First Class

FIRST CLASS

Tony Burrows - vocals (record only)
John Carter-vocals, guitar (record only) 
Robin Shaw - bass, Cliff Bennett and Rebel Rousers, White Plains
Chas Mills - vocals (record only)
Del John - vocals
Spencer James - guitar, The Searchers
Eddie Richards - drums, Edison Lighthouse
Clive Barrett - keyboards

In the early 1970s, the Beach Boys were no longer making the surf records they were known for, which left a huge gap in the market, but by then nobody was making that kind of music anymore. Until along came John Carter and his wife Jill Shakespeare who wrote the biggest hit First Class ever had…

John Carter had been on the British music scene for a long while through the sixties, starting off in "Arthur Lewis and the Southerners" in 1963 with writing partner Ken Lewis. Then, in 1964, he became part of the "Ivy League", then took time out to work behind the scenes in pop music. Along the way, he wrote many memorable hits for groups like White Plains, Edison Lighthouse and Flowerpot Men.

In 1974, he had written a song, "Beach Baby" and the lyrics were written by his wife, Jill Shakespeare; both were influenced by the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" LP. John had called up Tony Burrows who had worked on many of John's projects in the past and asked if he would lend his vocal contribution. Although John did contribute vocals on the album, he thought Tony's voice had the edge he wanted. As of yet, the group First Class did not exist.

Knowing that this record was a bit different from what was around at the time, with a major record label it would get lost in the shuffle of releases. He approached Jonathan King (yes that Jonathan King!) who had an independent record label with some success, UK Records. King liked it, and so the plan was to release the single to see how it would fare. As technically there wasn't a group name yet, the people who played on the recording were studio musicians. Referring to them and to the sound, King came up with the group name of First Class.

The musicians on the single included Brian Bennett, drums, Les Hurdle, bass, Alan Parker, guitar, Gerry Butler, piano and John on acoustic guitar; the band were also using a big orchestra to finish off the classic sound. UK Records released the song, and the radio reaction was tremendous - with a hit on his hands, John was then asked by UK Records to do an entire album.

One of the problems with this was that the albums and singles always need promotion and John didn't have the time for that (and neither Tony Burrows). They were both doing other projects in between as well as writing, producing and performing on other artists' records, as well as writing radio jingles. To make sure that the songs were well promoted, they put together a promotional group to go out as First Class for TV appearances as well as the tour. These were the back-up musicians listed on the album and also that appeared on Top Of The Pops, and are listed above. Most had been involved in the past with John or Tony in some way or another. Robin Shaw had been bassist with White Plains, Eddie Richards had been in Edison Lighthouse.

After "Beach Baby" became a hit, John started working on a follow up single and then the album, also entitled, "First Class". The follow-up single, "Bobby Dazzler", came out and, to the dismay of all concerned, flopped, though John does not remember getting a chance to do any TV appearances to promote it anyhow.

The album came out 6 months after the hit, "Beach Baby", and failed to make an impression, though the sound was impressive throughout the LP. The whole album had a Beach Boys feel to it, fantastic harmony vocals and top-notch orchestration, and also that trademark bubblegum sound.

The follow-up singles, "Dreams Are A Ten Penny", "Won't Somebody Help Me" and "First Day Of Your Life", all came out and flopped, and yet all of them were on the same "First Class" album. It was rare in those days to have more than two singles off the same album, but it was Jonathan King's decision to release those singles anyway. Although they flopped, UK Records promoted them well, and Capital Radio in London played them a lot - but they just weren't being bought in any kind of substantial numbers!

Although the album had one hit, King expressed his desire for another - much to John's surprise. After playing a few tracks for him, King signed John for a second deal - to license another record and to release it. The first single off this second album was entitled, "Life Is Whatever You Want It To Be", which was being used in a commercial (in fact, just a snippet was used for it). With the TV airplay, King suggested releasing it as a single in order to use that extra bit of promotion. Again, lots of airplay on Capital Radio but no hit! In the meantime, John was working on the album which took around 2 months to finish recording, entitled, "SST". This stood for "Supersonic Travel", which was all the rage at the time due to the Concord's first flight. Again it was King's idea to cash in on using that name.

However, the album sadly lacked the sound of the first, as the impetus of the sound/idea of "Beach Baby" had gone, and so this was instead just a collection of bubblegum songs. On this album, apart from John and Tony, Chas Mills also provided vocals, as well as some of the session guys from the first album. The promotional group First Class got to do some live gigs promoting the new songs, but, alas, still there was no hit on the horizon. "I Was A Star", "Ain't No Love" and "Child's Play" all came out as singles - to no chart success - but at least Capital Radio was faithful in the airplay department.

As UK Records hadn't asked for any more releases, John got a deal with CBS for 2 singles in 1977, and an option for an album, if one was a hit. Sadly both singles tanked, and the album never happened, though John had been working on more tracks for a possible third album. On those tracks, it was mainly John, with Tony providing some vocals, and new member Clare Torry. John was disappointed with CBS promotion and felt "Too Many Golden Oldies" should have been a hit.

Although John had always been recording new songs in his studio, using Tony on many occasions, he used many other names to put out the songs under. If he felt strongly about recording a song, it would be released anyway, and fare best under what group name.

So, in 1980, John recorded the promotional group First Class on his own label Sunny Records, with the single, "Gimme A Little Sign". With Spencer James on vocals for this one, John wanted to cut something but hadn't come up with anything written, so he chose this one, as he was keen on re-recording it.

Although the single had some success in Holland, it did require the First Class promotional band to go there and tour with it in 1981.

Today, John still writes music but also owns his own back catalogue of recordings, which keeps him busy enough, as it's still being used in amazing quantities. Tony Burrows is working in the world of jingles and occasionally tours doing the hits he sang on in various groups in the past, while Spencer James is now in the Searchers and Robin Shaw - in the reformed version of Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers.

Although John doesn't plan to resurrect the First Class name again, recently there's been a resurgence of interest in Japan. John Carter's solo compilation has come out, followed by the "Essential First Class Collection". This included tracks from the first two albums as well as unreleased tracks from the third album recorded for CBS. Not to mention some other unreleased tracks spanning from 1972 up to 1985. Interestingly enough, there's a 1972 track on it, entitled, "Coney Island" - recorded two years before "Beach Baby" - basically, a John Carter song with no Tony Burrows in sight and no Beach Boys harmonies to be heard! So then you have to ask what constitutes a First Class song, as it was really a three-person show most of the time. John and his wife Gill wrote the songs and Tony sang lead vocals, but first and foremost, everyone remembers "Beach Baby" for that summer sound from 1974, and it still holds up very well today, and could easily be worthy of a track on any Beach Boys album.


Discography

Singles

Year A Side B Side Cat #
May-74 Beach Baby Both sides of the story UK 66
Aug-74 Bobby Dazzler Lavender Man UK 73
Oct-74 Dreams are a ten penny Long time gone UK  82
Feb-75 Whatever became of me Wont somebody help me UK 90
May-75 Life is whatever you want it to be I was always the joker UK 96
Sep-75 I was a star 7 to 10 to nowhere UK 107
Feb-76 First day of your life+++  Disco kid UK123
May-76 Aint no love Long time gone UK 130
Jul-76 Beach baby Both sides of the story UK 144
Sep-76 Childs play Old time love UK 152
Nov-77 Too Many golden Oldies Make it on my own Epic 5801
Feb-78 Broken Toy Lisa I Always Loved you Epic 6110

**79

Song on the wind The saddest word RCA:PB9474 
80 Gimme a little sign Average rainfall Sunny 106
81 Ocean of glass Bienvenido, Phillips317024
+++  released as under name of "Happiness"
*** some countries released as group name "Circus"

Albums

Year Title Tracks Cat #
Jul-74 First Class Beach Baby, Won't Somebody Help Me, What Became of Me, Surfer Queen, First Day of Your Life, Long Time Gone, Dreams Are Ten a Penny, Bobby Dazzler, Disco Kid, I Was Always a Joker UK1008
Nov-76 S.S.T. I Was a Star, Smiles on a Summer Night, Child's Play, Old Time Love, Baby Blue, Life Is Whatever You Want It to Be, Carry on Singing My Song, Ain't No Love, Seven-Ten to Nowhere, Autumn Love, And She Cried UKAL1022
78 Unreleased third album Sundaychild, Greasy dollar bill, If I don’t have you, Top 40 Angel, The song was wrong, Too many golden  oldies, Broken toy, Lisa, make it on my own Epic
2001 FirstClass/SST - with one bonus track, "Wake up America" SEECD 443 
2000 First class essential collection - best hits and unreleased tracks EM 1014-CD

For more information, contact Jason Humphries

Back to the Artists Index

1