I am going to set my stall out straightaway with this wonderful new release. I have been a music journalist, writing reviews, articles, gig reviews etc for over 50 years now and have always prided myself on being objective when writing about artistes, a lot of whom I know or have worked with over the years, many becoming good friends. Sometimes it’s hard to critique work, especially if it’s a negative word or two given those circumstances. There are a few artistes i confess i find it impossible to be negative about, whatever their musical work, as i love absolutely everything they do and my natural objectivity takes a rare back seat, which may be wrong but is my honest admission. Such is the case with David McWilliams and I make no apologies for waxing lyrical about this entire new compilation of his work for the Major Minor Record label. Sporting 53 tracks spread over 2 CD’s, the compilation covers David’s 3 albums for Major Minor and includes over 12 tracks making their CD debut. What is remarkable (and i can’t think of another artist that has achieved this) is the fact those 3 albums were all recorded and released over a period of just 8 months. This you might think would dilute the quality of the songs, but no that is far from the case. Born in Belfast in July 1945 David Samuel McWilliams starting writing and playing songs as a young teenager and formed his own ‘Showband’ (a popular entity in Ireland of the times), he named it the Coral Showband after the record label of the same name that released songs by his hero Buddy Holly. A demo tape of David singing his songs made it’s way to the desk of Irish music entrepreneur Phil Solomon, then domiciled in London and managing fellow Irish acts The Dubliners, The Bachelors & Them amongst others. A deal was done with CBS and in 1966 David made his debut single appearance with a strong ‘protest’ song ‘God and Country’ which opens this new Grapefruit Records compilation in fine style and given the current state of the world in relation to war is still deeply resonant all these many years later. It didn’t chart. By the end of 1966 Solomon was launching his own Record label in Major Minor. Signing David to this new enterprise in 1967 the label launched David in a blaze of publicity across the music press, on hoardings and London buses etc, not as you might think with a single, but an album entitled David McWilliams Singing Songs by David McWilliams (Vol 1) which sold moderately well in June 1967, However it was to be his second album Vol 2 released just 4 months later that would see David immortalised with the track for which he will always be remembered ‘The Days of Pearly Spencer’. This quirky insistent earworm of a song was a hit across Europe, but NOT as most people remember (wrongly) a hit in the UK. The reason we heard it so much and think it was a hit was down to Pirate stations, particularly Radio Caroline, that has seen it lodged in most peoples memories as a UK hit. It was no co-incidence that Phil Solomon had a financial interest in Caroline which guaranteed his Major Minor releases would be played to death, often to the ire of some of the stations DJ’s. This of course was ‘payola’ which came to light later at the BBC as a scandal but as the Pirates were outside the law they got away with this illegal practice of ‘hyping’ a record into the charts. The success of ‘Pearly Spencer’ saw that the second album again sell well and lead as aforementioned, to his 3rd album release in February 1968. At the time not all the music biz critics were appreciative of David’s output. Major Minor had made such a massive big deal hyping up publicity for this unknown artist, it had the detrimental effect of working against him which would lead to David becoming disillusioned with all the razzamatazz surrounding him in 1967/68 and see him buy a farm and virtually disappear from view for the next 3 years. So to the music contained on these 3 albums. Opening as aforementioned with the strong protest song ‘God and Country’ this is followed by a string of songs covering, social issues, love, repression and all facets of life. The titles tell their own story in many cases, such as ‘Redundancy Blues’ ‘The Silence is Shattered’ ‘Hiroshima’ ‘Time of Trouble’ & ‘In The Early Hours of the Morning’ to name but a few off the debut album. David much like my dear friend the late Peter Sarstedt also had that rare gift that is given to some singer/songwriters of being able to paint cinematic images in your head as you listen and get steadily drawn further into his meaningful lyrics. The 2nd album kicks off with ‘Pearly Spencer’ and it’s interesting to note that many people refer to it as that song using a ‘megaphone’. That famous signature section of the song was in fact not a megaphone but was literally phoned in to the studio from a call box outside to achieve the desired effect! A wonderful slice of music trivia to know. Immediately following ‘Pearly Spencer’ is my all time personal favourite the exquisite ‘Can I Get There By Candlelight’ which may be familiar to some of you as it was also released as a single. ‘For Josephine’ ‘How Can I Be Free’ ‘What’s the Matter With Me’ & ‘Lady Helen of the Laughing Eyes’ are just some more of the standout tracks to be relished. The 3rd album begins with another wonderful track ‘Three O’Clock Flamingo Street’ followed by ‘Harlem Street’ which was in fact the original Major Minor single release of David’s as the ‘A’ side with ‘Pearly Spencer’ on the ‘B’ side. For reasons best known to Solomon he didn’t spot the more commercial side. Maybe he was influenced by some of the less favourable reviews from some critics. Conversely and Interestingly, several industry luminaries such as my old friend Dave Dee and old bosses Chris Stamp & Kit Lambert at Track Records as well as Roger Daltrey all praised ‘Pearly Spencer’ at the time and Disc & Music Echo singled out David’s work as making you ‘sit up and really take notice’. Of all the 3 albums contained in this compilation I personally think David’s finest work appears on the 3rd album. It contains a wonderful diversity of songs, the romantic, where the songs are often augmented throughout his recording output from his debut album onwards by some lush arrangements by Mike Leander, a guy i got to know well in later years when working with the now disgraced Gary Glitter, Mike was co-writer and arranger of the majority of Glitters hits and worked with a lot of major names over many years. I am also indebted to Alan Esdaile-Johnny Mason the founder of the SMART website where this review appears, for reminding me in a conversation (prior to me writing this piece) of what a dark and wondrous outstanding track ‘The Stranger’ is that appears on this 3rd album. David had the ability to switch from ethereal lightness to dark and brooding without missing a beat. For what is probably the majority of you reading this review throwing all these titles of great songs at you may mean very little, if like the majority, your only experience of David’s catalogue has been ‘Pearly Spencer’. All i can do is urge you to listen to one of the best home grown UK singer/songwriters we ever produced. Don’t take my word for it, no less an icon than David Bowie declared David to be his favourite singer/songwriter. As ever, with a Grapefruit Records release the fold out digipack comes with a insightful essay by label boss David Wells, always an informative and fascinating read. As i said at the beginning i think it’s now apparent my love for David’s work is now thoroughly out there. Sadly David passed away in 2002 at the too early age of 56 at home in his beloved Ireland. After his 60’s success he only made occasional forays back into the industry preferring to live a quiet life, he left us with a musical legacy which is up there with the very best. Enjoy.
Stephen Moran… Thank you for posting Colin’s review Alan. Beautifully written and informative as always. I had no idea that David McWilliams was so prolific. To be honest I thought he was a one hit wonder (Days of Pearly Spencer), I’m looking forward to listening to more of his recordings.
Paul Sleet… One of my favourite artists
Colin Bell… You’ll find much to enjoy on this release Paul
Mick O’Dowd… Always loved Pearly and the album that it appeared on because of the incessant plugging by Radio Caroline. I thought Pearly was a hit but probably only on the Caroline Chart. Got the album which I rate highly, but never was able to enthuse about his later work.
Leigh Mitchell… Very interesting! Pearly only came to my attention when Marc Almond covered it, but I then heard the original, which I preferred. I can’t say I have ever heard anything else by him, unless unwittingly during Brian Mathews time presenting Sounds of the 60s! Great read, Colin! xx
Colin Bell… Marc’s cover version was good, i liked it, but yes, the original is best, thanks for the kind words! xx
Alan Esdaile… Wonderful singer and writer. I got the album The Days of David McWilliams which I must have played hundreds of times and still sounds excellent.
Here’s the track ‘The Stranger’ if you haven’t heard it…