The inaugural release from Strawberry Records, ‘Halcyon Days’, set out the new label’s stall with extreme confidence. Taking cues from the now defunct RPM Records’ ‘Looking Back’ series, its three discs came packed with cult mod tunes, alternative floor fillers and a whole raft of feelgood 60s sounds. With very little overlap between those earlier releases from RPM, it proved there was far more to be mined in terms of Zoot Suit gold. Simply put, ‘Halcyon Days’ was one of 2019’s finest anthologies; an unmissable box set for anyone with the vaguest of interests in underground mod sides and Northern Soul nuggets.
Sequels are often inferior by their very nature, and complied of stuff that wasn’t quite good enough to make the cut the first time around. ‘I Love To See You Strut’ features many of the same acts, and you’ll find reasonably well known cuts from The Who, Dusty Springfield, The Kinks, The Zombies and Manfred Mann among its many treasures – tunes that many devotees of 60s comps will likely already have elsewhere – but it couldn’t ever be considered a lesser listening experience.
By kicking off disc one with Dusty, Georgie Fame, and Jimmy James & The Vagabonds, this musical journey pulls out some pretty big guns to get things underway. On ‘Live It Up’ (taken from the ‘Dusty In New York’ EP), the peerless Ms. Springfield is in superb form as she belts her voice against a strident Northern Soul tune, peppered with handclaps, bright piano work and punchy horns. The addition of sassy backing vocals lifting the chorus gives everything the air of a near perfect Motown recording (circa ‘64) on a tune that’s damn near essential. Best known for his hits ‘Yeh Yeh’ and a number inspired by the Bonnie & Clyde movie, Georgie Fame shows off some great organ skills on his cover of the Mar-Keys ‘Last Night’, which actually manages to be punchier than the original, thanks to some great brass sounds and some cheeky nods to the Stones and Martha Reeves thrown into a busy musical stew. It’s an amazing rendition that shows how the familiar melody can be stretched out to twice its original length without losing its punch, and the Vagabonds tear things up in traditional style on ‘Ain’t Love Good, Ain’t Love Proud’, an album cut from ’66 that serves up a psudo-Wilson Pickett sassiness. It’s a recording which more than keeps the mood elevated with its perfect homage to US $R&B via the Caribbean. James possesses a fantastic voice throughout, and his enthusiastic presence is almost enough to carry everything on its own, but the Vagabonds are great too: you’ll find a moody sax, some hard edged bass and really natural piano work helping to take this dancefloor worthy track to glory.
The young David Bowie popped up on the original ‘Halcyon Days’ box, and he’s here again with ‘Good Morning Girl’, a b-side from 1966 which places his already distinctive voice against jazzy drums and swirling organ. In a little over two minutes, this busy tune works the backing band harder than young Dayyy-vid himself, but there’s plenty to love about his carefree and spirited performance. A regular face on the British blues scene, although rather overlooked in historical terms, Zoot Money drops in with an extremely good cover of ‘The Cat’ (a number written by Lalo Schifrin, but popularised by jazz organist extraordinaire Jimmy Smith) allowing him to absolutely hammer his instrument, whilst the rest of his Big Roll Band – including a young Andy Summers – get really busy on a very funk oriented arrangement. It’s hard to beat the Jimmy Smith recording from 1964, but this recording from just a year later runs it pretty damned close. Another band whose live popularity never really translated into record sales, The Bo Street Runners deliver a drum and horn heavy version of the James Brown number ‘Tell Me What You’re Gonna Do’ which – in under three minutes – shows why they held onto a live residency in a London mod club during 1965. Although history has decreed the band’s posthumous interest comes from Mick Fleetwood occupying the drum stool in their final incarnation, this earlier band are great on their own merits. Frontman Mike Patto possesses some seriously gritty vocal pipes, and this track definitely places him on a par with the much celebrated Paul Jones.
The man who allegedly turned down Jimmy Page’s invitation to join Led Zeppelin, Terry Reid had another of the era’s greatest voices. Decades on, he’s much less celebrated than, say, Joe Cocker or Jack Bruce, but on the evidence of the title cut from his ‘Superlungs’ LP he could’ve rivalled the young Robert Plant in the late 60s. On this confident, strutting tune, he works a semi bluesy delivery to take in Roger Chapman-esque warbling, impassioned screams and a whole host of powerful sounds in between. The fact that he maintains such a strong presence against an arrangement that’s so bass heavy is very impressive. For more straight up, horn-led funky soul, Carl Douglas hits hard and fast on ‘Something For Nothing’, the missing link between an early James Brown workout and Geno Washington on an all-out freakout. For lovers of huge beats, bigger sax breaks and indelible hooks, it’s a must hear – a world away from his best known sub-disco hit and it’s questionable fables of “funky Chinamen from funky Chinatown”. Very much a highlight from the previous Strawberry Records Mod/Soul box, The Stormsville Shakers make a very welcome return here with ‘What More Do You Want’, a fuzzy sounding, mono sourced jam that sounds really authentic with forthright brass and Phillip Goodhand Tait’s booming, yet rich vocal style. [Very much an under-appreciated performer in the 60s and 70s, PGT was later signed as a solo artist to the DJM label making him a peer of Elton John. His four albums for the label spent many years out of print, but gained a very welcome reissue as a 4CD box set towards the end of 2021.]
That’s enough to reel in the more casual listener, but – as expected – there are several more interesting sides and album tracks vying for mass attention here. Following the breakup of her jazz rock band Affinity, Linda Hoyle embarked on a solo career. ‘Black Crow’ (a tune from 1970) has faint echoes of her old band within a rising melody cutting between a distinctive and strong vocal, but its undertones of funk and freakbeat rhythms actually make it a surprisingly good fit here. Her assembled band throw themselves headlong into a superb mod-friendly groove throughout, applying a strong soul aspect to an otherwise busy tune that carries echoes of Curved Air and Jefferson Airplane. No strangers to 60s and 70s anthologies, another solid tune from Timebox works with a soul derived vocal and bassline and create something slightly different from the norm when the mod/soul core is augmented with busy strings, a squirling organ and very effective xylophone sounds, hinting at the psych boom just around the corner, and The Alan Bown Set’s ‘I Really Really Care’ wastes no time when sharing something that sounds like an old Wilson Pickett number with gusto. As with a few of the late 60s bands here, though, this is not just a straight soul homage. Moving into the chorus, atonal brass noise and a choir of vocals has a psych-pop air and wonky keys suggest further leanings towards something more experimental. By the time the instrumental break arrives, all melody flies out of the window via some atonal brass oddity, but in terms of a complete sounding two and a half minutes, this is brilliant. Offering some good, traditional mod sounds, The Koobas’ ‘Face’ (itself a paean to being one of the mods about town) sounds very much like a lost Who classic with clattering drums worthy of Keith Moon and yelping backing vocals akin to Pete and John’s backing vocals on The ’Oo’s cover of ‘Heatwave’. Although it’s hardly ground breaking stuff, in terms of nailing a style, you’d wonder why The Koobas weren’t much bigger at the time.
Best known for their cult single ‘Father’s Name Is Dad’, Fire (featuring future Strawbs man Dave Lambert) take a little longer to appreciate due to their ‘Will I Find Love’ being swathed in reverb and distortion, but assuming you can bend your ear inside the cacophonous recording, it has a strong psych-mod heart driven by an equally strong rhythm. The song writing feels a little empty, but this wasn’t designed to be appreciated for an introspective message or reflective lyric. In some ways, it’s not difficult to understand why this 1968 recording remained unissued for many years: it doesn’t say “sixties hit” in the slightest, and in terms of danceability, the fuzz and noise make it far less striking than, say, the Dusty Springfield or Jimmy James tracks found elsewhere within this box set. Viewed purely as a curio on the fringes of psych, though, it’s fine enough. Aussie act Ray Hoff & The Offbeats adopt a very US-centric sound on a recording of ‘Tossin’ and Turnin’ that wavers between heady garage rock in the Sonics mould with hugely distorted guitars and an aggressive organ, and a weird bubble gum horn sound. Despite a musical restlessness, their take on the old Bobby Lewis track has a genuine spirit, as does the oft-spotted Wynder K Frog, whose ‘Turn On Your Lovelight’ which takes an archetypal R&B instrumental and gives it a massive injection of speed via a superb bass line, frantic keys and a very buoyant drum part. The choice of “light entertainment” horns seems a little odd at first, but the sense of melody from this group of musicians is rarely less than terrific. A mod staple, Mickey Finn & The Blue Men sound a little workmanlike in comparison on ‘I Still Want You’, a number that’s never much more than a poor-man’s ‘High Heeled Sneakers’, but it’s easy to imagine mod and R&B clubs jumping to its heavily structured sound back in ’64. The same can be said for The Downliners Sect, whose ‘All Night Worker’ takes another tune derived from ‘Hi Heeled Sneakers’ and adds a few great walking basslines, a fuzz guitar and a confident air, but never quite matches some of this set’s other treasures in terms of pure excitement. There’s very little wrong with it of course, it just feels a little generic when re-discovered decades later.
Colin Cook’s version of ‘Riot In Cell Block #9’ isn’t always the most imaginative, but his take on the track is far from bad. You’ll find him in good voice; the organ work is solid and there’s a lot about this old chestnut that suits the performer well. It’s hard to beat The Robins’ original from ’58 and, retrospectively, Den Hegarty’s manic performance on the Darts debut has become much loved, as has the 1975 recording by Dr. Feelgood, but Cook adds a very dignified take to the pile of recordings. Also from a selection of recordings that could be labelled “solid, but ordinary”, Johnny & John work up a decent slice of R&B on ‘Bumper To Bumper’, a tune that sounds like a fatigued ‘Shotgun’ and The Artwoods’ ‘I Feel Good’ fills a couple of minutes with a tight R&B workout overlaid with buzzing guitars. For the first couple of verses, you might find yourself thinking it should be better than it is – especially with Keef Hartley and the young Jon Lord on board – but Lord springs to life for a brilliant instrumental break where he drops in unexpectedly baroque piano melodies, instantly giving the tune a genuine twist. Moving into the remainder, it never seems to reach full potential, but that glimmer of invention is enough to suggest The Artwoods had a lot going for them, even if they never became huge at the time. Drawing from the purest mod/beat source, The Favourite Sons hammer through a workmanlike take of ‘First I Look At The Purse’, that conveys a lot of energy via a loud drum sound and a busy riff, but it hampered by a weird yelpy vocal that sounds like a pre-pubescent teenager. The odd vocal and noisier backdrop makes for hard listening at times, and this in no way comes close to The Contours’ recording for pure sass, or the later J. Geils jam for genuine excitement. Still, it’s here, and feels very natural when heard as part of this collection, even though it’ll be no-one’s favourite track.
Tony Colton’s ‘You’re Wrong’ adds a very British accent to some upbeat mod/soul in the Stornsville Shakers mould, and although it’s sometimes hard to get past Colton’s massive vocal, the music offers a hugely tight arrangement. With sassy horns, smart keyboard flourishes and the kind of bassline that Alan Hawkshaw would use to score TV car chases in future decades, the music has plenty of interest throughout, as does Don Fardon’s ‘In The Dreamin’ Room’, a sassy and waltzing affair that mixes some of Georgie Fame’s jazz chops with light entertainment horns, jazzy vibraphones and truly groovy air. These two minutes, hidden away on an old 7” b-side scream “swinging party from 1967” like very little else. Imagine a party scene from any youth oriented film from the era, and you’ll have half an idea of how this sounds without actually hearing a note. Musically, it’s just superb, showcasing session musicians working hard to earn their union minimum. It’s a shame that Fardon’s vocals aren’t quite on the same level – he’s sort of a cut price Goodhand-Tait – but this most cult of recordings will certainly have its champions.
Ripe for rediscovery, Chris Rayburn keeps the bubblegum end up on ‘One Way Ticket’. A curious blend of Dusty Springfield and The 5th Dimension, the music is fully loaded with brass and strings that certainly weren’t done on the cheap. It could’ve sounded cluttered – or worse, cheesy – but thanks to a professional arrangement (courtesy of TV soundtrack man Harry Robinson), everything is almost perfect. Rayburn, meanwhile, totally sells this sunny tune with a big vocal that’s brimming with enthusiasm, resulting in a two and a half minute banger that’s not to be missed. Working with a solid jazz bass (totally ripped off from Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’), The Remo Four blend jazziness with some great sounding rhythm and blues on ‘Sing Hallelujah’ – a great workout for anyone who loves rattling drums and dark sounding Hammond work in the Ray Manzarek tradition. It doesn’t strive for originality, but there’s a lot about the generic approach that just works. ‘Turn Me Loose’, the sole A-side from Laris McLennon, could easily be written off as generic soul since there are bits of the track’s arrangement derived from Jr. Walker tunes and an obvious nod to ‘Knock On Wood’, but Laris is blessed with an enormous voice that’s enough to make it a great slab of soul. It’s inclusion here is most welcome, especially if it means that she’ll be discovered by a few new listeners.
Another familiar name to regular buyers of 60s anthologies, The Mike Cotton Sound make a welcome reappearance here with the mellow ‘Make Up Your Mind’, a soulful, mid-tempo affair that sounds a little like a Hollies offcut due to its reliance on big harmonies. It doesn’t always sound like something that’s a natural fit for this set, but due to some fine organ work and nicely arranged brass, this 1965 side has just enough of that certain something that might strike a chord with the Ready, Steady Go set. A later line-up of The Birds – featuring a pre-dominantly Australian line-up, minus Ron Wood – hit harder but bring some fairly standard 60s R&B inflected garage rock sounds on ‘Dust In My Pants’, a rare track from 1970. It doesn’t add much new to the guitar based template of the era, but there’s just enough within the Easybeats’ inspired world of echo and harmonies to see it through, and keener eared listeners may even spot the riff from Small Faces’ ‘I Need Loving’ – famously “borrowed” by Jimmy Page.
Also of particular note here are a trio of numbers culled from 60s soundtracks. Graham Bond’s ‘Harmonica’ (from the bizarre and kitschy Gonks Go Beat) does what it says on the tin, delivering a harmonica drenched, bluesy workout that places Ginger Baker’s hard drumming in the centre, whilst Bond’s gruff demeanour is perfect for the grizzled old lyric. Sometimes it’s easy to see why history has favoured John Mayall over Bond – not least of all through sheer volume of work – since Bond sometimes seemed a little more second division in terms of ability, but this is great. Steve Ellis’s ‘Loot’ (from the film of the same name) sounds like a cross between the theme of a crime drama and light entertainment show (it’s hard not to hear the featured horns and think of The Two Ronnies), but digging a little deeper, there are moments that pre-figure acid jazz by several years, some taut congas and a terrific vocal steering the track to glory. ‘Possession’ by the Spencer Davis Group (from the soundtrack of Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush) taps into something more mod friendly with a pulsing organ and strong lead guitar part, but another slightly jazz oriented groove makes it more interesting than some of the era’s other beat group sounds. These three tunes are among this box set’s essentials, but adding to the all round cool factor, two of the films in which they originally featured capture the spirit of an ever changing time, with Gonks Go Beat contrasting the last knockings of easy listening with the edginess of the British blues boom, and the “Swinging Stevenage” tale Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush providing one of the most perfect snapshots of youth culture in the middle of the psychedelic era. For anyone diving into a lot of the material served up here, in terms of curiosity value at the very least, both films are a must see.
On top of all of that – and a whole host of other good stuff – this box set also boasts a trilogy of unreleased tracks that’ll all be of interest to the more ardent R&B fan. Dating from 1966, The Trendbender Band’s treatment of ‘Unchain My Heart’, an old Ray Charles number, is suitably tight. There’s a genuine energy to the recording that makes it almost impossible to work out why it refused to gain record company interest at the time. Maybe it’s that purely this would have simply sounded a year out of date. By the time this was on the table, a lot of people had moved on to the burgeoning psychedelic pop of The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ and sharp suited R&B was so last week, man. It’s easy to forget how quickly the musical landscape changed back then. Heard retrospectively, it’s something of of a lost classic, with a brilliant rhythm section, honking sax and stabbed organ, constantly driving the music forward. Southend’s The Fingers sound no more than generic on ‘Something You Got’ (also ’66), but it’s a pleasant enough tune with some deftly handled twanging guitar already stoking a nostalgia for 1963, and The SW4 – a band that gigged in London – whip up a Yardbirds-ish treat on the frenetic ‘No Matter What You Do’, a tune where trebly guitars busy themselves atop a rattling rhythm, taking R&B sounds into an almost garage rock sphere. As history has previously noted, The SW4 never got that prized record deal, but as with other SW4 tracks that have surfaced on Cherry Red compilations, this tune provides a welcome look at what might have been if things had turned out in their favour. After the band’s demise, a couple of members found relative fame with Tintern Abbey, Arthur Brown, Fire, and Blonde On Blonde, so it wasn’t all in vain.
With eighty five tracks, a fair few classics, and a lot of other great stuff that might have been overlooked at the time of release, this is a box set with immediate interest. With three discs containing very little filler and informative booklet, it’s another must have for those who enjoyed ‘Halcyon Days’ and earlier Cherry Red/RPM fare like ‘Looking Back’ and ‘Night Comes Down’. It pretty much doesn’t matter how you approach this collection; whether you choose to absorb it all chronologically, or cherry pick bits and pieces according to mood, ‘I Love To See You Strut’ is – as Caroline from Mulberry Bush would almost be certain to say – super!
Read a review of the Halcyon Days box set here.