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Shuggie Otis “Freedom Flight”

As we all know, the oldest cliché in rock is the casualty list. There are the high-profile heroes of misadventure: Buddy Holly, Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan. There are those that couldn’t handle success and took the ultimate way out: Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley. But perhaps saddest of all are those huge talents who unaccountably chose simply to fade into obscurity, often in self-imposed seclusion: Brian Wilson, Peter Green, Emitt Rhodes . . . and Shuggie Otis.

Johnnie Velotes Jr was a precocious musical polymath. Son of extrovert jump-jive bandleader Johnnie Otis, Shuggie inherited the musical gene in spades, playing guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and vibes fluently before reaching his teens. At fifteen he replaced Mike Bloomfield in Al Kooper’s occasional all-star supergroup for the album Kooper Session: Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis. In the same year he played bass on the sessions for Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats; that’s Shuggie’s bubbling, syncopating bass on “Peaches En Regalia”.

A year later the teenage prodigy released his first solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, co-written and produced by his father and backed by the cream of Johnnie Sr’s session pals. The second followed a year later: its title Freedom Flight symbolised Shuggie’s breaking loose from his father’s patronage, with most compositions being credited to him alone and with a much smaller coterie of backing players, while Shuggie overdubbed his own bass and keyboard parts and wrote his own string and brass charts. But even this new level of creative control wasn’t enough: his third and final album, Inspiration Information, took three years to construct, with Shuggie playing everything bar the horns and strings which he scored. And then, at the age of 22, Shuggie Otis went into self-imposed retirement. Apart from occasional studio sessions for other artists and, recently, some low-key live appearances in Northern California, he’s remained silent and invisible.

The first album is an enthusiastic freshman romp through blues and funk, showcasing Shuggies’s youthfully exuberant guitar; the last is an introspective, sensitive effort that unites soul and jazz in what would now be called ambient soundscapes, way ahead of its time but with a curiously vulnerable, unfinished quality. Freedom Flight is undoubtedly his most-realised collection. The blues/funk axis carries over from Here Comes, notably on the killer opener “Ice Cold Daydream” and the sole cover, Gene Barge’s “Me And My Woman”, but with a far more mature, considered approach to his guitar playing from the eighteen-year-old virtuoso. The album also nods in other directions; the gorgeous psychedelically-tinged California soul of “Strawberry Letter 23” with its astonishing coda, the restrained modal slide guitar work on “Sweet Thang” and the guitar/flute dialogue that ends the joyous “Someone’s Always Singing”. But the big surprise is the title track, which moves unexpectedly into the most melodic of free jazz with the guitar improvising against tenor sax, Fender Rhodes and a ubiquitous wind chime for thirteen minutes, and not a wasted note anywhere – Shuggie’s absolute masterpiece. This points toward the third album, and the direction he’d probably have taken thereafter had he stayed the course.

One reviewer called Shuggie Otis the link between Sly Stone and Stephen Stills; personally I’d say between Mike Bloomfield and Curtis Mayfield. But such comparisons are subjective and irrelevant. If you want to follow up this brilliant, enigmatic young musician’s brief career on CD, Inspiration Information was reissued on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint in 2001 with four key tracks from Freedom Flight included as bonus cuts, while the first two albums reappeared in full as a twofer on the excellent Raven label from Australia in 2003. Both releases are unreservedly recommended.

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“Strawberry Letter 23”

:) Original Vinyl | 1971 | Epic | search ebay ]
:D CD Reissue | 2003 | 2fer | Raven | at amzn ]

Gary Walker & the Rain “Album No. 1”

I bought this album after reading the story of Gary Walker & the Rain in Shindig! magazine; it’s as entertaining a tale as any such from the late sixties. The Rain’s reign was brief, but they left behind a genuine “lost” album which has only recently seen the light of day outside Japan and which will come as a pleasant surprise to aficionados of Brit psych.

Gary Leeds was only ever a third wheel to the Walker Brothers, a non-singing drummer thumping the tubs on live dates and TV appearances and providing a further piece of eye candy for the photo shoots. However, such was the impact of the Walkers in Europe and Japan that, when the trio folded, Gary was easily convinced by conniving manager Maurice King to put together a new band in England on the basis of his kudos as a former Walker. He was fortunate enough to recruit two capable Merseybeat veterans, Joey Molland (vocal, lead gtr) and Paul “Charlie” Crane (vocal, keys, gtr), plus reliable London bassist John Lawson. Allegedly Molland’s interview ran thus. Leeds: “You look like Paul McCartney. Can you sing like him?” Molland: “Yes”. L: “Can you play guitar like Eric Clapton?” M: “Yes”. L: “You’re in.” Serendipitously, he really could do both, besides proving an adept songwriter. Lawson got the job on the basis of his Gene Clark-like good looks and his orange jacket and purple loons; such are the vagaries of rock showbiz. Unashamedly cashing in on Leeds’s celebrity, the outfit would be known as Gary Walker and the Rain.

The band’s recording career kicked off with a passable cover of “Spooky” that failed to show in the UK or America but sold well in Japan, where the Walkers had belatedly achieved godlike status. On the basis of this UK Polydor permitted them to record an album, but then inexplicably refused to release it. Only in Japan, where the band’s local label, Philips, was crying out for further product, did it hit the shelves; its title there was Album No. 1, which follows a Japanese penchant for such unambiguous nomenclature whilst appearing pretty humdrum to Western sensibilities. On the ensuing tour of Japan the band were mobbed by teenage girls, with the lion’s share of the attention going to the drum-stool god rather than to the talented but unknown front line. Sadly, Beat Era heroes were less in vogue in the UK by 1968; the gigs dried up, two subsequent single releases tanked, and the band called it a day just a year after coming together. Molland went on to be a cornerstone of Badfinger, while Crane became a noted music publisher. Leeds enjoyed a brief renaissance when the Walkers reunited in the mid-70s.

The album itself proves gratifyingly to be a distinctive pop-psych set falling somewhere between a pre-Tommy Who, an un-flanged early Status Quo and a nascent Badfinger. The slightly hazy production was by ex-Four Pennies bassist Fritz Fryer, who enlisted much inventive studio trickery to enhance the uncompromisingly basic eight-track recording facilities. The leadoff track “Magazine Woman” sets out the stall, with choppy rhythm, stun-gun lead guitar, delightful rough-edged harmonies and “Taxman” rip-off bassline. The ensuing tracks move from late Merseybeat through freakbeat to proto-metal, some played straight, others psychedelically treated. Notable are “Thoughts Of An Old Man”, distinctly Pepper-ish musically and lyrically; “Francis”, a crunchy, stereo-tastic garage rocker chronicling the adventures of an elderly philanderer; and a totally wigged-out cover of Lieber and Stoller’s venerable “If You Don’t Come Back” in best Jeff Beck Band style with thudding backing and shards of barely controlled guitar feedback. The original album closes with two ballads: the harpsichord-driven pop-baroque “I Promise To Love You” and the gentle countrified acoustic “Whatever Happened to Happy”.

The album finally hit the Western World as a CD in 2009, boosted by the band’s sole post-album track and both sides of a single recorded earlier by Gary with some Japanese musicians styled the Carnabeats. The B-side of this is unselfconsciously wet-yourself hilarious. Why? I ain’t telling; you’ll have to get the album to find out.

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“Magazine Woman”

:D CD Reissue | 2009 | 101 | at amzn ]
:) Original Vinyl Singles | search ebay ]

Mark P. Wirtz “A Teenage Opera”

Despite enjoying greater artistic freedom than in any period before or since, a handful of late sixties rock composers strove to push the creative boundaries beyond what even the industry’s patiently elastic limits would accept, resulting in the several great “lost albums” of the period. Brian Wilson’s SMiLE finally emerged complete and as intended in 2006, its compositional brilliance diminished only by the uber-perfect new digital recordings lacking the hazy beauty of those original analogue tracks that had appeared piecemeal on Smiley Smile and Surf’s Up. Pete Townshend saw the bulk of the material from his impossibly ambitious Lifehouse concept become the splendid Who’s Next album and several non-album singles from around 1970-71. And Mark P Wirtz’s A Teenage Opera, a set of nostalgic vignettes of Edwardian village life that predated Ray Davies’s similar Village Green Preservation Society, was belatedly released in 1996 as a pseudo-film soundtrack described by reissue company RPM as “as near to the original concept as can be assembled with the surviving recorded works”.

RPM’s A Teenage Opera is simultaneously fascinating, rewarding and confounding. Wirtz agreed to RPM assembling the album from his original 1967 recordings, allowing the use of the original title and enjoying having his name liberally spread over it, but has since disparaged it as a fake: an opportunistic collector’s item comprising completed tracks intended for the Opera, incomplete demos likewise, and similar but completely unrelated tracks produced during the same period. Given that some of the latter were subsequently issued by Wirtz as singles under his own and other real and spurious artists’ names, and that at least two tracks which are known to have been intended for the Opera haven’t survived, his assertion is probably true. The Opera’s original intended running order remains a mystery.

The music itself is no less enigmatic. The three amazingly ambitious tracks released as single A-sides can be considered as either masterpieces of whimsical psychedelia or as overproduced pop schmaltz, depending on your taste (and whether you recoil from dense orchestration and kiddies’ choirs). The first such release, “Grocer Jack”, credited to Keith West and retitled “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera” to whet the public’s appetite for the rest of the project, was an unexpected UK pirate radio hit; the other two, “Sam” and “(He’s Our Dear Old) Weatherman”, stiffed totally, leading to EMI’s final withdrawal of support and the shelving of the intended album and animated musical film. Three other songs surfaced with justification on Tomorrow’s eponymous album, Keith West and Steve Howe having contributed substantially to the Opera project. Of the instrumentals, most might appear at first exposure to be the corniest of muzak, but intent listening reveals an underlying compositional quality and deft arrangements comparable to Morricone’s incidental film music of the same period. If you’re into the “toytown” end of psych and 1960s film scores and the historical misadventure of the project appeals to you, you’ll enjoy this album; if not, you’ll probably be happier with the more esoteric complexity of SMiLE.

The troubled history of the project has been told numerous times, with variations. A reasonable third-party version is provided in the CD’s extensive and lavishly illustrated liner notes. The best reading, from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, can be found in Wirtz’s own comprehensive and candid account.

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“(He’s Our Dear Old) Weatherman”

:D CD  | 1996 | RPM | at amzn ]
;) MP3 Album | download at amzn ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Tomorrow “Tomorrow”

Not exactly a “lost” album, Tomorrow’s solitary collection has been readily available on CD since its major label reissue in 1999. And quite rightly so; this is a splendid retro package for psychedelia fans. The original album covers all the bases, from whimsy to cod-oriental to acid-rock, in tremendous style. The leadoff track “My White Bicycle”, originally issued as the preliminary single to the album, is a recognised psych classic and has been widely anthologised. Also included are five outttakes and alternative versions from the original sessions, plus some interesting hard-to-find tracks from each of the band’s two short-lived offshoots.

Tomorrow, like numerous other Brit psych outfits, came about when an established R’n’B group, the In Crowd, changed their name and musical direction to surf the psychedelic upheaval of late 1966. Signed to EMI but failing to click with Pink Floyd producer Norman Smith, they were handed to his colleague Mark P Wirtz, which proved both a blessing and a curse. Wirtz was a brilliant, willingly experimental producer, arranger and composer, but he also had an obsessive pet project, A Teenage Opera, which was doomed to become a legendary unfinished work comparable to Smile. Diversion to the Opera of the efforts of guitarist Steve Howe, who owed Wirtz favours from earlier session work, and singer Keith West, whom he lured with an offer to act as both vocalist and lyricist, plus the band’s own hectic live dates list and their discovery of LSD, meant that Tomorrow’s recording schedule for their own album became patchy and extended.

You wouldn’t know this from the music, which is somehow both wildly eclectic and reassuringly homogeneous. “My White Bicycle”, inspired by the community white bicycle scheme in 1960s Amsterdam, is a definitive acid-psych cut laced with backwards guitar, found sound effects and other studio trickery. “Real Life Permanent Dream” is a sitar-driven raga-rock opus with suitably lysergic lyrics, while “Revolution” veers crazily through a whirlwind of spoken word passages, riffs and time signatures. On the whimsical side, the delightful musical pen-portraits “Auntie Mary’s Dress Shop”, “Colonel Brown” and “Shy Boy” were originally intended for the Teenage Opera. (“Shy Boy” was later covered as a single by Kippington Lodge, who eventually morphed into Brinsley Schwarz.) Only the chemically-induced silliness of “Three Jolly Little Dwarves” and the superfluous, though solid, cover of “Strawberry Fields Forever” conspire to mar the original eleven-track release’s brilliance. Howe’s playing throughout is exemplary while West’s deadpan whacked-out vocal is perfect for these songs and this genre.

Tomorrow didn’t see release until early 1968, after an unsupportive EMI finally called time on the Opera. By then the psychedelic honeymoon had largely passed and the album failed to sell. The jaded band promptly split; drummer John “Twink” Alder and bassist John “Junior” Wood recorded a handful of totally wigged-out originals as The Aquarian Age with Wirtz providing keyboards, while West and Howe called in Ronnie Wood and Aynsley Dunbar, no less, on bass and drums and cut a few tracks in a more mainstream pop-rock direction under West’s name. When neither project grabbed the public’s imagination, Twink went on to rattle the traps for the Pink Fairies, whilst Howe eventually surfaced in an obscure little prog-rock outfit called Yes.

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:) Original Vinyl |  1968 | Parlophone | search ebay ]
;) MP3 Album | download at amzn ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Hawkwind “Hawkwind”

You mightn’t know it in North America – there’s nary a mention of the band in my 1992 Rolling Stone Album Guide – but Hawkwind is a British rock institution of over forty years’ standing. Coming out of the late sixties Notting Hill freak culture along with such other proto-prog outfits as Quintessence and the Pink Fairies, the Hawks became the ultimate stoner community band – a bit like the Dead, but with intensity and over-the-top stage visuals taking precedence over virtuosity and compositional complexity. Musically, they took as their initial reference the space-rock instrumentals of Syd-era Pink Floyd, from which they rapidly forged the blend of pounding riff-rock, unbridled electronic noise and abstruse science fiction lyrics with which they willingly became stereotyped, as exemplified by the cacophonous hit single “Silver Machine”.

Hawkwind hit big with their second album In Search Of Space, in which they gave themselves over totally to the aforementioned formula that would endure for the next several decades. This, I have to say, is not really my cup of tea. Their first, more tentative, release, however, was one of the better psych-prog crossover albums of the era, despite inexplicably failing to achieve any chart penetration then or since. The roots of the heavy space-rock agenda are there, but the material also harks back to the lysergic side of psychedelia; this is one of the most genuinely trippy albums I’ve ever enjoyed blissing out to. Despite being constructed from the simplest of musical building blocks, there’s plenty of sonic variety. Nik Turner’s primitive freeform sax playing may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s balanced by the muscular lead guitar of Huw Lloyd-Langton, while DikMik’s untutored but atmospheric VCS3 ramblings generate a variety of moods from the sinister to the orgasmic. The production is by Pretty Things mainman Dick Taylor, refreshingly open and uncluttered by later Hawkwind standards, but with plenty of contemporary stereo effects and studio trickery thrown in.

The original album really contained only three pieces. After the opening “Hurry On Sundown”, an engaging acoustic bluesy hangover from founder Dave Brock’s street busking days, the main body of the album, while listed as five separate tracks, is the segued suite that comprised their early stage act. The electronic wash of “The Reason Is?” leads into “Be Yourself” and “Seeing It As You Really Are”, two lengthy, mainly instrumental confections featuring metronomically repetitive chord riffs, separated by “Paranoia (Parts 1 and 2)”, a thudding six-note unison riff excursion fractured by a deliberate tape slowdown at the point where the vinyl album had to be flipped. The final track, and the best, is the seven-minute maracca-tastic “Mirror Of Illusion” which combines Brock’s delightfully atonal twelve-string with a terser, tighter improvisational mid-section and some tasty mixing-desk widdling.

Few bands have ever polarised opinion as much as the Hawks; like Marmite, you either loved or hated their combination of duh-duh musicianship and outrageous stage antics. Yet, after forty-two years and innumerable lineup changes, the band endures, with 69-year-old Brock still at the helm. Interestingly, their name has nothing to do with their sci-fi agenda but derives, allegedly, from Nik Turner’s predilections for coughing and flatulating (figure it out).

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“Hurry on Sundown”

:D MP3 Download | at amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl |  1970 | United Artsits | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

The Byrds “Byrds” (’73 Reunion)

The announcement of the reunion album featuring all five original Byrds raised expectations to the point where whatever emerged was almost bound to be an anticlimax. (Imagine the effect of the Beatles reforming around the same time, if you will.) Despite a general thumbs-down from the critics, fan loyalty and eager anticipation made the new long-player highly successful at the record store: in the States, the biggest-selling new-material Byrds album since Turn, Turn, Turn. Subsequent reviews expressed varying degrees of disappointment, but recent re-evaluation with almost forty years of hindsight portrays the project as fascinating historically and not without merit artistically. Interest in it has never waned and it’s been re-released on CD no fewer than four times. The Wikipedia article on it is almost a book.

The theory behind the reunion varies. According to one version, the famously unreticent David Crosby visited Roger McGuinn in mid-1972 and panned the well-loved White/Battin/Parsons Byrds lineup, saying, “you’ve done some OK stuff but you’ve also done stuff that is pretty bad. Please stop doing it under the Byrds name”. Crosby then suggested reforming the original band to record an album showing where the founder members “are at today”. Another version has the ever-opportunistic David Geffen seeing the lucrative potential of a reunion and planting the suggestion in McGuinn’s mind, noting that McGuinn himself had become dissatisfied with the long-standing lineup and replaced Gene Parsons with salaried sessioneer John Guerin. Either way, McGuinn acquiesced and the other members, all having found themselves between longterm engagements, followed.

The nature of the final work supports the first theory: the album is The Crosby Show in almost every respect. Although on the surface democracy seems to be served by each of the four principals furnishing two original compositions, two of the three accompanying covers are Neil Young songs and the third is by Joni Mitchell, both being longtime Crosby cronies (though Clark takes lead vocal on the Young ditties). It’s been suggested that the other three writers were saving their best material for their own solo projects, but though none of their offerings is a blockbuster they’re all engaging enough, especially Gene Clark’s delicate “Full Circle” and Dylanesque “Changing Heart” and McGuinn’s ersatz-traditional “Sweet Mary”. By contrast, Crosby’s “Long Live The King” is characteristically ebullient, while his “Laughing” is itself actually a cover of the original that appeared on his sublime 1971 collection If Only I Could Remember My Name. Crosby also has the sole production credit; the only tracks that show real spirit in the lead vocals are his; and in the cover photographs he’s the only one who really looks like he wants to be there. (Chris Hillman looks like he’d rather be anywhere else at all.)

The sound of the album is also heavily redolent with Crosby’s aural fingerprint. Acoustic guitars predominate, with the electrics and bass mostly mixed way back and only Hillman’s vibrant mandolin and Clark’s plaintive harmonica forefronted strongly as solo instruments. Apart from “Laughing”, all the songs have short, terse arrangements, never really catching fire. While Crosby’s lead vocals soar, Clark’s and Hillman’s are more subdued and McGuinn’s particularly sombre. The block harmonies are immaculate but display the sweetness of CS&N rather than the engaging rough edge of latterday Byrds. One is led to conclude that with this album Crosby finally achieved, albeit temporarily, belatedly and with questionable success, the domination of the Byrds that he’d craved during the classic years.

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“Full Circle”

:D CD Reissue | 2004 | Wounded Bird | at amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1973 | Asylum | search ebay ]

Creedence Clearwater Revival “Bayou Country”

For a long time I wondered why four guys from the musical wellhead that was late ‘60s San Fran set out to sound like a swamp’n’roll band from the backwoods of Louisiana, whilst accepting as perfectly natural that five young long-haired white boys from London, England should have bust their guts to emulate a black 1950s Chicago bar band. Eventually I stopped wondering and started trying to pin down why this album has remained Creedence’s most underestimated, least discussed collection, despite coming closest to the ideal they sought. Not that it didn’t sell; just that nobody ever seems to mention it till near the end of a CCR conversation, if at all. And at the time of writing it’s running a distant fourth in The Rising Storm’s Creedence discography uReview vote.

The undeniable ability of John Fogerty’s outfit to produce immaculate three-minute power-pop singles shines throughout CCR’s oeuvre, from “Suzie Q” to “Sweet Hitch Hiker”. But this album finds the band stretching out on what is to all purposes a live stage set performed in the studio: raw and honest, high energy, no discernable overdubs. The three long, sweaty, riffing jams – “Born On The Bayou”, “Graveyard Train” and “Keep On Chooglin’” – and the shorter but similar “Bootleg” get as close as CCR ever did to the authentic swamp-rock of Tony Joe White. On the mandatory classic rock’n’roll cover “Good Golly Miss Molly” John does what Paul McCartney did on the Fabs’ version of “Long Tall Sally”: his eviscerating vocal simply leaves the original for dead. “Proud Mary” is the hit single, but despite its prettiness it’s the weakest cut on the album, as the pace and energy level dip temporarily. The real surprise, and true gem, of the whole collection is “Penthouse Pauper”, an uncharacteristic twelve-bar blues on which both John’s voice and his Telecaster are fit to strip wallpaper.

The straightforward, no-frills nature of Creedence’s music enabled them to record and release an astonishing six albums in two-and-a-half years, from July 1968 to December 1970. (Think on that, Coldplay.) Whilst on an extended vacation in western Canada in 2007 I got to talk to and play with a number of young musicians who weren’t born till years after these albums came out. I was surprised to find that CCR was right up there as one of their favourite acts to cover. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised: the simple but irresistable songs, the natural, unaffected guitar sound and that unique banshee voice have a genuinely timeless quality.

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“Penthouse Pauper”

:D CD Reissue | 2008 | Fantasy | at amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1969 | Fantasy | search ebay ]
;) MP3 Download | at amazon ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

The Rolling Stones “Aftermath (UK)”

The Rolling Stones may still elicit the soubriquet “the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world”, but in my opinion they’ve produced in a 42-year recording history (to A Bigger Bang, 2005) just two albums really worthy of the full five stars. Both came in the 1960s when they were still comparatively young and hungry, and both interestingly represent periods of transition. Aftermath was a product of their move from faux American R’n’B garage band towards a British pop-psych sensibility motivated by the success of mid-period Beatles and the demand by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, that they develop as songwriters; and Beggars’ Banquet the corresponding move back to their roots, post-psychedelia.

Aftermath was the Stones’ first album to comprise only their own compositions, and can be compared to Rubber Soul in its mix of adventurousness and commercial appeal. Although Jagger’s and Richards’ songs are in general not as strong harmonically as Lennon’s and McCartney’s – the Stones lacking the Fabs’ insight into such diverse musical fields as jazz, Tamla, country and showtunes, not to mention a studio Svengali of the calibre of George Martin – the best of them are right up there, and the eclectic instrumentation brought to bear by Brian Jones, Jack Nitzsche and the invisible “sixth Stone” Ian Stewart is every bit as effective as Martin’s baroque embellishments. “Under My Thumb”, “Take It Or Leave It” and “Out Of Time” were all considered commercial enough to be covered immediately as singles by high-profile acts. The eleven-minute bluesy jam “Going Home” (not the Ten Years After song) was unprecedented on a British pop album, yet works brilliantly in the context of the wider work. The one dubious quality is the mysogynous nature of many of the lyrics; “Stupid Girl”, “Thumb”, “Time”, “Dontcha Bother Me” and “Take It” unambiguously reveal Jagger’s prevailing frame of mind.

Despite the classic British Invasion sound of the album, it was recorded in RCA’s Hollywood studios and engineered by Dave Hassinger, who would fall out big-time with the Grateful Dead a year or two later but who got along famously with the Stones if his sleeve notes are to be believed. Production was, as usual, credited to Oldham, but Nitzsche was ever-present at the sessions and the hallmarks of his touch are all over the record. North American readers should note that Aftermath UK is a greatly superior artefact to the US release of the same name, benefitting from omission of the superfluous previous hit single and from the band’s preferred sequencing, not to mention offering fourteen tracks against the US version’s eleven.

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“Mother’s Little Helper”

:D CD Reissue |  2002 | Abkco | at amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl |  1966 | Decca | at ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band “Trouble In Paradise”

The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band was pulled together by Elektra/Asylum supremo David Geffen to be, as one critic described it, “a country Crosby, Stills & Nash” (notwithstanding that CS&N had plenty country roots of their own, cf. “Teach Your Children”). More likely, Geffen set out to cynically rehash his previous Frankensteinian creation, the Eagles, at a time when the latter had mutated from an honest country-rock quartet into an intolerably precious stadium-rock act. SHF would follow the same path, but on a drastically shortened timeline and with conspicuously less success, as tensions immediately mounted between the three talented but mismatched principals: the reclusive, sensitive Souther, the hard-living, hard-boozing Hillman and the born-again evangelist Furay, not to mention ill-fated schizophrenic drummer Jim Gordon. Sometimes the whole just isn’t greater than the sum of the parts.

SHF’s eponymous debut from 1974, breezily labelled “Greetings from Glamour City”, had turned out to be a reasonably satisfying, if by then somewhat dated, LA country-rock trip comprising unspectacular but mostly upbeat songs from all three principals, the whole elevated by their scintillating three-part harmonies plus honey-sweet pedal steel and scorching lead guitar from Al Perkins and inspirational piano and Hammond from Paul Harris, all mixed gratifyingly upfront. Their second effort a year later would be a very different animal, its title instantly giving the lowdown: now the songs were subdued and pessimistic, symbolising the tensions in the band and reflecting the same disillusionment with the sleazy Los Angeles scene evinced in the Eagles’ contemporaneous Hotel California. The accompaniment was considerably stripped down, with Perkins mixed much further back and most tracks carried by Harris’s plaintive piano. In place of the garish, solarised band portrait on the debut’s elaborate gatefold sleeve, the follow-up offered simple, sombre, Bible-black artwork. The faces tell the story; even Richie Furay’s ubiquitous smile is wry and forced. Needless to say, the album faltered chartwise and the inevitable breakup followed in short order. SHF’s entry on Wikipedia is one of the briefest on record.

Yet for all this, to me Trouble In Paradise is still a rewarding listen. The songs themselves are better than those on the debut, Souther’s in particular being more expressive and explorative, and the Big Three rely less on the stellar talents of their sidemen to raise the quality. The self-explanatory title track features untutored but amazingly confident drumming by Souther himself, and its centre section moves unerringly into a jazz groove with immaculate flute and Fender Rhodes from Harris; the “gold plated room” motif consciously echoes Gram’s classic “Sin City” theme. “Mexico” sets its tale of infidelity and guilt against an exquisite faux Norteño accompaniment, decorated with Hillman’s shimmering mandolin and offering superb mariachi harmonies in the middle eight. “Follow Me Through” allows Perkins and Harris to stretch out briefly and funkily, and could almost have been lifted from a Manassas album. Ironically, a cover of the gorgeous, keening “Prisoner In Disguise” would headline Linda Ronstadt’s immensely successful next album.

Perhaps the tensions and prevailing bad atmosphere perversely instigated an unexpectedly strong work; after all, there were numerous precedents for this, not least the Fabs’ Abbey Road and the Stones’ Beggars’ Banquet. None of the three SHF principals would ever again produce genuinely first-division product (unless you consider Hillman’s Desert Rose stuff to be in that bracket, which I don’t), but this isn’t a bad valedictory effort.

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:D CD Reissue | 2002 | Wounded Bird | at amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1975 | Asylum | at ebay ]
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VA “The Rock Machine Turns You On”

The historical importance of this unassuming album can’t be overstated. It was the first rock sampler album I ever saw or heard, and almost certainly the first such ever released here in the UK. It was in fact the first time I saw the actual term “rock” used to describe the music at all; previously the successive labels “underground” and “progressive” had been coined to cover the diverging (from “pop”) stream of album-based, art-for-art’s-sake music that had started with Dylan and Hendrix. It was the new music’s first budget release; at a time when the standard price of an album was 32/6 (about £1.63), this cost 14/6 (about 73p), just within the average teenager’s weekly pocket-money allocation. And it would spawn a whole new sub-genre of record releases peculiar to, and essential to, progressive rock: the cult of the sampler.

What came over then, and still impresses today, is the sheer quality of this dip into the CBS catalogue of 1969. Each track can be seen to have been carefully cherrypicked from its parent album, no sample being so leftfield as to frighten off the listener, though nobody venturing further into any of the represented albums would have been disappointed. Yet the overall diversity of the collection is astonishing, both in terms of styles and artists, in a way befitting progressive music. Practitioners of jazz-rock, country-rock, folk-rock, blues-rock, psychedelia and simple honest weirdness are all represented, whilst the acts featured include established big-hitters (Dylan, the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel), contemporary heroes whose days were numbered (the Zombies, Moby Grape, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Tim Rose), newcomers who would fall at the first hurdle (the United States Of America, the Electric Flag, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera) and up-and-coming artists who would go on to found dynasties (Leonard Cohen, Spirit, Blood Sweat & Tears, Roy Harper, Taj Mahal).

Two tracks above all left their mark on me. The Electric Flag’s “Killing Floor” induced me to purchase their album straightaway; this powerful number remains my favourite blues-rock AND jazz-rock performance of all time, with Mike Bloomfield on cloud nine and brass work to die for, the standout track from a solid album. By contrast, despite taking a perverse delight in “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar” I somehow didn’t get round to buying the United States Of America’s sole album until 2008, when a book review of it rearoused my interest. This erotically engaging ditty with its homely brassband coda merely hints at the trippy weirdness of its fellow tracks – one to grow into over forty years, obviously.

A steady stream of samplers followed as prog-rock blossomed, including the best of the lot: CBS’s double from 1970, Fill Your Head With Rock. Samplers were considered disposable, and originals are now quite rare and collectable (sadly, I disposed of all mine many years ago when thinning the collection). Whilst retrospectively compiled anthologies covering the whole life of a label are nowadays commonplace, original samplers with their snapshot of a moment in prog-rock’s history are not. The Rock Machine Turns You On is the only sampler ever to be reissued on CD in its original form – and that sadly minus Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair / Canticle”, probably due to some momentary petulance on Paul Simon’s part. It came out in 1996 and is now a rarity in its own right, never having been re-released. Judging by the clamour on Amazon, Sony could do a lot worse than reissue The Rock Machine Turns You On and Fill Your Head With Rock in their original forms, although licencing problems mean they probably won’t.

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The Electric Flag – Killing Floor

:) 1968 | CBS | search ebay ]