The British blues boom was arguably one of the most important movements in musical history. Not only did it launch the careers of various guitar heroes – players much loved for decades afterwards – but the guitar driven sounds also paved the way for a whole universe of rock music. With that in mind, it’s interesting how few compilations have celebrated the British blues scene. Aside from Grapefruit Records’ excellent ‘Crawling Up A Hill’ box set, any other releases have been label specific, leaving a huge gap in the market for a set to explore some of the more niche sounds from the era.
‘Shake That Thing: The Blues In Britain 1963-1973’ is perfect in that regard. This three CD set from Grapefruit casts a much wider net than their earlier box set, but never loses site of its core objective. Bluesy sounds are out there, front and centre, at all times, but it also looks beyond the usual suspects to celebrate blues laden tunes shared by other singer songwriters, folkies and rock bands during a hugely transitional period.
From the scene’s inception, Cyril Davies and His Rhythm & Blues All-Stars create a raw take on a soon to be familiar sound with ‘Country Line Special’, a hard edged, harmonica driven piece that sounds like something The Rolling Stones would take to a mass audience around the same time. It’s fuller sounding than anything on The Stones’ debut, though, thanks to a busy electric piano joining the relentless harmonica. In under two and a half minutes, the band whip up an energetic musical storm, with no weak links within the featured players. Fusing blues elements and a gospel aesthetic, ‘Up Above My Head’ by Long John Baldry & The Hoochie Coochie Men is almost as sharp. Of note on this fairly basic track, beyond Baldry’s distinctive roar, is a counter vocal from a gruff voiced Rod Stewart, a talented young blues singer who would go onto bigger things. The call and response approach between the two vocalists keeps the track really buoyant and in lots of ways is its main focus, but there’s also a loud, if reedy sounding, guitar part just beneath the surface and a brilliant rolling piano line which creates a striking intro. This is the sound of a band who would take clubs by storm, and it’s great that one of the British blues scene’s lesser celebrated heroes gets his full due here. Roderick re-appears on his own recording of the Sonny Boy Williamson (I) standard, ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’, released as a 7” single on Decca Records in 1964. Regardless of how badly the subject matter plays in a more enlightened time, there’s no knocking Stewart’s ability to deliver a great vocal on the track. Even though the musical arrangement has shifted from a raw blues to a buoyant groove, that’s great too, adding an almost skiffle feel to the guitar part (played by session man Jimmy Page), whilst retaining some really bluesy tones in the great piano work. In terms of setting up the rudiments of the British blues boom and shining a light on people who’d soon become a major part of its foundations, this is certainly an important track.
Davy Graham and John Renbourn would become integral parts of the folk set by the late 60s, but their respective tracks here (‘Goin’ Down Slow’ and ‘Louisiana Blues’) are fine listens, geared towards the bigger British blues buff. Graham shows a brilliant gift for string-bending, hard soloing on ‘Goin’ Down Slow’, whilst the almost peerless Renbourn applies some perfect slide guitar on the Delta infused ‘Louisiana Blues’. A stripped down take, featuring just voice and guitar, it really brings out the natural talent in Renbourne’s style. Accompanied by jazz bass and rolling piano, Beverley Martyn wields a big vocal on ‘Me & My Gin’. Her slight warble might be more of an acquired taste, but the young singer possesses a voice way beyond her years on this archive track from 1966. Martyn is the featured performer, clearly aiming to muscle in on a role that would soon be owned by Christine Perfect (the undisputed queen of British Blues performers), but her backing band on this recording session are of greater interest. The omnipresent John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page are joined by John Renbourn, and – adding most of this track’s musical greatness via a perfect piano – Stones sideman Nicky Hopkins plays up an absolute storm. On a set crammed with great tracks, this is certainly a rare treat from the archives.
Originally found on the flip of their ’67 single ‘Granny Takes A Trip’, The Purple Gang’s ‘Boot Leg Whiskey’ is a genuine curio. It finds a band best known for being on the fringes of psych trying their hand at a bluesy number, in the jug band style. Unfortunately, that means a rattling bar-room piano and kazoo are overused throughout, leading to something a bit ugly in the Mungo Jerry mould. A few of the lax vocals are fine enough – although sound very period specific – and an occasional harmonica shows more promise, but it isn’t exactly forgotten treasure of any kind. That said, it’s one of this set’s only duds – the quality threshold here is surprisingly high. Tackling a sparse piano blues, Savoy Brown’s ‘Vicksburg Blues’ carries a much older soul than its mid 60s origins would have you believe. A simple recording, made without guitar parts or percussion of any kind, it’s another nod to the genre’s origins, and although Chris Youlden doesn’t really have the vocal chops required for such a number, pianist Bob Hall (also of the Brunning Hall Sunflower Blues Band, featuring the Fleetwood Mac adjacent Bob Brunning) puts in some really hard yards, creating a sound worthy of the great Otis Spann.
From the 1972 compilation ‘Matchbox Days’, guitarist Wizz Jones shares a rather pleasing, stripped down take of Mance Lipscombe’s ‘(About A) Spoonful’. For those who enjoy the folkier strains of the blues, this is definitely one of the set’s highlights, since it captures this oft-overlooked musician in full on Bert Jansch mode. The strummed elements are interspersed with some great picked elements, and the bluesy shuffle that emanates from Wizz’s acoustic sometimes sounds like the work of two men. With a folky vocal joining a perfect melody, this will certainly provide a great listen for most fans of the trad folk-blues style, as well as opening up the Jones catalogue to anyone who’s (likely) missed it, whilst The Animals offer a gruff rhythm and blues run through of the familiar ‘See See Rider’. Although this lacks the soulfulness of the Lavern Baker recording, or the showmanship of Elvis Presley’s live performances, it more than compensates for any shortcomings by stoking up the organ and a very 60s guitar, resulting in a recording that’s actually a mod friendly banger. …And as you might expect, Eric Burdon’s rough and ready presence pulls the best out of its repetitive refrain with ease.
As you might expect, a lot of this set’s gold standard stuff – from dedicated blues bands or otherwise – dates from the pre-hard rock period between 1968-1970. Years before ‘Solid Air’ became a must-have LP, singer-songwriter John Martyn was already an accomplished and hard working musician. Playing like a souped up version of John Renbourn’s ‘Louisiana Blues’, Martyn’s ‘Going Down To Memphis’ (from his 1968 LP, ‘The Tumbler’) features a whole world of bluegrass guitar work interspersed with a deftly played slide. Coupled with a sweet, clear vocal, this is a pure example of a folk-blues hybrid, and with nothing to clutter the end result, it reminds the listener of Martyn’s exceptional musical skills. A brilliant track, no question; a recording that should inspire people to explore his back-catalogue further. The equally brilliant Bert Jansch offers a much simpler blues shuffle via the prosaically named ‘Blues’, but even that has a worldly charm, since his clear acoustic tones are backed ably by a brilliant jazz bass, often sounding like a warm up for a more complex Pentangle piece. And his Pentangle are here, too. One of the UK’s premier folk rock bands, they occasionally dabbled with other styles, and ‘Turn Your Money Green’ is a jaunty little blues recording where stripped down guitar is overlaid with some lovely harmonies. Jacqui McShee could never rival Christine McVie in the vocal stakes, but her semi-folky lilt more than holds its own on this upbeat tune. It’s made all the more impressive by being recorded live; the set-up gives the musicians nothing to hide behind, meaning any flaws would sound massive, but on this night, everything is pitch perfect.
Of great interest to the more purist ear, Sam Mitchell’s ‘Leaf Without A Tree’ features just voice and guitar in a Delta blues style. Mitchell’s smart slide guitar work cuts through Renbourn-ish complexities, instantly showcasing a gifted player, but it’s his voice which really resonates. Despite being a white guy from Scotland, his vocal has a pained rawness that taps into a pure blues cry, and the live sound of the recording brings out a semi-distorted edge that brings the piece to life. Equally raw – in the best possible way – is JoAnn Kelly’s ‘Moon Goin’ Down’ which pits her gravel soaked voice against a shimmering twelve string guitar. Channelling Memphis Minnie, Kelly really gets to the heart of the blues, and although she’s heard crying her way through a fairly standard melody, there’s a real ache in her performance – so much so, it makes John Mayall seem like a mere pretender. In the early 70s Kelly was also a member of Tramp – a band best remembered for being an extra curricular vehicle for a couple of Fleetwood Mac faces. Tramp mightn’t revel in the stripped down purity of Kelly’s solo recordings, and she isn’t even a featured voice on ‘Too Late Now’, but its a superb track, regardless of her absence. It showcases a great late night sound where a sad piano rolls a melody against a forlorn vocal. JoAnn’s brother Dave sounds a little world weary, and despite not being the greatest singer, he maintains a solid presence throughout. It’s the piano that quickly becomes the track’s true star, though, and as with the Savoy Brown track, Bob Hall’s playing is absolutely terrific. There’s nothing here that draws from the blues rock boom of the era; it really does revisit a much earlier sound, but in doing so, it gives Tramp a genuine claim of being one of the British scene’s most overlooked acts.
Another Dave Kelly track – credited to Little Brother Dave, and originally featured on the Spark Records compilation ‘Firepoint’ in 1969 – is home to more busy acoustic work, and a few folky flourishes really capture Kelly’s intricate style. He’s still a little more ragged than, say, Bert Jansch when heard playing this way, but his approach to a riff is impressive. Adopting a slightly deeper tone than on the Tramp track, he brings a richness to a blues workout that’s actually rather nice, without weakening its purer elements. It’s definitely one of this box set’s recommended listens, and its great that it’ll reach new ears here. Harmonica player Shakey Vick opts for the same sparse approach as Sam Mitchell on a near perfect take of the now standard ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ where his blues harp cries against minimalist acoustic slide guitar. He does little to update the track, which shows a superb restraint during the blues rock bombast of 1969, and as such, his love for the genre seems clearer than most, whilst ‘Lou’s Blues’ from Killing Floor opts for more of a fun feel when sharing some busy boogie woogie piano. It’s speedy, but also precise. Pianist Lou Martin plays up a storm throughout, and for the future Rory Gallagher sideman, it’s the ultimate show piece, which appears to have been captured in a single take.
Gerry Lockran’s ‘Evil Hearted Man’ takes a similar approach to the Little Brother Dave track by exploring a solo performance combining voice and acoustic guitar, but manages to be slightly weaker. There’s little wrong with Lockran’s playing; his abilities to deliver a blues based shuffle in a busy style are more than evident, but he sings in an affected manner that makes him sound like a light entertainer making fun of the blues. It’s certainly not terrible, but it’s certain that most blues fans will find much better material here, whilst, in terms of big voices, Fran McGillivray challenges JoAnn Kelly for memorability on a brilliantly sparse verse of ‘It Hurts Me Too’. A standard recorded by many over the decades – Clapton, Dylan, Grateful Dead, Foghat and almost countless others – it takes on a whole different, almost haunting atmosphere in Fran’s hands. The recording is so much about her huge vocal presence that the acoustic guitar almost sounds as if it were coming from a different room, and it’s easy to assume that this recording – originally released in December 1969 – was inspired by the Karen Dalton release earlier in the year. Dalton may have possessed one of those strange voices that seemed as if it were beamed in from the 1920’s, but this version is superior in terms of all round enjoyment.
Elsewhere, that massively gifted singer-songwriter Ralph McTell delivers some ragtime blues on ‘My Baby Keeps Me Staying Out All Night Long’, sounding like a descendent of Robert Johnson’s ‘They’re Red Hot’, Pete Wingfield’s Jellybread trot through a likeable upbeat blues that isn’t far removed from some of the Chicken Shack works of the era – albeit supplemented with a much better piano sound – and The Occasional Word pull out a twin slide guitar bonanza on the two-pronged ‘Megaphone/I’m So Glad’, giving this box set another archival gem. Unfortunately, you’ll also discover psych band The Deviants trotting out a particularly wazzed version of the blues on ‘Blind Joe McTurk’s Last Session’, a joke number that was likely not funny ten minutes after they left the studio, but this kind of sprawling compilation is never perfect.
Even as the seventies took a hold and a lot of guitar based bands moved towards heavier sounds, this set shows how the blues was still a big part of the music scene, and Blue Blood’s 1970 cut ‘Black Mountain Blues’ is surprisingly purist for the era. A piano blues in the style of Otis Spann, the tune comes absolutely loaded with a rolling melody, and scratchy percussion replaces a traditional drum part. The vocals are equally raw, lending a very authentic feel, suggesting something that could’ve been recorded two decades earlier. All these things combined present a blues tune that shows just how seriously some British acts were in recreating the sounds of their heroes, and as far as this collection is concerned, this is another highlight – a recording to rival the very best JoAnn Kelly tracks. Red Dirt share another great acoustic tune with ‘I’ve Been Down’, a 1970 LP cut which at first suggests a love of the folk blues with its perfectly pitched finger picking, before growing into a full bodied electric jam where big drums and, latterly, a mournful electric solo take a dominant role. You won’t discover anything original here, but it’s really well played, and the massive reverb on the vocal gives the recording a live feel that helps bring it to life.
Mixing finger picked rhythms and a gently applied slide, Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts pay homage to a traditional blues on ‘Haven’t Any Hay’. It’s so loving a pastiche, they’ve made sure you’d struggle to pick out the finer points of the lyric thanks to a slightly slurred vocal. The lines between perfection and parody perhaps become a little too blurry here, but you possibly wouldn’t expect much less from a band who later plied their wares as novelty act Terry Dactyl & The Dinosaurs… An unmissable treat, Black Cat Bones’ ‘Death Valley Blues’ works some perfect electric blues, in a British tradition that provided the backbone of the Cream and Zeppelin debuts. A slow burning tune anchored by a massive bass, it fills four minutes with an aching vocal and some of the most incendiary lead guitar work on this entire set. It almost feels as if you’re in the studio with the band, such is the tone from the lead, and his playing suggests even more future greatness. That tone belongs to Rod Price, who would later strike musical gold with Foghat. Since his more famous band relied heavily on him using slide, it’s a pleasure to hear him channelling the likes of Jimmy Page with a genuine fire here. On the other end of the scale, you have to endure the dubious talents of Incredible String Band, a bunch of stoned hippies who embody the free spirit of the late 60s in the worst possible way. Their ‘Robot Blues’ features some half decent piano work – although it still sounds sloppy if measured against the likes of Bob Hall – but is ultimately let down by a bad vocal that sounds like someone not taking their job entirely seriously. It’s interesting for a cursory listen out of historical interest, but never deserving of any more than that.
Lovers of acoustic sounds will find a new favourite in Roger Hubbard’s ‘Cigarette Blues’, a 1971 LP track where the performer takes influence from Bert Jansch, adds a ragtime blues twist and a Dylan homage in the vocal to make it his own. The lack of other musicians really benefits the arrangement; the listener is constantly drawn to some perfect finger picking, and the way the performer gradually turns the idea of smoking into some kind of sexual fetish provides an interesting twist on the overused lemon metaphor. Assuming you’re not burnt out by now, you’ll also find another great acoustic shuffle powering Strange Fruit’s ‘Shake That Thing’, an enthusiastic jug band number that shows up Mungo Jerry for being the chancers they were, and ‘How You Want Your Rollin’ Done’, a stripped down blues folk tune by the largely unknown Tight Like That, dating from 1972. This doesn’t sound particularly revelatory heard decades after the fact, at least musically, but there’s a definite character to the warbled vocal which listeners will either love or hate. That voice belongs to Dave Peabody, whose solo recording ‘Last of The Good Time Guys’ is even better – not only because it allows him to find an even better blues voice, but also because it’s a brilliant showcase for his guitar work. Throughout a very busy two minutes, this oft unheralded talent shows off a bunch of riffs that sound like a cousin to bits of ‘Led Zeppelin III’. That is to say it sounds like Jimmy Page ripping off Bert Jansch…so much so, it’s surprising that Peabody is never named as someone by whom Pagey was been “influenced”.
Of course, in addition to all that, all the massively familiar faces are represented on this musical journey, too: Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, Clapton, Chicken Shack and the godfather of the British blues, Mr. Alexis Korner, each with something massively representative of their accepted greatness. In truth, although this anthology features a lot of bands who wouldn’t necessarily consider the blues a major part of their sound, it is a set that plays brilliantly. It reminds us of some overlooked acts; introduces everyone to a lot of deeper cuts, and above all, celebrates a really great sound and aesthetic. It’s likely there’s something included within ‘Shake That Thing’ for everyone, and explored in tandem with ‘Crawling Up A Hill’, it offers, perhaps, the most comprehensive exploration of the British blues and its reverberations to date.
Buy the box set here: Shake That Thing