Bigger Than Life - Jack Lee (Alive Natural Sounds)
If Jack Lee went to his grave only known as the guy who wrote the Blondie hit “Hanging On the Telephone” he’d be more noteworthy than all of us combined and then some. The irony is that only music publishing houses and fans of his former band, The Nerves, would know this. Sad, but that’s the state of music in the ‘00s.
Just the facts: Their recorded output was scant but The Nerves were one helluva great power-pop band, operating out of LA in the mid-‘70s, and Jack Lee was (and probably still is) a consummate songwriter. Lee formed The Nerves and played guitar. His similarly talented bandmates were Peter Case (bass) and Paul Collins (drums.) They all sang and wrote the songs. That’s probably too much talent for one band and of course they didn’t last long…
Bomp released their only EP and the Lee-written “Hanging On The Telephone” was on it, Blondie re-recorded it - and hit the UK Top Ten. Case and Collins went on to The Breakaways (briefly) before ending up in The Plimsouls and The Beat respectively, and carving out solo careers.
(Local footnote: Collins has visited Australia a couple of times - and toured the US with an Aussie backing band made up of most of The On and Ons in tow.Multiple Grammy-nominee Case was here for the Dig It Up invitational, but spent most of his set playing dirgey blues.)
Lee released a couple of solo albums (“Jack Lee’s Greatest Hits Vol 1” and “Jack Lee”) and wrote another mega-hit (“Come Back And Stay”) for Paul Young but has maintained a lower profile than his ex-bandmates, partly by design. He declined to be part of a Nerves reunion in 2012. Lately, he’s been playing with his own Jack Lee Inferno.
Appearances by Nerves/Breakaways music on compilations like the mighty “Children of Nuggets” box set and covers of Jack Lee songs by Suzi Quartro and Cat Power have kept the porch light on, but this re-issue of his LPs by Alive Natural Sounds focusses the follow spot squarely on Jack Lee himself. It tracks the albums in order with a spot of re-mastering to keep up with the digital age.
Production is sometimes an issue but the songs on this 23-track compilation do hold up very well. Lee’s solo material largely escaped the excesses of the ‘80s production malaise of heavily-treated drums, but then he was always reputed to be a DIY-style guy. If anything, the earlier stuff sounds a little under-produced. The latter material dabbles with synth. As you did back then.
That said, this review copy is a CD and the digital format’s ability to accomodate a double LP’s worth of songs can make collections too big for their own good. Pop albums should be concise and sharp. Smashing two together doesn’t always work.
Dividing this collection into its original LPs, the sidewinder guitars and one-word chorus of “Sex” opens the second half of “Jack Lee” material promisingly, but the sequenced keys in “Somebody To Love” and “Bird In a Cage” bring cheesiness into play. A lesser light from the second album like “Between Two People” sits oddly next to the Roy Orbision-sque “Play With Me”.
On the whole, Lee’s equally sweet and earthy vocal is a winner with his wide range in evidence on songs like “Any Day Now” and the bar room boogie of “Stand Back And Take a Good Look”. The determined “I’m Gonna Have Fun” sounds like another hit that missed the boat (I’m semi-sure I’ve heard someone cover this live.) Ditto the horns-assisted “Stand Back And Take a Good Look”.
And of course you need to hear The Two Big Hits performed by their writer, if you haven’t already. “Come Back And Stay” slays the neutered Paul Young version by a country mile. “Hanging…” lacks the Mike Chapman production flash and Debbie Harry sex appeal, but Lee’s post-Nerves re-working has much to recommend, not the least of which is the man himself’s slightly emotionally fraught vocal.
Me, I’ll program the first 11 songs on my CD carousel player and be a happy bar chappie.