VARIOUS ARTISTS – Beyond The Pale Horizon: The British Progressive Pop Sounds Of 1972

Grapefruit Records’ 3CD anthologies covering music from 1970 and 1971 captured a British music scene during a period of change. Psychedelia may have been considered long gone, but various pop bands still seemed keen to dabble with the quirky and odd. Although the artier side of the era’s pop and rock scene during that period was often interesting, these sets suggested that the era didn’t always have a clear identity.

There are no such issues with ‘Beyond The Pale Horizon’, a triple disc collection promising to bring “The British Progressive Pop Sounds of 1972”. By the time 1971 had coughed its last and the pop and rock machine rolled into the new year, progressive rock was a dominant force within the album buyers’ market, while glam rock and hard rock were never far away from the singles chart. Between these two or three musical tribes, ’72 came with a strong musical base, but – as always with Grapefruit’s abilities to dig through a rich musical history – the year offered so much more greatness. Naturally, three discs really isn’t enough to paint the most complete picture, but the chosen highlights within ‘Beyond The Pale Horizon’ offer the kind of listening experience that so many lovers of 70s pop and rock will find both nostalgic and educational.

Kicking off the first disc, Van Der Graaf Generator fly the flag for the growing prog rock scene and the legendary Charisma label with their cover of George Martin’s ‘Theme One’. Issued as a 7” single, it wasn’t a massive hit in Britain but reached #1 in Italy, which makes sense since it carries something very much of a Euro prog sound. One of the most accessible tunes within the band’s catalogue, it’s very heavy on brass-like keyboard sounds, but there are some great piano flourishes lurking beneath the bombast, and a great jazz inflected drum part more than helps stoke up the necessary flair. Few recordings encapsulate the grandeur of the early 70s as well as these three minutes, so it provides a perfect fanfare for the journey about to be undertaken. With that swiftly followed by Roxy’s classic ‘Virginia Plain’ – which will be familiar to almost everyone by now – and the huge ‘Hold Your Head Up’ by Argent, this anthology begins with a very confident musical footing.

An early highlight is supplied by Shape of The Rain, whose ‘The Very First Clown’ remained unreleased for decades, before surfacing on a Cherry Red anthology featuring the band’s complete recordings in 2020. For those approaching the track for the first time here, Keith Riley’s wistful, hazy pop will automatically feel like an old friend with its shimmering acoustic melodies drawing from early Big Star. Between a few well placed harmonies and a strong melody, it deserved to be a success, and that’s before taking into account a pre-chorus that appears to have a weird future echo of David Bowie’s deep album cut ‘Right’ from ’75. It’s just the first of many less familiar gems. Keeping with a circus theme Clown’s ‘Lord of The Ringside’ feels like a throwback to 1968 thanks to a folk rock/neo psych intro, but it then twists into the ugliest Ray Davies homage it’d be your misfortune to hear. Although somewhat saved by a heavily reverbed lead guitar break, this multi-layered tune is incredibly heavy handed. Unless you’re warped enough to enjoy something that sounds like an inebriated Lindisfarne taking the piss big style, it’s best avoided. Your actual Lindisfarne fare far better with ‘All Fall Down’, an oft overlooked single that deals with environmental concerns against a perfect folk rock backdrop where the mandolins and accordions are perfectly balanced by a solid bassline. As always, Alan Hull’s vocals can be something of an acquired taste, but casual listeners will surely be thrilled to hear something that isn’t ‘Lady Eleanor’.

Future Rush producer Rupert Hine’s ‘Hamburgers’ is a genuine oddity that mixes JJ Cale inflected guitar work and a very Steely Dan-esque keyboard riff, while a weird, grumbling and sneering vocal details different approaches to the titular meat patties and their preferred accompaniments. It’s very much the kind of track that provides amusement on first listen, while offering a chance to pay closer attention to a great keyboard part and roots rock guitar on the second and third, before being dismissed as all being rather silly thereafter. At best, you might be able to write it off as an unexpected Nilsson homage, but it’s not quite as good as that. if nothing else, it’s a reminder that BA Robertson didn’t have the monopoly on this kind of tossed off novelty. In a sharp change of mood, Manfred Mann’s Mike Hugg (soon to co-write the theme for Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?) sounds great on ‘Blue Suede Shoes Again’, a tune that could’ve easily been farmed out to Pilot at a later date, had Davy Paton not been such an accomplished tunesmith himself. With occasional echoes of both Supertramp and Gilbert O’Sullivan thrown into the bargain, it’s the kind of tune that makes you wonder why it isn’t better known. Then again, a really flat saxophone break might have a lot to answer for…

Ralph McTell’s ‘Zimmerman Blues’ isn’t as smart as his ‘Summer Come Along’ from 1969, but still provides a huge amount of entertainment by envoking a few trad folk melodies and pitching them against an easy 70s pop groove. It’ll be enough to remind most people there was always more to Ralph than the omnipresent ‘Streets of London’, even if this isn’t quite worthy of a “lost classic” status, while Hobbit’s ‘Everything’s Turning Out Fine’ makes an instant impression via a rattling pub rock piano colliding with wavy psych-pop melodies and a spirited vocal performance. As with a few other tracks on this set, it more than suggests that 1972 still has at least one toe left teetering in the late 60s, but with its great arrangement and some top notch production, it really sparkles when heard decades after the fact. Very much of its time, yet remaining quirky enough to still sound like a great 70s curio, Jade Warrior’s ‘Demon Trucker’ mixes up light Afro-Cuban rhythms, twin lead guitars on loan from an old Thin Lizzy tune and a bass melody that desperately seems to want to slip into Three Dog Night’s ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’. It should be a mess but, somehow, despite its kitchen sink approach, a devastatingly short duration and lack of obvious chorus hook, it works brilliantly. Part of that is down to great use of a simple riff; part of it is due to a gruff vocal commanding attention, but mostly, it has a superb groove. With its lack of success as a single and Jade Warrior’s third album (‘Last Autumn’s Dream’) never really receiving the kind of attention it deserved, the fact that a lot of listeners could be discovering this recording for the first time here feels important in its own way.

An absolute “must hear”, ‘Funny’, a previously unreleased track from Open Road, should instantly appeal to lovers of Lindisfarne and The Sutherland Brothers with its folky undertones. A shimmering acoustic guitar is complimented by some great harmonies while a sharp dobro steers everything further towards sounding like a Faces ballad. …And indeed, by the time everything hits its stride, it begins to sound more like the classic ‘Glad & Sorry’ than ever. That’s particularly impressive since Rod, Ian and company hadn’t actually recorded that yet! With their previous associations with Donovan and this track from an unreleased second LP sounding hugely promising, Open Road deserved to be stars. Due to a record deal with an obscure subsidiary of an already obscure label, it wasn’t to be. Another less than household name, Guest & Edwards tap into some solid 1970s storytelling and a sound that falls somewhere between Chicago and The Sutherland Brothers. They aren’t the world’s greatest harmonisers, but thanks to a strong arrangement, a tuneful yet muscular bassline and an expensive sounding production, their ‘All Alone’ single offers some fine 70s pop/rock which should entertain the more ardent crate digger.

Something of a fixture on Grapefruit’s 70s themed sets, Silverhead (featuring Michael Des Barres) deliver one of the most glam-centric tracks with ‘Oh No No No’, when the pop of Hello, the swagger of Sweet and the hard rocking edges of Slade collide with ease. Michael chews each massive “no” as if it were a vital statement, and in a brave attempt at transferring a huge live presence onto a studio recording, his huge voice and a selection of twin lead riffs bring a classic 70s rock sound throughout. Another interesting tune from the archives, Home’s ‘Rise Up’ works a solid mix of pop and acoustic based melodies. Combining a busy country rock rooted riff with the kind of hook America might have steered to greatness, it manages to sound busy and understated at the same time, and certainly provides enough interest for listeners to backtrack to their self-titled LP for further listening. It doesn’t sound much like something you’d expect from future Wishbone Ash man Laurie Wisefield and AC/DC’s Cliff Williams, but it’s quite lovely. Fans of a distinctly 70s pop/rock sound should also check out Pluto, whose ‘Something That You Loved’ often sounds like a band channelling Thunderclap Newman. It’s somewhat hampered by a vocalist keen to stretch beyond his range, but a stong musical melody and some superb fuzzy guitar work pick up the slack just enough to make it all work. Looking past an unsettling shouty vocal, Grobbert & Duff’s ‘I Am…I Think’ recycles some solid freakbeat sounds driven by a swirling organ and big beats, before dropping into more spacious interlude where the source material sounds as if it were taken from a stretched cassette. There’s nothing that would have especially made them – or this song – stand out at the time of release, but as an inclusion on a set such as this, it provides important exposure to a couple more of the era’s forgotten talents.

Sounding about four years out of date, Graham Bond & Pete Brown’s ‘Mass Debate’ comes crashing in with a world of stabbed pianos and a melody that sounds like a wonky rendition of The Turtles’ ‘Elenore’, before dropping into weird psych/neo-classical descending scales and a subsequent blues rock freakout. Its lyrics are as childish as its double entendre title suggests and Brown’s voice has none of the power or grace of the era’s greatest performers, but the music is always interesting enough to see it through. With woozy vocals, light use of slide guitar to evoke trippiness and a world of mumbled harmonies, the core of Rocky Cabbage’s ‘Birds Must Learn To Fly’ sounds like a half asleep Donovan muscling in on the “White Album” era Beatles. The closest this set comes to hippie-bating whimsy (mentions of being “high up in the sky” and “The Magic Roundabout” more than suggest soft drugs are involved), it goes from good to great when a core melody appears to borrow from McCartney’s ‘Junk’ and vague back-masking sounds call back to a peak era of psych-pop. Best known for their massive pop hit from 1970 ‘Baby Loves Lovin’’, White Plains’ lesser heard ‘Beachcomber’ isn’t even recognisable as the same band. In place of the bubblegum pop, this b-side to a later flop 7” is an unexpected piece of psych-pop that owes more to Procol Harum. The way the way the vocal sits lazily against a slow groove where organs and swirling guitars take up the weight of a vaguely druggy melody creates a genuine atmosphere. Although this odd b-side would’ve, perhaps, sounded a little out of time in ’72, if heard for the first time here it sounds like a fascinating piece of history from an unlikely source.

Kevin Coyne may well be loved by 70s aficionados for his ‘Marjorie Razorblade’ LP from ’73 (as one of the earliest releases from the Virgin label, its place in the world has often been overshadowed by Mike Oldfield’s monolithic ‘Tubular Bells’), but in many ways, ‘God Bless The Bride’ isn’t quite as inventive in terms of storytelling. It makes up for that with a rigid musical arrangement where Coyne overlays hard strummed chords with great slide work and a confident folk-blues sound. Vocally, he often sounds like Donovan, and its easy to imagine that a few of Don’s most adventurous fans would’ve gravitated towards Kev as a matter of course. Like a lot of Kevin’s work, though, it isn’t the kind of track you’d play on repeat, and in the bigger picture of 1972, it’s more than understandable why Coyne never rose beyond cult status. …And then there’s Trapeze, who didn’t necessarily become megastars by the end of 1972, but their later associations with both Judas Priest and Deep Purple have created plenty of posthumous interest in their work. So much so that Cherry Red issued their third LP, 1972’s ‘You Are The Music’ as a 3CD set in 2020. ‘Coast To Coast’ mightn’t be the best representation of the album as a whole as it shows none of their huge riff based side. It does, however, capture a fantastic piece of 1970s white soul that gives Glenn’s voice a fantastic platform. As part of this set, it isn’t necessarily an instant hit either, but there’s something lurking within the performance that ably shows the boundless scope of the UK rock scene in general. There was so much more going on than ‘Smoke On The Water’, Bowie, Bolan and Slade…and once you fall in love with this tune, you’ll certainly want to explore other Trapeze records.

Rounding out an already great set, you’ll find relatively familiar works by Slade (‘Wonderin’ Y’ is another handy reminder that the Brummie lads had some great songs beyond the obvious hits), Roy Wood (the acoustic based and whimsical ‘Wake Up’) and Caravan (the Canterbury proggers’ ‘Aristocracy’ provides an unexpectedly funky groove set against a wistful vocal, sounding like one of Hatfield & The North’s more accessible tunes). In addition, there are brilliant singles from Thin Lizzy, Hawkwind, Status Quo and Free, ensuring this trip back in time is one of the most well-rounded you could hope for. You’re never much more than two songs away from something genuinely great. It may only scratch the surface for those obsessive collectors who spend hours scouring Discogs in the hope of scoring rare 7”s at a good price, but for most other people, ‘Beyond The Pale Horizon’ will more than suffice as a well curated dip into the delights of a glorious year for British rock and pop. With a pleasing balance between hits and deeper cuts from familiar bands, some genuine obscurities and more besides, these three CDs provide a more than enjoyable listen.

April/May 2021