VARIOUS ARTISTS – Halcyon Days: 60s Mod, R&B, Brit Soul & Freakbeat Nuggets

The inaugural release from Strawberry Records, ‘Halcyon Days’ aims high in terms of 60s entertainment. Bringing together a great selection of mod, soul and freakbeat sides, it presents famous names alongside forgotten heroes; places cult floor fillers, deep cuts and a few genuine rarities among fantastic (and sometimes very interesting) covers of well known tunes. Across nearly 90 tracks, it sets itself up as a varied and comprehensive listen. It’s very much the kind of set tailor made for those who’ve worn out the more bog-standard mod comps and are looking for a world beyond The Action, The Creation and those much-loved Spencer Davis Group hits.

On the surface, you’ll still find a couple of familiar cuts from The Creation and The Animals, as well as early recordings from Rod Stewart and David Bowie rubbing shoulders with numbers by Laurel Aitken, Chris Farlowe and The Kinks. There’s also yet another version of Eddie Holland’s ‘Leaving Here’ (this time by The Favourite Sons) to add to the several dozen you already own. It would be remiss to omit such regular (and somewhat obvious) fixtures, of course: they play an important role in creating a full picture of the “scene”, and from a commercial perspective, all have the necessary power to pull in the more casual listener. As always when it comes to this kind of set, things are at their most interesting when taking a much deeper dive into a world of forgotten sixties tunes. On that front, ‘Halcyon Days’ doesn’t skimp. In fact, it casts its net wide to bring you buried treasure from a fantastic era. Not just limiting itself to straight up soul and mod bangers, but also bringing together various vaguely psych and ska related recordings which could be of interest.

A pair of tracks by Bo Street Runners provide excellent listening. The straight up R & B sound of 1964’s ‘Bo Street Runner’ (produced by the legendary Glyn Johns) shows a band that could’ve gone head to head with the Rolling Stones by the end of the year, had things turned out differently. The single’s live sound and busy harmonica really grab the attention straight off the bat, and a Keith Relf inspired vocal really gives the number a grittiness that some lesser bands failed to capture – and certainly so on their debut recording. Sounding like a completely different band – which they almost were, given extensive line-up changes over the year – ‘Baby Never Say Goodbye’ (released in 1965) casts aside the typical big beats of “mod friendly” music and instead concentrates on jazzy sounds driven by a subtle yet very percussive drum part and busy organ melody. The end sound falls somewhere between kitschy jazz and film soundtrack montage, but its breezy approach and general brevity make it the kind of track that works. Perhaps most notably, this was the recording debut of a young Mick Fleetwood who went on to become a bit famous…

Drawing a bigger influence from soul bangers, ‘Number One’ by The Stormsville Shakers might just be one of the most overlooked mod 7”s ever. It failed to get a single release outside of France; its first UK release in 1966 found the track hidden away on an LP that didn’t sell. Hearing it here, you’ll wonder how such a sharp mod/soul tune failed to rise to classic status. The number quickly captures a stereotypical mood in a perfect arrangement where the punchy drums are complimented by easy horns. With the addition of a shrill guitar, it has a great sense of urgency that suggests a jam between Small Faces and Geno Washington – and as such, deserves to be played loudly. The general urgency is further added to by vocalist Phillip Goodhand-Tait, whose dominant and scratchy delivery makes him sound as if he should’ve rivalled Chris Farlowe. A second contribution from the band (‘No Problem’, a UK single from ’66, giving Goodhand-Tait a separate credit) is another barnstorming performance from a vocal perspective – Phillip definitely had star qualities, despite never becoming a household name – but isn’t quite as on the money, arrangement wise. Yes, the rhythm section is just as tight…and yes, there’s a lot happening that really nails that all-important mod/soul punch, but unfortunately, someone decided to make the saxes etcetera sound like drugged up kazoos, somewhat sabotaging what should’ve been a classic.

With a heavy twang, a huge leaning towards the R & B sound of The Yardbirds and a world of harmonies that are a sidestep from Merseybeat, Tony Rivers & The Castaways’ ‘I Love The Way You Walk’ has everything you’d expect from a massive mid 60s hit. The performance sounds as if its springing straight from an old jukebox; its punchy rhythm drives a brilliant tune straight out of the gate and a call and response vocal is used effectively throughout a well constructed verse. By the time a Hank Marvin inspired lead break rises, everything sounds like a should-be sixties classic. Even with the occasional off-key harmony, it comes pretty close to being two minutes’ worth of perfection. Jimmy Reed’s ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ is a well known cut that’s been covered by The Stones and Bryan Ferry, but this set provides a genuine rarity by digging up a previously unreleased version of the track by overlooked R & B band SW4 – featuring Ralph Denyer, later to form psych rock band Blonde On Blonde. It’s an okay rendition; big on hard guitar chords, even bigger on attempting to recapture the sounds of The Rolling Stones circa 1963. It shows a lot of enthusiasm, but no great originality and a huge echo placed on the vocal makes everything sound almost demo like. Despite the flaws, it should provide some interest for keen R & B buffs and beat group collectors, as will another rare cut from The Trendbender Band, since the largely unknown Middlesex mod/soul combo offer a solid rendition of Solomon Burke’s ‘Stupidity’ in another unreleased cut.

The Mike Cotton Sound’s version of ‘Harlem Shuffle’ is played straight, but still manages to be entertaining thanks to a loud guitar sound and lot of enthusiasm (as proven by The Stones, it’s fairly indestructible), while another cover, ‘Watermelon Man’, left in the hands of Mark Wirtz (latterly of ‘Teenage Opera’ fame) takes far more of a liberty. Herbie Hancock’s original melodies remain intact via a strident piano line, but the once jaunty jazz piano piece is far more funk oriented. Brass fills run rampant, a samba-ish rhythm is accentuated further for maximum dancing potential, but – here’s the clincher – the main melody is transposed to a vocal with a full lyric, making something that was once effortlessly cool score full marks for kitsch factor. It’s probably Saint Etienne man Bob Stanley’s preferred version… It’s great for what it is, but it’s also relatively sacrilegious. Elsewhere, The Chantelles’ ‘Gonna Get Burned’ fuses mod beats with the sass of Spector girl groups, but by clinging onto a group vocal that sounds very British, the song sounds like an overspill from Saturday night light entertainment. It’s never bad – if in the right mood, it’s actually works a nice homage – but despite best efforts it doesn’t quite have the same impact as The Paper Dolls’ 1968 recording of ‘Ain’t Nothing But A House Party’, or Kiki Dee’s ‘Take A Look At Me’ (both of which would have made excellent and relevant additions to this compilation).

Stretching out to an almost epic four minutes, The In Crowd’s ‘Am I Glad To See You’ doesn’t do anything that most rhythm ‘n’ blues bands could do in half the time: rhythmically speaking, the track is as rigid and lumpen as most things John Lennon recorded without the help of McCartney’s vitally melodic ear; in terms of guitar playing, most of it is indistinct crashy noise and in terms of hook, everything is left severely wanting. With all of that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that this 1966 recording sat gathering dust for almost thirty years. It eventually appeared on Steve Howe’s ‘Mothballs’ collection in 1994, but in all honesty, there’s nothing about this track that even hints at the future Yes guitarist’s budding talents – it isn’t even a patch on his so-so work with Tomorrow in 1967/8. A few people might welcome it’s inclusion here for its historical importance, but it’s one of very few total misfires on this otherwise brilliant collection.

In a much darker mood, Graham Bond’s ‘Waltz For A Pig’ is really maudlin. Its downbeat tones appear to be a direct throwback to an earlier live piece ‘Early In The Morning’ (recorded with Ginger Baker), in the way it throws out deep drones and echoing drums against mournful brass. For a track that initially feels as if it’ll be hard work, it actually wins out in the end by showcasing some great organ from the man himself, and although it might not warrant regular plays, curious listeners will welcome the chance to experience it as part of a larger body of work. Also quite moody, Brian Auger’s ‘Tiger’ takes the threat of a Joe Tex vocal, the ominous tones of the brassy end of thriller based film scores and mixes those with heavy beats. This single cut from ’67 works up a genuinely moody arrangement in double quick time and has nothing you’d ever consider obvious hit material. It’s all made far more palatable by some brilliant funk inflected organ work – a sidestep from Alan Hawkshaw’s ‘Beat Me Till I’m Blue’ – and is a quick and handy reminder of one of the era’s finest musicians. [Despite many enjoyable works, Auger will forever be remembered for his 1968 cover of Dylan’s ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’, recorded with Julie Driscoll and The Trinity.]

The Worrying Kinde present some top freakbeat vibes during ‘Got The Blame’, a rhythm and blues workout that values speed and distortion over almost everything. In their case, repetition, repetition, repetition is the key to a track that eventually leads to the ugliest of earworms, whilst The Secrets’ ‘She’s Dangerous’ is quite effective at recycling busy beat sounds, even if the 7”s production values are intent on making them sound like they’re playing in Chislehurst Caves instead of a professional recording studio. Bigger sounds are supplied by Dorian Gray whose ‘Get Goin’ Baby’ (a 1968 single featuring Tony Ellingham, previously of Gravesend band The Casuals) captures a mod/beat mood more aggressively than most. As well as showcasing a great vocal, this two minute belter works a hard drum sound, insanely danceable groove and punchy brass, adds a lyric that’s very scene-oriented, and just altogether screams confidence. It’s every bit as good as any Immediate Records sides from that time; Better, even, than some of the era’s Northern Soul cuts, this should have been bloody massive and Dorian Gray should’ve been poised to take the place of Spencer Davis Group, whose star was slowly descending following the departure of Steve Winwood in ’66. This… This is essential listening.

Dorian Gray are a very hard act to follow, but ‘Halcyon Days’ has so much more to give, from the vaguely familiar, the cult classic and the truly forgotten 60s performers lurking on the edge of popular music scenes. From the latter category, Kevin ‘King’ Lear’s 1968 single ‘(You Got) The Power of Love’ very much captures the essence of mod banger/white soul on a punchy tune that tries very hard to impress. Another performer with Gravesend links, Kevin obviously perceived himself as someone with “star quality” as on this recording, he attempts to outdo everyone with volume, but it sort of works once his band find their groove. Given a little time to adjust, the track is more than reasonable mod/white soul fare. A second contribution from Lear is even better; ‘Mr. Pearly’ combines his best Farlowe-esque growl with busy organ swirls, jazz inflected guitars and a honking baritone sax to create some a fine and busy hybrid of soul and freakbeat goodness.

Mod friendly music isn’t all about beat music and soul, of course, and ‘Halcyon Days’ takes the time to drop in a couple of early ska tracks, showing how the “new” and distinctly Jamaican sound had started to inspire a broad spectrum of British record buyers. As previously mentioned, Laurel Aitken gets a look in (even if one of the recordings comes from his brief period dabbling with rhythm and blues), but potentially the most interesting ska recording from a collector’s perspective is Rupert & The Red Devils’ ‘Honest I Do’, which combines a very white vocal with the sounds of distinctive sounds of Blue Beat. Overall, it has its heart in the right place, but doesn’t quite sound authentic enough. The vocal is always going to be a giveaway, but musically the band are in great form, and the relatively low budget recording captures the mood of the times effectively enough. Rock fans might be keen to note that this band features one Ray Fenwick, later to find fame as part of Ian Gillan’s post-Purple fusion act, the Ian Gillan Band.

The third disc rounding up the more adventurous stuff shifts away from more traditionalist mod moods, but still offers several potential treats. The Tages’ ‘Halcyon Days’ (a single release from ’68) conjures late sixties frivolity like very little else. It teases with a dirgy tone and rhythm inspired by ‘I Am The Walrus’ during the intro, but then does a complete turn and unveils something so unbelievably jolly, you’ll love it from first listen. By mixing mod rhythms with frivolous horns, a full orchestra and a McCartney-esque rumpty-tumpty rhythm, it’s a real kitchen sink affair. The way those horns continually suggest old TV theme tunes from Johnny Hawksworth is especially kitschy, but they’re brilliantly arranged. The tune is given plenty of weight thanks to some fine vocals and a complex bassline. Derailing everything midway for a multi-tracked Zombies inspired harmony gives the feeling that anything could happen and yet it all works perfectly.

Very much making it their own, The Web take Spencer Davis Group’s ‘I’m A Man’ and inject it with a heavy funk groove, add some Colosseum influenced brass and crank the speed to create the soundtrack for a genuine freakout. There isn’t much hear to suggest the prog/experimental jazz of their ‘I Spider’ record from a short time after (or anything they’d latterly record under the Samurai banner), but it’s a great recording – not to mention a timely reminder of it being beefed up long before Chicago turned it into a horn-led tour-de-force in their early days. Equally cool, the proto-Faces Quiet Melon (featuring Rod Stewart and Ian McLagan) contribute a punchy rocker in ‘Engine 4444’, a tune heavy on clanking pianos and even heavier on drums. Although very obviously a late 60s rhythm & blues inflected rocker, the crashy style and very distinctive Faces-esque guitar solo would surely make it hard to dance to.

Delving further into obvious psych tropes, The Alan Bown’s ‘Technicolour Dream’ is a twee pop tune that manages to cling onto a mod-ish appeal due to a steady beat and understated brass, but would honestly be more at home on one of Grapefruit Records’ psychedelic box sets. The bass groove set up throughout ‘Baby You’re Not To Blame’ by Plastic Penny makes for more obvious charms and between a hard groove and early Traffic-ish haze is more than deserving of its cult appeal, while Cherry Red box set regular Andy Ellison applies his distinctive warble to a three minute belter where a heady groove mixes rhythm ‘n’ blues with a cold soul groove, leaving Andy to tie everything together with his fine and fey soft drugs infused performance. [Although he’d achieved cult status as a member of John’s Children and would ride out the following decade as frontman with Spooky Tooth, Ellison’s brief solo career is all too overlooked. Two more of his solo recordings from the era can be found on the 2020 compilation, ‘Looking Through A Glass Onion’ which should more than appeal to lovers of a wide range of the era’s musical ephemera.]

Other notable recordings are supplied by The Oscar Bicycle’s ‘The Room Revolves Around Me’ (the b-side of their sole release from ’68) which does a fine job of recycling The Who circa 1966 in a much quieter and almost Kinks-like fashion (very appropriate since they shared management with Ray Davies and co.), and The Australian Playboys’ ‘Sad’, which takes a similarly obvious influence from The Who (most notable via a Keith Moon derived drum part and the kind of vocal that isn’t a million miles from ‘Happy Jack’) and serves up a predictable but thoroughly enjoyable slab of guitar-oriented mod rock with vague psych undertones. Both make genuinely welcome appearances here, but they’ve got nothing on Apple, whose ‘Doctor Rock’ is one of the all-time great beat group tracks. It’s a 7” single of gargantuan proportions, where the arrangement somehow manages to combine the Dave Clark Five’s generally sunny demeanour with a few Townshend inspired chords and drop the kind of chorus you’ll know and love from first listen. The fact that bits of the main hook strongly resemble The Moody Blues’ ‘Ride My See Saw’ really doesn’t hurt.

So, you’ve bought the titles from RPM Records’ ‘Looking Back’ series, delved into the Decca “Scene” discs and explored most of the various other similar items over the previous decade. Why should you buy this too? Other than the fact that it’s bristling with great material, the couple of unreleased items and a handful of lesser remembered tracks making their CD debut add extra value to a great set. Those rarities are used as tempting bait, but in all honesty, ‘Halcyon Days’ deserves a place in any self-respecting 60s collection by virtue of being so well compiled. Its three hour journey contrasts the populist with the genuinely cult, but always manages to keep an interesting flow for the listener. Part of this is due to being sequenced relatively chronologically: as well as being a great set to dip in and out of, for those who are able to devote more time, it really shows how music was constantly evolving throughout the mid/late 60s. Overall, this is a set that’s not to be missed – it’s certainly a fine first offering from a new label that has some pretty massive shoes to fill.

Further reading:  Looking Through A Glass Onion – The Beatles Psychedelic Songbook 1966-72

November 2020