Way back in 1972, Martin Stone and Philip Lithman, reunited as a duo following the former’s stint with blues acts Savoy Brown and Mighty Baby and the latter’s time with The Residents in San Francisco, signed to Revelation Records and recorded Kings Of The Robot Rhythm under their new name. For the sessions they enlisted singer Jo Ann Kelly and Nick Lowe, Billy Rankin and Bob Andrews from Brinsley Schwarz. Looking to go out on the road, they then added Paul Bailey, Paul Riley and Pete Thomas, the latter three creating the line up that, alongside Stone and Lithman, would go on to record Bongos Over Balham in 1974, Kelly being joined on backing vocals by both Jacqui McShee and Carol Grimes. The following year, unable to make a go of things, despite playing some 400 gigs, the band broke up.
However, they left behind a legacy as being not just one of the pioneers of the British pub rock scene but, alongside Brinsley Schwarz, one of the first British acts to draw on what we today call Americana. Over the years they have, however, rather faded from memory, so this double CD anthology is a welcome reminder of what was and should have been.
It contains the band’s two albums in their entirety along with a generous selection of bonus recordings, some demos, some unreleased and some from the 1996 I’ll Be Home compilation. The debut album announced their country blues intentions with ‘Living Out Of My Suitcase’ and the self-referencing ‘The Ballad of Chilli Willi’, throwing in some jugband with ‘Astrella From The Astral Plane’, ragtime country on ‘Nashville Rag’ and Lithman’s one-minute frenzied bluegrass instrumental ‘Fiddle Dee’. Save for a couple of traditional blues arrangements, ‘Window Pane’ and ‘Get Your Gauge Up Let Your Love Come Down’, the material was all written by the duo, either together or Lithman alone, although the accompanying Chalk Farm demos (imploding sessions overseen by and featuring Mike Nesmith, who remains uncredited) extended selections to covers of both Jesse Winchester (‘Midnight Bus’) and the Barry/Greenwich number ‘I Wanna Love Her So Bad’.
Also among them is a version of Louis Jordan classic ‘Choo Choo Ch’Boogie’, a slicker version of which provided the opening track for Bongos, an early production credit for engineer Ron Nevison who would go on to produce Survivor, Heart and Kiss. It also featured polished, more fleshed out versions of several of the other demos, including the scampering ‘Truck Driving Girl’, ‘Jungle Song’, ‘Desert Island Woman’ and the Winchester number, Among the new material, ‘Fiddle Diddle’ afforded another showcase for Lithman’s fiddle skills while PC Bailey provided sax on both Stone’s rollicking arrangement of the traditional blues ‘Just Like The Devil’ and Lithman’s rousing rock n rolling nod to Chuck Berry homage closer ‘9-5 Songwriting Man’.
The second disc’s bonus tracks include country romping studio outtake ‘I’ll Be Home’ featuring pedal steel legend Red Rhodes, a live radio broadcast of Robert Johnson’s ‘Walkin’ Blues’, five live recordings from either the Roundhouse or Kilburn State among them Doug Kershaw’s ‘Papa and Mama Had Love’, Carl Perkins’ ‘Boppin’ The Blues’, Carl Montgomery’s seminal trucker song ‘Six Days On The Road’ and, another fiddle showcase, ‘Fire On The Mountain’, the remaining two cuts, both covers, being demos recorded at Dave Robinson’s studio above the Hope and Anchor, Johnny Guitar Watson’s parping sax blues dance floor strutter ‘Posin’ Yeah’ and Chuck Bowers’ 1955 78rpm Western Swing B-side, ‘Pinball Boogie’.
Accompanied by a booklet that reproduces the original albums and features rare photos, artwork by Barney Bubbles and sleeve notes by Paul Riley, it’s a fine salute to a band which laid the foundations for the British country boom we’re now experiencing.
Live videos weren’t the thing back in the early 70s but here’s a promo film: