Sweet Home, Kokomo: fear and loathing in the record industry

*If anyone from Kokomo, or anyone who knows how to contact them, reads this please get in touch. Six great tracks recorded at Apple are yours for the asking.

This is a story about the mistreatment and exploitation of artists and an insight into the sort of cynicism that gets the music industry a bad name.

I have changed a couple of names to protect myself from getting sued.

So, once upon a time there was a group called Arrival.

No, there really was. That’s not the bit I made up.

Ok. Let’s get this straight. All of this story is true. A couple of names are omitted because the bastards are still alive and might sue me.

Can I get on now? Thank you so much.

Arrival had a hit with a song called Friends on the Decca label in 1970, but recent success had not followed.

I met Arrival when I went to work at CBS, where they had recently been signed.

I fell in love with them. Frank Collins and Paddy McHugh were very out gays. Paddy sometimes wore a dress on stage. He was very beautiful.

Tony O’Malley was very huskily hetero, with soulful sandpaper where his vocal chords should have been.

And then there was Dyan Birch.

Oh, Dyan. She was that most exceptional kind of singer who simply transformed in performance into a repository for all your right-brain longings.

Offstage she was slightly terrifying. Tall, ramrod straight and utterly dignified, her default expression was a sneer of disdain and distrust. If you could make Dyan smile, it would light up your year.

I’m supposed to help them find new songs that will resuscitate their career.

Except, they don’t care. As far as they’re concerned, Arrival has departed. They’re now part of a new band called Kokomo and they want to enlist my help in getting them out of their Arrival contract.

Personally, I couldn’t give a toss one way or the other. I just want to work with these people. Not only are they an utter joy to be with, but they sing like angels. One night I offered them a lift home. I was raving about a Joni Mitchell gig I’d been to and, right there in the car, they began to run through Joni’s latest album Court & Spark, in three part harmony. That’s 30 minutes of heaven stored in my memory mansion if I ever get stranded on a desert island.

I went to see Kokomo, just to check out what I was being asked to fight for. Oh my God. An obsession was born. There were Frank, Paddy and Dyan front of stage, Tony O’Malley hunched over his keyboard, and – wait a minute – isn’t that Alan Spenner from The Grease Band on bass? Yes it is, and another Greaser, Neil Hubbard, is on guitar. And there’s the legendary Jim Mullen on lead. And Mel Collins from King Crimson on sax.

There were 10 people on that stage, everyone of them Google-able today. And no-one who saw them around that time has forgotten the experience.

So, back at the office, I set about the task of persuading CBS that this is the future, not Arrival. Which is where I get my first lesson in the artist as an asset, not a creative force. Apparently we ‘need’ an Arrival single, and then an album. Kokomo will have to whistle.

Fast forward a few months and the situation is getting desperate. Frank, Paddy and Dyan are broke, and CBS still doesn’t have the hit record it wants out of them. I’m pushing hard, (and making enemies).

And here’s where I see one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen in my life, all the more appalling because it’s completely unnecessary, and just involves a record company executive proving who’s boss.

CBS is refusing to sign Kokomo. The guys from that band who are signed to CBS want to be released from their contract.

We’re in a room, and the guys from business affairs are shouting at the members of Arrival. Seriously. Shouting at them. And waving contracts at them. This is what you signed. This is who you are. Kokomo can go fuck itself. You. Are. Arrival.

Look, I say, these guys have moved on. Arrival is over. And they’re broke. They’re our artists, and the rest of Kokomo is happy to become part of their deal. Let’s go with what’s happening, not with what you think should be happening.

And the shouting starts all over again. Frank, Paddy, Dyan and Tony – these wonderful, wonderful people, these brilliant artists – sit there like broken children. Their future is not their future. It belongs to CBS.

And then, the pièce de résistance. “Right. You need money. We’ll give you £50 a week each, for the next six weeks. But you have to sign this contract.”

This ‘contract’ is a single piece of paper that says that Dyan Birch, Frank Collins, Tony O’Malley and Paddy McHugh are signed to CBS Records in perpetuity. In other words, for the princely sum of £300 they sign away their lives.

I left the room so that no-one would see my tears of rage and frustration.

The saga dragged on. In the meantime, I used Arrival as session singers at every possible opportunity, partly to keep their rent paid, but mostly because they were simply the best. I also used other members of Kokomo from time to time – including, I think, her first paid session for the fantastic percussionist Jodie Linscott.

And, as I recounted a couple of posts back, I brought the whole band into Air Studios for a memorable session recording backing tracks for Asha Puthli.

But I also, against all orders from within CBS, took the band into Apple Studios where the great Phil McDonald set them up to record live. And that’s my track this week – one of six songs I recorded with them on January 23, 1974 in the hope that they might attract a decent manager who could negotiate a way out of this mess.

And you know what? That’s exactly what happened. And so, another unsavoury chapter begins, where the manager of a massive global band (MGB), whose contract with their longtime record company was up, dangles MGB in front of CBS’s US executives. “You can have this band, MGB, if you sign this band, Kokomo.”

But, good for Kokomo. They made two albums at that time which you might like to check out. They were slickly produced and the first, at least, was well received. But the raw funk and soul that I admired could only really be heard when they played live. And that’s what we’ve got here. Kokomo, live at Apple Studios.

This track, a version of Bill Withers’ Lonely Town, Lonely Street, cuts in at the beginning of the second verse. Remember, this was a hit and run session. We weren’t even supposed to be there, so there certainly was no chance for a mix session.

And here’s Arrival on Top Of The Pops, Dyan Birch on lead vocals. Check out Frank Collins (on the right, dark hair) unable to suppress a “look at us, we’re here!” smile. And a brief mention of Carroll Carter (between Paddy and Frank) who gets forgotten, but was there.

22 Comments

  1. Vaguely remember Arrival/Friends, but had no idea of the links through to Kokomo…so interesting story. I saw Kokomo at least a couple of times down the Speak in Margaret St, and remember them as impressive soul/funk, and different to my usual stock of Pub Rock bands that entertained me at the time. Brinsleys, Bees Make Honey, Ducks Deluxe, Eggs Over Easy, Kilburns, Feelgoods…etc…I liked it rough ‘n’ sweaty then! (Still do, if the truth be known).

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  2. You introduced me to the band at a CBS do once, Paul, a room at the record company offices, not sure if it was to do with Kokomo or not, memory’s a bit vague for that period. Good band, and that TOTP clip of Arrival I remember quite well, liked the record, have a feeling I may have bought it.

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  3. Well, Paul Phillips, how are you? can’t remember half of that but, you know what they say…’If you remember it….etc’…. would be great to catch up and to see you again, look forward to hearing those obscure tracks, speak sooooon. Frank. xxxx

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  4. Saw the Kokos so many times back in the day; looking forward to Half Moon. Much as I know I’m going to love the show (nice selection for support too) I know there is going to a big, big hole due to a big, big man not being able to make it…A new day. Things move on; because they have to.

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  5. I don’t think anybody believes me when I tell them about Dick and the Firemen; having just remembered (that takes a major logistical exercise these days) several of Kokomo were involved with that band, can anyone direct me to footage or recoding of them?

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  6. BIG THANKS paulmarkphillips, nice to have that. I saw Dick and the Firemen play the Venue in Victoria (that was back when men were men and women were proud of them) I seen to recall a much bigger band than in photo and it included Mitch Mitchell—but they were a very flexible crew, I believe they described themselves as ‘an occasional band’. It was a night never to be forgot.

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  7. Not sure anything would have turned out differently no matter what happened with Kokomo — with or without CBS or O’Rourke. As Arif Mardin said, Kokomo would’ve been a tough sell in the States beyond the club level. It was a band appreciated by other musicians, like Stuff or the Hi rhythm section. And the heart and soul of it was Spenner. As for Dick & the Firemen, good luck finding any footage or sound — I think there’s only a photo or two around.

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  8. That was exactly the context of the conversation I had in 2002 with Mardin — AWB’s success. He put it down to the material and the vocals. He didn’t toot his own horn about his production or arrangements. I wonder what he might’ve done with Kokomo.

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  9. Fascinating insight Paul. Making it even more remarkable that this all restarted with a conversation with Mark Ede at The Crawdaddy Club and the momentum just took over with Sue Martin pulling it all together. Look forward to seeing Tony and friends at The Crawdaddy on the 24th. Should be a lot of fun!!! Paul, please come and introduce yourself. I’m the Crawdaddy Club promoter.

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  10. I had the great pleasure of booking KoKoMo many times when I ran The Red Lion Music Venue in Brentford. I first came across them one night in the Sundown Disco top of Oxfford St and Tottenham Court they blew me away that would have been in the 70s and I said to the girl I was with I will book them one day.
    So when I took over The Red Lion I started to change the style of music and bands ,it was very much heavy metal venue but the punters were not coming to the gigs.
    That was the start for me to get bands that would fill the Venue so I travelled all over London looking it took me ages to get in contact with KoKoMo slowly but surely Bands like Chuck Farley & Little Sister & The Hurters & Steve Marriot Packet of 3 & Steve Gibbons Band & Poormouth & Micky Moody Band & Boogie Brothers Blues Band & Living Daylights & Climax Blues Band. Then low and behold I made contact with KoKoMo through the Mean Fiddler.
    I had reached my Goal to book my all time favourite Band we had some great nights and some stories and moments never to be forgotten. I now keep in contact with Tony sorry to miss the gigs but I live in Kerry in Ireland now . I would like to wish all well and the very best of luck to the band do this for my friend Alan Spenner.

    Kind Regards to all Jim Behan.

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  11. Hello Paul. Just read your very emotional reverie. I am at my cousin’s in Farnborough,the morning after our first reunion kokomo gig. It brought tears to my eyes reading your words!!! I look forward to seeing you again, soul brother dear! Please make yourself visible. What gig are you coming to? What a caress from the people who came to St John’s Church, Farncombe last night. Big ta to all!!! Love to paul and all.xxx

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  12. I am sure I have an hour reel to reel tape of Hinkleys Heroes/Dick & The Firemen or whatever they were called that night that was a live performance in the studio of Capital Radio on a Saturday night somewhere, if I have a recorder left that will play it I will try to get it to a digital format to share. I also have a similar night with 1 hour of Kokomo again live in the studio.

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