Author Archive

Focal Point “First Bite of the Apple”

They say it’s not what you know but who you know, but sometimes even rubbing shoulders with the absolute royalty of rock can’t guarantee you success. Focal Point was a short-lived pop-psych outfit from Liverpool, based around songwriters Paul Tennant and Dave Rhodes who in the summer of 1967 became the first two writers signed to the fledgling Apple label. Tennant claims that he and Rhodes ambushed Paul McCartney walking his dog in Hyde Park and managed to blag an introduction to Apple Music Publishing head honcho Terry Doran. Allegedly the ensuing band’s name, Focal Point, was suggested by Brian Epstein. Apple sponsored the band through the rest of ‘67, housing and equipping them and recording demos of their songs at Apple’s makeshift studio at 94 Baker Street with producer Lionel Morton (ex-Four Pennies).

Focal Point signed to Decca’s progressive music subsidiary Deram early in 1968. Four songs were re-recorded to professional quality and the first 45 came out soon afterwards, “Love You Forever” b/w “Sycamore Sid”. Inexplicably the selected A-side was a sappy, unoriginal love song notable only for its excellent Mellotron accompaniment, and unsurprisingly it tanked chartwise. After unsuccessfully trying to reawaken interest at Apple, the band returned to Liverpool and concentrated on live work, supporting top-flight acts touring the North. By mid-69 they’d gone back to their day jobs.

The B-side of the single however, had been a fine, aggressive slab of hard psych and it appeared on psych compilations from the 1980s onwards, whilst the other Deram tracks appeared on 94 Baker Street, a compilation of sounds by lesser-known acts signed to Apple. In the wake of the new interest in 60s psychedelia erstwhile band members Tennant, Dave Slater and Tim Wells laboriously tracked down the surviving Apple demos and some later stuff they’d recorded independently in Manchester after returning North. The results were assembled along with the Deram tracks as First Bite Of The Apple and finally released to the world in 2005, giving an impression of how a Focal Point album recorded at the tail end of psych in ’68 might have sounded.

The Deram tracks and the first Manchester recordings mostly present dreamy soundscapes and lyrics not far from the Toytown end of psych, realised through layered vocal harmonies and sumptuous keyboard washes and all quite presentable. “Miss Sinclair”, “Sycamore Sid” and “McKinley Morgan The Deep Sea Diver” are typical Swinging Sixties third-party pen-portraits, the first benefitting from a hard-edged guitar and a flat Syd Barrett-style vocal whlist the last is an enjoyable singalong that could have come from The Teenage Opera via “Yellow Submarine”. “Never Never” is a blissed-out flower-power song with great organ work and a powerful walking bass line. “Far Away From Forever” is another languid, introspective soft-psych outing with some pleasant surprises in the chord sequence. Sadly the band took a wrong turning with their later attempts to find commercial success. “Falling Out Of Friends” is a dismal schlock ballad with an ersatz Hollies feel, whilst “Goodbye Forever” was an attempt to write for the Eurovision Song Contest and exhibits all that genre’s boom-bang-a-bang awfulness. The Apple demos illustrate how greatly the songs changed in their final realisation; “Miss Sinclair” is played purely on acoustic guitars whilst “Never Never” plonks along on what sounds like a honkytonk piano.

Focal Point has always been keen to lay to rest the assumption that “Sycamore Sid” who lived in a tree house was actually Syd Barrett. In fact it refers to John Mayall, who in his early days as a musician did just that. For a lot more detail on Focal Point and a first-hand history from Paul Tennant visit their page in the excellent Marmalade Skies UK Psych site.

mp3: Sycamore Sid
mp3: McKinley Morgan the Deep Sea Dive

:D CD Compilation | 2005 | Kissing Spell | buy here ]

The Butts Band “Butts Band”

The Butts Band is one of those curios from the early-to-mid seventies when prominent rock musicians used to continually combine into various short-lived combos, always looking for that elusive commercial success. The Butts Band should have had a better chance than most, given the pedigree of its members; it grew out of an attempt in 1973 by the three remaining Doors to recruit a new vocalist after Jim Morrison’s demise. For some reason they elected to audition in London rather than LA, and all the prospective candidates were Brits. Partway through the search Ray Manzarek lost interest and went home, but Robby Krieger and John Densmore kept the faith, finally settling on Jess Roden as frontman. Roden had experienced critical acclaim but commercial failure with his previous project, the country-rock outfit Bronco, and as a student and practitioner of all the American roots music genres, not to mention an unassuming but distinctive vocalist and songwriter, he was an obvious candidate for the post. The band was made up by former Jeff Beck bassist Philip Chen and little-known keyboard player Roy Davies, with assistance in the studio from ubiquitous sessioneer Mick Weaver on organ.

Recording commenced at London’s Olympic Studios with former Doors engineer Bruce Botnick in the producer’s chair, but after three weeks the whole circus decamped to Kingston, Jamaica to complete the recordings. About half the tracks were cut in each location, and the final mixes were prepared back in LA. (The closing cover of “Kansas City” which purports to be a live recording was actually taped in a single take at Olympic and the crowd noise dubbed on later.) When Jac Holtzman declined to put the finished product out on Elektra, it was picked up by Bob Krasnow’s independent Blue Thumb imprint and subsequently distributed by Island.

The album comes across as equal parts The Band and Curtis Mayfield, with no real Doors flavour at all; perhaps no surprise as the two principal writers are Krieger and Roden in equal share. The original topside is a delight from start to finish; the leadoff “I Won’t Be Alone Any More” could be an outtake from The Basement Tapes, with its down-home twelve-string, wheezy organ, rustic bass and restrained lead guitar. “Baja Bus” is a mid-tempo funky-butt outing with a fine Fender Rhodes interlude and an extended Latin percussion jamming outro dominated by an apparently blissed-out conga player. “Sweet Danger” is mellow minor-key white soul, tailor-made for Roden’s honey-sweet double-tracked voice and featuring beautifully-restrained piano and guitar, but spoilt by an irritatingly-dated pitchwheel synth solo. “Pop-A-Top” rides on a reggaefied rhythm and a gorgeous electric piano riff; Krieger’s chillingly beautiful slide feature fades out far too soon. The flipside songs are less distinguished but benefit throughout from Chen’s and Densmore’s no-nonsense, sparse-but-inventive rhythm work. The closer, the aforementioned Kansas City, rocks along with a vengeance but Krieger’s ad-libbed slide work here is undeniably sloppy and bears no comparison to Duane Allman’s polished bronze licks.

With reviews of the album being generally favourable, the Butts Band scored a couple of live gigs in the UK as support to the Kinks and Sparks and a brief dilatory tour in the States, plus a few TV appearances including The Old Grey Whistle Test, but it was clear right from the start that the British contingent would not be willing to move permanently to the West Coast and the lineup rapidly fell apart. Krieger and Densmore recruited a bunch of American players, retaining the Butts Band name, and put together a further album, but it bore little relationship to its predecessor and is not highly regarded. Butts Band is currently out of print unless you’re prepared to settle for a bootleg CD, but pre-loved vinyl copies periodically surface on eBay. John Densmore’s website has a fine retrospective of the Butts Band(s).

mp3: I Won’t Be Alone Anymore
mp3: Pop a Top

:) Original | 1974 | Blue Thumb | search ebay ]

The Artwoods “Art Gallery”

In contrast to the commercially-successful but artistically-bankrupt pop sensations of the UK’s 1960s beat era there was a small hardcore of bands in the UK who couldn’t get arrested record-sales-wise but whom other musicians would cross continents to catch playing live. Frequenting the trendy London club scene and playing funky tunes that oozed git-up-and-dance, they usually centred round a deft practitioner of the Hammond organ, and comprised the said keyboard god plus fellow musicians who refused to compromise their musical integrity and their blues and jazz influences. Alongside the likes of Graham Bond’s Organization, Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames and the Peddlers could be found the Artwoods, who despite their undeniable talent would have a brief career and only some of whom would find wider success in later combinations.

Vocalist and leader Arthur “Art” Wood was the elder brother of Ronnie, then guitarist with the Birds (sic) and later star sideman to Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and the Glimmer Twins. Having served his on-stage apprenticeship with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, Art set about putting together his own band in 1963, finally settling with Derek Griffiths (gtr), Malcolm Pool (bs), Jon Lord (org) and Keef Hartley (drs). (A couple of familiar names there, then, but not till a few years later.) Eschewing the straight R’n’B of the Yardbirds, the Stones and the Animals, the Artwoods stuck out for the jazz-inflected soul mix that would soon be in vogue on the Soho club circuit, covering material by Jimmy Smith, Lieber & Stoller, Eddie Floyd, Allen Toussaint, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and Solomon Burke. For four years they rocked the live club circuit until the trend towards psychedelia began to edge them out; unlike many of their contemporaries they declined to make that shift, electing instead to split in ’67.

The Artwoods did make records; over their four years they issued six singles plus – despite its cheesy title and homespun cover design – this splendid studio album. Predictably, none of these sold worth a damn: perhaps because the band’s oeuvre consisted almost completely of covers, albeit superb ones; perhaps because the recorded product lacked the visceral excitement of their live performances. The singles are indeed a little humdrum, given their attempts to polish their raw sound for commercial purposes, but the album is a gem of ensemble musicianship with flashes of individual brilliance. Recorded in a tiny basement studio in London’s Denmark Street under the tutelage of master Decca producer Mike Vernon, it clearly features the live set and gets as close as one could ask to the live vibe, only limited by the need to trim the tracks down to radio-friendly length. There’s a lot of variety available; the standout tracks include Burke’s “Down In The Valley” done in impeccable Stax style, Floyd’s “Things Get Better” as a superb garage soul opus with Merseybeat harmonies and raw-nerve fuzz guitar, and a scintillating cover of the Jimmy Smith instrumental “Walk On The Wild Side” in the middle of which the band lapse into a pure swing jazz groove and Lord produces an orgasmic solo that presages what he’d do with Deep Purple. Apart from a pedestrian reading of “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” there’s not a dull moment amongst the twelve original tracks. Art’s rough-as-a-badger’s-arse vocal is a guilty pleasure and Messrs Lord and Hartley shine throughout.

The subsequent careers of Lord and Hartley are well documented, but Art himself enjoyed far less success. He briefly formed a new outfit in ’69 with the musicians who would become the Faces; perhaps predictably for an outfit called Quiet Melon, it sank without trace. Art moved into a new career in graphic design with his other brother Ted and Malcolm Pool, singing only occasionally thereafter as a hobby musician till his premature death from cancer in 2006. His recorded legacy is available on the current 2009 CD from Repertoire which also includes no fewer than fourteen bonus tracks taken from the singles and the mega-rare Europe-only instrumental EP Jazz In Jeans.

mp3: Walk on the Wild Side
mp3: Things Get Better

:) Original | 1966 | Decca | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2009 | Repertoire | buy here ]

Racing Cars “Downtown Tonight”

Scene: a cold, draughty village hall in Corston near Bath, winter 1971. The entire audience of your correspondent and a dozen or so other slightly drunk teenage loonies giggle and cavort round the bare floor whilst on the stage a four-piece band manfully reconstructs, note-for-note perfect, the entire medley from the flip side of Abbey Road. The lead guitarist, a stubby, bearded Welshman called Morty, stands motionless behind his Les Paul at stage right. The members of Oswald Orange from the Rhondda are living the rock’n’roll lifestyle . . .

1977, and a South Wales band called Racing Cars appears on primetime TV show Top Of The Pops for the first and last time, playing their unexpected minor hit single, the maudlin ballad “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, inspired by Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film on the marathon jitterbug dance contests of the thirties’ depression. The lead vocalist and principal songwriter is a stubby, bearded Welshman called Morty, or Gareth Mortimer to give him his full moniker. Aside from Morty the most notable name amongst these assorted sons of the Rhondda is that of Ray Ennis, sometime trad jazz banjoist and member of the celebrated sixties Merseybeat ensemble, the Swinging Blue Jeans.

Racing Cars came together in 1973 and belatedly joined the London Pub Rock circuit early in ‘76, playing with a degree of sophistication and instrumental virtuosity that marked them out above most of their contemporaries. Landing a contract with Chrysalis Records, they cut their first album Downtown Tonight just in time to see it swept away by the punk explosion. Very much the right product at the wrong time, it deserved better treatment: the single was briefly in vogue a year on, but the album predictably failed to set the record shop tills alight. Residual popularity on the college circuit kept the band going for four further years and two further albums, but the one-hit-wonders tag would stick till the end.

Apart from the atypical, string-quintet-laden “Horses”, Downtown Tonight features the honest, solidly-constructed sort of electric guitar-based music that the Pub Rock genre is still regarded with affection for: rocking mid-tempo songs mixing blues, country, soul and funk inflections, a powerful twin-lead attack, solid rhythm section, occasional guest piano, and warm rough-cut vocal harmonies. Ennis in particular plays mean slide and crafts some fine harmony runs with partner Graham Hedley Williams on “Pass The Bottle”, as well as exhuming his banjo for some rapid three-finger picking against Williams’s Albert Lee-style Telecastering on the unashamedly honkytonk “Get Out And Get It”. The stirring opener “Calling The Tune” offers some fine pentatonic widdling over its simple riff structure, whilst “Four Wheel Drive” is a butt-kickin’ funk instrumental right out of the Average White Band’s fakebook. Add in the languid ballads of the title track and “Horses” and the unassuming, lo-fi production and all in all it’s a set that would have been a modest pleasure heard live and loud one evening in some smoky tavern.

Racing Cars reunited in 1988 for a modest second career which saw numerous personnel changes – only Morty and Williams eventually remaining from the original lineup – and produced two further albums before finally hanging up their instruments in 2009.

mp3: Calling the Tune
mp3: Get Out and Get It

:) Original | 1976 | Chrysalis | search ebay ]
:D Amazon |  2004 | Lemon | buy at amazon ]

Bronco “Country Home”

British country rock sounds about as likely and as authentic as British blues, but both were forces to be reckoned with in late sixties and early seventies rock respectively. Whilst the UK country rock vein certainly aped its US counterpart rather than actually kickstarting it as its blues predecessor had done, a number of artists from this side of the Pond found moderate success working in the form back across the water as well as at home. One of these was Bronco, whose early work compared favourably in its low-key ensemble construction with such luminaries as Neil Young’s Crazy Horse and The Band.

Vocalist Jess Roden had been featured frontman for the Alan Bown Set, one of London’s foremost live soul and R’n’B outfits during the late sixties. When the Bown train began to roll in a more psychedelic direction, Roden re-teamed up with guitarist Kevyn Gammond and bassist John Pasternak from his earlier blues combo Shakedown Sound. Gammond recommended second guitarist Robbie Blunt and drummer Pete Robinson from his own previous Band Of Joy – which had also featured a certain Robert Plant – and Bronco was ready to start buckin’. Happy to change direction yet again and clearly inspired by the likes of The Band, Bronco became one of the first British groups to take a punt at the upcoming country rock form. Widely regarded even then as “Britain’s finest unknown singer”, Roden had no trouble bagging a recording contract at the mighty Island Records, and Country Home and a leadoff single “Lazy Now” (not on the album) appeared rapidly. Roden and Co. toured it extensively on both sides of the Atlantic – I recall seeing them supporting fellow Island labelmates Traffic at Bristol University Union during the autumn of 1970 – to favourable responses which unfortunately failed to translate to record sales.

Composed principally by Roden but with input from all band members plus close friend, future schlock-folk singer/songwriter Clifford T Ward, the album exudes rough charm with its low-key, live-sounding recording. The first five of its seven tracks ride mainly on acoustic rhythm guitars with clean countrified electric licks from Blunt and rather more pentatonic input from Gammond plus occasional restrained piano from guest Jeff Bannister, Roden’s former colleague in the Bown set, and bluesy harmonica from drummer Robinson. The harmonies are endearingly rough-edged throughout with a distinct Band vibe. My favourite tracks are “Civil Of You Stranger” with its rolling rhythm, E-string twang and funky modulation, the jugbandish “Misfit On Your Stair” recalling the Lovin’ Spoonful and “Home” with its simple two-chord motif decorated by distant wailing cross-harp and a soulful piano solo. The last two tracks see the band “man-up” with a saw-toothed twin-electric guitar attack that certainly recalls Young’s and Danny Whitten’s partnership or perhaps Free’s slower, funkier material.

Despite the failure of Country Home to sell in droves, a second album Ace Of Sunlight appeared the following year. This featured considerably more composer input from Ward and songwriter Suzy Worth plus a lot more instrumental arrangement and studio gloss, and consequently sounds much more urban mainstream soft-rock, lacking the rough rural edges that had made Country Home such a charmer. When this too failed to set the charts alight Roden saddled up for the States to team up briefly with ex-Doors Robby Krieger and John Densmore as the Butts Band. Blunt and Gammond would work extensively again with Robert Plant post-Zeppelin, whilst Roden finally embarked on an uneven solo career producing a body of work that confirmed him as “Britain’s finest unknown singer” until a total change of direction saw him become a graphic artist in the mid-eighties. Country Home and Ace Of Sunlight are available as a mid-priced twofer, as is a two-disc anthology of Roden’s solo work, reflecting the high regard in which a small but discerning cognoscenti still hold him.

mp3: Civil Of You Stranger
mp3: Home

:) Original | 1970 | Island | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2010 | 2fer | buy at amazon ]

 

Linda Perhacs “Parallelograms”

This unique and fascinating album has belatedly garnered a considerable following in recent years as a result of the new interest in what is nowadays referred to as Acid Folk. In reality it’s finely-structured acoustic folk-rock, but with strong elements of psychedelic studio treatment and twentieth-century avant-garde classical and choral music. Until now it’s only rated a couple of oblique references in these pages; now it’s time to give it the full exposure it deserves.

The album was the product of a chance conversation between Los Angeles periodontist Linda Perhacs and one of her patients, film score composer Leonard Roseman. Perhacs had written the songs as a hobby sideline, composing with just modally-tuned acoustic guitar and her own beautifully clear voice. Stimulated by Perhacs’s own graphic visualisation of her composition “Parallelograms” as “visual music sculpture” encompassing light, form and colour as well as sound, Roseman offered to develop her songs into an album, arranging and enhancing them in George Martin fashion and utilising the services of his studio’s state-of-the-art technology plus session musicians including guitarist Steve Cohn and percussionists Milt Holland and Shelley Manne. The stunning results found a release on Kapp records, but there the interest stalled; the label pressed the songs out of sequence with dull AM-friendly equalisation on poor quality vinyl, and then proffered no publicity for it, and the brashly commercial Los Angeles AM radio stations refused to play it. When what would become her first and only album in almost four decades tanked, Perhacs went back to the day job. Over thirty years later she was alerted to the fact that the new generation of Acid Folk musicians such as Devendra Banhart were drawing inspiration from her long-lost work. Reissued by Wild Places in 1996 and by Sunbeam in 2008, the currently-available CD is correctly sequenced, beautifully remastered and comes with eight bonus demos, alternative versions and unreleased songs plus a superb booklet history by Perhacs herself. Perhaps best of all, its belated success has induced Perhacs to start creating music again and she’s issued two albums of new music in partnership with musician/producer Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl since 2007.

The quirky acoustic guitar tunings of Parallelograms may suggest early Joni Mitchell and the clear, crystalline vocals similar-period Joan Baez, but on this album Linda Perhacs utterly transcends both with her dazzling originality. The gently-rippling guitar arpeggios and cascading multi-tracked harmonies of the opening “Chimacum Rain” set out the collection’s predominant motifs, but the following “Paper Mountain Man” is surprisingly funky and blues-inflected with its jazzy percussion and distant, ethereal harmonica, and the wonderfully ironic critique of South Californian society marital celebrations, “Porcelain Baked-Over Cast-Iron Wedding”, rocks along similarly on oriental percussion and delightfully atonal 12-string. Head and shoulders above the rest, the title track even eschews proper lyrics, the singer’s tongue playing mischievously with the syllables of the title and the names of other geometric forms in a sinuous flow of sound, broken by a Gyorgy Ligeti-like musique concrete interlude, all being the product of Roseman’s realisation of Perhacs’s original scroll-like pictorial depiction of the song. “Moons And Cattails” and “Morning Colours” are similarly, though slightly less, experimental, the former again utilising superbly melismatic vocals and the latter glorious electronically-processed flute obbligati. The rest is more conventional, but still well to the left of the field. As with the avant-garde music that largely inspired it, this is an album to be listened to, not merely heard.

mp3: Paper Mountain Man
mp3: Parallelograms

:) Original | 1970 | Kapp | search ebay ]
:) Reissue | 2011 | Sundazed | buy here ]
:D Reissue | 2010 | Sunbeam | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Rare Bird “Epic Forest”

Rare Bird formed in London in 1969 and rapidly became one of the standard-bearers for the new neo-classical, keyboard-driven strain of British progressive rock. Whilst eschewing the pompous on-stage approach of ELP and Yes, they exhibited an equally impressive musical pedigree. Unusually, they included no guitarist, the four-man line-up consisting of organ, electric piano, bass guitar and drums. Classically-trained organist Graham Field’s songwriting and bassist Steve Gould’s powerful, soulful voice yielded an immediate UK and pan-European hit single in “Sympathy”, and this line-up subsequently recorded two moderately well-received but sparingly purchased albums. Field then announced his departure and the Bird was forced to re-fledge. Moving from one extreme to the other, it became a twin-lead-guitar outfit, though retaining pianist Dave Kaffinetti, with Gould upgrading from four strings to six and new second guitarist/singer Ced Curtis giving them fine opportunities for harmonies, both instrumental and vocal.

The first album to feature the new roster appeared in 1972, its title a skit on Epping Forest, a sylvan suburb of the capital. It displays two of the dominant threads of mainstream UK rock music of the time: the melodic guitar-driven soft-rock approach of bands in the Wishbone Ash mould and the soaring close-harmony vocals lifted from Californian good-time outfits such as CS&N. With two first-class singers and the extra dimension provided by Kaffinetti’s organ, piano and synth work, it’s probably fair to say that this incarnation of Rare Bird transcends the Wishbone template. Sadly, unlike the latter this didn’t translate into gratifying record sales: possibly their change of direction alienated their original prog-rock supporters, whilst a potential new soft-rock fan base may have wrongly construed them as old, po-faced art-rockers. Such are the vagaries of rock fame! They certainly achieved more penetration in Europe than at home, whilst recognition in America eluded them almost completely. The Bird flew haltingly on for a further four years, suffering several further changes of personnel and releasing two further albums to modest critical acclaim but little commercial success before bowing to the punk-powered inevitable.

Having recorded more material for Epic Forest than required for a conventional single-disc vinyl release and not wishing to shelve any of the completed tracks, Rare Bird adopted the then novel tactic of pressing three of these as a maxi-single included free with the album. The twelve tracks, totalling over sixty minutes of music, exhibit a uniformly high quality in the writing, singing, playing and production. Up-tempo and languid compositions alternate, electric and acoustic guitars predominate, but the support from Kaffinetti’s keyboards and the rhythm section of Paul Karas on bass and Fred Kelly on kit is unerringly solid. The two opening tracks set out the menu; I love the simple, powerful bass riff that drives “Baby Listen” and the ensemble guitars and harmonies on the much softer “Hey Man”. There are some harder touches; on “Turn It All Around”, they even move mildly into riff-rock territory, Zeppelin style, after a deceptively quiet intro. The extended instrumental interludes on the nine-minute title track and on the ten-minute closer “You’re Lost” were clearly as enjoyable for the musicians as they will be to the listener, on the evidence of their final whoops of satisfaction on the latter’s fadeout.

A quality second-division seventies outfit worth investigating in both its principal incarnations, Rare Bird’s complete discography remains gratifyingly in print. Epic Forest is currently available on CD on the estimable Cherry Red imprint’s Él subsidiary. When investigating the Bird’s oeuvre, it’s probably as good a place to begin as any.

mp3: Baby Listen
mp3: Hey Man

:) Original | 1972 | Polydor | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2007 | El Records | buy here ]

Waterloo “First Battle”

There’s an old gag particularly prevalent in Britain that goes along the lines of “I bet you can’t name five famous Belgians”. In fact this small bilingual, bicultural European country has produced more celebrities than you’d think: Gérard Mercator, designer of the universal map projection that bears his name; Adolphe Sax, who invented the saxophone; and Georges Simenon, creator of classic fictional detective Maigret, are just three. Perhaps thinner on the ground are famous Belgian musicians: poetic songwriter Jacques Brel is certainly the best known, and then there’s Jean “Toots” Thielemans who uniquely plays jazz on chromatic harmonica . . . and of course Plastic Bertrand.

Prior to 1980 or thereabouts, home-grown Belgian rock bands were certainly a select species, at least in terms of penetration outside their homeland and France. Waterloo was a fine, sturdy prog-rock outfit in the English mould of the late 1960s, coming together in ’69 with members from two just-folded Belgian pop-psych groups, releasing their sole album the following year and folding themselves about a year later after precious little commercial success. Their musical pedigree was beyond doubt; organist Marc Malyster was a conservatoire-trained keyboard player, whilst lead vocalist/flautist Dirk Bogaert had been an operatic boy soprano and drummer Jacky Mauer was steeped in jazz. With the workmanlike rock chops of guitarist Gus Roan who also doubled on flute, and bass guitarist Jean-Paul Janssens, they covered all the bases.

First Battle was recorded in England with all the lyrics in English; given this plus the band’s propensity for driving three-four rhythms and breathy flute accompaniments, it’s no surprise they frequently recall Mick Abrahams-period Jethro Tull. However Malyster’s organ work marks them out from the Brit combo, favouring a churchy drawbar setting on his Hammond and incorporating plenty of Bach-like touches in the style of his main rock influence, Keith Emerson. The album offers nine tightly-composed, tightly-performed songs, none breaching the four-minute barrier, all with tuneful pop sensibility and lyrical hooks and featuring fine harmony vocals and terse, pithy solos. Only on the ten-minute closing opus “Diary Of An Old Man” is each player is given the chance to feature more extensively, with excellent expositions by Bogaert on simultaneous flute and scat vocal and by Roan who finally gets to really stretch out on guitar. Pick of the other tracks are the Tullish “Why May I Not Know” which sets out the band’s stall for the following numbers; the jazzy, socially aware “Black Born Children” which thematically if not musically recalls the Nice’s “Daddy, Where Did I Come From”; and the splendid classically-harmonised riff of “Life” which also features a vocal dialogue, fruity flute obbligati and muscular bass guitar work. In all honesty there are no weak tracks anywhere on this album. The record was cut at an unidentified Soho eight-track studio under producer David McKay (who also masterminded Belgium’s other high-profile group of the day, Wallace Collection) and the sound quality, at least on the CD reissue, is exemplary, being powerful and clean with each lead instrument deftly forefronted.

Tensions within the band must have surfaced soon after the recording, because Janssens was gone by July ’70 and Malyster bailed soon after. Replacements were found but the tight, virtuosic sound of the original lineup was never emulated; the band struggled on for another year or so, cutting a couple of singles that strangely reverted to a pop-psych template. These were included as bonus cuts on the first (vinyl) reissue of First Battle by French musicians’ cooperative label Musea, now long out of print, and also appear on the excellent CD reissue by Spanish imprint Guerszen which is still available. Devotees of the Nice, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple and other early progressive rockers will find a lot to like on this collection.

mp3: Why May I Not Know
mp3: Life

:) Original | 1970 | Vogue | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2010 | Guerssen | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Oliver “Standing Stone”

There’s nothing new under the sun, the old adage goes. Particularly in music, anything that eventually comes to be seen as groundbreaking can usually be traced back to earlier influences: Beethoven to Haydn, Dylan to Woody Guthrie, the Beatles to Carl Perkins and early Tamla Motown. What makes the new product distinctive is the way the influences are combined, remoulded and extended. Oliver’s über-rare psychedelic folk-blues opus Standing Stone clearly takes in the likes of Robert Johnson, Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart, but his synthesis and development of these already abstruse sources is so imaginative that the end product is truly like nothing else, and that’s no exaggeration.

In early 1974 hippie musician Oliver Chaplin and his brother Chris, a BBC sound engineer, retreated to their parents’ farm somewhere in Wales “within shouting distance of the Standing Stone”, as the reissue booklet note puts it, to produce this totally unique, enigmatic collection. Oliver laid down vocals, acoustic, electric and slide guitars, hand percussion and occasional recorder and harmonica on a four-track Teac. Chris, a veteran of the Beeb’s Hendrix sessions, overlaid the various threads and added numerous sound effects, aided and abetted by occasional unsolicited input from various farm and wild creatures.

Oliver’s compositions give the effect of being totally spontaneous but are clearly carefully built up given the amount of overdubbing required. The material ranges from tiny, delicate fingerpicked acoustic numbers (“Off On A Trek”) via quirky Barrett-esque acid-pop ditties (“Getting Fruity”) to rambling, effects-laden one-chord blues extrapolations (“Freezing Cold Like An Iceberg”) and whacked-out marijuana-inflected nonsense (“Cat And The Rat”). Oliver’s guitar skills are manifold and dextrous and his sound palette seemingly boundless, sometimes sparklingly pure but at others bolstered by a battery of sound effects ranging from simple flanging to backwards taping and what sounds like Les Paul-style vari-speed recording. The lyrics are frequently incomprehensible but it doesn’t matter; Oliver uses his voice as another set of instruments, moaning, warbling and scatting, varying its timbre widely and sometimes distorting it electronically. As testament to Chris’s skills, the sound quality of the final recording is simultaneously utterly low-fi and outstandingly clean.

The end product was to be offered to the then fledgling Virgin label, but the reclusive Oliver’s reluctance to engage with the record industry scotched the deal and only a handful of private-press copies were produced, housed in plain bilious-green jackets. Around fifteen years later one of these surfaced at a car boot sale and the burgeoning psychedelic collector circuit sat up and noticed, applying the retrospective “acid-folk” appellation to it. Such was the demand created by the appearance of this single example that Oliver was tracked down and found to have several more copies still in his possession. These fetched crazy sums until the album was licensed to the tiny UK reissue label Wooden Hill and appeared in that imprint’s own habitual very-limited-edition format, firstly on vinyl in 1992 and then on CD in 1995. Appropriately enough, in truly serendipitous manner I stumbled on a copy gathering dust in a Bath charity shop earlier this year; I took it home and it blew my mind. If you decide that you want one you may have to search hard and long and pay top dollar, but if you’re lucky enough to find one it’ll be worth it. Meanwhile several tracks can be found on YouTube.

mp3: Off On A Trek
mp3: Cat And The Rat

:) Original | 1974 | Private | search ebay ]

Fire “The Magic Shoemaker”

For me the most depressing thing about today’s rock music is that so much of it exhibits such a lack of creativity or originality. If something sells, clone it, quickly. What a contrast to the late sixties, when for a brief heady spell the artists rather than the bean-counters had the whip hand and the spirit of experimentation soared over everything. Of course this produced as many heroic failures as acknowledged triumphs; Fire’s The Magic Shoemaker bombed on release, and even such retrospective reviews as it has received have frequently been ambivalent. Ah, what have we got here, then? Former psychedelic outfit moves towards progressive rock with a song-cycle that’s too lightweight plot-wise to be a concept album, too naïve and inconsequential to be a rock opera . . . hmmmm. But what is true is that it certainly represents a brave attempt to be different.

London trio Dave Lambert (vcl, gtr, keys), Dick Dufall (bs, vcl) and Bob Voice (drs, vcl) had impressed the Beatles’ Apple label sufficiently to score a deal that resulted in the classic psych A-side “Father’s Name Is Dad”. The marriage was not a happy one, though, and Fire soon found themselves at odds with the music industry at large. Retiring to the suburbs, Lambert spent a year writing and demo-ing the songs for The Magic Shoemaker, based around a whimsical children’s bedtime story in which a shoemaker cobbles together a pair of shoes that unexpectedly allow the wearer to fly. These are loaned to a king whose country is threatened with war by a neighbouring state; when the king confronts his opposite number from the sky the latter’s army are spooked and a peace treaty is forthcoming. Admittedly, it’s a slender peg to hang your creative coat on, but in its own quirky homespun fashion it works.

The premise of the album is that the narrator (Lambert, in a homely Home Counties accent) tells the story to a group of kids on a coach trip (real kids’ voices, overdubbed travel noises). Short pieces of the narrative occur between and within the songs whose lyrics broadly parallel episodes in the tale, some closely, others in more abstract fashion. Musically the songs follow a basic guitar-driven pop-rock template, varying widely in style and tempo – Tommy would undoubtedly have been an influence – with frequent psychedelic studio enhancement, particularly on the opening “Tell You A Story”, “Only A Dream” and the long instrumental coda of “Reason For Everything”. Pick of the bunch for me is “I Can See The Sky” with its raw freakbeat vibe, but they’re all quite engaging. Lambert’s lead vocal, somewhere between Daltrey and Bowie, is sometimes somewhat over-affected, but the musicianship is excellent throughout with the basic guitar trio being complemented by Lambert’s modest keyboards and plenty of top-drawer lead guitar work from himself and Velvet Opera’s Paul Brett. Future Strawbs partner Dave Cousins makes a cameo appearance on banjo on the superfluous jugband ditty “Happy Man Am I”. The production by Pye’s Ray Hammond is unsophisticated but its contemporary favouring of stereo separation and reverb suits the project and the interleaving of songs and narration is seamless.

Predictably, The Magic Shoemaker tanked well and truly on its release on Pye in 1970, being too late for psych and too lightweight for prog, and subsequently became a much-sought-after rarity until its inevitable reissue on CD. The current Sanctuary edition tailgates the original album with the A’s and B’s of both of Fire’s earlier psych singles including the indispensable “Father’s Name Is Dad” and “Treacle Toffee World”. As an interesting epilogue, after a long and successful association with Cousins in the Strawbs Lambert reformed Fire for a one-off concert in 2007, performing Shoemaker in extended form including the earlier psych sides and other unreleased songs. The gig was recorded for sound and video and subsequently released on CD by Angel Air as The Magic Shoemaker Live, receiving wide acclaim . . . which is more than the original release achieved.

mp3: Reason for Everything
mp3: I Can See the Sky

:D Reissue | 2009 | Esoteric | buy here ]
:) Original | 1970 | Pye |  search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]