TORQUÉS LIVE

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Tucked in between Toots & The Maytals and Peter Tosh on one of my record shelves is an LP called Torqués Live. It’s more of a time machine, really. I drop the needle on it occasionally to go back fifty years and watch my teenage parents, who were in the audience that night, dance to it on New Year’s Eve. It’s 1966. Lexington, Kentucky. The Torqués are their favorite local band. The minutes tick down, everyone’s cheering . . .

The record was recorded at local teen-club Carnaby in Lexington. The place was fairly bare bones, just a building that had the good fortune to be located across the street from Henry Clay High School. “It was a big deal to all of us,” my mother told me “because it was a place where we could go to listen to music and dance. This was a time of sock hops and lots of dances, mostly at the country clubs and schools.”One of my mother’s favorite DJs, at those dances was Nick Clooney. Who, on top of his duties as a local news anchor and game show host, fathered a son named George, whom you may have heard of.

Entering from a side door, the crowd could see the stage off to the left, along the front of the building. The band, in their satin outfits—sewn by the mother of lead guitarist, Bill Brooks—were already revving up the audience with trip hammers on their guitars. An almost incomprehensible announcer mumbles something about a “thing they’ve just recorded” and shouts, “Let’s give ‘em the Torqués!” at which point they launch into their recent single, a cover of The Tams’ I’ve Been Hurt.

Lead singer Phil Copeland immediately takes control, and he is a force of nature. But the backing harmonies are the first thing you hear that lets you know this is not an everyday cover band. Then drummer Mike Thompson slices the song in two with an incredible Funky Drummer-style drum break (no small part of this record’s lasting appeal to crate-diggers). After which the band slides effortlessly into Los Bravos’ recent hit, Black is Black. Copeland’s voice starts overloading the sound system.

After listening to the record probably 30 times, I finally contacted The Torqués’ lead guitarist and founder, Bill Brooks, to find out more on the fate of the band.“The Torqués was the original garage band in this region,” he told me. They operated out of a makeshift studio in the garage of their manager, Cecil Jones. Jones had started a small label called Lemco Records, meant to capitalize on Kentucky talent. He released their first 45, a song called Deep Blue, At Dusk backed with Linden Walk.

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Left to Right: Ricky Rose, Bob Remington, Frank Harscher, Bill Brooks, Elbert Thompson, Mike Thompson, Kneeling – Joe Breshear. This is the original group that was also on the ACME label songs.

Brooks told me that the group formed from “a service club talent contest, “when they were in high school.”We actually won $5,” he said. This was 1960, and the name of this nascent group was The Five Keys (not the R&B vocal group). Two members of The Five Keys would go on to form the original Torqués.

Although several 60s groups shared the name, Brooks’ group apparently predates them by a year or two. “The name ‘Torqués’ actually came from a Spanish text. It means ‘to twist’. The original drummer pinned the name because he was taking Spanish in high school.” While the translation may not be 100% accurate, the sentiment is there.

Meanwhile, back at Carnaby on New Year’s Eve… the band is giving Tom Jones a run for his money, heating up It’s Not Unusual and immediately raging into (I’m Not Your) Steppin Stone, modelled on Paul Revere and the Raiders’ earlier version rather than the more famous one by The Monkees. The fuzz tone makes its first appearance.

“The music scene in Lexington was dominated by the Torqués and Mag 7,” Brooks said, referring to another local band called The Magnificent 7, or, earlier, The Temptashuns). “These were the rivalries,” he said. “Other groups followed both bands, dependent on style. “ When asked about a report that The Torqués would loan other groups their precious 45s for them to learn, Brooks remembered only that they “often shared music and advice to younger groups.”

The band began to be successful around 1964–5. “We played college and fraternity parties on a regular basis,” Brooks said. Things accelerated when they replaced their lead singer (Pat Horine, who went on to become a member of the New Kingston trio) with Phil Copeland, who brought a more danceable British-invasion vibe. As the Sixties wore on, the band would incorporate psychedelic and Motown influences.

TORQUES

This was the group that was together for the last 21/2 years.Back Row – Bill Brooks, Phil Copeland, Glen Bagby, Mike Sullens(last bass player), Mike Thompson, Charlie Carter. Kneeling – Elbert Thompson, Paul Mansfield. This is the group that recorded for Dial Records, and also The Torques Live LP.

It all seems to have come to head on New Year’s Eve. The people in the crowd, including my 17-year-old parents, sound beside themselves. “The Torqués were the band at the time,” my mother told me. “Everyone loved them, and when word got out that they were taping an album, we all wanted to be there. I’m pretty sure Bill Brooks, the lead guitarist, told us about it. If I remember correctly, we had to make reservations to go that night, which was not usually a necessity.”

Onstage and on the record, The Torqués move from another Raiders’ classic—Hungry—to James Brown’s Out of Sight, showing their astounding range and how tight they’d become playing to easily bored teenagers every weekend or so for five years.

While their main rivals in town, the Mag 7, released a few fantastic singles on Lemco, their recorded output doesn’t stand a chance next to The Torqués. Two of their 45s are highly lauded on the Northern Soul scene, and they often exchange hands among collectors for three figures. 1965s’ It’s Me Not You, written by saxophonist Dent Thompson, is a flat out raver and exhibits the best kind of Kinks-influenced garage mayhem, to which Bill pleads guilty and states that it was “all part of the wide scene we covered”.

Bumpin’ is an instrumental, counter-intuitive perhaps for such an excellent vocal group, but the proof is in the groove. Written by the band’s organist, Charlie Carter, this track has it in spades. The song has gone on to feature prominently on Northern Soul playlists.

Meanwhile, back at Carnaby, The Torqués are punishing The Young Rascals’ Come on Up with primitive phasing effects on the guitars and nascent psychedelia. They pound out the beat until someone finally shouts, “That’s all!” and sends everyone out into the night, thinking about the year to come. 1967 must have seemed very bright and weird.

The Torqués broke up in 1968. My parents’ marriage lasted a few years longer. but Torqués Live lives on.

Postscript:

This article would not have been possible without the cooperation of Torques lead singer, Phil Copeland, who was instrumental in facilitating the interview and also found the incredible pictures that accompany this article. Miraculously, The Torques reformed several years ago with four of the five original members and play in Lexington to this day. If you’d like to keep up with them, they have a Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/The-Torques/163311567076346 and a greatest hits CD available at www.thetorques.com.

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Thank You Friends: Big Star’s Memphis Pop Scene – Part One

Ardent Logo B&W

With the band Big Star currently in the spotlight thanks to the long-awaited documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me: The Big Star Story, it seems an appropriate time to shed some reflected light on their lesser-known contemporaries in the Memphis Power Pop scene.

Ardent were the epicentre of this late sixties-early seventies scene. Through their recording studio and record label, they fostered young Memphis musicians who were interested in learning the ins and outs of the recording studio. One of the most eager was teenager Chris Bell.

Bell, along with Jody Stephens, formed Rock City with Thomas Dean Eubanks and effectively created the nascent Big Star. In fact, My Life is Right, later released on #1 Record, was co-written by Eubanks and recorded at this time. A little later, former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton moved back to Memphis after an unsuccessful attempt at a folk career in New York City and became the missing piece of the Big Star puzzle.

This part of the story is fairly well known. However, there were several bands working in the studio at the same time, creating similarly transcendent pop music, that have unfairly lived in Big Star’s shadow.

In fact, Cargoe were the best known Ardent band at the time and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens recently reflected that Cargoe were a better live band than his group. Originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma they moved to Memphis in the late 60s and recorded the scorching single Feel Alright for Ardent Records (after an early flirtation with Dan Penn’s Beautiful Records). Sounding like a cross between The Raspberries and Big Star, the single is full of arching harmonies, meaty guitar and a rhythm section that would give The Who a run for its money.

Their self-titled record is full of similar gems, including the gorgeous I Love You Anyway.

Ardent Records released The Hot Dogs’ Say What You Mean LP in late ’73 right after Cargoe and Big Star’s debuts. Though the band initially consisted of only two members: Bill Rennie and Greg Reding, in the studio they were helped by quite a few Ardent personnel. Producer Terry Manning played lead guitar, while Big Star associate (and I Am The Cosmos drummer) Richard Rosebrough was on drums. While exemplary in many ways, Say What You Mean isn’t quite up to the Chilton/Bell songwriting standard. But… it’s immediately sonically clear that it was recorded at Ardent Studios. The crisp acoustic guitar sound mixed with impeccable backing harmonies could be straight from #1 Record. The standout track is Another Smile, released as a single, which has a very Big Star feel, with crisp acoustic guitars, compressed handclaps and strings. Have a listen here…

Perhaps the least-known participant in this story is Gimmer Nicholson, who recorded a number of songs at Ardent Studios just prior to the making of Big Star’s # 1 Record. His acoustic guitar style greatly influenced the Big Star sound, to the point that at certain times, it’s possible to hear exact riffs taken directly from these sessions. Regrettably they were not released to the public until 1994 when Lucky 7 Records finally brought them into the light of day.

Millenial Harbinger from the Christopher Idylls has all the hallmarks of this sound and gives you an idea of where Chris Bell and Alex Chilton received the inspiration for songs like The Ballad of El Goodo and 13. The record is often described as New Age guitar music before that term came into vogue. It certainly wouldn’t have been out of place on the Windham Hill label a decade later.

In 2016, Light in the Attic records issued the first vinyl version of Christopher Idylls to be taken from the original master tapes (there was a 1981 release on Sid Selvidge’s Peabody label that sonically wasn’t up to scratch according to producer Terry Manning).

Of course, most of these songs and more gems from the Ardent catalogue can be found on The Ardent Records Story, coincidentally called Thank You Friends. Imagine that…

If you’ve enjoyed this, please stay tuned, for part two, where we’ll venture outside Ardent Studios’ hallowed walls and explore the mean streets of the Memphian pop aftermath…