“Very popular with under-12s and over-35s,” read the slightly sniffy entry for Shakin’ Stevens in the 1985 Smash Hits sticker book. Nestled between the stickers for Billy Idol and Galaxy singer Phil Fearon, the space set aside for poor Shaky scarcely correlated to the success he had enjoyed at that point in the decade. In the era of Gary Numan, Duran Duran and Depeche Mode, history uncomfortably records that the biggest-selling solo artist of the 1980s was a Welsh Elvis impersonator (he had once played “middle-period” Elvis in Jack Good’s West End musical of Presley’s life) and a “card-carrying Communist” to boot. Stevens was also, for a time, achingly hip in the unlikeliest of circles. In the early 70s, John Peel tried (and failed) to sign Shakin’ Stevens and his the Sunsets to his boutique Dandelion label. Before becoming a Sex Pistol, the young John Lydon was a regular at Shaky’s live shows.
All of which is worth dwelling on, because – after a decade spent making rock’n’roll albums for a modest cult following – the dramatic commercial arc covered by the nine remastered albums in this box set seems yet more unlikely. At the time of his 1979 Epic debut Take One!, Shaky wasn’t the only singer seeking to score a hit by dusting down forgotten favourites from pop’s pre-Fabs years. In contrast to the contemporaries like Darts and Showaddywaddy though, Stevens’ almost curatorially serious love of the music seemed, in terms of chart positions, to count against him.
Hit singles were fine if they happened, but his determination to create a version of 1959 that had him in it was the more pressing objective. To this end, using his major label advance to recruit seasoned sessioneers such as Albert Lee and BJ Cole was a smart move. Versions of Sal Mineo’s Little Pigeon and an early Cliff Richard B-side Apron Strings fizz with joyful abandon. Despite yielding no hits, it’s a credit to his perserverance (or more likely, his obstinacy) that Shaky did little different for the album that yielded his breakthrough hit. Speaking to Smash Hits, the singer explained his aversion to covering well-known songs. By unearthing obscure ones, he said, you effectively make them yours.
He was right, of course, and his definitive readings of Rosemary Clooney’s This Ole House and Frankie Vaughan’s Green Door proved it. If you hadn’t heard the originals, you didn’t care how they sounded – and if you had, you would often realised that these versions significantly improved them. Shaky’s Green Door retains the playfulness of Vaughan’s big band version. He sounded no more pissed off by his exclusion from the festivities on the other side of that door than he did by pop’s increasing preoccupation of futurism.
His instincts were right. Synth-pop has dated brilliantly by being of its time; many of these songs have dated well because they so thoroughly sealed themselves off from that time. Whether on the galloping tomcat rock of Nobody or Shaky’s reverb-drenched declamation, “If you want it, you’ll get it from me” on Shooting Gallery, his consistent indifference to every single musical development of the previous two decades is, over the course of entire albums, is no less remarkable than that of La Roux in 2009.
And having barely changed his sound when he wasn’t having hits, there was absolutely no reason to do so when a Shaky single climbing up the 20 would routinely pass the last one on its way down. Hence, on Shaky and Give Me Your Heart Tonight, he seems no less at one with the world than a dumb, drooling Labrador with its head protruding from the window of a speeding car. Though you never got to hear that side of him on Cajun-inflected singles such as Oh Julie and Give Me Your Heart Tonight, he could more than hold his own on the hoarse ivory-hammering ire of Sapphire and I’ll Be Satisfied.
As every pop star who peaked will attest though, the pressure to succeed when success has yet to happen, isn’t half as pernicious as the pressure to maintain a hitmaking run. On A Whole Lot of Shaky (the singer’s 1988 follow-up to 1987’s semi-live stop-gap Let’s Boogie), Jezebel saw Stevens succumb to the guiding hand of post-modern pop boffins The Art of Noise, bulking out the track listing with a scattering of songs he had already recorded and – horror of horrors – the occasional synth (Woman (What Have You Done To Me).
No-one found Shaky ridiculous when he was slogging around the undergraduate circuit with the Sunsets; now students were laughing at him, not least in the pages of Viz Comic, where Billy the Fish’s team Fulchester Rovers signed him and gave him consent to display his silky footballing skills in a special 1950s strip. Desperate to cash in on Shaky’s appearance in the comic, his record company attempted to make him seem in on the joke. The first two singles from 1990’s There Are Only Two Kinds of Music Rock’n’Roll showed Shaky in his cartoon guise, surrounded by Viz regulars such as Fat Slags and Sid the Sexist. A modish production (it was produced by Stock Aitken and Waterman associate Pete Hammond) was designed to update him. Where Shakin’ Stevens was concerned, of course, the very notion was a preposterous one.
For all of that, he remains a deceptively fascinating pop star. As recently as this decade he wanted recognition badly enough to risk humiliation by appearing in (and winning) ITV has-been reality show Hit Me Baby One More Time. And yet, when a viral campaign to get him to play Green Door at his 2008 Glastonbury appearance reached fever pitch, he curtly told journalists that he had “moved on” from that song. Indeed, his ensuing set – heavy on the phrase, “here’s another new one” – depicted a singer reluctant to tally with people’s expectations of him. For a long time, however, he was justified in his arrogance. Now that the under-12s who once loved him are over 35, there’s plenty in The Epic Masters to remind them why.