Album Reviews

Thunderclap Newman - Hollywood Dream

A studio outfit put together by producer Pete Townshend more or less as a way of thanking John "Speedy" Keen for his 1967 contribution ("Aremenia City In The Sky") to The Who Sell Out ; Thunderclap Newman's odd-man-in lineup featured 16 year-old future wings guitarist/eventual suicide victim Jimmy McCulloch, an unaccredited Townshend (listed as Bijou Drains) on bass, vocalist/drummer/songwriter/former John Mayall roadie Keen (whose nose rivaled the prominence of his mentor's) and former postman/traditional jazz keyboardist/woodwind player Andy Newman.

A reminder of the Summer Of Love some two years later or, perhaps, a Tommy outtake deemed somehow inappropriate for that particular album, "Something In The Air" was a brilliant AM radio single as well as a dead-ringer for classic Who and, as a result, spent two weeks in the lower rungs of the American Top 40 in the latter half of 1969.

That, however, proved to be it for Thunderclap Newman. Despite a couple of potential singles, a touch of Traffic-like jazz, Small Faces psychedelia, a few hints at Badfinger-style pop, McCulloch's wonderful "Hollywood Dream (Instrumental)," a nine minute bit of existential spaceout and Speedy's Who Came First Pete Townshend-ish vocals and songwriting ability; nothing else on Hollywood Dream managed to catch radio's attention quite like "Something In The Air" and the band self-destructed while on tour in 1970.
A "must have" for Who fans, the reissue of this semi-operatic (indeed, Hollywood Dream fits quite nicely between Tommy parts one and two) album includes the single versions of "Something In The Air," "Accidents" and "The Reason," as well as two strange slabs of Bix Beiderbecke beerhall jazz penned by Newman and another slice of tasty period pop by McCulloch.


Speedy Keen - Previous Convictions

Knockabout drummer John "Speedy" Keen was rescued from oblivion by a perceptive Peter Townshend, who saw in Mr. Keen an offbeat but potentially compelling talent. Townshend put Keen together with a tiny, barely adolescent guitarist named Jimmy McCulloch and middle-aged postal clerk Andy Newman, whose piano style might have won him second or third place on Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, and he named the decidedly motley assortment Thunderclap Newman. But as it turned out, the final vision came not from Townshend but from Keen. He wrote and sang the classic single "Something in the Air," and his voice, songs and unmistakable charm turned Thunderclap Newman's lone album, Hollywood Dream, into what is surely the most intimate and touching work to come out of the largely overbearingly ambitious concept-album school of rock.

McCulloch's youthfully plaintive guitar and Newman's primitive, nostalgia-drenched piano were made for Speedy, whose songs ached for a soft-focused past or an impossibly harmonious future, and whose thin voice was really just a weary but never hopeless sigh. As the expression of an unyielding belief in a world that never was and never will be, Hollywood Dream was heartbreakingly affecting. Unflinching innocence in the face of bitter experience.

In Previous Convictions, Speedy is more battered than before, but he's still conjuring neverlands. Andy Newman's silent-movie piano is here replaced by conventional but perfectly apt pop orchestrations woven through a simple rock & roll rhythm section. And the wishing and hoping this time take more conventional forms: The love song, in its various modes, dominates.

"Old Fashioned Girl," the most accessible Keen song ever and possibly the most commercial, perfectly represents his approach:

... Take me back to the old days
Take me back to the old ways
Take me back to a good old-fashioned girl...
Take my hand and I'll show you
Deep down inside my love is true
There ain't nothin' they can do to bring us down ...

In the next, he proclaims his disillusionment with the hope of universal brotherhood voiced (somewhat haltingly, perhaps) in "Something in the Air," warning the listener to keep his head down just as he does, because somebody's always getting blown apart. He's looking at the present, but only long enough to reject it. And he still refuses to despair.

Eddie Cochran's "Somethin' Else" gets Speedy's most energetic vocal ever; if you recall, it expresses the singer's equal desires for a great car and a great girl. Another song you'd think would require a large dose of energy, Dylan's hurt and angry "Positively Fourth Street," is, in Speedy's rendition, just hurt; it sounds like it hurts so much that there isn't anything left for anger. He shows what a sad song it really is, and by the way he sings it he implies that even great sadness is affirmative—at least for the sake of dreaming.

The following song, "Forever After," is an anthem of romantic love, complete with Glen Osser-like strings (it's not parody, it's heartfelt), and the last real song, "Aires Lady" (sic) proclaims that the perfect, astrologically suited girl is out there just waiting to be found. But in between, in "That's the Way It Is," Speedy laments, "Today they shoot to kill/Today they don't stand still/Today you know there is no peace of mind ... on my mind/And that's the way it is ..." Romantic love is Speedy's solution to an intolerable world that won't leave him alone. The naivete of his viewpoint and earnestness with which he expresses it through that eroded voice give his songs a beauty that goes way beyond the literal ideas they communicate. (Rolling Stone 140)



Speedy Keen - Y'Know Wot I Mean?   

Y'Know Wot I Mean? reclaims much of the ground Speedy Keen laid out on Hollywood Dream (with Thunderclap Newman) but lost on his first solo try, Previous Convictions. Keen's first record in three years rocks confidently with support from bassist Terry Wilson, drummer Tony Braunagel and keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick (all currently in Back Street Crawler), along with B.J. Cole on steel guitar and Butch "Peaches" Sandford on lead guitar. Keen himself is still a man of variety, playing drums, guitar and keyboards, but his vocal transformation is most striking—weak warbling has given way to a fuller and more assured delivery.

On side one, Keen emphasizes his obviously beloved rock & roll roots. Chuck Berry-derived rhythm guitar work is prominent, well complemented by Cole's steel guitar, especially on the opening (and later repeated) riff of "Fighting in the Streets." Oddly, Keen fails on an authentic item from the genre: Roy Orbison's "Almost Eighteen" is buried in an indistinguishable, miserably mixed rhythm section. An interesting side venture, however, is "Bad Boys," a reggae spot backed by the Jamaican group Third World.

Keen sets aside straight rock & roll for a more personal and reserved approach on side two, the high point of which is the uplifting chorus of "Someone to Love." But he concludes the record poorly—"The Profit on Ecology" certainly has the right sentiments in mind but it's much too hackneyed to produce the desired effect. The pleasant tune and bouncy acoustic guitars are wasted; the cash register sound at the finish is ludicrous. Even so, it still doesn't ruin Keen's largely impressive return. (Rolling Stone 211)

Pictured left to right:
Jim Avery - bass guitar (live band);
Jack McCulloch - drums (live band);
Andy Newman - piano, kazoo, glockenspiel, oboe, tin whistle, cor anglais, soprano sax, tenor sax, bass sax, bengali flute, hand bells, indian finger cymbals, chinese temple block, sleigh bells, vocals; Jimmy McCulloch - electric guitar,  acoustic guitar; Speedy Keen - vocals, drums, acoustic guitar, organ.