Graded on a Curve: Thunderclap Newman, Hollywood Dream

There are One Hit Wonders and One Album Wonders, and occasionally the paths of those two dubious honors intersect. One such instance is UK group Thunderclap Newman, mostly celebrated for their single “Something in the Air” but also noted for their only LP, 1969’s Hollywood Dream. The record contains that superb single, but it also features a surplus of additional charm, and while its profile has increased substantially, it’s sadly plagued by its reputation as the sole document from one of rock’s notable underachievers.

And to be blunt, Thunderclap Newman is a questionable entry into the club of the One Album Wonder anyway. They have the solitary LP down pat, but a passionate bout of quibbling just might break out over the Wonder part of the equation. For Hollywood Dream, released after “Something in the Air” spent three weeks as a UK number one hit, was something of a stiff in terms of sales. It climbed no higher than #161 in the US album chart, and the single was a bit of an American sleeper, making it to only #37. And in an odd twist, apparently the LP was even more coolly received in their home country.

When the band’s back-story is added into the mix, Hollywood Dream’s landing with a splat of relative indifference becomes something of a persistent head-scratcher. Vocalist/drummer John “Speedy” Keen had previously penned “Armenia City in the Sky” for The Who’s 1967 album The Who Sell Out. Pianist and band namesake Andy Newman looked like a dry run for the likes of Bun E. Carlos and banged on the keys like an auxiliary member of the Bonzo Dog Band. A suitable nickname for their young guitarist would be “The Kid,” or maybe even better “The Face,” for it’d be well nigh impossible to find a more splendiferously Mod figure than the one cut by Jimmy McCulloch on the record’s cover.

Throw in that Pete Townsend played bass on the LP and its lack of performance is indeed a stumper. It’s in essence an album tailor made for Beatles fans, registering at times like a slightly more twee incarnation of Badfinger, though they never cross the line into the precious. Maybe the problem was that at the point of the record’s release The Beatles hadn’t really broken up yet (though the end was certainly near). However, Badfinger’s sales figures in ’70 and ’71 surely benefited from the realization of many that their favorite band was no longer extant.

But it’s no use second guessing the apathy of the marketplace. And Hollywood Dream wasn’t a total flop, anyway. They had pomp, they had pop smarts, and they had strong musicianship; in particular, the guitar playing of teenager McCulloch and the distinctive falsetto voice of Keen. And Newman’s rollicking barrelhouse approach to the ivories was an obvious plus as well, the element in “Something in the Air” that ultimately raised it to the status of classic, though it was also an element the band and producer Townsend seemed occasionally at sea over how to use most effectively.

I mention Townsend because it was completely under his auspices that Thunderclap Newman became an active concern. Keen had been his chauffeur, he’d known Newman from art school, and in their youthful guitarist he obviously recognized a crucial asset when he saw/heard it (post-breakup, McCulloch went on to play lead in Wings). But if Townsend was essentially enacting his desire to be a pop wunderkind along with a touch of the old reliable rock star philanthropy toward a few of his friends, the strokes to his ego didn’t negatively affect the music.

The record opens with “Hollywood #1,” a fine bit of whimsical strum that pursues the titular theme of nostalgic celluloid fantasy, a motif that returns on the album’s second side. A strong opener, its lyrics also can’t avoid feeling a bit rushed, a common trait from a period where acts still routinely recorded two albums a year. But as driven home earlier, Thunderclap Newman only recorded one album in their entire career. I just came out a few short months after “Something in the Air” was an unexpected smash.

And initially, Townsend had apparently envisioned three separate projects, one for each of Thunderclap’s members (did I say something about a wannabe wunderkind?) That needy arcade shark known as Tommy forced him to consolidate everything into one group, however. With this bit of lore in mind, it’s testament to the talents of the three principals (and yes, to Townsend’s acumen) that Hollywood Dream succeeds so highly rather than mucking up into a musical muddle.

“Hollywood #1” detours at the two minute point into a showcase for Newman’s trendily old-hat pianistic skills, another recurring theme across the record. In this case it works quite well, adding to the filmic flashback idea and giving off the vibe of a romping score to a hypothetical saloon scene in an old silent western. As the album progresses though, this side of the band’s performance triangle can feel at moments somewhat grafted on.

As time has marched forward this situation hasn’t exactly harmed Hollywood Dream; it has however dated the disc something fierce, but that’s not really a bad thing at all. Everything dates, eventually even stuff that’s ahead of its time, and in the case of Thunderclap Newman this datedness pleasantly expands upon an era where it was considered perfectly sensible to add a music hall inflected keyboard-knocker to the lineup of your band. Not only does his jittery piano break in “Something in the Air” effectively solidify the tune as so much more than just a passage of post-hippie ache, but his understated playing on “The Old Cornmill” shows he could wisely fall back and lead from behind.

But the album has other treats in store. There’s McCulloch’s exceptional guitar solo on “Reason.” There’s a top-notch Dylan cover “Open the Door, Homer” that bookends very well on the opposite side of an era from Manfred Mann’s “The Mighty Quinn.” There’s the sweet run-through of late-Mod strutting that’s “Look Around,” with maybe Keen’s best turn at the drum seat.

There’s the extended expansionist hoo-hah of “Accidents” (with a fantastic bass line from old Pete), easily the most far-out selection from a record that’s often over-emphasized as a product of the “psychedelic era.” There’s “When I Think” featuring some wiggly soprano sax from Newman, an ingredient tipping off that Hollywood Dream wasn’t really built with live touring in mind.

And there’s the instrumental title track, which basically serves as a showcase for a diversity of instrumentation (lap steel, horns, percussion) and for Townsend’s production skills (did I say something about ego?) The original Track label LP ends with “Something in the Air;” a very smart move only enhanced by time.

For my introduction to the group’s big single came through an import 2LP compilation titled Formula 30, a four sided doozy that in addition to the subject of this review also hipped my young mind to such major and not so easy to hear in the States circa the mid-‘80s cuts as The Spencer Davis Group’s “Keep On Running,” The Small Faces’ “Sha La La La Lee,” Ike & Tina’s “Nutbush City Limits,” The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown,” and best of all, Jeff Beck’s “Hi Ho Silver Lining.”

But I digress. Back on point, roughly a decade went by before I located a copy of Hollywood Dream (I’ll confess that I wasn’t looking all that hard) and when I spun it the smartness of the track selection intensified the experience substantially. Upon dropping needle, everything was based on my knowledge of “Something in the Air.” The first side pushed me toward and pulled me away from that specific frame of reference and then gave me time for reflection.

Side two did the same, but it also fleshed out that Thunderclap Newman had developed into something more than simply a One Hit Wonder; they were a worthwhile band that just happened to buckle under the weight of expectations after a single LP. And the side ends with the hit, reminding why the record was bought in the first place and bringing the whole process full circle.

The Esoteric label issued a CD with an added half-dozen tracks back in 2009, but in doing so they screwed the pooch somewhat, moving “Something in the Air” into the opening spot. As if anyone buying the disc for the extra songs needed to be reminded of that particular tune’s existence. In so doing, the album’s penultimate cut “Hollywood #2,” basically a replay of (former) opener “Hollywood #1” was followed by the “Single Version” of their hit, morphing into a listening experience that’s overcome with a dubious symmetrical double (actually quadruple) whammy and the nagging reminder of their fleeting success.

No, it’s not a mountainous problem. Reprogramming the tracks easily corrects it and just skipping over Track One returns things essentially to normal. But my recommendation for the curious is to hold out for a nice used copy of the LP (it’s been reissued numerous times) and then download or stream the extra stuff, the unsurprisingly kooky Andy Newman-penned “Wilhelmina” being the best of the lot.

Or maybe some enterprising vinyl label will release it all as a gatefold double record set, the band’s three singles filling up an EP, with A-sides and B-sides on opposing ends of the wax. It would be a swell one-stop collection for a very interesting band, one that deserves better than to be continually dogged by their shortcomings.


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