Jona Lewie: On The Other Hand, There’s A Fist DLX RM UK CD 
- The Baby, She’s On The Street
- Laughing Tonight
- The Fairground Ride
- On The Road
- Vous Et Moi
- I’ll Get By In Pittsburgh
- Hallelujah Europa
- Police Trap
- Feelin’ Stupid
- The Last Supper At The Masquerade
- Dennie Laine’s Valet
- God Bless Whoever Made You
- You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties
- Big Shot – Momentarily
- Stop The Cavalry
- Louise (We Get It Right)
- It Never Will Go Wrong
- Shaggy Raggy
- Shaggy Raggied
- Rearranging Deckchairs On The Titanic
- I’ll Be Here
As mentioned the other day, I came by Jona Lewie in 1981 [if I recall correctly] when exposed to the delights of his debut album. I bought my own copy, which sufficed for long years until buying the DLX RM CD that was issued in 2007. For once, I had the original UK version of the album to listen to and enjoy after years of knowing only compromise! Funny enough, it was the occasion of getting a Jona Lewie “Best Of” the year previously on La-La [the late, lamented CD swapping website] that lit the fires for more Jona to take its place in the Record Cell on the preferred CD format. I had lots of singles and two LPs at the time, but I can count on the fingers of no hands, how much I had ever played the vinyl. You know me. That vinyl is just waiting for me to digitize it. Sometimes, decades!
The album kicked off with the only single pulled from it in the UK. While there were some notable tracks [“Vous Et Moi,” “Hallelujah Europa'”] that [wisely] were issued as singles in other countries, the bulk of Lewie’s UK singles were non-LP affairs. “The Baby She’s On The Street” functioned as an effective calling card for Lewie, who had a strong penchant for the joys of piano-based boogie-woogie; hardly the most au courant style in the heady rush of 1978, but as evidenced on this single, still a potent harbinger of musical pleasure when performed with the verve that Lewie brought to the 88 keys.
The skittering, near zydeco of “Laughing Tonight” adhered to the Lewie methodology, which sought explore pre-70s pop forms, sometimes with the latest technology, sometimes not. In that aspect, the extremely pragmatic Lewie avoided the impediment of orthodoxy. While he explored his love for blues, boogie-woogie, and cajun forms, one often found synthesizers or rhythm boxes in the mix for frissons of surprise. It’s also important to note that Lewie also kept to a fairly strict two to three minute window for his excursions into planet pop. The economy of his arrangements got the songs across without any filler.
The ballad “On The Road” could have been from an Arlo Guthrie album of 1970, which made the juxtaposition of the technopop of “Vous Et Moi” right next to it all the more delicious. Only France [for blindingly obvious reasons] got the pleasure of this tune as a single.
Side two of the LP got underway with the amazing “I’ll Get By In Pittsburgh,” an improvised blues number slurred by Lewie into a cassette deck and overlaid with his drums for a distinctly lo-fi experience like few others. It really came across like a blues 10″ recorded at least 40 years earlier! The song actually made it onto a single when “Big Shot… Momentarily” was in need of a B-side.
One of my favorite bits of Lewie technopop was the utterly beguiling “Hallelujah Europa,” which was only a UK single in its original 1976 edition when Lewie was signed to Sonet. The 1978 edition was only a single in actual European countries, so the UK missed out on a captivating song know to lodge in my skull for days at a time. The bright, shining synths and the poky drumbox were immediately a perfect setting for Lewie’s love letter to The Continent. At 4:04, it’s positively one of the longest songs here, but it still passes in an instant when I listen to it.
The lurching boogie-woogie of “Police Trap” was not a song I could ever figure out lyrically, but who cares? Lewie’s “haw-haw-haw” vocal hook still slays at 50 paces. “Feelin’ Stupid” marks possibly the only time when a punk/zydeco hybrid was ever attempted. Thank goodness he tried! The cold “stop!” uttered 2/3 into the song for a beat of silence following may have given Robert Fripp the same idea a few years later with his “Under Heavy Manners.”
Just about the only song that I felt time passing with here was the closing “Last Supper At The Masquerade.” The blues/gospel number was practically an instrumental, and that may have been why, as the backing vocalists ululations actually predominate in the mind when listening. The long song here at 4:07, it managed to feel about 90 seconds longer; a rarity for this album, which fairly speeds by.
The bonus tracks began with “Denny Laine’s Valet,” the only witty thing about which was its cheeky title. The B-side [of “The Baby She’s On The Street”] otherwise plays out like your worst nightmare of what a B-side can be with what sounded like 70s musicians held at gunpoint to improvise a song in three, tense minutes. Sloppy, diffuse, and crammed with dead-from-the-neck-up riffing, I can only suspect that it was meant by Lewie as a parody of a typical rock B-side. That it was followed by the glossiest bit of Brinsley Schwatrz pop imaginable must be the compiler’s idea of a joke. “God Bless Whoever Made You” had been written by Nick Lowe and Ian Gomm a few years earlier for the stillborn [until 1988!] final Brinsley Schwartz album, “It’s All Over Now.” Lewie almost managed to come across as Gilbert O’Sullivan in such cheerful surroundings!
Better was the minor key, left-field technopop classic that was “You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties.” The almost dour vibe was perfect for a guy bemoaning his bad luck with the ladies. The methodical synths almost creating a reggae skank were wise beyond their years. We didn’t know how good we’d have it in 1980, looking backward. The single managed to chart well in the UK and gave Lewie one of his two hits that have presumably bankrolled him to this day. More power to him! This is a fantastic song that managed the neat trick of avoiding synthpop clichés that didn’t even exist yet! It remains unrepentantly fresh 36 years later.
I have already extolled the virtues of “Big Shot…Momentarily,” so we’ll move onto his perennial Christmas hit, “Stop The Cavalry.” It’s a potent little jewel of British Music Hall that mapped out territory that XTC would investigate in their imperial period a few years later. The vocalese choral riff, once heard, may not leave your hear for hours. The ostensibly anti-war ditty was given the most peripheral lyrical and musical reference for Christmas but that proved to be a canny move that took the distinct song to the UK top ten for the 1980 Christmas season, with plenty of repeat play afterward.
Next, came a song that I had owned on 10″ shortly after the time of its issue. “Louise [We Get It Right]” is another perennial Lewis classic I never tire of. The vocal breakdown before the chorus is a masterclass in arranging a potent hook. The number chugs along with all of the charm that only a synthesizer boogie-woogie number could muster. More here. The tune’s B-side explores a thread that Lewie looked into more than once. Namely, creating a B-side that almost functions as a dub of the A-side, albeit not in the traditional dub sense. What Lewie did was to take the overriding motif of the song and create a new exploration of the song; adding new melodic and sometime even lyrical directions.
Lewie did the same on the non-LP single “Shaggy Raggy.” The single’s B-side, “Shaggy Raggied” starts in dubspace with elements of the A-side laying a foundation and mutates into a different song by the time the track has ended; complete with a different lyrical slant. The last single here showed Lewie moving into very different territory by 1982. “Re-Arrangign Deck Chairs On The Titanic” was a mostly-instrumental song that really seemed to have lit a fire under Mark Knopfler, whose 1987 soundtrack to “The Princess Bride” sounded as if it held this track in particularly high regard. The boogie-woogie had been banished, and almost all semblance of pop was otherwise absent. What was there were oceanic foley effects, scant expression vocals and non-rock orchestration. The B-side effectively had Lewie drifting off into the ether as his five years on Stiff Records came to an end with the performance and melody barely there.
Alas, Lewie has made scant noises on the horizon for the last 34 years. Following his “Heart Skips Beat” album of 1982, he has only released a single 1993 album [“Optimistic”] on New Rose Records in France. After that…crickets. His website has been consistently live since 2007, with hints of an album to come, but thus far, nothing. That’s a shame since I need to get the 1993 album [which I only found out about a decade ago] and would be first in line for whatever this talented and idiosyncratic musician would be serving up in the 21st century.
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