Reviews: Third Ear Band, Curved Air, Bay City Rollers, the Bordellos, Unicorn, Bananarama, Underground Freaks, Rock Art, Sex Clark Five

Author:
Publish date:

by Dave Thompson

Third Ear Band

Image placeholder title

Elements 1970-1971 (3 CDs)

(Esoteric/Cherry Red)

If you don’t know the Third Ear band, stop reading and look them up on Youtube. We’ll see you back here in about thirty minutes.If, on the other hand, you do know their music… and have been waiting for a CD package that comes close to the quality of your original vinyl… this is what you’ve been looking for.

Effectively, Elements is a deluxe edition of the group’s self-titled second album, four songs named for the elements of earth, air, fire and water.Except “songs” is not a word that hangs easily over the group’s oeuvre, as forty minutes of haunting oboe/cello/violin/hand drum-led improv (more-or-less) transports you to places that even the more outre prog rock rarely venture.

They’ve been described as “challenging,” but that’s not strictly true.Rather, the Third Ear Band was the ultimate destination of a lot of what was going on musically at the end of the sixties, only armed with a vision that refused point-blank to sit comfortably among your expectations.Hence, as this package makes clear, a somewhat dishevelled recording career.

Disc one is the original album, a couple of out-takes, and three BBC session recordings.(More, from a BBC concert broadcast, conclude disc three).Disc two, however, places the group in what might well have been their most natural environment, and their soundtrack to the German TV drama Abelard and Heloise. A medieval romance decorated with the mindbending art of Herbert Fuchs, it provided an exquisite setting for the band’s musical inclinations and, taken, for the first time, from the original master tapes, the music sounds amazing.

There’s more unreleased material spreading across the remainder discs two and three, as sessions for the group’s ultimately scrapped third album are unearthed for the first time.The original line-up had splintered just months before the recordings began, and the new look TEB was perhaps still finding its feet.But what was to be titled The Dragon Wakes nevertheless ushered in a brand new electric era… a preface to their so majestic soundtrack for Polanski’s MacBeth… and it’s great to finally hear it here.

The Third Ear Band was never going to be toppermost of the poppermost; was never going to ascend to the highest echelons of even left field prog success.Peter Mew, who engineered Third Ear Band, described the sessions as the “weirdest” he had ever been involved with; journalist Richard Williams mused, “what they have to do with pop music, I don’t know.”But while they flourished, the Third Ear Band had no peers, and took no prisoners.Elements, which one hopes is simply the first shot in a wholesale reissue package, is a terrific place to start (re-) acquaint ing yourself.

Curved Air

Image placeholder title

The Curved Air Rarities Series Volume 3 (CD)

(Curved Air Records)

Live festival recordings from the early 1970s are a mixed bag.Even at their best, the sacrifice of fidelity for feel can render the listening experience a little uncomfortable, as can be testified by anyone who has sat through the on-site live sides of the 1971 Glastonbury Fayre collection.

This, however, bucks the trend dramatically.Recorded at the grandly titled Second British Rock Meeting in Germersheim, Germany, in 1972, it might boast a slightly eccentric mix - the drums are higher than you might prefer, for instance.Beyond that, however, this is one of the best sounding concert recordings of the era.Plus, it captures (a) Curved Air at possibly the peak of their powers, with Phantasmagoria fresh on the racks; and (b) the band taking the stage to discover that Francis Monkman’s guitar wasn’t working.Hence ditching their traditional set opener, “It Happened Today” for the improvised “No Guitar Blues,” and hence the band’s decision, a few numbers later, to end their set with a thirty-minute jam.A description, one notes, that would normally fill the heart with dread.

And not only the listener’s heart.Other acts on the bill included Uriah Heep, Atomic Rooster, the Strawbs, the Kinks and Spencer Davis… imagine if this same fate, and solution, had fallen to them.Imagine Rory Gallagher or Humble Pie having to take the stage with no guitars, but ploughing on regardless.

Curved Air, however, succeed with space to spare.With Monkman at the synth, it is of course a keyboards and violin (Darryl Way) heavy performance.Vocalist Sonja Kristina, too, is absent, which was doubtless a disappointment for some.But if there’s any one indication of the strength of the jam, it’s the absence of any complaints from the crowd.

Probably you wouldn’t have wanted every Curved Air concert to sound like this.But as a one- off contingency, it was as inspired as the best of their “regular” work, and as a fortunate survivor from an age when every concert was decidedly NOT recorded by every soul in sight, it’s one of the most intriguing archive finds of recent years.

Hannes A Jonsson

Image placeholder title

Don’t Stop the Music: The Bay City Rollers on Record (book)

(dontstopthemusicbook@gmail.com)

It’s not a CD box set, but it should be.The career of the Bay City Rollers means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, not all of it pleasant, and the truth is, there is some truly execrable music bound up in it.

But of all the bands whose sound is synonymous with a certain facet of the seventies, the Rollers certainly maintained one of the most dynamic streaks of singles of the age - and that includes the early non-hits that didn’t even feature their most famous frontman; the later years (ditto) as they strived for rock relevance; and even a few of the post-fame spin-offs that likewise signally failed to sell at the time.

Of course this book is a labor of love - that’s the point of self-published books.But it’s also a story that demanded to be told.The Rollers have of course been documented across a stream of titles, but the emphasis has always been on the cultural/commercial phenomenon of their mid-70s peak, and the peculiar emotions that they aroused in their fan base.

Don’t Stop the Music, on the other hand, is focussed only on the music, in the form of a 252 page annotated discography, itself dissected to a level that few other artists have been blessed with.A band history naturally unfolds alongside the details, but again the emphasis is on the music as opposed to the mayhem, and you’d need a stoney heart indeed not to look to Youtube at least a few times while you’re reading about the songs.Shimmy shammy shong, indeed.

The Rollers’ own story is the heart of the book, but the same amount of detail and background is also expended across the various spin -offs… solo careers for Nobby Clark, Les McKeown, and Pat McGlynn; a new band for early members Billy Lyall and David Paton (remember Pilot?); and probably deserving a book of his own, the post-Rollers life and times of Ian Mitchell, whose late seventies chart successes with Rosetta Stone and the Ian Mitchell Band were then crowned with La Rox - positively the greatest glam rock band of the pre-Sexagisma eighties, and from whence future Fastway guitarist Lea Hart sprang.(Alongside former Adverts/Gen X drummer John Towe, and adult film doyen Ben Dover.)

La Rox never got a record out, and anybody seeking even a taste of their sound would need to seek out sundry earlier releases by Hart’s various bands (Slowbone, the Roll Ups), the Ian Mitchell Band’s “Jailbait” b-side, a couple of the Rollers’ own numbers… it’s tricky, but Jonsson shows you the way.And it will be worth it. La Rox remain one of the greatest bands you probably never heard.

Worldwide discographies of the Rollers, and a plethora of record sleeves, reproduced in full color, add to the book’s allure, and again, the only thing that’s missing would be a box set to mirror its contents.How about it… someone?

The Bordellos

Image placeholder title

Underground Tape 17 (download)

(Bandcamp)

Their final release of 2018, and the last-but-one (for now) in the Underground Tapes series of archive exhumations, 17 finds our favorite lo-fi philosophers turn out four further songs of love, life and despair at the state of whatever’s just caught their eye… or what hasn’t.

We open with “Glorybound,” a low-key drift that falls out of a cupboard positioned somewhere between the third Velvet Underground album, and frontman Brian Bordello’s oft-cited hatred of post-Syd Pink Floyd. And it’s followed by the embittered sounding “Sunk and Screwed,” a duet for nasal vocal and Modern Lovers-y strum, and is the closest the entire thing comes to the group’s well-earned reputation for excoriating guitars.

Whereas “Baggypuss” is probably the furthest, a near-instrumental shuffle that falls somewhere between lounge-music disco and a mid-period Can out-take.Legendary, in certain circles, for its non-appearance on a long-ago Fruits de Mer compilation, and slightly titled for a popular UK TV cat, it’s a beautiful piece that simply lies in the sun and scratches itself purring.And “Heartache and Alcohol” completes a decidedly delicious offering as the EP’s epic, a six minute blues, whispered and murmured… there might be a Wreckless Eric influence here, but there just as easily might not.That’s one of the Bordellos’ most stirring points, after all.You never know what they’re thinking.Not even when they tell you.

Unicorn

Image placeholder title

Laughing Up Your Sleeve (CD)

(Omnivore)

It’s a shame that Unicorn are probably best remembered as a footnote to David Gilmour’s non Floyd career.Yes it’s true he discovered them (at a friend’s wedding, no less) and produced them too; and yes, their most well-known song, “No Way Out of Here,” is the one that Gilmour covered on his debut album.

But two of the group’s four albums (the first was pre-Gilmour; the last was sounding tired) rank high among the best-kept secrets of the mid-1970s, and one still remembers leaving a Hawkwind gig in 1976, more intent on buying the support band’s new album than the headliners’ latest.The support band, needless to say, was Unicorn.

The official catalog has been reissued on several occasions now.This latest addition to the discography, however, is an absolute treat - twenty tracks recorded across a couple of years in Gilmour’s home studio, with the owner handling production, and the band not only trialling songs that they’d be returning to later, but testing numbers that would remain otherwise unrecorded.So yes, it’s demos, and we have to confess that Unicorn’s track record in this department is not spotless - the Shed No Tear collection of the band’s final ever recordings is not their finest hour.

But again, think about who was responsible for recording these sessions; then try to imagine Gilmour overseeing any recording that isn’t close-to-flawless.The music here sounds as perfect as anything the same team would knock out at Abbey Road or elsewhere.No false starts or tape leader flapping here, and no bottles clanking while a TV softly hums.These are demos deluxe.

If you’re already a Unicorn lover, there are plenty of surprises.Songs familiar from the albums are often taken at a completely different (usually slower) pace, and that does take a while to grow accustomed to.But the quality of the songs, the strength of the musicianship and, of course, the sheer delight that is Ken Baker’s vocal, are all undeniable, and there are moments here that utterly transcend even the best of their released output - the demo of “Nightingale Crescent” is a joy, and you will quickly stumble across others of similar quality.

Bananarama

Image placeholder title

Drama (3 CDs)

Viva Bananarama (2 CDs)

(both SFE/Cherry Red)

With the bulk of Bananarama’s discography having already appeared across a series of bonus stacked repackagings, it was only a matter of time before the last of their ten studio albums, from 2005 and 2009, finally made it out.And in terms of both presentation and content, neither disappoints.

The trio had slimmed to a duo now, founder members Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward alone.But the traditional Bananarama sound is still intact, at least if you started following them after they swept onto the dancefloors in the mid-1980s.So the unadulterated joyful scrappiness of their earliest recordings… “Shy Boy,” “Robert De Niro’s Waiting,” “Aie a Mwana”… is, obviously, long gone.But you knew that, didn’t you?This is Bananarama for the masses, as opposed to those of us who believed they were the closest thing tomagically reborn Shangri-Las that we were ever likely to see.And the masses seemed to like what they were given.At least for a while.

Okay, onwards.Drama spreads over three discs, and rounds up all the b-sides and remixes that accompanied it; Viva does the same over two discs.And while this does lead to not a little duplication… the bonus Drama discs pack nothing beyond multiple versions of “Move In My Direction” and “Look On the Floor”; Viva serves up nine mixes of “Love Comes”… still there are treats to be found: Marc Almond’s “hi nrg showgirls remix” of the mega-hit “Venus.”Covers of Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence,” originally released only as a download, and Bryan Ferry’s “Tokyo Joe”; a 2009 remake of “Cruel Summer.”

Neither album exactly set the world ablaze at the time, and they probably won’t do so now.But with the original trio having reformed for a tour that was apparently the most fun a lot of folk had all last year, and the best of Bananarama’s output still capable of turning grown adult into grinning fools, gimpy dancing across the kitchen while the budgie looks on in horror, these reissues could not have come at a better time.

Plus, “Love Don’t Live Here” was a great record then and, a decade later, it’s still a great record now.

various

Image placeholder title

I’m a Freak Baby - A Further Journey Through the British Heavy Psych and Hard Rock Underground Scene 1968-73 (3 CDs)

(Grapefruit/Cherry Red)

Whooooaaarrrrrghhhh.And, indeed, WHOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH.

You need to be pretty long in the tooth now to remember a day when the contents of this box set were also among the contents of nigh-on every free concert you attended in western Europe… an age when you could sit cross-legged on your patchouli-soaked greatcoat, top- or even bottom-less, blissing out to a succession of “one-two” tests from a makeshift stage, and the blurge of answering music that would inevitably succeed it.

Somebody passes you a funny cigarette.Somebody else shouts “wally!” for no discernible reason.It starts to rain but the music doesn’t stop, and even the bikers are idiot dancing to bands whose names they won’t remember in the morning.

Sheer, unadulterated bliss.Apparently.

The successor to 2016’s box of a similar title, Freak 2 rounds up a further fifty-three slices of sometimes forgotten, occasionally cult-status and, once or twice, bona fide superstar attractions from what remains one of the most febrile eras in British rock history.

Budgie, Stray, the (latter-day) Move, Stack Waddy, Stone the Crows and the Broughtons are the headliners, in top-of-the-period-bill terms at least… and you could make the same claim for the original Jeff Beck Group, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown (the demo for “Fire”) and Love Sculpture (the hit “Sabre Dance”).But oddly, they feel out of place here, nestled in among the likes of Orang-Utan, Leaf Hound, the Human Beast, Three Man Army, Natural Gas and Little Big Horn.

Who are these people? The booklet will answer those questions. Might even send you crate-digging to discover more of the same.Or awaiting further reissues… Tear Gas, who open disc two (and later became the instrumental portion of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band), will have their debut album reissued by Cherry Red soon enough, and others here have already been returned to the shelves.

But elsewhere… Samuel Prody!Eugene Carnan!! Mouse!!!Wouldn’t you just love to sit in a field and watch a band called Mouse go through their paces?Especially if the Rats were on the bill alongside them, as they are on disc two of this package.Who can resist the charms of Wicked Lady?Dogfeet??And what about Lightyears Away???John Peel played their “Yesterday” on the radio.Once.Now you can hear it as often as you want.

Not everything here is spectacular, and some is distinctly charmless, lumpen hard rock ground out because the musicians couldn’t think of anything else to do.But such moments are kept to a minimum and besides, one man’s meat and all that.Suffice to say, if you’ve ever wondered what it was like, or yearned to re-experience, those damp afternoons in a field in the fall… or those late nights listening, again, to John Peel… or even that collection of albums with mystifying titles that your best friend’s older brother used to play in his darkened bedroom… yeah!Now you can be a freak, too, baby.

WHOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH.

Peter Golding with Barry Miles

Image placeholder title

Rock Graphic Originals: Revolutions in Sonic Art- From Plate to Print, ’55-’88 (book)

(Thames & Hudson)

And talking of festivals…

If there ever has been a “golden age” of rock poster design, few would argue that it fell as the sixties girded their loins to become a different decade, and music matched that adventurous spirit by taking its own left turns away from anything the mainstream might previously have expected.

From the Family Dogg, Rick Griffin and co in San Francisco, through Hapshash, Bubbles and beyond in London, and of course spreading out elsewhere as well, the painted/printed art of the rock underground is probably the most analyzed topic in the history of musical ephemera… to the point where the very term “ephemera” is itself utterly out of place.This was art of a standard that matched the mightiest musicians, and it has been eulogized in any number of books since then.

Less probed, however, have been the activities of artists on either side of that halcyon age… yes, collections have been gathered together to focus on individual eras, but true all-encompassing studies are scarcer.Revolutions in Sonic Art (even the title is perfect) fills that gap with expertise and detail, a softbound 12.5 x 8.5 Behemoth that is littered not only with posters, artwork, magazine covers, advertisements and logos, but also photographs, sketches, preparatory prints… 750 illustrations pack the book, including many that devour full pages.Artists are profiled, events are remembered, printing methods are explained.It’s brilliant.

Plus, it begins at what rock scholars think of as the beginning, the oft-times utilitarian but nevertheless striking artwork that accompanied rock’s 1950s and early 1960s birth and adolescence, before we encounter the slow drift away from the simple typesetting of old, and towards an expressive art of its own.

Naturally, psychedelia and its offshoots devour the bulk of the book.The Grateful Dead seem to turn up an awful lot as well.But we travel through the seventies with at least selected highlights, and into the eighties too - arguably, there was less to truly drool over as we suffered through what the final chapter refers to as “Monsters of Rock, 78-88,” but when was the last time you got hot looking at a Toto gig poster?Album covers, as opposed to posters and the like, had taken over by then as the primary expression of the medium, and then of course incy-wincy-spider sized CDs came along to render even that a minority concern.

But while it flourished, sonic art genuinely was revolutionary, and Revolutions in Sonic Art is the testament it has been waiting for.

The Sex Clark Five

Image placeholder title

Live! (CD)

(Records to Russia)

Are there words that unerringly capture the sheer unadulterated glee that is an inherent element of listening to the Sex Clark Five?No matter that they now boast a lifespan almost four times that of, say, the Beatles - and are, therefore, doughty veterans of more cultural wars than you can shake a sheep at, still they feel like the ultimate pop rock punk power-folk outsiders, a band that just gets up there and plays until they stop, and whose entire repertoire is blasted through so swiftly that they make the Ramones look like Vanilla Fudge.

Live! was, unsurprisingly, recorded in concert, back in 1991 at what, in comparative terms, was still the band’s infancy - just two albums and two EPs old, the Five crammed more or less their entire output so far into the space of one show and, though the sound quality isn’t quite whatever-you-regard-as-the-best-recorded-live-album-ever, it’s nevertheless enough to fill the room with all the strum and drum you could possibly demand.

It’s relentless.All extraneous space… as in gaps between songs… has been ruthlessly expunged, so song slips into song slips into song.Just two numbers top two minutes, one tips three.Four are over in under sixty seconds.Imagine an ultra-economical Flamin’ Groovies banging through two dozen ear worms and not telling you what any of them are called.You’re close.

In other hands, at least half of this collection would be tattooed upon your heart among the greatest pop songs you’ve ever heard.In those of the Five, it’s like dancing through a snowstorm.You know every flake is an unparalleled work of crystalline beauty, and if you could stop and inspect each one, it’d be the best art exhibit on the planet.But when they fall as thick and fast as this, you just revel in the knowledge that you’re being bombarded by beauty.