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Slade “Play It Loud”

No one can blame you if you dismiss Slade’s Play It Loud out of hand. After all, Slade was the original hair metal band, launching a thousand ill-begotten covers, their originals just as bombastic, screeching and spelling-challenged. Yet, the Slade catalogue is full of buried treasures; nearly every one of the band’s 70s albums contains at least one song worth the price of admission, from “Gudbye to Jane” to “How Does It Feel,” and in the case of Play It Loud, an entire album’s worth of great songs.

Released in 1970, Play It Loud is the band’s second proper album, and the first released under the name Slade; one previous album had been released under the name Ambrose Slade, yet another as the N’ Betweens. While the two previous albums had relied heavily upon covers and songs by outside writers, Play It Loud was composed almost completely by drummer Don Powell, bassist Jim Lea, and singer Noddy Holder. It’s Slade before they were all crazee, before the platform boots and shiny spacesuits, more early Deep Purple than Gary Glitter.

The name Play It Loud may be a sad predictor of the type of albums the band would release later on, but it’s apt nonetheless. You can’t help but want to play this one loud; on an iPod or tinny computer speakers, it’s impossible to appreciate the wallop Slade packs.  It’s rough, garage-y and artless – like a collection of the best songs culled from Slade’s later albums and B-sides.

The best tracks on the album are those written by some combination of Powell, Lea and Holder. The rollicking opener “Raven,” the Black Sabbath-esque “See Us Here” and solid rockers “I Remember” and “One Way Hotel” are Slade with more grit than glitz, but the unexpected tenderness of “Dapple Rose” and the bluesy “Pouk Hill” show surprising range and depth. A standout is the album closer “Sweet Box,” which rolls as much as rocks, showing Slade’s nascent talent for a great groove.

A few covers pop up, too, such as the almost-psychedelic version of  Mann-Weil’s “The Shape of Things to Come,” and Neil Innes’ “Angelina,” a boozy bar-room blues.

Both “The Shape of Things to Come” and band original “Know Who You Are” were released as singles, with “The Shape of Things to Come” getting the Top of the Pops treatment. Neither single went anywhere; despite being aligned with producer/manager/ex-Animal Chas Chandler, Slade seemed destined for obscurity. However, a string of singles – including “Get Down,” “Look Wot You Done,” and “Coz I Love You” – that combined the band’s hard-rocking sound with glammy, slick production and hideously bad grammar soon shot the band to stardom. Not surprisingly, from 1971 on, the band would become primarily a singles outfit, with most later albums built around a single already on the charts, and the straight-ahead, correctly-spelled rock of Play It Loud relegated to b-sides and album tracks. More’s the pity.

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“Sweet Box”

:) Original | 1970 | Polydor | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2006 | Salvo | 2fer | buy ]

Tranquility (S/T)

If you ever wondered what the love child of the Bee Gees and Crosby, Stills and Nash would sound like, wonder no more – the pointy-headed creature would sound like Tranquility.

The story of short-lived career of Tranquility is a difficult one to track; now largely forgotten, the band has neither a biography at AllMusic or a Wikipedia page. A fairly short history of the band’s 1971-1974 duration can be found on a page dedicated to Vanity Fare, but aside from that, little exists on the Internet about Tranquility.

The dichotomy of a band that references the Bee Gees and CSN in equal measure is not surprising, considering the band’s origins. According to the Vanity Fare page:

“The band was formed in 1971 by Ashley Kozak, formerly Donovan’s manager, and built around the song writing abilities of Terry Shaddick. Kozak had long wished for a “…gentle tranquil band that could create it own hybrid of pop, rock and English folk music” (CBS Inner Sleeve Issue III, 1973), and in Shaddick, he saw the focal point for creation of just such a band.”

From the meager info provided by AllMusic, it appears that Shaddick had a hand in all of the songs featured on Tranquility, and satisfied the intent of Kozak’s wishes, if not the spirit; Shaddick and company rarely hybridize pop, rock and English folk, but hit each of the points individually, song-by-song.

The best songs on Tranquility lean more toward folk; album opener “Try Again” is all innocuous confessional lyrics married to acoustic guitars and tight harmonies. Likewise, “Look at the Time, It’s Late” mimics the best of the Bee Gees’ late-60s-early 70s pop. Just as many times, the album aims for CSN or the Bee Gees and misses; “Lady of the Lake,” “Ride Upon the Sun,” and “Walk Along the Road” are pleasant but forgettable.

“Oyster Catcher” and “Black Current Betty” are almost jarringly out-of-place on an album full of CSN-lite offerings. Both songs recall 1967-68, when, inspired by Sgt. Pepper, every British album had to include a few music hall-type numbers full of twee Angliophilia. Of the two songs, “Black Current Betty” (which I’m almost certain should be “Black Currant Betty,” and the writer on the Vanity Fare page agrees) is the most listenable, even if “Penny Lane,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or even “Hello Hello” by Sopwith Camel got there first and more memorably.

Tranquility is hardly a buried classic, even if the Vanity Fare page claims that  the band “blew more than one big-name U.S. band off the stage.” All this begs the question: are some bands/albums better lost to history?

In the case of Tranquility’s 1972 self-titled debut, that depends on your tolerance for an album that veers wildly between introspective singer-songwriter offerings featuring CSN-type harmonies and English pop that would have sounded at home on Chad & Jeremy’s Of Cabbages and Kings.

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“Try Again”

:) Original | 1972 | Epic | search ebay ]
:) Reissue | 2004 | Rock & Groove | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

The Freak Scene “Psychedelic Psoul”

The story of pop music in the 1960s is littered with “bands” that were never truly bands, but were, rather, the creation of record companies and record producers anxious to cash in on prevailing trends. This, too, is the story of The Freak Scene.

The Freak Scene was the creation of Rusty Evans, an ostensible folksinger who’d gotten his start recording rockabilly for Brunswick Records. The Kasentez-Katz of psych-pop, Evans was responsible for several albums by “bands” that were, in actuality, Evans and a group of studio musicians.  The Freak Scene was the second of Evans’ psych-pop groups, following on the heels of The Deep, and featuring many of the same musicians who’d played on the The Deep’s sole album.

Like The Deep, The Freak Scene was credited with one album before Evans lost interest. Psychedelic Psoul, the lone contribution by The Freak Scene, is a fascinating late-60s curio, made up of songs interspersed with spoken word vignettes that address all the hot-button issues of the time – the Vietnam War, civil rights, the plight of hippies. The result is as much art-rock as psych-pop.

Not surprisingly, the spoken word vignettes have not aged well, but several of the songs on Psychedelic Psoul have lasting appeal. “A Million Grains of Sand,” “Rose of Smiling Faces” and “My Rainbow Life”’ bear heavily the Indian influence that dominated the music of the Summer of Love, with their mystical lyrics and swirling strings; however, “My Rainbow Life” suffers from banal lyrics that make it sound more like a soundtrack entry on an acid exploitation flick than a real song. “Behind the Mind,” “The Center of My Soul” and “Mind Bender” bear a striking resemblance to garage-psych on the level of the Electric Prunes (another pre-fab band) or the Strawberry Alarm Clock.

By far the best offering on Psychedelic Psoul is “The Subway Ride Through Inner Space,” which somehow manages to mash-up the stream-of-conscious lyrical quality of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and any of George Harrison’s sitar-heavy Beatles tracks, all on top of a loping, hypnotic rhythm.

Evans abandoned The Freak Scene after Psychedelic Psoul. Evans worked in A&R for a time, establishing Eastern Productions, which signed both Third Bardo and The Facts of Life, and producing the Nervous Breakdown for Take Six.

Although The Freak Scene was short-lived, Evans wasn’t quite finished with the band’s output; when he re-emerged as a recording artist in 1969 under his given name, Marcus, he recycled “A Million Grains of Sand” as “Grains of Sand,” slowing the tempo, simplifying the instrumentation, and generally going for a more seductive vibe.

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“The Subway Ride Through Innerspace”

mp3: Marcus – Grains Of Sand

:D Reissue | 2010 | TBird | buy here ]
:) Original | 1967 | Columbia | search ebay ]

Bobbie Gentry “The Delta Sweete”

With its picture of the gorgeous Bobbie Gentry superimposed in monochrome over a falling down shack, The Delta Sweete promises the peculiarly Southern music that Gentry was known for. The Delta Sweete is Bobbie Gentry’s second album, coming on the heels of the tremendous success of one of the most memorable, if bizarre, hits of the 1960s, “Ode to Billy Joe.”

A loosely-formed concept album of sorts, Delta further explores the vagaries of the Mississippi Delta country  of “Ode to Billy Joe.”  Here, Gentry evokes the county fairs and family reunions that would have been events during Gentry’s girlhood, along with the small, everyday moments that made “Ode to Billy Joe” such a classic.

“Okolona River Bottom Band,” a song about a southern talent show, is a veritable travelogue of the Mississippi Delta area, delivered in the husky voice that’s Gentry’s trademark.  It sounds like something from another time, or at least a lost track from one of the Band’s early albums.

“Reunion” is a child’s experience at that most Southern of traditions, the family reunion, complete with gossip, hair pulling, and a finger stuck in a Coke bottle.

Songs like “Penduli Pendulum,” “Courtyard,” and “Jessye’ Lizabeth” don’t lyrically reference the Delta country, but are musically evocative of the South,  from the dog days rhythm of “Penduli Pendulum” and the folk-song like structure of “Courtyard” and “Jessye’ Lizabeth.”

“Sermon,” “Louisiana Man,” and “Tobacco Road” are well-known covers, but are of a piece with the rest of the album, referencing the hellfire and brimstone of a country church service and the hand-to-mouth existence of sharecroppers and trappers.

The strength of The Delta Sweete makes the case for Bobbie Gentry as one of the most underrated and largely forgotten songwriters of the late 1960s-early 1970s era.  Gentry’s episodic lyrics, referential of the South of her girlhood, married to the simple, often melancholic melodies of her music are as arresting today as when they were released, yet most of her catalogue is out-of-print in the U.S.  Even “Ode to Billy Joe,” in its ubiquitousness, is often dismissed as a one-hit-wonder or novelty song.

If you appreciated the husky vocals or the unforgettable lyrics of “Ode to Billy Joe,” The Delta Sweete is worth looking for.

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“Okolona River Bottom Band”

:) Original Vinyl | 1968 | Capitol | search ebay ]
;) MP3 Album | download here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

The Electric Prunes “Underground”

When the Electric Prunes are remembered at all, it’s for their seductive nightmare of a 1967 single, “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night).”  Culled from their first album, “I Had Too Much to Dream” set a template for the best of the band’s work: distorted guitars and vocals, bizarre lyrics and a spooky vibe.

By the time of their second album, the Prunes were tired of being considered a prefab band.  Fed songs from some of L.A.’s best psych-garage writers, controlled in the studio by producer/Machiavelli Dave Hassinger and often replaced on record by studio musicians, the band broke out of the prefab mold and wrote many of the songs on Underground.

The result was a more cohesive album than their first album, even if the many of the album’s best songs were contributed by other songwriters. Goffin-King’s “I Happen to Love You” is one of the disc’s strongest tunes, and the duo of Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz of “I Had Too Much to Dream” fame, contributed “Antique Doll,” another standout track.

But the songs contributed by band members are not throwaways by any means.  “The Great Banana Hoax” by members Jim Lowe and Mark Tulin has as much in common with the Monkees as the Standells, but is nevertheless memorable (and not banana flavored in the least), as are the pair’s other contributions, especially the brooding “Everybody Knows You’re Not in Love” and “Wind-Up Toys.”

Alas, Underground would be the last album for the real Electric Prunes; subsequent albums of pseudo-religious music (sung in Latin at times) used studio musicians playing under the moniker “the Electric Prunes,” while the actual Electric Prunes faded from view. Dirty shame.

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“Wind Up Toys”

:) Vinyl Reissue | 2009 | Hi Horse | buy here ]
:D CD Reissue | 2000 | Collector’s Choice | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]