Thursday, March 10, 2005

Grand Drive

[You'll have to forgive my recent glut of posts... Am laid low by jetlag and listening to ots of old records, and wanting people to hear about them. So here goes another long piece, this time on Grand Drive, a wonderful country-soul band from South London, whose four albums are all readily available, and all deserve your purchase. The following piece was commissioned by the band to promote the re-release of their first two albums, Road Music and True Love And High Adventure, on RCA Records. Gentlemen that they are, Grand Drive ensured that money changed hands for this piece, and yet I meant every single word, and would've written it for free, if they'd asked. Grand Drive hail from my neck of the woods, so you'll have to forgive if a little local pride colours the prose...]

“Neil Diamond wasn’t being ‘ironic’ when he sang ‘Sweet Caroline’, was he?” - Danny Wilson, at the launch party for ‘True Love & High Adventure’, September 2000

Perhaps, in the end, the feeling is all. Not the locations, the details, the little legends that make up the big picture, and yet which serve only to obscure, to deflect, to distract you from the true beauty and wisdom that lies within Grand Drive’s first two albums, re-released by RCA/Victor Records. The cold hard facts couldn’t ring true, couldn’t pull you through darkest days, like Grand Drive’s music does.

So it’s wholly unimportant that Grand Drive are centred upon the musical and songwriting talents of Danny and Julian Wilson. It’s positively incidental that the brothers were born in Australia, grew up in the stony south London suburb of Sutton in the 1970s, and spent most of their musical career holed up in nearby Raynes Park, minutes away from the road, Grand Drive, they took their name from. And it’s so insignificant as to be laughable that Grand Drive grew from Soul Green, a raucous country-punk outfit who themselves developed from an earlier hardcore-thrash incarnation, and who played support to alt_country pioneers Uncle Tupelo once upon a prairie moon.

And it’s entirely trivial, not to mention erroneous and unjust, to refer to Grand Drive as a ‘country’ band. Maybe that was true when the boys released their debut 7”, 1997’s ‘Tell It Like It Is’, on the Vinyl Junkie label, and the Wilson harmonies vied with warm, soulful hammond for space in your heart. Maybe that was true (at a push) when they followed it up with the mournful uplift of ‘On A Good Day’, where Danny stared into the darkness and found a reason to believe as the band knocked up a gorgeous Replacements-esque frazzle in the background.

But, by the time of the band’s sublime third single, ‘Wrong Notes’ - a campfire tribute to “all the bumps and rough edges and imperfections that make life worth living,” sez Julian - twang was just one element of Grand Drive’s increasingly erudite musical vocabulary, as the Wilson Brothers (plus Ed Balch, honorary Wilson brother, Grand Drive’s third cornerstone, the man with the bass guitar) broadened their sonic palette to create a record which, in their own words “opened like the theme-tune to Camberwick Green, before turning into something that would’ve fit on the soundtrack to ‘Midnight Cowboy’”.

‘Wrong Notes’ was something of a breakthrough for the band, and the following year, 1999, it was collected together with the other two singles - now sold out in their initial pressing - along with B-sides and two new tracks, to comprise the ‘Road Music’ album, released on acclaimed London Americana label Loose Recordings. The reviews were accurately ecstatic for such a charming collection; The Times called it a “modern classic”, Mojo declared it “an album that glories in the song”. Remastered and rereleased today, what’s striking is how fully formed this nascent vision of Grand Drive sounds, a sophisticated, heartfelt patchwork of Americana influences that drew equally from Memphis soul nuances as Nashville skylines. ‘Road Music’ proved that describing Grand Drive as ‘country’ was akin to suggesting Edward Hopper was a dab hand at painting naugahyde diner upholstery - sort of kind of accurate, but missing the ‘point’ by a, uh, country mile.

“Neil Diamond, he wasn't being a clever bugger, whether he was wearing tinted Alain Delon shades or not. It’s the real deal, and that’s heart music, not head music.” - Julian Wilson, a pub, Raynes Park, December 1998

And then came the great leap into genius.

Tracing Grand Drive’s progression from ‘Road Music’ to its follow-up, ‘True Love & High Adventure’, is like jumping from the Wright Brothers’ first flight to the Apollo moon landing - the former’s impressive, the latter’s inspirational. In the layoff between ‘Wrong Notes’ and ‘True Love...’ (few records are so perfectly titled), the Wilson brothers had taken odd jobs as painters and decorators to tide themselves over as they worked on their epic vision. And at the launch party that preceded its release, the various friends who’d collaborated with the band and helped realise ‘True Love...’ celebrated their achievement: a towering, beautiful, hopeful, sad, wonderful paean to love in its every form. Requited, unrequited, romantic, familial, happy, not so happy. All couched in a billowing, lushly-orchestrated sound that nodded equally towards Mercury Rev, The Beach Boys, The Flaming Lips, Van Morrison, Phil Spector, Motown - the masters of head’n’heart music.

A gleeful, exhausted, proud Danny described it as “a modern psychedelic country-soul album”, which goes some way to capturing the essence of songs like ‘Ladder To The Sea’, ‘A Little Numb’, ‘One Last Parade’... Magical music that achieves that most elusive of qualities, timelessness, not least because its themes are as grounded and essential as the music is dreamy.

Indeed, ‘classic’ is a word that appeared heavily in the reviews for this record, and listening to the record a scant six months or so after its initial release on Loose, as RCA/Victor ready it for their imprint, it’s startling just how deserving an accolade that is. And now, with a major label’s backing, the band will be able to take these heavenly songs to a much wider audience, and perhaps receive the acclaim they so richly deserve.

Because, much like Bob’s Country Bunker, the hicksville joint Jake and Elwood played in the Blues Brothers, Grand Drive play both kinds of music - music for the head and music for the heart. Call it country, call it soul, call it what you want. Just make sure you love it, with all your heart.

(c) Stevie Chick, March 2001


shinanos said...

...Yes, jetlag really matters 2 me!
(Last night I enjoyed chatting with Spanish guyz those who cheering me up by inviting MSN - it was funny but actually I can't sleep enough & their country was just evening...-9 hours or so, almost as the same to UK...)

I'm just a beginner and actually set it up by some unknown guy's invitation. But they soothed me in a warm way :)

Also I love this post's final paragraph: Blues Blothers and the closing message!! Thanks Stevie :D

Shina x

RahX said...

Music brings out a sort of love in us all I think. Its nice to have band or group you can associate so much with.