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Reviews: Rowan Amber Mill, UK Psych, Affinity, Tir na nÓg, The Strawbs, UK Indie Pop, British Sounds of 1965, Underground Sounds of 1971

by Dave Thompson
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The Rowan Amber Mill

Disciples of the Scorpion - the Complete Soundtrack (album)

“They Worked the Fields” (single)

(Miller Sounds CD)

Few remember it, even fewer have seen it. But Disciples of the Scorpion ranks amongst that select handful of movies whose legend marches inexorably ahead of any other consideration, not least of all because it’s only known airing was within the now-equally lost, similarly fabled, UK TV series Book of the Lost.

In other words, if this is all beginning to sound a bit like something dreamed up by someone who wishes there really had been a movie in which giant killer sea scorpions rise up at the word of a pirate radio DJ at the height of the summer of love… well, maybe it was. But if that is the case, then how do you explain the soundtrack album?

In truth, Disciples of the Scorpion bucks a lot of the familiar trends of movies from this era. Incidental movements are one thing, but there are near symphonic aspects to the music here… no mere cues or random stabs of avant garde sound effects. Moments like the (surprisingly gentle) “Rise of the Scorpion,” the near-chill tones of “Ratio”; the aptly titled “They Closed Our Eyes” and so forth feel as though they could have been composed as conventional album tracks, albeit by someone whose very notions of convention are out on a plane somewhere betwixt a Morricone-inspired commercial for recreational drugs, and that unlabelled flexidisc you once found in a thrift store. No, not the David Cassidy, one, the other one.

Snatches of dialogue, presumably from the original filmtrack, interrupt the mood; there’s also the original Book of the Lost introduction to the movie, to warn period viewers that this was by no means their average weekend television experience. And with a cast that includes wired hippies, weird drugs, and a veritable army of fiendish sea beasties… who could ask for anything more?

PS: Separate from the album, but fitting into its mood regardless, there’s also a new RAM single, the gently, but so lovely, psych-orchestral “They Worked the Field.” With frontman Stephen Stannard ranking among the most visionary artists currently at large on the UK wyrd-adelic scene, it goes without saying that you really need to pick up both releases.

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Various

Think I’m Going Weird - Original Artefacts from the British Psychedelic Scene 1966-1968

(Grapefruit 5 CDs)

It’s like that old line about how, if you give enough monkeys a typewriter, one will turn out the works of Shakespeare. If you give enough psychedelic collectors five CDs, one will create a box set that another might agree with.

So many bands, so many singles, so many sounds. The era itself is unimpeachable in terms of mad genius, whimsical eclecticism, bat-poop craziness… and, of course, musical frontier-busting. Overloaded with acts who zapped the zeitgeist for at least three minutes. Positively lousy with songs that stick in your head through sheer disbelief and dynamics. And, unlike so many other so-called genres, psych knew no time limit, which is why Moon Kyte’s “Jelly Man” remains one of the brightest days of the summer of love, despite coming out three years later.

Moonkyte aren’t included here. Obviously. But it would be easier to list the period pacemakers who aren’t involved (Pink Floyd, Fleur de Lys, Julie Driscoll and Frabjoy & the Runcible Spoon) than those that are, as 122 slabs of classic UK psych rain down from candy colored clouds and rainbow flavored trees, and the only bone of contention might be… well, we’re back to the typewriting monkeys again.

The Smoke are here, but without their friend Jack. Elmer Gantry drops in but leaves the flames at home, Dantalion’s Chariot are not running through the fields, Traffic’s shoes have no holes on them.

In many ways, that’s a good thing. There was a time when it was next to impossible to find those records anywhere… or even get to hear them, outside of the chance find of a scratchy single. These days, it’s actually refreshing not to hear “Created by Clive” or “Skeleton and the Roundabout,” and to be reminded that a lot of bands did their zeitgeist zapping over far more than we remember. Recent anthologies for the Misunderstood, the Syn and Fire (the latter also oddly absent) have proven that b-sides and out-takes could roam further than we ever imagined, to the point where one actively dreams of the day when the Boeing Duveen and the Beautiful Soup archive finally opens, and we get to hear something beyond “Jabberwock” and “Whichever Dreamed It”. (It’s the former’s turn this time.). And this box answers a of of those wishes.

So, five discs in a neat bookshelf case, a chunky booklet, detailed liners, and possibly the finest one-stop purchase for anybody looking to spend the best part of six hours immersed in psych, without having to do the compiling themselves.

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Affinity

Affinity

(Esoteric - 4CDs)

Affinity were one of the multitude of bands signed to the Vertigo label during its swirly pomp, deserving of much but ultimately receiving little beyond the cult awareness that was the fate of the majority of their label mates.

Fronted by the phenomenal voice of Linda Hoyle, locked into a jazzy-rocky kind of brew, and maybe best represented by a marathon version of “All Along the Watchtower,” their sole album rattles around the $300-$500 mark in collecting circles, so any chance to actually hear it should be grabbed with both hands. Well, here it is and then some.

Across disc one, the original album is bolstered by eight bonus tracks, a mix of demos (including one for the aborted second LP), some TV and radio sessions and a live medley of “Watchtower” and “It’s About That Time.” Disc two throws up more radio work, plus a nine song instrumental set from early 1969.

Disc three, subtitled Affinity Origins 1965-1967, is similarly instrumental, a collection of 17 tracks recorded by bassist Mo Foster and pianist Lynton Naiff between 1965-67 when, with double bassist Nick Nicholas, they gigged and recorded as the Jazz Trio. The trio pursues similar territory to a number of other now-legendary British jazz-rockers… Brian Auger and Georgie Fame both come to mind… albeit with a more purist bent, and less wild electricity; and, finally, disc four, Affinity 1971-1972, serves up the band’s final incarnation, with Grant Serpell and the late Vivienne McAuliffe replacing Hoyle and Naiff, and another version of “Watchtower.”

Affinity purists will immediately note that Hoyle is absent from all but the first disc, and that is disappointing - in terms of technique and ability, Affinity were a great band, but left to their own devices, they do tend towards a certain jazzy sterility. It was Hoyle’s vocals that lifted the into a whole new realm, and Affinity itself deserves all the acclaim it can get. Discs two and three cannot help but dip in its aftermath. Persevere, however, and disc four is a revelation in its own right; McAuliffe, too, has a fine voice, and anybody who remembers catching this late incarnation of the group in concert (or who wished the Hoyle era group had more staying power) will not be disappointed

cover

Tir na nÓg

Live 1970-1971

(Mega Dodo CD)

Actually, that should be 1970-1972, for the latter was the date of the In Concert BBC broadcast that highlights this collection. But leave your pedantry at the door, please, and relax instead into what is surely a most remarkable survivor - the sound of the classic Tir na nÓg at the height of their powers, recorded live and not too shabbily, either.

Eighteen songs make it onto the disc, with a couple of repeats, but some terrific surprises too - “Woodstock” gets one of its loveliest-ever work-outs, and “Maggie’s Farm” shocks even BBC host Brian Matthews into remarking “our gentle Irishmen get relatively heavy on this one” - one of half a dozen tracks that bear his so-distinctive (and, to listeners of a certain age, intensely nostalgic) opening commentaries.

As he reminds us, however, the bulk of the material here comprises Tir na nÓg originals, dominated by the self-titled debut … so that’s “Dante,” “Daisy Lady” (three versions, but every one’s a gem), “Mill Pond” and more. We also hear both sides of their first single. The result is a priceless addition to the folk rock canon, and an album to cherish alongside the best of Tir na nÓg’s studio output.

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The Strawbs

The Broken Hearted Bride

(Esoteric CD)

Originally released in 2008 through the Strawbs’ own Witchwood Media label, this was something like the Strawbs’ 17th album - which will surely come as a surprise to anyone who stopped listening after the first six or seven. Their latter-day reunion, however, bore (and continues to bear) a lot of fruit, and with the classic-or-thereabouts line-up of Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk and Rod Coombes in full flight, it’s great to see the bride back on the shelves.

In truth, it’s not one of the band’s all-time greatest albums; the finest track, the opening “The Call to Action,” simply reworks a cut from Cousins’ earlier (2005) High Seas collaboration with Tony Conrad. That said,”Christmas Cheer” and the title track are both enjoyable additions to the catalog, and the lengthy (seven minutes plus) “Through Aphrodite’s Eyes” is a true Strawbs epic.

There’s also the matter of four bonus tracks, a couple of Chas Cronk demos that may actually edge their “finished” counterparts, the unissued “We’ll Meet Again Sometimes,” which readily lives up to its “retro track” billing, and Dave Lambert’s “You Know As Well As I.” Together, they raise the temperature well.

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Various

The Sun Shines Here: The Roots of Indie-Pop 1980-1984

(Cherry Red 3 CDs)

There was so much going on on the UK scene in the early 1980s that it has proven all too easy over the years to forget a lot of the acts involved, even among those we might have loved at the time. Or, if they are recalled, it’s for the one or two songs that appear on every collection, which sweeps great swathes of often superior material into a sad, dark corner.

That’s where the contents of this box were found, in the sad, dark, corners, and it’s astonishing just how much fun it is to listen to - and not just just the earliest material, either. From start to finish, from Wah Heat to the Jesus and Mary Chain, The Sun Shines Here is one of the most aptly titled collections around.

The Teardrop Explodes, Lori and the Chameleons, Altered Images, Everything But the Girl, Pulp, Aztec Camera, the Modettes, the Raincoats, Microdisney…. All have better known numbers than those included here, but are they necessarily better records? The jury will probably want to remain out on that, but “Read It In Books,” “The Lonely Spy,” Insects” and “On My Mind” (to name just a few) peel off the disc like friends you’ve not seen in several decades, and unlike the rest of us, they still look and sound as glorious as they used to.

Looking through the track listing is like spending an evening with a pile of old UK music papers, flicking through the pages to laugh at the band names. Trixie’s Big Red Motorbike, Yeah Yeah Noh, the Revolving Paint Dream, the Disco Zombies, the Suede Crocodiles, the Wee Cherubs… and has anyone ever come up with a more perfect name than Grab Grab the Haddock, which still sounds like the chorus of the greatest dance record ever made (if only we could remember what the next line should be).

The usual info-packed booklet accompanies the music, and there’s a host of memories - and even new discoveries - to be unearthed there as well. A box of joy from start to finish.

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Various

Box of Pin-Ups: The British Sounds of 1965

(Grapefruit, 3 CDs)

Years may come, years may go, but some have stuck around regardless, to forever haunt their successors with the sheer dynamism that they crammed into their span.

In musical terms, 1965 has always hung thusly, and a look through almost any period hit maker’s discography will reveal ’65 as the year in which they truly hit a peak. From “My Generation” to :”Help,” from “We Got to Get Out of this Place” to “Like a Rolling Stone,” from “Look Through Any Window” to “Tired of Waiting for You”… and the weird thing is, not one of them is here.

Rather Box of Pin-Ups (its title, of course, an affectionate nod to David Bowie’s own tribute to the age) follows the already time-honored Grapefruit course of digging out the records that the hit counters didn’t register at the time, but which themselves are as emblematic of the year’s high points as any of the high points themselves.

So, spinning through the three discs, you’re as likely to encounter the Beat Stalkers, Glenn Athens & the Trojans, Five Steps Beyond and the Lemmings as you are the Small Faces (an alternate take on “Whatcha Gonna Do About It”), the Yardbirds (“Evil Hearted You” and a live “I Wish You Would”), Donovan (“Hey Gyp”) and the Pretty Things (“Midnight to Six Man” and “Get a Buzz”); and stars of the future (Arthur Brown, Marc Bolan, Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart) are as prone to turn up as the all-time obscure.

There’s room for all of that, as well. No less than 92 tracks are crammed onto the three discs, and the sound quality is fabulous, every track crashing out of the speaker like the original 45 has just been released - there’s an immediacy at work here that you’d be hard pressed to duplicate from any other year, at least in this kind of quantity, and the fact that the quality never really lags only amplifies the excitement.

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various

Breakthrough: Underground Sounds of 1971

(Esoteric 4 CDs)

If you’ve been following the underground sounds series through, this is where the term “underground” begins to look a little archaic. Of the 40-plus bands on this 54 song compilation, it’s hard to look at more than a handful as being truly underground any longer… Howard Werth’s magnificent Audience, Vertigo mainstays Beggars Opera, Spring, BB Blunder, Mighty Baby, Cressida, a handful more, perhaps.

But we’re into the big leagues now - ELP and Yes, Curved Air and Family, Procol Harum, Caravan, Atomic Rooster, Status Quo, Lindisfarne, Uriah Heep, hit singles were hitting, chart-toppers were topping, and it’s clear that any connections these bands had with their status of old was now more of a marketing technique than a genuine description of their pulling power.

Musically, of course, it’s peerless. From “Master of the Universe” (Hawkwind) to “Many Are Called” (Man), from ELO’s debut hit “10538 Overture” to Tull’s “Life’s a Long Song,” Breakthrough positions 1971 as one of the most adventurous years the UK Top 50 ever experienced, and if the songs themselves are seldom the ones you might expect, that only enhances the box’s credentials.

The Pink Fairies’ “Do It” remains a roar of street fighting adrenalin and free festival memory; Van der Graaf’s “Man-Erg” and Heep’s “July Morning” are glorious epics that need to introduction; and Traffic’s “Low Spark of the High Heeled Boys” might well be the peak of that band’s entire adventure. Elsewhere, Thin Lizzy’s “Eire” serves early warning of that band’s imminent emergence, and even when the sunlight is dimmed by subsequent obscurity (add Paladin, Big Sleep, Samurai and Colin Scott to the earlier roll call), the sounds themselves are as alive and alluring as any brighter attraction.