As the 60s drew to a close and musical fashions began to lean towards heavier sounds, The Gods renamed themselves Head Machine and headed back into the studio. The resulting album – the dubiously named ‘Orgasm’ – featured a couple of songs that sounded like 60s psych jams in bigger boots; others forged their way into the new hard rock sounds, following the example set by Deep Purple. Although it wasn’t necessary the most coherent record, it was an enjoyable one. It failed to be a commercial success and the band split almost immediately. A few months on, the core of Head Machine – Ken Hensley (gtr/keys) and Lee Kerslake (dtums) – resurfaced as the core of a new rock band Toe Fat with previous mod hit maker Cliff Bennett, whose Rebel Rousers had seen him providing vocals for a band that included Chas Hodges and legendary session pianist Nicky Hopkins.
Toe Fat released two albums between 1970 and 1972, both of which spent approximately two decades out of print between the early 70s and mid 90s. Both albums crept out on CD for the first time in 1994 thanks to the German label Repertoire Records, but the official nature of these reissues remains open to question and those CDs quickly became impossible to find, making Toe Fat a 70s curio that – much like Head Machine – went largely unheard by all but the most ardent Uriah Heep collectors. A double disc reissue from BGO Records briefly made the Toe Fat recordings available in the States, but for UK audiences, their work remained elusive.
‘Bad Side of The Moon’, a double disc anthology issued at the beginning of 2021, finally saw the Toe Fat recordings widely available to UK audiences. Offering both a sympathetic remaster and a couple of incredibly rare bonus tracks, the set quickly asserted itself as the definitive Toe Fat collection. But approximately half a century on from their original release, are these albums the lost classics that a few have suggested they are? Well, no. Both albums are hit and miss in terms of both quality and memorability – Toe Fat’s Elton John cover (from which the set takes its name) represents one of the more enduring recordings, though not necessarily through Bennett and co.’s own talents. For the more obsessive Uriah Heep fan, however, there are other performances worth hearing. You’ll certainly find an album’s worth of decent material scattered among the twenty two tracks.
Toe Fat’s debut – issued on the Parlophone label in May 1970 – is very much a product of its time. Its ten numbers straddle blues and rock; in a couple of places, there’s a tendency to revert back to a late 60s sound fusing rock and pop in a fuzzy guise. Bennett’s gruff vocal style carries the weight of the record’s best louder material (as with the mod-ish Pretty Things inspired ‘Working Nights’ and a cover of The Coasters’ ‘Just Like Me’, which is transformed into something akin to Humble Pie), but occasionally the rest of the band more than rise to the challenge and are more nuanced in their performances than first impressions suggest.
The Bennett penned ‘The Wherefores and The Whys’ is a standout both musically and vocally, with its mid-tempo rhythms underscoring some fine soaring guitar. The fact that the arrangement sounds as if it could lapse into Traffic’s ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’ at any given moment is obviously a plus point, but by reaching inside himself for a more soulful performance, Bennett turns in the album’s greatest vocal take. He actually sounds as if he’s pre-empting Graham Bonnet’s mid/70s work while adding the sort of theatrical inflections that would become the norm for Uriah Heep by 1974. Also lending the album some much needed strength, ‘You Tried To Take It All’ – a tune that had been road tested on the Head Machine album earlier in the year – is reworked here in a slicker performance, featuring a superior vocal and more complex bass work. Despite its no-nonsense style and the bulk of the tune wringing a heavy twelve bar blues, it’s definitely one of the numbers where Toe Fat’s combined talents are allowed to shine. When the bigger riffs dissipate to allow a bluesy jam to flourish, Hensley is especially on point. His two solos are superb, but this second take also benefits from a markedly better recording: the production sound is fuller and the bass fills come with a greater fluidity. In fact, everything about it runs rings around the Head Machine version, making ‘Toe Fat’ an important listen for fans of that LP, if no-one else.
Elsewhere, Toe Fat almost go through the motions in terms of 70s rock. Most of the remaining tracks aren’t bad, they’re just somewhat generic. ‘I Can’t Believe’ revisits the kind of Humble Pie-ish, overdriven rawk explored on ‘Just Like Me’; ‘Just Like All The Rest’ is a reasonable but predictable slab of blues rock, huge on bass and harmonica presence but short on invention and ‘That’s My Love For You’ ends up sounding more like a proto-Foghat than an obvious extension of Head Machine’s release from earlier in the year. There’s very little wrong with Toe Fat when attacking a groove laden hard rock sound such as this, but you’ll find other better bands churning out more exciting works throughout the early 70s.
If anything else makes ‘Toe Fat’ an interesting prospect beyond a couple of decent tracks and the Uriah Heep connections, it’s the aforementioned cover of Elton John’s ‘Bad Side of The Moon’. Issued in the same year as Elton’s own recording, it’s clear that music mogul Dick James was never shy in plundering the John/Taupin catalogue during 1970 [Birds of a Feather recorded both ‘Border Song’ and ‘Take Me To The Pilot; Wil Malone’s Orange Bicycle would also record ‘Take Me To The Pilot’ and ‘Lady Samantha’ that year]. Replacing Elton’s piano, strings and choirs with a loud guitar and booming vocal, however, does the tune something of a disservice. If you didn’t know better, you might even think it was another of Bennett’s self-penned rockers… Nevertheless, the band give their all and manage to retain a fair amount of dignity during such a hefty performance.
Heard several decades after the fact, the Toe Fat debut seems far more like a collection filler for Hensley/Kerslake obsessives than a forgotten gem in its own right. There are moments of strong musicianship – especially from Hensley’s distorted guitar sound driving most of the material – but not always much in terms of actual song writing that really stands out. It’s often a solid record; just never a truly exciting one. It didn’t sell well upon release and the band subsequently lost two key members. Ken Hensley departed to form Uriah Heep; Lee Kerslake moved on to occupy the drum stool in The National Head Band before being reunited with Hensley in the fourth line up of Uriah Heep in 1972.
By the autumn of 1970, the remaining members of Toe Fat called upon an old friend, Head Machine drummer Brian Glascock, to fill the vacant drum stool, while the guitarist’s role was taken up by the then unknown Alan Kendall. Kendall would prove to be a good fit for the band, not only due to some solid guitar chops, but also as a songwriter, taking some of the pressure off Bennett, even if many of the lyrical clichés would remain.
‘Toe Fat Two’ – originally issued on the Regal Zonophone label in November 1970 – is even more hit and miss, but its two strongest tracks represent the best recordings within the band’s catalogue, even without the soon-to-become legendary Hensley and Kerslake on board. ‘Midnight Sun’, in particular, should be considered essential listening, since it manages to take a riff that’s inspired by Sabbath and glue it to a heavy blues rock workout. Throughout an especially confident four minutes, Toe Fat present themselves as a heavier version of Free. This is a style best suited to Bennett, but also a perfect vehicle for Kendall who presents a couple of scorching solos en route. Similarly, the rocky ‘Three Time Loser’ shows off the rejuvenated Toe Fat in good form, sounding more like an old Head Machine overspill with its massive proto-metal riff. Granted, there are times when Bennett’s gravel-edged over-singing makes him sound like one of the era’s third rate rockers, but the musicians backing him are consistently sharp – especially bassist John Glascock, who can be heard playing up a storm throughout.
The extended blues jam ‘There’ll Be Changes’ is an easy highlight, especially in terms of vocal performance. Showing off the softer end of his voice, there’s plenty here to suggest Bennett had been listening to Paul Rodgers and taking notes. The six minute workout might only be a small sidestep from Hendrix’s ‘Red House’, but Toe Fat rework the over-familiar style to their advantage, and between a great vocal and confident riff, it outshines most of the debut’s performances. It’s not all bluster either: when moving through an understated instrumental section, a sultry harmonica trades melodic riffs with a fine lead guitar and, overall, it’s one of those numbers that captures the tail end of the early English blues boom in good form.
Between the stomping arrangement that drives ‘Stick Heat’ in a way that often suggests ‘Foxy Lady’ knock-off, and the Foghat-by-numbers sound of ‘Idol’, Toe Fat, perhaps, become a little too business-like, but for the more undemanding listener, these tracks might still bring some entertainment. And that, encapsulates the biggest failing with Toe Fat, overall: the combined musicians are all great players, but at least half of their material just doesn’t generate any real feeling of innovation. When you consider how many bands were really pushing forward by 1970 – Black Sabbath laid the foundations for metal; Deep Purple took hard rock into stratospheric places; Zeppelin surprised everyone by becoming fixated with Fairport and Jethro Tull had successfully fused blues rock and folk to create something unique at the time – Toe Fat’s blues rock, by comparison, seems…merely ordinary. There’s nothing hugely wrong with that, it just means that ‘Toe Fat Two’ is unlikely to become a firm favourite.
Finally, for the collector – and with members of Uriah Heep and Jethro Tull being integral to Toe Fat’s history, there will be some – this double disc anthology offers a genuine rarity. Both sides of a flop 7” from 1972 finish disc two in style. It seems odd that a Toe Fat line up would reappear almost two years after the release of ‘Toe Fat Two’, with a new line up and a third record label, but the recordings that materialised more than suggest their brief return had some validity. ‘Brand New Band’ appears to trumpet their return with tongue firmly in cheek on a piano driven rocker that falls squarely between an old Faces tune and another of Elton’s rockers. There’s not always much to connect it with the old Toe Fat – at least not beyond Bennett’s voice – but there so much more spark here. The bass dances throughout, and the rollocking piano really lifts the mood, while an unashamedly jubilant chorus inviting everyone to “sing hallelujah” is as catchy as hell. If anything, the band seem entirely unpressured and this actually leads to their greatest recording. On that 7”s flip side is another distinctly un-Toe Fat ditty which, again, works a piano to its best advantage. Trading in their earlier blues rock for more stomping pop rock, someone seemed to be inspired by the piano rock hits of the day, and the buoyant grooves are a very natural fit for Bennett. With the piano taking the weight of the tune, the guitars are all but absent without being missed, and another rousing chorus leads to the kind of 70s pop rocker that would’ve been huge in the hands of Joe Cocker. After just one listen to the 1972 recordings, you might even find yourself wondering why Toe Fat couldn’t have stumbled across this more radio-friendly sound earlier. It’s brilliant – and what’s more, these hard to find single tracks make the 2CD worth buying even though the main albums can fall short of expectations.
With the Head Machine album finally getting a long overdue reissue in October 2020, it seemed only fitting that the Toe Fat recordings should follow. As patchy as the albums are, they are an interesting look back at the unexpected missing link between Uriah Heep, Elton John and…Chas & Dave. Although the bulk of Toe Fat’s work could never be held up as “classic” by any stretch of the imagination, these albums – and by default, this anthology – are an important part in the Uriah Heep legacy. And especially so, when you consider that Bennett was offered the job as Heep vocalist before David Byron! What an odd alternate reality that would have been. We almost certainly wouldn’t have ‘Toe Fat Two’, but it also seems entirely possible that we wouldn’t have ‘Demons & Wizards’ or The Magician’s Birthday’ either. There’s every chance that Uriah Heep could’ve fizzled out by 1974… Let’s be thankful that things took the route they did and that Toe Fat – as brief as their time had been – served an important role in paving the way for better things…