The Count Bishops

Speedball Plus 11

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In the year or so before punk finally emerged on the London scene, the Count Bishops were the kind of band you wished everyone would sound like, without ever guessing that very soon, they would. A mere handful of other groups shared the Bishops' eye for tanked-up, dressed-down, dirty-ass R&B -- Eddie & the Hot Rods, Little Bob Story, Dr. Feelgood, and the Hammersmith Gorillas were the closest, and it was a sign of those prime movers' versatility that each of them brought something fresh to the party. In the Bishops' case, it was a laconic sneer, a greaseball grind, and one of the hottest guitarists of the age, Zenon DeFleur. As both writer and performer, he nails even the trickiest riff down flat for the rest of the band to steamroller. Give him a dumb one and he flattens it himself. A bonus-stacked revision of the band's debut EP, Speedball -- like the Bishops' own recorded career -- opens with "Route 66," traditionally a staple of every pub band's repertoire, but never, ever like this. A fleet of tanks drives the wrong way down the fast lane, a herd of Hell's Angels careens to meet them, and Mike Spenser sneers the lyric like a man with mayhem on his mind. Not for nothing was he approached by the pre-Rotten Pistols as a potentially suitable vocalist. The original Speedball EP featured just four tracks, including the similarly superlative "Teenage Letter," a performance which sounds like the Flamin' Groovies if they really were on fire. The 11 extras round up a mass of material which never saw release during the band's own lifetime, but packs a similarly psychotic visceral kick. Most of the songs are covers; many, additionally, are covers of the covers which the Bishops' British beat boom heroes were wont to play. The early Stones and Pretty Things positively leer over the track listing, although in terms of gritty nastiness, the Bishops make their bad boy barrage sound like misbehaving choir boys. "Honey I Need" is positively lethal, and "I Want Candy" leaves a nasty taste before it's even been unwrapped. Overall, Speedball Plus 11 is little more than a glimpse inside the most formative days of the Count Bishops and, in terms of sonics and content, it may leave something to be desired. But like those archive exhumations which scour the Sex Pistols' pre-Bollocks strivings, it has that vibrant, vitriolic vitality which inexperience alone can render realistic -- and which history wishes had been recognized at the time. The Bishops have, by and large, been forgotten. This set proves how unjust that is.

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