It’s been a long time coming, but finally Tony gets a comprehensive release of all his recordings from his career with the Castaways & Harmony Grass. I’m delighted for him. He’s a member of this (SMART) group & i know has many FB friends on the site. So, Tony if and when you read this review any errors that follow are purely mine! I’ve never made any secret of my love for harmony/sunshine pop as regular readers will know. Along with John Carter, Rogers- Cook & Greenaway, Tony is one of the most pivotal exponents of the genre to emerge from the 60’s. He’s been there & got the T shirt many times over and has nothing to prove to anyone. There, as usual, is an excellent essay accompanying this new release by Grapefruit Records boss David Wells with many insights on his career from Tony himself and i highly recommend you read it for the full picture of a man who like his 2019 autobiography title says ‘I’m Nearly Famous’. Tony’s story started back in 1961 when a 20 year old Tony Thompson originally from County Durham began working at Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Clacton as a lowly store clerk with ambitions to sing. It was at a Butlins Staff Show that he first got up on stage and sang a couple of Cliff Richard numbers, ironically a foretaste of one of his greatest successes that would come years later as musical director/arranger for Cliff during his re-invention & hugely successful period in the 70’s & 80’s. However back to the beginning and whilst at Butlins Tony met another musician which would lead him to eventually meet and join up with Dagenham band The Cutaways as lead singer. At this point Tony Thompson became Tony Rivers. The Cutaways played all the usual clubs, ballrooms etc of the times, they gained experience, members and managers came and went but by 1962 their latest manager suggested a change of name to the more catchy Tony Rivers & The Castaways and now a fully pro band they attended and passed an audition for EMI Records at Abbey Road in 1963. It was in April of that year that Tony first encountered The Beatles, supporting them at a gig at the Pigalle club following that year’s annual New Musical Express Concert at Wembley. Tony would later go on to be managed by Brian Epstein, but I’m in danger of writing his life story here, so once more i urge you to read the aforementioned essay for the full picture, lets get to the 3 CD’s contained in this package. I’m very pleased to see unlike some compilations this one lays out the tracks in chronological order which enables you to follow the development of Tony and the band. The whole thing kicks off on Disc1 with ‘Shake Shake Shake’ a cover of a recent hit for American Jackie Wilson & whilst it’s energetic and perfectly competent it’s not especially memorable, however it does immediately show off Tony’s voice to good advantage & along with the next half a dozen following tracks you notice the compelling harmony work going on. All the songs sound like they could have happily landed on The Beatles ‘Please Please Me’ album if they had just been a touch more catchy. But i could make that statement about a great many of the groups from that time. Things start to change musically when we hit track 9 ‘Til We Get Home’ a song written by Tony that is as close to a Beach Boys number as any UK performer has ever come. This was the result of Tonys new found friendship with Carl Wilson & Brian Johnson who he had met at EMI house in Manchester Square. It was at their suggestion that Tony & Co record ‘God Only Knows’ as a single (track 20 on this compilation) as the band themselves had no intention of doing so, it was just another track from the then unreleased ‘Pet Sounds’ In July 1966 Tony & the Guys released their version… on the same day as The Beach Boys own original version! This sort of combination of broken promises/bad luck/timing, seems to loom largely over the whole of Tony’s career throughout the 60’s particularly and beyond…Also to be found on Disc1 is the boys cover of The Beatles ‘Nowhere Man’ from Rubber Soul, and a very good version as a single it is. However, the ‘curse’ of the Castaways struck again when despite given a catalogue number by EMI at the last moment the release was cancelled by Brian Epstein who decided against releasing it. One of the best tracks on Disc1 belongs to a number called ‘The Grass Will Sing For You’ a beautifully constructed song that sounds like a cross between The Beach Boys & The Association, albeit with Tony’s own musical magic touch to the exquisite harmony work. Tony is no mean songwriter either CD1 concludes with his composition ‘Pantomime’ which has a whiff of psyche about it along with the trademark harmonies. After years at EMI with little to no success by late 1968 things badly needed to change. And change they did in came a new manager, a new producer Chris (Yesterday Man) Andrews & a new label RCA Records. In January 1969 this combination along with a name change to Harmony Grass finally rewarded Tony & the boys with a No 24 hit record with ‘Move In A Little Closer’ a gloriously catchy slice of pop, retaining the harmonies the band were renowned for, but also adding far more orchestral backing (courtesy of Johnny Arthey), a move, purist Tony wasn’t especially onboard or comfortable with.,.however nothing ventured…But again that earlier ‘curse’ i alluded to came back to bite them, when the very week ‘Move In A Little Closer’ was heading up the charts, the way in which units were sold and calculated for chart position was changed resulting in the band’s first, and as it turned out sole hit, being stuck in the 20’s when it should have been in a higher position! Although I don’t think in my own opinion Tony was as happy with his work in Harmony Grass as his previous incarnation, i personally prefer much of the material such as the beautiful ‘I’ve Seen To Dream’ (written by Tony) a very classy & i think more contemporary piece of material. Another choice track is ‘Good Thing’ to coin a phrase ‘God Only Knows’ how long it took Tony to work out all those harmony parts! The standout track for me though has to be another composition by Tony entitled ‘Summer Dreaming’, had this been put out in the USA under the CS&N name i predict it would have been a monster hit. I’m getting short of space now (as usual!) but room to mention Disc3 that is a first time on CD issue for some of the bands most popular songs recorded for BBC sessions in both Castaway & Harmony Grass configurations. To summarise, this new and much requested compilation of a British harmony icon will delight his many fans. Boasting 88 tracks, together with the splendid essay i referred to earlier, i congratulate Grapefruit Records on yet another winning release. As for Tony, he may be the only man i can think of to have the patronage of The Beach Boys, hung with The Beatles, been managed by the 2 greatest managers ever in Brian Epstein and Robert Stigwood, play everywhere you can imagine and work his socks off for a decade to only have one solitary hit to show for it by 1970. However, his story was far from over after that and he would go on to new milestones, but that is a story for another day and maybe another compilation. Enjoy!
Mick O’Dowd… They were rumoured to have been the only band to play Good Vibrations live on stage. If true I just know that they could have done it. Even the BB didn’t include it in their stage act until later on. I have seen them a couple of times at The Witch Doctor in St.Leonards in the 60’s and they appeared on the Pier as well. Great band and highly underated. Thanks for this Colin.
Alan Esdaile… Not forgetting he sung The Likely Lad’s theme ‘Whatever happened To You’.
Colin Bell… Alan, I forgot to mention that!