Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Return of British Psych to Vinyl

When The Alarm Clock Rings – A Compendium of British Psychedelia 1966-1969

The impression you get from talking heads and social media is that “if only such-and-such were released on vinyl, I’d definitely buy it”. The truth, as many labels saddled with even modest runs of niche (and sometimes not so niche) boxes of unsold stock will tell you, is that when push comes to shove, the passing of coin from palm to palm is quite a different matter. Part of this is the outrageous cost of many of the releases, of which little can often be done (Just Stop Oil protesters might like to think of their cultural impact on future generations). Many will simply commit their empty words as some sort of badge of honour in front of their peers, that they are ‘a proper fan’, often followed by an unsolicited photo of their enormous collection of similarly expensive items, or those bought ‘back in the day’. This public polishing of genitals is not limited to the music world, with many film fanatics and book enthusiasts equally desperate to display their vinegar-stroking credentials as those most worthy, waiting to be invited to join the company or write the sleeve notes (or the equivalent). Fandom is deeply peculiar, bringing out the best and worst in people at every turn.

With no little risk, Grapefruit, the psychedelic strand of Cherry Red, has committed to a limited release of late 60s British Psych, a two-disc vinyl set with some well-known names alongside lesser-spotted artists. I say limited – there are 1000 copies being pressed. 1000 could sell out in a few days, in which case, everybody wins. With it being a double album, you’re probably going to get 20 records in each cardboard box. 50 boxes of vinyl is a foreboding amount when it’s cost you an arm and a leg to produce. On the plus side, this album isn’t going to go out of date and Grapefruit has been testing the water for years. Fingers crossed.

Or, conversely, uncrossed if the album is a load of old toss. Thankfully, there are no problems on that front. There’s something particularly appropriate about records which snuck out on unassuming slabs of vinyl 50-odd years ago reappearing in the same form. Many of these songs disappeared quickly, without a trace, left in stockrooms or, ye Gods, buried in landfill, with only their cover art to save them from an eternity of obscurity, the weekly inky’s and their reviews long binned.

The Attack

The Attack gave it two years before they went their separate ways (The Nice and Atomic Rooster being two of the destinations). In that time, they released two tracks which would become famous – sadly, neither for The Action – Jeff Beck released his cover mere days after The Action, with the former hitting the UK Top 20 twice in 1967 and then 1972; Neville Thumbcatch didn’t trouble the charts but is now better known as one of the tracks recorded by Peter Wyngarde on his notorious album, ‘When Sex Leers its Inquisitive Head’. The Attack would have done better to stick with their own material – ‘Magic in the Air’ wasn’t even a B-side when shows a strident, Who-esque mod track, full of fanfares and a foghorn guitar solo but tinged with flower-gazing, buzzing organ stabs and very 60s false ending.

Imagine what names were rejected before the band members settled on Dantalian’s Chariot. Those members, who included the remarkable Zoot Money (whose career zigzags from Eric Burdon & The New Animals to acting in ‘Bergerac‘), Pat Donaldson of Fotheringay, and future Police guitarist Andy Summers, managed just a solitary 7″ release in their short tenure, though a whole album was assembled in the 1990s. ‘The Madman Running Through The Fields’ features some very appealing backwards tape slurps, flute flourishes and an appropriately maniacal structure which threatens an ending and resurrects itself Lazarus-like into increasingly unexpected directions. The final seconds are some of the most glorious of any British psych track.

Tintern Abbey is the first band in this collection to riff most heavily on the sound of American psychedelia, though the accents give the game away slightly. ‘Magic Horsemen’ is a really good track but falls into the trap of rather of lot of British psych in that it rings very hollow. Not that I believe Dantalian’s Chariot necessarily witnessed a madman upsetting a farmer, but the widescreen glow of US psych just doesn’t feel right coming from Blighty. It’s surprising to see Alex Harvey included here, though ‘Maybe Someday’ from 1967 certainly has a whiff of ‘Some Velvet Morning’, albeit at G-force-inducing speed. Recorded at the time he was playing in the pit in the West End smash, ‘Hair’, it doesn’t feel like he’s completely on board with the sentiments, and it doesn’t help that I can’t stand The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.

It’s a bit disappointing to see Genesis featured – ‘In the Beginning’ sounds psych in terms of Gabriel‘s echoey vocals and some nice guitar work toward the end of the track, but it feels very shoehorned in purely due to Cherry Red having the rights to their early material. To include this at the expense of a hidden gem of a band leaves you feeling rather cheated. Definitely worthy of inclusion is The Fruit Machine, ‘The Wall’ only receiving a limited US release as a single but packed with triumphant trumpeting and a hint of melancholia. One of the most alluring features of British psych and Freakbeat was the undercurrent of sadness or malevolence. American psych promised worlds of rainbows and chocolate rivers – their Brit counterparts added a footnote that there was the risk of crashing or drowning. The Mirage‘s ‘The World Goes On Around You’ ticks another obvious Brit box – tracing around a Beatles song. It’s essentially ‘I Am the Walrus’ with some brilliant organ riffing running through it. Nothing wrong with that.

‘Dream in My Mind’ (erroneously appearing as ‘Dream on My Mind’ on both the single’s label and the video below!) by Rupert’s People was, unforgivably, only a B-side when it appeared in 1967, one of the cast iron classics of Brit Psych. If released in America by a known band,  it would have been a monster hit. Every second of it is fit to burst with lush promises of frazzled evenings staring at your shampoo bottle and thinking it’s talking to you. The chorus is blood-quickeningly ferocious, demanding you abandon all hope and enter the magic shop on Carnaby Street that sells incense ‘and things’. They even made a promo video for it, showing them rejoicing in a park, wearing their hair like tattered occasional lampshades. Incredible.

Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera telegraphed their recreational interests just a little too overtly with ‘Mary Jane’, a track which threatened to be a hit before Radio 1 needed smelling salts once they twigged what it was about. It’s a good track though is one of those odd songs where the verse is catchier than the chorus. It’s no surprise to see John’s Children included, it almost feels like they’re contractually obliged to be on any compilation like this, though it’s nice to see their lost single, ‘Midsummer Night’s Scene’ back on vinyl. The Merseys, the survivors from the Merseybeats massacre, had a surprise hit with ‘Sorrow’ and then hit a brick wall with no further chart action. ‘I Hope You’re Happy With Him’ is a bit too John Lennon for its own good and sounds less like a tribute than a parody written in rehearsals.

Had it been the first track on one of the sides, I’d have checked to see if Jason Crest‘s ‘Teagarden Lane’ was playing at the right speed. All the components for a good song seem to be there – a satisfying chorus, silly lyrics and a Procol Harum snoozing organ but it drags its feet so much that it’s neither a ballad nor a track you could bop or even nod your head to. Talking of songs reclining horizontally, here comes Barclay James Harvest‘s ‘Pools of Blue’, a track which squeezes the very life out of you (in just about an acceptable way). It feels very much they’re just getting to grips with how to play the mellotron and the guitarist has found a new chord that he just won’t leave alone. It’s a bit like Fleetwood Mac‘s ‘Albatross’ but with less of a wingspan.

The 23rd Turnoff is named after the M6 exit to Liverpool – a brave and noble attempt to rival Route 66. ‘Leave Me Here’ is a pleasant enough track, the B-side to their only single. I’ve heard quite enough sitar/fake sitar on psych tracks for several lifetimes, so this feels a little too much like filler to me. The Misunderstood‘s ‘I Unseen’ sounds rather like an attempt to be the UK’s 13th Floor Elevators,  though in lieu of a jug, someone sounds like they’re dropping conkers on a snare drum in the studio next door. The sleevenotes tell me that, “‘I Unseen’ was based around a poem by Nâzim Hikmet, told from the point of view of a seven-year-old child killed in the Hiroshima atomic blast”. So much for perching on toadstools and singing about colours!

Side 3 kicks off with similarly apocalyptic action with The Voice and ‘The Train to Disaster’, a fantastically raucous guitar-driven depth charge, apparently fuelled by the band member’s experiences as members of the Process Church of the Final Judgment, a religious commune with a reputation so poor that they were for a time linked with the Manson Family. Joining them shortly after the release of the single was a fresh-faced Mick Ronson, though after playing a few dates he found his band mates had fled to the Bahamas. In their wake, Mike Stuart Span sound rather clunky and underrehearsed – ‘Remember the Times’ sounds a little like Buffalo Springfield‘s ‘Mr Soul’, but lacking, ironically, soul.

It seems bizarre now that artists and bands would release the same song as others at the same time. It feels both overly naive on the band’s part and particularly evil by their labels – bands treated as cannon fodder, the rule of averages determining that surely at some point, they’ve backed the winner. Living Daylights were not winners. ‘Let’s Live for Today’ reached number 8 in the US Billboard charts for The Grass Roots, whilst Living Daylights stared mournfully at their shoes. ‘Jane’, included here, shows a rather generic ’60s “ba-pa-pa-ba” chirp-along which even after a brief two minutes begins to grate, the oddly swift fade-out suggesting their producer felt the same way.

Plastic Penny‘s ‘Wake Me Up’ is a nice inclusion, building on an almost royalties-bothering riff on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ to showcase some really nice vocal harmonies and lyrical theme bemoaning social class which SOMEHOW manages not to be wretched. Sadly, the band weren’t willing to hedge their bets on one sound and the sum total of their output is musically all over the shop. It’s unlikely any raised an eyebrow when they split over musical differences. The Shame featured a young Greg Lake, so it’s a little surprising they felt they had to cover a song to release as a single. ‘Don’t Go ’Way Little Girl’ featured on Janis Ian‘s debut album, so at least they’d gone beyond the obvious areas to plunder, though it does mark the first time on this compilation that things have taken a bluesy turn – a fair reflection of the British rock scene at the time, but it definitely feels like mid-album stodge. Beyond the sounds of a strangled guitar, there’s little that feels particularly psychedelic.

It feels like The Crazy World of Arthur Brown‘s ‘Spontaneous Apple Creation’ has appeared on one in three compilations of this sort – this might be my fault for owning too many albums, so best not to read too much onto this. Great to have it on vinyl.  Where definitely into the ‘ooh, look it’s…’ stage in proceedings and the third side closes with The Spencer Davis Group (‘Mr Second Class’) and The Syn (featuring Chris Squire and Peter Banks before they joined Yes). The latter’s ‘Created by Clive’ has an air of Spinal Tap‘s ‘Cups and Cakes’ about it and has been all but disowned by both The Syn and The Attack who also had it foisted upon them. The Spencer Davis Group has shed both Muff and Stevie Winwood but ‘Mr Second Class’ is more than a ‘Will this do?’ attempt to stop any more wheels falling off the wagon and appeared alongside Traffic on the soundtrack to ‘Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush’.

John Carter and Russ Alquist’s ‘The Laughing Man’ ushers us onto the final side of vinyl, with high hopes given Carter’s operations from the heart of Denmark Street and his position as singer and songwriter for a stream of bands and session musicians. Despite his pedigree, it doesn’t quite work. From the unconvincing laugh at the beginning to the humdrum chorus, it feels very painted by numbers, despite the pretty harmonies and singalong structure. It’s a bit like watching someone pretending to be drunk. Episode Six features Deep Purple members Ian Gillan and Roger Glover and I’d like to think they’re rather prouder of their early effort, ‘Mr Universe’ than Squire and Banks are about theirs. Some punchy drums, squalling guitar and chesty, booming vocals elevate this to upper-tier British psych, with just the right blend of daftness, musicality and uniqueness.

In 1967 The Action was at sixes and sevens, labels were no longer sure they were what ‘the kids’ were looking for and singer Reg King was far from committed to the band’s switch from mod to psych. It shows on ‘Things You Cannot See’, a very lightweight effort with no guts for King to wrap his voice around. He left soon after the recording and the band limped on for another year. Apple‘s ‘The Otherside’ has a genuine sadness to it, not to mention some lovely piano and guitar work. Another track which only made it as a B-side, again underlining the suspicion labels had for rock and pop music with a psychedelic flavour which didn’t lean towards novelty or egregious commercialism.

Picadilly Line is another band who seems to appear on every other 60 ’60s British music compilation,  though it’d be a stone-hearted soul that denied them the opportunity to appear here with ‘Rosemary’s Bluebell Day’. The screaming strings act as the foam of the cascading tidal wave of flower power crashing down upon you, with a flautist going nuts on the outro. Top, top stuff. It’s worth remembering we’re on vinyl here, and maybe it’s just my copy but Paper Blitz Tissue‘s ‘Grey Man’ sounds rather tinny. The track itself feels as though it’s played live in the studio, so maybe that has something to do with it. The compilation’s title comes from The Blossom Toes, a band every bit as good as their name. The album the track appears on, ‘We Are Ever So Clean’ is every bit as good as anything released in Britain as part of the patchouli pop scene and deserves to be far better known.

There’s no good reason why this compilation shouldn’t pave the way for more vinyl releases of psychedelia and of artists who are well off the beaten track. You could certainly pay more for just a single record release in many places and there’s the same care and attention which have made Grapefruit’s releases some of the most desirable reissues around. There will always, it seems, be artists that are wheeled out again and again, purely as their availability is so treasured by the label, but this is balanced by some really thoughtful curation to highlight B-sides and demos ahead of what were often lesser flipside and album tracks.

Daz Lawrence

Buy ‘When The Alarm Clock Rings – A Compendium of British Psychedelia 1966-1969’ here

The Blossom Toes

 

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