Medicine Head – There’s Still an Aching Void where the Hit Albums Should Reside

f67005eydv1What a difference a decade doesn’t really make.

Ten years ago in Goldmine, we lamented the corporate … let’s be nice and say “blindness”… that rendered utterly unavailable no less than 50% of the catalog of a band that, for a couple of years in the early-mid 1970s, ranked among the UK’s most reliable hit makers.

Medicine Head may not have sounded top pop fodder on paper… a Cajun-blues-folk-pop-you-name-it duo whose principle instruments were guitar and Jaw’s Harp.  But they reigned supreme through the first half of the decade; they cut three superlative albums for DJ John Peel’s legendary Dandelion label; and they seemed to be on TV all the time.

But no less than four of the seven albums they released during that span were still awaiting a CD release; and when you discover that two of those were cut while the band was at its hitmaking peak, while the other two trace the transition from the Keith Relf produced folkies of their debut and the aforementioned hits… well, that was one big oversight.  One which frontman John Fiddler has been trying to address for a long time.

The German Repertoire label set the band’s reissue ball rolling in 1994, by repackaging that debut album, New Bottles, Old Medicine.  By 2004, the band’s final years had been restored by the ever-enterprising Angel Air, with a bountiful collection of BBC recordings and a 1975 live recording also showing up on the same label.  Since that time, Cherry Red’s stewardship of the old Dandelion catalog has rounded up the early singles for a 3CD label box set, and two further Dandelion albums, Dark Side of the Moon (no, not that one) and Heavy on the Drum have finally been revitalized by Talking Elephant.

But there’s still an aching void where the “hit” albums should lie.  So, it’s time once again to take a closer look inside that void, and curse the… enough with the politeness!  Rank Stupidity!!!!… that deprives us of so much great music.

Medicine Head first came together in the English midlands town of Stafford towards the end of the 1960s, around Fiddler and Peter Hope-Evans.  Fiddler recalls, “Peter and I met at school.  We were both kind of “freaks”, for want of a better word, so we hit it off and started playing harmonicas, always listening to blues, always exchanging ideas about songs, art, poetry.”

Neither of them had ever been in a band before; nor had they any intention of forming one themselves, partly because “we didn’t know any other players to join up with us,” and partly because “we had always been into the kind of Jesse Fuller, ‘one man band’ idea, so we just started out with a bass (kick) drum, guitar, harmonicas, jaws harps, mouth bows and bits of wood and stuff to conjure out a percussive sound! Then we added the hi-hat. So we evolved into a duo, no intention, just happened that way.”

With no musical track record to speak of, and no idea how to go about acquiring one, the duo’s first live shows were akin to guerrilla raids.  “We would arrive at clubs/pubs/bars etc and ask if we could play, or we would claim we were the band booked to play that night.”  They got away with it for the most part, intriguing audiences with a repertoire that was as extraordinary as their arsenal of instruments.  Slowly, ambition began to grow and, during summer 1969, the pair hatched an audacious plan.

BBC disc-jockey John Peel – then, as always, a major force on the UK underground scene – was DJing at the Lafayette Club in Wolverhampton; that night, Medicine Head rolled up at the venue, and announced that they were the evening’s scheduled entertainment.  By the time the real headliners arrived, the duo had already set up their equipment and were ready to play.  The management shrugged and let them get on with it.

“Peel saw us play a couple of tunes, and was intrigued by our set up, and our sound, so he asked us to send him a demo-tape.”  At the time, the pair had only one, the so-called (for obvious reasons) “kitchen tape” of rough and ready home recordings, but Peel was enthused enough to play it to everyone he could – John and Yoko, Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend among them.  He had already decided to sign the duo to his newly-constituted Dandelion record label; it was the Lennons who then recommended that their first single be a track lifted straight from the tape. “His Guiding Hand” was released in November 1969 and, by the new year, Medicine Head were recording their debut album, for release the following May.

144111Active between 1969 and 1972, during which span the label released 27 albums (plus one compilation), Dandelion is one of those shortlived British imprints that have acquired far more collectors in the modern age than they ever boasted purchasers during their prime.  With the label’s unspoken brief to its artists surely erring on the side of eccentricity, such legends as Tractor, Stackwaddy, Principle Edwards, Bridget St John, Clifford T Ward, David Bedford and Kevin Coyne’s Siren all cut excellent albums for Dandelion.  During 1970-1971, however, both New Bottles, Old Medicine and 1971’s Heavy On The Drum firmly established Medicine Head among the most idiosyncratically brilliant of them all.

Peel’s patronage went further than simply releasing the duo’s records, however.  Fiddler enthuses, “before we had an agent etc. he would take us with him to his DJ-ing gigs, and arrange there and then with the promoter for us to play, and then share his fee with us. What a guy! He did so much for us.”

Dylanesque lyricism, Americana rootsiness, but a distinctly post-psychedelic ear for experimentation and esotericism, characteristics that remain Fiddler’s forte even today, Medicine Head swiftly established themselves among the darlings of the underground scene.  They gigged furiously and, in June 1971, Medicine Head finally received their just rewards when the haunting “(And The) Pictures In The Sky” became their – and Dandelion’s – first bona fide British hit.

Fiddler recalls, “I wrote “Pictures in the Sky” in the dressing room just before going on stage at another Midlands gig. I just started playing it that night, Peter joined in on Jaw’s Harp, and that was it, the crowd literally went wild for that song, and just wanted to hear it over and over.”  The song was ear-marked as the duo’s next single, with the duo’s management company suggesting that another of their clients, former Yardbirds frontman Keith Relf, handle production duties.  Relf duly travelled out to Medicine Head’s rural home base with his guitar and his tape machine, to demo the song (the CD of New Bottles includes this version among its bonus tracks) and “(And The) Pictures In The Sky” emerged a veritable soundtrack to the ensuing summer.

For a moment, however, it also looked as though it was the group’s last gasp, as both group and record label underwent seismic changes. Fiddler explains, “We had a reasonable sized hit with ‘Pictures in the Sky,’ and it didn’t damage our credibility either. However, I don’t think Peter enjoyed the hit situation.”  Announcing he intended to concentrate on poetry and radio drama, Hope-Evans exited.

Fiddler, however, had no intention of allowing matters to fold.  “I kind of felt that [Peter] would come back, and I knew that he [just] needed to work out some stuff for himself, so respect.”  While he replaced his errant partner with drummer John Davis, and Relf moved in as the band’s full-time bassist, Medicine Head set to work on their third album, Dark Side Of The Moon – for release, trivia fans, a full year before Pink Floyd hatched the same title for their own latest effort.  Fiddler laughs, “I came out with that title first, [and] I do have a song called Dark Side of the Moon, too.  But Pink Floyd made an awesome piece of work and, though they didn’t thank me, I would say thanks to them for such an amazing album.”

Dark Side Of The Moon did not emerge as powerful an album as might have been hoped – Hope-Evans’ contributions were certainly missed.  But Fiddler’s songwriting remained as powerful as ever, and two successive singles, “Kum On” and “Only To Do What Is True,” were unfortunate not to follow “(And The) Pictures In The Sky” into the chart.

As Fiddler expected, Hope-Evans returned to the fold in late 1972.  “Peter had been living in the north of England, way out in a very isolated place, he had been writing, trying to get plays published, trying to find his way.  A very good friend of ours, Jim Carney, lived not far from him, and he kept in touch with us both. I think Peter first voiced his desire to re-join, through him. Peter and I were the best version of Medicine Head.”

They were not, however, the most successful one.

Dark Side Of The Moon was the group’s final release for the Dandelion label that had nurtured them thus far; as the label’s finances took a turn for the worst, so founder John Peel prepared to wind the company down.  Management, however, promptly arranged for Medicine Head to be transferred to Dandelion’s parent label, Polydor, and the group now launched into a period of phenomenal success.  One And One Is One, their next album, was released just before Christmas 1972; the following spring, its mesmeric title track was nestled at #3 on the UK chart, behind those giants of glam Suzi Quatro and Wizzard.

“The biggest influence on that was Fats Domino,” Fiddler explained.  “He wrote some of the most amazingly good love songs – ‘Blueberry Hill’ has got to be a classic, it’s so simple, it’s not like Cohen, it doesn’t have the literary qualities of Dylan, but just the simplicity of it is enough for me.  ‘One And One’ is a similar statement.”

They followed through with the equally captivating “Rising Sun,” which only just missed the Top 10; then made it three in a row with the supremely sultry “Slip And Slide” in the new year.

Musically, they were fearless.  “All The Teen Angels” toys with a reggae beat long before that became fashionable among white rock acts; “How Does It Feel” is a barrelhouse boogie; “Cajun Kick” tasted… well, cajun.  There wasn’t another band on the planet to touch them.

Unfortunately, all was not well, as Hope-Evans’ discomfort with Medicine Head’s original success resurfaced alongside these latest hits.  “Peter and I definitely drifted away from each other,” Fiddler admits, with the awkwardness exacerbated by the decision to broaden Medicine Head’s scope by recruiting a conventional full band’s worth of accompanying musicians.

“Tony Ashton had taken over the producer’s role, and Tony was wondrous. An amazing character, sadly missed. He suggested bringing in a drummer, and a bass player, and played keyboards himself.  Then we added three guys to back us up while on the road. The first line-up with us was, Rob Townsend, George Ford, and former Freedom guitarist Roger Saunders.

“Later, Charlie McCracken, (Taste/Rory Gallagher) replaced George, when George joined Cockney Rebel. But the result was that Peter began to feel removed from Medicine Head.  Whereas, before, he had been a major part of the band, now he was just the harp player, and he didn’t like it. And neither did I. We had a lot of laughs, but ultimately, the duo version of Medicine Head was the best, it was so unique, there was nothing else like it, and people loved us for it.”

His unhappiness with the group’s direction even clouds his recollections of the ensuing Thru A Five album.  Despite featuring such gems as the aforementioned “Cajun Kick,” “White Dove” and “Indian Queen,” alongside two hit singles, Fiddler later lamented, “Slip And Slide” was the only “good record” from the period.  He must also acknowledge, however, that his opinions are colored, at least in part, by all else that was taking place around the band, as management problems were added to musical misgivings, and then compounded by the absolute schizophrenia of the group’s commercial standing.

Though the band were now scoring major hit singles, neither of the accompanying LPs charted, and Fiddler muses, “our audience was now more of a pop audience following a singles path, which was basically a contradiction for us. Somehow, we never got back to our album status until we re-united ourselves in the duo format.”

That happened in spring 1975, by which time the band’s career had effectively ground to a halt, courtesy of an extraordinarily ill-judged decision to quit Polydor for WWA, a monstrously ambitious management agency/recording company that was launched with high hopes and a mega roster of stars (Black Sabbath and Gentle Giant also climbed aboard), but which collapsed within months.  Sabbath survived, but for many of WWA’s other clients, it was the end of the road.

“It was a total disaster, and I accept the blame for this; I somehow thought they could help us get to the USA (Medicine Head never visited these shores); I thought they would be good for us. Nothing was further from the truth.”  Just one single, “Mama Come Out,” highlighted Medicine Head’s time with WWA; “and the less I say about [this period} the better,” Fiddler admitted.  “It keeps my blood pressure down.”

The 2005 release of Don’t Stop The Dance offers the era, and this line-up of the band, some dignity; compiling the single and sundry sessions, it emerges a lot more powerful than Fiddler probably remembered, and proves that had WWA only had the wherewithall to match their original sales pitch, Medicine Head could easily have been reborn as a power in the land.

Instead, the band lurched into what Fiddler describes as “the wilderness.  We carried on playing on the road with the five piece for a while, then the bank manager said ‘no more.’  So we had to stop.”

Abandoning the band format, Fiddler and Hope-Evans resumed life as a duo in September 1975, gigging around the country, before signing with Chas Chandler’s Barn label in mid 1976.  “[Chas] is amazing,” Fiddler raved at the time.  “He instils a massive kind of confidence and you pick up on it.  It’s what we’ve always lacked; we’ve never had confidence in our management.”

A new Medicine Head single, “It’s Natural,” appeared on Barn that July and picked up enough interest to gnaw the lower limits of the UK chart; an album, Two Man Band, was scheduled for release in November, and it, too, boded well for the future.  Fiddler continues, “everything was going the right way. We had no problems being there in the midst of the Punk Thing; we had the same energy, all was cool, so I thought. We had a full tour sheet, we were even in the lower end of the charts.  And then Peter decided to leave.”

Fiddler tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  “I knew his heart was no longer with the band.  He needed to move on, and I probably did as well.  We’d probably blown that one apart and we couldn’t fix it.  If we’d done nothing for a couple of years, and then got together again, we could probably have regenerated it, but it didn’t work like that.”

Hope-Evans moved tentatively into session work, recording with Pete Townshend, Virginia Astley and the Dance Band among others.  But he also secured a philosophy degree and moved into teaching.

Fiddler, meanwhile, still had some six months worth of live obligations to fulfil.  With Fiddler recalling Roger Saunders from the disbanded live line-up, and recruiting ex-Love Affair/Mott keyboard player Morgan Fisher, July saw Medicine Head record a three song session for the John Peel show, recording “It’s Natural,” “Sun Sinking Low” and “Over You.”

But, having already released their final single, “Me And Suzie,” shortly before Christmas, Medicine Head finally bowed on April 27, with one more radio session for John Peel.  It was their tenth appearance on the show, and the four song session looked back at almost all of them, as Medicine Head went out with a serious bang: “His Guiding Hand,” “(And The) Pictures In The Sky,” “Slip And Slide” and “It’s Natural.”

And that was it.  An era was over.

Fiddler went on to enjoy success (again alongside Fisher) with the ex-Mott the Hoople-inspired British Lions, the Yardbirds spin-off Box of Frogs, and a solo career that is still rolling today.  Visit his website for further details of that; visit your favorite retailer for the CDs that are out there… and as for the missing albums?  Well, that’s what record stores are for.  You’ll just have to look for them there.

They are worth the search.

 

Leave a Reply