The box sets released by Grapefruit Records covering the second half of the 60s managed to bring together a lot of interesting material under the loose umbrella of psychedelia. The four box sets – featuring music from 1966-69 respectively – also took in bits of pop, freakbeat and folk, but with so many phased guitars, recurring themes of teatime and other whimsy dictated by a general soft drugs haze, they often felt like coherent packages. Once the yearly exploriations move the into the 70s, there isn’t quite such a focus; with the first wave of psychedelia in its death throes, as well the rise of hard rock and singer-songwriters, the early 70s paint from much broader musical palate.
A stylistic indecision hasn’t stopped Grapefruit from digging deep and turning up loads of interesting things to fill ‘Peephole In My Brain: The British Progressive Pop sounds of 1971’, of course, and its three discs are brimming with obscurities, flop singles, half remembered gems and deep album cuts. With the vaults of Harvest, Vertigo, Ember and various other labels truly raided, it’s a set that’s quite quirky in its own way – and a reminder that there was far more going on at the time than the Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Yes and Tull-loving rock historians would have you believe.
That’s not to say ‘Peephole’ is anti-populist – it features a few tunes from Status Quo, Procol Harum, The Kinks and [gasp!] Emerson, Lake & Palmer among its “71 tracks from ’71” but, as always, is at its best when wandering a little farther off the well-beaten track. …And it isn’t all good, obviously; a dubious effort (and now controversial inclusion) from a man we’ll call Konathan Jing is best avoided, as is a dated folk stomper from Bronx Cheer that never rises above “cut price Lindisfarne” and ‘Turning Green’ by Jackie MacAuley errs on the whinier end of folk pop (possibly better suited to Grapefruit’s ‘Strangers In The Room’ set), but there’s a huge amount of pure gold to be (re)discovered. In fact, it’s probably about ninety percent gold.
Most of the real jewels are supplied by a plethora of obscure 7” sides; tunes that were clearly marked out to be hits, but for whatever reason, ended up being relics of the era. The very best of these is ‘Going Back Home’, a harmony drenched pop-rocker by Unicorn (first issued in May ’71) that tries its very best to sound like a slightly rockier Hollies. The way the band blend their voices is also often reminiscent of the Laurel Canyon scene, even if the music takes on a slightly tougher stance. Catchy as hell in 70s pop terms, ‘Maisie Jones’ by Nimbo manages to fuse the pop moods of The Hollies and Marmalade with the baroque pop fascinations of Honeybus and come up with the kind of wistful tune that somehow escaped most record buyers at the time. Hopefully its inclusion in a set such as this will finally mean it receives its full due. Clearly looking for a new direction after his post Soft Machine folk-psych LPs, Kevin Ayers appears to ape the core sound of Lou Reed’s Transformer LP on his ‘Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes’, a swaggering proto-glam workout with laconic, almost spoken vocals. Kev’s apparent lack of interest is made more entertaining by a band working their arses off. The Reed comparisons are interesting…since the material this most resembles wouldn’t actually be released by Lou for another fifteen months. Kevin was very obviously way ahead of the curve.
Among the best single picks, prog rockers Curved Air are represented by ‘Back Street Luv’ (a genuine hit, peaking at #4 in the UK), which promises a real treat for any first time listeners with its heady blend of psychedelia and funk, as a hard edged electric piano battles for dominance against Sonja Kristina’s sultry vocal on one of ’71’s finest 7”s. It’s a travesty that this tune has been gradually overlooked over the years as it’s genuinely brilliant, as is Blonde On Blonde’s ‘I Don’t Care’, a proto glam rocker that’s big on guitar twang and even bigger on a carefree stomp. With a tough rhythm coupled with a massive hook, this track manages to straddle a big gulf between late 60s garage rock and the Chapman/Chinn sounds soon to dominate the UK chart. In many ways. It is the perfect representation of 1971; a year constantly searching for new sounds and a definite identity.
Also well worth hearing – even though it sounds hopelessly out of time – is The Factory’s ‘Castle on The Hill’. The Factory will be familiar to regular connoisseurs of 60s anthologies and although their sound comes across as somewhat dated this time around (they’re still clearly immersed in 60s culture and recording techniques), the song itself is fantastic, especially geared towards listeners that love a garage guitar rock sound. Also interesting, though perhaps losing something in translation, ‘Where I Belong’ is a tune by Knocker Jungle that somehow – and perhaps not intentionally – sounds like an inebriated George Harrison cranking out the riff from Neil Young’s ‘My My, Hey Hey’. If ever there were a tune that summed up the hazier end of the early 70s, this is surely up there. Something else best described as “a genuine period piece”, ‘John Kongos’s ‘Takaloshe Man’ sounds like a genetic experiment involving ‘Chop Chop’ by Sweet, a cast-off Slade vocal and the guts of Hotlegs’ ‘Neandearthal Man’. An unholy racket involving aggressive blues guitar runs, a subtle as bricks rhythm section and scratchy rock vocal, it’s easy to see why this wasn’t a massive hit, yet at the same time, there’s a fair amount of fun to be gleaned from a track created with such chutzpah, even if the end results are decidedly…dubious. Kongos, of course, will forever be best known for his clasic ‘He’s Gonna Step On You Again’ (covered by Happy Mondays and Def Leppard) and on the basis of this and a couple of his other songs covered by Graham Bonnet in ’77, things seem unlikely to change!
Elsewhere, you’ll experience Bear Foot’s mix of Roy Wood-ish rock and pop injected with some great fuzz guitar, an odd glam-ish take on blues rock from Sweeny Bean and an interesting curio from Dear Mr. Time. A case of a band that clearly fell asleep in 1967 and never woke up, their ‘Grandfather’ is a shamelessly twee waltz that’s drowning in flute and mellotron. Montage’s ‘Dangling In The Cool’, meanwhile, is a pleasing little number with more than its fair quota of acoustic strums and Crosby, Stills & Nash aspersions filling a very pleasant three minutes, while singer-turned producer Wil Malone transforms Ringo Starr’s post-Fabs hit ‘It Don’t Come Easy’ into a slow, druggy haze, loaded with the kind of orchestration that had gone out of fashion a couple of years earlier. Despite being already dated by the time he recorded it, the song still manages to entertain – there’s a lot to be said for having great source material, after all. Perhaps due to the familiarity of the song itself, this fares far better than Dear Mr. Time’s contribution. Not that Dear Mr. Time are bad, of course; it’s all a question of timing: had they managed to write the same track three years earlier, it might just have been a genuine genre classic, beloved by collectors of psych pop and orchestral pop sides. By 1971, they just sound very much like men out of time, such was the speed of the shifting musical landscape between 1966-76.
Various key album tracks help to paint a broader picture of the year, and so many of these picks are also first rate. One album wonders Samurai (featuring future Greenslade collaborator Dave Lawson) offer an unmissable cut with ‘More Rain’, a soul/jazz banger that’s big on flutes and even bigger on trippy sun-drenched melodies. The way the bass and flute weaves in and out of heady rhythms and hazy vocals is certainly of its time, but it’s easy to imagine the end results scoring a film scene very effectively. Even Barclay James Harvest (a band that even with the best goodwill could be legitimately be called boring) sound quite lovely on ‘Ursula’, a semi-folky, very hippie-oriented song loaded with acoustic guitars and flutes against a wistful vocal. For fans of other folky things, Beau’s ‘Ferris Street’ should more than entertain with its unlikely combo of British Folk melodies and underscoring of US psych, presenting the singer-songwriter almost as if he were a UK Tim Buckley, and a cut from a post-Humblebums/pre-Steelers Wheel Gerry Rafferty is a more than welcome reminder of a brilliant talent with a familiar voice set against some great twelve string work. On top of all of that, you’ll also be re-acquainted with Terry Dactyl & The Dinosaurs, Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts and Zior, all of whom had their complete works reissued in the lead up this release, so this set might lead you down an even deeper rabbit hole…
As with their ‘Come Join My Orchestra: British Baroque Pop’ and ‘Across The Great Divide’ box sets, Grapefruit Records have gone deep into the archives to bring a somewhat eclectic selection, and ‘Peephole…’ is another fine addition to their selection of themed box sets. The musical landscape somewhere between psychedelia and the birth of glam rock could sometimes seem a little uneven, but as this anthology more than proves, it wasn’t short of great music.