Lost Liverpool #25: Jimmy Campbell – the greatest songwriter you’ve never heard of?

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Jimmy Campbell – one of Liverpool’s lost maverick musicians

The latest in our Lost Liverpool series sees Getintothis’ Matty Loughlin-Day reflect on the largely forgotten legacy of songwriter Jimmy Campbell.

Liverpool is not a city short of ‘what-ifs’ and lost sons & daughters.

Reams and reams have been dedicated to the squandered genius that has been in the hands of Merseyside artists tantalisingly close to realising their potential, only for fate to intervene and their moment pass them by.

Sometimes such artists go on to achieve mythical status, with news of their movements and activities scrutinised and passed around in a Chinese-whispers style, their legend growing exponentially in the process; for a time in the early 2000’s for instance, it felt like Lee Mavers was “definitely” playing the Zanzibar every month.

Naturally to no avail, but all the while, the buzz around his return from the wilderness spread like wildfire.

Rumours of comebacks and that fabled second album persist to the current day and the smallest scraps of information are poured over by loyal acolytes of all things La.

Other times, such artists are regarded as ‘should have been massive’ acts and their near miss with glory is celebrated by a cult following, fiercely proud of their heroes.

Obvious examples are The Maybes?, Real People, Mick Head, Tramp Attack and arguably even Echo & The Bunnymen, who at one point were anticipated to beat U2 to the crown of ‘biggest band in the world’.

Amid all of this, one artist appears to have fallen through the cracks.

The Bandwagon, The Zanzibar, The Maybes? and nights out with Noel Gallagher

A songwriter who, for this writer’s money, could go toe-to-toe with any of the more celebrated prodigies from the region, yet who’s name is frequently met with blank faces or a shrug of the shoulders.

A writer who, in a sane universe, would be esteemed alongside Mavers, Head and, yes, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Jimmy Campbell is arguably the archetypal lost son of Liverpool.

A talent that was never quite reciprocated by the buying public and the victim of some cruel twists of fate, his is a name that is for one reason or another, never quite mentioned when discussing the plethora of musical talent that the city has produced.

Before plunging further into grand praise and bold claims, allow me to narrate the facts.

Initially, prospects for stardom were good. Born in time to be part of the swinging ’60s and the brave new world emerging out the rubble of the Second World War (1944 to be precise), Campbell’s first band, The Panthers, were formed in 1962 and were at the heart of all things Merseybeat.

Legend has it that at one gig, John Lennon stood in front of the band, keen to suss out local competition; one must assume he was impressed, as before long, the band were able to add ‘supported The Beatles’ to their CV.

Convinced by Cavern-legend Bob Wooler to change their name to The Kirkbys (in homage to their home suburb) and looked after by Brian Epstein’s secretary Beryl Adams, Campbell et al toured across Western Europe and recorded a handful of songs, including the Rolling Stones-esque stomper It’s a Crime and the Byrds-influenced harmony led Don’t You Want Me No More?

The Cavern Mecca and the start of Beatles tourism – plus the forgotten Merseybeat heroes

Decades later, band members would recount that, unhappy with the sound of the recordings, they eventually scratched the master copies, rendering them useless, so we can only guess what else was recorded, but regardless of band perception, initial singles found success in, of all places, Finland.

At home, the singles fared less impressively, and a second name change soon followed. The Kirbys became the 23rd Turnoff, again based in local geography, named after the M6 junction required for Kirkby.

By now, Campbell’s writing was growing exponentially stronger and in leaving behind the R’n’B infused Merseybeat sound, was able to deliver his first undeniable masterpiece in Michaelangelo.

A swirling slice of English psychedelia, somehow, it failed to set the world alight; an increasingly common theme in this story.

Almost prophesied in the song itself (“Why should it be that a man such as me / Who cares not for money and fame / shouldn’t be rich with God’s natural gifts / To have something to show at the end of life’s game?”), Campbell’s disillusionment with the music business led to him splitting the band and retiring from band-life for six months, not before recording further lost classics such as the Penny Lane-like (Not a) Penny in my Pocket and the droning Leave Me Here.

Given the boom of psychedelia and all things Mersey, six months in 1969 must have been a near-eternity and despite acts such as the Swinging Blue Jeans and Cliff Richard recording and releasing his songs, when Campbell returned, this time as a solo act with the spare, largely acoustic album Son of Anastasia, it failed to garner anywhere near as much attention as it deserved.

Featuring subdued reworkings of many 23rd Turnoff songs (Mother’s Boy, Penny in my Pocket, Another Vincent Van Gogh and an almost baroque reinterpretation of Michaelangelo), it nevertheless marked a further maturity in Campbell’s writing, with his style becoming increasingly idiosyncratic and less formulaic.

Girls with guitars – The Liverbirds, Britain’s first all female rock band

Despite sporadic TV and radio appearances and positive reviews, it largely sank without trace.

Perhaps this was the result of a strange first single – the trippy On a Monday; a superb song, but hardly singalong material – or maybe Campbell laid himself too bare for mass attention (see Another Springtime’s Passed Me By, Dear Marge or Lovely Eliza Cope is Dead), but either way, …Anastasia faded away.

Listening some 50 years later, elements of the album have dated somewhat. The inclusion of kazoo on some tracks is misguided to say the least.

But it still stands as a brilliant album in the singer-songwriter canon and by all rights, much of it should be included in the great Scouse songbook.

What followed next makes Campbell’s obscurity even more baffling.

Seemingly undeterred, he teamed up with The Merseybeat’s Billy Kinsley and Tony Crane, in addition to members of Badfinger (collectively known as Rockin’ Horse) and crafted his second album, Half Baked.

Simultaneously much grander yet more focused, it is a chamber-folk musical masterpiece.

Laden with strings, woodwind and brass, it is a breath-taking opus that draws influence from the greats of time (Neil Young, Lennon, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson) while remaining essentially Jimmy – nobody else could – or indeed would dare – write “I’ll take my milk with me to bed, maybe a round of toast and then I’ll read a while…” let alone “In my room, with its broken door… and pictures on the wall of Hitler, John and Paul…”.

It would probably be lazy to label the album as psychedelic or pastoral, but it is very English and in a just universe would be spoken of with the reverie The Zombies‘ Odessey and Oracle is gifted.

Crucially, it hasn’t dated and still holds its magic to date.

The epic closer Don’t Leave Me Now was released as the lead single and simply should have been huge.

Over a bombastic five minutes, it builds to a nearly unmanageable level to create a thrilling, dramatic epic that floors you with its pleading relentlessness.

Naturally, despite getting a US release, and gaining fans in no less than Joey Ramone, it bombed.

Bad luck certainly played a big part, with various union strikes of the time meaning TV and record companies were in no position to promote the record, nor willing to fund tours, yet again, it might also be that the writing was too confessional for a world that was kissing the sky and taking exile on Main Street (“things haven’t been too good with me and I’ve been lying to myself”), but either way, Campbell was stranded.

Rather than try again solo, Campbell joined forces with Rockin’ Horse and released a powerpop gem of an album, Yes It Is.

Although elements of it have dated somewhat more than his solo work – it could almost be the great lost album The Beatles recorded in between Let it Be and Abbey Road – it contains some of Campbell’s finest yearning pop in Biggest Gossip in Town, Don’t You Ever Think I Cry? and Yes it is. Inevitably, in a post-Beatles world, it – you guessed it – bombed.

With a short European tour in 1972 backing Chuck Berry (by all accounts a torturous affair) and fortunes truly fading, Campbell decided he’d had enough.

Other artists were still covering his songs (Billy Fury himself releasing the should-have-been-massive I Call for my Rose and Going Back to Germany), but the success and respect Campbell so richly deserved eluded him.

Walking away wasn’t so easy however; Campbell was still contractually obliged to deliver a third solo album, but thoroughly cheesed off with the music business, his enthusiasm for going through it all again was severely lacking and so he simply jumped a train down to London with one guitar and recorded a handful of songs in one setting, before heading back to Liverpool to draw a line under his career.

Wisdom would normally dictate that an album recorded in such a manner would be dreadful, yet thanks to some tasteful overdubs courtesy of Rockin’ Horse, Jimmy Campbell managed to deliver one final lo-fi masterpiece that is as stark as it is bleakly humourous.

At times to wistful as to barely be there, Campbell’s creaking voice pierces through to deliver some charming, delightful songs (Baby Walk out with your Darling Man; Paris, You’re in Paris) alongside some heart-breakers (It Never Rains but it Pours; When You Coming Home?).

It hardly needs to be said the album barely made a tickle on the charts.

A few radio sessions aside, and that was it for Jimmy Campbell.

Or so it would appear until in 2011 the majestic Viper Label unearthed a trove of delights, not least a live album, recorded in 1977 containing a host of unreleased ‘new’ songs.

If previous offerings were too bare and vulnerable, then these songs were practically contents of a psychoanalytic session – Bride for the Second Time, Not Tonight and One More Baby all lament lost love and personal failings, while many other songs appear to chronicle a desire to run away across The Pond (New Girl Writing Me Letters, Baby Doll and naturally, All the Way to the USA), so we can only imagine how they would have been received amongst the carnage of punk, reggae and a burning UK.

Not much is widely known about what happened in the following decades, though one story did trickle out some years later; apparently rejuvenated and able to muster the strength to record a fourth solo album during the 80’s, Campbell, on completing it, went to the pub to celebrate, only to return home to find his house ransacked and the only master tapes of the album gone, along with a range of equipment. The guy, it seemed, could just not catch a break.

In 2013, the Viper Label unearthed a handful of later-years tracks, including the stunning When I Cross Your Path, but other than that, Campbell apparently never recorded (or at least released) another note.

Although he would pop up in venues such as the Cavern every now and then, playing rock and roll covers with pals, unannounced, he never formally returned to the stage.

By all accounts, a life of hard-living took its toll and he sadly passed away in 2007 after battling emphysema.

In 2009, Cherry Red Records re-released his three solo albums and the Rockin’ Horse debut album, in addition to a compilation of Kirkbys/23rd Turnoff singles and demos (all highly recommended, if only for the excellent liner notes from Mark Johnston).

Gradually over the next decade, a few further precious gems trickled out, including former bandmate Billy Kinsley recording some unreleased songs in 2010.

These included the sea-faring Banks of the Old River Mersey and the utterly delightful I’ll Meet You by the Lighthouse and most excitingly, footage of Campbell’s solo appearance on Disco 2 in 1970 appeared on YouTube in 2018 (prior to this, the only footage of him was the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it videos of him as Chuck Berry’s acoustic guitar player).

Such scraps only strengthen the notion that Jimmy Campbell should have, by all rights, been a staple of the various Scouse revivals over the years.

Despite Will Sergeant claiming Michelangelo to be one of his favourite songs, the Guardian including the 23rd Turnoff compilation in the ‘1001 albums to hear before you die’ list and alumni such as John Head covering his songs, Jimmy Campbell remains yet to be discovered by so many; why is this?

His story arguably echoes that of Nick Drake, a singular talent, three excellent albums, the final of which was delivered as an almost obligation, widely ignored, minus the finale of critical redemption post-death and as such, a Sugarman-style rediscovery has felt inevitable for the best part of a decade, yet this hasn’t quite materialised.

In Campbell’s obituary in The Independent, BBC Merseyside’s oracle Spencer Leigh stated that Jimmy himself, on reflection, put this down to the fact that his songs were all essentially “cries for help”, surmising that, as hinted before, the world simply wasn’t ready for such naked vulnerability.

Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden – a modern classic which redefined the use of space and sound

In an age whereby ‘integrity’ and bare-boned honesty are valued, almost demanded from artists, this might seem alien, but putting his output into context, it is a valid point.

In the years after The Beatles’ split, it might have been that the industry were after their next marketable

Merseyside mop-top, in which case they clearly weren’t going to find it in Campbell (“if I’d have known what would happened, I would have stayed in bed… if anyone calls, say I’m dead” would be a most unlikely chart topper, for instance).

Similarly, it might be that the market was saturated with such acts and consequently the public’s appetite was sated for all things Fab.

There is a risk however that this article hones in on the bad fortune and cruel twists of fate too much, so before wrapping up, let us bring focus back onto the music, as if it does not stand up to scrutiny in 2019 then it renders such pondering useless.

The first thing one notices about Campbell’s work is its singularity.

There’s not a cliché in sight and at ties he almost redefines what a song can be – there can’t be many songs that have a chorus consisting of “this hotel used to be occupied by high ranking German officers…” as By the light of a Lamp does, surely?!

Likewise, in his songs the mundane is employed frequently and brilliantly to highlight much of the human experience; take Loving You Is All I Do, the chorus of which is “she left her key underneath the vase on the kitchen table, so I won’t sleep tonight in case she comes home” – so succinct, yet saying so much.

See also the phrasing in Just like a Girl’sstay with me, I hate being on my own… my room’s so lonely and I don’t possess a telephone…” – so simple as to almost be naive; decades later bands would make careers out of such lyrics (see Belle and Sebastian and other acts often unfairly labelled as twee, or Galaxie 500 and a whole host of other bands lumped into the ‘slacker-rock’ genre), but in the 60’s and 70’s, it would appear such honesty and scaled-back vision was not in vogue. It’s a Crime as the Kirkbys song stated.

Musically too, lest we forget, Campbell’s gift for melody was second-to-none.

From the clanging boom of Dylan-does-the-White-Album That’s Right, That’s Me to the gentle, fragile Bright Side of the Hill from the earworm pure pop genius of Biggest Gossip in Town to the tormented When You Coming Home?, his songs entice immediately and gradually work their way into the sub-conscious.

Naturally, writing and reading about him is no substitute for listening to his work, so if we can’t immediately promote Campbell to local hero status and erect a statue of him at the Albert Dock, the least we can do is immerse ourselves in his (criminally slim) output.

There’s no bad place to start, so jump right in and before long, the writer would wager money you’ll be pondering the same thing the man himself does on Half Baked’s opening track Green Eyed American Actress – “could have made it easily, why I didn’t, well I really don’t know…

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