Cult Classic: The Deadbeats-On Tar Beach.

There aren’t many teenagers who dream of leaving the Florida sunshine to head to London, and form a band. That’s what Suzie May did in 1979.

She left her home in the Florida suburbs, and arrived in Camden Town, London. Already Suzie May was halfway towards fulfilling her dream. That was to form a band whose music was a combination of sixtes girl groups like The Ronettes, Motown and Merseybeat sound  Just over a year later, she achieved her dream.

The story began after Suzie May placed an advert in Melody Maker saying singer “seeking musician with quiffs.” This was the first chapter in The Deadbeats story which began after  Suzie May arrived in London, and quickly settled in to Camden Town’s thriving music scene. She quickly made friends with local musicians and got a job as a waitress in Dingwalls, one of Camden’s many music venues. After work, Suzie May headed home to the squat she was living in where she wrote songs on a guitar she had bought in a charity shop. All the time, she was determined to form a band and before long, her dream would become a reality.

Two exiled Nottingham musicians, bassist Kevin Green and guitarist Tony Berrington saw the advert in Melody Maker. They couldn’t miss an advert that only said singer “seeking musician with quiffs.” Intrigued, the two former members of the GTs answered the advert. 

Unlike Suzie May, Kevin Green and Tony Berrington were both experienced musicians and the GTs had contributed two tracks to the punk album Raw Deal and after this, they were asked to join The Favourites, which consisted of former members of Plummet Airlines. Then in December 1980, the pair answered Suzie’s advert.

When Suzie May met Kevin Green and Tony Berrington it was a meeting of minds. They had similar musical tastes, including The Beatles, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Brill Building pop and Gene Vincent. Given they shared the same musical tastes, the trio decided to form a band. All they needed was a drummer.

This was where Parker Semmons came in. Previously, he had been a drummer in rockabilly bands. Suzie, Kevin and Tony approached Parker and he agreed to come along to a rehearsal. After just one rehearsal, Parker realised this was a band going places. He agreed to join the band which became The Deadbeats. 

Before long, The Deadbeats were playing around London. During this period, The Deadbeats started writing their own material. Suzy was the main songwriter and used the music of her childhood as a basis for her songs. Suzie drew inspiration from an an eclectic range of sources including  everything from sixties girl groups, The Beatles, adverts and jingles. What they each had in common was they were melodic. That was key for Suzie and the rest of The Deadbeats, who were part of London’s burgeoning rockabilly scene.

Although Suzie was the principal songwriter, the rest of The Deadbeats helped shape a new song. They moulded it into shape. Gradually, during practise sessions and concerts, The Deadbeats were honing their sound. They had firm ideas about how their music should sound. That meant when The Deadbeats recorded a demo, they knew what they were trying achieve.

Recording of The Deadbeats’ demo took place at EMI’s Manchester studios. Taking charge of the sessions was former Babe Ruth guitarist Alan Shatlock. For a while, there was talk that The Deadbeats were about to sign for EMI. However, sudden “budget cuts” resulted no contract being forthcoming. It was after this, that drummer Parker Semmons left. Not long after this, The Deadbeats’ luck changed.

Peter Jenner and Blackhill Enterprises approached The Deadbeats about managing the band. As an added incentive, they offered The Deadbeats the chance to record at Workhouse Studios. Tenpole Tudor drummer Gary Long would play drums. The result was The Deadbeats’ first single.

Crazy Hound Dog, Crazy When I Hear That Girl and New Girl were recorded at Workhouse Studios in 1982. Producing the sessions was Laurie Latham. He came up with the idea of giving Crazy Hound Dog a Spector-esque makeover. He was preaching to the converted as The Deadbeats were huge Phil Spector fans and were excited that New Girls would be their homage to their idol.

Unfortunately, New Girls wasn’t released a single, and instead, Crazy Hound Dog was. On the B-side was Crazy When I Hear That Girl. Releasing their debut single should’ve been one of the most exciting periods of The Deadbeats’ career. However, it was and it wasn’t.

For any band, the release of their debut single is a cause for celebration. This was the case for The Deadbeats. The release of Crazy Hound Dog in 1982, was  landmark in The Deadbeats’ career. Unfortunately, not long after the release of Crazy Hound Dog, Blackhill Enterprises became insolvent and went into receivership. It was one step forward and two steps back for The Deadbeats.

Things improved in early 1982. The Deadbeats found the drummer they’d been looking for. This was ex-Meteors drummer Mark Robertson. His addition to The Deadbeats’ lineup proved to be a blessing in disguise.

Not only was he a talented drummer, but a Francophile who could see beyond the White Cliffs of Dover. The country he loved most was France and he spoke fluent French. This came in useful when The Deadbeats met Jiri Smetena, who owned a club in Paris, Le Gibus. He helped organise a lengthy tour of France for The Deadbeats and even better, helped arrange a record deal with Frech record label, New Rose Records. 

Now signed to New Rose Records, The Deadbeats headed to Jackson’s Studio, in Rickmansworth, where they would record ten songs. Nine of the songs were penned by Suzie May. The other was a version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. It was arranged by The Deadbeats. Producing what became On Tar Beach was Vic Maile, who  previously, had produced The Animals’ single We’ve Got To Get Out of This Place and Motorhead’s 1980 classic album Ace Of Spades. Vic had also worked with Led Zeppelin, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, The Small Faces and Eric Clapton. So having Vic produce On Tar Beach, was something of a coup for The Deadbeats.

Especially since Vic’s mixer at Jackson’s Studio was a vintage, all-valve desk. This fitted in with The Deadbeats’ policy of only using vintage instruments. The Deadbeats believed this helped them to recreate an authentic early sixties sound. However, this came at a price. Bassist Kevin Green and guitarist Tony Berrington only played vintage Harmony and Gretsch guitars and basses. Similarly, drummer Mark Robertson used a 1963 Gretsch drum kit. Instruments like those used by The Deadbeats were expensive, particularly instruments in good condition. However, The Deadbeats believed this was important to creating an authentic sixties sound to their as yet, unnamed album.

Having recorded their debut album, the only thing it lacked was a name. Then a friend of Suzy’s, Scurvy D. Bastard just happened to mention that when he grew up in New York in the early sixties, people escaped the oppressive heat by sleeping on the roof. This Scurvy said was spending time “on tar beach.” Straight away, everyone realised this was the perfect title for The Deadbeats’ unnamed album.

On Tar Beach was released in 1985. Originally, On Tar Beach was meant to be released only in France. Then Andy Hurt, a reviewer for Sounds wrote a review. He gave the album five stars. This was the highest accolade any album could receive. However, On Tar Beach wasn’t really promoted in Britain. The only promotion On Tar Beach received was a short promotional film.

Despite this, The Deadbeats ended up supporting The Pogues on a tour of the North of England. Sadly, On Tar Beach wasn’t a commercial success in Britain. Things were very different in Mark Robertson’s beloved France.

Over in France, The Deadbeats were a hugely popular band. Night after night, The Deadbeats played to sold out crowds. This included some of France’s premier venues, including Chez Paulette in Roul, The Rex in Paris and Heartbreak Hotel in Sete. Throughout that 1985 tour, The Deadbeats were winning friends and influencing people coast-to-coast. This translated into record sales and On Tar Beach was New Rose Records’ second biggest selling album. Only The Cramps outsold The Deadbeats. On Tar Beach was a huge success. 

Fall In Love Tonite opens On Tar Beach. Suzie hollers, as the rhythm section provide a sixties-inspired heartbeat. She literally swaggers her way through the lyrics. Surf style guitars reverberate into the distance, as harmonies answer Suzie’s feisty vocal. When all this is combined, the result is a strutting slice of rocky, raunchy music with a vintage sound.

As Crazy When I Hear That Beat unfolds, there are similarities to Dick Dale and the original Batman theme. There’s even a nod to Gene Vincent. Soon, the arrangement is akin to a wall of sound. Key to this wall of sound are the surf guitars. Suzie’s vocal sounds not unlike Debbie Harry. She combines a similar mixture of sass and confidence. Good as Suzie’s vocal is, Tony Berrington’s glorious guitar solo proves show stealer. He sounds as if he was weaned on surf music, as he unleashes a blistering solo and adds the finish touch to this hidden gem. 

Straight away, it’s hard to believe the wistful New Girl wasn’t recorded in 1963.. That’s down to the rhythm section, Tony Berrington’s Shadow-esque guitar and Suzie’s vocals which is full of heartache and hurt. Meanwhile, the bass helps drive the arrangement along. A strummed acoustic guitar is panned left, drums pound and chimes add to the Spector-esque wall of sound. Suzie adds the final touch to this homage to Phil Spector and his early sixties girl groups with her heartbroken vocal.

Bobby shimmers, before the arrangement gallops along. When Suzie’s vocal enters, it’s dramatic, and full of sadness and regret. Gradually, the story unfolds. Drums are at the heart of the galloping arrangement. They’re joined by harmonies, a Hammond organ, surf guitars and chimes. They add a Spector-esque twist to a song that’s full of pain and pathos. It sounds as if it should’ve been recorded by The Shangri-Las or The Ronettes. 

Suzie’s vocal is full of drama on Delilah. No wonder. She’s about to confront her cheating man. The arrangement is jazz-tinged and understated. That’s before it reveals its secrets. Soon, Suzie is accompanied by standup bass, hissing hi-hats and piano. The bass also helps power the arrangement along and later, so does Tony’s searing, chiming crystalline guitar. As usual, it plays an important roll in The Deadbeats’ sound. So do the bass and pounding drums. Together, The Deadbeats join forces to create an atmospheric, dramatic and cinematic backdrop to Suzie’s feisty vocal.

Don’t Tell Joe sees The Deadbeats kick out the jams. Scorching, blistering guitars are responsible for a rockier sound. Suzie’s vocal is edgier. She mixes power, with fear and frustration. Meanwhile, the rhythm section provide the heartbeat. Later, Tony unleashes another guitar masterclass. His scorching solo is spellbinding. The same can be said of Suzie’s vocal. She delivers the lyrics as if she’s lived them. As she does this, a breathy, whispery vocal is panned left and finger clicks are panned right. They’re  finishing touches to this rocky kitchen sink drama.

A quivering guitar sets the scene for Suzie’s dramatic vocal on Sexy Sadie. Soon, The Deadbeats kick loose. The rhythm section lock into a tight groove. A punchy bass is a perfect foil for Tony’s shimmering, surf guitar. He unleashes some blistering licks. Suzie swaggers her way through the track. Sassy harmonies, handclaps and another guitar masterclass provide the perfect accompaniment to Suzie’s vocal.

Stabs of drums and guitar are joined by an organ that provides an authentic sixties sound on When You Dance. Suzie mixes confidence and sass, as the track swings. Again, The Deadbeats sound as if they recorded this track back in the sixties. It’s not just the style of music, but their use of vintage equipment. All this plays its part in a rollicking slice of sixties inspired, hook-laden music.

Never before will you have heard Swan Lake like this. The Deadbeats take what’s a seminal piece of music and give it a rousing makeover. Expect whoops, hollers, twangy, jangling, surf guitars and pounding rhythm section. What follows is a musical roller coaster that you won’t want to get off.

Closing On Tar Beach is Johnny Reb. Here, Suzie sounds not unlike Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. Jangling guitars join the rhythm section in providing the backdrop for Suzie’s vocal. It’s a mixture of drama, emotion and sadness. Her vocal, like the arrangement, grows in power. Then as if to reinforce the drama and pathos, the tempo slows, before increasing. Later, the arrangement marches along, as it becomes a homage to The Shangri La’s Leader Of The Pack. Drama, emotion and pathos are combined to create a poignant track to close On Tar Beach.

Released in 1985 to critical acclaim, On Tar Beach could’ve been the start of the rise and rise of The Deadbeats. It wasn’t. Instead, 1985s On Tar Beach proved to the only album The Deadbeats recorded. It’s a hidden gem of an album that is a reminder of another era.

On Tar Beach is akin to a love story to the music that inspired The Deadbeats. This was what Suzie May had hoped when she flew from Florida to London. She fuses not just sixtes girl groups like The Ronettes and The Shangri Las with Motown and Merseybeat, but surf music, perfect pop, rockabilly and rock. There’s even a nod towards psychedelia, Blondie, The Stray Cats and The Pretenders. On Tar Beach is a glorious melange of musical influences and genres by one of music’s best kept and most melodic secrets, The Deadbeats.

Cult Classic: The Deadbeats-On Tar Beach.






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