THE YARDBIRDS: ROGER THE ENGINEER

(REPERTOIRE RECORDS/COLUMBIA RECORDS; reissue 2016, original release 1966)

Album cover

Throughout the early 1960s, popular music was a “singles” medium. Sure, full-length albums were part of the mix but, by and large, these collections consisted of up to one half recent single releases and massive doses of filler and cover tunes. However, by the spring and summer of 1966, album rock music was going full force, with classic records being released by the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the Beatles, the Kinks and the Jefferson Airplane, among others. One of the “others” was the first official studio album by a band called the Yardbirds, who had generated a string of hit singles on both sides of the Atlantic beginning in 1964. The album, released as YARDBIRDS in the United Kingdom and most of the world, was renamed OVER UNDER SIDEWAYS DOWN for North American release (as well as in France, Germany and Italy); the Australian mono release was dubbed ROGER THE ENGINEER.

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith, Jim McCarty, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck) (publicity photo)

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith, Jim McCarty, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck) (publicity photo)

The record featured the vocal prowess of Keith Relf, Chris Dreja’s rhythm guitar, Paul Samwell-Smith on bass, Jim McCarty on drums and… oh, yeah… some guy by the name of Jeff Beck playing lead guitar. Jim McCarty’s original liner notes opines, “It has often been said that Jeff Beck is one of the leading guitarists in the country, and I am inclined to agree with him.” This is a terrific, classic 1960s rock album, with plenty of something for everyone: Fuzz guitar, Middle Eastern influences and straight-on boogie rock in the form of “Beck’s Boogie,” performed by a true master. It’s also one of the first albums to highlight a new sound, a sound that would become known as psychedelic rock.

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty) (uncredited photo)

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty) (uncredited photo)

This 2016 two disc remaster features both monaural and stereo mixes of the album and is chock full of bonus tracks. The mono disc (which was still the most common configuration for mass consumption fifty years ago) contains the more interesting bonus material, including the two singles (and accompanying B-sides) from Relf’s short-lived solo career. Also on board – and of more interest – are a pair of songs recorded after the departure of bassist Samwell-Smith: “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and “Psycho Daisies,” released in the UK as a single. The B-side, “Psycho Daisies,” features the final line-up before the implosion that ultimately led to the formation of a legendary monster of rock; the track has a rare lead vocal from Beck, as well as a lad named Jimmy Page playing bass. “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” is a guitar-lover’s wet dream, with Jeff and Jimmy sharing lead duties. Also playing on the session was a young bassist by the name of John Paul Jones. When Page inherited the Yardbirds name, he enlisted Jones as a member of what would become the New Yardbirds before morphing into another band you might have heard of… Led Zeppelin.

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf) (publicity photo)

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf) (publicity photo)

The Yardbirds may, of course, be best known for having Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton playing with them at one time or another during their brief run; they didn’t achieve the same elevated status as some of their counterparts, but they did have their share of great music and have proven to be quite influential over the last half-century. The band’s first proper album, affectionately called ROGER THE ENGINEER (after Chris Dreja’s cover art, depicting the man who engineered the sessions), is a great place to start delving into the genesis of not only psychedelic rock, but two of the most iconic guitar players ever, as well as the group the Who’s John Entwistle said would “go over like a lead balloon”; it is, truly, one of the great rock albums of any generation.


THE MONKEES: GOOD TIMES!

(RHINO RECORDS; 2016)

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If you had told me last year that the Monkees were not only going to come out with a new album, but that it would be an extremely good one that added a new chapter to their legacy and would feature all four band members, well, I’d have said you were nuts. Davy Jones was deceased, Mike Nesmith had apparently gone into a new phase of ambivalence, and the other two, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, were keeping the group’s popularity high through frequent live shows, but hardly seemed capable of putting anything new together. How, then, did this mini-miracle occur – a fantastic new Monkees record coming out in 2016. If you wanna know who to give the lion’s share of the credit to, well, it’s Adam Schlesinger. Best known as the frontman for Fountains of Wayne and the composer of the titular hit song from the Tom Hanks-directed film THAT THING YOU DO, Schlesinger is a huge Monkees fan, the kind of person who found inspiration and delight in their music and wondered if they could recapture some of that old-time magic again. A kind of “That was THEN, this is NOW” redux. Schlesinger had talks with the three remaining Monkees and suggested putting the call out to today’s indie rockers and closeted Monkees fans for material in the Monkees’ vein. And everyone was excited by the fact that it was the Monkees’ fiftieth anniversary – wouldn’t it be kick-ass to celebrate with a brand-new album?

You bet! Songs began arriving by composers as cool as XTC’s Andy Partridge (“You Bring the Summer”), Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo (“She Makes Me Laugh”) and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (the luminous gem “Me and Magdalena”). Schlesinger himself wrote “Our Own World,” produced the record and plays on ten of the album’s 13 songs. If that isn’t about as auteur-ish as you can get with such a project, well, I don’t know what is! The masterstroke here, and another place where credit should be given, is the honchos at Rhino Records, the Monkees’ label, a couple of guys who love the band and began scouring the vaults for old material that might be worthy for this project. They dug up a Neil Diamond-penned tune from 1967 that had a perfectly fine Davy Jones vocal on it (well done, lads!) and simply needed a bit of overdubbing and engineering work to make it a go, a Goffin/King gem called “Wasn’t Born To Follow” which finds Peter Tork pouring all his energy and enthusiasm into (he says THIS of the song in the liner notes: “What a joy to be singing a Carole King song! This dreamy, Dylan-esque song is a tapestry unto itself.”), and even a Harry Nilsson tune, the title track, which gives Dolenz a chance to “duet” with the songwriting legend. All this, man, and even some originals! An attempt was made to recapture the sound and feeling of the late ’60s – production slickness was avoided at all turns, something that sorely diminished the appeal of two previous attempts by the Monkees to release new material (POOL IT! From 1987 and JUSTUS from 1996). So what you get is an album that almost sounds like it could have been the next project the band really put their “heart and soul” into after their amazing late ’60s run, mixing snappy rockers like “She Makes Me Laugh” with multi-textured psych-rock as represented by “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” (a truly unlikely offering from Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller that is one of the album’s high points) and seamless originals (Tork’s breezy “Little Girl” and Nesmith’s melancholy “I Know What I Know”). You just wouldn’t think the Monkees could’ve come up with something like this. It’s the nicest of surprises for long-time fans.

The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

I have two quibbles with the album, one that could have been helped and one that maybe couldn’t. The latter is the fact that they could only find one Jones song to include. If they were gonna go that route of making sure Davy’s presence was felt, was there really NOTHING else in the vaults that could’ve been dusted off and messed with a bit? So pleasant is it to hear Jones sing again on “Love To Love” that you kind of LONG for the stronger balance that would’ve existed if he’d been on one more song. That balance issue brings me to my only real criticism, the fact that GOOD TIMES! opens with five songs in a row featuring Dolenz on lead vocals. Now, it’s funny for me to say this, because Micky Dolenz is my favorite Monkee, but I’m puzzled that the first half of the record is sequenced this way. Moving a Nesmith or Tork vocal to an earlier slot would’ve solved this problem – as it is, a kind of repetitiveness sets in that diminishes the listenability of “Our Own World” and “Gotta Give It Time.” That loses half a letter grade in my book, although others may not feel that way. But, from track 6 to track 13, you get pure, unadulterated Monkees bliss, and nary a misstep. “Me and Magdalena” is so beautiful, so haunting, that you can’t believe you are getting this gift of a tune from these guys. Schlesinger plays sweet, lovely piano and Nesmith turns in an intoxicating vocal just about matched by Dolenz as the secondary singer. “Whatever’s Right” sounds like a long-lost Monkees hit, even penned by their old writing mates Boyce and Hart, but no, this is a new tune. I’ve already mentioned my fondness for the Davy Jones contribution. But it’s worth commenting again that “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” is just amazing. It’s the second best song here, with inspired performances, mulitple hooks and another wonderful vocal pairing by Nesmith and Dolenz. This song breathes, shimmers and kicks serious conceptual ass. Peter Tork is another sort of hero on this record… he was often a creative underdog in the past, but both his original, “Little Girl,” and the fetching Goffin/King entry are complete delights. And the ending is perfect, a songwriting collaboration by Dolenz and Schlesinger called “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)” that could sum up the band’s feelings about their wacky pop culture odyssey. It rocks (a little), it’s got sass (a LOT), and it exudes spontaneity and minimalistic charm. “We are here, and we’re gonna have a good time/Like we did before/Supposedly,” Monkee Micky sings, filled with both the wry knowledge of the band’s storied and often controversial past, and his obvious glee at being here, 50 years later, not only still doing it but making one of the band’s best albums. GOOD TIMES! is just a nice surprise all around, not necessarily a masterpiece but way better than any fan could possibly have predicted. I’m a believer, that’s for sure. Nez, Peter, Micky and um, gosh, Mister Schlesinger? Thank you, and Happy 50th Anniversary!


THE OXFORD COMA: PARIS IS MINE

(SELF RELEASED; 2015)

ParisIsMine

The Oxford Coma (only one “m”) is a Phoenix three-piece (I suppose we could call them a “power trio”) that has alternately been described as “psychedelic anxiety rock” or “the world’s heaviest jam band.” Call them what you will… I rather prefer “math genius metal.” A few seconds into “Canadian Question Mark,” the opening cut of the self-released PARIS IS MINE, it is obvious (to these ears, anyway) that this is something exceptional. The song, a sort of progressive hard rock instrumental affair (if there are vocals, they are minimal and buried deep in the mix), features a nice mid-tempo groove, with oddly appealing dissonant guitars and a humongous, thudding bass. Though the guitars sometimes sound as if the track is about to explode in a flurry of speed, the rhythm section remains solid. On “Ritaling,” James Williams offers a very punk rock kind of a bass line, while the vocals and guitars have a distinct mid-’90s Kansas City sound (think Season To Risk). There’s a heavier-than-the-rest section with a certain Tony Iommi-like heaviness in Billy Tegethoff’s guitar; the second half of the tune is sort of creepy, with great atmospheric work from Tegethoff. “Daisies” is trippy and psychedelic, with a chukka-chukka kind of rhythm guitar thing and near-Residents like vocal outbursts (Tegethoff and Williams are both credited as vocalists, but who sings what isn‘t listed). Once again, the bass and drums (the latter supplied by Patrick Williams) border on minimalist, leaving the almighty riff to do most of the heavy lifting. This isn’t metal, but it is suffocatingly heavy and there’s a great wah-infused solo at the end that is hard to ignore.

The Oxford Coma (Billy Tegethoff, Patrick Williams, James Williams) (publicity photo)

The Oxford Coma (Billy Tegethoff, Patrick Williams, James Williams) (publicity photo)

The Pulls” is propelled by heavier-than-thou bass and some understated (though still powerful) drumming, allowing for some excellent guitar and haunting vocals to hover just above the surface, giving the tune a demon-spawn sound akin to the offspring of some 1970s hard rock band and Stone Temple Pilots, circa their first three records. The next track, “Ados Watts Jam,” is exactly what the name implies: A jam. Clocking in at a robust ten-and-a-half minutes, the KC/Season To Risk comparisons find their way back into the conversation, with bullhorn vocals crawling just above the mix. There are also a couple of jazzy, Sabbath-esque breaks leading into the final, improvisational section of the tune, all of which proved to be quite entertaining. Even if the song doesn’t exactly fall into the “jam band” category, it is a stretch on the group’s standard song structure. The final track is well-known to rockers and blues aficionados the world over: “When the Levee Breaks,” The Oxford Coma’s version manages to out-heavy the Led Zeppelin version, with Patrick’s nearly ham-fisted Bonham-esque skin pounding and a massive guitar sound. This version is as far from Zeppelin’s version as their version was from the 1929 original by Kansas Joe McCoy and his wife, Memphis Minnie Lawlers. You can listen to (and purchase) PARIS IS MINE, as well as earlier releases, at the group’s Bandcamp page. You will not be disappointed! And, if you are… you need to acquire better taste in music.


ACID KAT ‘ZINE FOURTH ANNIVERSARY SHOW: THE COWBOYS/SODA BOYS/WRAY/THOSE JERKS/TUBBY TOM

(February 13, 2016; FOAM, Saint Louis MO)

Carlos relaxing in the Foam lounge (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Carlos relaxing in the Foam lounge (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

I’ve been to Foam exactly twice now; the first time was for an interview with Beth Bombara and, now, for this show. Wray, the evening’s headliners (even though they eventually went on third of five acts), and I arrived at approximately the same time (6:00 PM), due to the venue’s web-site giving the start time as 8:00 PM (or, 8:30 per the Facebook page for ACID KAT ‘ZINE). Around about 10, the sound guy/bartender told someone that it was probably time to start the show; fifteen minutes later, rapper/performance artist (and AK’Z contributor) Tubby Tom began a bizarre set that we’ll discuss shortly. Foam is a very cool place, with a great vibe, friendly staff and really good coffee but, if this is a standard occurrence, they’ve really got to rein in these acts (especially the locals) and keep things tight, on schedule and moving along. So, anyway, having arrived early, I had the pleasure of hanging out with a young Hip-Hop artist named Carlos (see above photo). It’s really cool to see someone so passionate about music… not only his own work, but just music in general; I mean, that’s why I started writing more than twenty years ago… a passion for music. Carlos may or may not have what it takes to get to the next level or to be a huge star but, I certainly heard enough to tell you that I am looking forward to seeing and hearing more from this young man somewhere down the line.

Tubby Tom (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Tubby Tom (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Performing a patently odd style of Hip-Hop over old Disco, Soul and pop records, avant-garde rapper Tubby Tom’s set seemed to be,,, uh,,, divisive. The material proved to be particularly well received by a small contingency of female revelers, while a smaller contingency of patrons merely decided to visit the rest rooms of to step outside for a smoke. Most of the tunes were kinda dorky little ditties about lust, love found and love lost. However, the very short set ended with a very compelling piece; the tale of kidnap, abuse and eventual escape was as urgent and claustrophobic as the scenario implies. By any musical standards, the song, with a distinct Gothic horror feel, was a brilliant use of lyrical imagery and a stifling musical bed to add to the emotional chaos. I gotta admit, I was rather ambivalent about most of Tubby Tom’s set… that final, extended dose of weird definitely upped my estimation of the man’s talents. I have no idea if any of this material is available in any recorded form (or if they are merely spur-of-the-moment fever dreams) but, if they are, they’re well worth checking out.

Those Jerks (Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony; Nasty Jordan; Terrible Tony) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Those Jerks (Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony; Nasty Jordan; Terrible Tony) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

According to advance promotions, Freeburg Illinois noisemongers Dem Scientist was scheduled to play their final show as part of this bill; I have no idea what happened but, they were replaced by an apparently thrown-together three-piece who, when I asked their name after the show, decided that Those Jerks worked as well as any… after much Stooges-like (of the Moe, Larry and Curly variety, not the Iggy and the… type) debate. The band also came up with the rather descriptive personal sobriquets of Nasty Jordan, Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony. Given the tight confines of the Foam stage, the guys set up on the dance floor, with drummer Tommy facing the stage and the others, hanging close to the stage, facing each other. Their music – a combination of barely formed originals and impossibly obscure covers – was a rambling, shambolic skree of fast and loose old school punk; in short, Those Jerks’ set was the virtual epitome of dumb, stupid fun. And, we all know that there just ain’t near enough of that sorta thing in the world today.

Wray (David Brown; Blake Wimberly; David Swatzell) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wray (David Brown; Blake Wimberly; David Swatzell) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Unbeknownst to me (and, probably, the listening public at large), there is a burgeoning experimental music enclave in the unlikeliest of places: Birmingham, Alabama. Sure, I’d heard of (and listened to) Through the Sparks, Wray and, of course, Communicating Vessels (the label home of both) founder Jeffrey Cain’s group, Remy Zero (not from Birmingham, by the way, but the connection is valid), but… you really don’t envision this type of Eurocentric music to come out of Alabama. Wray plays an unrepentantly jangly, gauzy type of shoegazing elegantia, with throbbing bass, powerful drums, layered, effects-laden guitar and, hovering above it all, wispy, nearly whispered vocals; with a visual presentation (actually, a series of images and visual stimuli created – or chosen – by the band to augment each song) that is as mind-bendingly beautiful as the music, their show is a multimedia tour de force. Bassist and primary lyricist David Brown handled most of the vocals, while guitarist David Swatzell was content to build soaring layers of sonic Nirvana, adding the occasional backing vocal or a short, atmospheric lead with a voice as ethereal as Brown’s. Blake Wimberly followed where the music led, sometimes diverging from any type of standard time-keeping percussion but always bringing his playing back around to the rhythmic thread, all of which contributed to the hypnotic vibe of the song (most of which were from of the band’s latest release, HYPATIA). A highlight of the set was the group’s subtle, amazing cover of Faust’s Krautrock classic, “Jennifer.” Unfortunately, with the late start, rearranged order and other variables, Wray’s set was woefully short (somewhere around thirty minutes), but, without question, the highlight of the evening.

Soda Boys (Austin Nitsua; Jordy Shearer; Austin Nitsua) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Soda Boys (Austin Nitsua; Jordy Shearer; Austin Nitsua) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Like Those Jerks, Soda Boys play fast and loud; it’s punk, if tinged with a defiant dose of pop and a distinct Saint Louis flavor. Local scenester and founder of ACID KAT ‘ZINE, Austin Nitsua, is the band’s guiding light, a genial spaz in a Steak ‘n’ Shake paper hat, shouting lyrics over bass-heavy tunes like “Creamy Soda,” “Burgers and Fries” and the coulda-been-a-hit-in-another-era “Soda Girl.” These Boys (especially Nitsua) ran, jumped and rolled around the floor in a punk rock frenzy, obviously enjoying their set as much as the dwindling audience. Unfortunately, the only other band member I was able to identify was drummer Jordy Shearer, who somewhat reminded me of the late, great Tommy Erdelyi, the original skin-beater of the Ramones; as with Shearer, the unidentified guitarist and bassist more than held their own, but this show was unquestionably all about their charismatic (enigmatic?) singer, Austin Nitsua.

The Cowboys (Zackery Worcel; Jordan Tarantino; Mark McWhirter) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Cowboys (Zackery Worcel; Jordan Tarantino; Mark McWhirter) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Cowboys, from Bloomington Indiana, may have been the closest thing to a rock band playing on this Saturday. Their music is equal parts hard rock, psychedelia, punk rock and echo-drenched Rockabilly, delivered with an alcohol-fueled zeal. Celebrating the release of a compilation of the best material from their three cassette-only releases, the group – led by main songwriter and vocalist Keith Harman – charged through a set of tunes that included “Thumbs,” the trippy, late ’60s psychedelic groove of “Aqua Marine Love Machine” and the loopy hillbilly punk of “Cool Beans and Godspeed,” which featured some cool effects from guitarist Mark McWhirter. McWhirter proved himself adept at a variety of styles, including the riff-filled Buddy Holly inspired “Cindy Lou” and a fuzzy, screeching solo on “Creature of the Deep.” The rhythm section of Zackery Worcel on bass (and backing vocals) and drummer Jordan Tarantino were suitably sloppy while somehow managing to stay in the pocket throughout the night. Yeah, the night started off in a somewhat suspect manner, but the folks who stayed around for the finish were treated to a fun – if occasionally disjointed – evening of musical diversity.


LOVE: REEL-TO-REAL

(HIGH MOON RECORDS/RSO RECORDS; reissue 2015, original release 1974)

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Love’s seventh official album, REEL-TO-REAL, was seven years removed from the classic psychedelia of the brilliant FOREVER CHANGES and, seemingly, light years away musically. Arthur Lee had steered the Love boat (sorry… couldn’t resist the bad pun) solo since the original group disintegrated due to in-fighting and drug abuse after FOREVER CHANGES and, while each subsequent album featured a song or two that evoked the first three records, Lee had a tendency to ramble without Love’s other songwriter and vocalist, Bryan MacLean, taking at least some of the creative load off. After four years (and four albums) with Elektra and two records for Blue Thumb in 1969 and 1970, Arthur put the Love name to bed and recorded the hard-rocking solo record, VINDICATOR. In 1973, Lee put together a new Love and recorded an album called BLACK BEAUTY; unfortunately, the label, Buffalo Records, went belly-up before the record could be released (a remastered version of BLACK BEAUTY finally saw release through Half Moon Records in 2013). Invigorated by the sound of the new Love, Arthur Lee began work on what would become REEL-TO-REAL, released on RSO Records in 1974. Now, following the success of BLACK BEAUTY, High Moon has released a deluxe reissue of that 1974 record, complete with 12 bonus tracks of outtakes, demos and alternate versions. “But,” you ask, “was it worth it?” The short answer is, “Yes. Yes, it was.”

Love (Melvan Whittington, Robert Rozelle, Arthur Lee, Joe Blocker) (photo credit: HERBERT W WORTHINGTON)

Love (Melvan Whittington, Robert Rozelle, Arthur Lee, Joe Blocker) (photo credit: HERBERT W WORTHINGTON)

The album kicks off with “Time Is Like a River,” a signal call that this Love is gonna be a funkier proposition than the band’s late ’60s heyday. The song is highlighted by a soulful Arthur Lee vocal with Motown-style female backing vocals. The number also features a galloping drum track from Joey Blocker and great, funky horns; for those jonesing for a touch of the old guard, the psychedelic dual leads and solos – provided by the tandem of Melvan Whittington and John Sterling – more than fit the bill. “Stop the Music” is kind of an old Rhythm and Blues stroll, with some cool slide work from Sterling, a nice, hard rocking solo and a honkin’ bit of harp from Lee. The surprising use of tuba adds a slight New Orleans Jazz flavor, while Arthur does his best Otis Redding. Love channels Stevie and Earth Wind and Fire on “Who Are You?,” with Philip Bailey-like falsetto vocals and a lot of Wonder-ous clavinet effects from Bobby Lyle. “Good Old Fashion Dream” is a great Southern Soul rocker. Almost as a contrast, Lee’s vocals are raspy and urgent, with Sherwood Akuna’s spongy bass line holding the groove together throughout. The acoustic Blues of “Which Witch Is Which” features a few elements of electric rock and roll, most noticeably an awesome backward guitar by guest Harvey Mandel. “With a Little Energy” is a total James Brown funk workout, with the rhythm section of Blocker and Robert Rozelle propelling the tune forward. Arthur’s vocals have a distinct Sly Stone vibe here.

Love (Arthur Lee) (photo credit: MICHAEL PUTLAND)

Love (Arthur Lee) (photo credit: MICHAEL PUTLAND)

What was originally the first cut on Side Two of the 1974 record, “Singing Cowboy” is probably the closest in feel to the original Love’s sound. Sterling’s slide and Blocker’s heavy drums once again shine. The next track had more of an organic beginning, with Akuna, Blocker and Whittington messing with the rhythm in the studio and Lee joining in with some lyrics; “Man, let’s record that,” said Lee. Producer Skip Taylor rolled tape and “Be Thankful For What You Got” was born. Though it isn’t my favorite song on the record, it does feature a funky, rather Caribbean groove; unfortunately, the bass and some faux orchestra parts push it into a proto-Disco sound. “You Said You Would” was one of the more controversial songs as it was being recorded. The chorus of “You said you would/You said you would/Now you’re gone” features gunshot before the last line; everybody but Arthur thought that using the sound effect throughout the tune was… well, overkill, but he wouldn’t budge and that’s how the number was released. The song itself is a return to the poppy psychedelic sound of early Love, with snarky lyrics from Lee, giving it a John Lennon or Harry Nilsson vibe. Hendrixian in scope, if not in execution, “Busted Feet” is a throbbing, pulsating hard rocker. Arthur’s vocals sound urgent and strained to his limits. It’s a cool, welcome departure from the general feel of the album. A ragged acoustic Blues, “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” closes the album proper, reminding me somehow of early, folky Dylan. A nice song and a great way to end a record.

Love (Robert Rozelle, Melvan Whittington, Arthur Lee, Joe Blocker) (photo credit: HERBERT W WORTHINGTON)

Love (Robert Rozelle, Melvan Whittington, Arthur Lee, Joe Blocker) (photo credit: HERBERT W WORTHINGTON)

This nicely packaged reissue clocks in at a hefty 72 minutes plus. The original album was an economical 33 minutes, which means there are nearly forty minutes of extras here… it ain’t all essential but… well, there ya go. The outtakes are pretty cool to hear and the rehearsal stuff is fun… I just kinda think that including a live show from that era woulda been a better choice. Having said that, the first outtake, “Do It Yourself,” is interesting on a couple of different fronts: The shuffling rhythm, funky horns and country-fried psychedelic guitar gives the song the feel of a hard rock version of Earth Wind and Fire; the aforementioned guitar parts are quite reminiscent of the band’s then-label mate, Eric Clapton, a sound and tone and style that, apparently, Arthur Lee loathed. “I Gotta Remember” is a straight on rocker, with Lee’s lyrics and vocals putting one in mind of Jimi. It has a sort of circular arrangement and could have been the hit that RSO label president Bill Oakes was looking for from Love; instead, the song remained unreleased at the time. More Hendrix-like lyrics inform “Someday,” a nifty little Sly and the Family Stone work out with minimal, rather simple instrumentation that focuses more on the basic groove than anything else. “You Gotta Feel It” is a Fats Domino New Orleans stroll with nice guitar and a solid Lee vocal over a rolling, popping bass line. I like the basic premise of the number but, at 3:38, it goes on about two minutes too long.

Love (John Sterling, Sherwood Akuna,  Joe Blocker, Arthur Lee, Herman McCormick, Melvan Whittington) (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)

Love (John Sterling, Sherwood Akuna, Joe Blocker, Arthur Lee, Herman McCormick, Melvan Whittington) (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)

The alternate versions of “With a Little Energy” and an electric “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” as well as the single mix of “You Said You Would,” are just okay. The alternate “Busted Feet” is nearly two minutes longer than the version released in 1974, with extended breaks, more vocal histrionics and a wicked, heavy guitar solo. “Stop the Music” uses Arthur’s slightly off-key guitar line as the lead and removes the horns, tuba and harmonica. Lee does a bit of vocal scatting in place of the harmonica. The extended length comes from some pretty funny studio banter. Perhaps the alternate take that differs most from the original album version is “Singing Cowboy.” This version features a faster tempo, as well as a more urgent and upfront slide guitar; there’s also an unhinged wah-infused solo toward the end. The studio rehearsals (more of a warm-up or, in some cases, just goofing around while Lee decided what he wanted to do during a particular session) are nice additions. “Graveyard Hop” is a weird snippet of “Jailhouse Rock,” with reworked lyrics. The piece sounds really ragged and cool. Maybe the most intriguing bonus cut is the band rehearsing the FOREVER CHANGES outtake, “Wonder People (I Do Wonder).” Even though it kind of sounds like an unfinished San Francisco hippie ballad, it does show that Arthur was a bit more receptive to returning to those songs… at least, in the confines of a recording studio. The song actually features a solid guitar solo, even if Lee’s vocals weren’t much more than incoherent scatting. Overall, the re-release of this woefully ignored album is well worth the price of admission and, spotty though it is, holds up really well.


ALL THEM WITCHES/RANCH GHOST

(January 16, 2016; THE DEMO, Saint Louis MO)

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Walking to the Demo before this show, I ran into my young friends from the recent Koa show. First Koa, now All Them Witches… maybe – just maybe – there is hope for us as a civilization; I asked these young men and ladies if they shouldn’t be listening to the Bieb or One Direction or Kanye and was heartened by their answer: “Who? That’s not music.” A tear of happiness rolled down my cheek. So, we know that the kids’ allegiance to Koa is well-earned but, will All Them Witches live up to expectations? We’ll answer that question shortly but, first…

Ranch Ghost (Joshua Meadors; Matt Sharer; Andy Ferro) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ranch Ghost (Joshua Meadors; Matt Sharer; Andy Ferro) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Opening the show were All Them Witches’ Nashville neighbors and kindred spirits, the not-spooky-at-all (well, hardly-even-spooky) Ranch Ghost. The four-piece – augmented by a keyboardist for this show – offered up a rich rock stew, cooked up in a Nashville garage, with ample amounts of Surf and psychedelic flavoring, alongside a pinch of Folk and Country for extra seasoning. Joshua Meadors’ high, nasally voice (think Jello Biafra or Johnny Thunders or, perhaps, a more apt comparison would be Hank, Senior) lent itself well to the reverb-drenched chaos, while he and fellow guitarist Andy Ferro reveled in their Dick Dale/Link Wray sonic blasts. Matt Sharer’s bass, Tanner Lunn’s drums and Mitch Jones’ “atmospherics” added a perfect sludgyiness to Ranch Ghost classics like “Nahla” and “New News,” as well as tunes from the band’s forthcoming Rough Beast album. More than a simple chameleon-like morphing of musical styles from song to song, each tune’s genre-bending sound was an amalgam of the last hundred years of popular music, creating something that is wholly… Ranch Ghost. Even the physical appearance of these Ghosts seemed to hit on some well-known stylistic pop reference points: Ferro’s facial hair and wool cap put me in mind of Cheech Marin, with Sharer filling in for the larger-than-life beard of Tommy Chong; Meadors’ blonde mane and the music’s heavy Surf vibe virtually screamed (to no one but me, I’m sure) “Al Jardine,” one of the original Beach Boys. Just to bring this line of observation full circle, Lunn reminded me of actor Jason Mewes (the “Jay” half of “ …and Silent Bob”), while Jones could be the younger brother of actor/musician Billy Mumy (LOST IN SPACE, Barnes and Barnes). As random as those comparisons are, the music of Ranch Ghost is just as random… hard to pin down, but definitely something worth checking out.

All Them Witches (Michael Parks, Junior; Robby Staebler; Ben McLeod) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

All Them Witches (Michael Parks, Junior; Robby Staebler; Ben McLeod) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

While Ranch Ghost sort of dumps everything into a giant blender to get their musical point across, All Them Witches sticks pretty close to a Psychedelic Blues, played in a heavier-than-gravity style that evokes Hawkwindian space jams alongside the acoustic-metal slam of Jimmy Page’s New Yardbirds (check your history books if that one baffles you, children). Kicking the set off with “Call Me Star,” the opening track from their excellent new record, DYING SURFER MEETS HIS MAKER, the quartet quickly makes known their musical manifesto; the tune charges into a mesmeric approximation of “El Centro,” an extended instrumental jam that also features on DYING SURFER… that rather put me in mind of “No Quarter” from HOUSES OF THE HOLY. Frontman Michael Parks, Junior’s voice seemed more an ethereal entity unto itself, adding an other-worldly quality to the already dense instrumental wall-of-sound, a wall constructed by guitarist Ben McLeod, keyboardist Allan Van Cleave, drummer Robby Staebler and Parks’ bass. The fact that these four young men are capable of delivering such a massive sound in a seemingly effortless fashion belies the complexities of the arrangements and the music itself; it’s almost like watching the early ’70s version of the Mothers of Invention performing “My Bonnie” or some other rudimentary campfire song… child’s play.

All Them Witches (Ben McLeod; Allan Van Cleave; Ben McLeod, Michael Parks, Junior, Robby Staebler) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

All Them Witches (Ben McLeod; Allan Van Cleave; Ben McLeod, Michael Parks, Junior, Robby Staebler) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The set was nearly equally divided between newer material and stuff from 2013‘s LIGHTNING AT THE DOOR, with each song melting into the next, forming what could best be described as a sort of Native American suite. Following the hypnotic swirl of “Open Passageways” and an extended jam on the instrumental, “Welcome To the Caveman Future,” the next six numbers were from the earlier album, beginning with a shamanistic, Doors-likeDeath of Coyote Woman,” which featured a raging solo from McLeod. At times, Van Cleave’s Fender Rhodes sliced through the atmospheric desert grooves (as on the monolithic “Mountain”), at others, his electric piano added a perfect texture (especially on bluesy numbers like “Marriage of Coyote Woman”). The rhythm section delivered their parts with a devastatingly brutal precision that added to the roiling mysticism throughout, but the throbbing, tribal pulse laid down by Parks and Staebler on “Talisman” was a thing of dark and disturbing beauty. How many times has professional wrestling promoter Billy Corgan declared guitar-driven rock “dead?” Well, it would seem that bands like All Them Witches are here to prove you wrong, Billy… given the amount (and diversity) of new rock and roll spewing forth from the Country Music Capital of the World, it would seem that the medium is alive and getting better every day. For a taste of All Them Witches live, check out their album, AT THE GARAGE, or, better yet, catch ‘em on tour at a venue near you.


THE BEATLES: 1+

(APPLE RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP; 2015)

Album

This newly remastered Beatles 1 set, featuring the Beatles’ 27 UK and US chart-topping songs, now comes with a second disc (the “+,” available as either Blu-Ray or DVD), with videos of all 27 number ones. The set is also available with a special third disc, which offers still more videos, including many alternate versions, not to mention a wonderful 124-page booklet with plenty of pictures and descriptions of all the tunes and info for all of the videos. It’s quite a package for fans and also serves as a great introduction to the magic of the Beatles.

The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (uncredited photo)

The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (uncredited photo)

The songs – from 1962’s “Love Me Do to 1970’s “The Long and Winding Road” – take you through the time when the Fab Four dominated the world’s musical landscape, making great music and pushing the envelope as they evolved. Though just about everyone on the face of the planet knows these tunes, the real bonus here is the second, rarities-filled disc of videos with great alternate versions of “Day Tripper,” “Rain” and “Hello, Goodbye.” Seeing the revolutionary film for “Strawberry Fields Forever” had unknowingly prepared us for the upcoming age of the music video; “Penny Lane” is also wonderful.

The earliest videos are from TV appearances or live shows: THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, the 1965 Shea Stadium concert and so forth. One of my personal favorites is from 1968, when the lads did “Hey Jude” on THE DAVID FROST SHOW and the audience came on stage to join in on the “na na na’s.” “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down” from the group’s last live public appearance, commonly referred to as “the rooftop concert,” is great, as is “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love,” with Paul, George and Ringo gathering together one final time to create new Beatles music from two John Lennon demos. As a lifelong fan, reliving (or, in some instances, experiencing for the first time) all of these amazing memories certainly gives me much pleasure, as the music of the Beatles continues – after all these years – to bring such joy and happiness to the world.


BLACKFOOT GYPSIES/BROTHER LEE AND THE LEATHER JACKALS

(October 11, 2015; THE DEMO, Saint Louis MO)

The Wall Between

I am continually dumbfounded by this area’s music fans; things like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Bruce Springsteen can sell out arenas, sometimes multiple nights in a row and everybody seems willing to turn out for a cover band playing in the corner of a bar somewhere but, a band like Blackfoot Gypsies plays to a nearly empty club on their first trip to Saint Louis in over a year. Yeah… I’m talking about you. You know who you are and so do I… ’cause you weren’t at the Demo last Sunday to catch what turned out to be one heck of a show!

Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals (Josh Eaker; Danny Blaies; Sean Kimble) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals (Josh Eaker; Danny Blaies; Sean Kimble) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Gypsies hand-picked some old friends, locals Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals to open. The now-three piece have somehow managed to elude me to this point but, what a great band! Guitarist Josh Eaker hit the distort pedal before charging into the first song, “Outlaw Revival,” and didn’t touch it the rest of the night; the effect was a dense, late ’60s-early ’70s hard rock/boogie sound… think Leslie West during his Mountain-eering days, the Groundhogs’ Tony McPhee or that dirty sound Tony Iommi had on the first Black Sabbath record. The same era seemed to reference Eaker’s dress and facial hair; at first I was thinking of Lemmy in Motorhead’s early days but, it suddenly occurred to me that I was looking at a Duane Allman/Eric Clapton kinda hybrid. But, the question is… can the guy play? The short answer is, “Yes!” Give a listen to something like “Waltz Upon a Time In Mexico” or “Xanax and Cigarettes” or the drunken revelry of the bluesy Country sing-along, “Boredom Leads To the Bottle” and tell me that this sludgy, seemingly sloppy style doesn’t evoke the heavy psychedelic sound of the time period and the players listed above. By the way, Josh also acts as the power trio’s singer, with a voice that is a ragged approximation of George Harrison with a bit of John Lennon’s growl. As impressive as Eaker’s performance was, I haven’t even mentioned the rhythm section. Sean Kimble’s bass rumbled underneath, occasionally pinning the melody of a number, allowing Eaker to solo over the top; to call Kimble’s playing “gymnastic” in style would not be an exaggeration. Drummer Danny Blaies is so much more than a time-keeper, pummeling his kit like Keith Moon on steroids one minute, finessing it like the great Uriel Jones or Richard “Pistol” Allen of the legendary Motown backing band, the Funk Brothers. The give-and-take between Danny and Sean, as mentioned above, allowed Josh to take off on his incredible flights of fancy, knowing that when he needed them, they could draw him back into their miasmic groove. I know that, in Rock and Roll, no one player is irreplaceable, but I have a hard time imagining this group in any other configuration than Danny Blaies, Josh Eaker and Sean Kimble. Having found Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals, I cannot wait to hear where they go from here, either live or in a studio.

Blackfoot Gypsies (Matthew Paige) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Blackfoot Gypsies (Matthew Paige) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As ramshackle as the opening act was, the first couple of tunes of Blackfoot Gypsies’ set was even more chaotic and disheveled. With bassist Dylan Whitlow stalking in the shadows, stage left, harp blower Ollie “Dogg” Horton hiding out in the corner, stage right and Zack Murphy furiously attacking his drum kit behind him, vocalist and guitarist Matthew Paige is the consummate front-man, his strange, stream-of-consciousness banter and introductions the perfect match for his manic footwork and brilliant slide playing; he also bears a striking resemblance to both Slade’s Noddy Holder and the “Sunshine Superman” himself, Donovan Leitch, right down to Donovan’s hippy-chic couture. Paige also possesses a high, kind of nasally vocal style that is more than a little reminiscent of a very young Bob Dylan. Even as the music began to gel on stage, Matthew remained purposefully oblique regarding his stage patois, leaving the entire room feeling that he was playing and goofing just for them… a rare talent, not often seen with today’s disposable, cookie-cutter singers. Gypsies co-founder Murphy, a Hawaiian-shirted caveman, laid down a ferocious backbeat that never seemed to lose that Stonesy, bluesy groove no matter how hard he hit; Whitlow matched Zack’s groove, falling into that pocket that only the best rhythm section duos can find (in fact, while Murphy is more of a powerhouse style drummer than the Stones’ Charlie Watts, he and Dylan locked into what the other was doing in a way very similar to the way Watts and Bill Wyman did during their late ’60s-early ’70s heyday). Ollie offered a welcome change of pace on harmonica, never overpowering the other players, as can often happen, especially when soloing (I know that Blues Traveler and John Popper is a completely different animal, but listen to that band and listen to what Horton does with the Gypsies and you’ll understand what I’m talking about).

Blackfoot Gypsies (Zack Murphy) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Blackfoot Gypsies (Zack Murphy) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The band didn’t seem to have an official set list (none were visible onstage, anyway), with either Zack or Matthew suggesting a song, giving the key to Ollie and Dylan and charging into whatever tune was named. The set included several numbers from HANDLE IT, the group’s new record; those tunes included “Spent All My Money,” “Scream My Name,” “Dead On the Road,” “Pork Rind” and “Under My Skin,” all of which bristled with an urgency that you just don’t get from a studio recording. Another newish tune, “Everybody’s Watching,” is an infectious stomper with a Memphis soul groove that can be found on a split compilation called PIZZA PARTY, VOLUME 1 (three tracks each from four different bands); the call and response vocals between Paige and Whitlow add a nice layer to the group’s already solid sound. It seemed as though, whether he was rolling around the stage or on his knees or prancing around like a demented Mick Jagger, Matthew was capable of delivering spot-on solos, mostly – but not confined to – of the slide variety… there’s just something about the sound of a slide guitar or dobro that really gets to me and, Matthew’s affected me more than most.

Blackfoot Gypsies (Dylan Whitlow) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Blackfoot Gypsies (Dylan Whitlow) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

My favorite moments of the show came when the band covered a song called “Charlie’s Blues” by a band called Denny and the Jets, as well as an unrecorded (and as yet, untitled?) Gypsies number about the insanity of celebrity. “Charlie’s Blues” is a wicked funny kinda drunken Country Blues that enumerates the lifelong string of events and misery that has given Charlie such a bad case of the blues, including Charlie’s wife driving the family pick-up (three kids included) into the lake and Charlie’s rodeo clown brother meeting his demise in the arms of another woman; the crowd response was rather like the song itself, with drunken hoots and hollers to match the depressing revelry coming from the stage. The other song features a chorus that goes “I wanna be famous/For bein’ famous/For bein’ famous/For nothing at all,” which turned into a great sing-along as the sparse but energetic crowd began to loosen up and appreciate what was happening on stage.

Blackfoot Gypsies (Ollie Dogg Horton) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Blackfoot Gypsies (Ollie Dogg Horton) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Speaking of what was happening on stage, Paige’s unwavering enthusiasm seemed almost to wear down the audience, rather than infect them; a shame, really, as these guys left everything they had on that stage. Please, Saint Louis, don’t be the kind of town that bands like Blackfoot Gypsies scratch off of their tour itineraries because you can’t be bothered to get out on a beautiful fall Sunday to be entertained by live music in a great setting… it’s already happened with bigger, more established bands, who will play Chicago and Kansas City and, if they play a show in between, it’s usually in Springfield (IL or MO) or Columbia. That’s just sad!


THE STANDELLS: BUMP

(GLOBAL RECORDING ARTIST; 2013)

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American rock and roll during the early ’60s had become homogenized… I’m talkin’ Pat Boone homogenized; even Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard Penniman had significantly toned down their acts. Suddenly, the land that invented rock and roll no longer had the guts for it. It seemed that the only fire was coming from England: The Who, the Kinks, the Animals, those filthy Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things, the guys that made all of the others look like choir boys. All of that changed with the release of the Standells’ “Dirty Water” at the very end of 1965… with its vicious, snotty vocals, ominous organ and immediately recognizable riff, suddenly American rock and roll was dangerous again. But, unfortunately, the band that saved American rock music had an amazingly short shelf life. Their 1967 album TRY IT would be their last… until the release of BUMP. Co-founder, vocalist and keyboard player Larry Tamblyn (who, for the trivia buffs out there, is the younger brother of actor Russ and uncle to actress Amber) is the only original member of the band, though John “Fleck” Fleckenstein had been in the band for a time after leaving fellow Los Angeleans Love. Guitarist and vocalist Mark Adrian and drummer Greg Burnham complete the 21st century version of the “dirtiest band in America.” BUMP is short (ten songs in 35 minutes), but the brevity is more than compensated for with the high-energy playing, offering a killer blast of nostalgia spiked with a decidedly modern dose of rock.

The Standells (Larry Tamblyn, Mark Adrian, John Fleckenstein, Greg Burnham) (publicity photo)

The Standells (Larry Tamblyn, Mark Adrian, John Fleckenstein, Greg Burnham) (publicity photo)

The album kicks of with a rollicking version of the Love classic “Seven and Seven Is,” falling somewhere between the original and Alice Cooper’s punk-metal take from SPECIAL FORCES. As contemporaries of the Standells, this one falls very nicely into their garage-sized wheelhouse, even if Tamblyn’s vocal prowess can’t hope to come close to Arthur Lee. The band takes the song in a completely different direction as it shifts into a slower gear for a bluesy solo from Adrain. “It’s All About the Money” is a very modern sounding number, with some nice guitar and cool backing vocals. If you were wondering, Tamblyn’s organ playing is still the dirtiest thing this side of Lady Gaga’s undies (wait… does she even where those?). Though the Standells weren’t from Boston, they continue to be Boston proud; “Boston’s Badass” is a sequel of sorts to the group’s biggest success, “Dirty Water.” The song has a distinct early Alice Cooper groove to it (the Standells were obviously an influence on the boys from Detroit). “Help You Ann” is a kind of paisley power pop thing, a cover of the Lyres’ (a band that actually was from Boston) paisley underground track. It features a great guitar riff and lead vocals from Mark Adrian. Another cover, the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard,” features an awesome arrangement that sorta mixes the riff from “You Really Got Me” with a hard rockin’ Iron Butterfly rhythm.

The Standells (Greg Burnham, John Fleckenstein, Larry Tamblyn, Mark Adrian) (publicity photo)

The Standells (Greg Burnham, John Fleckenstein, Larry Tamblyn, Mark Adrian) (publicity photo)

Adrian is back on lead vocals for “Big Fat Liar,” with vocals and melody line straight outta the ’80s Cali punk scene and smushed up against the band’s own arrogant style of garage rock. Mark supplies some beefy guitar solos to the proceedings, as well. “Mister One Percent” is the political portion of our program. Larry’s passionate lead vocals are enhanced by some particularly fine backing from the rest of the band. Again, Adrian offers up some very tasty guitar with Tamblyn’s organ working a nice balance just below. Burnham and Fleckenstein, while just percolating along, give the song a perfect backdrop, proving that a flamboyant rhythm section isn’t always advantageous to a song; it’s all about knowing what to play and when and where to play it. Another Mark Adrian lead vocal follows on “She’s Just 18,” one of those lo-fi kinda chugging rockers. John has sort of a “Peter Gunn” bass thing going on that works well within the confines of this track. If any song here absolutely screams “classic Standells,” it’s “And I Got It.” There’s also a bit of a nod to the Nazz in there, if you’re paying attention. All four guys are firing on all cylinders here, with Tamblyn, once again, reasserting his dominance as king of the garage band organ players. “Bump In the Night” is a smoldering, smarmy pop confection. With its urgent rhythm, Larry’s lecherous vocals and lines like “This ain’t gonna be a big romance/We’re just gonna have some fun tonight/Let’s go bump tonight/We can bump ’til the broad daylight/Let’s go bump/Let’s go bump in the night/You know what I’m talkin’ about, baby,” the song leaves little to the imagination. The number makes a great album closer and you’ll find yourself humming the raunchy groove long after the thing’s over. But, then, that’s what you’d expect from the Standells, right?


YES-TERDAY AND TODAY: AN INTERVIEW WITH MABEL GREER’S TOYSHOP ABOUT THEIR SURPRISING COMEBACK AND SOME “UNFINISHED BUSINESS”

Mabel Greer's Toyshop

You could be forgiven for not immediately knowing who Mabel Greer’s Toyshop are. That name has not exactly been pervasive in the music press. However, hardcore fans of the legendary progressive rock ensemble Yes will recognize MGT (whom we will sometimes also refer to as just “Mabel,” as fans are starting to do) as the place Yes came from, a long, long time ago. Yes indeed, way back in 1966, founding members Robert Hagger and Clive Bayley, together with original Yes-men Peter Banks and Chris Squire, were starting to make music as MGT, something pop oriented and even a little folksy. Then, that Jon Anderson fellow had to come along and start having long, late night talks with Chris Squire, and everything got messed up. Depending on how you look at it, of course. MGT did not continue as an active entity, although material had been written and performed at the time. So, it’s more than a little unexpected that, 45 years later, they have a new album called NEW WAY OF LIFE due out, featuring Hagger and Bayley, along with Yes alumnae Tony Kaye and Billy Sherwood, and bassist Hugo Barre as the main newbie. The album succeeds in not only being eminently listenable, but in setting itself far apart from Yes-pectations (a word that might as well be officially used to describe the always-changing state of Yes fanship through the years and the rotating lineups). Such tunes as “Get Yourself Together,” “Images of You and Me,” “Singing To Your Heart” and the melodic title track are muscular, well-conceived tracks that feature pleasant harmonies, energetic playing and a joyful spirit that is almost celebratory in nature. After all this time, the band probably knew that full surrender was the best way to go with a project that has taken so long to be realized. One thing that is a bit surprising with regard to Yes is that two songs on the first Yes album, “Beyond and Before” and “Sweetness” have been totally redone here. We’ll let the band explain how that came about in the following interview, conducted via email.

Whatever preconceived notions that listeners bring to this project, it’s fair to say that if you set those aside and just listen, you’ll hear some classic old-school British rock that is influenced by its prog roots to an extent, but also straightforward in its desire to showcase the melodies and tight musicianship of this new-old ensemble, with nothing pretentious or self-indulgent to mar the result. There are a couple of instrumentals, and a few tunes that probably won’t set the world on fire, but this is just pleasant, well-crafted rock with hints of nostalgia that should make most listeners smile. Mabel Greer’s Toyshop clearly had a barrel of fun with this album, and it’s an easy bet that they will keep it going. They are doing exactly what they want to do, and the intimidating musical legacy that they’ve come from, while echoed here and there, does not straightjacket this new record in any way. It’s an admirable feat they’ve accomplished, one that is a bit unprecedented in the annals of progressive music. There were many questions worth asking the band, but the following interview tells a great deal about their unusual journey to this point:

Mabel Greer's Toyshop, 1967 (Robert Hagger, Peter Banks, Clive Bayley, Chris Squire) (photo credit: ROWAN BULMER)

Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, 1967 (Robert Hagger, Peter Banks, Clive Bayley, Chris Squire) (photo credit: ROWAN BULMER)

THE MULE: Although it’s not unprecedented for a group that was better known as the earliest incarnation of a more prominent group to “reunite” and release new music, it’s also not common. How did this project ultimately come about?

ROBERT HAGGER: Ironically, I think it may have been the death of Peter Banks that was a catalyst. On March 15, 2013, I was on a flight from Dubai to Johannesburg and read in a newspaper that “Peter Banks, former lead guitarist with Yes and Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, died on March 7 from heart failure at the age of 65.” THE (London) TIMES dedicated three-quarters of a page to the story. Mabel Greer’s Toyshop was mentioned in the article, although inaccurately reporting that, “the band was formed by Banks and Chris Squire.” In reality, Clive and I asked Chris to join following my audition with the band, the Syn. Chris then invited Peter and Jon Anderson to join us. Peter made a huge contribution to what we were doing at the time. I started swapping emails with Clive and we agreed to meet up in July in France at the Le Petit Maison in Nice, a restaurant opposite the opera house. It’s a surreal experience to meet someone again after 45 years! We had a lot to talk about and during the meal he blurts it out, “we should reform Mabel Greer’s Toyshop.” We all fall about laughing, but it hits a nerve, and we agreed to book some studio time in August.

CLIVE BAYLEY: Mabel was always “unfinished business” for both of us; we thought the music deserved to be carried through to a larger audience.

Mabel Greer's Toyshop becomes Yes (Peter Banks, Tony Kaye, Chris Squire, Bill Bruford, Jon Anderson) (uncredited photo)

Mabel Greer’s Toyshop becomes Yes (Peter Banks, Tony Kaye, Chris Squire, Bill Bruford, Jon Anderson) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Most hardcore Yes fans will likely know of you guys, but perhaps not the prog audience at large. What would you say distinguishes the current musical style you’re creating from the 60s incarnation of the band?

CLIVE: Back in the 60’s our style was likened to a crossover of Pink Floyd and the Byrds; strong melody lines and good harmonies, albeit a little more classic rock oriented (as was carried over to the Yes incarnation). If anything, the Mabel melody lines are perhaps even stronger and heavier now and include 45 years of influences from far and wide.

THE MULE: It was a bit of a surprise to hear the tracks “Beyond and Before” and “Sweetness” redone on this record, as those tracks were on the first Yes album and heavily featured Jon Anderson. What made you decide to record those songs, and are you concerned at all that your take on them will suffer by comparison to Anderson’s distinctive style?

ROBERT: “Beyond and Before” was always the Mabel opening piece at gigs, even before Jon Anderson joined us. The song, written by Clive and Chris Squire, is part of our history, we couldn’t possibly leave it out.

CLIVE: Jon is a great singer, and we all enjoy the Yes version… but, we wanted to do the melody lines more like the original Mabel version. Regarding “Sweetness,” which I co-wrote with Jon and Chris… again, Jon’s version is great, but my voice is an octave lower and a different style. The interesting thing about the Mabel version of “Sweetness” is the lead guitar running through the song in counterpoint which twists it into another style, I think.

Mabel Greer's Toyshop rehearsa, circa 2013 (Annouchka Bayley, Alex Keren Robert Hagger, Clive Bayley, Hugo Barre) (uncredited photo)

Mabel Greer’s Toyshop rehearsa, circa 2013 (Annouchka Bayley, Alex Keren Robert Hagger, Clive Bayley, Hugo Barre) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Talk about your compositional process a little: How did tracks such as “Get Yourself Together” and “Images of You and Me” originate and develop into the arrangements we hear? Then elsewhere, you have tracks that are mostly instrumental such as “King and Country” and “Oceans”… how are aesthetic decisions like that made? Does everyone have to agree on the elements of a song, or do a couple of you get to pretty much determine the direction of a tune?

CLIVE: I think songwriting and arranging really is my thing. So in a lot of the arrangements I was trying to create a fuller, more interesting sound than we had achieved on the older material. The new songs just kind of fell into place. On “New Way of Life,” Billy altered the bass line from what we had originally and this seemed to change the style of the song quite a bit. He just did it, we all liked it, so we kept it. Billy’s style worked well as he intuitively caught where the European part of the band were coming from… great job from both him and Tony Kaye.

ROBERT: “Get Yourself Together” and “Images” were, again, written back in 1967. When we went back in the studio to record them we did it from memory, which was an interesting experience in itself. It’s important to note that the only rehearsal we had was to play the numbers through once or twice and then lay down the tracks. There are advantages and disadvantages in doing it this way. We sacrificed some quality to retain the vibe and energy.

Mabel Greer's Toyshop's Clive Bayley, circa 2013 (uncredited photo)

Mabel Greer’s Toyshop’s Clive Bayley, circa 2013 (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: “Oceans” makes it pretty clear that you guys are comfortable with long instrumental passages and “painterly” style soundscapes. Might you consider doing an all-instrumental recording someday?

CLIVE: The music piece determines if vocals are required… alternatively, if a strong melody line is created then the backing can be hard rock or delicate, it just kind of evolves. Yes, I would like to do an instrumental with strings and a choir sort of thing, but I suspect a melody line will creep in somewhere as a vocal. I do like Rock Opera, music telling a story. I wrote an album called KING AND COUNTRY, (which has) not yet been released, that does this. Strangely, it was based on TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, which is now about to be released as a major movie. I would like to re-record this album or update it at some point in time.

THE MULE: Clive and Robert, what was it like revisiting something you did so long ago? Were you at all concerned about being in the shadow of Yes as you embarked on this project?

CLIVE: I don’t want to emulate Yes, they are a wonderful band and they are Yes. However, you can detect where some of the Yes sound came from, and with a little imagination, you have a different take on where it could have gone if we had remained involved. I don’t rate myself as a great guitarist like Steve Howe or Peter Banks… but, I think I can write and arrange some nice sounds, and want to share that.

ROBERT: When Clive and I formed Mabel back in 1966, we knew we had something special. Even at the age of 16, Clive was writing stuff like “Beyond and Before” and “Jeanetta,” still one of my all-time favourites and also included on the new album. There is no question of being in the shadow of another band, we are just making our offering and if a few people enjoy it, then we will be happy.

Mabel Greer's Toyshop's Tony Kaye and Billy Sherwood (uncredited photo)

Mabel Greer’s Toyshop’s Tony Kaye and Billy Sherwood (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Tony Kaye and Billy Sherwood are in the unique position of having played with later versions of Yes; in fact, Tony played in early AND later incarnations. Would love it if you guys could share your insights into what it was like during your particular eras with Yes, and how those experiences influenced you for this new MGT project. Do you still have contact with Chris Squire, any of you? Has he heard the new work?

BILLY SHERWOOD: I was lucky enough to tour with the 90125 (Yes) lineup in 1995, for their TALK record, after that, the band reverted back to the classic lineup as it’s known, with Howe and Wakeman. I was called in to produce/mix for that lineup during the KEYS TO ASCENSION sessions. After that phase, they broke up and it was at that point that Squire and myself began writing and sending tracks around to Anderson, who got involved in this new writing wave… which became the OPEN YOUR EYES record. This is when I joined as a full member, touring that record and the following record THE LADDER. This would be the third Yes lineup I had the pleasure to play with. I left the band in 2000 to go back into the studio production world, making many records, some of which included various Yes members… (THE PROG COLLECTIVE 1 and 2, the Fusion Syndicate, William Shatners PONDER THE MYSTERY among other records). As a result of my ongoing relationship with Yes, I was asked to come in and mix their most recent studio record, HEAVEN AND EARTH, as well as their live DVD from Bristol called LIKE IT IS. I am currently just starting to mix another Live Yes DVD from Mesa, Arizona… Regarding Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, it was a part of Yes history in that the early seeds of Yes were housed within that band in many ways. When I was asked to come on board to make their new record, it was an honor. As a Yes fan, knowing the backstory of where it all began, I felt it was something special to be involved with such history by pushing it forward into the future. I really enjoyed playing on the record and producing/mixing, it was a labour of love indeed!

(Tony Kaye was also part of the Mabel Greer’s Toyshop/Yes transition in June to August 1968 in London, and was of course the keyboard player on the versions of “Beyond and Before” and “Sweetness’ that featured on the first Yes album. Tony was very pleased to be involved in the revival album with Clive and Bob, and enjoyed playing the old material again. He has also been working with Billy Sherwood on their joint-project and new album with the band Circa… Tony was not available for this interview).

THE MULE: You are billed as an “English psychedelic rock band” on your web site. What does the term “psychedelic” mean to you. Has audience perception of that word changed since the 60s?

ROBERT: We used the term “psychedelic” with the meaning “mind-revealing” in that the music was designed to change the state of the listener’s mind by sound effects and reverberation. As an example, just listen to some of the intros and specifically to the track “Oceans” on the new album.

CLIVE: Yes, audience perception of “psychedelic” has changed. We were dressed differently then, and when we started out it was the pre-Flower Power era. The 60s were a great time of peaceful protest and desire to change the establishment, too. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, we were all breaking new ground. I think we tend to use the term “psychedelic” loosely… it could encompass a protest movement, new way of life, breakout… But, using the word “psychedelic” also brings back images of that era where all these things were going on.

THE MULE: Talking about this area a little more, progressive rock sort of had its heyday in the 70s with groups like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and Pink Floyd. Then it fell out of favor for many years, partially due to punk and new wave, but a new crop of bands like Porcupine Tree, Spock’s Beard and many more proved that prog rock still had a massive audience in the 90s and beyond. What do you guys see as the importance and appeal of prog rock? Do you see yourselves fitting into that realm, even though some of the tracks on your new record are essentially straightforward pop songs?

CLIVE: I think we are flexible enough to try different styles. The title track, dare I say, is more country and western than prog rock. A bit like the last Muse album where they introduced some R&B tunes, that shocked a few people. We like to experiment a lot, which again, is that psychedelic label, but it doesn’t ALL have to sound like Flower Power… if that makes sense?

Mabel Greer's Toyshop's Robert Hagger, circa 2013 (uncredited photo)

Mabel Greer’s Toyshop’s Robert Hagger, circa 2013 (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Does it affect groups like you that made your first mark in a very different musical era, that the technology and distribution systems have changed so much? Do you think music has been devalued by mp3s and the like, or is it just the inevitable change that musicians have to adapt to? How do you personally see the music business these days?

CLIVE: Well, Bob and I are getting back in so we are seeing the music business in a new light after a long gap. It clearly has changed. I think we all have to constantly adapt quickly as the world is speeding up now and more and more will change. Go with the flow but keep your integrity and create what you believe in.

ROBERT: In the old days, musicians could not rely on record sales to make a living, they had to go out and play in front of an audience. Funny that today is the same…

THE MULE: For those who don’t know, what is the origin of the band’s name? Was there ever any thought about going out under a different name when you got together again?

ROBERT: Back in the 60s, interesting, way-out names were the way to go: Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, et cetera. So we became Mabel Greer’s Toyshop. This whole project was about reviving the vibes that we had going in the beginning, so it would have been counter-productive to rename the band, although it seems that everybody now refers to it as just plain “Mabel… ”

THE MULE: What are your biggest hopes as you launch into this new phase of the band’s career? Will you be touring a lot? Will you be doing other early Yes songs besides the ones on the record? And do you think there will be more albums down the road?

CLIVE: No, I don’t think we will do any Yes songs. We will do some showcase gigs and see what happens. I am definitely arranging the next album soon; we already have a lot of new songs for it. And I want to do that Rock Opera thing or themed album. We are happy to do a new album every year if the audience likes it. Constantly trying to create exciting music, whatever shape it takes. Let’s see where this “NEW WAY OF LIFE” takes Mabel after March 9…

Album cover

NEW WAY OF LIFE will be released as a digital download and CD on March 9, 2015 by RSK Entertainment. For more information, visit the band’s website at mabelgreerstoyshop.com.