Back in 1985 ‘The Elite’ to me was anyone with access to MTV or a video cassette recorder, or both. Exploring new music was not easy, you could read about new bands in the weekly inkies, but getting to hear them was another matter. So thank heavens for Whistle Test. By ’85 it had dropped the ‘Old Grey’ and my memories are of Hepworth and Ellen and that young buck Andy Kershaw. REM were getting some airplay and they had impressed me so much that my attention was pricked by any mention of Athens, Georgia or ‘the Paisley Underground’. And a mid-evening Whistle Test appearance of a band in plaid pretty assured their guitar and my heartstrings were beating a similar rhythm. And so I marvelled at the Long Ryders and was bowled over by Rain Parade. Soon I was searching for the records by the likes of Beat Farmers, Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, Let’s Active.
And so it was one evening I first saw Lone Justice. Big things, it seems, was anticipated for this band. They had been signed to Geffen, had Jimmy Iovine produce their debut album and had been raved about by Linda Ronstadt. Not only that but, we were told, lead singer Maria McKee was the half-sister of Brian MacLean from Love! To be honest, at the time, I had no idea what that meant, but it was said in such a way that this seemed like a CV-deal-clincher. They performed, the ‘big two’ – ‘Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling)’ and ‘Ways To Be Wicked’ songs from their upcoming debut release. The latter had been written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell. They were a couple of tunes and in McKee the band were fronted by someone with a perfectly suited country rock voice; all power and inflexion. And she looked the part too, tossed strawberry blond curls, floaty dresses, motorcycle boots and a worn telecaster. What was there not to love? I did, as I always did in those days, rushed to HMV in my lunch hour the next day and bought the album.
And here is the thing – at the time it did not feel great. The rock songs were mixed with some rushed country – ‘East of Eden’, ‘After the Flood’, ‘Working Late’. The singing was great, the playing was great but it felt odd. Maybe this was because, at the time, I had no idea I was in Americana, I knew I liked some things (see list of bands above) but I had little notion of the boundaries or possibilities of the genre. To be frank, I didn’t know it was a genre. Neither, it seems did many other. The common agreement is that the band were over-hyped and could not possibly live up to expectations. I saw them play a mid-afternoon slot at Wembley Stadium on U2’s ‘Joshua Tree’ tour where a weak sound system and lights lost in the afternoon sun did them no favours. The band fractured with McKee and guitarist Ryan Hedgecock recruiting two new members and recording a new album – ‘Shelter’. This time Iovine was joined in production duties by another big name in Steve Van Zandt who also wrote some of the material. It was more mainstream than the debut but again bombed. This time I saw them at the Leeds Warehouse where they put on a fabulous energy packed show. The band broke soon after, the final track of ‘Shelter’, the McKee written ‘Dixie Storms’ was an indicator of the more epic solo material she would produce next and she is perhaps best known for her UK Number one hit ‘Show Me Heaven’.
So why, after a tale of woe are they my choice for the A-Z? Looking back now it seems that Lone Justice were a band (no pun) out of time. We were not ready for them, the geography of Americana was too new – just like fusion food, we provincials were a little too used to our tastes. What was perceived as a weakness then – that they satisfied neither rock nor country audiences is no longer a millstone. Indeed, it has become the USP of Blackberry Smoke whose ‘Too Country for Rock, Too Rock for Country’ T-shirts are a defiant shout against pigeonholing – you will see them at Luke Combs concerts as easily as at Monster Truck (and this year at the Download festival).
Lone Justice deserve a reappraisal, had they been around now I have little doubt that a night headlining the Roundhouse would come as no surprise to anyone.
The career: Two studio albums ‘Lone Justice’ and ‘Shelter’ and one ‘Live at the BBC’ recording.
Key release: ‘Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling)’ – such power and swing, it should be in everyone’s all-time favourites playlist.