The Primitives were never, ever exactly a household name, even in Oxford, where they had a serious following as a club band -- and that's a reminder that some things in life and history, and even music, are just so unfair as to be unsettling. The Primitives never charted a record in England or America while a lot of lesser bands earned millions, and then suffered the indignity of attaining cult status among collectors, based on their sheer obscurity. The group, signed to Pye Records in 1964, never found even a small national audience in England, but managed to make a name for themselves in Italy -- where English bands had a rock & roll authenticity and credibility lacking at home -- and record an LP in Italy and an EP in France that have a recognized combined value in the range of 1,000 pounds on the collectors' market. The group itself was a complete musical cipher, owing to their obscurity, which wasn't overcome until Castle Communications issued their catalog on CD in 2003.
That CD was a delight and a vexation; it proved in the listening that these guys deserved a lot better than cult or footnote status, but it also brought home the unfairness inherent in their status. Even in their second, slightly more pop-oriented incarnation, when they were allowed to cut loose and be who and what they really were -- a loud band without a lot of subtlety but power to spare and the sincerity to put over their music -- they rated a place near the top of Pye Records' roster and in the upper reaches of the British Invasion pantheon. Listening to the CD, this reviewer found himself pained, to the point of shedding a tear, over the fact that this band only got to leave 24 songs behind from its prime years.
The group started life as the Rising Sons, before taking the unpromising name of the Cornflakes, under which they won a local band competition in Northampton, the first prize of which was a contract with Pye Records. They'd already developed a strong following with their strong (if somewhat heavy-handed) R&B-based sound in the clubs around Oxford, but coming off of the competition, they also got professional management in the guise of the owners of the Plaza Theatre, where the contest was held, and they changed the Cornflakes moniker in favor of the more definitive and appropriate name the Primitives. The group's lineup consisted of Jay Roberts (born Jeffrey Farthing) on lead vocals, Geoff Eaton (born Geoff Tindall) on lead guitar, John E. Soul on rhythm guitar and blues harp, Roger James on bass, and Mike Wilding on drums -- their sound was very similar to the Pretty Things, rooted heavily in American R&B, and Roberts was a serious, powerful shouter who could sound seriously, achingly raspy, rough, and growly, while the others played with virtually none of the niceties or delicacy that usually marred British attempts at the music.
They could and should have been one of the top groups on the Pye label, based on their rough-and-ready debut "Help Me," a cover of a Sonny Boy Williamson number that was beautifully raw and authentic, and wonderfully intense across an astonishingly long three minutes and 39 seconds, Soul's harmonica and Eaton's guitar keeping the verisimilitude right up there like a Chess Records session gone out of control, amid Roberts' ever more intense romantic lamentations. The group-authored B-side, "Let Them Tell," was almost as much a showcase for the harmonica and rhythm section as for Roberts' singing. Amazingly, that November 1964 release even made it out in America, as part of the very short-lived licensing agreement between Pye and Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway Records, which also issued the Kinks' first U.S. single, before Pye headed for the greener pastures of Warner-Reprise. It's unlikely that, even if the record had gone out through that company's more considerable marketing apparatus, it would have charted -- apart from "Not Fade Away" by the Rolling Stones, little of the British R&B/blues boom of the mid-'60s ever did much in sales on this side of the Atlantic, but the result of the Parkway release was a choice collectors' anomaly, as well as a whopping rare 45; that record and the Kinks' single, and the Beatles' "She Loves You" going out through Swan Records, were among the few places where the Philadelphia music business (of highly underrated importance in rock & roll history) got their shot at a little piece of the British Invasion.
Astoundingly, neither that single nor its follow-up, the raw and raspy "You Said" b/w "How Do You Feel" (a bluesy cut with a nice, choppy rhythm part, similar to what the Yardbirds did with "Here 'Tis" or "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" on-stage, only with better singing), managed to chart. Both of the latter sides, incidentally, became of serious interest to collectors when it became clear that Jimmy Page had stepped into Eaton's lead guitar spot. With two failures in a row, the group and their management felt under increasing pressure to do something drastic, and they did this by splitting up -- Roberts had taken over the bassist spot, doubling on the organ, and Soul kept the group name and formed the core of a new group backing vocalist (and Pye recording artist) Mal Ryder (born Paul Bradley Couling), who had just lost his backing band, the Spirits.
This incarnation of the Primitives, in addition to Ryder, Roberts (on bass), and Soul (who left very soon after), included Stuart Linnell (lead guitar) and Mick Charleton (drums). They had a sound similar to the original group, although Ryder was more of a dramatic singer, with an intense but less raspy delivery, more along the lines of a pop-soul vocalist like Chris Farlowe in his later 1960s incarnation. "Every Minute of the Year" was a suitable A-side, similar to the group's past work, while "Pretty Little Face" was a lot more elegant than anything the original group had ever done, right down to the rather lyrical acoustic lead guitar doubling the opening piano part, similar to what the guitars on Bill Wyman's "In Another Land" do on the middle and final verse of that song. This effort failed to chart, and for a time the Primitives retreated to Northampton, and from there, they accepted a gig in Norway.
Northern and southern Europe had largely been cut out of the British beat boom -- the audience was there, but few U.K. bands were doing much on the continent beyond Germany (which had fostered the boom in the first place by way of its Hamburg club scene) and France. The Primitives discovered -- as acts like the Downliners Sect and Alexis Korner would also come to find in the next few years -- that they were treated like visiting rock & roll royalty in Norway, and that there was a good living to be made there. Thus began the process of their artistic expatriation, which also cost them the services of Linnell (he was succeeded by Dave Sumner) and Charleton (succeeded by future Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers). That was the lineup that made it to the Piper Club in Viareggio in 1966, after a short stay in France, where they recorded a killer EP. It was in the Piper Club that they became stars -- like the Rokes before them, the band quickly became part of the musical ether of Italy, where they had a credibility that the homegrown bands could only envy. They had a huge hit in late 1966 covering the Rascals' "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore" (entitled "Yeeeeeeh!"), which resulted in their only LP, entitled Blow Up. The latter was filled with covers of American and British hits, including "Gimme Some Lovin'" and the Strangeloves' garage band staple "Cara-Lin."
Eventually, Mal Ryder moved to center stage on their records and in the group's promotion, and became a recording star in his own right, while the bandmembers receded in importance and influence. In the later '60s, he released a million-selling single (an enormous statistic in Italy) of "I've Gotta Get a Message to You" (as "Pensiero d'Amore"), and ultimately became a star of stage and the small screen, becoming something of the Italian equivalent to Rick Springfield. The Primitives endured into the 1970s, with notables such as future Average White Band member Robbie McIntosh passing through their lineup. Unfortunately, as the records focused more and more on Ryder, they became more of a kind of generic cover outfit for English-language songs of all genres. According to annotator David Wells, their R&B orientation gave way to pieces such as "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and "Song of a Baker," but also "Love Letters in the Sand" and (astonishingly) "Over the Rainbow." Their edge was gone and, by the mid-'70s, so was the band. Ryder has enjoyed a 37-year career as a singing star in Italy and also sung around the world, far removed from his roots. In 2003, Castle released the complete Primitives recordings from 1964 through 1967, along with Mal Ryder's early sides, entitled Maladjusted.