Back in the 1980s it was tough to find a better live act than The Woodentops. Have a listen to the album Live Hypno Beat, from 1987 and recorded in Los Angeles a year earlier, with its energy, infectious pop and frantic drumming. It was indie music you could dance to; something almost every band from James, That Petrol Emotion to The Soup Dragons and Primal Scream were having a go at with mixed results as the decade came to a close. But while The Woodentops should have been at the vanguard of this indie dance cross over they gradually faded away in a familiar tale of unfulfilled potential.
Did they peak too soon? Arguably listening back to the difference in quality between their early singles and Live Hypno Beat tracks with their weaker later releases this is a plausible argument. Quite simply by the time Inspiral Carpets and James were headlining Reading Festival in the early 1990s The Woodentops best tracks were behind them and they were focusing more and more on whether someone could dance to their music rather than the quality of the songwriting.
First up this collection, with the strapline ‘remasters, remixes and rarities 1982 -1992′, is big, arguably a little too big, with its 52 tracks surely too much for any band in one go. But given that it is retailing for the price of standard double album there’s no hint of being ripped off.
If there’s a genuine gripe though it’s the lack of live tracks on the album, especially those from Live Hypno Beat. It could be there were licensing issues, but with just two live tracks on the album, neither from Live Hypno Beat, it limits this collection’s ability to properly showcase the breadth of their talent.
What the collection does include though are the key tracks from their two albums 1986’s excellent Giant and 1988’s less interesting Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway, their singles and a bucket load of remixes by the likes of Adrian Sherwood.
Of these it is Giant tracks and their early singles on CD 1 and CD 3 that really stand out and survive the decades that have passed since their initial releases on Rough Trade in the 1980s. The folky Good Thing, wistful Give It Time and the rockabilly Love Train are all as superb now as they were then. They also show that in singer Roly McGinty they had one of the great lead vocalists of the early 1980s indie music scene.
The rarities and other recorded version of Live Hypno Beat such as Move Me and the frantic Well,Well, Well are particular highpoints showing the band at their artistic peak. CD3 also features a welcome Glastonbury 1987 recording of Get It On, offering a hint of the sort of live tracks that should have featured on this collection.
However, CD2 is the saddest of the collection, as it focuses on The Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway tracks. I remember the disappointment of hearing this far more polished album at the time. The songs just weren’t as strong and the drum machine focus on production made it seemingly lacking in passion compared to Giant. Tracks such as Maybe It Won’t Last, They Can Say What They Want and Wheels Turning feel as empty now as they did then when compared to the live and Giant era The Woodentops.
The rest of the CD is littered with a variety of remixes that feel very dated. Adrian Sherwood’s version of Why Why Why just seems so tame by top quality dance music standards and the band’s live delivery of the track (see clip). The Baleric remix of the same track, on CD3, also does little for this song as the sands of time pass through the fingers of the ever aging club goers from 1991.
By the time they ceased altogether in the early 1990s they’d lost sight of what made them great. Tracks from their final release, the horribly dated 1992’s Woodentops v Bang the Party’s – Tainted World, show just how far they’d slipped from potential stadium headliners to sanguine dance act.
Reading back on this review it sounds like I’m being a little harsh on The Woodentops. That would be wrong I assure you. As a live act and for a chunk of the 1980s they were a superb band, but with their move further into dance culture they drifted further from their original identity and arguably lost their passion and fans along the way. Since 2006 they have reformed and played a series of live shows, which shows there is still unfinished business for McGinty and the band.
If you like tracks such as Love Train and Love Affair with Everyday Living then I urge you to invest in Live Hypno Beat, still their best ever release and a far better collection of one of the UK’s best acts from the 1980s.
by Joe Lepper