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SPIN 101; AUGUST 1952



The wandering journey of rock’s ultimate vagabond group of the 1950’s continues with the first release on a small new label… hardly the best recipe for breaking out of the commercial doldrums and building a successful career.

Then again, any release, no matter how insignificant the label, was bound to be better than waiting for your big break to come casually strolling up to your house and knocking on your door, so if someone out there was willing to record you and release the results to the public, then you might as well take it.

Who knows, maybe because it was Spin’s first such effort they may not have known yet that it was industry tradition not to PAY the artists for their songs or their work in the studio, so it’s possible the guys actually left that day with enough loose change to buy a hamburger… even if it was only enough money to get one burger to share among the four of them.

Ahh, surely the big time is right around the corner where they’ll be hamburgers for everybody!


I’ll Not Go Back There
Well, I hate to throw cold water on the feast The Flames (dropping the “Hollywood” and the “Four” from their name on this release) were planning on having with their pay for this session, but the Spin Records label was in fact owned by Leon and Otis René, veteran record people who surely during their years getting ripped off as songwriters learned a thing or two about withholding money from the deserving parties.

Oh well, better luck next time guys.

Anyway, when was the last time we saw The Hollywood Four Flames, or whatever they got called then? Let’s see… February was it when they went to the post with the hot song of the hour, The Wheel Of Fortune and didn’t finish anywhere in the money.

Though they did have decent voices and showed songwriting potential, during these early stages of their career they still had more enthusiasm than talent and had yet to refine their vocal approach and smooth out the bumps. But at the same time they also were failing to take advantage of being naturally overzealous with their writing and singing and figure out a way to harness that energy and channel it into something truly exciting.

Strange Land Blues doesn’t fully solve either of these problems, but it is a step in the right direction on the former, featuring more vocal control than a lot of their past work as Willie Ray Rockwell delivers a fairly emotive lead which blends the hurt of unexpected heartbreak with confusion over the circumstances and topped with just a hint of despair.

In that way it’s a pretty accurate depiction of young love at the crossroads… guys out of school and on their own, but not yet experienced enough to handle things when it inevitably goes wrong.

The other Flames are a little too amped-up behind him chanting the title’s first two words – referring to California, where the character ended up, though in reality that was their home state all along – but they don’t have more to do than that and so there’s much chance that two words repeated endlessly can alter the entire perception of the record.

The spoken-word bridge needed another run-through, either while being written, or more likely the vocal take itself, as Rockwell seems to be ad-libbing, or misreading, the lines and repeats too many words, screws up the pacing and generally gets lost. However, he actually delivers it well in terms of his internal outlook, as he speaks with a breathy pensive voice that perfectly captures the uncertain emotions he’s trying to express to the girl who hurt him.

As a song it’s hardly Shakespearean even if the missteps had been cleared up, but as a fairly realistic look at a universal time in all kids lives when your ambitions are far ahead of your proficiency in these matters, it has its place.


Someday People
The musical backing is being handled by – and even being credited on the label to – Preston Love, the saxophonist friend of Johnny Otis who was ubiquitous on the Los Angeles music scene.

You’ll remember perhaps that Otis had recorded for Otis René’s Excelsior label at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll – and had backed Joe Swift on Leon’s Exclusive label at the same time – and so with the interconnected musical network being what it was at the time, it’s hardly surprising to see familiar faces in the studio backing The Flames.

Unfortunately though they don’t really get much to do on Strange Land Blues.

It might be – and really sounds like – Johnny Otis himself on vibes with the usual crew in tow, including Pete Lewis’s guitar fills, some twittering piano by Dee Williams and a lazy beat by Leard Bell’s drums. The horns though are mostly just playing inconsequential support and the instrumental break is taken by the guitar which can’t even ramp things up because it’d run counter to the overall mood set by the voices.

I know that all probably makes it out to sound rather desultory, but it’s that aforementioned “mood” which carries the day here and while it can’t turn water into wine by any stretch of the imagination, it can at least make this fairly pleasant to swallow just the same.

No, it’s not going to get The Flames out of the mud their career seems to be stuck in, but at least it shows that they are improving their technique, expanding their creative vision and have the added benefit of being on the radar of a wide number of stars and more qualified professionals in the industry which can’t hurt their chances going forward.

You still wouldn’t pick these guys out as potential hitmakers maybe, but at least now they were putting together a slightly more interesting resumé than what we’d seen to date.

That might not be enough to get a bank loan or even impress a girl just out of high school, but it’s better than getting locked out of the recording studios and having to hitch a ride back home.


(Visit the Artist page of The Flames for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)