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Fire brings 'The Magic Shoemaker' to life

The influential U.K. progressive/psychedelic trio Fire is back with a live reworking of its ambitious musical fairy tale, 'The Magic Shoemaker.'

For months, Decca had sat on “Father’s Name Was Dad,” the debut single from Fire, at the time one of the brightest hopes of the U.K.’s late-’60s progressive/psychedelic underground.

With the agonizing patience of Job, Fire waited for its release, and finally, in March 1968, the track — with its cleverly constructed hooks, earnest melody and richly metaphorical, socially conscious lyrics — was out and getting radio play.

Even the Almighty himself couldn’t have persuaded the band to pull the song off the air and go back into the studio with it, though, perhaps, it needed some tweaking.

On the other hand, back then there was some question as to whether God, or rather Jesus, was as big as The Beatles, and nobody in their right minds would refuse a helping hand from Paul McCartney... if it was offered.

Having just recently signed a publishing deal with The Beatles’ pet label, Apple Records, Fire, was in no position to say “thanks, but no thanks” to whatever McCartney proposed.

“Singles were always released on a Friday in those days, and you would get radio play during the week leading up to that Friday,” recalls David Lambert. “I got a call from Apple over the weekend to say that Paul had heard the track on the radio and loved the song and the riffs but thought the recording could be improved and suggested some changes. So, by the Monday, we were back in the studios working on the track again.”

Among the changes, Lambert added “... a new lead vocal which had a more ‘in your face’ attitude” and an octave part to the riffs, with Lambert playing those riffs over the fade-out.

“(Bassist) Dick (Dufall), (drummer) Bob (Voice) and I added extra vocal harmonies, the whole thing was mixed and that was that,” says Lambert, probably best known for his work with the British progressive-folk institution The Strawbs. “I remember (Decca staff producer) Tony Clarke (of Moody Blues fame) being quite bemused by all this; he couldn’t understand what was wrong with the first version. By the end of that week, the new version was sent out to the radio stations and released. I’ve never heard of such a thing happening before or since; it shows the power that Apple could wield at that time.”

Even the McCartney magic couldn’t transform “Father’s Name Was Dad” into a hit. And yet, somehow, the song has endured, occasionally — as it did in 2004 when The Pet Shop Boys joined the legions of artists who’ve covered it over the years — emerging from the dark closet of mothballed pop music to peek its head out and say “Hello” in the form of a remake. Which is exactly what Fire did in 2007, returning after a 37-year hiatus, to play two triumphant reunion concerts.

Fire played, in its entirety, its fanciful 1970 concept album The Magic Shoemaker, and Lambert, taking liberties with the original script, was able to weave “Father’s Name Was Dad” — and other Fire standouts, including the marching, mind-melting, psych-pop confection “Treacle Toffee World,” not on the record — into the timeless tale of Mark the shoe cobbler. In October, the Angel Air label released Fire’s The Magic Shoemaker Live, further evidence that Fire — even after all these years — still burns.

“The two performances were magical for me; it was so good to be onstage with those guys again after such a long time,” says Lambert. “Since speaking to people who saw both, I get the impression there wasn’t much difference between a 1968 Fire performance and a 2007 one.”

And whatever went on before — from unwelcome delays to ridiculous record label interference — now seems like water under the bridge.

The history