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CD box sets for summer 2022, from The Foundations to Bubblerock

From folk rock to psych and points in between, there's a vacation's worth of listening here.
1

Various Artists

Bubblerock Is Here To Stay Volume Two: The British Pop Explosion 1970-73

Grapefruit - 3 CDs

We’ve been down this road once before, and it’s a joy to traverse it again. Other eras may stake similar claims, but the early 1970s saw the UK chart experience one of its most invigorating highs of all time, fueled of course by glam rock, but aided and abetted by a host of other howls as well. And here’s 79 of them, to add to the 80+ that made up volume one.

What makes them special, however, is the fact that most of them didn’t bother the chart in the slightest. These, once again, are the also-rans, the might-a-beens and almost-dids, the Barry Greens and PC Kents, the Summer Wines and the Liverpool Echos. And it makes you realize what a crazy crap shoot chart success is, because almost… almost… any of these would have looked just as great at 38 with a bullet as any of the records that actually got there.

“Pop” is a misleading term. Bubblerock spans the genres. Fairfield Parlour, whose “Bordeaux Rose” is intoxicatingly wonderful, were a classic Vertigo label act, in the days of the mighty swirl; Phillip Goodhand Tait leaned towards the folky end of the spectrum; The Pipkins were a children’s TV staple; Marmalade and the Tremoloes were doughty sixties veterans; Blue Mink comprised some of the country’s hottest rock sessionmen. Oh, and Judge Dread specialized in rude reggae songs.

The Sweet and the Bay City Rollers were superstars in waiting; Hotlegs were the embryonic 10cc; Slade’s offering was their first number one; and Jonaathan King, of course, was Jonathan King, and named the Bubblerock phenomenon in the first place, so it’s no surprise to see him turn up twice.

The thing is, though, you don’t treat this like a CD compilation. It’s the fruits of a few years tape-recording early seventies radio, then making a cassette of all your favourite songs. Or even some of your least favorites - Middle of the Road’s “Soley Soley” isn’t quite as nausea-inducing as their first hit, but it does its best and is truly horrible.

But the American Jam Band’s “Jam Jam” is magnificent; Fluff are fluffy, and it has to be said, Muff are muffy. However you rate its contents, though, and whatever you think of the bands, Bubblerock isn’t simply here to stay. It’s never going to leave, either, because there are earworms in here that you’ve never even dreamed of.

4

Bridget St John

From There / To Here - UK/US Recordings 1974-1982

Cherry Red - 3 CDs

Bridget St John’s career with John Peel’s Dandelion label was long ago absorbed into the body politik of modern cult favorites. It seems strange, then, that her fourth album, Jumblequeen, recorded with Ten Years After’s Leo Lyons, Stefan Grossman and Beverly Martyn, is so rarely mentioned in similar circles.

Released by Chrysalis in 1974, it is in many ways the best of the batch, beautifully executed, exquisitely arranged, and boasting some of St John’s most confident songwriting yet. It did next to nothing saleswise, but that was nothing new - the label did next to nothing promotion-wise, so they had nothing to complain about.

But of course they did, and St John was not only dropped from the roster, she would not release another album until 1995 - and that, Take the 5ifth - was simply a compilation of the myriad demos and studio sessions she’d undertaken since moving to the US in 1976. Her last recording of note in the UK was as a guest on Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn - that’s her vocals that bring the album so much of its magic, and it has to be said. If that performance wasn’t enough to earn her a fresh record deal, then the music industry simply didn’t deserve her.

Take the 5ifth, despite its mixed-up origins, certainly proved that neither her voice nor her songwriting had lost their early flair, and it’s glorious to hear it again, in its original form on disc two, and then expanded with 17 further New York sessions on disc three.

Recorded at a variety of studios across a host of dates, again there’s a certain inconsistency to the moods and momentum. But everything else is classic St John, and if the Dandelion albums have been anywhere near your CD player (or your turntable, hipsters) in the last few years, then you are in for an absolute treat.

Fabulous liner notes, too.

2

The Foundations

Am I Groovin’ You - the Pye Anthology

Strawberry - 3 CDs

The Foundations are one of those sixties British bands that it’s very easy to overlook.

Of course their hits were the hits - “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” is the greatest sixties Motown record that sixties Motown never made; “Back On My Feet Again” and “In The Bad, Bad Old Days” were solid pop-soul stompers, and“Build Me Up Buttercup” does still feel horrifically overplayed, even when you’ve not actually heard it in however many years.

But there was a lot more to the band than that.

A lot more, too, than their other apparent claim to modern fame, which is the sheer diversity of the band. One of the first mixed ethnicity groups to triumph on the British pop scene, there was also a twenty year age difference between their youngest and oldest members.

All of which is fascinating and well worth remembering. But it’s the music that counts, and the exhumation here of all three Foundations albums - mono and stereo mixes of their debut From The Foundations, plus Digging the Foundations and the in-concert Rocking the Foundations reminds us that they were a damned good band.

Of course, part of their problem is that very few people actually took British soul seriously back then (or even for a long time to come). Always it was the American model that was viewed as “the real thing,” and yes, that is a dreadful pun because The Real Thing was another British soul band (albeit a decade later) that was likewise undervalued because they didn’t have the right passports.

So the Foundations had their hits, but that’s all they had, really. The respect, the affection, and the chance to build a legend as anything more than a pop group on the late sixties scene, they were missing. And so the group faded away, to the point where their best known album is probably still the retrospective Golden Hour compilation that Pye put out in the early 1970s.

That said, Am I Groovin’ You is not the first full Foundations anthology; Build Me Up Buttercup - The Complete Pye Collection was released in 2004 and features more or less the exact same material. The difference is, this time we can hear the albums as they were released, with b-sides and singles corralled off as bonus tracks, and all presented in sequence. It’s the kind of treatment the band has been waiting for all along. And now we can all see how great they were.

3

Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera

Long Nights of Summer - The Anthology

Grapefruit - 3 CDs

Sadly shortlived and mostly overlooked, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera are one of those psych-era bands whose reputation only really began to stir in the 1980s and 1990s, as period comps dug deeper in search of rare raves and secret surprises.

Collections like The Electric Lemonade Acid Test and Electric Psychedelic Sitar Headswirlers began giving their studio work some much needed air; Artefacts from the Psychedelic Dungeon unearthed a couple of BBC session recordings. But it was 2004 before the Italian Akarma label gave a reissue to the band’s self-titled debut album, and it’s incredible that only now has the Opera been given a full anthology. Because, when you actually hear the music, as opposed to seeing their name in a listicle, you are seriously going to wonder - where have you been all my life?

Three CDs tell the story well. Recorded after the single “Flames” landed both a great reception and a berth on the CBS label sampler The Rock Machine Turns You On, the band’s eponymous debut album is present in both stereo and promo-only mono, with bonus tracks neatly divided between studio sessions and demos on disc one, and 15 BBC sessions on disc two.

Three versions apiece of “Flames” and “Mary Ann,” and two of their excellent cover of “All Along the Watchtower” do dent the satisfaction of those latter cuts a little, but no matter. Imagine the outcry if the duplicates had been cut!

The departures of frontman Gantry and guitarist Colin Forster effectively ended the band there. The third disc, then, follows the rhythm section of John Ford and Richard Hudson (later of the Strawbs) as they convened a new line-up, Velvet Opera, and cut a second CBS album, Ride a Hustler’s Dream.

In truth, it’s no more than an addendum to the story, a fair listen but nothing to get overly excited about, but again there’s studio and BBC bonus tracks to excite the completists, and the single of “Anna Dance Square” still sounds fabulous. But it’s the first album that is the beckoning beacon here, delicious and dramatic from start to finish, and “Flames” isn’t even the band’s best track.

5

Steeleye Span

Good Times of Old England - Steeleye Span 1973-1983

Chrysalis - 12 CDs

History insists there were two epochs of the “original” Steeleye Span; the Ashley Hutchings-led outfit that cut the three albums anthologized on 2019’s All Things Are Silent box set, and the full-bore electric folk band that arose from that unit’s split.

Listening through this remarkable 12 disc box set, however, it becomes apparent that there was a third era, too, although it’s probably not one that they would thank you for noticing. It’s the one that began when they went full speed after the stardom that appeared to be in their grasp, and somehow shed everything that made them so special across clung to their last four LPs.

For make no mistake. Below The Salt, Parcel of Rogues, Now We Are Six and Commoner’s Crown add up to the most solid run of consistent brilliance in the annals of folk rock, each one a dark forest through which we pick our way carefully, for fear of what lies around the next corner.

There’s no path to speak of, and even less light… even stumbling across the band performing “To Know Him is to Love Him,” while a passing David Bowie wheezes asthmatic sax across the fade; or when a jolly “New York Girls” unleashes the mad genius of Peter Sellars across a few well timed interjections… even they are scarcely respites between the shape-changing wizards, the wicked witches, the grisly ghosts and the 700 elves that people the rest of the landscape.

And then? And then, kerpow! The good witch descends in the shape of producer Mike Batt, and suddenly all is bright and sunny. “All Around My Hat" gave Steeleye their biggest hit single yet, and its parent album welcomed in grannies and kiddies alike. The highlands were cleared, the lowlands were drained, the pagan darkness lit up with neon.

No more would Steeleye hold us spellbound while they detailed Long Lankin’s murderous rampage; never again would the band disguise themselves as a school choir to squeak a sinister “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Never again would Maddy Prior offer you a shilling and a bottle of the best if you’d rumple up the feathers of the cuckoo’s nest.

This was family friendly folk pop, and while the band did recover slightly across subsequent albums, the damage was done. Departing members and a shifting rock scene further conspired to ensure that we would never see their former selves again. And so to the box that tells this tale, and what a treasure it is.

We’ll start with the bad news. The packaging is… okay: A CD-sized clamshell box, with each album slipped inside a replica of the vinyl sleeve, albeit sans gatefolds, lyrics and such. A chunky booklet is entertaining, and the whole thing screams out for a more grandiose presentation. But a decent price devours some of the pain, and the music mops up the rest..

Fort there, you know what you’re getting.

Eight studio albums take the band from 1972’s Below the Salt to 1980’s contractual obligation Sails of Silver, and utilize the same (perfectly adequate) masters that have been circulating since 2009. Bonus tracks include studio out-takes, alternates and single mixes (all remastered for this release) and sensibly append each album. Several, including some extra Sellars shenanigans, are previously unreleased; all are welcome aboard.

The remainder of the box is devoted to live recordings - 1978’s Live at Last and the Australia-only On Tour (1983) should be familiar to fans, at least; Live at the Rainbow Theatre 1974 and Live at the Berklee Performance centre, Boston 1976 are previously unreleased, and again have been remastered for the occasion.

Both, too, are thoroughly enjoyable, and it seems absurd that this is their first official airing. They were, after all, recorded with mid-1970s live albums in mind… so why make us wait close to 50 years to hear them?

So, a few regrets, but no complaints. It’s twelve discs of Steeleye Span, and at least 50% of them are unimpeachable. That’s one helluva better strike rate than a lot of the box sets we could name.