Monday, March 24, 2014

The Wheels - Road Block (1966)

The mid-'60s Irish rock scene produced no bands that achieved international acclaim, with the major exception of Them. In fact, very few Irish bands from the time are internationally known whatsoever, even to avid collectors, in part because few got to record more than one or two singles. Aside from Them spinoff band the Belfast Gypsies, the biggest exception to this would be The Wheels. Like Them, they were from Belfast, and they had the good and bad fortune to bear a considerable sonic resemblance to Them. Good, because their first three singles sound so much like early Them sides that they can be confidently recommended to Them fans. Bad, because the similarity was so close, that The Wheels could not be said to have developed their own persona. Although they were a good band, they were not so good that they could out-Them Them, and they lacked Them's originality, particularly as found in Them's singer/songwriter genius Van Morrison.

The Wheels were part of the same Belfast scene that gave birth to Them, and in fact, Van Morrison sometimes sat in with The Wheels on sax. In 1964, they began making trips to the north of England to build up a following there, and in 1965, they were signed to Columbia in the U.K. The Wheels had a raw R&B-rock attack quite similar to that heard on Them's first records, down to the jagged guitar and sinister organ. Brian Rossi's vocals were also akin to Van Morrison's most aggressive ones, though Rossi was not as subtle or strong. It could not have helped dodge Them comparisons, however, to make their first single a cover of Them's "Gloria," backed by "Don't You Know," a Tommy Scott composition that Them also recorded.

The Wheels' second single, "Bad Little Woman"/"Road Block" (released in February 1966), featured original material from the quintet, though even then it was only a little less Them-like than their debut. "Bad Little Woman" was a minor-key takeoff on the "Gloria" rhythm, while "Road Block" was similar in mood and construction to Them's "Mystic Eyes." For what they were, though, they were good, raving tracks. Oddly, an alternate -- and better -- version of "Bad Little Woman" was issued in the U.S. on Aurora Records, with the band's name changed to the Wheel-A-Ways to avoid confusion with Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels. This American version, with its creepy descending guitar slides and frenzied rave-up, in which the tempo nearly speeds off the highway as Rossi's vocals turn into screams, is one of the peak obscure treasures of mid-'60s British R&B. "Bad Little Woman" was covered for a small hit in the U.S. by the Shadows of Knight (who, of course, had also had a big hit with "Gloria," although they probably learned it from the Them version).

Belfast Beat Maritime BluesBrian Rossi left The Wheels after the second single, and keyboardist Eric Wrixon, who had been in Them for a while, joined. Their third and final single was a cover of Paul Revere's "Kicks," backed by yet another song Them had done, "Call My Name." Brian Rossi did rejoin for a while before The Wheels split in 1967; Wheels Herbie Armstrong and Rod Demick made a duo album in the '70s, and Armstrong would later play guitar with Van Morrison on albums in the late '70s and early '80s. The Wheels got some belated international exposure when several of their sides were included on reissues of obscure British R&B. All seven tracks from their singles (including the alternate version of "Bad Little Woman" done as the Wheel-A-Ways), and five previously unreleased outtakes, appear on Belfast Beat Maritime Blues, a compilation of mid-'60s tracks by Belfast bands.

Herbie Armstrong - Guitar
Rod Demick - Guitar, Harmonica, Vocals
Brian Rossi - Keyboards, Vocals
Victor Catling - Drums
Tito Tinsley - Bass

Irish R&B group the Wheels existed in the formidable shadow of Van Morrison's Them but cut two classic tracks that have kept them rated highly among garage rock and freakbeat aficionados. The first is "Road Block," a snarling one-chord rave-up with wailing harmonica work and throat-shredding vocals from Rod Demick. He doesn't quite reach Van-like levels of intensity, but it's plenty exciting. The other track is better known as covered by the Shadows of Knight, but the original of "Bad Little Woman" is almost its equal. Where the Shadows' take burns with muted violence, the Wheels' original builds from a minor-key stomp into a section where Demick sounds like he's seriously losing his mind. The 2012 Big Beat collection Road Block features these two songs plus the rest of their output. Derived from three singles and five unreleased studio recordings, the comp shows a band in touch with ramped-up blues ("I'm Leaving," "Mona") but also one that could handle relaxed ballads ("Don't You Know") and midtempo groovers ("Tell Me [I'm Gonna Love Again]") just as well. Their cover of Them's "Gloria" is a little unnecessary, but they do add some nice energy to their run-through of Paul Revere & the Raiders' "Kicks." Overall, they fall short of Them in almost every way, but Road Block is still a vital addition to the collection of a freakbeat/garage rock lover -- unless you already own the 1997 Big Beat collection Belfast Beat Maritime Blues, on which all these tracks already appear. Still, it's nice to have all their output in one place and the liner notes and packaging are predictably excellent.

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