Spooky Tooth, one of the most underrated and celebrated rock/blues underground powerhouses of the ’60s and ’70s, has been getting some well-deserved attention in the past few years. In 2005, Repertoire Records gave the group’s back catalog the rock-royalty treatment, remastering five of their albums in digital sound and adding bonus tracks and extensive liner notes featuring comments from Spooky’s lead singer, Mike Harrison.
If you can’t invest in the five overhauled CDs, Esoteric Records, which specializes in filling those unique holes in your album collection, has released Lost In My Dream: An Anthology 1968-1974, a two-disc set that extracts plenty of powder-keg platters from the group’s recorded legacy.
From a historical perspective (and to separate itself from previous collections), Anthology includes two previously unreleased cuts recorded in 1968, B-sides of single releases, an early version of “Lost In My Dream” and remixes of tracks from the group’s last album, The Mirror.
Anthology differs from previous best-ofs and greatest hits by delving deeper into the band’s catalog. Past packages have concentrated on cuts from Spooky’s first, second, and fourth albums (It’s All About, Spooky Two and The Last Puff), neglecting platters five through seven (You Broke My Heart … So I Busted Your Jaw, Witness and The Mirror), which is surprising given their wealth of worthy material.
If you’re still spinning those dusty LPs or shrill-sounding Danish import CDs, you’ll immediately notice Anthology’s marked improvement in sound. Call it super Spooky. Check out Bryson Graham’s driving drums on “Cotton Growing Man” — the cymbals ring and the snare crackles, and Mike Harrison’s grizzled vocal is so electrified he sounds like he’s standing on the third rail at Grand Central Station holding a bucket of water.
Anthology’s big payoff is Harrison, whose sandy, sinful vocals are a cross between Joe Cocker, Mr. Snips and Rod Stewart. If the devil could sing, he’d sound like Mike Harrison. Conversely, the trilling falsetto Gary Wright employs in the group’s early recordings is at times frighteningly inappropriate. He either sounds phony as hell or like an over-stimulated Olive Oyl. Fortunately, Wright realized his vocal style was wrong and sang in his natural, albeit timid and shaky, voice after Spooky Two.
The group also included drummer Mike Kellie, a deceptively effective time-keeper in the Ringo Starr vein; booming bassist Greg Ridley; and showy guitarist Luther Grosvenor, who could be brilliant one moment and amateurish the next. Ensuing albums found virtually the entire band replaced, with key members returning for later stints.
Coming and going
Kellie was replaced by the more forceful Bryson Graham. Keyboardist Wright was out for an album, covered by session wizard Chris Stainton. Ridley’s spot was taken by Andy Leigh, who gave way to Chris Stewart, who was finally usurped by funkster Val Burke. Grosvenor gave way to future Foreigner founder Mick Jones. Even Harrison broke loose before The Mirror shattered the group for 30 years. His spot was manned by Mike Patto.
Anthology marks the first time cuts from the group’s 1975 album The Mirror have been included in a career retrospective. In an effort to capitalize on the group’s popularity in the U.S., Wright, the only American in the group, convinced most of the other members to relocate to the States. The idea didn’t sit well with Harrison, who took the opportunity to restart his solo career. Kellie departed to play for Peter Frampton and Three Man Army, eventually drumming for punk rockers The Only Ones. Wright replaced Harrison with Patto, who’d fronted his own self-named group and would later form Boxer (which included keyboard player Stainton, who’d replaced Wright for The Last Puff.)
Patto was known for his pranks and uninhibited personality, which apparently rubbed Wright the wrong way, as did his desire to be the group’s leader. Spooky’s last configuration featured Wright, Patto, Graham, Burke and Jones, who later said his experience in the Tooth showed him how not to run a rock band. Despite the power struggle between Wright and Patto, The Mirror was a capable album. With the popularity of synthesizers on the rise, Spooky’s music took on a spacey, Moody-Blues-with-a-beat personality that predated Wright’s “Dreamweaver” solo phase. Despite Harrison’s absence, there were a number of notable compositions, including the title track, an introspective space ballad with Wright and Patto each taking a verse.
As you’ve figured out by now, Spooky Tooth starts and ends with Harrison. When he’s the featured singer, the band accelerates like a Corvette on a freshly paved open highway. With Wright at the mike, well, they’re just all right. Too bad Anthology sometimes leans too heavily to the Wright side.
The Harrison-sung Lewis Carroll-influenced “Here I Lived So Well” (also one of the few songs where he’s listed as a co-writer), a highlight on Anthology’s first disc, is a classic example of the expressive imagery of the ’60s, a Brit version of “White Rabbit.” Harrison’s craggy voice carries Spooky’s interpretation of The Band’s “The Weight” (with Harrison on harp and Grosvenor on banjo), and gussies up the dirty blues standard “Pretty Woman,” which finds Grosvenor turning the amps well past factory-recommended settings.
Harrison also shines on the cuts taken from the Wright-free Last Puff album, particularly on the group’s signature tune in the U.S., a menacing cover of The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus,” which Harrison sings with threatening demonic glee — John Lennon called Spooky Tooth’s version one of the best Beatles covers he’d ever heard.
The group’s other masterpiece, Spooky Two, is well represented on Anthology. With Ridley still on board and Grosvenor slicing through the studio as if he was a rock ’n’ roll Jack the Ripper, Spooky Two was enhanced by the vocal interplay between Harrison and Wright, who sounded like a heavy-metal version of the Righteous Brothers. The duo tears up “Waiting For The Wind,” which opens with Mike Kellie’s simple bass drum/snare kick pattern; Harrison and Wright are emotionally simpatico for the folk-rock sing-a-long “Feelin Bad,” (which includes Joe Cocker and Ridley singing in the background), and the pair sings like tortured souls in “Evil Woman,” a robust nine-minute workout that was recorded live in the studio.
The group indulges its excesses in Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child” and “Tobacco Road,” two covers featured on their debut album, It’s All About (released in the U.S. as Tobacco Road), but in this case, throwing caution to the wind works.
Harrison was on board for the reunion album Cross Purpose in 1999, along with original members Grosvenor, Ridley and Kellie (Wright wasn’t an original member). In 2004, Harrison, Wright and Kellie reformed under the Spooky Tooth banner for a pair of concerts that produced the DVD and CD Nomad Poet. Kellie has since thrown in his drum sticks with reunited punk rockers The Only Ones. Ridley died in 2003 of pneumonia, and Grosvenor fronts his own band of renegade rockers.
The good news is that Harrison and Wright decamped earlier this year to play concerts in Germany and plan a new album. But until Spooky Tooth hits these shores, you have Anthology and Harrison’s haunting vocal prowess to remind you what a talented bunch they were.