The 10th of April is the anniversary of the birth of General William Booth (1829-1912), Founder of the Salvation Army; so let’s celebrate with a couple of key moments from the history of Salvationist pop music.
British beat-boom completists will be familiar with the Joystrings, the Salvation Army’s pop group who had a couple of minor hits in 1964 with ‘It’s an Open Secret’ and ‘A Starry Night’. (If you’re not familiar, there’s a seven-minute interview with the group’s leader, Captain Joy Webb, here.) The hits are not the whole story, though. Because if we’re being honest, they weren’t particularly good records. But nor were they the best work by the band.
To get the good stuff, you have to go to their debut album Well Seasoned (1966). Or at least to half of it. You can mostly ignore the Christmas carols that fill the second side (though the sitar-based arrangement of ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ has a certain charm), and concentrate instead on the collection of self-written songs on the first side. You’re going to have to make allowances for the occasionally amateurish playing and harmonies, but really it’s worth your time: somewhere between the Seekers and the Hollies, the Joystrings were potentially a much better group than perhaps even they realized.
The band split in 1969, and the most talented member, guitarist Bill Davidson, went on to form his own group, Good News, who released an album titled New Life on the BBC label in 1972. And it’s another fine lost gem.
Davidson had written the best of the Joystrings’ material, including on Well Seasoned a terrific jugband singalong ‘Long Lost Cause’, which he revived here in slightly less happy form: he’s bought himself a fuzzbox and he’s going to use it. Sounding even more dated, but completely irresistible, is ‘Things to Come’, which comes on like a PF Sloan protest song from 1966:
Hand-grenades for decorations on the Christmas tree
People with a thousand eyes who cannot really see
‘We’re giving you your freedom’ – that’s what they will try to say
But to give a man his freedom you must first take it away
And in the middle stands a preacher with a silent drum
And what is now a dream could be the shape of things to come.
Best of all is the opening track, ‘Spirit’, a rock opera in embryo, not far from what Jim MacLaine was trying to do with ‘Sancta Dea’ in Stardust. Again, you’re going to have suspend critical judgement on the recording – while the spirit is willing, the production is weak – but again I think you’ll find it rewarding.
I believe this is the same Bill Davidson who went on to make solo albums later in the 1970s that were much bigger production numbers – see, for example ‘It Is Finished’ (1977) – but also much more straightforward, far less idiosyncratic and endearing.
I’m not sure if he was still in the Salvation Army by that stage. Maybe that was the problem, because the Army was always keen on a decent song – as William Booth said: ‘I rather enjoy robbing the Devil of his choice tunes.’