There was so much going on in pop music in 1968, the year THE IDLE RACE’s The Birthday Party, their debut album, was first released. It’s not hard to understand how something this good could have been overlooked; luckily one of the band’s leaders, Jeff Lynne, went on to a level of fame that meant anything he had a hand in creating would arouse interest for decades to come. England’s Cherry Red Records, under their Grapefruit imprint, have just released a two disc celebration of that album, complete with both the mono and stereo mixes and the album’s attendant 45 releases.
What kind of pop music are we talking about here? Well, like so much of what made – and didn’t make – the charts then, there are definitive Beatles vibes going on, but there’s some good ol’ British style pschedelia going on, too. How else to explain the abundance of mellotron, sing-song melodies, double-tracked harmonies and songs about guys sitting in trees, ladies who think they can fly and other psilly psubjects. My favorite tunes on The Birthday Party are “Sitting in My Tree,” “Don’t Put Your Boys in the Army, Mrs. Ward,” “On With the Show” and the album’s natural closer, “End of the Road.” You also get (on Disc 1) singles “(Here We Go Round) The Lemon Tree,” which was given to the Idle Race by The Move, who went ahead and recorded it and then released it before Liberty Records could get Lynne & Co.’s version out. Too bad, too, because it’s about as good as The Move’s version so it could have been the goosing that the Idle Race’s career needed. Another good one is the alternate take of “Follow Me Follow,” which is less straight ahead than the album version and actually better than that. “Days of the Broken Arrows” is a non-LP A-side that definitely makes for a great single (and its B-side is great, too, that being “Worn Red Carpet”).
Jeff Lynne left The Idle Race after the group’s second album (Idle Race) for The Move, spent a couple years with that group and then started ELO with fellow Mover Roy Wood (with both groups running simultaneously for a year or two). Listening to The Birthday Party is a good way to see how Lynne worked his way from nascent popster to world renowned producer (he went on to produce, besides his own Electric Light Orchestra, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Paul McCartney, Traveling Wilburys and The Beatles, among many others). This is a 2CD set jam packed with tunes that you’ll want to hear again and again. — Marsh Gooch
4/5 (Grapefruit QCRSEG065D, UK, 2020)