Author Archive

Kennelmus “Folkstone Prism”

Innocuously described by the compiler of the Sundazed reissue CD liner notes as “the hardest working psychedelic surf band in Arizona”, Kennélmus laid down in the grooves of this collection some of the weirdest shit to be tracked to wax as psych gave way to its early seventies successors. The compositions are clumsy, the vocals almost totally unmusical, the instrumentation mostly wild and undisciplined and the studio production way over the top. Yet there’s something compulsive about this whacked-out mess of an album by a forgotten band that’s right up there with the Elevators, the Prunes and Syd Barrett. Or think Cold Sun, with the same peyote-driven woozy urgency and the trademark autoharp substituted with a melodica, and you won’t be a million miles out.

Morphing from Phoenix-based top forty/British Invasion covers outfit the Shi-Reeves, this four-piece, centred on the compositional and multi-instrumental talents of guitarist/keyboardist Ken Walker, took its name from his own unanglicised birth moniker: Kennélmus Walkiewicz. The album’s title was derived inexplicably (but probably under chemical influence) from Folkestone Prison, a minor penitentiary in the environs of the sedate Kentish seaside resort and Channel port, and was originally to have been Folkestoned Prism, but to avoid prejudicing potential radio exposure the “d” was left off. As it turned out they needn’t have worried; a vanity run of a thousand copies on small independent Phoenix International Records was all that surfaced and, as Walker relates, “It took a long time to sell out the original pressing . . . some of them were given away for sexual favours”.

It’s a schizophrenic son of a bitch, this record. Most of what would have been the first side is instrumental and – the psychedelic surf tag notwithstanding – these tracks exhibit to my ears a combination of the guileless chord sequences and melodies that Joe Meek was using with his instrumental combos a decade earlier and the sonic palette of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti Western soundtracks, in the arrangements but also notably in the clean, springy lead guitar work, with a whiff of Lost In Space electronic frippery thrown in for good measure. “Dancing Doris” has an intermittent Middle Eastern zither riff that makes you want to scratch, and “Goodbye Pamela Ann” brazenly steals the jerky drum pattern from the Fabs’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”. When the vocals start to infiltrate on what was originally the flipside it’s clear that the band are off on a shamelessly lysergic expedition. The nearest thing to a conventional sung song is “Mother Of My Children” with its classic chat-up line refrain “woman, would you be the mother of my children?” “Think For Yourself” is a four-chord garage bash with melodica, wah-wah guitar and schizophonic stereo-split vocals, whilst “Shapes Of Sleep” is Beefheart’s Magic Band reflected in a distorting mirror and the hysterical plane-crash narrative of “Sylvan Shores” boasts wilfully out-of-tune bass guitar and an appropriately disintegrating outro. The lengthy closing “The Raven”, based on Poe’s verses of the same name, combines proto-punk vocals and chainsaw rhythm guitar with further primitive electronic squeals. The five “songs” are seamlessly segued with short intermissions incorporating backwards instrumentals, found sounds, vocal gibberish and a fake radio newsreel. It really shouldn’t work, but it all does, though it might take you several plays to rub down to the shine beneath the verdigris.

The band lasted around six years, but despite frequent gigging and a parallel career for Walker and fellow guitarist Bob Narloch as a folk club duo the album never raised major label interest and would remain their sole recorded product and a great rarity until reissued by Sundazed in 1999. Interestingly three of the band actually worked at Phoenix International’s pressing contractor and literally pressed their own album, probably a first in rock annals.

mp3: Dancing Doris
mp3: Think for Yourself

:) Original | 1971 | Phoenix International | search ]
:D Reissue | Sundazed | buy from sundazed | amazon ]

Townes Van Zandt “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt”

There are numerous passing references to Townes Van Zandt in these pages, but until now the nearest he’s come to a dedicated post is the uReview of his 1968 freshman album For The Sake Of A Song which examines its debatably elaborate orchestration and production. But whatever the issues concerning the debut, there’s no doubt that by this 1972 offering, the last from his fertile five-year period on Poppy/Tomato, he’d got his recording process exactly right. The accompaniments on this collection display a variety appropriate to the varying nature of the songs, yet the playing is so restrained and spare and the production so sympathetic that they never intrude: indeed, the fiddles, Dobros, mandolins, pianos, electric guitars, bass and drums, whilst played by a coterie of lesser-known Nashville virtuosi, are often almost ghostly in their presence. This of course suits what another reviewer called Townes’s “thin maudlin voice” down to the ground and results in as atmospheric an outing as anyone in the country-rock genre had ever produced up to that time. The subsequent long line of haunting Americana featuring such luminaries as the Cowboy Junkies, Uncle Tupelo and Lambchop could be said to start here.

Beyond the two covers of fifties country standards and one Guy Clark number, Townes’s own songs generally evoke the solitude and destitution of his chosen beat/hobo life and are inevitably coloured by his prodigious alcohol intake and substance abuse; indeed the album title itself, though actually about twenty-five years premature, is a wry reference to the near-death episode prior to this recording in which fellow toper Jerry Jeff Walker discovered him comatose after a cocktail of heroin, cocaine and vodka and obtained medical assistance just in time. Townes harks back to the debut album with a less limpid reworking of “Sad Cinderella”, relying mainly on a gentle piano to support the more homely vocal. The peerless ballad “Pancho And Lefty”, probably his best known composition and covered by enough A-list country artists to guarantee him a modest pension had he survived long enough to draw it, juxtaposes his own Kerouac-style wandering existence with those of the bandit/folk hero Pancho Villa and Lefty, a blues singer who ends up broke and busted in Cleveland; the disconcerting chord changes in the verses are soothed by gorgeous Mariachi trumpets on the choruses. “If I Needed You” is perhaps the simplest and most effecting yearning country love song since Dylan’s “If Not For You” and has also been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris. Townes makes one of his occasional offhand forays into acoustic blues on “German Mustard” accompanied only by fine slide guitar from one Rocky Hill, who presumably also provides the Dobro on the cover of Clark’s almost-optimistic “Don’t Let The Sunshine Fool Ya” and smooth lap steel on the respectfully authentic rendering of Hank Senior’s classic “Honky Tonkin’”. The penultimate “Silver Ships Of Andilar” is an untypical maritime folk ballad recalling Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner with unexpectedly powerful orchestration and choral decoration. To my mind the only weak track on the album is the closing “Heavenly Houseboat Blues”, a flaccid spiritual not quite rescued by fine fiddle and mandolin playing.

If Cecil Ingram Parsons was the tragic Crown Prince of country rock, Townes Van Zandt was its Great Pretender, forever waiting in the wings and seemingly resigned to doing so. Despite a much longer career than Gram, he remains one of country rock’s better kept secrets. Gleaners of his legacy can do a lot worse than starting here, but anyone strongly into this sort of music who decides to go straight for the amazing-value Texas Troubadour box set won’t be disappointed.

mp3: Pancho and Lefty
mp3: If I Needed You

:) Original | 1972 | Poppy | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 1994 | Tomato | buy ]

Dory Previn “Mythical Kings and Iguanas”

The life history of the woman born Dorothy Veronica Langan reads like an archetypal Hollywood biopic and is well enough documented elsewhere as to need no repetition here; a fine account can be found in Paul Pelletier’s booklet notes to the current twofer CD of which Mythical Kings And Iguanas is a part. Suffice to say that her father’s abuse and the breakup of her marriage to André Previn were just the two most high-profile of the stream of life experiences that coloured this woman’s approach to songwriting. Put these together with her poetic talent, her extensive career as a staff lyricist for MGM musicals, and her years – she was 45 when her first proper solo album appeared – and the nature and quality of the half-dozen astonishingly personal and almost uncategorisable albums that Dory Previn recorded as a seventies singer-songwriter become clearly explicable.

Mythical Kings was the second of the six studio albums that Previn cut for three different labels between 1970 and 1976 and remains the best known, particularly here in the UK where she enjoyed a brief prominence during the “white room” singer-songwriter vogue that made heroes out of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Musically it’s a restrained delight, with production and orchestral arrangements by Nik Venet and beautifully understated instrumentation by Clark Maffitt and Brian Davies on acoustic guitars, Larry Knechtel on Fender Rhodes, Joe Osborn and Ron Tutt as rhythm section plus the cream of the LA session mafia on other guitars, keys, strings and winds. The joy of the music here is that for all its quality it lets the words shine through, and what words they are! Previn’s lyrics are sometimes masked in allusion and symbolism, but at others they communicate unalloyed her raw hope and hurt, the prevailing themes on this album being unrequited love and the futility of personal ambition and spirituality. The leadoff title track rues the pursuit of the ethereal at the expense of the real to the accompaniment of an immaculately spare piano backing by Knechtel and a disconcerting slide guitar. “Lemon Haired Ladies” is a barely-disguised admonishment of her former husband and his new amour, while “Angels And Devils The Following Day” compares two former lovers: “One was an artist, one drove a truck / One would make love, the other would fuck” – guess which one came out preferred. “Yada Yada La Scala” implores a prospective lover to stop making small talk and get down to romantic business to a jazzy, hopeful beat and segues beautifully into the haunting “Lady Of The Braid” which starts with the line “Would you care to stay till sunrise?” and rides effortlessly on Maffitt and Davies sweet acoustics and muted orchestral backing. “A Stone For Bessie Smith” is actually a bluesy paean to the late Janis Joplin, and “Mary C Brown And The Hollywood Sign” uses the suicide of a failed actress as a symbol of the futility of the American Dream (and would provide the theme of a whole later album), set to a mournful New Orleans backing. Maffitt’s and Davies guitars provide a gorgeous accompaniment to “The Game” which uses gambling, cheating and lying as a metaphor for life – a lure to which Previn inevitably succumbs.

Mythical Kings is hard to find on its own in any format but is available on the aforementioned twofer CD along with the follow-up Reflections In A Mud Puddle, which includes the astonishing “Taps, Tremors And Time Steps” suite in which Previn juxtaposes the receipt of the news of her father’s death with the disaster of the Hindenburg.  At the end of my review on Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos I suggested that if you felt like getting emotionally wrung out one evening, you might try playing that album end-to-end with Tonight’s The Night, In Utero and Elliott Smith’s eponymous second album. Add this one to the list.

mp3: Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign
mp3: The Game

:) Original | 1971 | Mediarts | search ]
:D Reissue | 2002 | BGO | buy ]

Dave Davies “Hidden Treasures”

The recent release of The SMiLE Sessions must mark the ebb tide of the steady stream of retrospective issues of mythical “lost” albums from the Sixties. Surely with the debut of The Holy Grail Of Rock these have all now finally appeared in one form or another? But one other such offering that crept out with much less fanfare in the same month as SMiLE is the “lost” solo album by Dave Davies, purveyor of revolutionary guitar licks and falsetto vocal harmonies to the Kinks. Despite its enticing title, as with SMiLE the majority of its songs have already been in the public domain in one form or another for some time, but again like SMiLE the new release represents the first legitimate attempt to bring it together as nearly as possible in its originally-intended form.

The CD contains what are believed to be the genuine original stereo mixes of the twelve proposed album songs – three of these unissued in any form until this release – with some alternative versions in mono, plus the other Dave songs that did see the light of day as solo singles, as components of Something Else By The Kinks or as B-sides of later Kinks 45s: twenty-seven cuts in all. Despite their piecemeal production over two years, the proposed album tracks exhibit commendable homogeneity and the quality is consistently high with respect both to composition and to performance, offering a set of well-crafted pop-rock songs, many with country-rock overtones. Setting them apart from the Kinks’ oeuvre are Dave’s distinctive proto-punk vocals and his frequent use of modest time signature changes and modulations to add further musical interest, whilst the lyrics are in the form of acerbic interpersonal dialogues and wry observations on love, eschewing his brother’s wistful nostalgia. The best of the bunch are the inexplicably-unsuccessful second single “Susannah’s Still Alive” with its great piano riff and homespun harmonica, the Byrdsy jangle of “Mindless Child Of Motherhood”, the twelve-string-driven, string-laden “Lincoln County” with its good-time Lovin’ Spoonful vibe and the lyrically-contentious “Creeping Jean” which recalls Beggars Banquet-era Stones. Despite these comparisons the twelve tracks are distinctly Dave and would indeed have made a fine late Sixties album. The extras naturally include the peerless non-album single “Death Of A Clown”.

The music is solid despite the convoluted circumstances of its genesis, which was lengthy and full of hiccups and about-turns as admirably explained in the fine booklet essay by Russell Smith that accompanies the CD. In 1966 the Kinks’ management proposed a parallel solo career for Brother Dave, on the basis that his good looks and immaculate dress sense might attract a separate teenybopper audience and perhaps lead to films. The man himself was initially resistant to individual promotion, but the other band members were fully amenable and every Dave-credited track was actually a proper Kinks recording, with Dave taking the writer credits and handling the lead vocals but all three other members contributing fully and Ray generally arranging and producing. The initial “Clown” single was a massive 1967 hit and the solo album was immediately proposed, but for some reason from that point on the band’s management and their record labels seemed to lose interest, possibly because of the campaign to rescind the Kinks’ touring ban in the States, possibly because of the success of their increasingly Anglocentric albums there in contrast to their steady decline at home where they were by then widely regarded as a somewhat dated singles band. Specific sessions to cut Dave’s songs were nonetheless held sporadically over the next two years and the twelve-track tape was finally delivered to the Kinks’ US label Warner-Reprise in the fall of ‘69, only to be shelved immediately without either a title or a final running order. Forty-two years on, we finally have it as near as dammit, and Kinks fans and lovers of good Sixties music will agree that it’s been worth the wait.

mp3: Do You Wish to Be a Man
mp3: Creeping Jean

:D Reissue | 2011 | Sanctuary | buy ]

John Baldry “It Ain’t Easy”

Most folk who remember “Long” John Baldry at all recall only his chart-topping single of 1967, the maudlin crooner ballad “Let The Heartaches Begin”. But if the mettle of a performer is measured by the affection and respect of his fellow professionals and their willingness to participate in his art, then this album is a testament to a musician who’d been an industry favourite from his earliest days as the original vocalist and occasional guitarist with Alexis Korner’s pioneering Blues Incorporated. To proffer just two examples, the virtually unknown Baldry was an invited guest on the Fabs’ 1964 international TV spectacular “Around The Beatles” – which is where I first heard him – and is credited in Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” after he dissuaded John from suicide following the latter’s distraught realisation of his sexuality. Himself openly gay, dazzlingly handsome and at six foot seven a magnificent, elegant figure, Baldry’s talent deserved wider commercial success than it ever achieved.

After his misguided, though briefly successful, flirtation with middle-of-the-road music Baldry angled to get back to his folk-country-blues roots and in 1971, via former Steampacket and Bluesology colleagues Rod Stewart and Elton John, signed with Warner Brothers for whom he would cut two albums, It’s Not Easy being the first. The then nascent rock superheroes Stewart and John produced one side of the album each, and the result is a mildly schizophrenic opus with the Stewart topside comprising mostly rollicking bluesy outings and the John flipside more thoughtful, soulful fare. Baldry’s warm, abrasive tenor delivery makes the best of both. The lists of musicians also signify the esteem in which Baldry was held; among many other front-liners, the Stewart sessions feature Rod’s old muckers Ron Wood and Mickey Waller from the erstwhile Jeff Beck Group, while the flip includes Elton himself on piano plus his early sidekick guitarist and organist Caleb Quaye. The eclectic list of writers includes Baldry’s original muse Huddie “Leadbelly” Leadbetter, Tuli Kopferberg of the Fugs, Lesley Duncan, Randy Newman, the John/Taupin axis and Stewart himself.

The opening recitative “Conditional Discharge”, in which Baldry wryly relates an encounter with the Metropolitan Police during his Soho busking days over an effortless boogie-woogie piano backing, segues brilliantly into the thunderous “Don’t Try To Lay No Boogie Woogie On The King Of Rock And Roll” with everybody in the band rocking out like there’s no tomorrow. Baldry’s faithful homage to Leadbelly on “Black Girl” is a duet with chainsaw-voiced chanteuse Maggie Bell over piano, Dobro and mandolin, whilst the title track is a rolling country boogie with Bell again in tow and a great Delaney-And-Bonnie vibe. “Mr Rubin” is a beautifully understated piano-led take on Duncan’s plangent appeal to the militant Yippie founder. The final track of the original ten is a splendid extended cover of the Faces’ “Flying” with great piano from Elton and soaring, gospel-inspired ensemble backing vocals.

The album sold sparingly in the US and barely at all in the UK, and received its first CD reissue only in 2005 when Warners put it out with a clutch of bonus outtakes and a panegyric booklet note by Sid Griffin. The extras included alternative, less-produced takes on three of the originals plus four delightful classic acoustic blues covers which contrast with the densely-produced originals and showcase Baldry’s voice and guitar in a setting otherwise unadorned but for an anonymous harmonica player (Stewart?). The second and last Warner album Everything Stops For Tea in 1972 made no showing and Baldry’s career thereafter was uneven and mostly unedifying, with continuous health problems, and sporadic, patchy albums and live appearances alternating with commercially more successful placements as a bit-part actor and voiceover specialist. He relocated to Vancouver in 1978 and died there from pneumonia aged just 64, just a month after this album was reissued.

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“Flying”

:) Original | 1971 | Warner Bros | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2005 | Rhino | buy ]

NGC-4594 “Skipping Through The Night”

Here’s another genuinely “lost” sixties psych album, laid down in 1967 but not seeing the light of public exposure until forty-three years later.

Coming together in ‘66 at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, these six students and alumni must have thought they had a stellar musical career in store, because not only did all the undergrads drop out of their courses but they took as their name the astronomical designation of the Sombrero Galaxy in the constellation of Virgo. This didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but in the trippy atmosphere of the times it conveyed a trendy spaced-out attitude. The auguries were however unpromising; while David Bliss, Steve Starger and Danny Shanok were all experienced pianists, Minty Collins wasn’t even a musician though he was determined to become one, “liberating” a flute from the UConn Music Department and teaching himself the basics. Chas Mirsky contributed rudimentary but suitably whacked-out electric guitar, whilst to fill out the backline Starger switched to Farfisa organ and Shanok took the bass guitar. No-one came forward to be the featured vocalist, but drummer Bob de Vos proved to possess a creditable baritone and was duly pressed into the rôle.

The band assembled an acid-soaked collection of originals, mostly from the pen of pianist Bliss, relocated to Stanford, CT in January ’67 and gigged their set around New England, honing their chops and tightening their act. In April they moved to NYC where they auditioned for Mercury and were invited to rapidly record their whole oeuvre live in the studio as a monophonic demo. From this two sides were selected for a single and re-recorded to professional studio standards. “Going Home” and “Skipping Through The Night” appeared as a 45 on Mercury’s Smash subsidiary, garnered some desultory airplay on Northeast radio stations and disappeared. Despite a few subsequent high-profile concert appearances supporting the likes of the Doors and Country Joe & The Fish, the band’s briefly-flaring star had passed its zenith and by the fall of ’67 they’d split. It wasn’t till the early 90s that Tim Page, a professor at UConn, much taken with hearing the play-worn single on the college’s Campus Restaurant jukebox, would seek out former band members Mirsky and Starger and discover that the original tapes from the Mercury audition still existed. It took a further two decades before the estimable Tune In imprint of psych reissue specialists Cherry Red was able to license the tapes for CD release, along with both sides of the Smash single.

The two Smash tracks are carefully-produced, commercially-viable soft-psych numbers. The twelve “lost” album tracks, by comparison, are a revelation; given the uncompromisingly basic circumstances of their creation they shouldn’t work but somehow they do, revealing a band on the cusp of garage R’n’B and psychedelia, given a fizzing veneer of excitement by the live-in-the-studio performance and unvarnished production values. Even the crude, play-in-a-day lead guitar, flute and harmonica figures contribute to the ambience rather than detracting, whilst Bob de Vos’s Scott Walker-ish vocal is an unexpected asset. The leadoff “Colors” is definitive garage-into-psych with clichéd lysergic lyrics, ringing Wurlitzer piano arpeggios, hyperactive bass and fuzzed-up boxing-glove guitar. “Negative Zone” is Brit R’n’B straight out of the Pretty Things with wailing harp, cheesy Farfisa and rattling maracas framing its cod-protest lyrics. “Imagination Dead Imagine” offers a soporific, trippy mantra with spacey Floyd-style organ, jazzy piano fills and druggy flute and guitar leads, while “Forever Gone” is a doomy blues, heavy with eleventh chords on the Wurlitzer, reverbed vocals and a dragging surf guitar solo. The closing “So Bright” is a pulsating piano-driven rocker that strays into Moody Blues territory with stacked harmonies and flute colouration. All the other tracks provide energetic, freewheeling variations on these themes with plenty of tempo and instrument changes.

The In Tune reissue CD from 2010 is an excellent remaster and includes a comprehensive illustrated history of the band with input from Page and various former members.

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“Colors”

:D Reissue | 2010 | Tune In | buy ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

The Freeborne “Peak Impressions”

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The Freeborne were a youthful Boston-based psych outfit whose five members, despite their tender years, all had considerable experience of playing a wide range of styles in earlier combos. Adapting their name from the movie Born Free and discovering the freewheeling creative delights of LSD, they signed to Monitor in early ’67 and concocted a set of highly psychedelic originals which were laid down at A&R Studios in NYC. Peak Impressions sold only modestly, probably because of a dilatory campaign of live appearances to support it. After the lukewarm reception afforded it the original Freeborne folded, though later incarnations with fewer or no original members did tramp the second-division concert circuit for a few years afterwards. Inexplicably, given their obvious talent, only guitarist Bob Margolin seems to have had an appreciable later career, playing in Muddy Waters’s backing band through most of the 70s and subsequently with blues-based outfits under his own name. There’s precious little documentation on the band anywhere, but the excellent It’s Psychedelic Baby website features an informative career interview with Margolin which includes insights into the Freeborne.

I was expecting this one to be good, having read complimentary accounts of it in both Fuzz Acid And Flowers and The Acid Archives. I was even more impressed when it arrived and the CD remaster proved to have been archived by Smithsonian Folkways whose estimable moniker now adorns the Digipak. And this is indeed an impressive collection. It’s notable for the virtuosity of the musicians whose ages ranged from just 17 to 19 and yet three of whom were precociously-talented multi-instrumentalists: and we’re talking orchestral hardware here – pianos, harpsichords, cellos, trumpets, flutes and recorders – not just standard rock frontline. It’s also remarkable for the variety and creativity of the material; one reviewer commented that there seemed to be too many ideas to fit into a single album, and I can see his point. Youthful enthusiasm ensured that nothing was left out and nothing left understated, and most tracks move through bewildering sequences of keys, metres, instrumentation and vocal stylings that give their definitively psych outlines a distinctly progressive edge. This is one to listen to right through several times to get the whole effect.

The lyrics are mostly generic trippy psych nonsense, but the music is invigoratingly original. Leading off with a soulful piano riff, the opening “Images” offers Byrdsy harmonies, pulsating bass and rippling guitar scales before switching into a baroque piano and trumpet waltz. “Land Of Diana” prefigures 70s prog, starting as a jazzy 5/4 and shifting into a bluesy shuffle after distinctly proggy organ and guitar episodes. “Visions Of My Own” sets a homely acoustic guitar and trilling flute against what sounds like a chorus of PDQ Bach’s infamous Dill Piccolos before mutating without warning into a military snare-drum march. “Peak Impressions And Thoughts” is all Piper-era Floyd with swirling Farfisa, spiky Syd-style guitar, fluid bass and crashing cymbals building to a furious final crescendo. “Yellow Sky” is definitive Britsike with wah-ed guitars, churchy keyboards and lots of tempo changes. The most conventional track, “Hurtin’ Kind Of Woman”, is a soft blues shuffle with jazzy guitar and energetic Hammond work comparable with the best of Brian Auger. Despite the multifarious musical landscapes visited here, only on the last two tracks does the band outstretch itself, with the ridiculously sombre harpsichord and cello, sub-Beach Boys harmonies and cod-poetic spoken voice outro of “A New Song For Orestes” and the unnecessarily lengthy and self-indulgent cod-classical piano/trumpet cadenzas and duet of the closing “But I Must Return To Frenzy”.

A fine nine-out-of-ten psych artefact that will reward repeated listening.

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“Visions of My Own”

:) Original | 1968 | Monitor | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2011 | Smithsonian Folkways | buy ]

Comus “First Utterance”

Quite reasonably described in recent reviews as “acoustic death metal” and “too weird for folkies, too folky for weirdos”, it would be hard to identify any album from the sixties/seventies cusp that was more wilfully intended to alienate the mainstream record-buying public than this totally unique progressive folk effort by Comus. First Utterance was, and still is, “difficult”. Fortunately today an appreciative audience exists for “difficult” stuff like this.

Kent-based art students Roger Wootton and Glenn Goring had played acoustic covers of Velvet Underground numbers in London folk clubs, thereby alienating the contemporary folk audience as early as 1968. Enlisting several classically-trained players, they became Comus, after the seventeenth-century masque (musical drama) by John Milton, and debuted at the Beckenham Arts Lab, the southeast London pub session hosted by a young David Bowie. The stage act now centred round Wootton’s lyrically-disturbing songs which drew from the themes of the original Comus – sorcery and attempted rape – and other similarly cheerful topics: murder, mutilation and mental illness. The accompaniment was fully acoustic apart from Andy Hellaby’s Fender bass, with Wootton on 6-string, Goring on 12-string and slide, Colin Pearson on violin and viola, Rob Young on flute and oboe and Bobbie Watson’s homespun vocals. There was no drummer but various band members contributed enthusiastic hand percussion when not soloing. Indeed, apart from Wootton’s lyrics the band’s other distinctive feature was the intensity and variety of sounds they conjured from their acoustic toolkit, matched by Wootton’s astonishing vocal variations which ranged from a demented Bolan warble via a Roger Chapman bleat to a John Lydon shriek.

A support slot with Bowie at London’s prestigious Festival Hall led to Comus’s signing with Pye’s adventurous progressive arm, Dawn, and a tortuous series of recording sessions. On its 1970 release the album received reasonable support, including a pre-release maxi-single comprising leadoff track “Diana” and two non-album songs plus a slot on the fondly-remembered Dawn Penny Concerts college tour. Despite this the album never appealed to other than a few wigged-out diehards, and it died an appropriate slow death, the band folding. In 1974, at the request of the nascent Virgin Records, Wootton, Watson and Hellaby reconvened as Comus with guest musicians to produce a more conventional folk-prog album To Keep From Crying, but this also stiffed and marked the end of the band until, thirty-four years later, the entire original outfit sans Young was enticed back together by a Swedish cult following for a live appearance at a Stockholm festival.

“Diana” conjures up the darkest of Dionysian images, operating around a disconcerting riff set off by cacophonous goblin voices and sweet atonal strings. “The Herald” is a serenely beautiful twelve-minute suite in three sections with allegorical day/night lyrics, lush woodwinds and a shimmering acoustic guitar centre section. By contrast the eleven-minute “Drip Drip” with its chilling references to nudity, bloody death and forest burial builds to a thunderous jam with howling strings and rattling percussion. “The Bite” chronicles the tortured nightmares of a condemned man’s final night of sleep to an inappropriately cheery guitar and flute backing reminiscent of Jethro Tull. The closing “The Prisoner” is a desperate cry for help from an inmate of a lunatic asylum which starts innocuously enough but progresses to a fractured, crazed finale. Subject matter notwithstanding, the quality of the music itself throughout makes it possible to appreciate the album without delving too deeply into the words, which suits me just fine.

First Utterance was reissued as a single CD by Phantom Sound & Vision in 2004, and is currently available as part of a comprehensive 2CD set Song To Comus on Castle that includes the whole of both albums and the maxi-single, both sides of a late Wootton solo single and an unreleased outtake plus an excellent historical booklet. All the Comus you could conceivably want, frankly. If you really need to digest the lyrics, visit Comus’s website.

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“The Prisoner”

:) Original |  1970 | Dawn | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2005 | Castle | buy here ]

Blossom Toes “We Are Ever So Clean”

Variously described as “the finest popsike album ever recorded”, “a quirky look at British life in the late 60s with tea and cakes on the lawn, budgerigars and balloons wafting in the breeze” and “Georgio Gomelsky’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, you might conclude that this definitive whimsy-psych opus was a premeditated attempt to upstage the Fabs and the Kinks at their own game by a similarly professional outfit. In fact it was the more-or-less accidental result of a dissolute R’n’B covers band ingesting lots of pharmaceuticals, reluctantly writing their own material, being impelled by their uber-persuasive manager/producer to come up with potential hit singles, and witnessing their lyrically quirky but musically straightforward guitar-based acid-pop songs being swathed in florid orchestral overdubs by their record company. All of which may sound like a recipe for a ragged, stylistic disaster of an album, and track titles like “The Remarkable Saga Of The Frozen Dog”, “I Will Bring You This And That” and “The Intrepid Balloonist’s Handbook, Volume 1” didn’t help to dispel that initial impression. Released a shade too late for the Summer Of Love and receiving a thoroughly polarised critical reception, it collapsed commercially. However, it gradually established a reputation as one of the great “lost” psych artefacts, was repeatedly bootlegged over decades for the benefit of aficionados, and has continued to attract enthusiasm and opprobrium in equal measures to this day. I like it a lot; you make up your own mind.

Brian Godding (vcl, gtr, keys), Jim Cregan (gtr, vcl), Brian Belshaw (bs, vcl) and Kevin Westlake (drs, vcl) had been the Ingoes, tramping the well-worn path from Hamburg beat band via freakbeat to R’n’B and soul covers. Picked up by former Stones/Yardbirds svengali Gomelsky and re-christened Blossom Toes, they signed to Polydor and worked up a clutch of self-written tunes with lysergic lyrics, spare, brittle backings and dense harmony vocals in the Ivy League vein. These were then subjected, against the band’s wishes, to various degrees of post-production orchestration, some tracks being left more or less unadorned while others were totally swaddled in brass bands, string quartets, plaintive woodwinds and what-have-you.

The leadoff “Look At Me I’m You” is typically everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, featuring a “Taxman”-ish riff with dense harmonies, backwards guitars, scat singing, a full brass band on the bridge and a fake scratched-record-stick on the outro. The thoroughly excellent near-caricature of definitive Britsike, “I’ll Be Late For Tea”, is well-known and has been much anthologised. “Frozen Dog” is a piece of wigged-out craziness with a stomping beat overlaid with deliberately formless, tuneless backing vocals and barking noises – in fact “barking” in every sense. “Telegram Tuesday” comes nearest to the original concept, a fully-formed lilting pop song with Byrdsy guitars and trademark rich harmonies, and for once no orchestral interference. The joyful marching rhythm and hysterical ironic laughter of “People Of The Royal Parks” mask a vituperative attack on the Establishment in the form of a diatribe against po-faced park keepers, government ministers and other officious killjoys. “Mrs Murphy’s Budgerigar” is classic whimsy, chronicling the misadventures of the said bird with enormously over-egged decoration by harpsichord, strings and piccolo trumpet. “Balloonist’s Handbook” is a demented rumba with organ and accordion accompaniment, its rhythm and whacked-out theatrical vocal delivery more than slightly hinting at the Bonzos. For good measure, the closing “Track For Speedy Freaks” is a whirling eighty-second collage of snippets from all the preceding tracks, while between those tracks come brief sotto voce interludes: random speech, coughing, operatic singing and bits of dialogue that sound like cuts from The Goon Show.

After the album bombed the band replaced drummer Westlake with multi-instrumentalist Poli Palmer and released a second album, If Only For A Moment, almost two years later. This was a more conventional prog-rock offering but suffered a similar fate, and Blossom Toes called it a day soon after. Godding enjoyed a subsequent career with various jazz-rock and avant-garde outfits including Centipede and Mike Westbrook’s band, whilst Cregan and Palmer wound up in the highly-successful prog-rock outfit Family. We Are Ever So Clean eventually found a kosher CD re-release on Sunbeam in 2007, its fifteen original tracks being augmented by an interesting assortment of un-orchestrated versions, live takes and unused demos.

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“Look at Me I’m You”

:) Original | 1967 | Polydor | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2007 | Sunbeam | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Hardwater “Hardwater”

These pages are overflowing with tales of bands that came within a whisker of making it big in the halcyon years of rock: bands for which talent, originality and a fine first album wasn’t enough to propel them into the commercial big-time and which subsequently fell by the wayside. Few came closer than Hardwater; only their timing probably let them down.

Their back pedigree was immaculate; guitarist Richard Fifield and bassist Robert McLerran had been members of the Astronauts, the Boulder-based surf outfit who’d released a string of nationally successful singles and albums on RCA between 1962 and 1968 and garnered an enthusiastic following in Japan. Relocating to LA and recruiting full-blooded Apache drummer Tony Murillo and bilingual guitarist Peter “Pedro” Wyant, they were signed rapidly to Capitol as Hardwater – the name being hippie argot for ice – assigned to illustrious house producer David Axelrod and directed to record in Capitol’s famed Records Tower studios with all its near-limitless resources. Axelrod was also a top-notch composer and arranger, and Hardwater’s situation could be compared to a new but well-qualified UK outfit being assigned to George Martin and recorded at Abbey Road. Success seemed inevitable.

There was no distinctive lead singer, but effortless three-part harmonies carried the songs which were comparable with those of Buffalo Springfield and Moby Grape, although the band members themselves claimed to have been heavily influenced by Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. In other words, definitive West Coast folk/country/acid rock that couldn’t have come from any other area or any other era. Liberally sprinkled over the tight, taut rhythm tracks was Wyant’s remarkable lead guitar, whose unique style juxtaposed rippling Eastern raga scales with aching pedal steel simulations via a volume swell. His sound was and remains revolutionary, especially since he favoured an unfashionable hollowbody Fender Coronado guitar with low-powered DeArmond pickups. The rockin’ leadoff medley “My Time / Take A Long Look” sets out the store, while the subsequent tracks vary from the unassuming folk-rock of “City Sidewalks”, and the good-timey two-step of “Plate Of My Fare” built around a sinuous Wyant guitar riff, through the dreamy acid-folk of “Monday” and the complex, contrapuntal acoustic guitars of “To Nowhere” to the funky finisher “Good Luck” with its popping bass and eleventh chords reminiscent of the Fabs’ “Taxman”.

No problems in the execution, then, and the album should have been a biggie. The problem was that Capitol had signed and recorded a glut of top-quality acts around that time, notably the Band and the Steve Miller Band, and subsequent record label effort was overwhelmingly directed towards these other acts. Hardwater’s eponymous debut was six months delayed in release, there was no record company-sponsored tour, and like so many other praiseworthy offerings in those prolific days it failed to sell and duly disappeared, the disillusioned band fragmenting. Of its members, Wyant had the most high-profile subsequent career, having impressed Axelrod sufficiently to appoint him his house guitarist and feature him on Axelrod’s own highly-successful quasi-orchestral recordings and on the ersatz Electric Prunes’ infamous Mass In F Minor. He has since enjoyed a long and varied career whose details can be found at his website.

The CD reissue on Cherry Red’s subsidiary Tune In is brief but excellent, augmenting the original running order of around thirty minutes with the very different re-recording for a projected single of “Plate Of My Fare”. Axelrod’s production standards were as good as it got at the time and still sound good today if you don’t mind the sweeping stereo separation fashionable back then, with guitars and drums widely spaced across the plane. The accompanying booklet with historical perspective by Wyant is exemplary.

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“Medley: My Time / Take a Long Look”

:D Reissue | 2011 | Tune In | buy here ]
:) Original | 1968 | Capitol | search ebay ]