VARIOUS ARTISTS – Once Upon A Time In The Midlands: The Bostin’ Sounds Of Brumrock 1966-1974

When thinking of the rock sounds to emerge from Birmingham and surrounding areas, it’s all too easy to think of Slade and their chart topping stompers, of Roy Wood and his flamboyant take on glam rock, and of heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. All of those bands really helped to put the Midlands on the map – that could never be disputed – but Brum and its surrounding neighbourhoods offered British music so much more throughout the sixties and seventies. ‘Once Upon A Time In The Midlands’ brings together various heroes, forgotten gems, period rarities, and even the occasional hit in a brilliantly compiled 3CD package that’ll educate as much as entertain.

Although the three discs aren’t in a strict chronological order, this collection has a definite flow, moving through psych and beat groups, into a world of seventies rock and finally ending up with the glam-ish sounds of Blackfoot Sue and an early tune from Judas Priest. As always with these sets, though, ‘Bostin’ Sounds’ works best when approached as a curate’s egg, with the listener dropping in at random on a couple of old favourites and discovering something old – yet new – along the way.

Something that shouldn’t be understated is how important prog/baroque pop band The Move were to the Midlands scene in the 60s, and this box isn’t shy of pointing that out. Although their massive hit ‘I Can Hear The Grass Grow’ is their featured track rather than some deeply inventive, more experimental piece, it gets across Roy Wood and Carl Wayne’s unmistakable gifts for a pop melody in a very sharp three minutes, as the band work through a punchy mod-friendly tune loaded with great harmonies. The Move’s impact goes far deeper of course, and you don’t have to wander too far within this box before stumbling upon something else from their family tree. A solo Roy Wood tune from ’72 ‘Dear Elaine’ flaunts his Beatles obsession on a baroque ditty where his huge cello sounds are complimented by mandolins evoking harpsichord melodies, and his wavering vocal wanders above the very confident music. In some ways, Wood sounds about four years out of time here – so many bands were exploring the baroque in ’68 – but it’s so lovely, it really doesn’t matter. Wood’s short lived glam rock outfit, Wizzard, sound far more direct on their chosen nugget ‘Ball Park Incident’. For those who only know the band from their evergreen xmas single, the recognisable hallmarks are all present: this lesser heard tune is loaded with brass, pub piano, the kind of drumming that provides the backbone of so many glam stompers and a shouty vocal to reinforce its over-confident air. In lots of ways, it’s truly a product of its time, but the multi-layered arrangement and massive production sound is never less than amazing.

Before joining The Move for their final LP, Jeff Lynne fronted a brilliant psych-pop band called The Idle Race. Their debut LP, ‘The Birthday Party’, is perhaps one of the scene’s more underrated discs to come from a major talent. Although the fairly trippy single ‘The Skeleton & The Roundabout’ is your one-stop, cast iron Idle Race classic, ‘Impostors of Life’s Magazine’ (a 1967 single release) also shows off the then young Lynne as an arranger with some serious chops as it contrasts hard edged beat group guitar sounds with tape manipulated elements, trippy interludes and hazy Beatles-derived elements throughout. In couple of minutes, The Idle Race show why they should’ve been at the forefront of the psych boom. If sets like ‘Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands’ help a few ELO fans catch up with Jeff’s past (again), then its all to the good. Naturally, Electric Light Orchestra are present and correct too, and although there surely isn’t anyone who hasn’t heard their grandiose reworking of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, it still conveys a real energy. The seven minute album version is offered, truly capturing the early line up at full power, and being sequenced after tunes by Roy Wood and Wizzard really gives it an extra impact.

Ace Kefford, another member of The Move, continued to record after quitting the band rather abruptly following the release of their classic single ‘Fire Brigade’, though had much less success in comparison to his former bandmates. His solo track ‘Trouble In The Air’ perhaps goes some way to explaining why. The 1968 recording sounds fine in a 1965 garage rock kind of way, but sounds very dated if viewed in line with the peak of psychedelia. The clanging guitar sound is great and the music has a lot of energy, but the song writing errs on the side of poor, with Kefford repeating “look out” several times in quick succession, to the point that his warning ceases to have any impact. It’s almost like experiencing The Pretty Things on half power; the sort of thing that’ll appeal to 60s pop/rock fans briefly, but never feel essential. A couple of months later, he became the frontman for The Ace Kefford Stand, whose version of ‘Daughter of The Sun’ is a terrific beat group/hard rock jam that’s heavy on the lead guitar and heavier on the bass. By enlisting musicians who were capable of playing in a harder style (driven by Cozy Powell’s intensive drumming) Kefford found a band that were sympathetic to his semi-challenging, bleating voice. Across several minutes, the Stand prove almost every bit the equal of Spooky Tooth, and could have taken the UK by storm had they not imploded before the end of 1970. At the beginning of the 70s, The Move’s bassist Rick Price (replacing Trevor Burton) teamed up with singer/songwriter Mike Sheridan of Nightriders (a band that featured a pre-Idle Race Jeff Lynne) and his union with Price resulted in an enjoyable album (‘This Is To Certify…’) that ultimately lives in the shadow of their other bandmates’ successes. Showcasing their brief union, ‘Lamp Lighter Man’ is a lovely slice of Hollies influenced pop that works some great harmonies, an easy jangle and a fat bassline in a really natural way. It isn’t particularly original, but it’s general confidence and excellent production values make it one of this anthology’s true gems.

As with other Grapefruit Records, this three disc set really comes into its own via a selection of genuine obscurities and half forgotten cuts, and on that score, retro fans will discover a lot of unfamiliar treats along the way. Ideal Milk (featuring Cozy Powell guitarist Dave Ball) hammer their way through Cream’s ‘NSU’ with a genuine gusto, but due to a poor quality recording that sounds like a rehearsal, the finer points of the performance are lost. That said, it’s hard not to be floored by Cozy’s best attempts at being Brum’s own Keith Moon as he smashes his kit into oblivion. The largely unremembered Giorgio & Marco’s Men turn in a reasonable slice of 60s beat pop on ‘Baby I Need You’, a track that tries bravely with some big harmonies and the kind of musical melody that sounds like score music for a youth film from the era. Although musically and vocally competent, there’s not always much that makes it sound like a classic, though, due to it sounding a couple of years out of date by the time of issue. Much more fun, a demo recording by Simon’s Secrets taps into some fantastic almost Merseybeat inspired pop, loaded with chiming guitars and frivolous vocals. There wouldn’t be much to differentiate it from the deluge of similar pop had it been issued at the time if not for a weird, psych inspired, waltzing interlude, but when heard historically, it’s definitely all round great pop. Budding music historians will also be interested to note that the band evolved from line ups of Martin Raynor & The Secrets and The Bridge Street Jump band, whilst their vocalist eventually achieved a cult level of fame as introspective singer-songwriter Clifford T. Ward.

Much less interesting, Ptolomy Psycon’s ‘Shadow Bright’ (originally released on a 10” mini album in 1971, supposedly limited to 235 copies) boasts a post psych blues guitar tone that’s admirable…but nothing to back that up. Across a lumbering and frankly dull four minutes, six stringer Dave Gardiner does his utmost to maintain interest and carry a semblance of tune, all the while being challenged by a woefully flat vocal delivered by a man who sounds half asleep. Even as a curious hippie derived take on psych-blues, this really isn’t very good, but luckily, Tea & Symphony’s chirpy folk rock tune ‘Boredom’ is available for much needed spirit-lifting. Due to a simple melody, driven by trusty acoustic strums, xylophones and the occasional cheeky recorder, it’s been likened to Incredible String Band, but on this evidence, they’re actually much better. With a full compliment of penny whistles and the like, ‘Boredom’ is very of its time, but a decent core melody and a vocal that sounds a lot like Dave Mason really helps the track to retain a long term appeal and elevate Tea & Symphony above other more flippant acts of the era. A successor to the very short-lived U-No-Who, Bachdenkel were a progressive pop outfit fronted by Colin Swinburne. Although they would exist for ten years, their recorded output was not extensive, and their 1970 recording ‘Donna’ would sit on the shelf until being picked up by Philips Records for a single b-side three years later. For what it is, ‘Donna’ is fine; a slow, bluesy tune reminiscent of Mountain in a hushed mood, the recording carries a huge echo throughout lending a haunting quality. The lead vocal dominates, but a few listens is enough to uncover a post-psych oddity that could’ve tapped into the prog underground given time. Whilst never destined for cult classic status, it’s darker qualities suggest Bachdenkel could’ve filled part of Polydor Records’ artier roster had things turned out differently.

Cinnamon Quill’s ‘Candy’ is another fantastic tune that conveys the late 60s transition from beat group fascinations into fuzzier rock territories rather brilliantly. The soulful lead vocal and organ led groove is very much of the Stormsville Shakers and Northern Soul variety – with riffs tautly played throughout – but the fuzz drenched lead guitar more than suggests a love of Deep Purple MK1 and an interest in heavier sounds. Loaded with confident harmonies and the kind of incessant hook that becomes a genuine earworm after the second play, this is the great late 60s hit that never was. Following the band’s split, guitarist Howard ‘Fred’ Williams formed Fred’s Box (more of whom later) with ex-Anchors bassist Pete ‘Overend’ Watts, which gave the world more vastly overlooked greatness. From the ashes of The Montanas, The Mail bring some great pop/rock on ‘Omnibus’, a tune that doesn’t always seem a million miles away from the era’s other hit-makers like The Marmalade. Musically great, the tune delivers highly on guitar driven jangle and very enthusiastic vocals and even though some of the lyrics might cause wincing in more sophisticated times, it’s a decent recording that suggests the band should’ve been longer lasting. Fairfield Ski’s ‘Circus’, meanwhile, screams 1973 like nothing else with its glam rock core, and faux Noddy Holder shouting contrasted by the kind of harmonies that would make 10cc blush. Throwing in an old style Hammond solo, things take an unexpected Uriah Heep-ish twist before bouncing to glory on a final verse that finds space for extra la-las and harmonic fun. It’s so busy, arrangement wise, that it should be a car crash; it’s to the band’s eternal credit that it’s a really exciting piece of pop that really deserves a wider audience.

Although never straying too far from the original template, the Doc Thomas Group’s treatment of the classic ‘Rescue Me’ (an album cut from 1967) is very good indeed. Frontman Stan Tippins could never hope to reach the vocal highs of Fontella Bass so, wisely, he doesn’t even try. His performance is solid R&B fare – the kind of thing you’d expect from a band doing the hard yards on the live circuit at the time – but the recording is very much driven by some punchy bass work from the soon-to-be-famous Pete ‘Overend’ Watts and a band clearly locked into a decent groove. Very much a forerunner to Mott The Hoople, the band also featured Mick Ralphs on guitar, who departed not long after this recording was made; a later line up featured future Mott drummer Dale ‘Buffin’ Griffin. Those connections alone will make this archive recording of curiosity value to many.

Well known among psych and rock fans, though without ever becoming household names, The Craig made one of the era’s best cult 7”s with ‘I Must Be Mad’. Once something of a rarity, it’s since popped up on various compilations. Still something of a welcome addition here, its brief display of phased guitar and crashing drums is little more than a heavy handed Who pastiche in some ways, but through its sheer force and volume, it generates a real excitement that arguably better bands never quite mustered. Vocalist Geoff Brown and guitarist Richard Pannell then formed Galliard, a psych-folk band that showed similar levels of talent and promise, but also failed to make a huge breakthrough. Their ‘Modern Day Fairy Tale’ (found on this collection’s second disc) is a brilliant piece of beat pop where a world of strummed acoustics and wistful vocals morph into semi prog-ish grooves, accentuating a brilliantly warm bass and unexpected muted trumpet solo. In terms of brilliant discoveries, it’s a real treat.

Keen psych heads will be more than familiar with The World of Oz through the excellent Decca compilation ‘The Psychedelic Scene’, a budget priced disc that does exactly what it says on the tin. In terms of melodic structure, ‘Like A Tear’ is one of their lesser tracks, presenting a minimalist half-stoned melody over a tabla and soaring guitar, but in capturing the free spirited and adventure of the dying 60s, it absolutely screams hippie ideals. It’s unlikely to be a huge smash even with the most ardent fan of 60s counter culture, to be honest. Anyone with an interest in World of Oz after hearing a track or two elsewhere should make a beeline for ‘Willow’s Harp’, the closing track of their sole LP which fuses psych rock with the beginnings of 70s funk and soul, weaving some great guitar lines in and out of a great, impassioned vocal performance. It hardly sounds like the same band at all. Far less ubiquitous, Luv Machine were a band who’d often make rare album features in Record Collector magazine, along with Affinity, Blossom Toes and Elias Hulk. On ‘Reminiscing’ (a cut from their only, posthumously released LP) they sound like a band that should have really broken through. The number’s strident rock sounds come with a howling blues solo and really funky swagger. The overall tones are every bit as good as Toe Fat and at least a dozen other melodic hard rockers. Their lack of success is likely due to the market being saturated by lots of similar bands in ’71. If there presence here leads to a renewed interest in the short-lived band, then that’s all to the good.

On the other end of the musical scale, it’s nice to be reminded of a few massive hit makers with the help of a few less obvious picks. If the West Midlands were a stick of rock, it’d likely have the word Slade written through the centre in bold capitals. As has been said many times – though it’s a sentiment that bears repeating – Slade are far greater than their well loved yuletide hit and a few other chart bothering shout-alongs. Their albums are rich and varied, moving from R&B, to blues and pop; Jim Lea’s piano based tunes display a great sophistication and the early live recordings show a band capable of stretching out every bit as well as Ten Years After or The Groundhogs. They were one of the first – and only – successful bands to cover a Frank Zappa tune, so they seemed pretty fearless in terms of what they could achieve. Their ‘One Way Hotel’ (taken from their second LP ‘Play It Loud’) is much more nuanced than most of the noisy anthems the world came to love. Mixing garage rock guitars with a strong R&B backline, driven by Dave Hill’s echoing tone and a strong bassline from the multi-talented Jim Lea, it has a very interesting arrangement. Those paying close attention will hear future echoes of ‘Everyday’ in a few of Lea’s bass runs, but this is one of those tunes that almost feels unique in the Slade canon; the sound of a band pushing forward from their garage rock roots and further towards the anthemic rock that’d make their fortune. A pre-cursor to Slade, The N’Betweens serve up some no frills rhythm ‘n’ blues on an extended version of their 60s track ‘Security’, which barely hints at the talents to come, but is fairly fun in a tried and tested way with its chiming guitars and prominent basslines paying tribute to the soulful sounds of Detroit, before taking a detour into crashier moods where the band barely hide their desire to be The Who.

Although The Moody Blues will always be loved for their grandiose approach to pop, pushing great melodies into progressive shapes, ‘Life’s Not Life’ provides a handy reminder of their origins with Denny Laine, sounding more like a richer version of The Hollies, whilst British blues legends Chicken Shack showcase a confident ‘When The Train Comes Back’, a solemn piano-led tune that shows why Christine Perfect was one of the era’s most formidable talents. The brilliance comes solely from Christine and her rich, aching vocal. Musically, it isn’t always so special; in its tendency to amble while Stan Webb struggles to drop a decent guitar solo, it plainly shows why Fleetwood Mac were a thousand times better – a fact that only seems to be amplified with each passing year. That said, it’s nice to hear something that isn’t ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’.

Despite being one of the Midlands’ most essential bands, Traffic aren’t particularly well promoted here. ‘No Face No Name No Number’ (from their debut album, ‘Mr. Fantasy’) is by turns maudlin, haunting, and even flat out miserable. It showcases the young Steve Winwood in fine voice, but the slow arrangement – heavy on the drones – never allows him to soar in the truly effective way of band’s more soulful/jazz inflected output. Those with a deep interest in psych will certainly glean something from the unsettling arrangement, but those with more of a rock persuasion might consider it slight. Given that this broad collection advertises itself as “Brumrock”, it seems odd that a more obviously rock derived tune wasn’t selected from the Traffic canon. Something like the Cream-esque ‘Pearly Queen’ seems like such a natural choice. A much better proposition is a solo track from Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi. In direct relation to Steve’s, Jim’s extra curricular work has been vastly overlooked, and his solo debut – 1974’s ‘Oh How We Danced’ – is nothing short of a masterpiece. Taken from that album, ‘Eve’ shows Capaldi at his most reflective. Capaldi’s piano playing is strident throughout, placing him almost in the same sphere as Elton John circa 1971, but it’s actually his mellow, almost chocolatey vocal style that carries the broadest appeal. Traffic fans shouldn’t fear that everything is too schmaltzy, though, as the second half of the track builds upon a fine melody. With the addition of an understated organ and a reasonable guitar solo from Jimmy Johnson, the beginnings of its true brilliance begin to emerge, but it’s once the horns kick in – almost unexpectedly – it shifts from being something that sounds like reasonable AM radio filler from decades past to something that holds firm as a launching point for a potential solo career. The horns make Capaldi’s chosen blend of pop, rock and soul really spring to life. Looking back across the decades, a lyric that was almost certainly about purity now seems a little sinister, but it’s probably best not to read too much into it. In just thee and a half minutes, Capaldi shows a natural affinity for the soft and understated, which actually makes him seem like a peer of Leon Russell or various Asylum Records signings. On a brilliant single cut from Winwood’s ex-bandmates, The Spencer Davis Group prove that even though half the scene had gone dayglo, there was still room for some no-nonsense rhythm ‘n’ blues. Their ‘Moonshine’ offers some really aggressive organ work and massive basslines as the band jam through a really tight arrangement. The legions of people who stopped following them after Steve’s departure in ’67 missed out on some great music. This is just one of many examples of why the SDG’s output between 1969-73 is just as essential, despite declining popularity.

‘Rocka Rolla’, the title track from Judas Priest’s under bought debut LP, barely even hints at the massive studs ‘n’ leather heavy metal titans they would become, but is enjoyable in its own right as a buoyant 70s hard rocker that places fun above almost everything else. Guitarists Glenn Tipton and KK Downing offer a riff that’s just this side of jaunty – more of a cockney knees-up than traditional metal – whilst soon to be legendary frontman Rob Halford churns out some near laughable lyrics and occasionally dabbles with a harmonica. It features a use of multi tracked vocals on the chorus that should have sounded better but remain servicable, but between a couple of great solos, some Thin Lizzy-esque twin leads and a strong vocal presence, it just about holds its own. Priest, meanwhile, would sound a thousand times better on their ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ LP, issued less than two years later, but all bands have to start somewhere… Apparently, the band’s then label, the small and independent Gull Records, wanted to put horns on this too. That would have made it feel almost glammy; it might have even worked out for the better. Also on the more “riff based” side of things, Blackfoot Sue – a band on the coattails of glam – deliver a paean to their homeland with ‘Bye Bye Birmingham’, an absolute stomper that, on first listen, sounds like a budget Slade with extra bar-room piano. It’s better than that, of course; its high energy performance shows off a decent rock band capable of holding their own with the best glam of the era, and brief moments of guitar and vocal interplay show it to be far more than a hastily tossed off, shouty anthem. The often brilliant Trapeze eventually found a flawless hybrid of rock and soul on their third LP ‘You Are The Music, We’re Just The Band’ in 1972, but just a couple of years earlier, they were still clinging onto the last vestiges of psych. ‘Suicide’ (a track from their 1970 debut) begins to show some of their rockier side via a very muscular bassline from the young Glenn Hughes (a megastar in the making), but its fascination with falsetto vocals and R&B beats makes it seem like a late 60s overhang. It’s enjoyable enough on its own merits, but potential fans should in no way think this song is a clear representation of an oft-overlooked act. That said, as part of this collection, it sounds like an interesting nugget from an ever changing time.

A semi-well known face on the Birmingham scene, Dave Morgan first made inroads into a career with The Ugly’s (note that the erroneous apostrophe actually does form part of the band name), a band that also featured future hit-maker Steve Gibbons. Gibbons and Morgan then joined forces with The Move’s Trevor Burton in the equally unfortunately named Balls, a union that lasted a short time until Burton departed and made way for Denny Laine. Later, Morgan became an early member of pomp rock legends Magnum, and although his contributions to the band remained unreleased for years, ‘Baby I Need’ finally saw the light of day on Grapefruit Records’ ‘Riding The Rock Machine’ compilation in early 2021. A semi-prolific musician, a few of Morgan’s past endeavours can be found here. The Ugly’s’ ‘I Saw The Light’ sounds like a weird, dark Moody Blues knock off, mixing an orchestral core with choirs of vocals, massive bluesy guitars and love it/hate it Bowie-esque vocal. Its ambition is obviously greater than its ultimate achievement, but in terms of weird 60s pop/rock, it still has enough of a pull to interest those who enjoy all things arty. A track from Morgan’s 1971 solo LP, ‘Ill Wind’ is an altogether different proposition. Across a couple of minutes, Dave indulges in folk styled, finger picked guitar, weaving a psych-folk sound that’s well suited to a heavily treated vocal that comes with almost space rock pretentions. On first listen, it seems no more than mildly diverting; in time, it grows into the kind of hippie-ish nugget that adds more fuel to the argument that 1971 is one of rock’s most interesting years and even though this tune seems a couple of years out of date, its semi-psychedelic aspects are rather endearing. Another piece from Morgan’s musical jigsaw, ‘We’re Gonna Change All This’ by Fred’s Box is a fantastic piece of bubblegum pop/rock where the assembled musicians embark on something that sounds like a hybrid of Vanity Fare and The Move. A tune big on bounce and jubilant vocal, it’s the kind of thing that bridges the gap between the late 60s psych scene and MOR 70s pop with a real ease; the playing is tight and the simple lyrical hook is so incessant, you couldn’t fail to love it.

As for Morgan’s old bandmate Steve Gibbons, his eponymously named band found fame throughout the 70s and beyond with a string of albums with a pub rock-ish backbone. Naturally, he’s one of this set’s bigger names. His ‘Brown Girl’ (from the 1971 LP ‘Short Stories’) features a now rather unfortunate set of lyrics regarding a new mixed race relationship, but heavy handed race relations aside, the arrangement is lovely. A tune that could’ve settled for middling rock sounds is afforded a massive brass hook, a flute solo and Roy Wood-esque cello, helping to create the kind of wall of sound that US rock band Vehicle would’ve surely been floored by. Gibbons appears elsewhere on this journey as credited co-writer on The Bobcats’ ‘Let Me Get By’, a spirited slab of beat group mod pop from ’67 proudly proclaiming the arrival of “the new generation” that’s guaranteed to thrill all lovers of energetic R&B sounds. In 2019 – prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Gibbons was part of a touring live show called ‘Brum Rocks Live’, in which his all-star band featured both Trevor Burton and drummer Bev Bevan which, obviously, brings us squarely back to…The Move.

In the hands of another label, this could’ve ended up being a cheap cash in, xmas stocking filler, or something for the less demanding rock fan. In their usual style, though, Grapefruit Records have come up trumps: the accompanying booklet notes are both accessible and useful as a guide for anyone looking to delve a little further; in offering a few lesser known nuggets from familiar faces, it works as a pleasing reminder of interesting back catalogues, and in bringing a few rarities on board, it deserves attention from some of the more enthusiastic crate diggers. In short, this is more than your average 60s/70s rock comp. Although, arguably, it isn’t all “bostin’” in the truest sense, anyone with the vaguest interest in British rock history will find plenty to enjoy here.

October/November 2021