FLASH – In The USA: Live Recordings 1972-73

In terms of their very limited studio output, Flash were, and remain, one of the most overlooked bands of the early 70s. Despite featuring two ex-members of Yes – Peter Banks (guitar) and Tony Kaye (keyboards) – their work isn’t often mentioned with the revered tones it so deserves. Their first two albums (‘Flash’ and ‘In The Can’) are home to some brilliant sounds, mixing elements of blues and prog with bits of hard rock. Although sometimes less fussy than the band Banks and Kaye left behind, Flash’s work is no less grand. At their best, they could fuse jazz rock elements with ethereal vocals (‘There No More’), or hit upon a great 70s rock groove and pepper that with obvious Yes-like flourishes (‘Children of The Universe’). Their work could occasionally be derivative of Yes; their albums sometimes felt like cobbled together collections rather than truly cohesive works, but Flash were never dull.

As its title suggests, ‘In The USA: Live 1972-73’ offers a selection of recordings sourced from various transatlantic stints and, as such, should provide a welcome counterpart to the studio recordings for any self-respecting fan. The reality, though, is that – as comprehensive as this three CD set actually is – most of the source materials leave much to be desired. The lion’s share of the tapes are taken from average bootleg sources and never really present the performances with the kind of clarity they deserve.

The recordings from Hempstead in 1972 are the exception. Four songs, presumably from a soundboard source, were recorded in front of a small audience at Ultrasonic Studios. They have the same vibe as many Scandinavian radio shows from the era and ‘Small Beginnings’, in particular, is played with vigour, featuring Banks in scorching form, and vocalist Colin Carter really reaching for the extremes, taking his voice through soulful cries into some great, booming rock tropes. The busy number works the band hard and you’d expect the audience to be appreciative, but the smattering of polite applause suggests this has been a chin-stroking introspective experience for those present. ‘There’s No More’ (still a work in progress and announced as ‘Room With A View’) kicks off with a riotous drum solo fusing the excesses of 70s hard rock with jazz undertones, before sliding into something akin to the familiar album arrangement, albeit a little chunkier. Carter is in amazing voice, and Banks’s clean and jazzy tones certainly sound like a throwback to Yes’ ‘Time And A Word’ album in places, but this merely adds to the greatness of the performance.

A great version of ‘Children of The Universe’ showcases Flash as strong singers and really casts a spotlight on some of Peter’s more angular guitar sounds, occasionally suggesting he wasn’t always so different from his Yes successor Steve Howe, and following an insanely noisy intro of crashing cymbals and feedback – there’s nothing like making a point – ‘Dreams of Heaven’ rounds out a great but short set with a fifteen minute tour de force where Banks indulges in a lot of shimmering guitar, various jazz rock sounds and eventually a hard clanging tone that evokes the late 60s like very little else. By the time the whole band falls into place around the six minute mark, there’s a slightly distorted jam – somewhere between heavy prog and jazz rock, but that soon gives way to another shimmering solo and – regrettably – a jam on the ‘Oh Suzanna’ riff, before a world of wanton crashing and feedback signifies another change. It seems to take an age before the Cream-meets-Yes styled song finally emerges, and even that descends into ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ – years before Magnum made that a thing. It’s sort of a mess, but it sounds like band and audience have had a good time. Revisiting it years after the fact is certainly an experience.

Three recordings from Indianapolis ’72 have a reasonable presence. ‘Small Beginnings’ makes Flash sound as if they’re playing in an empty aircraft hangar (or recorded from the gents’ toilets, most likely), but even so, everything seems present, assuming you’re already familiar with the source material. The vocals err on the side of painfully loud, but the extended instrumental parts highlight some nice interplay between Banks and bassist Ray Bennett; ‘Black & White’ (taken from a much better source) is much louder. Distortion is still present, but the balance between Carter and the rest of the band is much better. Bennett’s bass work is less prominent, but a stronger focus on the harmony vocals and a very live drum sound give the less than ideal recording source a feeling of energy, and ‘Children of The Universe’ conveys the same spirit with some furious drum work underscoring Banks in a rather spiky mood. As far as bootlegs go, you’ll have heard far better, but for the bigger fan, this incomplete selection comes under the heading of “nice to have”, and they’re supposedly a little clearer than any previously circulated tapes.

Two performances taken from a broadcast in 1973 are reasonably clear, but very obviously in a no-frills mono source. Even so, ‘Dead Ahead’ has moments that suggest the live Flash were capable of a genuine ferocity. The vocals are pretty bad – Carter seems to have increased his affected croon by this point – and some of Peter’s jazzier tendencies seem at odds with a band opting for a far more Jefferson Airplane-esque sound, but it’s interesting to hear where Flash were at, retrospectively. Through the slight distortion, it’s also interesting to hear Banks very obviously channelling Howe on the then new ‘Psycosync’, but beyond that, the band’s increased jazz fusion tendencies combined with Carter wailing incessantly make it a hard listen regardless of the bootleg source.

The most complete show captures six tracks from a 1972 show in New York. It’s of the same kind of clarity as the Indianapolis set, musically, but an uglier vocal makes the recording harder to take, especially if attempting it in one sitting. Even so, it’s great to hear Banks absolutely steaming through ‘Black & White’ and ‘There’s No More’, and in terms of drumming, parts of this set could be Mike Hough’s peak. The very aggressive ‘Lifetime’ makes its only appearance on this expansive collection, incomplete unfortunately, but the chunk that’s offered captures some great bass work punching through a wall of noise, and the quieter ‘Monday Morning Eyes’ (from a different source) at least allows some important harmonies to come through. As for the rest, the old faithfuls ‘Children of The Universe’ and ‘Small Beginnings’ can be found in yet more lo-fi sources, not really offering much of an alternative to other live takes found elsewhere in this lovingly compiled but somewhat shoddy set.

Regarding the remaining recordings, it really is slim pickings in terms of finding anything of genuine quality. There isn’t really anything anyone other than a hardcore fan might listen to more than a couple of times. The three performances from Passaic, NJ start out in the worst possible way, pretty much dominated by a loud drum kit and the high end of the guitar. Everything else sounds like mud. Some of the guitar sounds bleed into the bass, and a loud, echoing vocal is fairly distracting. Such a poor source makes the complexities of ‘Small Beginnings’, in particular, almost inaudible. By the time ‘Black & White’ finds its feet, the recording levels out a little, but is now very much centred around the rhythm section, making Banks almost redundant in places. As before, Carter’s voice is reduced to a huge reverbed noise, but at least the harmonies cut through when expected. The source used for ‘Children of The Universe’ is clearly the same, but the loudest end of the performance is blighted by more heavy distortion. A chore to wade through, these show highlights captured for posterity are definitely only of interest to the completist.

Two recordings taken from a 1973 gig in Miami are a reminder of how bad bootlegs used to be, sounding no better than the Deep Purple MK1 show from Inglewood. A drum and vocal dominated mulch during the verses of ‘Children of The Universe’ will only be discernable by the bigger Flash fan, and the bulk of ‘Black & White’ shows signs of being pulled from a third generation cassette dub. A muddy noise, this makes it sound as if Flash were merely about having Peter Banks recycle bits of his Yes past over a generic power trio, which obviously, does the rest of Flash a massive disservice. In fairness, two surviving performances from a 1973 Cape Cod show are a little better than the Miami tracks since the main thrust gives an equal balance between the musicians, but the audience tape makes them sound half a mile away. This is just about okay when the instrumental stuff comes to the fore – and even through severely limited audio, it sounds like they’re in great shape – but Carter’s vocals are especially nasty when heard in this lo-fi way. Again, they’re so much louder than they should be. Before it became the norm for every note by historically important bands got dragged from the archive in the name of a bank balance, this wouldn’t have passed muster for the paying punter. It barely does now, to be brutally honest – it’s a sledgehammer reminder of why bootlegs should only really be swapped among friends.

It’s great that the short Ultrasonic Studios set now has an official release, but it’s likely that most fans will already have that on a half decent bootleg disc. As for the bulk of rest, unfortunately, the layered and complex nature of Flash’s material is such that it really doesn’t hold up to the official bootleg experience. In the way that, say, Glenn Hughes bootlegs can sometimes convey a feeling of actually “being there”, a lot of this sounds like a huge, unforgiving noise, even after extensive cleaning up. Of course, Yes completists might get just enough from this lo-fi experience to deem it all worthwhile; after all, these are recordings of some historical importance. With all the goodwill in the world, though, it’s fair to say that those who find this absolutely indispensable – especially when retailing at a relatively high price point for something technically without a genuine copyright – will be few and far between.

July/August 2022