Alan Clayton and his merry band of brigands return to our stereos with a lewd collection of primal R&B and post-punk energy. West 12 To Wittering (Another West Side Story) takes its name from the band’s Shepherd’s Bush locale, a territory that encompasses everything from the Westway (familiar to Clash fans) to Notting Hill, although it is HMP Wormwood Scrubs and perennial underachievers Queens Park Rangers that chime more with The Dirty Strangers’ worldview.
Clayton has been bashing out this sort of music since the late ’80s, but despite the patronage of Keith Richards and Ron Wood his little band never really made it into the big time. The Rolling Stones connection raised its head again when Clayton joined the band on their Bigger Bang tour in the mid-’00s, and suitably refreshed he has revived The Dirty Strangers for this new album.
Richards and Wood return the favour by appearing all over the album, with Keith playing piano on five tracks and Woodie adding slide guitar to South Of The River and Gold Cortina. Another London geezer, Joe Brown, pops up on banjo on All Away.
The star names may grab the PR headlines but the real question is whether Clayton’s songs are any good. This is music rooted equally between the UK R&B revival of the early ’60s and the pub rock scene of the following decade. You won’t find any electronic glitches or world beats on this album. This is pure R&B, rough around the edges and with a lyrical insight that rarely extends beyond the heady days of, oh, 1975.
Listen to a few seconds of the opening track Talk To Me and it becomes clear what you are going to get; a rudimentary rhythm section, jagged guitars and a hoary old rock voice struggling to stay in tune. And at times it is damn exciting, not least on Talk To Me, Liberty Smile and All Away, which make you almost wish that popular music had not progressed beyond Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters.
The problems arise with a cursory listen to Clayton’s lyrics. As the album title suggests these songs are cast as a pastiche of Arthur Laurent‘s West Side Story, with plenty of references to gang culture, cars and girls, and the isolation of city life.
All well and good but Clayton is no Laurent, and at times his lyrics make AC/DC sound like enlightened intellectuals. Bad Girls (You’re Going Nowhere) and Real Botticelli are particular stinkers, and it’s no surprise to learn that both were co-written by Richards (never the world’s most challenging lyricist).
Gold Cortina may rock some people’s boats but really it sums up the fundamental problem with this album. Even most 50-something blokes are partial to listening to new music and if they want to hear about dodgy ’70s cars they will rewind and play some Ian Dury or Elvis Costello.
Clayton and The Dirty Strangers are diamond geezers to be sure, but the average modern music fan should approach this album with extreme caution.