Baby, You Can Drive My Car, and Yes, You’re Gonna Be a Star!

Since my recent post about Something in the Air by Thunderclap Newman, the above creatively borrowed and somewhat adjusted phrase had been stuck in my head, just like the catchy song. The first part of the statement is true, the second half is perhaps debatable. But while this British rock band only had one real hit, there’s no doubt in my mind Thunderclap Newman was more than just a one-hit-wonder.

As a fan of The Who, I’m intrigued by Pete Townshend’s role in the band’s history – in fact, without Townshend, there would have been no Thunderclap Newman. He brought the band’s core members together in late 1968/early 1969: Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Speedy Keen (born John David Percy Keen), Dixieland jazz pianist Thunderclap Newman (born Andrew Lawrence Newman) and lead guitarist Jimmy McCulloch (born James McCulloch). They are pictured in that order from left to right in the above photo.

Something in the Air Single

Interestingly, prior to the band’s formation, Keen had been The Who’s chauffeur and shared an apartment with Townshend. He also had written Armenia In the Sky, the opener to The Who’s third studio album The Who Sell Out from December 1967. Apparently, Townshend was impressed with the songwriting talents of Keen who had played in different bands since 1964, so he decided to introduce him to Newman and McCulloch. Townshend was also instrumental in getting the band a contract with Track Records, an independent label established by The Who’s managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp.

The first song Thunderclap Newman recorded was their big hit Something in the Air written by Keen. The sessions took place at Townshend’s home studio. He also produced the single and played bass on the recording under the pseudonym Bijou Drains. Released in May 1969, Something in the Air topped the UK Singles Chart only three weeks after its appearance, replacing The Beatles’ Ballad of John and Yoko. The tune’s original title was Revolution, but it was changed because The Beatles already had a song with that title, which had come out in 1968.

Thunderclap Newman_Hollywood Dream

Following the success of Something in the Air, an initially reluctant Thunderclap Newman agreed to go on the road. They brought in Jim Pitman-Avery (bass) and Jack McCulloch (drums), Jimmy’s older brother, to support Deep Purple on a 26-date tour of England and Scotland from July to August 1969. After the tour, Pitman-Avery and Jack McCulloch exited and formed country-rock band Wild Country, leaving Thunderclap Newman with their three core members. Keen, Newman and McCulloch went back into the studio and recorded Hollywood Dream, their only studio album.

Like Something in the Air, Townshend played a key role, producing Hollywood Dream and again playing bass under the name of Bijou Drains. And while the final track Something in the Air undoubtedly is the hit, there are other gems on this album. Let’s kick things off with the nice opener Hollywood #1, which like most of the other tracks was written by Keen.

Here’s Open the Door Homer, a great cover of a Bob Dylan song. If I see it correctly, Dylan did not release the tune until 1975 when he included it on The Basement Tapes, a collection of tracks he had recorded in 1967, mostly with backing by The Band. In particular, I dig Keen’s singing on this tune.

Next up: Accidents, another original tune written by Keen. There’s a lot going on in this more than nine-minute track, including some great piano and guitar work. In fact, as much as I dig Something in the AirAccidents is the album’s tue standout to me. A shorter version was released separately and peaked at no. 46 on the UK Singles Chart in June 1970, becoming Thunderclap Newman’s only other single to make the charts.

The last song I’d like to call out is the title track. To readers who know my affection for vocals, it may come as a bit of a surprise that I chose to highlight an instrumental. Well, it’s not that I don’t like instrumentals – after all, I’m a big fan of Pink Floyd’s ’70s albums that are filled with instrumental parts. But after a while, I simply feel the need to hear some vocals! In part, I also chose Hollywood Dream since it was co-written by the McCulloch brothers, making it the only original that wasn’t penned by Keen. BTW, Jimmy McCulloch was only 15 years when he recorded this tune with the band.

In early 1971, Thunderclap Newman brought in Australian musicians Roger Felice (drums) and Ronnie Peel (bass) to create a new touring lineup. This was followed by another tour with Deep Purple through England and Scotland between January and April 1971. And then it was suddenly all over for the band. Why? Referencing a 1972 interview Newman gave to the New Musical Express (now known as NME), Wikipedia hints to personal friction between Newman and Keen. It’s unfortunate when egos clash, but certainly not unheard of, especially in music!

Keen went on to record two solo albums, Previous Convictions (1973) and Y’ Know Wot I Mean? (1975), and also played as a session musician with Rod Stewart, The Mission and Kenny G. Sadly, he passed away from heart failure at the age of 62 on March 12, 2002.

Newman also recorded a solo album, Rainbow, which appeared in 1971. Other than that he was “was musically dormant and worked as an electrician, until he put together a new version of Thunderclap Newman in 2010,” according to an obituary in The Guardian. In addition to Newman, the band’s new line-up featured Tony Stubbings (bass), Nick Johnson (lead guitar), Mark Brzezicki (drums) and Pete Townshend’s nephew Josh Townshend (rhythm guitar and vocals). Shortly thereafter, the band released Beyond Hollywood, an album of studio and live tracks of old Thunderclap Newman songs. In 2011, they toured the UK with Big Country. The last two gigs listed on the band’s official website are from 2012. Newman died on March 29, 2016 at the age of 73.

Jimmy McCulloch formed his own group in October 1971 and also played guitar in various other bands, most importantly Paul McCartney’s Wings, which he joined in August 1974. After exiting Wings in September 1977, McCullogh joined the reformed Small Faces. Another own band and a few additional stints followed. On September 27, 1979, McCulloch was found dead, apparently having died from a heart attack attributed to morphine and alcohol poisoning. He was only 26 years old.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Guardian; YouTube