He gets out of his face with the Idle Race / He gets out of the room with this tune
- the Fall, 1979
The Birthday Party (1968) ***1/2
Initially I naturally thought of the Idle Race as imitating the Move imitating the Beatles, but with a lighter, softer pop touch in contrast to the Move's somewhat doomy Who-derived rocking. On second listen, I noticed that the very-velly English whimsy and music hall influences spiced liberally with the softer edges of psychedelia put me more in mind of the Idle Race imitating Syd Barrett imitating the Kinks. In final conclusion, however, this sounds like a preview of Wings. It's exactly the sort of post-psychedelic, post-Beatles, post-pot damaged nonsense that Paul McCartney would pump out circa "Admiral Halsey". In other words, it sounds like a dead ringer for Dukes of Stratosphear era XTC aiming for The Bee Gees' 1st. If this fundamentally childish album weren't so bloody fun it would be impossible to take seriously.
First a little biography. The guy in the Afro is Jeff Lynne, later of the Move and even later of ELO, but of course most infamous as the fifth Traveling Wilbury. The Idle Race were formed from the ashes of a beat-era group known around town as the Nightriders, which featured an up and coming Roy Wood before he was poached as the chief genius behind the Move. A teenage Lynne was drafted in as a replacement, and their debut single was....a cover of the Move's "Here We Go 'Round the Lemon Tree." Naturally, given all those incestuous ties within the Birmingham scene, the Idle Race never quite shook off (then or now) a little kid brother to the Move rep. And in all fairness, such a reputation wasn't unwarranted - the music here is very Move-like. I rate the Idle Race just a notch or two below the Move simply for the fact that the Move's harder rocking tunes sound bigger and more fully developed; the chintzy production values write the Idle Race's music on a more miniature scale. However, even at this point, Lynne's songwriting skills were quickly catching up with his slightly older mentor's.
One other distinction from the Move is that the operative word here is 'childish': the Idle Race were clearly aiming for what may be described as 'bubblegum psychedelia', more "Yellow Submarine" than "Tomorrow Never Knows". Tastes are tastes, and I can completely sympathize with those who find the likes the absolutely idiotic "Sitting in a Tree," charmingly sing-a-long rather than Forrest Gumpish. Likewise, a few other simplistic novelty numbers such as, "(Don't Put Your Boys in the Army) Mrs. Ward," and "I Like My Toys," (yes, a real title, and indeed as childish as you'd expect) spoil my appetite. The proximity to such stuff slightly mars more substantial fare, such as the gorgeous "Morning Sunshine," and "The Lady Who Said She Could Fly," which demonstrate that even as a tender prodigy, Lynne's hypermelodic abilities had arrived fully formed. The title track was a wise choice for a single (even if it undeservedly flopped, like every other Idle Race single): beginning with a 23-second mock-orchestral (foreshadowings of ELO!) snippet of the most widely-known song in the English language, it leads to a mock-melodramatic, faux-melancholy ballad concerning a girl who commits suicide because no one remembered her birthday. With exception of guitarist Dave Pritchard's "Pie in the Sky" (fine little tune) and that snippet of "Happy Birthday," all of the 13 tunes are Lynne originals. A not insignificant feat in an era when most bands still relied on covers to pay the bills. Maybe this kid might amount to something someday. In short, while this music is by no means essential to any but diehard British Invasion fanatics, it is likeable and fun, not to mention a nifty appetizer for greater achievements to come.
P.S. In keeping with U.K. practice of the day, gems such as "Imposters of Life's Magazine," which were released earlier as singles, did not appear on the debut album. Wanted to avoid overlap, you see. And since there is no CD reissue with bonus tracks currently available, you'll have to look those singles up yourself. Such music as this has grown somewhat overrated over the passing years due to its inaccessibility, but we are fortunate enough to live in the age of Youtube. Enjoy and indulge for yourself!