Reviews in this issue:
- Skin Alley - Big Brother Is Watching You
- Skin Alley - Two Quid Deal?
- Dog Soldier - Dog Soldier
- Grahame Bond - Love Is The Law
- Grahame Bond - Mighty Grahame Bond
- Box Of Frogs - Box Of Frogs
- Box Of Frogs - Strange Land
- Armaggedon - Armaggedon
- Murphy Blend - First Loss
Skin Alley - Big Brother Is Watching You
CD 1 Living In Sin (4:41), Tell Me (4:39), Mother, Please Help Your Child (4:11), Marsha (7:18), Country Aire (2:16), All Alone (8:13), Night Time (5:32), Concerto Grosso (Take Heed) (0:29), (Going Down The) Highway (4:16), Better Be Blind (3:02), Tell Me (single version) (3:58), Shower Music (3:34), Sofa, Taxi And Sand Themes (5:10), Cemetery Scene (4:40), First Drug Scene (5:15)
CD 2 Big Brother Is Watching You (6:47), Take Me To Your Leader's Daughter (8:46), Walking In The Park (6:41), The Queen Of Bad Intentions (6:47), Sweaty Betty (8:04), Easy To Lie (5:17), Russian Boogaloo (4:09), Skin Valley Serenade (5:30), Sun Music (5:26), Bird Music (4:16), Snow Music (2:33)
Skin Alley formed in the summer of 1968 going through numerous line ups before the more permanent quartet of Bob James (vocals, guitar, flute, saxophone, mellotron), Thomas Crimble (vocals, bass), Krzysztof Henryk Juskiewicz (vocals, keyboards, mellotron) and Alvin Pope (drums, percussion) was settled on. Turning professional in the spring on 1969 they signed with Clearwater Productions who had on their books such other counter culture luminaries as High Tide, Trees, Heron and Cochise. At one of the Clearwater showcase concerts Skin Alley shared a bill featuring the first concert by Group X whom shortly after changed their name to Hawkwind, an encounter that had future ramifications for the quartet. At the same concert was a certain John Peel who, impressed by what he heard from the group, invited Skin Alley to record a session for his Top Gear programme in September 1969. The session provoked favourable reviews and within weeks the group had signed to CBS Records and were settled in their new label's London studios. The resulting self-titled album was released in March 1970 gaining widespread favourable reviews.
The debut album featured nine tracks which mixed together blues and jazz based riffs wrapped in the progressive flavours of the time. There is an obvious comparison with early Jethro Tull with the bluesy licks and flute playing, particularly on opening number Living In Sin. The production, by ex-Pretty Things lead guitarist Dick Taylor, provides a very clear sound, emphasised by the excellent re-mastering by Esoteric. The crisp and clean guitar standing clear of the underlying organ and well balance with the flute and sax. Tell Me features plenty of mellotron and was the obvious choice as a single, albeit completely re-recorded with a smoother vocal line, a more strident organ solo and added string and brass arrangements. Both versions are included on this re-release and are equally as enjoyable as each other. Mother, Please Help Your Child is probably the most dated sounding of the songs, having a definite late sixties feel to it and coming across like a pseudo-religious incantation with its languid pace. In contrast, Marsha sounds like the template that Camel used when writing their debut album with plenty of organ dominating throughout. As a big Camel fan this instrumental piece finds a lot of favour with me! The brief Country Aire is of a lighter tone with harpsichord and flute lending it an almost medieval feel, well at least until the electric bass comes in.
The lengthiest track on the debut is the eight-minute All Alone, which is much darker in nature and quite sinister, particularly when played late at night in a darkened room. The atmospheric nature of the piece is very striking with a haunting sax weaving throughout. Night Time is a slower number that also, at least initially, brings early Camel to mind with its fine rolling bass, jazz infused drum patterns, lengthy flute interjections and joyously refined piano. These guys certainly knew how to blend everything together for maximum intensity, so much so that one barely notices the absence of a lead guitar although the lengthy piano solo may be a tad indulgent. Concerto Grosso is a very brief keyboard solo before the album is completed by (Going Down The) Highway which is a rather somewhat poor end to an otherwise rather fine debut. To round off the first album sessions, both sides of the single released on the same day as the album are included as bonus tracks. The aforementioned Tell Me was backed with the non-album b-side Better Be Blind, a joyous number that has the edge on a couple of the songs included on the album.
Passing over the next four tracks for the time being and turning to the second CD and the second album, To Pagham And Beyond. Just as the band finishing the initial recording sessions for their new album, Crimble announced his departure to take up the role of bassist in Hawkwind whom he had kept in close contact with since first encountering them as Group X. His replacement was former Atomic Rooster member Nick Graham whose appearance on the album was limited to two vocal performances. From the off, there seems to be more confidence in the material and recording, despite the relatively short time since the debut. Perhaps this was due to being given the green light by CBS to go back into the studio combined with the positive response that Skin Alley had received, or possibly the fact that the recording sessions were interspersed with live appearances where the new material could be road tested and honed into shape. Whatever the reason, the To Pagham And Beyond album starts in fine form with two positive numbers, the title track Big Brother Is Watching You and the marvellously titled Take Me To Your Leader's Daughter. Both tracks, but particularly the latter, show a greater emphasis on improvisation leading to a more jazzier feel than on previous recordings. The extended instrumental work out featuring extensive piano meanderings on Leader's Daughter is quite engaging, although the sax section that follows is rather more taxing, at least to my ears. The only recorded cover version by the band is Walking In The Park written by Graham Bond. featuring (Nick) Graham on vocals it is a pretty good cover but rather too like the original and seems rather out of place amongst the self-penned material which is of a different style and frankly quite superior in nature. Perhaps the rush to record the new album had left the band with a shortage of original material? The delightful Queen Of Bad Intentions follows and puts the album back on track. The second Graham vocal performance is on Sweaty Betty where he is much more in line with the overall Skin Alley sound. The song itself is a much more powerful jazz based number with lots of horns thrown into the mix and everyone getting a chance to solo. However, it is far from being self-indulgent and is in fact a very enjoyable romp of high energy and driving beats. Indeed, the only things letting it down is the rather poor title and a somewhat pedestrian drum solo (what was that about not being indulgent?!), oh, and some rather dubious lyrics! The album was completed with Easy To Lie which starts slowly with a somewhat depressing tale of a prisoner waiting to be hung. A rather schizophrenic number and an odd choice to end an album
But what of the other nine tracks spread across the two CDs of this release? Well it is a completely unreleased album recorded over two days in November 1970, one month prior to the official release of To Pagham And Beyond. The band had been commissioned to record a soundtrack to accompany a film about the German fashion model Veruschka von Lehndorff, most well known outside the fashion industry for her appearance alongside David Hemmings in the classic sixties film Blow Up. The album was scheduled to be released as the group's third album but was pulled when the film failed to get a full release and sales of To Pagham And Beyond didn't match those of the debut. Subsequently CBS quietly dropped the band. Considering its rapid recording the Stop Veruschka tracks are quite enticing. With a few new songs mixed with incidental music, the album holds up even without the accompanying film images. Indeed, one is almost tempted to speculate that the music was in fact far superior to the film! Bird Music for instance is the match of anything from the first two albums and features somewhat less of the jazz elements the band was exploring. Russian Boogaloo is another delightful romp and more Camel-esque sounds can be found on the lovely Shower Music. But Sofa, Taxi And Sand Themes takes the biscuit as a lost bit of classic progressive rock - although it is worth stopping the album after this track as the rather abysmal Cemetery Scene and First Drug Scene can only result in disappointment. Sun Valley Serenade is another strong instrumental and Sun Music became a bit of a classic after being included, in a live format, on the original Glastonbury Fayre album.
Big Brother Is Watching You is a comprehensive collection of Skin Alley's recording for the CBS label. The two released albums are interesting in their own right with the debut album probably having the edge over the second album. However, it is the previously unreleased soundtrack album is the one that I find contains the most enjoyable numbers (as well as the worst - forget about the last two numbers of disc one!). All in all, a rather fine collection of music from a relatively obscure band from the original days of prog rock.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Skin Alley - Two Quid Deal?
Tracklist: Nick's Seven (5:03), So Many People (6:00), Bad Words And Evil People (5:17), Graveyard Shuffle (4:44), So Glad (5:24), A Final Coat (5:08), Skin Valley Serenade (3:44), The Demagogue (5:01), Sun Music (4:55) Bonus Tracks You Got Me Danglin' (single) (3:21), Sun Music ["Glastonbury Fayre" live version] (4:49)
Following CBS bailing out on Skin Alley, the band carried on regardless, gigging across the country and even getting a slot on the legendary Glastonbury Fayre Festival and subsequent live album. To help entice a new label, the band entered Trident Studios in London to lay down some new material under the guidance of the then largely unknown producer Roy Thomas Baker. Drawing on material from the unreleased Stop Versuschka album, the group recorded an expanded version of Sun Music which helped ink the deal with Transatlantic Records, originally a folk label that had recently started diversifying into more progressive music by signing such artists as Stray and Peter Bardens. Upon signing the deal, the quartet, Bob James, Krzystof Juskiewucz, Nick Graham and Tony Knight, immediately settled into Rockfield Studios with regular producer Fritz Fryer to record their third album proper.
Opening number Nick's Seven showed the band in a new light. A muscular rock number with James in fine form with his lead guitar attack which lead the way for the new direction the band were heading in; away from the blues and jazz of the CBS years into a sound more akin to Welsh band Man. The band let loose with layers of vocal harmonies, which were also present on the next track So Many People which also featured Graham's flute. This song is much more open and jamming than previous releases giving it a looseness that is dispelled by the rockier Bad Words And Evil People. A lively repetitive piano motif permeates the song instilling it with a feel similar to Graham's old band, Atomic Rooster, particularly with the organ solo at the end of the piece. Graveyard Shuffle is also driven by the piano but is a more sedate and reflective piece featuring James on slide guitar. Whereas previous albums had been dominated by compositions from Bob James, Two Quid Deal is largely the work of Nick Graham. Of the two 'new' pieces written by James, So Glad is the most unusual and proggy with a variety of instruments, including an accordion, blended into the mix. Perhaps coming over a mite twee on first hearing, it soon gets into the brain!
Graham's A Final Coat once again features his flute playing as well as the welcome return of James' saxophone. At times sounding a bit like Caravan, again the piece is very free flowing and open which lends it an air of improvisation. Another resurrection from the Stop Versuschka album, the slightly renamed and reworked instrumental Skin Valley Serenade, keeps its Camelesque demeanour and is a fine piece of music, as is Demagogue whose opening lyrical onslaught reminds me of Long Time Gone by David Crosby. Other than that the two songs have absolutely nothing in common! The original album ends with the excellent Sun Music, the track that prompted Transatlantic to sign the band. Ironically it practically stands alone in style to the remainder of the album, being largely acoustic. The live 'Glastonbury Fayre' version is also included as a bonus track and, is better suited to my tastes than the album version, with a more hippy/psychedelic sound, which is even further removed from the style of the album! However, I do feel it was a mistake to replace the flute lines of the live version with organ. Second bonus track is the A side of the single released on the same day as the album, You Got Me Danglin'. An ideal single for the times and it is surprising that it failed to crack the charts, but nice to have it included on this release.
Two Quid Deal was the band's bestselling album which is a justifiable reflection of the quality and consistency of the album. However, the band couldn't capitalise on this as their future lay in a different direction as the first white non-American group to sign to the Stax label and recording of a final album (Skintight) in the US which introduced a more commercial and funky direction to the music. The album, released in November 1973, was a flop and before 1974 had hardly begun the band split. Of the two Esoteric re-issues, this one is probably the most 'prog friendly' and although a fine album just misses gaining a coveted recommended tag. But don't let that deter you from checking it out!
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Dog Soldier - Dog Soldier
Tracklist: Pillar To Post (5:03), Several people (5:21), You Are My Spark (7:18), Long And Lonely Night (5:31), Giving As Good As You Get (4:52), Thieves And Robbers (5:52), Stranger In My Own Time (4:34), Looks Like Rain (11:36) Bonus: Looks Like Rain (first version) (15:33)
Keith Hartley has had a fascinating musical career and one that suggests his autobiography could be a worthwhile read. As a teenager he supported The Beatles at a concert in Morecombe when he was drumming with a band called The Thunderbeats and famously took over the drum stool in Rory Storm and The Hurricanes which was vacated when, in probably the best career move imaginable, their drummer decided to chance his arm as a Mop Top. Obviously following his own star (or rather Starr), Hartley stayed in Germany once the Hurricanes residency was over becoming a member of the band backing future comedian Freddie Starr. Returning to the UK, Hartley lucked upon the position of drummer with The Artwoods, featuring none other than Hammond legend Jon Lord, with whom he stayed until mid 1967 when a chance encounter with John Mayall saw him joining The Bluesbreakers playing alongside the likes of Mick Taylor and a couple of soon to be considerably more famous bassists in Andy Fraser and John McVie. The experience gained from playing in all these different bands and a desire to end his days as a hired sticksman, Hartley next decided to form his own group and have a go at being the band leader for a change. His first attempt, with Gary Thain, who gained fame as the bassist in Uriah Heep, and two other future Free members Paul Kossoff and Paul Rodgers, didn't progress further than recording a handful of tracks, although his next effort, The Keef Hartley Band proved more permanent, recording a total of seven albums between 1968 and 1973 (although the last one was ostensibly a Hartley solo album), all of which have been reviewed by DPRP. Hartley then returned to being a drummer for hire for a couple of years before the desire to be in a band of his own took over once more.
The new group was called Dog Soldier, a term culled from the native American tribes which Hartley had a long-term fascination for and the inspiration for the eventual album sleeve. The band accompanying Hartley contained two guitarists that had featured prominently in the drummer's past career - Miller Anderson from The Keef Hartley Band and Derek Griffiths from The Artwoods. Relative unknowns Paul Bliss and Mel Simpson completed the line-up on bass and keyboards, respectively. Considering they were essentially an unknown quantity, United Artists signed them for a considerable advance and thought that it entitled them to set the direction of the band, pushing them throughout the recording sessions to go for an American sound with an emphasis on creating hit singles. Fortunately, the band held out against too much intervention and managed to avoid dragging themselves down to a completely bland level although the album is very different from any of the earlier albums that Hartley had been involved with, particularly those that came out under his own name. The results are actually very good, a strong mid-70s rock album with progressive overtones. Pillar To Post is a wonderful opening number with a chunky guitar sound and a feel that is best described as if Terry Reid had been invited to sing on the first album by Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow! Several People is one of the songs that displays the record label's desire for a greater American feel containing lots of layered vocals, wah wah guitar and a quite funky beat - the sleeve notes assertion that it has a very Doobie Brothers feel is pretty much spot on. Still, it is a great song with Simpson and Bliss proving they are worth their inclusion in the band and a couple of busy but impressive guitar solos keeping the song moving.
You Are My Spark is quite a strangely structured song but has an engaging quality, although does tend to get a bit lost during the middle eight. The guitar and Hammond organ are nice though, and there is definitely, if you'll forgive the pun, some shades of Deep Purple! Taking the mood down, Long And Lonely Night is reminiscent of Paladin and utilises different lead vocalists to good effect with some nice harmonies in the chorus and a lovely, melancholy, instrumental section, even if some of the synth sounds are a bit dated. The Doobies / West Coast sound is also incorporated into Giving As Good As You Get and although there are some lovely moments in the song overall it is not as strong a number as Several People. Hartley's musical roots come to the fore in the bluesy ballad Stranger In My Own Time which is wonderfully sung by Anderson. The guitarist also takes the credit for coming up with Looks Like Rain which is a real tour de force! I've never been one to be impressed by a song simply because it breaks the 10-minute mark being of the opinion that a song should not outlive its welcome and extraneous elements should be stripped from recordings if they are not essential. Thankfully, there is nothing in the eleven and a half minutes of this song that is superfluous - well perhaps the clap of thunder mid way through is a bit unnecessary - but overall it is an excellent number throughout. The tightness of the song is no doubt due to some serious consideration being put into the structure, as is made evident from the first version of the song which is included as a bonus track. The original version is some four minutes longer and in a slightly different key but is worth its inclusion as it is great to hear how the group have gone about refining the number - removing the brief drum solo was a good idea, excising the more Floydian mid section possibly not. Undoubtedly the most progressive that Hartley has ever got and, even as a fan of his earlier recordings, this song is, to me, the highlight of his career.
As previously mentioned, Dog Soldier is a strong album and it is surprising that it is often overlooked in lists of undiscovered albums from the seventies. The reasons behind this are hard to gather, although the fact that it very different from Hartley's other albums, the band having to cancel most of their UK concerts due to Anderson falling ill and Hartley walking out of the group midway through their first US tour must have all contributed. So long overdue rediscovery, and the inclusion of the extra, very much more progressive, version of Looks Like Rain makes it an album that many fans of the era will take joy from.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Grahame Bond - Love Is The Law
Tracklist: Love Is The Law (4:39), Moving Towards The Light (4:36), Our Love Will Come Shining Through (3:09), I Couldn't Stand It Anymore (4:14), Sun Dance (2:29), Crossroads Of Time (2:39), Bad News Blues (2:53), Strange Times, Sad Times (4:04), The Naz (5:18), The World Will Soon Be Free (4:02)
Grahame Bond began his musical career as keyboard player in Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated but split when the pure blues repertoire became too limiting for the ambitious Bond. Starting up his own band, the Graham Bond Organisation, he famously paired the talents of Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce as his rhythm section as well as being one of the first musicians to play the Hammond organ and introducing a new instrument called a Mellotron to UK audiences. Following the release of two albums, Bruce departed followed six months later by Baker when he reunited with the bassist and some chap called Eric Clapton to form Cream. The Organisation struggled on with new musicians until the spring of 1968 embracing the new psychedelic scene which, unfortunately for Bond, included immersing himself in the drug culture of the time and becoming addicted to heroin and cocaine. Bond continued gigging around London with various musicians and even became a staff producer for the UK arm of Mercury records, for whom he produced the debut album by Welsh outfit Eyes of Blue a group that features in the history of both Man and Gentle Giant. His next role took him to the US where he acted as musical director for the psychedelic design team The Fool, most notable for their association with The Beatles for whom they created, among others, the mural on the side of the Apple Boutique building and the inner sleeve of the Sgt. Pepper album, and also for the fact that they were largely incompetent musicians. Indeed, it was Bond's contributions to the album that ultimately enabled it to be released. Whilst in America Bond met and jammed with such luminaries as Doctor John, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix as well as appearing as a session musician on numerous albums. At the suggestion of one of the Mercury executives, Bond moved to Los Angeles to record an album for their new subsidiary label Pulsar.
Recorded with undue haste - two days - the album, Love Is The Law, featured Bond playing everything with the exception of drums, for which the legendary Hal Blaine was roped in (seemingly under somewhat false pretences). The title track and Crossroads Of Time were Bond's own versions of the songs he wrote for the Eyes Of Blue album and both are remarkably different from the versions appearing on the Welsh band's release. Love Is The Law is resplendently laden with Hammond organ whilst Crossroads of Time is taken to a different level with some rather jolly (uncredited) female backing vocals, which also feature heavily on the more bluesy Moving Towards The Light. The song is definitely of its era, although none the worse for it. Throughout, the dominant instrument is the Hammond, although the inventive arrangements and expansive use of the different sounds and textures of the instrument prevent the album from becoming monotonous. Of course, having someone with the skill of Blaine providing drums means that the rhythms are always interesting: listen to the drumming on Our Love Will Come Shining Through for some amazingly creative playing.
Bond doesn't totally disregard his blues heritage as tracks such as I Couldn't Stand It Anymore and Bad News Blues highlight. The second of these tracks is the better of the two with Bond adding some fine sax to lift song above the more pedestrian nature of I Couldn't Stand It Anymore. The instrumental Sundance once more features fine playing by Blaine, who even gets a brief solo midway through, while The Naz, the only other instrumental on the album, is a great piece of music with the sax adding a vaguely Middle Eastern flavour and the Hammond providing a lovely bass riff that insinuates itself into the brain.
The Pulsar deal was for two albums and although the album didn't sell particularly well (this release sees its first complete release in the UK), the second album appeared the following year and featured more of a band effort. However, This debut solo album displays the abundant talent that Bond possessed not only as a musician but as a writer and arranger. Anyone interested in great Hammond organ playing needs to check out this release, and every aspiring drummer should check out the playing of Blaine particularly as displayed on this album.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Grahame Bond - Mighty Grahame Bond
Tracklist: Water Water (3:49), Oh Shining One (2:53), Pictures In The Fire (2:06), Baroque (3:08), Sisters And Brothers (5:48), Stiff Necked Chicken (3:23), Freaky Beak (4:58), Walk On To Me (3:12), Magic Mojo (3:30), Brothers And Sisters (3:59)
Grahame Bond's second album for the Pulsar label was a continuation of the style he had laid down on his album Love Is The Law, released the previous year. However, for this release Bond drafted in Drachen Theaker (ex Crazy World Of Arthur Brown) on drums and Frank Mayes on saxophone. As the previous album had not sold well Pulsar were somewhat parsimonious with the recording budget allowing only 12 to 15 hours for the whole album to be recorded. In order to meet this ridiculous requirement, additional musicians in the form of guitarist Harvey Mandel, bassist Harvey Brooks and drummer Eddie Hoh were drafted in to contribute. Given such timelines it is amazing that the album is as coherent as it is, the band playing very well together, particularly on tracks such as Baroque, a killer instrumental that shows off both Bond's Hammond playing and Mandel's guitar work. Of course, there is still a smattering of blues-based number, the key exponent of which is the lengthy (with respect to the other tracks on the album) instrumental Sisters And Brothers. What the guitar and bass add to the songs, the drums detract, being rather less inventive than those played by Hal Blaine on Love Is The Law and rather poorly recorded, a casualty of the haste in which the album was recorded. Magic Mojo is the other prominently blues number and has a rather standard 12-bar blues pattern rescued only by Mandel's performance.
Opening number, Water Water which mixes Atlantean myth with Biblical floods, is a fine beginning showcasing Bond's prowess on the Hammond blended with a good chorus. Oh Shining One is almost a gospel number with prominent sax but a rather obvious lyric. In contrast, Pictures In The Fire has classical undertones and a much better song, showcasing the originality that Bond could conjure up at his most inventive. However, Stiffnecked Chicken is rather drab and perfunctory, the chicken noises and daft narrative and mundane lyrics overpowering the musicians that do their best to drag something out of the piece. Freaky Beak is better, 'Beak' being the name Bond gave to music company executives. Mandel gets to shine on this song where his sharp playing interacts purposively with Bond's Hammond. A pseudo orchestra introduces Walk Onto Me which has a resemblance to Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade Of Pale in its structuring and layering. The more sedate tempo is a nice change as is the bass ostensively supplying the melody. Final track, Sisters And Brothers takes up were Brothers And Sisters left off and is a convincing reappraisal of the earlier number. Mayes' sax is to the fore on this one but Mandel still slices in a solo to lift the track above many of the others.
Overall, I didn't find this album as convincing as Love Is The Law despite the extended pallet of instruments and some fine performances by the guest musicians. Perhaps this is because of the circumstances under which the album was recorded or possibly Bond's continued reliance on hard drugs. However, when things come together it is great. Long sought after by fans of Bond, this Esoteric release follows their usual high standards and makes the complete album available in the UK for the first time, in any format.
Conclusion: 5.5 out of 10
Box Of Frogs - Box Of Frogs
Tracklist: Back Where I Started (3:57), Harder (3:41), Another Wasted Day (4:19), Love Inside You (2:49), The Edge (4:02), Two Steps Ahead (4:34), Into The dark (4:09), Just A Boy Again (5:40), Poor Boy (4:23) Bonus Tracks: Nine Lives (4:07), X-Tracks (5:03)
Box Of Frogs was the unusual name given to the mid 80s reunion for three-fifths of the legendary 1960s blues-rockers The Yardbirds. Guitarist Chris Dreja, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and drummer Jim McCarty originally reunited to play at the 25th anniversary of the infamous Marquee Club in June of 1983 which turned out to be a lot of fun so they decided to start writing and see what they could come up with musically. However, as vocalist Keith Relf had passed away back in 1976 and none of the famous guitarists (for those who need reminding, a trio of six string slingers, Clapton, Beck and Page, who went on to achieve a modicum of fame in their own rights!) associated with the band was part of the process the band took on a new moniker. The name came from an executive at Island Records whose favourite saying was that such-and-such a person had a face like a box of frogs. Amused by the saying the group adopted it as their own. To complete the line-up a vocalist was adopted into the ranks, namely John Fiddler, the ex-singer of Medicine Head and British Lions, who had sang a couple of numbers with the group at the Marquee anniversary concert. Initial sessions for a planned debut EP were so productive that sufficient material was accumulated for a full album. Epic Records were sufficiently impressed to hastily sign the band.
One of the factors that undoubtedly attracted Epic Records was the number of high profile guest musicians that were lending their talents to the recordings. With the Yardbirds' pedigree and Samwell-Smith's contacts as an in-demand producer, it was no problem in attracting such friends and musical luminaries as Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher, Mark Feltham, Max Middleton and Peter-John Vitesse to contribute. The results were as good as expected with the almost autobiographical Back Where I Started providing a more modern approach on the blues rock that the Yardbirds were associated with. Feltham's authentic blues harmonica and Beck providing a restrained yet exemplary lead line set the album off to a cracking start. The song was released as the debut single and managed to crack the lower regions of the UK charts and going top 10 in the US where college radio stations practically adopted it as the theme tune for the summer of 1984. Harder continues along similar lines with ex-Mott The Hoople guitarist Ray Majors laying down a fierce lead line while Another Wasted Day has Beck back on lead contributing to a slower number featuring some excellently phrased singing from Fiddler. The relatively short Love Inside You is another great song with a strong chorus featuring some sympathetic, and uncredited, female backing vocals. Slide guitar is provided by additional Frog Dzal Martin founder member of the late 70s band No Dice and subsequent session musician. Rory Gallagher makes his first appearance on The Edge (no not a tribute to U2's guitarist!) and as with all of the songs on the album, the soloist is not allowed to dominate, just supplement the strong song writing with their individual talents. This is a testament to the production skills of Samwell-Smith and, one would presume, the high regard that the Yardbirds are held by fellow musicians.
Beck once again performs on Two Steps Ahead with a contribution that is more akin to his usual soaring and flowing lines. A rather poor percussion break midway through is the only detraction and puts a definite 80s stamp on the song but this is a minor distraction to an otherwise fine number with probably the best of the guitar contributions, particularly from Beck. A reggae rhythm is applied to Into The Dark which features two guest guitarists, Martin on lead and Gallagher on slide and a lovely electric sitar. The change in style is not that dramatic largely due to Fiddler, a strong chorus, and some understated playing by the whole ensemble. Just A Boy Again is another song that initially steps away from the blues influences having a greater slow boogie influence primarily due to the piano part played by Vetesse, although Martin does wrap things up nicely providing a neat intro to the original last number of the album, Poor Boy. An excellent closer to the album combining lyrical humour ("I'm broke I lost all my cash, I'm in deeper than the Wall Street crash, I'm sinking faster than a drowning man, Oh Shit! I gotta get my arse out of the can") and superb musicianship, the interplay between Beck and Geraint Watkins on piano is superb! With customary Esoteric thoroughness (but uncharacteristic lapse in that the song titles are printed the wrong way round on the CD artwork), this CD reissue is accompanied by the b-sides from the two singles released from the album. Nine Lives, from the Into The Dark 45 rpm is not up to the standard of the album numbers, possibly because it was the only song not written by members of the band, instead deriving from the pen of Mark Radice who has written for and played with numerous performers including Aerosmith, Dave Edmunds, Barbara Streisand, Barry Mannilow and The Muppets (!). It does sound like there is a different singer on this track but the final guitar solo is worthy and it is an overall nice addition to the set. X Tracks is really just for completeness being snippets of each of the album songs included as a taster for the LP on the Back Where I Started single.
Although I have concentrated on the guest musicians on the album, this shouldn't detract from the fine performances put in by the core Frogs. Dreja and Fiddler make significant rhythm guitar contributions, Samwell-Smith's bass playing is as fine and smooth as ever, all add various percussive elements and the synthesiser contributions from the bassist and vocalist are, thankfully, minimal and not at all characteristic of the prevailing musical atmosphere of the time. Largely overlooked since release, this album is a solid, if not earth shattering, album and one that I have frequently dug out my vinyl copy of over the years when feeling the need for something different to get lost in. Having a re-mastered and pristine digital copy is a very welcome addition to my collection.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Box Of Frogs - Strange Land
Tracklist: Get It While You Can (3:53), You Mix Me Up (3:22), Average (4:20), House On Fire (4:22), Hanging From The Wreckage (3:40), Heart Full Of Soul (3:52), Asylum (4:51), Strange Land (4:52), Trouble (5:45) Bonus Track: I Keep Calling (3:08)
The second Box Of Frogs album was released two years after the strong debut album, although failure to tour, particularly in the US where the album had reached the top 50 in the album charts based on the strong performance of the Back Where I Started, had somewhat stifled the progress of the band. Although Jim McCarty (drums) and John Fiddler (vocals/rhythm guitar) were keen to hit the road, and Jeff Beck had indicated that he would have been more than happy to join them, Paul Samwell-Smith (bass) was busy as an in-demand producer and was not looking to become part of a band while Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar) had a flourishing career as a professional photographer he was reluctant to turn aside. Had the band undertaken a successful tour, the second album may have turned out a lot different to what was released as Strange Lands. Although Fiddler had a hand in writing the majority of the material, he only sings on four of the tracks. Hence, additional Frogs on this album also included a host of illustrious vocalists to accompany the guest guitarists and keyboard players, many who were happy to reprise their roles on the first album. One player missing from the second album was Jeff Beck whose contributions to the debut were some of the highlights. Instead, another ex-Yardbird, Jimmy Page, was called in to play on a couple of numbers. One interesting aspect of the reissue of the two Box Of Frogs albums is the different reminiscences of McCarthy (in the first CD booklet) and Dreja (in this booklet). For instance, although both agree that it was never considered to ask Eric Clapton to play on either album, Dreja reports that Clapton never figured in any of the plans of the unit while McCarty states he was asked to play at the Marquee anniversary concert but was unable as he was on tour in the US at the time. Additionally, Dreja says that the group were already writing for an album prior to the Marquee invitation as opposed to having reunited specially for the occasion. Of course, this is all by-the-by and what matters is the music.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the four numbers featuring Fiddler on vocals are the most familiar to the sound of the material on the debut album. You Mix Me Up has potential but is over produced with some of the female backing vocals (by Carroll Thompson and Julie Roberts) sounding as if they have been stolen from a Kid Creole & The Coconuts song. Shame as some of the elements are very good. House On Fire could easily have been included on that album with Rory Gallagher and Dzal Martin teaming up once again to provide lead guitar work and Geraint Watkins pounding out the ivories and Peter-John Vetesse adding sympathetic synth lines. Truly impressive stuff. Hanging From The Wreckage features electric sitar, again played by Gallagher, in a more prominent role on a more down beat number that is slow to get anywhere and is somewhat too rudimentary to really create much excitement. Page makes his first appearance (and only appearance on the original album) on Asylum although from the sleeve notes it appears that Dreja at least was not all that impressed: "..he came in, did a mysterious solo with lots of wah wah and then disappeared. I'm not sure what he was doing, but he returned and then did this imaginative guitar part and left us to piece it together. That was, erm, interesting." It has to be said that it is not Page's finest hour, nor the Frogs best song, taking on more of the eighties style of music and leaving the blues rock way behind them. It does feel as if it has been pieced together in the control room rather than come together as a complete song. Page's other performance, on the b-side I Keep Calling, also features Fiddler on vocals and is much more superior to Asylum in both writing and performing that it is a wonder that it was left off the album. More succinct, more structured, better all round. Perhaps the idea was to have an exclusive track featuring Page to help sales of the Average single, although if that was the case it would have been better, in my opinion, to have Asylum as the b-side! Besides, the single, more of which later, was hardly likely to have attracted the attention of the mainstream Led Zep fan. Final track featuring the vocals of Fiddler is the last track on the original album, Trouble with a new Frog guitarist, Steve Hackett, laying down the lead. Again the eighties style of music seems to pervade through this track with a very basic drum pattern, and all sorts of superfluous synth noises added by Vetesse and David Clayton. Hackett does a fine job though and despite its flaws is an interesting enough song.
The remaining tracks feature a guest vocalist. The inimitable Roger Chapman contributes two characteristic performances, the first of which is the somewhat pointless re-working of Heart Full Of Soul. Although the sleeve notes state that the group wanted to take a radically different approach to the classic Yardbirds number it is not too far removed from the original (or perhaps it is more accurate to state that it bears quite a lot of similarity to the version released by Ghost Dance a couple of years earlier). Gallagher is the featured guitarist and he does a fine job, even adding in more electric sitar to give it a nostalgic sixties psychedelic feel. The song's composer, Graham Gouldman, is even drafted in to add rhythm guitar. Chappo also lends his larynx to the title track, one of the better songs although again the synth additions of Vetesse do tend to date the song. Opening tack, Get It While You Can was touted by the record label as being a potential hit single (it wasn't) and I wonder if because of this it was foisted on the band as it is the only other track not composed by the group. Having said that, it is a strong opening number and Graham Parker adds an impressive lead vocal to give the song a more contemporary twist. And finally to the song Average. The most unusual of the songs on the album, and in the whole Box Of Frogs career, yet probably one of their most enjoyable. This is down to the performance of the undeniably brilliant Ian Dury, who I am sure must have written the lyrics to this number although they are not credited to him. The song is not only amusing lyrically it is also great musically. McCarty lays down the best drum rhythms of the album, Hackett plays a blinder and even Vetesse doesn't manage to mess it up with his synth noodlings.
More eclectic and more experimental, Strange Land is really too diverse and too far removed from Box Of Frogs to maintain any momentum gained from the initial success of the band. The lack of touring and the two-year gap between releases also must have had an impact on sales, with neither album nor single cracking the top 100 in either the US or the UK. However, as both McCarty and Dreja comment in the sleeve notes of the albums, the original intention was for some friends to get together and have some fun making music. Both attest that the two albums were a lot of fun to record which suggests the objective was achieved. Strange Land has its moments but is not as an accomplished an effort as the debut and is definitely of its time.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10
Armaggedon - Armaggedon
Tracklist: Round (4:11), Open (7:29), Oh Man (6:02), Rice Pudding (9:39), People Talking (5:00), Better By You, Better Than Me (4:37)
Armaggedon (sic) hailed from Germany and released a single album of the Kuckuck label, a small independent venture established by Eckart Rahn and one whose releases command high prices on the collectors market. The quartet comprised guitarist and vocalist Frank Diez, bass guitarist and occasional keyboard player Manfred Galatik, rhythm guitarist and bassist Michael Nurnberg and drummer Jurgen Lorenzen. The group hardly underwent the traditional rites of passage for a new band - no slogging it out in clubs, undertaking lengthy tours crammed in a transit van and trying to grab the attentions of a record company for these guys, it was far stranger than that! The full story is included in the CD booklet but basically Diez received a phone call one evening while he was in his apartment in Berlin and the next day he was in Munich with three chaps he had never met before with six days in which to record an album having never set foot in a studio before!
The limited recording time undoubtedly accounts for the relatively short running time of the album (although many albums of that era were of similar or shorter lengths), the lack of any bonus material that could be added (particularly as the band only played a couple of live gigs) and the presence of two cover versions on an album of six tracks. Let's start with the covers. Rice Pudding, released the previous year on the Jeff Beck Group's Beck-Ola album, is a fine version with Diez reeling off some nice guitar licks and solos. The electric piano adds tone and compliments the driving bass in the intro and provides the lead into the quieter section. The blending of the two guitar tracks is cleverly done with one complimenting the other. A very good reading of the number, which is fortunate as it comprises over a quarter of the album's playing time! Spooky Tooth's classic Better By You, Better By Me is the other cover song and largely sticks to the arrangement of the original, although one suspects that when Judas Priest came to record their version they were familiar with Armaggedon's rendition. Diez's vocals are reasonable and his vocals bear no trace of an accent. His guitar solo that closes the song, and the album, is of particular note.
As to the originals, well they are quite a mixed bag. Round, composed by Galatik, kicks the album off in fine style and fits very much in with the hard rock of the time. In contrast, Diez's Open has a slightly more psychedelic air and is a contrast to the rest of the album. The slower tempo and lighter atmosphere of the song doesn't really suit Diez's vocal style (presuming it is him singing of course! Different singer than on Round which, based on composition credits alone, is presumably sung by Galatik. Whomever's voice this actually is, I prefer it!). However, the dreamy instrumental section is quite lovely and, again, displays the versatility of Diez's guitar technique. Oh Man is another Diez number, although this time co-written with Jonas Porst, and possibly something that he brought to the sessions with him from Berlin. The song doesn't really sound that complete and has a rushed feeling to it, relying on a repetitive rhythm line and a lot of soloing. Despite these basic qualities it does have a loose jam feel that many people may feel an affinity with. Finally People Talking must have been written or arranged during the recording sessions given it is credited to Diez and Galatik. The vocals and lyrics do leave a lot to be desired on this one but again the musicality makes up for any such limitations. Largely based on a blues riff and tempo the guitar once again dominates throughout.
This album has long been on my list of albums to investigate and now that I have finally got a copy I can't say that I am overtly disappointed. True enough, it is not a classic of the era but has its own inherent value and worth. Unsurprisingly, Diez went on to have a wide and varied musical career that had kept him in work for the past 40 years while other members of the group, as far as I know, seem to have drifted away from music. The original band did reform for one concert a couple of years ago more for the sake of the members being reunited after being out of touch for many years rather than any attempt to resurrect a career that was virtually over before it began. A good, if perhaps inessential reissue and certainly better than paying vast sums for a copy of the original album.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Murphy Blend - First Loss
Tracklist: At First (4:38), Speed Is Coming Back (6:03), Past Has Gone (7:37), Präludium - Use Your Feet (5:39), First Loss (7:53), Funny Guys (3:50), Happiness (0:03)
Murphy Blend existed for a very brief time around 1970/1971, releasing just the single album First Loss, yet are still considered an important and influential proponent of the Berlin Krautrock scene. Based around the Hammond organ playing of erstwhile group leader Wolf-Rüdiger Uhlig, the group was completed by Wolfgang Rumler on guitar, Andreas Scholz on bass and Achim Schmidt on drums. Vocals were split between Uhlig, Rumler and Schmidt. Uhlig had spent three years at Berlin's music academy and, as with a lot of young musicians of the era, was intrigued by combining classical music with the contemporary rock scene. The band split shortly after the album was released with Uhlig going on to form Hanuman who released two albums although for some reason Uhlig didn't play on the second of these despite being heavily involved with the writing. Perhaps he was too busy guesting on By The Way, the third album by fellow Krautrockers Frumpy. Bassist Scholz is the only other member of the band who appears to have done anything of note after the split of Murphy Blend having joined the heavy progressive band Blackwater Park whose sole (?) album Dirt Box must surely be due a reissue sometime soon.
But back to Murphy Blend. As mentioned there is considerable emphasis placed on the Hammond organ although that is not to negate the contribution of the other musicians, Schmidt's drumming being of particular note throughout and Rumler providing extensive guitar work on Speed Is Coming Back. The music is universally towards the heavier end of the spectrum and the liner notes have it just about spot on when it states that Uhlig's playing is a fine mixture of "the barnstorming virtuosic technique of Keith Emerson with the growling, overdriven valve textures habitually utilised by Yes' Tony Kaye." Vocals, in English, are not the best of the genre but passable as they really have the function of adding extra texture to the music which is the most important element of the album. If it wasn't for the extensive use of organ and the classical overtones the music could easily be slipped into the heavy rock styles of the English Music scene of the era. The classical influences come to the fore on the title track which is based on the 19th century romantic piano piece called Erster Verlust by German composer Robert Schumann. Obviously the Murphy Blend version has transferred it into the rock idiom adding vocals and even a dash of reggae. An underscore of piano and sections where the Hammond takes on the guise of a grander church organ all add to the interpretation. Funny Guys also cites the classical utilising probably the most famous organ riff from Bach's Toccata and Fugue In D minor as an opening gambit. Finally, Happiness is just someone having a brief laugh, which is all that its inclusion is really!
First Loss is a good enough album to satisfy both the Krautrock completists and the harder rock/keyboard prog fraternity. Although not the greatest album of either genre it contains enough good music to be worth further investigation if your interest has been pricked.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10