Having studied graphics and painting at Derby School of Art at the turn of the 1960s Kevin Coyne and his trusted accomplices Nick Cudworth and Dave Clague released a clutch of recordings as Siren for John Peel's Dandelion label, a noted home for the weird and wonderful British underground artists who might otherwise have slipped through the cracks. In fact Coyne's songs, often inspired by his previous stints as a drugs counsellor in London and a psychiatric nurse in Preston, soon found favour in exalted circles. Jac Holzman, owner of Elektra Records in the US, was an early champion and distributed Siren's Strange Locomotion for the band, giving them billboard space and garnering sufficient press coverage in America to ensure cult status there. Holzman was serious. When The Doors, post-Jim Morrison, were auditioning possible new singers Jac asked Kevin to try out, but whether through self-effacement (he didn't see himself filling those leather trousers too readily), or more pressing reasons of his own, Coyne declined.
After leaving Dandelion with the autobiographical Case History LP Kevin was signed by Virgin and would record a dozen well-received albums for them - starting with the sprawling, ambitious Marjory Razorblade, which contained his much loved anthems 'Eastbourne Ladies' and 'Jacky and Edna' and contained a loose concept dealing with age and mortality that established him as a truly unique presence. An appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test with a stripped down trio featuring Gordon Smith and Chili Charles guaranteed Coyne the wider audience his music deserved and follow-up disc Blame It On The Night became one of those artifacts the young and hip liked to carry under their greatcoats.
1975's Matching Head and Feet moved the artist into a different sphere altogether. Produced by Atlantic's in-house console master Geoffrey Haslam (he'd worked with the Velvet Underground, J. Geils Band, MC5 and Eddie Harris) this punchy outing saw Kevin collaborate with friend Andy Summers on the incendiary song 'Turpentine' and the desperately nostalgic Tulip where black humour was sourced via bleak poetic insight.
Even so Coyne could regard himself with a quizzical detachment, hence the almost jolly Let's Have A Party where he combined some live material from the Lyceum in London with a slew of old favourites and select single cuts. By the mid-seventies the man's status was hardly stuck in the 'respected but largely unknown' bin since he'd established a decent fan base in France, Holland and Germany in particular, places where his expressive clown's face and matching songbook gave him an outsider's romantic glamour. A trio of albums – Heartburn, In Living Black and White and Beautiful Extremes – saw Coyne building a genuinely astonishing body of work, which is as true to its own art as anything from the pen of a Bob Dylan or a Leonard Cohen. Indeed, Beautiful Extremes, which dealt in places with domestic abuse, is one of those recordings which makes more sense as time elapses. A quite shocking document on release it now sounds like a major statement.
God bless the artist who writes about what he knows. The struggles Coyne had to face as he suffered a nervous breakdown and an ongoing battle with alcohol dependency were used as stimulants rather than cul de sacs. He immersed himself in the theatre, working with Snoo Wilson on the controversial England, England and he rattled cages even louder when he suggested that his album Babble – Songs for Lonely Lovers, was a fictional appraisal of the Moors Murderers. This collaboration with Hamburg born singer Dagmar Krause, became a cause celebre with some all too to be expected vitriol aimed its way by certain tabloid types.
Whatever his demons were Coyne maintained a ferocious work ethic even before he debated putting that record out. There'd been pushing and shoving to make him a bona fide star with Dynamite Daze and Millionaires and Teddy Bears, both discs stuffed with literate accounts of life in a big city, the perils of celebrity and the price of fame. On stage too Kevin's performances became ever more heart on sleeve as he entered open discussion with the audience on his ambivalent attitude to show business coupled with an admission that he still craved their attention.
The 1980s didn't offer a solution but did produce Bursting Bubbles and the double extravaganza Sanity Stomp, which was really two quite separate items. The opening set, where he was backed by post-punk legends The Ruts was about as close he'd ever got to an all out form of power pop. By contrast the second album, with Robert Wyatt's drums fuelling some oddball time signatures, was the other side of the avant-garde mirror. He wasn't standing still, that was for sure.
Having parted company with Virgin thereafter Kevin would move to Germany where a guaranteed crowd awaited. His prolific output maintained for a variety of imprints he now find time to explore his painting and to write about his life at length. Even in his absence from these shores his reputation never really dwindled and the Sign Of The Times CD compilation found him nudging old friends and gaining new fans. He died much too young in Nuremberg in 2004 aged 60 but his work won't disappear. If you know him already you're bound to enjoy renewing old acquaintance. If you've never heard him you're in for an almighty treat.
Of the four or five Kevin Coyne albums that fans routinely describe as his best ever, Marjory Razorblade is by far the best known in the wider world, a consequence not only of the enormous critical splash it made upon its original release in 1973, but also because of the ripples it continued sending out long after the fact. Four years later, Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten singled out the album's "Eastbourne Ladies" as one of his all-time favorite records, while the strumming, thrumming "Marlene" is one of those records whose failure to become a monster hit single continues to baffle and bewilder. (Even Virgin thought so, as they proved when they gave it a second chance in 1977.) Yet "Marlene" is just one highlight amid a storm-tossed sea of the things. A glimpse into Coyne's early influences is provided by a brace of Carter Family covers, a knockabout romp through "Lonesome Valley" and a nearly bluegrass-colored "Heaven in My View," while his eye for distinctly English working-class archetypes is unrelenting. Vacationing Anglos romp through "This Is Spain," a deliciously wry study of the suspicions that beset every Continental tourist during the first years of package holiday-making, while "Jackie and Edna" transplants much the same characters to a dour English beachfront, and turns their discomfort inwards. The clashing of Coyne's characteristically sharp, tuneful poetry with deliberately warped imagery is breathtaking. The title track, a couple of minutes of a cappella poetry sliced out of the live favorite "Suite Marjory Razorblade," makes an excellent bed for "Marlene" to emerge from, and the remainder of side one (on the original vinyl) rattles along with express-train precision, bound for the furious blues boogie of the aforementioned "Eastbourne Ladies," a compulsive examination of the elderly inhabitants of that (and every other) English seaside town. But the ramshackle "Karate King," sounding like it's being sung through a telephone receiver, the scarcely in-tune and barely controlled "Dog Latin," offering an acerbic vision of the decline of Catholic worship, and "Good Boy," a headmasterly recitation of praise that twists almost imperceptibly into viciousness and scorn, jab your ears like thumbtacks embedded in the cushions of a comfortable chair, to ensure that, no matter how much you wind up loving Marjory Razorblade, you will never feel completely at ease with her. Yes, there are four or five Kevin Coyne albums that can be described as his best. But Marjory Razorblade remains the greatest of them all.
Words: Dave Thompson
By the mid-'70s, Kevin Coyne was becoming very much a "cult" artist: one that would be appreciated by a small but significant segment of fans, who would buy new releases not so much because they wanted the particular record, but because they liked the particular artist. This is the kind of collection that is going to be sought mostly by that cult, as it's not one of his stronger efforts, and not likely to be adapted by anyone who hasn't previously been exposed to Coyne. The arrangements are more conventional than most of his previous work (a pre-Police Andy Summers handles guitar), and much of the results are routine. Not lifeless, though; anything sung by Coyne will have roughness around the edges (and his voice here sometimes sounds not just raw, but downright worn). And songs about folks who carry guns, knives, and smash the faces of their wives (in "Turpentine") are not your usual rock fare. The words are unconventional, but the settings are average in a mid-'70s way, which dilutes the lyrics' impact, and makes this an unmemorable effort on the whole.
Words: Richie Unterberger
When it picked up the Sex Pistols' contract from A&M Records and released the landmark Never Mind the Bollocks, Virgin Records simultaneously cemented a new reputation as the punk and post-punk label, a standing it would maintain for the next several years, and casually destroyed the careers of most of the progressive rockers that had made Virgin the major presence it was. This is the subtext of Kevin Coyne's first post-punk album, 1978's Dynamite Daze. Although the title track, which looks approvingly upon the musical sea change, sounds a bit like bandwagon-jumping, the new generation of rockers seems to have revitalized Coyne's songwriting; he hasn't sounded this engaged since 1973's career high point, Marjory Razorblade. The scrabbling acoustic rhythm guitars of "Brothers of Mine" goose both singer and song into a more manic feel than is usual for Coyne, and the gripping "Lunatic" recalls the harrowing case studies of mental illness that populate Coyne's earlier albums, in a more atmospheric musical setting that recalls Peter Gabriel's first couple of solo albums. The highest point is the seething, sarcastically disco-tinged "I Really Live Round Here (False Friends)," one of Coyne's most direct and accessible songs. Although the punk revolution had foolishly tossed Kevin Coyne out with his progressive rock brethren, Dynamite Daze proves that he had more in common with his spiky-haired successors than they might have cared to admit.
Words: Stewart Mason
At times it sounds like Coyne, or other forces, are attempting to make his music more commercial here, with the full, generic mid-'70s arrangements and occasional horns. That's a proposition as fruitless as selling snow to the Eskimos. Coyne is never going to be a mainstream artist; it seems more sensible to let him rip and be eccentric, playing in acoustic, stripped-down, bluesy contexts. Fortunately, that's what he does on about half the album, sounding his borderline lunatic self on "Don't Delude Me," and opting for an eerie, cryptic mood on "Blame It on the Night," and "Witch," with its flamenco guitars and undercurrent of suspicious paranoia. How not to gain commercial airplay, lesson 14: write lyrics such as "I cannot stand her friends anymore, I will wipe them across the floor" (from "Witch").
Words: Richie Unterberger
Recorded live during 1976, as Kevin Coyne toured to promote his Heartburn album, In Living Black & White is a superlative souvenir of one of Britain's most idiosyncratic singer/songwriters at the peak of his abilities. In the three years that had elapsed since the critical breakthrough of Marjory Razorblade, Coyne's roughshod take on anguished blues-flavored art rock had developed a tautness akin to listening with a cheese wire wrapped around your eardrums, with the fine edge of the concert experience tightening the noose even further. The result, while able to deliver only one half of the full experience (the dyspeptic visuals are necessarily absent), ranks among the most exciting live albums of the age. Four sides of vinyl round up a well-chosen skim through all three of Coyne's albums since the epochal Marjory Razorblade, with that album's brutally churning "Eastbourne Ladies" the first of innumerable highlights encountered as the album wears on -- it emerges out of a superbly slovenly "Old Man River" that, like "Knocking on Heaven's Door" later in the cycle, illustrates just how fine an interpretive singer Coyne was when he put his mind to it (cover versions are at a premium in his repertoire, but when he does tackle one, it is his forever). Further pivotal moments include electrifying renditions of "Talking to No One," "Turpentine," and "Mummy," while the closing salvo of "Big White Bird" and "America," both from Heartburn, is simply breathless, wrapping up the album on a knife edge that leaves you wishing only that there were more to come. In the event, it would be another decade before Coyne's next live album, the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Rough -- Live. And that was a decade too long.
Words: Dave Thompson
Kevin Coyne's seventh studio solo album, and his second in less than a year (following the itchy Dynamite Daze) was very much recorded in the shadow of recent developments in the new wave field. Heavily atmospheric but brutally sparse, it contains some of Coyne's most discomforting latter-day work, beginning with the brief ambience-and-chant rail of the opening "People," which bleeds directly into "Having a Party"; truly one of the most caustic numbers in his entire catalog. A savage indictment of the music industry (the album's title is lifted from its lyric), "Having a Party" places our hero at a record company soiree, discussing his future career with the label bigwigs, and finding himself backed into such a corner that, when asked which of the myriad gold discs on the wall is his, "I had to confess I hadn't got one...." (As an intriguing aside, live recordings of the song from the following year find it taking on even greater weight, as Coyne inserts the recent death of one of his Virgin Records labelmates into the lyric -- "you have to be rough and tough and tough and rough if you want to be a pop star -- like Sid Vicious"). Such bleakness is, of course, readily dispelled as the album moves on. "I'll Go Too" (simultaneously issued as a 45) packs a breezy arrangement and as compelling a chorus as any previous Coyne classic, while "Pretty Park" has a lascivious snarl and a barrelhouse boom that echoes the mighty "Eastbourne Ladies." Elsewhere, the so-tender "Marigold," the bombastic "Let Me Be With You," and the heartbreaking "Wendy's Dream" are all vital additions to the Coyne repertoire, and though it's true that Side One of the album is considerably stronger than Side Two, still Millionaires & Teddy Bears rates high in any poll of Coyne's finest records.
Words: Dave Thompson
Uneasy listening for the psychotic set -- if the often splintered music doesn't put you off, the tortured, lonely lyrics may, and if that doesn't do it, Coyne's hurt, angry, forceful vocals ought to do the trick. Coyne's songs come out of his experience working with psychiatric patients, people living on the edge -- one of the songs in this compilation, "Witch," provides quite a graphic view of his history, with the accompanying wordless vocal turning into helpless shrieking as the main vocal sneers and snaps through a narrative that becomes gradually more psychotic as it goes on. Coyne, alas, is both brilliant and painful, an artist who is difficult to take in anything but small doses. This compilation touches on the highlights of the records Coyne made for Virgin and should serve as an excellent introduction to his work.
Words: Steven McDonald
2010 four CD box set from one of the most heralded British singer/songwriters of the Rock era. I Want My Crown is littered with rarities and unreleased material: b-sides, outtakes, live performances and BBC session tracks, combining to make this the definitive examination of Kevin Coyne s career on Virgin during the '70s. Compiled by Coyne s sons, Eugene and Robert Coyne and featuring quotes from their father, friends and fellow musicians, this box set chronicles a vital period in Kevin Coyne s career, one of the most fascinating and forthright artists of his time. Features selections from all Coyne s Virgin albums, including two Benelux only collections, plus singles like 'Lorna'/'Let s Have A Party', presented for the first time on CD, unreleased sessions, a BBC In Concert from 1974, the Hyde Park show from the same year, unreleased performances for Rockpalast in Cologne, and more.
A match made in heaven: Coyne singing a series of songs about the successes and failures of communication between lovers with the female perspective provided by German chanteuse (ex-Henry Cow/Slapp Happy/Art Bears) Dagmar Krause. Rather than sing duets, Coyne and Krause trade songs in a series of statements and responses. Occasionally the songwriting is thin, but the powerful singing and intense emotions more than make up for any lapses. This is a richly rewarding and frequently compelling record about love, communication and commitment that is never sanctimonious, obvious or cloying. Difficult to find (damn near impossible), but well worth the effort.
Words: John Dougan