It’s another FORGOTTEN ARTISTS article but one that might make a few more people sit up and take notice, because this band, of course, features something of a national musical treasure in the form of guitarist Mark Knopfler. Now, I don’t, for one moment expect that anyone reading this has forgotten The Notting Hillbillies, but how many of us remember just how good they were and how far ahead of the curve they were with their brand of Americana?
I was looking through my vinyl collection recently, trawling for something to play that I hadn’t listened to in a while, and I came across the one and only studio recording from this band, the 1990 release ‘Missing…Presumed Having a Good Time’ and, not having listened to it for a good two or three years, I now find I can’t get it off the turntable! It’s a great album from a great band and, what I particularly like about it, is that it puts Knopfler very firmly in a band setting. Dire Straits were always all about their lead guitarist and vocalist – it was Mark Knopfler’s vision that dictated the sound of the band right the way through, to the point where the other musicians were all interchangeable (and changed frequently) but, as long as Knopfler was there, writing and singing the songs and playing the guitar, the sound was easily identifiable as Dire Straits. In the Hillbillies, by choosing to share the frontline with two other excellent musicians and singers, Knopfler was taking a conscious decision to step back from the spotlight and let the band work as an identifiable entity and the results were glorious.
For those that may not be familiar with the band line up they were:- Mark Knopfler (guitar & vocals), Steve Phillips (guitar & vocals), Brendan Croker (guitar, banjo & vocals), Guy Fletcher (keyboards & vocals), Marcus Cliffe (bass guitar), Paul Franklin (pedal steel guitar) and Ed Bicknell (drums). Their album features one original song from each of the three guitarists along with a selection of songs drawn from across the country, blues and folk genres, featuring a number of traditional songs, re-worked by the band, along with compositions from the likes of the Louvin Brothers and Charlie Rich. Produced by Knopfler and Guy Fletcher the album was a significant success around the world, hitting the Top 20 throughout Europe and rising to number 2 in the UK. It also performed well in America, making 52 on the Billboard charts. That they never followed it up is a major disappointment for many, especially now that Americana, as a recognised genre, has such a high profile. If you look at Knopfler’s solo work, since he abandoned Dire Straits, you can see that it’s much closer to the template established by the Hillbillies than anything he did with his original band. It’s fair to say that the Notting Hillbillies were the start of a new direction for Knopfler and it all came about almost by accident.
Following the massive success of the Brothers in Arms tour, Knopfler felt like he needed some time away from the band and a means of reconnecting with his music; big stadium tours certainly help to fill the coffers but they take a heavy toll on the musicians themselves and Knopfler would’ve been exhausted and close to burn out by the end of the tour, which had started in Split, in what was then Yugoslavia, in April 1985 and concluded a year later in Sydney, Australia. 248 concerts in 23 countries and 118 cities, with more than two and a half million people seeing the shows. No wonder Knopfler craved a return to quieter, less frantic shows and a more organic way of making music. He turned to old friend Steve Phillips, with the idea of putting a pick-up band together to play some low key gigs in the West Yorkshire area. Knopfler and Phillips had met in Leeds, during Knopfler’s days as a junior reporter for The Yorkshire Evening Post. They shared a love of early blues and Phillips is widely credited with encouraging Knopfler’s development of his own fingerpicking style. They formed a duo in the late 60s, The Duolian String Pickers, playing the local folk and blues clubs and the pair would work on a variety of music projects together until Knopfler headed south in 1973. When Knopfler left Leeds, Steve Phillips would eventually team up with another local musician, Brendan Croker, again performing as a duo, this time under the name of Nev and Norris. By the start of the ‘80s, Phillips had turned his back on music and was focused on his art career and Croker had moved on to form his own roots-based band, The Five O’Clock Shadows, which included bass player, Marcus Cliffe, who would also be drafted into the Hillbillies. When Knopfler came calling on Phillips in ’85, with the idea of forming a country blues outfit, it made sense to include Croker in their plans. The rest of the band was rounded out with long term Knopfler collaborator Guy Fletcher on keyboards, American multi-instrumentalist Paul Franklin, on pedal-steel, and Knopfler/Dire Straits manager Ed Bicknell on drums (Bicknell, who had drummed with a variety of bands before moving into management, apparently found out about his place in the band when he called Knopfler to find out what he was up to up in Leeds, to be informed that they’d formed a band and he was the drummer!) The band started out with a live show at a Leeds club in 1986 and, having established that the line up worked, embarked on a tour of the UK. The band name came from recording in studios in London’s Notting Hill, but their only album wouldn’t be released until four years after they started working as a live unit.
That the album was such a success should come as no surprise. It was as a live act that they probably had the most impact and the album was built around the core of the set they played on tour. The singles, ‘Feel Like Going Home’, a Charlie Rich song, powerfully delivered by Brendan Croker and ‘Go Your Own Sweet Way’, Knopfler’s sole writing credit on the album, both performed well in a number of markets and, while the third single, Phillip’s song ‘Will You Miss Me’, didn’t fare so well as a single release, it regularly features in lists of favourite Hillbillies songs. It seems likely, anyway, that the singles were at the request of the record company, Vertigo/Warner Brothers, the Hillbillies being focused on being a live, touring band.
Given how well the first album performed, and how popular the live shows were, it seems odd that there was no follow up album and, shortly after ‘Missing…’ was released the band called it a day and the various members went back to their other projects. It wasn’t the end for the Hillbillies. They’ve reunited on a number of occasions, with some changes to the band members but always with the same three frontmen, most notably for short residencies at the Ronnie Scott’s clubs in London and Birmingham at the end of the ‘90s, but also for various charity events, though the last of these was in 2002.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the Hillbillies is that they succeeded with a repertoire of roots-based music at a time when popular tastes were more focused on Indie rock and electronica, along with emerging rap and R&B styles. Is this why they chose to call it a day when they did, keen not to push their luck going against the flow of popular commercial tastes?
Mark Knopfler reformed Dire Straits in 1991 and they resumed pretty much where they’d left off after the Brothers in Arms tour. There was one more studio album from the band, 1991’s ‘On Every Street’, followed by the inevitable world tour, which was the final nail in the coffin for the band. Although Dire Straits officially called it a day in 1995 they were really finished after the last tour concluded in ’92, with contractual requirements meaning that they had to deliver compilations and live albums until ‘95’s ‘Live at the BBC’ completed the band’s recording contract and Knopfler could finally turn his attention to developing his solo career. In 1996 he released his first official solo album, the excellent ‘Golden Heart’. It sounded very much like the sort of album The Notting Hillbillies might have made.
The Notting Hillbillies were, quite clearly, ahead of their time. Had they emerged ten to fifteen years later they would’ve been at the forefront of the roots revival and the growing popularity of Americana and it’s likely that we would’ve seen more from them as a band. While it’s nice to think that they could come back together for a last hurrah, now that the tide of popular taste has swung firmly in their favour, it would seem highly unlikely. Mark Knopfler’s solo career has developed nicely, without the frenzy that surrounded Dire Straits in their heyday, and he’s carved out a successful niche that has seen him play and record with some of the cream of Americana musicians. Steve Phillips released his last album in 2013, ‘North Country Blues’. He continues to play around his local area in Yorkshire and is a noted landscape painter as well as having developed a reputation as a maker of quality, limited edition acoustic guitars.
Brendon Croker went back to his band, the Five O’Clock Shadows, post Hillbillies and continued to tour and record with them, though his output gradually dwindled and he’s become less musically active in recent years. His last studio release was 2002’s ‘Life is Almost Wonderful’, recorded with Kevin Coyne. Other band members continue to work on a variety of music projects and Guy Fletcher still collaborates with Mark Knopfler. Ed Bicknell retired from artist management some years ago and is semi-retired, though he still appears on TV and Radio, commenting on music industry matters from his beachside home in Barbados.
You could say that the members of the Notting Hillbillies are now missing…presumed having a good time! If you haven’t listened to them in a while, do yourself a favour and revisit their album; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well the music fits into your current Americana listening.