published: 20 /
In his regular 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column, Ben Howarth pays tribute to durable and underrated acoustic duo, Ezio, who shot briefly to notoriety when then Shadow Prime Minister Tony Blair nominated one of their songs on 'Desert Island Discs'
All political careers end in failure’ is one of those sayings that started out as a truism, before becoming a cliché, but eventually turned out to just simply be true. The nicest thing you can do, if you’re the politician in question, is to take as few people as possible down with you.
Tony Blair may have won three general elections, but he will be remembered chiefly as a failure. Even those who agreed with his invasion of Iraq in principle largely agree that its execution was cack-handed. Gordon Brown, his successor, may have had failings of his own, but the respect he had carefully built up as a successful Chancellor had evaporated by the time he removed next door. His career ended in a failure that was even more decisive than Blair’s.
More sympathy, however, should be felt for the innocent ‘obscure acoustic duo’ who were caught up in the doomed Blair story. Ezio, whose two main members are songwriter and singer Ezio Lunedei and guitarist Booga, have now been playing together for more than sixteen years. Like many talented groups, they have soldiered gamely on despite fate never having put them in the ‘right place at the right time’ that fame demands.
Their only serious brush with anything approaching came in 1996, when they played a significant role in Britain’s political history. Tony Blair was a year away from becoming Prime Minister, and he was about to fundamentally change the character of that office, probably for good. Invited onto Radio 4’s 'Desert Island Discs', Blair made history by the first major politician to show that he genuinely liked pop music. Within a few years, the Conservatives would have a leader who was a Smiths fan and Gordon Brown - a man who may possibly own no CDs at all - was forced to pretend to like listening to the Arctic Monkeys when he wakes up in the morning.
Blair’s 'Desert Islands Discs' appearance didn’t just contain the surprise that he liked pop music. He went a step further, and picked a band hardly anyone had heard of. From their debut album, ’Black Boots onn Latin Feet’, Blair plumped for the Ezio track ’Cancel Today’, about an unemployed man pleading with his partner to stay at home with him.
Political commentators at the time speculated on what this could possibly mean. What was Blair trying to prove with his choices? Did an assistant actually pick the tracks for him? Cruelly, they insisted on dismissing Ezio as simply an obscure, unheard-of band - at this point they were in fact signed to a major label and capable of filling rather large venues. Few seem to have considered that Blair, who played in bands himself as a student, had simply journied outside the bounds of the Radio One play-list and liked what he had heard. Even fewer seemed to have bothered to give the band a try for themselves.
Ezio’s brief moment of notoriety hasn’t done their career much good in the long term. Being known as Tony Blair’s favourite band is something they probably want to play down these days. But, in matters pop, if not matters of foreign affairs, Blair’s judgement is actually rather sound.
I first encountered Ezio for myself just over a year ago, when my girlfriend took me to see them play at the Half Moon in Putney. It may just have been the back-room of a pub, but it was one of the better gigs I’d ever seen. I was struck by many things - the duo’s easy charm on stage, the languid melodies, the powerful vocals and the virtuoso guitar solos. But most of all, I was amazed at how the audience weren’t just having a good time, but how they clearly loved this band. A band who, until that time, I’d never even heard of. And when people called out for an old favourite, be it ‘Saxon Street’, ‘The Angel Song’ or ‘Deeper’, it wasn’t just good, it was an out-and-out classic.
A few months later, we went to see them on their home turf in Cambridge, where they are well enough known to pull in a packed house at the comparatively large Junction. Over a triumphant two-hour set, and this time backed by a bassist and drummer, Ezio and Booga played songs from throughout their career and debuted tracks from their first album in over four years, ‘This Is the Day’.
Anyone familiar only with ‘Black Boots on Latin Feet’ will be surprised at the difference found on Ezio’s later work. For one thing, the extended Spanish style guitar solos that were a central feature of that first major-label album have been ditched. Instead, Booga has switched to an electric guitar, and for the most part seems content to play second fiddle to Lunedei’s songs.
The album ranges from sensitive ballads like ‘Supermarkets‘, yearning ballads like ‘Each Time You Cry’ and ‘Can’t Stop Dreaming’ and gentle ditties like ‘A Small Dream’. Its two finest moments will hopefully be parts of the Ezio live set for many years to come. On stage in Cambridge, we were told that the label had rejected the band’s plan to name their album 'Bruce Springsteen' and put a big picture of The Boss on the cover, hoping his fans wouldn’t notice the Ezio logo in the corner. The plan might have been scuppered, but the song written for it remains. A catchy pop-rock song - it doesn’t break any new ground, but is harmless good fun. Better still is 'Bicycle', in which Ezio bestow the virtues of freewheeling drunk on your bicycle - though there are careful not to recommend this to Londoners - while Booga offers a run of effortless guitar licks.
If less thrilling than their earlier work (I do miss those guitar solos), it remains an enjoyable record. One area that has improved over time is the production – with the core due improving their interplay with drums, bass and other instruments. It is probably this improvement that justifies the decision not to ditch the extended fretboard workouts.
Luckily, anyone keen to see Booga’s guitar playing still has the chance when they play live. Having awed a packed house at the Half Moon in Putney during February, the pair were back in London just a few weeks later, playing at the Water Rats in King’s Cross. It was hard not to feel they were too good for such a dingy venue.
Asked recently how he felt when he took the stage in a small, grubby venue, Lunedei said that he tried to tell himself that if he thought he was too good for the situation he found himself in, he needed to prove it.
With a set composed mostly of tracks from the ‘This Is the Day’, Ezio proved that they deserved better. The show was an early one (starting at 7, ending at 8) and had been booked only because Central London journalists had refused to make the punishing trip on the circle line to Putney. It ‘isn’t in London’, apparently. The journos got lucky, as it happens – the Water Rats set was arguably the better of the two. The set ended dramatically, with the pair improvising the extended coda to ‘Saxon Street’ in order to make full use of their allotted time on stage. Enjoying themselves too much, when the clock did turn past eight, they carried on anyway.
Some bands – no matter how good they are – just don’t seem destined for mainstream success. The Bruce Springsteen on the cover-wheeze having been vetoed, the latest cunning plan is to send all their songs to Justin Bieber, a surprise cover by the teenager having recently the source of Ron Sexsmith’s sudden brush with fame after twenty years on the road.
It’s tough on Ezio, but slightly less tough on us. Tickets to the Half Moon and the Water Rats are a bit cheaper than they would be for the O2 or Earl’s Court. You get the stadium show at pub prices, with club intimacy. You even get to have a drink with the band afterwards.
So here’s a worrying thought for the music journalists who thought going to Putney was a bit too much of a trek to see Ezio – if your taste and jusgement is found wanting in comparison with spectacularly unpopular and uncool former Prime Minister Tony Blair, what on earth are you still doing in your jobs?