Thursday, 11 October 2018

Mink De Ville

"Willy was an entirely different creature, a macho dandy in a pompadour and pencil moustache, with the dangerous air of a New York gangfighter and an underbelly vulnerability that came out through the romanticism of his music. Springsteen sounded like he was your friend in desperate times. De Ville sounded like he couldn’t quite decide whether to serenade you or pull a knife on you" - Neil McCormick

Before Springsteen, for me, for a few months, was Mink De Ville. I first heard him with the Spanish Stroll single in 1977 which was his first (and only) hit. Springsteen was still something of an unknown quantity to teenagers such as myself back then so this sharp-suited American with a Lou Reed-style voice fitted the bill perfectly as many of us who, despite loving the energy and anger of punk, were still ripe for the picking for the more melodic, poppy but credible, street-wise strains of "new wave". Coming out of New York's CBGB's venue were Blondie, Mink De Ville and The Ramones (despite their obvious punkiness, had a a love for sixties bubblegum pop).

I loved the whole "West Side Story" image of Willy De Ville, the tough but tender image and the saxophone-driven, soulful rock that his excellent band played. Springsteen would be along in a few months for me to take that much further, but, first of all, it was Willy De Ville that filled that rôle. I thought he was impossibly cool and let everyone know, also taking to wearing pencil-thin ties and a pair of turquoise winkle-picker style shoes. That was my punk image, as opposed to spiky hair and safety pins. There were a fair few who went down that road of "street cool" too.

For a short while in May-August of 1978, Mink De Ville were up there with The Clash, The Jam and The Ramones for me. Even as Springsteen came along and the new wave progressed to ska and roots reggae I never deserted Willy and stayed with him into his solo career. Willy De Ville passed away in 2009. I miss him and his music a lot.

Photo by Geoff Tyrell.

Cabretta (1978)

Venus Of Avenue D/Little Girl/One Way Street/Mixed-Up, Shook-Up Girl/Gunslinger/Can't Do Without It/Cadillac Walk/Spanish Stroll/She's So Tough/Party Girls  
"Mink De Ville knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song" - Doc Pomus

I have, for a long time, really rated this quote from music critic Neil McCormick too:-

“...De Ville and his band reached deep into blues and soul, the classic romantic pop of Ben E. King and The Drifters, with a side order of Spanish spices and New Orleans Zydeco swing. They favoured castanets over tom-toms, and accordion over distorted guitars, and Willy delivered his vocals with a sweet, tuneful flexibility that brought out the emotional resonance beneath his nasal sneer. What the wiry, dapper De Ville had that tied him to fellow CBGB resident bands like The Ramones, Television, Blondie and Talking Heads was an edge. He was drawing on some of the same musical areas that Bruce Springsteen ’s epic rock dipped into, but Willy was an entirely different creature, a macho dandy in a pompadour and pencil moustache, with the dangerous air of a New York gangfighter and an underbelly vulnerability that came out through the romanticism of his music. Springsteen sounded like he was your friend in desperate times. De Ville sounded like he couldn’t quite decide whether to serenade you or pull a knife on you...”

That was Willy De Ville’s image - a sharp West Side Story suit, with a rose for his girl in one hand and a switchblade in the other.

With that image, Mink De Ville came out of nowhere in 1977, looking like an extra from West Side Story he rode the waves of punk with his Latin-influenced soul rock, (if that makes any sense). An excellent debut album this is too.

Kicking off with Venus Of Avenue D we are transported to the mean streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side’s “housing projects” and a raven-haired Latina beauty who has caught Willy De Ville’s eye. 

A great cover of the Phil Spector-produced Greenwich/Barry song Little Girl follows and then a slab of De Ville blues rock in the edgy, gritty One Way Street

A true classic is up next, a track loved by Mick Jagger, apparently, who was caught dancing to it in a recording studio after everyone had gone home - Mixed-Up Shook-Up Girl. It is a lovely piece of Latin syncopation and De Ville’s yearning vocal is sublime. It is one of his best-ever songs, for me. 

Gunslinger is a short piece of lively, slightly swampy blues rock. For every bit of street romance De Ville put out, it was always matched by some no-nonsense bluesy rock. This track, along with One Way Street are both very CBGB's songs in their upbeat, bluesy r'n'b sound. They feature in the soundtrack to the movie about the legendary New York club.

Can't Do Without It is soulful and romantic in typical De Ville style, with a great sax solo by Spector session veteran Steve Douglas. 

Cadillac Walk is another groovy piece of swamp blues. Of course, there is also De Ville’s only chart hit, the still popular Spanish Stroll, with its great guitar intro and Lou Reed-style vocals. "Hey Johnny, they lookin' for you man...", indeed. The slow burning Latin-tinged rock of She's So Tough and the soulful vibe of Party Girl are both impressive too.

I the summer of 1978, for a short period I played this and its follow-up, Return To Magenta all the time. I know them both back to front.

Return To Magenta (1978)

Guardian Angel/Savoir Faire/'A' Train Lady/Rolene/Desperate Days/Just Your Friends/Steady Drivin' Man/Easy Slider/I Broke That Promise/Confidence To Kill   

"We were all labelled as part of this American punk thing but I really didn't see any of us having much in common. Every fuckin' art student that plays out of tune gets a record deal" - Willy de Ville
Continuing in the same Latin-influenced soulful blues rock vein, Willy “Mink” De Ville”s 1978 follow up to the impressive Cabretta does not quite hit the heights of that album, but it is certainly not short of highlights - the slow burning, romantic Guardian Angel and the saxophone solo-enhanced 'A' Train Lady are typical De Ville street romance fare, as is the unique Just Your Friends with its extended, speeding-up harmonica fade-out. While Cabretta was more full on rock in its arrangements, this album, prompted by legendary producer Jack Nitzsche, included a fair amount of Drifters-style strings in its backing. It was intended to be sweeter than Cabretta's axle-grease grooves, but despite that intention, there is still some copper-bottomed De Ville blues rock on here.
I love the trademark De Ville street romance songs, though, and my own personal favourite is I Broke That Promise, a worthy follow-up to the previous album’s Mixed-Up Shook-Up Girl. It was also De Ville's own favourite too. It is packed full of typical De Ville soul. There was something quite unique and essential about his delivery on songs like this. I wish he were still with us. 

Some archetypal De Ville CBGB's-ish blues rock numbers are there in the powerful Stonesy blues rock of Steady Drivin' Man, the short but solidly bluesy punch of Confidence To Kill, the infectious, rousing bar-room rock of Rolene and the upbeat, lively Soul Twist, full of bluesy saxophone and percussion, while the addictive Desperate Days is an appealing, upbeat bit of Latin fun. 

The catchy Easy Slider is a laid back bit of bluesy rhythmic boogie as opposed to all out rock. You know, it is often overlooked just what a fine blues rocker De Ville was. Sure, he loved sixties soul but he also loved the blues and that comes over loud and clear on this and indeed all his other albums. For every Mixed Up Shook Up Girl or "A" Train Lady there is a blues-dreched rocker in Cadillac Walk or Soul Twist to balance it.

Like its predecessor, this album provides a nice memory for me of the hot summer of 1978, when I played the album endlessly, along with The Rubinoos, The Tom Robinson Band, Ian Dury, Blondie and The Ramones

Doc Pomus was quoted on the album's rear cover saying this about Willy De Ville -

".....Mink DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song. And the harsh reality in his voice and phrasing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow — timeless in the same way that loneliness, no money, and troubles find each other and never quit for a minute. But the fighters always have a shot at turning a corner, and if you holler loud enough, sometimes somebody hears you. And truth and love always separate the greats from the neverwases and neverwillbes...."

I couldn't have put it better myself. A re-visit to this album is always a pleasure. I love the cover too - those magenta shades and Willy looking out over the New York City skyline as dusk falls. 

Le Chat Bleu (1980)

This Must Be The Night/Savoir Faire/That World Outside/Slow Drain/You Just Keep Holding On/Lipstick Traces/Bad Boy/Mazurka/Just To Walk That Little Girl Home/Heaven Stood Still
"The whole band only got $50 dollars a night, even to the end. That's why I never went back there. I've never walked through those doors other than to have maybe a beer once. I was down in New Orleans and I came up here, kind of going down Memory Lane so to speak. I ended up on Bowery down there and I thought, 'Let's see what's going on here.' I walked in (to CBGB) and I saw Hilly Kristal standing there. I had a big straw hat on, silk suit. He bought me a beer and it got around to 'Would you like to come back?' I said, 'No Hilly and you know why? Because you never treated me right. You never were fair to me'" - Willy de Ville

After two excellent albums in 1977 and 1978, the sadly late Willy "Mink" De Ville, that strange fifties throwback member of the "new wave", was back in 1980 with this impressive third outing.With his fifties throwback looks, doo-wop and Latino influences both musically and lyrically, he was no RamonesTalking Heads, Ian Dury or Elvis Costello, yet in many ways he was as much part of that scene. Gigging regularly at places like The Venue in London's Victoria and on mainland Europe he gained a loyal cult following. I remember wearing thin ties and blue pointed shoes at the time. Why? Because of Willy De Ville. 
Kicking off with the Springsteen-meets-Phil Spector feel of the wonderful This Must Be The Night, we then get a classic piece of De Ville blues rock in Savoir Faire before the essence of The Drifters is bottled and released in That World Outside

Slow Drain is a menacing, rhythmic piece of Latin groove and You Just Keep Holding On brings back more of the Latin street romance. I remember at the time De Ville used to open his shows with Slow Drain, walking preeningly on stage after the initial rhythmic percussion introduction had been going for a couple of minutes. It was always a great moment. 

Lipstick Traces is another slice of upbeat blues rock and Bad Boy is a fifties style diner jukebox crooner. 

Mazurka is a proper Cajun tune, complete with accordion and Heaven Stood Still, an atmospheric and evocative  piano and strings heartbreaker.

My personal highlight though, has always been the lovely Just To Walk That Little Girl Home - another Drifters style slab of urban romance. Willy did this sort of thing so well.

Bassist Jerry Scheff said about the album, speaking retrospectively in 2012 -

"....Le Chat Bleu, is one of my favorite rock albums of all time... Willy's songs had a heavy Hispanic influence as well as a hint of Cajun music. Put all of that together with street-corner doo-wop, accordion playing, and Willy's wonderful velvet voice and what you get, in my opinion, is great rock 'n 'roll....."

Quite. On this release you get bonus live material which show how good this line-up was. I was lucky enough to see them live several times in that era. I was never disappointed. 

Coup De Grâce (1981)

Just Give Me One Good Reason/The Power Of A Woman's Love/Maybe Tomorrow/Teardrops Must Fall/You Better Move On/Love And Emotion/So In Love Are We/Love Me Like You Did Before/She Was Made In Heaven/End Of The Line                                          
"'Coup de Grâce' recapitulates and resolves the themes of 'Le Chat Bleu' in an intriguing blend of soul-pop and razor-edged rock. Its influences are as distant as The Drfiters and as contemporary as Bruce Springsteen" - The Record

Willy “Mink” De Ville’s worthy fourth album, released in late 1981 was more of the same - Latin influenced soul rock. There is some classic De Ville on here - the straight-ahead rock of Just Give Me One Good Reason, the saxophone-dominated Maybe Tomorrow, the piano-driven street soul of Love And Emotion. I love the line "I run down the street to your block, up five flights of stairs - five flights of stairs...", something about the way De Ville repeats "five flights of stairs".

Love Me Like You Did Before is a storming, riffy rocker, while Teardrops Must FallSo In Love Are We and the lovely She Was Made In Heaven all fit the tried and tested De Ville bill - romantic lyrics against a melodic backing delivered by De Ville’s unique, nasal but soulful voice.

End Of The Line is a laid-back but dramatic  (if that makes sense) close to the album, while the catchy and soulful The Power Of A Woman's Love came from the pen of often-forgotten US songwriter Eddie Hinton.

Also present is a truly superb cover of The Rolling Stones’ sixties track You Better Move On

Critics at the time were starting to moan a bit about De Ville’s following the same tried and tested path with each album, which was a shame because his albums were all eminently listenable but I have to say I understood where they were coming from, to an extent. Not completely, though, as I still enjoyed the album a lot. I loved Mink De Ville, so I was always going to like it. I loved it and played it to death back in 1981-82. It was up there with Springsteen's The River at the time, for me, just as important. 

De Ville had this to say about the album, retrospectively -

"....I had band problems, manager problems, record company problems. And yeah, I had drug problems. Finally I got a new recording contract, with Atlantic, and a new manager. I cleaned up my act. I figured that since playing music with people I was friends with didn't seem to work out, I would hire some mercenaries, some cats who just wanted to play and get paid. And those guys turned out to be more devoted to the music than any band I ever had. They're professional, precise, but they're full of fire, too....."

You can tell, too. The band sound great on the album. It is a most under-valued piece of work.

Where Angels Fear To Tread (1983)

Each Word's A Beat Of My Heart/River Of Tears/Demasiado Corazon/Lily's Daddy's Cadillac/Around The Corner/Pick Up The Pieces/Love's Got A Hold On Me/Keep Your Monkey Away From My Door/Are You Lonely Tonight/The Moonlight Let Me Down         
"De Ville and his band were burning through the pages of rock and r'n'b history (there are a couple of doo-wop and New Orleans-flavoured cuts as well) with raw swagger and astonishing musicianship" - AllMusic

All the Mink De Ville albums were good, for me. I have discussed Willy De Ville’s overall sound and image on my other reviews of his work, so will not do so again here for fear of repeating myself.

By 1983, when this album was released, Mink De Ville’s flame was starting to dim somewhat. They had put out four excellent albums between 1987 and 1981, full of their trademark Latin-tinged Rolling Stones meets Van Morrison meets Lou Reed style new wave rock. In my opinion, this is one more in the same vein, just as good. However, it didn’t really pull up any trees and De Ville was getting put in the shadow by the New Romantics and post-punks either preening, pouting or looking miserable all around him. It was a shame as the music was always really good, but it didn’t change too much and the old street-suss, hard-as-nails but tender lover thing was beginning to wear a bit thin. Even I had to reluctantly admit that, even though I still loved the image, and the music.
Anyway, on to the album. It starts with a De Ville corker, the piano-driven Each Word's A Beat Of My Heart with that great nasally voice of his on top form.

River Of Tears is a Latin-influenced, castanet-injected typical De Ville number and Demasiado Corazon (Too Much Heart) has an infectious upbeat Salsa-style Latin rhythm.

Lily's Daddy's Cadillac is one of those chugging, bassy blues rockers De Ville did so well, full of down 'n' dirty rhythm, and Around The Corner is an archetypal De Ville heartbreaker with another sensual vocal.

Pick Up The Pieces and Love's Got A Hold On Me are both muscular but soulful workouts, full of punchy and Motown-ish backing vocals. The blues rock returns with Keep Your Monkey Away From My Door. All good stuff.

Are You Lonely Tonight is an upbeat, singalong rocker, while the plaintive fifties-influenced ballad, The Moonlight Let Me Down ends proceedings with a truly wonderful saxophone solo at the end.

This was an album packed full of De Ville's influences - The DriftersPhil SpectorSam CookeJames Brown, fifties doo-wop, New Orleans blues and Latin rhythms and it was still a good album as far as I was concerned. I would always stick with Willy De Ville, whatever else was trendy at the time. This would be his last true Mink De Ville album, though. He returned two years later with an album credited to Mink De Ville, but played by session musicians. It was more of a solo album, which of course De Ville would go on to pursue subsequently as Willy De Ville.

Sportin' Life (1985)

In The Heart Of The City/I Must Be Dreaming/Italian Shoes/Slip Away/When You Walk My Way/A Woman's Touch/Easy Street/Little By Little/There's No Living Without Your Loving/Something Beautiful's Dying          

"Pushed to centre stage, DeVille delivers, singing with more passion and more personality than ever before... The songwriting is uniformly solid. 'In The Heart Of The City' takes De Ville down a side street of Springsteen's musical neighbourhood, and the album-closing 'Something Beautiful Is Dying' is a wonderfully overwrought ballad of heartbreaking elegance" - David Wild - Rolling Stone

This album, from 1985, was the end of the line for Mink De Ville. After five excellent albums of soulful, Latin-influenced new wave rock with a tender, romantic edge, sort of Bruce Springsteen meets The Drifters, as described in my other reviews of their work, Willy De Ville called time on his band. In fact, he pretty much had done so already, to be honest. None of the original and members were left on this album. The music was played by high quality session musicians, as if it were a Willy De Ville solo album, which is what it was, really.
What it was, though, was played in that typical Mink De Ville style, although the slick, crystal clear eighties production took away some of the edge and intuitive soul that was present on the other albums. Too many programmed drum sounds abound, to be honest. For example, a superb fifties-influenced doo-wop song like When You Walk My Way is blighted by those damned eighties drums, as is the Springsteen-esque In The Heart Of The City. The eighties were a curse on so many artists.

It is not without some classic De Ville songs, however. The afore-mentioned In The Heart Of The City and I Must Be Dreaming are excellent, solid, romantic rockers full of saxophone and De Ville’s nasal vocals. Italian Shoes is a bit of a throwaway, but catchy all the same. 

Slip Away is a sumptuous slice of De Ville yearning balladry, while When You Walk My Way has that fifties doo-wop influence that Willy always loved and did so well.

A Woman's Touch rocks out the saxophone again, and Easy Street and Little By Little revisit the blues and rock ’n’ roll respectively. 

There's No Living Without Your Loving and Something Beautiful's Dying are two heartbreakers to say goodbye to this wonderful band that, for me, hold such great memories of the late seventies/early eighties. Willy De Ville’s solo career would begin in earnest two years later with the excellent Miracle album. 
Check out Willy De Ville's excellent solo work here :-

No comments:

Post a comment