I wonder what kind of music Bruce Springsteen would have made if he’d been born in the USA into a rich family? What kind of records would Elton John have made if he’d grown up playing the guitar instead of the piano? How would Jonathan Richman have sounded if he’d been raised and steeped in the traditions of North East England?
I’ve got no idea about the first two, but for quite a while now I’ve considered Martin Stephenson and The Daintees to be the North East’s very own version of Jonathan and his Modern Lovers. Just like Boston’s own, Martin and the boys are able to flip effortlessly from funny to touching, naïve to knowing in the blink of an eye. And our subject today, their 1986 debut on the legendary Kitchenware Records, ‘Boat to Bolivia’ might just be their best.
I say ‘might’ because it constantly vies with their next two albums, ‘Gladsome, Humour and Blue’ and ‘Salutation Road’ for my musical affections.
‘Formed in Tyneside, Scotland’ according to allmusic.com (I think you’ll find Tyneside isn’t actually in Scotland, allmusic, and many of your other Martin Stephenson facts are also a long way wide of the facts too!), Martin Stephenson and The Daintees became local heroes in North East England during the 1980s busking and play gigs to small but delighted audiences.
‘Boat to Bolivia’, (which initially didn’t actually include the chirpy title track – although it was included on subsequent editions, including my cassette copy) deftly covers subjects as diverse as alcoholism (‘Little red bottle’ which is still a great crowd-pleaser when performed live), bereavement (the brilliant opening track, ‘Crocodile cryer’), the break-up of a lesbian love affair (the wonderful ‘Coleen’) and miscarriage (‘Caroline’, which is almost definitely the only song about miscarriage in my whole collection).*
In anyone else’s hands these subjects would almost certainly make for a downbeat album, but here they’re written and performed with such love and hopefulness that the whole world seems like a brighter place after listening.
There are other great tunes here too, but there’s a danger that I just end up listing all of the tracks. It would be remiss of me not to mention ‘Tribute to the late Reverend Gary Davis’, a lovely guitar instrumental, described by Martin as ‘Ragtime stylee’ in the comprehensive and enlightening insert notes.
This could be the best album you’ve never heard. If, however, you have been lucky enough to hear it then I’m sure you’ll be keen to catch Martin (sometimes with and sometimes without The Daintees) on one of his almost permanent tours.
Label – Kitchenware records
Year – 1986
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* This may not be entirely true as there’s bound to be something on a Tori Amos album