In early 1973, the San Francisco band Clover had been together six years, with two albums out, and no record contract. In early 1976, they had been together nine years, with two albums, and still had no record contract. And both albums were out of print. The situation might have stayed the way it was, was it not for the efforts of three British Clover fans: Nick Lowe, Jake Riviera, and Dave Robinson.
Lowe is the ex-Brinsley Schwarz leader who is now a hot recording artist and producer in the UK for Stiff Records, the off-beat, upstart label run by Riviera and Robinson. Jake and Dave also co-manage Lowe, Graham Parker and the Rumour, and now Clover. What happened in 1976 was this: Clover was playing in Los Angeles at the Palamino club, with Lowe and Riviera in the audience. The two were in the U.S. with Dr. Feelgood, for which Jake was tour manager, and Nick was unofficial roadie. Nick had been a big Clover fan since the Brinsley Schwarz days, when that band did Clover's "Love Is Gone" and wrote them into the song "Range War": ..."and get back to the fields where Clover play." When he finally met the band members — who had only vaguely heard of The Brinsleys his enthusiasm came as a pleasant surprise.
Clover's Huey Louis said, "Nicky Lowe said 'Let's jam,' and I said 'Okay, what do you want to do man?,' and he said 'Let's do "Love Is Gone."'" Bassist Johnny Ciambotti also remembered that first meeting: "Nick took my bass out of my hands! We jammed on songs that I hadn't played in five or six years. He knew every chord and every word; sang lead and played the bass. It was outrageous.
Clover's Huey Louis said, "Nicky Lowe said 'Let's jam,' and I said 'Okay, what do you want to do man?,' and he said 'Let's do "Love Is Gone."' " Bassist Johnny Ciambotti also remembered that first meeting: "Nick took my bass out of my hands! We jammed on songs that I hadn't played in five or six years. He knew every chord and every word; sang lead and played the bass. It was outrageous."
Nick and Jake went back to San Francisco with the band and the jamming resumed for six more days. Upon their return to England, the two contacted Robinson, who later flew to San Francisco with Phonogram Records A&R head Nigel Grainge. Grainge signed them, Robinson and Riviera became their new managers, and they soon had plane tickets to London to begin a new life.
"Management," said Louis, "is the key. We knew that we had to have someone tell us what to do because we knew we had this weird amalgamation sound thing. We're first in a field of one. We don't sound like anybody else, and that's tough. Once you pop, it's the sound — they say 'Oh yeah, that's whatchamacalit. ' And we're a band, and there's very few bands left. It's real easy when you've got Joe And The Back-ups. Joe tells everybody how to look and how to sound, which is simple. But we aren't that way. At our best we're better because we have that ten year thing — we know things about each other that onstage no studio band who make a record and follow it with a tour will ever know."
Clover was formed ten years ago in San Francisco by bassist Johnny Clambotti, pedal steel player John McFee, and singer-guitarist Alex Call. Since then the only personnel changes were the replacement of drummer Mitch Howie with — eventually — Micky Shine, and the addition in 1971 of harp player-singer Huey Louis and keyboard player Sean Hopper. Call was born in Washington but his family moved away when he was two, although he spent many childhood summers here.
"When we started," McFee said, "we were playing a lot more r&b oriented stuff; more so than country. Almost the whole time we've been together we've played 90% or more original material. Number one we were never into getting a gig where we could play five or six nights a week somewhere and make enough money to get a nice car, that kind of a club thing. Initially we had kind of our own place, the Muir Beach Tavern, also Brown's Hall in Mill Valley. They were like parties, basically."
In the early seventies the band recorded two highly enjoyable but poorly produced albums for Fantasy Records: Clover and Forty-Niner. McFee said "At the time I really didn't think about them. I was still at the point where I wasn't too serious about anything." Fantasy didn't go out of its way to promote or advertise the albums; consequently they didn't sell well. Their management wasn't particularly strong either, so they ended up playing around the Bay Area for the next several years, with occasional showcase dates for record companies in L.A.
All band members had to take outside, non-musical jobs to help make ends meet, although there was also some session work, particularly for McFee, who is one
of the most highly regarded pedal steel players in the business. He's played on Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic's Preview, Steve Miller's Fly Like An Eagle, Boz Scaggs' Moments, the Grateful Dead's From The Mars Hotel and many others. He's turned down many offers from Scaggs, Morrison, and others to join touring bands, because of his faith in an devotion to Clover. "I've always believed in Clover. Those old albums in a lot of ways were far ahead musically. I think we were a really good band. It's always pissed me off that we've never gotten recognition, and that's probably one reason why I've stayed."
When the band got to England in August 1976, serious gigging commenced almost immediately. They did British tours with Thin Lizzy, Linda Lewis, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. They're especially fond of Thin Lizzy, who according to Louis, "became like family. They taught us a whole shitload." Louis said Skynyrd attracts "the basest element, so it's tough work; 'cause in England — the fans — they don't have color TVs, or cars, they don't give a shit about movies or anything all they care about is football (soccer), and rock 'n' roll. They're great fans."
Clover also backed Twiggy(!) on her album Please Get My Name Right and Stiff Records' discovery Elvis Costello on his album My Aim Is True, which was produced by Nick Lowe. They did lots of demo tapes with Lowe when they' first arrived in England, and one of those songs, "Chicken Funk," was released as a British single. Instead of Lowe, however, their album Clover (called Unavailable in the UK) was produced by Robert John (Mutt) Lange, who also produces Graham Parker And The Rumour, among others. Lange was recommended by Lowe, who felt he would be better suited to the type of material the band is currently doing.
After a long tour of the States, the band will return to England, where they will begin a European tour with Graham Parker And The Rumour. As always, the concept of Clover is enough to keep them going. "We're crazy about it," Louis said," we're nuts about it. After awhile it gets to be a grudge match — you against the world."