Life at 33 1/3: The Holton/Steel-experiment

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Gary Holton And Casino Steel, Gary Holton & Casino Steel (Polydor)

Casino Steel left Trondheim (in Norway) for London in the early 70’s, and formed glampunk legends Hollywood Brats with Andrew Matheson.  They broke up in 1974 as record companies had no faith in them.  Steel then eventually drifted into new wave band The Boys after a short stint with London SS.  He had befriended actor and musician Gary Holton of Heavy Metal Kids fame back in ‘74, and in 1980 the two of them recorded a version of the Kenny Rogers-chestnut “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town”, first released as a Holton solo-single.  It didn’t get much airplay however as they had rewritten the key lines of the lyrics, shifting the song’s focus from the Vietnam War to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The two of them decided to test the Norwegian market, building an act and an album on “Ruby”.  At first they called themselves Lip Service (recording “Goodnight Irene” under that name), but eventually settled for Gary Holton & Casino Steel.

Thanks to a video shown on Norwegian TV, they struck gold immediately, hitting #1 with both the album and the “Ruby”-single (now credited Gary Holton & Casino Steel).

They named their musical style “Rig-rock”, cowboy-rock for the North Sea oil rig workers.  Don’t know if those guys took the album to heart, but it sure hit the mainland.  Suddenly Holton/Steel were stars, especially among young girls.

The album was recorded over a long period of time, and this explains the lack of a coherent sound.  Actually the rig-rock concept became much sharper on Steel’s first solo-album “Steel Works” (1983).  “Gary Holton And Casino Steel” sifts through styles, moving from  Mott The Hoople’ish ballads like “Gary’s Song” through blasting rockers like “Runaway” (one of the weakest versions I’ve ever heard of this Del Shannon chestnut) to the real rig-rock where the eccentric mix of dirty Rolling Stones-riffing, wall of sound glam and tearful George Jones lap steel mysteriously succeeds.  This mix is undoubtedly what made the album a chart topper, and well deserved.

Gary Holton’s raucous voice is perfect for the material, he’s having a ball, he’s an actor and this is a play.  Camp and tongue-in-cheek, a rock’n’roll-celebration high on electric guitars, but with a dark undertow of vulnerable emotions.  Holton once told me his favourite song was The Rolling Stones’ “Fool To Cry”.  It makes sense.

The irresistible production is big and mighty, created in Nidaros Studios in Trondheim by sound wizard Björn Nessjö.  My favourite tracks are “Ruby”, “Thinking Of You”, “Goodnight Irene” and the fine country ballad “Almost persuaded”.

It is an uneven album, though, short on playing time, and not exactly chock-full of classics, some tracks are downright ordinary.  Come to think of it, they could have thought up something more adventurous and less sugary when they had the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra at their disposal.

But all in all this was a remarkable start for a concept that would last for four albums (involving some of Norway’s most respected rock musicians as well as partners in crime from The Boys – Geir Waade and Matt Dangerfield to name but two), and might have taken them even further if Gary Holton, suffering from poor health and drug abuse, hadn’t left us in October 1985.  At the time the British adored him for his part in the popular TV comedy “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet”.  They had no idea he was a huge rock’n’roll star in Norway.

This album is part of his legacy and 35 years on it still sounds like a good plan.  Investigate.  It shouldn’t be too hard to find as it sold truckloads in Norway.  There’s some nice CD-compilations out there too.

Released: November 1981

Produced by: Björn Nessjö

Contents: I’ll Find It Where I Can/Gary’s Song/Runaway/Thinking of You/Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town)/Goodnight, Irene/Almost Presuaded/B-17/Good OI’ Gary/Jimmy Brown.