Back in those pre-internet years, it was often difficult to hear really rare albums. There were a whole world of psych, jazz rock and proto-hard rock LPs that were regularly mentioned in Record Collector magazine that seemed shrouded in mystery. Often issued on the Philips, Deram, Major Minor and Vertigo labels, discs by Head Machine, Elias Hulk, The Open Mind and Second Hand – all now available on CD – were almost the vinyl collector’s equivalent of the Holy Grail.
Another such disc, the one and only album by Affinity, was another highly praised gem from the dawn of the 70s that, at one time, seemed destined to languish in the hazy, distant past. In the mid 90s, a decent vinyl pressing could fetch £40-£50; hardly an impulse purchase, should you stumble across one. A CD repressing from Repertoire Records in 1993 finally meant the album became accessible to an audience who missed the band during their brief lifetime, but a lack of UK release meant this disc was almost as elusive. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Affinity LP was given a long overdue CD release on home turf, but that eagerly awaited edition on Angel Air Records was sourced from under par materials.
It’s hard to believe that it would take over half a century for this jazz prog masterpiece to be given a decent UK reissue, but the 2021 edition from Cherry Red not only presents the album from the best available sources, it also pulls together a truckload of other recordings from between 1965-72, painting the fullest picture of the band’s evolution to date. The band’s bigger fans will have most of the tracks on those various Angel Air releases, but there’s plenty about this deluxe package, with its in-depth accompanying sleeve notes and hefty packaging that makes the Affinity experience seem all the more satisfying.
For those new to Affinity – or listeners who’ve not heard the original recordings since the the early 70s – it cannot be stressed enough how amazing most of the original album’s tracks are. Rarely has a band been so brave in using their talents to explore so many different musical avenues inside of forty minutes. Right from the opening bars of ‘I Am And So Are You’, the listener is thrust into a world of big sounds, and in this instance, Affinity serve up a heady mix of rock and jazz with heavy 70s R&B undertones. The track’s jazz rock groove instantly conjures memories of Curved Air’s more melodic output, whilst the dominant brass could be drawn from the world of Curtis Mayfield. There’s a busy air that also pulls everything in line with the oft forgotten Stoneground too, and although such a melting pot could be a mess, Linda Hoyle’s soulful voice acts as a brilliant melodic centre point throughout; its slight jazz leanings hint at things to come, but there’s always an ear on a great tune. In the closing moments, guitarist Mike Jopp emerges from the shadows and offers a brilliantly fierce bluesy solo showing how, for all of their arty pretentions, this would also be a band capable of really rocking out when required. As far as openers go, it’s perfect; a short and sharp showcase for all involved, and the lengthier ‘Night Flight’ continues to show off a tight collective. With more of a jazzy air during the track’s first half, Affinity channel the quieter aspects of Jefferson Airplane and the acid folk of Linda Perhacs, with a woozy melody underscored by a great bass, courtesy of Mo Foster. Moving into more of a rhythmic groove, the melody is one that sits within a late 60s idiom, as some terrific bass work continues to work itself beneath a jazz funk arrangement. It’s here that listeners will get their first real taste of keysman Lynton Naiff, a stout player able to mix the melodic chops of Booker T. Jones with the anger of a young Jon Lord and, essentially, create something of a busy style all of his own. His forthright playing is the antithesis of Hoyle’s disquieting Grace Slick-esque moments on this track, but as before, Affinity never sound less than one hundred percent sure of their crossover sound. Returning to the quiet elements from the intro, everything comes full circle, and a lesser band would consider this a job done. Not Affinity: they take the opportunity to add an instrumental coda where their jazz rock gets influenced by a very Latin groove; the effect of which is like stepping into a session for the Santana debut. Again, this is brilliantly handled and – as before – gives Jopp a small window to drop in a great solo, albeit belatedly. This is a true standout from the album but, unbelievably, Affinity have even better sounds up their collective sleeve.
Those further thrills don’t seem to come instantly, though, since ‘I Wonder If I Care As Much’ replaces ninety percent of Affinity’s melodic core with a weird and hazy droning. Somewhere within the mulch, it’s possible to suspect that there’s a half-decent song trying to escape, but an over reliance on phased effects and a claustrophobic sound drowns everything except Hoyle’s voice. It’s all very “of its time” (right down to a fade and reprise), but luckily the cool jazz of ‘Mr Joy’ rescues everything when a much more natural trippiness is applied with a lax vocal and vibraphone calling back to Affinity’s years as a jazz combo. Aside from a couple of guitar stings, this could’ve been transferred to Dusty Springfield for “hit potential”, but as it is, it’s another great workout where the whole band shines. The melody never rushes; it merely adds layers of cool jazz upon a slightly psych-derived groove, waiting for drummer Grant Serpell to increase the volume and tempo – which he does brilliantly – whilst Hoyle unleashes her inner torch singer. Aside from a moment where Hoyle appears to fake orgasm for dramatic effect, it’s all rather wonderful.
Opting for something much rockier, ‘Three Sisters’ reintroduces the brass and another Curved Air-like arrangement is pitted against a dark and ominous sound worthy of Chicago Transit Authority. It’s interesting how much of a commanding presence the guesting brass are given. It suggests that none of Affinity had designs on being a star; everything they do is from a shared perspective. The music flows really naturally despite the arrangement having a darker tone, and with Hoyle reaching deep within herself for a moodier vocal, too, there’s almost a proto-goth vibe cutting through the jazz rock arrangement. In a just world, this would be a staple of all great 70s rock comps, and not just those aiming for more of a cult audience. A well chosen cover of ‘Coconut Grove’ (originally by The Lovin’ Spoonful) provides something of a quieter interlude showing off some fine and simple acoustic work against a jazz club vocal and timeless sounding organ. It isn’t quite up to the joyous standard set by Sandie Shaw the year before when the shoeless it girl recorded it for her ‘Reviewing The Situation’ LP, but in showing yet another side to Affinity’s many talents, it does a fine job.
Closing with an eleven minute version of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’, Affinity apply Hendrix’s sense of drive and a Woodstock oriented feel to create the ultimate psych rock jam. Hoyle’s vocal matches the well known melody from the various other recordings, but musically Affinity really put the song through its paces: various lengthy organ solos show Lynton to be massively talented – the equal of the young Steve Winwood or Brian Auger – and via some accompanying moments of heavily wah-ed lead guitar, Affinity firmly tap into the excesses of the time, exploiting the LP format, offering an epic closer that’s much freer and much more in keeping with the other rock bands of the era.
Whichever way you look at it, ‘Affinity’ is a classic album. Heard decades on, it may often sound like a product of its time, but with regards to chosen materials and the range of performances, it really is superb. Like label mates Head Machine, everything about Affinity seems right when approached retrospectively. Both the band and album should’ve been huge; but when something as brilliant as The Zombies’ ‘Odessey & Oracle’ had been similarly overlooked, it just proves that the record buying public couldn’t always be trusted.
A slew of bonus cuts add extra value to this boxed reissue, with both sides of a rare 7” single kicking off a variety of archive gems. That single’s A-side, a version of Laura Nyro’s ‘Eli’s Coming’, accentuates the wailier aspects of the original, first sounding as if it’ll be hard work, but soon blossoms into something with a busy groove and fantastic orchestration. It sounds like a cross between something from the throwback world of light entertainment and the London production of Hair. That’ll make it more of an acquired taste, but it’s inclusion here still feels very important. On the flip, a cover of Alan Hull’s ‘The United States of Mind’ presents the ultimate in hippie folk/gentle psych (three years too late) and finds Hoyle in strong voice, even if the rest of Affinity sound like an indistinct pick up band compared to their work on the parent album. A live take of ‘Yes Man’ throws Affinity right back into their fusion roots and works Serpell into a stupor whilst offering further evidence that Lynton might just be one of the era’s most overlooked musicians; ‘If You Live’ explores Hoyle’s full potential as a blues performer, and ‘You Met Your Match’ sounds like a brilliantly played off-cut from a late 60s beat group which, understandably, provides ample opportunity for Foster to indulge in some very muscular bass work and Naiff to go the full Spencer Davis. Although Affinity would record more distinctive works, in giving a glimpse into the band’s rockier side, this is an amazing track.
Taken from a bootleg source, ‘Little Lonely Man’ and a live take of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ come under the category of “nice to have” but are strictly for fans only. A fairly corroded cassette source means the finer points of both are long lost, but in terms of conveying the band’s energies, you can still get a feel for their sheer drive and complex musical chops. Of all the extras on this disc, it’s a recording of ‘I Am The Walrus’ that is of the greatest interest. Affinity take the Beatles classic, stoke up the guitars, and work through the groove in an all-round spikier fashion. There’s so much enthusiasm in Hoyle’s vocal, it’s easy to forgive her the odd missed word and altered lyric. That said, hearing John’s nonsense “goo goo g’joob” misinterpreted as “coo coo ca-choo” grates just as much as every other time this mishearing has occurred, but aside from that, it’s great, with plenty of organ and jazz toned guitar fills providing excitement throughout. The recording provides a lot of interest within the Affinity canon, though, but the source for the recording is even more special: this is taken from Affinity’s appearance on a episode of comedy show ‘Sez Les’ from 1969. Looking back, this seems very bold for a light entertainment booking; at that time, the Morcambe & Wise regulars were Nina (of ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ fame) and Kenny Ball & His Jazzmen. A jazz rock band hammering through a psych-pop classic on the opposing channel seems almost outlandish by comparison…
A nine track companion disc labelled ‘Affinity II’ pulls together the band’s last recordings dating from between 1971-2, and these give a good idea of how a follow up would’ve have sounded, if only things had turned out differently. Highlights include the set opener ‘Moira’s Hand’, a busy prog-folk hybrid that threatens to become a Jethro Tull deep cut at any second. As before, there’s plenty within Hoyle’s huge presence and semi-restless grooves that could be likened to Curved Air, but a heavy organ line and dominant rhythm section definitely have more in common with Tull’s underrated ‘Benefit’ LP. It’s one of those numbers that offers something of interest straight off the bat, but it’s only really with the arrival of an instrumental section that shifts between jazz guitar and funky prog rock organ that its true potential comes through. Almost equally cool, ‘Sarah’s Wardrobe’ mixes blues tropes with elements of prog that almost certainly came from Caravan binges, whilst flashes of keyboard melodies sound like future echoes of Marillion circa ‘Seasons End’ (rather unexpectedly). This short instrumental piece is almost certainly presented here in an unfinished state, but its testament enough to Affinity’s collective musical talents that it sort of works as it is.
Elsewhere, ‘Sunshower’ offers something in a stripped down, semi-folky vein that sounds like something Renaissance could’ve taken to the highest heights. A number that relies more heavily on atmospheres than tunes, its loud vocal and droning music can be mildly disturbing, yet at the same time, there’s plenty within that suggests a musical idea that could’ve been a career highlight with a little more work, and the beautiful ‘Highgate’ moves away from the typical Affinity sound to explore floaty instrumental guitar sounds, showcasing Jopp as a wannabe Jeff Beck. Decades on, it’s hard not to hear this for the first time and be transported straight to the soundtrack worthy ‘Where Were You’ from Beck’s brilliant ‘Guitar Shop’ LP.
‘Warm Skies’ sounds a little more unfinished – presented in a “live in the studio” recording that doesn’t bring out its subtler points – but has flashes of greatness. It gives a solid insight into a great working band. Foster’s bass work is exemplary throughout, and although he’s all too often surrounded by echo, Naiff’s keyboard work is as strong as you’d expect. In a change of mood, the easy listening folky pop of ‘Poor Man’s Son’ latter hints at a likeable song that someone like Sandy Denny could’ve made a genre classic, and a second go at ‘All Along The Watchtower’ (possibly from the same session as ‘Warm Skies’) is spirited, but not as enduring as its 1970 counterpart.
There are a couple of moments that sound like Affinity on autopilot, and the pop/jazz/prog of a couple of the selections are firmly “of their time”, but if you’re a fan of the debut, it’s fair to say that almost everything here is worth investigating,
Filling in the rest of the Affinity story, the remainder of the material is good, but markedly different. Recordings made between 1965-67 tracing the band’s earlier years as a jazz trio are nice to have, but not necessarily of immediate interest to lovers of the ‘Affinity’ album itself. Recordings of standards like ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘Autumn Leaves’ don’t always seem to have much in common with the later output, but it’s interesting to hear Naiff, Foster and company cutting their teeth within the scene. From these archive recordings, there’s a particularly nice take on ‘Lover Man’ where the piano work almost seems to glide above various crashing cymbal sounds, allowing the slow jazz to unwind before the rhythm section guides everything towards more of a gentle swing, and a recording of the Bill Evans classic ‘Waltz For Debbie’ [sic] that further points towards Naiff being one of the UK’s best and versatile pianists at that time. Naturally, if you don’t like straight bop or cool jazz, have any interest in the likes of Evans or the Dave Brubeck Quartet, you’re unlikely to understand the magic within these tapes, but in terms of capturing a melodic jazz band at work, they’re of great historical value.
A second collection of jazz oriented recordings (all instrumental cuts from ’69) is actually far superior. Presented in absolutely superb quality considering its archive status, it allows a great opportunity to hear Affinity making inroads into a proggier sound thanks to a much moodier stance. That said, the choice of material – a broad sweep of jazz and fusion classics – once again makes it of chief interest to jazz fans first and foremost. Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ sounds like a long lost cut from the great Jimmy Smith; the cool smokiness of ‘Out of The Storm’ taps into a smooth groove where Jopp channels phrasing from Grant Green whilst the rest of the band hang back yet always seem to maintain a solid presence, and a piece called ‘81’ moves into busier fusion, with Naiff hammering his keys in the manner of Larry Young and Jopp firmly grasping onto some really aggressive blues chops.
A true standout, ‘All Blues’ (as made famous by Miles Davis and Kenny Burrell) shows how well Serpell’s drumming would swing when playing with restraint, and although Mike Jopp’s jazz guitar sound occasionally lapses into slightly more rock oriented tones, his playing has a pleasing fluidity throughout. For the more casual or curious listener, a jazz rendition of The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’ accentuates some of the darkness in Lennon’s original lyric via an ominous organ sound and slightly echoey recording, lending something of a new look at an overheard piece. Another highlight taps into a moody sound with Cannonball Adderley’s ‘Dis Here’ taking on a mournful presence throughout, again showcasing the more morose aspects of Naiff’s organ work. With a broad selection of material exploring different moods throughout, these ’69 tapes more than show how the jazz scene had moved on over the previous couple of years, but only begin to hint at Affinity’s true future. It probably couldn’t be overstated how much of an impact Linda Hoyle’s arrival would make.
With this set being strictly about the journey of Affinity, the previously circulating recordings of pre-Affinity act The Baskervilles aren’t included (these can be found elsewhere), but this is still an amazing – and very extensive – set. It’s worth the price of admission for a decent copy of ‘Affinity’ and its associated bonus tracks alone. The earlier jazz oriented material might only appeal to those with more eclectic lugs, but even those have enough charm to make them a welcome addition. In terms of loving treatment given to a fairly marginal archive release, Esoteric Recordings certainly pull out the stops here. The coherent presentation of the audio makes it worth the upgrade for those who’ve owned most of this material in various other configurations previously, but the visual aspects of the set also make it feel more special than any of the previous Affinity reissues to date. As deluxe reissues go, this is nothing short of essential.