Sniff ‘N’ The Tears – Driver’s Seat

14th November 2022 · 1970s, 1978, Music

Sometimes a song just hits you right there, regardless of genre or anything else. In 1978 this one-hit wonder got me right from that opening acoustic guitar.

The languid strumming instantly reminds me of the opening to another song that annoyingly won’t come to mind (So if anyone knows, please put me out of my misery).

Then that electric guitar riff. So simple: once heard you never forget it. The production is perfect too, with that big drum, and the funny little keyboard run that comes in at just the right time.

Paul Roberts’ languorous vocals, describing a break-up, call to mind Al Stewart, whose Year Of The Cat had been a big favourite of mine a year or two earlier. Finally, there’s the shortest guitar solo you’ll ever hear by Mick Dyche – literally four or five seconds – and a slightly longer keyboard one by Keith Miller.

Everything in its right place, as Radiohead would say.

I expected Driver’s Seat to be a massive hit and it was: everywhere except here in the UK. I never understood why… until now.

Just days after they appeared on Top of the Pops (as a last-minute replacement for Gang of Four), EMI’s record pressing plant went on strike. As a result no one could buy the single for the several weeks and by the time copies reached the shops everyone had moved on, and they missed their moment.

Lead singer Roberts had written the song back in 1973 and recorded a demo for a French label with his band Moon. After breaking the band up to become a painter – the cover of their album Fickle Heart is one of his Vettriano-like canvases – they reunited as Sniff ‘n’ the Tears.

Shopping their old demo around, they finally found a deal with London indie label Chiswick, an association that gave them a loose affinity with the emerging New Wave, despite their soft-rock sound having nothing in common with punk.

Driver’s Seat reached No.15 in America in the summer of 1979 and has since had a couple of revivals, firstly in an ad for Nissan Micra cars in 1991 and then a Dutch ad for Pioneer stereos (taking the single to No.1 in the Netherlands).

In 1998 film maker Paul Thomas Anderson gave it a new life – and a new audience – when it soundtracked a key scene in his Seventies-era picture Boogie Nights.

As for the hyperactive backing singer here, Noel McKenna’s determination to get noticed paid off when he got a gig as lead singer of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in the 1990s and Noughties.