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What’s in a name?

When it comes to music groups the answer is… a lot actually. The branding of a band or a singing group will come to define them for eternity. Sometimes a name is hastily chosen and long regretted even after it becomes iconic. Other times the name is inspired but the group behind it is not and quickly fades away making you wish a better collection of talent had come up with it so it wouldn’t go to waste.

The group we’re meeting for the first time today is NOT the group who made this name famous. In fact, their presence in this history creates something of a problem because they’ll be confused with the group (or groups plural as it were) who would go on to make the name The Drifters resonate throughout rock history.

But while we appreciate a good name as much as the next person, what matters most around here are the records being made by anyone under any name and so we’re forced to contend with the first of a handful of an entirely different bunch of singers calling themselves The Drifters, something which is sure to drive search engines batty, but maybe those who wind up here by mistake will learn the meaning of the term… “a group by any other name”…


No, Not Them
With due apologies to these Drifters, who I’m sure were fine upstanding individuals who were nice to their mothers and certainly deserve far more recognition than we’re able to give them here, they aren’t the MAIN focal point of this review.

A lot of that is due to matters out of our control, such as not being able to definitively say who they actually are!

They’re reported to have been a West Coast group and there’s been some speculation that they’re the same Drifters who cut two singles over the past year for the American imprint of London Records, but that’s surely not the case, as that group was fronted by Ernie Andrews, a well known jazz-based singer whose career lasted more than half a century and he’s very distinctive, nor do these sides sound like those Drifters sides.

Of course they’re definitely not the Clyde McPhatter led group either, as Clyde hadn’t even joined The Dominoes yet and he’d be with them for three years before breaking away to start his own Drifters.

So rather than speculate further and add to the confusion it’s best to leave their personal story, which would be just random guesses anyway, out of the picture entirely and focus instead on the real story here, which is Coral Records and their ongoing largely feeble attempts to latch on to rock ‘n’ roll without actually committing the resources to doing it properly.

Made All The Joints In Town
In some ways this record might be Coral’s best conscious attempt at appealing to the rock fan… not their best rock release to date by any means, but one where somebody involved more or less accurately pinpointed certain key components that so many rock records shared and tried to replicate them while still being somewhat original.

The first sign of this effort comes when scanning the title Wine-Head Woman is most definitely not the kind of song that respectable pop or jazz singers would tackle. Forget even about the lyrics, which we’ll get to, but just the title itself is the kind of back alley slang that people in the classier musical styles wouldn’t be caught dead uttering in public. Calling somebody a “wine-head” meant they went through life perpetually soused which is a far cry from saying a woman “got a little tipsy” at a cocktail party one night which in pop music would be passed off as a joke or misunderstanding if it were even allowed to be recorded at all.

Not so here, where the entire point is to complain about having a girlfriend who spends most early mornings with her head in a toilet bowl after boozing it up, something which tends to spoil any hope for a romantic conclusion to a night spent together out on the town.

Of course this being a rock song, or at least a reasonable attempt at convincing you it is, the lyrics don’t contain a temperance lecture set to a dainty melody full of stern warnings on the long term health issues related to over-imbibing, but rather is a series of faintly humorous scenarios meant to poke fun at the woman whose elbow is constantly bent.

You May Laugh And Call Me Crazy
So is it funny? Well it’s not going to make you bust a gut or anything, but there’s some salty barbs being tossed around here, the best of which finds the lead singer’s descriptive physical reaction to having his woman wrap her arms around him when the alcohol on her breath hits him.

But the story is marked by a schism in perspectives which lessens its impact considerably. In the first half he’s disgusted by her constant drunkenness but then after the break he admits he loves her no matter what. Okay, it’s nice to see he’s not giving up on her and undoubtedly this makes him a better person, but it doesn’t make for a better record which is the whole point of issuing it in the first place.

There’s no logic behind this shift in his attitude, nor is there any attempt at trying to maintain the humor once his heart is full of forgiveness for her sins. As a result not only is the conclusion to Wine-Head Woman uninteresting, it also changes the entire mood of the record for no good reason.

This shows the danger in letting those outside the rock sphere try and come up with acceptable material and also why major labels, or their affiliates (Coral was a subsidiary of Decca Records), often threw up their hands in exasperation when these half-hearted attempts failed. Rather than recruit qualified personnel and let them alone to create something more legitimate of their own volition, they got well-meaning charlatans at best and then wondered why their efforts failed to make any headway.

Went Out With A Ten Spot
Speaking of well-meaning charlatans, how about these Drifters as singers? Since we don’t know who they are – their upbringing, ages or professional backgrounds – and don’t want to make broad unfounded assumptions based solely on how they’re presented, we’re left to report that while at times they’re definitely pretty competent, there’s also plenty of signs that suggest they were merely masquerading in these roles.

The lead sounds authentic at times, especially with the casual way he throws off some of the lines, dragging out the word “eaaaarrrrrly” and then turning right around and cutting short the payoff on “mornin” as if he couldn’t be bothered with it anymore. Yet immediately following that high point he slips out of that delivery in favor of something more bland, showing he really isn’t sure of what works and lets his instincts drag him back to something he deems safer… IE. “more bland”.

As a result his performance might not be totally fraudulent but it’s certainly not completely natural either even at its best.

The backing vocalists are even more suspect in their allegiances on Wine-Head Woman, the less being asked of them the better they sound, offering up some good wordless harmonies and a few snarky responses that are worth the time. But then they sing a soaring technically impressive but pure pop styled passage that has you questioning whether it’s even the same people. The more closely you study their technique the more the seams begin to show even in their better moments. The term “stick the landing” applies here, because that’s something they never are able to do, never once holding the right attitude until the final notes of their refrains.

The musicians here face the same problem, hitting the notes required without nailing the spirit of that music. The opening piano and guitar interplay is too modest, the bass line carried on that piano behind the lead isn’t emphatic enough and the guitar solo is well-played but lacking any fire.

With a song about a woman who is so drunk that she’s literally falling on her face each night there needs to be an arrangement that gives you that same out-of-control sensation, but this is so concerned on maintaining control that it might as well be the theme music for the local AA meeting.

‘Til The End Of Time… Or Until The Real Drifters Come Along
So what do you take from this excursion by these musical Drifters, an apt term for those clearly just passing through the genre?

Well we can definitely find a few things to appreciate, if not quite admire, in Wine-Head Woman starting with the very idea itself as a major company gives in to the commercial realities of the day and decides they need to try and compete in rock ‘n’ roll and do so with a little more care than their usual throwaway sides.

The overall theme, the (first half of) the lyrics and the attempt at stylistic assimilation are all halfway decent… heck, they even throw a crazed scream in the middle of it, which may or may not have been emitted by the producer when he realized what kind of music he was being asked to oversee.

All of that makes this at least listenable and because it’s lacking any real signs of condescension you want to be more forgiving for their shortcomings in execution.

But rock ‘n’ roll isn’t some struggling market that needs to feel grateful for getting a modicum of attention from the industry big-wigs any more. It’s now a thriving scene with musical standards of its own to uphold which are far higher than The Drifters are able to reach here.

So while this is definitely an interesting aesthetic failure in many ways, its greatest offense is that it falls short in what we’ve come to expect out of those qualified to record rock ‘n’ roll in the first place.