Author Archive

Pure Prairie League “Pure Prairie League”

After spending the sixties ruthlessly disparaging country music, I experienced a Damascene conversion on catching the Eagles’ groundbreaking 1972 appearance on BBC TV’s Old Grey Whistle Test. Country rock, its reluctant antecedents and its bastard children became, and have remained, my favourite musical genre ever since, taking in everything from the Carter Family to the Drive-By Truckers. Yet the first I knew of Pure Prairie League was when I found out that Vince Gill had come to prominence with an early-eighties version of the band. PPL’s story is one of a couple of early near-misses at commercial success, followed by a long history as cult favourites with a small but faithful following, a bewildering sequence of line-up changes and periods of non-existence. After incarnations during which it contained not even one original member, the band prevails to this day, centred round prodigal returnee, founder Craig Fuller.

Originally coming out of the unpromising country-rock territory of Columbus, Ohio, the first stable line-up was led by principal singers and writers, lead guitarist Fuller and acoustic guitarist George Powell, and produced a sound not a million miles from the definitive LA country rock style of early Poco. The addition of pedal steelist John David Call strengthened the resemblance still further, but also allowed Fuller and Call to trade licks in a highly personal conversational style harking back to Western Swing. Their eponymous debut album appeared on RCA in March 1972, but after just one short national tour promoting it Fuller received draft papers and felt obliged to relocate rapidly to Toronto. The band promptly split, leaving the album largely unheard, and it disappeared without troubling the charts. This was a shame, because PPL could certainly have been as big as their Californian contemporaries: they had a memorable name (borrowed from the fictitious ladies’ temperance organisation in the Errol Flynn Western Dodge City), a distinctive image (reinforced by their logo featuring the Norman Rockwell cartoon cowboy character “Luke”) and undeniable chops as writers, singers and players. Moderate commercial success did come with the second album Bustin’ Out, recorded in October 1972 by just Fuller and Powell with session musicians and friends, but not until its re-release more than two years afterwards on the back of a hard-earned new popularity resulting from the reformed band’s gruelling touring. RCA did re-sign them and released a series of further albums throughout the seventies, but these generally failed to light up the record store tills.

Notwithstanding this, all of PPL’s recorded legacy is, perhaps surprisingly, still in print. The sophomore Bustin’ Out is a more mature album offering a more varied, more rock-oriented menu as befits its shifting personnel, plus the novelty of string arrangements by Bowie sidekick Mick Ronson. Personally, however, I prefer the inexplicably unappreciated debut’s softer, warmer, more countrified sound, with its ubiquitous lush harmonies and pedal steel licks and the occasional “blue” chord. The instrumental break in the gently swinging “Take It Before You Go” forefronts the interplay between Fuller’s squealing six-string and Call’s sinuous steel, while “Woman” is a magnificent guitar-driven song with power-pop overtones, and the closing “It’s All On Me” highlights Powell’s elegant fingerstyling and recalls the Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare” period. Available at the time of writing are an Acadia twofer comprising the first two albums complete and a Camden anthology which includes most of the debut, all of the follow-up and selected later cuts. Admirers of the Eagles, Poco, the Dirt Band, the New Riders, etc., should apply; they won’t be disappointed.

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“Take It Before You Go”

:) Orig Vinyl | 1972 | RCA Victor | search ebay ]

Plainsong “In Search of Amelia Earhart”

Plainsong was a short-lived folk-rock outfit with country-rock leanings that briefly provided a pretty close British equivalent to the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Singer-songwriter Iain Matthews had been the frontman with Fairport Convention during their early West Coast-influenced period, and had subsequently enjoyed moderate success as a solo artist and with his pioneering British country-rock outfit Southern Comfort. His main collaborator in Plainsong would be guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Andy Roberts, former musical kingpin of the loose collective of folk musicians and performance poets known as the Liverpool Scene. Rounding out the new band were bassist/pianist David Richards and Californian acoustic guitarist Bob Ronga, with percussion being provided on an ad-hoc basis by Iain’s former Fairport colleague Dave Mattacks or fellow folk-rock stalwart Timi Donald. The gentle irony of the band’s name belies their strengths: Matthews’s angelic voice and their superb four-part harmonies, plus immaculate instrumental backings.

Prior to their formation in early 1972 Roberts had become infatuated with the alternative version of the Amelia Earhart story propounded in Fred Goerner’s book The Search For Amelia Earhart, which suggested that she had been on a clandestine aerial spying mission for the US government on the Japanese at Saipan in 1937 and had perished at their hands, the whole affair then being hushed up to avoid an early war. Matthews became readily interested in the topic. Unable to stretch the concept to a whole album, they decided to make a short suite on it the centrepiece of their Elektra debut, which also took as its title that of Goerner’s tome and featured appropriate cover art. A cover of David McEnery’s traditional account “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” was followed by Matthews’s own “True Story Of Amelia Earhart” which proffered the Goerner line. Cleverly splitting the two was a soulful version of the old bluegrass spiritual “I’ll Fly Away”. The remainder of the album comprised mellow, thoughtful compositions by Matthews and widely varying but carefully chosen covers of numbers by obscure but respected folk-rock and country artists, including Paul Siebel’s “Louise”, Henske and Yester’s “Raider” and Jim & Jesse’s rollicking “Diesel On My Tail”.

What you got from this apparent mishmash was a beautifully coherent folk-country-rock album with glorious vocals and superbly understated, largely acoustic accompaniment with the occasional fiery Telecaster tail-twist, the whole having a wistful, summery feel absolutely redolent of 1972. It nonetheless failed to trouble the Top 100 album charts, and the Ronga-less follow-up provisionally titled Now We Are 3, which moved further towards country-rock, was shelved when the remaining band members split abruptly due to ferocious antipathy between Matthews and Richards and Iain’s long-aspired determination to move his muse to California. The album lay dormant till 2005 when the Water label in San Francisco released it as part of an absolutely stunning 2-CD compilation entitled simply Plainsong which includes the debut album, the unreleased follow-up, an early single and a dozen live stage and radio recordings: just about everything laid down by the original line-up. Matthews and Roberts had meanwhile reunited in a new Plainsong in the nineties, but I’ll leave you to investigate that if you will.

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“Call the Tune”

:D CD Reissue | 2005 | Water | buy at amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1972 | Elektra | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

? and the Mysterians “96 Tears”

For an outfit whose very name professed a preference for anonymity, there’s a surprising amount of information available nowadays about this bunch of rockin’ Chicano chavales; check out their Wikipedia page for the full Monty. Question Mark himself has gone to considerable lengths to conceal his identity over the years, and why not? It’s one of rock’n’roll’s best-loved clichés. However, copyright registrations in the Library of Congress show his birth name as Rudy Martinez.

This, the first of their two albums, followed the runaway success of the single “96 Tears” as the title indicates, but it’s not the usual mid-sixties cash-in collection with a couple of hits padded out by inferior versions of “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” and “Summertime”. Of the twelve tracks, only one is a cover – “Stormy Monday”, the band’s inevitable contemporary bow to the blues – and the rest are originals, the writing mostly credited to all the band members. Simple stuff, mostly, with a limited palette of keys and chords, but at least they made the effort.

Of course they’re the quintessential R’n’B garage band, with the leanest, meanest sound around; they make Booker T and the MGs sound like the Electric Light Orchestra. The British Invasion influences are crystal-clear: the bass/guitar/organ interplay on the sparse twelve-bar “Up Side” shows a clear link from Eric Burdon’s original Animals, while the choppy rhythm of “You’re Telling Me Lies” is a direct steal from Doug Sahm’s own Invasion- derived “She’s About A Mover”. The more vehement of ?’s vocals, as on “96 Tears”, are a dead ringer for Van Morrison in his Them days. There’s also a closer-than-accidental resemblance to the Rolling Stones’ earliest American recordings that goes deeper than ?’s occasional Jagger impersonations. Play any of the Stones’ tracks recorded on their 1964 visit to Chess and released on the 5 x 5 EP (UK) or the 12 x 5 album (US) and you’ll see what I mean: that wiry, reverbed sound on the Stones’ “Confessin’ The Blues” as against the Mysterians’ take on “Stormy Monday”, or on the steady-rollin’ “Empty Heart” as against “Ten O’Clock”. The major differences are the forefronted Vox Continental on most of the Mysterians’ waxings and the undeniable fact that Bobby Balderama was no Brian Jones when it came to creative guitar playing.

So, derivative certainly. But, hey, if you really need originality, go play “Pet Sounds” or “Odessey & Oracle”. This is one to put on when your head’s woolly from the perplexing complexity of prog-rock and all you need is a fix of something raw and primal. For twice the strength, get the 2005 compilation Cameo Parkway – The Best Of which has the whole of this album and the follow-up Action – more of the same, though a bit denser sonically – carefully remixed from the originals, plus both sides of their valedictory non-album single. (Avoid other compilations, most of which contain re-recordings.)

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“I Need Somebody”

:) Original Vinyl | 1966 | Cameo | search ebay ]

Cream “Wheels of Fire / In the Studio”

Although The Rising Storm’s principal premise is to play the spotlight on fine obscure albums, it’s fun occasionally to review something well-known from a (hopefully) new personal perspective, so here’s my take, forty-two years on, on Cream’s most uncharacteristic album.

The historical context for Wheels Of Fire needs no repetition here, as Cream’s history is so well documented. Suffice to mention that by the time they began recording it in early 1968 the wheels, so to speak, were already coming off, with a disillusioned Eric Clapton’s original vision of a purist blues trio with himself in the Buddy Guy role just a distant dream, Jack Bruce firmly in the driving seat as both composer and vocalist, and Bruce and Ginger Baker well and truly back at each other’s throats just as they had been in their Graham Bond days. The decision to break up the band had already been taken before the album’s completion, with just contractual live engagements and the makeshift fourth album to fulfil.

Despite all this antipathy the studio component of Wheels is a surprisingly high-quality collection which, as we all know, hit the shelves accompanied by a frankly turgid live set. The studio half – which in most countries was also released as a single album in its own right – is exhilarating proto-progressive rock with the odd bluesy afterthought and some stealthy jazz and classical overtones. Hardcore head-banging blues-rock aficionados may still wince when comparing it to Cream’s earlier studio efforts, and to the extended guitar jams on those songs that continued to make up most of their live set – only “White Room”, “Sitting On Top Of The World” and “Politician” from Wheels ever seeing the stage – but fans of Jack Bruce will acknowledge it as a worthy precursor to his highly successful solo career. What may come as a surprise is that three of the most leftfield numbers weren’t composed by Bruce, though he makes two of them his own both vocally and instrumentally, but by ill-fated British jazz composer and pianist Mike Taylor, with Baker providing the lyrics. Add to this the astonishingly diverse multi-instrumental talents of producer Felix Pappalardi, and you’ve got an engaging musical stew comparable to the Fabs’ White Album in its variation and experimentation.

All the tracks are well-known, but possibly overlooked highlights to listen out for in retrospective plays are Clapton’s eerie, brittle, reverbed guitar sound on “Sitting On Top Of The World”, produced from his single-pickup Gibson Firebird; Bruce’s hypnotic droning cello and modal acoustic guitar on “As You Said”; the instrumental break on “Politician” in which Bruce’s sludgy, rumbling bass underpins no fewer than three overdubbed intertwining guitar lead lines; Pappalardi’s gorgeous baroque trumpet figures which rescue the weakest track, Baker’s recitative “Pressed Rat And Warthog”, from mediocrity; and the splendid tuned percussion by Baker and Pappalardi on the sinuous, shifting “Those Were The Days”. Bruce’s near-operatic vocals on this album were among the best of his career.

I guess the live set should be mentioned in passing. Only the crisp, driving four minutes of “Crossroads” makes the grade, with Bruce’s tedious harmonica exposition “Traintime” and Baker’s formless sixteen-minute drum solo on “Toad” being of interest only to completists. (IMHO, the only rock drummer ever to warrant a solo is Jon Hiseman.) Oh, and for those wondering what a tonette is, as credited to Pappalardi on “Pressed Rat”, it’s a cheap plastic recorder-like instrument commonly used in elementary schools. It took me forty-two years to find that out: thanks, Wikipedia.

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“Those Were the Days”

:D CD Reissue | 2CD | 98 | Polydor | buy at amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl |  1968 | Polydor | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

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 ]