(Pictured: the Rubettes—John Richardson, Tony Thorpe, Mick Clarke, and Alan Williams—in 1976.)
Over the years, we have occasionally mentioned the Rubettes, who, in the middle of the glam-rock era, were one of the most popular groups in Britain. The awesomely cheesy and insanely great “Sugar Baby Love” was a #1 single in the UK in May 1974, followed by “Tonight,” “Juke Box Jive,” “I Can Do It,” and “Foe-Dee-Oh-Dee,” all of which made the UK Top 20 during the next year-and-a-half. Only “Sugar Baby Love” charted in the States, and only for a moment, spending two weeks in the Billboard Top 40 during September 1974, reaching #37.
The Rubettes started as a creation of producer Wayne Bickerton, who in 1973 assembled a bunch of studio cats to make a demo of some songs he had written with Tony Waddington, a childhood friend. (Bickerton and Waddington had also been bandmates of erstwhile Beatle Pete Best in the mid 60s.) Polydor Records liked the sound of them and wanted to release one as a single, but told Bickerton he would need to have an actual band to promote the record on TV and on the road. The lead singer on the demos was under contract to another label, so he couldn’t join, but three of the other studio musicians were willing; they rounded up three of their mates, and the Rubettes were launched, their name intended to conjure up the sound of 50s American rock ‘n’ roll.
After a couple of years, the band shrunk to five members, and eventually four. Although the hits began to thin out at the end of 1975, the Rubettes remained a popular concert draw, especially in France, into the early 80s. (Rubette Alan Williams told a reporter in 2015 that Paul McCartney told him of sitting down with a French interviewer whose first two questions were, “Are you Paul McCartney?” and “Do you know the Rubettes?”)
In 1976, the newly four-piece Rubettes decided to change their sound, as Williams says “the glam thing” was mostly at the behest of Bickerton and Waddington. The single “Under One Roof” was intended to be different—not only its sound but its subject matter. “Under One Roof” is the story of a neglected teenage boy who runs away from home, is taken in by a man, and falls in love with him, only to be murdered by his own father.
“Under One Roof” ran up against resistance almost immediately. The BBC pop-music station wouldn’t play it because of its subject matter, which Williams and his bandmates found frustrating because the same station didn’t blink at Rod Stewart’s similarly themed “The Killing of Georgie.” Rubette John Richardson remembered that the band was booked to play their new single on Top of the Pops, only to have the billing canceled when producers got wind of the song’s theme. While some singles managed to climb high on the charts without BBC exposure, “Under One Roof” wasn’t one of them. It stalled at #40 late in 1976.
My laptop music stash includes a Rubettes compilation, which I own entirely because I dug “Sugar Baby Love” the handful of times I heard it over the years. One recent afternoon, “Under One Roof” came up on shuffle, and it cut through the clutter of the day like few records have lately. It’s a compelling story with a beautiful melody, sensitively sung. As is usually the case with Rubettes records, it’s extremely well made. If you can listen to the end without feeling a surge of emotion, I don’t know what to say to you.
“Under One Roof” is worth hearing 40 years later not just as a historical curiosity. For the last few years, we have bent the arc of history toward justice, with gays and lesbians no longer singled out for discrimination—but we are governed now by bigots eager to return us to more backward times. “Under One Roof” is a reminder of just how much ignorance and cruelty can cost.