Scene: a cold, draughty village hall in Corston near Bath, winter 1971. The entire audience of your correspondent and a dozen or so other slightly drunk teenage loonies giggle and cavort round the bare floor whilst on the stage a four-piece band manfully reconstructs, note-for-note perfect, the entire medley from the flip side of Abbey Road. The lead guitarist, a stubby, bearded Welshman called Morty, stands motionless behind his Les Paul at stage right. The members of Oswald Orange from the Rhondda are living the rock’n’roll lifestyle . . .
1977, and a South Wales band called Racing Cars appears on primetime TV show Top Of The Pops for the first and last time, playing their unexpected minor hit single, the maudlin ballad “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, inspired by Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film on the marathon jitterbug dance contests of the thirties’ depression. The lead vocalist and principal songwriter is a stubby, bearded Welshman called Morty, or Gareth Mortimer to give him his full moniker. Aside from Morty the most notable name amongst these assorted sons of the Rhondda is that of Ray Ennis, sometime trad jazz banjoist and member of the celebrated sixties Merseybeat ensemble, the Swinging Blue Jeans.
Racing Cars came together in 1973 and belatedly joined the London Pub Rock circuit early in ‘76, playing with a degree of sophistication and instrumental virtuosity that marked them out above most of their contemporaries. Landing a contract with Chrysalis Records, they cut their first album Downtown Tonight just in time to see it swept away by the punk explosion. Very much the right product at the wrong time, it deserved better treatment: the single was briefly in vogue a year on, but the album predictably failed to set the record shop tills alight. Residual popularity on the college circuit kept the band going for four further years and two further albums, but the one-hit-wonders tag would stick till the end.
Apart from the atypical, string-quintet-laden “Horses”, Downtown Tonight features the honest, solidly-constructed sort of electric guitar-based music that the Pub Rock genre is still regarded with affection for: rocking mid-tempo songs mixing blues, country, soul and funk inflections, a powerful twin-lead attack, solid rhythm section, occasional guest piano, and warm rough-cut vocal harmonies. Ennis in particular plays mean slide and crafts some fine harmony runs with partner Graham Hedley Williams on “Pass The Bottle”, as well as exhuming his banjo for some rapid three-finger picking against Williams’s Albert Lee-style Telecastering on the unashamedly honkytonk “Get Out And Get It”. The stirring opener “Calling The Tune” offers some fine pentatonic widdling over its simple riff structure, whilst “Four Wheel Drive” is a butt-kickin’ funk instrumental right out of the Average White Band’s fakebook. Add in the languid ballads of the title track and “Horses” and the unassuming, lo-fi production and all in all it’s a set that would have been a modest pleasure heard live and loud one evening in some smoky tavern.
Racing Cars reunited in 1988 for a modest second career which saw numerous personnel changes – only Morty and Williams eventually remaining from the original lineup – and produced two further albums before finally hanging up their instruments in 2009.