CD Review of Rotate: An Anthology by John Wicks and The Records

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Rotate: An Anthology
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Released: 2007
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If the name John Wicks isn’t an immediate bell-ringer, then at least the Records ought to be; way back in the late ‘70s, when power pop was still a viable commercial entity without necessitating teen-magazine-worthy cuteness amongst the artists performing it, the band released “Starry Eyes,” a song so catchy that even America couldn’t resist its charms. Well, okay, you might could say that they resisted it a little bit, since the song only made it to #56 on the Billboard Top 100 Singles chart…but, still, a hit’s a hit, and almost thirty years later, a surprisingly large amount of people still remember the lines, “I don’t wanna argue / I ain’t gonna budge / Won’t you take this number down before you call up the judge?”

The Records disbanded in 1982, with three studio albums to their name, and the band’s core trio – Wicks (vocals, rhythm guitar), Will Birch (drums), and Phil Brown (bass) – went their separate ways; in the early ‘90s, however, Wicks revived the band name to record a version of “Darlin’” for a Beach Boys tribute album and, in response to the positive response received by the cover, decided to start the Records up again.

For some, the prospect of a Records line-up without Will Birch may be one that offers no interest, given that an examination of the songwriting credits for the band’s 20-track anthology, Smashes, Crashes and Near Misses, reveals that nowhere on the album does the name John Wicks appear without that of Will Birch. Yes, the band was unquestionably a collaborative effort between the two. As it happens, though, Birch was the lyrics man of the group, so it’ll be no surprise that Rotate, the new anthology of Wicks’ more recent Records material, doesn’t sound discernibly different from a musical standpoint; and, frankly, if Will Birch doesn’t mind if John Wicks keeps the band going, then why should you? (More on that in a moment.)

Rotate is described within its own title as an anthology, but that’s not an entirely accurate description; yes, it’s an anthology in the sense that it includes material from the years since Wicks revived the band, but, in fact, the contents are a mixture of new recordings and remixed versions of older tracks. Four of the tracks originally appeared on the Records’ 1999 album, Rock’ola, and, as it happens, they’re four of the best. “That Girl Is Emily” is immediately reminiscent (and no doubt intentionally so) of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play,” while “Edges of a Dream” and “So Close to Home” find Wicks and company easily matching the pop perfection of the original Records’ best work. And though the opening lines of “Different Shades of Green” provide a few moments where you’ll really miss Birch’s way with words (“Like three blind mice / See how they run / I roll the dice / And the game is won”), the song still possesses a monster riff that can’t be ignored. Weirdly missing from the line-up of Rock’Ola songs, however, is the great “Her Stars are My Stars,” which appeared on the 1996 compilation, Yellow Pills, Vol. 3, and, a bit surprisingly, once more bore the familiar songwriting credit of Wicks and Birch.

Of the other songs, “Oh Yeah!” is a great way to start out the proceedings and say, “Musically, things are the same as they ever were,” and the title track is nothing short of a guitar-pop epic. In fact, the lone bum step on Rotate comes in the form of “Whenever You’re Near,” which sounds less like the Records than an attempt at writing an adult contemporary hit for REO Speedwagon; it’s probably not coincidental that it’s the oldest Wicks composition on the album, but, similarly, it’s unquestionably the track that’s aged the worst. It’s worth mentioning, though, that the decision to close the album with the band’s cover of “We Can Work It Out” isn’t necessarily the best maneuver; the performance is fine enough, laced as it is with Wicks’ typically solid harmonies, but the muddy production on the song causes Rotate to end on a duff note rather than a rousing one. (Fortunately, however, if you manage to pick up the limited-edition version of Rotate, you’ll be able to save the day by popping in the bonus disc and checking out three fantastic “basement demos” from the band’s twangy mid-‘90s era, along with two crisp-sounding live tracks from a 1995 performance at The Birchmere, in Alexandria, VA.)

So set aside any concerns you may have about the viability of the latter-day Records; with Rotate, John Wicks provides ample proof that his way with a pop hook remains undiminished.

Surprising post-script: When I sat down to write this review, I wanted to make sure I knew what I was talking about when I mentioned the fact that Will Birch was no longer a part of this incarnation of the Records, so who better to approach than Birch himself? I queried Mr. Birch via E-mail, and, with the caveat that he copy John Wicks on his response, he responded thusly:

“I haven’t heard Rotate and not sure what (John’s) ‘latter day Records material’ is, but I wish him every success with it. There is no animosity between us, and, in fact, we have an ongoing business relationship with our publishing catalogue from the Records’ ‘golden years’, which still ticks over nicely. When John moved out to the States some years back, he asked me if I minded him going out as the Records, and I said, ‘No problem,’ as long as he made it clear it wasn’t the original group, which I think he has adhered to by billing himself as ‘John Wicks and…’ His activity is, to use your phrase, a ‘Birch-free zone’, unless he’s doing any of the songs we co-wrote, but I wish him well.”

Very nice, eh? But, actually, getting the reply wasn’t the surprising bit, given that Birch notes on his website that he “endeavours to answer all messages.” No, the surprise came approximately half an hour later, when my phone rang…and John Wicks was on the other end of the line!

Wicks essentially confirmed Birch’s comments, but he did want to offer a bit of an explanation about the reason he bills himself the way he does. It wasn’t that he had any problems going completely and totally solo; it was that, when he made his move to the States, he couldn’t score a gig as “John Wicks” to save his life. As a result, his manager at the time suggested that perhaps he might have a better go of it if he appended “and the Records” to his name, and the rest – with Will Birch’s blessing – is history. Ironically, he says he now fights the occasional battle with people who think he should actually drop the “John Wicks and” part! Don’t worry, though, Will: he has no interest in doing that, acknowledging that it wouldn’t be fair to combine the two eras of the band in people’s minds.

~Will Harris