As a contrast to the ‘Progressive Pop Sounds’ sets from Cherry Red Records subsidiary label, Grapefruit, the ongoing ‘Underground Sounds’ series from Esoteric opts for something far more rock oriented. Early collections covering 1968 and ’69 resulted in fine, but unadventurous sets of tunes, and as the series moves into the 70s, fans can expect a similarly accessible approach. Although the four disc delve into 1970 doesn’t necessary dig too deep for obscurities, it still plays very well as a compilation in its own right. In a little over four hours, it serves up nostalgia, unfamiliar curiosities and enough genuine classics to give a solid overview of the year’s prog-leaning and guitar heavy sounds.
Giving the anthology its name, Barclay James Harvest’s ‘Taking Some Time On’ (from their self-titled album) opens this fine set of tracks with a brilliant tune loaded with jangling guitars and a groove laden bass. Rather busier than some of BJH’s later work, it’s easy to imagine such a boisterous melody being perfect for a Joe Cocker cover or, perhaps, taken into slightly proggier places by Family [a band also featured here with a track apiece from each of their LPs released in 1970]. The way a scratchy guitar sound makes the the bulk of the melody sound like a hard violin part is impressive, and although it seems at odds with a pop-ish vocal from John Lees, it really works. The contrasting moods throughout are very much bought together thanks to a muscular bass part courtesy of Les Holroyd, and across these five minutes you really get a great insight into a band with a kitchen sink sound that’s perfect for the transition from quirky sixties pop into seventies prog. Rather more typical BJH fare, ‘The Sun Will Never Shine’ sounds more like a boring version of The Moody Blues – something more of an acquired taste – but still presents Holroyd as being a really gifted player who brings a great deal to the band, musically speaking, even at times when the over-riding melodies are woozier. There isn’t anywhere near as much here to mark out BJH as a classic band, but its overhanging 60s derived melodies are pleasant enough.
A man who’d later score a massive radio favourite as a Westcoast style singer songwriter, in 1970, Al Stewart was still plying his trade – with a relative lack of commercial success – as an acoustic based folkie. Two tracks drawn from his third LP, ‘Zero She Flies’ show that, despite the lack of sales at the time, Stewart was already a man with a distinctive voice. ‘Small Fruit Song’ is instantly appealing – and very familiar – since it uses a descending riff that’s partly derived from ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, but quickly becomes its own thing due to various multi-tracked, finger-picked folk guitar melodies that single out Stewart as a superb player. The music is so well crafted, it makes it very easy to look past a very whimsical lyric, and the band driven ‘Electric Los Angeles Sunset’ very much looks forward five years with its combination of fey vocals and well structured melodies. Armed with some straight forward storytelling and a few pointed stabs of rock guitar, it’s a perfect folk rock workout signifying a star in the making. If either of these tracks appeal, then their parent album and Al’s follow up disc (1972’s ‘Orange’) are not to be missed.
In a much rockier mood, a recording of ‘Black Sheep of The Family’ by Quatermass is very clearly the instigator for Rainbow’s more famous take five years later. The song was barely a year old by the time it had arrived in the possession of Quatermass, but the band had obviously decided (very quickly) that the folk/psych arrangement from the Fat Mattress original was somewhat unsuited to their brand of blues/rock. What transpires is a potential classic: swathes of Hammond organ punch in and out of crashing Keith Moon-esque drums while a semi bluesy vocal curls itself around a lyric full of unfortunate descriptors, leading to the most 1970 sounding rocker this side of Deep Purple MKII. It’s great, and even though it might sound inferior to a generation of people who grew up with Rainbow’s even more bombastic take, it manages to more than hold its own. Stalwarts of the Cherry Red Records rock compilation, Stray offer two songs from their self titled record which – as with other comp appearances – stand a strong chance of getting people to explore a little further. ‘All In Your Mind’ is a nine minute jam loaded with buzzing guitars and contrasting harmonies. It’s a perfect example of how the early incarnation of the band were able to take blues and heavy psych moods and apply them in a very direct way, with the extended playing time never feeling padded out, while the far more succinct ‘Around The World In Eighty Days’ falls somewhere between Traffic, the tuneful end of Edgar Broughton band and the fledgling Slade, creating a brilliant number dominated with ringing guitar. How this band didn’t become one of the decade’s musical monoliths is a mystery, since both these tracks are absolutely terrific.
Kevin Ayers acquired some very vocal fans during his lifetime, but his work didn’t always connect with a broad audience. It’s great that this compilation looks beyond his best known ‘Joy of A Toy’ album, and in ‘Lunatics Lament’ (from the ‘Shooting At The Moon’ elpee) listeners are dropped into a rather rocky, very rhythmic piece where the vocals are hidden behind a wall of fuzz, often allowing the drums to do most of the heavy lifting. It’s a great track from the off, but easing into the second half, it aims for the stratosphere in terms of busy psych rock, with an extended lead break that showcases some absolutely killer playing. Dave Stewart’s Egg – another band with links to the Canterbury scene – are rather more marginal, and less than catchy ‘Song of The Pusillanimous’ often makes Emerson, Lake & Palmer seem like champions of restraint. For those able to stretch their minds into a world of really busy dark prog-jazz weirdness, of course, it has the kind of kind of arrangement that’s hugely rewarding with some fantastic lead bass wrapping around aggressive jazz drums. Eventually finding space between the dominant rhythms, Stewarts own organ parps out swathes of sound that almost sound like an atonal depiction of hell as he repeatedly works the same riff over and over. In terms of psych branching into unchartered territory for the time, this is really out there: as threatening as Arthur Brown, as arty as Soft Machine, and as aggressive as the proto-metal of Head Machine, all wrapped in one semi-coherent, glorious noise.
Two cuts from Pete Brown & Piblokto mightn’t show off the lyricist in quite as fine a form as his collabs with Cream, but both provide a little cult interest. The title track from ‘Thousands On A Raft’ serves up various woozy, post-psych sounds that seem to fuse bits of Family with a future echo of the core melody from Alice Cooper’s ‘Only Women Bleed’, before exploding into a bombastic blues rock oriented chorus that’s far more of a natural fit with Brown’s non-singing voice. Those who are able to make it past a trying vocal style will eventually get a great musical reward via a fine guitar solo and a few warm bass runs, both of which suggest that the ideas are solid even if the performance is a little wobbly. In the hands of a more experienced band like Traffic – or the aforementioned Family – this could’ve been a classic. The same goes for ‘Things May Come & Things May Go, But The Art School Dance Goes On Forever’ where Brown’s limited delivery sometimes hampers a great tune, but as before, his band are in good shape, hammering through a psych-rock workout that is the musical equivalent of a steeplechase with guitar riffs and drum sounds coming at a relentless pace, while Brown garbles through various wordy passages. While this is good for what it is – certainly interesting enough for some listeners to want to explore its parent album of the same name – it’s hard not to imagine how much better it would have been with Jack Bruce at the helm. Dominated by ringing guitars, Clear Blue Sky’s ‘My Heaven’ is very much a 60s overspill, but the band put enough spirit into the performance to ensure that it’s vaguely druggy moods convey as much darkness as a few of this set’s more ominous sounding groups, while hit-makers The Move show off their more experimental chops on ‘What?’, a seven minute sprawl through something that sounds like a prototype for the first ELO album with vocal effects, back-masked guitar lines and crooned vocals jostling with heavy piano sounds. Half a world away from ‘Flowers In The Rain’, it shows Roy Wood really growing as a composer and is a welcome reminder of how the later Move albums – overlooked as they sometimes have been – occupy an important role in crossing over from pop to prog.
Naturally, licensing issues mean that a set such as this is missing contributions from the hugely important Pink Floyd (releasing their opinion splitting ‘Atom Heart Mother’ in this year) and King Crimson (‘In The Wake of Poseidon’ and ‘Lizard’), but the absence of Crimson’s ‘Cat Food’ (which deserves to be here) is compensated for by a tune from McDonald & Giles. Their ‘Tomorrow’s People’ taps into a sound that isn’t a million miles away from the more melodic bits of Crimson’s ‘Poseidon’ LP: the drum groove throughout the number sounds like a distant cousin of ‘Cat Food’ itself, and via a funk bass and sassy horns, the band slides between prog and jazz with a genuine ease. The highlights are supplied by a very hippie friendly flute solo and soundtrack like vibe that cuts in midway, as well as some furious lead bass supplied by Peter Giles. In radio terms, it isn’t a hit, but it’s far more interesting than most of the boring dirges that comprise the much loved and critically acclaimed ‘In The Court of The Crimson King’… Equally ground breaking for the time, Curved Air’s ‘Situations’ dares to mix stage oriented vocal gymnastics with jazz drums and droning keys to create a prog sound almost like no other. Typical of their debut album, its desires to throw too many influences into one piece sometimes results in a case of “too many cooks” – something that would quickly drive the original band apart – but it has some superb elements, most obviously a furious blues guitar solo courtesy of Francis Monkman and arty violin bursts from Darryl Way. It takes several plays to attune, and isn’t necessarily the best track on ‘Air Conditioning’ (that honour would go to ‘Stretch’ where the band unwittingly invent glam rock), but it lends this anthology something else of genuine interest. Another female fronted band, Affinity, are much easier listening. Driven by the strong vocals of Linda Hoyle and a heavy organ, ‘Three Sisters’ often sounds as if its channelling Curved Air – there’s plenty here that could have easily inspired their 1971 hit ‘Back Street Luv’, right from the ominous rhythms, dark brass and theatrical bent – but as a stand-alone also have a lot in common with bands as diverse as Procol Harum and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. The way really the organ underscores a lengthy blues guitar solo suggests these guys could have – and should have – been leading lights in the first wave of prog, such is the way they have a natural groove. By the time they hit a something of a climax that sounds like a marriage between Chicago Transit Authority and Mountain, you might just believe there was nothing they couldn’t do, but despite such brilliance, they fizzled out after just one album. In a perfect world, everyone buying this set would also pick up that record for further listening.
A b-side recording from Status Quo, ‘Gerdundula’ resembles a weird jug band/folk rock workout where bongos and acoustic guitar jostle through a stripped down boogie. Although there’s a lot of charm in hearing The Quo forging their way towards a signature sound with some fine guitar interplay between Rossi and Parfitt, its deliberately out of tune guitars and slightly stoned vocals suggest something of a tossed off novelty. Obviously, Quo fans will already own this recording a few times over (not least of all apended to their excellent third album ‘Ma Kelley’s Greasy Spoon’ and in a slightly better re-recorded version on the 1971 album ‘Dog of Two Head’), but for those who only know the hits, it might be an ear-opener. Blodwyn Pig’s ‘See My Way’ comes across as the natural successor to Jethro Tull’s ‘This Was’ LP, thanks to a distinctive buzzing guitar sound from Mick Abrahams. More than just “what Mick did next”, though, the Pig had plenty of decent tunes of their own, and as demonstrated by this piece’s blend of angry blues grooves and ominous horns, at their best, this band could take on Taste and even some of the era’s blues/jazz fusion and be victorious. ‘Sympathy’, a well known tune from Rare Bird, might already be present somewhere in the collections of this set’s target audience, but it’s inclusion here is still most welcome, since it’s one of those tracks that perfectly captures the shift between the dark psych of the late 60s and burgeoning rock of the new decade with a sparse mood bridging the gap between Procol Harum and Uriah Heep. The rather earnest vocal and lyric is certainly the main feature, but the intermittent Hammond B3 stabs and rigid rhythm underscoring the serious lyric are just as well arranged. It’s one of those tracks that works mood and space to its advantage, even if the single edit does sell everything a little short. [As a side note, a 1992 cover of this song by Marillion is superior in some ways, since it shifts the dark and detached elements into something a little melodic, while the original’s moody vocal makes way for something far more emotive.]
Fleshing out an already strong collection, a couple of crowd pleasers from Fleetwood Mac (the dark and foreboding ‘Green Manalishi’) and Deep Purple (‘Black Night’) still manage to sound great, no matter how overplayed they may have been in the past; Tull’s ‘The Witch’s Promise’ confirms its status as the most perfect example of the band’s prog/folk crossover style decades after the fact, and a pair of Peter Banks era Yes numbers more than showcase a superb band, with a career about to gain some serious traction, even if there’s no real need for prog fans be reminded of ‘No Opportunity Necessary’, superb as it is. Also more than familiar, Emerson. Lake & Palmer more than prove that they could wield a strong melody on occasion when ‘Lucky Man’ – a highlight from their debut LP – allows Greg Lake time enough for a great vocal performance and Lindisfarne’s ‘Lady Eleanor’ whips up a few old AM radio memories.
On the negative side, this set includes nothing unreleased and no rare/alternative cuts, but viewed purely a celebration of singles and album tracks from an era where rock was constantly evolving, it’s nicely put together with a broad selection of tracks. Obviously, in arty and proggy terms, 1970 wasn’t as grand as the period spanning 1971-1973, but as this collection more than demonstrates, the 70s were quickly becoming a very different musical proposition to the previous decade. Those looking for nostalgia will find enough within even if they own a lot of the contents elsewhere, but as with Cherry Red’s ‘Riding The Rock Machine’ (issued in May 2021), it’s the more casual listener that will gain the most listening pleasure here. …And if those listeners find themselves tracking down earlier works by Al Stewart, exploring Pete Brown’s work, or seeking out that once elusive Affinity LP, then it’s really been worthwhile.