Less a group than a garishly mounted but sublimely subversive pop put-on, Wales’ Pooh Sticks — formed in Swansea in 1987 by Steve Gregory (manager, songwriter, musician, producer, Fierce label owner and all-around string-puller) and singer Hue Williams — fashioned an amazing career in ’70s camp with equal measures of deadpan parody and ingeniously derivative craft. Whipped into a mysteriously fictional froth of cartoon characters, make-believe history and, in the early days, bizarrely configured record releases, the group was like the Archies in reverse, a false front created as a disguise, not an illusion. As high-concept rock’n’roll swindlers, the Pooh Sticks were an impressively sustained contrivance. Andy Kaufman would have been proud.
Using unidentified musicians, stealing song titles and taking teen-obsessed lyrical potshots at the indie-pop world and the Frampton years, the group managed to package delightful bubblegum that can be taken on very different levels: as irony-dripping kitsch, witty cultural comment, plagiarized rubbish or just pure pop fun. This highly amusing joke with no punchline proved that none was needed.
Alan McGee is a boxed set of one-sided singles, four songs from which subsequently turned up on 1988’s Pooh Sticks, a one-sided 12-inch. (The flipside contains scratched-on stick figures.) After that came a deluge of singles, picture discs and flexis on Gregory’s unpredictable Fierce label. (The company’s most notorious vinyl achievements was Riot!, a 7-inch single documenting the unruly aftermath of an abortive 1985 Jesus and Mary Chain gig.) Orgasm is a tight, clean-sounding record — ostensibly “recorded live…in Trudi Tangerine’s basement…” — that includes such essential self-conscious originals as “Indiepop Ain’t Noise Pollution,” “On Tape” and the classic mouthful of “I Know Someone Who Knows Someone Who Knows Alan McGee Quite Well.” The Multiple Orgasm CD combines Orgasm with ten avowedly studio tracks which actually sound sloppier and less clear than the album’s “live” portion.
Judging by Hue’s horrifically tuneless singing, the half-hour Trade Mark of Quality is believably live. (The bootleg styling of its title and original mail-order-only release, however, are defeated by Gregory’s liner notes and the Fierce logo.) In any case, the roaringly slapdash rhythm-guitar-rock from a pair of English club gigs in March ’89 delivers raw versions of such excellent songs as “Young People,” “Heroes and Villains” and a cover of the Vaselines’ “Dying for It” (also included in a studio rendition). Good messy fun, but not the ideal place to first meet the Pooh Sticks. (The eponymous nine-song 1991 Overground release compiles BBC radio sessions from 1988 and 1989.)
Formula One Generation — the Poohs’ first proper studio album — is self-indulgent (“Tonight” takes forever to gather itself into an actual song) and uneven, but the lack of sonic luster can’t possibly spoil such wonderfully cool tunes as “Susan Sleepwalking,” “Radio Ready,” “Dare True Kiss Promise,” “Soft Bed, Hard Battles.” (The inclusion of yet another version of “Dying for It” doesn’t hurt, either.) But there’s an especially hasty quality to the performances, which leaves them mildly lacking that certain esprit de pooh.
Nothing whatever is lacking from The Great White Wonder. (The title is another vintage bootleg reference; the end of “I’m in You” tacks on a historic Dylan moment for good measure.) This giddy rock-pop masterpiece refines and focuses the band’s strengths — adding the alluring voice of Heavenly singer Amelia Fletcher (who also toured with the group) for good measure — on a wonderful collection of songs with shamelessly recycled titles. (With the liner notes quick to point out the sources, “Sweet Baby James,” “Desperado,” “I’m in You” and “The Wild One, Forever” have nothing else in common with anything by, respectively, James Taylor, the Eagles, Peter Frampton or Tom Petty.) With surging fuzz-guitar power, Hue’s engagingly wan voice and a conscientiously dippy tone, the group portrays a closed universe of boys, girls and rock’n’roll music. “Young people — they turn me on,” sings Hue; a character listening to the radio “turns into someone else”; another has her “…hips swaying to the radio beat.” As a piano pounds under the slabby chords of Lou Reed’s “Rock’n’Roll,” “Desperado” outlines a plan for future stardom, promising “I’ll take to the lifestyle like a fish takes to water…this is the only life I know,” as if saying it made it so. In a not-so-subtle tribute to a bygone era, the album’s centerpiece, “I’m in You,” is a glorious 17-minute monstrosity that gets a couple of trivial verses out of the way quickly and then settles in for an epic Neil Young-style guitar solo. (Collectors’ alert: the Zoo reissue omits some of the more potentially actionable bits of familiar ’70s rock originally incorporated on the album.)
The title track of the equally great Million Seller follows the thread of “Desperado”; in it, Hue acknowledges the inevitable romantic hazard of the hit he’s sure he’s about to create: “If the tune strikes a chord / And people know every word / Might as well say goodbye / When I tell her / Gonna write a million-seller.” Reflected in the album-ending “That Was the Greatest Song,” Million Seller sets the agenda for another easy winner, one that recalibrates the rock/pop ratio in a democratic embrace of firm rock and mushy pop. A sparkling remake of “Susan Sleepwalking” that obliterates the Formula One Generation version and “I Saw the Light” (title only borrowed from Todd Rundgren) are briskly electric; at the other stylistic extreme, “When the Girl Wants to Be Free” oozes piano-ballad sap. With Fletcher’s voice sweetly balancing Hue’s, “Let the Good Times Roll” and “The World Is Turning On” are fabulous confections, candy-pop mountains of ABBA-rock production and witty/silly lyrics. (Editor’s note: The habitual absence of a reliable personnel listing and the fact that the record was produced in Holland by Gregory with “additional production” and mixing on five tracks by New Yorker Jim Rondinelli has led to some confusion over who actually played on it. Although this site has in the past attributed a prominent electric guitar role to Kevin Salem, Pooh Sticks studio mainstay Michel van der Woude maintains that he was the record’s electric guitarist.)
That pretty much puts an end to our merry tale. Even the liner notes of Optimistic Fool are disappointing. The generally medium-strength guitar rock, while adequate, is obvious and unambitious — even in its expected lack of ambition. The brisk tunes, while intermittently memorable, revisit familiar ground: “Opening Night,” “First of a Million Love Songs,” “Song Cycle” and “Prayer for My Demo” (unrelated, save for title and the fact of an uncommon skittering club rhythm, to a number on the first Urban Dance Squad album). That sound you hear is the line between self-amusement and self-obsession being scratched away. Hue’s female vocal foil (not Fletcher, who would have been a notable asset here) pales behind him; the drums sound like shit. Even deliberate junk needs to live up to certain standards.
Williams went on to manage the 60 Ft. Dolls and recently renewed his creative involvement with Fletcher in a trio called Swansea Sound that includes Fletcher’s musical and life partner, Rob Pursey. Their first release, in early 2021, was a delicious and Pooh-worthy bit of meta cleverness titled “Corporate Indie Band.”