Clear Blue Sky
A Brief History
The late nineties as well as the advent of the new millennium has brought about a renewed interest in bands and music from the sixties and early seventies. One of these bands is Clear Blue Sky.
Originating from Acton, London, the original line-up of Clear Blue Sky was a trio consisting of John Simms, Ken White and Mark Sheather. The three were childhood friends, even attending the same school (The Duhig brothers who would go on to form Jade Warrior also attended the same school). Their musical roots lay in the blues infused rock that had popularised in the United Kingdom by veteran bluesmen such as Alexis Korner.
|The first band that they formed was called Jug Blues and they started to tour the college and club circuit. Band names changed from Jug Blues to Matuse and then X and the group even toured Germany thus gaining a considerable amount of experience. Apart from the usual chore of cover version the group also started writing its own material, which started to be introduced into the live sets, and was generally well received.|
The band's breakthrough came when they won the marquee Club talent contest and were immediately snapped up by Donovan's manager Ashley Kozak. The fact that they had such a high-profile manager enabled the band to be increase their profile, thus obtaining better gigs as well as securing a record contract. With everything falling in place the band hooked up with the Vertigo label, a label known for its recruitment of new bands that were creating (still) experimental sounds ranging from heavy blues to progressive rock. A record contract also meant a change of name and Clear Blue Sky was born.
|Thus in spring 1970, the band entered Island studios, next door to Led Zeppelin who were busy recording Led Zeppelin II. Production was entrusted to one of the hottest producers at that time, Patrick Campbell-Lyons, who had played with Nirvana (the UK band!) a few years previously. The band were still barely eighteen, but the music they created was innovative in that it combined that heavy blues edge with the free flowing forms of psychedelia and the complexity of progressive rock. The album artwork was done by Roger Dean, one of the earliest pieces of work to be done by the now legendary artist. Thus Clear Blue Sky (Vertigo 6360 013, gatefold sleeve, spiral label, value BS 35.00) was released in January 1971, alongside releases by bands such as Black Sabbath and Juicy Lucy. The album would be issued in Europe under a different name, Play It Loud as well as with different artwork.|
The group toured extensively and made a name for themselves with their style that was harder and heavier than many of the bands in circulation, yet they were continuously open to experimentation and improvisation. In fact their recordings were made live in the studio with a minimal amount of takes. The band were also featured on a Vertigo compilation Heads Together/Round One (Vertigo 6360 045, 2-LP, gatefold sleeve, spiral label, Value BS20.00) as well as on the compilation The Vertigo Trip with the track Birdcatcher included.
However the continuous touring had its toll on the band, whose members were still teenagers when the album was released and in 1975, John Simms decided to disband the group and join Tangerine Peel. Mark Sheather got married and disappeared from the musical scene, but Simms would later team up with Ken White and Smith Campbell (Hokus Poke) to form The Needle. The Needle would also be disbanded with Simms gong on to join fusion group Separate Energy, The Ginger Baker Band and Karizma (with Ginger Baker's son Kofi).
Thus the mid-seventies and the whole of the eighties came and went by without any news from Clear Blue Sky. However the nineties brought about renewed interest in the band, whose debut (and only) album was still selling healthily via independent record labels such as Repertoire and Si-Wan. Furthermore, there had long been a rumour circulating amongst the band's fans that there lay within the vaults two unreleased albums by the band. 1990 was the year that Clear Blue Sky fans were waiting for as a new album was released. No new material was recorded, but instead material recorded in the seventies was given a brush up and an album released. The album was called Destiny (Saturn SRLP 101, Value BS 10.00) and was released in limited quantities on vinyl and cassette on the Saturn label.
That same year the band were invited to play at the 20th Anniversary of the Isle Of Wight Festival. This was the perfect excuse for the band to reform and play material that had not been heard live in close to twenty years. Furthermore in October of that year, Vertigo released the compilation album Vertigo Classics And Rarities which also featured Rocket Ride, taken from the band's debut album.
Following further touring, the band began to attract interest from record companies and they were signed to the Aftermath label, which immediately released the Destiny album on CD (AFT 1005) with new artwork by Phil Schmee. Not only was the interest in the band coming from record companies, but fans from all around the world were clamouring for new releases from the band.
However before this was done, the group had to changed radically. The power trio, that was so popular in the late sixties/early seventies, was expanded to a quintet to include a keyboardist (Adam Lewis) and a female backing vocalist, John Simms wife, Maxine. This move allowed the band to explore further the dimensions of rock music and move into the realms of space rock as well as maintain their heavy blues style. The new album was also a concept album and was titled Cosmic Crusader, based on a science fiction theme and was released in 1996. The Ginger Baker link was also revived with the artwork entrusted to his ex-wife Elizabeth Finch.
In 1998, the new album also received a mention by Barry "Mr Vertigo" Winton in the liner notes to the new Polygram 2-CD compilation Still Dizzy After All These Years that included My Heaven. The new millennium also saw the band celebrating their thirtieth anniversary and this was done with the band gong into the studio to record a new album as well as release an album of live and unreleased tracks.
Thus Out Of Blue (AFT 1009) was released in 2000 featuring unreleased tracks from the pre-vertigo years (1968-69) as well as four live tracks. 2001 saw the band releasing Mirror Of The Stars, a new album with new material which should please the band's numerous fans. The future looks bright.
All compositions by John Simms
Produced by Patrick Campbell-Lyons
Engineered by Roger Beak (Island Studios)
Designed and drawn by Roger Dean
Clear Blue Sky are John Simms on guitar, Mark Sheather on bass guitar and Ken White on drums. An ordinary line-up, but listen to this album. It's far from ordinary. Their music is refreshingly different, vital and virginal. The three of them are only eighteen but their musical ability is years ahead. They are still all semi-professional so I wonder what they'll feel like in a years' time. Only time and a Clear Blue Sky will tell.
Nick Massey (Liner notes from original album)
Considered a classic of the early seventies by a number of critics, the debut album from Clear Blue Sky was released at a time when the rock world was undergoing a number of radical changes. The psychedelic era was coming to a close with progressive rock taking over the mantle of rocks' leading genre. However, not all bands followed the modus operandi of progressive rock bands, using classical music and jazz music as the platform for their musical trip. Some bands, most notably those within the hard rock genre, used a form of heavy blues as their launching pad.
Clear Blue Sky were just one of these bands that have a most definite blues influence. However, their ability to introduce a number of variations within their musical structure such as subtle classical influences as well as a degree of complexity that went beyond the average band enabled their music to be appreciated by a wider range of audiences.
The album starts with the suite, Journey To the Inside Of The Sun which occupied the whole of Side 1 of the original vinyl album, and is in itself subdivided into three tracks. The opening Sweet Leaf is a real stomper, with a classical blues riff. As can be expected, a line-up comprising guitar, bass and drums could be rather limited in the amount of musical diversity that can be created, yet on the other hand the band manage to carry this off well. The opening nine and a half minutes (all of Sweet Leaf) are instrumental with John Simms belting out one guitar solo after the other, ably backed by Sheather and White. On the other hand one can note the classical influence on these musicians when occasional the stomp is abruptly stopped with a short classical interlude (played on guitar of course!) taken from Dvorak's New World Symphony. This is the same symphony that The Moody Blues were meant to record for Decca to promote stereo sound, and which ended up as The Days Of Future Passed, and the subsequent birth of progressive rock!
The Rocket Ride, is the track that tends to feature on most compilations that include a track from Clear Blue Sky and starts with a Hendrix-like riff, however the track takes an unexpected twist with some rapid changes in time signature and key just before the entry of Simms on vocals. The track proceeds on a blues-based foundation though the occasional twist and turn does occur, as happens also with I'm Comin' Home. At times there are traces of Cream, whilst at others one feels that the riffs that shift from an almost acoustic feel to a more abrasive distortion are on a par with Jimmy Page's riffs with Led Zeppelin.
You Mystify has the band letting all hell let loose with Simms' searing guitar work. The shifts in time signature are continuous, once again proving the group's ability to go beyond the routine twelve bar format. Tool Of My Frade also has a backing Hammond, which stays firmly in the background, just adding to the fullness of the sound thus allowing for Simms to do away with the distortion, and even introduce an acoustic guitar. As always the guitar work is fantastic, but a word must be put in for the rhythm section, most notably Ken White's drumming which is constantly changing creating the perfect backbone for Simms and his guitars.
My Heaven and Birdcatcher bring the album to a close. My Heaven could be considered to be the mellower of the two with the backing resembling a style that many alternative musicians would utilise to great effect in later years, Jeff Buckley being an example. the track itself blends both hard and acoustic rock, making it one of the more easy listening tracks on the album. On the other hand Birdcatcher is a straight forward track with another Zeppelin-esque riff featuring plenty of blues influences. Of particular interest on this closing track is use of a flute which adds that Jethro Tull touch to the track. This touch as well as the interlude halfway through the track which has just flute and guitar with footsteps used to keep the beat create and incredibly fantastic atmosphere.
After hearing this album, one can understand why this band was labelled as a progressive rock band. It is true that prog-rock bands are normally associated with keyboards, something which this band lacks. However, on the other hand Clear Blue Sky managed to introduce a number innovative features that places them well above the majority of similar blues-based trios from the same era. The occasional classical innuendo coupled with their ever changing time signatures allowed for them to be classified well within the progressive rock genre, as is fitting. When one listens to this album, one can understand why this band were seemingly destined to greatness, but unfortunately fate had other plans!
Journey, Mystify, Destiny and My Heaven are live recordings
Funnily enough two of the live tracks are given different names to their studio counterparts with You Mystify called Mystify and Journey To The Inside Of The Sun simply called Journey.
Lineup: John Simms (guitar, vocals), Ken White (drums) and Mark Sheather (bass). Live tracks feature Kreznet Montpellier, Paul G. and Ted Landon on bass.
Out Of the Blue was released as a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the band's first recording, Clear Blue Sky. Thus the album features a number of recordings that actually took place before the recording of the first album as well as including recordings of tracks that were composed during the years 1969-1971 yet are captured live. Thus some of the tracks were recorded prior to the band being signed to the Vertigo label, and when one considers the fact that during the recording of the first album the band members were just eighteen years of age, these recordings sound that much more incredible.
The live tracks present on the album are Journey, Mystify, Destiny and My Heaven, all of which were tracks which were present on the band's debut album, yet are being heard in live format for the first time. Also of note is that the lineup of the studio tracks is the same as that on the debut album with John Simms(guitar, vocals), Mark Sheather (bass) and Ken White (drums).
The album opens with Man Of Stone, a track which immediately reaffirms the band's roots. Performing as a power trio, the likes of which were extremely popular during the late sixties, their musical roots and beliefs lie firmly within the heavy blues realm. One of the most popular band, that played in a similar format would be Cream and it is no surprise that John Simms would wind up playing with Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Thus the opening track is a straight forward heavy blues number, as is Man Dream which this time also includes a keyboard element and seems to be somewhat more adventurous. One has to take into consideration that the band were very young when recording these demos and musically they still had to mature. On the other hand their are indications of the band's ability to vary time signatures as well as keys and not just stick to the basic 12-bar format.
Spooky seems to introduce more of a psychedelic element into the music with Simms' guitar work taking up a prominent position within the musical structure with some lengthy blues solos. Will You Lie is the first lengthy track proposed by the band on this album, one which clearly exposes the musical era in which it was recorded. The air is heavy with psychedelic references to bands such as Jefferson Airplane as well as to the blues-based rock present on other tracks. However, this is the first track that offers a degree of variation both in terms of variations in time signature as well as in terms of varying keys.
The lengthy Veil Of The Vixen is relatively similar to Will You Lie in that it fuses the psychedelic with the blues, managing to infuse a sense of aggressiveness together with a spirit of freedom as the group plod on and on with never ending guitar solos. This track must have been a live wire when played live.
The Taxman is one of those persons in society that is targeted continuously by artists within the musical industry and is not spared by Clear Blue Sky! Here there are signs of the heavy rock influence creeping in. One can safely say that the heavy blues evolve into hard rock and heavy metal. Though some bands, such as Black Sabbath, dragged their sound, others such as Led Zeppelin retained the blues as a foundation from which they managed to evolve some hard rocking elaborate numbers. With Taxman, Clear Blue Sky seemed to be heading down the Zeppelin road.
Joanna is the last of the studio tracks to feature on this album and has the group returning to a format that they used to great effect on the first tracks of the album. The remaining four tracks of the album are live tracks culled from the seventies, yet are all tracks that were written prior to or around the same time as the release of their debut album.
Judging from the material the group were able to produce when still of a musical immature age, it comes as no wonder that a few years down the line the group would be a commendable live act. The four tracks presented here are a witness to this as the band manage to romp through the numbers with a fury and force that it is hard to believe that all this is created by just a trio of musicians. Simms' guitar really lets rip through the numbers whilst ably being backed by his rhythm section. In fact it is safe to say that certain tracks come alive when played and heard live rather then in a studio environment as the group show their ability to improvise and add along the way.
Though this is not an album of material that ever was intended for release, it offers an interesting insight of how a bunch of teenagers would progress musically from a rich heavy blues based form of music into a more harder hitting progressive form of rock. The majority of the numbers do not feature the musical complexity that the group would show on their debut album, yet on the other there are hints at the things to come.
Could This Be The Way and Big City Man were previously unreleased. These two tracks were not included on the original release of the album on the Saturn label, and are only available on the CD version.
Lineup: John Simms (guitar, vocals), Mark Sheather (bass), Ken White (drums)
Destiny was the second album to be released under the moniker of Clear Blue Sky and this occurred only in 1990, almost twenty years after the debut album! However, the material on the album was not entirely new material as it had been previously recorded, most of it destined for the fabled second album that was long talked about by fans of the band, but which never saw the light of day. In fact the lineup credited with the album is identical to that which recorded the first album and as can be imagined the music is very similar to what the band played on their first album, and which would also surface on the Out Of The Blue album a few years later.
The opening track, Destiny, portrays a different band than that which recorded the debut album. The sound is somewhat more polished and there is the clear presence of keyboards, which unlike the previous excursion, takes a prominent musical role. Though there is nothing complex in what is played on the keyboards, there is also included a short solo, though as happens on the majority of Clear Blue Sky tracks, the main focus of the band is John Simms and his guitar work. Once again we have a classic heavy riff, akin to something bands like Led Zeppelin would have come up with.
Pick Up is one of those tracks that immediately grabs your attention. It is a straight forward rocker featuring some great catchy riffs reminiscent of the early days of bands such as U.F.O. and Scorpions. The same could be said about Bottom Of Your Soul, though the track has a slightly more complex approach to it. Follow The Light remains well within the musical vein created by Pick Up and Bottom Of Your Soul and one cannot fail to notice the David Bowie/Mick Ronson riff that the track has in it's initial segment.
In fact one of the main points that struck me when comparing this album to what the band had recorded on their debut is that the group seemed to moving further and further away from their psychedelic heavy blues styled music and instead head towards a more commercial hard rock direction. Back On the Road Again and Vagabonds are well within the style that artists like Alice Cooper and Kiss would use to great effect in the early seventies blending catchy ear-friendly hooks with hard hitting rock.
With When I Call Your Name, the group show their ability in being versatile with the inclusion of an uncredited saxophone that gives the track a lighter soulful feel while Killing Time re-introduces the commercial hard rock style that the band seemed to be perfecting when the recordings for these tracks were taking place. Indeed one must admit that with the progress of each track, one feels that the band seemed to veer away from the relatively more complex arrangements that characterised their first album and adopt a more straight forward approach, possibly a symptom of the times.
Having said that the two "bonus" tracks on the CD are both relatively similar tracks with very little to write home about in progressive rock terms. One must remark that the two tracks are live recordings and suffer, most notably Big City Man, from a poor sound.
Lineup: John Simms (guitars, vocals), Ken White (drums), Adam Lewis (keyboards), Maxine Simms (backing vocals), Kraznet Montpellier (bass) except for The Age Of Dinosaurs with Ted Landon (bass)
"Cosmic Crusader is a reflection of the world situation, from start to finish. I went through a very philosophical phase, and this is the product of some of my thoughts and feelings, and indeed, everyone else's really. Cosmic Crusader is unique to the listening ear. It's for the individual interpretation. Everyone wants a Cosmic Crusader in their lives, someone who will put the world to rights, someone who will put the world to rights because everyone recognises, consciously, or unconsciously, that the world as we know it simply will be no more if it carries on , on it's self-destructive course. Cosmic Crusader voices the concern of the public, and , believe me, I'm right with them. It also offers some soothing balm in the meantime..."
John Simms for Clear Blue Sky 1996
With Cosmic Crusader, the band Clear Blue Sky showed the great musical divergence between the band in the late sixties/early seventies and the band in the nineties. True the band had been on hold for nearly twenty five years, but at the same time the members playing on the album featured two thirds of the original trio, including main composer and band leader John Simms.
Gone were the strong blues references as well as the trio format. This time round a keyboardist was brought in to augment the sound as well as to add another dimension to the band's sound. Furthermore the group seem to lack that heavy blues sound that was a characteristic, instead opting for a softer and more melodious form of rock. The album opens with Earth, The Rock which is the only track to feature a space-rock feel with the band resembling Hawkwind in their musical approach. Also one cannot fail to notice the use of backing vocals, courtesy of Maxine Simms.
In fact when one takes a look at the album one also feels that the band have moved more towards the classical rock, especially the glam rock scene of the seventies, moving away from the psychedelic influences that pervaded the heavy blues setting on their debut. However this is not immediately apparent and on The Age Of Dinosaurs the group still maintain that bluesy feeling, though one sense that the rough abrasive edge, a characteristic of their early music, has been somewhat subdued.
Every Living Thing is a relatively low key track based mainly on the use of backing vocals as an atmospheric effect while The Serpent's Venom has a riff that seems to evoke the band's past though the use of keyboards seems to wash away the "in your face" nature of the band. The use of the keyboards/synthesisers on this album is not always a negative factor and Picture Puzzle is an example of how the keyboards can be put to good effect. Relatively slow tempoed, the track acquires a certain space-rock feel and features an interesting duet between the Simms' on the chorus section. Another factor that was conspicuously missing from this album was the fretwork of John Simms, who makes up for it on the guitar solo to this track.
As its name implies, Highway Of Fire features an increase in tempo, something which was needed on the album. Stylistically the music shifts to that of the opening number and has a definite space rock feel to it. On the other hand People Of Darkness and Supernatural are plain rockers, with Supernatural possessing more of a crunch to it. The closing number, and title track, Cosmic Crusader, shows that the group have the potential to break away from the straight forward rock tag. This lengthy track utilises keyboards to the maximum effect together with the remainder of the band's cosmic sound. At times the music acquires a Floydian touch, especially with Simms' guitar licks and acts as the perfect closer to what is a rather disappointing album. Unfortunately it is only on the last track that the group really show their ability to break away from the mould of other routine rock bands. The potential is there and the band show that they can progress from the progressive blues of their initial recordings to the more complex sound incorporating a variety of cosmic effects.
Lineup: John Simms (guitars, guitar effects, lead and backing vocals), Ted Landon (bass), Ken White (drums), Maxine Marten (backing vocals and percussion), Adam Lewis (keyboards on Hello Earth, Say and Lucidra), Lee Limerick (additional backing vocals on Fly and Lucidra)
All Songs written by John Simms and Maxine Marten
except Stargaze 777 by Simms/Marten/White/Landon
Produced By John Simms
Recorded at Cock Hill Studios and Saturn Studios
With Mirror Of The Stars, Clear Blue Sky celebrated their thirtieth anniversary since recording their debut
album with a release of new material.
This album has already been reviewed within the Reviews Section of Dutch Progressive Rock Pages and can be accessed from here.
There's the Official Clear Blue Sky website that includes a run through of their discography as well as features on the band's history and mentions an album from 2013.
Should you have any further information regarding Clear Blue Sky that could be added to the site, do not hesitate to contact me