Everything has had its turn in the great agitator of the music industry. All records have been transferred to compact disc, then MP3s, and now streams. Nothing has been lost.
Well, we all know that’s not true. There are many, many albums and artists that never got their due. Case in point, The Keys with their 1981 debut – and conveniently their swan song as well – The Keys Album.
The Keys were a London-based band formed by bassist Drew Barfield, guitarists Steve Tatler and Ben Grove, and drummer Geoff Britton. Joe Jackson produced the band’s only album for A&M Records, his record label at the time.
Prior to The Keys, Britton drummed on three tracks of Paul McCartney’s Venus and Mars album, “Love in Song”, “Letting Go,” and “Medicine Jar.”
Jackson’s influence is predominant on the album, and that’s not a bad thing. The sound of The Keys Album fits snugly in the crook between Look Sharp! and I’m The Man, featuring spiky, punky songs like “Spit It Out” and “Saturday To Sunday Night.” “Greasy Money” has a vibe not dissimilar to “It’s Different For Girls.”
But it would be a terrible injustice to say The Keys were little more than clones of their producer. I think it is safer to say that, like The Time to Prince (or Jamie Starr, to be exact); or to Rockpile, Paul Carrack, and Elvis Costello under the Riviera Global Record Productions umbrella, there is bound to be a stylistic kinship throughout the tribe.
Three singles emerged from the album: “One Good Reason,” “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” and “Greasy Money.” In hindsight, one could see why the first two singles didn’t catch fire. While both are great tunes, “One Good Reason” is a rockabilly pastiche not unlike The Stray Cats, who were already making waves in the UK with “Rock This Town” in 1981. (The U.S. wouldn’t catch on until the track was delivered on the 1982 album Built For Speed.) “I Don’t Wanna Cry” is a bittersweet pop tune with terrific vocal harmonies, but sounds like a well-loved deep cut rather than a single. “Greasy Money” is a perfect third single which would have proven the band had a touch of New Wave’s spiteful sneer in its soul, but not a lapel-grabbing introduction.
Probably more arresting would have been the anxious “Saturday to Sunday Night” or “Listening In,” filled with a nervous paranoia equal to Men At Work’s ode to neurosis, “Who Can It Be Now?,” also a 1981 entry.
But this is all speculation and wishful thinking. The album, near as I can tell, was only released in the U.K. and only on vinyl. I have not seen any indication of a cassette release. And of course, given its forgotten status, no one thought to rescue it for CD reissue, or subsequent digital formats.
So how did I come to know about The Keys? Thank power pop faithful Bruce Brodeen, formerly of Not Lame Recordings. He championed the band along with other seldom heard artists like Canada’s Michel Pagliaro, Silver (now getting some love with the inclusion of their song “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang” on a Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack), and more. His power pop social media site Pop Geek Heaven still offers the occasional shout-out to The Keys.
How might you get to hear The Keys Album? I won’t say it is a great version, but good enough is better than none at all, and it is a vinyl rip on YouTube. Perhaps it is time an enterprising re-release label take up the challenge to bring back The Keys, but the task is daunting. First, it has been a long time. There aren’t legions of people clamoring for something they never knew existed. Worse, it might not actually exist in its most optimal version now. A&M was bought by Universal in 1998, and while I don’t know if the U.K. wing of A&M transferred their master tapes to the U.S., I would not be shocked if those tapes were part of the awful Universal vault fire.
I suppose that would be as fitting an epitaph for The Keys Album if there was one. Despite putting their best down on tape and out into the world, if it went up in flames and smoke, practically anonymous, it seems right in line with the band’s rotten luck.