RAY FENWICK – Playing Through The Changes: The Anthology 1964-2020

The 1960’s spawned a generation of guitarists who paved their way to stardom through vast amount of session work. Arguably the most celebrated of these players are Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page, but for these genuine megastars, there were a legion of other six string heroes who worked every bit as hard – or harder – but never reached “household name” status. Unless you’re the kind of fan who devours sleeve notes and credits with as much enthusiasm as the music itself, names like Clem Clempson, Geoff Whitehorn and Jim Sullivan, for example, might not be too familiar, and yet, if you love 60s, 70s and 80s rock, chances are you own a record or two featuring those guys.

Ray Fenwick is another musician who has maintained a presence for several decades, but has never seemed to get his full due. Beginning as a session man in the 60s, he’s played with some of the greats. ‘Playing Through The Changes’ – a three disc anthology from 2021 – shows off a chunk of his legacy more than admirably, pulling tracks from a very busy career. What it may lack in consistency it makes up for with variety, and unlike so many rock-based anthologies devoted to a singular talent, it doesn’t rely on too many really obvious recordings you’ll own elsewhere – purely because the nature of Fenwick’s work means there aren’t any obvious compilation filling hits and standards. There are a lot of oddities – which aren’t all good, naturally – but, in the main, it’s an enjoyable musical adventure.

Ray rarely found himself without work between the 60s and 80s, but something that becomes quickly obvious when exploring this set is how just busy he was between 1970 and 1975. In addition to being guitarist with The Spencer Davis Group (for whom he wrote everything on the 1970 LP ‘Funky’), Fenwick absolutely threw himself into session work during the first half of the decade, which resulted in a mixed bag of collaborations and recordings, but all of which help give a really broad picture of his talents. Highlights from the period include tunes with The Wheelin’ & Hammerin’ Band whose ‘Back USA’ presents itself as a confident shuffle that sort of sounds like something Humble Pie or Faces might’ve jammed in a quieter moment, and Mike Hurst’s ‘Show Me The Way To Georgia’, an overlooked pop single that comes across as a blend of Leon Russell and Joe Cocker. Although Hurst’s own lead vocal and a choir of gospel voices dominate, Fenwick’s in there giving his all on the slide guitar. Ever the great ensemble player, the colour he gives the recording shouldn’t be overlooked. A 1974 b-side by the mysterious Marlon (written by Fenwick with Deep Purple’s Roger Glover) is interesting enough, if a little dated in its guise as a country rock shuffle. It sounds a bit like a tribute to The Sutherland Brothers, but it manages to be fun thanks to some brilliant stabbed piano and a close attention to harmonies, while Fancy’s ‘She’s Riding The Rock Machine’ supplies plenty of blues-rock/melodic hard rock swagger. Although short-lived, Fancy recorded a couple of enjoyable albums and their lack of relative success wasn’t as much to do with a lack of talent as being up against a lot of competition. A great vehicle for Ray, their mix of blues, rock and funk often allowed him to play in a variety of styles. With that in mind, it’s surprising that only one Fancy track makes the cut here – and that’s certainly testament to how much other material there was at hand. [Anybody keen to check out further Fancy tracks, or perhaps revisit the albums of their youth, should consider picking up the Cherry Red/Lemon Recordings 3CD Fancy anthology ‘The Complete Recordings’. There’s plenty to enjoy there.]

A 1973 session with Bo Diddley resulted in the brass heavy blues ‘Don’t Want No Lyin’ Woman’, where Diddley sounds very much like Freddie King and Fenwick is called upon for a complimentary lead. That surely inspired his own ‘Between The Devil & Me’, a 1978 single cut that sounds like a dozen old Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry shuffles, delivered with utmost confidence. For those who love 70s rock and pop in the style of Hello’s ‘New York Groove’, this will be a real treat thanks to some backing vocals and brass that have the air of a glam rock overhang. A couple of other previously unreleased (and undated) solo tracks aren’t as good, but each one shows a completely different side to the guitarist with ‘Cartwheel Rag’ sounding like a Guitarist Magazine demonstration of a Django Reinheardt style and a reworking of ‘Apache’ which, unfortunately sounds like royalty free hotel lobby music. Although the cheap synthesized backing on the recording is terrible, Fenwick’s choice of tone is impeccable. A vibrato fuelled bluesiness gives the old Shadows number a whole new feel and his choice to reimagine it as if replayed by Mark Knopfler is equally commendable. A jaunty run through of The Ventures’ ‘Walk Don’t Run’ (again, sounding as if it were intended for a guitar demonstration CD) captures a very busy style and natural tone throughout, and even if the drum machine is a little distracting, the twangy tones of the lead guitar sound more than authentic. If these recordings could be described as less than essential, they’re preferable to hearing The South Coast Ska Stars mangle ‘Hall of The Mountain King’ (a lamentable offering from 2001), or a re-recorded ‘Don’t You Leave’ from The Tea Set (the very definition of late 80s petrol station CD hell) or – worst of all – Cozy Powell and friends hammer through ‘Classical Gas’ in a semi-metallic style (a low point of 1992’s ‘The Drums Are Back…’). Nobody really needs to hear any of those, but thankfully, the genuine duffers are few and far between and its never too long before something genuinely interesting pops up.

Making up the core of the set are a broad selection of recordings made with members of The Spencer Davis Group (both together and apart) and various lads from the Deep Purple family tree. Although not always closely related in style, many these recordings often give Fenwick plenty of time in the spotlight. This is especially the case with the SDG’s ‘The Screw’, a proto hard rock number from their underrated ‘Gluggo’ LP (1973) that places a chunky guitar riff against a bluesy wail interspersed with a weird glammy interlude. Although few would ever consider this the best Davis Group recording – from any era – it’s a great showcase for Fenwick, really capturing the ease in which he reworks an Edgar Winter-ish style. Another hugely rocky affair, Ian Gillan Band’s ‘Mercury High’ shows how well Fenwick could apply a bluesy lick to some heady funk, still managing to be a huge focus of attention despite Gillan often wailing at full volume, and Wizard’s Convention’s brilliant but under-heard ‘Money To Burn’ provides a huge amount of swagger throughout when Fenwick backs the young David “Trousersnake” Coverdale on a number that very much seems to pave the way for both the early Whitesnake and the short lived but legendary Paice Ashton Lord project. The ease in which Fenwick uses his blues rock chops to go head to head with an especially muscular bass shows off a great rock talent. It’s the kind of performance that’ll make you realise how well he’d have slotted into the early ’Snake, had he not chosen to join the much shorter-lived Ian Gillan Band instead.

A definite highlight comes from Spencer Davis’s brilliant ‘After Tea’ (a flop single from 1968), which might seem like a less obvious choice since it’s dominated by piano, sitar and group vocals, making Ray’s guitar almost redundant. Since Fenwick was the chief writer of this massively underrated track, it more than deserves its place as a highlight of this anthology and with Ray Davies’s fascination with English tea colliding with a jubilant arrangement at every turn, this is every bit the equal of Steve Winwood and Dave Mason’s work with the still new Traffic…possibly even better. It deserves to be in the collections of every 60s music fan. Reason enough to buy this set, The Murgatroyd Band’s 1972 cut ‘Magpie’ is a freakbeat masterpiece (four years too late) where Spencer Davis’s Hammond organ goes all out for musical thrills while our guitar hero noodles under brassy backing vocals and an off-kilter melody that’s as frightening as it is thrilling. Looking back, it’s amazing to think that something with so many atonal elements would be chosen as a TV theme tune. A TV theme…for children.

Ray’s later years mightn’t have seemed as high quality by comparison, but this set offers up a few great recordings from the era, not least of all AOR band Forcefield’s ‘Hit & Run’, a chorus driven, radio friendly banger with Rainbow’s Graham Bonnet in full flow, and Rowdy’s ‘High Class Baby’ is an energetic rock ‘n’ roll pastiche that’s brings some trashy fun. As is often the case from a period in the late 80s when technology replaced warmth, the recording could use an actual bass, but in terms of capturing a Rockpile-ish sound at a time when few would’ve wanted such things, it’s fine enough. A session with the legendary Geno Washington from 1998 shows that Fenwick still commanded a presence on the hired hand front long after his busiest years. Soft and soulful, ‘The Blues Walks With Me’ places a clean and sombre guitar against a crying vocal in a way that shows that less can often be more. From somewhere genuinely out of left field, ‘Are You Wiv’ is a shouty ska tune by Tich Turner’s Escalator (1980) that sounds like an unholy marriage between Bad Manners and some football terrace yobs. A lot has been written and said about the brilliant ska revival between August 1979 and the summer of ’81, but Tich isn’t usually mentioned even in passing. On the basis of this, it’s sort of easy to see why, but in terms of showing Fenwick’s restless musical nature, it makes an important contribution here. [‘Are You Wiv’ can also be found on Cherry Red’s brilliant 3CD set ‘Staring At The Rude Boys’ – one of the most eclectic and interesting ska anthologies you’ll ever buy.]

Between various rock and pop tunes, you’ll find a couple of deep cuts from the 60s, including some hefty r&b from Rupert & The Red Devils, whose ‘Everytime I Do’ mixes mod and soul moods with reasonable success, and ‘Crawdaddy Simone’, a 1965 side from The Syndicats which, although never the most melodic of sixties sides, gives Fenwick plenty of action via a thin sounding but aggressive guitar riff. In many ways, though, this set’s biggest thrills come from some brilliant blues workouts – and they’re certainly the highlight in terms of guitar playing. Of particular interest is a recording of Eric Clapton’s lesser heard track ‘Bad Boy’ with The Musicians Union Band (issued on a Dutch LP in ’71) which captures a great and relatively forceful blues band in action. By slowing the tempo, beefing up the guitars and adding a few saxophones, it quickly becomes a more serious prospect than Uncle Enoch’s 1970 recording. As well the main arrangement showing how EC really missed a trick by recording his version in a lightweight manner – so much for a man who claims to be a blues musician – Fenwick’s tone also runs rings around Clapton’s really trebly, reedy sound. Fans of the blues also ought not miss ‘Hot Head of Steam’ (a track from Eddie Hardin’s Wizard’s Convention 2) where Chris Farlowe sings up a storm while Fenwick proves to be every bit the match for the lauded Gary Moore, or the live sounding ‘Milk Cow Blues Boogie’ with Clem Catini and James Burton which, although sounding somewhat impromptu, has a real energy and spirit that suits the track well. With Fenwick adopting an almost bluegrass tone to his lead work, there’s a great contrast with the track’s bar room piano and Chicago blues growl. Although no recording date is given for this previously unreleased nugget, it seems almost a travesty that it’s sat in a vault until now. A second contribution from EHWC2 is unrecognisable as being something from the same sessions. Returning to the heavily synthetic and drum machine oriented sound of the unreleased Fenwick solo recordings, ‘Sultana’ sounds unbelievably 80s for something recorded in 1995, but for its flaws, it has one major plus – Fenwick’s playing is gorgeous. As if realising the backing lacks something – did someone say “budget”? – he puts in one of his career’s best lead guitar takes when he channels something that sounds like a cross between Gary Moore circa ‘Empty Rooms’ and Eric Clapton circa 1986, on a flowing blues where the prowess of the lead guitar is everything. If it were unclear before – maybe due to his choosing to take a backseat, or perhaps his turning a hand to any given style meaning he isn’t always distinctive – this will convince everyone that Fenwick’s guitar tone is amazing.

By presenting the material in a non-chronological order, ‘Playing Through The Changes’ feels far more like a lucky dip than it actually is, and seeking out the best stuff requires a lot of work on behalf of the listener. Once you get the measure of it, though, it’s a really interesting career overview that actually serves up a lot of cool cuts for the keen rock fan and historical music buff. With Fenwick not being one of those names that’s not on the tip of your tongue and the material included being drawn from such a broad spectrum, it’s hard to know where the target audience for the release truly lies – or, indeed, even if there is one, but rest assured, its contents are largely interesting. This is a rich and incredibly varied listening experience that’ll both educate and entertain. If it gets a few people to revisit the post-Winwood Spencer Davis Group albums or wondering further about the joys of The Musicians Union Band or Fancy, then it’s all to the good. If you only know Ray from a couple of Gillan albums or Roger Glover’s ‘Butterfly Ball’, then this 3CD anthology should definitely be on your list of releases to check out. You won’t like all of it – that’s pretty much guaranteed – but finding the treasure will be half the fun.

March/April 2021

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