The history of rock is littered with the careers of singer-songwriters possessed of talents too big to be ignored but too distinct to be popular. Think of Nick Drake pre-car ad rediscovery, Bill Fay, Judee Sill, Tim Buckley, Kevin Ayers, Syd Barrett and the list goes on. The difference between British singer Kevin Coyne and most others (the ones who didn’t die, that is) is he never stopped making music, and lots of it. Coyne, who is now unfortunately no longer with us, produced a huge discography starting in the early seventies all the way up to his death in 2004. He had a devoted cult audience that never deserted him.
What is the special appeal of this man’s music that causes such devotion? Well, Kevin Coyne was different. Possessed of a larger-than-life musical personality and a stentorian, eccentric snarl-to-a-bellow of a voice, he fearlessly wrote about the things other people only touched on, because he had lived with them. Highly influenced by a long pre-musical stint as a psychiatric worker, he felt great sympathy for those living on the fringes of society and never stopped telling the stories of the people who fall through the cracks of our supposedly wealthy and healthy cities. This is something he did better and with more empathy than any songwriter I’ve ever heard.
This passion for telling those stories created many of Coyne’s finest songs. But of course he didn’t only write about that topic. He also was an expert at skewering romance and high society (and of course the record business) and could write a surprisingly tender and moving love song when the mood struck him.
A legendarily wild performer, he first found inspiration, as did many young men of his generation, in blues music, in Coyne’s case particularly acoustic blues, which influenced much of his earlier output. By the mid-seventies his act was kind of a wild man prog-jazz Van Morrison, but when punk came along Coyne saw the potential for more a direct mode of expression that better fit the things he liked to sing about. He released a number of punk-influenced recordings, and it says something that of all the prog-rock types who tried it, he was the most readily accepted. Because you only had to listen to his music to discover how raw and real he was. Unfortunately, as with so many live-wire creative people, it led to personal problems, particularly drinking. He recharged himself by moving to Germany and resuming his career there in the early eighties.
Unfortunately, that’s where my Coyne-related knowledge ends. I’m still working toward acquiring his later albums, for as I like to say, a fellow only has so much money. So, this is not a comprehensive review but an introduction to Coyne’s best and highest-impact early albums. Coyne was one of the greatest songwriters ever to live, with so many important messages in his work that it’s really a shame more people haven’t discovered his stuff. So I’m going to do my little bit here to bring him to your attention. Click the linked songs for samples.
Coyne’s solo debut after a stint with a band called Siren is an acoustic album that really shows off that blues style and his rather distinct acoustic playing. I personally am not at all into blues (it’s the kind of thing that’s more fun to play than listen to, in my opinion), but there are some very striking songs on here. “I’m All Aching” starts the album incongruously but pleasantly with its lounge piano, but it’s on “White Horse“, with its reverbed, hypnotic fingerpicking and disturbing dream imagery that Coyne starts to find his voice. The psychedelic blues of “Evil Island Home” and its grimy portrayal of England is another highlight, along with the trancy electric guitar of “Sand All Yellow“, in which Coyne grotesquely impersonates a creepy, pill-pushing doctor. Not his greatest album, more a signpost of genius to come — unless you love acoustic blues, in which case you’ll love the whole thing.
This sprawling double album is probably Coyne’s best-known work and contains some of his most popular songs, with good reason. There’s a full band on most songs, which verge from the tragic to really good fun. For instance, “Marlene”, with its cute organ and jaunty beat, is a hit in any era. But it’s ballads like “Old Soldier” (the tale of a sad veteran living on the edge of urban life) and “House on the Hill” (a truly chilling description of life in a mental institution) that really shine. And Coyne discovers his talent for visceral anger on the aggressive pre-punk stomp of “Eastbourne Ladies“, a vicious swipe at the monied bourgeoisie. While again this is basically a blues-rock album, the songs in which Coyle breaks out of that mold with a more English voice are the best ones and some of the best in his discography.
Coyne amps up his career into punk territory — and unapologetically. The title track comes a little short of declaring Coyne the original punk, daring people to question his authenticity (“I’m over thirty but I’m gonna have my way”). “Amsterdam” is another high-energy rocker and an evocation of that town’s wild nightlife. Coyne’s uncontrolled yell of a voice matches perfectly well with loud guitars. There are subtler songs as well, still tales from the fringes of society, such as “Lunatic”. Coyne smacks civilization around a bit more on “Dance of the Bourgeoisie”, and on the Rhodes-accompanied “Cry” he lays his heart on the line. But amid all the bombast, it’s the simple tenderness of “I Only Want to See You Smile” that provides the emotional heart of this album (“A million lullabies, I can see them in your eyes”) and demonstrates what a unique artist Coyne was, capable of extremes of anger and loving sentiment.
Millionaires and Teddy Bears (1979)
The second album of Coyne’s punk-influenced period is possibly his best and most cohesive album, a collection of razor-sharp observations, presented with great melodies and a lot of soul. The orthodox blues trappings are totally gone, replaced with a verve for experimentation. The first track, “People”, is an odd but affecting cry of love to humanity. “Having a Party“, one of Coyne’s best-known songs, tears the music business a new one by presenting a hilarious scenario in which Coyne wanders a party observing pretentious behaviour, admitting that he doesn’t have a single gold record on the wall. Other classics are the uplifting “I’ll Go Too“; a vignette about the wise but lower-class “Marigold” getting through her day; and the heartbreaking “The World Is Full of Fools“, which contains so many wonderful lines (“Down by the lakeside, I’m sitting with pamphlets strewn all over me” and “The world is full of fools, but it doesn’t make them bad people”). Not only is this one of the great singer-songwriter albums of the era but one of the best and most moving of all-time. It provides new perspectives, which is what the greatest music can do.
This is the “difficult” album, and every troubled but talented artist seems to have one (such as John Martyn’s Grace and Danger or Peter Hammill’s Over). Bursting Bubbles is as naked as Coyne ever was, a collection of heart-wrenching vignettes from the dark side of the mind, sometimes accompanied by weirdly cold post-punk backing, such as the distorted guitar and drum machine of “Dark Dance Hall”. Coyne’s voice is an anguished yell of pain on several pieces. Yet there is still much beauty to be found, particularly in what may be Coyne’s finest song, “Children’s Crusade“, which contains possibly my favourite set of lyrics (“Some good advice for children today, don’t let the terror hold sway” and “Look into the eyes of a child, it’s like a ball of fire”), an incredibly wise plea for a new generation of reason in a dark world. Just beautiful (note that the live video here has some changed lyrics). Other highlights are the dramatic acoustic strummer “Golden Days” and the confessional “Don’t Know What to Do”.
Two albums in a year, and one’s a double album! It’s two albums in one. The first is accompanied by members of legendary punk band The Ruts (who added their reggae influence to “Monkey Man”), the other by another legendary iconoclast, Robert Wyatt. Coyne himself said “I was quite ill when I made that record”, so there’s a manic energy to punk stompers like “Fat Man” and “How Strange“. Of course, on the second album there are wonderful songs such as the defiant “You Can’t Kill Me” and the avant garde, meandering “Wonderful Wilderness”. Not the album to lead with, but you’ll end up here, I guarantee it.
So there we have it, a fine selection to start with in discovering the work of one of music’s most humane and expressive songwriters. Learn more: