Stiff Records had great commercial hopes for this Manchester quartet, led by balding, bespectacled singer/guitarist/pianist Clive Gregson, whose songs — mostly about the unhappy side of love — have always shown real talent. It unfortunately took the group a long time to escape their basic facelessness and locate a sound, a slow start that may be why Any Trouble ended without ever receiving the acclaim they deserved.
The first LP suffers from (reasonable) comparisons to early Elvis Costello, and shows Any Trouble to be a pub band five years after the end of that era, playing competent, melodic rock with no special character. Only “The Hurt” and the stunningly derivative “Second Choice” (a retread of “Less than Zero”) leave any lasting impression beyond overall nice-guy swellness.
Live at the Venue, recorded onstage in London in May ’80, includes performances of both aforementioned songs (and five more from the first album), plus a rendition of Springsteen’s “Growing Up” (shades of Greg Kihn). The band shows a helpful increase in spunk and velocity, but still falls short of being exciting. (Although Live at the Venue never came out in America as such, six selections were issued as the promo-only Live and Alive 12-inch.)
Wheels in Motion, produced by Mike Howlett (later a hitmaker for A Flock of Seagulls), evinces further improvement, adding impressive intricacy and dynamics to the arrangements. Gregson’s growing confidence as a singer helps put across his pessimistic (but not cynical) lyrics on songs like “Trouble with Love,” “Another Heartache” and the outstanding “Walking in Chains.” Wheels in Motion still isn’t a record to make you stop in your tracks, but an extremely likable collection of intelligently written rock songs performed ably and without pretense.
Any Trouble, by a half-new lineup, is the band’s first great album, a wonderful new blend of soul and pop strengthened by Gregson’s sharpening melodic sense and lightening lyrical outlook. “Please Don’t Stop,” “Man of the Moment,” “Northern Soul” and other tracks resemble a non-obnoxious Hall and Oates crossed with Costello and recorded in Motown; production by David Kershenbaum provides the sonic variety and sophistication previously lacking. Gregson’s development into a powerful, sensitive singer is merely the icing on the cake.
The group inexplicably re-recorded three early (and not timeless) songs for Wrong End of the Race, adding a rousing cover of the Foundations’ “Baby Now That I’ve Found You,” and a bunch of new Gregson compositions. (The US edition deletes “Lucky Day” and “Yesterday’s Love,” a reprise of the group’s first single, to make way for three tracks not on the UK version.) Featuring an illustrious cast of guests (Richard Thompson, Billy Bremner, Geoff Muldaur), the LP is less stylized than its remarkable predecessor, but bristles with renewed vigor and rich horn-and-vocal-filled arrangements. Without fanfare, that was the end of Any Trouble.