Reviews: Rob Gould, Vinegar Joe, Hot Chocolate, Help Yourself, the Chameleons, Nektar, Be Bop Deluxe, Fire

Dave Thompson's monthly round-up of new releases and reissues
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1

Hot Chocolate

The RAK Singles

(7T’s - 4 CDs)

As one of the flagship acts of Mickie Most’s RAK label in the early UK 1970s, Hot Chocolate were a band that fiercely divided loyalties. Regarded by some as little more than a soulful distraction from the burgeoning forces of glam rock, Errol Brown and co nevertheless were responsible for several of the key 45s of the age - the sibilant paranoia of “Rumours,” the anti-racist “Brother Louie” and, most impressive of all, “Emma,” perhaps the ultimate death song of the post-Shangri-Las era.

Neither was that the peak of their endeavors. Across a hitmaking career that persisted into the mid-1980s, Hot Chocolate’s singles discography fills no less than four CDs, rounded up on the inevitably titled The RAK Singles box set. Every a- and b-side is here, presented in strict chronological order and while purists might bemoan the absence of the band’s debut single, the Apple Records reggae remake of “Give Peace a Chance,” it is hard to find any other fault here.

From the full colour box set that reminds us just what a visual influence Hot Chocolate had, through to a succession of songs which, even if you don’t remember the titles, will have you singing along with rousing aplomb, The RAK Singles is testament to both the songwriting genius of Brown and Tony Wilson, and the production prowess of label head Most.

Add to that the band’s unerring eye for seeking new direction and making it their own, and a seemingly bottomless supply of killer b-sides (“Caveman Billy,” “Bump and Dilly Down”… even “You Sexy Thing,” a US #3 in 1975, was first sighted on the flip of “Blue Night”), and it is difficult to dispute Hot Chocolate’s claim on being the most consistent singles act in the UK for at least their first ten years. The eighties were less kind, and the band less irresistible. But we’re more than halfway through disc three before we need to concern ourselves with that, and the magic that flourishes beforehand is, quite simply, timeless.

2

Rob Gould

Rob Gould Plays Pawn Hearts

(Fruits de Mer)

Yep, that’s right. Hot on the heels of the release of a Van Der Graaf box set, across which 1972’s Pawn Hearts strides like a colossus, and answering the eternal question “which VdGG album would you most like to recreate in its entirety?,” Rob Gould trotss out… what, his thirteenth solo album?… by rolling back the years to three songs that remain the acid test for anyone who claims “oh yeah, I love prog.”

Van der Graaf themselves were never really prog to begin with; like King Crimson, it was simply the easiest box for history to drop them into, and whenever you play their albums, you can hear your ears struggling to let them out again. As for what they were, that’s a question that does not even merit an answer, and even if you think you can guess, Gould’s assault on the album’s three tracks (“Lemmings (including Cog),” “Man Erg” and the sidelong “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” strays far enough from the textures of the original that the query becomes even more moot.

This is not your big brother’s record collection.

The songs are recognisable, of course. But the arrangements drift far from Van der Graaf’s prototypes, most notably in the absence of sax and the emphasis on guitar. But recruiting the always-glorious Cary Grace to voice “Lighthouse Keepers” must rank among the most off-the-wall decisions in either Gould or Van der Graaf’s history, and the fact that she utterly up-ends what you’d expect from the piece is simply the icing on the cake. Regardless of what one makes of Luiz Garcia’s somewhat frenetic approach to the lyrics of “Lemmings,”or Pete Carlyle’s more conventional approach to the ever-tender “Man Erg,” Grace’s performance places “Lighthouse Keepers” among the very greatest of all Peter Hammill-related cover versions.

Which, it is true, is a surprisingly small list, but no matter. With beacons this brilliant, who needs lesser lights?

3

Fire

Father’s Name is dad: The Completely Fire

(Grapefruit, 3 CDs)

The Complete Fire is exactly that, a magnificent assemblage that brings together the psych legends’ complete first (and only0 album, a wealth of demos, out-takes and, of course, singles, plus a complete live performance of the LP, recorded in 2007. Which, in all truth, may be over-egging the pudding just a little, but it’s an exciting listen and it rounds the tale off nicely. If nothing else, we hear what happens when one of the most adventurous bands of the British late sixties is finally confronted by an audience that acknowledges their brilliance.

The first two discs, of course, are peerless, kicking off with both sides of the single that remains Fire’s best known offering, and which titles this box;. We delve then fifteen previously unreleased demos that never made it past this stage, and it wraps up with the second single, “Round the Gum Tree,” its own flip and a period remix of “Father’s Name is Dad.”

Disc two is devoted to The Magic Shoemaker, both in its original 1970 form, and via demos that date back to the previous year, to serve up a complete picture of the band’s activities across the two years during which they vanished from view. And if you are still scratching your head, wondering why you’ve never heard of the band, frontman and songwriter Dave Lambert would later resurface in the Strawbs (Dave Cousins plays guest banjo), and Paul Brett plays guitar across the album.

Augmented, as always by one of Grapefruit’s traditionally excellent booklets, Father’s Name is Dad is the last word we will ever need to hear on Fire. And Fire are one of the last truly significant psych bands that you will ever need to discover.

5

Be Bop Deluxe

Live! In The Air Age

(Esoteric, 14 CDs + DVD)

Available both as the above mentioned monster box, and a more digestible 3 CD digipack, the long-awaited reappraisal of Be Bop Deluxe’s first and only live album stands proud among the most impressive achievements in the band’s discography.

Recorded and released in 1977, as the band toured in support of their Modern Muic album, while also trying to live down the success of the hit “Ships in the Night,” Live! In the Air Age was culled from some seven different shows on their spring tour, for initial release across a single album and a bonus live 7-inch EP.

In both configurations, the first CD effortlessly condenses this down to a single disc with added bonus tracks from a John Peel session. The 3 disc package then adds the full Hammersmith Odeon performance from March 26; the full sized attraction adds the remainder of the live shows that were recorded on the tour (in Leicester, Bournemouth and Bristol, plus two nights apiece in London and hometown Leeds,), plus a DVD of a period TV appearance.

The choice of which to buy, then, really depends upon how much you’re willing to spend to hear the same band play much the same songs across seven different concerts, with variety largely dictated by Bill Nelson’s guitar solos. Which, one hastens to add, are most people’s reason for loving this band in the first place.

As a standalone album, Live! In the Air Age is one of the crucial concert recordings of the 1970s; as an introduction to the power and vision of Be Bop Deluxe, it is recommended beyond even the best curated “greatest hits” collection. And, for casual fans and the curious, that is probably sufficient.

The die-hards, however, will want nothing less than the 15 disc feast - and are probably already bemoaning the fact that the record company didn’t tape the rest of the tour as well.

6

Nektar

Sounds Like Swiss

(Beyond Before - 2 CDs + DVD)

Recorded across two shows in Switzerland in 1973, as Nektar toured the Sounds Like This LP (hence the soundalike pun of the title), Sounds Like Swiss is very much the album that the band should have released at the time. Far more representative than the single platter that was Sunday Night at the London Rundhouse, it captures them in that state of pomp that predated their Remember the Future breakthrough, while already exhibiting the traits that would so endear that album to the masses.

Inspired improvisations, electrifying atmospheres and mesmerising moods are the rule of thumb; Nektar’s live show was always a very different beast to their studio output and the three shows here represent the band arguably at its onstage peak. Material is drawn from across the catalog-so-far, and includes sensational renderings of “Journey to the Centre of the Eye,” “Desolation Valley,” “Odysee,” “Cast Your Fate”… of course, given the variety of sources, there is some duplication of titles, with the DVD effectively offering up the same show as CD 2.

Nevertheless, the band is blazing throughout, and we can only be grateful to the Nektar archive for finally making this package available. And for making it look and sound so good, too.

7

The Chameleons

Elevated Living: Live in Manchester, London & Spain

(Cherry Red 2 CDs, 1 DVD)

Spin Cycle actually attended one of the shows in this collection, at the Camden Palace in London, in November, 1984. The Chameleons were, after all, one of the brightest lights within that handful of bands that history now pins to the post-punk notice board, but who - alongside Sad Lovers and Giants, Wah! Heat, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and a handful more - represented a whole new tide of ideas that circumstance alone ultimately rendered less than world-beating. And if there was a better single than the original “In Shreds,” then it was never released.

The Camden show is here in its entirety and it’s a mark of just how powerful the band’s performance was that “In Shreds” itself was dispensed with several songs before the encore, as indeed it was at the two earlier gigs, at Manchester’s Gallery Club in December 1982, and same city’s relatively recently (nine months) opened Hacienda. We hear twelve songs from the first, seven from the other. Four numbers from a 1985 Barcelona gig, as broadcast on Spanish TV, complete the audio portion of the package, although a full performance awaits on the DVD.

The concert footage, is surprisingly stellar. The Chameleons were never the most visual act, and so the cameras do not have much to work with beyond a few flourishes of fancy cutting and effects work. The audience is scarcely more active than the band, and close-ups of the drummer notwithstanding, the limited (two cameras at the Gallery, one at the Hacienda) vista is much the same as you’d have received on the night, had your feet been stuck to the sticky-beer flooring..

But the sheer elan with which the band deliver its set, the power of the music and the drama of the events are overwhelming, and besides, even the television show was reduced to adding extraneous footage of newsreel cut aways, interview snippets and sombre reptiles to give the broadcast some extra pizzaz.

It doesn’t matter. Elevated Living is the kind of time capsule that remind us that it was not the entire eighties that stretched out like a wasteland made exclusively from globs of congealed custard; just the bits that are most frequently remembered. In darkened corners and hidden rooms, bands like the Chameleons offered hope to us all. The rest should be left in shreds.

8

Help Yourself

Passing Through - the Complete Studio Recordings

(Esoteric 6 CDs)

Although Help Yourself are often described as an offshoot of the sprawling Man family tree, the fact is, the opposite was truer - Malcolm Morley and Ken Whaley both joined Man after their Help Yourself years; other connections (Richard Treece’s time with Deke Leonard’s Iceberg, the Flying Aces and the Neutrons, for example) likewise took place in the aftermath. Beforehand, although there were certainly musical and stylistic similarities, Help Yourself were a very different handful of halibut.

Their influences were what we would describe as the American west coast, without the more tiresome baggage that has since become associated with the term; a country-psych hybrid that was eminently capable of allowing each sound to stand alone, without reducing the levels of enjoyment.

Six albums are included here, the five that were released between 1971 and 1973, an unreleased sixth (confusingly titled 5) which was likewise recorded in 1973, but did not emerge until the early 2000s, and the Lost and Found collection of archive recordings compiled by Morley just this year. In addition, nine bonus tracks include a 1972 BBC session, demos and more. All are mastered with Esoteric’s customary attention to detail, and the accompanying booklet fills in gaps in the story that you may not even have known existed.

All in all then, Passing Through is a more than worthy monument to a band that deserved so much more attention than they ultimately received, and who should have made a greater mark on the world as well. For first time listeners, Spin Cycle’s own recommended introductions would be Strange Affair and The Return of Ken Whaley, the group’s second and fourth LPs. But you’re better off listening to the whole thing in sequence, and regretting the fact that this is probably all there is. They really were just passing through.

9

Vinegar Joe

Finer Things: The Island recordings 1972-1973

(Esoteric - 3 CDs)

Considering the magnitude of Robert Palmer’s subsequent stardom, and the acclaim that attended the solo Elkie Brooks, it seems incredible that the union between the two - and their status even then among the finest singers on the British rock scene of the early 1970s - should be so little-celebrated today.

If you knew Vinegar Joe at the time, of course, you will need no introduction; if you didn’t, you might be surprised to play through the three discs (plus half a dozen bonus tracks) without detecting even the ghost of prophesy - there is no hint of “Addicted to Love” in this book, and no “Sunshine After the Rain,”either.

What you do get is one of the most seething, solid, storming R&B bands of the age, whipsmart and wailing and so implausibly impassioned that it’s astounding that all those other bands of a similar ilk had even the nerve to exist alongside them. Brooks herself was a sensation on stage, and that miraculous voice carries through on record, with 1972’s Rock’n’Roll Gypsies a performance peak that few singers have ever matched. But its box-mates are no makeweights either, and you will not regret cranking this one loud.