GLORIA – SHADOWS OF KNIGHT (1966)
“Please shut the window.” This polite, albeit urgent and somewhat impassioned request, was the McGuffin which led me to the Shadows of Knight. In the autumn of 1980, Smash Hits revealed in a Teardrop Explodes interview that Julian Cope had smuggled this line on to the lyric sheet of the band’s debut album, Kilimanjaro, and soberly named the Shadows of Knight as the source of the line , trusting readers’ gumption enough not to explain who they were and that at least a few would have the curiosity to find out for themselves if they weren’t already aware.
I was aware – a bit. I had seen them mentioned in two of the pillars of my music education – the NME Book of Rock and The Rock Primer – as being prominent among the proto-punk bands of the mid-60s and, alongside the Seeds, the Standells and ? & The Mysterians, among those who had got beyond the garage and to some form of US-wide success. Coming out of Chicago, they had a fertile recruitment ground for fans at their door and they appear to have escaped the indignity which befell many of their peers of being nudged aside in the studio to be supplanted by the Wrecking Crew or some other hyper-proficient house band.
Sure enough, their sound wasn’t everyone’s idea of slick but was anybody looking for polish from a garage band? The set on Gloria (several versions exist but the definitive one for me is the 1979 reissue by Radar, which was cannibalised from the Gloria album and its follow-up, Back Door Man) is, typically for the time, roughly evenly split between originals and covers. The covers, while a fairly standard choice, were, in many cases, the first versions I’d heard and most can hold their heads high in swankier company. Some of the originals stray towards filler but the best have a brio and audacity that give the lie to the notion that there was little to distinguish the Anglophile hordes cranking up from sea to Shindig sea.
A ropey pun for a name had done no harm to the chances of some others and these particular Shadows’ home city could also be said to give them a more legitimate claim to the blues than many inhabitants of either coast. It was a source they gleefully plundered, notably here on a Willie Dixon trio – You Can’t Judge A Book By Looking By The Cover, in which singer Jim Sohns is robust enough to convince you he does “act like a farmer” (whatever that means – any farmer I have ever met has been affable, articulate and wholly dedicated to a tough profession); I Just Want To Make Love To You, which eschews the Mannish Boy pulse favoured by many for a sustained Psychotic Reaction headlong rush, and Spoonful, which closes the Radar version and, in its economy and brevity, stands in stark contrast to the elongated exploration Cream came up with for the same song in the same year.
Not that, in that most pivotal of years, the Shadows of Knight were averse to stretching out themselves. Hey Joe had a busy couple of years in the mid-’60s; it arrived in the public consciousness through the Leaves, then the Byrds and Love would cleave to their galloping template as faithfully as Greyfriars Bobby. Tim Rose tapped into the horror of Joe’s crime and of the fate he could face and Jimi Hendrix took this version as his cue to do the same. Much later, Nick Cave would complete the song’s evolution by slowing it to an almost complete halt but, back again in 1966, the Shadows took it somewhere else. Sure, they hare out of the traps at the same pace as the early versions, and end where they began, but in between take a detour through subcontinental areas which, through Eight Miles High, Paint It Black and Love You To, were becoming familiar but no one had thought to cast one of the staples of the garage repertoire in this image. As they pull it back round, they stop off in Shepherd’s Bush to borrow a cup of the Who’s Morse code feedback, then Sohns returns to find what Joe has done. He sounds genuinely horrified but gets only nonchalant bravado in response – “Ooh yes I did now!” After five and a half minutes – still a giddying song length in 1966, prompting thoughts of the need for a flask – it halts, the Shads having taken the song to places no one else ever had – or ever would.
And Gloria, of course. I would suggest their version carries even more swagger than Them’s original – many see it as a dilution, largely owing to the substitution of the line “She calls out my name” for “She comes up to my room” before “Then she makes me feel all right.” But doesn’t the former imply more intimacy, more romance, more tenderness? Musically too, the organ which bubbles out of Them’s version before the second verse gives it a slightly dated age; by opting instead to take bass, guitar and drums down a notch, the Shads unwittingly future-proof their cover. I could never begin to explain why but, glorious (sorry) as Them’s is, the Shadows Of Knight just make it sound more fun – it’s not their song, the pressure’s off and they’re not on any evangelical blues mission. With this most brilliantly basic song, it would fall to the Doors, Patti Smith and, to an extent, Eddie and the Hot Rods to melt it down and embellish it – the Shads simply burn it up.
As they do on the best of their originals. Light Bulb Blues (no explanation for the title except Dylan’s liberating influence) has Sohns losing his woman, then his mind, but it makes despair sound like a party, with drummer Tom Schiffour a tornado of a Windy City Moon, while guitarists Warren Rogers and Gerry McGeorge (proclaimed in the sleevenotes as “the group’s neatnik…he, naturally, prefers his girls to be neat”) anticipate the Wilko slash by a decade in perfect sync. I remember one night in, I think, the early ’90s, John Peel either started a show with this or played it second; that thrill of hearing a song that never gets played on the radio – get played on the radio was, with Peel’s usual aversion to looking back and BBC 6 Music still a decade away, something to be savoured like a tax rebate.
Dark Side is the one place where the pace drops. It exhales with a weary menace in the vein of early Jagger/Richards compositions like Tell Me and Heart Of Stone – or, come to that, the Stones’ version of Time Is On My Side. But where you could easily see Spooner Oldham pumping up the organ and James Carr or William Bell clasping the mic to spin those songs into a deep soul tapestry, and though Dark Side’s lyrics are suitably sorrowful, itS melody blanks rather than hurts, is poker-faced rather than pitiful. The music’s stony seeming absence of emotion makes it a rare creature – a song in the image of the Velvet Underground which anticipates them, albeit narrowly, rather than being indebted to them.
Gospel Zone is where the hunt for the window ended. The summer after that Teardrops interview was published, Gloria appeared in the racks of my local library. My curiosity piqued, I grabbed it to hear it for its own sake but also to uncover the cryptic line. Scanning the titles, Light Bulb Blues seemed the most obvious candidate but departed, full of incident but devoid of any fenestral action. Gospel Zone seemed an abstruse title as well – the song arrives with more Townshend dots and dashes before a Diddley riff pounces like a tomcat on a pigeon and a chorus demanding absolute loyalty all over the house and elsewhere (“You’ve got to love me/In the backyard…in the kitchen”) to handclaps that detonate like firecrackers. The solo turns on a groat from a tremolo babble to feedback that snarls like a dangerously provoked dog. That house collapses on cue after three ultra-exhilarating minutes and then, there it is – Jimy remembers he’s left the window open. Rosebud!!
We’ve become all too accustomed to Hendrix, the Doors and Jefferson Airplane being the soundtrack to Vietnam films and, by extension, to the fearsome experiences of those who fought there. The sheer vertiginous scale and boiling psychodrama of those acts’ most extreme music would have made them cinematically irresistible to Coppola, Cimino and Stone but for pure poignancy, the Shadows of Knight and their garage peers could have been a more apt choice – if Tarantino ever gets round to it, it could yet happen, along the lines 0f K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ’70s, the unashamedly pop-fixated Greek chorus of Reservoir Dogs. Vietnam was already a brutal mess by 1966, destroying and finishing lives and minds, and the aforementioned psychedelic giants were just limbering up – even by the time they were unleashed the following year, it’s debatable how far they reached into the American heartlands. They may have been the During and After sound of the 20th century’s second stupidest war, after World War One, but the Shadows of Knight epitomise the Before – this was the stuff many of those guys were hearing at the sock hops and frat parties they were forced to leave behind (for many others, of course, it would have been Wilson Pickett or George Jones instead).
For later recruits, the sound of home would be bubblegum and, within a couple of years, this unjustly maligned genre was the direction the Shads had been pointed in. They’ve continued in various forms since then, steering further back towards the garage, and were able to play a gig to celebrate Sohns’ 70th birthday in 2016 despite the singer’s stroke four months earlier. They’ve also been namechecked recently in the Coal Porters’ The Day The Last Ramone Died, where Sid Griffin’s first impression of Da Brudders is that they’re “Quite a sight, like the Shadows of Knight” – a convenient rhyme, maybe, but also an acknowledgement of one magnificently uncomplicated band grabbing the torch from another. Shall I open the window so we can start all over again? (PG).