VARIOUS ARTISTS – You Can Walk Across It On The Grass: The Boutique Sounds Of Swinging London

The subsidiary labels within the Cherry Red family aren’t shy of mining the mod, soul and freakbeat archives in the name of a great compilation. The now defunct RPM issued a string of box sets, beginning with 2011’s ‘Looking Back’ and culminating with 2016’s ‘Looking Stateside’ which became a pleasingly comprehensive journey through an alternative 60s, and Strawberry Records’ similarly structured ‘Halcyon Days’ and its timely delivered follow up ‘I Love To See You Strut’ – issued in 2020 and 2022, respectively – proved equally essential.

‘You Can Walk It Across The Grass: The Boutique Sounds of Swinging London’ presents a Grapefruit Records take on similar themes, producing another superb selection for your collection. As you might expect from Cherry Red’s premier purveyors of 60s pop and psych, though, a few of their selections are occasionally a little more out there, man – there are a few detours into lounge jazz and other moods, along with a couple of obvious novelties. But, with the help of the peerless Dusty Springfield, The Spencer Davis Group, John Mayall, Small Faces and Georgie Fame and a pre-fame David Bowie performing with his Lower Third, there’s no need to be cautious. There are plenty of classic tunes – a few of which you might’ve forgotten, or never previously found – to help make this 93 track selection feel perfectly balanced.

The set, of course, at its most interesting when taking curve balls, or perhaps sharing a tune or six that time has deemed…a little less essential, even if such things were moderate hits at the time. An instant stand out, ‘Pageing Sullivan’ by The London Studio Group is an instrumental number that’s huge on swinging drums, bell-like percussion, groovy organ solos and a jazz guitar. Fusing jazz with light psychedelia and a mood that’s like a freakout take on test card music, the whole caboodle screams 1966 like very little else. It’s absolutely brilliant. …And those guitars? Handled by none other than two of the scene’s best session men: Big Jim Sullivan and Little Jimmy Page! Also brilliant, ‘What I’m Trying To Do’ by Waygood Ellis is a should’ve-been floor filler from ’67 that blends a driving rhythm and big horns with a semi-gritty vocal to create a perfect mod-flavoured tribute to the Northern Soul sound. It’s so tight, it’s impossible not to be impressed within a couple of bars. A year earlier and its the kind of Small Faces inflected number that could’ve been huge. Also capturing a soul flavour, Dana Gillespie’s ‘She’s A Raver’ occasionally sounds like a Sandie Shaw number put through a 1965 Rolling Stones filter, but there’s little doubt that Gillespie had a natural talent in the vocal department. On this short number, her voice glides with a velvety ease on a quiet verse, before switching to a slightly harder edge for the chorus which commands attention without ever resorting to aggression. For fans of 60s deep cuts, it’s a track that’s definitely worth revisiting.

Compilation perennials The Artwoods serve punchy sounds on the sharp R&B of ‘Big City’, a tune just as notable for its strident blues guitar interjections and a vocal that sounds like Lonnie Donegan shouting, as it is for its anchoring Hammond Organ presence. Sure, it’s not as good as similar fare from Graham Bond, but its got spirit, and the same goes for ‘The Music Goes Round’, a jaunty number from The Jeeps, which mismatches the sunshine pop of The Monkees with a Reg Presley inspired vocal. They clearly had a frontman who was in the wrong band, but this is a track that still shines, thanks to an uplifting backing vocal and a touch of brass. The Roll Movement mix rhythm & blues with a soul tinged melody on ‘I’m On My Own’, a number that never seems to know whether it wants to tip the hat to the blues of Paul Jones or the grand pop of Honeybus, and yet still manages to work, despite itself. The vocal isn’t one of the scene’s best, but the track’s use of brass and an upfront McCartney-esque bassline ensure the music sounds great throughout. Another strange treat for 60s buffs comes from a pre-Cream Jack Bruce. ‘I’m Getting Tired (of Drinking & Gambling)’ places his distinctive vocal over a piano line that sounds like a heavy handed lift from Dave Brubeck, adds some weird jazzy instrumentation, and still allows plenty of space for a semi-theatrical vocal. It’s a track that proves that sometimes the individual elements never quite reach their full potential as a whole, since this is a little cluttered, and once you’ve spotted Jack desperately trying to steer the vocal away from becoming ‘Morning Has Broken’, it can’t be unheard. Still, it’s nice to hear a relative rarity, and even with its flaws, it suits this set rather well.

Sounding very cool – and certainly no strangers to regular buyers of 60s anthologies – Wynder K Frog – delve deeply into a world of soul drenched organs and big bits on ‘Henry’s Panter’, a tune that makes them sound like the post Steve Winwood Spencer Davis Group jamming a Mar-Keys number with The Mike Cotton Sound’s horn section. It’s so cool – and indelibly sixties mod – that it’s easy to forgive an unnecessary intro supplied by dubious DJ, Ed “Stewpot” Stewart. Speaking of the Mike Cotton Sound, their ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ supplies 60s excitement of another kind when the sometimes overlooked beat group channel a whole world of energy into a tune that sounds like The Dave Clark Five with a heavy R&B twist. Heard decades on, it isn’t as striking as some of the music from the period, but the track is tightly played and well arranged. Looking back, it should’ve been as big as some of the Manfred Mann hits. It’s certainly more exciting than a couple of Mann’s known tunes thanks to less exposure over the years. …And since it would be remiss to ignore Mann and Jones, you’ll find the Manfreds classic ‘5-4-3-2-1’ here, nestled somewhere on disc one – a track which surely needs no introduction.

Taking his first steps into a life of great music, the young Reg Dwight – later to straddle the globe as the peerless Elton Hercules John – takes the reins on Bluesology’s ‘Mr. Frantic’. His distinctive piano work takes second place to a great horn section on the track, but he can already be heard in great voice. The young performer hasn’t quite latched onto his distinctive delivery yet, but it’s a performance that exudes confidence – a star in the making – and the whole track explores a solid rhythm ‘n’ blues sound that fits well with a lot of the material here. Moon’s Train, a band with Bill Wyman connections, despite a lot of enthusiasm, aren’t quite on the same level. ‘I Get Excited’ would only be a middling piece of mod fare if left to a thudding drum part, practically non-existent rhythm and average lead vocal to provide excitement, but thankfully, there are a couple of key ingredients to lift the track. Firstly, there’s a swooshing brass accompaniment, bigging up a soul influence rather nicely, and then there’s a superior backing vocal, provided by a then new Loog Oldham signing: PP Arnold. Throughout the track, Pat’s louder tones put Peter Gosling’s lead vocals in the shade, clearly marking her territory as a future star, and channelling some great soul throughout. Despite being a less than essential track, there’s certainly something of interest here for fans of the style. Arnold’s relative fame has been well documented, of course, but what of Gosling? He later found a job as musical arranger on TV’s Play School, gaining relative fame as that guy who wasn’t Jonathan Cohen…

Jimmy James & The Vagabonds opt for speed on ‘I Wanna Be (Your Everything)’, a brilliant blend of early Isley Brothers influences and chopping rhythms, suitable for both a sophisticated pop audience and those who crave Northern Soul floor fillers. It’s more “zoot suit” than proto hippie ideals, but the musicianship is superb, and its guaranteed to lift the mood whenever and wherever it’s spun, and ‘Why Don’t I Run Away’ shares a welcome reminder of the young Kiki Dee in full on Dusty Springfield mode, presenting a massive vocal atop a brass led, rhythmic tune that would’ve pleased the soul fans and those on the fringes of the mod scene alike. Almost outshining Kiki herself, a huge choir of vocals supplied by The Breakaways really gives the arrangement a boost, resulting in a great soul workout. Although the more enthusiastic ‘Take A Look At Me’ (recorded by Kiki for the Fontana label later in ’66) might have provided an even stronger link with “boutique” sounds, this early recording is still a great signifier of a girl with a big talent.

Rhythm and blues meets jazzy horns on ‘New Directions’ by Dave Anthony’s Moods, a lesser heard track that manages to marry an Animals friendly bassline with a world of brass, and mod-tastic organ blasts. For something that at first feels like a slow burner, it’s actually a recording with a lot of energy during its louder parts, suggesting this was a band with some varied musical gifts. Then, yer actual Eric Burdon pops up with a later period Animals on a number that offers even more of a brassy swing. ‘Help Me Girl’ isn’t quite as interesting as ‘Monterey’ and other fare from The Animals during a similar period, but the shift from hard edged R&B to something that almost sounds film soundtrack worthy – or at least a love of a John Barry hugeness in places – shows off Burdon’s growth as a performer. Even bigger feel good sounds cut through the centre of Episode Six’s ‘Put Yourself In My Place’ when Ian Gillan leads a choir of voices through a track that drops R&B basslines and harmonica work among a cheery melody that comes a lot closer to a 60s sunshine pop sound, and although The Mickey Finn aren’t necessarily as talented, their ‘Because I Love You’ whips up some solid mod soul in a very direct fashion, revisiting a sound that’ll be very familiar to anyone who bought any of the ‘Looking Back’ box sets. Another compilation fixture, Tony Rivers & The Castaways serve some straight 60s beat pop on the harmony laden ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’, an instantly accessible number which supplies another welcome change from the more familiar artists and bigger names.

If you can make it past the oddly tuned horns that sound more like a forerunner to the Mothers of Invention than an overspill from the mod scene, The Alan Bown Set’s ‘Emergency 999’ plays like an enthusiastic floor filler driven by a great rhythm and sparky vocal. It’s a great example of a tight band at work, and it’s always enjoyable to hear material from The Set before the truncated Alan Bown (sometimes with the definitive “The”, sometimes with exclamation mark) turned their musical interests towards the psychedelic. It’s one of this box set’s bigger sounding tunes, which contrasts nicely with A Band of Angels, a group of musicians who seem desperate to be The Four Seasons, but without the distinctive Frankie Valli falsetto, they were never going to make the big leagues. Their track featured here is one to file under “nice enough”, but it seldom feels like more than that. You’re never far away from a superb tune here, of course, and even if you feel you’ve overheard ‘Friday On My Mind’ by The Easybeats, or maybe overdosed on John’s Children on other comps, this set will happily remind you that these artistes can still sound absolutely superb.

Surely this box set’s most “period specific” cut comes from “it girl” Mandy Rice-Davies. Her brief dalliance with pop music in the UK yielded a few beat group tunes, and her version of ‘You’ve Got What It Takes’ transforms Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell into a sassy, swinging London beat group number modelled on the Dave Clark Five arrangement. It’s very much in the “television light entertainment” mould, but has a lot of pizazz thanks to a great rhythm and sax. It’s very much of its time, and our Mand wasn’t the most blessed of singers (history suggests she was better at…other things), but those who’ve previous been amused by the Janice Nicholls novelty hit ‘I’ll Give It Foive’ could well find similar amusement here. Another scene girl, Twiggy, sounds much better on ‘When I Think of You’, placing a sharp, almost bratty vocal against busy parping horns and loud backing vocals on a track that offers a very busy swing. She’s not exactly Dusty Springfield either, but the session musicians giving everything their all leads to a sympathetic end result.

There’s even time for a few relative novelties and a couple of unexpected detours here. It’s great to have ‘Christine’ by Miss X (aka Joyce Blair) get its full due as a 60s kitsch classic. On this often overlooked recording, the once mysterious performer drops suggestive remarks between the cracks of a jazz samba workout, where bright piano dances above a very percussive rhythm. Coming across like a strange novelty Nancy Sinatra, it’s unsurprising that such a track would’ve crept into the top 40 back in the 60s. ‘Kinky Boots’ by Patrick MacNee & Honor Blackman is tat, but it’s lovely tat, peppered by quirky sounds and a tune that really captures a light entertainment feel, and Whistling Jack Smith’s ‘I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman’ supplies top level kitsch via a tune familiar to generations. If that isn’t enough, John Butcher & His Birds And Brass manage to turn the beloved Seekers hit ‘Morningtown Ride’ into a jaunty mid 60s kitch-fest, where the birds and brass take the melody and make it sound like the background music to a comedy sketch with Benny Hill, Ron Grainer’s theme to Man In A Suitcase reminds everyone of how to score an orchestral TV theme perfectly – so perfect, it was purloined by Chris Evans for TFI Friday decades later – and this journey surely reaches peak ’66, The John Schroeder Orchestra drop by with ‘On The Ball’, the theme to that year’s World Cup! In taking light entertainment orchestration and blowing it up to epic proportions with a massive brassy riff and swelling strings, much like the ‘Suitcase’ theme, it boasts a production sound that’s absolutely enormous.

Not everything on this set works on an individual basis – there are things you’d never pull off the shelf in the name of pure pleasure – but as a whole concept piece, it works very well indeed. The tunes, when not dripping with nostalgia, offer some genuine curiosity value, and when the selections are good, they’re great. And even the dubious picks have their place, fleshing out the ultimate soundtrack to that trip back to Lord John and the Bag O’ Nails that takes place in the listeners’ imagination. It might not quite manage that easy cool factor shared by ‘Halcyon Days’, but ‘You Can Walk It On The Grass’ takes a musical journey that – above all else – manages to be great fun.

November/December 2023