The two most successful albums on Nine Below Zero’s early roster have been reissued and come in expanded packages with loads of live material, alternative versions and informative liner notes.
‘Don’t Point Your Finger’ is classic British r’n’b to its very core. Emerging in 1981 in the teeth of a new wave gale, this album stood (and still stands) for traditional values built around catchy hooks, driving boogie guitar and uncomplicated songwriting. The material is delivered with enough sneery swagger and direct attitude to see that the punk influences were not lost on this south-east London mob.
Check out the slippery, lithe slide guitar that crawls all over ‘Ain’t Coming Back’. Chuck in the harmonica histrionics from Mark Feltham and you have a gorgeous dirty groove that wouldn’t be out of place on Dr Feelgood’s ‘Down By The Jetty’.
Other influences pick up all the right references. ‘Doghouse’ is an adrenaline-fuelled dose of Chuck Berry. ‘Treat Her Right’ shows off the assured vocals of Dennis Greaves to fine effect over a reworked, harmonica and guitar riff that used to be ‘You Really Got Me’.
‘That’s enough’ is all edgy, angular guitar underneath another spine tingling harmonica break and machine gun vocal delivery. Brilliant. In the same vein, the rolling blues of the superb ‘Don’t Point Your Finger at the Guitar Man’ and the water-tight opener ‘One Way Street’ are uplifting celebrations of the genre.
I’m not sure about the cover of ‘Rockin’ Robin’ though. Just a bit too much Bill Hayley parody.
Legendary producer Glyn Johns gelled well with the band and found a distinct sound that harnessed all their raw energy. His handling of the trad blues epic ‘Sugar Mama’ is both tasteful and raw at the same time.
The bonus live material CD is worth the package alone and captures the band in full flow.
‘Third Degree’ is an altogether different animal. Maybe encouraged by the success of ‘Don’t Point Your Finger’, this album in its final version is a more polished and less in-yer-face album. It is interesting that the reissued package contains a bonus CD of the original sessions recorded by Glyn Johns – architect of powerhouse first studio album. These were subsequently dumped in favour of the commercial, more lightweight product that ultimately hit the racks. That’s a shame.
The r’n’b sound isn’t abandoned completely. ‘11 + 11’ is a belting album opener, full of lively chops, insistent rhythms and spitting vocals. ‘You Can’t Say Yes and You Can’t Say No’ which closes the album is also a sharp-guitared and catchy workout.
It’s the stuff in-between that presents a problem. The overall sound lacks the punch of its predecessor. Melodic backing vocals and anodyne keyboard fills inevitably water down the guitar and harp bite. Like ‘Wipe Away Your Tears’ which has a comforting groove and lovely Hammond organ, but could be so much more. The same can be said for ‘True Love Is A Crime’ which rumbles along pleasantly with a solid vibe and good harmonica undertow, but somehow leaves one feeling short changed.
The influences are diverse. There are heavy whiffs of Kinks and Small Faces alongside the rock n roll, though sadly, the material doesn’t always do them justice. ‘Sugarbeat’, one of the better tracks, and ‘Egg On My Face’ are heavily influenced by The Jam. ‘East Street, SE17′ is a tame ska-heavy effort and ‘Mystery Man’ just sounds a bit insipid when judged against earlier output.
This is the curious fact about multiple reissues. Comparisons are inevitable. On its own this album would be a reasonable and diverse effort. With the passage of time it has not worn too well. Even though it charted higher than ‘Don’t Point Your Finger’, it is the earlier album that captures the true energy, vitality and compelling drive of NBZ.
Review by Dave Atkinson
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