VARIOUS ARTISTS – Crawling Up A Hill: A Journey Through The British Blues Boom 1966-71

On the surface, it would seem that the British blues boom has been well served by compilation discs over the years. On closer inspection, that hasn’t really been the case at all: the best anthologies tend to be label specific (Blue Horizon’s ‘The Blue Horizon Story’, Decca’s ‘The Blues Scene’ and Immediate’s ‘Blues Anytime’ series, later repackaged as an excellent four CD set by Charly Records). The bulk of the rest seem too concerned with repackaging bits of ‘Blues Anytime’ with cheap, inferior packaging. There hasn’t ever really been a decent compilation covering a lot of ground from different labels, or one unafraid to dig a little deeper beyond the usual suspects.

With that in mind, ‘Crawling Up A Hill’ fills a very important gap in the market. With three discs and fifty six tracks, it gives an interesting account of blues-based music recorded and released by British artists during the second half of the 60s and a little further beyond. Naturally, a few of the usual suspects are present – no story of British blues music would be complete without a couple of well known tracks by John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack – but this box set aims to look at things in a broader context by including blues oriented material released by bands who’d normally have closer associations with other genres. This provides a great opportunity to get reacquainted with deeper cuts from the Status Quo, Linda Hoyle and Edgar Broughton catalogues, as well as a couple of largely forgotten oddities.

It’s slightly off-centre approach is even relevant to the choice of title cut. ‘Crawling Up A Hill’ will be a number familiar to most in its John Mayall live recording from ’64. Here, the track is performed in a previously unreleased version by the lesser known Zany Woodruff Operation. Although Zany doesn’t quite manage the same kind of authentic bite as evidenced on Mayall’s recording from Klooks Kleek, their recording is hugely spirited. It’s played in a very similar manner but the addition of a little more pace, a particularly frivolous sax and the kind of vocal that would be a perfect fit for the slightly earlier rhythm and blues boom, it more than holds its own against the bigger artists’ work within this anthology. The energy and tightness within the performance certainly affords it the title of “unearthed treasure”. The other unreleased item, ‘Train Comes, Train Goes’ by Frozen Tear, is a moody stomper; heavy on the guitar twang and even heavier on the influence drawn from The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation – to the point where the faster sections of the number are a dead ringer for ‘Warning’ (as covered by Black Sabbath in 1970). The source isn’t ideal; there are a couple of moments that show it coming from a slightly stretched tape, but considering the rarity of the recording – it’s taken over fifty years to materialise – it’s a minor point. Even with some obvious plagiarism, Frozen Tears play an aggressive take on the blues and do so very well, adding to their already scant catalogue which, until this discovery, had comprised of a sole 7” single limited to just 99 copies!

A few deep cuts give this set a huge quality boost, but one of the very best tracks comes from the short-lived Quiet Melon, whose ‘Diamond Joe’ presents a hugely swaggering take on a blues groove and a sound that sounds like a prototype version of the Faces. That’s hardly surprising considering this band, formed after the demise of the Jeff Beck Group, features a young Roderick Stewart, Ian McLagan and Ron Wood. It’s one of the finest tracks Faces never recorded. McLagan’s piano work is so distinctive that you can actually tell it’s his work even if you didn’t know beforehand. A little more left of centre, Icarus add a smooth, rich adult pop flair to material that has a vaguely bluesy lilt and their ‘There’s An Easy Way & A Hard Way’ almost sounds like a more expensive version of Deep Purple Mk.I. It won’t suit everyone, but for listeners approaching this box with a broader interest in late 60s rarities, it will certainly entertain. Taking an R&B standard and drastically reworking it, the vastly overlooked Jasper contribute a deeply spooky version of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ (previously the highlight of their hard to find LP). Stripping back the speed and the grit, their version sounds more like an unsettling incantation – not so much a plea for forgiveness, but a genuine threat. With a constant rumble of drums, haunting strings and a reverb drenched vocal, it’s almost possible to detect a faint influence from Dr. John Creaux. Obviously, these Sheffield lads aren’t quite that out there, but for most listeners, this recording will mark a great discovery. Somewhere between brilliant and questionable, Red Dirt’s ‘Time To Move’ offers a fantastic blues rock riff – worthy of Free and Derek & The Dominos – some great 70s vocals on the chorus and a feel-good spirit throughout. It should be a genuine highlight…and it would be, too, if not for some fairly tuneless recorder work popping its head up throughout (it seems that soft drugs have a lot to answer for). Absolutely essential is Mike Cooper’s reading of ‘Death Letter’, which although played straight, is a fantastic showcase for some excellent slide work and a relatively impassioned vocal. It mightn’t feel quite as direct as the version recorded by The White Stripes at the beginning of their career (thus helping to popularise the piece for a new generation), but Cooper’s near-flawless take is definitely one of this anthology’s genuine highlights when it comes to a more traditional blues thrill.

For Fleetwood Mac fans who have to have everything, there’s a handy reminder of the Brunning-Hall Sunflower Blues Band (a band with a strong connection to the Mac family tree) and their ‘Ride With Your Daddy Tonight’ (featuring a guest spot from Peter Green) could easily sit alongside the best material from Fleetwood’s debut LP. In terms of blues, it doesn’t think outside the box but in sticking to a rigid 4/4 strut, it allows some great harmonica playing to take the lead. It’s one of those tracks that feels like you’ve known it forever, right from that first listen. For a broader spectrum of listeners, the Alexis Corner track ‘Operator’ is worth seeking out as it features a young Robert Plant on vocals. Taking a stripped back, semi-acoustic route – almost like a precursor to Jimi Hendrix’s reading of ‘Hear My Train A-Coming – it gives Plant plenty of room to deliver a massive cry throughout. The loud, wavering sounds that would soon drive Zeppelin’s recordings of ‘How Many More Times’ and ‘You Shook Me’ are unmistakable and even with the rawness of the recording everything a distorted edge, his star quality is more than clear. Taking an even more purist stance, Jo-Ann Kelly calls back to Memphis Minnie and Robert Johnson on her ‘Ain’t Nothin’ In Rambin’, a harder to find track from ’68. Hearing it decades after her early death, it takes on an extra spookiness; it’s almost as if she was able to genuinely summon the spirits of the blues pioneers. It’s an amazing recording, and upon hearing it, so hard to believe she was a white woman from Streatham who’d yet to reach the age of thirty. If you’ve somehow never heard Jo-Ann, this box will have been given every reason to exist. [Her self-titled debut, recorded for Epic Records the following year should be considered essential further listening.]

Sam’s Apple Pie carry a lot of the spirit of Fleetwood Mac circa ’68 with their aching approach to the blues on ‘Sometime Girl’. Perhaps the biggest Mac influence comes through with their twin guitar set up – one player is restricted to slide guitar stings, much like Jeremy Spencer, while the other fills the track with all manner of impeccably played leads that occasionally hint at a musician keen to reach the same heights of Peter Green’s best work. Given how good these guys are musically, it certainly wasn’t a lack of talent that stopped them rubbing shoulders with the era’s biggest blues acts. The same goes for Killing Floor, whose ‘Nobody By My Side’ mixes heavy blues influences into a fuzzy rock sound that suggests they could’ve been the UK answer to Steppenwolf. With a howling harmonica on hand for one of the most ferocious solos, some heavily attacked piano and a huge fuzz bass taking up the lion’s share of the music, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Great as they may be, they’re left in the shade by Skid Row – the Irish blues fusionists featuring a young Gary Moore – who deliver riffs at a breakneck pace, mixing classic blues rock tropes with a world of jazz inflections. ‘The Man Who Never Was’ really shows off their brand of bluesy acid rock and is worth hearing to experience the anger with which Moore played in the early 70s – with such great music, it’s a shame this track comes with such an intrusive vocal throughout, but you can’t say it doesn’t make an impression!

For more heavy electric blues, The Rats’ ‘Telephone Blues’ is so rough and distorted, you might think they were channelling Ten Years After, while The Liverpool Scene’s cheeky ‘I’ve Got Those Fleetwood Mac Chicken Shack John Mayall Can’t Fail Blues’ shows off some fine playing, but it marred by a terrible vocal and too much of a desire to play the blues for comedy. During the instrumental passages, though, you’ll find some really fiery playing and a lot of slide work indebted to Jeremy Spencer’s obsession with Elmore James and that’s enough to make it hold up for a couple of listens before the joke wears thin. The band obviously thought it was much funnier than it is, of course and drop all kinds of in-jokes along the way. Some of them work (crashing into the track by playing a raw and uncredited run-through of ‘Cat’s Squirrel’ is a nice touch) and some are just irksome (dropping into ‘Spoonful’ to finish and playing it relatively badly just over-eggs an already very eggy pudding), but that’s the nature of late 60s novelties. Speaking of novelties, The Bonzo Dog Band’s ‘Can Blue Men Sing The Whites’ is a reminder of how well the Bonzo’s could play. The bulk of this track is as well versed in the blues as most of the sensible offerings found within this collection – the bass playing and harmonica work is especially on point – and between some great music and an obvious love for the genre, it wins out regardless of Vivian Stanshall’s annoying vocal style.

Going more off piste, Status Quo’s ‘Railroad Blues’ is both a reminder of how well Rossi, Parfitt and Lancaster could tackle the blues while wearing their dirtiest denim, as they thunder through something best described as a heavy boogie blues banger (it’s become too easy to sneer at the Quo, but they barely put a foot wrong between 1967-77); Mungo Jerry’s ‘Sun Is Shining’ is a reasonable stab at some raw blues while retaining their more familiar stomp (hey, anything that isn’t ‘In The Summertime’ or the rapey ‘Baby Jump’ is a step in the right direction) and Linda Hoyle’s ‘Backlash Blues’ begins as a lovely, spacious slide guitar blues that appears to prefigure Ry Cooder, before blossoming into a jazz inflected blues tune that showcases one of the era’s best and most natural voices. [Linda’s band Affinity didn’t always play the blues, but for lovers of well arranged sixties music, their self-titled debut is worth seeking out.]

This set also features a few more familiar but no less welcomed contributors in Christine Perfect, Blodwyn Pig, Spencer Davis Group, Taste and Stone The Crows, each showing the far reaching influence from the blues at a time when rock was becoming a dominant force. A lot of these are widely circulated tracks will be in most of your collections already, but in terms of adding to this box set’s very broad overview, their inclusions are still very important.

There are a couple of misfires en route (Medicine Head aren’t well represented at all, sounding like tuneless druggists and the vocals on the Angel Pavement tune are…suspect at best) and for purists, the presence of the Bonzos, Status Quo and sideburned jug-band chart toppers Mungo Jerry might raise eyebrows, but overall, this is a great set. For those happy to accept that the blues filtered through into rock and pysch-based material at the turn of the decade, ‘Crawling Up A Hill’ will be an ideal and interesting anthology. By virtually ignoring the oft-ploughed Immediate label’s catalogue and looking further into the vaults, it almost feels like a blues oriented answer to ‘Nuggets’…and by carrying that sense of adventure, it’s a set that’ll provide a lot of entertainment.

Further reading: Peter Green – The End of The Game

February 2020