Author Archive

Quill “Quill”

This one came as a total surprise package to this reviewer. On reading their unexpectedly extensive Wikipedia entry I found that they’d played at Woodstock despite being an unrecorded act; that they were a popular regional attraction around Boston and the northeast; and that virtually all of them were multi-instrumentalists with a penchant for swapping the instruments around onstage: guitarists and keyboardists switching to horns, woodwind or cellos at the drop of a setlist.

The Woodstock slot came courtesy of a well-received appearance in NYC, and on hearing of their impending festival appearance with its film and live album potential, Ahmet Ertegun signed Quill to Atlantic’s Cotillion subsidiary in the summer of ’69. The non-appearance of the band’s set in the Woodstock movie contributed to the label losing interest and the band’s insistence on producing the debut album themselves didn’t particularly help their cause with Ertegun either. Although it was released the following year it received next to no corporate support and quickly stiffed. Like many another unsuccessful opus of the period it lay doggo for decades until resuscitated for CD reissue by the excellent Wounded Bird imprint in 2010.

The music itself is also surprising, distinctively and wilfully strange, somewhere between the Doors and early British prog-rock. The band members are all credited under wigged-out pseudonyms, Beefheart-style, and the compositions themselves have similarly wacky titles. Sonically, it’s sparsely realised despite the multifarious talents of the musicians, populated by barely-audible organs and pianos and mixed-back guitars and drums – the most prominent instrument is often the bass guitar. The arrangements are of the apparently loose, adlibbed type that can only result from the most meticulous orchestration and rehearsal. The lyrics are far from the usual hippie abandon of the day, laden with social commentary, and the backings are full of irregular chord sequences and modulations. There’s no telling where it’s going from one track to the next, or sometimes within any given track.

After an unpromising raggedy-ass intro, the opening “Thumbnail Screwdriver” builds around a catchy Hendrixoid guitar riff and features a chiming solo by harmonised guitars. The nine-minute “They Live The Life” is a minimalist shuffle with warped Moody Blues harmonies and a sparse drum solo which builds into a collapsing cacophony of chanting and percussion, apparently a favourite concert closer. “BBY” showcases the alternative horn skills of the players and comes over like Zappa bowdlerising Chicago, while “Yellow Butterfly” uses only flanged, wah-ed guitar and sparse bass and has ghostly vocals redolent of Syd Barrett. The closing “Shrieking Finally” opens with a droll mock Gregorian chant which leads into a fragmented prog workout with distinctive piano trimmings. Although all the musicianship is excellent, it’s probably Roger North’s inventive and technically adroit drumming that stays longest in the memory.

It’s all wacky and it all works. You won’t whistle the melodies as you walk down the street, but without doubt this is another rarity that deserves its rediscovery.

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“Thumbnail Screwdriver”

:) Original | 1970 | Cotillion | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2010 | Wounded Bird | buy here ]

Bo Grumpus “Before the War”

I came to this one working backwards along bassist Jim Colegrove’s timeline. I’d heard Colegrove’s wonderfully idiosyncratic bass playing on Bobby Charles’s eponymous album, whence I’d backtracked him to Hungry Chuck. It turned out that in an earlier life both Colegrove and Charles/Chuck drummer N.D. Smart II were founder members of Bo Grumpus, hence my initial interest in this album.

Originally assembling in Boston as a funky jugband comprising Colegrove, Smart and guitarists Ed Mottau and Joe Hutchinson, Bo Grumpus mutated into a New York-based folk-rock outfit in the style of the Byrds and veered towards psychedelia at about the same time as their West Coast contemporaries. Indeed, Before The War has been compared to The Notorious Byrd Brothers, though IMHO it also owes a debt to Revolver-era Fabs. The harmony vocals are sometimes very Byrds-ish indeed, but at others very Beatle-ish, as are the keyboards and other esoteric instruments provided by their George Martin equivalent, the classically-trained Felix Pappalardi. The production by Pappalardi is also more sophisticated and glossy than anything the various homely McGuinn collectives ever laid down.

Whatever, Before The War is a classy folk-rock-into-psych collection in its own right with carefully-constructed songs and excellent musicianship and vocals. For no obvious reason its original release on Atco in spring of 1968 tanked completely, and the album lay dormant until resuscitated by Wounded Bird for CD release forty years later. Meanwhile Bo Grumpus had moved to Bell Records with Pappalardi when he was headhunted by that imprint and recorded a further album Home under the changed name of Jolliver Arkansaw, again featuring Felix and also a guest appearance by his future colleague Leslie “Mountain” West. When this too bombed they called it a day late in ’69 and Colegrove and Smart subsequently joined Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s Great Speckled Bird. Today Before The War is readily available on CD or as an Atco vinyl re-release, but Home still awaits rediscovery and originals on vinyl will set you back a pretty penny.

Despite the intricacy of much of the playing and production and the frequently mournful and introspective hippy-trippy lyrics, this album has a carefree, floating feel to it. Most of the tracks use the same gentle 4/4 rhythm and seem to flow into one another effortlessly; it almost feels like the whole album is one suite. Colegrove’s nimble flatpicked Gibson bass work is distinctive throughout; like Paul McCartney he was a lead guitarist turned bassist, which helps explain the nature of his playing, adventurous but never intrusive. Probably by comparison to their live sound, the guitars are mostly mixed well back but provide plenty of sonic variety, with fuzz, wah and electric 12-string all exercised. By the time recording had finished drummer Smart had left to be replaced by Ronnie Blake; their no-frills styles are pretty well indistinguishable. The polymath Pappalardi contributes various keys, trumpet, ocarina and glockenspiel. The opening “Sparrow Tune” sets the template, led out by a trademark Colegrove riff and coloured by fuzzed guitar and churchy organ backing. Also notable are the overtly psychedelic “Yesterday’s Streets” with its electronically treated vocals, baroque harpsichord trills and glock fills; the string-laden “Travelin’ In The Dark” which recalls early Moody Blues, and the unmistakeably Beatle-ish “The Moon Will Rise” with lush answer-back vocals and a sublime ocarina solo. The wry “Ragtimely Love” and “Brooklyn” are hangovers from the outfit’s jugband origins.

Oh, and that name? Pappalardi’s artist wife Gail provided the name Bo Grumpus from a drawing of a fictional monster that she’d hung on their living-room wall. Perhaps that’s why the record didn’t sell; a distinctive name, but one unlikely to be taken seriously even in those hippy-dippy days. (Why they thought Jolliver Arkansaw would be an improvement is even more inexplicable.) For a lot more on this and a whole slew of related projects, visit Jim Colegrove’s website.

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“Yesterday’s Streets”

:) Original | 1968 | Atco | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2008 | Wounded Bird | get it here ]

Mike Stuart Span “Children of Tomorrow”

The cosmopolitan seaside resort of Brighton, Sussex – my own birthplace, as it happens – has been a Mecca for the more unbuttoned forms of the performing arts ever since the louche patronage of the Prince Regent, later King George IV. Strangely, especially given its nearness to “Swinging” London, it produced only a sparse crop of memorable artists and groups in the halcyon years of pop and rock music. During their brief sojourn as a recording act, the Mike Stuart Span were the only such from Brighton – and that at the height of the sixties beat/psych era when groups were being signed nationwide in hundreds.

Like many of their contemporaries, they launched as a beat group, became a mod-soul outfit, then floated off into psychedelia before gravitating towards progressive rock. Starting around 1963 as the Mighty Atoms, they underwent numerous personnel changes and name-changes, first to the Extremes and then to the Mike Stuart Span – after their vocalist, Stuart Michael Hobday – before landing a contract with EMI Columbia in 1966 under which they released a couple of Stax-ish singles. These both bombed and EMI let the band go. Dumping their keyboards and horn section, the remaining four-piece – Hobday, guitarist Brian Bennett,  bassist Roger McCabe and drummer Gary Murphy – recorded an acid-tinged cover of “Rescue Me” and a couple of similarly lysergic originals for Decca, who branded these insufficiently commercial and declined to release them at all. Taking what appeared to be the only remaining path, the band cut, at their own expense, two unashamedly psychedelic originals “Children Of Tomorrow” and “Concerto Of Thoughts” and issued these in 1967 in a run of 500 singles on a small independent label, Jewel. The record received sufficient exposure and critical acclaim to gain them local support slots to Cream and Hendrix, a couple of John Peel sessions, a BBC TV documentary (on struggling rock bands!), a misguided pure-pop single on Fontana and, eventually, an offer to sign to the UK branch of Elektra, under condition that they change their name; this they did yet again, to Leviathan. Two fine guitar-led prog-rock singles on the new label came and went unnoticed in 1969, and sessions for an LP were completed but Elektra head honcho Jak Holzman was dissatisfied with the product. With the prospect of the album’s release fading, the band called it a day and split late in ’69, all but Bennett leaving the music industry. “Children Of Tomorrow” resurfaced as an uber-rarity during the 1980s psych revival. Interest slowly grew and a compilation (officially-sanctioned) of most of the band’s psych/prog-era studio work finally appeared in 1996.

This new collection, Children Of Tomorrow, represents the entire studio output of the band in all its incarnations on all labels apart from about half of the aborted Elektra album, and gives a fascinating insight into a band exploring every avenue to try to make the big-time, with talent to spare but luck totally lacking. The whole story is laid out in the splendid accompanying booklet. Of the music, the early soul-based tracks are solid and energetic if unoriginal, while the Decca efforts are worthy generic acid-pop. From here things improve markedly; both sides of the Jewel single are splendidly druggy stuff, fully deserving of their high rating. But best of all IMHO are the demos the band cut before the Elektra signing and the sides subsequently released as Leviathan singles; the tight arrangements, imperious vocals and wallpaper-stripping guitar work of “World In My Head”, “Second Production”, “Flames”, “Blue Day” and “Remember The Times” suggest that the cancelled album would have been a fine prog-guitar artefact. Allegedly the master tapes still languish in Elektra’s vaults, and Warner has hinted in the past about finally releasing the album in original form. If it ever appears, it will almost certainly have been worth the wait.

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“Children of Tomorrow”

:D Compilation | 2011 | Grapefruit | buy here ]

Billy Nicholls “Would You Believe”

For a man who’s enjoyed a solid five-decade membership of the British rock establishment, Billy Nicholls must be one of its least-known figures. From being engaged as a staff songwriter to Andrew Loog Oldham’s upstart Immediate Records at the tender age of eighteen, to composer of “I Can’t Stop Loving You (Though I Try)”, the royalties from the multiple cover versions of which should assure his pension, to MD of the Who’s and Pete Townshend’s concert activities for the last thirty-odd years, Nicholls has enjoyed a fruitful but surprisingly low-profile relationship with the industry, only recently achieving acclaim as the author of one of psychedelia’s great “lost” gems.

The history of Would You Believe is as engaging a tale as that of Nicholls himself. When Oldham fell out with the Stones in 1967 he redirected all his resources into making the youthful Nicholls a star of the psychedelic pop scene. The results were the single “Would You Believe”, which hit the racks in January 1968, and the like-titled album that followed in short order. The single has been described as “the most over-produced record of the sixties”, and with reason; a modest psych-pop love song, it’s swathed in overblown orchestration including baroque strings, harpsichord, banjo (!), tuba (!!), and demented answer-back vocals from Steve Marriott. A trifle late for the high tide of UK psych, it failed to trouble the charts. Unfazed, Oldham and Nicholls pressed on with the album, Nicholls providing a steady stream of similarly well-crafted ditties and a bevy of top-rated London sessionmen providing the backings, thankfully with somewhat more subtlety than on the prototype cut. The album was ready for pressing just as the revelation of Oldham’s reckless financial overstretch brought about Immediate’s overnight demise, and only about a hundred copies ever made it to wax, most of which somehow surfaced in Sweden. The album became one of the mythical lost albums of the sixties, and original copies now fetch over a grand in GBP.

The record itself was heralded then, and is still often described today, as the English answer to Pet Sounds, with Nicholls’s songwriting being compared to Brian Wilson’s. This is blatant hype, and the writing certainly doesn’t get close, but the album is still the epitome of sixties Britsike, a bunch of fine acid-pop songs rendered with glorious harmonies and superb lysergic arrangements that wouldn’t have disgraced George Martin. Put it this way, if you like Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake or A Teenage Opera or even The Who Sell Out you’ll enjoy this. The sound and the production are sometimes closer to the Stones’ “We Love You” / Satanic Majesties output, unsurprising since it was recorded in the same studio with many of the same sessioneers, including the incomparable Nicky Hopkins on assorted keys, though this is – the title track apart – a far more taut and less self-indulgent collection than the Glimmer Twins’ psychedelic endeavours. Sundry Small Faces hung around, with Marriott contributing huge fuzz-psych guitar to “Girl From New York”. Indeed there’s plenty of sonic variety, from the tight structure and Townshend-style telegraph guitar of “London Social Degree” (go figure the acronym there, folks), through the lush Byrdsy 12-string-driven “(Cut And) Come Again” which garnered a cover from Del Shannon,  to the full-on acid rock treatments of “Being Happy” and “It Brings me Down” with its trippy false ending.

After the failure of Would You Believe Nicholls took a back seat from stardom and began a belated apprenticeship in the music industry, initially working on low-profile projects with Ronnie Lane and old acquaintance Townshend whilst gaining an understanding of all its facets that would stand him in good stead for the next forty years. He released nothing new under his own name until 1974’s Love Songs, a solid soft-rock venture that deserves a review of its own here, and may well get one. Meanwhile Would You Believe is readily available as a CD reissue, or you can get seven of its eleven songs – plus three outtakes from the album’s sessions, which are every bit as good as those eventually used – on Nicholls’s fine career retrospective Forever’s No Time At All.

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“London Social Degree”

:) Original | 1968 | Immediate | search ebay ]
:D Anthology | 2005 | Castle | buy here ]

Ry Cooder “Chicken Skin Music”

Not exactly a “lost” album, though hardly a classic – on first release in 1976 it struggled to position 177 on the Billboard album chart – Chicken Skin Music can now be seen as an early landmark in Ry Cooder’s lifelong odyssey to reinterpret and re-popularise the various roots musics of North and Central America. His first four solo releases had concentrated on the traditional musical styles of the United States’s poor blacks and whites: blues, country, rural folk and gospel. With this collection he widened his sweep to include cultures on the margins of American society, and in doing so produced one of the earliest forays by a “rock” musician, and the first of many by Cooder himself, into what we now call World Music. It’s now widely regarded as his finest work in a distinguished oeuvre.

Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez is a virtuoso Tejano accordionist, playing a South Texas style that sprang from German polka and Mexican mariachi roots; since coming to wider prominence with Cooder, he’s enjoyed a long and successful career with Doug Sahm’s Texas Tornadoes. Cooder had played with him shortly before and asked him to contribute to his next recording. Jiménez accordingly graced several tracks on the album with his quicksilver button accordion motifs, giving a lively Tex-Mex topping to Cooder’s revolutionary revivals of the Nashville hit “He’ll Have To Go”, refashioned in a glorious baion rhythm with the accordion harmonised by alto sax in pure Mariachi fashion;  of Lieber and Stoller’s evergreen “Stand By Me”, rendered as a sombre spiritual; and of the hoary old Leadbelly chestnut “Goodnight Irene” in which the accordion fronts a traditional string band in a loping waltz. Cooder contributed to the Hispanic flavour with his newly-incorporated bajo sexto and tiple, as well as his usual electric and slide guitars.

The late Charles “Gabby” Pahinui was a master of Hawaiian lapsteel guitar, and Leland “Atta” Isaacs a virtuoso of the indigenous slack-key guitar style in which the instrument is tuned to one of a variety of open chords but is fretted fingerstyle rather than with a slide. Both were longtime heroes of traditional music in their home islands, and the lynchpins of the revival of Hawaiian roots music in the early 1970s. Cooder flew to Honolulu specifically to record with them: the sessions produced a relaxed Hawaiian rendition of Hank Snow’s old hit “Yellow Roses” and an effortless Western Swing instrumental version of Gus Kuhn’s venerable “Chloe”. Taking his cue from his hosts, Cooder added additional slack-key on the former, and on the latter he harmonised Pahinui’s C6 lapsteel with another, plus overlaying some toothsome mandolin work. Cooder would return the favour by playing on several Pahinui/Isaacs albums.

On the remaining tracks Cooder emulates his distinguished collaborators, adding slack-key guitar to a lilting rendition of the ancient spiritual “Always Lift Him Up” and a modest Cajun accordion – under Jiménez’s tutelage – to a sympathetic reading of Leadbelly’s anti-racist polemic “Bourgeois Blues”. He provides continuity with his earlier recordings by including rocking versions of the old minstrel songs “I Got Mine” and “Smack Dab In The Middle” performed in his accustomed style with faultless electric and slide guitar accompaniment. The presence of various buddies from the LA session Mafia – notably Chris Etheridge (bs), Jim Keltner (drs), George Bohannon (horns) – and his long-standing soulful backing vocal trio of Bobby King, Terry Evans and Herman Johnson ensure quality results throughout.

In more recent years Cooder’s campaign on behalf of the roots musics of America has finally achieved substantive commercial penetration with those of Cuba (Buena Vista Social Club) and Latino California (Chávez Ravine), whilst his urge to collaborate with musicians from more distant cultures has seen him work with Hindustani classical veena player H.M. Bhatt (A Meeting By The River) and the late and greatly lamented Mali multi-instrumental maestro Ali Farka Touré (Talking Timbuktu). They’re all excellent works. At 64 he shows no sign of slowing down and it’s impossible to second-guess what his next project will be. Whatever, you know it’ll be worth a listen.

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“Chloe”

:) Original | 1976 | Reprise | search ebay ]
;) MP3 Album | download here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Keith Christmas “Pigmy”

Acid Folk is one of those musicological genre headings that had to be invented retrospectively because it didn’t exist when the music it describes was extant in the late sixties. These days it’s taken to cover the acoustic singer-songwriter individuals and combos who sprang from Dylan-inspired folk-pop roots, picked up psychedelic overtones and morphed into the complexity of prog-rock – which satisfyingly describes Keith Christmas’s most creative period, up to and including Pigmy.

Originally an Essex lad, Christmas was an undergrad at Bath University (coincidentally my own alma mater at around the same time, though we never met) where he studied Building Technology in between extensive gigging on the vibrant London and Bristol folk club circuits. Never a true folkie but certainly influenced by the likes of Bert Jansch and John Rembourn, he combined an enviable fingerstyle technique on an unfashionable but strident Fender Palomino with hippie bedsitter lyricism and a reedy but distinctive voice, a combination also evident in the work of his contemporaries Nick Drake and Al Stewart. The schizophrenic nature of Keith’s career at this time – recording with session musicians but invariably gigging solo – is mirrored in the three albums he cut between 1969 and 1971, these setting his formidable acoustic guitar work alternately against orchestral ensembles and jazzy rock band backings.

Christmas has disowned his first album, 1969’s vaguely country-rock Stimulus, recorded with musicians from Mighty Baby and pedal steelist Gordon Huntley, as “overproduced”; I’d say it was rather a venture in an unsuitable musical direction for the man. He hit his stride eighteen months later with the second, Fable Of The Wings, recorded with session musicians with folk-rock credentials, which subsequently established the folk-baroque-prog template for which he’s best remembered today. There’s little to choose quality-wise between this and the ensuing Pigmy, which for me just has the edge, offering immaculate, restrained orchestral arrangements by Robert Kirby (who did the same for Nick Drake) and the LSO on its first side of introspective ballads, notably the earnest but cerebral “Timeless And Strange”, and powerful keyboards from Rod Argent and bass from Fuzzy Samuels on the other side’s trio of extended classy rockers, culminating in the extraordinary “Forest And The Shore” with its swelling, Ligeti-like choral interludes. Keith’s acoustic shimmers like a harpsichord on the top side, and his ferocious acoustic rhythm work on the flip is leavened with some fluid electric soloing. The album artwork shows him appropriately framed by a Narnia-like background, wispily-bearded, Afghan-coated and apparently rolling a joint, the true zeitgeist of the period.

Although critically his best-received works, neither Fable nor Pigmy sold in droves at the time, and after an even less successful move in a rock/soul direction Christmas threw in the professional music business. While his contemporaries Al Stewart and Nick Drake had gone on to contrasting fates – one to superstardom in LA, the other to clinical depression and an untimely death – Keith became a renovator of old houses and eventually a schoolteacher, settling in a pleasant village near Bristol and making music for his own pleasure, issuing privately-recorded small-circulation albums at intervals and occasionally gigging local pubs and small venues, his acoustic guitar mastery undiminished. Stimulus has been bootlegged for CD, but Fable and Pigmy remain unreissued and are now great rarities on vinyl; however, almost their entire contents are available on the excellent Castle compilation CD Timeless And Strange, whose title encapsulates his music of that period and which is available direct from Keith himself at his website.

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“Timeless and Strange”

:D Compilation | 2004 | Castle | buy here ]
:) Original | 1971 | B&C Records | search ebay ]

Michael Bloomfield “Analine”

By 1977 Michael Bloomfield was well past his glory days as a stellar sessioneer on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and as one half of the Butterfield Blues Band’s fearsome two-pronged guitar attack with Elvin Bishop. Disillusioned by the guitar-star pressure resulting from the Fillmore supersessions with Al Kooper and his brief tenure as figurehead of the crazily over-hyped Electric Flag, and succumbing to increasing depression and substance abuse, he’d drawn in his horns and largely retired to his San Fran home, emerging occasionally to record low-key albums with friends including John Hammond Jr, Barry Goldberg and Dr John, or to play low-profile gigs with pickup bands in the Bay area. After a prolonged spell of not playing at all due to the effects of heroin, psychological disturbances and arthritis, Bloomfield re-emerged in ’77 to cut a series of four albums over three years for John Fahey’s Takoma label, in which he returned largely to the pure Chicago blues of his formative years, now leavened with soul, gospel and jazz influences.

The first Takoma album, Analine, finds Bloomfield stretching out in leisurely fashion alone in the studio, playing all the instruments himself on a selection of self-penned tunes and covers in enough styles to delight any Ry Cooder aficionado, and airing a tenor voice with a slightly cracked heroin edge and a wicked and very necessary sense of humour on the opening “Peepin’ An’ A-Moanin’ Blues” and on “Big ‘C’ Blues” whose decidedly non-PC lyrics deal with sexual perversions and cancer respectively, and on a wonderful ragtime rendition of the ancient murder ballad “Frankie And Johnny”. Most of the guitars are acoustic and sublimely played, with nods to Django Reinhardt on the swinging twelve-bar “Mr Johnson And Mr Dunn” (on which Bloomfield’s jazzy rhythm comping is a delight), to Stefan Grossman on the effortless Scott Joplin-syle “Effinonna Rag”, and to Cooder on the beautiful Tejano “Hilo Waltz”, forefronting Dobro and tiple. Bloomfield also offers an effective bluesy piano, an instrument with which he’s not usually associated, on the sombre gospel instrumental “At The Cross” and on a maudlin but stylish reading of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”. The only disappointments are that he lets rip only once in his legendary electric blues style, on “Big ‘C’ Blues”, and that his expeditions on electric slide guitar tend to be a bit weedy and undisciplined, as on “At The Cross” and on the concluding, soulful, title track. The latter is the only cut to feature other musicians, including old supersession colleague Nick Gravenites on vocal, and is a pointer to the following albums which would be recorded in a band milieu.

Hopelessly out of sync with the prevailing musical industry trends, the four Takoma outings predictably sank without trace saleswise. After a couple more desultory albums and a one-off reunion on stage with Dylan at SF’s Warfield Theater in November 1980 at which he contributed to a stirring revisitation of “Like A Rolling Stone”, Bloomfield was found dead from a massive heroin OD in his car two months later, his body allegedly having been removed from a party and driven to a different location in a gruesome echo of Gram Parsons’s demise. Sic transit gloria mundi, or in Mike Bloomfield’s case perhaps the finest white blues guitarist ever. Analine can be found with the subsequent Michael Bloomfield on the first of Ace’s 2007 twofer reissues of the four Takoma albums.

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“Effinonna Rag”

:) Original | 1977 | Takoma | search ]
:D Reissue | 2007 | Ace | 2fer | buy ]

The Rolling Stones “Metamorphosis”

For reasons unexplained, officially-sanctioned outtakes from the Rolling Stones’ Decca (a.k.a. London) period remain as rare as rocking-horse manure. Was the Glimmer Twins’ quality control really so good that they recorded little more than those tracks that appeared as singles or on albums? Or were they so perfectionist that almost all the other stuff was immediately wiped, Paul Dukas-style, rather than being archived? Although to date no fewer than 23 compilations of their ’63-’70 material have been issued worldwide, the number of cuts on these which were not used on the scheduled studio releases can just about be counted on the fingers of one hand – with one notable, noble exception.

At first glance, Metamorphosis, with its Kafka-derived cover art, is just one of the many “exploitation” back-catalogue collections issued by Allen Klein’s ABKCO Music in the wake of the Stones’ defection to Virgin. But where Metamorphosis differs is that it consists completely of studio material unavailable elsewhere – including possibly the meagre sum total of the album-session outtakes remaining from the sixties. These include a cracking cover of Chuck Berry’s “Don’t Lie To Me” with rollicking piano by Ian Stewart, and the stomping, Motownish original “Try A Little Harder”, both of which inexplicably got left off their 1964 LP releases; a strange alternative take on “Heart Of Stone” with pedal steel (by Jimmy Page?); a funky alternative punt (to that used in performance and subsequently issued as a UK-only Mick Jagger solo single) at “Memo From Turner” featuring Al Kooper and possibly Steve Winwood; and three unused cuts from the sessions for Let It Bleed plus one each from Aftermath, Beggars’ Banquet and Sticky Fingers. For rarity freaks these include the gloriously sloppy “Downtown Suzie”, one of only two Bill Wyman songs ever committed to tape by the band, with open-G guitar supplied by Ry Cooder, and a fine cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Don’t Know Why” taped the night Brian Jones died and featuring slide guitar solos from both Keith Richards (recorded earlier) and Mick Taylor (overdubbed later). Taylor also makes a confident early declaration of intent on the studio version of the live concert favourite “Jiving Sister Fanny”.

And that’s only half the story. Almost half the album consists of demos of songs penned by Jagger and Richards but intended for other artists to record, during the Twins’ first fertile period as writers around 1965 (several songs from that year’s Aftermath album were similarly covered). These were cut under Andrew Oldham’s tutelage with Jagger vocalising and backings provided by sessioneers and studio guests including Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Clem Cattini, John McLaughlin, Tony Hicks and Graham Nash. Jagger sings “Out Of Time” over the actual string-laden backing track used by Chris Farlowe for his UK no. 1 and “Each And Every Day Of The Year” over that used by Bobby Jameson, and on demos of “Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind”, “I’d Much Rather Be With The Boys”, “(Walkin’ Thru The) Sleepy City” and “We’re Wastin’ Time” which were realised with new backings respectively by Dick And Dee Dee, the Toggery Five, the Mighty Avengers and (honestly) Jimmy Tarbuck.

So how worthwhile are the sixteen genuine rarities here? Well, the demos are all pretty good, the songs certainly strong enough and the backings sophisticated enough to have made it as single releases under Jagger’s name, apart from the uncharacteristically wimpy “I’d Rather Be With The Boys” (credited to Oldham rather than Jagger as co-writer). And it’s genuinely hard to decide why the excellent band originals here were sidelined in favour of the tracks that made it on to the albums. The schizoid chronology of this collection (mostly 1964-65 and 1969-70) makes it an uneven rather than a homogenous listen, but any serious collector of the Stones’ oeuvre needs to own these tracks.

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“Don’t Lie to Me”

:) Original | 1975 | ABKCO | search ]
:D Reissue | 2002 | ABKCO | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

The Liverbirds “Star Club Show 4”

“Girls with guitars / What’s the world coming to?” sang Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1993, with her Rickenbacker 620 clutched firmly to her bosom and her tongue firmly in her cheek. Since the emancipating mid-70s influence of punk, women have been free to pick up electric guitars and emulate, or even outperform, their male counterparts, either as solo virtuosi (Bonnie Raitt, Rosie Flores) or in all-female bands (the Slits, the Bangles). How different it all was back in the sixties! Ever since the arrival of the Stratocaster back in ’54 the electric axe had garnered a near-universal image as a phallic symbol, culminating in the onstage antics of Hendrix, Page, Ted Nugent and Marc Bolan. As a matter of course, only men played the electric guitar and bass, and indeed the drum kit; a few lady folksingers got to pick melodiously at an acoustic, but during the Beat Era and the ensuing Golden Age Of Rock the idea of females seriously picking up the men’s toys and running with them was almost unthinkable. What about Fender bassist Megan Davies with the Applejacks, or drummer Honey Lantree with the Honeycombs, you ask? OK, they turned a few heads on Ready Steady Go, but they were almost universally dismissed as novelties.

It was with some surprise, then, that I discovered the Liverbirds, a fully-fledged all-female Beat band from Liverpool who came together as early as 1962, were regulars at the Cavern, opened for the Rolling Stones several times in late ’63, spent two years on the infamous Hamburg circuit, and despite a forecast to the contrary by John Lennon (“All-girl outfits can’t last”) stayed together for six years, finally bowing out after a tour of Japan. Nothing remotely folky about these ladies; they elected to play an abrasive brand of R’n’B with all the spiky garage-band pizzazz of the early Stones or Pretty Things, whilst coming onstage in masculine-cut waistcoat suits and frilled shirts for all the world like a female Kinks. Their enduring lineup featured Pam Birch on lead vocal and rhythm guitar, Valerie Gell on lead guitar, Mary McGlory on bass and Sylvia Saunders on kit, and their recorded legacy reveals that they all had real chops.

Beyond cosmopolitan Liverpool, the girls’ reception by conservative UK audiences and sceptical record company A&R men proved predictably underwhelming. However, when invited to work in Germany by Star-Club owner Manfred Weissleder early in 1964 they immediately wowed the famously indulgent Reeperbahn audiences with their energetic, high-volume set of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley covers, earning the nickname “die Weiblichen Beatles” – “the female Beatles”. As an inducement to a second tour, Weissleder offered to record them on his recently-incepted label; their recording career on Star-Club would eventually stretch to four singles and two albums. German chart entries and TV appearances followed, and the girls toured extensively there and in Denmark and Switzerland, even once sharing a bill with Berry himself in Berlin, where legend has it they defied a management instruction to avoid Berry’s songs and brazenly opened with “Roll Over Beethoven”.

Their recordings were unsurprisingly never released in the UK, and apart from the odd anthologised track remained firmly underground here till compiled by Ace subsidiary Big Beat in 2010 as From Merseyside To Hamburg, the CD comprising the entire 1964-65 Star-Club recordings, 29 cuts in all. The tracks from their first original album, Star Club Show 4, are the best: raw, unadorned R’n’B covers recorded live in the studio. These could almost be the Pretties, driven along as they are by Birch’s angry, punky contralto, McGlory’s muscular, metronomic bass, Saunders’s no-nonsense percussion and Gell’s scratchy machine-gun Fender Jaguar lead work. Their takes on Chuck Berry’s “Talking About You”, Berry Gordy’s “Money” and the blues chestnut “Got My Mojo Working” are fit to strip wallpaper. The later sessions offer more of the same but also move further towards Motown, with creditable tilts at the likes of Doug Sahm’s “She’s About A Mover”, Holland-Dozier’s “Heatwave” and Smokey Robinson’s “Shop Around” – all good Reeperbahn fare – plus a couple of modestly Beatle-ish Pam Birch originals which originally appeared as single B-sides; the production is more measured and less viscerally exciting. Today, the individual albums remain unavailable but the compilation is a great-value testament to a bunch of pioneering female rockers, and is highly recommended.

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“Talking About You”

:D Compilation | 2010 | Big Beat | buy here ]

Hungry Chuck “Hungry Chuck”

I discovered Hungry Chuck serendipitously via Bobby Charles’s eponymous 1972 album. Beyond Charles’s inspirational songs I was fired by his core backing outfit’s astonishingly sympathetic funky swamp-rock playing. I knew Amos Garrett already from his liquid-fingered guitar solo on Maria Muldaur’s sublime worldwide hit “Midnight At The Oasis”, but the other guys were strangers to me. On researching Garrett further with a view to identifying yet more stuff on which he’d played, I came across Hungry Chuck.

Former Eric Andersen sideman Garrett, original Remains drummer ND Smart II, ex-Bo Grumpus bassist Jim Colegrove and peripatetic New York pianist Jeffrey Gutcheon had backed Ian and Sylvia Tyson on their fine country-rock album Great Speckled Bird, recorded in Nashville in 1970. From there the four journeymen musicians moved to Woodstock, NY, and became effectively the house band for Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Records, whence their contribution to the Bobby Charles opus, inter alia. With moonlighting pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith from Neil Young’s alternative backing combo Stray Gators and, curiously, session trumpeter Peter Ecklund, they became Hungry Chuck, presumably jokily named for underground cartoonist Dan Clyne’s repulsive character Hungry Chuck Biscuits (unconfirmed – feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). In between backing Grossman’s extensive register of talent the guys found time to assemble their own album, which appeared eponymously as Hungry Chuck in the US in 1972 but did not find a release in the UK until retrospectively put out by See For Miles in 1988 as South In New Orleans.

Typical of most albums recorded by aggregations of talented sidemen, Hungry Chuck is a slow burner which rewards repeated listening: such outfits by definition don’t usually include chartbusting songwriters or throat-grabbing lead vocalists, but the quality of such works invariably shines through with a little aural rubbing. (To see what I mean, listen to anything by Area Code 615 or Barefoot Jerry, or any of David Lindley’s solo and El Rayo-X waxings.) Most of the songs are penned by Gutcheon; musically they’re an eclectic stew of country rock, Memphis soul and New Orleans jazzy swing, and lyrically they’re joyous deprecatory pokes at 1970s American post-hippie culture and obvious parodies of The Band, Zappa and even James Brown, all recorded with a high sense of humour and absolutely no commercial ambition. Garrett’s playing is comparatively restrained compared to his Speckled Bird output, though gloriously tasteful throughout; Colegrove’s bass is less quirky, more solid than on the Charles outing; and it’s Gutcheon’s virtuoso piano and Ecklund’s multitracked trumpet, cornet and fluegel that largely shape the arrangements. As well as the ten “proper” songs there are three episodes of playful studio nonsense credited to Smart and Garrett, presumably to give them a writer credit. Again typically for albums by such aggregations there are no real standout tracks, but the highlights include the swinging opener “Hats Off, America!” (which includes the splendidly prescient line “Tell your kids, don’t worry ‘cos the banks will never fail!”), the obvious Eagles skit “Watch The Trucks Go By” with great guest harmonica from Paul Butterfield, and the splendidly po-faced “All Bowed Down” which caricatures The Band at their most morose.

After this freshman album Hungry Chuck recorded a second, which to date remains unreleased – why? – and soon afterwards went their own ways, all being highly valued as sessioneers. Most notably, Garrett worked extensively with Maria Muldaur; Smart thumped the tubs for Gram Parsons’s Fallen Angels; Gutcheon was musical arranger for the disparate likes of Gladys Knight and Ringo Starr; and Keith stroked the strings for seven years with Uncle Neil. Proving that the split was not rancorous, the Chuck members also intermittently toured and recorded in various combinations almost until the turn of the century, and most still remain active in the business.

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“All Bowed Down”

:) Original Vinyl | 1972 | Bearsville | search ebay ]