"Some people even think [It Happened One Night] is my best record. (I think they're insane, but I appreciate the sentiment.)" - John Wesley Harding
Count me as one of the insane.
In a parallel world, you can have two debut albums, argues John Wesley Harding (or Wes, as he is commonly known from his real name Wesley Stace). In this world of remixing, remastering and rereleasing, however, both of those debuts can appear in expanded form with the two-disc set It Happened One Night/It Never Happened At All. This is a beefy package: 34 tracks, nearly half of which have never been released before. But don't think that is because the songs are weak or throwaways. This is a very strong collection from an artist captured at the crossroads of independence and recording his major-label debut "Here Comes the Groom."
On November 5, 1988, Wes recorded his solo set in a bar in West London to an audience of friends, strangers, and indifferents. These recordings would serve as his debut album It Happened One Night. Unfortunately, because they were recorded live, no one wanted to play the songs, as good as they were, on the radio. Work started on his first studio album in 1988 and early 1989, when Sire Records signed him up and those recordings were abandoned. For this two-disc set, Wes scoured the countryside to reassemble those tracks and produce this excellent collection.
It Happened One Night is one of the better live albums to be released recently. Capturing the essence of the lone singer-songwriter-with-guitar on stage, we get all the clever lyrics, cynicism, and passion that makes Wes one of my favorite performers. Unfortunately, we also get the jokes that go over poorly, the occasional strained, out-of-tune vocals, the hecklers, and the inattentive audience. This last problem is the most serious one with the album, however. Generally, I'm in favor of live albums that sound live, instead of those sterile studio recordings, but, in this case, it would have been nice to mix the crowd noise down, especially during the songs. Although the running order of the songs were changed on the CD, this sounds like an authentic live recording and as close to the actual performance as you could imagine, short of being a bootleg.Three of the songs performed live here would later appear on Here Comes the Groom and one would appear on his second Sire album, The Name Above the Title, so most of the tracks are only available on this collection. Many feature Wes's observations of pop culture. One of my favorites is July 13th 1985, a song about sitting around snorting coke during Live Aid through a 10-pound note, then sending the note to Bob Geldof for famine relief. The song is peppered with references to events that took place onstage at Live Aid that bring back long-lost memories of listening to the show on the radio. He performed an acoustic version of Prince's Kiss with a country & western beat and sing-along chorus, before launching into Lovers Society.
The Night That He Took Her to the Fairground was sung acapella, which, in a powerful performance, appeared to hold the audience captive, at least for that song. The show closes with Bastard Son, in which Wes claims "Bob Dylan is my father, Joan Baez is my mother, and I'm their bastard son." Two additional songs not included in the original release are restored: Every Sunrise is Another Sunset (a duet with David Lewis) and Three-Legged Man.
It Never Happened At All features studio versions of eight of the live songs. All the songs were recorded in 1988 or 1989, except The Night He Took Her to the Fairground, recorded in January 1986. The 14 tracks showcase a variety of styles, ranging from the rocking blues of Browning Road, the rockabilly of You Can't Take It With You, and the heavy metal of Scared of Guns. As Wes describes in the liner notes, during that period, he was "trying to write a song in any style that took my fancy. . . just looking for something I liked." All in all, this is an enjoyable collection of songs, despite the hodge-podge.
This is a professional-sounding full-band album, no half-finished demos here. On many of the tracks, members of Elvis Costello's Attractions make up the band supporting Wes. As such, this is a tight-sounding pop-rock album. The album opens with the Bo Diddley influenced rhythm of "Love's Sacrifice," a pure pop gem.
After the blaring guitar of Scared of Guns, the CD switches to the furious folk-punk strumming of Who You Really Are, which predates Ani DiFranco by several years. I get a kick out of all the clever lyrics like "You've got imagination like a lift. I'm stuck between the floors."
The weirdest track on It Never Happened At All is One Night Only featuring piano, ocean sounds, crowd noises, and sonic flourishes from a synthesizer. It is totally unlike anything Wes has released, so it appears on this collection for kitsch.
The version of Devil In Me is more country than the rocking version appearing on Here Comes the Groom, with Steve Donnelly's guitar made to sound like pedal steel. Same Thing Twice, also appearing on Here Comes the Groom, gets the same country treatment, with banjo and harmonica. In some ways, I like these arrangements better than the originally released versions.
Either It Happened One Night or It Never Happened At All would have been satisfying by itself. Together, these two discs create a document that captures both the live and studio sides of a young performer with 120 minutes of great music. This collection is sure to please hardcore fans and newbies alike.
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