Now that the new wave has broken, and the three-chord punk wonders fade into obscurity, it's a good time to look at just what's washed ashore.
The media churned out reams of copy on the safety-pin and spit-wad brigade. But something new, different and genuinely exciting was happening at the same time in British rock, and it was not punk.
Artists like Graham Parker and The Rumour, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Ian Dury rode the crest of the new wave to America. Together they make up a rather rag-tag movement, but it's one that's made a considerable splash with the record buying public.
While their music covers many differing styles, they all share two things in common. Most important is a mutual return to the basic rock values of energy, imagination and fun, the result of their varied involvements in the British pub rock scene. But they also share an association of sorts with the scrappy little label that has gleaned the best of this scene and groomed them for success — Stiff Records, named cheekily after a bit of record business slang for albums that bomb. And even if these "stiffs" look deceptively like so much human flotsam and jetsam, don't be fooled. They are real pearls — if unpolished ones.
Pub rock was a natural response to the headlines and pretension of early seventies superstars — a return to good, basic songs and a low-key people-oriented approach to audiences.
At the forefront of the pub bands was Brinsley Schwarz, composed of Brinsley Schwarz and Bob Andrews (now in The Rumour), Nick Lowe, Billy Rankin and Ian Gomm. The Brinsleys were once best known as the victim of one of the biggest publicity hypes in the history of recorded music.
One hundred and fifty British journalists were flown to New York to witness the then unknown band's, debut at The Fillmore East. Everything that could go wrong did, and the band received a fierce roasting by the press while their backers disappeared with the money.
The band went into "terminal shock" and considerable debt, according to Dave Robinson, the ever unkempt but ultra-effective Stiff Records scion who then managed the band. So, they retreated to a 10-bedroom house outside London to pick up the pieces.
From there they began to forge a low-key career playing up-tempo, countrified rock a la The Band (an oft-applied and deserved comparison). This coalesced into leading the pub movement when Robinson introduced them to another band he'd discovered playing in a London pub — Eggs Over Easy.
An energetic quartet from Marin County, Calif., the Eggs wound up in London on a bum recording deal and had persuaded a pub owner to let them play and pass the hat to keep the rent paid. London pubs had featured jazz but never rock, and the engaging atmosphere soon had the Brinsleys stopping by to sit in, finally playing the pub themselves.
"Gradually all these good bands and musicians came out of the woodwork," says Robinson. As more pub owners caught on, a scene was born.
It was more a diverse phenomenon than a style. Bands with tags like Bees Make Honey, Chilly Willy and Quiver plowed a country-bluegrass furrow. (from the latter two came Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas, respectively, now, in Elvis Costello's Attractions. Elvis, then known as D. B. Costello, also fronted a pub bluegrass band in this era). Dr. Feelgood and Ducks Deluxe pursued raw, hard-edged rock. And the inimitable Ian Dury fronted Kilburn and The High Roads, a perverse rock and roll horn band.
London pubs were filled with good music.
"It was a very relaxed scene," recalls Robinson. "Really exciting and great fun. Then suddenly the press noticed this phenomenon — naturally because they spend a lot of time in pubs anyway — and they labeled it pub rock."
It may have been the kiss of death. British and U.S. record companies seeking to capitalize on what they thought was a trend tossed out albums they, didn't understand. Most bombed, and caught in the bind of too much pressure too soon, the pub scene and many of the bands shattered.