Album of the Week, June 21: Where Are All the Nice Girls by Any Trouble

Any TroubleAny Trouble formed in Crewe, England in the late 70s, initially working as a covers band in local pubs. When their vocalist left, guitarist Clive Gregson took charge, assuming vocal duties and writing original songs for the group. With the amazing Phil Barnes providing a propulsive bass line, drummer Mel Harley keeping things nicely on track and guitarist Chris Parks rounding out the tight-knit sound, the group began to get noticed. Gregson — a bespectacled singer who wrote wry songs — was plagued by Elvis Costello comparisons. While there were similarities, his view of romance was more similar to that of Joe Jackson. As a bandleader, he could also be compared to Graham Parker, whose band the Rumour were second to none on the pub circuit. Gregson and Any Trouble were very much their own band, however, crafting energetic pub-punk songs with wistful observations and smart lyrics, usually pounded out fast and melodically. Signing to Stiff records (which fueled  the Costello comparisons), the quartet released a debut album that stands up proudly in the company of its peers.

Title Where Are All the Nice Girls
Act Any Trouble
Label Stiff Release Date 1980
Producer John Wood
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Second Choice
  2. Playing Bogart
  3. Foolish Pride
  4. Nice Girls
  5. Turning Up the Heat
  6. Romance
  7. The Hurt
  8. Girls Are Always Right
  9. Honolulu
  10. (Get You Off) The Hook

The band blast out of the gate with Second Choice. Bitter but restrained, it’s a flawless song of romantic resignation. Gregson’s vocals are amazing and the band crank out the music with power and passion. It’s an amazing single and one of the finest moments in Gregson’s long career. Somehow he manages to up the ante on track two. Playing Bogart is a magnificent song of hope against hope, a look at the “dreaded singles game”. Trying to be tough and tender like the title character, the singer notes that if if fails, “you’re better on your own.” The images are sharp and clear, the music is smart, and the vocal is aching with just the right edge of hope.

After that powerful one-two punch, the band keep up the energy. Foolish Pride moves the onus from circumstance and bad romance to the actions of the central character. It’s a good conceit that enriches the lyrical territory of the album nicely. Nice Girls is a slow song, a meditation on the challenges of idealizing romantic partners. What is an ideal? What makes a “nice girl”? What do we really want, and will it lead to happiness? A thoughtful analysis, it changes the pace but maintains the lyrical integrity while showing off the band at a different tempo.

Side one wraps up with Turning Up the Heat, an energetic number that looks at the mating rituals of the urban male. It’s a fun song that scorches by. Side two picks up with almost as much power as side one, with Romance wondering just how well those rituals pay off. It’s rare that a pub band singer would acknowledge that he cries himself to sleep, and Gregson makes it work as the bravado crumbles.

The Hurt picks up where Romance leaves off. It’s a solid song, continuing the album’s narrative and energy well. Girls Are Always Right features great harmony vocals and reads a bit like a Four Seasons look at life. Spiced up with a dash of irony, it’s a great number that changes the pace again. Honolulu is the disc’s lone throwaway, a fine bit of fantasy that continues the narrative but doesn’t stand out musically.

Things wrap up on another high note, however. (Get You Off) The Hook features a wink-and-a-nod title and a breakneck delivery. Collecting all the lessons learned in the previous songs, Gregson and company decide to make the best of things and find a good romance rather than a perfect one. Ten songs fly by, each building on the other and showing off a fun, amazing band. Where Are All the Nice Girls? is a nearly perfect song cycle and a should-have been hit that ranks among the finest hidden gems of the end of the punk era.

ALTERNATE TRACKS: When released in the US, the album featured a different set of songs. Re-releases and a long-delayed CD release created even more versions of the disc. Honolulu was frequently dropped, while two covers and two stunning originals showed up on various versions. The US vinyl version featured a great live cover of ABBA’s Name of the Game, with the band making the song truly their own; for licensing reasons, it has not appeared on any later version. They also recorded a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Growing Up as a b-side. It’s another smart choice that works well and fits onto the album. The definitive release opens with Yesterday’s Love, the band’s first single. While it isn’t as powerful as Second Choice, it’s a great song and works as a prequel to the proceedings. Another b-side, No Idea, is one of Gregson’s best early lyrics and a wonderful fit for the disc.

FURTHER LISTENING: Any Trouble recorded three more albums with minor lineup changes and a couple of long breaks during which Gregson recorded demos and pondered ending the group. Wheels In Motion is a very good album that suffers only by comparison to the debut. Any Trouble is a spotty album with moments of true brilliance and one of Gregson’s finest ballads, Touch and Go. Wrong End of the Race loses steam, offering a mixed bag of songs including a couple of needlessly reworked tracks. If you like Clive Gregson, all four are fine releases. Gregson recorded a solo album, joined Richard Thompson’s band, and had a long career with Christine Collister. When they called it quits in 1992, he began a long, quiet solo career, continuing his sharp observations and wonderful singing.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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