Glorious Failure Personified: The Eternal Reverberations of Thunderclap Newman

Thunderclap LP cover

by David N. Lewis

The announcement I posted on my facebook account noting the death of pianist Andy “Thunderclap” Newman at the age of 73 elicited little interest or comment. I’m not surprised; it’s in keeping with his group Thunderclap Newman’s history of underachieving un-success, despite introducing a song that represents a key tenet of the counterculture revolution and including — in addition to Newman himself — two of the major talents of the British music scene of the 1960s. Moreover, Thunderclap Newman was fostered by none other than The Who’s Pete Townsend in a project undertaken while he was working on the rock opera “Tommy” in what was likely his finest creative period.

I first came into contact with Thunderclap Newman around 1979 when I found their lone album, “Hollywood Dream,” in the 99 cent bin of a used record store. I didn’t know anything about them, but their LP was on Track Records which I knew because I already owned “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” and the Heartbreakers’ “L.A.M.F.,” both on Track. In America, Atlantic treated Track Records as an afterthought and pressed their LPs on cheap, styrene injection molded crap usually reserved for singles, though the much later “L.A.M.F.” was on genuine vinyl for all of the good it did in terms of the sound of that record; the singles drawn from it — still injection molded, even in the U.K. — actually sounded better. The Thunderclap Newman album sounded excellent despite its poor carrier, and I was attracted to “Hollywood Dream” as it really didn’t sound like rock music; it had elements of vaudeville, lyrical sleight-of-hand and an assemblage-like character — Newman referred to it as a “mosaic” — shot through with typically dry English wit. It was definitely something not for our market.

The group was itself an assemblage, pulled together, Monkees-style, by Townsend at the suggestion of producer Kit Lambert. Andy Newman was a gifted, self-taught amateur that had tipped into the British trad scene, and Jimmy McCulloch was a Scottish kid and hotshot guitarist already active in a long list of British Invasion groups that never invaded. John “Speedy” Keen was a songwriter and a unique talent; his songs were quirky, witty, irreverent and obviously the product of a quick, intelligent mind. Speedy didn’t have the most attractive singing voice and was a keyboardist; not so usefully, given the presence of Newman in the group, so he played drums. Townsend wanted to do solo projects with all three, but as he was by then deep into “Tommy,” Kit Lambert encouraged Townsend to coalesce the trio’s oil-water-vinegar talents into a single unit, ultimately named after Newman and his given nickname of “Thunderclap.”

They are often described as ‘one-hit wonders’, but I don’t think this is apt; they were more of a wonder that managed to have a hit. “Something in the Air” was a gentle Speedy Keen song that reached No. 1 in the British charts and No. 37 — somewhat later — in the U.S. Though it’s not my favorite Thunderclap Newman song, I feel that it’s undeniably effective; it has a certain atmosphere of innocence and naïveté while conveying a sentiment that chimed in with the general feeling of the counterculture in 1969 — “we have got to get it together, because the revolution’s here.” With Woodstock and Apollo 11 just around the corner, it must’ve really felt that way; the Kent State shootings in May 1970 would teach us all otherwise. The title of the song was originally “Revolution,” but Keen was forced to change it in the wake of The Beatles’ hit by that name; I’m sure that Phil Collins had “Something in the Air” in the back of his mind when he wrote the 80s hit “In the Air Tonight.”

“Accidents” — Thunderclap Newman’s follow up to “Something in the Air” as transformed into a ten-minute suite on the “Hollywood Dream” album — was far more to my taste. It’s full of oddball chord changes and harmonic combinations and it is typified by patchwork transitions from one texture into another in a loose and improvisational manner. A lot of it conveys the general feeling of The Who, reflecting preferences of its producer, but it’s far more adventurous and variable — it’s not of a whole cloth, but of several stitched together. The first side of “Hollywood Dream” strikes me as especially interesting and memorable; the second side less so, but overall I can’t think of another album from 1969 that’s quite like it. And I love Andy Newman’s janky, spirited and utterly unpredictable piano improvisations; leading here, leading there and never really landing but touching on interesting spots along the way.

“Something in the Air” climbing the charts took the whole band by surprise, and soon they were obliged to play live dates, even to tour. Folding in a bass player other than Townsend and ultimately a drummer – at first, Jimmy’s older brother Jack – Thunderclap played their first live date before a packed house, for which they barely rehearsed. Soon they were supporting Deep Purple and Leon Russell on tour, and were slated to tour Scotland on their own as a headliner, when the end arrived; in April 1971, Thunderclap Newman came apart. It wasn’t slated to stand together; Andy Newman liked Speedy Keen’s songwriting but didn’t much care for him personally, and it was in retrospect that Newman developed a personal admiration for his former musical partner. While Andy did like Jimmy McCulloch, Jimmy’s extremely flexible sense of rhythm — which ambled both ahead of and behind the beat, always looking for a hole to fall into — was difficult to play along with. “Hollywood Dream” was, and is, Thunderclap Newman’s only album and, as far as I know, other than the three single releases that preceded it, they didn’t have anything else in the can and never embarked on another recording project.

Music was never the main event as far as Andy Newman was concerned and he went off to other pursuits. After his solo album “Rainbow” appeared in 1971, and participating in the making of Roger Ruskin Spear’s album “Electric Shocks,” Newman got out of the business. A “new” Thunderclap Newman formed to play a one-off gig in Sussex in 2010 and subsequently toured, though this experiment proved short-lived. I remember being given a big box of singles from a radio station around 1974 and Speedy Keen’s “Let Us In” was among them; it didn’t impress me then, and it doesn’t now. I feel that Speedy Keen was under pressure to produce something that was as successful as “Something in the Air,” but couldn’t remember the formula or didn’t have a sense for it that he could draw from. Just being Speedy was the best thing he could’ve done, and that was the hardest thing to do because it was not really commercial — his was a vague talent that drew from flashes of inspiration that perhaps had stopped coming by 1974. Keen did have acumen of a certain kind as a record producer; he could make a solid, basic rock record without too much in the way of intervention and keep difficult artists in the studio and working; that should have kept him busy ever onward, but it didn’t. One would think him a natural choice for The Heartbreakers’ “L.A.M.F”; they played a few songs pretty much the same way every time, and it wouldn’t seem like a hard job at the outset. But as the CD that collects all of the various surviving mixes of “L.A.M.F.” demonstrates, the project was an exercise in misery, with noisy mix after noisier mix failing to capture the beating heart of The Heartbreakers. Keen also produced the first sessions by echt-new wave metal band Motörhead a bit before that. Keen didn’t long survive in music past The Heartbreakers, though his early death at age 56 in 2002 still came as a bit of a shock.

Jimmy McCulloch, though, had the saddest and strangest end of anyone in Thunderclap Newman. After Thunderclap, he went through a series of bands, including Stone the Crows, before landing a three-year stint in Wings, the longest of all of his associations. And it was lucrative, though one could imagine unsatisfying, as he had to play second fiddle to taste-challenged — but endeared to band’s leader Paul McCartney — guitarist Denny Laine, in addition to picking up bass duties when Macca was playing the piano or guitar. Jimmy had been long out of Wings when he died on September 27, 1979 at age 26 of a deadly cocktail of either heroin or morphine mixed with alcohol consumption. This has led to Jimmy gaining a reputation as a “druggie;” not fair, as he maintained an anti-drug stance in his life and his work. I’m not an expert on it, and don’t really want to know the details, but I think what may have happened to Jimmy was similar to what took away my friend Charlie Ondras, who had never tried hard drugs before his first time, which turned out to be the last, as he caught hold of a bad strain. At the time he died, McCulloch was involved in The Dukes, an utterly unremarkable British band that to my ears sounded like a cross between Wings and The Doobie Brothers, though packaged in a New-Wavey album cover.

In the 80s, for some reason MCA repackaged “Hollywood Dream” as a reissue LP with a new cover featuring a cardboard standup of Speedy Keen with the image of the Hollywood Hills in the background. I got it because I had lost my old injection-molded Track LP and was anxious to recover the music for myself, though I noted that the new cover made no sense. On “Hollywood #1”, Keen sang “I wish there was a Hollywood just like there used to be…”; just like there used to be, not Hollywood as it was in the 80s. In Keen’s lyric, he is feeling a pang of nostalgia for something he never could’ve experienced, and that typifies much of what goes on here, from McCulloch’s bluesy crescendos to Newman’s ragtime-fueled piano pumping. Yet that’s still in keeping with the whole Thunderclap Newman project in that none of it makes sense; not the combination of talent, the success of “Something in the Air,” their subsequent history or even Lambert’s notion as to why they should’ve been put together in the first place. And I guess that’s why I like it so much; “Hollywood Dream” shouldn’t work, but parts of it do.

Thunderclap reissue LP

Failure makes for strange bedfellows, and Thunderclap Newman is one of the strangest beds yet; their partnership is certainly the equal of Jackie Gleason meets Salvador Dalì or the album Tex Ritter made with the Stan Kenton orchestra. Nevertheless, there is a kind of gloriousness to the failure/sort-of success that “Hollywood Dream” represents that I find lacking in these other ill-conceived combinations of talent, and it’s the only Pete Townsend project outside of The Who that I find admirable at all. I guess if a man falls down a flight of stairs five times in the course of day and doesn’t break his neck, then that’s a sort of miracle. That is the kind of miracle that “Hollywood Dream” is; hence my admiration for it.

— Uncle Dave Lewis, Hamilton Ohio April 2, 2016

Thunderclap Newman: Accidents

 

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