I've been really getting into the Jokers recently, and thought I'd write up something about them. The Jokers were a '60s Euro-instro band from Belgium, with a personal sound that unlike most of their Euro contemporaries didn't really owe much to the Shadows. Their sound was very much based on the virtousity of all four players. These guys could play!! The musicianship was off the charts! But it was always in the service of the song, never to show off. Interestingly enough, their guitar tools of choice were (sunburst) Jazzmasters, both the lead and rhythm guitarist always sporting one each in every video and photo I've seen of them. The lead guitar sound tended to not have a huge amount of echo or reverb on it, unlike many other Euro-instro bands of that era.
The Jokers are much more appreciated in Europe than they are in the US, which of course is to be expected. Their tracks have been covered quite widely, by Fifty Foot Combo from Belgium (who covered three songs by them: Taboo, Spanish Hully Gully, and Addis Abeba), the Looney Tunes from Germany (Taboo), Los Twang! Marvels from Germany (Sabre Dance), and even our own Secret Samurai from the USA (Carioca)! Unfortunately, the Jokers don't seem to have been much of songwriters, instead preferring to put their stamp on many already established tunes, and hunting quite widely for song selections. The interesting thing is that often their versions of these became the truly definitive ones, as evidenced by all the modern surf bands covering the above tracks note-for-note. They also released a LOT, including SIX albums, all between '64 and '66! You can see their entire discography here.
Their recording years were between '63 and '66, and apparently they broke up by '67. But they left an incredible legacy, which fortunately for us has been captured in full on four CDs: The Best of... Vols. 1-4. The CDs are almost impossible to track down now, BUT iTunes to the rescue!! They're all available there for only $9.99 each! Given that each CD has 20+ tracks on it, it's an amazing deal. The sound quality is fantastic, too. Here are the links:
The most frustrating thing is that these comp CDs scrambled the track order, and there's no rhyme or reason to the tracklist at all. But this is where iTunes playlists can come in handy. I put the tracks chronologically in my iPod playlist, and thought I'd write up reviews of the five of their main albums (the sixth one was a Christmas album, and together with some very rare tracks and outtakes, it appears on the Best of, Vol. 3 CD, which I only got recently and haven't had a chance to listen to very much yet).
1964 BEAT GUITARS LP
Football Boogie / Spanish Hully Gully / Black Eyes / You Are Always In My Heart / Moscow Guitar / Ronny Boy / Song of Delilah / Drina March / Carioca / Chattanooga Choo Choo / Gloria In Excelsis Deo / Sabre Dance / Tabou / Hully Gully-Stop!
This seems to be primarily a collection of their first 5-6 singles, As & Bs, plus a few extra tracks. Quite a bit of exotica stuff on here, in particular Tabou, Song of Delilah, Carioca, Black Eyes and Spanish Hully Gully. Each one of these is more amazing than the next, but probably the standout track is Tabou (originally written by Lecuona), which demonstrates a range of sounds on lead guitar, using a Bass VI (I think), a tone pedal, and a bunch of other stuff. As covered by both Fifty Food Combo and the Looney Tunes, and as great as both of those bands are, their versions still don't live up the original. Fifty Foot Combo also covered Spanish Hully Gully note-for-note, and did a great job with it. The Secret Samurai do a fantastic version of Carioca, too, and come really close to the original's genius.
There's a lot more on the album than the exotica-tinged stuff, of course! The simply astounding Sabre Dance shows off the band's chops in a spectacular manner, so much so that Alex Faide of Los Twang! Marvels, one of the greatest surf guitarists of the past decade, found it enough of a challenge to include it on their last album. Then there are the connections to the Shadows: Chattanooga Choo Choo was also done by the Shadows in '64 (and the Shads have the superior version, I think). Who came first? I'm not sure, but the Jokers definitely beat the Shadows with Drina March, an old Serbian song covered by the Shadows in '66 - though also done by the Spotnicks in '63, so the Jokers probably got it from them. Still, I think the Jokers version is the most interesting and most musical of the three.
The album is rounded off by several gorgeous ballads in more of a Shadows style (Danny Boy, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, You Are Always in My Heart - on all of them the lead guitarist using the beautiful DeArmond 610 Volume/Tone pedal); a bit of cheese in Hully Gully Stop, with an annoying girl voices overdub; a Shadoogie-style Football Boogie with cheesy football crowd overdubs, which doesn't work all that well; and finally two other standouts: the tough, uptempo Moscow Guitar, and a phenomenal version of Black Eyes that must have been influenced by Indo Rock bands from the neighboring Holland. It starts off midtempo, but soons goes into a frenzy of notes that is just stunning.
All in all, a truly classic album! No wonder so many bands have covered tracks from it! All surf music and Euro-instro fans should be familiar with this album.
1965 THE JOKERS GO DISCOTHEQUE! LP
Umoresco / Diamond Strings / Perdido / Gemini Boogie / Instant Coffee / Harry Lime Theme / Caravan (#2) / Memphis Tennessee / Addis-Abeba / Down By The Riverside / One Way Ticket / Greyhound Express
On their second LP the Jokers changed their sound considerably, really toughening it up and creating a very distinctive style that I've not heard with any other instro band. They clearly took the "Go Discotheque!" theme very seriously, as this album is all about fast tracks that are very danceable. They still manage to weave an exotica thread through many of the tracks, though. Probably the most noticeable thing about this album is that drums and bass are brought way forward, both in the mix and the arrangements. The drummer and bassist seriously GROOVE on this album - damn, it gives me the chills each time! And if you want to hear truly virtouso bass playing in the '60s rock instro setting, then just listen to this album. Wow. Please let me repeat: WOW. Probably the two high points of the album are the simply mind-blowing fast version of Caravan that's completely unique and their own, and Instant Coffee, another fast track with a very similar feel as Caravan, an excellent melody and some phenomenal guitar and bass playing. Those two tracks sound like they were recorded at the same session, and the band must have been just ON that day. They give this same 'beat' makeover to Dvorak's Umoresco (Humoresque), which works fantastically well, and Duke Ellington's Perdido, with again some insane bass and guitar playing. They mix things up a bit by using an acoustic guitar for lead on Memphis, the Harry Lime Theme (also known as the Third Man Theme), and the old gospel tune Down by the Riverside, and quite surprisingly all three work really well - especially the Third Man Theme, which is sweet. What doesn't work so well is another boogie number, Gemini Boogie - this time instead of football (soccer) chanting, they have echoey, spacey guitar effects overdubbed on top of a fairly generic boogie riff. Addis Abeba (named after the capital city of Ethiopia) is a bluesier track with a string-bending main riff, and was also covered by Fifty Foot Combo on their amazing Evil A Go-Go album. The album ends with full-on jazz track Greyhound Express, where all the musicians have a chance to show what they're made of, and it's pretty mind-blowing. Have I mentioned these guys can play??? Holy s#!+!!!
It's hard to pick a favorite between the first two Jokers albums. The debut is a very diverse affair, while Go Discotheque! is a unified album. One thing that you could say as a critique of it is that since every song (except for the final jazz track) utilized exactly the same beat, the straight dance beat, and they're all about the same tempo (not a single ballad), it may get a bit monotonous. But I personally don't feel like that at all. I think it shows a band at the top of its powers, with utter confidence in their musicianship and their ability to get the butt shaking! They're two very different albums, but both copletely brilliant.
1966 THE JOKERS PLAY ALL TIME HITS! LP
Rock Around The Clock / Old Folks At Home / Summertime / Skokiaan / Misirlou / Annie Laurie / Man of Mystery / When The Saints / 12th. Street Rag / Apache / My Bonnie / My Blue Heaven / Home On The Range
After two amazing albums, the Jokers lose the plot. This frankly is a really dull album, full of uninspired track choices, played in a very non-distinct manner. The band sound bored and maybe a bit tired, though they still play well - with their chops, I don't think they could ever NOT play well! But c'mon, instrumental covers of Rock Around the Clock, My Bonnie, My Blue Heaven, Old Folks at Home, Home on the Range, and When the Saints? Yep, it's pretty much as dull as you would expect, not helped by the fact that the lead guitar is almost completely dry on all the tracks, no echo and very little reverb. There are a few redeeming moments, though. Misirlou sports a unique arrangement (that has no connection to DD's version) that works surprisingly well. Rather than aggressive and powerful, it sounds mysterious, despite it still being uptempo. They play Apache and Man of Mystery much slower, with a 12-string acoustic playing the lead, and it gives both tracks a very interesting and different feel. Neither comes close to the Shads' genius originals, but they're good reinterpretations. Summertime gets a bluesy treatment with some nimble lead guitar playing and the whole thing works OK. Annie Laurie is a pretty ballad, and they sound highly energetic on 12th Street Rag, clearly having fun and sounding like the Shadows on some of their material from that same era.
Overall, a less than inspiring album, and mostly a miss. Next!
1966 THE JOKERS GO LATIN! LP
Brasil / Besame Mucho / El Choclo (#2) / Magic Is The Moonlight / Frenesi / Adios Muchachos / Hawaiian War Chant / Perfidia / La Cucaracha / Tico Tico / Maria Elena / La Golondrina / El Cumbanchero
OK, this is much more like it again! The band completely returns to form with another inspiring album, their fourth in total (not counting the Christmas album from '65), and second of three in 1966 alone! Interesting that a Belgian band would find the Latin sounds and beats so attractive, and that it would do such a great job with them! Maybe inspired by the Shadows again? Anyway, there are too many highlights to list on this one - almost every track is a gem. The band sounds reinvegorated and energetic, and explores a wide variety of moods and sounds, adding the organ into their sound on several tracks. The interpretations of all the songs are creative and interesting, and full of rhythm (aided by plentiful percussion overdubs on most tracks). Though, I'm not sure how Hawaiian War Chant became a 'Latin' track, but close enough, I guess. El Choclo is a beautiful midtempo melody that I wasn't familiar with before, but it's probably one of the best on here. Magic Is the Moonlight is an amazingly gorgeous ballad with a 12-string acoustic on lead and a cheesy (in a good way) organ backing, complemented by bongos and other percussion. Too cool. Frenesi seems to be modeled a bit on the Shadows' version of Perfidia, and works really well. There's another Shadows connection in the form of a beautiful song Adios Muchachas, recorded by the Shads in '64 for their own Latin EP. The Jokers play a pretty straight version of it (with a slightly different rhythm), and do a fantastic job with it. Anyway, it's all great. Another top-notch album by the Fabulous Jokers!
1966 NEW SOUND LP
Walk Don't Run / Batman Theme / Nashville Turnpike / Our Man Flint / Napoleon Solo / Saturnus / Baia / Sampan / The Kilt / Erica (In Lerida) / Auld Lang Syne / Adeste Fidelis
The final Jokers album is (mostly) another collection of singles, As & Bs, and shows the band that was very much trying to expand their sound and explore new territory. Unfortunately, the experimentation, while usually very interesting, was not all that successful, and I'd have to say that, though better than "The Jokers Play All Time Hits" album, it's not all that good.
The band introduced all sorts of instruments and textures. Baia (not sure who originally did it, but the Bambi Molesters covered it) sports some HEAVY fuzz and vibes, plus a bunch of percussion and very much a psychadelic-lounge feel and sound. The Kilt starts and ends with some bagpipes - but in a different key from the rest of the song, which makes it clash pretty badly. The song is a mishmash of disparate riffs that really sound thrown together and just don't work. And none of it sounds very Scottish, either. Erica shows the band trying to outdo Herb Alpert with a trumpet lead - and the result is super-cheesy! And NOT in a good way! (Though at least the rhythm backing has the patented Jokers sound, which almost saves it - almost but not quite.) They give Walk, Don't Run a unique arrangement, speeding it way up and introducing some fuzz and multiple guitar overdubs. Does it work? Well, not really, but it's OK, it's not horrible. Nashville Turnpike is a country-ish 12-bar jam, with a some country-approved rolling pull-offs for the main riff, but not much more than that. Probably the worst is the Batman Theme, which is just too much for my taste. Like some lounge guys on LSD, they throw the kitchen sink into the proceedings, fuzz, organ, a girl choir, and I just can't bear to listen to it! Auld Lange Syne sports an acoustic lead, but it's certainly a leftover from the Christmas sessions, as the sound is very much of '64-'65 and it doesn't really fit on this album.
What does work on the album is the molasses-slow version of Our Man Flint with some timpani drums - very dramatic, and just too cool. Sampan is a beautiful ballad, as is Napoleon Solo, which starts with a very serious and creepy "I am Napoleon Solo", giving the track a mysterious quality. Finally, Saturnus also heavily flirts with mid-'60s lounge, with a girl-choir and an organ, but at least the lead guitar is cool enough to mostly save the track.
Overall, "New Sound" is clearly the sound of a band in crisis, looking to break out of the Euro-instro box and find a more contemporary sound in the fast-changing world of the mid-'60s, especially as '66 was ending and the watershed year of '67 was about to begin. A real shame they failed, they were truly remarkable. Probably their main weakness was the inability to write their own material, which was simply not acceptable in the post-Beatles world.
Anyway, I hope if you've made it all the way to the end of this review that you at least found this intro to the world of the Jokers interesting! Now, do yourselves a favor and download those four Best-of CDs from iTunes - and dig in!!!—
Last edited: Feb 16, 2012 12:27:48