The Pirates: spirit of the wild bunch

Greg Douglas TERRY AND THE PIRATES: "Too Close For Comfort" (Wild Bunch Records)/ "The Doubtful Handshake" (Line)

Really should know better by now but - can't help it - I love these bloody records.

Listen: while Bruce Springsteen was locked in his ivory tower for two and a half years penning his heart-tearing "Out In The Street" anthem and figuring out how to sound "primitive" with several tons of PCM digital equipment, Terry And The Pirates were waging guerilla war against the bars and clubs of the West Coast and documenting the battle on a pitiful cassette machine with one stereo microphone.

"Too Close For Comfort", the outcome of their efforts, has the added advantage of being pressed in Italy (God help us!), which means it sounds like listening to a transistor radio in a tropical rainstorm.

But still, when you crank the thing up loud enough, it's impossible to miss the spirit of it all. And with the Pirates, spirit is about all you have to sustain you, because these guys are not about to rewrite the history of music.

Leader and rhythm guitarist Terry Dolan possesses the kind of vocal finesse that makes Joe Strummer sound like Al Jarreau and (shudder) Terry's right-hand man is psychedelic enfant terrible John Cipollina, who must be the least accurate guitarist ever to have acquired a reputation.

Time and again on "Too Close", Cipollina throws himself into outrageous solos that he has absolutely no hope of resolving with dignity, making you wonder if he could play scales to save his life. On the Hawaiian steel guitar he is not even approximately in tune.

Much of the time second lead guitarist, Greg Douglas covers for him, and somehow, out of the chaos, great rock'n'roll is created. The album's tour-de-force is an eight-and-a-half-minute assault on Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Don't Do It".

Until now, I had always thought that The Band's version of this was pretty spunky, but The Pirates scream into it like rogue elephants on ice skates and mutilate it almost beyond recognition.

Cipollina sounds like Link Wray on glue, is extremely reluctant to terminate his off-the-wall soloing to allow the vocalist (in this case bass player David Hayes) a re-entry point, and uncontrolled feedback and out-of-tempo tambourine add to the general spirit of anarchy.

I mean, if we have to have heavy metal, let's do it their way, with humour and panache, okay?

After similar abusing of "Higher And Higher", "Mystery Train" and even (moan) Ten Years After's "Writing You A Letter", Terry lets us down gently with the acoustic folkie classic "Fare Thee Well" as popularised by the great Fred Neil.

In April of this year, some irresponsible executive actually gave these renegades access to a real recording studio for "The Doubtful Handshake".

They still take just about everything at merciless full throttle, and the album retains most of the warts-'n'-all audio verite feel of "Too Close", kicking off with an apocalyptic "Ain't Living Long Like This".

It seems clear that the tenor of this tune has more relevance for The Pirates than for its author, the up-and-coming Rodney Crowell. By the time the wild bunch have bashed their way through a Cipollina instrumental ("Highway"), and Dolan's hymn to his gypsy friends and outlaw relatives ("Inlaws And Outlaws"), one is too weak at the knees even to protest at the inclusion of "I Put A Spell On You".

Of course, you'll never see Terry And The Pirates on Billboard's Adult Contemporary Chart, and given today's musical climate, I suppose they are on their way down the great drainpipe of pop history. But I raise a jug of wine in honour of their descent. At least they're going out fighting. Steve Lake

Melody Maker ?ember 1, 1980

[Many thanks to Colin for the scan.]

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Last updated: 18-Jun-2005