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Route 66: 'Route 66'

Produced by Matthew Fisher

In 1984 Matthew Fisher produced an album, and contributed keyboards, for Danish trio Route 66. The band's Claes Johansen was the author of the sleeve-notes for the BGO re-release of Matthew's Matthew Fisher / Strange Days CD and has since written sleeve-notes for many releases on Angel Air.In 1999 he became Procol Harum's biographer. He contributed a live jam, with Route 66, to the 2002 Procol tribute album, Lost in the Looking Glass.

Only 500 vinyl copies of the Route 66 album were ever pressed, but it is now enjoying its first commercial release on CD by Angel Air, with no fewer than ten bonus tracks (see grey boxes below). 

1 I'm Moving Out

2 You Know I Need You

3 It's Not Over

4 Black And White

5 I Know It's Not True

6 I'm Not A Punk

7 Keep On Trying

8 Boys With Mascara

9 You Need Affection

10 It's Hard (Trogg Story)

11 It Ain't Nice 

12 It's Not Over (alt mix)

13 I Can Tell

14 How Do You Feel Right Now?

15 Did You (Squad studio outtake, 1980)

16 I Like What I Am

17 Give or Fake (first version)

18 I Just Can't Wait Much Longer

19 The Cement Garden

20 Give Or Fake (second version)

21 Always Makin' Time

Claes Johansen vocals, guitar, keyboards, harmonica, songwriter; Kasper Johansen bass, backing vocals, rhythm guitar; Mons Olesen drums, tambourine, congas (tracks 1-15); Carsten Jorgensen drums, backing vocals (tracks 16 21); Matthew Fisher keyboards (2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12) and backing vocals (7); Anthony Meynell backing vocals (2, 3, 12)

The Squad: Claes Johansen, Mons Olesen, Per Bech and Per Madsen (track 15) 

Tracks I 14

Produced / engineered / mixed by Matthew Fisher at Old Barn Recorders, London, 1984. 

Track 15

Engineered by Soren Bundgard, produced and mixed by Tony Sear at Troubadourix Studios, Denmark 1980 

Tracks 16 21

Engineered by Tmrer Klaus, produced by Route 66 at Karma Studios, Copenhagen 1987, re-mixed by Matthew Fisher at Old Barn Recorders, London, 1987.

Tracks 1 11

Originally released 1984 as LP Route 66; 17 and 21 released as a 7" single 1995. 

Tracks 12 21

Previously unreleased

Liner note: You know how these stories always go: 'Another planet, another dimension, and (insert relevant band name) could undoubtedly have become one of the biggest names in rock and roll ever.' Well, perhaps not, but I must admit I do find a certain comfort in the fact that there probably never was a more unlucky time or place for forming a Mod-influenced band than Denmark in the early 1980s.

Nothing we could have done about it, really; that was when we were playing, and that was where we lived. To be more precise: in Albertslund, a suburb situated some ten miles west of Copenhagen. Born In The Concrete was the title of our first release, in 1980. At that point, we were called The Squad.

The first time I ever noticed Mons Olesen was at a school concert. It must have been 1975 or 76, and he was then playing acoustic guitar with a folk group. He had no amplification but was so loud that he was just about all you could hear. No-one over had any problems with hearing Mons playing, especially not later on when he became a drummer. I don't think we ever had to 'mike him up', not even when we played the main square in Copenhagen (which was several years later, in November 1983; a pretty cold time of the year in Denmark, I tell you, I think we were wearing gloves).

The school concerts were great. We were still only teenagers, performing in front of an audience of a thousand people or more. Really it could only go downhill from there.

For a few years after leaving school, Mons and I were in a group with Per and Per, guitar and bass (respectively). I was playing Hammond organ and electric piano in those days. As the Squad, we did the aforementioned single for Sonet in 1980 (and a third track, Dig you, available here for the first time), but immediately after our bass player left us. Since we couldn't get anyone to replace him, I had to change to bass for a while, and we became a trio. Playing bass never really suited me, though. We also changed guitarist along the way, but soon after that we disbanded, which was sometime in 1982. By then, my younger brother Kasper Johansen had started playing bass and he and I had been jamming together for some time, with me on guitar. I thought Wilko Johnson was the biggest thing since Eric the Red. We wanted to form a band and play mid-sixties type of rhythm and blues, so for several good reasons we found it appropriate to call ourselves Route 66.

Kasper and I had been trying out different drummers for a while, but when the Squad folded it felt natural to ask Mons to join us. He did. though not without reservations I seem to recall. He was no doubt in a different class than us at that point, and for some reason he was always talking about augmenting the band with organ players and horn sections.

But Kasper, who was seventeen when we started out, rapidly improved, and I at least got myself a proper guitar, a Rickenbacker 330 which I had to go to England to buy. The salesman claimed Paul Weller had used it on the sessions for The Jam's Sound Affects album, and since he told me this after I had actually handed him the money I assumed there could perhaps be some truth in it.

1 was always the singer then, and though Route 66 was mainly aimed at doing covers I also wrote some of our material. We made a few demos and released a self-financed 4-track cassette EP, Back To The Garage. Bomb shelter would have been more correct but less romantic, I reckon.

Around this time I had also started writing for a music magazine in Copenhagen called MM. My first contribution was an article about Mods, built around an interview with Anthony Meynell, who was the guitarist and lead singer in Squire at that point and a very good songwriter.

He and I agreed to meet in December 1982, when I would be in London to attend the Jam's farewell gigs at Wembley. I remember visiting Anthony in some studio in Camden, where they were working on the songs for their Get Smart LP.

Since then I frequently interviewed Anthony for various Danish fanzines as well as National Radio, for whom I was working free-lance. I furthermore interviewed and became friends with producer Matthew Fisher, to my mind one of the best ever Hammond players. I recommended that Anthony should use Matthew's studio Old Barn Recorders when Squire came to record their EP September Gurls, and he actually followed my suggestion.

In the summer of 1984 Route 66 made some recordings at the Old Barn as well. By then, we were playing nearly all self- composed material inspired by people like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson Band, and Squeeze.

The recording of Route 66 remains to this day one of the greatest experiences I have ever had. Matthew was just amazing. He produced the album for us, played keyboards, on it, and even sung [sic] some harmonies, no extra charge. In between, he told some pretty good jokes too, not to mention all the anecdotes from his time with various musical heroes, from Screaming Lord Sutch, to Procol Harum, Robin Trower, and Captain Sensible. Finally, Anthony Meynell came along and sang harmonies on two tracks.

1 remember in particular when we recorded It Ain't Nice, which was supposed to emulate the sound of Georgie Fame's 1964 album Rhythm And Blues At The Flamingo. Matthew had actually gone to that club and seen Fame many times, so he became extreme enthusiastic as we started adding bits and pieces like a live audience, the characteristic announcer, and even crackles to make it all sound more like the original vinyl album we were using for reference. Please also note the line 'Do you really want to hurt me', which was meant to take the piss out of a certain hit by Boy George around then.

The original version of our album was released late in 1984. Unfortunately the record company closed down their Danish branch the same week as the album came out! We had a lot of support from the radio, but the reviews were mostly horrendous (1 had fallen out with a few colleagues within the business, and fell out with even more on this occasion), and since there was no record company, there wasn't much distribution either. Only 500 copies were ever pressed, of which I bought some 100 myself directly from stock and sold on through various shops in England, mainly on Carnaby Street.

Apart from the songs which ended up on the album we had also recorded How Do You Feel Right Now?, as well as a version of the classic Bo Diddley song I Can Tell. They are both available here for the first time along with a different mix of It's Not Over, intended for a single which never happened.

Some time after we had returned to Denmark, Mons decided to leave the group. I think he later regretted it, but by then we had found ourselves another drummer, Carsten Jorgensen, whom Kasper and I played with for the next couple of years. He was a fine drummer, and a good singer too, and Kasper had also started to sing. We were back to doing mainly covers again, songs by The Small Faces, The Who, and the Jam, that sort of thing. In a funny way it seemed like the album had never happened.

Around then, a few other bands with the same kind of influences had started to pop up as well, mainly Gangway, Sharing Patrol, and ska band Duck Soup (later known as Napoleon Solo) who all had records released in England; but generally the situation was completely desperate and going absolutely nowhere. The Danish rock scene was totally dominated by girl singers fronting groups of sulky and rather repressed looking thirty-something males, playing in a style seemingly inspired by Toto, and singing in anything other than your native tongue was considered treason.

In 1986 my first collection of short stories was published, launching my career as a writer (which is how I make my living these days). I suppose I got more serious about writing song lyrics as well, and in the summer of 1987 we went into a studio in Copenhagen to record five of my own songs for an intended mini album. They were done over two weekends for some money we had actually earned playing gigs! I suppose our style had changed a bit by then, and we were now leaning more towards groups like REM.

This time around, however, the response was even poorer than back in '84; we couldn't get a deal at all. I took the master tapes to England and had Matthew re-mix them, but apart from two tracks which came out on a 7" single in 1995, this session remains unreleased until now.

Route 66 disbanded in early 1988, if my memory serves me right. Kasper left after a particularly depressing gig, and the ever-optimistic and encouraging Carsten and I tried to pick up the pieces for a while with another bass player and an extra guitarist, before I decided Kasper was right. I'd had enough, too. None of us has ever played in public since.

In December 1991, Mons suddenly called me out of the blue and said he wanted to start playing again. But by then I was putting all my things in boxes and leaving permanently for England.

Liner note copyright Claes Johansen, quoted by permission

Roland Clare's brief observations:

Route 66 is a great band-name in fact Claes Johansen had decided on it before the particular ensemble existed but this collection could equally have been named 'A 13', after the highway along which a thousand Transit vans peddled the music it honours. What is specially remarkable about this selection, however, is the way that it succeeds in standing on its own feet while simultaneously kneeling at numerous Mod-revival altars.

Johansen's heart may be with Wilko, his near-namesake, but the range of this CD is poppier than the music of the Dagenham / Canvey Island / Southend axis: nowhere is this clearer than in the first track: a crisp snap of drums heralds I'm Moving Out,whose backing was sired by the Jam, whose slack-lipped sneering vocal sounds like early Costello, and whose words are pure Squeeze. (Though in reality the story 'Got tired of living with my old Dad, his new wife and the horrible kids she had' is based on truth, and isn't a Chris Difford style-exercise at all.) A wailing Beatley harmonica punctuates this opening number, a true departure from the formula that would have specified a tortured Welleresque guitar-solo. Yet nothing sounds dated in this fantastic opener except perhaps the way that Mons Olesen's rather polite midway drum-break solicits a disproportionately Palaeolithic bellow from vocalist Claes.

You Know I Need You is another brisk number with simple catchy hook reminiscent perhaps of something the Police might have recorded. On the vinyl album this is the opening track: the punchier I'm Moving Out we start with here has leapfrogged from an original third position. The guitar here flings in a neat solo and makes interesting use of harmonics: bass and drums synch flawlessly, and backing-vocals here (and on the next track) are provided by Anthony Meynell from Mod-survivors the Squires. Readers of these pages will be interested to hear the very effective poppy Hammond, provided by Matthew Fisher, that tracks the bass riff leading into each chorus, and is exposed when the ensemble which is full of dynamic variety is momentarily stilled.

Fisher's organ makes a more significant contribution to the first slowish number on the album, It's Not Over: the embellishment is stylish, and registration is varied effectively: but I can't claim it sounds like anything from a Procol Harum record. Here the strong vocal melody sounds even more like Elvis Costello, a similarity enhanced by the episodic construction of the song. There are nice, understated production details in this chorus and the words are thoughtful despite the repetition of 'It's not over' and the frustrated 'I can't suss it out' refrain. Only here and there are we reminded that the lyricist is not a native speaker of English: his love ' ... is sometimes turning to despise ...'

The bass-driven Black and White uses more intriguing rhythmical backing and could perhaps have its origins in some Two-Tone obscurity; it also reminds me of something by the Jaguars that I wish I had on vinyl. Some of the words sound conventional 'I saw you at the station but hardly recognised you: you've changed or maybe I have ...' but the song is actually about a girl who has slipped out of colour and into black and white: an idea explored many years before by the Zombies, and many years later by Russell Hoban!

On I Know It's True we hear Johansen harmony vocals unassisted: surf-antiphony and subliminal piano usher in a lovely section with unexpected chords. 'Every little thing she does just right ...' tips its hat verbally to The Police again, but the vocal inflections are pure Buddy Holly. And the drumming? More about that below ...

I'm not a Punk is a fantastic track: fast, frantic and ironic: 'It's no fun to be a punk now, not like it was in the old days ... I'm not a punk, used to be but I changed my style ... used to be but that was weeks ago ... threw all my safety pins away ... ' and the introduction, first verse and wordy chorus are all over inside three-quarters of a minute! 'Nothing much to do for a punk now: too easy to get on TV,' complains the second verse: 'No-one bans your favourite records: they just analyse them at the university.' Johansen a graduate himself, with ten published books to his name in Denmark crams a whole saga of disillusion into these three minutes: he ends the song getting a briefcase and job. Is it better or worse for lacking the vitriolic class-hatred that fuels Paul Weller's best lyrics? I can't decide: but it's a wonderful track, complete with its 'Bugger Orf!', its Entwistlesque bass-break, more wailing harmonica, farmyard grunting and raspberry-blowing, and a mad piano-break reminiscent of Catfood Frippery.

Keep On Trying exploits a favourite trick from the album: a very simple tune rides over unpredictable guitar voicings. A climbing bass-line revives the spectre of MacManus; classy Fisher vocal harmonies and very quiet organ build the track up, and non-standard chord-inversions preserve the freshness. On the telephone recently a friend was telling me that she didn't play this record much: 'It's mostly covers ...' she alleged. But in fact all the tracks bar one were written by the talented Johansen senior; he has the knack of sounding instantly radio-friendly and familiar. What a shame that this record didn't meet the wide audience it deserved at the time it was made.

Boys with Mascara (' ... make me sick inside ...') sweeps in with a Fisher organ glissando: the vocal styling here owes more than a little to The Man from down the A 3, Portsmouth's admirable Joe Jackson: though Joe might not have written quite such a blunt line as 'Your taste is so deplorable, I suppose that's the worst of it all ...' There's something very appealing and poignant about 'Keep your glamour-boys: I'm going out with the rest of the gang; you'll be sorry that you didn't answer the door when I rang; I caught the smell of male perfume and I heard a funny groaning inside ...' This track features the first thick-toned guitar solo on the record a welcome departure but one gets the impression overall that Johansen is an ensemble guitarist rather than a solo player. And no doubt the world was not exactly crying out for any more guitar solos by 1984.

There's a nice smooth soul inflection to You Need Affection, although it starts with an inapposite vomiting sound. 'Every one's a winner' says the vocal, in one of many moments of transitory pastiche on the album. Fisher's keyboard accompaniment here is nicely understated and the band's vocal harmonies have a haunting quality, but this is one track that didn't sustain my interest throughout ... a single Lennonish word, 'isolation', jolted me back into attention.

It's Hard (A Trogg Story) is sung by a jaded rocker: 'it's dull to play the same old songs ... you wonder why you're trying'. Some folks are '... so freaked out they won't know if we play wrong or right': and a brazenly unexpected note in the bass wittily underlines that point! The words 'it's so long ago we went to number one ...' might seem poignantly relevant to the producer of this record, but Matthew Fisher's contribution to the track is some rocking piano and not the pointed AWSoP quotation he patented in Going for a Song.' Perhaps it's really about the Troggs? Or perhaps the subtitle is another homage to Joe Jackson ('A True Story')

Suddenly there's a blast of vinyl surface-scratch of the kind most CD makers usually manage to suppress: It Ain't Nice was a nice little song to end the original album with, a novelty counterfeiting of the sound of the old Glyn Johns-produced Georgie Fame records, and the scratches on Judith Fisher's old copies of them: the thumb-picked bass, groovily-fluid Hammond (not credited to Fisher but surely played by him) and authentic congas were all conventionally recorded, mixed down, then fed through a studio monitor and re-recorded with a single mike. Fake announcements and Flamingo ambience take this a stage further than its Beatle ancestor, Honey Pie.

To the Procoholic with X-ray ears, however, there's an additional source of interest: where was that vinyl crackle borrowed from? Listen very carefully and you can hear that it's a loop from the take-up groove of some crackly old acetate that must have been lying around in Matthew's studio: and for a fraction of a second, at various points on the record, you can hear 'that familiar organ roll / fade in' as it does at the start of 'For You Whose Eyes', later to become enigmatically known as Quite Rightly So.

Though the Route 66 album was recorded in Matthew's professional recording studio, it was done after his equipment had been removed from its Old Barn setting into the first floor of his family home in Croydon: the picture shows a domestic setting ostensibly at odds with the bright, accomplished final sound quality. The band came in 'cold': they hadn't sent the producer any demo cassettes in advance, and Fisher simply built up the texture instrument by instrument. It must have been an exciting experience, since the bass-lines are independent and unpredictable, rarely allowing one to guess the chords that will fit over them; there's also an attractive use made of dissonance here and there that makes one wish that the Johansen brothers were still recording together: what would they be playing now, a decade-and-a-half later, having really found their own 'voices'?

The ten bonus tracks make interesting listening too, but it's best to have a breather after the album proper: programme your CD player accordingly! They begin with a revisited It's Not Over: when you re-encounter this (mildly) variant mix, it sounds like an old friend. Where have I heard this before? It really does sound like Joe Jackson this time! Perhaps it sounded dated in 1984, I don't know. This particular track isn't quite as it would have been heard then: Claes Johansen overdubbed harmony vocals especially for this CD release.

Next up is the only cover on the album: Bo Diddley's I Can Tell, which is amiably done but evidently fails to raise much fire from the players: only the vocal seems engaged in the task at hand and the guitar and organ solos (Johansen, presumably) are fairly conventional. If the slightly desultory drumming sounds familiar, that's because it was recycled to provide the drumming on the earlier I Know It's True, a track Claes Johansen created by multiple overdubs over Mons Olesen's playing after the rest of the band had returned to Denmark.

The need for this 'constructed' track arose because How Do You Feel Right Now was not judged good enough for the original album: perhaps the words, which deal with the experience of leaving school and facing National Service, just aren't interesting enough? Perhaps the whole thing isn't as rhythmically coherent as the other tracks? Perhaps there are too many passages that sound as they have been left without their final instrumental overdub? Perhaps the ending repeats too many times? In any event, I enjoyed the faint and finicky cymbal work.

The brief early track Dig You, by the Squad, sounds under-recorded; its relatively embryonic guitar work shows how Claes, who is primarily a keyboard player, had come a long way by the time he was ready to record Route 66: here he is a relatively-callow 23 (mind you, Fisher was younger than that when he recorded Wreck of the Hesperus!). Even at this early stage in his song-writing Johansen is quoting Matthew: 'Don't need no phoney shield ...' pops up here, and I think I spotted an 'I'll be there' in the later track, You Know I Need You.

The last five songs on the album, however, offer a wonderful upswing in standard and scope. I Like What I Am has more enquiring words than some of the previous numbers, though a characteristically direct humour shines through: 'They say we're a bunch of lazy layabouts: all we ever do is vomit and grovel and shout ... but I don't care ...'. The harmony vocals flirt with dissonance here and there; the liner note claims that these later songs veered towards a more REM-like style, but they seem to me to owe more to the relaxed twangling of the Byrds, who were also a major influence on one phase of Stipe and co's output.

Gentle Johansen organ cruises about behind the vocal of I Like What I Am: but it powers memorably into the opening of the splendid Give Or Fake. This song has such a warm sound and such an attractive melody that it must have been a huge disappointment that it didn't make any commercial headway. I suppose that it may be more appealing now, in 1998, than it was in 1987, when we weren't so far removed from the classic early Costello sound: without a doubt Steve Nieve's playing was an influence on the piano and organ here.

In fact there is no Hammond on these later tracks: all six were recorded in Copenhagen Kasper's fear of flying precluded another Old Barn session using a sampled organ, but the sound is pretty convincing; this may be down to the work of Tmrer Klaus (another record-producer with his own niche as a solo recording artist) or to the re-mix performed by Matthew Fisher back in Croydon. Famously, Fisher lacks a Hammond of his own: the C3 he played on the Route 66 album was hired in for one single cost-cutting day, once the tracks were ready for his contributions.

'She don't like ambulances ...' begins I Just Can't Wait Much Longer: and it may not be fanciful to hear Reid echoes in 'tell the judge and jury to go home': the words get more peculiar and interesting as the song goes on, but it sadly doesn't have the musical punch of the early tracks: maybe this is down to the change of drummer, or just to the different studio in which the recording was made.

The next text is based on the opening of Ian McEwan's grim novel, The Cement Garden: it's clear now that Claes Johansen's literary interests are leaving his musical ones behind, though the arrangement here is very pretty and the backing vocal has a Beatley flavour of the kind beloved by Adrian Belew. But the juxtaposition of cruel narrative and slightly saccharine backing, beyond being ironic, does not make for any lasting emotional impact.

A second version of the wonderful Give or Fake follows. Coupled with Always Making Time this came out as a single in 1995, though it didn't go anywhere. It must be one of the most unusual single-releases in history, and marks one more stage in Johansen's osmosis from the music industry to the literary one. The disc purported to have been recorded by 'The Link', a band led by the character Thomas, protagonist of Johansen's novel The Doubting One (approx. title). This novel was issued in a 7" square format, with the single inside it on a faked-up 'Polydisc' label, based on the Polygram / Polydor design. The failure of this enterprise, as with the equally inventive and lively Route 66 album, must have told hard on Johansen and co., contributing to the sad fact that they haven't played in public since.

Luckily their recorded work presented here ends with a cracker. What matter if it sounds like Andy Summers on guitar? Always Making Time is beaty and wistful: 'Why don't we run away ...' goes the chorus, starting on an attractive chord-inversion (related to coda of Pilgrims Progress), and it's playing in your head long after the disc's gone back in its box never a bad sign in a pop single!

Some have disparaged Route 66 for sounding derivative and too far behind its time. In my view, however, these 71 minutes contain a lot of greatly-enjoyable post-punk-pop. The Fisher connection obviously lends it interest, but it has very little aural relevance to Procol Harum. Yet anyone who enjoys well-constructed, detailed and intelligent music is almost bound to find it rewarding to listen to. I hope this CD outsells the original! 

More non-Procol non-solo Fisher projects

Order from Angel Air

Claes Johansen's Procol Harum biography, 'Beyond the Pale'

Record Collector Nov 2001 review


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