VARIOUS ARTISTS – Psych!: British Prog, Rock, Folk & Blues 1966-1973

The world isn’t short of great psych and prog themed anthologies. The fact is, if you’re a keen psych/freakbeat/early prog fan, you’ve probably got those Cherry Red sets bringing together a wealth of stuff from between 1967-69, the many ‘Rubble’ releases, and more besides. Why should you add another psych oriented release to your already solid collection of compilations? Simply that ‘Psych!: British Prog, Rock, Folk & Blues 1966-73’ brings together a wealth of great music in less of a scattershot manner. Its three disc, sixty four track selection celebrates the more “out there” releases from Decca Records and their Deram off-shoot, and in doing so, plays more like a journey through an ever changing landscape from a more focused perspective, showing how the label often found themselves at the forefront of one of history’s most exciting periods in music.

You’ll find some of the usual suspects here – Timebox, Tintern Abbey, (the) Fire – and in the case of the latter, it’s a genuine pleasure to have the spotlight shone on something that isn’t their best known track ‘Father’s Name Is Dad’. Fire’s ‘Toffee Treacle World’ is a prime piece of psych, where a chopping bassline sets up an uneasy groove and a world of wazzed out harmony vocals set about delivering a pop-ish melody. The verse instantly telegraphs a love of Syd Barrett that’s very clear, and just in case that isn’t clear enough, the pre-chorus drops in a few tones and notes that are a dead ringer for ‘Arnold Layne’. In many ways, this shows Fire to be coattail riders in terms of originality, but the sharp musicianship and excellent production values really help this to be a pleasing psychedelic oddity in its own way.

Another essential cut comes from Moody Blues man Denny Laine, who’s ‘Say You Don’t Mind’ peppers a strong piece of 60s pop with weird orchestration that sets a perfect melody off-kilter and features loud acoustic interludes that threaten the vocal for the most dominant role. Some listeners will be more than familiar with this track through Colin Blunstone’s peerless baroque version which transforms the number into a heartfelt ballad, but there’s a great pleasure in revisiting Laine’s much busier arrangement. Issued by Deram as the b-side of their debut single in ’67, The Syn’s ‘Grounded’ presents a very loud drum part set against chiming guitars that evoke the blues-edged psych material of the era. As the freakbeat oriented tune unfolds, loud swathes of guitar weave between a very R&B inspired vocal, and the band share a great, driving sound. Everything sounds strong here – a great snapshot of a blues based 60s sound beginning to branch out – but it’s future Yes bassist Chris Squire gives the performance most of its muscle, weighing in with a great sound, partially taking the lead. There’s much less of a jazz leaning in comparison with Yes circa 1969 during this track, but it’s clear to hear how his dominant style already aimed to take the aggression of John Entwistle into far artier places. This is a number that makes it very clear why the band had a residency at London’s Marquee club that year, sharing stages with artists as diverse as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Spencer Davis Group and Love Affair.

Venturing deeper into a world of obscurity, The Societie’s sole single ‘Bird Has Flown’ sounds like a strange hybrid of pop and rock with its huge 60s jangle and strong concession toward chorale vocals. A huge echo placed on the final mix gives some of those vocals an unsettling quality, but there’s a great melody here, particularly from the marriage of strident bass and grandiose piano. Although very much in the psych-pop field, it’s possible to hear the earliest strains of prog on this 1967 track, and by creating a sound that appears to blend bits of R&B with the vocal appeal of Honeybus (albeit drenched in reverb), they certainly weren’t thinking small. Even grander, ‘Cheadle’s Health Delusions’ by Felius Andromeda could easily be one of the Gibb Brothers’ weirder cast-offs. It’s actually possible to imagine Barry Gibb chewing through the main lyric, and the orchestration is a dead ringer for some of those early Bee Gees’ recordings. It’s the kind of track that lovers of relatively obscure 60s ephemera will return to again and again. There’s a vaguely “early Bee Gees” quality to World of Oz’s ‘King Croeses’ too, thanks to a wall of harmony vocals and some superb orchestration, but a quiet interlude involving flutes and a light, airy tone in places allows for more of the band’s own identity to cut through. This isn’t as uplifting as other Oz numbers, but should provide a worthy introduction to listeners who’ve yet to hear their album. Equally good, and almost conjuring as much of an underlying sadness, 23rd Turnoff’s ‘Michaelangelo’ blends folk-pop harmonies with busy semi-acoustic guitar lines and a jazz trumpet. The only single issued during the band’s brief lifespan, it’s more baroque pop than genuine psych, but you’d be hard pressed to find a deep cut that captures the haze of 1967 quite so effortlessly.

With its heavier sound and prominent use of organ against heavily rhythmic drumming, there are musical elements of Curiosity Shoppe’s ‘Baby I Need You’ that appear to pre-empt Deep Purple MK1 by a year or so, but the arrival of an angry garage rock vocal shows the band not to be quite so forward thinking as some of their peers here. Nevertheless, it’s a great stomper of a track which showcases some great bass work and captures the kind of chaotic feel will please many a freakbeat fan, and the same can be said for The Flies’ cover of ‘I’m Not Your Stepping Stone’ which, thanks to a wall of fuzzy guitars and a few pointed vocal lines cutting between huge harmonies, is a perfect reminder of how garage rock begat psych, and the how that change was very gradual. A vague hint of “toytown pop” cuts through the centre of the lovely ‘Ice Man’ by The Ice, and by presenting a brilliantly buoyant bass groove, over which the band weave a world of Procol-esque keys, jangling guitars and hazy, hopeful vocals, it feels like a well arranged, kitchen sink affair. It doesn’t have the song writing finesse of some of the slightly later tracks in a similar style, but the layers of sound augmented by sharp guitar stings and jazz piano are subject to an absolutely superb production that ensures it sounds like a late 60s treasure.

Moving towards proggier sounds, Egg’s ‘Seven Is A Jolly Good Time’ is a mad tune, clearly arriving through a soft drugs haze. Future Hatfield & The North Man Dave Stewart lays down a manic piano against an ominous bassline; a mid section takes the jazzier elements of Gong to extremes, and the booming vocals – never far removed from those on a Greenslade LP – almost reach ELP style grandiosity. The track is a mess, but a glorious one that really captures the experimentation of the early 70s. Stewart makes another appearance as a member of the short-lived Khan, alongside the legendary Steve Hillage. ‘Stargazers’ – taken from the sole Khan album ‘Space Shanty’ – is an absolutely marvellous track since it balances the busier vocal excesses of Hatfield with some terrific flowing lines from Hillage, already pre-empting the distinctive guitar sound that would power his much-loved ‘Fish Rising’ album. Much like Egg and Hatfield, Khan were never shy of incorporating jazz into their sound, and for lovers of the Canterbury sound, this is a track with so much to give, especially once taking Stewart’s Caravan-esque keyboard solo into consideration.

Cherry Smash’s cover of The Tokens’ ‘Green Plant’, meanwhile, latches onto the folkier aspects of the late 60s, serving something that falls somewhere between the busy sounds of Sweetwater and the vocal based antics of The Free Design. In terms of late 60’s deep cuts, this relatively obscure b-side is an essential listen, and the same goes for Aardvark’s ‘Very Nice of You’ which mixes the jazzy pop of Linda Hoyle’s Affinity with more of the San Francisco influenced pop of the era. Between its very British vocal and a strong piano line, the track more than holds its own, but a solid bass part and a huge solo that sounds like a more melodic take on the early Doors material really gives this superb track a lift. With an almost timeless sound, ‘Troublemaker’ by John Cameron Quintet adds slight funk and jazz elements to a busy piano blues number, which sounds very much like it had been been written with a film score in mind. The interplay between the piano, bass and sax is brilliant throughout, and with the sax taking charge of the best riffs, it quickly becomes perfect fusion. Then, upping the ante, some rather aggressive jazz flute shares a couple of solos that take the tones of Ian Anderson and the jazz flair of Yusef Lateef and hits the listener with something that’s utterly superb. In terms of feel good instrumental cuts, this is one of the greatest things you’ve (n)ever heard.

Bulldog Breed’s ‘Halo In My Hair’ brings a freakbeat influence to some driving garage rock sounds. Heavy vocal filters scream late 60s like very little else, even when the harder edged rhythms and riffs could’ve been spawned from any point post-’65. With the aid of some pointed lead guitar work and harmony vocals abound, it sounds like an extension of something from Status Quo’s ‘Picturesque Matchstickable Messages’, peppered with a few frivolous toytown/carny inspired interludes. ‘Twenty Ten’ by Tinkerbells Fairydust comes with a dark middle section that’s a melodic dead ringer for Quo’s early ‘Paradise Flat’, but elsewhere, the track forms its own dark identity with the use of Spanish guitar lines, moody chorale vocals, and a strange, ethereal quality that could actually feel rather upsetting if approached in the wrong frame of mind. Needless to say, this track – recorded in 1967 – is very much the kind of thing that became fashionable in early 1968, but would’ve already sounded a bit out of place by the time ‘Shades of Deep Purple’ arrived in July…

Mixing folk, psych and a little Indian mysticism, Christopher Colt’s ‘Virgin Sunrise’ is another track that could really only have been spawned in the late sixties, since it sounds like a messy jam between Donovan and Traffic, but without displaying the talent of either. It’s a reminder that, for every piece of buried treasure, the era spawned dozens of recordings that were just a bit ropey. Another underwhelming number, ‘Texas’ by Jan Dukes De Grey indulges in a world of finger picked acoustic guitar on an acid folk workout that makes the performer sound like a poor man’s John Renbourn. It’s tune that really doesn’t fit neatly with most of the material here, but if you’re into the jazzier end of the folk spectrum, it’ll warrant a cursory spin, if not much else. Another massive misfire comes from one of this set’s better known names when Davy Graham turns Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ into a six minute drone (just say no, kids), but thankfully, with this anthology, you’re never a track or two away from something interesting, and Warm Sounds’ ‘Nite Is A Comin’ is a case in point. A great bluesy workout where muscular bass tones and a solid groove underpin enthusiastic gang vocals and fiery guitar work, it captures something that still has a sixties naivete, but hints at the following decade’s excess. The end result sounds like a psychedelic choir have intruded on an Idle Race session, making this 1968 side a genuine hit. Not in the chart sense, obviously, but heard retrospectively, it has a really appealing sound.

An amazing period piece, ‘Glastonbury’ by the unassumingly named People applies a downbeat melody to a jazz drum part, and weaves a melody that’s clearly derived from ‘Scarboro’ Fair’ into a strange hippie mantra. The choirs of vocals echo between a world of flutes and busy basslines, sometimes sounding like Mellow Candle in a bad mood, and semi-intrusive tubular bells ring out an ominous tone, adding extra layers to a brilliant world of darkness. The actual Mellow Candle can be found on this set too, and although ‘Vile Excesses’ isn’t as good as their more oft-heard ‘Sheep Season’ or ‘Boulders On My Grave’, its still a track that still advertises their jazzy acid folk very well, since it shows off an array of harmony vocals, as well as a few smart guitar lines that sound like a distant relation of Martin Barre’s distinctive work. A similar acid folk sound sits at the heart of Pacific Drift’s ‘Tomorrow Morning Brings’, another track loaded with harmonies and finely crafted acoustic guitar lines. The band take an easier approach to their slightly psychedelic folk, creating something that sounds instantly familiar and a little safe in comparison to some of their peers, but the track still borders on essential listening.

After departing Curved Air, voilinist Darryl Way formed his own band Wolf in 1973. Their trio of albums have never been the most widely heard, or even the most celebrated, but the track included here (‘Wolf’, taken from 1973’s ‘Canis Lupus’) is very strong. Although it comes with a more prominent violin, everything about it sounds like an overspill from Curved Air’s ‘Second Album’ right down to its darker vocal melodies sounding not unlike ‘Back Street Luv’. Of further interest here is the track’s brilliant drum part: a jazz groove adds a very rhythmic undertone to the world of dark melodies, and is supplied by none other than future Marillion man Ian Mosley, soon to find himself en route to take the drum stool with Dutch prog rockers Trace. Needless to say, with so many great ingredients, this track is very much a highlight of this compilation, and should inspire people to seek out the rest of those Wolf recordings.

Delving into the blues, Black Cat Bones offer a cover of ‘Feeling Good’ that’s surprisingly sedate, but there’s still a listening pleasure to be gained from the recording’s semi-acoustic guitar lines that are used to create a gentle opening and from its natural vocals. You’ll have heard many recordings of this track – not least of all from Nina Simone and Muse – but the warm bass and rattling drums applied here bring something a little different to the table. It probably didn’t need ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ played as the first part of the guitar solo, but future Foghat man Rod Price more than makes up for that a little later with a howling lead that comes with a real spark. A genuine curio, poet Pete Brown – known to many for his lyrical contributions to the Cream albums – reads over a jazz backdrop on his own ‘Sad Is The Man’, reminding everyone why his own albums never became million sellers, and a slab of flamenco infused blues from Clark Hutchinson is loud and ugly, complete with the kind of vocal that makes Arthur Brown sound like a master of subtlety. If you can make it past the sheer bluster, the lead guitars on ‘Man’s Best Friend’ have a huge tones that take cues from the live work of Taste et al, ensuring the number is never terrible, but it sort of goes without saying that you’ll find many smarter examples of blues rock from the period.

You want it a little more frivolous? Check out Sunforest’s ‘Lady Next Door’, a track that glues a light entertainment arrangement to a parping brassy base and then passes that off as vaguely psychedelic. Approached in the wrong mood, this might even annoy, but it’s a pleasure to have this instead of Bowie’s ‘Laughing Gnome’ or ‘The Gospel According To Tony Day’, the latter usually having a guaranteed place on Deram-centric compilations. Elsewhere, you’ll find Golden Odyssey Enterprise, a forgotten band that sound not unlike Jefferson Airplane by way of the Hair musical; The Johnny Almond Music Machine amid a jazz freakout that makes Soft Machine’s ‘Third’ seem non-committal, and T2 attacking the blues with a proto-metal fury before disappearing into a Moody Blues-ish haze. Each band vastly different, yet each one representing a vital aspect of the era’s underground, these picks more than demonstrate ‘Psych!’s basic remit with ease.

Decca Records famously turned down The Beatles in the early 60s under the misapprehension that “guitar bands were on their way out”. This anthology shows that, not only would they avoid making such a catastrophic error of judgement again, but with the assistance of Deram, Decca would actually be responsible for some of the boldest sounds of the era. Despite the lack of unreleased material and relative lack of genuine rarities in a digital age, ‘Psych!’ plays brilliantly. More than a compilation, it’s actually a fascinating snapshot in time of a great label’s more frivolous output, and a more than worthy companion/upgrade to the also wonderful Decca/Deram ‘Psychedelic Scene’ CD from 1998. In short, this is a great budget friendly set that stands a fair chance of appealing to almost everyone with even the vaguest of interests in sounds from the late 60s and early 70s underground.

Buy the CD here.

May/June 2024