Between 2016-2018, Grapefruit Records released three excellent box sets exploring the nooks and crannies of the British psychedelia movement. The three anthologies featured in excess of over two hundred tracks and even included items which even the more devoted psych obsessive hadn’t heard before. Having almost exhausted that particular avenue, the same label’s ‘Come Join My Orchestra: The British Baroque Pop Sound 1967-73′ from November 2018 provides an interesting side-step. In the wake of numbers like The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘For No One’ and the Stones’ ‘Lady Jane’, baroque pop became in vogue and all manner of artists – obscure or otherwise – turned to applying strings and flutes a-plenty. Not quite straight pop, but never as ostentatious as prog rock would make the orchestra, the seven year stretch bridging the two decades turned up all kinds of treats. While often favouring the singer songwriter over the pop bands, ‘Come Join My Orchestra’ is a great celebration of these sometimes forgotten musical experiments – and with seventy eight tracks ranging from the cult classic to genuinely obscure, there’s a lot here to take in.
The anthology begins with the track from which the set takes its title. Al Jones mightn’t be the most familiar name present, but his ‘Come Join My Orchestra’ – although very short – provides the ultimate mood setter by way of folk tinged acoustic guitars, abetted by strings and a particularly busy flute emerging from the right hand speaker channel. The whole track absolutely screams late sixties, with elements of Ralph McTell, Nic Jones and Bert Jansch conspiring to create such a hippie ditty. With that moving deftly into the melodious and light pop of The Honeybus, whose ‘Do I Still Figure In Your Life’ blends smooth close harmonies with upfront strings, this set gets off to a great start. The Honeybus number isn’t as instant as their best known ‘I Can’t Let Maggie Go’, but still has the makings of a fine and hazy, honeyed late 60s tune which is somewhat typical of this eclectic box’s finer offerings. Opting for wistful folk, Kes Wyndham’s ‘Broken Bicycle’ blends acoustic guitars and a deep bass, before ushering in a string arrangement. Undeniably English, this track has some very pleasing elements that occasionally sound like a homage to Nick Drake’s ‘Five Leaves Left’ from two years earlier. It sort of goes without saying that Wyndham’s recording isn’t anywhere near as perfect, but since he only recorded a couple of obscure singles, his inclusion here feels very important. Also delving into quirky singer-songwriter spheres, overlooked tracks by Clifford T. Ward, Bill Fay (a favourite of Nick Cave’s) and Bert Jansch really help to create a broader picture of music that’s not only incredibly English but also evocative of an era where artistic freedom was essential. Nobody needed to be a great singer; the songs were what really counted and – in the case of Ward – being able to deliver on an otherwise offbeat lyric was somewhat of a necessity.
An essential addition to this set – though a track that’ll be familiar to most – The Zombies’ ‘A Rose For Emily’ is sparse and lovely. The second Colin Blunstone’s breathy, English voice joins a stabbing piano melody, the track becomes utterly captivating. With its choir of voices and stark tale of loneliness, the imagery of dying flowers and an unadorned grave is very strong indeed. In a little over two minutes, this takes the purity of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and then cranks up the misery. There are other excellent tracks from ‘Odessey And Oracle’ that could’ve fit the bill here, but if we take McCartney’s experiments as the baroque pop instigator, this is just perfect. Blunstone makes another welcome appearance as his alter-ego Neil MacArthur on a flop single from 1969. It’s a mystery as to why ‘Don’t Try To Explain’ was actually unsuccessful, since both musically and vocally it’s absolutely ace. Obviously, Colin’s breathy vocals are unmistakable, but the arrangement on the number even outshines his best efforts. At the quieter end, it sounds a little like a soft pop cover of ‘Je Taime…’, but rising into the chorus, it feels more like a lavishly orchestrated love letter to an old Motown ballad – it’s grandiose, to say the least, with a booming drum part, a world of strings and (eventually) an organ part that would befit the legendary Gary Brooker. A pop masterpiece. Sadly, (The) Toast’s cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall’ comes up particularly short. Sounding like a cross between The Batchelors and a half forgotten sixties house band, it’s already somewhat inferior. Perhaps there’s a lesson here not to cover something that’s already perfect – and the band certainly shouldn’t have played things so straight if a cover was to be attempted at all. More importantly, the real lesson here is not to sign off a finished recording that sounds as if the strings – and some of the vocals – came from a stretched tape.
With a McCartney inspired bass part and stabbed piano on loan from an old Badfinger tune, it’s best foot forward for the The Annie Rocket Band on the festively themed ‘A Little Smile On Christmas Day’. Provided you’re in the mood for a Pilot-ish piece of pop with an average vocal, it’s one of those numbers that should hit the spot, but the wobbly vocal makes it very much second division material. That’s a pity considering so much has gone into the arrangement itself: the production is stunning, the tack piano is a nice touch that gives the track a vaguely music hall feel and the aforementioned bass part is one of the best to be found within this collection of oddities, singles and overlooked nuggets. ‘New Kind of Feeling’ by Lea Nixon – about whom, the internet offers very little information – is essential listening. A semi acoustic tune heavily inspired by Crosby, Stills & Nash and Ralph McTell, it’s a multi-layered four minute roller coaster ride of pop where keen-eared listeners might hear bits on loan from Love’s classic ‘Alone Again Or’ and a strong melody that bears more than a passing resemblance to Brotherhood of Man’s ‘Save All Your Kisses For Me’. The first is likely intentional; the second hadn’t actually been written yet… As far as forgotten singer-songwriter tracks go, this one’s definitely of the gold standard.
With an electric piano, stabbed rhythm and a mournful cello, ‘I See Wonderful Things In You’ by Mike Batt provides another of the purest baroque pop tunes, with a world of strings joining a sad voice that instantly paints a picture of loneliness. The arrangement is first class; the voice, unmistakable. By the time the track fades out during a last chorus, it appears to end prematurely, but there’s probably very little else that Batt could’ve added to improve things. There’s certainly a McCartney flavour here, which is no bad thing. Given Batt’s gifts for arrangement, it seems an absolute travesty that, for those over a certain age, he’ll be best remembered as the musical director for The Wombles. He always was – and is – better than that. [Just prior to this anthology’s release, Batt gave various Hawkwind tunes an overhaul on their 2018 album for Cherry Red, ‘The Road To Utopia’.]
For lovers of 70s pop, ‘Smoky Blue’s Away’ by Muffin will definitely catch the ear with its use of tight harmonic vocals, strings and a lovely electric piano, before ‘Breakfast’ by Richmond acts as a massive downer with a demo quality recording, scratchier vocal and all round sparser feel. It’s well within the remit here, though; thanks to brazen use of brass and it eventually turns into another Badfinger inspired ditty that’s quite pleasant, but it really ought to be better than it is. Michael Blount’s ‘Acorn Street’ is another tune best seen in period. Featuring verses with a vocal underscored by sharp guitar, it almost sounds like an unfinished Kinks demo, but the fuller arrangement on something sounding more like a chorus hints at the Small Faces’ more psychedelic side on ‘Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake’ in ’68. It only feels like a chorus, mind, and the Blount obviously hadn’t quite thought things through as it only appears once! At the point where it should naturally re-emerge, the track stops dead, almost as if Blount were channelling Syd Barrett losing interest. Curious.
‘Disappear’, a John Peel championed 1967 A-side by the singularly named Gilbert, is a quasi-novelty affair that sounds like a cross between a music hall skit, a George Formby failure and the theme music for The Flumps. Sung in a heavy affected voice, the number recounts the brief adventure of a man destined not to fit in – and despite a distinctive horn (oo-er), he doesn’t especially make a welcome fit here, either. You’d expect, with a tune such as this, that Gilbert would be relegated to the dusty corners of music history; a man to be discovered by only the most curious. In a massive twist of fate, he would eventually go on to release a string of hit singles between 1970 and 1973, with actual tunes that really embraced the charms of 70s pop, since this (not so) mysterious Gilbert is none other than Gilbert O’Sullivan. Despite possibly being unheard by most people since its release, ‘Disappear’ is an especially bewildering selection, especially since ‘Permissive Twit’ from his 1971 debut album ‘Himself’ finds the curly haired songsmith working with harpsichords in a neo-baroque style that would’ve suited this collection just as well…if not better. [‘Disappear’ didn’t quite disappear into the dustbin of history, either: it can also be found in demo form as a bonus track on the 2011 Union Square re-issue of ‘Himself’.]
Utilising oboes, trumpets and strings, Wil Malone’s ‘I Could Write a Book’ goes all out in the baroque stakes. In a few short minutes, he serves up something that sounds like a Cat Stevens leftover, a mood reinforced by an unassuming voice that could never called great, but certainly has character. The main melody of this track is lovely, but it’s a bit jarring when things deviate midway for a busy piano solo. The term “kitchen sink” applies to the arrangement and production, so it’s no surprise that Malone eventually moved into producing records instead of making them himself. That said, this is about as far removed from the Iron Maiden debut – arguably Malone’s most famous piece of knob-twiddling – as you’ll get. All things considered, this is a real gem – a genuine highlight of a box full of curiosities.
For listeners hoping to find the odd sixties pop nugget – ie: something a bit more traditional than baroque, string drenched affairs – The Matchmakers’ ‘Sandy’ is something of a lost treasure. Not a band as such, The Matchmakers were German studio session musicians gathered together by Mark Wirtz to record a selection of pop ditties. Wirtz had previously masterminded the failed/uncompleted concept album ‘A Teenage Opera’ (featuring members of Tomorrow and best remembered for Keith West’s ‘Grocer Jack’ segment), but this track also shows he had a gift for straighter, less grandiose pop. Armed with woozy harmonies, this tune really works a selection of jangling guitars and a punchy bass. It doesn’t have an immediate hook, but there’s still plenty to love, especially if you have a passing fancy for The Hollies and their ilk circa 1969. Far too good to be pugged away on a German 7” b-side, its inclusion here is well deserved; a track ready to be dusted off to greet new ears. Likewise, archivists’ favourites The Orange Bicycle are on hand with ‘Competition’, a brave and multi-layered pop number that borrows heavily from Brian Wilson and The Four Seasons. A few of the higher registers are a little beyond the performers, but it doesn’t stop the track being enjoyable, especially when the drum fills and other embellishments are quite smart.
Although light on previously unreleased material, ‘Come Join My Orchestra’ offers at least one item that’ll be of interest to lovers of late sixties ephemera. The Regime’s ‘Dear Amanda’ takes the storytelling route of The Zombies’ track, but doesn’t do quite as smart a job. With a “living stereo” effect between guitar and drums, it’s still quite sparse, although the drums are occasionally intrusive. Another tale of a flaky love affair, this is wistful and almost psychedelic all at once. It’s one of those tracks where its flaws eventually become part of the overall charm. Other highlights include a rather grand live version of Procol Harum’s ‘Luskus Delph’, complete with a full symphony orchestra; ‘Am I Very Wrong?’, a highlight from the unfairly maligned Genesis debut from ’69 that at first presents a fey vocal and piano but gradually blossoms into some Moody Blues-esque pop and, for those a little more patient, ‘Poor Jimmy Wilson’, a fairly twee but fantastically arranged tune by Strawbs capturing the best of their folky origins. To be fair, though, this is the kind of box set you could dip in and out of forever and some of the highlights could change from day to day.
Although more varied in style, this provides an excellent counterpart to a couple of Grapefruit’s previous anthologies, ‘Gathered In Coincidence’ and ‘Milk of The Tree’, exploring the worlds of the British folk-pop movement and female singer-songwriters respectively. It’s also of huge interest to anyone whom devoured the trilogy of psych boxes, proving further that such releases aren’t so much a look back as a genuine eye-opener. It’s not all worth hearing, but the forgotten gems and uncovered diamonds make it an interesting musical collection for anyone with a keen interest in the period.