VARIOUS ARTISTS – I’m A Freak Baby 3: A Further Journey Through The British Heavy Psych & Hard Rock Underground Scene 1968-1973

The late 60s and early 70s were a great time for experimentation and free spirited sounds. From within the psychedelic scene came various bands who were less enthralled with rainbows and being “home in time for tea”, preferring instead to stretch blues origins into dark and heavy places, inspiring a generation of guitar heroes. Others took a mod and freakbeat approach and ladled on the distortion thus creating a more inventive take on a garage rock sound, something which arguably helped to spawn punk. By cranking their amps and embracing an artistic freedom, there were a whole spectrum of bands slowly changing the musical landscape. The original ‘I’m A Freak Baby’ box set (released by Grapefruit Records in 2016) gave a solid overview of the era for the curious listener. Although it featured a lot of material that keener rock fans would already own, it still played well as a compilation in its own right. Popular tunes by Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac could be found alongside cult numbers by Pink Fairies and The Groundhogs, as well as a few genuine obscurities from Barnabus, Sweet Slag and Cycle. A second triple disc set released in 2019 offered more gems, but dug even deeper for rarities with unreleased tracks from Natural Gas, Thor, Tarsus, and more besides.

You might expect a third dip into the world of heavy psych, hard rock and proto-metal to yield diminishing returns, but ‘I’m A Freak Baby 3’ actually retains the quality and standard of the first two releases. It doesn’t offer quite as much unreleased material as its immediate predecessor, but a small selection of previously unavailable nuggets will be of interest to those who love heavy, fuzzy, deep psych and early hard rock experiments. Of the unreleased tracks, a live version of Bullfrog’s ‘The Joker’ from 1973 is by far the best in terms of capturing both a raw sound and a proto-metal spirit. The recording appears to cut in a few seconds after the performance has begun, but this all round lack of sheen doesn’t damage an excellent archive performance where a wall of distortion and fuzzy guitars quickly introduces a band who sound as if they could take on The Groundhogs. The main riff is incredibly busy – the epitome of a fantastic hard rock/blues hybrid – while singer Pete McDonald attacks each line with a genuine force. Experiencing Bullfrog with all guns blazing in this manner just makes it all the more sad that their career never took off. In fact, the only recording to see release during their lifetime was a terrible novelty track that bore no resemblance to the band in their natural state… It makes it obvious that some record companies have no clue. Similarly overlooked, Bone were a short lived band who cut just one track in their original configuration. That recording ‘Crush’ presents them as the missing link between Taste and Head Machine, working a busy blues rock groove throughout three minutes while a retro sounding, jazz toned lead guitar adds a natural proggy slant. It’s one of those tracks that almost would have worked as well as an instrumental since the music is instantly impressive, but there’s no obvious hook. Nevertheless, fans of blues rock will discover a tune that sounds superb when played at a decent volume.

Rougher around the edges, Stoned Rose’s ‘Day By Day’ was recorded live in a village hall, but somewhere within the distortion, you’ll quickly discover the wares of a raw as hell garage band wielding riffs that make Spooky Tooth seem like a bunch of lightweights. There’s probably no real need for the screaming falsetto in the middle – especially as singer Mick Carroll doesn’t really cut it – but the force behind the band makes up for any weakness. A couple of listens will be enough to make you hanker after a proper recording (sadly not to be) and a deeper dive into the band’s recorded work (again, there’s very little else to be had beyond a six track mini-album, unfortunately). In lots of ways, Stoned Rose represent another of the era’s great “what if”s. Sweet Slag’s previously unissused ‘Flavour of Decay’, meanwhile, is a particularly unnerving affair. Musically, it’s superb, showcasing a band locked into a busy blues jazz fusion groove, drawing influence from Alexis Corner and The Groundhogs alike, but twisting their riffs into shapes that the more free form Danish bands like Ache and Burning Red Ivanhoe would take in their stride. In many ways, it’s lucky that a strong rhythmic approach and some great lead work is at hand, as the vocal is something more of an acquired taste. It mightn’t be a stretch to suggest the performer sounds like John Mayall being poked with a stick, but as always with these things, it all sounds much better given time to tune in.

Dipping into the wealth of other tracks, this set shines a light on so many cult acts. Steamhammer’s ‘Junior’s Wailing’ – a no nonsense twelve bar blues – will be familiar to most thanks to a great version by Status Quo – but an opportunity to explore this original take with a much bluesier sound is very welcome indeed. The lead guitar maintains a strong presence throughout and serves up some fine vibrato, while the croonier approach to the lead vocal actually helps to accentuate the song’s blues base. It’ll never replace the Quo’s energised pub rock take in your affections, but it’s a great track nonetheless. Featuring a young Ian Gillan – soon to find fame and fortune with Deep Purple MK2 – Episode Six’s ‘Mozart Vs. The Rest’ prefigures his later career when he occasionally howls over a band hammering their way through various classical pieces within a hard rock framework. It sort of goes without saying that Tony Lander, although a gifted musician in his own way, is no match for Ritchie Blackmore when it comes to neo-classical playing and there are a couple of fudgy moments, but what Episode Six lack in finesse here, they make up for with sheer gusto, and that always makes this a fun listen. A pre-cursor to Uriah Heep, Head Machine (featuring Ken Hensley and Lee Kerslake) supply an essential cut with their ‘You Must Come With Me’, which comes up trumps by flaunting a Groundhogs’ inspired riff. Furthermore, it shows something of a pioneering sound, since the track also includes elements that appear to indirectly inspire both Edgar Winter’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1973) and Whitesnake’s ‘Ready An’ Willin’ (1979). When thrown into a package where a bombastic vocal tries hard to outdo such a huge guitar sound, it’s also easy to draw obvious parallels with this and Uriah Heep’s core sound of the early 70s. The lyric that shamelessly wanders between old acid flashbacks and a shameless sexual overtone is certainly…more of its time, but thankfully, it doesn’t kill the fantastic overall sound. For listeners hearing Head Machine for the first time thanks to this box set, their sole album [‘Orgasm’, Major Minor Records, 1970] comes highly recommeded.

Reminding everyone that flat-cap champion Brian Johnson had a career before joining AC/DC, Geordie’s ‘Rockin’ All Night’ serves up a no-nonsense glam rock/hard rock stomper somewhere between the louder end of Sweet and the gutsy rock of Nazareth, allowing the vocalist to curl his voice with a real confidence. At this point, his performances had an edge and a distinctive John Fogerty-esque grit – much preferable to the tortured moggy squeal he’d acquired by 1982 – and for Geordie, this proved to bethe perfect approach for a band chugging through a twelve bar with some massive balls. It’s never flashy; Geordie were never going to change the world, but in terms of presence this is more than solid performance. If you believe the BBC documentary on the birth of British heavy metal, Edgar Broughton seems to think he did change the world and comes across pretty badly, with an over inflated idea of how important his self named band were to the hard rock scene of the late 60s and early 70s. Their featured track here, ‘Momma’s Reward’ (a 7” release from 1970) sounds like the mangled offspring of UFO and Captain Beefheart. More art rock than proto metal (surely more by accident than design), it’s ugly presence is a reminder of a rather average band going through the motions. A decent guitar solo suggests there is talent here, but a vocal from Edgar that approximates a tramp giving a sermon is unlikely to win over the less patient. Much better, NSU’s ‘Stoned’ fills five minutes with a brilliantly woozy blues rocker that takes heavy inspiration from Hendrix’s ‘The Wind Cries Mary’, puts it through a filter of work by The Spirit of John Morgan and adds some really uneasy backing vocals to reinforce the subject matter. It’s all good until an unexpected coda switches the mood for more of a cheeky jig, which doesn’t add anything to the overall canvas.

An essential collection filler comes from a live version of ‘Dazed & Confused’ performed by The Yardbirds on French TV in 1968. A real ear-opener for the Led Zeppelin fan, it’s interesting to hear this embryonic version performed with a different set of lyrics, but already showcasing many of the same guitar sounds Jimmy Page would retain for Zep’s more famous recording a short time later. Hearing Keith Relf drop worldless howls and harmonica over Jimmy Page’s bowed effects while drummer Jim McCarty plays up a storm during the latter sections is enough to make this a highlight . Also excellent, the space rock/garage rock grooves of UFO’s ‘Prince Kajuku’ call back to a largely overlooked era of the legendary rock band’s career, with original guitarist Mick Bolton playing a fiery lead break, and compilation regulars Pink Fairies sound as raw as hell, almost like a UK derived MC5 on the blistering noise-fest ‘Teenage Rebel’. Tapping into an equally cool vibe where garage rock guitars mesh with a stoned out deep psych mood, The Deviants’ 1968 jam ‘Slum Lord’ almost sounds like the archetypal example of the cult rock sounds explored in this set, and especially so once guitarist Sid Bishop begins to crank out what sounds like an ugly version of ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ against a stabbed piano. This all results in something infinitely more impressive than Deviants frontman Mick Farren’s solo recording of ‘Summertime Blues’ that clearly goes through the motions in a lumpen manner. Frankly, Eddie Cochrane aside, the version on The ’Oo’s seminal ‘Live At Leeds’ LP will never be beaten.

An unexpected appearance by British blues band Chicken Shack brings a few dirty grooves from 1970 on their ‘You Know You Did You Did’, a post-Christine Perfect track that whips up a great riff but soon realises it has nowhere else to go. Although fine fare as part of this comp in a sort of lacklustre Foghat way, on its own merits, it’s a reminder of why Stan Webb’s compositions were often lacking in comparison to label mates Fleetwood Mac. The title cut from Trapeze’s ‘Medusa’ is a little more adventurous than most, at first mixing spooky melodies with aching vocals, before branching out into some fine hard rock in the mould of a much heavier Free. Despite a perfectly executed lead break set against a chunky riff, it isn’t as immediate as some of the material on their later ‘You Are The Music’ LP but it’s still the kind of track that suggests they should have been massive. Then again, if Trapeze had more success, Glenn Hughes wouldn’t have defected to Deep Purple…and a world without Purps’ ‘Burn’ and ‘Come Taste The Band’ is unthinkable. More heavy blues is supplied by the hugely underrated Stray. ‘Suicide’ (from the 1971 album of the same name) is a hard listen decades on, in that its anti-racism message is as subtle as a flying mallet and uses phrases that such advocacy would later consider inappropriate, but from a musical standpoint, it remains very strong indeed, with a chunky delivery grabbing hold from the opening bars and never letting up through an intensive seven minutes.

The award for “most unexpected contribution” comes from Mighty Hard (a short lived Pye Records signing) who manage to mangle Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Save The Life of My Child’ into an overwrought piece of arty hard rock that sounds like Uriah Heep’s David Byron fronting a weird Pete Brown project while impersonating Tiny Tim after sixteen pints of mild. Some of the music is interesting – weird tack piano moments cut through crashing sounds and there’s some severe Hammond Organ abuse – but there’s actually very little here that any sane person would consider enjoyable music. It’s so bad, it’s potentially quite funny. When released as a single in 1970, it bombed and it isn’t hard to see why. Luckily Pye had a couple of excellent Kinks singles (‘Lola’ and ‘Apeman’) to bring up any shortfall in cashflow and sales that year. Largely unknown to the world at large, Zior, doom metal pioneers from Colchester, released a couple of enjoyable albums full of dark riffs in the early 70s. Obviously, their heavy stance wasn’t always different enough to make them stand out from the crowd and their occult themed lyrics couldn’t compete with Black Sabbath, so they subsequently got left behind. However, their ‘Strange Kind of Magic’ (an LP cut from ’73) should more than alert people to their back-cat with its heady mix of fuzzy guitars and stomping groove that sounds like Mungo Jerry reinterpreted by Head Machine. A bigger chorus would certainly have been welcomed, but between the grumbling riffs, melodic vocal and obtrusive cowbell, it fills three minutes rather excellently. The should be legendary Spooky Tooth provide another highlight with their lengthy and proto-Sabbath like ‘Evil Woman’, a tour de force of slow, doom blues chords and heavy organ work. Even with a trying falsetto present, this recording sounds like the pinnacle of the heavy, pre-metal blues sounds of 1969, with Luther Grosvenor (yet to defect to Mott The Hoople) melting his fretboard while Gary Wright hammers at the keys. A highlight of their ‘Spooky Two’ LP, it’s a reminder that the album had far more going for it than the now controversial ‘Better By You, Better Than Me’. It’s also very much a stand out when used to close this anthology.

In addition to all of that (mostly) superb stuff, this third set also includes several populist bits including Free’s ‘I’m A Mover’ (capturing Paul Rodgers and his good company in fantastic blues mood), Deep Purple MK1’s guitar heavy showstopper ‘Mandrake Root’ and an early Thin Lizzy number (‘Return of The Farmer’s Son’). Elsewhere, Hawkwind’s ‘Master of The Universe’ acts as a welcome reminder that good compilation sets need more than ‘Silver Machine’, Procol Harum serve up an uncharacteristically rocky ‘Whisky Train’ where they practically invent the core sound of Southern Rock band Blackfoot, and Uriah Heep’s ‘Walking In Your Shadow’, although far from their best tune, will certainly give casual listeners a welcome change from ‘Stealin’, ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Lady In Black’ while complimenting the earlier Head Machine tune rather well.

Lovers of the previous ‘Freak Baby’ sets will find plenty to enjoy, but in some ways – especially with the inclusion of Free, Lizzy, Purple, Heep, UFO and Procol Harum – there’s just as much here for the rock fans who purchased Grapefruit’s ‘Riding The Rock Machine’ anthology and now feel ready to venture deeper. In terms of a well-rounded and thoroughly entertaining dip into an alternative history of hard rock and heavy blues, you won’t find much better.

May/June 2021