Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Rats - The Rise and Fall of Bernie Gripplestone and the Rats from Hull (1967-69)

The Rats are known by very few listeners, and they most likely know about them because Mick Ronson was a member before playing on David Bowie's highly influential early-1970s albums. Formed in Hull, England, the first version of the group did not include Ronson, but did manage to release a couple of singles on Columbia U.K. in 1965. This included a tough cover of "Spoonful" that — although the liner notes of Pebbles Vol. 6 assert the contrary — did not feature Ronson. A decent but unexceptional R&B/rock unit, the Rats continued to slog it out in Hull over the next few years, with Ronson joining in 1966.
Although the Rats stayed together (with varying lineups) through the rest of the '60s, they didn't make any more records, although a few unreleased tracks finally surfaced in the 1990s. They evolved into a heavier blues-rock combo, Ronson in particular showing the influence of Jeff Beck, whose group the Rats opened for at a March 1968 show. By 1969, onetime Rats drummer John Cambridge was in Junior's Eyes, which briefly became David Bowie's backup band. Cambridge recommended Ronson to Bowie as a lead guitarist, and Ronson's crunchy style was a key ingredient on Bowie's 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World. Woody Woodmansey, who had replaced John Cambridge as drummer in the Rats in 1969, also played on the record.
The Rats' confusing history (considering they only made a couple of singles) had a final twist in the interim between The Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Bowie's rise to full-fledged stardom. As Bowie woodshedded for a while in the early 1970s to focus on songwriting, Ronson, Woodmansey, early Bowie producer and bassist Tony Visconti, and Rats vocalist Benny Marshall formed the short-lived Ronno. They released a single on Vertigo, but the project came to an end when Ronson, Woodmansey, and Trevor Bolder (who had replaced Visconti in Ronno) became Bowie's backing group, the Spiders from Mars. The Spiders backed Bowie on his most famous early-'70s albums, including Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, before the singer disbanded the group in mid-1973, although Ronson worked with Bowie for a while longer. A Rats CD, cobbled together from their singles, unreleased '60s material, and 1990s versions of the group, appeared in 1998. A competent but undistinguished lot, the Rats are primarily worth investigating by British '60s rock completists and Bowie historians who want to hear Ronson's roots in particular.
1 Spoonful 2:18 2 I've Got My Eyes on You Baby 2:31 3 I've Gotta See My Baby 2:25 4 New Orleans 2:19 5 The Rise and Fall of Bernie Gripplestone 4:03 6 Stop, Get a Hold of Myself 3:07 7 Guitar Boogie 4:28 8 Morning Dew 3:42 9 Early in Spring [ 4:10 10 Telephone Blues 4:07 11 It Ain't Easy 3:44 12 I Feel Free 4:49 13 The Hunter 4:32 14 Colour Me 5:24 15 Life's a River 4:58
Both sides of their two mid-1960s singles, and six previously unreleased tracks laid down in approximately 1967-69, form the bulk of this archival release. The Rats didn't have an original bone in their body, but nonetheless this is enjoyable period British R&B/rock fare. Of the mid-sixties cuts, their version of "Spoonful" is pretty lean and mean, and the "House of the Rising Sun"-derived "New Orleans" is nicely moody. Mick Ronson isn't on any of those, but his presence is evident on the late-sixties material, particularly "Guitar Boogie," clearly modeled on the Yardbirds' "Jeff's Boogie," and reaching a manic sped-up tempo at the end which verges on parody. The title track is pretty indulgent 1967 psychedelia, but the hard rock covers of Gladys Knight's "Stop Get a Hold of Myself" and the folkie favorite "Morning Dew" are actually quite respectable, even if they're obviously using the Jeff Beck Group approach as the template. Only three of the ten sixties tracks were group originals, and they were none too impressive, helping doom them to also-ran status in the pre-Bowie years. Tacked onto the end are two numbers by a reconstituted Rats at a 1994 memorial concert for Ronson, as well as three horrendous hard rock studio tracks from 1998. It's certainly a release that only appeals to the hardcore fanatic. Yet it's not without its appeal, particularly as it comes with incredibly extensive liner notes about the Rats and their members' involvement in early David Bowie projects that will make fascinating reading for Bowie and Ronson nuts.


  1. Thanks for posting this (and fixing the link). Your posts are consistently high quality music.


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