Al Green’s soul classic Take Me to The River, which is much better than the Talking Heads version.
This was followed by Apples and Oranges (The International Hope Campaign) – a four track EP. Three of the tracks were wondrous pop classics, the fourth Russia In Winter, a beautiful, long pastoral instrumental. Have a look around record store bargain bins, charity shops and the net, you may still find a copy for a measly sum. Needless to say, if you do find it, you will be buying one of the best bargains ever.
Neither troubled the charts nor the airwaves. Lack of promotion, and sparse reviews in national music mags were the only indication they existed. Hard to understand why when Go! Discs were having so much success at the time with Housemartins/Beautiful South material, and artists like Billy Bragg.
They were probably still suffering from the Dexy’s connection, being labelled by some who should know better as copyists, and not as good as the real thing. Even though as we know now, Rowland inherited the sound from Archer. Rowland’s success in 1982 he now admits was a “hollow success” and he has apologised to Archer for not giving his ex-musical partner enough credit. Nevertheless, to say the two acts sound similar is a disservice to both and the Babes sound was an individual one and drew on different influences.
There are probably regrets from Archer that their music had not been released to the public sooner. In the year of house music, and the so-called ‘second summer of love’, there did not appear much of a place inside the Top 40 for Archer’s deeper, spiritual music. But it was pop music all the same and a huge disappointment that after two flop singles any interest the record company may originally have had in the band was beginning to wane.
There was one more single Walking OnThe Line, featuring a cover of Cassius Clay towering over a defeated Sonny Liston. But, this was not the knockout hit the group needed. I recall reading a review for the single in Record Mirror, but besides this there are big doubts as to how well the single was distributed, I have personally never seen a copy. As a result, The Blue Ox Babes drifted into anonymity. Kevin Archer has only been heard of since discussing the Dexy’s era. In a BBC documentary aired in 2000 he seemed to have settled past issues with Rowland, and was proud of what they had achieved in their time together.
However, a more recent interview with Archer still suggested a bitter aftertaste as he laid claim to his royalty cut on Come On Eileen being reduced from 50 per cent to just 10; a contract he suggested signed under duress as a result of his ongoing problem with schizophrenia. Whatever an outsider wants to make of this, musically the man has not been heard, and this is a great shame as Archer obviously possesses a brilliant musical talent that has never been fully utilised.
Early era Blue Ox Babes.
Following the three singles, a one-off album Apples and Oranges, with a slightly bizarre sleeve of a young girl holding said fruit was intended to be released but shelved. A few promo copies sent to the music press leaked out on cassette. Apparently the LP was meant to be called ‘The Desire for Verification Is Understandable But Cannot Always Be Justified’. More than anything, the album gave an indication of how Dexy’s might have sounded if Archer had stayed with the group. On tracks like Bedlam and Ballad of The Blue Ox Babes, Archer created a warm, soulful sound, completely alien to the synthetic sounds of 1988, or for that matter Kevin Rowland’s solo album from the same year.
But, eventually good news was to come, in 2009, as part of Cherry Red Records’ reissue programme of 80s obscurities; Apples and Oranges finally saw the light of day, with a CD release, including all the singles and B-sides and a thick booklet detailing the history of the band and rare photos from their early stages to the point when they should have cracked it.
And the rather sad looking girl on the original album cover is looking happy again, and rightfully so; it is great to have these songs back again.
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By Neil Peacock
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