VARIOUS ARTISTS – Riding The Rock Machine: British Seventies Classic Rock

Ever since the CD boom of the 90s, the market has been flooded with easily affordable and easily accessible rock compilations. These sets, often adorned by artwork showing a guitar or having a car and open road theme have typically been aimed at the undemanding listener – the kind of person wishing to revisit the classic rock singles of their radio filled youth; the kind of person who’d happily listen to Thin Lizzy’s greatest hits in their car forever. You’d think the market would eventually run out of these people as their target market, and yet year after year, cheap comps featuring Thin Lizzy’s ‘Boys Are Back In Town’, Rainbow’s ‘Since You Been Gone’ and Free’s ‘All Right Now’ seem to fill supermarket shelves continually.

‘Riding The Rock Machine’ – a three disc anthology from Grapefruit Records – clings very much onto the spirit of those feel-good compilations, but aims to give the listener something a little more interesting by side-lining a lot of the bigger hits for some decent album cuts and tracks by British bands from the 70s who’ve long deserved more attention.

In some ways, it doesn’t dig that deep. Fairly well known tracks by 10cc, Roxy Music, ELO and can be explored in close proximity to Foreigner’s ‘Feels Like The First Time’ and Free’s ‘Wishing Well’ (both surely approaching the epitome of compilation staple). None of this is ever bad listening, obviously – the tracks are all superb, but they won’t be an educational tool in any way. Where ‘Riding The Rock Machine’ excels is in its bravery to offer Free, Foreigner and Foghat hits (and other material by bands not beginning with F) alongside some of the decade’s forgotten heroes as if they’re absolute equals. Rock fans are able to revisit various gems and treat them like the hits they should have been. At the top of the pile, Fancy’s ‘Riding The Rock Machine’ is a genuine banger with a fantastic vocal placed against one of the funkiest basslines this side of Roger Glover and Glenn Hughes. In three and a half minutes, this band (featuring guitarist Ray Fenwick) showcase sass and tightness like no other; if this set helps them to gain more love, then its all good. Another band seldom talked about in the twenty first century, Stray drop in some dirty blues rock via their swaggering cover of Cliff Richard’s 1958 hit ‘Move It’, transforming the old rock ‘n’ roll number into a sweaty workout that sounds like a heady mix of Humble Pie and no-nonsense pub rock. It needs to be heard to be believed, as does Hard Stuff’s ‘Monster In Paradise’, a Frankenstein-like creation that takes the confidence of the young Rick Derringer and mixes that chutzpah with something that seems to pull bits from early ZZ Top, Uriah Heep and Stretch to create a chorus-free sprawl that’s massive on riffs and even bigger on all round bonkers-ness.

A tune absolutely loaded with 70s swagger, Spencer Davis Group’s ‘Catch You On The Rebop’ (also featuring Ray Fenwick) recasts the one-time mod favourites in the mould of a lightweight Foghat, but they sound great in these musical clothes, clearly relishing the opportunity to contrast fluid basslines with blankets of organ. The track’s nod to a proto-glam sound for an unexpected bridge further highlights how free the band felt at the time. History has painted their post-Winwood years as a bit of a disappointment, but this – and the bulk of its parent album, ‘Gluggo’ – shows otherwise. For more massive 70s riffs delivered with the utmost confidence, look no further than Silverhead’s ‘Ace Supreme’, a brilliant glam/proto-metal hybrid that could rival ‘Born To Be Wild’ in terms of capturing a rebellious mood. Between its harsh lead guitar break and vocalist Michael des Barres displaying a huge amount of swagger, there’s a lot of power in this three minute package.

A little more grandiose, Trapeze’s six minute epic ‘Black Cloud’ fuses riffs worthy of Free with an unexpected soulful quietness that showcases a fine rhythm section (Glenn Hughes on bass and Judas Priest’s Dave Holland on drums) in a natural synergy. In terms of song, it’s not big on chorus hooks, but if you’re the kind of listener who loves to get lost in a nostalgic sounding riff or two, it’ll become a favourite. If you’ve never heard the early Trapeze albums, the three disc reissue of ‘You Are The Music…’ is worthy of exploring, not least of all as a great example of where the band were headed after ‘Black Cloud’ and its parent album ‘Medusa’. More of a jazz-rock/prog fans dream than the kind of band you’d expect to find on a classic rock comp, Curved Air are always an interesting prospect and their ‘U.H.F.’ – recorded at a transitional time when most of the original band had departed – captures a great riff from guitarist Kirby Gregory. Although not necessary “typical” Curved Air fare, its the kind of riff that’ll hook a first time listener, making it a decent addition to a set such as this. With parts of the track dropping into quieter moments that allow Sonja Kristina to deliver a soft cry against much floatier, prog-ish elements, it also gives a broader look into the band’s huge array of moods.

Being best remembered as the band responsible for ‘Sailing’ – the monstrosity that gave Rod Stewart a number 1 hit – The Sutherland Brothers (with or without Quiver) were never “cool”, but something demonstrated here is that they knew how to write a tune. ‘Dream Kid’ is loaded with an almost glam rock-ish swagger, some stabbed keyboard motifs, a bendy bassline and a massive hook that could rival Pilot. If anything truly works, though, its in showing how well the gathered singers could harmonise. It’s all very much of its time and might never convince people to explore further, but you’d be hard pressed not to agree it’s much better than that easily listening, pox-ridden dirge about being “far away-aaay, ’cross the sea”. [If you find yourself enjoying this, both ‘Space Hymn’ from 1972’s ‘Lifeboat’ album and ‘The Prisoner’ from 1976’s ‘Slipstream’ will offer some valuable further listening. A sister label to Grapefruit, Lemon Records, released the almost entire works of TSB&Q as a budget priced box set if you’re feeling especially brave.]

Another interesting discovery for some will be Rococo’s ‘Hoodlum Fun’, which taps into a far more obvious 70s rock anger when a barrage of overdriven riffs are joined by Roy Wood-esque string stabs and a fearsome vocal sounds like a budget Robert Calvert, Welsh cult heroes Man contribute something genuinely unsettling with ‘Out of Your Head’ – a weird mix of ‘Astounding Sounds’ era Hawkwind, early Queen falsetto and art rock pretention. It’s a reminder that Man weren’t for everyone, but for those who got them, their catalogue could be a whole world of strange treats. A surprisingly understated tune, Fat Mattress’ ‘Black Sheep of The Family’ combines a barrage of bongos, harmony vocals and cool jazz guitar to create something that sounds like a deep cut from Jefferson Airplane. There’s a lot about it that makes it sound about four years out of time for a 1971 release, but in terms of style, it’s absolutely perfect. When heard in conjunction with a few of the heavier hitmakers here, though, it sounds even more out of place, which is a shame considering it displays a kind of easy cool that most bands would struggle to bring to a recording with such ugly lyrics. If anything connects it to the ‘Rock Machine’, as it were, it’s its place in a future life: in 1975, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow gave the song a crunchier arrangement, which combined with Ronnie James Dio’s huge vocal, made it feel like an instant Rainbow classic.

The inclusion of an unreleased Magnum track is most unexpected, and even though it’s not the band’s finest three minutes, long time fans and collectors will certainly welcome its long overdue appearance. ‘Baby I Need’ was one of a handful of songs recorded at Barn Studios in the mid-70s and its debut here gives an interesting look into a band still finding their way. This has the distinction of not being written by chief songwriter Tony Clarkin, but former bass player Dave Morgan who left the band a short time later. It shows none of the complexity of the band’s ‘Kingdom of Madness’ debut, or even the material present during their sets from the Railway in Birmingham in 1976. Chorus-wise, it’s really simple and musically quite laboured, but beneath the mid tempo clankiness, you’ll find glimmers of greatness. Clarkin’s guitar can be heard shimmering through a couple of the tune’s more sparsely arranged moments and his featured solo, although brief, suggests a fine player who’d go onto greater things. The lead vocal is odd; it spends half the performance stretching a rather unnatural melody with a gruff tone, but like Clarkin’s guitar work, there are occasional hints of something far more familiar and melodic occasionally poking through. Part of the unfamiliar feel has a lot to do with Morgan’s dominating presence. Of course, being his song, he’d want a decent role, but without Clarkin’s lyrical flair and prog rock tendencies that would become the band’s norm less than a year later, this sounds far more like a band tackling a tune from ELO’s moody ‘On The Third Day’ than the Magnum fans have come to love. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Morgan eventually ended up as on the coattails of Jeff Lynne’s legendary band, supplying his vocal talents to their ‘Secret Messages’ album in 1983.

On a slightly negative footnote, it’s worth noting that there are a couple of legendary bands who aren’t especially well served by the compiler’s choices. Both Rainbow and Thin Lizzy offer such rich catalogues full of wonderful tracks you’ll never hear on the radio, but merely swapping the omnipresent ‘Boys Are Back In Town’ for ‘Jailbreak’ and ‘Since You Been Gone’ for ‘Long Live Rock N Roll’ merely tips the hat to each act by offering a different staple. When you consider how wonderful and varied Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’ LP actually is, this would’ve been an ideal time to shine a light on the under-appreciated ‘Running Back’ or the wistful ‘Romeo & The Lonely Girl’ with its funk rock riff colliding with dodgy poetic licence. Ditto Rainbow: kudos for avoiding the Graham Bonnet fronted ‘Down To Earth’ in favour of a Dio tune, but with its omnipresence on Fluff Freeman’s Radio 1 Saturday Rock Show back in the day, ‘Long Live…’ still feels like a major hit, whereas something like ‘The Shed (Subtle)’ from the same album could’ve provided a genuinely interesting alternative. With so much other stuff crammed onto these discs, it may be a minor quibble, but it’s definitely something of a sticking point from the viewpoint of a big rock fan.

Overall, by pitching itself with a pleasing balance between the massive hit makers and could’ve-beens, the forgotten and the under appreciated, ‘Riding The Rock Machine’ offers a consistently enjoyable listen across its 59 tracks. It differs from many of Grapefruit’s other 3CD sets in a massive way, though, in that – the Magnum track aside – it doesn’t really cater for the hardened collector. This is purely a release aimed at the more casual buyers’ market – those looking to step up from the likes of ‘All Right Now’, ‘Black Night’ and other similar, stuck in a rut Planet Rock filler. For those buyers, this will certainly provide a more than welcome addition to those in car favourites.

February/March 2021