THE SECOND VOYAGE OF IN THE WHEELHOUSE
The Long Bright River flows on.
There are apparently, as F. Scott Fitzgerald had it, no second acts in American lives. But maybe there is in the music business. Not many, granted. The rock’n’roll highway is a freeway – fast, furious and famously fatal for some, prone to the kind of pile-ups that took the lives of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley, Amy Winehouse, among countless others. But for every tragic death, there are dozens of other musicians who simply take the wrong turn-off and find it impossible to get back on track.
For example, in Liverpool in the early sixties, The Undertakers were considered better players than their contemporaries The Beatles, and they had the charismatic Jackie Lomax as singer/songwriter, but when they returned from a stint in Hamburg, they turned down an offer of management by Brian Epstein. Hello, oblivion. Talking of poor choices, lung-busting singer Terry Reid rejected Jimmy Page’s invitation to join The New Yardbirds (later to morph into a little combo called Led Zeppelin), suggesting Robert Plant instead, dooming himself to becoming a “singer’s singer”. A now largely forgotten group called Mind Garage were invited to play Woodstock. They declined, citing a higher paying gig elsewhere that weekend. Oops. There are many, many other examples of musicians and/or their label/management committing career suicide by choosing an ill-advised off-ramp on the road to riches.
Sometimes, though, an outlier finds their way back from the minor roads to at least a dual carriageway, if not the main motorway, to enjoy that elusive second wind. Terry Callier had released a string of commercially unsuccessful “folk-jazz” albums from the seventies onwards, but by the late 1980s he was working as a computer programmer in Chicago. A decade later, though, his early records were being played at venues such as London’s Dingwalls by a new generation of young DJs, and he was contacted by Acid Jazz supremo Eddie Pillar, who released some of the old music and brought Callier over to the UK to tour. There followed a remarkable late-flowering of a career, with new albums and collaborations, which continued to his death in 2012. Singer-songwriter Bill Fay’s albums were issued on the Deram label from 1967 to 1972.They sold poorly. Twenty years later, they had become cult records, and interest in him grew exponentially until, in 2012, he issued his first new studio album in 40 years. Similarly, Andrew Loog Oldham’s protégé Vashti Bunyan released a record in 1970 that gathered dust and then, over time, a substantial fan club. The speedy follow-up came along in 2005. And of course the resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez, who made two albums in the early seventies and mostly vanished, is famously documented in the Swedish-Finnish documentary Searching for Sugar Man (2012), which led to his re-discovery.
And then there was In The Wheelhouse.
Or, more accurately, there is In The Wheelhouse.
If the name is, for the moment, unfamiliar to you, you’re not alone. Details from the pre-Google era when this Anglo-Australian-Scandinavian group formed are sketchy. There was an interview in Gaffa magazine when their first single was released, and a subsequent one with Juice in Australia and bits and bobs scattered across NME, Melody Maker and The Face, as well as more technical chats in Guitarist and Modern Drummer. The problem was, ITWH was not grunge and not Britpop, the two dominant genres during its initial years. So what were they? They were a quintet, that’s what. And now they’re not.
In the early 1960s a young thriller writer called Len Deighton rivalled Ian Fleming for sales. Who was Len Deighton? Well it was hard to tell initially, because each book (The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin etc) came with a completely different and conflicting biography. After book three it was clear that obfuscation was the name of Deighton’s game. Something similar happened with ITWH. To begin with at least, none of the band had names (neither, as it happened, did Deighton’s hero/spy in the novels). They were known by their role: The Singer, The Guitarist, The Bassist, The Pianist, The Drummer. In Melody Maker, The Pianist explained: ‘Music now has become far too predicated on personalities, whether it’s the gobby Gallaghers v Damon or Robbie versus Gary. All that shit pollutes, or at the very least obscures the music. We decided to duck all that favourite colour and what team do you support. Blue and Arsenal. That’s all you need to know about me.’
There were many versions of how ITWH met: playing in various house bands on cruise ships; in the bar at the Playboy Club; hanging around backstage at the Roundhouse; in the adjustment department of an insurance company; at Glastonbury; while pupils at public school. In fact, the core members seem to have come together in the instrument stores on and around Denmark Street in London.
What about the music they played? Well, listening to that first four-track EP, as well as the bootleg cassette Live at the Jac, it partly backs up what The Singer told Juice – “Imagine if Johnny Cash and Johnny Marr had a love child who was raised by Dr. John.” In The Face, the parents had become Bob Dylan and Bobby Gentry and the foster-father was Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, which muddied the waters somewhat. The main thrust of this was that ITWH didn’t slot into any of the available categories in the (then extant) record racks. It might be a melange, but it was very much their melange, of what we would now call Americana and a very European sensibility, encompassing proto-metal bands like High Tide and the psychedelia of (early) Porcupine Trees. (In the interest of full disclosure it has to be said that, reading an early draft of this article, The Pianist disagreed with these citations; it is a personal view and also refers to the original line-up of the group, not its current incarnation or personnel).
The band’s themes were very much about moving on – in relationships, emotionally and, especially physically. It was never clear who wrote the lyrics, but if it was The Singer, he was a restless soul, penning songs about travelling to Monterey to watch Hendrix burn his guitar (something they were all too young for), a sojourn to see the Northern Lights, hitchhiking across Europe to Greece in search of a perfect beach and, especially, the Great American Road trip, filtered through the eyes of someone who had probably read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and On The Road many times and sat in half-empty cinemas, on rainy afternoons devouring Two Lane Blacktop, Duel or Vanishing Point. Someone also familiar with the photography of Robert Frank, Inge Morath, and Victor Burgin. The narrator in those earlier songs was more often than not the archetypal stranger in a strange town: it was to be a prophetic theme.
Problems began during the recording of the debut album. ITWH had been signed, for a modest sum, to Joe Boyd’s Hannibal label, normally home to Tuvan throat singers and the like. The initial sessions, at Strongroom Studios, went well, but after completing four songs to demo level, the band took an ill-timed hiatus for several members to visit their families over Easter.
Come late April, four members re-convened in Shoreditch as planned. The fifth, The Singer, was a no-show on day one.
Or on day two.
The remaining members postponed the sessions and waited. The call, when it came, was from New York. He had been staying in Brooklyn, The Singer said, and had lined up some live dates. They should come over. You should come home, was the collective response.
Several strange and increasingly unhinged emails followed. He mentioned a woman, Susie Moondance, who had apparently escaped from a Tom Robbins novel. They were considering “taking off” and travelling together. The band decided they had to stage an intervention and flew to New York. There, they discovered that The Singer had been staying in a derelict factory-turned-squat in Brownsville. The rooms were squalid, furniture sparse, roaches rampant and The Singer was nowhere to be seen. Yes, he’d been there; but nobody had heard of a Susie Moondance. The Singer had talked about checking out a friend in Pittsburgh.
Next stop, Kensington, Pittsburgh, an area even more deprived than Brownsville, where the residents were just discovering the attraction of the opioids that would soon decimate great swathes of middle America. In a crack house in Kensington they were told The Singer was driving south, through West Virginia, going to find the “motherlode” along the Mississippi and follow it to New Orleans. With money running short, the band hit the road. They slept four to a room in shabby motels, bedded down in rental cars, pulled all-night sessions in diners, fuelled by endless refills of treacly black coffee. The trail, though, was cold. They had lost The Singer.
Bands do sometimes survive the loss of their frontman. For every group like The Doors (who recorded two post-Morrison albums, released to great indifference) there is a Joy Division/New Order; for every Queen carrying on despite the Freddie-shaped hole in their centre, there is a Manic Street Preachers, who persevered and, indeed, thrived after the mysterious disappearance of the troubled Richie James.
In The Wheelhouse didn’t survive. They returned to the Strongroom, but, exhausted emotionally, physically and financially, the spark had gone. In an amiable, if drunken, discussion in The Bricklayers Arms, it was decided to bring the curtain down on ITWH. That, in retrospect, was their Undertakers moment: a poor decision. But hindsight is an unreliable guide to the past. At the time, parting seemed inevitable.
Gardener, F1 test driver, ferry deckhand, forest ranger, sound engineer, actor, oil rigger, outback guide, male escort, furniture restorer, stand-up comedian, gambler, chef, bouncer, songwriter.. the list of occupations that the ITWH members claim they undertook in the decades after their split runs to two pages. There were some bands that recruited a member or two, notably Spit On My Chips, who had a big following in Helsinki and Colby Jack, a noodly jazz-ish outfit based out of Hull. But fate hadn’t finished with ITWH.
After the band’s demise, hoping to recoup some of its expenses, Hannibal released a three-track EP, using material salvaged from before and after the disappearance of The Singer. The latter consisted of one track, Long Bright River, a raw and sometimes meandering eleven minutes, but with a sinuous baseline and a magnificently melancholy vocal, describing the heartaches of searching for a lost friend in the byways of America. That one song gave ITWH an afterlife. It was sampled by J Dilla. If you listen to the outtakes from To Pimp a Butterfly, you can hear Thundercat playing something very close to the Long Bright River bassline. According to the Who Sampled What website, it has been used sixty-seven times on other records, with the drum having logged twenty eight lifts. Three years ago the Hannibal EP was going for upwards of five hundred dollars on Discogs [it has since been re-issued as vinyl-only].
A namecheck in a Peter Paphides piece on great lost bands put a spotlight back on them. A typically well-turned paragraph in Richard William’s blog The Blue Moment blog described seeing ITWH during the recording of Live at the Jac (the Jacaranda Club in Liverpool). All eleven minutes of Long Bright River were played on Tom Ravencroft’s Radio 6 show. Something was in the air. As the end of the second decade of the 21st century hove into view, it seemed an auspicious time to put the band back together, to try that elusive second act.
Since then, they have been in the studio, recording new material, which is almost ready for release on Bandcamp. The sound has changed, but not enormously. The Bassist has taken over vocal duties (it was him on Long Bright River) and the sometimes gruff, low-register timbre calls to mind JJ Cale and late period Leonard Cohen or Johnny Cash, with a similar emotional heft. It’s In The Wheelhouse all right, but one that is older, more mature, scarred, perhaps, from the events of twenty-odd years ago, yet still travelling down that long bright river searching for some kind of motherlode that might not actually exist. But the journey is worth taking. You could do worse than ride along.
c. 2020. With apologies to all involved.