I was first alerted to Concrete and Clay when then-former Dexys Midnight Runners singer Kevin Rowland had released a version in 1999 on his covers album My Beauty. At the time, the general opinion was that Rowland was suffering some kind of breakdown, on account of the album cover featuring him in saucy drag and make-up. I found this a bit harsh, until I saw him perform at Leeds Festival around that time. He did indeed appear to have gone a bit mad, performing a short set in drag on his own to a karaoke backing. At one point he shoved his mic in-between the legs of a backing singer and sang into her crotch aggressively. Nobody knew where to look, apart from Rowland himself.
However, among the odd song choices, there was this enjoyable bossa nova track, which had been the lead single from the album. Only later did I discover it came from one-hit wonders Unit Four + Two. What was that name all about?
Well. Unit Four formed in 1962. Brian Parker had been the guitarist and songwriter with The Hunters, an instrumental group that once stood in for The Shadows when they were unavailable for Cliff Richard. He left to join Adam Faith’s backing group The Roulettes briefly, but decided he wanted to ditch the instruments and start up a vocal harmony group. First he asked his friend David ‘Buster’ Meikle to join him, then school friends Tommy Moeller and Peter Moules. Moeller became lead singer, and in 1963 they became Unit Four. Parker soon stopped performing with the group due to ill-health and a dislike of live appearances, so his spot was taken by Howard Lubin. He did however remain behind the scenes to co-write all their material with Moeller.
They were starting to get noticed, but the rise of The Beatles made them realise they needed a beefier sound so they decided to expand to a six-piece, recruiting Rod Garwood on bass and Hugh Halliday on drums. They didn’t see the point in having to begin again with a new name so they took the (sort-of) logical decision to become Unit Four + Two. They signed with Decca in 1964 and released their first single, a folk-pop tune called Green Fields. That and follow-up Sorrow and Pain went nowhere. For their next single they tried something different.
As already mentioned, Concrete and Clay was built around a bossa nova rhythm, and so didn’t sound like anything else in the charts in 1965. They added to their sound further when Parker invited ex-bandmates from The Roulettes, guitarist Russ Ballard and drummer Bob Henrit to the recording. This distinctive song featured that infectious beat, an acoustic backing and a memorable chorus professing of undying love. Perhaps not enough to get to number 1 separately, but as a package, it was a decent, well-deserved hit.
As was fast becoming the norm, it was pirate radio that had an important part to play in its success, this time, mainly Wonderful Radio London, and one disc jockey in particular, that would go on to become one of the most important of the decade, and beyond: Kenny Everett.
Concrete and Clay could have perhaps gone on to also enjoy US success, but unfortunately for them, Eddie Rambeau released a version shortly afterwards, which in effect split the vote, and both versions stalled. Decca rush-released an LP, the imaginatively titled 1st Album, and Unit Four + Two found themselves with that eternal problem all one-hit wonders have. They would try soul and even early psychedelia, but listeners wanted more of the sound that made them famous. But that sound was so ‘them’, if they tried to repeat the formula they were accused of peddling ‘more of the same’. They couldn’t win.
In 1967, Meikle, Garwood and Halliday left. As The Roulettes had also split recently, Ballard and Henrit joined as permanent members, meaning Unit Four + Two were now, confusingly, a five-piece. They went in a more ‘rock’ direction at first, then attempted a mror lavish version of psychedelia akin to The Moody Blues, but by 1969, the game was up.
Ballard and Henrit teamed up with Rod Argent from The Zombies to become Argent. Ballard wrote and sang their hit God Gave Rock and Roll to You, later covered by KISS, and Hold Your Head Up High. He left the group in 1974 to pursue a career as a songwriter, and did very well, writing So You Win Again for Hot Chocolate, which became their sole number 1 in 1977. Remember Since You’ve Been Gone by Rainbow? That was him, too.
In 1984 Henrit took over from Mick Avory as drummer in The Kinks, and remained until they split for good in 1996. From the rumours cirulating so far, it would appear it will be Avory back on board if the Davies brothers do decide to reform.
The original members disappeared into obscurity, by and large, although Halliday went on to become a director with English National Opera. Despite his ongoing ill health, Parker lived until 2001 when he died suddenly during a game of tennis.
Written by: Tommy Moeller & Brian Parker
Producer: John L Barker
Weeks at number 1: 1 (8-14 April)