It's difficult for anyone who has heard them not to like -- or even love -- the Tremeloes. They were one of the more prodigiously talented British pop/rock bands of the 1960s, and they threw that talent into the making of amazingly catchy and well-crafted singles that lit up the charts and radio on both sides of the Atlantic for four years running, from 1966 through 1970.
Yet, the Tremeloes are also one of the least-known and least-respected of 1960s English bands. The precise reason for the lack of respect is difficult to pin down, except perhaps that their timing was out, as far as making the most of their success. They generally didn't write their own material, and they cut their best singles long after the British Invasion (and the mystique surrounding the bands that were part of it) had ended. And, yet, ironically, the Tremeloes are also one of the longest surviving English rock & roll bands, playing regularly more than 40 years after the group's founding.
The band first got together in 1958, when the original members were all in their teens. They were closer in years and background to early British beat bands like the Shadows than to the British Invasion bands with which they subsequently became associated. The original lineup of Brian Poole (vocals, guitar), Alan Blakley (drums), Alan Howard (sax), and Graham Scott (guitar) had Buddy Holly's Crickets as their inspiration. This version of the band didn't stay together long, however, and Blakley quickly switched to guitar (which Poole relinquished) after Dave Munden joined on the drums. Munden proved not only to be a very talented percussionist but also a good singer. This gave the group a third vocalist, which would prove essential to their success further on in their history. Alan Howard also switched to bass soon after Munden joined.
The band -- then known as "the Tremilos" thanks to a misspelling -- built up a following at local dances and clubs, and then broke into the U.S. air-base circuit, where the length of the sets that they were forced to play required them to learn a massive number of new songs. By 1961, they had turned professional. The group's lineup changed again around that time when Graham Scott left and was replaced by Rick West (born Rick Westwood), who had previously played with Tony Rivers & the Castaways.
West's arrival was key to the group's long-term success, providing the band with a top-flight (indeed, classically trained) guitarist. They also got a professional manager in the guise of Peter Walsh, who already represented such acts as the Brook Brothers (England's answer to the Everly Brothers) and the vocal group the Kestrels. The band's first break happened soon after when they were spotted by Jimmy Grant, the producer of the BBC's Saturday Club music showcase, who got them an audition for the BBC. This led to the group becoming regulars on radio, and, in turn, resulted in an audition for Decca Records on New Year's Day, 1962. At the time, Decca was looking for a new rock & roll act, and the Tremeloes were up against a relatively obscure Liverpool quartet called the Beatles. Decca executives Dick Rowe and Mike Smith were in charge of the auditions, with Rowe reportedly leaving the choice up to Smith. The latter chose the Tremeloes, reportedly based on the fact that they were based in London and, thus, would be more accessible than the Beatles.
The signing had a range of consequences for the band and its future. At the time, it was routine for groups to have a featured member, Cliff Richard & the Shadows being the prime example; thus, the label insisted that the band be signed as Brian Poole & the Tremeloes.
The band accepted this as one price of pursuing success, and Poole became the perceived star of the band. They cut a series of records backing other artists -- including the Vernons Girls ("The Locomotion") and DJ Jimmy Savile, on the latter's version of "Ahab the Arab," as well as some failed singles of their own -- got into the lineup of artists in the juke-box comedy film Just for Fun, and generally missed even modest chart action by the length of their fingertips; their singles of "Twist Little Sister" and "Keep on Dancing" failed to find audiences, despite some valiant efforts at promotion. Success seemed to become less likely as 1963 wore on and a new wave of English rock & roll acts, spearheaded, ironically enough, by the Beatles, began dominating the radio and the charts.
Rather than wilting in this new environment, Brian Poole & the Tremeloes rose to the challenge. They changed their look and pumped up the rhythm-guitar parts in their songs, and began looking at R&B, rather than white rock & roll, as a source of material and inspiration.
The result was their version of "Twist and Shout," which managed to rise to number four on the English charts, despite running up head-to-head with the Beatles' recording, issued on an EP that summer. Their next record, a cover of the Contours' hit "Do You Love Me," was a classic of the era, an honest, authentic-sounding screamer of a single that hit number one in England once the Beatles' "She Loves You" vacated the spot, and managed to eclipse a rival version by the Dave Clark Five. In its wake, Brian Poole & the Tremeloes managed a series of respectable, even occasionally inspired hits over the next two years, including a U.K. Top Ten cover of Roy Orbison's "Candy Man" and a convincingly raucous rendition of the Strangeloves' Bo Diddley-beat-driven anthem "I Want Candy."
They appeared on film, most notably a pair of performance clips in the feature film Go Go, Big Beat, and a featured spot in A Touch of Blarney, and made the rounds of the television-music showcases, charting moderately well until the end of 1965. The band ran into hard times just about then, owing to issues of music and style.
Possibly it was a result of the fact that they'd never really been part of the British Invasion, but the Tremeloes had never seen fit to update their image, which had been something of a pose to start with. They still dressed in matching suits on stage, and performed the same brand of stomping covers of American R&B and rock & roll. It was no longer possible to expect those to chart, however. Their competition wasn't the Dave Clark Five or Gerry & the Pacemakers, but the likes of much heavier and musically higher-powered bands such as the Yardbirds and the Kinks, not to mention the rapidly evolving Beatles and Rolling Stones; all of whom seemed to up the musical ante, in terms of what sounds and instruments they brought to the table, with each new release. Additionally, Poole had emerged as the star of the group and developed a star mentality, and became convinced that his future lay in a career as a pop-oriented vocalist, in the manner of such up-and-coming figures as Tom Jones. The chart failure of their cover of the Olympics' "Good Lovin'" brought a halt to the success the quintet had been enjoying, and started Poole looking out for his own interests and future.
By the end of 1965, the split was in the works. The band was inactive in the studio for almost six months while the mechanics of Poole's exit worked themselves out. The consensus in the music press was that Poole was poised for stardom, while the Tremeloes were believed to be headed for oblivion. His singing had been the focus of their singles, he was the "name," and little that the group had done on record had distinguished the other members.
Instead, Poole ended up disappeared from view after a series failed singles, and ultimately left music. The Tremeloes had their own problems, including the exit of bassist Alan Howard, who was replaced by Mike Clark, a former bandmate of West's, and then by Len "Chip" Hawkes. In the meantime, they'd released a single covering the Paul Simon song "Blessed," a rather improbably dissonant song which failed to chart and got the band dropped by Decca. The members' own best musical instincts, coupled with changes in the British record industry, helped rescue them.
Although they'd been written off in the press, the Tremeloes themselves knew better what they were capable of. They had three competent singers, including a lead vocalist in the form of Hawkes, and an excellent if somewhat underrated guitarist in Rick West; and they had eight years of experience as a band, and had retooled their sound before.
Additionally, they had a good and dedicated friend in the guise of Mike Smith, who'd exited Decca in 1966. Smith was now in the employ of the newly created CBS Records label, the British outlet for America's Columbia Records. The new label was hungry for homegrown talent to augment the label's roster of American stars, and Smith convinced CBS to sign the Tremeloes.
The band updated its look and image, and then they returned to the same source whence they had got their first chart single, "Twist and Shout," back in 1963: the Beatles. The band by now was beyond peer, and each of their albums had songs that could have charted.
The Tremeloes grabbed onto one of them, "Good Day Sunshine." It never charted, but it did re-establish the Tremeloes' name as a credible force in their own right, getting played heavily, receiving good reviews in the music press, and helping the band get onto television. More important, it allowed the group to transform its image into a more contemporary one.
It was the band's next single that put them back on track. "Here Comes My Baby," written by Cat Stevens, became an infectiously tuneful, upbeat song, with very pleasing harmony vocals and solid playing in the hands of the Tremeloes. It became a number-four hit in England for the group and even made it to number 13 in America, pleasing the group, CBS/Columbia, and Mike Smith to no end. (Smith also brought a similar Scottish group, the Marmalade, also managed by Walsh, to British CBS with successful results).
This was the break they needed. The Tremeloes were suddenly booked alongside the Hollies, Paul Jones, and the Spencer Davis Group, where they proceeded to roll over the rest of the show with their sound and style. The group was suddenly poised for greater things than they'd ever seemed capable of during their days at Decca. "Silence Is Golden," a popular concert number, became their next single and their first chart-topper in England since "Do You Love Me," ascending to number 11 in America during the spring of 1967, and becoming their second U.S. gold record.
For all of their reputation as a pop/rock band, the Tremeloes had a surprisingly progressive and musically sophisticated edge. Rick West's fuzz-tone guitar on "Let Your Hair Hang Down," "What a State I'm In," and "Suddenly Winter" (B-sides all) were a match for anything that Jeff Beck, Davy O'List, or any of the other progressive axemen of the era were doing; and according to historian Roger Dopson, West had it one up on all of them, because he was the first guitarist in England to perfect the use of the fuzz-tone on-stage. They also harmonized nearly as beautifully as the Beatles, and if Chip Hawkes wasn't a match for Paul McCartney in his bass playing, he was still a strong, melodic player. "Even the Bad Times Are Good," "Be Mine," "Silence Is Golden" (a number-one hit), "Suddenly You Love Me," "Helule Helule," "My Little Lady," "All the World to Me," and "I'm Gonna Try" -- songs whose respective beats, harmonies, and hooks half the groups in England or America would have killed to put together -- were all achingly catchy, rousing, perfect pop/rock creations; and even those experimental B-sides were tuneful in ways that many progressive rock tracks by the Nice and the Yardbirds weren't.
The Tremeloes toured America just as the Summer of Love was blossoming and managed to chart their album Here Comes the Tremeloes on that side of the Atlantic, while its U.K. version got to number 15. The next three years saw them move from success to success in England and around the world, with another three singles in the U.K. Top Ten and two more in the British Top 40; tours of three continents only confirmed that they could reach audiences well beyond the Sceptered Isle.
In a sense, the Tremeloes' music filled a gap that was left when bands like the Beatles and the Hollies started getting serious and intense in their writing and messages, and groups like Gerry & the Pacemakers disappeared. There was still an audience out there for well-sung and inventively played pop/rock, songs that were fun to hear on the radio and to hum or sing to. In America, outfits like the Monkees, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and bubblegum rockers such as the Ohio Express and the 1910 Fruitgum Company on Buddha Records were filling this same gap in slightly different variations.
The Tremeloes, as it happened, were musically very strong, which was one of the reasons that they survived and thrived across an entire decade of stylistic changes in popular music. Rick West, in particular, was a virtuoso guitarist who was respected by his peers, and deserves a place in the annals of British rock music not too far behind George Harrison. Hawkes and Munden shared the lead vocal responsibilities (with West doing harmonies), while Hawkes -- somewhat younger and more conventionally attractive than the rest of the band -- became the resident heartthrob for the band's teenybopper fans, sort of the Tremeloes' answer to the Raiders' Mark Lindsay.
They went along well for three years, their one seeming error a popish, elegantly harmonized cover (accompanied by the Keith Mansfield Strings) of Bob Dylan's then-new song "I Shall Be Released," that barely made the U.K. Top 30 (although to listen to it today, it seems like a perfectly good interpretation, and more tasteful and valid than the Hollies' attempts at doing Dylan songs). Then, in 1970, the band committed a series of grave errors that started innocently enough. The members, apparently weary of being treated as a soft pop band, decided to change their sound and image, but they couldn't have chosen a worse way in which to do it.
Rather than go along making the kind of exquisitely crafted pop/rock that had served them well since late 1966, the Tremeloes decided it was time to be taken seriously. Just what they were thinking at the time was anyone's guess. After three years of tapping into the same market that Paul McCartney had cultivated through the Beatles and his early solo career, they felt the need to emulate John Lennon, Bob Dylan, et al. (Author's Note: They might better have taken a look at Preston Sturges' movie Sullivan's Travels, about a movie director with the same impulse; he learns that making people laugh and making them feel happy is the most serious and important business that there is, and something not everyone can do).
They spent a year writing and preparing an album of music that was intended to prove they could do serious songs, and that was not, in and of itself, a mistake. The error came when the group announced their intention and, in the process, disparaged all of their past hits and dismissed the listeners whom they had attracted as "morons." When the smoke cleared, the group had managed to alienate most of their listeners and any representative of the music press who had previously been in their corner, while the new music, the album Master, was ignored by the very people they'd sought to attract. Even in the midst of this debacle, the band showed that it still had the golden touch. "Me and My Life," which was a tuneful number off the album, reached number four in England, while its B-side, "Try Me," was a first-rate rock & roll number.
Beyond that point, the group seemed to lose its rudder. They tried sounding heavy ("Right Wheel, Left Hammer, Sham") and country ("Hello Buddy"), spoofing glam rock with "Blue Suede Tie," and even changed their name (the Trems). By the mid-'70s, the Tremeloes were playing in cabaret, a strategy similar to that of the Searchers and a few other surviving '60s bands. They never stopped working, or were without work, however; Dave Munden was there on drums and Rick West stayed on guitar, and the group cut music for DJM, Pye, and Polydor intermittently, before briefly returning to CBS in the early '80s.
In the late '90s, Munden and West were still there, with keyboardist/singer/engineer Joe Gillingham and bassist/guitarist/singer Davey Freyer, playing regular gigs in England and Europe. The group's Decca sides with Poole (who since re-emerged as a singer, sometimes billed on CDs as "Brian Poole OF the Tremeloes") have been reissued on CD by Decca Records, but are rather difficult to find; by contrast, Rhino, Sequel, and Repertoire Records each has out a collection of the Tremeloes' post-1965 hits. The band keeps an active website up and bids fair, at this rate, to be busy for their golden anniversary in rock & roll before the end of the first decade of the 21st century. ~ Bruce Eder