Year of Release: 1972
Mandrake Paddle Steamer's "Strange Walking Man" is one of the more widely compiled psychedelic singles of the sixties, and something of a collector's dream. Operating in a similar sonic space as the most woozy and uncertain sounding post-Barrett Pink Floyd tunes of the period, its exposure perhaps suffered due to it being released in 1969, long after the sun set on LSD-tinged pop.
Mandrake remained skint and struggling around the London gig circuit for some time after the single flopped. Their principle songwriters, Martin Briley and Brian Engel, do not remember the period fondly - somewhat ignobly for an underground circuit figure, Martin Briley remained living at home with his parents. When it became apparent that the group didn't have a viable future, Brian packed his bags first, and Briley followed a year later.
Martin Briley quickly managed to land a job as a songwriter at George Martin's newly created Air Studios empire, and finding working by himself less successful than the collaborative work he had attempted with Engel before, he got on the blower to his old Mandrake mucker and the pair reunited again.
Scores of songs resulted from this, many of which have been compiled on the RPM Records CD "Between The Sea and The Sky". This, however, was the only single. "Pale Green Vauxhall Driving Man" is arguably one of the more deliberately oily, creepy pieces of work to slip out during the seventies, an era which contained plenty of competition. A slinking, swaggering guitar riff backs the story of a middle-aged pervert attempting to pick up very youthful women (how young? We're not told) in his Vauxhall vehicle, where he then attempts to drug them with "sticky brandy balls".
To the credit of both Briley and Engel, the track doesn't attempt to remark upon the man in an approving way, stating quite clearly "I'm that nasty, shifty kind/ That greasy nineteen-fifties kind", making it closer to a piece of Lou Reed observational work than a Rolling Stones piece of glorification on the virtues of sleaziness. However, it's a distinctly unconventional subject matter backed with some absolutely killer songwriting - that winding guitar riff and the anthemic chorus are truly brilliant pieces of work.
Sadly, the pair ran into issues with the track almost immediately with the BBC, apparently not due to the subject matter so much as the "commercial placement" in the track, by mentioning the Vauxhall make of cars. The track was hastily redubbed to include a Moog humming noise over the offending "Vauxhall" line, rendering the lyrics a bit mangled, and also somewhat strangely ignoring the fact that "Vauxhall" is still clearly audible outside of the chorus. The title was also changed to the baffling "Pale Green (Hmmmm) Driving Man". What a peculiar situation. Suffice to say, the BBC still wouldn't play the track, and it flopped.
Both the A and the B side are compiled on the aforementioned "Between The Sea and The Sky" album, and I'd recommend you head off to your nearest online audio store to buy "Pale Green..." at least. The flip, "Jaywick Cowboy", is somewhat messy and less deserving of your attention. I've included sound samples below, but the A-side is readily available in full on YouTube.
For the next part of the Engel/ Briley story, please scroll past the soundfiles.
Year of Release: 1973
Despite recording swathes of material for Air, only "Pale Green..." managed to get granted a release. The pair were on the Spark label for one LP under the name Liverpool Echo, and the pair's next dose of fortune would come courtesy of those Tin Pan Alley stalwarts Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, who needed musicians to get involved in a glam rock project they had on the go.
Rumours have circulated the internet for some time that Starbuck (not to be confused with the identially named USA band) were a studio-based creation, but in fact both Briley and Engel toured with a full group, and they were a "functioning unit" on the British circuit. Three singles were issued by the band, "Wouldn't You Like It?" (on RCA), followed by "Do You Like Boys" and "Heart Throb" on Bradleys. Absolutely all of these are worth tracking down as supremely underrated pieces of glam, but "Do You Like Boys" is truly the jewel in their crown.
Howard and Blaikley really pushed their luck to the max here, and did so in a popular culture which apparently (according to gay singer-songwriter John Howard, who claims the BBC blacklisted him) was deeply uncomfortable with overt, unquestionable, non-comedic references to homosexuality. Starbuck, however, got utterly behind the material live, despite apparently being straight. They were once booked to play at a skinhead club at Chatham in possibly one of the more baffling decisions a promoter has ever made, and took the stage with full make-up, performing with the campery pushed up to the max. Amazingly, no violent incidents were recorded.
Not long after their third single flopped, Martin Briley went on to become a top session musician (including Meat Loaf, Jimmy Webb and Donna Summer on his CV) and Brian Engel joined the New Seekers. All's well that ends well, perhaps, but in an alternate universe somewhere, Starbuck went nova and upset and outraged an entire generation with this single. It really is one of glam rock's most undeservedly overlooked tracks.
Thanks to the ever-excellent PurePop blog for bringing the duo's work to my attention many moons ago.