An album celebrating his return to his roots after years living in Manchester, with its heady dose of nostalgia and memories, borrowing the title from Thomas Hardy (and with a cover that sees him fork in hand to dig up old ground), Bromsgrove-born Alan Wilkes’ thirteenth album (fourteenth if you include his Parlour Flames collaboration with Bonehead) Return Of The Native is a magnificently parochial collection that really does mark him down as Worcestershire’s Ray Davies. It opens in 1974 at the height of glam rock with ‘The Grove & The Ditch’, a riff driven, feedback laced stomp about local teenage gang rivalries that references, among others, T Rex, heavy rock outfit Jameson Raid and their regular Hopwood bikers’ venue haunt, Lickey Hills pub The Forest Inn, Bromsgove café The Strand, Rocky Horror, The Bay City Rollers, Gary Glitter, Donny Osmond and Tony Blackburn’s on-air meltdown over his split with Tessa Wyatt while Bowie is clearly there among the musical influences. Anyone who ever, as he puts it, got “off their tits” on pills in a Wacky Warehouse will resonate with this.
It’s off to another part of the county for the jangling, punningly titled ‘Malvern Winter Gardener’, a song about a faded rock star and the Malvern Winter Gardens, one of the top venues during the 60s, 70s and 80s, Vinny recalling seeing, among others, the likes of Budgie, Sassafras, The Clash and Eddie & The Hot Rods. By way of shift, ‘Blackpole’, another area of Worcester, spins a darkly jocular tale of a battle re-enactor who, following an unfortunate moment of realism, now haunts the re-enactment fields and his former girlfriend who, as it happens, married the undertaker.
Combining the nickname for San Francisco with a Chinese restaurant in Blackpole, ‘Golden City’ touches on depression and moving on, a subject of several of his previous songs and the calm familiar places can bring, then it’s another string of memento memoriae name checks with the album’s jauntily sunny and boisterous title track which, flitting around Bromsgrove and Droitwich starts with Rik Mayall, Chateau Impney and Dudley Zoo and references the likes of Jim Reeves, Sandy Richardson (a character in cheesy ITV soap Crossroads, since you ask), Coronation Street star Doris Speed and 70s Redditch punk outfit The Cravats alongside local colourful characters and shops.
The lovely Lilac Time-like acoustic strum of ‘A Girl From Bromsgrove Town’ provides the true story of an ill-fated schooldays romance, recalling how he turned up at college to surprise her and found her kissing the girl next door, returning thirty years later to where she grew up. Whether he knocks on the door or not, you’ll have to get the disc to find out.
Some may remember the late singer-songwriter Clifford T Ward who had hits with ‘Gaye’ and ‘Scullery’ in the early 70s. Before finding brief musical fame, he was a school teacher in Bromsgrove and, yes, one of his pupils was, briefly, a young Alan Wilkes, the quietly fingerpicked tumbling melody of ‘The Singing Schoolteacher’ being an affectionate memory of how Ward introduced him to the Romantic poets but, more crucially inspired his musical visions and how they bonded over tales of Bronco and Dandelion Records.
The musical tone sharpens a few notches with the inspirationally titled ‘Detroitwich’, which, sporting Pet Shop Boys influences (‘West End Girls’ to be specific) driven by drums and a paranoid guitar riff spins a semi-rapped fantasy about how, having got the wrong plane, Eminem (“the millionaire rapper who sampled Chas n Dave”) winds up in Droitwich (the former home of Rik Mayall, the song reminds) in a Wicker Man scenario and has to be rescued by P Diddy, stopping off for a pint at The Swan on the A38 before escaping to somewhere safer.
‘On Rainbow Hill’, a ward in Worcestershire, provides the setting for a sparsely arranged downbeat guitar and piano waltzer, the fallout from another love that could never be (“I finished with me when I finished with you”), that melancholic mood spilling across into the six-minute guitars and cellos swathed psychedelic drone ambience of ‘David Swan River Man’, a tribute to another local eccentric who feeds and cares for the local swans and ducks.
It ends gloriously with the poignant emotional cadences of ‘Game Over’, a thematic echo of ‘On Rainbow Hill’ about breaking off a relationship and moving away and then being haunted by loneliness and regrets for could have been, the lyrics specifically referencing Ian Curtis and, of course, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.
You might not get most of the album’s references, but you’ll not fail to feel the universality of the emotions.
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Artist’s website: www.vinnypeculiar.com
‘Malvern Winter Gardener’ – official video: